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

November 26, 2021

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

Howard Prager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N.B.: This is the second in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events in my life.


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

November 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N.B.: This is the first in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events in my life.


Rethinking Lectures, Learning, and Engagement

June 23, 2021

­­­I have, for quite a long time, not been a big fan of lectures as a primary way of fostering learning and the positive transformations that accompany learning at its best—particularly when the learning is centered around training sessions for adults in workplace settings. Within the learning environments onsite and online in which I most frequently work, learning is doing and doing is learning—which leaves lengthy formal lectures near the bottom of my learning toolkit in most situations. And I can’t say that I have changed my mind substantially. But reading an article—“Good Riddance to Boring Lectures? Technology Isn’t the Answer—Understanding Good Teaching Is,” by Christopher Charles Deneen and Michael Cowling for TheConversation.com—brought to my attention by ShapingEDU colleague Kim Flintoff, has inspired some rethinking on the subject—particularly after engaging in an unexpected set of asynchronous exchanges with colleagues via Facebook.

The article by Deneen and Cowling is thoughtful, balanced, and inspiring. The writers begin by describing how a vice chancellor at an Australian university is suggesting that as students return to onsite learning this year, lectures “would be much less common and not a ‘crutch for poor pedagogy.’” They deftly dive into an exploration of the idea that lectures will “be replaced by superior, technology-enhanced substitutes.” And after exploring our long-standing love-hate relationship with lectures in learning, they circle back to what is, for me, a perfect, well-reasoned conclusion: “We need to reject the notion that lectures will sink our students and technology will save them. Instead, let’s dig deeply and critically into both, reflect upon how to improve our practices, and apply sound teaching methods and practices to create learning engagements that are captivating and profound.”

Kim Flintoff

Kim, in posting (on Facebook) a link to the article, offered the briefest of comments: “I think the issue is engagement. Some lecturers can be very engaging. Many are not. Creating space for the learner is one of the criteria for engagement.” And that’s where the fun starts, for Barry Altland, a cherished ATD (Association for Talent Development) colleague here in the United States, responded to Kim’s comment with this opening salvo: “This [comment] states the ‘lecturers can be engaging.’ By their very definition, they are not. Facilitators are. But lecturers, presenters, speakers and instructors are not. Nor are teachers. For those are all movements that one does ‘at’ another, not ‘with’ another. Only a Facilitator invites the voices of many others into the learning conversation.”

My response did little to hide my surprise:I’m seeing the ‘lecture’ format evolve in engaging ways, and don’t sense that an appreciation for what first-rate facilitators inspire and accomplish precludes an appreciation for what a first-rate lecturer inspires and accomplishes. 2) I wouldn’t trade memories of lectures I have attended by Stephen Jay Gould, David Halberstam, Ann Patchett, Eric Whitacre, Jeremy GutscheR. David Lankes, and numerous others for anything. Furthermore, TED talks I’ve seen or attended suggest how vibrant, engaging, and transformative a lecture can be when the lecturer uses the power of storytelling to draw us into powerful communal experiences. And the best of the teacher-lecturers I’ve found in formal academic settings have had a lifelong impact on my approach to work, learning, and play. Really sorry if you haven’t had experiences along those lines. As Lankes would say: Expect More!”

Barry Altland

Dave himself, tagged in my response on Facebook, almost immediately joined the conversation: “The best lectures stimulate a dialog within the individual. A good book can be engaging, a song can change a life.” Which drew a response from Barry: “Books and songs are inanimate. When human beings come together, they both have something to offer the learning moment.”

R. David Lankes

With the ball back in Dave’s court, the exchange continued: “You used the word ‘engagement.’ A good lecture spawns conversations, internal and between people. Also, a lecture can absolutely be interactive one to many and many to one. I absolutely know the power of facilitated learning and workshops. Mastery requires going beyond lectures to practice. But to dismiss lectures as a simple broadcast of inherently less value I find problematic.”

Jill Hurst-Wahl

Other colleagues contributed to the exchange. My T is for Training colleague Jill Hurst-Wahl, in a series of posts, began by saying “I would add Larry Lessig as a person who gives engaging lectures. From what I’ve seen of her, I think Rep. Katie Porter would be a very engaging lecturer.”

Quoting from the original article, Jill continued: “‘Instead, let’s dig deeply and critically into both, reflect upon how to improve our practices, and apply sound teaching methods and practices to create learning engagements that are captivating and profound.’ I like the phrase ‘how to improve our practices.’ We are not taught as teachers how to improve our lectures. I remember when I joined my academic institution, I asked for advice on how to prepare for three-hour class and was told that what I did was up to me. I would have welcomed advice and training! Over the years, I have learned from workshops, by watching others, and by doing. Imagine if all teachers—no matter how they got into the profession—were taught on how to be engaging when they needed to lecture?”

And directing her final contribution to Dave, she added the following: “Like a lecture, if a book, song, video, etc. causes me to think deeply and have a conversation with myself, I will learn.”

Laura Fothergill

The final contribution (at least up to this moment) comes from long-time ATD (Association for Talent Development) South Florida Chapter colleague Laura Fothergill: “Loved the article, really dislike the title and perpetuation of us vs them (lecture vs technology). Can we stop even putting this into the ethos? Why not title it ‘Be critical, be reflective, be better’ or ‘Lose your Assumptions.’ By spinning the concepts into either or and inviting that conversation we are not helping individual faculty with their own personal professional development.” So, in a relatively brief period of time, we went from lectures and learning to whether lectures and lecturers (and presenters, speakers, instructors, and teachers) could even be engaging or whether engagement was exclusive to facilitators. And, just for good measure, Dave and Jill took us down the intriguing path of what learning is and how we learn, with Laura advocating for elimination of the us vs. them element of our explorations.

Although the obvious starting point for me is a preference for a “learners as co-conspirators in the learning process” approach to learning (as compared to the boringly passive approach to learning that is obvious in the worst of lectures and lecturers) in the settings in which I work, I was intrigued by the fond memories of what I had learned from the best lecturers I have heard—and I also thought about how my own approach to “lectures” has continued to evolve. When I work synchronously face-to-face onsite, online, or in blended environments (combining onsite and online learning into a cohesive, seamless package), I play with and combine numerous approaches. I find it rewarding, for example, to follow a Flipped Classroom model approach by providing learners with pre-session prep work (videos or short articles) so that our time together “face to face” onsite or online focuses on application of what we have learned—with a strong emphasis on what the learners will do with their newly-acquired knowledge/skills the minute our time together comes to an end. In asynchronous settings (e.g., through the four-week online courses I design and facilitate for the American Library Association), I start with weekly “typed lectures” that provide my own content interspersed with plenty of links to other people’s videos, articles, and online, easily accessible resources to support the learners’ explorations. I also include focused exercises that encourage the learners to apply what they are learning, interact with other learners, and even adapt the assignments in ways that produce something they can use in their own workplaces while and after the course is underway. The emphasis is always on having learners define what they need to know and encouraging them to focus on what addresses their learning needs as quickly as possible.

Just as participation in a creative online learning opportunity exploring The Innovator’s Mindset (led by George Couros in 2017) made me rethink my perceptions about what “reading” is in the early 21st century, the exchanges via Facebook have inspired me to further rethink my perceptions about what a great “lecture” is in contemporary times. It is focused. It is engaging. It inspires inquisitiveness by serving as an invitation to explore a topic further. It can—but doesn’t necessarily have to—be creative in its use of tools available to the lecturer and the people sharing in that learning experience. (I often think, for example, of how Jonathan Haidt so effectively turned the TED Talk lecture format on its head by doing a formal lecture that “ended” a few minutes early so he could offer an entirely different version, during the final few minutes of his allotted time, by seamlessly and in the most stunningly successful of ways completely integrating video into the live presentation. I also think of how effectively Eric Whitacre incorporated a demonstration of a virtual choir into a live lecture on virtual choirs at a conference I attended a few years ago.) The learning, in each of these cases, was effective, engaging, inspirational, and transformative—because of, not in spite of, the “lecture” format.   The rethinking continued over the weekend when I finally made time to watch the first couple of lectures in The Great Courses’ series on “The Learning Brain”—a series of 24 30-minute lectures captured on a CD and accompanied by a course guidebook. As I sat there in the comfort of my own home with the book in hand and the first few minutes of the video playing, an obvious revelation struck: The lecture can very much be a like a part of a spoken (audio) book, and the book can very much be like a set of printed lectures–even if it isn’t actually one of those lovely books providing the text of lectures. Both, when produced effectively, can be and are engaging. Dropping them completely from our learning toolkits makes no sense to me, and arguing against them in absolute, non-nuanced terms, seems counterproductive. The important decision to be made is when each is the best tool for a particular learning situation, and then to produce the best version of the learning resource that we possibly can produce. So we learn. With our learners. To inspire the best results possible.


Train the Trainers: When Co-Conspirators in Learning Set the Agenda

May 29, 2021

The fabulous learners in the six-part completely-online two-hours-per-session train-the-trainer series I’m currently facilitating are increasingly adapting to their roles as co-conspirators in learning. Seeing themselves as equal partners in their learning process. Interacting with each other—and with me—as partners in the training-teaching-learning process by bringing to and sharing within our virtual train-the-trainer sandbox the experiences upon which they are continuing to hone their skills as trainers and leaders within the libraries they serve here in California.

And, this week, they took another big leap (at the beginning of the fourth session) by accepting my invitation to choose key elements determining how that session would be run—including setting the agenda for that session, which the last before we move into two sessions build around opportunities for them to present sample training sessions in a master-class format which includes chances for them to critique—and learn from—each other’s work.

Several elements were in place to make that a successful endeavor for all of us. 1) All sessions are highly interactive. 2) Each session takes a different approach to using our virtual learning space within Zoom (e.g., using PowerPoint slides as a background rather than a stand-alone element; having slides on one side of our screens while participants/co-conspirators remain visible to each other in Zoom’s “gallery view” during as much of the session as possible; having an entire session with all of us visible to each other and leaving the slide deck to be used later as a hand-out that supported our activities and discussions). 3) All sessions are interwoven in ways that help learners develop a framework to deliver a five-minute training for their course colleagues before this train-the-trainer series ends and, more importantly, to create something they can immediately use in their own workplace learning and development environments. 4) There has been a formal structure to each session alongside an informal approach that allows us to take brief diversions if learners raise a question that should not be deferred. (One of the more interesting/fruitful/productive detours came during the first session, when a learner gently raised a question about the lack of diversity evident within the images used in that session’s slide deck.) 4) We are intentionally taking a variety of approaches to learning, including, for one session, a Flipped Classroom model approach that placed some of the learning outside of the two hours we had together online so we could use those two hours to practice what had been explored before the session.

With that as the background, we began the fourth session with a few questions: 1) Do you want a more-or-less formal session (more presentations interspersed with activities and discussions) or something informal (a session driven by their own questions and concerns about preparing for and facilitating the training sessions they will lead during our final two workshops together)? 2) Do you want a session that fully incorporates a slide deck into learning, a session (similar to the third) that has us “face to face online” with each other throughout the entire session, or a combination of the two? 3) Do you want to formally set the agenda for a session that prepares you for the training sessions you are designing and planning to deliver within this series?

Each answer shaped the session and led us down a series of options I had partially mapped in anticipation of the options available to them. The “formal vs. informal” choice came clearly down in favor of informal, which made me remind them that any decision like that makes us think about how best to take advantage of the decision to support the approach we are taking. So the first thing I did was step off camera briefly, while continuing to talk with them, so I could remove my tie and the dress shirt I was wearing, and come back onscreen in a much less formal outfit. I then removed the more formal background I had designed as a way of visually tying all sessions into a unified series; what replaced that background was a clear view of the room in which I was actually sitting: my own office/study, which more closely matched the backgrounds of the informal spaces in which my co-conspirators were learning.

The second set of options provided an interesting split because so few of us were together for the live session. (Others, because of scheduling conflicts, participate asynchronously be viewing the recordings we produce and contacting me outside the sessions if they need additional support.) With three co-conspirators voting, there was one vote for slides, one for discussion, and a third for a combination “based on what is most appropriate for what we’re covering”—which, of course, produced a wonderful learning moment for all of us because it reminded us that learning involves a solid pedagogical underpinnings as much as it involves our preferences. Laughing over the idea that we had arrived, through discussion, at the obvious reminder that learning goals could drive our decision, we agreed to follow whatever seemed most natural—drawing upon the deck I had prepared, if/when necessary; engaging in discussion and activities when those were likely to produce the best results; and turning toward screen-sharing for demonstrations when that best suited our learning goals.

Our final choice—the one in which we set the agenda—provided most rewarding. Two big items clearly needed to be on that agenda from the learners’ point of view: time to practice skills that would be used during the upcoming learner presentations, and time for working through the process of deciding what to include and what to exclude from a training session.

How it all played out—quite well, actually—will eventually be visible through a recording of the session (to be posted on the California Library Association’s “Developing Leaders in California Libraries” website). A short summary would include the ideas that participants shared, with each other, their own approaches to training-teaching-learning that best served them and their learners (reminding themselves that they already have developed some magnificent tools in their individual trainer’s toolkits); that they quickly thought back on all they have learned during their months of participation in leadership development work (of which the train-the-trainer series is a component); that they identified elements of that training that they would like to share with colleagues in the libraries in which they currently work; and, with only a moment or two of preparation, that they were able to give brief, focused presentations that allowed them to become more comfortable with online presentations.

All of us walked away from that final, spontaneous exercise very happy with what we discovered and accomplished. Making an in-the-moment decision to have each of the two participating learners redo their initial in-the-moment presentations after a brief co-conspirators’ debriefing produced magnificently obvious positive results: the improvement between the first and second practice presentations was noticeable and positive; it left learners with a much more positive memory of the experience than they would have had if left only with the memories of the initial stumbles and hesitations; and it produced, in each participant, a sense of confidence grounded in the realization that a series of quick practice sessions can tremendously improve any presentation we are developing for use with our own learners.

With that confidence in hand, we are poised for our next step: more fully-developed online presentations that can be adapted in our own learning landscapes.

N.B. – This is the second in a set of reflections inspired by a collaboratively run online train-the-trainer series.


Train the Trainers: On Inclusion, Trust, and Co-Conspirators in Learning

May 24, 2021

The word “co-conspirators,” as Stephen Hurley (half-jokingly) suggested during our latest “Collaborations in Learning” conversation for his VoicEd Radio “Hurley in the Morning” show this morning, conjures up images of people furtively meeting to plan some sort of insurrection. And I have to admit that it makes me smile by reminding me of those comically sinister little figures from the Spy vs. Spy series I enjoyed many years ago.

But it also, as our conversation suggests, is a wonderfully subversive and productive word to describe the relationship between learning facilitators and learners when they toss out assumptions that learning involves one person providing information and another person (passively) absorbing that information. Co-conspirators in learning, as I learned from my time with Alec Couros and others in #etmooc (the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course) several years ago, are those who see the learning space as a place where everyone learns—teachers and students alike. It’s a space where we toss out quite a few assumptions about what learning involves and place a focus on the collaborative nature of learning.

It requires tremendous levels of trust. Learning facilitators (aka “teachers” and “trainers”) must trust their learners to be willing participants in the shaping of their own learning. Learners must trust the learning facilitator’s assertion that everyone has something to bring to the table during a formal or informal learning opportunity and makes the experience stronger, more productive, more results-driven, and more transformative than learning situations where learners are an audience drawn to words of wisdom provided by the person at the front of the room. In fact, as I suggested to Stephen, there really is no “front of the room” in a learning space (onsite or online) where everyone is seen as a co-conspirator in the learning process. Every part of that learning space is a dynamic space in which trainer-teacher-learners interact with other trainer-teacher-learners to achieve the learning goals they are pursuing. Together.

But all of that is far too theoretical. Far too academic. It misses the dynamic nature of “learners as co-conspirators” that becomes obvious when we see how it plays out. As I did last week during the first of six two-hour online sessions with a group of wonderful adult learners in a train-the-trainer series I have designed and am currently facilitating.

I made it clear, during the opening session, that we would be doing far more than learning the basics of training in a way that supported course participants in their efforts to hone their own training skills. I am encouraging them, through different approaches I am taking in each of those highly-interactive learning sessions conducted within Zoom, to interact within the basic structure of each of those formats. I try to get them to help shape each of those sessions by participating in discussions and activities that give them practice at using the skills we are exploring. And I make efforts to inspire them to question and understand the approaches and techniques and skills under discussion so they can decide for themselves which were worth using with their own learners and which might not work within the specific contexts in which they foster learning.

Image by truthseeker08, from Pixabay

Which means I need to be ready for those hoped-for moments in which they take control of the learning space and ask questions I might not have anticipated so I, too, am a learner in those sessions. Like the stunningly-unexpected question that came during the second half of the first session: why are there so few people of color included in the images used in the slide deck for this session?

Understand, please, that the question was sent privately through Zoom’s chat feature so I was the only person initially aware that the question was being raised and the only person seeing the brief, very polite, almost apologetic comments surrounding the question. It was in no way confrontational, and the learner explicitly expressed the hope that I wouldn’t be offended by the question. It was clearly a difficult question posed by a wonderful learner who felt comfortable enough to raise that question in a way that had none of the public-shaming aspects that we so often see these days through social media posts and other online interactions.

It deserved an immediate and honest answer. So I took a deep breath, stopped the lesson-oriented conversation that was underway, and told all participants that I wanted to share and address a comment that had been directed at me privately—because I felt it was an issue well worth acknowledging and addressing in a virtual room with co-conspirators in learning. Without identifying the person who had raised the question, I started by saying I was appreciative that our co-conspirator had brought the thought to my attention. And, glancing quickly at the images I had been using in the PowerPoint slide deck supporting the discussions we were having, I acknowledged that I had not been as diligent as I always try to be in creating something that was visually representative of the diversity of our community of learning. I assured everyone that I would be applying a different, more critical eye to the decks for the remaining five sessions. Then, after again thanking the person for the comment, I returned us to what we had been doing. And, afterward, took the small amount of time it takes to review decks already prepared for subsequent sessions and making adjustments that were easily made.

This might seem like something that, once addressed, would be done. But the real work is to see what sort of positive impact our actions with our co-conspirators in any learning situation have. So, without doing anything to overtly continue that particular thread of conversation and learning, I worked with that same group of learners during the next session and, as always, let the learners know that I would stay for a few minutes after the formal end of that virtual session in case anyone had further questions or items to explore—the online equivalent of staying in a physical classroom for post-session conversations with interested learners. You can, of course, anticipate what happened next: The only learner to stay was the one who had raised the question about the lack of images of people of color in the first session. And the reason the person stayed was to continue a conversation springing out of the second session. Because that learner was engaged. Comfortable. Interested in gaining all that could be gained during the time we had together.

As the post-session conversation around Session Two content wound down, I couldn’t resist asking whether there had been any noticeable difference in approach to the images used for that session. “Yes,” the learner replied simply and directly. “It felt more on point.”

And those few simple words, for me, spoke volumes in terms of how much we all gain when we are co-conspirators in learning. We all learn. We all improve. We all gain. We are all transformed, long-term, by the positive nature of those all-too-brief short-term interactions. And those we serve long after our shared learning moments have ended are the real beneficiaries of what we accomplish together.

N.B. – This is the first in a set of reflections inspired by a collaboratively run online train-the-trainer series.


Library Advocacy Stories: Michael Lambert (Part 2 of 2)

March 1, 2021

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Michael Lambert, City Librarian, San Francisco Public Library. It was originally published on the California Library Association website as part of the work I’m doing as Library Advocacy Training Project Manager for the Association.

Q:  What key issues do you believe need to be addressed in training sessions for California library staff—at all levels—interested in becoming strong advocates for libraries and the communities they serve?

Michael Lambert

A:  The basics

  • What is library advocacy? Why is it important?
  • What is the difference between advocacy and lobbying?
  • Political activities—Do’s and Don’ts
  • The Power of Storytelling and gathering stories to tell your library’s story about impact, outcomes

Importance of building a strong partnership with your local library support group; San Francisco has a model public/private partnership within our municipal government that has been highlighted by our Office of the Controller.

  • Requires investment of staffing capacity and time, but it’s worth it
  • Regular meetings, attend Board meetings, invite participation in Library Commission meetings, special events
  • Formal MOU

Q:  What formats do you believe work best for advocacy training for California library staff at all levels?

A:  The California Library Association has some excellent sessions at our annual conference and offers opportunities for staff to be inspired and engaged. Beyond CLA Annual, I think the current environment has demonstrated the utility and accessibility of the virtual environment, making it easier for a broader cross section of our library workers to participate and learn and grow. EveryLibrary’s ongoing newsletters and training offerings are excellent.

California Public Library Advocates have done a great job hosting regional advocacy training opportunities for members of library boards and commissions, Friends, Foundations as well as other library supporters and advocates.

Q:  What are we not currently doing that we should be doing to support library staff interested in becoming strong advocates for libraries and the communities they serve?

A:  As a library administrator, fulfilling our mission with excellent service delivery is the top priority. There are many strategic priorities that go into library operations, and San Francisco Public Library has an ongoing commitment to organizational excellence. Employee engagement and organizational development are key focus areas within our Racial Equity Action Plan, but I think there is an opportunity to tap into the latent community organizing ability of our staff to learn how to become even stronger advocates for libraries and the communities we serve. Ultimately, if we are able to provide more opportunities for growth and professional development on this front, we’ll be more successful in advancing racial equity and social justice.

Q:  You’re very active in a variety of social media platforms. What—if any—role do you see social media playing in your advocacy efforts?

A:  At the most basic level, telling the library’s story and sharing factual information about library programs and services.

On a personal level, I leverage social media to foster stronger connections with elected officials and community leaders. I recommend library directors engage with their local political leaders in every way possible, including social media; follow them and like their posts and/or comment to have a conversation. This is a great way to stay in tune with local priorities and the pulse of the community. You can invite them to your library events and subsequently post photos to give them a shout-out for their support.

Q: Your Facebook account offers a wonderful balance of posts that relate to work and posts and relate to your personal life. Any tips to advocates on how to maintain that sort of balance without veering into posts/topics that can come back to haunt them?

A:  Good question! One guiding principle I try to remember is: “would I want to see this post on the front page of the SF Chronicle?” My social media presence includes personal accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. I enjoy promoting and sharing the incredible work my SFPL staff are doing, and it’s easy to share such posts. My social media presence also comes in handy for recruitment and making folks aware of job opportunities within the City and County of San Francisco. It’s not uncommon for me to post my fellow department heads’ recruitments on LinkedIn to demonstrate my support for them and our City and County family. Overall I’d say my feed is similar to many other people with posts about my kid, what I’m eating, what I’m doing, etc.

Q:  Drawing upon your extensive experience as an advocate for libraries, what would you suggest individuals can do to effectively serve as advocates for libraries throughout California?

A:  Pay your dues—support your professional association—California Library Association; American Library Association

Attend CLA, get involved.

Support EveryLibrary—the only political action committee devoted to libraries

Volunteer your time to local library initiatives

Support your local Friends of organization

It’s pretty basic—we need to support library advocacy with our treasure or time or both.

N.B. — Paul’s work as a consultant/project manager with the California Library Association is part of a grant-funded project to develop and coordinate a statewide political advocacy training program for library workers and supporters throughout California.


Library Advocacy Stories: Michael Lambert (Part 1 of 2)

March 1, 2021

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Michael Lambert, City Librarian, San Francisco Public Library. It was originally published on the California Library Association website as part of the work I’m doing as Library Advocacy Training Project Manager for the Association.

Q:  Let’s start with your own experience as a library advocate. What first drew you into efforts to advocate on behalf of libraries?

Michael Lambert

A:  My experience as a library advocate has been influenced by my tenure with my hometown Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. They have a top-notch public library system and I have observed their library leadership working effectively with their Friends group over the years. From the very beginning of my career, I was able to see firsthand how their former library director was able to secure strong support for their library with robust grassroots advocacy from the community, including having a strong community showing at budget hearings, telling powerful stories, offering heart-warming testimonials, effective PR campaigns, etc. I’ve carried forward these observations and learnings throughout my career.

More recently during my tenure with SFPL, I was invited by then CLA President Misty Jones to serve on the Advocacy & Legislative Committee. This was a great experience and helped me understand how our state association organizes and advances a set of legislative priorities each year.

Q:  Can you tell a story showing how Richland Library leadership worked effectively with their Friends group?

A:  It’s been over 15 years since I briefly returned to Richland Library for a stint as Development Officer. In that role, I served as their liaison to the Friends. I can vividly recall the Friends packing their County Council’s budget hearing for the Library in 2006, netting a substantial increase in their budget for the following year. The Friends of the Richland Library delivered a master class that year in having library advocates prepared to offer powerful stories to demonstrate the impact of public library services on their community. Furthermore, their Friends group is essentially the “farm team” for their Library Board, which does a great job cultivating strong relationships with their County Council as well.

Q:  What was one essential lesson learned, from your time on the Advocacy & Legislative Committee, that you would share with others interested in advocacy?

A:  The essential lesson I learned from my time on the Advocacy & Legislative Committee is that it’s critical for library workers and library leaders to be engaged and active in getting involved to advance the legislative agenda. I observed strong leadership from Misty Jones and her successor as the Chair of the Advocacy & Legislative Committee, Sara Jones, to help develop legislative priorities that the California Library Association could support with the Dillons [Michael Dillon and Christina Dillon-DiCaro] and the State Librarian’s support in Sacramento. This work is critical for providing library advocates up and down the state with a set of tangible priorities that can be leveraged for discussions with lawmakers.

Q:  What have your own advocacy mentors done to encourage and inspire you?

A:  My inspiration and encouragement come from community. As a library director, I feel an enormous sense of responsibility to be a good steward of the community’s resources. I am continually heartened by the stories and testimonials I hear from members of the public about the transformational impact of our services. Just this morning I received the following email from a parent:

Diane Ferlatte

I wanted to express my appreciation for the wonderful Diane Ferlatte recently. My daughter is 16 and I am homeschooling her. We’ve studied slave narratives and their role in abolition, the flourishing of writers that came after emancipation with an emphasis on the Harlem Renaissance, and African American folktales. Every Friday is poetry Friday, during which we have studied written poems as well as spoken word. I write all this to say that the opportunity to hear Diane Ferlatte as part of More Than a Month by SFPL fit right in.

Ms. Ferlatte was wonderful. We analyzed the stories she chose to share and discussed the history of African American storytelling in the US. As African Americans, it was a pleasure to be able to listen to the virtual event and to see so many people enjoying with us. As a parent, it’s always helpful when I can incorporate different pieces into our homeschooling.

So, thank you for this. And please let Ms. Ferlatte (and her musical partner) know how much we enjoyed her performance!

This is just one example of how library services delight and enrich the lives of our patrons. Similarly, I hear from staff about how they are innovating and delivering much needed services to the most vulnerable members of our community. We are extremely fortunate in San Francisco to have robust support from the Mayor, the Board of Supervisors, our Library Commission, the Friends and Foundation of the San Francisco Public Library, our labor partners, our beloved library patrons, and our amazing library staff.

Some people who I admire—my predecessor, Luis Herrera, and his predecessor, Susan Hildreth—what they were able to accomplish in San Francisco with the Friends & Foundation of SFPL has been transformational for the residents of San Francisco.

Q:  What tips would you offer to other advocates interested in building positive relationships similar to what you have described the Mayor, Board of Supervisors members, Library Commissioners, and others?

A:  Building positive relationships with stakeholders at every level of the library ecosystem is critical to successful advocacy for libraries. Individuals who volunteer in your literacy programs often become library supporters and donors. Teen volunteers often develop an interest in library work and seek entry level positions to start a career in libraries. Members of Friends groups often have connections to municipal government that can spark important conversations regarding library funding and support for capital projects. Library leaders can help their cause by building strong relationships with the legislative aides and staff in the offices of elected officials. Extending one’s support to individuals up and down the library ecosystem chain can generate enormous goodwill that one day could net tremendous returns on that initial investment of a positive engagement.

Q:  Can you tell a story about a memorable/transformative experience you’ve had as an advocate for libraries and members of the communities they serve?

A:  I worked for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina from 2006-2011, and was employed there during the great economic recession. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library suffered a 35% budget cut that led to the layoffs of half the workforce and permanent closure of four branches. I led an effort to recruit and mobilize volunteers and harness the incredible outpouring of community support to restore operating hours and services. Over the course of 2-3 years, I witnessed how strong grassroots support from residents, volunteers, donors and advocates could create the political will to restore funding and library services after the devastating cuts. It was gratifying to lead recruitment efforts to bring back staff and fill roughly 70 positions before I moved back to California.

N.B. — Paul’s work as a consultant/project manager with the California Library Association is part of a grant-funded project to develop and coordinate a statewide political advocacy training program for library workers and supporters throughout California.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Learning With Champions of Learning

February 24, 2021

Less than 15 minutes into the daylong “Champions of Learning” virtual conference hosted last week by colleagues in the ATD (Association for Talent Development) South Florida Chapter, I was already completely engaged and fully attentive.

This was a group that understood the importance of creating a welcoming tone and ambience at the beginning of any event, regardless of whether it is onsite or online. This was a group that didn’t overlook the small stuff behind any large, successful gathering. And this was a group that was using its commitment to engagement and interaction to be sure that participants would have few, if any, temptations to step away from “the room” before the event had reached its conclusion.

We often hear (and repeat) the idea that “the devil is in the details.” I would suggest that our ATD South Florida Chapter colleagues subscribe to the idea that “the angels are in the details,” and do everything they can to flood our virtual rooms with angels that beckon us to their gatherings. Those angels (volunteers, every one of them), during the weeks and days leading up to the conference, provided an appropriately steady stream of encouraging email messages designed to prepare participants—our co-conspirators in the learning process—for an event that focused on the content rather than the (virtual) setting and the technology needed to make that gathering successful. We were told that there would be a beginning-of-the-day session that included a “platform overview” for anyone wanting to explore the technology we would be using to interact with presenters/session facilitators as well as with each other. We knew the opening session would also give us plenty of time to interact with each other to, as much as possible, create the same levels of positive engagement we experienced at onsite gatherings before the shelter-in-place guidelines we have been following for nearly a year in response to the coronavirus pandemic pushed us completely into online interactions.

The series of pre-event email messages also included separate notes about each of the sessions, including the specific links we would follow to attend any of four breakout workshops and other events scheduled throughout the day; this gave us a chance to add those events and links to our own personal online calendars so, on the day of the event, we wouldn’t have to hunt through our archived email messages to find those direct links. And then, in an act that was possible because of the limited number of sessions, our “angels” resent those links, via email, shortly before each session began so that we could move directly from our email inboxes into the events. Recognizing that this would be an impossible and burdensome approach for organizers of much larger gatherings, I also recognize that this was yet another example of conference organizers thinking proactively of what they could do to make the virtual-conference experience—or any other online learning opportunity operating at a similar scale—as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.

Opting for a morning workshop on “Awesome PowerPoint Tricks for Effective Presentations” (led by BrightCarbon Director Richard Goring) after the conclusion of the opening session/platform review, I was expecting to pick up a few tips on how to up my game in PowerPoint. To say that the nearly two-hour session exceeded expectations would be to unforgivably downplay the breadth and depth of what Goring offered all of us: an overwhelmingly positive and impressive overview of numerous tips and tricks that included demonstrations of what he was describing, and the all-important assurance that we would have plenty of opportunities to return to an archived recording of the session so we could more fully incorporate what he was describing into our own work, e.g., how to mask and highlight elements of an image to more effectively use that image on a slide; how to quickly align disparate elements and images on a slide with one command rather than a series of actions involving every separate element; and locating and using sites (including pexels.com, pixabay.com, and lifeofpix.com) that provide numerous free images we can incorporate into our work.

Elane Biech

For many of us, the anticipated high point of the day was the combination of a celebration of local (South Florida) colleagues’ work as champions of learning—those who, by example, remind the rest of us of what our most innovative colleagues are doing to make learning more engaging and transformative—and a keynote address by Elaine Biech, who has inspired many of us through her numerous books and other work in talent development (aka teaching-training-learning). Again, the chapter angels turned a challenge—having to move what is normally an onsite celebration into the online conference environment—into a “champions of learning” success story by having each nominee for the 2021 Champion of Learning awards provide a short, from-the-heart video describing the project. The result was a celebration within the main celebration—our celebration of how engagingly our colleagues embraced the video-presentation format to describe the successful projects so that we were as inspired by the playfulness of the videos as we were by the actual content.

And then there was Elaine: Warm. Engaging. Inspirational, as always. And right on target with a presentation and interactions with conference participants that reminded us of how to “Develop Your Best Self and Tale Charge of Your Career.” When it comes to your career, she reminded us at one point, don’t be beige; be brilliant. And develop your best self. Which is pretty much where she left us by the end of that session, as we headed into an afternoon of additional learning and interaction centered on the champions of learning among us.

Following Anne Beninghof into her “Caffeinated Virtual Training: How to Keep Your Audience Awake and Learning” session, I again learned as much observing a presenter’s approach to presenting virtually as I did from the rich content offered. It was as if she were somehow reaching cross-country from Florida to where I was sitting (in San Francisco) and knew just when to switch things up—as she did, approximately an hour into the session, by telling all of us to get out of our chairs, move away from our computers for a moment, and simply move around to keep from falling into a complete state of torpor from having been sitting in that country-wide learning space for several hours. That, and her focus on making everyone in the room a co-conspirator in learning, produced another memorably playful session and led us to the final two sessions—one for closing remarks and door prizes, the other a virtual happy hour that left us right where we started several hours earlier that day. Reminded that virtual conferences, when well designed and well executed, are no hindrance to fostering a sense of community and engagement. Reminded that spending time with our colleagues in online environments is, in and of itself, a learning opportunity we cannot afford to miss—particularly in pandemic, social-distancing times. And reminded that, when we observe and promise to build upon the positive experiences we have with our colleagues in online learning environments, we and the learners we serve are the real winners.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-ninth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences. 


Library Advocacy Stories: Deborah Doyle (Part 2 of 2)

February 5, 2021

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Deborah Doyle, a long-time library advocate. It was originally published on the California Library Association website as part of the work I’m doing as Library Advocacy Training Project Manager for the Association.

Any tips on how to initially contact legislators or their administrative aides? 

Deborah Doyle

Email is a fine introduction. It’s best to go in a group the first time. Go with an experienced advocate. But have a story ready. Talk about something that they might be interested in. Make it short. Don’t beg. But, from the larger group, there should always be an “ask”—whether it’s about a piece of legislation, or agreeing to sign something, or coming to the library. Remember to get their business cards and thank them afterward. Write immediately. They see a lot of people. But not a lot of people follow up. If something good happens because of your ask, write again and tell them so. Collect the phone numbers and email addresses on the cards. 

Write a small check to legislators, if you can. 

Don’t get in touch just once a year at “Legislative Day,” but keep in touch regularly. Today’s appointed supervisor could one day be the Governor. (Mine was!). Or the Speaker of the House! (Ours was!)

Any thoughts on the importance of establishing long-term relationships with legislative aides?

Your team should have a strategy. Get to know legislative aides at all levels. Often, they are the ones that do the most work with legislative matters and or other issues. The elected officials are busy in meetings, etc. Find out who is responsible for libraries. If there isn’t one, ask about education. Often you will meet with an aide, rather than the legislator. That’s fine! They really do a lot of the work and can bring your issue to the elected official. They also may run for office one day. Regarding federal elected officials. Get to know their local regional manager. That person is quite a font of knowledge. Get them on your mailing list. Invite to interesting library events. 

At a bigger level: Check in with California Public Library Advocates (CPLA), a non-profit whose members are Friends, Foundations, commissioners, trustees, and other library advocates. CPLA gives training on a variety of subjects—much of which relate to advocacy: how to write a letter to an elected official, etc. 

Civilian supporters are very important, and can carry messages that paid library staff may not be able to. 

ALA presidents have been a great source of inspiration to me. Have you had much in the way of interactions with them, and, if so, what lessons might other advocates learn from them?

I see them at conferences and certainly have met them. Their ideas are often. inspirational. We are very excited that Patty Wong is the next President, so California will be very present in conversations. In fact, I’m honored that she’s asked me to serve on ALA’s Legislative Committee. I also find ALA staff to be very helpful. The ALA-Washington staff is very experienced, delighted to share, and, frankly, would be delighted if California were even more active in advocacy. Check out the website for some terrific examples and useful information. Staff members of United for Libraries are also a wonderful resource. 

Drawing upon your extensive experience as an advocate for libraries, what would you suggest individuals can do to effectively serve as advocates for libraries throughout California?

At the local level: know your library budget. Where does the money come from? What’s the strategic plan of the library? Of the library support groups? Identify neighborhood leaders. Build a library advocacy leadership team that includes administration, trustees, and supporters. Tell community groups what the library is doing; keep the community informed. Look for businesses that might partner with or donate to the library or a support group. 

At the state level, advocates should follow what the CLA Advocacy & Legislation Committee is doing, especially at the beginning of the year, as bills are being introduced and the California budget is being considered. CLA’s long-time lobbyists, Mike Dillon and Christina Dillon-DiCaro, will ask library supporters to call or email legislative offices about important matters. 

An “elevator speech” is always handy to have. You run into a legislator. Because you’ve been keeping in touch, she remembers you and asks you what’s new with the library. You have 45 seconds to tell her something memorable with a call to action. 

Anything I didn’t ask already that we should be discussing?


There should be a question that explores why library staff doesn’t know how important advocacy is. What is the lost connection? Advocacy and fundraising. On the other hand, that’s not what they learn in school—or what they are hired to do. 

Also, and this is important: There is a difference between ongoing advocacy and project-driven advocacy. But, if you’re doing the first properly, the second is not an impossible stretch. 

The other thing I’ve alluded to before: Advocacy and fundraising go hand in hand. Before Prop 13, library funding wasn’t nearly as big a deal as it is now. Librarians aren’t even taught how to read their library budget! We have to tell funders (legislators, philanthropists, donors, voters, and more) what libraries do, how they do it, why it’s important, how much it costs, and what libraries could do with a 10 percent increase.

N.B. — Paul’s work as a consultant/project manager with the California Library Association is part of a grant-funded project to develop and coordinate a statewide political advocacy training program for library workers and supporters throughout California.


ShapingEDU Winter Games: Driving and Intersecting with the Dreamers and Doers

February 1, 2021

There are conferences that start and end on a pre-announced schedule; you step away from work, you attend them, you enjoy them, and then you go back to work. And then there are conferences that feel as if they are already underway long before you arrive onsite or online for the first formally-scheduled event and seem to continue for days, weeks, or even months after the final formally-scheduled session concludes—which pretty much captures what I experienced nearly a month ago (January 5-7, 2021) during the Arizona State University ShapingEDU three-day Winter Games online conference for dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age.

You could, at the beginning of the Day 3 (January 7), already see it happening: through the discussions and plans for action that were forming and through the intersections between participants, you could see Winter Games transforming itself into part of a longer-lasting series of conversations and efforts to foster positive action extending far beyond what was happening. Attendees were engagingly interacting with presenters and panelists including elected officials, nonprofit and for-profit business representatives, educators, and a variety of other people exploring how collaboration across a variety of sectors might lead to short- and long-term positive results to everyone’s benefit.  

Feeling as if I am (a month later and after having participated in yet another virtual conference) still very much participating in Winter Games and looking back on the final day and everything I saw and learned, I’m not at all surprised by what we accomplished. Nor by what we laid the groundwork to accomplish. The discussions during keynote sessions, during smaller, more intimate breakout sessions, and during a final late-afternoon wrap-up gathering were Frans Johansson’s Intersection (explored in his book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures) coming to life: people from a variety of backgrounds gathering to talk and listen to each other, exchange ideas, and then return to their own communities to disseminate those ideas in world-changing ways.

As Samantha Adams Becker—one of our community leaders—observed that day, a dreamer envisions a better future. A doer makes it happen. And a driver scales it so that the future is more evenly distributed. Which, to me, serves as an acknowledgement of the community’s increasing attention toward placing lifelong learning within the larger context of social change, social justice, and social challenges we are facing and attempting to address through the work we do. It’s a community of educators as activists—where learning is a tool rather than an ultimate goal or achievement.

As always, what we accomplish comes down, at least in part, to the stories we tell. Panelists during the Day Three opening keynote session, “Unlocking the Data to Drive a Smart Region Vision,” told stories about the efforts underway in the greater Phoenix area to foster results-producing collaborations across sectors. Panelists, responding to questions and comments from moderators Brian Dean (co-founder and director of operations for the Institute for Digital Progress) and Dominic Papa (vice-president, Smart State Initiatives as the Arizona Commerce Authority), included Corey Woods, Mayor of Tempe; Elizabeth Wentz, a professor and dean at Arizona State University (ASU); David Cuckow, Head of Digital at BSI; and Patricia Solis, executive director for the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at ASU.

My own notes from that session—captured in the form of tweets prepared while the session was underway—in no way fully capture the depth and nuances of the conversation, which you can watch and hear in its entirety through the archived recording on the ShapingEDU YouTube Community Channel. But they do offer a gateway to a world of thought well worth exploring. Mayor Woods, for example, talked at one point about how the city of Tempe uses data to determine what services stay open; he also noted that city officials are known for making city-government decision based on data, including data related to diversity and inclusion. Another panelist wryly and repeatedly noted that short questions often reveal the need for long, thoughtful answers influenced by data sets as we attempt to address the challenges we face. Collecting data, the panelists suggested, is one step in better serving citizens (and, we might add by extension, learners); it’s about creating networks to look at data, to ask critical questions, and being able to better meet people’s needs by drawing upon and using the data we collect.

Leaving that session with my head still swimmingly in a wonderfully deep pool of ideas, I next moved onto more familiar ground—at least for me—in a session exploring some of the latest upgrades offered through Zoom. Listening to Zoom representatives talk about everything from incorporating PowerPoint slide decks into virtual backgrounds within Zoom to campus-wide integration of communications (telephone) systems and security systems into Zoom demonstrates, once again, that this is a company and product that is far from being content resting on its already well-deserved laurels. The entire session did what I want any great learning opportunity to do: it made me hungry for an opportunity to explore some of what I was learning was possible, and I have, since leaving that session, been exploring ways to build what I learned into the work I am continuing to do with learners.

The final session of the morning, for me, was an intriguing, intense look into the ever-evolving world of massive open online courses (MOOCs), which have remained of interest to me (and, apparently, others) ever since their brief moment in the spotlight several years ago. Led by Arizona State University Director of Digital Innovation Dale Johnson, the “Global Adaptive Instruction Network: Building a Collaborative MOOC Model” was a stunning look at how MOOCs in theory and in fact continue to evolve in ways that offer learners and learning facilitators intriguing ways to create more personalized, engaging learning opportunities than might otherwise be available.

“MOOCs have really become more like the McDonald’s of Higher Ed…” Johnson noted at the beginning of his session. “A lot of people are served but of some questionable educational value….How do we enhance the MOOC?….We are moving from a mass production world to a mass personalization world….The challenge for us is how do we move, in education, from mass production…to mass personalization?”

As we move to delivering the right lesson to the right student at the right time, he suggests, a collaborative MOOC model offers us interesting and intriguing possibilities. (Those interested in learning more can view the archived recording on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel.)

There is so much more to say about Winter Games. About that fascinating intersection/Intersection at the heart of the event. And about the conversations that are continuing even though nearly a month has passed—including one I had earlier today with Stephen Hurley during a “ShapingEDU and Community” segment of his VoicEd Radio “Hurley in the Morning” program. There is much we can learn about organizing effective online learning opportunities/Intersections along these lines, as we see in the ShapingEDU “ShapingED-YOU Toolkit” available free online. And there is much to be said for innovative, playful communities of learning that operate seamlessly throughout the year face-to-face as well as online.

But the Intersection we have reached at this moment is one where looking back, looking forward, and relishing the present moment bring to mind a line I’ve found in poems and many other pieces of writing I have absorbed over the years: The end is the beginning. And if that remains true for Winter Games, the best is still ahead of us.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-eighth 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 the ShapingEDU Winter Games.


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Digitization 101

Training Learning Collaboration Innovation

David Lee King

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