Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Spreading Our Love Wings

I’m sensing growth. Rapid change and evolution. A blossoming of gorgeous flowers that were aching to unfold their petals, reach for the sun, and revel in a summer day they suspected that they would, one day, experience—even if they lacked a sense of when that day would ultimately arrive. It’s the sort of blossoming that we can never fully anticipate in all its myriad permutations. The sort of blossoming we question while it is actually underway. But when it does arrive, it is clear. Tangible. And nothing around it will ever seem the same to any of us present for the wonderfully explosive moment.

We are more than halfway through a week of campy virtual summer camp as I write this third in a series of “letters home from camp” (camp, in this case, being the playful online Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man conference for dreamer-driver-doers committed to shaping the future of learning in the digital age, where we participate via Zoom, or through the VirBELA virtual platform). While joining others who continue to follow shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic), we have been flipping scary stories around the campfire online, artfully crafting learning experiences, and—following the theme for today’s activities—“swimming (a)synchronously” through discussions and demos of student success experiences, programs, and products with direct application for live or anytime learning

The tremendously engaging and wonderfully transformative activities have been overwhelming positive and well worth describing even if at only the most cursory of levels—you’ll be able to more fully see and experience some of those events and activities online as members of the Camp Team continue posting recordings on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel. The real story well worth telling late this evening is how the ShapingEDU community is rapidly becoming so much more than any of us thought it might become even a few months ago.

It’s the sort of community that under expert leadership and with a firm commitment to collaborative effort and action produces the kind of extraordinary day we have had again today. It began with an early-morning breakfast in the virtual Mess Hall—a Zoom meeting room created as a gathering place for camper-colleagues interested in beginning-of-day breakfast and warm-up activities. That Mess Hall gathering today included an exploration of mindfulness combined with a brief yoga session led in that online environment by wonderful facilitators, and was followed immediately by a dynamic panel discussion exploring “The Rise of the Digital Campus.”

The community is also one that produces the daily Learning(Hu)Man sessions along the lines of what we were able to chose from today: explorations of Slack in collaborative learning, Zoom as a learning platform, storytelling in learning, and so much more. Deciding to begin my dive into those sessions by attending one (“Surfing Chaos: Narratives Across the Digital Divide”) facilitated by my fellow ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence Tom Haymes, I again found myself learning in layers: Tom’s amazing ability to lead us through some explorations of how to tell the stories we need to tell to promote the best possible responses to teachers’ and learners’ struggles with the rapid transformation of onsite learning into online learning for so many contemporary learners was layered over demonstrations of and hands-on experience with how to effectively use online collaborative tools such as Google docs to fast-forward discussions and planning sessions we need to be completing now. The result is that we walked away with usable ideas and, at the same time, had begun developing relationships with colleagues with whom we can continue to learn and work long after this first offering of Learning(Hu)Man formally concludes four days from now.

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

This is also a community that, even though firmly grounded in a commitment to effectively incorporating educational technology into lifelong learning while never losing its learner-centric approach, seems to be in the middle of an important pivotal moment—that moment in which we are overtly acknowledging and beginning to grapple with some of the toughest social challenges facing anyone involved in lifelong learning. That became a bit more clear to me as I sat through the third of the three end-of-day plenary sessions Learning(Hu)Man has offered during the current virtual conference. The first plenary session—two days ago—was centered around a highly-interactive panel discussion on the theme of “Digital Equity, Social + Racial Justice”—something far removed from the sort of tech-based sessions which have been a staple of our previous ShapingEDU onsite gatherings and online offerings in the form of webinars. The session late this afternoon was equally compelling, thoughtful, and inspiring: “Digital Education and Tribal Rights,” a session masterfully led by Leah Gazan, Matt Rantanen, Traci Morris, and Brian McKinley Jones Brayboy. They framed what easily could have been an educational-technology conversation much more deeply—in terms of Internet access as a “human rights issue,” something integrally intertwined with the issue of “sovereignty” for indigenous peoples, and centered on “self-determination” as those lacking access to work and learning opportunities online work together to gain that access. Listening to them and briefly interacting with them within Zoom provided an expansion of the reach of the ShapingEDU I had really not seen coming even though I’ve seen several of us, over the past few months, taking on challenges including seeking solutions to the student debt crisis and fostering universal broadband access for work and learning throughout the United States.

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

Rather than immediately following my fellow campers into the evening play and entertainment session, I stepped away from camp long enough to meet a friend here in San Francisco. As I returned home and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to join the last portion of the evening activity—a live concert, via Zoom, featuring several performers—I continued thinking about how completely immersive and transformative Learning(Hu)man has been in its first few days. And as I settled in to watch the last few performers, I again began chatting (through the chat window Zoom provides) with other campers who were attending that lovely series of performances—having exactly the sort of chats I would have had face-to-face with colleagues at any of the onsite conferences I have ever attended. And as we continued to chat and enjoy the music, I realized how completely the Learning(Hu)Man summer camp was providing the same richly rewarding experiences I have had onsite—which prompted me to remark to a colleague (via chat) that after this week of camping out at Learning(Hu)Man, I’m not going to be at all patient with anyone who tries to tell me we can’t be completely engaged, moved, and together in online settings. The comment drew agreement from a few others, and then we turned our attention back to one of the performers, who had just sung the line “Your purple mountain majesty is only for the free…”—a wonderfully poetic line that somehow seemed to fit right in with all the attention we had increasingly been giving to the social-issue side of the work we are pursuing together. That, in turn, prompted me to float the idea, in the ongoing chat, about how rapidly this community seems to be evolving/maturing. At which point the singer, Terra Naomi, was drawing to the end of a song that included the line “I believe in love more than I want to hate.” And then Walt Richardson took the virtual stage to sing “Light Revolution” (a song written by his brother), which made me think even more about the “revolution” I am sensing in this community.

The ongoing backchannel discussion quickly led me to respond to a colleague’s comment about our last community gathering, just days before many of us began officially sheltering in place in March 2020, with the observation that the moment when our last onsite gathering switched overnight into an online gathering “came at such a difficult time for so many people [and] really set the tone for much of happiness and success I’ve had in spite of and because of sheltering in place. We might, at some point, look back and see that as a pivotal moment–at many levels–in the development (at light speed) of this community and other dynamically blended, creative communities.

“When I’m at onsite conferences, I attend sessions, sometimes facilitate sessions, have hallway conversations (like we are having here and now), share meals, sometimes draft some writing while sitting with others and then stay up late fine-tuning fragments into blog pieces—just like I’m doing right now [and continued to do well after midnight to finish this piece before going back to camp in the morning].

“I suspect my next ‘letter home from camp’ is going to feel somewhat familiar to anyone watching this rough draft of it taking shape here in a chat window….And, being really meta about this: I often thought it was fun to watch writers who would sit in bookstore windows and write as people walked by and watched a bit of the creative process in progress…and here I am, knowing I’m on camera, writing in front of colleagues without the slightest bit of self-consciousness.”

At which point I began to laugh, because Walt had just sung the line “there will never be a time so right,” prompting me to add to the chat: “See? Now even Walt has worked his way into the piece-in-progress. It’s all about timing.”

His final song, “Love Wings,” seemed to hold all of us spellbound, but I broke away from the spell long enough to react to the line “We’ve got to share our battle scars” and observe that “it feels as if Walt is offering us the balm to soothe and heal those battle scars. If we came to Learning(Hu)Man feeling a bit beaten and scarred, at least we will go home having been provided with a bit of what we need to sustain us.

Two more lines from the song then floated across the virtual concert hall:

“With Love Wings we can fly

Into the clear blue open sky…”

As I draw to the end of my third letter home from camp, I’m among those who feel as if Walt’s beautifully poignant and wonderfully-delivered song has lifted us up; reminded us of what is possible online as well as face-to-face; and given us our own set of love wings to carry us through the rest of Learning(Hu)Man and into the work and challenges we face and willingly are going to work to address.

–N.B.: 1) This is the seventeenth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the third in a series of posts inspired by Learning(Hu)Man.

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