ALA Annual Conference 2014: Stan Lee, Comic Relief, and Training-Teaching-Learning  

July 1, 2014

Before Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Hulk, and all the others, there was “VD? Not Me,” Stan Lee (chairman emeritus of Marvel Enterprises, Inc., writer, and former instructional designer for the U.S. military) said during his keynote address American Library Association (ALA) 2014 Annual Conference here in Las Vegas.

“I had a funny career in the army,” he explained as he retold a story documented elsewhere. “Just before being shipped off [during the second world], I was taken into the training division in Long Island to write training manuals and films for the troops.”

ALA2014--LogoThe challenge, he recalled, was to create materials “in clear language” so that the time required for training could be decreased. He and his colleagues, for example, prepared materials teaching soldiers how to disassemble and reassemble guns: “We were able to increase the speed of the training by about 30%…I never told you, but I practically won the war [single-handedly]… Everybody knew how a gun works because of me!” he said with the obvious sense of hyperbole that made his presentation so engaging.

And then there was “VD? Not me!” Responding to the need for training on how to avoid or recover from sexually-transmitted diseases, Lee and others worked on training films and campaigns to attract soldiers to prophylactic stations where they could be treated, and one of the posters, he recalled, used that “VD? Not me” slogan to foster more awareness of resources available. A comic character he created was part of the overall training in what appears to have been a very early use of gamification in training: learners followed the comic character from one place to another in the training materials by answering questions correctly.

For those of us who grew up reading the stories that Lee and others cranked out with amazing regularity, watching Lee in action here in Las Vegas was a wonderful combination of hearing the recollections of someone who did much to entertain us while encouraging our reading habits and, at the same time, making us aware of how much we could learn from him as a fellow teacher-trainer-learner-presenter.

His awareness and mastery of how to address and draw members of his audience into what he was doing was obvious from the moment he walked up to the microphone and looked out at all of us in that huge, packed conference-center ballroom: “I was asked to talk to you about reading,” he began. “That would be like going to a banker’s conference to talk about money. What the hell can I tell you?”

Stan_Lee

Stan Lee

Then, as if having second thoughts and wanting to live up to his obligation to address the assigned topic, he relented by giving the topic all of four words: “Reading is very good.” But not quite done with that mock revelation, he added one more thought: “…and you can quote me!”

There was plenty more said about the relevancy of comic books to reading, the importance of creating individual characters—the heroes and the villains—to draw readers into the narratives so many of us loved and continue to love; and how people at parties used to turn and flee when they learned he wrote comics, but now would rather talk to him at a party than be caught talking to the president of the United States.

But what was most striking to me was the example he set for all of us as trainer-teacher-learners. Regardless of how serious he allowed himself to become in responding to questions during the presentation, he routinely and continually peppered his comments with amusing asides and the sort of self-effacing comments that made us feel as if we were insiders—partners rather than observers in the presentation. And those of us who gave in to the invitation to laugh with him while also remaining aware of what he was doing to keep us engaged walked away not only with cherished memories of spending a bit of our conference time with a wonderful trainer-teacher-learner-presenter, but stronger for the reminders of what it means to incorporate engaging narrative into the presentation and learning process.


ALA Annual Conference 2014: Ernie DiMattia and Learning Moments That Change Our Lives  

June 28, 2014

Conference attendance, whether onsite or online, can be transformative. The planned and unplanned encounters with colleagues, the vendors with whom we work, the authors we adore (or are going to adore after encountering them and the work they produce), touch and change us in ways that sometimes are immediately evident and at other times require the passage of time to geminate and bear fruit.

ALA2014--LogoWe seek, come across, and learn from people whose work we have avidly followed in print or online, and sometimes are stunned to find that they just as avidly following and learning from ours. We have unexpected, intensively personal conversations in spaces like the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference Networking Uncommons and, in the process, deepen relationships with people we might otherwise not have come to know. We learn how much more challenging and rewarding the conference-as-learning-experience can be when we learn how to blend our onsite and online participation via the conference backchannel.

Relishing the collaborations that produce significant results through our volunteer service on committees or through participation in efforts like ALA Membership Development’s Ambassador program is just another part of mining conference opportunities for all they are worth; they help us understand how welcoming and supportive the ALA community can be—and is.

And even though the size and scope of the ALA Annual Conference has us sharing space with more than 20,000 colleagues, it’s amazingly easy to find the individual members of our community we want to find—and equally stunning to realize how much the absence of even one cherished colleague can affect us.

I had known that Ernie DiMattia, the chair of the ALA Publishing Committee, would not be with us here in Las Vegas this morning for our semiannual onsite meeting. All of us on the committee had been notified earlier this week that he was dealing with “ongoing health issues.” But I had had no idea, before arriving at the meeting, that he had been in the final stages of a long-time battle with cancer and that he had passed away last night.

Ernie_DiMattiaThere was a moment of silence as we all, in our own individual ways, struggled to absorb the news that this gentle, literate, vibrant light in the ALA community had been extinguished. And while I can’t speak to what others were thinking, I found myself reliving the moment, a couple of years ago, when Ernie approached me during an orientation session we were both attending, asked me how I was doing, was insightful enough to ask a thought-provoking question that significantly changed my perceptions about what all of us were learning to do in that session, and, as a result, sent me down a very productive year-long path as chair of an ALA advisory committee that completely changed the way it did its work.

Ernie’s simple question at the moment I was about to become a committee chair: “Who will you be serving as a committee chair?” And the obvious answer—ALA 2012-2013 President Maureen Sullivan while working with (rather than for) ALA staff—inspired a series of interconnected partnerships that was rewarding for all of us and the larger ALA community we served.

When my year-long term came to an end and I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the Publishing Committee with Ernie as chair, I continued to learn from the inclusive, collaborative approach he took to our work. I appreciated the fact that he went out of his way to stop and chat whenever our paths crossed in those wonderfully expansive conference hallways. I admired the way he fostered productive partnerships with our ALA staff colleagues to help craft a forward-looking strategic plan that will continue to make ALA Publishing an essential part of the ALA community’s operations.

I wish I could say that I knew Ernie better. I wish I could say we had numerous lovely and inspiring conversations, but they were far too few. And as I walked those Ernie-less halls today, I knew they would never again feel quite so vital as they were through Ernie’s presence. But I also sensed that they would remain important, comforting, and essential to all I do as long as I continue acting upon and sharing all I learned from Ernie’s unofficial and very informal mentoring.


NMC 2014 Summer Conference: Lighting Candles and Taking It Down  

June 18, 2014

Listening to Tom Haymes (director, technology & instructional computing at Houston Community College Northwest) talk about how to create idea spaces this afternoon at the New Media Consortium (NMC) 2014 Summer [ed-tech] Conference here in Portland, Oregon, I realized that worlds were converging. What better place, after all, to be hearing and dreaming about those creatively dynamic and innovative academic learning centers than at a conference which brings colleagues together to at least temporarily form an inspiring space for the development and sharing of ideas?

Haymes--Idea_SpacesThe topic Haymes was addressing—the need to be “looking at our spaces, the time allotted for reflection, and the mental, institutional and cultural structures we put into place to support teaching and learning”—isn’t just something of interest to those of us at this first-rate ed-tech conference; it’s a topic that is essential to what I see my training-teaching-learning colleagues in workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors and in libraries, museums, and other community-based learning organizations considering, promoting, and doing.

While Haymes posed it in terms of academic settings by rhetorically asking why our classrooms often continue to look the way they have looked for generations, he could have just as easily been posing the same question to anyone involved in training-teaching-learning. Whether we are absorbing gems from the best of lecturers or suffering through deadly-dull lectures, we have access to a steady stream of research showing how relatively ineffective the lecture as a learning tool is, yet it continues to be the paradigm in much of what we encounter through our lifelong learning efforts.

Increasingly, however, we are also encountering wonderful extensions of the decades-long search for models more effective than the learner-as-sponge lecture model: the best of our connectivist massive open online courses (MOOCs), for example, create cross-platform virtual settings for engaging learning experiences; the information commons model that has extended beyond the walls of academic libraries into public library settings seems to be morphing into makerspaces and innovation centers that are changing the shape of some of our community learning centers, and those idea spaces that Haymes so tantalizingly dangled before us this afternoon give us something else to dream about—and strive to produce. It’s all part of moving us from what Haymes described as the quintessential learner question—“What do I have to do to get an A in this course?”—to the all-too-infrequently-asked question, “What can I learn in this class?”

And Haymes wasn’t quite done with us at that point; he also described how he and his campus colleagues are designing for synergistic innovation: “We really designed the entire campus to be a learning space, where all of the pieces work together”—which, again, is a wonderful goal for all of us in training-teaching-learning to explore and pursue since it places an emphasis on the same holistic approach to learning-space design as we should be taking to the learning process itself.

NMC Summer Conference - PortlandWe come full circle here: classrooms as idea spaces, and conferences as idea spaces where learning occurs naturally. We heard NMC CEO Larry Johnson begin the first full day of formal keynote addresses, presentations, and other activities with the playful directive “Let’s light this candle!” We heard him at the end of the day offer what I’ve come to accept as the “Conference Lament”–an acknowledgement that when you convene a creative group of trainer-teacher-lifelong learners who incorporate conference backchannels into their learning experience, you’re going to find that no conference wireless system can possibly keep up with all of us: “We’re an Internet organization; everywhere we go, we take it down,” he told conference participants in a moment of levity near the end of the day. “”We bought you a great Internet experience; I’m sorry you’re not getting it.” But what we did get as we reconvened as a group at the end of the day was a fabulous series of five-minute presentations from colleagues whose learning innovations make us wonder why we would settle for anything less than the most adventurous and productive approaches possible. And the icing on the cake was an end-of-day keynote presentation by photographer-visual storyteller Bill Frakes, whose short films on cranes and “a teacher remembered” were stunningly, heartbreakingly beautiful explorations of artistry, creativity, innovative use of technology, and the power of storytelling.

There’s still another full day of sharing our temporary idea space here in Portland. And I have no doubt that when it comes to an end, the sense of augmented emotional reality that this sort of immersive environment creates will once again begin to dissipate. But the important and more long-term transformation that the idea spaces in our lives inspire are the learning model most worth pursuing—which is the gift our NMC colleagues are once again providing.


ASTD International Conference 2014: Connectivity, Learning, Augmented (Emotional) Reality, and Phoning It In

May 7, 2014

As the Association for Talent Development (ATD)/American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) 2014 International Conference & Exposition) reached its conclusion this afternoon, I couldn’t help but think about how much I forced myself to learn from it—by not being physically there.

ASTD_to_ATDI thought I had pretty much drained the learning pool over the past few days by experimenting with virtual participation via social media tools and the conference backchannel. My own increasingly-immersive participation over the past few days had included interactions with onsite and offsite colleagues extending across Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and blog posts. I had even watched and tweeted a live online broadcast that made me feel present yesterday afternoon at the formal announcement that ASTD was officially transformed, at that moment, into ATD after 70 years of successful operation as a first-rate training-teaching-learning organization; the experience became more visceral this morning when onsite attendees used Twitter to share numerous photographs documenting that all conference signage had been changed overnight to reflect the change of name.

But it didn’t occur to me, until this morning, that I had overlooked the use of one more piece of technology—one so familiar that I had completely overlooked it. The moment of revelation and experimentation came when I was again reading and reacting to tweets from the conference. Among the flood of messages was one from Walt Hansmann, a long-time ASTD friend and colleague with whom I’ve presented, brainstormed, learned, dined, laughed, and groused countless times. (In fact, it was through Walt that I met Larry Straining, whose Facebook posting a week ago sent me down the path of more creatively and intensely experimenting with learning through virtual-conference attendance; ATD/ASTD really has been and continues to be pivotal in helping me understand what a small world we all inhabit and serve.) So there was Walt, tweeting about the fact that he was already wearing a new ATD pin while I was on the other side of the country thinking, “If I was there, I’d be wearing one of those, too.” And then it dawned on me: all I needed to do was try to reach him on his cell phone. Which I did. And the ensuing conversation led to his assurance that one of those pins would work its way across the United States and into my hands sooner than later.

ASTD_ICE_2014That combination of tweeting and calling may have produced the virtual-conference-attendance equivalent of the joys and rewards of meeting and learning from each other in conference hallways. More importantly in terms of the virtual-conference experiment, the call carried us back into cross-platform conference participation as he immediately posted a tweet (“@paulsignorelli @trainersleaders may not be @ #astd2014 physically, but he is sharing via SoMe [social media] and just called to touch base!”) while I was tweeting my own response to the phone conversation: “Oh, technology, with all your lovely variations: just briefly joined @WaltHansmann at #ASTD2014—via a phone call. #NoLongerLeftBehind.” I was also, at the same time, responding to another tweet suggesting that Dan Steer’s tweets had made the tweeter sorry to have missed the conference—to which I responded, “made me feel closer to it.” We closed the circle on that conversation when Dan himself—whom I’ve never met face to face—used the “favorite” option on Twitter to acknowledge my appreciation for all he had done to carry the conference far beyond the physical site of the conference.

This exploration of how we might more creatively incorporate the use of social media tools into learning opportunities benefitted from a wonderful combination of resources. The fact that many ATD members are adept at synthesizing content via backchannel interactions on Twitter is an essential starting point; they were the portal to the conference for me and for others who were attending from a (physical) distance. ATD’s first-rate conference app made it possible to monitor the conference schedule and access some presenters’ conference materials; that helped me see and understand what others were reacting to onsite. Having a tablet meant I could turn this into a mobile-learning/mobile-conferencing experience at times by following the backchannel feed even while I was using public transportation here in San Francisco to move from appointment to appointment when I wasn’t at home using a desktop/laptop combination. And the encouragement of training-teaching-learning colleagues provided what a successful learner needs: a great community of learning and engaged personal learning network that supports the learner’s process and explorations.

There was a time, for me, when having that stimulatingly immersive experience face-to-face with conference colleagues—call it “conference high” for lack of a better term—concluded with a sense of melancholy that came from knowing I was about to leave them and wouldn’t see them again for anywhere from six to twelve months—until we were reunited for the next intensely inspiring set of learning interactions that we found through our shared conference experiences. The bouts of melancholy diminished noticeably over the past few years when it became obvious that we would be “seeing” each other far more often through our shared use of social media tools, conference calls, and interactions via Skype and Google Hangouts. But I found a different, yet parallel, sense of melancholy setting in this afternoon for the first time as we said our virtual good-byes. And I realized that it wasn’t just the coming and going of friends who interact, then are apart for considerable periods of time, that used to cause that melancholy. It’s the fact that a well-run conference or any other sort of convocation is, in and of itself, the catalyst—a special meeting of friends and colleagues to creatively explore, at a very human level, what is important to all of us; it’s a form of augmented reality that might best be described as “augmented intellectual and emotional reality.” It deepens the emotional connections that draw us together. It ignites all that is most worth cultivating within each of us. And it reminds us that without those shared community-building moments of engagement regardless of whether they are onsite or online, we would be far less than what we are.

N.B. — This is the third of three interrelated articles inspired by the ASTD/ATD 2014 International Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C. For two additional views of the virtual conference attendance experience, please see Kent Brooks’ Twitter Activity at #ASTD2014 Through Monday May 5 [2014] and Michelle Ockers’ My #ASTD2014 Backchannel Experience.


ASTD International Conference 2014, ATD, and Far From Left Behind

May 6, 2014

With a bit of help from the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and the use of social media tools, I was far from left behind this afternoon not only in my attempts to actively participate in a first-rate conference I can’t physically attend this year (the 2014 International Conference & Exposition—ICE) but to keep up with much that ASTD is doing. Which, I learned while watching a live online broadcast from the conference itself and live-tweeting it just as if I would have done if I had physically been there, includes the transition from ASTD to ATD—the Association for Talent Development—to reflect the evolving nature of what all of us do as trainer-teacher-learners.

ASTD_ICE_2014The past couple of days, as I noted in an earlier article, have provided tremendous learning opportunities about how outdated our beliefs are in terms of the concept of being left behind when we can’t join friends and colleagues at professional-development opportunities beyond our geographic reach. By engaging with onsite attendees through the conference Twitter feed and actually commenting on what was happening onsite, I was able to do quite a bit of what I would have done onsite: learn from what presenters were discussing; pick up (from tweets) bits and pieces of (other) sessions I wasn’t able to attend; share my own tweets and those created by others with my own extended community of learning/personal learning network; and even make new acquaintances from whom I will continue to learn in the months and years to come. The levels of engagement fostered through these online exchanges even caused one colleague to send a tweet asking if I were actually onsite.

Seeing onsite participants retweeting my offsite tweets was just one of many signs that we have tremendous potential for interacting with colleagues and other learners in very creative ways if we nurture our skills in this direction. Actually working to connect one onsite participant with another onsite participant—they didn’t know each other, but a tweet from one made me realize that contact with the other would be rewarding for both of them—took the idea of facilitating connections to an entirely different level for me: I have often helped colleagues who are geographically separated make connections online—just as others have done the same for me—but never before had the experience of being an offsite facilitator of onsite connections.

Setting up laptop to view live announcement and desktop for live tweeting

Setting up laptop to view live announcement and desktop for live tweeting

The breadth and scope of the conference exchanges also continued to evolve—which is a good sign that we have not at all reached the limit of what we can accomplish by combining the use of our social media tools to meet our learning and communication needs. As I mentioned in that earlier article, the experiment started with a Facebook posting from another ASTD colleague (Larry Straining); reached fruition via backchannel interactions on Twitter; and then returned to Facebook at one point as Larry connected me to another offsite ASTD colleague (Kent Brooks) I had not met before that moment. Larry, Kent, and I continued out offsite conference-attendance interactions in a way that drew a few others into the Facebook conversation, then expanded it into cross-postings from our own blogs. Having carried this into a posting on LinkedIn last night, I was delighted this morning to discover a response, on LinkedIn, from an ASTD colleague I hadn’t seen in more than two years—which means our “attendance” now extends from the conference site across Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Which brings us back to that moment when I realized, earlier today, that if I logged into the live online broadcast of ASTD/ATD President and CEO Tony Bingham’s much publicized surprise announcement about the future of the organization, I would be able to virtually join colleagues as the announcement was released and, at the same time, tweet it as if I were there. And as I engaged in that exercise and saw onsite attendees retweeting a few of my own tweets, I felt all thoughts of being left behind vanishing. I was there. In a very real sense, present. To hear and join in the celebration of a major step forward for an organization to which I’m very happy and lucky to belong. Onsite. As well as online.

N.B. — Here’s Kent’s latest contribution to the conversation: Twitter Activity at #ASTD2014 Through Monday May 5 [2014]. Also found backchannel participation from Michelle Ockers on her blog.


ASTD International Conference 2014, Twitter, and Staying Connected: No Longer Left Behind—Again!

May 5, 2014

The news that I made a new friend by participating in the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) 2014 International Conference & Exposition (ICE) today isn’t particularly noteworthy. The fact that I unexpectedly accomplished this with the help of two other people who weren’t physically attending a conference that I, too, am not physically attending does, however, suggest that there is a worthwhile story to tell any trainer-teacher-learner who is interested.

ASTD_ICE_2014We’ve heard quite a bit suggesting that social media tools make us lonely; that it’s time to deliver “A Eulogy for Twitter” as “the beloved social platform enters its twilight”; and that a social network can’t replace a “real” one (as if everyone who uses social media makes this an either-or decision).

What isn’t as often heard or read is the idea that being left behind when we are not able to physically join our friends and colleagues at wonderful professional development gatherings like ASTD ICE, American Library Association (ALA) conferences, and the numerous others that beckon is increasingly less of a problem than it was before social media tools came our way.

As I have continued experimenting with the use of social media tools in workplace and personal settings over the past several years, I’ve become intrigued by the possibilities they offer in terms of not being left behind. With that in mind, I tried a spur-of-the-moment experiment with ASTD colleagues last fall by trying to participate in an ASTD conference I was unable to physically attend. And while the last-minute nature of that experiment limited the number of exchanges I had with those onsite colleagues, I did unexpectedly encounter one sign of success: interacting with onsite participants by responding to tweets rather than just retweeting content for others caused a couple of people to ask if I were actually there. When we see the lines blur so much that offsite participation creates the sense of onsite interaction, I believe we have, in the best of situations, moved beyond the idea that we can’t be there unless we’re there.

The inspiration to retry the experiment with more deliberate planning came after another ASTD colleague, Larry Straining, posted a note on his Facebook account to let others know he was sorry he wouldn’t be physically present this week, but that he was looking forward to seeing tweets from conference attendees.

“If we follow the backchannel a bit and interact as time allows, we might extend the reach of the conference in significant ways and, at the same time, learn even more about how to effectively incorporate social media into our training-teaching-learning process,” I wrote in response—and that’s exactly how it played out today as I followed, responded to, and interacted with onsite colleagues from the comfort of my own home.

TwitterIt didn’t take long for my initial retweets—including brief comments building upon that content—to begin being retweeted under the conference hashtag. And it took less than three hours for a wonderful colleague to pop that magic question: Are you here? Which, of course, inspired the response “yes and no,” depending on how we define “here.”

Those who remain skeptical of the power of online exchanges will immediately raise a number of objections, including the (mistaken) belief that we can only make new conference acquaintances and interact with conference colleagues when we are face-to-face—an idea we disproved when Larry and I, via Facebook exchanges extending his initial thoughts, drew one of his colleagues into the exchange. The colleague—Kent Brooks—asked Larry for permission to quote from Larry’s postings about the value of using a Twitter feed to stay in touch with colleagues at a conference. I dove back into the exchange to ask Kent whether he wanted to try to coordinate blog postings on the topic—at which point Larry formally introduced us to each other, and Kent and I quickly completed the “friend” process on Facebook to move things along. My own tweet (to the conference feed) documenting that we had met through the conference without physically being at the conference was retweeted—as was a follow-up tweet I forwarded to draw attention to Kent’s earlier piece on “10 Reasons to Tweet at a Conference.”

It probably goes without saying that I laughed out loud when I discovered that my retweet of Kent’s piece was itself, retweeted by others—including Melissa Daimler, who serves as head of organizational effectiveness and learning at Twitter and also serves on the ASTD Board of Directors.

Atkinson--BackchannelIt’s worth noting that one very important element making this level of onsite-offsite interaction possible is the existence of a very strong backchannel among the first-rate trainer-teacher-learners who are at the heart of ASTD. The quality of the tweets from ASTD conference attendees is among the strongest I encounter: multiple voices tweeting individual sessions (not just notes about where to meet for drinks or swag) so that it’s possible to gain a sense of what is being discussed onsite; combined with the use of a conference app that is easily accessible and includes schedules, speaker bios, session materials when presenters have made them available so we can view them from a distance, and much more; and observations which in themselves provide magnificent learning moments.

As we began to wind down toward the end of this ever-evolving cross-platform series of exchanges, Kent and I returned to Facebook and Larry’s original post.

“When you state in your [original “No Longer Left Behind”] post, ‘The real pay-off for the experiment came when the exchanges put me in touch with one of the presenters who had seen the retweets and comments. The result, in many ways, was exactly what it would have been if I had been onsite and meeting members of those expanding communities of learning and personal learning networks rather than feeling as if I were part of the left-behind gang,’ I would suggest it was better than a come and go exchange which includes the standard ‘business card trading ritual’ as it allowed you to follow them (on Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. and continue to learn from them beyond the 60 minutes of the session + the 5 minute rush to talk to the presenter immediately following the session,” Kent proposed.

To which I openly admitted: “It would have been true if I hadn’t treated the virtual exchange exactly as one of those business-card exchanges you describe. Just as I do keep and return to business card contacts occasionally as time allows (loud sound of rueful laughter here for missed opportunities), I do occasionally return to that sort of virtually-established contact—but not nearly enough. It would appear that bad habits onsite translate to bad habits online–but I’m continuing to learn, thanks to people like you who inspire me to look for ways to become a better trainer-teacher-learner.”

So, no, Facebook is not making me lonelier. And I’m far from ready to join others in delivering a eulogy for Twitter. And yes, it would be lovely to be there onsite at the conference with others. But if I were there, I wouldn’t have had this latest magnificent experiential learning opportunity to help me further understand, at a visceral level, what amazing tools we currently have at our trainer-teacher-learner fingertips. Each experience brings its own benefits, its own rewards. And having the opportunity to learn with my colleagues remains at the heart of what continues to draw me to these conferences and exchanges.

N.B. — Here’s Kent’s latest contribution to the conversation: Twitter Activity at #ASTD2014 Through Monday May 5 [2014]. Also found backchannel participation from Michelle Ockers on her blog.


ALA Midwinter Conference (Postscript): She Has Toys

February 3, 2014

We now have a new, unexpected corollary to American Library Association (ALA)  Strategy Guide Jenny Levine’s belief that ALA conference hallways provide an extensive network of informal learning venues: those hallways extend much farther into our blended onsite-online world than any of us could have imagined—and create amazing intersections.

ALA_Midwinter_2014--LogoWhile most ALA 2014 Midwinter meeting attendees were leaving Philadelphia Monday and Tuesday to return home last week, I remained in town an extra couple of days to relax, to explore the city and its wonderful museums, and to continue conversations and other informal learning opportunities with colleagues who were still there.

Georgia Public Library Service Director of Continuing Education and Training Jay Turner and I, for example, had an unplanned dinner, followed by an additional meal together the following day when it became apparent that the severe storm disrupting all forms of travel in Atlanta was going to force him to remain onsite in Philadelphia far longer than he anticipated. We took advantage of that opportunity to continue learning from each other about some of the tech trends in libraries and library learning endeavors we have both been exploring and, in that way, extended the conference hallways far beyond the walls of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

In between those shared meals, I carved out time to visit libraries on the Temple University and University of Pennsylvania campuses—and had no idea that the ALA hallways were about to intersect with the hallways created and nurtured by colleagues in the New Media Consortium (NMC) one year earlier.

The visit to the University of Pennsylvania begins with a return to one of the most lovely libraries and library reading rooms I’ve ever seen: the Anne & Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Library. The reading room is the sort of space where you ache to find something to read just so you can read it in that space—and if you love art, it’s not at all difficult to find something to meet that need. Leaving the Fisher, I decide to cross the quad for a brief visit to the Van Pelt Library. And that’s when the ALA Midwinter meeting hallways and the NMC hallways expand and collide in the most unexpected and wonderful way—transcending time and space.

Weigle--Entrance--2014-01-29Attending the NMC 2013 Summit on “The Future of Education” in Austin, Texas exactly one year ago—immediately before flying from Austin to Seattle to attend part of the 2013 ALA Midwinter meeting—I had met an NMC colleague (Anu Vedantham) who serves as director of the David B. Weigle Information Commons. Dinner with Anu and a few other NMC colleagues in January 2013 was a spectacular experience for me for many reasons: I had loved the Weigle Information Commons from a distance ever since I had come across a playfully clever introductory video prepared by Weigle students using Weigle resources; sitting with Anu and other colleagues in Austin a year ago gave me a chance to hear first-hand about how the Commons had developed since the video was produced; and the conversation unexpectedly continued a few days later in Seattle when one of our dinner partners unexpectedly showed up on the ALA Midwinter exhibits floor at the same time I was browsing the exhibits—and, furthermore, turned out to be sharing a room with a colleague with whom I was serving on an ALA committee.

And now, I’m experiencing that NMC-to-ALA process in reverse, for as I enter the Van Pelt Library, I turn to my left on the first floor of the building and see a large sign marking the entrance to Weigle—which I had completely forgotten was on the University of Pennsylvania campus. I approach a person sitting at the Commons reception desk and ask if she can “help me find a colleague who works here” (because, of course, I had also forgotten that Anu is director of the Commons). Less than a minute later, Anu is giving me a fabulous whirlwind tour of the Commons in the 15 minutes she has available before her next meeting.

Anyone interested in training-teaching-learning and the intersection of technology, learning, and libraries needs to see the Weigle Information Commons. It doesn’t matter how you see it. In person. Online. Through blog pieces like this one. Or through videos. What is important is that you become aware of what it means to contemporary training-teaching-learning endeavors.

Weigle--Talk_Away_Sign--2014-01-29The spaces are lovely, flexible (furniture can easily be rearranged to accommodate various learners’ needs), well lit, and inviting. Data diner booths, for example, include prominently-displayed cards encouraging learners to “Talk away” and reminding them that “Weigle Information Commons is for discussion and group collaboration”—key elements in many successful learning experiences.

Walking past a variety of group study rooms designed to facilitate conversations onsite as well as online (through Skype), we arrive at the original Vitale Digital Media Lab—another sign that those ALA Midwinter conference hallways are reaching beyond the spaces within the Pennsylvania Convention Center, for I see a physical manifestation of the sort of tech learning and lending library that former ALA President Barbara Ford described to me a few days ago (at the Midwinter conference) when she was discussing the roles libraries can play in helping learners explore new technology. Staff and student interns are there in the Digital Media Lab to work with their peers. And for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors in a variety of settings, there is yet another opportunity to be pursued: students who in the course of learning to help other learners explore new technology could easily be part of the talent pool from which we will draw new trainer-teacher-learners as they enter our workplaces in the next few years if we welcome them into learning organizations such as ALA and ASTD (the American Society for Training & Development) to provide them with a gateway to our profession.

Dot Porter, in the "Vitale II" media lab

Dot Porter, in the “Vitale II” media lab

The tour doesn’t end there. With my usual luck, I have arrived just in time to attend a launch party marking the opening of an extension of the Digital Media Lab: “Vitale II,” a wonderful space that operates as a smart classroom/collaborative meeting room, on the sixth floor of the Van Pelt Library, to support digital research in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts. Vitale II has a moveable conference table and chairs in the center of the room; a high-resolution camera in the ceiling so that what is being demonstrated on the table can be projected onto a large screen in the room and also transmitted to offsite colleagues who want to participate in whatever is happening in the lab; and a white board listing upcoming formal and informal learning opportunities, Curator of Digital Research Services Dot Porter shows me as Anu leaves for her next appointment.

To say that I’m inspired and overwhelmed by all I’m trying to absorb during this 30-minute visit doesn’t even begin to capture all that Weigle, its labs, and its staff and students suggest in terms of where we are going in training-teaching-learning. I want to be working and learning in one of those spaces. Now. But knowing that my time in Weigle and the two Vitales is limited, I play one of my favorite games with a staff member: I ask her to blurt out whatever words come to mind as she thinks about what Weigle offers so I can see the Commons through the eyes of someone very familiar with it. She confirms what I expect: Collaboration. Learning. Technology. Playfulness. Whimsy. And then she captures what she loves about what Anu fosters throughout the extended Commons: “She has toys”—and she makes them available.

It’s clear that our opportunities to learn from each other in this sort of creative, playfully collaborative setting are steadily increasing. And it remains in our hands to reach across the onsite and online hallways we all traverse to see where these opportunities will take us—and those we serve—in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead of us.


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