ALA 2015 Annual Conference: Digital Literacy, Onsite-Online Learning, & No Colleague Left Behind

August 6, 2015

Helping colleagues learn how to create blended onsite-online learning spaces by actually creating blended onsite-online learning spaces is an exercise we are far from exhausting, as I saw once again while facilitating a session at the American Library Association (ALA) 2015 Annual Conference here in San Francisco a month ago.

Rethinking_Digital_Literacy--Course_GraphicBeing able to foster this sort of blended interaction seems to me to be another critically-important digital-literacy skill along the lines of what colleagues are exploring in our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course; is not at all difficult or costly to do if we creatively use tech tools readily available to many of us; and actually becomes a fun and engaging way for many of us to extend the size of the learning spaces we typically inhabit, we again saw during that “Blend It” session sponsored by ALA’s Library and Information Technology Association (LITA).

The concept, which I’ve explored with colleagues in a variety of settings, is straightforward: using little more than a laptop with a webcam, a projector and screen, and some form of audio system (either a small, portable set of speakers or a connection to an existing sound system within the onsite space that serves as the anchor for our efforts), we create real-time multiple levels of communication between learners/colleagues in a physical setting and colleagues who join us via their own online access points anywhere in the world. This quickly transforms those offsite learners/colleagues from being part of a “left behind” group to being active participants in a learning space that can be thousands of miles wide if those colleagues come from a variety of countries.

ALA_San_Francisco--2015_LogoWhat makes this personally rewarding for all involved is that we continue to learn through experimentation. The earliest effort I was lucky enough to help design and facilitate used Skype as the tool uniting an offsite presenter with approximately 200 colleagues here in San Francisco for a dynamic and tremendously rewarding exchange. The experiments continued a few years later when two colleagues and I used Skype and Twitter to connect onsite and online participants in a wide-ranging conversation about how we could incorporate these tools and these blended spaces into effective learning spaces. New Media Consortium colleague Samantha Adams Becker and I continue to push this particular learning envelop via Google Hangouts in a variety of settings, so I was ready, at the ALA Annual Conference this year, to carry it a step further by adding a “bring your own device” element to the conversation.

After introducing onsite participants to the concepts we were exploring, Harford County Public Library tech trainer Maurice Coleman and I demonstrated the concept by having Maurice step outside the room, use his own smartphone to join a Google Hangout I had started with my own laptop and was projecting onto a large screen that everyone in the room could see, and carry on a brief conversation that those in the room could join by addressing questions to him via the microphone that was embedded in the laptop.

LITA_LogoThe magic moment came when he physically returned to the room—it’s worth noting that by remaining visible and audible via that smartphone, he had never really left the room or the conversation—and we offered onsite participants a challenge: quickly identify someone you know could not be here at the conference, try to reach them using your own mobile device, and bring them into the room now via a Google Hangout. It was learning at its best: those unfamiliar with Hangouts helped others try to set up individual sessions; those familiar with Hangouts tried to initiate their own. And those who were successful let the rest of us know that had eliminated another member of the “left behind” corps through that virtual contact.

ala_leftbehindAt its peak, we had nearly a dozen individual hangouts happening simultaneously, and those in the room completely made the learning space their own: some explained to their friends what they were doing and what others were accomplishing; a few kept those sessions live for the remainder of the time we had together. And one particularly creative learner left her seat and gave her offsite colleague a virtual tour of the room by walking around and introducing our offsite colleague to others who were onsite.

It may have been gimmicky. It may have been far from pretty. But it was an exploration of digital literacy and educational technology at work in a way that provided a visceral example of how far we literally have come together. How easy it is for us to foster those levels of training, teaching, learning, and collaboration when we’re not afraid to risk failure in seeking small and large successes. And how easy it is to have fun while creating memorable, meaningful learning experiences that will continue spreading long after that formal session ended.

N.B. – This is the fourth (and final) in a series of reflections inspired by the American Library Association 2015 Annual Conference in San Francisco and the fifth in a series of reflections inspired by our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course.


ALA 2015 Annual Conference: LITA Top Tech Trends, Digital Literacy, and Conversing Fast and Slow

July 31, 2015

LITA_LogoOne interesting tech trend that didn’t seem to draw any attention at a first-rate “Top Tech Trends” presentation at the American Library Association (ALA) 2015 Annual Conference here in San Francisco last month is inspiring me to write about the panel discussion nearly a month after it took place: the trend toward (and digital-literacy skill of) using online resources to extend a moment of conversation over a potentially very long period of time. The extended moment we’re going to have as a case study here is the one that began with that session on June 28, 2015, continues as I write this on July 31, 2015, and extends further into whatever day you’re reading and, with any luck, joining the conversational moment by responding to it.

There were plenty of notable tech trends covered during that session (viewable in an archived recording) sponsored and facilitated by the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA), and I’ll return to those by drawing from what we might call a Tweeter’s Digest version created in the form of an edited Storify transcript of the tweets coming out of the session.

ALA_San_Francisco--2015_LogoBut let’s focus, for a moment, on the larger, paradoxical situation/long-term trend in which we are, at the same time, driven to respond as quickly as possible online to what we encounter and yet, at the same time, are equally at ease finding something that has been online for an extended period of time before we discover and—more importantly—respond to it as if it were newly created rather than disdainfully treating it as something waiting for someone to breathe new life into it. That’s what we might call “conversing, fast and slow” if we were to puckishly name it by modifying the title of Daniel Kahneman’s thoughtful treatise Thinking, Fast and Slow.

At a time when we are sometimes (mistakenly) encouraged to believe that responses to online posts (e.g., in Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and a variety of other social media tools) must receive immediate responses if they are to receive any response at all, I’m encouraged to find that responding to older posts, articles, or other resources leads to some amazingly reflective and rewarding exchanges creating those very long moments I’m attempting to describe here. And that’s what is inspiring me to return to what some might consider to be “old news”—a brief summary and reaction to an event that happened last month—with the understanding that the delay in calling attention to the panel discussion is far less important than the act of extending the reach of that conversation via this article, the link to the archived recording, and the link to the Storify transcript which includes attendees’ initial in-the-moment reaction to the descriptions of the tech trends under review.

An interesting and important theme connecting the various panelists’ tech trends descriptions was something library staff members often try to foster: collaborative efforts combined with a commitment to providing access to useful resources. As we heard about continuing efforts to provide “free, ubiquitous internet access in cities,” we had the visceral example of the LinkNYC project, a collaborative effort between City Bridge, New York City officials, and others; it’s designed to provide around-the-clock free Internet access and touchscreen-tablet interface with City services and other resources. As we heard about cross-sector collaboration as a tech trend, we had the possibility of previously-unimagined sharing of data between a variety of organizations in ways that served those using services provided by those organizations. And when we heard about an apparent renaissance in podcasting, we had colleagues jumping into the onsite-online conversation via Twitter to suggest partnerships between library staff and podcast producers, and other colleagues tweeting podcasts that might be of interest to those engaged in the session.

Rethinking_Digital_Literacy--Course_GraphicThere is plenty more to explore in the Storify transcript and the archived recording, but what brings us full circle here is the realization that by reading this article, following the links to resources of interest to us, and responding, we immediately become part of the extended moment that transforms a one-time panel discussion into part of a continuing conversation that enriches all of us, fast and slow. And adds to what we as trainer-teacher-learners can foster.

N.B. – This is the third in a series of reflections inspired by the American Library Association 2015 Annual Conference in San Francisco and the fourth in a series of reflections inspired by our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course.


Rethinking Digital Literacy: Defining Moments

July 17, 2015

With the roll-out of a new four-week ALA Editions online “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course a few days ago, I’m once again happily immersed in an ever-expanding, extremely intriguing moment of training-teaching-learning-exploring with a fantastic group of colleagues.

Rethinking_Digital_Literacy--Course_GraphicAt the heart of the course is a newly-forming community of learning (comprised of 45 library staff members and administrators from the United States and several other countries) creatively tackling the challenge of attempting to define digital literacy in ways that help community members more effectively design, develop, and deliver learning opportunities to foster greater digital literacy among those they serve. And there’s the rub: it turns out that even defining the term, as we’re seeing from Doug Belshaw’s Ed.D thesis (What is ‘digital literacy’?), is one of those enticingly wicked problems—something that is “difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements”—that can keep us up late into the night…for many nights.

I have gladly and very rewardingly spent quite a bit of time exploring digital literacy as a result of participating in discussions that began among those of us enrolled in the Educational Technology & Media MOOC—#etmooc—in early 2013. Some of those explorations led me to what I believe to be an essential digital literacy skill: an ability to work within much different time frames than we normally envision—time frames in which a “moment” (particularly in online learning, as described by Pekka Ihanainen and John Moravec in 2011) extends forward over periods of weeks, months, and even years while also extending backward as we come across, and respond to, threads of conversations we hadn’t previously seen. Think of all these exchanges as one magnificent synchronously asynchronous moment, and you begin to see what some of us are already viscerally experiencing.

Let’s be explicit here before we drown in jargon and fanciful proposals. Exploring digital literacy within the flexible structure of #etmooc started as a shared two-week journey with colleagues worldwide. By interacting with each other synchronously as well as asynchronously, supported by first-rate learning facilitators—including Alec Couros and Belshaw himself—we learned plenty. At the end of those two weeks, we walked away with more questions than answers, as is often the case when we are drawn into the exhilarating challenge of attempting to address a wicked problem. The result is that some of us continued to explore the theme; found and responded to tweets, blog posts, and online articles; and became part of an ongoing conversation with no easy-to-define beginning or ending point.

Even more rewarding for those of us who continue to explore ways to better serve our learners was the realization that the #etmooc connectivist approach provided plenty of inspiration as to how we can interact with and engage learners—an invaluable tool in a world where adult learning—particularly workplace learning—is often mistakenly viewed as something that detracts from “real work” rather than being seen as an integral element of successful work.

Building upon what I had already been doing to engage online learners (e.g., facilitating online office hours through Facebook, tweet chats, Google Hangouts, and other social media platforms), my colleagues and I continually look for ways to foster the creation and growth of communities of learning that support results-driven learning—we’re looking for positive, results-driven, meaningful change among learners here, not just blasting through a one-time session that produces nothing more than a learning badge or certificate of completion that fades almost as quickly as memories of the learning session do.

etmoocPerhaps one of the key lessons learned in that connectivist massive open online course (MOOC) was that rewarding, connected, significant learning is going to expand beyond the time constraints we initially expect to face when diving into a course with specific start and end dates—the #etmooc community, for example, continues to thrive long after the course formally ended. We need to keep that in mind; plan for it; and, when appropriate, support it so that our—and our learners’—learning goals are met.

This more or less brings us full circle to the current Rethinking Digital Literacy course. Inspired by those #etmooc discussions and creatively flexible pedagogical approaches, I developed a course that begins within a formal learning management system (Moodle); offers opportunities for the learners to carry the discussions and the learning beyond the boundaries of that course (e.g., into blog postings, tweets, shared videos); and encourages the learners to explore and use any digital tools they want to use in their exploration of digital literacy. Much to my delight, the discussions among the learners are already well underway just days after the course formally opened to them.

The spirit of exploring digital literacy via their digital literacy tools is stunningly and encouragingly on display within the course discussion boards. One learner, quickly understanding that the challenge of defining digital literacy is going to be an iterative process, posted an initial definition that was followed by two refinements within the first few days all of us began working together. A few others are already reaching out to each other to establish a formal hashtag that they can use to extend their conversations into Twitter—one way of retaining access to their discussions long after their access to the learning management system ends. Another, with a strong background in IT, is already extending our definitions by suggesting that one aspect of digital literacy involves “an ability to translate the functionality of one [digital] application or format to another”—in essence suggesting that digital literacy implies an ability to help others learn how to use digital tools and resources.

What is striking about all of this is the breadth of experience, the depth of thought, and the levels of engagement these adult learners are already bringing to the course in its earliest stages—and how many apparently disparate learning moments are combining into a shared/collaborative moment that is continuing to grow as I write these words.

Ultimately, I suspect that our collaborations will lead us to acknowledge this defining moment as one in which, by attempting to define digital literacy/literacies and expand our view of the synchronous and asynchronous moments we share in our online training-teaching-learning endeavors, we gain a deeper understanding of what digital literacy might be, how it works, and what it means to us and to those we serve in a rapidly evolving learning and work environment.

N.B.: This is the first in a series of reflections inspired by our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course.


ALA 2015 Annual Conference: Community, Pride, and Hugs

July 2, 2015

Anyone who still sees libraries primarily as places to borrow books certainly wasn’t onsite for the opening general session of the American Library Association (ALA) 2015 Annual Conference here in San Francisco last Friday afternoon. It was an event that set the tone for the entire conference for many of us. It reminded us how interwoven libraries and library staff members are with the communities they serve. And it was a perfect way to celebrate the larger events unfolding around us.

ALA_San_Francisco--2015_LogoThose of us arriving onsite early in the day for a variety of preconference activities and informal conversations with friends and colleagues were primed for certain levels of excitement. We were about to see more than 22,000 members of our community from all over the United States and other parts of the world. We knew there would be plenty of festivities centered on SF Pride activities (including the Pride Parade) all weekend. And we knew that ALA staff was doing its usual first-rate job of creating a conference guaranteed to inspire onsite as well as offsite Association members by offering more than 2,400 learning opportunities over a five-day period.

We could not, however, have anticipated that we would be together here in San Francisco on the morning that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality would be announced and the afternoon that Roberta Kaplan, a key player in the efforts to achieve marriage equality, would be serving as a keynote speaker onsite. News about the ruling quickly spread around the conference site—Moscone Center—that morning, priming us for a major celebration at the opening session—and Kaplan didn’t let us down with her from-the-heart description of her personal and professional investments in promoting marriage equality.

Kaplan--Then_Comes_MarriageDrawing heavily from the opening pages of her upcoming (October 2015) book (with Lisa Dickey), Then Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act], she recalled the far-from-encouraging moment when she abruptly and unexpectedly came out to her parents. Visiting her in New York City (in 1991) during the weekend of the annual Gay Pride Parade, they were in her apartment as her mother became increasingly, openly critical of the parade and those who supported it. After Kaplan repeatedly, unsuccessfully told her mother to stop offering those unwelcome comments, Kaplan ended up coming out to her parents by responding to her mother’s question, “What’s the matter? Are you gay or something?” with a blunt “Yes,” and then walked out of her own apartment as her mother continued literally beating her own head against one of the walls.

The overall story she briefly told us (and which remains available, in part, on the American Libraries website), of how she went from being a closeted lesbian to being the litigator who successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor, unfolds nicely and in much more detail in Then Comes Marriage, as many of us who received advance uncorrected proofs of the book at the ALA Annual Conference are learning now that we have time to read it. And the ample causes for celebration that afternoon—and now—included Kaplan’s comment that the entire struggle for marriage equality has left us with something significant to celebrate: our ability to grow and change just as—she noted—her mother has grown and changed in coming to accept Kaplan as a lesbian and, again, a cherished daughter.

It would have been difficult to predict that there could have been anything to rival the power and inspiration of Kaplan’s presentation on that particular day, in this particular city. Our ALA staff colleagues, however, managed to find it by concluding the opening general session with the first-ever People First Award, sponsored by Tech Logic and given to the Pennsylvania Avenue Branch of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and ALA 2014-2015 President Courtney Young were onsite to deliver the award to Melanie Townsend-Diggs (whose extraordinary commitment to the library and her community earned the award) and to Carla Hayden, Chief Executive Officer of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Receiving the People First Award (photo from @PrattLibrary Twitter feed)

Receiving the People First Award (photo from @PrattLibrary Twitter feed)

Tech Logic’s press release captures the thought behind the award: Staff demonstrated “exemplary leadership during several days of riots, which were concentrated at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues. On April 27, violence ensued after the funeral of Freddie Gray, an African American man who died in police custody earlier that month. As tensions increased and buildings surrounding the library burned, Enoch Pratt Library remained open, providing a safe haven for patrons inside.

“‘I did not feel threatened, but wanted people to know this was serious,’ recalls Branch Manager Melanie Townsend-Diggs, who ultimately made the decision to stay open. ‘It’s in my instinctive nature to keep people safe and calm,’ she says. ‘It’s my responsibility to make sure that everybody stayed safe. I try not to be too proud, but I am definitely grateful.’”

There’s plenty more to say about the conference and the people who contributed to its success, and I was still thinking about that opening general session a few days later after repeatedly running into and talking with a wonderful colleague with whom I usually have all too little time to sit and chat. As our third extended conversation in one day was drawing to a close, I told him how much I had enjoyed the exchanges we had had, and he immediately responded by suggesting “a 20-second hug”—a concept new to me and that quite literally is nothing more than an embrace that, in lasting for at least 20 seconds, seems to magically slow us down, deliver a sense of comfort and trust, and reminds us that some things—like enjoying the company of those we love—just cannot be rushed.

ala_leftbehindAs we reluctantly disengaged from the initial 20-second hug—and then, for good measure, immediately fell into another—I couldn’t help but think about how the interweaving of community, pride, and hugs combined to create a sort of tapestry of what ALA 2015 meant to me and to so many colleagues with whom I have spoken during the past several days. It was also yet another reminder that libraries always have been and always will be about far more than books and other elements of the collections. ALA members and guests came together, worked to be sure we included those who would otherwise have been left behind, and left that conference with an even stronger sense of community and pride than any of us could have imagined having—which is, of course, one of the greatest gifts an association can give its members as those members contribute to the making of the gift itself.

N.B. – This is the second in a series of reflections inspired by the American Library Association 2015 Annual Conference in San Francisco.


ALA 2015 Annual Conference: When Being Left Behind Is Not an Option

June 25, 2015

Kudos, once again, to our colleagues in the American Library Association (ALA). Where many professional associations that offer onsite conferences focus their attention almost exclusively on the paying members who are physically attending, ALA’s commitment to use social media tools to include those who would otherwise be left behind is again on display this week.

ALA_San_Francisco--2015_LogoThe efforts Association staff makes are well worth citing and quoting as an example to other associations or organizations—particularly any that are seeing membership numbers plummet for lack of engagement. ALA Marketing Director Mary Mackay reached out to all Association members a few days ago via email and a LinkedIn posting (which you can read here if you’re on LinkedIn and have joined the ALA LinkedIn group) to explicitly offer a variety of free opportunities to engage virtually with the 19,000 onsite attendees expected to be at the ALA 2015 Annual Conference, which formally opens here in San Francisco tomorrow. Here is part of what Mary offered:

“You can get insights into library transformation, future thinking, the hot book and author news, and more from hundreds of programs, conversations, events, and the 900+ exhibitors by following American Libraries coverage at http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/tag/alaac15/ and the show daily, Cognotes, at http://alaac15.ala.org/cognotes/.”

Mary notes other ways to keep up:

This is clearly an association that is interested in long-term relationships with all its members even if not all of them can support the Association through payment of conference registration fees; expenditures for food, travel, and lodgings; time spent preparing for and participating in conference activities including countless hours of work on committees; and other volunteer efforts that contribute to the strength of the Association and its work.

It’s tremendously encouraging to see the various levels at which conference attendees and Association staff members work to support their offsite as well as their onsite colleagues. Dozens of onsite participants set aside at least two or three hours to volunteer as Ambassadors in the Annual Conference program I manage for ALA Membership Development. Available side-by-side with ALA staff members in the ALA Lounge onsite as well as in a variety of conference areas as “Roaming Ambassadors,” they work enthusiastically to answer logistical questions (e.g., where events are taking place, where conference shuttle buses arrive and depart, where coat check and first aid stations are) as well as deeper questions about the Association’s numerous divisions, round tables, sections, and other opportunities for involvement in sustaining the Association and preparing it for its future. A few also contribute resources available to first-time as well as experienced conference attendees.

Live #alaac15 Twitter feed on display

Live #alaac15 Twitter feed on display

But it’s not just the organized efforts that make this work. Hundreds of onsite participants will reach each other and their offsite colleagues through tweets ranging from whimsical observations to solid 140-character reports summarizing content from many of the more than 2,400 sessions that will be offered while the conference is underway—in essence drawing offsite colleagues into the room and encouraging offsite colleagues to participate through responses as well as questions that occasionally are passed on to presenters so the size of the room extends well beyond what we see here in Moscone Center. And there are always signs of new innovations: large electronic boards displaying the latest tweets from the conference Twitter feed were, for the first time, spread throughout the conference halls today as if to remind us that part of the conference is happening in rooms housing individual sessions, part of the conference is happening though interactions via Twitter among onsite participants, and part of the conference is happening via the interactions between onsite and offsite colleagues.

There seems to be something for everyone, and those of us lucky enough to live here in the city that is hosting the conference are the luckiest of all in that we have already been reaping the benefits of having much-cherished additional time with friends and colleagues who arrived a few days early. Our conversations are magnificent opportunities to share information and to catch up with friends and colleagues we see all too rarely. Our conversations are also the individual moments that, like the bricks in an enormous and attractive structure, serve as the raw materials shaping the vitality of the entire Association itself.

I’m looking forward to contributing—via tweets, blog postings, and other online offerings—to the continuing strength and growth of this professional family, and hope onsite and offsite colleagues will do the same so no one will be left behind.

N.B. – This is the first in a series of reflections inspired by the American Library Association 2015 Annual Conference in San Francisco.


NEKLS Innovation Day 2015: Training-Teaching-Learning While Hanging Out in Kansas

April 30, 2015

I’ve hung out before, and I’m sure I’ll hang out again, but I can’t imagine a more intensely innovative and emotionally-rewarding approach to incorporating Google Hangouts into training-teaching-learning than the one collaboratively created as part of the 2015 Northeast Kansas Library System (NEKLS) Innovation Day program yesterday.

nekls_logosm_400x400What we’re continuing to explore with Hangouts is highly-engaging, low-/no-cost web-conferencing, a rudimentary and surprisingly effective form of telepresence, and  notably strong levels of interaction in training-teaching-learning made possible through the use of an easy-to-learn social media tool—something that fell into place nicely in two consecutive sessions during Innovation Day.

It has taken a fair amount of experimentation and practice to reach the point we reached yesterday: an onsite event that seamlessly expanded to include two offsite presenters (Harford County Public Library Technical Trainer Maurice Coleman and me) so we not only could interact directly with onsite participates but with each other as if we were all in the same room—and the room expanded further via connections simultaneously made with Twitter.

My own experience in training-teaching-learning through web conferencing and rudimentary telepresence dates back to a successful experiment to bring an offsite presenter (from Ohio) into an onsite event attended by more than 200 people here in San Francisco in 2007 in a way that encouraged some limited, direct interactions between the online presenter and members of the onsite audience. I expanded the exercise a bit a few years later by incorporating Skype, Twitter, and onsite colleagues into one of these blended learning events at a Sacramento ASTD (American Society for Training & Development meeting, then carried it a bit further with my New Media Consortium colleague Samantha Adams Becker when we switched over to Google Hangouts for onsite-online blended sessions with ASTD Mount Diablo and Golden Gate chapter colleagues.

What many of us were realizing at that point was that with proper preparation (which included abundant amounts of rehearsal time) and the right equipment (most of which was already available to us in each of the venues we used), we could erase geographic barriers in ways that caused onsite participants to forget that the online participants weren’t physically in the room.

An expansion of the experimentation included adding an onsite Twitter facilitator (colleague Larry Straining, who ad-libbed from a basic script to tweet out what Samantha and I were doing via Google Hangouts for ASTD—now ATD, the Association for Talent Development) at a conference in the Washington, D.C. area in late 2014. Adding Twitter to the mix in this focused, pre-planned way helped make the point that the “rooms” in which each of these events was physically taking place was actually expanding to include a global audience comprised of participants working synchronously and others who could participate later in an asynchronous fashion by seeing and responding to the tweets in an ongoing conversation. Carrying this another step further by drawing “left-behind” colleagues (including Maurice) into the 2015 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting (held in Chicago) provided yet another example of how Hangouts could produce live as well as archived learning opportunities —and further laid the groundwork for what we accomplished yesterday during the annual NEKLS Innovation Day conference: live interactions between the two of us who were offsite, interactions between the two of us and those who were physically present at the conference; and interactions with non-conference attendees who saw the tweets and shared content through retweeting. All that was missing yesterday was synchronous two-way interactions between those non-conference attendees and those of us who were participating onsite or via the Hangout)—but we had a hint of it as my own Innovation Day tweets were picked up and retweeted by several unfamiliar tweeters here in the United States and elsewhere.

NEKLS Continuing Education Consultant Patti Poe initiated the process as part of her overall Innovation Day planning by inviting me to use Google Hangouts as the vehicle for a presentation/discussion on using online collaboration tools. When she mentioned that Maurice would be doing a separate (closing keynote address) session via Hangouts, I asked if it would be possible to also include Maurice in the session I was facilitating and schedule that session in the time slot immediately preceding his keynote address. The experiences Maurice and I had with the ALA Midwinter Meeting experiment primed us to attempt something that was both structured—with specific learning goals and objectives—and improvisational so that onsite conference attendees would very much be involved in learning while also shaping the nature of the session.

Rehearsal for Innovation Day Hangout (Photo by Robin Hastings)

Rehearsal for Innovation Day Hangout (Photo by Robin Hastings)

As Patti noted shortly after the day ended, it exceeded everyone’s expectations and once again demonstrated that it’s possible to have this technology as the vehicle for—not the central feature of—learning opportunities and to have all of us interacting almost exactly as we would have if we hadn’t been spread over a 2,800-mile distance—in essence, creating a 2,800-mile-wide room. Maurice and I had a PowerPoint slide deck (with extensive speaker notes) and a supplemental resource sheet that I prepared and that served as our roadmap even though we actually didn’t display either during the live session (we wanted onsite attendees seeing us rather than slides as part of our effort to create the sense that we were  in the room in a very real sense); the slide deck and resource sheet were posted online later as additional learning objects and as a way to give the synchronous session an extended asynchronous life. We also allowed for plenty of interactions via question-and-answer periods throughout the entire hour-long “Using Online Collaboration Tools” session just as we do when we’re physically present in training-teaching-learning sessions. And when that initial hour came to an end, we took the same sort of between-session break we would have taken if we had physically been onsite, then returned with Maurice assuming the lead and with me maintaining an onsite-onscreen presence through a small window at the bottom of the screen as I watched his onsite-online presentation.

All of us had set out to create the sense of presence (i.e., close physical proximity) that we believe—and continually prove—is possible in well-planned, well-executed onsite-online learning environments capable of transforming learners. All of us confirmed with those onsite that we had achieved that goal. But several hours passed before I realized that in my playful role of the trickster who creates the illusion of physical proximity, I had unintentionally even tricked myself, for as I sat in the comfort of my own home here in San Francisco last night—never physically having left that home—I unexpectedly felt the same sense of melancholy I sometimes experience after intensively engaging in learning with colleagues at onsite conferences and then being physically separated from them as we return to our own homes and workplaces across the country. And I have the same sense of longing to be back with them again sooner than later to continue the connected-learning process that brings all of us such deeply rewarding experiences and relationships.


Information Services Today: Global Personal Learning Networks

April 24, 2015

Preparing a personal learning networks (PLNs) webinar and reading Jan Holmquist’s “Global Learning Networks” chapter in Sandra Hirsh’s newly-released anthology Information Services Today: An Introduction makes me realize how wonderfully expansive and rewarding our PLNs have become.

Information_Services_Today--CoverThe idea driving the creation of a personal learning network—the ever-changing informal group of people each of us personally and uniquely defines, forms, and turns to in our lifelong learning endeavors—appears to be timeless; I can’t imagine a period of our recorded or unrecorded history during which people didn’t learn from each other informally, beyond the confines of classrooms or other formal learning spaces. And yet, as Holmquist notes at the beginning of his chapter, changes in the technology we use are expanding the pool of potential PLN members from which we can draw tremendously: “The world keeps getting smaller. Technology has challenged the need for physical presence regarding how, when, and where learning, collaboration, and sharing information takes place” (p. 374).

PLNs, he continues, provide a tremendous set of benefits by offering us connections to colleagues with whom we can “interact and exchange information and resources; share knowledge, experiences, and ideas; and collect and create an informed guide to professional development opportunities and lifelong learning” (p. 377).

We don’t want or need to become too technical or academic in exploring what personal learning networks mean to us to fully appreciate how they operate and what they provide. They are flexible (because we continually modify them to meet our learning needs). They are responsive (because we define them, nurture them, and turn to them in our moments of need, not someone else’s). They can be collaborative (although there are times when we learn from members of our PLNs without directly contacting them, e.g., when we learn by reading a PLN colleague’s writing on a topic we’re exploring or drawing upon a list of resources curated by members of our PLNs). They thrive on our willingness to contribute to them rather than seeing them solely as one-way resources—something where we take but never give. They are as local or as global as we choose to make them, drawing upon colleagues we see face-to-face as well as colleagues with whom we might have only the most cursory of online interactions via social media tools such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ Communities, Scoop.it, and Storify. And as the name implies, personal learning networks are deeply and inevitably personal (both in the sense of being something that is centered on each of us, individually, and in the sense of being centered on persons)—and they change as our learning changes need, but also have a sense of continuity that reflects the continuities in our own learning interests and endeavors.

xplrpln_logoThere seems to be no definitive answer as to how small or large a PLN should be. The work of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that there is a point (Dunbar’s number) beyond which members of any social group lose their ability to function effectively in social relationships, and I suspect that an overly large PLN eventually becomes ineffective in that valuable resources become overlooked because they are lost in the PLN crowd. The diversity of members and the variety of interests represented by those members, on the other hand, suggests that a PLN benefits from not being overly small or exclusive. And the resources from which we draw members seems to be limited only by our own imaginations: A cursory glance at my own PLN shows that it includes people with whom I’ve learned in formal academic settings, onsite workshops, and professional associations (e.g., the New Media Consortium, the American Library Association, and the Association for Talent Development); from people I’ve met in tweet chats (e.g., through #lrnchat); and from learning facilitators and learners in connectivist massive open online courses (MOOCs)—including one (#xplrpln—”Exploring Personal Learning Networks”) focused on the creation and nurturing of PLNs. My PLN has also grown significantly by adding people whose published work—including work they publish on their blogs—provides learning opportunities for me. I’ve even realized that drawing upon an anthology such as Information Services Today can contribute to the development of a PLN; reading chapters written by and interacting with other contributors to the book has made me consciously include Michael Stephens and Kristin Fontichiaro, along with Jan Holmquist, in my own PLN.

If this inspires you to expand your personal learning network by adding Stephens, Fontichiaro, Holmquist, or other writers, and to expand your own ideas about where you can find additional members to strengthen your own PLN, then you’ve taken another step in recognizing how global and open our personal learning networks have become.

N.B.: This is the fifth in a series of reflections inspired by Information Services Today: An Introduction, which includes Paul’s chapter on “Infinite [Lifelong] Learning.”


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