ShapingEDU Winter Games: Driving and Intersecting with the Dreamers and Doers

February 1, 2021

There are conferences that start and end on a pre-announced schedule; you step away from work, you attend them, you enjoy them, and then you go back to work. And then there are conferences that feel as if they are already underway long before you arrive onsite or online for the first formally-scheduled event and seem to continue for days, weeks, or even months after the final formally-scheduled session concludes—which pretty much captures what I experienced nearly a month ago (January 5-7, 2021) during the Arizona State University ShapingEDU three-day Winter Games online conference for dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age.

You could, at the beginning of the Day 3 (January 7), already see it happening: through the discussions and plans for action that were forming and through the intersections between participants, you could see Winter Games transforming itself into part of a longer-lasting series of conversations and efforts to foster positive action extending far beyond what was happening. Attendees were engagingly interacting with presenters and panelists including elected officials, nonprofit and for-profit business representatives, educators, and a variety of other people exploring how collaboration across a variety of sectors might lead to short- and long-term positive results to everyone’s benefit.  

Feeling as if I am (a month later and after having participated in yet another virtual conference) still very much participating in Winter Games and looking back on the final day and everything I saw and learned, I’m not at all surprised by what we accomplished. Nor by what we laid the groundwork to accomplish. The discussions during keynote sessions, during smaller, more intimate breakout sessions, and during a final late-afternoon wrap-up gathering were Frans Johansson’s Intersection (explored in his book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures) coming to life: people from a variety of backgrounds gathering to talk and listen to each other, exchange ideas, and then return to their own communities to disseminate those ideas in world-changing ways.

As Samantha Adams Becker—one of our community leaders—observed that day, a dreamer envisions a better future. A doer makes it happen. And a driver scales it so that the future is more evenly distributed. Which, to me, serves as an acknowledgement of the community’s increasing attention toward placing lifelong learning within the larger context of social change, social justice, and social challenges we are facing and attempting to address through the work we do. It’s a community of educators as activists—where learning is a tool rather than an ultimate goal or achievement.

As always, what we accomplish comes down, at least in part, to the stories we tell. Panelists during the Day Three opening keynote session, “Unlocking the Data to Drive a Smart Region Vision,” told stories about the efforts underway in the greater Phoenix area to foster results-producing collaborations across sectors. Panelists, responding to questions and comments from moderators Brian Dean (co-founder and director of operations for the Institute for Digital Progress) and Dominic Papa (vice-president, Smart State Initiatives as the Arizona Commerce Authority), included Corey Woods, Mayor of Tempe; Elizabeth Wentz, a professor and dean at Arizona State University (ASU); David Cuckow, Head of Digital at BSI; and Patricia Solis, executive director for the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at ASU.

My own notes from that session—captured in the form of tweets prepared while the session was underway—in no way fully capture the depth and nuances of the conversation, which you can watch and hear in its entirety through the archived recording on the ShapingEDU YouTube Community Channel. But they do offer a gateway to a world of thought well worth exploring. Mayor Woods, for example, talked at one point about how the city of Tempe uses data to determine what services stay open; he also noted that city officials are known for making city-government decision based on data, including data related to diversity and inclusion. Another panelist wryly and repeatedly noted that short questions often reveal the need for long, thoughtful answers influenced by data sets as we attempt to address the challenges we face. Collecting data, the panelists suggested, is one step in better serving citizens (and, we might add by extension, learners); it’s about creating networks to look at data, to ask critical questions, and being able to better meet people’s needs by drawing upon and using the data we collect.

Leaving that session with my head still swimmingly in a wonderfully deep pool of ideas, I next moved onto more familiar ground—at least for me—in a session exploring some of the latest upgrades offered through Zoom. Listening to Zoom representatives talk about everything from incorporating PowerPoint slide decks into virtual backgrounds within Zoom to campus-wide integration of communications (telephone) systems and security systems into Zoom demonstrates, once again, that this is a company and product that is far from being content resting on its already well-deserved laurels. The entire session did what I want any great learning opportunity to do: it made me hungry for an opportunity to explore some of what I was learning was possible, and I have, since leaving that session, been exploring ways to build what I learned into the work I am continuing to do with learners.

The final session of the morning, for me, was an intriguing, intense look into the ever-evolving world of massive open online courses (MOOCs), which have remained of interest to me (and, apparently, others) ever since their brief moment in the spotlight several years ago. Led by Arizona State University Director of Digital Innovation Dale Johnson, the “Global Adaptive Instruction Network: Building a Collaborative MOOC Model” was a stunning look at how MOOCs in theory and in fact continue to evolve in ways that offer learners and learning facilitators intriguing ways to create more personalized, engaging learning opportunities than might otherwise be available.

“MOOCs have really become more like the McDonald’s of Higher Ed…” Johnson noted at the beginning of his session. “A lot of people are served but of some questionable educational value….How do we enhance the MOOC?….We are moving from a mass production world to a mass personalization world….The challenge for us is how do we move, in education, from mass production…to mass personalization?”

As we move to delivering the right lesson to the right student at the right time, he suggests, a collaborative MOOC model offers us interesting and intriguing possibilities. (Those interested in learning more can view the archived recording on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel.)

There is so much more to say about Winter Games. About that fascinating intersection/Intersection at the heart of the event. And about the conversations that are continuing even though nearly a month has passed—including one I had earlier today with Stephen Hurley during a “ShapingEDU and Community” segment of his VoicEd Radio “Hurley in the Morning” program. There is much we can learn about organizing effective online learning opportunities/Intersections along these lines, as we see in the ShapingEDU “ShapingED-YOU Toolkit” available free online. And there is much to be said for innovative, playful communities of learning that operate seamlessly throughout the year face-to-face as well as online.

But the Intersection we have reached at this moment is one where looking back, looking forward, and relishing the present moment bring to mind a line I’ve found in poems and many other pieces of writing I have absorbed over the years: The end is the beginning. And if that remains true for Winter Games, the best is still ahead of us.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-eighth 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 the ShapingEDU Winter Games.


ShapingEDU Winter Games: Making Sense and Making Music IRL

January 8, 2021

There is no going back; there is only going forward, a panelist suggested during the opening keynote event on Day Two (yesterday) of the Arizona State University ShapingEDU three-day Winter Games conference for dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age. And, like much of what we heard, saw, and experienced yesterday, those words were, before the day was over, provoking entirely different thoughts than what the speaker had intended when he voiced them during a dynamic, thoughtful, and wide-ranging discussion of “The Future of Sports and Entertainment.”

One central element of that panel discussion was a series of reflections on how the shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic are continuing to force major adjustments regarding how teams and fans interact, and regarding how technology is providing possibilities, short- and long-term, that weren’t much under consideration before the pandemic began—virtual interactions between players and fans, apps that extend the experiences of the games themselves, and virtual gatherings of fans who are geographically dispersed.

Where the pandemic erected barriers, creativity (and tragedy and necessity) fostered innovation. When it became impossible for fans and teams to be together onsite, many—including panelists Robert Mathews; Collaboration Strategist, AVI Systems; Rick Schantz, Head Coach, Phoenix Rising FC; Mark Feller, VP of Technology, Arizona Cardinals; Salvatore Galatioto, President of Galatioto Sports Partners; and Stephen Rusche, Sr. Director, Smart Communities, COX Communications—immediately began engaging in large-scale rethinking. Followed by innovation. Followed by success stories that are already creating a new normal. And, possibly, to be followed—in the months and years ahead of us—by a long-lasting new-and-better normal. One that combines the best of what we had with the best of what we are developing during the pandemic.

Which pretty much carries us to a theme flowing through much of what the “digital immersive experiences” of the Winter Games has offered: the idea that, in digital-age lifelong learning, we are experiencing massive shifts caused by situations many of us were too comfortable to anticipate or acknowledge, and to which we now are responding—sometimes creatively and sometimes successfully—with innovations that are well worth nurturing and preserving after the need for social distancing becomes less necessary.

A highly-interactive session later that morning—ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence Tom Haymes’ “Learn at Your Own Risk: A Hackathon for Navigating the Post-Pandemic Slope and Skiing Into the Digital Age of Learning” —took us a significant step farther down that path of designing and exploring a new and better normal. Built on the theme of nine strategies for thriving in a pandemic and beyond (drawn from his newly-released book (Learn at Your Own Risk), the hackathon engaged session participants through interactions within an online collaborative tool to help us see how we could apply those strategies, to the benefit of our learners, within our own teaching environments.

“Systems shape our behavior” and “our behavior shapes systems,” Haymes observed at one point, and those words, like the sports panelist’s remark about looking forward rather than back, seemed unintentionally prescient less than a few hours later…because that’s when many of us, during a scheduled break in the Winter Games conference, became aware of and tried to make sense of the actions of the seditionists who had forced their way through the meager and ineffectual security forces in our nation’s Capitol and had temporarily disrupted our legislature’s attempt to formally count and certify the votes cast through the Electoral College.

It’s impossible to try to capture even a small portion of all the thoughts and emotions we had during that three-hour mid-day break. I am, however, left with the memory of one stunning contrast in terms of reactions I observed. Away from the Winter Games (in the sense that I was talking with my wife and absorbing news reports), I was skimming email messages and came across a notice that, because of what was happening in Washington, DC, a local San Francisco Bay Area bookseller I very much admire was cancelling an online author event that was to be held that evening—a decision with which I have no disagreement because it was the right decision for the community served by that bookseller. In contrast, moments later, I was back online with others in the ShapingEDU community at the scheduled time for the resumption of the Winter Games conference. Because I knew that this was a community that would see, in the act of moving ahead as planned rather than postponing or cancelling our interactions, a reaffirmation of all that is at the core of our community. A commitment to working together. To finding solace and encouragement by remaining together during this latest time of national tragedy. And to thinking about all we had been hearing, seeing, and doing together—looking toward and helping shape the future rather than being frozen by looking back. Considering how systems and behavior are interwoven and equally important elements in our efforts to foster positive change among ourselves, our communities, and those we serve.

In that moment during which divisiveness was on display in all its ugliness in our national capital, we couldn’t miss the irony—nor could we have been any more appreciative—of the fact that the Winter Games session we were about to attend together was centered on the theme of inclusivity. Nor could we have been more appreciative for the realization that we were about to hear about and explore possibilities for healing ourselves through that session, facilitated by Alycia Anderson, on the power of inclusivity. But most stunning of all—in the most positive of ways—was the ease with which one of our community leaders and Winter Games organizers, Samantha Becker, stepped up to the plate to introduce that session. She immediately acknowledged what was happening in the Capitol. How the situation was touching each of us in the most personal and emotional ways possible. And how, through what we do, we continue to light and carry the equivalent of an Olympic-sized torch to light the way toward the bright future to which our community is so strongly committed. It was yet another in an enormously long list of moments in which I’ve been proud to be part of the ShapingEDU community.  Inspired by people like Anderson who join us in an effort to help us broaden our horizons and remember the importance of what we are doing. And (somewhat) hopeful, even in our darkest moments, that we might continue looking forward and improving our systems and our behavior in ways that lift to one step closer to living up to our highest and most cherished ideals.

You would think, after all of that (including the very moving presentation Anderson offered us in that tremendous moment of need), that we would be ready to call it a day. But no. As is a tradition within our nearly four-year-old community of dreamers-doers-drivers, we weren’t quite done with each other yet. So we moved into the final event of the day—a stunningly positive online concert featuring seven tremendously diverse musicians who not only reminded us of the importance of the arts in our lives, but demonstrated, through their adaptability, the innovative way our artists are responding to the challenges and changes caused by the pandemic. The performers very effectively dealt with Zoom-as-a-concert venue from the beginning segment (which featured a series of one-song-per-artist performances in our main virtual concert hall); into a second segment where were able to follow a few individual performers into breakout rooms that served as smaller, more intimate recital halls for short sets; and then back into the main hall for activities that culminated in a final set of one-song-per-artist performances by each musician. And it was through this very effective combination of live music online and the social connections fostered among audience members who communicated through Zoom’s typed-chat function that the session became so much more than it might otherwise have been. A musical event. A chance for the same sort of online interactions many of us have during evening events at onsite conferences. And a chance, using and observing the technology, to be immersed in and simultaneously step back from the environment to see what it was providing.

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“I’ve had the honor of seeing [him] play this IRL,” one colleague observed in a comment via chat near the end of the evening. “And it’s awesome in any format.”

“I love the reference to ‘in real life,’” I immediately responded as if we were chatting across a table in a coffee house where musicians were performing, and I was thinking again of how the pandemic has inspired us to redefine what we see as “in real life.”

Is it only physical, face-to-face interactions, as some continue to assume without considering how our world is rapidly evolving? Or has “in real life” matured to the point where we can see our blending of onsite and online interactions as a magnificent opportunity to interact in almost magical, mystical ways, that have never before been possible in sports, the arts, and lifelong learning?

I look at my three-day in-real-life experiences at the Winter Games—which I’ll continue to describe in my next post, covering Day 3—and at all the small and large transformations the experiences are nurturing within me and other members of the community. And I’m inspired to continue looking forward. Trying to make sense of what I see. Hungry to make music and foster positive change at every possible level. And committed to helping shape a brilliant future in collaboration with these cherished members of our community and anyone one who wants to join us on this journey.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-seventh in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the second in a series of posts inspired by the ShapingEDU Winter Games.


ShapingEDU Winter Games: We Tune Because We Care

January 6, 2021

With my head exploding from a week’s worth of thoughtful, transformative experiences packed into a single day, at least one thing is clear to me: If we were to diligently look for communities that have rapidly evolved and managed to thrive during the current coronavirus pandemic while remaining grounded in their core work and values, we would have to place Arizona State University’s ShapingEDU at or near the summit.

The community opened its first-ever three-day “digital immersive experience” of Winter Games earlier today—an ambitiously innovative set of offerings designed for “an international community of changemakers (educator leaders, smart city experts, students, faculty and technologists) engaged in a breadth of activities designed to surface the best in emerging approaches for shaping the future of smart campuses, cities and education—during and after the pandemic.” And you would have had to have been completely immobilized, beneath an avalanche, to have been left feeling unmoved.

This is a community that, because of its ever-growing membership—more than 4,000 members, most acquired during the past seven months—and its commitment to exploring and adapting to change, was well-positioned at the beginning of the pandemic to shift a mostly-onsite conference into a completely online conference—while that conference was in progress. It’s a community that, a few months later, saw (in the shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the pandemic) an opportunity to innovate, so came up with and produced a week-long campy virtual summer camp—Learning(Hu)Man—for dreamer-driver-doers committed to shaping the future of learning in the digital age. And it is the community that brought nearly 1,200 of us together today in yet another online convocation that rivals the best of anything I have ever experienced in onsite or online gatherings.

I knew, even before taking advantage of an extended lunch break, that Day 1 of the Winter Games was going to be another transformative experience for me and for the other teacher-trainer-learners who form the core of this community of dreamer-driver-doers. And when the activities resumed mid-afternoon Pacific Time (as opposed to mid-morning “tomorrow” for those colleagues and presenters on the other side of the world—including singer-songwriter Biddy Healey, participating live from Australia), I was even more energized and inspired by the combination of an hour-long social event that continued the Winter Games conversations and the subsequent, more formal, early-evening panel discussion that was conducted in a way that fostered the creation and strengthening of connections. Connections between the panelists and those watching/listening to the panel. Connections between viewers/listeners who contributed to what the panelists offered. And connections between viewers/listeners who used the online chat function to reach out to each other to initiate conversations that will continue long after the formal three-day event ends and have positive impacts of members of the communities we serve. For connections are what ShapingEDU and the Winter Games are all about.

It’s simply that kind of community and that sort of event: the preparation and the follow-up are as important as what transpires during the run of the event itself.

This was a virtual gathering that began the day at the top of the virtual ski slopes and never really stopped so we could catch our breath. The “Opening Ceremony + Olympic Keynote” (“Learning Futures: Designing the Horizon”) brought us together with a trio of engaging, forward-thinking educators from Arizona State University: Dr. Sean Leahy, Director of Technology Initiatives, MaryLou Fulton Teachers College; Dr. Punya Mishra, Associate Dean and Professor, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College; and Jodie Donner, Lead Technology Strategist and Head of IgnitED Labs. The thoughts were so rich, the resources so numerous, that we could (and should) spend several days reviewing notes, following links to the resources cited, and broadening our view of our world by reading and absorbing the reports and texts on websites as diverse as those representing the Future Today Institute, Arizona State University’s Learning Futures Collaboratory and IgnitED Labs (the latter a project that pivoted magnificently from onsite to online environments without giving up its commitment to hands-on learning experiences in pursuit of technology, creativity, and learning), and many others that you can learn about through the archived recording of the session. (The fact that the archived recording was already posted online on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel before the end of the day, and that a lovely, playful 3.5-minute “View from the Chair Life: Tuesday Evening Recap” was among several other videos on that same channel before mid-evening, is yet another sign of how efficiently and effectively this community functions.)

“We are not predicting the future,” Leahy said at one point in a comment capturing a theme running through much of what I saw and heard. “We are designing in a principled manner to build resilient educational systems to address that uncertainty.”

Moving to a different part of the Winter Games slopes for the first of two mid-morning break-out sessions I attended, I was completely taken by what CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) CEO Keith Krueger and Technology Innovation Design Entrepreneurship Sustainability Coordinator Kim Flintoff provided—both intentionally and unintentionally—provided during their 45-minute Innovating the Future of Learning: Schussing Downhill With Driving K-12 Innovation session. The intentional offering included a wonderful preview of CoSN’s 2021 Driving K-12 Innovation report, which is scheduled for formal release before the end of this month. The report, a summary of which is available online, includes a survey of hurdles (digital equity, scaling & sustaining innovation, and evolution of teaching & learning), accelerators (personalization, social & emotional learning, and learner autonomy), and tech enablers (digital collaboration environments, untether broadband & connectivity, and blended learning tools) to the expansion of the use of technology in K-12 learning environments. The unintentional offering—at least for me—was the reminder, as I absorbed these observations about a part of the learning sector I don’t normally visit, of how much overlap there is between the hurdles, accelerators, and tech enablers in that sector and other sectors with which I am much more familiar in my overall lifelong-learning environment. And, again, it reminds me of the gift ShapingEDU provides by bringing such a diverse group of lifelong learners together for an exchange of ideas that we, in turn, will help disseminate through conversations, presentations, and posts such as the one you are reading—to the benefit of those we serve.

Rejoining the Winter Games for the mid-afternoon “Fireside Chat: State of the Smart Region” social hour brought yet another set of surprises—not the least of which was how smoothly event organizers combined an informal conversation about how The Connective—a consortium of 23 city, town, and county local governments organizations collaboratively creating the nation’s largest and most connected Smart Region—with a live musical performance that was seamlessly interwoven with, rather than being a diversion from, the offerings of the Winter Games. As we made the transition from Smart Regions to what event organizers described as “part entertainment and part exploration of the event’s themes,” singer/songwriter Biddy Healey began a live online performance of solo-acoustic versions of a few of the songs from her recently-released album Salt River Bed (recorded with a nine-member band) and one new song that has not yet been recorded. Her rendition of “Patterns of Your Mind,” a song directed to someone lost to Alzheimer’s, was so hauntingly beautiful and meaningful to anyone who has experienced or is experiencing that loss that it immediately becomes something we want to be singing to our own lost loved ones; and it’s true to the spirit of commitment ShapingEDU community members have to individuals/learners in a world where technology often seems to be given precedence over people/learners. And her rendition of the new song about a stolen river—Australia’s Murray-Darling, where “more than 2 trillion litres of water…has gone missing”—became, in this context, much more than a song about a river; it perfectly captured the challenges we all face in so many of the “rivers” we traverse. And a great call to action for those of us in the ShapingEDU community.

So many wonderful moments. So much to absorb. So much to do. Yet through all of this inspiration, it is, perhaps, one of the most unplanned and, therefore, most unrehearsed moments that stays with me at the end of Day 1 of the Winter Games. That moment when Healey, between songs, stopped long enough to tune her guitar and apologize for its having gone out of tune because of the heat there in Australia. At which point one of the Winter Games participants (Deputy CIO and BI Strategist at Arizona State University John Rome) responded, via the online chat, “We tune because we care.” Which, for me, captures the spirit of how ShapingEDU community members thrive by continually tuning every figurative instrument we encounter and every situation we face: because we care.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-sixth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the first in a series of posts inspired by the ShapingEDU 2021Winter Games.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Virtual Collaborative Learning (and Doing) With ShapingEDU

October 16, 2020

Suzanne Lipsett, a writer I very much admired, insisted at the beginning of Surviving a Writer’s Life that what we do with our experiences—i.e., write about them—is as important as having those experiences in the first place.

Living and then sharing our lived experiences through storytelling is at the heart of the communities I most adore. I see it in my continuing interactions with colleagues in the #etmooc and #lrnchat communities. I consistently look forward to it within the context of the biweekly gatherings of Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training podcast community. It’s what keeps me connected to Jonathan Nalder’s FutureWe community. And it is an idea that resurfaced for me earlier this week—and, of course made me immediately want to write about it—when members of one of those communities (ShapingEDU) released a free online “Toolkit for Producing Collaborative Events to Shape the Future,” the third in a continuing series of online publications that celebrate what we accomplish together by documenting those successes.

Formally (and playfully) titled ASU [Arizona State University] ShapingED-YOU!, the ASU ShapingEDU toolkit follows the pattern employed in the earlier online resources: Stakeholder Inclusion Framework, an online inclusivity and access resource jointly produced with the Penn State CoAction Learning Lab to help those involved in the technology planning process, and a second ShapingEDU/CoAction Learning Lab collaborative resource, Building Effective Communities of Practice, which included contributions from more than 20 co-authors drawn from the ShapingEDU community and working together—often asynchronously—online. The publications, like the community itself, are dynamic examples of the commitment to playfulness and collaboration that runs through and nourishes this community of “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the Digital Age.”

More importantly, the publications and the ongoing work produced through ShapingEDU are tremendous, positive examples of how some communities entered this social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world creatively and positively and continue to thrive in spite of the tremendous challenges and tragedies we face every day. Thriving because of the commitment to positive action. To creativity. To playfulness. To collaboration. And to looking forward to creating a new and better future without ignoring a far-from-perfect past and present.

A glance at the table of contents for ASU ShapingED-YOU! sets the tenor for what awaits you. The publication begins with an introduction to this “value-led,” “action-oriented,” “community-driven” community’s work, and then focuses on two of the community’s most engaging, productive gatherings: the annual “unconference” which began as a yearly face-to-face working session to dream and drive and do before switching, in the middle of the 2020 unconference, to an online working session/virtual conference, and the newly-established online Learning(Hu)Man weeklong campy summer camp for teacher-trainer-learners exploring concrete possibilities for shaping the future of learning.

And that’s where the entire endeavor becomes tremendously, wonderfully, twistingly “meta” in the sense that the events themselves become examples of how creative blended communities can and are thriving as much because of the challenges they face as because of their commitment to exploring and addressing those challenges. Using both events as case studies, the writers of the toolkit begin with four “top tips”: “Identify your North Stars” in terms of what those guiding stars are for your event; “Foster Interaction” by creating “spaces and mechanisms for community members to connect”—connections are the center of the ShapingEDU universe; “Set Everyone up for Success” by setting expectations and making every possible effort to “empower the community with resources, templates, support systems and clear instructions”; and “Tell Your Story…though focused emails, social media, and multimedia” along with graphic facilitation as “a co-creation tool.”

The case study centered around the unconferences takes us engagingly through the process of setting the stage through interactive exercises before the events even begin: community members submitting questions/suggestions, community members being invited to serve as event participants/designers/facilitators—and much more. The importance of fostering high levels of face-to-face and/or online interactions that are meaningful to participants and conducive to achieving the concrete goals the gatherings are designed to pursue. And the need to end the gatherings with a significant, community-developed catalyzing action (e.g., a communique that serves as a roadmap for continuing collaboration) that offers everyone a clear view of how the event fits into the community’s long-term, results-oriented work.

Moving into the theme of “community camp” as a way to energize changemakers and catalyze action, the Learning(Hu)Man virtual summer camp becomes another inspiring story for any teacher-trainer-learner seeking ways to creatively foster productive, positive learning experiences within the learning communities we serve. The combination of tips, photos, screenshots, and descriptions provides a concise roadmap that can easily be adapted for use by a variety of educator-trainer-learning activists.

And, in the spirt of collaboration and resource-sharing that is at the heart of this publication, it concludes with an invitation to contact ShapingEDU community members for further information and opportunities for collaboration—which is, when you think about it, the greatest gift of all to anyone struggling to survive and thrive in a rapidly-changing topsy-turvy pandemic-driven world.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-second in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences. 2) Paul is serving as one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021), which includes producing articles for the ShapingEDU blog.


ShapingEDU Unconference 2020: Taking It All Online During the Coronavirus Pandemic (Pt. 2 of 2)

March 26, 2020

An innocuous little note at the bottom of the “living” online agenda for the 2020 Arizona State University ShapingEDU Unconference (for “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age”) earlier this month proved, in retrospect, to be one of the most prescient and useful comments anyone could have injected into the planning process: “While the start and end tines each day will not change, all activity times are fluid/subject to change…because it’s an unconference.”

The two previous ShapingEDU unconferences (in 2018 and 2019) had been tremendous examples of what can happen when a blended (onsite-online) community of learning meets face to face on an annual basis with an understanding that the agenda—and the Unconference itself—is subject to change in any way that fosters positive conversation and action. (As I noted in the first of these two sets of Unconference reflections, the 2018 Unconference produced a framework—10 Actions to Shape the Future of Learning—for action and archived materials, including graphic facilitator Karina Branson’s visual representations of what occurred there; the 2019 Unconference produced an online 18-page communique of “actionable ideas and strategies that can humanize learning, promote greater access to and equity in learning experiences, better connect education to the future workforce and world, and nurture highly collaborative communities of practice” that continues to be shared globally.) The overall structure of both events—an clear, concise statement of purpose provided the framework for discussion, planning, and implementation; the flexibility of the living agenda allowed and encouraged participants to alter the agenda at any time during which it became apparent that changes would produce greater results than the previous version of the agenda nurtured—fostered the perfect response to the swift transformations that literally took place overnight during the event this year. It also suggests a framework for trainer-teacher-learners to emulate as we move forward in designing and facilitating the best possible learning opportunities for those we serve.

The key moment in the ShapingEDU community’s response to the spread of the coronavirus occurred at the end of the first full day of onsite-online activities. Unconference organizers, responding to the fear that airlines might soon be cancelling flights and leave onsite participants separated from their families, made what was for them a very difficult decision: cancelling the onsite portion of the Unconference and simultaneously moving the mostly-onsite event completely online.

More importantly, they used every avenue available to quickly disseminate news of the decision and provide clear instructions on how we would continue during the second day of the two-day event. There were face-to-face conversations in the lobby of the hotel where many of us were staying. There was an email message sent to all participants. There were posts in the ShapingEDU Unconference Slack channel. To say it as bluntly as possible: there was complete transparency about what was happening and there was a magnificent effort to convey the news in the most positive way possible.

It’s well worth sharing a slightly-edited version of the note that was drafted by Samantha Becker, who serves as a driving force and supportive colleague in virtually everything related to the community and the Unconference, and that went out to all of us:

“Dear Dreamers, Doers and Drivers:

“Thank you so much for your brilliant participation and rallying today to advance some awesome and actionable outputs to better education. You made it insightful and you made it fun. You have truly embraced the spirit of the unconference!

“We have made a decision to pivot to online-only activities tomorrow, beginning again in our Zoom room [the link was shared here to make it easy for attendees to continue participating] at 9am AZ time / 12pm Eastern US Time. This was a very difficult decision to make, and one that has been made to take every precaution for our community, given the updates unfolding around us in real-time. Those here in person that wish to take earlier flights can.

“That said, we except a robust online program tomorrow, kicking off at 9am with a special talk from Adobe’s Todd Taylor on digital and creative fluency. Our graphic facilitator Karina Branson will be online and making her graphics all digital! Watch us flex. :wink:

The goal tomorrow online is take all the actionable ideas and products we came up with in our neighborhood working sessions, narrow them down and start firming up concrete plans for the ShapingEDU community to weigh in on. Even if you couldn’t make today or only part of today, you can jump in tomorrow and contribute in a major way.

Zoom Room: [again, the link was provided]  (9am – 1pm AZ / 12pm – 4pm Eastern US)

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. The Slack workspace has been lively and we’ll pick our conversations back up there in the #unconference2020 channel.”

Reading that note can’t help but leave us with an appreciation for how quickly, effectively, and positively Samantha and other Unconference organizers (with input from available attendees) made and publicized the transformation. We can’t help but notice how effectively they used every resource available to them. And, above all, we have to acknowledge how well-prepared (through its consistent exploration and use of online communication tools) community members were for this massive shift in plans—the same sort of massive shift that is occurring in training-teaching-learning worldwide.

Visual Summary, by Karina Branson (ConverSketch), of Virtual Planning Session

The result was that when we reconvened (online) the following morning, most of us were present. Ready to work. And deeply appreciative for the creative, playful way with which the change was managed. One of the first spur-of-the-moment adaptations came from Laura Geringer, the community engagement, writing, and project leadership consultant who does much of the day-to-day work of reaching out to ShapingEDU community members to keep us informed and involved. Acknowledging that this was a group that thrived on collegiality and effective use of videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, she encouraged all of us to activate the webcams on our laptops so we could produce a global wave. And even for those of us who found our webcams choosing that moment to malfunction, the gesture was a success. We waved. We laughed. And then we got down to business, putting the technology in the background and bringing the interactions into the foreground to produce a set of proposals for projects the community will consider pursuing as a result of the time we spent together at ShapingEDU 2020.

ShapingEDU 2020 Virtual Wave

So, let’s hear it for flexible/adaptable communities of learning and all that their members do to make them successful through an approach of considering everyone a co-conspirator in the training-teaching-learning-doing process. A willingness to work with technology that sometimes produces spectacular results and sometimes leaves us frustrated by short-term failures. And living agendas that are created with an understanding that “all activity times are fluid/subject to change”…because that’s one of many approaches we can take to produce first-rate learning opportunities and the results they can produce.

N.B.: Trainer-teacher-learners worldwide are creating and sharing magnificent resources to help colleagues make the transition from onsite to online learning. Among those are Cindy Huggett’s “Virtual Presenter’s Guide to Using Zoom Meeting Tools” and the numerous suggestions posted in the Facebook  Pandemic Pedagogy group. If you want to share your own resources, please don’t hesitate to respond to this post via a comment.


ShapingEDU Unconference 2020: On Learning, Pandemics, and Rapid Adaptability (Pt. 1 of 2)

March 25, 2020

While trainer-teacher-learners globally are struggling to adapt to a rapidly-changing learning environment created as a result of the current coronavirus pandemic, examples of communities of learning adapting quickly through positive actions are abundant. It’s fascinating to watch—and participate in the growth of—global networks including the Facebook Pandemic Pedagogy group which, as of today, has more than 26,000 members online creating/sharing/absorbing information, resources, questions, and ideas regarding the large-scale, blink-of-an-eye movement from onsite instruction to online learning opportunities. It’s exciting to be part of smaller communities of learning, including Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training group centered around his biweekly podcast exploring training-teaching-learning-doing in libraries across the United States, as they create and facilitate informal online community discussions via Zoom and numerous other videoconferencing tools as a way of keeping up, staying socially connected in a time of social distancing, and doing what it they do best: promoting the best possible approaches to fostering positive learning experiences for those who rely on them for support.

In the midst of all this, the 2020 Arizona State University ShapingEDU Unconference (for “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age”) earlier this month stands out as a stunningly successful example of how those of us comfortable with and experienced in working in blended (onsite/online) environments are well-positioned to pivot on a very small (digital) dime when necessary. More importantly, it may be useful example/case study for trainer-teacher-learner-doers globally not only during the current coronavirus pandemic but during any period during which our approach to the work we do has to change as fast as the world around us is changing.

The third annual Unconference was planned, over a months-long period of time, as an onsite gathering (in Tempe, Arizona) with the potential for some online interactions for those community members unable to attend onsite. It was scheduled to begin onsite with an opening reception on the evening of March 11 and conclude around noon on March 13. Registration—by invitation only—peaked at nearly 220 participants in the days before the event was scheduled to begin. But when coronavirus concerns increased in late February and early March, cancellations accelerated; by the time participants began arriving in Tempe, there had been more than 50 cancellations, and the opening night reception had fewer than 50 people in attendance.

What could have been a deal- (or Unconference-) breaker simply became a challenge in adaptability for those onsite as well as for those online. Onsite participants doubled down on our efforts to draw our online colleagues into the conversations via Twitter, via the Unconference live feed (via Zoom) that was already in place, and through quick adaptations in the way onsite sessions were managed.

It’s important to acknowledge that quite a bit goes into creating a community and an event as flexible/adaptable, focused, innovative, and productive as the ShapingEDU community and Unconference have proved to be during their first couple of years of operations. This is not something that we master and implement overnight. It starts with a shared vision: in this case, a commitment “to assemble a diverse collection of dreamers, doers, and drivers who believe that we can collectively shape a rich and impactful future for the application of emerging technologies to the design of learning and learners over the next chapter of the digital age” [the quote is from the invitation to attend the first Unconference, held in April 2018]. It grows through the work of first-rate planners and facilitators with a talent for including, at every possible opportunity, all interested community members in the actual planning process through numerous tools including a “living” online agenda. It is supported year-round through formal and informal online interactions, including webinars focused on specific elements of the overall ShapingEDU initiative and online publications that serve as resources for trainer-teacher-learner-doers worldwide. And, most importantly of all, it is grounded in a commitment to maintain a positive approach—particularly in times of adversity.

The community and its annual unconferences are seamlessly interwoven: the onsite interactions support the year-round online interactions, and the online interactions and projects fuel the onsite gatherings. ShapingEDU as an initiative and a community, furthermore, thrives through a combination of cherishing and promoting dreaming as well as doing—there is plenty of room within this community for those who love contemplating big ideas and those who want to get something done. In fact, one of the biggest strengths of the ShapingEDU community is that the dreamers are also drivers and doers who are not at all satisfied with coming up with ideas and then leaving the development and implementation to someone else. It’s a community that values and seeks and produces results. (The 2018 Unconference produced a framework—10 Actions to Shape the Future of Learning—for action and archived materials, including graphic facilitator Karina Branson’s visual representations of what occurred there; the 2019 Unconference produced an online 18-page communique of “actionable ideas and strategies that can humanize learning, promote greater access to and equity in learning experiences, better connect education to the future workforce and world, and nurture highly collaborative communities of practice” that has been shared globally.)  

Acknowledging everyone involved in the development of the community and the unconferences would invariably result in an unbearably long post here on Building Creative Bridges and inadvertently leaving someone out, but a few key players are well worth mentioning as resources to anyone interested in knowing more about how to replicate its early successes. There is Lev Gonick, Arizona State University chief information officer and a founding force behind ShapingEDU. There is Samantha Becker, a cherished long-time colleague and collaborator who, as community manager for ShapingEDU, serves as a driving force and supportive colleague in virtually everything related to the community and the Unconference. And there is Laura Geringer, the community engagement, writing, and project leadership consultant who does much of the day-to-day work of reaching out to ShapingEDU community members to keep us informed and involved. Working alongside them physically and virtually are the volunteers who take bite-sized pieces of the overall initiative and work toward transforming dreams into positive, meaningful, measurable results.

What Lev and Sam and Laura nurture was clearly visible onsite. Because we are used to blended onsite-online interactions, it wasn’t much of a stretch for us to integrate our online colleagues into our activities on the first full day the 2020 Unconference. And when it became clear that the much lower-than-expected number of online participants was going to radically curtail the effectiveness of the breakout sessions we had planned for each group pursuing a part of the overall ShapingEDU framework, we quickly merged some of the groups with overlapping areas of interest and expertise to create more dynamic conversations, then further improvised by fully integrating what had initially been envisioned as conversations divided between onsite and online groups—which meant, for example, that my colleague Kim Flintoff (working from Australia) and I quickly snagged a room with projection and audio/loudspeaker capabilities—so we could hook my laptop up to those systems; the result was that we co-facilitated a session that extended from our room in Tempe all the way to Kim’s home on the other side of the world—and also drew in a couple of other onsite facilitators and a few online participants into the same highly productive completely blended session. One of the most rewarding signs of success came when we stopped paying attention to the technology that was making the session possible and focused on the results we were hoping to produce.

Just when all of us at the Unconference thought we had pushed our ability to adapt to its limit, another unexpected twist occurred—at the end of our first full day together: the increasing fear of cancelled flights home because of the then not-yet-implemented shelter-in-place orders that started going into effect less than a week later in parts of the United States drove the unexpected decision to move everything online overnight. Which meant that almost everyone had to scramble to rebook flights. Cancel their overnight reservations at the conference hotel. Scramble to pack everything that had been brought to the conference. And take actions that would have us all back together the following morning for Day 2 of what was about to become a completely virtual conference—with just a handful of us continuing to work together (in the Unconference online environment) from the dining room of the Unconference hotel.

Next: Going Online to Continue Dreaming, Driving, and Doing


Rethinking Lectures, Learning, and Engagement

June 23, 2021

­­­I have, for quite a long time, not been a big fan of lectures as a primary way of fostering learning and the positive transformations that accompany learning at its best—particularly when the learning is centered around training sessions for adults in workplace settings. Within the learning environments onsite and online in which I most frequently work, learning is doing and doing is learning—which leaves lengthy formal lectures near the bottom of my learning toolkit in most situations. And I can’t say that I have changed my mind substantially. But reading an article—“Good Riddance to Boring Lectures? Technology Isn’t the Answer—Understanding Good Teaching Is,” by Christopher Charles Deneen and Michael Cowling for TheConversation.com—brought to my attention by ShapingEDU colleague Kim Flintoff, has inspired some rethinking on the subject—particularly after engaging in an unexpected set of asynchronous exchanges with colleagues via Facebook.

The article by Deneen and Cowling is thoughtful, balanced, and inspiring. The writers begin by describing how a vice chancellor at an Australian university is suggesting that as students return to onsite learning this year, lectures “would be much less common and not a ‘crutch for poor pedagogy.’” They deftly dive into an exploration of the idea that lectures will “be replaced by superior, technology-enhanced substitutes.” And after exploring our long-standing love-hate relationship with lectures in learning, they circle back to what is, for me, a perfect, well-reasoned conclusion: “We need to reject the notion that lectures will sink our students and technology will save them. Instead, let’s dig deeply and critically into both, reflect upon how to improve our practices, and apply sound teaching methods and practices to create learning engagements that are captivating and profound.”

Kim Flintoff

Kim, in posting (on Facebook) a link to the article, offered the briefest of comments: “I think the issue is engagement. Some lecturers can be very engaging; Many are not. Creating space for the learner is one of the criteria for engagement.” And that’s where the fun starts, for a cherished colleague here in the United States responded to Kim’s comment with this opening salvo: “This [comment] states the ‘lecturers can be engaging.’ By their very definition, they are not. Facilitators are. But lecturers, presenters, speakers and instructors are not. Nor are teachers. For those are all movements that one does ‘at’ another, not ‘with’ another. Only a Facilitator invites the voices of many others into the learning conversation.”

My response did little to hide my surprise:I’m seeing the ‘lecture’ format evolve in engaging ways, and don’t sense that an appreciation for what first-rate facilitators inspire and accomplish precludes an appreciation for what a first-rate lecturer inspires and accomplishes. 2) I wouldn’t trade memories of lectures I have attended by Stephen Jay Gould, David Halberstam, Ann Patchett, Eric Whitacre, Jeremy GutscheR. David Lankes, and numerous others for anything. Furthermore, TED talks I’ve seen or attended suggest how vibrant, engaging, and transformative a lecture can be when the lecturer uses the power of storytelling to draw us into powerful communal experiences. And the best of the teacher-lecturers I’ve found in formal academic settings have had a lifelong impact on my approach to work, learning, and play. Really sorry if you haven’t had experiences along those lines. As Lankes would say: Expect More!

R. David Lankes

Dave himself, tagged in my response on Facebook, almost immediately joined the conversation: “The best lectures stimulate a dialog within the individual. A good book can be engaging, a song can change a life.” Which drew a response from my dissenting colleague: “Books and songs are inanimate. When human beings come together, they both have something to offer the learning moment.”

With the ball back in Dave’s course, the exchange continued: “You used the word ‘engagement.’ A good lecture spawns conversations, internal and between people. Also, a lecture can absolutely be interactive one to many and many to one. I absolutely know the power of facilitated learning and workshops. Mastery requires going beyond lectures to practice. But to dismiss lectures as a simple broadcast of inherently less value I find problematic.”

Jill Hurst-Wahl

Other colleagues contributed to the exchange. My T is for Training colleague Jill Hurst-Wahl, in a series of posts, began by saying “I would add Larry Lessig as a person who gives engaging lectures. From what I’ve seen of her, I think Rep. Katie Porter would be a very engaging lecturer.”

Quoting from the original article, Jill continued: “‘Instead, let’s dig deeply and critically into both, reflect upon how to improve our practices, and apply sound teaching methods and practices to create learning engagements that are captivating and profound.’ I like the phrase ‘how to improve our practices.’ We are not taught as teachers how to improve our lectures. I remember when I joined my academic institution, I asked for advice on how to prepare for three-hour class and was told that what I did was up to me. I would have welcome advice and training! Over the years, I have learned from workshops, by watching others, and by doing. Imagine if all teachers—no matter how they got into the profession—were taught on how to be engaging when they needed to lecture?”

And directing her final contribution to Dave, she added the following: “Like a lecture, if a book, song, video, etc. causes me to think deeply and have a conversation with myself, I will learn.”

Laura Fothergill

The final contribution (at least up to this moment) comes from long-time ATD (Association for Talent Development) South Florida Chapter colleague Laura Fothergill: “Loved the article, really dislike the title and perpetuation of us vs them (lecture vs technology). Can we stop even putting this into the ethos? Why not title it ‘Be critical, be reflective, be better’ or ‘Lose your Assumptions’ By spinning the concepts into either or and inviting that conversation we are not helping individual faculty with their own personal professional development.”So, in a relatively brief period of time, we went from lectures and learning to whether lectures and lecturers (and presenters, speakers, instructors, and teachers) could even be engaging or whether engagement was exclusive to facilitators. And, just for good measure, Dave and Jill took us down the intriguing path of what learning is and how we learn, with Laura advocating for elimination of the us vs. them element of our explorations.

Although the obvious starting point for me is a preference for a “learners as co-conspirators in the learning process” approach to learning (as compared to the boringly passive approach to learning that is obvious in the worst of lectures and lecturers) in the settings in which I work, I was intrigued by the fond memories of what I had learned from the best lecturers I have heard—and I also thought about how my own approach to “lectures” has continued to evolve. When I work synchronously face-to-face onsite, online, or in blended environments (combining onsite and online learning into a cohesive, seamless package), I play with and combine numerous approaches. I find it rewarding, for example, to follow a Flipped Classroom model approach by providing learners with pre-session prep work (videos or short articles) so that our time together “face to face” onsite or online focuses on application of what we have learned—with a strong emphasis on what the learners will do with their newly-acquired knowledge/skills the minute our time together comes to an end. In asynchronous settings (e.g., through the four-week online courses I design and facilitate for the American Library Association), I start with weekly “typed lectures” that provide my own content interspersed with plenty of links to other people’s videos, articles, and online, easily accessible resources to support the learners’ explorations. I also include focused exercises that encourage the learners to apply what they are learning, interact with other learners, and even adapt the assignments in ways that produce something they can use in their own workplaces while and after the course is underway. The emphasis is always on having learners define what they need to know and encouraging them to focus on what addresses their learning needs as quickly as possible.

Just as participation in a creative online learning opportunity exploring The Innovator’s Mindset (led by George Couros in 2017) made me rethink my perceptions about what “reading” is in the early 21st century, the exchanges via Facebook have inspired me to further rethink my perceptions about what a great “lecture” is in contemporary times. It is focused. It is engaging. It inspires inquisitiveness by serving as an invitation to explore a topic further. It can—but doesn’t necessarily have to—be creative in its use of tools available to the lecturer and the people sharing in that learning experience. (I often think, for example, of how Jonathan Haidt so effectively turned the TED Talk lecture format on its head by doing a formal lecture that “ended” a few minutes early so he could offer an entirely different version, during the final few minutes of his allotted time, by seamlessly and in the most stunningly successful of ways completely integrating video into the live presentation. I also think of how effectively Eric Whitacre incorporated a demonstration of a virtual choir into a live lecture on virtual choirs at a conference I attended a few years ago.) The learning, in each of these cases, was effective, engaging, inspirational, and transformative—because, not in spite of, the “lecture” format.   The rethinking continued over the weekend when I finally made time to watch the first couple of lectures in The Great Courses’ series on “The Learning Brain”—a series of 24 30-minute lectures captured on a CD and accompanied by a course guidebook. As I sat there in the comfort of my own home with the book in hand and the first few minutes of the video playing, an obvious revelation struck: The lecture can very much be a like a part of a spoken (audio) book, and the book can very much be like a set of printed lectures–even if it isn’t actually one of those lovely books providing the text of lectures. Both, when produced effectively, can be and are engaging. Dropping them completely from our learning toolkits makes no sense to me, and arguing against them in absolute, non-nuanced terms, seems counterproductive. The important decision to be made is when each is the best tool for a particular learning situation, and then to produce the best version of the learning resource that we possibly can produce. So we learn. With our learners. To inspire the best results possible.


Promoting Universal Broadband Access in Indian Country With H. Rose Trostle (Part 2 of 2)

June 23, 2021

This is the second half of a two-part interview conducted with H. Rose Trostle (they/them/theirs), Research Professional at the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, and a longtime advocate of broadband access in Indian Country. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

In your paper “Building Indigenous Future Zones: Four Tribal Broadband Case Studies,” you tell some wonderful stories about successful efforts to create broadband access within those four communities. What common elements string those success stories together?

H. Rose Trostle; photo by Christopher Mitchell

Within each of these communities, there are people who took up the challenge and saw opportunity there. They did not just focus on what they did not have, but on what they could do with better broadband access. This enabled them to write grants to show proof-of-concept projects, and they leveraged these initial successes to get larger funding opportunities. They also worked with the community to determine what the community needed and wanted. It was not about improving Internet access for the sake of improving infrastructure metrics, but about what community members wanted to do with better connectivity. The IT [Information Technology] and Planning professionals whom I interviewed really highlighted the importance of understanding the community strengths and how they could get to better Internet service with these strengths. They also were realistic about their financial plans, which meant they could develop networks that made sense for their communities.

A theme that runs through the stories in “Building Indigenous Future Zones” is “patience.” Success often required a decade or more of work and community-building at a variety of levels—which is something any broadband advocate needs to understand. Any tips to broadband advocates in how to develop and use that sense of patience to their advantage so they don’t become discouraged over the long period of time success requires?

It is important to stay grounded in the community, to be aware of how the community changes over time. There is always work to be done, and so it is good to focus your attention on the immediate needs of the community. This may be anything from distributing devices to coordinating with leadership for more opportunities. When funding opportunities are available, there is a better chance of success if plans are already in place and are “shovel-ready.” It is also helpful to stay connected to the wider digital-inclusion advocacy community to hear stories from across the country and to generate new ideas of what can be possible. There is always progress in little ways that might not first be evident, so it is necessary to take a moment to reassess how far you’ve come in a year, five years, or ten years.

Whose work in fostering broadband access do you admire—and why?

I have been really impressed with the work of Matthew Rantanen from Tribal Digital Village. He is always willing to speak with Federal and Tribal government officials on Tribal broadband. He is quite an advocate for broadband and seems to always be at the forefront of broadband advocacy groups. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to him a few times, and I have always come away with more ideas and more motivation to do the work that needs to be done. He is sometimes called the Cyber Warrior.

Marisa Elena Duarte, in her book Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet Across Indian Country, has a section on “Common Impacts of Tribal Broadband Deployment Efforts” (pp. 101-103) in which she suggests that broadband “champions” including Rantanen, Valerie Fast Horse, Brian Tagaban, Gregg Bourland, and J.D. Williams, have “endured failed attempts and slow starts” in promoting broadband access in Indian Country. She then adds “It is important to frame failures and slow starts in a positive way, as opportunities to learn how and where to improve operations.” Can you tell a story about how you or a colleague have framed failures and slow starts in a way that produced positive results?

The story that comes to mind is from my conversation with Jason Hollinday at the Fond du Lac Band’s Planning Division. They spent years at Fond du Lac trying to develop a broadband plan, and they kept being turned down for grant funding. These slow starts, however, made them recognize the importance of describing what the community actually wanted from a broadband network. The planning division got more feedback from the community members and realized that they needed to dream bigger for their network. The wireless network that they had initially proposed would not work for the whole community because of the terrain and the capacity limits. They needed a fiber network, and by learning from all their failed starts, they were able to write a successful grant to secure funding for a fiber network.

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

Locally—Talk to your government officials. Talk to your neighbors. Talk to visitors to your community. Find out what your community values in an Internet  connection. Get involved with local advocacy groups for digital inclusion to distribute devices or offer digital skills trainings. Learn more about different types of devices and different types of broadband technologies.

Regionally—You should encourage your local officials to work with other communities nearby. It is important to keep an eye on funding opportunities and to make sure that smaller communities are not left out of broadband expansion plans. Keep an eye out for state funding opportunities as well.

Nationally—Keep track of what’s happening at the FCC. Remember that your local officials know your story, but that national organizations often do not. Share your ideas and your thoughts because they are valuable. 

What have I not asked that you hoped to cover?

Something that is very important that we haven’t fully touched on here: broadband access in Indian Country is getting better. We do not have great data available, but it has improved over the years. And one of the reasons for that is Native Nations building their own networks or collaborating with other local governments or local cooperatives to build this infrastructure. This is an exciting time with the recent allocation of the 2.5GHz Spectrum to Native Nations. There is more opportunity than ever for  improved broadband access in Indian Country. We are all learning and building together.

An afterthought: The reference to Rantanen as “cyber warrior” made me smile and provides a nice thematic link back to <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://&lt;!– wp:paragraph –> <p><strong>An afterthought: The reference to Rantanen as “cyber warrior” made me smile and provide a nice thematic link back to my most recent broadband access interview—Gina Millsap, who jokingly referred to herself as a “broadband avenger.” Looks as if we are assembling a wonderful group of broadband superheroes. Thanks for your help on that effort. You may be on your way to becoming the Nick Fury of broadband! </strong></p> my most recent broadband access interview—Gina Millsap, who jokingly referred to herself as a “broadband avenger.” Looks as if we are assembling a wonderful group of broadband superheroes. Thanks for your help on that effort. You may be on your way to becoming the Nick Fury of broadband! 

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access in Indian Country With H. Rose Trostle (Part 1 of 2)

June 23, 2021

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with H. Rose Trostle (they/them/theirs), Research Professional at the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, and a longtime advocate of broadband access in Indian Country. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

H. Rose Trostle; photo by Christopher Mitchell

Let’s start with the basics: What first drew you to efforts to support universal broadband access and access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning?

I have always been interested in Internet access. I grew up in a rural community without great access to the Internet, but it was functional. I learned Latin via list-serv and early videoconferencing programs. I got more involved in advocacy around Internet access when I started my first job out of college as an intern at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. That organization focuses on municipal and community networks.

Can you tell a story that shows how lack of broadband access or lack of access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning made this personal for you or someone close to you?

When I was in high school, I took some online courses and would routinely experience Internet connection problems. In at least one case, this was caused by my neighbor down the road cutting through the DSL line. It was a rural area, and the infrastructure was not necessarily well-marked. The Internet connection was also not always functional enough to do video conferencing that was required. It made learning very difficult. Because of this, I have been very focused on expanding broadband access (high-speed Internet access) in rural and Tribal communities.

I’m fascinated by that story of a lost connection because someone cut through the line. Can you recall the conversation you had with the neighbor and how that either brought you together a bit or contributed to some sort of division?

My parents had a conversation with the neighbor, who was apologetic, but it did not bring us closer. He had been performing work in the right of way, which was not permitted at the time. He also did not necessarily understand the importance of having an Internet connection.

Point of clarification: was this in Indian Country, and, if so, would you mind describing the setting and the community a bit?

My hometown is south of Leech Lake Reservation, in northern Minnesota. It is a rural community that primarily relies on tourism of the local lakes. Some of the nearby communities are more agricultural or connected to the Iron Range with a history of mining. My hometown has a current population of about 500 people. It has some paved roads, but mainly dirt roads. The telephone and Internet service is provided by a cooperative, and they have, in the past five years or so, upgraded to a fiber optic network.

The example of the cut line is clearly a compelling and engaging example of what you and others in rural areas face, and your description of your hometown helps create a strong image of that community. What are some of the other short- and long-term problems and challenges people in Indian Country face in terms of accessing the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively?

Broadband access in Indian Country is not just a product of it often being rural and remote. Broadband infrastructure often relies on access to other forms of infrastructure, such as electric lines or cell towers. The short-term problem is determining what kind of technology makes sense for each community because Indian Country is not a monolithic whole. The challenges that are faced in Alaska are very different than the challenges faced in southern California. We need policies and programs that can respond to this diversity. The long-term challenge is infrastructure development generally in Indian Country, from the mapping and development of improved road infrastructure to the further expansion of water lines. We need to consider broadband infrastructure as just one piece of the puzzle and ensure that communities have the planning capacity to determine what works best. 

Another piece of this question is about what tools people need in Indian Country in order to use Internet access effectively. Some of this is basic digital literacy of how to open a web browser, how to recognize an email scam, etc. But there is also a need to recognize all the ways that people can use this to enhance what they do in their daily lives. I have heard great stories about local Facebook groups enhancing the sense of community and allowing for easier exchange of local goods and services in Indian Country. There is a need for devices beyond just cellphones—and these device needs may be different from household to household. My father much prefers a tablet or a kindle; it serves a different need than a laptop, because he’s not using the tablet for typing emails, just for reading. People need to know what options are available to figure out what best meets their community needs.

You’re making several very important points here, including one that centers on levels of engagement and empathy in any discussion about broadband access. To talk about “broadband” is to carry on a conversation that lacks emotional impact. To talk about “the ways that people can use this to enhance what they do in their daily lives” moves it into the realm of storytelling for engagement and inspiration. How do you routinely incorporate storytelling into your work as a broadband advocate?

In my work, I center the voices of the people that I interview and their perspectives on what matters to their communities. These stories form the foundation of the work that I do when I dive into data analysis or mapping. I focus on stories of solutions rather than of deficit. There are many stories about how Native Nations have built their own broadband infrastructure or improved cell service in their communities. But we often do not hear about them because they are local projects that the national media does not pick up on. When I do my work, I try to ask not just about the problems, but on what people have already tried or accomplished to change the situation, to change the narrative. Indian Country has a lot of stories of resilience and creativity, and broadband access is one of them.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Gina Millsap (Part 2 of 2)

March 23, 2021

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Gina Millsap, retired Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL) CEO and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

In your article “We All Need Broadband” [April 7, 2020], you mentioned that “some parts of our community don’t have quality, affordable broadband, especially in the rural areas of Shawnee County.” I’ve always been impressed by how you and your colleagues responded to community needs by setting up an entire online branch of the library to serve those who, living in rural parts of your service area, couldn’t easily visit a physical library building. Can you tell a story that shows how you and your colleagues overcame some of the challenges of Internet access to provide those online services?

There are a few things. TSCPL equipped bookmobiles as hot spots and has been providing technology training for the community for well over 20 years. What is somewhat discouraging is that the “Taming the Mouse” class is still offered. I say that because it’s still needed. And TSCPL installed about 170 public access computers in the early 2000s to ensure that people had the access they needed to communicate, apply for jobs, learn more about technology tools, and provide themselves with entertainment. I have become less enamored of these stopgap measures in the past few years. That’s because I think they’ve allowed other community leaders to think, “The library has this covered, so we don’t have to worry about it.”

So, a question—are you asking about challenges the library faced? Honestly, the big challenge for many libraries were two-fold: did they have the money to upgrade their technology and broadband services as needed and to invest in technology? Did they have the staff expertise to manage that technology and help educate their communities? TSCPL had both, and chose to make those investments. Many libraries didn’t have the resources to do that. 

Makes sense to me; thanks. Whose work in fostering broadband access do you admire—and why?

I’m appreciative of the work that SHLB [Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition] is doing and the fact that they are developing a strong coalition of key partners. They are giving a voice to public-sector needs that hasn’t existed before. I’m also appreciative of the work ULC [Urban Libraries Council] is doing with its Digital Equity Action Team that is working to educate and encourage library leaders to do more in this space than be service providers for the have-nots in our communities. There are a number of individual libraries in the U.S. and Canada that are engaged in excellent work—many of them as part of community coalitions. I’m more interested in those activities and think they will have a greater long-term impact than continuing to provide short-term services like circulating hot spots. Note I’m not dissing those efforts. Those are important because they are addressing immediate needs, but they’re not solutions. 

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

They should become advocates for universal broadband. They should hold their local- and state-elected officials accountable for improving access to broadband for all residents. They should participate in the reframing of this discussion as one of social equity, not technology. Thank the community leaders that are showing an interest, support them. Learn more about the issues—the technology, the legislation, the players in the public and private sectors. 

What have I not asked that you hoped to cover?

I think the main thing is that this is a community, state, and national issue. It’s not about consumerism, or not exclusively about that. It’s about ensuring all citizens have the tools they need to thrive in their communities. I also don’t want to appear as if I’m viewing the service providers as the antagonists, although that can happen—especially if municipalities are considering becoming providers. It’s going to take strong public/private partnerships to make this happen, but elected officials must be knowledgeable enough to write better laws, and visionary enough to understand that, like roads, electricity, and water, broadband should be viewed as essential infrastructure.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


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