ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting: Bringing Offsite Colleagues Into the Room

February 1, 2015

With informal help and encouragement from our staff colleagues in the American Library Association (ALA), several of us successfully managed, this afternoon, to reduce the number of people “left behind” during the current ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting being held here in Chicago. And, in the process, we produced a learning object designed to help members of ALA and other associations achieve similarly rewarding results.

ala_leftbehind“ALALeftBehind” has been a bittersweet movement for quite a while now: those unable to be onsite for the Midwinter Meeting held early each year and the Annual Conference held early each summer contact onsite Association members via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms for news about what is happening onsite. They also, via the #ALALeftBehind hashtag, comment on how much they wish they could be part of the onsite action.

This was the year we reduced the onsite-online gap a bit more. Largely thanks to the efforts of ALA staff, those who could not attend the conference received tips about resources that could help connect them to onsite activities and colleagues. That commitment to offsite members as well as to the onsite members who could afford the time and cost of traveling to Chicago inspired at least a few of us onsite to seek ways to support that effort and find ways to further draw our offsite colleagues into the onsite rooms.

ALAMW15--LogoAs we were meeting (during the first day of the conference) in the Midwinter Meeting Networking Uncommons—a wonderful space meant to facilitate unplanned encounters and conversations at a significant level—a few of us were expressing the same sort of comments expressed by those left behind: sadness that familiar faces weren’t present for Midwinter 2015 conversations. One person who is particularly important to us is our training-teaching-learning colleague Maurice Coleman, who brings us together online through his biweekly T is for Training conversations/podcasts and has been making audio-recordings of live face-to-face T is for Training sessions at ALA Midwinter Meetings and Annual Conferences for the past few years. Without Maurice onsite, we realized we would miss our semi-annual face-to-face session—until we decided that if we couldn’t bring Maurice and “T” into the Uncommons and the rest of the conference, we would bring the Uncommons and the conference to Maurice.

We were lucky enough to be sitting with Jenny Levine, the ALA staff member who remains the driving force behind the Uncommons (and much more), as our plan began to develop; she quickly confirmed a reservation for the final 30-minute slot remaining for formal use of the Uncommons during the 2015 Midwinter Meeting. We then contacted Maurice and a few other T is for Training colleagues who were offsite to see whether they wanted to participate in a unique T is for Training session via a Google Hangout rather than the usual audio-only format we use through TalkShoe.

There was a conscious decision that we weren’t going to make the Hangout appear too well-rehearsed, and we also agreed that we would rely on our improvisational skills to address any unexpected problems that came up during the session. Having experimented with blended onsite-online conference attendance via Twitter and blended learning opportunities via Google Hangouts, I saw this as an opportunity to pull a session together with minimal planning, preparation, and rehearsal so that #alaleftbehind colleagues would see how easily similar gatherings could be arranged while also seeing what can go wrong with this sort of impromptu erasing of the Left Behind brand.

Virtual Maurice Coleman before he joined the live Hangout

Virtual Maurice Coleman before he joined the live Hangout

That’s exactly how it played out during the live session earlier this afternoon. The opening segment with guest host Kate Kosturski, T is for Training colleague Jules Shore, and me in the Networking Uncommons began right on time and featured a decent quality of audio and video. Our first (not-unexpected) glitch occurred when Maurice was unable to join the Hangout in its recorded version, so came in through a virtual back door: my tablet. Figuring that low-quality Maurice was better than no Maurice, I took the only action I could imagine taking: I held the tablet up to the webcam and hoped for the best. Watching the archived recording shows that it was a gamble that paid off: the audio and video feed captured from the tablet was even better in the recording than it was for those of us in the Uncommons—which doesn’t mean it was great (far from it), but as a spur-of-the-moment solution, it worked. Better yet, it added the sort of levity to the session that is such a valuable and valued part of all T is for Training sessions.

The experiment gained momentum about12 minutes into the session with Jill Hurst-Wahl, another key part of the T is for Training community, was able to join the Hangout from her home. After a moment or two of trouble-shooting, she was completely integrated into the exchange and the conversation resumed where it had stopped when Maurice first came in via the tablet.

Our moment of success came just after the halfway point, when Maurice was able to switch from the tablet feed to the version visible in the archived recording. And, for the remainder of the program, we once again showed how a conference room can quickly expand from being a small onsite space to a space that extend across entire states.

It could have been better; we should have been able to include other participants via the chat function in Google Hangouts. But as an example of how low-cost, high-impact technology can help us redefine our meeting and our learning spaces and how it can further reduce the size of our Left Behind groups, it offers an effective case study. And it will continue reducing that Left Behind group person by person as more people view the recording and use it to create their own no-longer-left-behind experiences.


NMC and ALA: Black Swans, Conversations, and Collaboration

January 29, 2015

We’ve known, for a long time, that having key players in the room is an essential part of fostering achievements in training-teaching-learning and many other endeavors. What wasn’t as obvious until recently is that drawing those essential colleagues into the room is becoming increasingly simple by redefining what the room actually is.

ALAMW15--LogoAttending the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project retreat—“The Black Swan Ball”—in Austin, Texas a couple of weeks ago provided a fabulous reminder of how our concepts of meeting spaces are changing. Arriving in Chicago yesterday for the American Library Association (ALA) 2015 Midwinter Meeting is supplying another dynamic example of this development. And other ongoing personal experiments in creating a virtual presence within onsite meetings convince me that we’re seeing a major shift in how our changing concepts of meeting spaces, learning spaces, participation, and collaboration are working to our advantage.

While drawing an offsite colleague into onsite meetings as a co-presenter via Google Hangouts over the past couple of years, I have asked onsite meeting participants to describe how big our meeting spaces are. It quickly becomes obvious to everyone that our videoconferencing capabilities have improved to the point where those offsite participants feel as if they are physically present with us—and we with them—so the room is no longer defined by the immediate four walls that surround us—it extends over the hundreds (or thousands) of miles that would separate us if our technology didn’t create a visceral, virtual presence for all involved.

Our NMC colleagues at the Black Swan Ball—an event inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable and designed to help us develop the skills needed to adapt when what seemed improbably quickly becomes commonplace—were exemplary in creating a meeting space that transcended physical walls. Even though we were all in the same conference center room for much of the discussion, we were also using virtual spaces created online by NMC staff so we could create, in the moment, learning objects that would carry the discussion out of the room so the explorations would not end when the conference did. And, by the simple act of tweeting observations while those discussions were underway, we found the discussions spreading far beyond the conference center premises even while invited participants were still onsite.

Our ALA colleagues are taking this expansion-of-the-room concept further than what I have seen most organizations attempt. Acknowledging that there is frequently a conference backchannel conversation nurtured by those who consider themselves “left behind” by their inability to be onsite (united via the hashtag #ALALeftBehind), conference representatives have already encouraged the “left behind” crowd to expand the size of the room and join the conversation via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and pages on the Association’s website:

“You can get a flavor of the event and insights by following American Libraries coverage at http://www.americanlibrariesmagazine.org/alamw15 and the show daily, Cognotes, at http://alamw15.ala.org/cognotes.

“You can also

“And looking ahead–for information about the 2015 ALA Annual Conference & Exhibition June 25-30, and to find resources to help you make your case for attending, visit http://alaannual.org.”

NMC_Black_Swan_LogoThis is a magnificent example of how a commitment to inclusivity and a bit of advance planning can create opportunities for extended conversations; greater levels of engagement among members of an association, a community of learning, a community of practice, or any other collaborative body; and an awareness of how existing tools and resources can create possibilities where barriers once existed. If each of us at the Midwinter Meeting (or any other onsite convocation) contributes to the effort to draw our offsite colleagues into the onsite conversations, and our offsite colleagues reciprocate by contributing via the channels available to them, we will have taken another positive, productive step toward expanding the size of our room and fostering the levels of collaboration that produce results beyond anything we previously imagined.


On the Make: Co-learning, Making, and Sharing in the Connected Courses (#ccourses) MOOC

November 12, 2014

Let’s create and play a trainer-teacher-learner’s version of blog-hopping (specifically crafted for connected-learning students and aficionados) by seeing how many blogs we can link together into a cohesive asynchronous discussion. Our goal is to see whether the process leads us through the act of making something (e.g., a virtual, sprawling, multi-site learning object) that contributes to our understanding of our own learning, co-learning, and the learning process—and perhaps even to other people’s learning.

ccourses_logoThis particular learning object is already a work in progress thanks to interactions among a few of us connected via the Connected Courses (#ccourses) massive open online course (MOOC). It started with a self-contained set of reflections, by long-time learning colleague Alan Levine, on what constitutes “a make” (something created as part of the learning process to facilitate the learning process itself) within a connectivist MOOC (#ccourses, in this case). It grew a bit through #ccourses co-learner Maha Bali’s reflections inspired by Alan’s article and something I had written about the development of communities of learning similar to what we’re seeing in #ccourses. It continued growing rhizomatically as I posted individual responses to Alan’s and Maha’s posts and then realized that my own comments, if carried over into the article you’re now reading, could provide the foundations for what paradoxically is a self-contained lesson/make on “makes” that, at the same time, is interwoven into other makes—some of which are yet to come.

Alan deserves the credit for unintentionally inspiring this admittedly complex yet intentionally playful attempt at showing how a blog can be a make. He begins by suggesting that blog posts are “part of the regular things to do” in the connected-learning process and he explicitly says that he does not “see blog posts or comments as ‘makes.’” Maha responds by acknowledging how engaging and supportive of the learning process a collaborative make can be, then circles back to suggest that “for some people, blogging is ‘their thing,’” just as other learners may immerse themselves in equally engaging and productive makes. Our colleague Kevin Hodgson, for example, has produced course-related cartoons that are very much his version of a make and inspire the rest of us to absorb Connected Courses lessons through those playful makes. And, she continues, “every blogpost of Simon [Ensor]’s is a make.”

I initially inadvertently extended our make-in-progress by commenting on Alan’s blog. As a big supporter of experiential learning, I assured him that I agree that some level of making is essential in the learning process, and I obviously do believe that blogging can fit that category when we see our blogs as more than personal reflections. Blog postings, I suggested, can also be self-contained lessons (particularly through the use of hyperlinks that lead our co-learners to other learning resources). I’m ultimately not very concerned about what my co-learners and I make; an instructor’s recommended “makes,” in fact, often simply don’t support my own learning goals. I am, however, concerned that we make something that is seamlessly integrated into the learning experience so we have learned something useful, quantifiable, and rewarding to ourselves and others who learn with and from us.

The theme seemed to grow without much effort on my part as I turned back to Maha’s blog to assure her that I agreed about Kevin Hodgson’s cartoons and Simon Ensor’s blog articles being makes for them as learners and for others who see and are inspired by their work.

As we’re seeing through the current Connected Courses two-week module on co-learning, we have countless ways to creatively and effectively engage in making. I would even suggest, as I wrote to Maha, that participating in the “Case of #etmooc [the Educational Tecnology & Media MOOC]” panel discussion earlier this week was a form of making in that it produced a learning object—that online archived recording that is stimulating plenty of conversation and will continue to be a learning resource for anyone interested in knowing how sustainable communities of learning can develop out of well-designed, well-facilitated connectivist MOOCs.

It all very nicely wraps around and draws upon some of the other learning objects we have accessed during our co-learning explorations this week: the Howard Rheingold/Alec Couros interview about building communities of learning, the video of Dean Shareski discussing educators’ “moral imperative” to share, and Rheingold’s “Toward Peeragogy” article for the dmlcentral blog.

If some of the makes that Alan so rightly admires are grounded in collaborative efforts that shape new learning objects from mashups of open educational resources and other freely-shared items, then makes like the one you’re reading—drawing upon a variety of resources to create a unique learning object springing from the learning process itself—most certainly should qualify as makes. The beauty of this type of make is that, like the idea of MOOCs serving as a new form of open textbook, it is never completely finished. If you build upon this in your own blog or contribute through a comment to this piece, you’re contributing to the make—and, more importantly, to the rhizomatically-expanding set of learning resources available to us all benefiting from co-learning through connected learning efforts.

N.B.: This is the fourteenth in a series of posts documenting connected learning through #ccourses and other MOOCs.


Co-learning, #ccourses, and Keeping the Lights On: #etmooc and the Connected Courses MOOC

November 11, 2014

We may have a new corollary to one of the most famous lines from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life (“Teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.’”): Every time #etmooc is mentioned, a learner gets new learning wings.

ccourses_logoWhich, apparently, is exactly what happened as the Connected Learning MOOC (#ccourses) webinar about #etmooc—the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course—and the development of online communities of learning drew to an end last night. No more than 15 minutes after “The Case of #etmooc” concluded, an audience member posted the following tweet: “Just watched the live #ccourses webinar about #etmooc. Impressed = signed up for my 1st MOOC. Excited to learn.” And if that means another teacher-trainer-learner finds the pleasures and rewards of participating in connectivist MOOCs and the sustainable communities of learning they are capable of spawning, then we have yet another example of what well-designed and well-facilitated MOOCs along the lines of #etmooc and #ccourses can and do offer.

There was something wonderfully circular, encouraging, and tremendously important there for all teacher-trainer-learners to absorb. The hour-long session began with #etmooc’s Alec Couros, two of his #ccourses co-facilitators (Howard Rheingold and Mia Zamora), and several #etmooc alums discussing what made #etmooc different from other MOOCs and, more broadly, from other learning experiences we had had up to the time we joined that course. As part of the current two-week-long #ccourses exploration of co-learning within connected learning opportunities, the session also served as an example of co-learning in action since the lines between learning facilitators (Couros, Rheingold, and Zamora) and learners (the #etmooc alums) quickly blurred—all of us were learning plenty from each other (and probably thinking about what we would next be doing to share those learned lessons with others). And it circled back to the idea of how interwoven our communities of learning are when Zamora surprised at least a few of us by telling us that she learned about connected learning by observing us in action while #etmooc was in progress. Turns out she had signed up for #etmooc when it was first offered in early 2013, but had little time to become actively involved: “I watched from afar,” she said. “I learned something from all of you…because I watched, because I lurked.

“Transformation,” she continued, “happens in places that you cannot even see it happening, not even in yourself….Watching community build is also a powerful learning process. I think that’s what #etmooc gave me as a sort of out-of-the-gate kind of experience for this” experience of helping develop and facilitate the equally dynamic Connected Courses MOOC.

etmoocAnd have no doubts: one of the most significant results of that hour-long session last night was that transformations were occurring. We could see that our explorations of what transformed #etmooc into a vibrant, vital, sustainable community of learning were also helping solidify #ccourses as another learning community that is likely to continue far longer than the formal period during which all of us are interacting within the current course structure. We could see that the same sense of openness—the commitment Couros and his #etmooc “co-conspirators” maintained to injecting a very human, personal element into that massive open online learning environment—was and is in play in the Connected Courses MOOC. We could see that the playful interactions among the session panelists reflected the playfulness that flows through #ccourses and just about every other successful, inspiring, and memorable learning experience we have—a reminder that we need to carry that level of playfulness, as much as possible, into the face-to-face and online learning environments we help create and nurture.

Most importantly, we could see that all-too-rare occurrence in learning: the transformation of a group of learners from students to collaborators to long-term friends—“which is really amazing,” #etmooc alum Susan Spellman Cann observed during the conversation. “I did not expect that from a MOOC.”

Among the reasons cited for the transformation from student to collaborator to friend were Couros’s tremendous skills at facilitating conversations, his natural inclination to make participants feel welcome into that developing community of learning, and the playful introductory activities that included a crowdsourced communal “lip dub” that quickly drew #etmooc participants together while using the educational technology and media tools explored at that point in the course.

As to the underlying question of what #ccourses facilitators and participants (and members of other learning communities) can do to create communities that outlast courses: there was an acknowledgment that connected learning endeavors have a tool we haven’t thought to develop in our more traditional learning environments—the learning environments (e.g., Google+ and Twitter communities united around a hashtag such as #etmooc or #ccourses) that don’t shut down as courses usually do when content within a learning management system is closed and archived beyond the reach of course participants.

It’s not as if “we’re turning the lights off now” when a connectivist MOOC delivers its final lesson, #etmooc and #ccourses co-learner Rhonda Jessen observed.

“Opening up the doors…was really cool,” our co-learner Erin Luong added.

And as long as we keep those lights on and those doors open, we’re likely to see an extension and continuation of learning communities unlike anything we’ve ever seen. And many more wings.

N.B.: This is the thirteenth in a series of posts documenting connected learning through #ccourses and other MOOCs.


Abundant Communities in Action: Street Parks, Gardens, Steps, and Rainbows  

October 6, 2014

When San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) and San Francisco Parks Alliance (SFPA) representatives gathered over the weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Street Parks Program, they were honoring something that is both quintessentially San Franciscan and something seen throughout the United States: our ability to find abundance where others see cast-offs.

Block--Abundant_Community_BookIt’s the sort of commitment documented by Peter Block and John McKnight through their Abundant Community book, website, and online discussions. It’s a movement beautifully grounded in Tactical Urbanism. And it’s a sustainable, community-based, volunteer-driven effort that celebrates the work of people we don’t often notice: the people behind the projects that make our communities far more rich than they otherwise would be. Not bad for country where we so often hear about how badly divided we are.

“The [Street Parks] project was started to enable and assist community members in adopting DPW parcels and then turning them from blighted lots into verdant gardens and community gathering spaces,” Julia Brashares, Director of Street Parks for the Parks Alliance, reminds us in a brief video prepared for the Alliance by students from San Francisco State University. “We, with community members, have seen the development of over 120 gardens in every district of the city.”

Those Street Parks projects are part of an ongoing program that brings City/County elected officials and employees, Parks Alliance staff, and hundreds of volunteers together to “activate” a string of City-owned parcels that, when combined, include approximately 500 acres of potential parkland. It’s an amazingly complex undertaking and, at the same time, it is amazingly simple. The complexity comes from the large number of stakeholders who have to be engaged to bring Street Park Projects to fruition; the simplicity comes from the idea that the projects begin when as few as two or three neighbors see the potential in an unused piece of public property and make the commitment to foster the numerous community collaborations required to produce positive results.

What’s even more fascinating is the obvious interest in transforming unused public land into additional green open space in a city that already has a magnificent, nationally-acclaimed park system, a reclaimed bayside gem in Crissy Field and an equally ambitious counterpart in the Blue Greenway project that is already in progress; the Green Connections project that is also underway as another effort to increase access to green open spaces throughout the City; an effort to create more vibrant plazas throughout the City; and many other local efforts where volunteers work with an amazing network of nonprofit organizations, City/County representatives, neighborhood organizations, local business representatives, and anyone else who sees abundant possibilities for community development and enrichment.

Street_Parks_LogoStreet Park Program projects are, in many ways, the epitome of individuals setting aside individual interests to collaboratively produce a public good—often something designed to last far longer than the lifetimes of those who initially gather to produce the street park. We see individuals bringing neighbors together to turn a short, blighted cul-de-sac along a freeway into a community garden that attracted a new coffee shop to the block. We see neighbors next to another stretch of land adjacent to a freeway create a dog park where members of the community meet and enjoy each other’s company. A third stretch of blighted land becomes Progress Park—the site where we gathered last weekend to celebrate 10 years of Street Parks progress. A median strip in the Outer Sunset District becomes La Playa Park. Another lot becomes Pennsylvania Garden. And a set of concrete steps originally built in 1926 becomes the Hidden Garden Steps—the second set to be transformed into volunteer-maintained gardens and a beautiful ceramic-tiled mosaic (designed and fabricated by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher) in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

HGS--Steps_Visitors--2014-08-18

Visitors on the Steps

The real payoff for any local or extended community comes when we spend time at any of those sites, as I so often do on the Hidden Garden Steps. I see my neighbors come out every Friday afternoon to sweep the steps so the site looks clean and inviting to weekend visitors. I see volunteers gather onsite monthly to maintain and add to the gardens. I see the results generated by the volunteers who maintain the project website, blog, and Twitter and Facebook accounts. And I see and talk with visitors from all over the world as they enjoy and admire the site, marvel over how the extended community adds to all the site offers, and blurt out wonderful observations such as “It’s like being in a rainbow.”

Working on any Street Park Program project is, in fact like being in a rainbow. It’s inspiring. It’s overwhelmingly beautiful. And it hints at greater aspects of life than most of us would otherwise encounter.

The 10th-anniversary Street Parks Program celebration documents a bit of what that rainbow offers and brought volunteers together to dream of even bigger rainbows—those we can produce during the next 10 years. If we are successful, we will use what we have learned and done to inspire others to seek similar community-based collaborations to positively change our world.

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 are currently being 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 is also under development.


ALA Annual Conference 2014: Ernie DiMattia and Learning Moments That Change Our Lives  

June 28, 2014

Conference attendance, whether onsite or online, can be transformative. The planned and unplanned encounters with colleagues, the vendors with whom we work, the authors we adore (or are going to adore after encountering them and the work they produce), touch and change us in ways that sometimes are immediately evident and at other times require the passage of time to geminate and bear fruit.

ALA2014--LogoWe seek, come across, and learn from people whose work we have avidly followed in print or online, and sometimes are stunned to find that they just as avidly following and learning from ours. We have unexpected, intensively personal conversations in spaces like the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference Networking Uncommons and, in the process, deepen relationships with people we might otherwise not have come to know. We learn how much more challenging and rewarding the conference-as-learning-experience can be when we learn how to blend our onsite and online participation via the conference backchannel.

Relishing the collaborations that produce significant results through our volunteer service on committees or through participation in efforts like ALA Membership Development’s Ambassador program is just another part of mining conference opportunities for all they are worth; they help us understand how welcoming and supportive the ALA community can be—and is.

And even though the size and scope of the ALA Annual Conference has us sharing space with more than 20,000 colleagues, it’s amazingly easy to find the individual members of our community we want to find—and equally stunning to realize how much the absence of even one cherished colleague can affect us.

I had known that Ernie DiMattia, the chair of the ALA Publishing Committee, would not be with us here in Las Vegas this morning for our semiannual onsite meeting. All of us on the committee had been notified earlier this week that he was dealing with “ongoing health issues.” But I had had no idea, before arriving at the meeting, that he had been in the final stages of a long-time battle with cancer and that he had passed away last night.

Ernie_DiMattiaThere was a moment of silence as we all, in our own individual ways, struggled to absorb the news that this gentle, literate, vibrant light in the ALA community had been extinguished. And while I can’t speak to what others were thinking, I found myself reliving the moment, a couple of years ago, when Ernie approached me during an orientation session we were both attending, asked me how I was doing, was insightful enough to ask a thought-provoking question that significantly changed my perceptions about what all of us were learning to do in that session, and, as a result, sent me down a very productive year-long path as chair of an ALA advisory committee that completely changed the way it did its work.

Ernie’s simple question at the moment I was about to become a committee chair: “Who will you be serving as a committee chair?” And the obvious answer—ALA 2012-2013 President Maureen Sullivan while working with (rather than for) ALA staff—inspired a series of interconnected partnerships that was rewarding for all of us and the larger ALA community we served.

When my year-long term came to an end and I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the Publishing Committee with Ernie as chair, I continued to learn from the inclusive, collaborative approach he took to our work. I appreciated the fact that he went out of his way to stop and chat whenever our paths crossed in those wonderfully expansive conference hallways. I admired the way he fostered productive partnerships with our ALA staff colleagues to help craft a forward-looking strategic plan that will continue to make ALA Publishing an essential part of the ALA community’s operations.

I wish I could say that I knew Ernie better. I wish I could say we had numerous lovely and inspiring conversations, but they were far too few. And as I walked those Ernie-less halls today, I knew they would never again feel quite so vital as they were through Ernie’s presence. But I also sensed that they would remain important, comforting, and essential to all I do as long as I continue acting upon and sharing all I learned from Ernie’s unofficial and very informal mentoring.


Alan Ehrenhalt, Inversions, and Developing Our Communities

June 2, 2014

There’s something viscerally appealing about a dynamic, creative community, regardless of whether it is onsite or online.

If we walk on a city street, through a public plaza or park, or in a library or museum where people are engaged with each other, we often feel the urge to be part of what it offers. If we participate in and contribute to a civil, active, well-facilitated, and creative online community of learning, community of practice, or community of interest, we frequently feel well-rewarded and stimulated by the positive interactions we have. Conversely, if we stumble upon or through communities that feel uninviting or in any way unsafe, we’re not going to remain there very long.

Ehrenhalt--Great_Inversion--CoverReading Alan Ehrenhalt’s book The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City tells us plenty about the state of some of our most interesting physical communities; it also, I believe, offers us opportunities to draw productive parallels about what makes online communities attractive.

The settings for his onsite explorations include urban and suburban neighborhoods in or near Chicago, Cleveland, Gwinnett County (Georgia), Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and several other American cities, and he also draws upon several European cities (including the Paris of George-Eugène Haussmann’s time and Vienna as the Ringstrasse was opening in the latter half of the 19th century). He reminds us that a great European street served—and continues to serve—as “a center of activity, much more than of motion, a center of commerce and sociability, of nonstop human drama, of endless surprises and stimulation….To talk about a crowded city thoroughfare of the nineteenth century as ‘mixed use’ urbanism in the modern sense is to miss the point altogether. This was essentially ‘all use’ urbanism” (p. 23) He then explores various American cities to document ebbs and flows of population into and out of areas in an attempt to help us understand what makes contemporary cities appealing or lacking in appeal.

As we share Ehrenhalt’s journey through our physical sites, we consider the impact immigrants, the availability of public transportation, the presence of street life, street furniture, parks, residents’ commitments (or lack of commitment) to their communities, and even levels of housing available in downtown areas have on making or breaking communities.

And that’s where I believe we can draw parallels between what we see in The Great Inversion and what we see in equally dynamic or challenged online communities. The diverse points of view that can result from interactions between immigrants and well-established residents of a community also provide the advantages and challenges of welcoming various points of view in our online communities. The presence of engaging levels of onsite street life has its online equivalent in communities where friends and colleagues can drop into an online community with the assurance that their “neighbors” will be there to interact synchronously as well as asynchronously in rewarding and stimulating ways. The elements that contribute to a sense of safety and engagement in our onsite settings also have their online parallels: just as broken windows and large amounts of graffiti can quickly chase us away from onsite settings, the presence of spammers and haters in an online community can quickly inspire the departure of previously-engaged members of an online community.

Street life in our physical settings is returning in various forms, Ehrenhalt contends, and I see—and benefit from—a parallel level of street life in the best of the online communities to which I’m drawn. Although Ehrenhalt’s own conclusion is that “The more that people are enabled by technology to communicate with one another while remaining physically solitary, the more they crave a physical form of social life to balance out all the electronics” (p. 236), I believe that an equally compelling interaction is occurring as those of us who are lucky enough to meet in dynamic onsite communities continue some of our interactions online. The result is that for those of us who comfortably move back and forth within our blended onsite-online communities, the opportunities to engage and benefit from interactions from dynamically diverse communities has never been better.


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