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

March 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Dreamers, Doers and Drivers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ShapingEDU 2020 Virtual Wave

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

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


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

March 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


T is for Training: Innovator’s Mindset, Instagram, and Trolls

February 14, 2020

Empathetic, problem finder-solver, risk-taker, networked, observant, creator, resilient, reflective: eight characteristics of The Innovator’s Mindset. And eight terms that could easily have been applied to Maurice Coleman during the recording of the latest episode of his long-running, biweekly T is for Training podcast last night.

The podcast—designed for anyone interested or involved in training-teaching-learning in libraries (and a variety of other learning venues)—wasn’t perfect last night. But that’s OK; like the learning that T is for Training so often explores and fosters through playful hour-long discussions among a core group of participants and an occasional guest, the podcast is not meant to be perfect. (If you decide to listen to the latest episode, you can skip the first three minutes and join it at the four-minute mark to dive right into the discussion.) It was, however, a great example of the topics under consideration: the book Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning]and the Innovator’s Mindset (by George Couros and Katie Novak) and the innovatively engaging Innovate Inside the Box (IITB) Instagram Book Study group is inspired—where Instagram became the platform for the core of the discussions.

With just two of us—Maurice and me—initially participating in the recording, we worked our way through some technical problems we were having with the podcast software during the first few minutes of the recording (resilient!…and grumpy, although that’s not one of the eight characteristics we were exploring). And, after those first few less-than-perfect moments, we began with a quick summary of the content of the book before exploring how the online book study group functioned and produced some interesting learning experiences and results…and the beginning of a potentially dynamic new community of learning.

he risk-taker element of the endeavor is that T is for Training is live and open to anyone who wants to call in—which means we often have some lively discussions, and occasionally find ourselves visited by that awful beast known as a troll. That, as you correctly assumed by reading the title of this post, is what happened about a third of the way through the recording last night. Maurice, always willing to engage in a bit of empathy, gave the troll a couple of (mercifully brief) opportunities to actually rise to the challenge of contributing positively to the conversation. Displayed resilience by bouncing back quickly from each interruption this somewhat persistent troll attempted to create. And ultimately engaged in another session of our favorite podcast pastime—whack a troll. The conversation ultimately continued, successfully, as if nothing had ever happened (problem found, problem solved).

Moving into a discussion of the Instagram book study group, we found ourselves doing far more than simply reviewing what it produced in terms of learning; innovation; products (e.g., the Instagram posts, tweets, and blog pieces) made by the creators who were participating in the group; and reflections. We were (occasionally) reflective, and networking came into it through mentions of T is for Training community members who were not present for the recording but will ultimately be part of that episode when they listen and respond to the content we managed to create. The role of creator, furthermore, is on display because the recording and dissemination of that episode of the podcast is becoming another contribution to the community initiated through the Instagram book study group and continuing on Instagram (and elsewhere) under the general #InnovateInsideTheBox hashtag.

For me, the real punchline here is that T is for Training has just been drawn into yet another rhizomatically-expanding community of learning—one that includes the Instagram Book Study group, the #InnovateInsideTheBox Instagram/Twitter/Facebook collaborations, the blog postings several of us have created in response to what we have encountered in the book as well as in the online conversations, and others yet to be determined. It’s one of the characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (networked); the best trainer-teacher-learners I have met and with whom I regularly interact; and the T is for Training community itself. And the best news of all is that you’re welcome to join any part of it, at any time, if you want to explore and nurture your own Innovator’s Mindset.

–N.B.: T is for Training generally records every other Thursday evening at 9 pm ET/6 pm PT. More information is available on the podcast website.


Learning, Innovation, and Instagram (#IITB, Pt. 3 of 4): Building Character(istics)

February 11, 2020

To display the character—and the characteristics—of the Innovator’s Mindset requires us to be observant, be creators, be resilient, and be reflective, George Couros and Katie Novak suggest as they explore the final four of those eight Innovator’s Mindset qualities in their book Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning]and the Innovator’s Mindset and continue engaging us through participation in their Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group.

Exploring themes that flow through the entire book, and exploring how Instagram might be incorporated into engaging training-teaching-learning opportunities, has certainly provided me with inspiration to be observant, to be creative (in the sense of creating Instagram posts that can serve as learning moments), to be resilient (each post has required multiple attempts and the use of at least a couple of different tools to produce the images/learning moments I was attempting to produce), and reflective. The results, as you can see from what I posted previously and from the following lightly-edited sets of reflections from each of the most recent Instagram/Tumblr posts I completed while contributing to the discussions on four of the eight Innovator’s Mindset characteristics, display the never-quite-perfect record-of-my-learning-process in ways that will serve as reminders to me—and, possibly, to you—of the value of regularly engaging in learning rather than remaining solely in the instructor/learning facilitator role so many of us pursue.

Comments accompanying the fifth of eight Innovator’s Mindset-post characteristics—this one on the Innovator’s Mindset characteristic observant: Something that has been all around—completely unnoticed, completely unobserved—is called to your attention. You take note of it. You might study it a bit. You absorb it into your verbal, visual, and “attentiveness” (things-I-need-to-notice) vocabulary. And suddenly, it seems as if it is everywhere you look. Which is the point that George Couros and Katie Novak make in Chapter 9 of Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning] and the Innovator’s Mindset). Being observant is a characteristic that, “in a world full of noise, is more valuable than ever,” Couros writes. Being observant, he continues, involves “the skill of finding nuggets of wisdom and powerful links to information [and] is one that you develop over time.” It’s a skill I’m further cultivating while experimenting with Instagram as a training-teaching-learning skill within the context of the book study group: I observe how my co-conspirators in learning—Couros, Novak, and those who are participating and interacting through their Instagram posts—approach the tool (creatively/innovatively); how some of us react to what Couros and Novak have written in their book and are providing via Instagram; and how we describe what we are doing to adopt the Innovator’s Mindset to create more productive, engaging, meaningful learning opportunities for our leaners and ourselves. “We have to design learning opportunities that leave room for students to observe the world around them, find their passions, and ask their own questions so their learning experiences aren’t cluttered with ‘one-size-fits-all’ resources that pave a path for them,” Novak writes. And, in learning and beginning to apply the lesson she and Couros are providing by not giving “one-size-fits-all” assignments in this book discussion/course, she makes us more observant, more likely to acquire and obtain glimpses of beauty in a world that we otherwise might not so carefully have noticed.

Comments about the sixth characteristic (creators): You see him in an urban park, creating an image from his surroundings. Creating something that matters to him. And, with any luck, something that will be seen by others, and that, to them, will matter, too. Consuming impressions from his surroundings—from his world—he engages in that stimulating moment of personifying the consumer-creator —an essential part of every learner’s experience, Couros and Novak remind us in Chapter 10 of Innovate Inside the Box. “Innovators need to be creators, not just consumers. With that in mind, teachers need to provide numerous opportunities for students to create by providing options and choices for students to collaborate, examine exemplars of creativity, find solutions to problems, use non-traditional forms to consume new information and content, and have the flexibility to put the ideas together to create and express new and better ideas”—which, as always, remains at the heart of what we, as participants in the Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group, are doing. We read, consuming the content from the book. We reflect, gleaning tips and gaining inspiration from what others post in Instagram. We create our own responses in the form of these images and the accompanying text we attempt to weave into our posts. And, as creator-consumers, we learn.

Comments about the seventh characteristic (resilient): We try to accomplish something, not sure how or whether we will succeed. And when we don’t, we try…and try again…until we get it right—which speaks to the power of resiliency, the seventh of eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset explored by Couros and Novak in Innovate Inside the Box. “Innovators need to build resilience as setbacks and failing are expected. ‘Failure’ and ‘failing’ are different. Whereas failure is final, failing happens as part of an ongoing practice of trying and learning,” Novak tells us—a great reminder for me as I prepared this particular post and found myself having to try and try again until the cropping of the photo and the placement of the words were as effective as I could make them with the tools with which I’m working. It’s a lesson my colleagues and I share repeatedly with our co-conspirators in learning by suggesting that “fail to learn” is an often-overlooked foundation of resiliency—and success—in learning.

Comments accompanying my Instagram post on the eighth character trait: “The ability to reflect is crucial for understanding and processing,” Couros reminds us as he and Novak take us through the final characteristic of the Innovator’s Mindset: reflection. “It is also essential to our ability to move forward and create something from what we have learned. … Reflection time is something that should be seen as vital to learning…” The entire experience of participating in the Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group here on Instagram has been exactly that: a combination of moving forward in my learning about Instagram as a tool for training-teaching-learning; reading (and rereading) and reflecting on each chapter within Innovate Inside the Box; creating something that builds upon what I have already learned; and learning more by sharing it on Instagram, seeing how my co-conspirators in learning respond to it, and responding to the results of their own moving/creating/innovating/learning process. And because we are part of a community of learning, we have the chance to celebrate each step we take in moving toward improving what we do in service to the learners who rely on us for support, inspiration, and collaboration.–N.B.: This is the third in a set of reflections inspired by #IITB, the Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group. Next: When books are more than books.


Learning, Innovation, and Instagram (#IITB, Pt. 2 of 4): Building a Community of Learning

February 10, 2020

I’m watching—and, more importantly, participating in—the growth of another community of learning—the one fostered by writer-presenter-educator George Couros through the “Innovate Inside the Box [#IITB] Instagram Book Study” group he and his co-author, Katie Novak, are creating around their book Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning]and the Innovator’s Mindset.

It’s not a surprise at all to me that the community is thriving under their guidance: Couros’s Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (massive open online course) a couple of years ago was a playfully innovative and inspiring opportunity to work with a dynamic group of co-conspirators in learning. And the idea of using Instagram as a platform for learning has obviously been successful in attracting enough people to make this a unique and transformative learning opportunity well worth pursuing. As I mentioned in the first post in this series of reflections inspired by the #IITB book study group, it has been engaging from the moment during which I posted my first offering after opening an Instagram account last week and began interacting with George and the other co-conspirators—an experience that has quickly deepened after just seven days of online, asynchronous interactions. I’m finding kindred spirits—other teacher-trainer-learners with seemingly inexhaustible depths of curiosity. A willingness to experiment with new concepts and tools. And a commitment to creating time and space to interact around an overlapping set of topics that include innovation in learning, incorporating Instagram into learning, and exploring ways to expand our own learning in ways that will benefit those we serve. The experience is multifaceted—an online (mostly asynchronous) book discussion group, functioning in a way that is reminiscent of the best connectivist MOOCs (massive open online courses) I have joined. It has us interacting within the platform (Instagram) through the images, videos, and text we have been posting, and allows for interactions through the comments that we post about our own and others’ offerings and through expanded interactions via posting blog pieces like this one and reading (and responding to) those posted by others.

Most interestingly—and again, not surprisingly—the interactions themselves reflect many of the eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset that all of us have been exploring and attempting to (further) develop. Going beyond the suggested basic level of participation—a suggested three postings for each of the three weeks the book discussion is scheduled to continue—because I have wanted to as fully as possible immerse myself in Instagram as a tool for training-teaching-learning, I’ve been creating separate posts that serve to summarize and respond to at least one element of each of the characteristics. The remainder of this blog post pulls lightly-edited text from each of the first four posts I completed while contributing to the discussions on four of the eight Innovator’s Mindset characteristics.

Comments accompanying the first post, on the Innovator’s Mindset characteristic of empathy: This, Couros proposes, “is about helping students seek out problems that are meaningful to them and then finding ways to solve or respond to those issues,” and it hearkens back to earlier passages in the book regarding the importance of asking the right questions to produce concrete, positive learning results. The goal, Novak adds, is “to empower students to become purposeful, motivated, resourceful, strategic learners”—a practice Couros and Novak put into play in the way they are encouraging those of us in the “Innovate inside the Box Instagram Book Study” group to absorb the content of their book, then apply it by producing Instagram posts that carry our learning forward through a process of deciding what each of us wants to know about Instagram and overcoming problems we face in locating and adapting solutions to design problems related to the creation of these posts.

Comments about the second characteristic (problem finders-solvers): This, Couros proposes, “is about helping students seek out problems that are meaningful to them and then finding ways to solve or respond to those issues,” and it hearkens back to earlier passages in the book regarding the importance of asking the right questions to produce concrete, positive learning results. The goal, Novak adds, is “to empower students to become purposeful, motivated, resourceful, strategic learners”—a practice Couros and Novak put into play in the way they are encouraging those of us in the “Innovate inside the Box Instagram Book Study” group to absorb the content of their book, then apply it by producing Instagram posts that carry our learning forward through a process of deciding what each of us wants to know about Instagram and overcoming problems we face in locating and adapting solutions to design problems related to the creation of these posts.

Comments about the third characteristic (risk-taking): Turning to “risk-taking” as one of eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (in “Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning] and the Innovator’s Mindset”), Couros and Novak are explicit in noting that they are not advocating “doing things that would harm our learners”; they are advocating the act of “moving from a comfortable average in pursuit of an unknown better”—something at the heart of the positive transformations that effective learning fosters. It’s a theme that speaks to me powerfully because I have, at points in my lifelong learning endeavors, caught myself (stupidly) thinking about not taking a course because it might lower my GPA—took me years to realize I no longer cared about grades; I cared about the positive results any great learning experience produces. I also occasionally catch myself—and stop myself from—holding back with questions about or experimental approaches to learning challenges offered in onsite and online courses and workshops; the self-imposed barrier, of course, comes from the fear that my peers/colleagues might somehow think less of me if I ask I a “stupid” question or produce results that are less dazzling than I hoped to produce when completing a learning task. What it comes down to, of course, is modeling for my co-conspirators in learning the very behavior I hope to foster in them: a willingness to try new things, overcome the fears that often accompany the act of taking risks, and live with—and actually embrace—the temporary failures that accompany us as we take the path toward learning what we want and need to learn. We “have to eliminate the barriers that prevent students from taking risks,” Novak counsels, and I would suggest we need to do the same for ourselves if we want to develop and benefit from adopting and nurturing the characteristics of the Innovative Mindset—for our learners and ourselves.

Comments accompanying my Instagram post on the fourth characteristic (networked); Being “networked”—the fourth of the eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (in “Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning] and the Innovator’s Mindset”)—is “crucial both to innovative teaching and learning as well as to helping students develop an Innovator’s Mindset,” George Couros writes. It’s a characteristic well-fostered in the “Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study” group for which this and my other #InnovateInsideTheBox posts on Instagram [with copies posted to Tumblr] have been prepared: by engaging in an asynchronous book discussion via Instagram, those of us participating with George and his “Inside the Box” co-author, Katie Novak, are meeting and engaging with others in a rapidly-developing network of educators (aka, trainer-teacher-learners] that has the potential to become another long-term community of learning. We work through Instagram; we learn with and from each other; and, if we’re successful, we and the learners we serve will benefit from having nurtured the “networked” and other Innovator’s Mindset characteristics we are developing with each new interaction we help create. As Novak observes, “When we provide students [ourselves included] with authentic opportunities to network and dive their own learning, it’s a hell of a ride.”

–N.B.: This is the second in a set of reflections inspired by #IITB, the Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group. Next: The four remaining characteristics (observant, creators, resilient, and reflective).


Learning, Innovation, and Instagram (#IITB, Pt. 1 of 4): The Questions That Inspire Us

February 5, 2020

I’m learning to use Instagram as a tool to foster training-teaching-learning. Not because friends and colleagues told me I should be on Instagram. (They did.) Not because I feel a compelling need to become active on yet another social media platform. (I don’t.) And certainly not for course credits or a grade: there are no grades given in the course I am pursuing—just an opportunity to explore an unfamiliar resource with the support of a tremendously innovative community of learning, under the guidance of a writer-presenter-educator (George Couros) I very much admire.

It started with a question, as have so many of my favorite and most transformative learning opportunities: how can Instagram be used to innovatively foster learning? And it’s the sort of learning opportunity I very much admire. It’s engaging—the moment I posted my first offering on Instagram, I became drawn into brief exchanges with George and my other co-conspirators in learning. It’s multifaceted—an online (mostly asynchronous) book discussion group, functioning as a connectivist MOOC (massive open online course), that includes the opportunity to explore a social media tool (Instagram) as part of the larger goal of engaging in transformative conversations on a topic (innovation in learning) that is of interest to me and those I serve. It’s rhizomatic—expanding and exploding across multiple platforms including Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and even blog postings like this one. And it is creative in every sense of the word, including the idea that we as learners engage in the creation of numerous examples of how Instagram can be used in learning (while learning about Instagram itself) so that, at the conclusion of this three-week book discussion/course/community-of-learning-in-action, we will have produced a fluid, amendable “textbook” that can be used by others interested in learning about Instagram in learning.

The online book discussion group/Instagram-in-learning course fostered through this “Innovate Inside the Box [#IITB] Book Study” group begins with a chapter-by-chapter set of readings from and responses to Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning]and the Innovator’s Mindset, written by George and his co-author Katie Novak. We seamlessly jump from the pages of this trainer-teacher-learner must-read book into Instagram (using the hashtag #InnovateInsideTheBox and more specific chapter-by-chapter hashtags, e.g., #IITBCh1 for postings connected to our exploration of Chapter 1) to learn from posts and comments by George and Katie.

We cannot, if we want to understand how this all works, overlook the magnificent organizational skills George brings to the course. He seeds the Instagram conversations with concise, visually-consistent suggested discussion points; incorporates short videos produced with other social media tools, including TikTok, to draw us in as co-conspirators in the learning process; and obviously gave plenty of thought to creating those chapter-by-chapter hashtags so that any of us, at any time, could easily locate, contribute, and respond to content on the topic of our choice. We also benefit from the unspoken assumption that, with content exploding across Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, blogs, and other social media platforms, there is no expectation that “keeping up” requires attention to all those possibilities and conversations; we choose what we can do within the time we have for the discussion/course, and happily work in what is a guilt-free learning zone.

Although I was late to joining the conversations—completing my first post on Instagram near the end of the second week of #IITB—I had been slowly reading and reflecting upon the book from the moment I received my copy. I was also using online resources to learn more about how Instagram works; how to create visually appealing posts appropriate to our goal of using Instagram for learning; and to survey some of the tools available for use in creating posts combining images and text. Attempting to complete and post a couple of contributions each day, it hasn’t taken me long to realize that the combination of text and imagery in those posts, along with reflections in the comments field of each post, are giving me a record of my learning; a quickly-growing resource library of images I can use in other projects I am currently completing; and examples I can use for the remainder of this blog post to show how the entire process is working for me—and might also work for you.

Comments accompanying the first post: Experimenting…always experimenting: the heart of training-teaching-learning. So, belatedly, I’m diving into what is meant to be a three-week innovative opportunity to explore Instagram as a tool for learning through an online Instagram-based book discussion centered on Innovate Inside the Box, by George Couros, with Katie Novak. George, upfront (on p. xxxv), reminds us that great learning opportunities, are fostered through our ability to draw upon our own creativity, our willingness to innovate to the benefit of our learners, and “the artistry of teaching”—which inspired me to go back to this photo I took of a playful work of art and think about how the successful incorporation of art into teaching-training-learning can help us hit the bull’s-eye when we are successful.

Comments accompanying the second post: In a chapter on learner-driven, evidence-informed learning, George suggests that a focus on grades (or, by extension, certificates of completion) rather than achievement reduces learning to “letters and numbers” and leaves our learners “lost in the process.” Fostering learning where “people are invested in their own goals” and where success is judged by evidence of positive transformation, on the other hand, carries learners “above and beyond goals that we set for them”—a lesson I’m re-learning as I participate in the book study group. If I were doing this for a grade or a certificate or if I were participating in a workshop on how to use Instagram, I would probably race through the learning challenges and be done with it; bringing my own commitment to lifelong learning to this innovative opportunity  to study innovation (and Instagram) and taking the time to explore what Instagram might offer me and those I serve through training-teaching-learning-doing, however, is inspiring me to spend much more time than expected preparing each of these posts—with the result that I’ll leave the study group, when the formal interactions conclude, with an understanding far deeper and more useful than anything a grade provides.

Comments accompanying the third post: In his chapter “Master Learner, Master Educator,” George addresses a theme that comes up often with my colleagues: our roles as teacher-trainer-learners are inextricably interconnected; one part of that term without the others leaves us—and those we serve—at a terrible disadvantage in terms of facilitating and taking advantage of effective, positive, learning opportunities. “If you want to be a master educator, you need to be a master learner,” he reminds us, adding, later in the chapter, the wonderful punchline: “…learning has no endpoint; it is a continuous journey with many opportunities to explore.” And the more we encourage our learners—and ourselves—to solve challenges for themselves/ourselves rather than being spoon fed information they/we will not be able to remember, the more we help them—and ourselves—grow into successful lifelong learners—a lesson I continue to see reinforced as I explore the intersection of Instagram and teaching-training-learning by struggling with the tool; experimenting to produce thoughtful, visually appealing posts; and celebrating small victories while continuing to overcome the challenges that each new post provides.

Comments accompanying the fourth post: In his chapter on creating empowered learning experiences, George contrasts engagement (“listening, reading, observing, consuming”) with empowerment (speaking, writing, interacting, creating”) and suggests that “asking better questions” leads us—and our learners—down fruitful paths in developing valuable lifelong skills. There is an acknowledgement that we cannot ignore the basics when we are working with our learners, but the basics are the starting point, not the finish line: “When students are empowered to choose how they can best demonstrate their knowledge and skills, they are able to see the relevance in learning the basics…and are less likely to check out mentally.”
It’s a reminder I appreciate as I explore basic as well as innovative possibilities Instagram provides for training-teaching-learning-doing—not because George or Katie dictate every step I must take as a learner and co-creator in their online book-study experience, but because they are the learning catalysts and I am a willing, curious, engaged, empowered co-conspirator in my own learning process.

So…I’m learning to use Instagram as a tool to foster training-teaching-learning. And I’m learning so much more. If this and subsequent posts about #InnovateInsideTheBox serve as learning opportunities for you and other readers of this blog, then the learning will continue far beyond the three-week online offering, and we will have come full circle in creating when-you-need-them learning opportunities from those in which we have participated, and to which we have contributed.

–N.B.: This is the first in a set of reflections inspired by #IITB, the Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group.


Collaboration in Learning: Co-conspirators in Exploring Technology, Lifelong Learning, Libraries, and Hubris

December 6, 2019

There is no front of the room in the four-week online Tech Trends course David Lee King and I are currently facilitating for ALA eLearning (November 4 – December 8, 2019); our asynchronous virtual meeting space is designed to make everyone an equally-empowered co-conspirator in the learning process. You won’t find instructors lecturing to learners who are surreptitiously checking their email and social media accounts; all of us are there, by choice, to learn (experientially) from each other rather than focusing solely on what the “instructors” bring to the online learning space and its bulletin boards for course discussions. And although the “Roadmap for Staff Success With New Technology” course (focused on that rich, intriguing intersection of technology, lifelong learning, and libraries) obviously has technology as a focal point, technology always takes a back seat to the people who are learning together and—more importantly—to the people who will benefit from the learning opportunities all of us create as a result of having explored technology, lifelong learning, and libraries together during the four-week run of the course.

Pulling the class together has, in itself, been a wonderfully productive, engaging, and rewarding learning process for David and for me—a process we shared quite opening with our co-conspirators, aka the learners who registered for the course. When we focused on a week-long exploration of how collaboration tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated and opening new collaborative opportunities for the learners we all serve, for example, David and I were quite open with the learners in discussing the problems we encountered with one of the collaboration tools we were using as a way of working on the course together even though I am in San Francisco and David is in Topeka. The challenges themselves became part of the learning experience for us as well as for others in the course, and the results were that we all walked away with additional resources (and ideas for resolving problems in online collaborative workspaces) in our learning toolkits as we continue designing and facilitating learning opportunities for those we all serve through libraries and other learning organizations.

When we turned to a weeklong exploration of how Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools and developments are increasingly offering us resources that might be incorporated into engaging, transformative learning opportunities, we started with a focus on how AI is affecting our target audience: people at work. We dove into examples of what our colleagues were—and are—saying about how AI is “transforming the nature of work, learning, and learning to work.” We looked at specific examples of how AI is working its way into libraries and learning. And one of our course co-conspirators, inspired by what she was learning, mentioned (on the course bulletin board) how “excited” she was by the possibility of incorporating Google Translate into the library’s efforts to better serve members of its bilingual community.  

And when we moved into an exploration of XR (Extended Reality, which includes Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Mixed Reality) for the final week of the course—in progress as David and I write two interconnected sets of reflections regarding the impact of learning with learners interested in technology, libraries, and lifelong learning (you’ll find David’s part of the conversation on his blog—we again very much focused on the human side of the topic, with an eye toward encouraging our co-conspirators to outline steps they will take to incorporate their learning experiences into the learning opportunities they design and facilitate for their colleagues and other learners.

One lesson (re-)learned from our experiences with the course and the learners: it takes a combination of hubris and courage to invite colleagues to a cutting-edge exploration of rapidly-evolving technology. But that’s a challenge we were quite willing to take and discuss with our co-conspirators because the changes—and our ability to address them—were and are an integral part of any exploration of new tech. There were at least a few times when the design and development of the course was almost derailed by new developments—as was the case when we were preparing a Week 4 section on Google Daydream, only to discover that Google was formally withdrawing the product from the market just as we were writing about Daydream as a tech tool worth exploring. We did the only thing we knew how to do: we turned the situation into a case study of how quickly tech changes and how preparing for the unexpected—the Black Swans in our lives—is part of the process of learning how to explore, work with, and, when necessary, walk away from technology that seems capable of helping us meet unmet needs in our lifelong learning landscapes.

Another lesson well worth remembering is that creating and facilitating highly-interactive online learning experiences benefits tremendously from the inclusion of multiple voices made possible through links to a variety of resources (e.g., blog posts from colleagues, short videos from others more fully immersed in some of the technology under discussion than we are, and even links to PowerPoint decks that provide perspectives different than what any of us might bring to the discussions and explorations). A first-rate piece of video journalism gave all of us the backstory to Google’s withdrawal of Daydream. Free online access (via Amazon) to a chapter of Kenneth Varnum’s Beyond Reality: Augmented, Virtual, and Mixed Reality in the Library, which includes essays from several librarians who are already effectively incorporating XR into their workplaces, brought another useful perspective to what we are doing together. And we even included California State Librarian Greg Lucas virtually in the course via a brief, engaging video featuring his comments on XR in California libraries.

The bottom line for us and those we serve is that designing and facilitating an online course about cutting-edge technology offers opportunities to foster learning while engaged in learning. And the ultimate winners are those of us engaged in the course, as well as those we will better serve through the opportunities we provide as a result of the time we spend together in our virtual and face-to-faced learning spaces.

N.B.: This is one of two sets of reflections on “Roadmap for Staff Success With New Technology”; David’s set is available on his blog. Paul and David are available to work with anyone interested in onsite and/or online highly-interactive explorations of how to research and incorporate tech trends into training-teaching-learning. For more information, contact Paul at paul@paulsignorelli.com or David at davidleeking@gmail.com.


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