ASTD International Conference 2012: M-Learning, M-Conferencing, and Expanding Social Learning Centers

Let’s temporarily set aside the debates about whether mobile learning (m-learning) is up-and-coming or already here and focus on a different part of the equation: learning through m-conferencing (which, as we’ll see, provides an immersive and tremendously rewarding form of m-learning).

Attending Good to Great  and Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All author Jim Collins’s keynote address last week at the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) 2012 International Conference & Exposition in Denver, I was viscerally struck by how seamless our onsite-online interactions have become.

Even before Collins began speaking early Monday morning to an audience of thousands of conference attendees in one of those cavernous, impersonal auditoriums that is designed to focus attention on the stage to the exclusion of all that is occurring around us, those of us with laptops, smartphones, and tablets were using a Twitter backchannel (#ASTD2012) to begin documenting what was happening—for ourselves as well as for colleagues who couldn’t be present for the onsite presentation.

When Collins began speaking, we tweeted out the highlights as we saw them. And one obvious sign that m-learning via m-conferencing is already firmly in place—at least with ASTD members—came when we realized that we were a large enough group to overload the superb wireless connections and 3G/4G networks to which we had access. Even though the Twitter feed was somewhat slow and clunky—at times even completely frozen because so many of us were trying to tweet at the same time—we somehow managed levels of engagement unimaginable even two or three years ago. As we were tweeting out our bite-sized notes and attempting to keep up with Collins’s completely engaging presentation, we also had the much-desired learner’s reinforcement of seeing other tweets that captured thoughts we otherwise would not have noticed.

In the act of retweeting those items we ourselves initially missed, a couple of amazing things happened. Each of us was able to create a more complete record of what was happening than any of us could have done on our own without simply recording the entire event. And many of us overcame the physical limitations enforced by seating arrangements in a setting so largely overwhelming; we were able to interact with each other in the moment and much later.

By attending, tweeting, and interacting at that level, what we found and continue to find is that a community of learning otherwise impossible to develop comes to life virtually on its own. Seeing other tweeters’ comments made me aware of their presence. And through the serendipity that often comes with attendance at large conferences, I found myself unintentionally and quite gratefully making face-to-face connections with those I somewhat impersonally encountered through that blended onsite-online social learning center that Twitter, tweeting, and mobile devices combined to helped create.

Because many of us who were tweeting and retweeting became curious about those tweeters we hadn’t formally met face to face, we began asking well-connected colleagues to help us identify each other. The payoff—as is often the case when social media tools are used effectively and judiciously—was magnificent. In a couple of cases, colleagues helped identify fellow tweeters who were sitting in sessions I was attending so that face-to-face connections became possible. But in an experience that is increasingly becoming common, I also gleefully found myself at small receptions and even a small dinner where those whose tweets I had been following were also present and available to extend the overall conference conversations.

That certainly doesn’t seem like such a big deal for those who have been at large conferences or using social media tools since the beginning of time. But the fact that this sort of unexpected meeting could occur at a conference with 9,000 participants who are connected through their mobile devices is as visceral an example as we’re going to see about how much the world has changed. How the old concept of “six degrees of separation” has quickly been reduced to nearly “no degrees of separation” in our highly connected world. How accessible our means of communication and our tech tools have made us.  And how effectively this form of m-conferencing leads us right back to m-learning as we learn from each other in the moment. And beyond.

Next: Cliff Atkinson on the Backchannel

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