An oft-repeated and rather poignant joke among some of my colleagues is becoming a thing of the past: those who wish they could but are unable to attend conferences—specifically those sponsored by the American Library Association—have long tried to keep up with onsite participants’ reports via Twitter, using the conference hashtag as well as #ALALeftBehind as points of connect. But more than a few of us are realizing that we can do more than sit by the virtual sidelines and watch everyone else have fun onsite, as I confirmed through a spur-of-the-moment experiment people attending the annual ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) Chapter Leaders Conference in Crystal City, Virginia a few days ago while I stayed home.
I’ve been on the other side of this left-behind fence many times, as I’ve noted through articles about participating onsite in backchannel conversations; ASTD colleague David Kelly has also written eloquently about Twitter, backchannels, and conferences. Several of us attending the annual ASTD International Conference & Exposition over the past couple of years have, as part of our Chapter Leader Day activities, reached out from the conference via short, live sessions to connect onsite colleagues with left-behind colleagues; we were attempting not only to reach out to and connect with those who stayed home, but to demonstrate how easy it could be for ASTD chapter leaders (or anyone else) to bring their local meetings to a larger audience through active Twitter feeds as well as via free tools including Google Hangouts and Skype. But I hadn’t been part of the #leftbehind gang until changing circumstances this year unexpectedly caused me, for the first time since 2008, to miss a couple of those onsite annual events that mean so much to me in terms of keeping up with my communities of learning and the ASTD colleagues who make up one very important part of my personal learning network (PLN).
The idea of trying to actively participate in the 2013 ASTD Chapter Leaders Conference via Twitter began taking shape when I saw a tweet from an onsite colleague expressing regret that I couldn’t be there for our annual joint presentation on nonprofit basics for chapter leaders. I jokingly responded, via Twitter, that I actually was there and that he had probably simply missed me up to that moment.
Transforming an offhand joke into the experiment quickly took shape as I thought about how I’ve been inspired to find new ways to reach out to members of my communities of learning and personal learning networks through the Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) course that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are currently facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program. Less than 48 hours earlier, in fact, another ASTD colleague who is not in that massive open online course (MOOC) had stumbled into an #xplrpln session via Twitter, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to toy with the idea of doing the same thing via Twitter, but with a bit more planning and more deliberate actions designed to foster two-way participation.
It didn’t take long for the experiment to produce wonderful—although somewhat limited—results. Using a Twitter management tool (I defaulted to HootSuite.com, but Twubs.com and Tweetchat.com are among the tools that could have worked just as easily) at the end of the first day of the conference, I skimmed the feed late that evening, retweeted a few of the more interesting items just as I would have done if I had actually been onsite, and added comments, knowing that this had the potential not only to inspire interactions with onsite attendees but also draw in a few of my own followers on Twitter if they either retweeted or responded to those late-night posts.
By the next morning, a couple of onsite colleagues had responded. And a little later, during the second day of that two-day conference, a couple of onsite conference attendees actually retweeted the notes I had retweeted. I continued to participate throughout the day as time allowed. 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. The positive aspects of this are obvious: with a bit more planning and organization, onsite and offsite participants could be interacting at far more significant levels than the limited amount of interaction this experiment nurtured. And the obvious weakness of this plan is that the small number of onsite participants tweeting summaries of sessions made it difficult to participate in more than a few of those sessions at this level. But it was an interesting start—one that offers a lot of promise for any of us who want to nurture our communities of learning and personal learning networks in every way possible. And I certainly felt far less left behind and far more connected as a trainer-teacher-learner than would otherwise have been the case.