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


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.


Shaping Education Unconference 2018: The End is the Beginning (Pt. 4 of 4)

May 3, 2018

I’ve always appreciated a thought I’ve found in the work of a variety of writers I admire—the end is the beginning—so it was wonderful to find that the formal end of the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning in Tempe and Scottsdale, Arizona late last week immediately initiated series of new beginnings that are continuing to unfold as I write this piece nearly seven days later.

It was an inspiring, transformative day and a half of presentations, discussions, and planning by teacher-trainer-learner-dreamer-doers from several different countries on a few continents, preceded by an informal evening reception to initiate the entire gathering arranged by Arizona State University Chief Information Officer Lev Gonick with the assistance of Samantha Adams Becker and many others. It immediately produced many productive conversations and initial plans for action. It extended beyond its formal conclusion through a couple of post-Unconference sessions that expanded the group of participants to include members of the Arizona State University community. And, in a stunningly quick follow-up, those involved with organizing the Unconference announced, within days, that as many materials and resources as could be gathered had already been posted on a publicly-accessible website—a site, which in essence, provides a virtual Unconference experience for anyone interested in participating asynchronously. More importantly, the website creates an additional avenue to assure that what happened in Arizona won’t stay in Arizona.

It was—and is—dreaming, doing, and driving at a global level. And it is, in essence, a wonderful example of a high-end blended (onsite-online), synchronous-asynchronous experience at its best, with the possibility of rhizomatically-growing conversations and actions that, if successful, could lead to positive changes that will benefit the global community that previously was drawn together and served very well by the New Media Consortium (NMC). The Unconference is simply the latest wonderful manifestation of that community, in a post-NMC environment, seeking familiar as well as new places (onsite as well as online) to continue the work it does so well—in long-term NMC partner organizations including EDUCAUSE and CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) as well as community member-generated groups including the Slack Beyond the Horizon community which has spawned FOEcast (Future of Education forecast) for those who did not want to lose the global community of teacher-trainer-learner-doers NMC had so effectively nurtured across a variety of sectors in our lifelong-learning environment. There is also a newly-formed LinkedIn group created expressly to continue Unconference conversations regarding the present and future of micro-credentialing not only in higher education but also in many other parts of our lifelong learning sandbox—and many other offshoots that will gain more of our attention in the weeks and months to come as dreams begin to be transformed into actions.

Lev himself, in an email message to the 129 of us who participated onsite in Tempe and Scottsdale last week, does a great job of setting the context for anyone interested in knowing what the website offers:

“Our minds are still racing with all the ideas and insights you contributed on shaping the future of learning in the digital age. It’s amazing what can transpire when a collection of diverse perspectives are in the same place at the same time. Thanks for coming with an open mind, ready to share your knowledge, dreams, and concerns.

“As you know, our talented graphic facilitator Karina Branson of ConverSketch created visual representations of the Unconference discussions as they unfolded. Additionally, lightning talk speakers presented their big ideas and questions. All of these materials, from Karina’s visuals to the slide decks, are available on a special website we’ve created for this community:

The site also includes a link to the Twitter feed produced through #ShapingEdu hashtag which many of us used to extend the conversations beyond the physical walls of the Unconference meeting room and the outside-the-room conversations that continued in restaurants, the hotel lobby, the hotel parking lot, and numerous other locations so that conference “participants” included many colleagues who weren’t physically with us but, in a very real blended-world-sort-of-way, very much with us; accessing and adding to that Twitter conversation was just one of the numerous ways in which the Unconference can be said to have already taken on a extended life far beyond the short period of time during which we were interacting face to face.

­­And, in what can be seen as a commitment to leave no Unconference stone unturned, the website organizers have even added a “Media and Blog Reflections” section that, as I write this, includes a few of the articles that are already available from participants and will, without doubt, include many more that are either freshly-posted or on their way to being posted. (Karina herself has an interesting set of insights, on her own blog, about into how graphic facilitation primed the pump for many of the productive conversations that began during the opening reception.)

We have a lot of work ahead of us. And we know that those who were skeptical of and/or critical of what the New Media Consortium and its numerous partners and community members produced, will probably be equally critical and skeptical of what the Unconference dreamers and members of our extended global community of learning are in the early stages of pursuing. But our openly-expressed desire to be inclusive and transparent in our work—in this lovely, dynamic, innovative community of Edunauts in higher education, the kindergarden-through-12th-grade sector, community colleges and vocational schools, museums, libraries, and workplace learning and performance committed to supporting lifelong learning at its best—means we look forward to working with you and anyone else interested in being actively engaged in the process of dreaming, doing, and driving that was so wonderfully visible at the Arizona State University Unconference last week.

N.B. — This is the fourth of four sets of reflections inspired by the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning in April 2018.


Shaping Education Unconference 2018: Micro-Credentialing and Exploding the Classroom (Pt. 3 of 4)

April 30, 2018

If any of us had mistakenly thought that all the dreaming, planning, and neighborhood-building that took place all day last Thursday during the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning in Tempe and Scottsdale, Arizona had drained us, we quickly learned otherwise when we formally reconvened for a final half-day of activities Friday morning.

A few lightning talks by participants primed the dreaming-planning-doing pump once again, and we were soon back in some conversational neighborhoods that had been established Thursday within the Unconference meeting room on the Scottsdale campus of the University of Arizona. At the same time, we were establishing a couple of additional neighborhoods Friday morning—including one centered on the topic of micro-credentialing in the temporary physical city of LearnerDreamerUnconferenceville. (I suspect this particular city is going to have a very long and productive life as a blended community existing in rhizomatically-growing online discussion groups and face-to-face meetings whenever we can again find ways to gather.)

For me, the fast-paced, very focused micro-credentialing discussion brought together interwoven threads of nearly a half-decade of conversations onsite and online with colleagues—all grounded in recognition that higher education is facing a tremendous challenge in finding/redefining its place in a world that increasingly questions the value of a four-year education and the higher-degree programs that are often extremely expensive and time-consuming. As one colleague mused shortly after the final formal Unconference session ended: Formal education will change radically within 10 years. We don’t stay in a job for five years; why would we stay in college for four? (And while I think there are plenty of great reasons why some of us will continue to see, value, and cherish those four-year experiences with occasional returns to onsite/online formal educational settings, that question is one that is well worth asking of anyone committed to lifelong learning and survival in the sort of rapidly-changing environment that my colleague Jonathan Nalder is attempting to address through his tremendously creative Future-U/First on Mars efforts.)

Following the pattern we used in our Thursday neighborhood conversations, participants in the micro-credentialing neighborhood set out to accomplish three things: define our unifying dream, establish what we hoped to do in one-, three-, and five-year periods of time, and document what was driving us toward those dreams and actions. The dream, with graphic facilitator Karina Branson helping keep us on track, quick came together: to connect formal and informal learning credentialing and create a confirmed, shared taxonomy so it would be useful to learners and those needing to know how those learners’ experiences match what is needed in contemporary workplaces. Looking toward the three- and five-year time horizons, we dreamed of helping create a system wherein empowered learners can express goals that would be documented through micro-credentialing; foster more opportunities for compound diplomas; and nurture a lifelong-learning pattern in which earning and learning remain intertwined.

Karina Branson/Conversketch

ShapingEdu–ASU Unconference_Micro-Credientialing_Group_WorkActions to be taken in the first year of our efforts include attempting to partner with on-campus registrars to see how this system can be created, nurtured, and sustained; see what standards need to be created to serve the overlapping interests and needs of learners and employers; and establish a mechanism to continue the conversation—efforts already taking shape through the creation of a LinkedIn discussion group and efforts to provide a forum for the discussions/planning/actions through our Slack Beyond the Horizon community which has spawned FOEcast (Future of Education forecast). Projected long-term actions to be taken by the micro-credentialing group include attempting to design a visual framework for micro-credentialing and continually seeking ways to foster collaboration with all identifiable partners in the (lifelong) learning process—not just those involved in higher education.

There are a number of factors driving many of us toward an effort of this magnitude at this particular time, and there are certainly numerous barriers behind which any skeptic could easily retreat. But that in-the-spur-of-the-moment question about why anyone would commit to four-year learning programs in a world where job and career changes are so prevalent offers one of the best reasons to pursue this effort. And an offhand comment made by my colleague and fellow Unconference participant Tom Haymes made about the need for “exploding the classroom” in the most positive of ways playfully pushes the conversation forward even more.

If we’re going to avoid the prediction that at least one colleague made at the Unconference—that our four-year colleges and universities could disappear or be much different in ten years than they are today—then all of us Edunauts who love the richly rewarding and highly varied onsite, online, and blended environments available to us today need to be actively engaged in the process of dreaming, doing, and driving that was so wonderfully at the heart of the Arizona State University Unconference last week.

N.B. — This is the third of four sets of reflections inspired by the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning in April 2018.

Next: After the Unconference


Shaping Education Unconference 2018: Moving Into the Neighborhood (Pt. 2 of 4)

April 30, 2018

One of the more playful and productive exercises at the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning in Tempe and Scottsdale, Arizona late last week involved building neighborhoods. We weren’t using hammers and nails, and no hardhats were required. This was an exercise in identifying key issues in higher education and other learning environments; pulling tables together to create neighborhoods of conversation within the conference room in which we were meeting; and then diving into those conversations designed to identify what the residents of the newly-established Unconference neighborhoods held as their unifying dream, what we hoped to do in one-, three-, and five-year periods (horizons, anyone?) of time, and what was driving us toward those dreams and actions.

Because of my ongoing interest in finding ways to nurture and sustain a global online community (FOEcast—the Future of Education forecast group unified through a “Beyond The Horizon” group on Slack) that has emerged from the closing and Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings initiated by New Media Consortium (NMC) board members in December 2017, I immediately moved into FOEcastville and dove into planning with others inspired by this post-NMC community which is evolving with the addition of members who had no direct, previous connections.

Defining our dream was a fairly easy undertaking because the effort had already been underway for a few months: developing a highly-functioning, sustainable community of action that will extend to sectors beyond higher education and will include spin-offs to connect to other learning organizations worldwide.

Establishing a list of actions to be completed within one-, three-, and five-year periods also was straightforward. Our year one goals include engaging in strategic planning; continuing to establish mission, vision, and value statements that will guide us and others who join our efforts to identify and promote positive changes within the various lifelong-learning environments in which we work; producing documents that will be useful to those joining us in our efforts to continue contributing to global efforts to shape the future of learning—and make those documents available under Creative Commons licensing; and seeking ways to continue working together online (e.g., through the Slack “Beyond the Horizon” group) and onsite (e.g., through gatherings including the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning).

Our three- and five-year goals contained an implicit acknowledgment that this is still very much a rapidly-evolving community that draws from the community that existed under the auspices of the NMC and also draws from the extended, rhizomatically-growing community of our non-NMC colleagues who share an interest in collaborating to have a positive impact on lifelong learning throughout the world. With that in mind, a major item on our list is to continually engage in revisions of our implantation plans so we can react to the changes that will undoubtedly occur in our learning environments. We also made the commitment to look for opportunities to establish and/or work with organizations tackling parts of the effort to reshape learning (e.g., those focused on higher education—like EDUCAUSE, which obtained the NMC’s assets through the Chapter 7 proceedings and is proceeding with plans to publish the 2018 Horizon Report > Higher Ed Edition halted by the closing of the NMC—as well as others working in our extended lifelong-learning playground: colleagues in the K-12 sector, community colleges and vocational schools, museums, libraries, and the extensive network of workplace learning and performance (talent development) colleagues. (Those that come to mind for me include colleagues who gather under the auspices of first-rate learning organizations such as ATD—the Association for Talent Development or who are filling unmet learning needs through opportunities provided by LinkedIn/Lynda.com).

It was heartening to see so many representatives from so many of these organizations and industries working together during the Unconference to develop plans of action to help reshape learning; Arizona State University Chief Information Officer Lev Gonick did an amazing job of pulling together a broad coalition of stakeholders in the conversation from a variety of countries. Our colleagues from EDUCAUSE were active participants in the process of attempting to determine how our post-NMC world will take shape. Several members of the former NMC community accepted the invitation to present lightning talks to stimulate the conversations. The result of these combined efforts and commitment to innovation was that any participant interested in being part of our ongoing efforts to better serve our learners had plenty of opportunities to find a place to engage in what will be an ongoing, dynamic shaping process—with an eye on producing concrete, measurable results.

It’s worth paying attention to how and why the Beyond the Horizon/FOEcast conversation—and so many others—progressed so quickly. This was a group that already had been interacting online for a few months and was drawing upon years of experience as a community of teacher-trainer-learner-doers (learning facilitators as activists in the best sense of that word). We approached our work with a sense of collaboration and a commitment to positive action; there was very little argument, but, on the other hand, this was far from an exercise in groupthink—plenty of ideas surfaced, and those which appeared most promising seemed to find advocates willing to carry them further in the weeks, months, and years ahead of us, while those ideas which did not immediately catch fire can certainly resurface as needed. The space itself, on the Arizona State University campus in Scottsdale, was conducive to the types of interactions Lev and others did so much to foster: the room had plenty of natural light flowing in from outside; the room itself was spacious and had furniture that could easily be moved to create the best possible set-up for an exchange of ideas. (The FOEcast group quickly created a T-shaped arrangement of tables that made it possible for most people to hear each other easily and contribute to the conversation.)

We also need to acknowledge the importance of the conversation facilitators in an endeavor at the level of the Unconference and those neighborhood-development sessions. FOEcast co-founder Bryan Alexander led our FOEcast neighborhood’s discussion. Lev contributed tremendously through his facilitation of the entire Unconference. And graphic facilitator Karina Branson seemed to have the ability to be in the right place at the right time to keep conversations progressing in positive directions throughout the entire Unconference.

As our highly-motivated group of Edunauts reached the end of a day of dreaming, sharing, and planning for a future we very much want to help create, we did exactly what the event was designed to stimulate: continued our conversations well into the evening in small groups over dinner. And when we reconvened Friday morning for our final hours together onsite, we were ready to take our efforts even further.

N.B. — This is the second of four sets of reflections inspired by the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning in April 2018.

Next: Exploding the Classroom


Shaping Education Unconference 2018: Homecoming for a Community of Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers (Pt. 1 of 4)

April 27, 2018

I didn’t even make it through the hotel lobby to check in before being gratefully and willingly drawn into my first conversation with cherished colleagues here at the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning in Tempe and Scottsdale, Arizona Wednesday afternoon.

Unexpectedly seeing Jared Bendis, Tom Haymes, and Ruben Puentedura—people I had known, adored, and learned from for years through the New Media Consortium (NMC) before its board of directors closed the organization and put it into Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings—made me immediately feel as if I were home again.

It has been a long emotional journey to arrive here at the Unconference. Many of us had been shocked and tremendously saddened by the sudden demise, in December 2017, of the NMC. Committed as much to the global community of teacher-trainer-learner-doers (this, after all, is in the best sense of the word, a community of learning “activists”) fostered by the organization as to the organization itself, we quickly mobilized via a “Beyond the Horizon” group on Slack—a popular social media tool that can be used to effectively facilitate productive online conversations within a community of interest. Bryan Alexander, Lisa Gustinelli, Jonathan Nalder, and I were among those immediately turning to the challenge of exploring ways to continue working together even though the organization that had brought us together had disappeared. It only took a few days to begin reconvening members of the community; within a few weeks, we had drawn approximately 200 members into that Slack community. What was and is fascinating about the Beyond the Horizon group is that it is was not and is not simply a group of people gathering to hold a wake; new members—colleagues who never had any formal interaction with the New Media Consortium, but who shared the community’s commitment to creativity, learning/learners/lifelong learning, innovation, and educational technology—began joining by invitation so that, in essence, it was rapidly evolving at the same moment that it was reconvening.

We asked some fundamental questions—often prompted by our colleague Bryan, whose Future Trends Forum remained one of several important touchpoints for us as we struggled to regain our footing—about where we had been as a community and where we might go in our suddenly-changed training-teaching-learning-doing environment. Within a few weeks, the community had already come up with a rudimentary framework for action, which Bryan helped nurture and document on his own blog. We continued to look toward a future firmly rooted in our history and traditions as a community of learners. And, with a core group of planners and a still-expanding group of partners, began establishing a new identity—under the community-established name FOEcast (Future of Education forecast)—held an online “ideation” week to continue developing a formal plan of action.

But what really gave the community a major push was an invitation from our colleague Lev Gornick to gather here in Arizona for the unconference that will conclude this afternoon. Having attracted nearly two dozen sponsors—including EDUCAUSE, which obtained the NMC’s assets through the Chapter 7 proceedings and is proceeding with plans to publish the 2018 Horizon Report > Higher Ed Edition halted by the closing of the NMC—and reached out to a community that extends beyond the NMC community, Lev is giving us a much-needed opportunity to build upon what many of us have accomplished together so we can continue working to produce positive transformations within the global learning community in which we live, work, and play.

Karina Branson/ConverSketch

That hotel-lobby conversation that extended over a mid-afternoon lunch blossomed at the Unconference opening reception, where a fabulous graphic facilitator, Karina Branson, helped create the foundations for the conversations and work that went on all day yesterday and will conclude early this afternoon. Karina, by listening to individual participants informally recall their first experiences with digital learning, created a wonderfully illustrated timeline. Not as a way of reveling in perceived past glories. But, rather, as a way to remind ourselves that we have a tremendously rich legacy upon which we can build as the group continues to evolve into something even better and more productive than what we had before the NMC disappeared.

It would be easy to fall into maudlin, clichéd observation that the more than 100 of us gathered here in the Phoenix area arrived to be present for and participants in the rebirth of a community of learning. But that would be a terrible misrepresentation of what I sense is really happening here. This isn’t a rebirth, from the ashes of a wonderful, innovative, inspirational organization, of the community created and nurtured by NMC for more than two decades. This is the reconvening of the members of a dynamic, thoughtful inquisitive, and highly-motivated group of Edunauts—a term coined by Jonathan Nalder and at least two other people, independently of each other!—who as the title of the Unconference suggests, continue to meet and welcome new members into a group of dreamers, doers and drivers interested in being part of the process of shaping a future for learning—to the benefit of those we serve.

And as we left the opening reception Wednesday night and at least a couple of us continued our conversations well into the evening in the parking lot of our hotel, it was clear that our work was not about to begin; it was about to continue with a wonderfully crafted agenda and plenty of work on the table.

N.B. — This is the first of four sets of reflections inspired by the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning in April 2018.

Next: A Day Full of Dreaming, Planning, and Doing


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Social Distancing and Doing Lunch(club)

July 13, 2020

The commonly-understood practice of “doing lunch” has, for some of us, quickly evolved through our efforts to adapt to shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic. Weekly meals with friends at a local diner switched over to weekly gatherings by phone on the same day and time of week as soon as shelter-in-place became the norm here in San Francisco four months ago; we began by preparing meals in our own homes and eating together virtually while having our usual conversations by phone, then moved those weekly virtual gatherings into Zoom when a key member of that Saturday Morning Brunch Club obtained a webcam and headset, and most recently recreated a bit more of those weekly pre-coronavirus meals by ordering food from the original diner—which recently reopened for take-out service—and picking it up in time for our Brunch Club gatherings.

A few of us have had family gatherings, e.g., for birthday parties, via Zoom; used FaceTime to stay in touch with people we cannot currently visit onsite; and have made arrangements with other friends to meet online for dinners where we all cook within our own homes and then eat together via Zoom.

Recognizing that part of what keeps us all fresh and vibrant is the act of meeting new people and cultivating new relationships in our professional settings has led to some fruitful exchanges via conferences that were once primarily onsite and have now moved into online environments, as happened with the third annual ShapingEDU Unconference (April 2020) for “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age”; through onsite meetings of association colleagues, as ATD South Florida Chapter members have innovatively and effectively been doing; and finding and joining long-standing online conference, as was the case for those of us attending a Learning Revolution miniconference on “Emergency Remote Teaching and Learning” in April 2020.

And that’s where LunchClub—described on its website as “an AI [Artificial Intelligence] superconnector that makes introductions for 1:1 video meetings to advance your career” comes into the picture. The unsolicited invitation arrived in my email inbox May 22, 2020, and the note is worth quoting as an indication of the approach taken by those running the service; I’ve added links to the key resources mentioned in that note:

“You’ve been selected to join Lunchclub, a free service that matches professionals for 1:1 video meetings. Lunchclub has a long waitlist, but we found your LinkedIn profile particularly compelling and wanted to reach out. We have been featured in TechCrunch and Forbes and are backed by Andreessen Horowitz.

“Every week, our users explore opportunities and collaborate with people they meet through Lunchclub. If you’d like to skip the waitlist and join them, click on your special link below.

“Not interested? Simply ignore this e-mail and we’ll stop reaching out.”

What intrigued me immediately was the combination of a lack of hard sell; the use of artificial intelligence to foster connections through the service; the financial backing it was already attracting; and the positive documentation provided through the TechCrunch and Forbes articles. The background I found on the three people—Vladimir Novakovski, Hayley Leibson, and Scott Wu—who founded Lunchclub also made it sound very interesting.

Accepting the offer and becoming registered was easy. I filled out a simple form online asking for information about my professional interests and goals in joining the service—in essence, making it extremely clear up front what I hoped to gain from Lunchclub. I responded to a follow-up message asking if/when I would be available for a Lunchclub match that week; how many 45-­minute sessions I wanted to schedule—I’ve consistently opted for one per week to keep things manageable; and any preferences I had in terms of whether I would be connected to someone locally or someone outside of my own community.

The match came quickly. I had my first conversation (via Google Meet, which offered me the additional benefit of being introduced to that tool while actually using it for something potentially productive) a few days later, and had the fantastic experience of being in touch with a local writer and researcher working in UX writing and content strategy. My second outing did not go so well; even though we had both indicated times and days we were available, my match wrote twice to reschedule, then failed to show up at all. Things were quickly back on track with my third match—a copywriter who writes branded content about entertainment, tourism, and finance; blogs about films; had shared a strong interest in journalism, having served an internship with the Columbia Journalism Review fresh out of college. Next up was a writer, actor, and teacher creating socially-conscious, progressive entertainment—including a well-received, fabulous short film currently streaming on HBO. Week Five put me in touch with a freelance copywriter and content strategist who also is a musician. Week Six brought me together with a writer-producer helping companies with creative solutions. And my Week Seven conversation was with a product manager at Google who also works as an interview/career coach in addition to writing a blog, giving workshops, speaking at events, and painting.

All of this would simply be an interesting period-of-pandemic diversion if all we did was meet, chat, say good-bye, and then go our own ways—and there would be absolutely nothing wrong with that. But it’s not was really appeals to me; I already struggle to stay in touch adequately with people I know through the various projects I do and associations I support. What really intrigues me is what these conversation might produce beyond the initial point of contact.

The results, after seven weeks, have been fascinating. I’ve already begun interacting with a few of those Lunchclub matches via social media postings (LinkedIn as well as Facebook). I’ve taken the time to look at some of the work they discussed during our online sessions. To go deeper into what they have posted online. Reading some of what they have produced. And even watching and loving the short film written by and featuring, in an acting role, my Week Four Lunchclub match. I’m in the early stages of collaborating with one of my Lunchclub contacts on what may become a new online course we would produce together.

Most importantly, I take a bit of time at the end of each week to prepare a short set of updates I can send to each of those people I have met—which, of course, has further seeded our ongoing conversations in ways that may produce positive results far beyond what any of us imagined when we first accepted that wonderful invitation to “do Lunchclub” in a time of pandemic-induced social distancing.

–N.B.: This is the fourteenth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and to our continuing interactions online.


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

July 24, 2020

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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