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.


Hidden Garden Steps: A Community Continuing to Evolve

January 15, 2014

The Hidden Garden Steps ceramic-tile mosaic created and completed by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher is in place here in San Francisco, and an ever-expanding community has quickly claimed the site as its own—just as organizing committee members hoped it would.

The Steps as venue for exercise

The Steps as venue for exercise

New resources connecting that community are appearing online with increasing frequency. We have seen our existing website, Facebook page, and Twitter account (all created and maintained by project volunteers) augmented through individual initiatives by those who are falling in love with the Hidden Garden Steps (on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District): There are already reviews on Yelp, check-ins on Foursquare (including our first official Hidden Garden Steps Foursquare mayor), favorable mentions in the San Francisco Examiner and on Weekend Sherpa, and wonderful articles on Cindy Casey’s “Art and Architecture – San Francisco” blog and Tony Holiday’s San Francisco park trails and public stairways blog.

A two-fold agenda was always at the heart of the four-year effort to transform the overgrown, ill-tended, graffiti-marred 148-step concrete staircase (originally constructed in 1926) into a neighborhood gem: creating a second ceramic-tiled staircase with community gardens to complement the original steps on Moraga Street, between 15th and 16th avenues, and creating an outdoor variation on the indoor Third Place concept promoted by  Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (1989)

The formal opening ceremony on Saturday, December 7, 2013 provided plenty of signs that both goals were being met. Sherry Boschert, a Hidden Garden Steps supporter who remains active in a variety of neighborhood initiatives, worked with Steps organizing committee members to organize and orchestrate a community-based volunteer-driven block party that attracted more than 150 participants. Among those speaking at the event were San Francisco County Supervisor Norman Yee (also serving as acting mayor that day); San Francisco Department of Public Works Community Liaison Jerad Weiner, who remains a conduit of onsite support through the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program; DPW structural engineer Ray Lui; San Francisco Parks Alliance Executive Director Matt O’Grady, offering support as head of our fiscal agent; and the artists themselves.

Every one of those brief from-the-heart presentations acknowledged the number of partnerships, donors, and community volunteers needed to produce something of that magnitude, and Supervisor Yee’s own presentation captured the spirit of the endeavor—rather than placing himself at the center of the event, he very generously spent time  acknowledging that he was elected to represent the district as the project was nearing completion and that it was the work of his predecessor (former District 7 County Supervisor Sean Elsbernd) and predecessor’s staff that contributed tremendously to the success of the Steps initiative.

Ribbon-cutting at the Opening Ceremony

Ribbon-cutting at the Opening Ceremony

Organizing committee members had one intentionally brief, wonderfully playful moment in the limelight as we were surrounded by many of our project partners to cut a multi-colored crepe-paper-weave ribbon stretched across the foot of the Steps. We then literally and figuratively stepped aside as dozens of people streamed up the Steps to transform the site from a project facilitated by a core group of community volunteers to one claimed by the larger community that supports it.

By late afternoon, the crowds had dispersed. A sense of tranquility was once again palpable on site. And by mid-evening, the Steps were continuing to quickly evolve into a meeting place for friends as well as for neighbors and complete strangers who otherwise might not be seeing, talking, and dreaming with each other. As I was taking a final look down the Steps just before 10 o’clock that evening, I ended up talking with someone who hadn’t realized the Steps were already completed and open to the public. We chatted about how the project had developed, talked about how he wished he had been available to more actively support and be an active participant in the development and implementation of the project, and talked about other neighborhood projects in development—which made me realize that less than 10 hours after the Steps opened, they were already functioning as an outdoors Third Place that draws people together and creates the possibility of additional collaborations.

A recent spur-of-the-moment sweepathon

Those encounters have continued on a daily basis since that initial day. Several organizing committee members and other neighbors all found ourselves engaged in a wonderful impromptu conversation on the Steps on New Year’s Day. Visitors from San Francisco’s East and South Bay areas have repeatedly come to the Steps and brought friends. Those who supported the project through the purchase of individual tiles interwoven into the completed mosaic with personal inscriptions come, photograph, and bring friends to enjoy the beauty of the site and the spectacular views it provides. Project volunteers continue to participate in the monthly two-hour clean-up and gardening sessions held on the second Saturday of each month from 1 – 3 pm (open to any interested new or returning volunteer), and neighbors, without any formal guidance or call to action, simply show up when they see that the Steps need to be swept or in some other way spruced up a bit to keep the site pristine.

HGS--Third_Place_Clean-up--Al--2014-01-05

Steps volunteer Al Magary engaged in clean-up

Most importantly of all, the spirit of community and collaboration that drove the Hidden Garden Steps to completion is already inspiring a neighbor—Al Magary—to see if he can informally organize a group to sweep and take other actions to clean up the long-ignored even larger set of steps one block away (on 15th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets). Anyone interested in joining that budding community of interest can contact Al for more information at 15thAveStepsPark@gmail.com. Who knows? Perhaps a third set of ceramic-tiled steps is on its way.

N.B.: This is the twenty-third in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


Seeking Social Media Clout While Scoring and Losing Klout

September 17, 2013

The San Francisco-based online service Klout purports to provide a score that documents how much influence we have through our online use of social media tools. What it actually deliberately does is lower scores if users do not agree to provide access to secondary (demographic) information in their Facebook accounts. This provides a social-media lesson meriting attention: we need to be diligent about determining what online services offer as opposed to what they claim to offer. And we need to make others aware of what we learn to provide a context for the information that businesses like Klout disseminate.

Klout_logoLet’s be explicit about what we’re seeing here. Klout claims to offer a beneficial service: a tool, that if it were accurate, could offer us an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of our online presence and provide impetus for us to improve what we are doing. Because Klout representatives insist on collecting data including date of birth and what we have liked on Facebook—information ostensibly of more use to Klout’s advertisers than to the process of determining the level of influence we have allegedly achieved online—before they will include accurate information about our levels of online interactions in those scores, I’ve joined those who tried Klout, didn’t like what we saw, and have taken steps to shut down our accounts rather that acquiesce to Klout’s clumsy—and ultimately unnecessary—attempt to bargain access to information for a higher Klout score.

Here’s how it works. Once you start using Klout, you and others can view a score that is supposed to document your levels on online interactions and the influence those interactions suggest. Only after you have used Klout for a while do you start receiving email messages that feel like a low-level dose of blackmail: Klout representatives’ insistence that you start allowing Klout to access additional information in your Facebook account, including “your birthday, work history, education history, current city and likes.” The notes explicitly warn that failure to provide access will result in a lower Klout score because the service will not include any of your Facebook activity that Klout should already have been able to access when you initially connected your Klout and Facebook accounts.

Facebook_logoThere is something more than a bit disingenuous about Klout representatives’ approach to this issue. When I initially added the service to my social media mix, I had no problem using it without having to respond to the sort of one-line agreement that now pops up when Klout directs me to log in to my Klout account via Facebook. (I’ve generally accessed Klout via Twitter.) It was only after using Klout for a few months that I started receiving email messages from Klout informing me that “Recently (emphasis added), our systems haven’t been able to access the Facebook account you’ve linked to Klout. As a result, your Facebook activity is not contributing to your Klout Score right now. You might not have logged into Klout using Facebook in a while. A day after clicking ‘Reconnect’ below, your Facebook activity will contribute to your Klout Score again (emphasis added to confirm that this apparently wasn’t a problem for Klout before now).” The catch is that you can’t “reconnect” without authorizing access to that additional demographic information.

An exchange with a Klout representative yesterday afternoon produced the following inaccurate statement regarding “current permissions”: “The current permissions allow us to access your public profile, friend list, email address, News Feed, birthday, work history, education history, current city and likes.” But that statement contradicts the report that my Facebook activity could no longer be accessed without a new acceptance of what Klout claimed it could already access. Seems to me that Klout’s representatives can’t have it both ways.

What’s interesting about this sort of low-grade online ultimatum is that little of this demographic information is particularly difficult to track down online, but Klout representatives’ admission that the measurement they propose to provide would deliberately be lowered if I didn’t agree to actively provide additional access to information in my Facebook account made me wonder what other “new current permissions” I would be forced to accept down the road. Besides, my Klout score really doesn’t have that much of an impact on what I do; it simply appeared to be another interesting but far-from-essential tool in my efforts to track online successes and failures to improve my ability to reach colleagues, clients, and others who are important to me. Losing Klout will simply provide a bit of additional time to use more credible web analytics tools to make me a more effective user of social media tools.

Wired_Magazine_LogoAnother interesting aspect of Klout’s approach is the range of reactions online writers have expressed in discussing the company’s ability—and inability—to accurately document the online clout that matters. At one extreme is the Wired magazine article published in April 2012 suggesting that a low Klout score can have a significantly negative effect on a person’s opportunity to thrive in our competitive business environment—although the writer does undercut that argument with a concluding admission that “folks with the lowest Klout scores…were the people I paid most attention to.” The suggestion that a Klout score affects employment possibilities certainly contributes to the anxiety some users describe regarding perceptions that their online clout, per their Klout score, is lower than it should and needs to be.

A view from the opposite extreme side of these discussions comes through British author Charles Stross’s characterization of Klout as “something that spreads like herpes and…[is] just as hard to get rid of.” His online post on the topic (under the title “Evil social networks”—Stross obviously isn’t taking a subtle approach) asserts that Klout is “flagrantly in violation of UK data protection law” in terms of how it collects and uses data—very strong and troubling words at a time when the term “online privacy” seems to be an oxymoron and a recent New York Times article confirms that National Security Agency employees have for more than a decade been working to “foil basic safeguards of privacy” on the Internet.

The Wikipedia Klout article appears to provide a balanced introduction to Klout, beginning with a description of the methodology used to produce a score, continuing with a summary of criticism leveled against that methodology, and concluding with a series of references for anyone interested in knowing more about the service and how it works.

What strikes me based on the experiences I’ve had is that Klout appears to play upon its users’ anxieties and insecurities. It starts with an appealing offer to help determine how much online influence we have (or, in a more worrisome way, how ineffective our online efforts might be in reaching those important to us), then takes actions that require we provide access to information in other social media accounts if we want our online activity within those accounts to be accurately reflected in our Klout scores—which then raises the question as to why anyone would rely on scores that are admittedly manipulated.

It’s also worth noting that the scoring system itself is not at all intuitive. Its scale of 1 – 100 would, at a glance, seem to imply that a score of 50 would be in the middle of online influence compared to what others have achieved. Online documentation, however, explains that “The average Klout score is around 20 and a [capital-S] Score [sic] of 50 or above puts you in the 95th percentile of scored users.”

Clout is that valuable commodity that we nurture, maintain, and cherish when we provide something grounded in honest and ethical behavior face to face and online—a commodity that increases as our clients, colleagues, and friends share the work we do and the successes we have. Klout-with a-K is what we’re left with when we agree to support a service that deliberately mismeasures and misrepresents online information if we don’t actively agree to facilitate the gathering of online information that has little to do with capital-C Clout—which is why I’ve decided to lose Klout and share this information with those I help in my role as a social media trainer-teacher-learner.


Festina Lente and Social Media: Thinking Before We Post

September 6, 2013

Festina lente, the wonderfully evocative Latin expression commonly translated as “make haste slowly,” is a mantra we need to share with our social media learners who express concerns, in the early stages of their efforts to effectively communicate with the myriad resources available to them, about how to control their online content and presence.

Filoli--Festina_Lente--2013-05-04

Festina Lente plaque over gate in Filoli Gardens, south of San Francisco

It’s that bit of guidance that suggests we should think before we act; avoid the “ready, fire, aim” sequence that leads to so many regrets; and temper our obsession to use speed-of-light communication tools in a moment that is almost certain to expand over a much longer period of time than anything we can imagine at the moment we post something online. It’s also a great way to remind them that there really is no absolute control or room for second thoughts once our words are published in the virtual world.

This tantalizingly contradictory guidance to act quickly and with consideration to avoid disasters is certainly not unique to situations in which we post social media comments in haste. We can really only imagine the “what-could-we-have-been-thinking?” recriminations harbored by key players after the existence of the previously-secret White House taping system was revealed and contributed to the end of the Nixon administration. Or after videos of the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrikes and photographs of the torture and abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib were released.

But those are world-changing revelations, far from the minds of most of us when we decide to “like” something on Facebook, use the “favorite” tool to call attention to a tweet, or post on our social media platform(s) of choice the latest fleeting thought we have before thinking about what a long life that thought may have online. Those of us who attempt to be thoughtful about what we cast out into the virtual world often mistakenly assume that by being diligent about our Facebook privacy settings and using allegedly secure means of online communication, we are establishing some sort of control over who sees what we choose to share online—an idea repeatedly debunked through numerous articles about Facebook’s ever-changing privacy policies, the ways other gain access to information we erroneously assume is ours to control, and the ways prospective and current employers as well as school officials review online content for a variety of reasons.

The latest report documenting how little control we have over our online content appears in an extremely detailed New York Times article published today: “N.S.A. Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web.” This is far more than the significant story it appears to be about how National Security Agency employees were building “entry points”—intentional flaws—into the encryption products that were supposed to assure privacy in online communications; it’s also an enormous reminder that regardless of what we do to try to control our online content, there’s someone out there capable of overcoming those controls if the motivation to do so exists.

New_Digital_Age--CoverBut we really don’t even have to dive into the Spy vs. Spy world of surveillance to respond honestly to our learners’ questions about how to approach our online postings and overall presence. Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, in their book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, provide an extreme example of what happens when we post without thinking about potential repercussions: “In February 2012, a young Saudi newspaper columnist named Hamza Kashgari posted an imaginary conversation with the Prophet Muhammad on his personal Twitter account,” leading to “thousands of angry responses, death threats and the creation of a Facebook group called ‘The Saudi People Demand Hamza Kashgari’s Execution.’…Despite his immediate apology after the incident and a subsequent August 2012 apology, the Saudi government refused to release him. In the future, it won’t matter whether messages like these are public for six hours or six seconds; they will be preserved as soon as electronic ink hits digital paper. Kashgari’s experience is just one of many sad and cautionary stories” (p. 56). (We can only assume that Kashgari somehow missed reading about Salman Rushdie’s experiences—and wonder why Schmidt and Cohen see this as something that won’t matter “in the future” after documenting that it already occurs.)

Which brings us back to our roles as trainer-teacher-learners helping others to work as effectively as possible online: invoking festina lente as a guiding principle before we post will not give them—or us—the level of control we crave, but it might lead to better experiences overall online—as long as we don’t let it keep us from saying what we and wonderful colleagues like Sarah Hougton know must be said.


David Lee King: face2face with Social Media and Social Graces

August 21, 2013

The fact that Facebook has more than 1 billion registered users doesn’t in any way suggest that there are more than 1 billion skilled users of social media tools worldwide. So a book like David Lee King’s face2face: Using Facebook, Twitter, and Other Social Media Tools to Create Great Customer Connections has the potential to upgrade the social skills—and social graces—of those still struggling to improve their online social interactions at the business level David targets…and at a personal level, too.

face2face--coverDavid’s ability to communicate engagingly and well—a skill that attracts many of us to his presentations, his blogging, and to the work he does as Digital Services Director at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library—serves readers well in face2face as he dives right in with on-target advice. He starts by reminding us that we need to be human rather than standoffish and mechanical on the Web. We need to listen; respond professionally and as informally as we can to nurture the levels of interaction that accompany successful engagement via social media tools; and think strategically so that our use of videos, blog articles, and other online postings consistently lead us to productive and positive results.

His honesty also helps us understand both the positive and the negative approaches into which so many of us fall in our use of social media. In telling the story of his online interactions with people at what he calls “the Snarky PR Agency”—omitting the company’s name because “they ended up being very professional”—he describes the agency’s initial spam that raised his ire; openly describes his own snarky online response (a tweet about how the agency “mass spammed me hoping I’d review a kids book. Obviously NEVER read my blog, so why would I read your book?”); and after leading us through the series of exchanges they had, notes that there was a positive result: “We ended up having a nice chat about small businesses discovering and using social media. The PR agency turned the conversation around from a negative one to a positive one” (pp. 130-136).

None of this, however, would mean much if face2face didn’t work from a wonderful foundation: helping us understand how to create and nurture community connections that interweave onsite and online interactions rather than viewing them as unrelated activities. He reminds us that Tweetups—face to face meetings of individuals who originally met via Twitter—and numerous other onsite encounters mean that what starts in Twitter (or Facebook or Google+ or any other online setting) doesn’t need to stay in that setting; those of us who attend conferences and other professional gatherings are abundantly aware of how online interactions seamlessly extend into those face-to-face encounters just as relationships that begin face-to-face in conferences, workshops, and other settings become richer, deeper, and unbelievably sustainable through online extensions of those conversations.

Which brings us to the playful foundation of David’s book—the understated yet implicit redefinition of our concepts of what the term face to face means in our onsite-online world. As we read through David’s sections on “business casual,” “where and how to begin,” “measuring success,” and “applying what we’ve learned,” we can’t help but see that effective use of the tools under discussion make us realize we can just as easily be face to face online as we can in the original sense of the term—when we’re onsite with someone.

My own experiences with onsite and online learners convince me that we’re even struggling to have our language catch up with the evolving nature of our interactions in something as simple as defining the first time we meet someone.” Those who remain inexperienced or uncomfortable with online interactions still don’t think of themselves as having “met” someone until they have their first onsite face-to-face encounter. Yet the immediacy of interactions via Skype, Google+ Hangouts, Blackboard Collaborate learning sessions that are well facilitated, and numerous other tools more and more frequently find that the quality and depth of interactions in those settings help us understand that the definition of meeting someone is shifting subtly and inexorably as more and more of us become comfortable with the idea that we’re living and thriving in an onsite-online world. And works like face2face can only help to make that process smoother for anyone who takes the time to read and absorb all that it offers.


Learning Social Media With Our Learners (Pt. 4 of 4): Out of the Course and Into the World

February 10, 2013

It hasn’t taken long for participants in the latest version of the four-week online “Social Media Basics” course I developed with colleagues at ALA Editions to begin documenting our collective successes.

Social_Media_BasicsOne learner, in his final course posting, noted that he “had the opportunity to use Google hangouts as part of a reference interaction at work recently. An online student was having trouble finding resources for an assignment…and we used hangouts to work through some of the difficulties.”

Another learner, wanting to explore Google+ Hangouts further, arranged a session with five other course participants and quickly found the tool taking a back seat to a very engaging discussion in which they shared ideas and learned from each other in a way that made them feel as if they were sitting together rather than separated by tremendous geographic distances.

Several documented the fact that they had set up various social media accounts for the libraries they serve. At least a few have initiated live tweet sessions and begun discussing work-related issues in the private Facebook group we established so that our community of learning—which now includes participants from both offerings of the course—can continue to grow and flourish. And a few others were inspired to go beyond the course content and explore other tools, including Pinterest.

Engaging in a rudimentary version of learning analytics produces an interesting snapshot of how the course functions—and provides some positive responses to those who contend that online learning can’t possibly rival the face-to-face experience. Starting with a core group of 32 registered learners, we had five who never engaged at any significant level, and only four more who weren’t actively participating by the time the course ended. There was the usual spike of activity during the first of the four weeks of the course, with nearly 1,800 views of posts within the formal class forums that week; that had leveled off and remained steady at approximately seven hundred views during the final few weeks. Actual postings, however, were fairly consistent throughout the run of the course, with between 100 and 150 individual comments posted on course forums each week—which doesn’t even begin to take into account the dozens of postings made via Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ as we explored each of those platforms.

Most interesting to me, since I was expecting a steady decrease in discussion-forum postings, is that the largest number of individual discussions actually occurred during the final week, when learners were not only posting brief descriptions of their final projects, but also engaging in brief summaries of how their perceptions (and misperceptions) about social media tools had changed.

But it’s really not the numbers that tell the story here; it’s the observations the learners offered regarding how their perceptions had changed in positive ways and how they walked away from this brief, very concentrated experience with social media much more likely to use the tools than they had been before they took the course.

As I’ve said in response to many of their comments, this is the real icing on our learning cake. Because learning is about positive transformation, the fact that they are documenting increased use of social media tools and finding ways to use those tools to the benefit of those they serve in libraries throughout the United States and a few other countries means that our time together is offering rewards to the organizations they serve. They are also now engaged in a community of learning that was created during the initial offering of the course in 2012, has grown as a result of the latest four-week offering, and stands a good chance of growing even more as these participants use their online discussion groups to stay in touch, exchange resources, and explore issues of interest and importance to them in the months and years to come.


Learning Social Media With Our Learners (Pt. 3 of 4): Office Hours in a Google+ Hangout

January 31, 2013

Having twice used a private Facebook group as the platform for virtual office hours over the past couple of weeks, participants in the latest version of the four-week online “Social Media Basics” course I developed with colleagues at ALA Editions went for broke this morning: we used a Google+ Hangout for our latest office hour.

While it was far from perfect, it proved to be a spectacular learning experience for those who wanted the opportunity to create another learning sandbox in a course that has promoted experimentation as a way of becoming comfortable with a few of the numerous social media tools available to us.

Social_Media_BasicsThe experiment—not originally built into the course, but completely in character with the approach we’ve been taking together—was inspired during our second Facebook office hour last week. We had begun discussing how different people were using Google+ Hangouts creatively, and I responded to a question by describing how Samantha Adams Becker (from the New Media Consortium) and I had used Hangouts as the vehicle for blended cross-country presentations on technology in learning. (I was onsite in the San Francisco Bay Area with American Society for Training & Development—ASTD–colleagues, and Samantha came in from her home in New Orleans via the Hangouts.) I also led the virtual office hour participants to the YouTube video of John Butterill’s Virtual Photo Walks via Google+ Hangouts. It was at that moment that one of the participants expressed an interest in conducting our next virtual office hour via a Hangout, and the request picked up momentum through the learners’ own actions.

When I saw that one of the course participants was running with the idea of connecting with a few other learners via a Hangout—an option suggested as a final course activity—I contacted her to ask whether she would like to combine that effort with the proposed office hour and actually facilitate the session herself. She immediately accepted, sent out the invitations both on Google+ and in the class forum (in Moodle), and began preparing for the session. Although I was there to support her during the brief planning stages and while the Hangout was in progress, it really was a learner-driven session with all the ups and downs we expected through that effort.

She and I worked together in advance to craft a rough outline of how the session would proceed, and agreed that part of the success would come from not overly structuring the conversation. She and others exchanged information ahead of time via Google+ and the class forum. She even set up a pre-session sandbox for anyone who wanted to play with the technology before the office hour officially began.

When we logged on at the appointed time, she and the others were fantastic in addressing challenges. The initial Hangout was a bit slow, and screens froze a couple of times, so we decided that she should log out and then come right back in to see if the connection would stabilize. Although the rest of us were able to continue in that original Hangout, she somehow found herself locked out of it, so immediately contacted me, via a separate chat, to see if the entire group could move into a new Hangout. The transition was relatively quick, and we were all in the new, much more successful Hangout, within 10 minutes of the original start time—a great learning experience for those interested in seeing how easy it could be to resolve problems within a new learning environment like a Google+ Hangout.

As was the case with our initial Facebook virtual office hour, we spent another few minutes playing around with the technical side of the event since this was meant to be a learning experience, not a professionally-produced program: helping participants unmute their microphones, establishing an understanding of how to effectively use the chat function, and even finding a way to allow one struggling participant to view the session through a live feed via YouTube. By the time we were a quarter of the way through our hour-long session, we had moved away from discussions of how to operate within a Hangout and were already discussing topics germane to the work we were doing in “Social Media Basics.”

None of us expects to win any awards for production values or content from that first experiment, but we all walked away with something far more important: the memory of an engaging online session that made everyone feel as if we had finally “met” in the course because we had that virtual face-to-face experience, and lots of ideas about how the experience could quickly be replicated in our own workspaces to the benefit of those we serve.

And if that isn’t at the heart of successful learning in our onsite-online world, then I’m not quite sure what is.

N.B.: Heartfelt thanks to the staff of the New Media Consortium for introducing me to John Butterill’s Virtual Photo Walks through the work Advisory Board members did on the 2013 Horizon Report Higher Education Edition.


Learning Social Media With Our Learners (Pt. 2 of 4): Office Hours in Facebook

January 17, 2013

The concept of office hours in an online course took an interesting twist this morning as several participants in the latest version of the four-week online “Social Media Basics” course I developed with colleagues at ALA Editions joined me in our course Facebook discussion group for a spirited hour-long exchange.

Social_Media_BasicsOur experimental session was predicated on the idea that, within the safety of a private Facebook group, we could hold a live online office hour which would simultaneously let us explore current course challenges while also seeing how one of the social media tools we are exploring can be useful to us long after the course ends.

It succeeded beyond our wildest dreams—with plenty of unexpected challenges coming up along the way.

I initially suggested that, to facilitate discussion while also producing a reviewable transcript, we establish a discussion posting within the group, and that everyone participate by responding within that thread by hitting Comment. The plan was that any course participant wanting to review the discussion later could simply read the comments in the order they were posted within that private Facebook group setting.

We quickly found ourselves split a bit when one of the learners responded using the chat function. At that point, we had two simultaneous and not-at-all synchronized discussions going, so we moved everything into the chat for the remainder of the online office hour. After making it past the not-unexpected questions about how to monitor and respond to a chat feed that seemed to be traveling very close to the speed of light, the learners seem to adjust to the pace.

The magic moment of learning came when we stopped focusing on the tool and became immersed in a variety of topics about Facebook and social media in general. The current learners started driving the conversation as I stepped back, and they were further encouraged by the presence of a learner from a previous offering of the course since that returning member of our course learning community was able not only to provide useful resources, but also offer the perspective of someone who less than half a year ago had been learning what they are currently learning, and has now integrated the use of social media tools into the work she does.

When she offered to—and actually did—post a link to a copy of the social media policy developed at her library, there wasn’t a learner in the group who didn’t see that we were far beyond the stereotypical view of Facebook as little more than a place for friends and acquaintances  to post ephemera. This was a social media tool with practical application to each learner’s workplace; they seemed to be finding it easy to master through their use of it in that virtual office hour space; and they saw that the exchanges with one of their course predecessors provided a great example of how social media tools extend their contact with valuable colleagues who might otherwise not be accessible to them.

The story wouldn’t be complete, however, without a frank admission that there was still a bit of learning for me to complete. Since we hadn’t ended up with the accessible transcript I wanted for participants and for others who are enrolled in the course but couldn’t attend the live version, I spent a little time trying to find a way to create that accessible record for them. There were several interesting options documented on various online sites, but they seemed too complicated for learners in a social media basics course, so I looked for a simple way that would require little more than familiarity with the basic tools available within the discussion group itself. The obvious choice was to click on the Messages option in the left-hand column of a Facebook page, and then look for the chat. Trial and error showed that a couple of additional steps were necessary:

  • Once I had clicked on Messages and moved into my Inbox, I used the Search box near the upper left-hand corner of that page to locate one of the chat participants. This, unfortunately, only produced part of the chat transcript—turns out she had only been present for the final 10 minutes of the discussion, so that’s what was archived from that search.
  • Identifying one of the participants who had been present from start to finish, I repeated the search by using that learner’s name. That produced a copy of the entire archived document, ready to be read and preserved.
  • To produce the transcript in a way that could be shared with all course participants, I highlighted the entire text contained within the chat transcript, copied it, pasted it into a Word document, and saved it as a PDF. That version, shared only with course participants, became a course learning object that the learners themselves helped create, and will serve as a resource for them as long as they care to use it—as soon as I post it within our official course bulletin board (outside of Facebook, within Moodle).

The final icing on this particular learning cake is that I’m documenting our experiment in this blog posting so the learners themselves can see how activities in one social media platform extend into another in ways that keep the conversation—and the learning—going far beyond what occurred in any one social media interaction, and can draw a larger group into our ever-expanding community of learners.


Learning Social Media With Our Learners (Pt. 1 of 4)

January 13, 2013

Teaching any “basics” course face to face or online can be one of the best ways to (willingly) be pushed into advanced exploration of a topic, as I’ve been reminded this week.

Social_Media_BasicsDiving into the latest version of the four-week online “Social Media Basics” course I developed with colleagues at ALA Editions, I’m working with a wonderful group of adults who are beginning to set up and learn how to use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ accounts effectively. But it’s not just about sending tweets and posting updates: their entry-level work with social media tools is inspiring them to engage in advanced-level exploration about what it means to go from having a slight or non-existent presence in the world of social media to becoming adept users of those tools professionally and personally. And, as expected, the work they are doing, the questions they are asking, and the resources they are discovering and sharing with their course colleagues make me as engaged a learner as any of them are.

The two-way learning began early in the course when they began exploring some of the extras within Moodle, which is the open source platform used by ALA Editions for online delivery of its courses. The best surprise for me—at least up to this point—came when someone explored the basic tools available and found a way to include a photograph of herself in one of the postings to a course forum. Since that simple act of reaching out socially via a friendly headshot of herself provided a first-rate example of the spirit of social media use, I went back into the course tools to learn how to duplicate what she had done. By responding with a note (visible to all course participants) that included an informal snapshot of myself, I called other learners’ attention to what was possible in our course postings and was happy to see others adopting the same practice so that a bit of social cohesion was already developing even before we jumped out onto the Web to use any of the social media tools.

Even more encouraging was how quickly many of the learners began jumping back and forth from the safety of that private course forum to the much more open and public venue of Twitter as they worked through the first assignment of starting (or updating) a Twitter account. Some were able to quickly create and post first-rate Twitter profiles, start following a combination of course colleagues and other outside resources that will be of use and interest to them in their day-to-day work, and send their first tweets. A couple, uncomfortable about having their tweets seen by complete strangers, discovered and explored the use of accounts that keep tweets private and visible only to an approved group of followers.

One of the most interesting learning opportunities for all of us came from those who were struggling with that same idea about how openly social and accessible to be in a social media setting. They set up their accounts, admitted they felt uncomfortable posting content that strangers could see, and wrote about feeling equally uncomfortable reading content that sometimes is far more personal than what they want to encounter from people they haven’t met. So we brought that level of discourse back into the course forum and provided a discussion thread that allows all course participants to exchange thoughts about the benefits and disadvantages to operating so transparently within a social media context. It will be interesting to see if/when someone in the course becomes confident and comfortable enough to begin tweeting out that sort of question to explore the issue with experienced Twitter users they haven’t yet encountered.

A key element of what we’re doing together is that we’re engaging in deeply important and richly challenging exchanges online as effectively as we would if we were face to face—with the understanding that ultimately there will be no one-size-fits-all answer. We’re pushing the tools themselves into the background and using them to have the sort of discussions that foster effective collaborations via those tools. (With any luck, this posting here on Building Creative Bridges will become part of the overall conversation and another example of how we can extend discussions across a variety of platforms.) And the learners—my learning colleagues in every sense of that term—are quickly seeing that I’m happy to facilitate the discussions and bring additional useful resources to the conversations, but that I’m not going to serve as the sort of social media advocate who insists that everyone has to use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and the many other options available to us.

We all appear to be comfortable with the idea that we adopt a social media tool at the moment we see that tool meeting a need we haven’t filled elsewhere, and that trying to force someone to learn and use something before they’re ready is the worst and least successful way to foster effective learning—probably the most important lesson to be learned and relearned by any trainer-teacher-learner.


Social Media Feast and Fast: Disconnecting for a Day

July 20, 2012

I was feeling wired in the best and worst of all possible ways after feasting on nonstop, extremely intense face-to-face and online contact with colleagues at American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and American Library Association (ALA) conferences recently.

The cumulative effect was wonderfully alarming—or alarmingly wonderful, depending on your own attitudes toward social media tools. The positive result was that engaging with colleagues face to face and via Twitter backchannels created a remarkably rewarding level of engagement. The worrisome part was that the nonstop engagement created a social media/digital equivalent of delirium tremens in the days immediately following each conference.

Some of the contradictory responses should not, in retrospect, have been difficult to anticipate. I did, after all, move without any sort of conscious transition into dawn-to-dark social media immersion from a routine habit of spending an hour or less each day engaged with others through Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Facebook; the exception to my usual habits generally comes in the form of a weekly or biweekly engagement in a formal online discussion session, e.g., a tweet chat, or through the act of live-tweeting an event for colleagues who cannot be present.

The conference interactions turned those patterns completely on their virtual heads. Conference days generally began with a quick skim, on the screen of my laptop, of the conference backchannel feeds via TweetDeck; this helped me spot last-minute announcements regarding events I didn’t want to miss, or summaries of presentations and discussions I wasn’t able to attend. Then I would skim a (print) copy of a newspaper before switching over to a mobile device (in this case, a Samsung Galaxy tablet)  to keep up with the various feeds throughout the day. I would turn back to my laptop when I was live-tweeting events I was attending or writing blog postings late each evening.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the level of engagement was spectacular; the combined online and face-to-face contacts produced connections I otherwise would have never made. But the predictable crash was quick to come in the days immediately following each conference. I found myself compulsively continuing to follow the backchannel post-conference feeds via my tablet. Craving and missing the obvious social media buzz that comes from that level of stimulation. And feeling as if the transition from conference routines back to normal day-to-day routines was not happening as naturally as it had in the past.

When I found myself feeling that way after returning from the second conference, I began thinking about University of San Francisco associate professor of media studies and environmental studies David Silver’s recent summary of a digital fast experiment. Silver’s engaging presentation at the San Francisco Public Library under the auspices of BayNet (the Bay Area Library & Information Network) in May 2012 made many of us think about our own online practices as he described how he had encouraged a group of 80 digital natives to go without any electronic or digital media as long as they could—in essence, to “remain logged off until it becomes dangerous, impossible, or unbearable.”

The student who maintained the fast for the shortest period of time gave up after only a few hours. The person who lasted longest went all of three and a half days. Some of the participants’ observations were funny—one wanted to know how to take a bus without an iPhone and then what to do while on the bus with no digital distractions. Another concluded that it was impossible to work out at a gym without music. A third participant reported staring at a pizza for lack of anything else to do over a meal. Some participants’ observations were poignant—their friends who continued texting acted as if they had stepped out of the room by not being equally engaged in online conversations, and one reported that it was “weird to be stuck in my mind…I didn’t like it.”

Armed with memories of those observations and recognizing that I needed my own digital fast, I set aside a Saturday recently when no one was expecting me to work. I could actually feel my body and my thoughts relaxing as I opened the pages of a book that morning and slowly relished the joy of slowly absorbing thoughts from printed sources rather than feeling as if I had to race from tweet to tweet. Brunch with my wife was a relaxing and invigorating combination of conversation and time spent skimming that day’s edition of The New York Times—in its printed format. A walk through parts of San Francisco that afternoon gave us time to talk as well as simply take things in, and dinner in the relative silence of our home—no television, CD player, or radio providing distractions—led to a quiet evening without interruptions.

Beginning the fast with the intention of letting it run from midnight to midnight, I actually was in no rush to check for messages the following (Sunday) morning, so the fast actually continued well into the afternoon. By the time I wandered back to briefly check for phone messages—nothing pressing there—and online contacts, I realized I had accomplished what I set out to do. Set the virtual world aside for an all-too brief retreat. Slowed myself down significantly. And managed to break the compulsive need to monitor those post-conference backchannels and other online enticements. So I’m back to normal patterns of online interactions. And apparently none the worse for wear.


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