Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Knives, Lightning, and Awe

October 20, 2020

Sometimes the real gift is hidden deeply within the gift we think we have received—or the tragedy we have experienced.

A case in point: a few years ago, a friend gave me a couple of beautiful, exquisitely crafted knives far sharper and far more beautiful than any I had ever owned. Because I love to cook and because I love working with good-quality tools, I immediately fell in love with those knives and looked for opportunities to use them as often as I could. But the more significant gift, it turns out, was something included with the knives, not the knives themselves: a simple sheet of instructions emphasizing the benefits of sharpening those knives after each use rather than sporadically.

So, like any good trainer-teacher-learner, I adopted that tip and applied it to all the terribly-dull, far-less-efficient knives we own. And, after months of after-each-use sharpening, I had an entire kitchen full of knives that were far more useful—and required far more attention and caution if I wanted to avoid inadvertently slicing something I would rather not have sliced. And I also experience cherished, rekindled memories of this friend—who is no longer with us—every time I use the knives she gave me…and all the others I own. As if her spirit had become embedded within the knives themselves.

The often-unnoticed gift within a gift—and its corollary, the initially unnoticed (potential) tragedy within something that initially is pleasurable—is something that has been on my mind quite frequently this year. We have the gift of opportunity (the opportunity to build a “new and better normal”) mixed in with the terrible tragedy of the losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic and our radically-different environment resulting from the shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to that pandemic. We have the pandemic-inspired opportunity to better explore and use our online resources in response to the sense of social isolation many of us are feeling while continuing to follow modified shelter-in-place guidelines.

And, for those of us who find comfort and inspiration (in challenging times) in the work of writers, musicians, and other artists we admire, we have the gift of finding ourselves able to carve out time to revisit that work—and finding the work of additional writers, musicians, and other artists—because of some of the experiences we are currently having.

Scott Russell Sanders

This becomes completely circular for me through what I continue to see as an ever-expanding “extended pandemic/wildfire moment” that began a couple of months ago during an hours-long bombardment of lightning and thunder here in the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of California. My initial reaction to the pre-dawn visual and audible bursts was a rekindling of a sense of awe—a rekindling that sent me back to Scott Russell Sanders’ memories (in his book A Private History of Awe) of being a four-year-old and feeling awe at the sight of lightning striking and splitting a beautiful old oak. The lightning filled me with a positive sense of awe; the wildfires that spread rapidly over the subsequent days and weeks grounded me in a sense of loss and grief I hadn’t been astute enough to anticipate initially. And, in the middle of the grief and loss friends and so many others experienced from the wildfires, I found a bit of comfort in re-exploring Sanders’ work and absorbing much more of it than I had ever before taken the time to read.

The result, as I devoured his most recent collection—The Way of Imagination—was to more fully and viscerally immerse myself into the idea of lightning as a metaphor for creativity/creation/acts of creation. As a force that lights our nights. And as a force that carries the potential for and reality of tremendously devastating destruction. Something reminding us of by the double-edged sword of creativity and destruction, opportunity and loss.

Sanders’ richly complex and lyrically stunning body of work and the interviews he has given over a long period of time weave together all of that, and so much more. His appreciation for and love of nature. His commitment to place and community. His dedication to taking principled stands that are rooted in a belief that we should be looking far into the future to be sure what we do lays the most positive foundations for a future we can be proud of helping to create. And his invitation to us, as readers, to share the moments of awe and the moments of tragedy he and those around him have experienced during his own lifetime of writing about life, love, community, and place in ways that inspire us to join him for as much of that journey as we care to take with him.

The gifts are obvious, complex, and ever-expanding. We see the world through the eyes of one of our master storytellers. We feel a bit more connected to him and to the world he describes. We feel inspired by what he reveals and what he unleashes in us. And we feel a bit less isolated, less overwhelmed, than we might have felt without hm.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-third in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Virtual Collaborative Learning (and Doing) With ShapingEDU

October 16, 2020

Suzanne Lipsett, a writer I very much admired, insisted at the beginning of Surviving a Writer’s Life that what we do with our experiences—i.e., write about them—is as important as having those experiences in the first place.

Living and then sharing our lived experiences through storytelling is at the heart of the communities I most adore. I see it in my continuing interactions with colleagues in the #etmooc and #lrnchat communities. I consistently look forward to it within the context of the biweekly gatherings of Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training podcast community. It’s what keeps me connected to Jonathan Nalder’s FutureWe community. And it is an idea that resurfaced for me earlier this week—and, of course made me immediately want to write about it—when members of one of those communities (ShapingEDU) released a free online “Toolkit for Producing Collaborative Events to Shape the Future,” the third in a continuing series of online publications that celebrate what we accomplish together by documenting those successes.

Formally (and playfully) titled ASU [Arizona State University] ShapingED-YOU!, the ASU ShapingEDU toolkit follows the pattern employed in the earlier online resources: Stakeholder Inclusion Framework, an online inclusivity and access resource jointly produced with the Penn State CoAction Learning Lab to help those involved in the technology planning process, and a second ShapingEDU/CoAction Learning Lab collaborative resource, Building Effective Communities of Practice, which included contributions from more than 20 co-authors drawn from the ShapingEDU community and working together—often asynchronously—online. The publications, like the community itself, are dynamic examples of the commitment to playfulness and collaboration that runs through and nourishes this community of “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the Digital Age.”

More importantly, the publications and the ongoing work produced through ShapingEDU are tremendous, positive examples of how some communities entered this social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world creatively and positively and continue to thrive in spite of the tremendous challenges and tragedies we face every day. Thriving because of the commitment to positive action. To creativity. To playfulness. To collaboration. And to looking forward to creating a new and better future without ignoring a far-from-perfect past and present.

A glance at the table of contents for ASU ShapingED-YOU! sets the tenor for what awaits you. The publication begins with an introduction to this “value-led,” “action-oriented,” “community-driven” community’s work, and then focuses on two of the community’s most engaging, productive gatherings: the annual “unconference” which began as a yearly face-to-face working session to dream and drive and do before switching, in the middle of the 2020 unconference, to an online working session/virtual conference, and the newly-established online Learning(Hu)Man weeklong campy summer camp for teacher-trainer-learners exploring concrete possibilities for shaping the future of learning.

And that’s where the entire endeavor becomes tremendously, wonderfully, twistingly “meta” in the sense that the events themselves become examples of how creative blended communities can and are thriving as much because of the challenges they face as because of their commitment to exploring and addressing those challenges. Using both events as case studies, the writers of the toolkit begin with four “top tips”: “Identify your North Stars” in terms of what those guiding stars are for your event; “Foster Interaction” by creating “spaces and mechanisms for community members to connect”—connections are the center of the ShapingEDU universe; “Set Everyone up for Success” by setting expectations and making every possible effort to “empower the community with resources, templates, support systems and clear instructions”; and “Tell Your Story…though focused emails, social media, and multimedia” along with graphic facilitation as “a co-creation tool.”

The case study centered around the unconferences takes us engagingly through the process of setting the stage through interactive exercises before the events even begin: community members submitting questions/suggestions, community members being invited to serve as event participants/designers/facilitators—and much more. The importance of fostering high levels of face-to-face and/or online interactions that are meaningful to participants and conducive to achieving the concrete goals the gatherings are designed to pursue. And the need to end the gatherings with a significant, community-developed catalyzing action (e.g., a communique that serves as a roadmap for continuing collaboration) that offers everyone a clear view of how the event fits into the community’s long-term, results-oriented work.

Moving into the theme of “community camp” as a way to energize changemakers and catalyze action, the Learning(Hu)Man virtual summer camp becomes another inspiring story for any teacher-trainer-learner seeking ways to creatively foster productive, positive learning experiences within the learning communities we serve. The combination of tips, photos, screenshots, and descriptions provides a concise roadmap that can easily be adapted for use by a variety of educator-trainer-learning activists.

And, in the spirt of collaboration and resource-sharing that is at the heart of this publication, it concludes with an invitation to contact ShapingEDU community members for further information and opportunities for collaboration—which is, when you think about it, the greatest gift of all to anyone struggling to survive and thrive in a rapidly-changing topsy-turvy pandemic-driven world.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-second in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences. 2) Paul is serving as one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021), which includes producing articles for the ShapingEDU blog.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Voice, Collaboration, Virtual Choirs, and Rising Up

October 10, 2020

There’s a heartbreakingly beautiful story to be told here—the story of how online interactions involving music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism are creating light and fostering positive action in times of darkness. The story of how online collaborations are drawing us together at a time when “social distances” are overwhelming so many people. And the story of why the arts remain an essential part of the human experience.

The story is rooted in the realization that there is something primally comforting and deeply inspirational about musical collaboration involving the human voice. It flows from the recognition that singing together can be a language of community. Creativity. And hope. Singing together and hearing others sing together in our online/social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world are proving to be ways—for those of us not facing barriers to our access to the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively—to build or further develop strong social connections rather than succumbing to isolation and social distances. Singing together and/or hearing others sing online are ways of using technology to overcome rather than to create distances, to bring us together in ways that allow us to build upon our shared interests and social needs rather than being dispirited by challenges that appear to be too large to tackle.

My own introduction to the concept of virtual choirs and online performances came a little more than a year ago (in May 2019), in a pre-coronavirus world, when I was lucky enough to see and hear virtual-choir pioneer Eric Whitacre demonstrating and embracing us with the power of global online choral collaborations in a closing keynote session presented during the ATD (Association of Talent Development) annual International Conference & Exposition (in San Diego). Hearing Whitacre describe and demonstrate what was involved in creating and nurturing virtual choirs and producing online performances was world-changing; it was a first-rate example of what we foster when we use technology as a tool and focus on the beauty of our creative spirit in the arts and many other endeavors—including training-teaching-learning, which draws the thousands of ATD members globally together.

Thoughts of virtual choirs and online performances receded into the inner recesses of my mind for several months. Then, in March 2020, we entered the “three-week” (now seven-month) period of sheltering-in-place guidelines put into place here in a six-county coalition within the San Francisco Bay Area and, soon thereafter, in other parts of the United States, in response to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic on our shores.

It was a recommendation from friend/colleague/co-conspirator in training-teaching-learning Jill Hurst-Wahl that rekindled my interest that month in virtual choirs and what they suggest in terms of online collaborative possibilities for all of us: the recommendation to watch a virtual-choir rendition of “Helplessly Hoping,” performed and recorded by Italy’s Il coro che non c’è (The Choir That Isn’t There). As was the case with seeing and hearing Whitacre’s virtual choir a year earlier, the experience of hearing and seeing the students in Il coro was transformative. Encouraging. Emotionally-engaging. Inspiring. Tremendously moving. And it made me want to hear more. Which led me to the work of Canada’s Phoenix Chamber Choir. The playfully creative online performances of musicians involved in a live virtual “coffee house” concert, complete with audience interactions via a conference backchannel, during the ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man weeklong summer camp in July 2020 for dreamer-doer-drivers working to shape the future of learning in the digital age. The virtual sing-along videos (including two versions of “Vote Him Way (the Liar Tweets Tonight”) created by singer-songwriter-satirist-activist Roy Zimmerman and his co-writer/wife Melanie Harby. And so many more.

But it’s Zimmerman’s work that most effectively shows us how we might use social media and online interactions to create that intersection of music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism. Because he is engaging. Because he is part of that ever-growing group of first-rate artist-activists who are exploring online alternatives and environments in response to the loss of the onsite venues and interactions that were their lifeblood before the coronavirus arrived. Because he is effectively using Facebook and YouTube, through his “Live from the Left Coast” performances, to not only to stay in touch with and further cultivate his audience, but to nurture relationships between those audience members through his use of online chat within those platforms. Because he is among those participating in the new “Trumped By Music” project initiated by a Dutch/American team “that wants to provide a platform for anti-Trump musicians to be seen and heard… We want to provide maximum exposure for this passionate and vocal community! Our aim is to help our featured artists gain exposure for their message, as well as stimulate musicians to send us new content.” And because his work is reaching and inspiring others equally committed to using music in deeply-emotional ways to foster social change—as was the case with Wilmington Academy Explorations teacher Sandy Errante and her husband, Wilmington Symphony Orchestra conductor Steven Errante.

The pre-coronavirus virtual meeting of Zimmerman and the Errantes is centered around Zimmerman’s incredibly moving song “Rise Up” (co-written with Harby). It was inspired by the students who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School [Parkland, Florida] on Valentine’s Day in 2018 and who turned their experience into the March for Our Lives/Vote for Our Lives/Never Again movement that, six weeks later, inspired marches in more than 500 cities around the world. His rendition of the song as a duet with Laura Love was included on his Rize Up CD in 2018. And that’s where the story becomes very interesting, as Sandy Errante explained in a recent email exchange we had:

“My husband and I had heard Roy perform at the Unitarian Church in Wilmington before. We loved his satire, his energy, his passion, his humor and his music. And then…

“One Thursday evening after my rehearsal with the Girls’ Choir of Wilmington, I was on the way home when our local radio station, WHQR, started advertising an upcoming concert at the UU with Roy. The radio announcer, George Sheibner, played a song I had not heard before—Rise Up. As I drove along listening, I was captivated by the lyrics, the music, the harmonies and suspensions, and the message. By the end of the song and the final chorus, I was in tears. I knew the Girls’ Choir had to sing this piece. But how to make that happen? 

“I reached out to my husband, who was on his way to a rehearsal with the Wilmington Youth Orchestra. Steve is an arranger and a composer, and I needed him to know right away that this was something we absolutely HAD to do. He asked me to find a recording of the song. I did. And I hunted down the contact info for Roy, using my contacts at the UU church. Once we had permission from Roy to proceed, we started imagining this song as told from the children’s perspective. We altered the lyrics just a bit [changing it from the point of view of adults addressing the Parkland survivors to the point of view of the students themselves]. Now we had a song that the girls could sing from their hearts. We had a youth orchestra that could accompany. We had a performance in the making.­

“After all was said and done, we concurred, this IS their world and this was their song.”

And it remains our song—our anthem—in this pandemic, shelter-in-place world, through its availability on YouTube (with the girls’ choir) and on the CD. It’s there for them—and for us—as we continue seeking light and inspiration while living through devastatingly tragic times. Times of great division and conflict. Times that are, for many, overwhelming. And, as is often the case in tragic, divisive, conflict-ridden times, times that are also inspiring tremendous levels of creativity and opportunities for collaboration designed to foster positive change—which we nurture through our support and engagement in any and every way we can.

Update: Roy Zimmerman and Melanie Harby have posted a piece about the collaboration that produced their recent “My Vote, My Voice, My Right” video and included links to other virtual collaborations of that particular song: https://www.royzimmerman.com/blog/my-vote-my-voice-my-right.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-first in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Dianne Connery (Part 2 of 2)

October 7, 2020

This is the concluding segment of a two-part interview conducted with Dianne Connery, director of the Pottsboro Area Library (in Texas) and a ShapingEDU colleague who has been a long-time proponent of universal broadband access, particularly for those in the community she serves. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s pivot a bit to focus on how successful partnerships that benefit everyone involved are developed. During a recent webinar you did for WebJunction, you talked about a variety of innovative approaches you and your colleagues in Pottsboro have taken in an effort to provide broadband access. Would you mind describing the partnership you created with a local conference center there in Pottsboro?

We work to support local businesses. Being in a tourist destination (Pottsboro is on a large recreational lake—Lake Texoma), our businesses were especially hard hit by the pandemic. Outside of city limits, access is more difficult. We talked to the manager of a resort hotel/conference center about the possibility of using their parking lot as a Wi-Fi hotspot for students. As part of that partnership, we shared our goal of getting media attention about the project. In fact, it has received national attention. When I took photos of the Wi-Fi hotspot, I made sure to take the picture from an angle that showed the resort in the background. This trailer was provided by by ITDRC [Information Technology Disaster Resource Center]. There was no cost to the resort or to the library. It was the library acting as the connector between organizations who could meet the need and the community.

Any stories from Pottsboro residents showing the positive impact that the placement of a Wi-Fi hotspot in town had?

A grandmother who is raising her three grandchildren in nearby apartments used that Wi-Fi for the kids to do their schoolwork. Not only did she not have Internet at home, but she doesn’t have a car. When the schools shut down, being able to walk to that hotspot was the only way the kids could finish out the school year. College students who came back home when their schools shut down used it for accounting homework and test taking. Fortunately, we have a board member who also lives in the nearby apartments who was able to capture some photos and get photo releases. That is part of being strategic with finding funding—being able to put a human face on the issues.

You have, in other conversations we have had, talked about the difference between what standard maps show in terms of broadband coverage and what coverage actually exists. Would you describe what you’ve seen and talk about what we can do to address the disparity between the maps and the actual situation impacting people who need broadband Internet access for work and learning?

One of the difficult national issues is no one has a clear picture of what the real extent of the infrastructure problem is. In short, the FCC maps are created by self-reporting from Internet providers. A provider considers an area covered if one home in a census block could potentially receive service. Self-reporting from providers results in tremendous over-reporting. Some organizations are working towards more accurate maps, but it is very labor intensive. Connected Nation is creating new maps. Their process is sending field engineers to drive every road in the county with equipment that looks for signals. (I’ve spent the morning riding around with two field engineers who were sent here to map coverage in Grayson County through funding provided through Texas Rural Funders.) The engineers take pictures of a variety of towers, power lines, etc. to figure out where actual coverage is. This is an area [where] I would like to see rural libraries take the lead. One of the first steps is to figure out if access is available. After that, we need to know if it is affordable. After that, we need to make sure devices are available. After that, the users have to have the digital literacy to use it. It is a complex problem with no quick fixes.

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

Connect people who have an interest in the issue to work together. Who has an interest? Schools, businesses, libraries, realtors, health care providers, non-profits, internetproviders, people who work from home, and families. Sometimes even people in this small town don’t agree on whether or not there is a problem. If they have robust service in their home, they don’t understand that a house down the block might not be able to get a connection. I think gathering all the stakeholders to discuss what the current status is would be a great start.  

What have I not asked that you hoped to cover?

The only thing that comes to mind is that speaking to you has brought into focus the importance of storytelling. This is such a dry subject that it is easy for people to glaze over. By telling the stories, I think we have more of a chance of motivating people to work towards solutions. We are developing a coverage map with interactive markers that will tell the story of the person who lives in that location. All of this talk about spectrum, bandwidth, and infrastructure is about real people living their lives and trying to do the best they can.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Dianne Connery (Part 1 of 2)

October 6, 2020

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Dianne Connery, director of the Pottsboro Area Library (in Texas) and a ShapingEDU colleague who has been a long-time proponent of universal broadband access, particularly for those in the community she serves. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s dive right into the substance of what you’re doing. What first drew you to the challenge of providing broadband Internet access for work and learning?

Dianne Connery

Working in a rural library, I talk to people every day who struggle with not having access to broadband. Their stories inspired me to work to improve conditions. In particular, I saw how young people do not have the same experiences and opportunities as kids in the suburbs and urban environments. I raised my kids in cities, and they were exposed to up-to-date technology. Many of the families do not have broadband in their homes, and parents are not tech savvy. The school system is struggling to provide up-to-date technology and training as well. It is not uncommon for teachers to lack access to broadband in their homes. I want young people to be on a level playing field when they graduate from high school.

Much of what I read and hear from colleagues focuses on the learners and on employees. You’ve raised an interesting part of the problem by mentioning the teachers and their own lack of access. Is the library doing anything to help instructors?

We were able to provide hot spots to some of the teachers although that is not a viable solution for some areas. The library recently received a $25,000 TSLAC [Texas State Library and Archives Commission] grant to provide internet in 40 homes. Teachers will be included, and the remainder are low-income families. A pending $232,000 IMLS [Institute of Museum and Library Services] grant will provide home internet for an additional 85 homes. This is an EBS spectrum dedicated to education. I am working closely with a local fixed wireless internet provider (TekWav) to find funding to build infrastructure that will eventually cover every student and teacher in the county.  On the digital literacy side of the issue, the library has provided access and training to the teachers/students to use our databases. This week I started a learning circle that is a group learning experience for Google Drive Essentials. I’m hoping to support some of the teachers to work more efficiently with available technology.

You’re opening a very interesting door here for readers who are interested in how to take a step-by-step approach to addressing even the smallest pieces of the broadband-access challenge, including the question of funding. Based on your experience pursuing and obtaining grants, what simple steps would you recommend for those who don’t know how to identify funders and create successful funding requests?

Much of our success is a result of building relationships with people/organizations who share the same goals. Especially since COVID-19, I’ve been actively participating in weekly calls where I am connecting with others who are working towards universal broadband. One helpful call is Gigabit Libraries Network. Through being on that call, I was invited to be a sub-awardee on a large global grant proposal that used different approaches in different locations as pilot projects. Ultimately, we did not receive that award, but through the relationship building, Gigabit Libraries Network emailed me and asked if I would like funding to deploy neighborhood access stations. They provided funding for three neighborhood access stations which are in the process of being constructed now. Additionally, they connected me with the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center [ITDRC]. ITDRC deployed a mobile Wi-Fi trailer to a parking lot outside of town in an area with limited connectivity. A few weeks ago, ITDRC installed a hot spot at a bait and tackle shop outside of town in an area with a lot of school kids who don’t have Internet at home. So, all of that happened as a result of just talking with other stakeholders. Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition is also helping me understand the whole issue from a legislative/advocacy perspective. Hopefully, the work we are doing there will result in federal funding to make things happen. So, just talk to people, and one connection leads to another. If you connect to the right person, the funding follows.

 Among the gems in the answer you just provided is this one: “..we did not receive that award, but through the relationship building…” Any thoughts to prospective fundraisers about how to react to the word “no” in response to a request for funding?

I give myself one day to be disappointed, and then [move] on to the next thing. Usually we have several grants in the pipeline at any one time, so we are already focused on the next horizon. Personally, I have also had the good fortune of being a grant reader for two organizations and have learned a lot from being on that side of the equation. Sometimes there is something particular the funder was looking for that, through no fault of your own, doesn’t match. It has helped me be a better grant writer. Also, I have learned to write case statements so that I am able to use content in future grant applications so the work was not wasted. 

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: “And I Am…”

September 13, 2020

Our most challenging times are generally the times when I am most drawn to the arts for comfort, solace, and inspiration. It is, therefore, no surprise to me that as I continue adapting to and working within shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to a coronavirus pandemic, I am spending inordinate amounts of time lately returning to and exploring, more deeply than ever before, authors I admire and adore—people like Scott Russell Sanders, who over a long period of time, has consistently produced lyrical, thoughtful essays and much more, including his newly-released collection, The Way of Imagination. I was drawn back to Sander’ A Private History of Awe a few weeks ago when intense, hours-long lightning and thunder storms reminded me of the stunning opening of that book, in which Sanders recalls being four years old, standing with his father, and watching lightning shatter a magnificent, stately old oak tree.

My re-immersion into the arts has also brought me into contact with the work of wonderful singer-songwriter-satirists like Roy Zimmerman, who in the most dazzling yet down-to-earth ways mixes humor, biting social satire, and a sense of humanity that runs deeper than any river upon which I have ever rafted. Watching videos that capture his work spanning nearly a couple of decades has given me a strong appreciation for what he does and offers. Seeing some of his latest videos—including new, powerfully poignant collaborations along the lines of what he does in “Driving While Black” with Clovice Lewis, Jr. and the two versions he has recorded of “The Liar Tweets Tonight”—suggests to me that no matter how much recognition he receives for his work, he will always deserve even more. And catching a few of his free online “Live from the Left Coast” concerts over the past few weeks on Facebook and YouTube makes me wonder what rock I have been sleeping under while he has been out there entertainingly, provocatively, and lovingly shining light so effectively where it needs to be shone, how I could have missed, for so long, wonderful songs like “I Approve This Message,” which is as funny, poignant, and moving a song as any “protest” song I have ever heard, with its litany of “I ams” beginning with “I am the doughnut lady, I am the civil engineer, I am the tractor salesman who is a stand-up comic at his own daughter’s wedding…” and becoming more engaging as the song continues.

What has been most rewarding and transformative, however, is spotting the artistry in places where I usually do not seek it, as in letters from friends and colleagues. Those letters, like the one I received via email a couple of days ago from someone who is married to a firefighter in a rural part of Northern California devastated by wildfires, absolutely floor me through their combination of honesty, poignancy, and razer-sharp focus. They remind me of the inner artist each of us carriers and so often fails to take the time to nurture. And they further awaken the storyteller in me who wants to highlight other people’s stories as much as, if not more than, I tend to highlight my own.

With that in mind, I contacted the friend for permission to reprint a lightly-edited version of her story here—edited not because it needed any sort of rewriting, but because she and her husband are incredibly private people who do not, in any way, want to call attention to themselves at a time when so many others need our attention and support. The edits, therefore, remove references by specific name to the people she is describing and to the area in which they are living. But even with those omissions, the piece stands out to me as an example of the “…and I am…” approach Zimmerman adopts in singing about those people we mistakenly think of as “average Americans” when, in reality, they are so much more than the word “average” can ever begin to convey:

“It’s been an absolute life-changing devastation for almost everyone in our lives. And it’s so layered it’s hard to stay focused these days. My husband’s parents lost absolutely everything. He and I and his sister had a lot of belongings there too because we all still had our two “bedrooms” to stay in while visiting and store stuff. Not to mention all their childhood stuff. All the pictures and mementos. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of items and equipment and vehicles. They had been in that house for over 30 years. When the house got surrounded and his parents had left, my husband got there right after and tried to turn the sprinklers on, but the power was out, so the water pump wouldn’t work. My heart aches for him having to watch it all go up. And then he had to watch his aunt and uncle’s house go up. His dad’s sister and husband’s. And then watch all of our friends lose all of their homes. He was working with four of our close friends who are also firefighters, and they all lost their homes too. I believe two lives (an older gentleman who wouldn’t leave his home, and a lady who got trapped) and 150+ houses were lost so far.

“So much has been lost. There are so many displaced families and people. So many people with just the shirts on their backs. And, sadly, many people down there couldn’t afford fire insurance, so that adds a whole other problem to the list of problems. Almost everyone we know with family and friends is completely homeless. So many animals lost, too, which is absolutely heartbreaking. Many died and many are just missing. Thankfully, people from local agencies have gone down, collected, and are housing a lot of displaced animals until they can reunite.

“It’s an absolute chaotic nightmare. But there’s some things to be thankful for as well. My mother and her husband have not lost anything so far. And I’m so happy everyone we know and love is safe and alive. Stuff is just stuff. Lives matter more and cannot be replaced. If that had happened in the middle of the night on that one way in-one way out creek road, in the dark, people confused from sleep, in a fire going 50+ mph, it could have been even worse. When we lose one or two people in town it’s horrific. But to think we could have 20-30+ people missing or dead right now would make it so much worse. And to see everyone help one another and pull together brings hope. We can always rebuild.

“There’s so much hurt right now, I’m trying to just stay focused on my husband. Because he’s my priority, and I know how much family and friends mean to him, and he’s the biggest softie sweetie in the world. He’s being exceptionally hard on himself, feeling like as a firefighter he should have been able to save everything or anything. Feels like he’s failed his whole family and all our friends. But he’s so exhausted he hasn’t had a moment to process or grieve in any way. And everyone grieves differently, so I just have to give him time. He worked for over 40 hours straight before finally getting four hours of sleep. Hopefully, he will get a little more tonight.”

I devour Sanders’ work. I sink into Zimmerman’s music. And I immerse myself into my friend’s powerful description of how the current wildfires are affecting her and the people around her. And because they all are so compelling in their ability to capture essential truths and inspire empathy, Zimmerman’s refrain “…and I am…” makes me more of whom I am than I otherwise would be.

–N.B.: This is the twentieth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Arlene Krebs (Part 2 of 2)

September 8, 2020

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Arlene Krebs, a ShapingEDU colleague who is consulting in the arts, education, and technology and was honored as a California Broadband Champion in 2014. Arlene and I serve together as members of the organizing committee for ShapingEDU’s “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s stay on Loaves, Fishes and Computers for a moment. What role did you play in establishing/nurturing it?

I have worked hand-in-hand with the Founder and Executive Director [Christian Mendelsohn]. He came to my University office in 2011 to ask for advice on funding and grant writing. (I am the author of four editions of The Distance Learning Funding $ourcebook: A Guide to Foundation, Corporate & Government Support for Telecommunications and the New Media—last edition was 2000, so you can see the “old” references to new media). So, Christian asked for my help. I began with the first Board of Directors—I have served on nonprofit boards for 40 years now—and I began grantwriting for LFC. Since 2011, I’ve helped bring in nearly $700,000 in funds to support his organization, which has kept it afloat. Since SIP [sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic], we’ve distributed over 1,500 computers to those in need—low-income families, seniors, individuals, veterans, people with disabilities. I just completed eight grant applications for Loaves, Fishes & Computers, totaling $149,500 in requests for our work, of which we’ve heard from two funding agencies, awarding us $50,000 (our request and its maximum allotment) to distribute even more computers.

Another aspect concerns my work with the Central Coast Broadband Consortium—which I helped to found—and, being part of the statewide initiatives to close the digital divide, and the resulting grant opportunities through California’s Public Utilities Commission and also the state’s Broadband Council.

So many lovely threads to follow here. Let’s take this down to an individual level. Would you mind telling a success story in terms of how Loaves, Fishes, and Computers affected one participant or one participant’s family?

Hold on: I will cut and paste a recipient’s testimonial.

Fantastic! Thanks. I do want to get us to the current situation and how it’s giving us opportunities, but first want to get back to the Central Coast Broadband Consortium connection.  “When people want to find out what’s happening on broadband in Monterey County, they call Krebs,” CETF [California Emerging Technology Fund] President and CEO Sunne Wright McPeak wrote when you were recognized as a Broadband Champion in 2014. What were some of the most rewarding experiences you had that led to that level of recognition among your peers?

Founding the Wireless Education & Technology Center, organizing the Wireless Community & Mobile Users Conference more or less annually from 2003-2015, in which we gathered some of the true pioneers in the field of WiFi, Broadband, and Applications who represented the tech, business, nonprofit, and education “industries,” and who envisioned what policy, financing, technical challenges and more to overcome to make nation-wide broadband a reality. Also, I was invited by Cisco in 2004 to attend its Global Education & Broadband conference in Stockholm and Oslo (convened during the same time as the Nobel Prize ceremonies; Lev Gonick was another US representative of 10 of us, and I the only woman). At this summit, I learned about how government initiatives, funding, policy, and support in other countries were solving these issues, but not here. In the U.S., we have private companies providing infrastructure and services, so without private and some public sources of monies—in grants and investments—broadband infrastructure has lagged here. So, in 2004, Stockholm was connecting all of its public housing to broadband, Portugal had a nation-wide plan, Ethiopia was seeking ways to provide city-wide access etc. It opened my eyes to the possibilities—and inspired my work and commitments.

The ShapingEDU “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative clearly has grown out of the challenges we’re seeing as learners across the country—and those facilitating their learning—have made a sudden pivot from mostly-onsite to primarily online learning in an incredibly short period of time. What opportunities do you see this shelter-in-place period providing for those supporting universal broadband access throughout the United States?

Over the past few weeks, there have been numerous articles in our local press and nationally about this persistent challenge of providing the tools and the connectivity to those without access. It is especially potent now where “remote learning” is at the forefront of the national discussion. How over 700,000 students in California alone do not have adequate tools or connectivity, how in our Monterey County 17,000 students of 78,000 K-12 students, do not have access. So it is a two-fold dilemma. The first is the economic, geographic, racial, social justice and digital divide; the other side of the coin, so to speak, is access to education (as well as access to health, social services, government & employment resources) on the Internet. As for distance learning, as I mentioned, I’ve been involved in this since the early 1980s with the first nationwide educational satellite networks, to two-way interactive videoconferencing to today’s online arena, and am a founding member of the United States Distance Learning Association, a nonprofit organization that brings together the business, government and education (K-12, higher ed, lifelong learning) arenas.

I used to travel this country teaching about distance learning, the professional development that’s required for K-12 teachers and higher ed, the tools that are necessary, the time and money commitments, the assessing of the skills that a learner/student needs to bring to the table, so to speak, to participate fully and effectively. What we have now is a “hodge-podge” emergency-laden response, so I am glad and grateful these issues are at the forefront, but concurrently distressed that we have 1) not solved the technology and broadband infrastructure issues and 2) that distance learning potentials are being met in a haphazard, uncoordinated manner that is leaving many students at the wayside—either turned off to what their teachers are so desperately and heroically trying to provide without proper professional development and the use of readily available curricula and distance ed resources—or students who are excluded because of no technology or access.

Yes, the issues are glaringly at the forefront right now. However, with the uncertainties festered by the global pandemic and the global economic downturn, I fear that broadband and technology access may be pushed aside once again for those who are not empowered. Broadband will continue to be provided for those in urban areas and for the workers of global and national corporations/agencies—but not for those who need it, too. 

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

Oh, this is too long a response, but: 

  1. Learn what’s going on in your region. Who are the service providers, how can local government negotiate with them to provide access to your community?
  2. Ditto, research which organizations are actively working on these issues, school districts, county offices of education, libraries, local business community that requires broadband to survive and expand.
  3. At the state level, find out what policy and funding the state is offering. Does it have a broadband policy? Who is overseeing this—and, by the way, just about every state does have a policy—how can you get involved?
  4. At the federal level, see what the FCC is doing—its National Broadband Plan—what does its state, what is its status?
  5. Learn what organizations involved in these issues are doing—for example, the United States Distance Learning Association, COSN [the Consortium for School Networking], ISTE [the International Society for Technology in Education], Silicon Valley, the Wireless Communications Alliance here in California, these are examples of the kinds of government, business, nonprofit, education, telecom providers are doing. For example, Comcast, AT&T, and Spectrum Charter each have initiatives to provide monthly low-cost Internet (generally $10-$15 per month).

In other words, research, explore, involve yourself. Collaborate, Cooperate and Activate!

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Arlene Krebs (Part 1 of 2)

September 8, 2020

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Arlene Krebs, a ShapingEDU colleague who is consulting in the arts, education, and technology and was honored as a California Broadband Champion in 2014. Arlene and I serve together as members of the organizing committee for ShapingEDU’s “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s start by setting some contemporary context for our conversation. During the recent week-long ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man virtual summer camp [July 2020], you talked about your evolving view of the term “digital divide,” and later circled back to broaden those comments. Care to summarize that here?

I’ve been working in this arena all my life, with initiatives to assist the most underserved and underrepresented members of our nation…be it in education-teaching, in working with other pioneers in the field of distance learning to assure equitable access to learning resources, teachers/faculty, and participation, and when the Internet “kicked off” in the late 1990s, to help expand opportunities for wired and wireless connectivity for Internet access. 

When everyone began to call it the “digital divide,” it first meant—was understood as—access to technology and connectivity—be it DSL, satellite communications, or—as it evolved—“high-speed bandwidth.” So at that point it became clearer, as I worked in this arena, that technology and bandwidth are part of the solution. Having the financial means to acquire technology and pay for Internet access was another part of the equation. So I began using the term “the economic and digital divide.”

As I worked in this arena and helped to form the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, and organized annual regional conferences—“The Wireless Community & Mobile User Conference”—I became more aware, learned from others, that access is more than money and technology and connectivity. It became clearer that the telecom providers were not going to wire or provide connectivity in areas that did not produce an ROI, or where the geographic terrain is too difficult. These are referred to as underserved areas. So then it became a geographic, economic and digital divide. As the push for broadband evolved, as the FCC, cities, states, and our own California became more involved in policy and public awareness, I realized that the divide is a geographic, economic, racial, social justice, and digital divide. Today, not having access to the tools, the connectivity, the resources to participate fully in our increasingly digital and virtual culture, is a form of exclusion. It is a “locked-out” form of denying equitable participation in our democracy.

I’m going to come back to much of what you just said to explore it a bit more fully, but want to step back a bit for a moment. You mentioned your lifelong interest in this topic. Was there any one personal incident/experience that initially drew you into becoming an advocate for Internet access?

Yes: education and distance learning, I am a pioneer in that arena. When I left my home in New York City to come here for one year to help kickstart distance learning at the new university—California State University, Monterey Bay—it had written a vision statement (summarized here) that included “serving the most underrepresented people in our region and to use technology as a catalyst to transform people’s lives.” So I left my work in lifelong learning and as a Communications professor working with underrepresented urban residents, to pick up the banner, so to speak, of underrepresented farm and hospitality workers in this region.

Sounds like a great example of the “follow your heart” idea. What has been most encouraging to you during all those years of activism on this issue?

I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve had an amazing, fulfilling career that encompasses the education, business, and non-profit arenas. I did my graduate work in the 1970s on the Impact of Communications Technology on Culture—with the launch of the first communications satellites (1976) and its applications for interactive videoconferencing for education. This was the “beginning of modern distance learning”—as opposed to radio, one-way broadcast TV, and snail-mail usages previously. So participating in and watching how education, business, and nonprofits—particularly in the arts—began and continue to use technology and connectivity is especially heartwarming—though not without lingering issues. Moreover, I began working with one nonprofit [Loaves, Fishes & Computers] that focuses on computer refurbishing and digital literacy for underrepresented communities, and this, too, has been very fulfilling. I am Chair Emerita for it, and continue to envision its future and how we can assist for 11 years now. Also fulfilling.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Awe, Night Skies, and Inspiration

August 16, 2020

Loudly-rattling windows in our home suggest a raging conversation between those windows and the howling wind. An unexpected downpour of rain starting at 3:30 a.m. offers relief to our thirsty garden and sends water flowing in streams though gutters along the street. Lightning ripping through the San Francisco fog illuminates the west-facing rooms of our home, looking out toward the Pacific Ocean. Thunder careens across San Francisco Bay, roars through the city’s numerous hills and valleys, and reverberates for several very long seconds before fading, only to be followed by more bursts of lightning and thunder.

Memories flow from and through the unexpected, rare summer storm here—one unlike any I can recall experiencing in nearly 35 years of living in the city. Memories of being awakened long before dawn to watch and hear and revel in similar primal screams and bursts of nature from hotel rooms in Austin while I was there to attend conferences with cherished colleagues long before any of us imagined a time when adapting to shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to a coronavirus pandemic would become a way of life for us. Memories of pleasurable, complete immersion in and surrender to similar storms blazing across mid-summer skies in the Tuscan hills surrounding Florence and Siena. Memories of being so overwhelmed by a mid-evening autumn deluge accompanied by lightning and thunder while I was driving on a poorly-lit rural road outside of West Palm Beach, Florida, that my wife and I decided to pull off to the side of the road and wait it out because we couldn’t see far enough to continue driving in those conditions.

A word comes to mind as those memories flow into one cohesive moment: “awe.” And that, in turn, inspires another memory: first encountering the work of one of my favorite essayists, Scott Russell Sanders, more than a decade ago through his book A Private History of Awe. Being completely captivated by his recollection of being wrapped in his father’s arms during a booming blowing thunderstorm and being there to see a magisterial oak “snapped like a stick, its top shattered on the ground, a charred streak running down the wet gray stub of the trunk,” I raced through that book. And have, many times since then, returned to reread large chunks of that lovely, literary exploration broken into sections under the subtitles “Fire,” “Air,” “Water,” and “Earth.”

“Awe” is not a word we seem to hear or use very much these days. “Anger,” “discord,” “strife,” and social and political “gridlock” are much more frequently the terms and topics around which our conversations are centered. We frame conversations as either-or choices around “personal rights” (e.g., the “right” to not wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic) or “public health” (the need to slow the spread of the coronavirus so hundreds of thousands of people won’t die—as is already the case).  Or around the need to “flatten the fear” because we have already allegedly flattened the pandemic (a proposal hard to defend at a time when the death rate in hotspots in the United States have again been increasing). “Awe” is not something I experience when I see colleagues inaccurately using the word “fear” rather than the term “social responsibility” or “commitment to community” in response to our choices to wash our hands, wear masks, and, as much as we can, engage in social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus; some of us believe it’s among the options we can be pursuing to collectively work together to address a tragically challenging situation that has already killed more than 775,000 people globally and more than 170,000 in the United States in less than a year.   

“Awe” is not a word we seem to hear or use very much these days. “Anger,” “discord,” “strife,” and social and political “gridlock” are much more frequently the terms and topics around which our conversations are centered. We frame conversations as either-or choices around “personal rights” (e.g., the “right” to not wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic) or “public health” (the need to slow the spread of the coronavirus so hundreds of thousands of people won’t die—as is already the case).  Or around the need to “flatten the fear” because we have already allegedly flattened the pandemic (a proposal hard to defend at a time when the death rate in hotspots in the United States have again been increasing). “Awe” is not something I experience when I see colleagues inaccurately using the word “fear” rather than the term “social responsibility” or “commitment to community” in response to our choices to wash our hands, wear masks, and, as much as we can, engage in social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus; some of us believe it’s among the options we can be pursuing to collectively work together to address a tragically challenging situation that has already killed more than 775,000 people globally and more than 170,000 in the United States in less than a year.   

I feel sadness—not awe or fear—when I see a friend lose his mother to COVID-19 and know that if we had all taken a different approach to the coronavirus, she might still be alive. I feel sadness, disbelief, and frustration when I see a skeptical member of my extended family ended up close to death in a hospital intensive care unit because he didn’t see the need to take any sort of protection to avoid succumbing to the coronavirus, and am further saddened and frustrated knowing he is now facing the possibility of a year-long “recovery” period that may still leave him permanently disabled. And I feel sadness, disbelief, and frustration knowing that another skeptical member of my extended family who, after testing positive, blithely ignored the likelihood that she would spread the virus, so ended up gifting it to two additional generations of relatives in that one household. What makes these up-close exposures to the human impact of COVID-19 as well as to the economic tragedies so many people are suffering difficult to accept are comments I read from wonderful friends who have a much different view of the situation than I do—insisting that we’re making a mistake by not letting nature run its course so that we, collectively, develop herd immunity (a term that bothers me tremendously because it seems to dehumanize the situation by hiding individual deaths behind a term that groups individuals into “herds” rather than members of our communities). Their contention is that we’re causing more harm through economic devastation than the coronavirus causes through illness and death. From their perspective, the high unemployment rate—impacting millions of people—could have been avoided and still could be remedied if we reacted to that rather than reacting to the “small percentage” of deaths caused by COVID-19.

So, we’re stuck on opposite sides of what appears, for now, to be an uncrossable chasm: millions of Americans devastated by loss of jobs/income compared to “only a small percentage” of people who have died (775,000 globally/170,000 in the U.S.) as a result of contracting COVID-19—their perception that “only a small percentage of people” will die from COVID-19 and my perception that hundreds of thousands of deaths is a national/global tragedy requiring the best, most creative efforts we can pursue collectively to try to avoid additional deaths and avoid the pain and suffering millions of people are facing in the United States because we can’t, legislatively or in any other way, find approaches that address both sides of that awful divide.

Hours have passed since that pre-dawn combination of wind and lightning and thunder drew me to a window, where I stood transfixed. And months have passed since I was, along with so many others, drawn into a much-altered world I had not taken the time to ever contemplate. I’m back to the concept of “awe” and all that it suggests about us being able to notice—and to react to in the most productive, positive, inspired way possible. To remember that there are forces far bigger than we can ever hope to be. To remember that the momentary, tragically painful challenges that produce life-changing results (e.g., loss of cherished loved ones regardless of how small or large a percentage of our communities those people were; loss of the income needed to survive in a wealthy country that can’t find ways to guarantee minimum subsistence for every member—every member—of its communities; acquiring permanent disabilities that in their own way obviously add to the economic challenges we are facing) require that we set aside the differences that divide us so we can work together to find solutions based on our belief that we are stronger and more awesome together than we will ever be alone.

It is now midafternoon. The windows are no longer rattling. The lightning and thunder from that hours-long storm have finally subsided. Clouds and the sun seem to be engaged in a playful dance that sends dappled light upon leaves shimmering in the maturity of a midsummer afternoon. Offering hints of the beauty that surrounds us. The beauty that needs to be nurtured to be sustained. The beauty that reminds us that numbers tell only part of the story of what sometimes makes our world awe-inspiring when we look to something bigger than ourselves and, against all odds and against all likelihood of failure, embrace it.

–N.B.: This is the nineteenth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Adventure Camp

July 27, 2020

Note from Paul: Tom Haymes, my fellow ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence, posted this set of Learning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp reflections on his IdeaSpaces site earlier today, and has given permission for me to share them here. My own reflections are posted elsewhere on my blog.

It’s a scary world out there right now. Pandemics, politics, and economics form their own kind of “PPE” for which we have to all gird ourselves with a different kind of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) than those who are fighting Covid. Like those heroes, we have to face our fears and slay often unseen and ephemeral monsters. And like them our greatest enemy is ourselves and the systems human societies have created. To face this enemy we need a group of diverse heroes, each with a small piece of the map forward in their possession. That is exactly what came together last week at Learning[Hu]man, a summer camp unlike any I’ve ever been to before (or was it?).

The subject of monsters and adventuring seemed to come up again and again this week. This is ironic because the first time I was exposed to Dungeons and Dragons was at a summer camp in West Texas in 1978. That was, ironically, also the first time I was confronted by the real monsters our society struggles with even today. One day a counselor intervened to stop a group of locals from the neighboring town who were harassing some teenage female campers. That counselor happened to be black. That night a long line of cars and trucks streamed into the camp to send a message. We called the sheriff. He was with them. A hundred scared teenagers spent the night in the camp mess hall. Fortunately, the counselor they were seeking had returned to Austin and the night passed without further incident.

I have been reflecting back on that night a lot lately. The last six months have felt a lot like being confined to a mess hall while a messy world swirls around outside the door and the forces of reaction make forays into the camp of civilization. Unfortunately, in our case, the monsters aren’t going home. There are too many and they live among us.

ShapingEDU has always been a community shaped by optimism. Optimism, not for technology, but for the human creativity it unleashes. This week that community resembled nothing more than an adventuring party assembling for perhaps our greatest challenges. If there was a consistent theme that emerged it was that the human challenges far outweighed the technology ones. It became clear that it was time to strap on our magic swords and dust off our spell books to slay the human prejudices that perpetuate inequities in both our society and within the very educational institutions that we have devoted our lives to.

Like every adventure party I’ve ever been a part of there was the initial meeting of the minds, usually over a beer at Lev Gonick’s (aka Mike Callahan’s) virtual tavern. New networks were formed and maps were laid out. Bryan Alexander quickly asked us to imagine what kind of monsters we might face and taught us how to challenge them. The campfires on Digital Equity, Social, and Racial Justice and Digital Education and Tribal Rights showed us some of the real monsters of inequity and access that lock out whole groups of potential wizards whose voices are stifled before they learn their first spell, depriving us of an army of creative forces. My own session took us questing and showed how we could see all kinds of stories as a form of hero’s quest and, perhaps most importantly, that others are likely to perceive those quests quite differently. Our scouting parties reimagined quests from a History class, to preparing our faculty for Covid Fall, to reimagining a Liberal Arts graduate program. You can see their work here.

Conversketch Illustration of Digital Narratives Session

One of the key things I took away from my early years with Dungeons and Dragons was an understanding of the essential nature of good systems design. As Dungeon Master (DM) it was your job to craft a system that channeled the quest. DMs forget at their peril that the system has to work for the world to make sense. On Friday night Ruben Puentedura turned us into Dungeon Masters by asking us to create systems to overcome the plague of black swans raining down upon our kingdoms. His parties were given a choice of ten alternate future university spells and then assigned a second. He then tested our systems by throwing an unexpected swan into our midst. This generated creative explosions that forced us to pull together strands from our week of preparing and training. Common strands that ran through virtually all of the responses were the strengths to be found through diversity and community augmented by the magic of our technology and imaginations. We quickly saw through how these could guide us through the whitest of waters.

At every step along the way this week it was clear that the demons that we face, collectively and individually, are distinctly human. Nature, whether in the form of disease or climate, merely acts as a catalyst for exposing the cracks in our systems, from poverty to educational access to a lack of inclusion. It’s funny how our societies resemble a bad (pre-CGI) science fiction film in which all the aliens and monsters are really humans in disguise.

Taking on these systemic and conceptual demons requires a hard look in the mirror and the ability to try on different faces. Technology provides the mirror and the masks. It can be used to hide but it can also be used as a powerful “seeing” spell. Digital technology is at its root about being able to see, whether that be in the form of crunching vast swathes of complex data in order to see patterns in the spread of disease or rethinking systemic paradigms through realistic simulations that force different lenses upon us.  This week at Learning[Hu]man was fundamentally about seeing the world as it is and what it can be. It showed that as a group we have powerful magic including spells such as “Light,” “Network,” and “Show” that are critical in understanding the nature of the systemic monsters we face. At the end of the day, our community recognizes that the power of our magic is to give that magic to others.

This week we assembled a diverse group of adventuring parties, ready to ride forth and tame the systemic dragons. For in a final irony, it is clear that the systems themselves are a technology. They are dragons to be ridden, not swans to be slain. Our systems need to have a technological and conceptual “Light” spell thrown upon them to reveal them as Ourselves, to be reconstructed as only we can imagine them to be.

Tom Haymes, July 27, 2020


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