Synchronous Sessions, Asynchronously: Blending Meetings, Learning, and Digital Literacy

The borders between well-designed synchronous and asynchronous experiences are becoming increasingly indistinguishable. And that raises a fundamental question for all of us: in an onsite-online world where interactions travel rhizomatically, how do we as trainer-teacher-learners define, plan, and deliver a learning event or any other event grounded by a specific timeframe and centered around online meetings? The answer may be that as we explore ideas about digital literacy/literacies and 21st-century learning, we’re finding the word “event” becoming less and less important while the word “process” much more adequately describes life in a digital world.

etmoocMy own recent experiences with virtual meetings and my ongoing participation in #etmooc—the Educational Technology and Media MOOC (Massive/Massively Open Online Course) organized by University of Regina professor of educational technology and media Alec Couros and others –suggests how permeable those (perceived) barriers between synchronous and asynchronous interactions have become and how expansively we can define the concept of meetings.

Unable to attend Howard Rheingold’s wonderful live #etmooc session on “Literacies of Attention, Crap Detection, Collaboration, and Network Know-How” yesterday within Blackboard Collaborate, I “participated” this morning by watching the archived version. I could see and hear Rheingold as if he were speaking to me live, in the moment. Skimming the very lively chat as it was appearing on the screen augmented the impression that I was part of a live event. Following numerous links to related resources provided by those who contributed to the live chat allowed me to gain from the collective wisdom of that community of learning as effectively as I would have had I been participating in the original program. Reviewing the Etherpad transcript that includes links to the numerous resources mentioned in the live chat further engaged me in that synchronous/asynchronous experience. And carrying that newly-acquired knowledge into a live #etmooc tweet chat at noon PT today took me even further.

etmooc_blog_hubIn a very real sense, the separations between the Rheingold recording and the tweet chat are insignificant. Some of the same participants were present for both. The opportunity to learn more about digital literacy by treating both sessions as one continuous “meeting” helps me define what digital literacy actually implies (the ability to move seamlessly within these various digital platforms to create one cohesive experience). And, as MOOCmate Glenn Hervieux observed recently in one of his #etmooc blog postings, participation in #etmooc through its various online gathering places gives participants incredibly rich and rewarding opportunities to “help nourish each other.”

Flexibility, adaptability, and participation—particularly participation—seem to be key elements of this experience as well as of digital literacy, for the less we tether ourselves to time and place, the more deeply we can engage each other—something that became more obvious to me last week during an online meeting I was facilitating for the American Libraries Advisory Committee. We have, over the past half year, made the transition from being a group that met face-to-face twice a year to being a group that meets monthly; we augment those semiannual onsite meetings with monthly conference calls via FreeConferenceCall.com and opportunities to continue our conversations asynchronously online via a site provided by the American Library Association. It wasn’t until we had an unexpected miscommunication last week that I realized how continuous our interactions had become. Part of the group had the impression that the monthly call was beginning at noon ET, while the other half of the group believed that the meeting was beginning at 1 pm—something I didn’t discover until those meeting at 1 pm contacted me via email to find out whether I was going to attend.

The opportunity was irresistible. I joined the 1 pm group; briefly covered the same agenda items with them; shared the comments from the earlier discussions so they had a chance to interact (asynchronously) with who had already participated one hour earlier; and will close the circle by posting minutes of the meeting that includes all the comments. The result: two synchronous meetings, held asynchronously, will become a synchronous experience for any of us who take the few minutes required to read the set of minutes. And we can continue those discussions through our online site over the next few weeks and/or resume them when we meet virtually again in March.

What we can’t afford to miss here is that there certainly is a set of skills needed if we’re going to operate in this sort of synchronous-asynchronous world, and those set of skills can move us a bit closer to seeking broad definitions for digital literacy/digital literacies,” as #etmooc participants are attempting to do at this point in the course.

Rheingold, in his session that complemented what Doug Belshaw provided two days earlier in his #etmooc digital literacy/literacies session, drew from a lifetime of experience and the content of his book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (“wh@t you need to know to use soci@l medi@ intelligently, hum@nely & mindfully”)  to move us toward a deeper understanding of a topic many of us have explored only at the most superficial of levels. Trying to summarize the session here is unnecessary not only because the archived version remains available online, but also because #etmooc colleague April Hayman summarized it so beautifully in a masterful display of digital literacy on her own blog.

Those still hungry for more of Rheingold’s work—and who wouldn’t be?—will find plenty of nourishment through some of the links provided by the #etmooc community, including Steve Hargadon’s Education 2.0 conversation with Rheingold; Rheingold’s 10-minute YouTube video on “crap detection”—determining credibility of information on the Internet; his 2008 TED talk on “The New Power of Collaboration; and online excerpts from Net Smart. One additional resource well worth perusing: a reposting of Neil Postman’s 1969 essay “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection”—a wonderful reminder that the issue isn’t solely a product of the digital age or a digital literacy challenge.

N.B.: This is the tenth in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc.

13 Responses to Synchronous Sessions, Asynchronously: Blending Meetings, Learning, and Digital Literacy

  1. Sisqitman says:

    Hi Paul. As far as blog posts go, for me, you hit this one out of the park! My first “Aha!” moment occurred when I read and reflected on the first two paragraphs. That would’ve been enough, but then you continued to illustrate, connect, and add to your ideas so well. I think I write fairly well, but this genre of writing is one I’m still trying to get comfortable with, so I appreciate reading a blog with posts that are so well constructed. You definitely have a gift for writing. I’m glad you’re sharing it with us.

    It’s interesting that you brought into the discussion right from the start ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’ learning opportunities and how those can and may affect the learning process for so many as time goes on. Our district has just launched what we called ‘blended’ and ‘stand alone’ online courses, and until recently, I hadn’t really picked up on the terms you used here. But it is true, the more I think about online learning, that we will see a blending of the ‘synch.’ & ‘asynch.’ courses. More them will be also be strictly online vs. within the walls of a school. We will actually find stronger teacher-learner & learner-learner relationships developing as there is more opportunity for conversations (not lecture) to take place. But it does set us up for needing new skills that none of us were given in our own educational experiences and those who are in K-12 and beyond are needing to learn. The digital literacies needed have not been seen as crucial – content continues to be seen as KING, not the process of learning, creating, collaborating, and communicating.

    My favorite lines in your post are: “The opportunity to learn more about digital literacy by treating both sessions as one continuous “meeting” helps me define what digital literacy actually implies (the ability to move seamlessly within these various digital platforms to create one cohesive experience).” As we move between them and attend well to our own thought process, hopefully our ability to learn and apply that learning to the contexts we live and work in will be enhanced, as well.

    I think you’re right that Alec Couros (@courosa) & company would like us to see the different pieces of #ETMOOC fit for us in that rhizomatic space – fertile for growth in many directions and in unexpected ways. For me the experience in #ETMOOC takes on new twists and turns at the most unexpected times, as well. Thanks, Paul….your fellow MOOC-mate.

  2. Better late than never–I sent this post to myself via email to remind me to comment on it!

    I love your point here about the boundary between synchronous and asynchronous meetings and participation being blurred. I do feel that to a great extent in ETMOOC, insofar as I can participate in some things synchronously (some of the presentations and Twitter chats) and others asynchronously (recordings of presentations, tweets from many hours ago), and the difference doesn’t seem to be terribly great. The one thing where synchronous participation is most important to me, though, is the Twitter chats–seeing those later doesn’t allow for me to give my own views “in the moment,” and engage in a conversation with others. Adding things in later can mean that people aren’t paying attention or no longer thinking about those things and so they don’t feel the need to reply to the #etmchat hashtag.

    Which brings me to a point I wanted to note: the difference between syncronous and asychronous environments isn’t noticeable at all when it’s a matter of passive watching or taking in of information; whether you see a lecture in person or in a recording doesn’t matter. But you won’t be able to actively participate as easily asychronously. You can’t add your ideas to the “whiteboard” in Blackboard Elluminate after the fact, or your comments in the chat that goes along with the presentation. Your post points out, though, that you can still participate asynchronously, through blog posts, tweets, and more. Your voice can still join that of others.

    However, I do still have a nagging sense that there is an important difference between asynchronous and synchronous discussions. In the former, people are able to work together while they’re all in the same “mind space,” thinking about similar things at the same time, and I feel like this is especially conducive to collaborative development of new ideas. Whereas if someone posts something on a blog or sends out a tweet, and several days later someone else comments or replies, one may have lost the original engagement with the topic and it’s hard to get back into that mind space. A disjointed conversation is definitely different than one that takes place in a more connected time, and I have a sense that the latter is better for people being able to feed off each other and develop, thereby, ideas they wouldn’t have otherwise.

    Still, I am not sure about this. It’s just a feeling I have, and that isn’t much to go on. Thoughts?

    • Sisqitman says:

      Christina, you bring up some points that have an impact on elearning, in particular, whether it’s an online course, interactive webinars, or Twitter/blog/Google+ posts. I love your term “mind space” where you say people are thinking about similar things at the same time. The dynamic of live interaction does bring something different to our thought process than in an asynchronous experience. Both, however, can be really helpful. Having time to read your blog post and mull over it allows me to connect better with my own schema and to go search out other video/posts/papers, etc. that bring more to my own thought process and learning. With asynchronous activities, you can’t really interact with others much unless you blog, Google+, or Tweet about it. In the @ETMOOC, the time frames allow time for that “mind space” to develop. I think an online course could do the same where there are specific time frames a group/community of learners have to interact on the topic. The conversation can be more connected when working within those times frames. I would agree that the more time that passes from when the synchronous/asynchronous activity takes place, the less coordinated a discussion will be. Those that are purely asynchronous I think have lower levels of that “mind space” and coordinated, interacted activity between learners/participants.

      • Hi Glenn:
        I can see that asynchronous activities can be fruitful as well, giving time to think more carefully and deeply about issues, and respond that way as well. I hadn’t thought about the “mind space” being extended further over time, such as in ETMOOC or other courses in which people think about similar things over an extended period of time. I think that offers different sorts of opportunities, as one goes back to ideas in different ways several times over the course of a week or two (or more). I still think that there might be a difference in interaction when the time frame is even more condensed (e.g., when we’re all talking together over the course of an hour, in a Twitter chat, a chat during a presentation, a Google Hangout, or other). I used to think those more compressed interactions were better, but I’m changing my mind after reading your thoughts and Paul’s thoughts on his blog post about Cleese and light bulbs! I’m now thinking that both the more compressed and less compressed discussions could be good in different ways, neither necessarily better than the other. Of course, to *really* know the difference one would have to do some kind of systematic research!

  3. Christina and Glenn (and anyone else who cares to dive into this wonderful exchange that serves as an example of the topic it is covering):

    Was having lunch a few days ago with a friend who paints timeless landscapes in watercolor and oil; he was describing the difficulty he has in responding to requests for an artist’s statement about why he doesn’t put completion dates on his paintings–the works, for him, are as much a product of that immediately calendar-driven date as they are part of a much larger process where a moment can extend over periods of days, weeks, or months (we’re really moving into the turf covered by Mircea Eliade in “The Myth of the Eternal Return” when we tackle the challenges of synchronous and asynchronous conversations/exchanges at this level). Returning from that lunch and seeing your wonderful comments about synchronous and asynchronous meetings and how we how we view a “meeting” or a “conversation” within conventional time frames seems to have grown rhizomatically to encompass that artist’s thoughts, our postins here, and the discussions taking place throughout the various #etmooc platforms–which certainly gives us much more to consider as we attempt to see how all of this fits into what we do in training-teaching-learning.

    Seems as if it’s time for another blog piece–or more interconnected blog pieces–on the topic of conversations over an extended period of time and an extended set of platforms; my only hesitation is that it would just make the entire conversation more difficult to follow as opposed to just keeping it here and inviting others to join us. We clearly have stumbled onto another digital literacy challenge!

    • Hi Paul: Nice discussion of the artist’s decision not to put a date on works…makes sense. I don’t like publishing blog posts, really, because then they seem so final and when I want to change something I have to point out that it’s a change in case anyone has read the original first. But as my ideas change, I often want to go back and change my writing. Alas, it just means new blog posts!

      You bring up another point: not just discussions over an extended period of time (returning again and again to the same ideas by re-visiting blogs, e.g.), but also over extended platforms, different platforms, that work in different ways. The conversations are clearly different in different platforms (esp. Twitter vs. blogs), and thus they might encourage us to think and talk in different ways and come up with different ideas.

      Would extending a conversation over different blogs would lead to different ways of thinking than if we all just kept commenting in one place? Perhaps so, because then there’s a sense that the person who wrote the post is who needs to be responded to most, and that might be what happens (even if we want to have a more egalitarian conversation). The person’s post will drive the discussion, given its content. So if someone else posts something a bit different on a similar topic, the conversation will be different.

      Well, it’s late, and that’s about as much philosophical thinking as I can take for the moment. Thanks for spurring me to think about differences in time and platform even more!

  4. Paul, I agree with others that you have a great talent for writing and sharing ideas. I’ve pointed to you in my blog rather than try to summarize the value of the ETMOOC. This article is another that I find very welcome.

    The idea of engaging people in synchronous and asynchronous on-line learning experiences is one that I’ve been trying to build support for for over a decade. I encourage you to browse this Tutor/Mentor Learning Network document which was first written in 2003 and has been updated a few times since then (last was 2008). http://tutormentorinstitute.wikidot.com/tutor-mentor-learning-network

    I’ve never found the support requested in this document because I think too few people understood what I was talking about in 2004, and too few today really grasp the potential of connecting adults, leaders, policy makers, donors, etc. in on-going learning intended to solve social problems. A small bit of evidence is the few people from the Chicago region who show on the ETMOOC map.

    I think that complex ideas take time to be understood. Complex problems require the on-going involvement of many people over many years. Thus while events can create short term attention for the ideas we share, our ability to keep people engaged from where-ever they are is essential to building a shared understanding of problems as well as a shared commitment to the on-going actions needed to solve problems that are located in thousands of places.

    I hope that from the continued visits your blog and other ETMOOC blogs will receive in the next few months and years we can connect with a network of people who want to apply this process in a learning network focused on helping kids in poverty have the support systems they all need to move more successfully through school and into adult lives and jobs out of poverty.

    • Want to thank everyone who has carried this conversation so far beyond what it started out to be (not only through comments here, but also through postings and tweets elsewhere)–an example of the very situation it describes.

      Daniel: the Tutor/Mentor Learning Network piece at http://tutormentorinstitute.wikidot.com/tutor-mentor-learning-network and the Network itself are magnificent. I never cease to be amazed at the differences between people who have had effective mentors and those who have never had the good fortune to have a mentor. Seems as if mentor-protege relationships are an essential part of any trainer-teacher-learner’s learning toolkit and make substantial differences to those involved. Hope, as you do, that the Network continues to grow as a player in our synchrnous and asynchronous learning landscape. (I suspect you/we would find lots of support for your tutoring/mentoring work in John McKnight and Peter Block’s Abundant Community (http://www.abundantcommunity.com/).

      And yes, Christina, it does feel as if discussions “over an extended period of time (returning again and again to the same ideas by re-visiting blogs, e.g.), but also over extended platforms, different platforms, that work in different ways” provide the possibility of richer, deeper engagement, and that “extending a conversation over different blogs would lead to different ways of thinking than if we all just kept commenting in one place.” You’re absolutely right that it’s about releasing control over the content (the heart of the “social” part of “social learning”) rather than making the original blogger/speaker/presenter the center of the process. And it certainly does provide foundations for some interesting conversations as we move into the “open movement” module of #etmooc.

      I did, after seeing the latest comments here, decide to extend the conversation even further through postings within our #etmooc Google+ community, face-to-face conversations with colleagues unfamiliar with #etmooc, and the follow-piece I threatened to write in response to Christina’s earlier comments about the artist who does not put dates on his paintings: http://buildingcreativebridges.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/moments-short-and-long-etmooc-artistry-and-expansive-conversations/.

      Rhizomatic learning/conversations, anyone?

  5. [...] Really interesting read about how synchronous and asynchronous meetings can work to your advantage. [...]

  6. This entire exchange is, in the language of our #etmooc discussions, growing rhizomatically. In an attempt to connect a few of the main shoots, I’m posting links to two follow-up articles:

    http://buildingcreativebridges.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/moments-short-and-long-etmooc-artistry-and-expansive-conversations/
    (Christina Hendricks’ March 12, 2013 comment in response to this one really pushes the entire conversation forward in a very interesting direction.)

    http://buildingcreativebridges.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/learning-time-and-heads-that-spin/
    (inspired by Christina’s March 12, 2013 comment)

  7. […] Signorelli‘s Building Creative Bridges blog post,Synchronous Sessions, Asynchronously: Blending Meetings, Learning, and Digital Literacy brought about some interesting […]

  8. […] personally loved the article on “Synchronous Sessions Asynchronously…” and will be digging further through this blog. I thought it brought up brilliant points and […]

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