Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Flipping Scary Stories

Going to summer camp was something I thought was long behind me—particularly at a time when I am joining so many others in following shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic. But I had that wrong. I’m back at camp. A newly-organized virtual summer camp. As a participant, facilitator, and occasional volunteer monitoring and fostering online conversations via Slack during the week-long Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp.

It’s only one day old, and already it is an extraordinary experience produced by leadership and volunteers within a community of dreamer-doer-drivers who consistently demonstrate an unbelievable ability to plan and bring to fruition the most complex of endeavors within incredibly brief periods of time.

Some of the more than 2,000 of us who have registered joined the opening ceremony around the virtual campfire last night, and more of us continued to participate today through a series of dynamic, highly-interactive sessions featuring colleagues and a variety of visionary guests working together to shape the future of learning in the digital era. The theme for our first full day together has been “flipping scary stories,” and there certainly are plenty of scary stories to tell and flip. Virtual campers began the day with some early-morning online Mess Hall interactions, then gathered around the flag pole for an inspiring keynote presentation by Arizona State University President Michael Crow, who spoke eloquently and movingly of this moment in time when we have a chance for the first-ever full release of human potential through egalitarian access to education. A panel discussion on “the next normal” in learning—“the one we’re creating together” in response to the tremendously scary stories that are continuing to unfold around us—kept all of us standing virtually at attention for the remainder of that early-morning gathering.

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

We then went to our own smaller online camp sites to choose from more than a dozen 50-minute sessions slotted into two consecutive time periods for the next couple of hours; among the choices were “Learning Futures: Avoiding the Zombie Apocalypse to Create the Brave New World”; “Using Data Science, Data, and the Power of Community to Address the Student Loan Crisis”; and the “Using Design Thinking to Close the Digital Divide” session I co-facilitated with ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence Lisa Gustinelli, FutureWe Founder Jonathan Nalder, and educational technologist Gordon Shupe (centered on the ShapingEDU “Connected for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative that is beginning to attract attention and support from a variety of collaborators). Other subsequent Learning(Hu)Man activities throughout the morning and early afternoon gave everyone plenty of options for playing, learning, interacting, dreaming, and plotting before we had an afternoon break to step away from the structured events and to reflect while taking virtual walks through the woods or much-needed naps.

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

Refreshed from our walks and naps, many of us came back together for two overwhelmingly and richly dynamic sessions—the first featuring a live interview with Zoom Founder/CEO Eric Yuan, the second featuring three over-the-top brilliantly passionately engaging presenters (Nicol Turner-Lee, Director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation; Larry Irving, President and CEO of the Irving Information Group; and Joshua Edmonds, University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative and City of Detroit Digital Inclusion Fellow). Yuan, responding to deeply thoughtful questions from Zoom Chief Diversity Officer Damien Hooper-Campbell, addressed a variety of topics including Zoom’s commitment to quality, communities served, and willingness to collaborate with others seeking positive responses to some of our most challenging social issues; he assured Learning(Hu)Man campers that a priority for Zoom, post-pandemic, will be how to unleash the power of the Zoom platform in continuing to serve a variety of educational, artistic, and socially-diverse communities.

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

Just when it appeared there was no way to top the momentum and excitement of what Learning(Hu)Man and its partners had produced, it did exactly that. The final session with Turner-Lee, Irving, and Edmonds showed virtual conferencing at its finest. The formal question-and-answer segments between those inspiring presenters was accompanied, seamlessly, by session audience members interacting with each other and the presenters, via a live-chat window, in a positively overwhelming flow of give-and-take. One of the many comments that stood out to me came from a fellow participant and, in a heartbeat, changed the way I have been viewing the challenge of the digital divide and overcoming less-than-ideal broadband access throughout our country: “Frankly, getting so tired of hearing ‘Digital Divide’…it’s a social, economic, social justice, bandwidth divide and it’s been going on for decades. So, despite funding from the FCC, state governments, private foundations, etc. We are Still Discussing…so what’s the solution? It’s not just technology, it’s a reflection of the inequities in our society.”

Both exhausted and exhilarated, I decided to skip the set of live conversations and playful activities that were scheduled to continue via Zoom before camp shut down for the evening and we began recharging our creative batteries in anticipation of reconvening early tomorrow morning in the camp Mess Hall for another day of thoughtfully engaging interactions designed to spur us toward positive action.

What remains for me this evening is to acknowledge the absolutely stunning accomplishment represented by the first full day of summer camp—an achievement in virtual conferencing described eloquently online by “Camp Groundskeeper” Samantha Becker on behalf of the entire Camp Team:

“Learning(Hu)Man 2020 is an experimental fusion of hands-on learning, storytelling, tech hacks and the good kind of shenanigans. In short, it’s total camp. Summer camp! This weeklong series of events will convene a global community of education changemakers to push the creative envelope for how we serve students and advance learner success.

“Interactive experiences led by a cohort of camp counselors (read: education and industry leaders) will uncover best practices in learning design, edtech tools and development, and emergent thinking around the art of the possible—all with the shared mission for enabling student success in all of its dimensions.

Thank you to [Camp Chef] Lev Gonick, who started passing me ‘back of the napkin’ ideas over Slack on this—and then never stopped.”

There are still several more days of camping ahead of all of us. And when everything formally wraps up next Monday morning with a two-hour session to summarize what we have experienced and what we hope to accomplish as a result of having gone to camp together, it still will not be over. There will be weeks, if not months, of reflections and follow-up interactions synchronously and asynchronously. There will be opportunities to view archived recordings as they are posted on the ShapingEDU YouTube channel. There will be continuing discussions on the ShapingEDU Slack site. There will be unforeseeable positive concrete actions. And, most of all, there will be that dynamic, unique ShapingEDU community “dreaming, driving, and doing” together in one long, uninterrupted moment that began long before we arrived at Learning(Hu)Man summer camp and will extend long after we “leave.”

–N.B.: 1) This is the fifteenth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and to our continuing interactions online. 2) Paul is one of two ShapingEDU Storytellers in Residence, serving from July 2020 – June 2021.

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