Giving Thanks 2021: ShapingEDU, Saying “Yes,” and Documenting Pandemic Lessons Learned

December 3, 2021

One of the words that leaves me feeling happiest is “yes.” The power of the word “yes” first became obvious to me when I was listening to a (horrible) guest speaker in a graduate-level management class proudly describe the sign hanging over her desk: “What part of no do you not understand?” “Yes” continually exerts a restorative power over me. It encourages me. It tells me that there is a bridge to be crossed successfully. A collaborative effort to be pursued. An acquaintance who is about to become a colleague/partner/collaborator and, with any luck, a friend.

Graphic by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

“Yes” is a word I consistently hear from members of the ShapingEDU community (operating under the auspices of—and with tremendous support and numerous “yeses” from—the members of the University Technology Office at Arizona State University) as part of their collective commitment as “dreamer-doer-drivers” committed to doing whatever they can to help reshape the future of learning in the digital age, One of the most recent (and significant) yeses I heard was from community members participating in the fourth annual ShapingEDU Unconference (July 20-23, 2021) as we were exploring a set of 10 wicked challenges in contemporary learning—with an eye toward framing them within a newly-created structure of five calls to action that would guide our work over the next 12 months.

Graphic by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

At the end of a series of discussions I helped facilitate on the challenge of identifying, documenting, and disseminating stories about how we are rethinking our approach to learning as a result of the teaching-training-learning experiences we and others have had since the pandemic began in early 2020, I posed a simple question to participants in that set of discussions: Are you interested in continuing this discussion after the unconference so we can find ways to implement what we have been talking about here?

The resounding “yes” from several of the participants led us to begin engaging in biweekly one-hour online meetings a few weeks after the conference ended, and those results-oriented conversations are continuing with the involvement of anyone who wants to join us. Our original unconference-session discussions, under the title “365+ Days Later: Post-Pandemic Best Practices,” are continuing under the newly-established, much more playful project name “Are We There Yet? (Capturing the Evolving New Now in Learning).”

Our newly-adopted name covers a lot of ground. It recognizes that we are stepping away from the idea that we are somehow savvy enough to have identified “best practices” when what we are really doing is documenting what seems to be working for now among our brightest, most creative colleagues; the approach here is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It recognizes that we are far from having reached an end-point in our explorations; this really is a situation and a challenge that is continually evolving in the way that all wicked problems continually evolve (which is part of what makes them so wicked). And, most importantly, by asking “are we there yet?”, we are tacitly admitting that we don’t ever completely expect to “get there” in terms of having definitively established a “new now” in learning; the evolving nature of what we face in pandemic-era conditions and beyond suggests that we will be working together for a good long time. And should we ever actually “get there” and recognize that our work in response to this challenge is finished, we probably, in the best traditions of ShapingEDU, will identify a new challenge in teaching-training-learning to pursue together.

There’s much more to this than having established a new name; our biweekly meetings have produced a (still-evolving) planning document that begins with a summary of the steps we plan to take through Are We There Yet?:

  • Each of us will reach out to members of our communities to draw them into this conversation and this project; the potential here is to quickly begin building a global coalition that engages in research through studies, with real-time support in how to respond to challenges.
  • We will draw upon our colleagues and resources at Arizona State University to build this coalition/project.
  • To get the word out that we are seeking collaborators, we will: 
  • Create an introductory video that is posted on the ShapingEDU site to disseminate this story of how we are telling the stories of others
  • Determine where we will house the stories so that they can be shared
  • Look for opportunities (synchronous and asynchronous; online and onsite; through webinars and workshops) to pair stories with lessons learned and facilitate discussions to broadly disseminate what we are observing and documenting; an example of this is initiative created by Are We There Yet? team member Tula Dlamini’s to have members of his community in South Africa come together in ways mirroring how ShapingEDU community members come together during annual unconferences) to explore and document what they are seeing
  • Work at a global level to find ways to integrate the various stories we have with those we find through our efforts.

the earliest activities we are pursuing are creating an online site, before the end of December 2021, for teacher-trainer-learners to submit stories about how they have successfully adapted their work to pandemic conditions; a highly-interactive online workshop to help participants create their stories about pandemic-era learning successes (possibly in January or February 2022); and an online mini-conference (in March or April) to bring teacher-trainer-learners together to find ways to document and share our learning-success stories. We are also working to call attention to first-rate resources, including the recently-published book Learn at Your Own Risk: 9 Strategies for Thriving in a Pandemic and Beyond, by ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence and Are We There Yet? team member Tom Haymes.

There is plenty to do. There are lots of opportunities to be developed. And all we need now is a “yes” from you indicating your interest in being part of the project—which you can do by contacting those of us listed as team leaders on the project page.

N.B.: This is the eighth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways and the thirty-second in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences.


Giving Thanks 2021: ShapingEDU and the Art of Gathering During (and After) the Pandemic Era

December 2, 2021

Writing about ShapingEDU and Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering recently as part of this continuing series of blog posts has made me more grateful than ever for the people and communities that serve as a source of support and inspiration to me in much of the work I do. What connects that disparate group of capital-M Muses is that each, without overtly embracing the label, serves as an activist within the communities served—a theme I intend to address more fully in a different post.

When I think about my colleagues and many other people I have met through my involvement in the ShapingEDU project (under the auspices of the University Technology Office at Arizona State University) and their collective commitment as “dreamer-doer-drivers” committed to doing whatever they can to help reshape the future of learning in the digital age, I think with tremendous appreciation about our collective/collaborative approach to gathering—and our willingness to share lessons learned about gathering with others, as was done through the fabulous ShapingED-YOU Toolkit providing guidance on how to successfully produce “focused, collaborative Unconference and Community Camp-style events.” Our meetings, face-to-face, online, and in blended environments (those wonderful intersections where online and onsite colleagues meet using platforms including Zoom), consistently create the sense of a global meeting room that quickly erases the usual constraints of geography and are, in significant ways, one long-extended, often asynchronous conversation designed to produced positive, measurable results.

At the heart of our approach to gathering is a commitment to listen. To learn from each other. To maintain a playful approach to the work we do. To foster a sense of inclusiveness that welcomes newcomers as well as returning community members. And to focus heavily on those we are attempting to serve through our efforts. (Our commitment to reshaping learning, furthermore, includes a commitment to include students and other learners in our planning efforts and our events.) That’s something that is clearly visible through the online gatherings we have had this year—particularly the fourth annual ShapingEDU Unconference which, because of remaining concerns about gathering onsite during the pandemic, was once again completely held online (over a four-day period in July 2021).

Shaping the unconference around the theme of “Reshaping Wicked Problems” allowed and encouraged us to reshape our unconference structure a bit this year. Where previous unconference gatherings centered on an initial set of 10 actions the community was attempting to pursue, the latest unconference identified (though collaborative pre-conference exchanges online) 10 wicked challenges to be explored by unconference participants with an eye toward framing them within a newly-created structure of five calls to action that would guide our work over the next 12 months.

Among the wicked challenges were attempts to find ways to more effectively connect strategies to the tools we use in teaching-training-learning—an ongoing effort spearheaded by ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence Tom Haymes through the Teaching Toolset project he is developing (and also writing about on the ShapingEDU blog); better engage virtual learners and avoid burnout; and identify, document, and disseminate stories about how we are rethinking our approach to learning as a result of the teaching-training-learning experiences we and others have had since the pandemic began in early 2020—something that has turned into another long-term ShapingEDU project under the newly-adopted name “Are We There Yet? (Capturing the Evolving New Now in Learning).”

A glance at the “living agenda” for the unconference gives you an idea of the approach to and scope of the work we planned to do—and, more importantly, offers you a template you can adapt for your own gatherings. Looking at the archived recordings of some of the sessions on the aforementioned ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel or directly from links within that living agenda will more fully immerse you in what we did—and, possibly, provide you with ideas you can incorporate into your  own action-oriented gatherings. You’ll see the day-long context-setting series of exercises ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence Ruben Puentedura facilitated on the second day of the conference through his use of a Black Swan approach as a framework for our discussions. You’ll see a series of keynote presentations and panel discussions, including an engaging discussion centered on “The Intersection of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Technology” from the third day of the unconference and the tremendously thoughtful and inspiring “Student Panel” discussion that opened the final day of the unconference. An archived recording of the final hour-long unconference report-out session also remains available on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel, along with plenty of other recordings of ShapingEDU unconference sessions, ShapingEDU webinars, and other sessions the community has produced since its formation in early 2018.

If drawing you into this level of immersion in the ShapingEDU community is successful, it will leave me with one more thing for which I will be grateful: I’ll see you there in the community as a contributor to the positive goals we are pursuing.

Next: ShapingEDU, Saying “Yes,” and Documenting Pandemic Lessons Learned

N.B.: This is the seventh in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways and the thirty-first in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences.


Giving Thanks 2021: ShapingEDU Promoting Internet Access

November 30, 2021

When a few of us involved as volunteer community leaders in the ShapingEDU project (under the auspices of the University Technology Office at Arizona State University) asked ourselves in May 2020 what we might productively do to support learning during (and beyond) the coronavirus pandemic era, we were among those recognizing that difficulty accessing the Internet for learning as well as for work was a painfully obvious problem affecting people across the United States.

It didn’t take us long to identify a key role we could play in an already-crowded field of colleagues who had been working diligently and creatively to promote universal broadband access throughout the United States for at least a couple of decades: the fact that we were (and are) a rapidly-evolving community (with global reach) committed, overall, to doing whatever we could to help reshape the future of learning in the digital age, and that we work continually face to face and online in extremely collaborative ways, gave us hope that we might be able to serve as a meeting place for others equally dedicated to promoting universal broadband access throughout the United States. With that in mind, we quickly established the “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative; agreed to meet for up to an hour once a week with work to be done between meetings to keep things moving; established a pattern of trying to complete at least one concrete action at each meeting to support the goal of establishing universal broadband access throughout our country; and initiated a practice of inviting other broadband-access activists to join us for discussions about who collaboration might produce positive results for those without adequate internet access to effectively engage in work and learning.

As 2021 comes to an end and I continue celebrating an extended “Thanksgiving” weekend by expressing gratitude to the activists I continue to encounter in and through ShapingEDU, I have to admit that I’m deeply grateful for the results we have already produced with these creative, collaborative, results-oriented colleagues. Our first year of work, as I noted in a piece for the ShapingEDU blog earlier this year, produced wonderful results. We, with tremendous assistance from colleagues at Arizona State University and numerous volunteers who have joined our weekly meetings, put together a free four-week self-paced course that remains accessible to anyone wanting to learn more about how to effectively advocate for universal broadband access throughout the United States. We compiled and posted an initial collection of stories from Americans plagued by poor or no access to the Internet and shared it with colleagues at the FCC. We facilitated and participated in online sessions (some initiated through ShapingEDU, others organized as part of online conferences or presentations by other groups promoting broadband access) designed to help others identify ways they would become broadband advocates. We posted interviews with inspirational broadband activists on the ShapingEDU blog. And we continually expanded the reach of the initiative to draw key players into the conversations we were organizing and facilitating.

Moving into the second year of operation (in May 2021), we set even higher goals for ourselves. We want to expand the reach of the course we designed and offer at least one formally-scheduled fully-facilitated version of that course to inspire other broadband activists. We want to establish more concrete partnerships with colleagues and organizations that already are well-established as broadband-access advocates. We want to more effectively serve as resources for conferences and other gatherings where broadband activists congregate, dream, and engage in results-oriented planning and action. And we want to further develop the “Connecting for Work and Learning” community as a meeting place for anyone interested in working toward solutions to the broadband-access challenges so many of us face.

Our most recent meetings—including a follow-up conversation we had today with Lyle Ishida, FCC Chief of the Consumer Affairs and Outreach Division (CAOD) (you can view the recording through this link; you’ll need to use the password “egGg8?8T” to open the archived version of the recording) and discussion we have been having with colleagues at Consumer Reports—are producing magnificent collaborative opportunities. We are gearing up for a potentially transformative set of collaborations. We are sharing resources and gaining the benefit of having access to resources produced by our “co-conspirators” in the planning process. And we continue to look for new partners in our effort to create something as transformative as our predecessors did when they pushed for creation of the U.S. Postal Service more than two centuries ago and the electrification of the country nearly a century ago, we hope you will want to join us, too. For more information about how to become involved in “Connecting for Work and Learning,” please visit our project page at ShapingEDU.

Next: ShapingEDU and the Art of Gathering During (and After) the Pandemic Era

N.B.: This is the sixth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Giving Thanks 2021: Shola Richards, Community, and Ubuntu (“I Am, Because We Are”)

November 29, 2021

“Community” and “collaboration” have been at the heart of what I have loved and what I have been doing for many years. Combined, they give me myriad reasons to be grateful for the people in my life and for the circumstances in which I find myself. They are, furthermore, essential elements of the training-teaching-learning opportunities I design and facilitate for the “co-conspirators” in learning I serve. They were at the heart of the Hidden Garden Steps project—creation of a ceramic-tiled staircase and adjacent gardens—I helped shepherd to success here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset district with artists Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr, dozens of volunteers, and hundreds of donors from 2010-2013. And they certainly are keys to any success I see in the social causes I support.

Shola Richards

So when I read Shola Richards’ heartbreakingly beautiful Facebook post (May 20, 2020) about how he “would be scared to death to take…walks [around his own neighborhood] without my girls and my dog” and how, “in the four years living in my house, I have never taken a walk around my neighborhood alone (and probably never will),” he immediately had my attention. Because Shola’s piece struck me as being painfully honest.

“…without them [his daughters] by my side,” he explained, “almost instantly, I morph into a threat in the eyes of some white folks. Instead of being a loving dad to two little girls, unfortunately, all that some people can see is a 6’2” athletically-built black man in a cloth mask who is walking around in a place where he doesn’t belong (even though, I’m still the same guy who just wants to take a walk through his neighborhood). It’s equal parts exhausting and depressing to feel like I can’t walk around outside alone, for fear of being targeted.”

Within the space of several beautifully-written paragraphs, he effectively evokes the experience so many Americans have when community and collaboration are not anywhere near as fully developed as they should be. He also provides a call to positive action, to the spirit of developing communities through maximum amounts of collaboration as much as he provides an indictment of inaction on our part in the face of obvious injustice.

When I come across writing that is this powerful and this honest, I immediately (and gratefully) crave more. So with gratitude for what he had already inspired and anticipation of so much more, I took the actions that made sense to me. I responded to his post and engaged in what continues to be an occasional exchange of notes about what he is doing and how powerfully and positively it motivates me in my own work. I learned more about his work by watching his TED talk on the concept of “Ubuntu” (I am, because we are.) I developed a deeper sense of how he worked as an advocate for greater levels of civility through empathy and collaboration in our workplaces by watching the brief promotional video on his website. I took advantage of an opportunity to join an online session in which he was the keynote presenter. And, ultimately, because what I was really seeking was more of his writing, I devoured his two books, Making Work Work: The Positivity Solution for Any Work Environment and Go Together: How the Concept of Ubuntu Will Change How You Live, Work, and Lead.

Making Work Work is both a manifesto and a paeon to those would are committed to and want to be engaged in fostering greater levels of civility in our workplaces. Published in 2016, the book lays out a roadmap toward workplace civility and offers a very enticing invitation and challenge to become a “Solutionist” dedicated to “keeping it R.E.A.L.”—creating workplaces and a world where Relentless respect, Endless energy, Addressing the ABC’s of Workplace Negativity, and Lasting Leadership combine to address the bullying and meanness that takes us down. Reading Making Work Work a few years after it was initially published and within the highly-polarized context of the final year of the Trump administration made me appreciate it at a level far beyond the focus on workplace bullying; it clearly, without overtly doing so, was laying the groundwork for what he wrote in that Facebook post and what he turned to in Go Together.

While we are still firmly grounded in keeping it R.E.A.L., we find ourselves, in Go Together, more overtly confronting bigotry, hatred, and intolerance. We are challenged to work first upon ourselves—our assumptions, our day-to-day behavior, and what he refers to as our “self-awareness crisis,” which is the situation in which our lack of self-awareness prevents us, as a mentor of his once said, from recognizing that we are “the raindrop responsible for the flood.” Some of the chapter headings hint at the gems we will encounter here: “the unpleasant reality behind good intentions,” “the importance of healing yourself first,” and “kindness is not weakness: the heart of the Ubuntu leader.” But it’s not a book that tears us down or opens wound then left untreated; it’s a book from one wonderful American to any other American horrified by the path so many of us have chosen and looking for an outstretched hand offering a path to stronger communities with greater levels of positive collaboration designed to address some of our greatest challenges.

I’m grateful for all Shola offers. For the heartfelt stories. For the challenges and accompanying support he extends to any of us willing to join him. And for the inspiration he so consistently provides. Looking at his Facebook account this afternoon as I was finishing this piece, I came across a quote he offered: “What we allow is what will continue.” And it makes me think, again, about how important it is that we allow Shola and others as honest and inspirational as he is into our lives. And reciprocate by inviting them into ours. For community. For collaboration. And for our future.

Next: ShapingEDU Promoting Internet Access

N.B.: This is the fifth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Giving Thanks 2021: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering

November 28, 2021

When you’re still thinking about, feeling grateful for, and applying lessons learned several months after reading a book, you know the book is a winner—which perfectly describes Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters and how it will transform anyone interested in making each gathering/meeting/training-teaching-learning offering as engaging and memorable as it can be.

Priya Parker; photo by Jeff Allen, from Parker’s website

Described (by its subtitle) as a book on “how we meet and why it matters,” it might not immediately catch the attention of my colleagues in training-teaching-learning—which is a real shame, for in adjusting our thinking so that “lessons,” “workshops,” “courses,” and “panel discussions” are seen through the powerful lens of “gatherings,” we find magnificent ways to liberate ourselves and our learners—what some of us call “co-conspirators in learning”—from the “tedium of learning” and find new ways to turn those lessons/workshops/courses/panel discussions into engaging, transformative gatherings with long-term impact.

The initial chapters of this engagingly-written book focus on social gatherings and the gatherings that occur when, for example, students and senior citizens living together in a retirement community interact over a long period of time. She offers concise reminders that successful gatherings grow out of myriad up-front decisions about the purpose of the gathering, the location in which it will be held, the duration of the gathering, and even the number of people who will be included in the gathering—all of which, of course, are elements considered and decisions made as we design and facilitate effective, memorable, transformative learning opportunities. She reminds us that “…a venue can and should do one further thing: displace people. Displacement is simply about breaking people out of their habits. It is about waking people up from the slumber of their own routines” (p. 62)—again, something that any creative, learner-centric trainer-teacher-learning facilitator knows and considers regardless of whether a gathering is taking place onsite or online.

One of the sections where she tremendously inspires us in our lifelong-learning environments is in her discussion, near the middle of the book (pp. 172-173), on the importance of providing a memorable opening to any gathering:

“Openings are a big missed opportunity in gatherings. They all too often underwhelm us, and they don’t have to. After all, openings lay the track for a gathering….Our brain effectively chooses for us what we will remember later. Studies show that audiences disproportionately remember the first 5 percent, the last 5 percent, and a climactic moment of a talk….And yet we often pay the least attention to how we open and close them, treating these elements as afterthoughts.”

Continuing on this theme (pp. 177-178), she reminds us that we have plenty of adaptable models for providing stimulating, memorable openings for our gatherings—including the formats common today in movies and television programs:

“The cold open is the practice of starting a TV show directly with a scene rather than with opening credits….Your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people. And in grabbing them, it should both awe the guests and honor them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.”

And that, for me, is the reason I’m including Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering in this series of “Giving Thanks” essays: I’m grateful that I came across that passage about the cold open and then had an opportunity to discuss and explore it with Stephen Hurley during an episode of our “Collaborations in Learning” conversations for his voicEd Radio program earlier this year; it made me completely change the way I open any learning opportunity I design and facilitate face-to-face or online. Gone are the (occasional) openings I used to offer about what was on the agenda for the session I was about to facilitate; the learners already knew that from the session or course description that had lured them to that particular learning gathering. Gone are the introductory comments designed to provide a brief overview of whatever topic we are going to cover; that, again, is generally covered in the brief descriptions or pre-session work that so often accompanies sessions I facilitate.

What we are left with is the best, most engaging story I can provide—that cold-open approach that grabs a learner’s attention, immediately inspires conversation, makes my co-conspirators want to know more about the people or circumstances at the heart of that story, and makes it clear that we are not going to waste time on turgid, unnecessary scene-setting. We’re here to work, to learn, and, in the best of situations, have some fun along the way through the act of sharing stories and drawing, from those stories, ideas we can immediately adapt in our workplaces or other places where what has been learned is meant to be applied. We are left with learning as storytelling and community-building rather than something that is focused on a lecture and ends with a quiz or formal exam.

There’s plenty more meat on the bones of this book. Parker leads us through an exploration of the value of storytelling. She describes the importance of creating gatherings that are “safe” places as well as places that offer challenges—those places where we are not afraid to take risks (the sort of personal risks obvious to any learner who tries to avoid the pain of “failure” while learning, even though temporary failure is an integral part of the learning process).

And she eventually travels full circle by coming back to a discussion of the combination of supporting vulnerability in our gatherings while fostering storytelling as she quotes Moth founder George Dawes Green (p. 212):

“Story is about a decision that you made. It’s not about what happens to you. And if you hit that and you get your vulnerability and you understand the stakes, and a few other things, people will intuitively find great stories to tell, and as soon as they do, we know them. We know them as human beings. This is no longer my boss’s colleague. This is a real person who had heartbreak. Oh, I know that.”

Parker, nearing the end of her book, reminds us that gatherings need to include appropriate, satisfying conclusions/endings (p. 268): “Part of preparing guests for reentry is helping them find a thread to connect the world of the gathering to the world outside.” And, in a parallel moment of recognition, we recognize that the learning opportunities—the gatherings—we facilitate also need to end with those all-important moment of preparing our learners for reentry into the environments in which they will—with a sense of gratitude for what they have obtained during their time with us—put lessons learned to work. If our gatherings produce those gem-like moments, we are well on our way to success…and a reputation for gatherings worth attending.

Next:  Shola Richards, Community, and Ubuntu (“I Am, Because We Are”)

N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Giving Thanks 2021: Stephen Hurley and voicEd Radio

November 27, 2021

As the coronavirus pandemic started shutting things down here in the United States in March 2020, many of us were scrambling to find ways to stay in touch with cherished friends and colleagues. We quickly began exploring ways to innovatively respond to our rapidly-changing training-teaching-learning environments, and we also looked for ways to more advantageously build upon the online relationships we already had in place.­­

Stephen Hurley

One of the unexpected pleasures for me, as the pandemic continued to change the way we all work and play, was re-engaging with Stephen Hurley, whose voicEd Radio programming remains a bright light in terms of innovative online programming directed toward “a community of researchers, educators, students, parents and policy-thinkers committed to a dynamic vision of knowledge mobilization in Canada’s education space” featuring “podcasting and live broadcasting to tackle the big questions facing K-12 and post-secondary education in Canada and beyond.”

Although our paths, before the pandemic changed our world, only crossed occasionally—often through the efforts of our mutual friend/colleague Jonathan Nalder (whose lovely Edunauts podcasts were a staple of voicEd Radio programming for a couple of years)—I always found Stephen to be one of those people with whom conversations easily resumed regardless of how much time passed between each of those exchanges. So when Stephen reached out to me early this year to propose a biweekly half-hour segment that would be recorded in my time zone at 6:30 am Monday mornings, I leapt without hesitation, figuring that a half-hour with Stephen every other week was well worth whatever loss of sleep accompanied that commitment. And I was right!

To this day, I remain grateful that we kept that commitment throughout the first half of 2021 and recorded a dozen of what (at least for us) were some lovely, playful, memorable conversations connected by the theme of “collaborations in learning.” For me, at least, they were far more than ephemeral conversations; they drew upon pre-determined topics ranging from books we were reading and online conferences we were attending to powerful, easily adaptable examples of online collaboration we were seeing, and they often carried over into other work I was doing, including a blog piece on the practice of treating learners as co-conspirators in the learning process.

The first episode in that series focused on my recently-released book, Change the World Using Social Media. As he noted in his summary of the episode, we talked about “the power of social media platforms to create community, nurture a sense of action, if not activism, and what this could mean for our future world.” And, more importantly, we established a practice of trying to create threads from one episode/conversation to the next, often by pulling one comment from the latest episode and creating a thread to a related topic in the next episode.

One of Stephen’s superpowers, for me, is his ability to move seamlessly from the role of interviewer—posing stimulating questions designed to keep a conversation moving forward in engaging, productive ways—to the role of equal partner in a conversation to the role of willingly playing foil to his interviewees in ways that produce playfully serious exchanges filled with ideas that any interested listener can incorporate into their own training-teaching-learning efforts. Another is his willingness to look for connections to previous conversations so that a series of recordings along the lines of what we did together can serve as stand-along podcasts or be heard as an extended multi-episode conversation with nuanced, multiple layers of interactions. Those “superpowers,” combined, have provided me with tremendous examples of approaches and techniques that I have absorbed, sponge-like, into my own work—to the benefit of the learners I serve.

There are numerous moments from those conversations that have stayed with me far longer than the amount of time I put into preparing for them. One that has proved to be transformative was the discussion we had about Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering; again, Stephen beautifully summarizes the conversation by describing it as an exploration of how “a gathering begins the moment you send out the invitation” and what that means, along with what impact it could have on the way we plan our virtual and face-to-face events—something I have continued to adapt into my own work with learners and other colleagues throughout the year. Another of those moments involved an exploration of the role of storytelling and an examination of the difference between stories and anecdotes.

As the current year comes to an end, I remain thankful  for all that Stephen has offered me and all the inspiration he has provided. And I hope you’ll support Stephen (and your own learning process) by tuning in to voicEd Radio whenever you can.

Next: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering

N.B.: This is the third in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping change the world in positive ways, and the thirtieth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences. Next: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering.


Giving Thanks 2021: Howard Prager and the Commitment to Make Someone’s Day

November 26, 2021

We all know plenty of people who spend lots of time talking about what we (rather than they) can do to change the world in positive ways. And we also—if we are extremely fortunate—know a handful of people who, through the examples they set with their own behavior, inspire us to emulate them in their diligent, well-focused, heart-felt world-changing efforts.

Howard Prager

Howard Prager, author of Make Someone’s Day: Becoming a Memorable Leader in Work and Life as well as being a cherished friend and colleague through ATD (the Association for Talent Development), consistently sets an example worth following. He incorporates into his daily actions a simple, easily replicable pattern of expressing gratitude to those who do something that makes his day. And that is the simple, powerful, transformative key to what Howard encourages us to do: by telling someone that they have made his day, he makes their day—as he did with me when we were repeatedly face to face while attending the 2021 ATD International Conference & Exposition in Salt Lake City.

At a time when we are often preoccupied by the challenges and tragic effects the spread of the coronavirus has had on work and play, Howard has found a way, through what he does and through his wonderfully inspiring book, to spread an entirely different sort of virus—one that “infects” us with joy and gratitude to combat the depression, divisiveness, and meanness that has become such a prevalent, overwhelming, and often unchallenged part of our daily lives. His story-driven book, full of examples of people who have made his and other people’s day, consistently circles back to how the simple act of telling someone that he has made their day does, in fact, make their day as well. Very much grounded in the spirit of engaging in random acts of kindness, Howard’s approach turns simple acts into an almost subversively positive way to give us one of the greatest gifts anyone can give us: a sense of joy and an overt acknowledgement of the power supportive individuals play in nurturing and sustaining the best of the organizations and communities to which we belong.

“Compliments can be thought of as little gifts of love,” Howard writes (p. 51). “They are not asked for or demanded. They tell a person they are worthy of notice. Complements are a great way to acquire and practice social interaction skills because the returns are immediate. They foster a positive atmosphere and further communication and allow for better two-way exchanges. The more specific you can be and the closer to the actual event, the more people know that they are being complimented about and makes their day.”

It’s a strong passage in a book filled with strong passages and full of advice we can adapt immediately. But what makes it—and much of the rest of the content of the book—meaningful is that it is immediately followed by an anecdote that brings the message home strongly and clearly to any reader: the story of how Howard’s brother-in-law John made a fifth-grade student’s day by telling this “amazing girl” (who was clearly lacking in self-confidence in spite of having just won an award for an essay about how “beauty comes from within and that everyone is beautiful in their own way”) that she, too, “was an amazing girl,” a “beautiful” girl (“Don’t let anyone tell you differently”), and one with “a bright future.” Her reaction, Howard tells us, was to thank John for the kind words as “tears welled in her eyes.” And the wonderful punch line to John’s action was, as he told Howard, that “I hope that in some small way I made her day, because her tears and essay certainly made mine.”

“There are many benefits in giving compliments,” Howard continues (p. 52). “First, focusing on and noticing the good qualities of the people around us gives our moods a boost. Second, a feeling of positivity is enhanced by compliments. The effects of positivity rebounds to us, creating a positive atmosphere. And third, it provides positive neurological impacts for the person doing it.”

We could spend all day sharing stories from Make Someone’s Day, but you can read them yourselves. A far more productive use of our time at this moment is to acknowledge and document how Howard himself lives and promotes his philosophy. During one of our conversations, Howard was kind enough to ask me how my own recently-released book (Change the World Using Social Media) was doing in terms of reaching its potential audience. Admitting that I am consistently looking for new ways to connect that book to readers, I was overwhelmed by how Howard immediately turned the conversation into a very fruitful half-hour impromptu workshop on how to pursue opportunities I might not otherwise have considered. And, in the spirit of adopting a Make Someone’s Day approach, I did not miss the opportunity, at the end of that particular conversation, to tell Howard that he had just made my day. Which, unsurprisingly, made Howard’s day, too!

As I think about the people in my life who inspire gratitude, I can’t help but think about how understated they often are in their approach to the transformative work they do. Howard, for example, is someone I have known through mutual friends/colleagues at ATD, as a solid, thoughtful, often-reserved participant in conversations we’ve had in group settings (in spite of his own assertion that he is an extrovert). He never consciously makes himself the center of attention when he is part of the lively, sometimes raucous conversations that take place when ATD members gather—a remarkable achievement in our training-teaching-learning environment, where all of us thrive on telling stories that inevitably cast at least a bit of a spotlight on ourselves as well as on the work we are doing. He never is overtly self-aggrandizing. The word that best describes him, for me, is the word “listener.” He listens. He reflects. He makes an occasional contribution to the conversation. And if we are particularly insightful and diligent, we take note of those gemlike observations he lightly tosses our way and we look for ways to incorporate them into our daily routines and our overall approach to the work we do. So that we spread the spirit of those wonderful colleagues, like Howard, in ways that make someone’s day. And then circle back to make ours, too.

Next: Stephen Hurley and voicEd Radio

N.B.: This is the second in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Giving Thanks 2021: Maurice Coleman and T is for Training at 300

November 25, 2021

As we look forward  (on December 2, 2021) to recording Episode #300 (you can listen to the episode here)—where have all those years gone?—of Maurice Coleman’s fabulous T is for Training podcast for trainer-teacher-learners working in and with libraries, I think, with gratitude, of all that Maurice and that community add to my life and to the lives of so many others.

Initiated in 2008 when Maurice decided—correctly, as it turns out—that a podcast might be an effective way to “replicate the vibe and comradery I felt at conferences where I was surrounded with brilliant members of my ‘tribe’ of trainers, computer folks and other gear/near/cool folk heads.”

T has always been more than a podcast. It’s a virtual meeting space that occasionally—at least before the coronavirus pandemic drastically altered our training-teaching-learning landscape and so much more—went onsite for live recordings at conferences where members of the T is for Training community gathered. It’s a biweekly opportunity to learn with and from an ever-growing group of creative, inspired, playful, and irreverent colleagues who also are, in every sense of the word, “friends” worth celebrating. It’s a Frans Johansson-like “intersection”—one of those places where people meet, talk, learn, and then go their separate ways to disseminate what they have learned. In other words, it’s the sort of place where people who want to change the world in small-, medium-, and large-scale ways can gather to remain inspired.

Having joined the show/community as a sporadic attendee more than a decade ago and eventually becoming a core member of the group that keeps the show evolving while not abandoning that original commitment to “replicate the vibe and comradery” we so often feel at onsite and online conferences, I remain deeply grateful for what Maurice and so many others bring to those biweekly conversations. It was Maurice who, by having me participate in those online discussions, took my own online skills and presence to new levels of achievement and made me aware of how much any trainer-teacher-learner can assimilate through the act of participating on a regular basis in well-facilitated online conversations. It was Maurice who believed in me enough to offer—before even one word was written of the book—to write an introduction to a book on training, learning, and leadership with a colleague. It was Maurice who continually introduced me—and continues to introduce me—to people within and beyond the expansive boundaries of our industry to people well worth knowing (and whom I probably would not have met without his generous and timely intercessions). And it is Maurice who serves as a mentor-colleague-brother patiently, supportively, and with a killer sense of humor that lifts me even in my darkest moments. Anyone who didn’t feel compelled to acknowledge gratitude for that combination of gifts probably ought to just walk away from Thanksgiving Day celebrations and never come back!

As is the case with any endeavor worth pursuing, T is for Training continues to evolve—something evident to anyone who has been participating in or listening to the recordings completed since July 2021—a period of time during which we have more consciously drawn in new participants to discuss their recently-published books and/or their recent conference presentations on challenging topics well worth exploring. The series of guests—some of whom are well on their way, through ongoing participation, to becoming “Usual Suspects” in the T is for Training community in this ongoing set of conversations—began an interview/conversation with cherished colleague R. David Lankes, who joined us to talk about his newly released book Forged in War: How a Century of War Created Today’s Information Society. We followed that up two weeks later with a conversation centered around Usual Suspect/Keeper of the T is for Training blog/author Jill Hurst-Wahl on the topic of the impact volunteering has on a person’s life and career—in honor of Jill having received the Special Libraries Association John Cotton Dana [Lifetime Achievement] Award in July 2021.   

August 2021 found us again combining the return of a cherished colleagueClark Quinn—for a discussion of his newly-released Learning Science for Instructional Designers: From Cognition to Application—and an opportunity to explore new avenues, this time by scheduling an hour-long conversation, with writer-friend-colleague James Richardson (one of my first editors, dating back to that period of time when we were both working for the UCLA Daily Bruin) on the theme of “moving from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ in training-teaching-learning.” It was a unique program for T in that Jim does not work for libraries; has teaching-training-learning in his life as a subsidiary rather than primary element of his lifelong career arc that started with journalism, has included publication of a thoughtful, engaging, well-balanced biography of Willie Brown; and took a complete career turn that led him to become an Episcopalian minister who, among other things, served as Chaplain for the California State Senate for two terms between 2005 and 2008. (It was Jim’s story to me earlier this year about how he moved from “no” to “yes” in terms of leaving his journalism career to begin his seminary studies that led to the invitation to discuss that theme within the context of training-teaching-learning.)

September, October, and November brought equally inspirational conversations featuring a variety of new and returning faces including Sardek Love, Elaine Biech, Rita Bailey, and I exploring what we had learned about training-teaching-learning-presenting as a result of our participation in the 2021 ATD International Conference & Exposition in Salt Lake City; Tom Haymes and Ruben Puentedura on sustainability, antifragility, and gamification in training-teaching-learning (Tom has also been featured several times as we have talked about lessons learned from his thoughtful, story-laden book Learn at Your Own Risk: 9 Strategies for Thriving in a Pandemic and Beyond); Brian Washburn on his book What’s Your Formula: Combine Learning Element for Impactful Training; Ken Phillips on assessment and evaluation in training-teaching-learning; Jared Bendis on just about anything he wants to discuss—in this case, back-to-back episodes on gamification in learning and, expanding on a comment he made in that episode, the follow-up conversation about the role hope plays in learning; and, in our most recent outing, the return of Elaine Biech and Rita Bailey, with their/our colleague Tonya Wilson, for a deeply thoughtful, honest, heart-felt exploration of diversity, equity, and inclusion in training-teaching-learning inspired by their session at the ATD conference in September.

These are my peeps—a fact for which I remain tremendously grateful today, on Thanksgiving Day 2021, and throughout the year, These are your peeps—something I hope you will benefit from by listening to what they said on T is for Training, through the archived podcasts, and sharing links to those recordings to help us reach the audience the show deserves.

T is for Training is a meeting place for all of us; hope you’ll join us for one (or more) of our biweekly Thursday evening (9 pm ET/6 pm PT) recording sessions via TalkShoe. I suspect you’ll be grateful you did.

Next: Howard Prager on how to make someone’s day

N.B.: This is the first in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


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).


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