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.


Time Travel, Personal Learning Networks, and Rhizomatic Growth

October 17, 2013

Let’s engage in some trainer-teacher-learner time travel; let’s revel in a wonderfully and gloriously circular learning moment whose beginning and end have not yet stopped expanding—and won’t if you decide to enter into and further expand this moment as part of a connected educator network.

xplrpln_logoIt starts with a simple realization: that participating in a well-organized connectivist MOOC (massive open online course) or any other effective online learning opportunity not only puts us in real-time (synchronous) contact with those we draw into our personal learning networks, but also allows us to extend and connect online conversations with those that began days, weeks, months, or even years before the one we are currently creating, in venues we are just now discovering. It also can easily extend into days, weeks, months, or years we haven’t yet experienced.

I am, for example, writing this piece on October 17, 2013, and if you end up reading it on the same day, we’re in a fairly obvious and traditionally synchronous moment—the sort of moment we routinely experience face to face. By connecting this piece to others I’ve been reading and reacting to with colleagues in the Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are currently facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program, and by further connecting it to interactions with colleagues via Connected Educator Month, I am in a very rewarding way extending and weaving this moment across weeks and months of conversational threads created by others. They wrote earlier. You and I respond now. They pick up the thread and run with it at some as-yet-undetermined moment. And all of us are in a figuratively synchronous way connected through a conversation and learning opportunity that flows in multiple directions, over multiple platforms, as Pekka Ihanainen (HAAGA-HELIA University of Applied Sciences, Finland) and John Moravec (University of Minnesota, USA) explain in an article they wrote in 2011 and which I explored with a segment of my own personal learning network colleagues in a blog post and other online venues.

etmoocWe see this in play through the Exploring Personal Learning Networks MOOC, where we are exploring and attempting to define personal learning networks by developing our personal learning networks. We are developing (or further developing) personal learning networks by drawing upon newly-created resources as well as resources that can be weeks, months, years, or even a century old. One colleague suggests that Jules Verne, the nineteenth-century novelist-poet-playwright, is part of his personal learning network in the sense that Verne’s work continues to guide him in his never-ending evolution as a learner. I am suggesting that a colleague from another MOOC is part of my #xplrpln personal learning network via a wonderful article she wrote months before the personal leaning networks MOOC was written and in progress; because her article is inspiring so many of us, she feels as if she is an active member even though personal time constraints are keeping her from posting updated material—for and in the moment. And several of us are suggesting that people who are still alive but with whom we have no one-on-one in-the-moment personal contact still are very much a part of our personal learning networks because they influence and affect our learning through the work they are producing or the examples they provide—something I experienced while participating in #etmooc (Educational Technology & Media MOOC) earlier this year.

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoThat creates a wonderfully dynamic and continually evolving personal learning network—or network of networks—along with a tremendously expansive moment that remains open to further expansion through your participation. And the more we engage with #xplrpln course facilitators Merrell and Scott and course colleagues in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, and Australia synchronously and asynchronously, the more we find our own personal learning networks, personal learning environments, affinity spaces, communities of practice, and overall communities of learning overlapping in ways that once again transcend geographic and chronological borders—suggesting that in the world of training-teaching-learning, borders and barriers exist only to be erased (or, at very least, made much more permeable than we often assume they can be).

It’s an obvious extension of the concept of rhizomatic learning—a process of learning that mirrors the spreading of rhizomes so there is no center, just a wonderfully ever-expanding network of learning connections rooted in creation, collaboration, and the building of communities of learning, as I noted after picking up the term from Dave Cormier via #etmooc. The learning rhizomes in our personal learning network now continue to move backward to capture parts of the extended conversation we hadn’t previously noted, and they move forward into the moment you are living and extending in collaboration with the rest of us. Together, we may be on the cusp of even greater collaborations. Learning experiences. And being part of contributing to a world in which connections through time, across time zones, and over geographic boundaries produce possibilities we are only beginning to imagine and bring to fruition.

N.B.: This is the fifth in a series of posts inspired by Connected Educator Month and participation in #xplrpln (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks massive open online course).


James Paul Gee, the Anti-Education Era, and Personal Learning Networks

October 15, 2013

You won’t find the terms personal learning networks (PLNs) or connected learning anywhere in James Paul Gee’s wonderfully stimulating book The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Though Digital Learning. But his plea for greater collaboration, the use of what he calls “affinity spaces,” and  recognition that the combination of “human + tool” is a winning equation suggests that trainer-teacher-learners (and many others) are on the right track by developing those dynamic combinations of people and resources that help us cope with a world where formal and informal learning never stops.

Gee--Anti-Education_EraGee, in providing a no-nonsense and often critical view of the state of our early twenty-first-century learning landscape throughout his engaging preface to the book, sets the stage for an exploration of our “human + tool” predilections regardless of whether we call our communities of learning “personal learning networks,” “affinity spaces,” “communities of practice,” “personal learning environments,” or any other term I may inadvertently be overlooking. (And yes, there are subtle differences between the way each term is used and what each represents, but they all appear to be products of our drive to associate, collaborate, learn, and create something of meaning and value to ourselves, our onsite and online communities, and those we ultimately serve in our day-to-day work.)

“We live in an era of anti-education,” he writes. “We focus on skill-and-drill, tests and accountability, and higher education as a marker of status (elite colleges) or mere job training (lesser colleges). We have forgotten education as a force for equality in the sense of making everyone count and enabling everyone to fully participate in our society. We have forgotten education as a force for drawing out of each of us our best selves in the service of an intellectually and morally good life and good society” (p. xiv).

We have no shortage of opportunities to pursue what Gee describes and advocates in The Anti-Education Era. The five-week Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) MOOC (massive open online course) that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are currently facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program, for example, is inspiring a newly-organized and quickly evolving community of learning connecting participants from many different countries via explorations of personal learning networks while fostering the creation of one of those networks, affinity spaces (through Google+, Twitter, Adobe Connect, and other online resources), and a community of practice that has the potential to thrive long after the formal coursework ends.

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoWe gain a visceral understanding of and appreciation for this far-from-radical yet still-underutilized manifestation of social learning through participation in Exploring Personal Learning Networks; we’ve also seen it through #etmooc, the Educational Technology & Media MOOC that earlier in 2013 drew many of us together for our first experience in a connectivist MOOC (cMooc); and we’re seeing it through our participation in Connected Educator Month activities.

Gee’s work fits right in with what so many of us are currently pursuing as trainer-teacher-learners: collaborations that help us better acquire the skills and knowledge needed to make positive improvements in the local, national, and global communities that our use of contemporary technology fosters.

“I am now convinced that we cannot improve our society by more talk about schools and school reform, but only by talk about what it means to be smart in the twenty-first century,” he explains in the preface. “I will argue that when we make people count and let them participate, they can be very smart indeed….by education I mean what a twenty-first-century human being ought to learn and know and be able to do in order to make a better life, a better society, and a better world before it is too late. A good deal of this education will not go on in schools and colleges in any case, and even less if schools and colleges do not radically change their paradigms….

“I want to warn that digital tools are no salvation,” he adds, turning to a theme explored effectively in the final sections of the book. “It all depends on how they are used. And key to their good use is that they be subordinated to ways of connecting humans for rich learning and that they serve as tools human learners own and operate and do not simply serve.”

xplrpln_logoAs if addressing the need for personal learning networks, Gee offers what I have only half-jokingly referred to as a PLN manifesto: “People who never confront challenge and frustration, who never acquire new styles of learning, and who never face failure squarely may in the end become impoverished humans. They may become forever stuck with who they are now, never growing and transforming because they never face new experiences that have not been customized to their current needs and desires.” (p. 115). We can’t, I believe, actively create and participate in our personal learning networks without being open to hearing about and reacting to a variety of ideas; expanding our understanding of how we learn and applying that learning to the world around us; and finding ways to effectively collaborate to produce results that further nurture (rather than stifle) community development in the most positive ways imaginable.

Gee, in his consistently intriguing book-length exploration of “how we can all get smarter together,” leads us toward a question that again supports the development and maintenance of affinity spaces and, by extension, personal learning networks: “…what if human minds are not meant to think for themselves by themselves, but, rather, to integrate with tools and other people’s minds to make a mind of minds? After all,” he adds, “a computer operates only when all its circuit boards are integrated together and communicate with each other. What if our minds are actually well made to be ‘plug-and-play’ entities, meant to be plugged into other such entities to make an actual ‘smart device,’ but not well made to operate all alone? What if we are meant to be parts of a networked mind and not a mind alone?” (p. 153)

There is much more to explore in Gee’s work. We can certainly continue those explorations on our own. Or, as the author suggests, we can pursue them together. Using the tools available to us. Including our personal learning networks and the wealth of resources they provide.

N.B.: This is the third in a series of posts about Connected Educator Month and the third  in a series of reflections inspired by #xplrpln (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks massive open online course).


New Librarianship MOOC: Connecting Trainer-Teacher-Learners and Communities Through the Salzburg Curriculum

July 30, 2013

New Media Consortium Horizon Reports, meet the Salzburg Curriculum; Salzburg Curriculum, meet the Horizon Reports. And while we’re at it, let’s be sure to invite the trainer-teacher-learners in the American Library Association (ALA), the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), and our academic colleagues into the conversations that are currently being inspired through R. David Lankes’s “New Librarianship Master Class”—a massive open online course (MOOC) under the auspices of the University of Syracuse School of Information Studies— and his book The Atlas of New Librarianship.

New_Librarianship_Master_Class_LogoEven the most concise introduction to the Salzburg Curriculum, a proposal for a unified approach to preparing librarians and museum professionals for the work they will do within their organizations and the extended communities they will serve, suggests that we’re at the intersection of a number of wonderfully overlapping theories and communities of practice. Those of us who were engaged in #etmooc (the Educational Technology & Media MOOC developed and facilitated by Alec Courous and his wonderful gang of “conspirators” earlier this year) can see the underpinnings of connectivist learning theory and practice and how it serves communities. Those of us in Lankes’s New Librarianship Master Class, where the Salzburg Curriculum was reviewed extensively in Week 2 materials within the four-week course, can see Gordon Pask’s Conversation Theory in action. Those of us who read Horizon Reports or have an opportunity to serve on Horizon Report advisory boards can see an extension of the conversations on the topic of technology in learning that the New Media Consortium is fostering between trainer-teacher-learners in school, community and technical college, university, museum, and library settings. And anyone involved in any sort of community-based project—whether face to face or online—can see tremendous foundations, within the core values behind the curriculum, for all we do:

  • Openness and transparency
  • Self-reflection
  • Collaboration
  • Service
  • Empathy and respect
  • Continuous learning/striving for excellence
  • Creativity and imagination

Coming out of discussions conducted at the Salzburg Global Seminar on Libraries and Museums in a Participatory Age in 2011, the curriculum strongly parallels the work Lankes promotes in his master class and The Atlas—which is not at all surprising since he was a key player at the Salzburg Global Seminar. Topics addressed in the curriculum include “Transformative Social Engagement,” “Technology,” “Management for Participation,” “Asset Management,” “Cultural Skills,” and “Knowledge, Learning, and Innovation”—topics obviously important for anyone involved in libraries, museums, and other organizations with clear roles to play in training-teaching-learning.

We’re in an era of participatory culture, Lankes maintains, so our educational and our day-to-day workplace efforts can benefit from what was codified within the framing statement for the curriculum: “The mission of librarians and museum professionals is to foster conversations that improve society through knowledge exchange and social action”—a statement that closely parallel’s Lankes’s mission statement for New Librarianship. It’s a framing statement that leads us into a variety of areas familiar to trainer-teacher learners: facilitating conflict-management in ways that “create a civic and civil environment”; taking a proactive view about service rather than a passive view about what service means; taking a lifelong approach to learning rather than acting as if any single formal academic program can prepare us for everything we face within learning organizations; and using technology “to reach out to a community to the community’s benefit” in ways that “bring the community closer in conversation and learning.”

And, as has been consistently promoted through the New Librarianship Master Class and The Atlas, there are considerations of providing the maximum benefits to the communities who rely on libraries, museums, and other organizations to make valuable assets accessible, in meaningful ways, to the communities they serve rather than merely seeing those assets as “stuff” to be preserved for the sake of preservation.

The Salzburg Curriculum also proposes to help learners master communication skills and intercultural skills, and to develop an appreciation for and attentiveness to languages and terminology in ways that serve communities. But above all, as Lankes suggests in one of his online lectures on the topic, we “must be out in the community, learning from the community, working with the community to build, which means [we] must understand the community at a much deeper level than their [community members’] demographics.” If we, in our trainer-teacher-learner roles, can contribute to the development of this sort of dynamic curriculum with an eye toward serving communities as active participants, we may actually see far fewer articles or hear far fewer conversations, about the impending death of libraries and other organizations that strengthen our communities.

N.B.: This is the eighth in a series of posts inspired by the New Librarianship MOOC.


The Well-Connected Community: Attending Conferences with Genetically-Enabled Foursquare

January 30, 2013

Foursquare—that lovely social media tool that helps make us aware, through geotagging capabilities, of how physically close we are to those we might not otherwise encounter—seems as if it would be a uniquely valuable tool for those of us attending conferences and trying to catch up to colleagues from across the country or around the world.

ALA_Midwinter_2013The idea that our mobile devices could take the initiative in providing us with information we hadn’t yet thought to actively solicit—e.g., finding out, through notifications, who among our friends and colleagues is nearby—is something that David Weinberger and Nova Spivack referred to as being a part of Web 3.0 in January 2009 during a presentation at an American Library Association presentation in Denver. In positing a Web 3.0 world in which our devices would alert us before we asked for the information, the two presenters clearly evoked a wide range of reactions during that session. Some people were clearly fascinated and excited by the prospect, while some of us appeared ready to crawl under the nearest rock and whimper about the loss of privacy and anonymity. Most fascinating to me, at the time, was the discovery a few days later that the sort of service Weinberger and Spivack were predicting as an innovation on its way was already in use; a quick online search today confirmed that Foursquare itself was created within months of Weinberger and Spivack’s presentation. Furthermore, one of its predecessors (Dodgeball) preceded the prediction by nearly nine years—once again proving how hard it is to be a futurist in a world where the future seems to have unfolded before we even have a chance to predict it.

nmc.logo.cmykFoursquare came back to mind during my recent participation in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project Summit on “The Future of Education” in Austin, Texas and the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting in Seattle over a seven-day period. Although there was no need for anything like Foursquare at the NMC conference—all 100 participants were staying in the same wonderful resort outside of Austin and spending our days in one beautifully accommodating meeting room—one could argue that the ALA conference, with thousands of participants bouncing back and forth between meeting rooms in the convention center in Seattle and also staying in a wide range of hotels throughout downtown Seattle, was prime Foursquare turf.

And yet I never once thought about signing up for or using Foursquare to expedite connections. From the moment I stepped onsite into Seattle’s enormous Washington State Convention Center, I began running into exactly the colleagues I hoped to see. Within my first hour there on a Friday afternoon, I had settled into a conversation in a lounge area with a colleague from Nashville. We were joined, intermittently, by colleagues from California, Chicago, and many other places. Walking the large exhibits area early that evening, I had opportunities to talk with colleagues from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Dublin (Ohio), Chicago, Orlando, and many other places. In fact, a colleague I initially met earlier in the week at the NMC summit in Austin was there in Seattle, and it turned out she was sharing a room with a colleague with whom I serve on an ALA committee. (I’m left wondering whether Foursquare could have alerted me to that particular connection.) I capped off the evening with my one planned encounter: dinner with a colleague who recently left Georgia to accept a wonderful new position in Cleveland.

I suspect it’s not necessary to drag this out with an hour-by-hour description of all the similar encounters I had throughout the day on Saturday, but it’s worth noting that when I found myself unexpectedly with a completely unscheduled 90-minute block of time Sunday morning, I ran into a cherished colleague—Peggy Barber—who never manages to leave me less than completely energized by her descriptions of the projects she currently is completing. We decided to take advantage of that opportunity to go to a nearby independent coffee shop—the Caffe Ladro outlet at 801 Pine Street—that had been recommended by Seattle residents so we would have some uninterrupted time for conversation. And you surely know what came next: we ended up sitting next to a couple of other conference attendees who were close associates of a colleague from Florida.

That’s when I had another moment of revelation: neither Peggy nor I are drawn to Foursquare because we somehow have a genetically-enabled version of the product deeply embedded in our DNA.

I’m not saying I’ll never try Foursquare. But for now, it seems redundant in a world where the simple act of showing up puts me in contact with those I most cherish and who, in turn, make me glad that our incredibly connected onsite-online world somehow manages to place us in exactly the right location at exactly the right time to sustain our various communities of learning and communities of practice.


On the Horizon Report 2012: The Wisdom of the Crowds We Help Perpetuate (Part 3 of 3)

June 8, 2012

One of the most fascinating stories embedded in any New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Report is how the reports themselves are produced: in a highly collaborative, asynchronous fashion using a well-facilitated technology tool—a wikias I’ve noted elsewhere. The process draws together colleagues from a variety of walks of life to produce something that none of them could individually ever hope to achieve. And if that somehow sounds familiar, it’s because the underpinnings of these interactions—so important for trainer-teacher-learners and others—is all around us in a variety of printed and online resources.

There is, for example, Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect, that wonderful book describing how magic happens when people from different backgrounds briefly come together—a group of merchant marines, for example, who share ideas in a Greek tavern before parting and disseminating the results of their conversations with others all over the world. This is one of the major underpinnings of the Horizon process as nearly 50 of us from all over the world gather via a well-facilitated wiki to contribute to Horizon Higher Education reports. Or 9,000 people gather at an American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) annual conference for several days, then spend bits of pieces of the following weeks continuing to build upon and spread what resulted from the planned and chance encounters.

James Surowiecki’s fascinating The Wisdom of Crowds provides an additional book-length report that reminds us time and time that when we start with a diverse enough group of the right people—no groupthink here, mind you—any of us as trainer-teacher-learners produce more reliable results than any single member of a group consistently produces. The archetypal crowdsourcing story here is the one about Francis Galton going to a county fair in 1906, watching people try to guess the weight of an ox, combining the nearly 800 different guesses submitted, and documenting that the mean of all those guesses was far more accurate than any individual’s guess had been—just one pound away from the actual weight of 1,198 pounds.

If we continue down this exploration of why these broad collaborative gatherings are so effective, we find ourselves in Clay Skirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, which builds upon The Wisdom of Crowds by exploring how collaboration produces magnificent—and highly accurate—resources like Wikipedia. And that, of course, brings us nearly full circle back to the wikis that are an integral part of the Horizon process.

Jonah Lehrer’s recently-released book Imagine: How Creativity Works adds a final dimension to our exploration of the creative process that produces Horizon reports and other worthwhile and inspirational results. Lehrer, among other things, documents how creativity is fostered by online projects such as InnoCentive, where experts apply their expertise to areas in which they don’t normally work and, by bringing an outsider’s point of view, solve problems that don’t come from those well-versed in the field in which the problem is embedded. It’s exactly the same sort of process that supports the work of communities of practice and allows Horizon Report Advisory Board members to come together in an intensively creative way to see elements of the world of training-teaching-learning that few of us would ever notice if we weren’t immersed in this collaborative endeavor.

There’s a deliberate attempt to avoid inbred thinking in the sort of collaboration fostered through the Horizon process: our New Media Consortium colleagues attempt to replace at least a third of the composition of the Horizon Report Advisory Board each year so a new flow of ideas is an integral part of the process. And in providing that model, they leave us with a thought-provoking and effective approach that we can and should easily be incorporating into our workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts: one that mixes experience with infusions of fresh ideas. Takes advantage of our resources. And engages the wisdom of the crowd to help us better serve as the effective facilitators of learning that so many of us strive to be.


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