ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting: Bringing Offsite Colleagues Into the Room

With informal help and encouragement from our staff colleagues in the American Library Association (ALA), several of us successfully managed, this afternoon, to reduce the number of people “left behind” during the current ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting being held here in Chicago. And, in the process, we produced a learning object designed to help members of ALA and other associations achieve similarly rewarding results.

ala_leftbehind“ALALeftBehind” has been a bittersweet movement for quite a while now: those unable to be onsite for the Midwinter Meeting held early each year and the Annual Conference held early each summer contact onsite Association members via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms for news about what is happening onsite. They also, via the #ALALeftBehind hashtag, comment on how much they wish they could be part of the onsite action.

This was the year we reduced the onsite-online gap a bit more. Largely thanks to the efforts of ALA staff, those who could not attend the conference received tips about resources that could help connect them to onsite activities and colleagues. That commitment to offsite members as well as to the onsite members who could afford the time and cost of traveling to Chicago inspired at least a few of us onsite to seek ways to support that effort and find ways to further draw our offsite colleagues into the onsite rooms.

ALAMW15--LogoAs we were meeting (during the first day of the conference) in the Midwinter Meeting Networking Uncommons—a wonderful space meant to facilitate unplanned encounters and conversations at a significant level—a few of us were expressing the same sort of comments expressed by those left behind: sadness that familiar faces weren’t present for Midwinter 2015 conversations. One person who is particularly important to us is our training-teaching-learning colleague Maurice Coleman, who brings us together online through his biweekly T is for Training conversations/podcasts and has been making audio-recordings of live face-to-face T is for Training sessions at ALA Midwinter Meetings and Annual Conferences for the past few years. Without Maurice onsite, we realized we would miss our semi-annual face-to-face session—until we decided that if we couldn’t bring Maurice and “T” into the Uncommons and the rest of the conference, we would bring the Uncommons and the conference to Maurice.

We were lucky enough to be sitting with Jenny Levine, the ALA staff member who remains the driving force behind the Uncommons (and much more), as our plan began to develop; she quickly confirmed a reservation for the final 30-minute slot remaining for formal use of the Uncommons during the 2015 Midwinter Meeting. We then contacted Maurice and a few other T is for Training colleagues who were offsite to see whether they wanted to participate in a unique T is for Training session via a Google Hangout rather than the usual audio-only format we use through TalkShoe.

There was a conscious decision that we weren’t going to make the Hangout appear too well-rehearsed, and we also agreed that we would rely on our improvisational skills to address any unexpected problems that came up during the session. Having experimented with blended onsite-online conference attendance via Twitter and blended learning opportunities via Google Hangouts, I saw this as an opportunity to pull a session together with minimal planning, preparation, and rehearsal so that #alaleftbehind colleagues would see how easily similar gatherings could be arranged while also seeing what can go wrong with this sort of impromptu erasing of the Left Behind brand.

Virtual Maurice Coleman before he joined the live Hangout

Virtual Maurice Coleman before he joined the live Hangout

That’s exactly how it played out during the live session earlier this afternoon. The opening segment with guest host Kate Kosturski, T is for Training colleague Jules Shore, and me in the Networking Uncommons began right on time and featured a decent quality of audio and video. Our first (not-unexpected) glitch occurred when Maurice was unable to join the Hangout in its recorded version, so came in through a virtual back door: my tablet. Figuring that low-quality Maurice was better than no Maurice, I took the only action I could imagine taking: I held the tablet up to the webcam and hoped for the best. Watching the archived recording shows that it was a gamble that paid off: the audio and video feed captured from the tablet was even better in the recording than it was for those of us in the Uncommons—which doesn’t mean it was great (far from it), but as a spur-of-the-moment solution, it worked. Better yet, it added the sort of levity to the session that is such a valuable and valued part of all T is for Training sessions.

The experiment gained momentum about12 minutes into the session with Jill Hurst-Wahl, another key part of the T is for Training community, was able to join the Hangout from her home. After a moment or two of trouble-shooting, she was completely integrated into the exchange and the conversation resumed where it had stopped when Maurice first came in via the tablet.

Our moment of success came just after the halfway point, when Maurice was able to switch from the tablet feed to the version visible in the archived recording. And, for the remainder of the program, we once again showed how a conference room can quickly expand from being a small onsite space to a space that extend across entire states.

It could have been better; we should have been able to include other participants via the chat function in Google Hangouts. But as an example of how low-cost, high-impact technology can help us redefine our meeting and our learning spaces and how it can further reduce the size of our Left Behind groups, it offers an effective case study. And it will continue reducing that Left Behind group person by person as more people view the recording and use it to create their own no-longer-left-behind experiences.

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