Helping colleagues learn how to create blended onsite-online learning spaces by actually creating blended onsite-online learning spaces is an exercise we are far from exhausting, as I saw once again while facilitating a session at the American Library Association (ALA) 2015 Annual Conference here in San Francisco a month ago.
Being able to foster this sort of blended interaction seems to me to be another critically-important digital-literacy skill along the lines of what colleagues are exploring in our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course; is not at all difficult or costly to do if we creatively use tech tools readily available to many of us; and actually becomes a fun and engaging way for many of us to extend the size of the learning spaces we typically inhabit, we again saw during that “Blend It” session sponsored by ALA’s Library and Information Technology Association (LITA).
The concept, which I’ve explored with colleagues in a variety of settings, is straightforward: using little more than a laptop with a webcam, a projector and screen, and some form of audio system (either a small, portable set of speakers or a connection to an existing sound system within the onsite space that serves as the anchor for our efforts), we create real-time multiple levels of communication between learners/colleagues in a physical setting and colleagues who join us via their own online access points anywhere in the world. This quickly transforms those offsite learners/colleagues from being part of a “left behind” group to being active participants in a learning space that can be thousands of miles wide if those colleagues come from a variety of countries.
What makes this personally rewarding for all involved is that we continue to learn through experimentation. The earliest effort I was lucky enough to help design and facilitate used Skype as the tool uniting an offsite presenter with approximately 200 colleagues here in San Francisco for a dynamic and tremendously rewarding exchange. The experiments continued a few years later when two colleagues and I used Skype and Twitter to connect onsite and online participants in a wide-ranging conversation about how we could incorporate these tools and these blended spaces into effective learning spaces. New Media Consortium colleague Samantha Adams Becker and I continue to push this particular learning envelop via Google Hangouts in a variety of settings, so I was ready, at the ALA Annual Conference this year, to carry it a step further by adding a “bring your own device” element to the conversation.
After introducing onsite participants to the concepts we were exploring, Harford County Public Library tech trainer Maurice Coleman and I demonstrated the concept by having Maurice step outside the room, use his own smartphone to join a Google Hangout I had started with my own laptop and was projecting onto a large screen that everyone in the room could see, and carry on a brief conversation that those in the room could join by addressing questions to him via the microphone that was embedded in the laptop.
The magic moment came when he physically returned to the room—it’s worth noting that by remaining visible and audible via that smartphone, he had never really left the room or the conversation—and we offered onsite participants a challenge: quickly identify someone you know could not be here at the conference, try to reach them using your own mobile device, and bring them into the room now via a Google Hangout. It was learning at its best: those unfamiliar with Hangouts helped others try to set up individual sessions; those familiar with Hangouts tried to initiate their own. And those who were successful let the rest of us know that had eliminated another member of the “left behind” corps through that virtual contact.
At its peak, we had nearly a dozen individual hangouts happening simultaneously, and those in the room completely made the learning space their own: some explained to their friends what they were doing and what others were accomplishing; a few kept those sessions live for the remainder of the time we had together. And one particularly creative learner left her seat and gave her offsite colleague a virtual tour of the room by walking around and introducing our offsite colleague to others who were onsite.
It may have been gimmicky. It may have been far from pretty. But it was an exploration of digital literacy and educational technology at work in a way that provided a visceral example of how far we literally have come together. How easy it is for us to foster those levels of training, teaching, learning, and collaboration when we’re not afraid to risk failure in seeking small and large successes. And how easy it is to have fun while creating memorable, meaningful learning experiences that will continue spreading long after that formal session ended.
N.B. – This is the fourth (and final) in a series of reflections inspired by the American Library Association 2015 Annual Conference in San Francisco and the fifth in a series of reflections inspired by our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course.