From eLearning to Learning (Pt. 4 of 5): A Case Study in Blended Learning

May 19, 2016

Mount_Prospect_Discovery_Zone--2016-05-12The unexpectedly explosive and transformational decision to try using Twitter to incorporate positive onsite-online e-learning experiences into Mount Prospect Public Library’s 2016 Staff Inservice Day “From eLearning to Learning” (the day-long exploration of how staff at the Library can better define and incorporate e-learning into its work) was almost an afterthought. It came up and was quickly adopted during a final planning meeting the day before the event, as I mentioned in the third of these five “case study” postings.

It’s not as if Twitter as part of our e-learning landscape is unfamiliar to trainer-teacher-learner-doers; we use it extensively in learning opportunities ranging from conference backchannel discussions to tweet chats along the lines of what #lrtnchat, #etmooc, and many others do. I often, through the “Rethinking Social Media” course I designed and facilitate for ALA Editions, call attention to the intriguing, cutting-edge work Rey Junco has done with Twitter and other social media tools in academic settings. And I’ve been lucky enough to experience high-end, dynamically-facilitated blended environments through participation in events creatively crafted by the New Media Consortium and other organizations.

But using it as a way of helping our “From eLearning to Learning” co-conspirators (the learners shaping and participating in the day-long event at the Library) opened doors none of us even began to imagine at the moment during which we initially discussed creating and using #mpplsid16 as a way of showing how social media tools can creatively, effectively, and easily help us redefine our learning spaces.

We primed the pump to engage in some major onsite rethinking about e-learning at the beginning of “From eLearning to Learning” by showing a few photographs taken within the Library and asking “Are These eLearning Spaces?”

E-learning space?

E-learning space?

E-learning space?

E-learning space?

E-learning space?

E-learning space?

Within the first few minutes of my highly-interactive 45-minute keynote presentation/discussion, very few people responded to the question with a “yes.” By the time we finished that initial keynote/discussion period about what the term “e-learning” means in our learning environments, almost every hand in the room shot up in response to the same question asked while the same images were again on display—an acknowledgement that any space in which we have Internet access is potentially an e-learning space. (One lovely note I received at the end of the day built upon the conversation with a suggestion that made me smile: “Your Elearning spaces slide needs a picture of my Dodge Caravan.”)

More importantly, that rapid expansion of everyone’s vision of what the e-learning landscape currently encompasses provided an amazing demonstration of the way a well-designed learning opportunity, developed collaboratively with learners and their representatives, can transform learners (and learning facilitators) within a very short period of time.

TwitterHaving suggested to our co-conspirators that they could use Twitter as a way to take notes to which they could later return, and as a way to extend the reach of our gathering far beyond the physical walls of the various rooms in which we were meeting, I turned my full attention to the onsite setting during my keynote presentation. I didn’t return to Twitter until we had our first break—the one between the keynote and the first of three periods set aside for breakout discussions. I was absolutely floored by the level of tweeting that was already occurring. Some people were responding (very positively) to what was taking place; others were observing what was happening around them. And a few were sharing content in those Twitteresque 140-character bursts that shot around the world. The result was that we were beginning to work onsite and online simultaneously, and a few of the tweets were being retweeted by others across the United States and in Europe (apparently attracted by my occasional use of the combined hashtags #learning and #innovation).

Seizing the opportunity during the break, I retweeted a few of the more thoughtful tweets and responded to a few of the tweeters—which, of course, set the tone for an extended onsite-online expaned-e-learning-environment conversation that was still continuing as I rode a commuter train from Mount Prospect into Chicago early that evening.

Recognizing the potential there for a stand-alone learning object that anyone could continue to draw upon as long as it remains available, I remained in my hotel room an hour longer than anticipated before heading out for dinner; I knew that if I didn’t collect and transfer those tweets into a Storify document that included light annotations to set the context for what had just occurred, I would lose the in-the-moment excitement the entire experience had generated. It was available to anyone that wanted to seek it out less than four hours after “From eLearning to Learning” had adjourned. It also has become part of an overall “From eLearning to Learning” suite of freely accessible resources for anyone interested in trying a similar experiment within their own learning environment; links are included at the bottom of this post.

Mt_Prospect_LogoI was part of the first-rate Mount Prospect Public Library Staff Inservice Day planning team that designed and facilitated the process. I was the keynote presenter-facilitator, and trained the staff facilitators who led the breakout sessions. I know Twitter, I use Twitter, and I adore what is good about Twitter. But even I remain stunned by the depth of learning and the nuances contained within that particular Storify item. It has plenty of playful exchanges. It has tweets acknowledging the conversational nature of the “From eLearning to Learning” Twitter feed. It has lovely, poignant tweets about personal learning experiences—including one about how the Library director posted her first tweet as a result of what she was experiencing that day. It had some wonderful comments about how much staff enjoyed and learned from the event, and how enthusiastically they are looking forward to building upon what we built together in the best of all possible experiential-learning (hands-on) approaches—something fun, engaging, meaningful, replicable, and actionable.

But what stands out to me most as I continue rereading it, skimming it for previously-missed gems, discussing it with friends and colleagues, and learning from what all of us at Mount Prospect Public Library created out of our individual and communal learning experiences within that very attractive and dynamic community of learning, is how much it captures the wonderful results flowing from onsite-online (blended) learning opportunities that are learner-centric, goal-driven, and designed to produce results.

Next: After “From eLearning to Learning (Continuing the Training-Teaching-Learning-Doing Process)” 

NB: This is the fourth of five articles documenting the process of helping to plan and facilitate a day-long exploration of how to effectively incorporate e-learning into our learning process. Companion components to “From eLearning to Learning” currently include a PowerPoint slide deck with extensive speaker notes, a facilitator’s guide, a lightly edited and annotated Storify document capturing that part of the conversation that occurred via Twitter, and online shared documents that contain content added by the learners during throughout the day of the main event. Some are shared here through those live links with the express approval of Mount Prospect Public Library training staff. For help in developing and facilitating a similar event tailored to your organization, please contact Paul at paul@paulsignorelli.com.

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From eLearning to Learning (Pt. 3 of 5): A Case Study in Blended Learning

May 18, 2016

There is always a moment of stunned silence when I initially tell new “co-conspirators” (i.e., prospective clients) that I want to be onsite in their city a full day before the day of an event/presentation (e.g., arriving Wednesday evening for a presentation to be held on Friday). And the silence deepens when I explain that I would prefer to fly out the morning after a day-long event rather than rushing off to an airport as soon as the final words I’m going to say have passed my lips. Parachuting in and then being quickly airlifted out, I explain, is not a great way for us to work together to produce the concrete training-teaching-learning-doing results we all hope to produce.

“We don’t have it in our budget to pay for three nights of a hotel,” they usually admit.

Mount_Prospect_Discovery_Zone--2016-05-12And that’s when the “co-conspiratating” process begins. I explain that arriving so early guarantees that they’re going to receive the best I can deliver since they won’t be facing a bleary-eyed, half-coherent presenter-facilitator exhausted from spending the night in an airport because of a delayed flight. I tell them that I want to have a leisurely tech check of the onsite facilities so we can anticipate and trouble-shoot any unexpected problems we identify during that day-before-the-event meeting. I also want to have a final face-to-face fine-tuning session with them so I can personalize the slide deck and speaker notes I’ll be using with them and the co-conspirators who are the learners. I tell them, furthermore, that I want at least a few hours on my own to explore their community, overhear conversations about what is important and happening in that particular moment in that particular community so I can more effectively work with them to deliver what they have asked me to deliver during our formal time together. And, most importantly, I tell them that I don’t want to have to rush back to an airport and, by engaging in that anxiety-producing beat-the-clock exercise which currently is even worse because of extended lines to pass through airport TSA Security checkpoints, miss the opportunity for the level of post-event discussions onsite and online that produce some of the loveliest learning moments for all of us.

We always find a way to overcome budget constraints. After all, we’re trainer-teacher-learner-doers: we know how to seek and implement solutions in the moment.

And once we have passed that hurdle, magic happens—as was the case recently during Mount Prospect Public Library’s 2016 Staff Inservice Day “From eLearning to Learning,” the day-long onsite and online exploration of how staff at the Library can better define and incorporate e-learning into its work (which is at the heart of this case study).

Mt_Prospect_LogoArriving in Chicago late Wednesday afternoon for the Friday event gave me time to literally become grounded and comfortable so I could be at my best for my co-conspirators. They had helped me make arrangements to stay at a place in Mount Prospect that was accessible via a free shuttle ride from O’Hare Airport, so I was completely coddled (relatively inexpensively, mind you; that’s part of the process for all of us); I arrived in their town completely relaxed and focused early Wednesday evening. (It was an added benefit to all of us that I had the opportunity to have dinner that evening with a lifelong friend who lives in the area, and we dined at a wonderful restaurant one block away from the library—which meant we had a relaxing conversation, I had an initial glimpse of the town shortly after arriving, and I was already feeling comfortable before a Library staff member picked me up Thursday morning to drive me back to the Library for our meetings and a leisurely lunch.)

The magic I have come to expect from this level of pre-session conversation and tour of the area where I will be working began almost immediately. As we returned to a theme we had been discussing from January to early May of this year, we once again talked about ways to easily take the onsite learners into online environments so they would viscerally understand the nature of our dynamic onsite-online e-learning/blended learning landscape.

Twitter“Does your staff use Twitter much?” I asked at one point, and that became a transformative moment for all of us (learners included) less than 24 hours before the highly interactive keynote address began.

Deciding upon a unique hashtag (major warning: always check those hashtags before you use them so you don’t have unexpected surprises on the day of the event), we added that information into the mix. The extended onsite-online conversations that resulted from that last-minute addition produced experiences and discussions that ended up taking the event to greater heights than any of us had been imagining, as a skim of the Storify compilation of those tweets suggests. And taking and using that “Discovery Zone” photograph (reproduced within this series of posts) onsite at Mount Prospect Public Library provided a familiar, iconic image that set a very sweet tone for our explorations during “From eLearning to Learning.”

Next: Facilitating a Transformative Onsite E-learning Experience

NB: This is the third of five articles documenting the process of helping to plan and facilitate a day-long exploration of how to effectively incorporate e-learning into our learning process. Companion components to “From eLearning to Learning” currently include a PowerPoint slide deck with extensive speaker notes, a facilitator’s guide, a lightly edited and annotated Storify document capturing that part of the conversation that occurred via Twitter, and online shared documents that contain content added by the learners during throughout the day of the main event. Some are shared here through those live links with the express approval of Mount Prospect Public Library training staff. For help in developing and facilitating a similar event tailored to your organization, please contact Paul at paul@paulsignorelli.com.


From eLearning to Learning (Pt. 2 of 5): A Case Study in Blended Learning

May 18, 2016

Setting the agenda (at multiple levels) is always part of a successful learning event/presentation. It’s no surprise, therefore, that my “co-conspirators” on the Mount Prospect Public Library 2016 Staff Inservice Day planning committee and I focused on this for “From eLearning to Learning,” a day-long onsite and online exploration of how staff at the Library can better define and incorporate e-learning into its work, throughout the planning phase (from January through early May 2015).

Mount_Prospect_Discovery_Zone--2016-05-12There was the obvious, simple question we all face at the beginning of the planning process for successful learning: what will we actually do with our co-conspirators (i.e., our learners) on the day we meet as co-conspirators in learning? It didn’t take us long, during our initial telephone conference call, to settle on a structure that included a highly-interactive keynote presentation that would set the tone for the entire day of learning by trying to recreate the high levels of interactivity inherent in any great onsite or online learning experience; my own agenda here was to help staff at the Library quickly move past the idea that online learning has to be formulaic, lacking in engagement, and something done to them rather than with them. We also took little time in reaching the decision to set up a series of breakout sessions so staff members could have meaningful, productive discussions in small groups to explore a variety of interrelated themes and then, at the end of the day, come back together so we could share the wisdom of the crowd in deciding what they would do in the days, weeks, months, and years after participating in “From eLearning to Learning.”

A more subtle, nuanced approach to setting the agenda was at the level of deciding how we, as co-conspirators in the planning and facilitation process, would work together; that’s how we settled on the approach briefly described in the first of these five “case study” postings. We followed an informal “how to run a meeting” process I’ve been successfully using for years: I very much see meetings as theater, with strong elements of improvisation thrown in for good measure. Each item on a meeting agenda is meant to be part of a carefully-crafted script from which we can deviate as needed (hence, the improvisational element), and each item should produce something concrete that leads to the next item on the agenda.

Circle of learning: breakout session in a lovely setting

Circle of learning: breakout session in a lovely setting

When this approach to setting agendas and facilitating meetings works well, it produces results that are as engaging, entertaining, and transformational as a great piece of theater is. We walk away knowing we have been involved in something significant. Something that makes us see our world at least a bit differently than we saw it before we were together. And something that makes us want to transform a potentially ephemeral moment into a very long, extended moment of process that continues to grow as long as we take the time necessary to nurture it.

The Staff Inservice Day “From eLearning to Learning” planning process became tremendously engaging for all of us when we started, during the initial planning conference call, to shine a bright spotlight on a few questions we had already been thinking about before we joined that call:

  • What could we do to be sure we provided the best possible learning environment for the co-conspirators who would be the participants in “From eLearning to Learning?”
  • What could we do to be sure that everything we offered created a visceral sense of understanding the power of eLearning as a component of our overall approach to learning?
  • What could we do to assure that everything that happened during “From eLearning to Learning” connected back to the Library’s strategic plan in terms of incorporating eLearning into its learning offerings?

Mt_Prospect_LogoMy own meeting notes—which I edited and shared with other members of the planning committee to create the same sense of blended synchronous/asynchronous conversation I often try to foster in online learning environments—show that our initial conversation produced numerous substantial elements, including a set of learning goals that helped shape the event. Participants would be told that, by actively participating in “From eLearning  to Learning “, they would be able to more effectively define e-learning; put e-learning in the larger context of learning overall; be able to explain why e-learning is positive and why they should take advantage of it; identify what e-learning provides for them; identify what e-learning provides for those they serve; and, most importantly, what they would decide to do within the next two weeks to foster more effective e-learning opportunities for themselves, their colleagues, and/or those they serve. We also threw in the additional perk of assuring them they would become aware of at least three resources they could use to improve their e-learning efforts. (These are, after all, members of library staff; we love our “see also” references.)

Keeping our focus on the learning experience, we also built plenty of reflection time and shared debriefing time so the learners would be able to absorb what they would be experiencing. We scheduled 15-minute breaks between each of our proposed chunks of learning (keynote, the three break-out sessions, lunch, and the final “bringing it all back together/next steps” session).

Subsequent meetings focused on content for the break-out sessions; discussion about developing a facilitator’s guide—the bones of that simple two-page guide came out of a 15-minute discussion during one of our telephone conference calls; a series of questions the facilitators would ask to foster lively and productive discussions during the break-out sessions; and a final structure that brought everyone back together briefly at the end of each break-out session for additional brief wisdom of the crowd moments. In this way, we made sure there were the small, very fruitful opportunities for each voice to be heard, and the larger opportunities for everyone to stay on track in terms of understanding how these small-picture sessions would contribute to a large-scale transformation of the entire staff’s approach to e-learning as part of the overall learning landscape in which we operate.

A critically-important moment occurred late in the planning process, when we decided that those who wanted to be able to step back a bit over lunch could do so, and those who wanted to engage in a mini unconference to more deeply explore topics that had come out of the morning sessions would have that opportunity in a way that put them at the center of the learning process. We’ll look more at what came out of the unconference in Part 4 of this case study; Part 3 will focus on how and why we had a pre-event onsite meeting the day before “From eLearning to Learning” was held—and the important modifications that came out of that final, lively discussion.

Next: Onsite Fine-tuning

NB: This is the second of five articles documenting the process of helping to plan and facilitate a day-long exploration of how to effectively incorporate e-learning into our learning process. Companion components to “From eLearning to Learning” currently include a PowerPoint slide deck with extensive speaker notes, a facilitator’s guide, a lightly edited and annotated Storify document capturing that part of the conversation that occurred via Twitter, and online shared documents that contain content added by the learners during throughout the day of the main event. Some are shared here through those live links with the express approval of Mount Prospect Public Library training staff. For help in developing and facilitating a similar event tailored to your organization, please contact Paul at paul@paulsignorelli.com.


From eLearning to Learning (Pt. 1 of 5): A Case Study in Blended Learning

May 17, 2016

“Co-conspirators” is a term I’ve loved ever since I first heard it used by colleagues in the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course (#etmooc) in 2013. Within its training-teaching-learning-doing context, it implies a sense of richly nuanced and deeply rewarding collaboration between learning facilitators and learners unlike any other I’ve experienced in our onsite and online (blended) learning environments.

Mt_Prospect_LogoSo, when I was invited in essence to become a co-conspirator (we, as a group, weren’t yet using that term) with Staff Inservice Day committee members at Mount Prospect Public Library eight months ago, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity. The result was that I became part of another magnificent community of learning that has just produced a stunningly beautiful and tremendously inspiring example of all that can go right in planning and facilitating an e-learning experience—even one very-much grounded within an onsite setting.

What all of us (Library Staff Inservice Day planning committee members, as planners-learners-participants; I, as the consultant-presenter helping them shape an event that supported learning goals contained in the Library strategic plan; the learners themselves; and a few people offsite who occasionally joined us on the day of the event through a very active Twitter feed) produced looks as if it will have exactly the long-term positive impact all of us were hoping to produce for and with the library, its staff, and the members of the community it serves.

Everything about “From eLearning to Learning,” a day-long onsite and online exploration of how staff at the Library can better define and incorporate e-learning into its work, ultimately was drawn from and became an example of the extensive e-learning environment we currently inhabit—far more, as I reminded them, than the usual module-out-of-a-box and final multiple-choice exam to mark the conclusion of a learning experience.

In our setting, there is no beginning and there is no discernible end. “From eLearning to Learning” continues a process begun long before I became involved, and the day-long “event” simply prepares them to continue their learning/e-learning process well into the foreseeable future.

Mount_Prospect_Discovery_Zone--2016-05-12

This Mount Prospect Public Library “Discovery Zone” sign became an iconic image for “From eLearning to Learning”

Even the initial steps for this onsite-online exploration were grounded in e-learning. I was, for example, initially contacted by a member of the Staff Inservice Day committee who had initially met me through her participation as a learner in a four-week online “Rethinking Social Media” course I have designed and that I continue to facilitate for the American Library Association. Without that shared experience in an innovative online learning environment, my Mount Prospect colleague and I might not have made this particular connection and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be part of one of the most innovative and rewarding learning experiences I have ever helped design and facilitate.

Because the obvious distance between San Francisco and Mount Prospect (which is approximately 20 miles northwest of Chicago) is so great, all of us quickly agreed that the planning process itself would take place within a blended environment comprised of conference calls by phone and asynchronous interactions that ultimately produced our planning document and a facilitator’s guide to be used by the staff members who would foster discussion during break-out sessions we arranged throughout the day.

In a significant way, we were, as trainer-teacher-learner-doers, adapting a Flipped Classroom model approach to our meetings: at almost every stage of the process, we completed initial work on our own, had information to review before meeting by phone, and productively used our “classroom” time (the conference calls) to produce something concrete, and then repeated the process up to the day of the actual event.

What was clear from the beginning of our “conspiratating” was that we were committed to producing something that was far more than a one-day diversion that would soon be forgotten. Drawing upon the principles from the book The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results and remaining committed to producing something that was in alignment with the Library’s current strategic plan, we worked together to shape something that would be as much a process as an event. The learners/co-conspirators within the library knew well in advance what we were planning; they even provided tremendously useful information via a SurveyMonkey survey to be sure that we would be providing them what they needed (and, in that part of the process, probably became aware of how SurveyMonkey itself could be part of their efforts to effectively shape their overall e-learning landscape).

Participants in the mini unconference, held during the lunch break

Participants in the mini unconference, held during the lunch break

Those of us on the planning committee initially created a broad subject-specific agenda. We fine-tuned it over the course of several months to be sure it would lead to fruitful discussions and positive transformation for everyone involved. We continually looked for ways to innovatively provide experiential learning opportunities the learners could immediately adapt and apply within their own workspaces. One idea, for example (a mini unconference during the lunch hour) came relatively late within the planning process; it ultimately produced ideas (including a proposal for a library-wide e-learning think tank) that participants seem eager to explore and create. And a final, unexpectedly rewarding idea—to incorporate Twitter into the event so our co-conspirators in the learning process would viscerally understand how Twitter has become an effective and dynamic part of our learning landscape—was added to the picture during the onsite meeting less than a day before “From eLearning to Learning” took place.

Next: Planning for Success

NB: This is the first of five articles documenting the process of helping to plan and facilitate a day-long exploration of how to effectively incorporate e-learning into our learning process. Companion components to “From eLearning to Learning” currently include a PowerPoint slide deck with extensive speaker notes, a facilitator’s guide, a lightly edited and annotated Storify document capturing that part of the conversation that occurred via Twitter, and online shared documents that contain content added by the learners during throughout the day of the main event. Some are shared here through those live links with the express approval of Mount Prospect Public Library training staff. For help in developing and facilitating a similar event tailored to your organization, please contact Paul at paul@paulsignorelli.com.


ALA 2016 Midwinter Meeting: Associations and the Size of the Room

January 8, 2016

The power of association—and associations—is never more clear to me than when I’m participating in an association conference, so I’m in Association/Associations Heaven right now as the 2016 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting is blossoming here in Boston.

alamw16--logoWhile I often hear colleagues—generally those who opt out of participating in the professional associations that represent and bring together colleagues within their professions—cite all the reasons why they don’t see value in joining and being active in their industry’s association, I can’t imagine not being part of ALA, ATD, and others that facilitate the critically important connections and opportunities that the act of associating and associations themselves so effectively foster.

And even though I’m currently benefitting from being among thousands of colleagues arriving here in Boston, I also recognize that association is no longer something that is at all completely dependent on physical proximity. Anyone with Internet access quickly realizes that the size of our conference “room” is expansive, that the room is permeable, and that it is fairly inclusive; it includes the physical meeting spaces, as well as the extensive set of corridors in which so much important and rewarding associating occurs, and can extend to being a regional, national, and international association space if we’re a bit creative in the way we approach the act of associating.

The latest associating—via the very active #alamw16 hashtag that is bringing offsite and onsite colleagues together in a variety of ways—began for me several days before I arrived. It has also been facilitated through the use of a well-designed and highly-used conference app that allows us not only to browse schedules and access a treasure-trove of conference information and learning resources, but to locate and contact conference attendees through a list of those who registered.

T is for Training Logo

T is for Training Logo

Those who care about associating and about this Association conference also are welcome participants in the conversations via their/our exchanges on what is increasingly an incorrectly-named hashtag (#alaleftbehind), for the very act of interacting via #alaleftbehind means they are not as far out of the loop as they may initially feel they are. I have, in fact, written extensively about being on both sides of the “left behind” equation—about participating virtually and about helping draw in participants who are not onsite. I remain excited by the many opportunities we can be exploring together in an effort to make sure no interested colleague is completely left behind. And, in the spirit of bringing onsite and offsite colleagues together, a couple of us, as I’m writing this piece, just finished our latest experiment in virtual conference engagement by having a conversation that started here in the conference Networking Uncommons and linked us to our T is for Training colleague Maurice Coleman via a phone call that brought the conference into the taping of Episode 176  of his long-running podcast series.

To give credit where credit is due, let’s not overlook the critically important role association management and staff play in fostering strong association through an association. ALA Marketing Director Mary Mackay, for instance, has done her usual first-rate job of reaching out to offsite Association members via LinkedIn and other social media platforms with a series of tips on how to keep up with the onsite activities via a variety of social media and Association resources (posted January 6, 2016). But much of it comes back to our own desire and longing for connection and the connections that come from being part of an association and contributing to the strength of that association through active participation.

If you haven’t yet engaged in this level of association, and want to try it, there are several easy steps to take. Identify the conference hashtag (in this case, #alamw16) and interact at a meaningful level; retweet interesting tweets you see from onsite colleagues and, more importantly, comment in a way that adds to the conversation, e.g., by adding a link to a resource that extends the conversation. (Don’t be surprised when onsite colleagues, seeing your comments, ask the inevitable question: “Are you here?” And revel in the idea that in a very significant way, you are here/there.)  Watch for links to blog posts from conference attendees, then post responses and share links to those posts so the conversations—and the learning—grow rhizomatically. If you read those posts days, week, or months after they are initially posted, remember that it’s never too late to join the very-extended synchronously asynchronous conversation by posting responses and/or sharing links. And if you have onsite colleagues who are willing to be among your conduits to the onsite action, don’t hesitate to “go onsite” with them via a Google Hangout, Skype, or even a phone call.

There’s a role for everyone in this process of associating and expanding the size of the room. If you’re reading this while you at the ALA Midwinter Conference (or any other conference), you can contribute by reaching out to those you know are interested. And, with any luck, you (and the rest of us) will expand the connections that already are at the heart of successful associations—and association.


Hidden Garden Steps: Anniversaries, Community, and Gratitude

December 7, 2015

Gratitude is built into San Francisco’s Hidden Garden Steps—as it is with any community-based, volunteer-driven collaboration that transforms an eyesore into a place where neighbors and visitors from all over the world routinely meet, chat, relax, and dream. Together.

HGS--Gratitude_Tile[2]--2015-12-07

Detail of the “Gratitude” passion flower on the Hidden Garden Steps

Anyone spending time on those ceramic-tiled steps today—the second anniversary of the formal ceremony celebrating completion of the mosaic designed and fabricated by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District—is bound to see a wonderful intersection of gratitude, community, and cause for celebration.

The signs of gratitude begin at the foot of the Steps, where a bronze plaque reminds visitors that a group of neighborhood volunteers, along with more than 600 donors and numerous community partners, formally presented the mosaic and gardens as “a gift to the City of San Francisco.” Gratitude is overtly on display just above the largest landing on the project—at the top of the fourth set of Steps as we ascend from Kirkham toward Lawton Street—where a large ceramic passion flower expresses formal gratitude to the numerous project supporters who provided time and services to help bring the project to fruition. And gratitude is expressed nearly every day not only by those who see volunteers who continue to work together to clean the site and expand the gardens, but also by those of us in the neighborhood who have a wonderful outdoor version of what Ray Oldenburg described as a “Third Place” in The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community—that place where we can just show up and know that we’ll see members of our extended community willing to take the time to stop, talk enjoy the site, and meet numerous other people drawn by the site’s beauty and tranquility.

There are plenty of partners to acknowledge—not the least of whom are our predecessors who inspired us by creating the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps Project with the same two artists five years before we began working on the Hidden Garden Steps—as I noted during a brief presentation at the dedication ceremony on December 17, 2013.

HGS--Sweepers--2015-10-30[1]

The Friday-morning sweepers on the Steps

And there’s plenty of cause for continuing to acknowledge, thank, and celebrate the contributions of those numerous partners in community-building. We still see a group of neighbors—including a few who served on the project organizing committee—on the Steps every Friday morning to sweep them from top to bottom so weekend visitors will see the site at its best. We also see the volunteers who work onsite from 1 – 3 pm on the second Saturday of almost every month (the exceptions are when rain prevents onsite work) to maintain and expand the gardens adjacent to the Steps—a group that has, over the past couple of years, included drop-in volunteers from other parts of the city as well as from France and Japan.

Our partners in the San Francisco Department of Public Works have returned to the site several times for continuing work including additional erosion-control retaining walls and work to resolve long-term drainage problems resulting from blocked pipes underground; they have, at times, been supported by colleagues from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

There are, furthermore, what I lovingly call the “guerilla volunteers,” those neighbors who, without prodding from anyone else, show up at various times to sweep, pick up the occasional piece of letter left on the Steps or in the gardens, or simply tidy up an area in need of attention. And there are the neighbors who, without complaint, show up to quickly remove the rare bit of graffiti left by those apparently unaware of how dedicated many of us are to keeping the site pristine and welcoming.

HGS--Photographers_on_the_Steps--2015-07-26

Visiting photographers on the Steps

But the often unacknowledged partners in this wonderful ongoing project are those of you who visit once, twice, or many times. Your presence on the Steps and in the neighborhood overall have contributed to a sense of positive street life and community that was barely visible before the Hidden Garden Steps project began—which, more than anything else, is a tremendous cause for celebration and gratitude in a city where we have plenty worth celebrating—including a third (Flights of Fancy) and fourth (Lincoln Park Steps) set of ceramic tiled steps.

N.B.: Numerous articles documenting the Hidden Garden Steps project remain available on this Building Creative Bridges blog. Steps updates can be found on the Friends of the Hidden Garden Steps blog. Stories provided by donors to the Hidden Garden Steps project continue to be added to the project website by Steps volunteer Liz McLoughlin, and a step-by-step virtual tour created by McLoughlin and by project volunteer Gilbert Johnson also continues to grow, with 110 of the 148 individual steps currently included on that online tour. 


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

August 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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