Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Arlene Krebs (Part 2 of 2)

September 8, 2020

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Arlene Krebs, a ShapingEDU colleague who is consulting in the arts, education, and technology and was honored as a California Broadband Champion in 2014. Arlene and I serve together as members of the organizing committee for ShapingEDU’s “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s stay on Loaves, Fishes and Computers for a moment. What role did you play in establishing/nurturing it?

I have worked hand-in-hand with the Founder and Executive Director [Christian Mendelsohn]. He came to my University office in 2011 to ask for advice on funding and grant writing. (I am the author of four editions of The Distance Learning Funding $ourcebook: A Guide to Foundation, Corporate & Government Support for Telecommunications and the New Media—last edition was 2000, so you can see the “old” references to new media). So, Christian asked for my help. I began with the first Board of Directors—I have served on nonprofit boards for 40 years now—and I began grantwriting for LFC. Since 2011, I’ve helped bring in nearly $700,000 in funds to support his organization, which has kept it afloat. Since SIP [sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic], we’ve distributed over 1,500 computers to those in need—low-income families, seniors, individuals, veterans, people with disabilities. I just completed eight grant applications for Loaves, Fishes & Computers, totaling $149,500 in requests for our work, of which we’ve heard from two funding agencies, awarding us $50,000 (our request and its maximum allotment) to distribute even more computers.

Another aspect concerns my work with the Central Coast Broadband Consortium—which I helped to found—and, being part of the statewide initiatives to close the digital divide, and the resulting grant opportunities through California’s Public Utilities Commission and also the state’s Broadband Council.

So many lovely threads to follow here. Let’s take this down to an individual level. Would you mind telling a success story in terms of how Loaves, Fishes, and Computers affected one participant or one participant’s family?

Hold on: I will cut and paste a recipient’s testimonial.

Fantastic! Thanks. I do want to get us to the current situation and how it’s giving us opportunities, but first want to get back to the Central Coast Broadband Consortium connection.  “When people want to find out what’s happening on broadband in Monterey County, they call Krebs,” CETF [California Emerging Technology Fund] President and CEO Sunne Wright McPeak wrote when you were recognized as a Broadband Champion in 2014. What were some of the most rewarding experiences you had that led to that level of recognition among your peers?

Founding the Wireless Education & Technology Center, organizing the Wireless Community & Mobile Users Conference more or less annually from 2003-2015, in which we gathered some of the true pioneers in the field of WiFi, Broadband, and Applications who represented the tech, business, nonprofit, and education “industries,” and who envisioned what policy, financing, technical challenges and more to overcome to make nation-wide broadband a reality. Also, I was invited by Cisco in 2004 to attend its Global Education & Broadband conference in Stockholm and Oslo (convened during the same time as the Nobel Prize ceremonies; Lev Gonick was another US representative of 10 of us, and I the only woman). At this summit, I learned about how government initiatives, funding, policy, and support in other countries were solving these issues, but not here. In the U.S., we have private companies providing infrastructure and services, so without private and some public sources of monies—in grants and investments—broadband infrastructure has lagged here. So, in 2004, Stockholm was connecting all of its public housing to broadband, Portugal had a nation-wide plan, Ethiopia was seeking ways to provide city-wide access etc. It opened my eyes to the possibilities—and inspired my work and commitments.

The ShapingEDU “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative clearly has grown out of the challenges we’re seeing as learners across the country—and those facilitating their learning—have made a sudden pivot from mostly-onsite to primarily online learning in an incredibly short period of time. What opportunities do you see this shelter-in-place period providing for those supporting universal broadband access throughout the United States?

Over the past few weeks, there have been numerous articles in our local press and nationally about this persistent challenge of providing the tools and the connectivity to those without access. It is especially potent now where “remote learning” is at the forefront of the national discussion. How over 700,000 students in California alone do not have adequate tools or connectivity, how in our Monterey County 17,000 students of 78,000 K-12 students, do not have access. So it is a two-fold dilemma. The first is the economic, geographic, racial, social justice and digital divide; the other side of the coin, so to speak, is access to education (as well as access to health, social services, government & employment resources) on the Internet. As for distance learning, as I mentioned, I’ve been involved in this since the early 1980s with the first nationwide educational satellite networks, to two-way interactive videoconferencing to today’s online arena, and am a founding member of the United States Distance Learning Association, a nonprofit organization that brings together the business, government and education (K-12, higher ed, lifelong learning) arenas.

I used to travel this country teaching about distance learning, the professional development that’s required for K-12 teachers and higher ed, the tools that are necessary, the time and money commitments, the assessing of the skills that a learner/student needs to bring to the table, so to speak, to participate fully and effectively. What we have now is a “hodge-podge” emergency-laden response, so I am glad and grateful these issues are at the forefront, but concurrently distressed that we have 1) not solved the technology and broadband infrastructure issues and 2) that distance learning potentials are being met in a haphazard, uncoordinated manner that is leaving many students at the wayside—either turned off to what their teachers are so desperately and heroically trying to provide without proper professional development and the use of readily available curricula and distance ed resources—or students who are excluded because of no technology or access.

Yes, the issues are glaringly at the forefront right now. However, with the uncertainties festered by the global pandemic and the global economic downturn, I fear that broadband and technology access may be pushed aside once again for those who are not empowered. Broadband will continue to be provided for those in urban areas and for the workers of global and national corporations/agencies—but not for those who need it, too. 

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

Oh, this is too long a response, but: 

  1. Learn what’s going on in your region. Who are the service providers, how can local government negotiate with them to provide access to your community?
  2. Ditto, research which organizations are actively working on these issues, school districts, county offices of education, libraries, local business community that requires broadband to survive and expand.
  3. At the state level, find out what policy and funding the state is offering. Does it have a broadband policy? Who is overseeing this—and, by the way, just about every state does have a policy—how can you get involved?
  4. At the federal level, see what the FCC is doing—its National Broadband Plan—what does its state, what is its status?
  5. Learn what organizations involved in these issues are doing—for example, the United States Distance Learning Association, COSN [the Consortium for School Networking], ISTE [the International Society for Technology in Education], Silicon Valley, the Wireless Communications Alliance here in California, these are examples of the kinds of government, business, nonprofit, education, telecom providers are doing. For example, Comcast, AT&T, and Spectrum Charter each have initiatives to provide monthly low-cost Internet (generally $10-$15 per month).

In other words, research, explore, involve yourself. Collaborate, Cooperate and Activate!

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


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Arlene Krebs (Part 1 of 2)

September 8, 2020

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Arlene Krebs, a ShapingEDU colleague who is consulting in the arts, education, and technology and was honored as a California Broadband Champion in 2014. Arlene and I serve together as members of the organizing committee for ShapingEDU’s “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s start by setting some contemporary context for our conversation. During the recent week-long ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man virtual summer camp [July 2020], you talked about your evolving view of the term “digital divide,” and later circled back to broaden those comments. Care to summarize that here?

I’ve been working in this arena all my life, with initiatives to assist the most underserved and underrepresented members of our nation…be it in education-teaching, in working with other pioneers in the field of distance learning to assure equitable access to learning resources, teachers/faculty, and participation, and when the Internet “kicked off” in the late 1990s, to help expand opportunities for wired and wireless connectivity for Internet access. 

When everyone began to call it the “digital divide,” it first meant—was understood as—access to technology and connectivity—be it DSL, satellite communications, or—as it evolved—“high-speed bandwidth.” So at that point it became clearer, as I worked in this arena, that technology and bandwidth are part of the solution. Having the financial means to acquire technology and pay for Internet access was another part of the equation. So I began using the term “the economic and digital divide.”

As I worked in this arena and helped to form the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, and organized annual regional conferences—“The Wireless Community & Mobile User Conference”—I became more aware, learned from others, that access is more than money and technology and connectivity. It became clearer that the telecom providers were not going to wire or provide connectivity in areas that did not produce an ROI, or where the geographic terrain is too difficult. These are referred to as underserved areas. So then it became a geographic, economic and digital divide. As the push for broadband evolved, as the FCC, cities, states, and our own California became more involved in policy and public awareness, I realized that the divide is a geographic, economic, racial, social justice, and digital divide. Today, not having access to the tools, the connectivity, the resources to participate fully in our increasingly digital and virtual culture, is a form of exclusion. It is a “locked-out” form of denying equitable participation in our democracy.

I’m going to come back to much of what you just said to explore it a bit more fully, but want to step back a bit for a moment. You mentioned your lifelong interest in this topic. Was there any one personal incident/experience that initially drew you into becoming an advocate for Internet access?

Yes: education and distance learning, I am a pioneer in that arena. When I left my home in New York City to come here for one year to help kickstart distance learning at the new university—California State University, Monterey Bay—it had written a vision statement (summarized here) that included “serving the most underrepresented people in our region and to use technology as a catalyst to transform people’s lives.” So I left my work in lifelong learning and as a Communications professor working with underrepresented urban residents, to pick up the banner, so to speak, of underrepresented farm and hospitality workers in this region.

Sounds like a great example of the “follow your heart” idea. What has been most encouraging to you during all those years of activism on this issue?

I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve had an amazing, fulfilling career that encompasses the education, business, and non-profit arenas. I did my graduate work in the 1970s on the Impact of Communications Technology on Culture—with the launch of the first communications satellites (1976) and its applications for interactive videoconferencing for education. This was the “beginning of modern distance learning”—as opposed to radio, one-way broadcast TV, and snail-mail usages previously. So participating in and watching how education, business, and nonprofits—particularly in the arts—began and continue to use technology and connectivity is especially heartwarming—though not without lingering issues. Moreover, I began working with one nonprofit [Loaves, Fishes & Computers] that focuses on computer refurbishing and digital literacy for underrepresented communities, and this, too, has been very fulfilling. I am Chair Emerita for it, and continue to envision its future and how we can assist for 11 years now. Also fulfilling.

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


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Awe, Night Skies, and Inspiration

August 16, 2020

Loudly-rattling windows in our home suggest a raging conversation between those windows and the howling wind. An unexpected downpour of rain starting at 3:30 a.m. offers relief to our thirsty garden and sends water flowing in streams though gutters along the street. Lightning ripping through the San Francisco fog illuminates the west-facing rooms of our home, looking out toward the Pacific Ocean. Thunder careens across San Francisco Bay, roars through the city’s numerous hills and valleys, and reverberates for several very long seconds before fading, only to be followed by more bursts of lightning and thunder.

Memories flow from and through the unexpected, rare summer storm here—one unlike any I can recall experiencing in nearly 35 years of living in the city. Memories of being awakened long before dawn to watch and hear and revel in similar primal screams and bursts of nature from hotel rooms in Austin while I was there to attend conferences with cherished colleagues long before any of us imagined a time when adapting to shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to a coronavirus pandemic would become a way of life for us. Memories of pleasurable, complete immersion in and surrender to similar storms blazing across mid-summer skies in the Tuscan hills surrounding Florence and Siena. Memories of being so overwhelmed by a mid-evening autumn deluge accompanied by lightning and thunder while I was driving on a poorly-lit rural road outside of West Palm Beach, Florida, that my wife and I decided to pull off to the side of the road and wait it out because we couldn’t see far enough to continue driving in those conditions.

A word comes to mind as those memories flow into one cohesive moment: “awe.” And that, in turn, inspires another memory: first encountering the work of one of my favorite essayists, Scott Russell Sanders, more than a decade ago through his book A Private History of Awe. Being completely captivated by his recollection of being wrapped in his father’s arms during a booming blowing thunderstorm and being there to see a magisterial oak “snapped like a stick, its top shattered on the ground, a charred streak running down the wet gray stub of the trunk,” I raced through that book. And have, many times since then, returned to reread large chunks of that lovely, literary exploration broken into sections under the subtitles “Fire,” “Air,” “Water,” and “Earth.”

“Awe” is not a word we seem to hear or use very much these days. “Anger,” “discord,” “strife,” and social and political “gridlock” are much more frequently the terms and topics around which our conversations are centered. We frame conversations as either-or choices around “personal rights” (e.g., the “right” to not wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic) or “public health” (the need to slow the spread of the coronavirus so hundreds of thousands of people won’t die—as is already the case).  Or around the need to “flatten the fear” because we have already allegedly flattened the pandemic (a proposal hard to defend at a time when the death rate in hotspots in the United States have again been increasing). “Awe” is not something I experience when I see colleagues inaccurately using the word “fear” rather than the term “social responsibility” or “commitment to community” in response to our choices to wash our hands, wear masks, and, as much as we can, engage in social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus; some of us believe it’s among the options we can be pursuing to collectively work together to address a tragically challenging situation that has already killed more than 775,000 people globally and more than 170,000 in the United States in less than a year.   

“Awe” is not a word we seem to hear or use very much these days. “Anger,” “discord,” “strife,” and social and political “gridlock” are much more frequently the terms and topics around which our conversations are centered. We frame conversations as either-or choices around “personal rights” (e.g., the “right” to not wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic) or “public health” (the need to slow the spread of the coronavirus so hundreds of thousands of people won’t die—as is already the case).  Or around the need to “flatten the fear” because we have already allegedly flattened the pandemic (a proposal hard to defend at a time when the death rate in hotspots in the United States have again been increasing). “Awe” is not something I experience when I see colleagues inaccurately using the word “fear” rather than the term “social responsibility” or “commitment to community” in response to our choices to wash our hands, wear masks, and, as much as we can, engage in social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus; some of us believe it’s among the options we can be pursuing to collectively work together to address a tragically challenging situation that has already killed more than 775,000 people globally and more than 170,000 in the United States in less than a year.   

I feel sadness—not awe or fear—when I see a friend lose his mother to COVID-19 and know that if we had all taken a different approach to the coronavirus, she might still be alive. I feel sadness, disbelief, and frustration when I see a skeptical member of my extended family ended up close to death in a hospital intensive care unit because he didn’t see the need to take any sort of protection to avoid succumbing to the coronavirus, and am further saddened and frustrated knowing he is now facing the possibility of a year-long “recovery” period that may still leave him permanently disabled. And I feel sadness, disbelief, and frustration knowing that another skeptical member of my extended family who, after testing positive, blithely ignored the likelihood that she would spread the virus, so ended up gifting it to two additional generations of relatives in that one household. What makes these up-close exposures to the human impact of COVID-19 as well as to the economic tragedies so many people are suffering difficult to accept are comments I read from wonderful friends who have a much different view of the situation than I do—insisting that we’re making a mistake by not letting nature run its course so that we, collectively, develop herd immunity (a term that bothers me tremendously because it seems to dehumanize the situation by hiding individual deaths behind a term that groups individuals into “herds” rather than members of our communities). Their contention is that we’re causing more harm through economic devastation than the coronavirus causes through illness and death. From their perspective, the high unemployment rate—impacting millions of people—could have been avoided and still could be remedied if we reacted to that rather than reacting to the “small percentage” of deaths caused by COVID-19.

So, we’re stuck on opposite sides of what appears, for now, to be an uncrossable chasm: millions of Americans devastated by loss of jobs/income compared to “only a small percentage” of people who have died (775,000 globally/170,000 in the U.S.) as a result of contracting COVID-19—their perception that “only a small percentage of people” will die from COVID-19 and my perception that hundreds of thousands of deaths is a national/global tragedy requiring the best, most creative efforts we can pursue collectively to try to avoid additional deaths and avoid the pain and suffering millions of people are facing in the United States because we can’t, legislatively or in any other way, find approaches that address both sides of that awful divide.

Hours have passed since that pre-dawn combination of wind and lightning and thunder drew me to a window, where I stood transfixed. And months have passed since I was, along with so many others, drawn into a much-altered world I had not taken the time to ever contemplate. I’m back to the concept of “awe” and all that it suggests about us being able to notice—and to react to in the most productive, positive, inspired way possible. To remember that there are forces far bigger than we can ever hope to be. To remember that the momentary, tragically painful challenges that produce life-changing results (e.g., loss of cherished loved ones regardless of how small or large a percentage of our communities those people were; loss of the income needed to survive in a wealthy country that can’t find ways to guarantee minimum subsistence for every member—every member—of its communities; acquiring permanent disabilities that in their own way obviously add to the economic challenges we are facing) require that we set aside the differences that divide us so we can work together to find solutions based on our belief that we are stronger and more awesome together than we will ever be alone.

It is now midafternoon. The windows are no longer rattling. The lightning and thunder from that hours-long storm have finally subsided. Clouds and the sun seem to be engaged in a playful dance that sends dappled light upon leaves shimmering in the maturity of a midsummer afternoon. Offering hints of the beauty that surrounds us. The beauty that needs to be nurtured to be sustained. The beauty that reminds us that numbers tell only part of the story of what sometimes makes our world awe-inspiring when we look to something bigger than ourselves and, against all odds and against all likelihood of failure, embrace it.

–N.B.: This is the nineteenth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Adventure Camp

July 27, 2020

Note from Paul: Tom Haymes, my fellow ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence, posted this set of Learning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp reflections on his IdeaSpaces site earlier today, and has given permission for me to share them here. My own reflections are posted elsewhere on my blog.

It’s a scary world out there right now. Pandemics, politics, and economics form their own kind of “PPE” for which we have to all gird ourselves with a different kind of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) than those who are fighting Covid. Like those heroes, we have to face our fears and slay often unseen and ephemeral monsters. And like them our greatest enemy is ourselves and the systems human societies have created. To face this enemy we need a group of diverse heroes, each with a small piece of the map forward in their possession. That is exactly what came together last week at Learning[Hu]man, a summer camp unlike any I’ve ever been to before (or was it?).

The subject of monsters and adventuring seemed to come up again and again this week. This is ironic because the first time I was exposed to Dungeons and Dragons was at a summer camp in West Texas in 1978. That was, ironically, also the first time I was confronted by the real monsters our society struggles with even today. One day a counselor intervened to stop a group of locals from the neighboring town who were harassing some teenage female campers. That counselor happened to be black. That night a long line of cars and trucks streamed into the camp to send a message. We called the sheriff. He was with them. A hundred scared teenagers spent the night in the camp mess hall. Fortunately, the counselor they were seeking had returned to Austin and the night passed without further incident.

I have been reflecting back on that night a lot lately. The last six months have felt a lot like being confined to a mess hall while a messy world swirls around outside the door and the forces of reaction make forays into the camp of civilization. Unfortunately, in our case, the monsters aren’t going home. There are too many and they live among us.

ShapingEDU has always been a community shaped by optimism. Optimism, not for technology, but for the human creativity it unleashes. This week that community resembled nothing more than an adventuring party assembling for perhaps our greatest challenges. If there was a consistent theme that emerged it was that the human challenges far outweighed the technology ones. It became clear that it was time to strap on our magic swords and dust off our spell books to slay the human prejudices that perpetuate inequities in both our society and within the very educational institutions that we have devoted our lives to.

Like every adventure party I’ve ever been a part of there was the initial meeting of the minds, usually over a beer at Lev Gonick’s (aka Mike Callahan’s) virtual tavern. New networks were formed and maps were laid out. Bryan Alexander quickly asked us to imagine what kind of monsters we might face and taught us how to challenge them. The campfires on Digital Equity, Social, and Racial Justice and Digital Education and Tribal Rights showed us some of the real monsters of inequity and access that lock out whole groups of potential wizards whose voices are stifled before they learn their first spell, depriving us of an army of creative forces. My own session took us questing and showed how we could see all kinds of stories as a form of hero’s quest and, perhaps most importantly, that others are likely to perceive those quests quite differently. Our scouting parties reimagined quests from a History class, to preparing our faculty for Covid Fall, to reimagining a Liberal Arts graduate program. You can see their work here.

Conversketch Illustration of Digital Narratives Session

One of the key things I took away from my early years with Dungeons and Dragons was an understanding of the essential nature of good systems design. As Dungeon Master (DM) it was your job to craft a system that channeled the quest. DMs forget at their peril that the system has to work for the world to make sense. On Friday night Ruben Puentedura turned us into Dungeon Masters by asking us to create systems to overcome the plague of black swans raining down upon our kingdoms. His parties were given a choice of ten alternate future university spells and then assigned a second. He then tested our systems by throwing an unexpected swan into our midst. This generated creative explosions that forced us to pull together strands from our week of preparing and training. Common strands that ran through virtually all of the responses were the strengths to be found through diversity and community augmented by the magic of our technology and imaginations. We quickly saw through how these could guide us through the whitest of waters.

At every step along the way this week it was clear that the demons that we face, collectively and individually, are distinctly human. Nature, whether in the form of disease or climate, merely acts as a catalyst for exposing the cracks in our systems, from poverty to educational access to a lack of inclusion. It’s funny how our societies resemble a bad (pre-CGI) science fiction film in which all the aliens and monsters are really humans in disguise.

Taking on these systemic and conceptual demons requires a hard look in the mirror and the ability to try on different faces. Technology provides the mirror and the masks. It can be used to hide but it can also be used as a powerful “seeing” spell. Digital technology is at its root about being able to see, whether that be in the form of crunching vast swathes of complex data in order to see patterns in the spread of disease or rethinking systemic paradigms through realistic simulations that force different lenses upon us.  This week at Learning[Hu]man was fundamentally about seeing the world as it is and what it can be. It showed that as a group we have powerful magic including spells such as “Light,” “Network,” and “Show” that are critical in understanding the nature of the systemic monsters we face. At the end of the day, our community recognizes that the power of our magic is to give that magic to others.

This week we assembled a diverse group of adventuring parties, ready to ride forth and tame the systemic dragons. For in a final irony, it is clear that the systems themselves are a technology. They are dragons to be ridden, not swans to be slain. Our systems need to have a technological and conceptual “Light” spell thrown upon them to reveal them as Ourselves, to be reconstructed as only we can imagine them to be.

Tom Haymes, July 27, 2020


Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Merging Work and Play and Learning

July 25, 2020

The Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp Mess Hall is relatively quiet this afternoon as I sit here writing this fourth in a series of “letters home from camp.” The camper-teacher-trainer-learners at this week-long online conference for dreamer-driver-doers committed to shaping the future of learning in the digital age are sleeping in very late. Or taking virtual nature walks to reflect on all we have seen and done and learned together this week. Or chatting, in small groups, around the virtual campgrounds via access to our Slack channels. Or sitting in the Camp multiplex movie theaters watching Camp Movies (archived recordings of some of some of the archived recordings of sessions recorded throughout the week and available on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel). Or taking an online immersive dive into the ocean to explore another lovely part of our world. And a few of us are taking advantage of some unscheduled time to create pages on the Camp Learning(Hu)Man virtual scrapbook, as I just finished doing.

 

Even at its most quiet, this is community in motion. A community committed to fostering and engaging in lifelong learning—learning that never stops and learning that responds to current events and wants and needs—and even social injustices that prevent some within our communities from having access to the best of the lifelong learning we all are seeking, creating, and promoting. A community engaged in a seamless interweaving of work and play and learning online as well as onsite or in blended (onsite-online) environments that was already taking place within the ShapingEDU community long before we began following shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic); we have, if anything, only become more intensely creatively, innovatively, collaboratively immersed in exploring, fostering, documenting, and embracing examples of productive approaches to learning within the larger context of what is happening in the communities we inhabit.

So here we are on Saturday afternoon, mostly taking time for reflection after a stunningly intense, inspirational, exhaustive and regenerative week of learning with and from each other; continuing our creative endeavors individually and collectively through contributions to the virtual scrapbook and through interactions in those Slack virtual hallways; and thinking ahead to our final Camp Gathering Around the Flagpole Monday morning to try to make sense of all we’ve said and heard and done so we can transform the myriad narratives flowing all round us into some sort of plan for action for the weeks and months ahead of us until our next large-scale community gathering.

[graphic image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

The entire challenge of trying to shape a cohesive, community-wide narrative out of all the learning threads we have been working with is, as a cherished friend and colleague noted yesterday, “challenging.” My narrative—very much based on a commitment to connecting representatives of learning organizations (and the learners they serve) with representatives of workplace organizations that will work with those learners in their capacities as employees/managers/supervisors/CEOs—can and probably should be different from the narratives being shaped by many of our colleagues. That personal narrative, for me, is what my colleague Kim Flintoff (a self-declared “provocateur, educational change agent, futurist, speaker, researcher, writer, teacher, catalyst, and sustainability advocate”) and I consistently attempt to facilitate as “mayors” (aka committee chairs) in the neighborhood (aka committee/taskforce) committed to connecting education and the workforce of the future; it’s what we highlighted during our Learning(Hu)Man session yesterday on connecting learning and workplace representatives. But that’s just one of the narratives flowing through Camp Learning(Hu)Man and ShapingEDU overall. There are narratives/neighborhoods around bolstering intergenerational leadership and learning futures; personalizing learning; recognizing all forms of learning; promoting access & equity in learning; embedding data-driven approaches in student success; humanizing learning, innovating artificial intelligence applications, building constellations of innovations, and fostering immersive learning. There is a community-developed communique providing an outline for dreaming, doing, and driving the future of learning—a document that has provided the underpinnings of much of what we’ve done together this week while camping out together. There are projects and resources in various stages of development. 

And, most of all, there is the continual commitment to drawing new campers into the campgrounds with us. If that appeals to you, please join us in the ShapingEDU community by requesting access to our online community in Slack.  

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


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

July 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

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

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“With Love Wings we can fly

Into the clear blue open sky…”

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

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


Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Arts & Crafting Learning Experiences

July 22, 2020

If I really were the eight-year-old that I so frequently still feel I am, I would be crafting a letter home from summer camp to my parents right now. Telling them how cool the other kids at the week-long Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp are. How inspiring the Camp Counselors (aka, session facilitators) are. How much I’m enjoying singing the Learning(Hu)Man Theme Song. How much fun I’m having during Day 2, which is “Arts & Crafting Learning Experience Day”—a nice switch from yesterday’s “Flipping Scary Stories Day.” How much I’m learning through hands-on virtual experiences. And how proud I am of having earned two of the four badges I need to earn to return home with an “Education Changemaker Digital Credential.”

But I’m obviously not really eight years old anymore. And one of my parents has been gone for more than three years, so I can’t write home to her. And letter-writing with pen (or pencil) and paper was long ago replaced, for me, by online communication, including love letters in the form of blog posts. So here’s my second daily love letter capturing much of the joy of camping out with dreamer-driver-doers committed to shaping the future of learning in the digital age (while currently following shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic) thanks to Camp Director Laura Geringer and the rest of the Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man Camp Team:

Morning comes early around here. We again gathered in the Mess Hall for virtual breakfast via Zoom, at 7:30 a.m., hosted by Day 2 Head Happy Camper (HHC) Allan Novak, who is renowned for his work as an executive producer, director, writer, and editor—in addition to being a first-rate facilitator, as was obvious by the way he engaged us in conversation and activities during the time we had together. HHC Novak fostered a wonderful warm-up conversation that had us learning experientially as he incorporated an innovative online presentation and polling tool—Mentimeter—into the conversation. Watching and participating in that setting made me again realize how quickly and how far we are moving from a world in which we can (mistakenly) assert that it is always impossible to craft conference experiences online that are as engaging as those we create onsite. We have to admit that it takes a lot to design and run an engaging online conference. But then again, it’s far from easy to accomplish the same onsite; you have to work with what you have. When you have a group as comfortable as Learning(Hu)Man participants are with technology, as willing as we are to experiment with a variety of online tools in the moment without being flustered by the occasional failures that come when learning about and using any form of technology, and as well supported as we are by those in charge of the event, magic can and does happen.

The sort of unexpected and wonderfully rewarding hallway and workshop conversations that draw us to onsite conferences are increasingly possible and likely to happen through the use of the chat window in Zoom and the willingness of people like HHC Novak to draw people in visibly and audibly through the videoconferencing capabilities of platforms like Zoom. The all-important act of meeting new people and unexpectedly running into long-term cherished friends and colleagues, chatting with them, and planning on how we will maintain (or continue to maintain) contact after the conference ends has been as common for me here at Learning(Hu)Man as it has been at the best of the onsite conferences I have attended over a very long period of time. In some ways, this part of it really doesn’t take much—just a willingness to leap at opportunities and a commitment to action. Those unexpected initial and recurring encounters are among the highlights of any conference I attend, and Learning(Hu)Man has already provided plenty of them. The idea that “what I most look forward to at conferences is that which I am not expecting to find” remains true in this virtual setting, too.

After enjoying an hour-long “around the flagpole” gathering for a first-rate panel discussion on “The What, Why, and How of Learner-Centered Everything” and still cherishing what I had seen and learned from Novak, I followed him into the first of two morning sessions I attended—his workshop on “Video Post-production: Good, Fast, and Cheap in the 2020s”—and was extremely happy that I did. Using the same facilitation and organizational skills he had displayed in the Mess Hall, he took a highly playful, interactive approach to a session that was built upon the premise that all of us could learn enough about a platform he was introducing to us—WeVideo—to craft a short public service announcement promoting online learning—in less than an hour. The learning here was layered: we did learn enough to produce part of that video announcement online—which Novak apparently finished up after the session ended—and we also learned how to design and facilitate a session like the one he was leading—just by watching him lead ours. To speed up production, he had prepared a template for the script and made it available to us in a shared document online. He then used Mentimeter to help us craft some of the vocabulary we would incorporate into the script. He asked each of us to volunteer to produce very short (several-second) videos we would upload to a shared folder he made available online. And he showed us how to edit all that content into the announcement-in-progress. It was an amazing display of training-teaching-learning in action, and I left that session feeling as if I were one very happy camper.

The day, as days at camp often do, is already becoming a blur. More wonderful learning. More time to take a virtual walk in the woods, reflect on what we were seeing-doing-learning. Time for a quick refresher nap. And, at the end of the day, after additional opportunities to learn and craft and dream, we reconvened in the camp Mess Hall for an evening of game-playing-with-a-purpose.

[Image from Opening Night Session by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

Joined by Second City star Linda Kash, Novak set the stage for 90 minutes of Zoom-prov—familiar improvisation-based games all conducted via Zoom rather than face-to-face. We started with “Blind Portrait,” a game in which we each had to try to draw the face of someone else we could see in that Zoom gathering—without ever looking away from the screen. Kash played it for all it was worth, cajoling anyone who made the mistake of breaking eye contact with the webcam, and brought it all home by reminding us that as an educational tool, the game reminded everyone that we are all in the same pool and need not be embarrassed by what we produce. A series of equally entertaining challenges all drawing upon the best techniques employed in improv had all of us laughing out loud, collaborating wildly in friendly competitions, and achieving what any evening around the learning campfire is meant to achieve: an opportunity to bask in community, friendship, shared experiences, and the promise of more to come when the sun reappears above the grounds of our virtual summer camp tomorrow.

–N.B.: 1) This is the sixteenth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the second in a series of posts inspired by Learning(Hu)Man. 2) Paul is one of two ShapingEDU Storytellers in Residence, serving from July 2020 – June 2021.


Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Flipping Scary Stories

July 21, 2020

Going to summer camp was something I thought was long behind me—particularly at a time when I am joining so many others in following shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic. But I had that wrong. I’m back at camp. A newly-organized virtual summer camp. As a participant, facilitator, and occasional volunteer monitoring and fostering online conversations via Slack during the week-long Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp.

It’s only one day old, and already it is an extraordinary experience produced by leadership and volunteers within a community of dreamer-doer-drivers who consistently demonstrate an unbelievable ability to plan and bring to fruition the most complex of endeavors within incredibly brief periods of time.

Some of the more than 2,000 of us who have registered joined the opening ceremony around the virtual campfire last night, and more of us continued to participate today through a series of dynamic, highly-interactive sessions featuring colleagues and a variety of visionary guests working together to shape the future of learning in the digital era. The theme for our first full day together has been “flipping scary stories,” and there certainly are plenty of scary stories to tell and flip. Virtual campers began the day with some early-morning online Mess Hall interactions, then gathered around the flag pole for an inspiring keynote presentation by Arizona State University President Michael Crow, who spoke eloquently and movingly of this moment in time when we have a chance for the first-ever full release of human potential through egalitarian access to education. A panel discussion on “the next normal” in learning—“the one we’re creating together” in response to the tremendously scary stories that are continuing to unfold around us—kept all of us standing virtually at attention for the remainder of that early-morning gathering.

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

We then went to our own smaller online camp sites to choose from more than a dozen 50-minute sessions slotted into two consecutive time periods for the next couple of hours; among the choices were “Learning Futures: Avoiding the Zombie Apocalypse to Create the Brave New World”; “Using Data Science, Data, and the Power of Community to Address the Student Loan Crisis”; and the “Using Design Thinking to Close the Digital Divide” session I co-facilitated with ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence Lisa Gustinelli, FutureWe Founder Jonathan Nalder, and educational technologist Gordon Shupe (centered on the ShapingEDU “Connected for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative that is beginning to attract attention and support from a variety of collaborators). Other subsequent Learning(Hu)Man activities throughout the morning and early afternoon gave everyone plenty of options for playing, learning, interacting, dreaming, and plotting before we had an afternoon break to step away from the structured events and to reflect while taking virtual walks through the woods or much-needed naps.

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

Refreshed from our walks and naps, many of us came back together for two overwhelmingly and richly dynamic sessions—the first featuring a live interview with Zoom Founder/CEO Eric Yuan, the second featuring three over-the-top brilliantly passionately engaging presenters (Nicol Turner-Lee, Director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation; Larry Irving, President and CEO of the Irving Information Group; and Joshua Edmonds, University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative and City of Detroit Digital Inclusion Fellow). Yuan, responding to deeply thoughtful questions from Zoom Chief Diversity Officer Damien Hooper-Campbell, addressed a variety of topics including Zoom’s commitment to quality, communities served, and willingness to collaborate with others seeking positive responses to some of our most challenging social issues; he assured Learning(Hu)Man campers that a priority for Zoom, post-pandemic, will be how to unleash the power of the Zoom platform in continuing to serve a variety of educational, artistic, and socially-diverse communities.

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

Just when it appeared there was no way to top the momentum and excitement of what Learning(Hu)Man and its partners had produced, it did exactly that. The final session with Turner-Lee, Irving, and Edmonds showed virtual conferencing at its finest. The formal question-and-answer segments between those inspiring presenters was accompanied, seamlessly, by session audience members interacting with each other and the presenters, via a live-chat window, in a positively overwhelming flow of give-and-take. One of the many comments that stood out to me came from a fellow participant and, in a heartbeat, changed the way I have been viewing the challenge of the digital divide and overcoming less-than-ideal broadband access throughout our country: “Frankly, getting so tired of hearing ‘Digital Divide’…it’s a social, economic, social justice, bandwidth divide and it’s been going on for decades. So, despite funding from the FCC, state governments, private foundations, etc. We are Still Discussing…so what’s the solution? It’s not just technology, it’s a reflection of the inequities in our society.”

Both exhausted and exhilarated, I decided to skip the set of live conversations and playful activities that were scheduled to continue via Zoom before camp shut down for the evening and we began recharging our creative batteries in anticipation of reconvening early tomorrow morning in the camp Mess Hall for another day of thoughtfully engaging interactions designed to spur us toward positive action.

What remains for me this evening is to acknowledge the absolutely stunning accomplishment represented by the first full day of summer camp—an achievement in virtual conferencing described eloquently online by “Camp Groundskeeper” Samantha Becker on behalf of the entire Camp Team:

“Learning(Hu)Man 2020 is an experimental fusion of hands-on learning, storytelling, tech hacks and the good kind of shenanigans. In short, it’s total camp. Summer camp! This weeklong series of events will convene a global community of education changemakers to push the creative envelope for how we serve students and advance learner success.

“Interactive experiences led by a cohort of camp counselors (read: education and industry leaders) will uncover best practices in learning design, edtech tools and development, and emergent thinking around the art of the possible—all with the shared mission for enabling student success in all of its dimensions.

Thank you to [Camp Chef] Lev Gonick, who started passing me ‘back of the napkin’ ideas over Slack on this—and then never stopped.”

There are still several more days of camping ahead of all of us. And when everything formally wraps up next Monday morning with a two-hour session to summarize what we have experienced and what we hope to accomplish as a result of having gone to camp together, it still will not be over. There will be weeks, if not months, of reflections and follow-up interactions synchronously and asynchronously. There will be opportunities to view archived recordings as they are posted on the ShapingEDU YouTube channel. There will be continuing discussions on the ShapingEDU Slack site. There will be unforeseeable positive concrete actions. And, most of all, there will be that dynamic, unique ShapingEDU community “dreaming, driving, and doing” together in one long, uninterrupted moment that began long before we arrived at Learning(Hu)Man summer camp and will extend long after we “leave.”

–N.B.: 1) This is the fifteenth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and to our continuing interactions online. 2) Paul is one of two ShapingEDU Storytellers in Residence, serving from July 2020 – June 2021.


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

July 13, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Marching Virtually With the Poor People’s Campaign

June 20, 2020

There is something timeless about a virtual march/assembly designed to foster social change—something obvious to anyone watching/participating in the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and March on Washington today. The timelessness was felt in numerous moments, during the first livestream broadcast of that 3.5-hour event that drew more than 1.2 million of us to it through the Campaign’s event website and MSNBC’s live broadcast, that we came face to face with people—our fellow citizens—who are living in poverty. People struggling to survive. People who have been ignored for far too long. People whose faces we need to see. People whose voices we need to hear. And the timelessness is equally obvious when we return to a recording available online to live or relive part or all of that unifying call to positive action centered on a set of interrelated fundamental principles and demands.

It’s another powerful example of how much our world is changing around us as we continue adapting to shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic. Many of us are learning, for the first time, how to work effectively from home. Or to learn online. Or to meet or celebrate significant moments (e.g., birthdays) or even engage in conversations over meals “face-to-face” via Zoom and other online platforms.

It was only a matter of time, therefore, that the need to continue pushing for social change through large-scale gatherings—even, if not especially—during times of incredible upheaval and tragedy at a personal, regional, national, and global level would force us all to become a bit more creative in our approaches. And its obvious that the organizers of the Poor People Assembly and March not only figured out how to do it online (after their original plans for an onsite assembly and March on Washington were derailed by the onset of social distancing), but how to do it effectively and engagingly online.

The stunningly beautiful result is that it worked. The ability to participate online undoubtedly made the event accessible to far more people than would have been able to join it if they had to be onsite. The adaptations required by the move from onsite to online interactions created unique opportunities for the faces to be seen and the voices to be heard through first-rate editing of recordings from well-known religious, political, social, and arts-and-entertainment leaders as well as those more important: those directly affected by poverty and numerous interrelated challenges. And even though it was, in essence, a “live” recorded production, there was a very real level of interaction made possible through the use of #PoorPeoplesCampaign on Twitter to capture and react to moments that struck many of us at a personal level. (When the event was at its peak, the hashtag was near the top of a list of terms drawing the highest levels of engagement on Twitter.)

Furthermore, the fact that the live/recorded event was scheduled for three livestreams over this particular weekend provided an interesting opportunity to participate in an extended synchronous/asynchronous way. Having to leave the initial broadcast and the dynamic, almost overwhelmingly flow of tweets during the initial event this morning, I was sorry I would not be able to stay for the final hour of the event. Doing a bit of post-event catch-up later in the day with a friend who was involved as an event volunteer, I realized I was free at the moment where the rebroadcast would be recreating the moment when I had originally had to leave. So, I rejoined it (several hours after the initial broadcast ended) right at the moment of my departure. And discovered, to my surprise, that it felt as if those intervening hours had not at all existed. Because a new group of participants was equally engaged. Equally active on Twitter. And helping to create the sense of continuity and engagement that accompanies participation in any well-designed event designed to draw us in; help us understand that we are part of a vital, vibrant action-oriented community; and inspire us to take the positive actions we know we need to take if we want to create a new and better normal to replace the far-from-perfect normal we had before COVID-19 and additional tragic deaths of our fellow Americans drove us to this moment of need for decisive action.

Because of my own tenuous connection to the Campaign (through the friend who has been actively volunteering for it for a considerable period of time) before today’s march and assembly, I had been watching for signs of traction during the weeks and days before the event. I was disappointed—but not at all surprised—to see that mainstream media coverage in anticipation of the event was, to be charitable, minimal; doing an online search for pre-event coverage via Google showed far more attention being given to the latest (onsite) rally (in a time of social distancing) scheduled by our president than was given to the Poor People’s Campaign event. Mainstream media representatives clearly remain woefully and pathetically unprepared for and unable to detect the significance and draw of events that are taking place online rather than onsite. But that doesn’t tell the full story, for the event was gaining plenty of attention in online environments and platforms, including on Facebook and on the event website, where people were being invited to and committing to attending not only by completing online RSVPs, but also putting a very real face to their participation by posting selfies and adding brief descriptions as to why they were committed to participating in the event and supporting the Poor People’s Campaign.

And now that the march/assembly has actually “taken place,” the relative lack of mainstream media attention seems to be dissipating a bit. A story posted earlier today by The New York Times is drawing more attention to the gathering and what it was designed to promote, and more coverage by others is bound to follow soon.

What all of this suggests for those of us tracking and writing about how social media and other online platforms are changing the face of social change is that our landscape is continuing to evolve quickly. There are possibilities that are tremendously under-explored. And we are still in the fairly early days of experimenting with and understanding the massive changes that our technology is capable of producing.   

The march/assembly, as I write this, appears to be over. But it really isn’t. It continues anytime any of us takes the time to watch part of all of the event in any archived version. Opens his/her/their heart to what is being proposed/requested/demanded. And then takes whatever steps are possible to address and resolve any of the numerous challenges we are facing. Because we are all in this together.

–N.B.: This is the twelfth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online, and the twenty-third in a series of excerpts from and interviews for Paul’s book Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020.


%d bloggers like this: