An innocuous little note at the bottom of the “living” online agenda for the 2020 Arizona State University ShapingEDU Unconference (for “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age”) earlier this month proved, in retrospect, to be one of the most prescient and useful comments anyone could have injected into the planning process: “While the start and end tines each day will not change, all activity times are fluid/subject to change…because it’s an unconference.”
The key moment in the ShapingEDU community’s response to the spread of the coronavirus occurred at the end of the first full day of onsite-online activities. Unconference organizers, responding to the fear that airlines might soon be cancelling flights and leave onsite participants separated from their families, made what was for them a very difficult decision: cancelling the onsite portion of the Unconference and simultaneously moving the mostly-onsite event completely online.
More importantly, they used every avenue available to quickly disseminate news of the decision and provide clear instructions on how we would continue during the second day of the two-day event. There were face-to-face conversations in the lobby of the hotel where many of us were staying. There was an email message sent to all participants. There were posts in the ShapingEDU Unconference Slack channel. To say it as bluntly as possible: there was complete transparency about what was happening and there was a magnificent effort to convey the news in the most positive way possible.
It’s well worth sharing a slightly-edited version of the note that was drafted by Samantha Becker, who serves as a driving force and supportive colleague in virtually everything related to the community and the Unconference, and that went out to all of us:
“Dear Dreamers, Doers and Drivers:
“Thank you so much for your brilliant participation and rallying today to advance some awesome and actionable outputs to better education. You made it insightful and you made it fun. You have truly embraced the spirit of the unconference!
“We have made a decision to pivot to online-only activities tomorrow, beginning again in our Zoom room [the link was shared here to make it easy for attendees to continue participating] at 9am AZ time / 12pm Eastern US Time. This was a very difficult decision to make, and one that has been made to take every precaution for our community, given the updates unfolding around us in real-time. Those here in person that wish to take earlier flights can.
“That said, we except a robust online program tomorrow, kicking off at 9am with a special talk from Adobe’s Todd Taylor on digital and creative fluency. Our graphic facilitator Karina Branson will be online and making her graphics all digital! Watch us flex.
“The goal tomorrow online is take all the actionable ideas and products we came up with in our neighborhood working sessions, narrow them down and start firming up concrete plans for the ShapingEDU community to weigh in on. Even if you couldn’t make today or only part of today, you can jump in tomorrow and contribute in a major way.
“Zoom Room: [again, the link was provided] (9am – 1pm AZ / 12pm – 4pm Eastern US)
“If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. The Slack workspace has been lively and we’ll pick our conversations back up there in the #unconference2020 channel.”
Reading that note can’t help but leave us with an appreciation for how quickly, effectively, and positively Samantha and other Unconference organizers (with input from available attendees) made and publicized the transformation. We can’t help but notice how effectively they used every resource available to them. And, above all, we have to acknowledge how well-prepared (through its consistent exploration and use of online communication tools) community members were for this massive shift in plans—the same sort of massive shift that is occurring in training-teaching-learning worldwide.
The result was that when we reconvened (online) the following morning, most of us were present. Ready to work. And deeply appreciative for the creative, playful way with which the change was managed. One of the first spur-of-the-moment adaptations came from Laura Geringer, the community engagement, writing, and project leadership consultant who does much of the day-to-day work of reaching out to ShapingEDU community members to keep us informed and involved. Acknowledging that this was a group that thrived on collegiality and effective use of videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, she encouraged all of us to activate the webcams on our laptops so we could produce a global wave. And even for those of us who found our webcams choosing that moment to malfunction, the gesture was a success. We waved. We laughed. And then we got down to business, putting the technology in the background and bringing the interactions into the foreground to produce a set of proposals for projects the community will consider pursuing as a result of the time we spent together at ShapingEDU 2020.
So, let’s hear it for flexible/adaptable communities of learning and all that their members do to make them successful through an approach of considering everyone a co-conspirator in the training-teaching-learning-doing process. A willingness to work with technology that sometimes produces spectacular results and sometimes leaves us frustrated by short-term failures. And living agendas that are created with an understanding that “all activity times are fluid/subject to change”…because that’s one of many approaches we can take to produce first-rate learning opportunities and the results they can produce.
While trainer-teacher-learners globally are struggling to adapt to a rapidly-changing learning environment created as a result of the current coronavirus pandemic, examples of communities of learning adapting quickly through positive actions are abundant. It’s fascinating to watch—and participate in the growth of—global networks including the Facebook Pandemic Pedagogy group which, as of today, has more than 26,000 members online creating/sharing/absorbing information, resources, questions, and ideas regarding the large-scale, blink-of-an-eye movement from onsite instruction to online learning opportunities. It’s exciting to be part of smaller communities of learning, including Maurice Coleman’sT is for Training group centered around his biweekly podcast exploring training-teaching-learning-doing in libraries across the United States, as they create and facilitate informal online community discussions via Zoom and numerous other videoconferencing tools as a way of keeping up, staying socially connected in a time of social distancing, and doing what it they do best: promoting the best possible approaches to fostering positive learning experiences for those who rely on them for support.
In the midst of all this, the 2020 Arizona State University ShapingEDU Unconference (for “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age”) earlier this month stands out as a stunningly successful example of how those of us comfortable with and experienced in working in blended (onsite/online) environments are well-positioned to pivot on a very small (digital) dime when necessary. More importantly, it may be useful example/case study for trainer-teacher-learner-doers globally not only during the current coronavirus pandemic but during any period during which our approach to the work we do has to change as fast as the world around us is changing.
The third annual Unconference was planned, over a months-long period of time, as an onsite gathering (in Tempe, Arizona) with the potential for some online interactions for those community members unable to attend onsite. It was scheduled to begin onsite with an opening reception on the evening of March 11 and conclude around noon on March 13. Registration—by invitation only—peaked at nearly 220 participants in the days before the event was scheduled to begin. But when coronavirus concerns increased in late February and early March, cancellations accelerated; by the time participants began arriving in Tempe, there had been more than 50 cancellations, and the opening night reception had fewer than 50 people in attendance.
What could have been a deal- (or Unconference-) breaker simply became a challenge in adaptability for those onsite as well as for those online. Onsite participants doubled down on our efforts to draw our online colleagues into the conversations via Twitter, via the Unconference live feed (via Zoom) that was already in place, and through quick adaptations in the way onsite sessions were managed.
It’s important to acknowledge that quite a bit goes into creating a community and an event as flexible/adaptable, focused, innovative, and productive as the ShapingEDU community and Unconference have proved to be during their first couple of years of operations. This is not something that we master and implement overnight. It starts with a shared vision: in this case, a commitment “to assemble a diverse collection of dreamers, doers, and drivers who believe that we can collectively shape a rich and impactful future for the application of emerging technologies to the design of learning and learners over the next chapter of the digital age” [the quote is from the invitation to attend the first Unconference, held in April 2018]. It grows through the work of first-rate planners and facilitators with a talent for including, at every possible opportunity, all interested community members in the actual planning process through numerous tools including a “living” online agenda. It is supported year-round through formal and informal online interactions, including webinars focused on specific elements of the overall ShapingEDU initiative and online publications that serve as resources for trainer-teacher-learner-doers worldwide. And, most importantly of all, it is grounded in a commitment to maintain a positive approach—particularly in times of adversity.
Acknowledging everyone involved in the development of the community and the unconferences would invariably result in an unbearably long post here on Building Creative Bridges and inadvertently leaving someone out, but a few key players are well worth mentioning as resources to anyone interested in knowing more about how to replicate its early successes. There is Lev Gonick, Arizona State University chief information officer and a founding force behind ShapingEDU. There is Samantha Becker, a cherished long-time colleague and collaborator who, as community manager for ShapingEDU, serves as a driving force and supportive colleague in virtually everything related to the community and the Unconference. And there is Laura Geringer, the community engagement, writing, and project leadership consultant who does much of the day-to-day work of reaching out to ShapingEDU community members to keep us informed and involved. Working alongside them physically and virtually are the volunteers who take bite-sized pieces of the overall initiative and work toward transforming dreams into positive, meaningful, measurable results.
What Lev and Sam and Laura nurture was clearly visible onsite. Because we are used to blended onsite-online interactions, it wasn’t much of a stretch for us to integrate our online colleagues into our activities on the first full day the 2020 Unconference. And when it became clear that the much lower-than-expected number of online participants was going to radically curtail the effectiveness of the breakout sessions we had planned for each group pursuing a part of the overall ShapingEDU framework, we quickly merged some of the groups with overlapping areas of interest and expertise to create more dynamic conversations, then further improvised by fully integrating what had initially been envisioned as conversations divided between onsite and online groups—which meant, for example, that my colleague Kim Flintoff (working from Australia) and I quickly snagged a room with projection and audio/loudspeaker capabilities—so we could hook my laptop up to those systems; the result was that we co-facilitated a session that extended from our room in Tempe all the way to Kim’s home on the other side of the world—and also drew in a couple of other onsite facilitators and a few online participants into the same highly productive completely blended session. One of the most rewarding signs of success came when we stopped paying attention to the technology that was making the session possible and focused on the results we were hoping to produce.
Just when all of us at the Unconference thought we had pushed our ability to adapt to its limit, another unexpected twist occurred—at the end of our first full day together: the increasing fear of cancelled flights home because of the then not-yet-implemented shelter-in-place orders that started going into effect less than a week later in parts of the United States drove the unexpected decision to move everything online overnight. Which meant that almost everyone had to scramble to rebook flights. Cancel their overnight reservations at the conference hotel. Scramble to pack everything that had been brought to the conference. And take actions that would have us all back together the following morning for Day 2 of what was about to become a completely virtual conference—with just a handful of us continuing to work together (in the Unconference online environment) from the dining room of the Unconference hotel.
Next: Going Online to Continue Dreaming, Driving, and Doing
When you attend a conference as well-organized and inspiring as ATD ICE 2019 (the Association for Talent Development’sInternational Conference and Exposition, here in Washington, DC), you quickly realize that every conference space is a learning space. To meet the highly varied interests of the more than 10,000 trainer-teacher-learner-doers present from all over the world, conference organizers offer more than 300 sessions over a four-day period—sometimes nearly three dozen simultaneously. To create our own learning opportunities, many of us also take advantage of the chance encounters we have in the conference exhibition hall, in the onsite ATD bookstore, in the membership and other special lounges, and other spaces to learn, in the moment, from cherished colleagues.
And then there is the Speaker Ready Room—the space reserved for those of us who have been lucky enough to have been chosen as session facilitators. It’s a relatively small, comfortable, well-lit, nicely set-up semi-private sacred space where we drop in as time allows to sit; review, rehearse, and fine-tune our presentations; and simply chat with our colleagues.
The first time I walked through the doors of an ICE Speaker Ready Room (a few years ago), I actually stopped, photographed the entryway, and tweeted out an honest admission before proceeding to an open seat at one of the round tables: It doesn’t matter how many times you serve as a presenter in learning and other venues; when you walk through that particular door at an ATD conference, it’s a special moment.
And, at the end of the day, every one of us walks away better than we were before we gathered in that sacred space. More aware of resources we can share. More informed about topics we should understand if we want to better serve our learners. And bolstered by the reminder that, through ATD and other professional associations that support the work we do by bringing us together, we are part of a wonderful community of learning that contributes to the creation of a world that, as ATD has said for years, works better.
I’ve always appreciated a thought I’ve found in the work of a variety of writers I admire—the end is the beginning—so it was wonderful to find that the formal end of the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning in Tempe and Scottsdale, Arizona late last week immediately initiated series of new beginnings that are continuing to unfold as I write this piece nearly seven days later.
It was an inspiring, transformative day and a half of presentations, discussions, and planning by teacher-trainer-learner-dreamer-doers from several different countries on a few continents, preceded by an informal evening reception to initiate the entire gathering arranged by Arizona State University Chief Information Officer Lev Gonick with the assistance of Samantha Adams Becker and many others. It immediately produced many productive conversations and initial plans for action. It extended beyond its formal conclusion through a couple of post-Unconference sessions that expanded the group of participants to include members of the Arizona State University community. And, in a stunningly quick follow-up, those involved with organizing the Unconference announced, within days, that as many materials and resources as could be gathered had already been posted on a publicly-accessible website—a site, which in essence, provides a virtual Unconference experience for anyone interested in participating asynchronously. More importantly, the website creates an additional avenue to assure that what happened in Arizona won’t stay in Arizona.
It was—and is—dreaming, doing, and driving at a global level. And it is, in essence, a wonderful example of a high-end blended (onsite-online), synchronous-asynchronous experience at its best, with the possibility of rhizomatically-growing conversations and actions that, if successful, could lead to positive changes that will benefit the global community that previously was drawn together and served very well by the New Media Consortium (NMC). The Unconference is simply the latest wonderful manifestation of that community, in a post-NMC environment, seeking familiar as well as new places (onsite as well as online) to continue the work it does so well—in long-term NMC partner organizations including EDUCAUSE and CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) as well as community member-generated groups including the SlackBeyond the Horizon community which has spawned FOEcast (Future of Education forecast) for those who did not want to lose the global community of teacher-trainer-learner-doers NMC had so effectively nurtured across a variety of sectors in our lifelong-learning environment. There is also a newly-formed LinkedIn group created expressly to continue Unconference conversations regarding the present and future of micro-credentialing not only in higher education but also in many other parts of our lifelong learning sandbox—and many other offshoots that will gain more of our attention in the weeks and months to come as dreams begin to be transformed into actions.
Lev himself, in an email message to the 129 of us who participated onsite in Tempe and Scottsdale last week, does a great job of setting the context for anyone interested in knowing what the website offers:
“Our minds are still racing with all the ideas and insights you contributed on shaping the future of learning in the digital age. It’s amazing what can transpire when a collection of diverse perspectives are in the same place at the same time. Thanks for coming with an open mind, ready to share your knowledge, dreams, and concerns.
The site also includes a link to the Twitter feed produced through #ShapingEdu hashtag which many of us used to extend the conversations beyond the physical walls of the Unconference meeting room and the outside-the-room conversations that continued in restaurants, the hotel lobby, the hotel parking lot, and numerous other locations so that conference “participants” included many colleagues who weren’t physically with us but, in a very real blended-world-sort-of-way, very much with us; accessing and adding to that Twitter conversation was just one of the numerous ways in which the Unconference can be said to have already taken on a extended life far beyond the short period of time during which we were interacting face to face.
And, in what can be seen as a commitment to leave no Unconference stone unturned, the website organizers have even added a “Media and Blog Reflections” section that, as I write this, includes a few of the articles that are already available from participants and will, without doubt, include many more that are either freshly-posted or on their way to being posted. (Karina herself has an interesting set of insights, on her own blog, about into how graphic facilitation primed the pump for many of the productive conversations that began during the opening reception.)
We have a lot of work ahead of us. And we know that those who were skeptical of and/or critical of what the New Media Consortium and its numerous partners and community members produced, will probably be equally critical and skeptical of what the Unconference dreamers and members of our extended global community of learning are in the early stages of pursuing. But our openly-expressed desire to be inclusive and transparent in our work—in this lovely, dynamic, innovative community of Edunauts in higher education, the kindergarden-through-12th-grade sector, community colleges and vocational schools, museums, libraries, and workplace learning and performance committed to supporting lifelong learning at its best—means we look forward to working with you and anyone else interested in being actively engaged in the process of dreaming, doing, and driving that was so wonderfully visible at the Arizona State University Unconference last week.
If any of us had mistakenly thought that all the dreaming, planning, and neighborhood-building that took place all day last Thursday during the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning in Tempe and Scottsdale, Arizona had drained us, we quickly learned otherwise when we formally reconvened for a final half-day of activities Friday morning.
A few lightning talks by participants primed the dreaming-planning-doing pump once again, and we were soon back in some conversational neighborhoods that had been established Thursday within the Unconference meeting room on the Scottsdale campus of the University of Arizona. At the same time, we were establishing a couple of additional neighborhoods Friday morning—including one centered on the topic of micro-credentialing in the temporary physical city of LearnerDreamerUnconferenceville. (I suspect this particular city is going to have a very long and productive life as a blended community existing in rhizomatically-growing online discussion groups and face-to-face meetings whenever we can again find ways to gather.)
For me, the fast-paced, very focused micro-credentialing discussion brought together interwoven threads of nearly a half-decade of conversations onsite and online with colleagues—all grounded in recognition that higher education is facing a tremendous challenge in finding/redefining its place in a world that increasingly questions the value of a four-year education and the higher-degree programs that are often extremely expensive and time-consuming. As one colleague mused shortly after the final formal Unconference session ended: Formal education will change radically within 10 years. We don’t stay in a job for five years; why would we stay in college for four? (And while I think there are plenty of great reasons why some of us will continue to see, value, and cherish those four-year experiences with occasional returns to onsite/online formal educational settings, that question is one that is well worth asking of anyone committed to lifelong learning and survival in the sort of rapidly-changing environment that my colleague Jonathan Nalder is attempting to address through his tremendously creative Future-U/First on Mars efforts.)
Following the pattern we used in our Thursday neighborhood conversations, participants in the micro-credentialing neighborhood set out to accomplish three things: define our unifying dream, establish what we hoped to do in one-, three-, and five-year periods of time, and document what was driving us toward those dreams and actions. The dream, with graphic facilitator Karina Branson helping keep us on track, quick came together: to connect formal and informal learning credentialing and create a confirmed, shared taxonomy so it would be useful to learners and those needing to know how those learners’ experiences match what is needed in contemporary workplaces. Looking toward the three- and five-year time horizons, we dreamed of helping create a system wherein empowered learners can express goals that would be documented through micro-credentialing; foster more opportunities for compound diplomas; and nurture a lifelong-learning pattern in which earning and learning remain intertwined.
ShapingEdu–ASU Unconference_Micro-Credientialing_Group_WorkActions to be taken in the first year of our efforts include attempting to partner with on-campus registrars to see how this system can be created, nurtured, and sustained; see what standards need to be created to serve the overlapping interests and needs of learners and employers; and establish a mechanism to continue the conversation—efforts already taking shape through the creation of a LinkedIn discussion group and efforts to provide a forum for the discussions/planning/actions through our SlackBeyond the Horizon community which has spawned FOEcast (Future of Education forecast). Projected long-term actions to be taken by the micro-credentialing group include attempting to design a visual framework for micro-credentialing and continually seeking ways to foster collaboration with all identifiable partners in the (lifelong) learning process—not just those involved in higher education.
There are a number of factors driving many of us toward an effort of this magnitude at this particular time, and there are certainly numerous barriers behind which any skeptic could easily retreat. But that in-the-spur-of-the-moment question about why anyone would commit to four-year learning programs in a world where job and career changes are so prevalent offers one of the best reasons to pursue this effort. And an offhand comment made by my colleague and fellow Unconference participant Tom Haymes made about the need for “exploding the classroom” in the most positive of ways playfully pushes the conversation forward even more.
If we’re going to avoid the prediction that at least one colleague made at the Unconference—that our four-year colleges and universities could disappear or be much different in ten years than they are today—then all of us Edunauts who love the richly rewarding and highly varied onsite, online, and blended environments available to us today need to be actively engaged in the process of dreaming, doing, and driving that was so wonderfully at the heart of the Arizona State University Unconference last week.
One of the more playful and productive exercises at the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning in Tempe and Scottsdale, Arizona late last week involved building neighborhoods. We weren’t using hammers and nails, and no hardhats were required. This was an exercise in identifying key issues in higher education and other learning environments; pulling tables together to create neighborhoods of conversation within the conference room in which we were meeting; and then diving into those conversations designed to identify what the residents of the newly-established Unconference neighborhoods held as their unifying dream, what we hoped to do in one-, three-, and five-year periods (horizons, anyone?) of time, and what was driving us toward those dreams and actions.
Defining our dream was a fairly easy undertaking because the effort had already been underway for a few months: developing a highly-functioning, sustainable community of action that will extend to sectors beyond higher education and will include spin-offs to connect to other learning organizations worldwide.
Establishing a list of actions to be completed within one-, three-, and five-year periods also was straightforward. Our year one goals include engaging in strategic planning; continuing to establish mission, vision, and value statements that will guide us and others who join our efforts to identify and promote positive changes within the various lifelong-learning environments in which we work; producing documents that will be useful to those joining us in our efforts to continue contributing to global efforts to shape the future of learning—and make those documents available under Creative Commons licensing; and seeking ways to continue working together online (e.g., through the Slack “Beyond the Horizon” group) and onsite (e.g., through gatherings including the Unconference for Dreamers, Doers, & Drivers Shaping the Future of Learning).
Our three- and five-year goals contained an implicit acknowledgment that this is still very much a rapidly-evolving community that draws from the community that existed under the auspices of the NMC and also draws from the extended, rhizomatically-growing community of our non-NMC colleagues who share an interest in collaborating to have a positive impact on lifelong learning throughout the world. With that in mind, a major item on our list is to continually engage in revisions of our implantation plans so we can react to the changes that will undoubtedly occur in our learning environments. We also made the commitment to look for opportunities to establish and/or work with organizations tackling parts of the effort to reshape learning (e.g., those focused on higher education—like EDUCAUSE, which obtained the NMC’s assets through the Chapter 7 proceedings and is proceeding with plans to publish the 2018 Horizon Report > Higher Ed Edition halted by the closing of the NMC—as well as others working in our extended lifelong-learning playground: colleagues in the K-12 sector, community colleges and vocational schools, museums, libraries, and the extensive network of workplace learning and performance (talent development) colleagues. (Those that come to mind for me include colleagues who gather under the auspices of first-rate learning organizations such as ATD—the Association for Talent Development or who are filling unmet learning needs through opportunities provided by LinkedIn/Lynda.com).
It was heartening to see so many representatives from so many of these organizations and industries working together during the Unconference to develop plans of action to help reshape learning; Arizona State University Chief Information Officer Lev Gonick did an amazing job of pulling together a broad coalition of stakeholders in the conversation from a variety of countries. Our colleagues from EDUCAUSE were active participants in the process of attempting to determine how our post-NMC world will take shape. Several members of the former NMC community accepted the invitation to present lightning talks to stimulate the conversations. The result of these combined efforts and commitment to innovation was that any participant interested in being part of our ongoing efforts to better serve our learners had plenty of opportunities to find a place to engage in what will be an ongoing, dynamic shaping process—with an eye on producing concrete, measurable results.
It’s worth paying attention to how and why the Beyond the Horizon/FOEcast conversation—and so many others—progressed so quickly. This was a group that already had been interacting online for a few months and was drawing upon years of experience as a community of teacher-trainer-learner-doers (learning facilitators as activists in the best sense of that word). We approached our work with a sense of collaboration and a commitment to positive action; there was very little argument, but, on the other hand, this was far from an exercise in groupthink—plenty of ideas surfaced, and those which appeared most promising seemed to find advocates willing to carry them further in the weeks, months, and years ahead of us, while those ideas which did not immediately catch fire can certainly resurface as needed. The space itself, on the Arizona State University campus in Scottsdale, was conducive to the types of interactions Lev and others did so much to foster: the room had plenty of natural light flowing in from outside; the room itself was spacious and had furniture that could easily be moved to create the best possible set-up for an exchange of ideas. (The FOEcast group quickly created a T-shaped arrangement of tables that made it possible for most people to hear each other easily and contribute to the conversation.)
We also need to acknowledge the importance of the conversation facilitators in an endeavor at the level of the Unconference and those neighborhood-development sessions. FOEcast co-founder Bryan Alexander led our FOEcast neighborhood’s discussion. Lev contributed tremendously through his facilitation of the entire Unconference. And graphic facilitator Karina Branson seemed to have the ability to be in the right place at the right time to keep conversations progressing in positive directions throughout the entire Unconference.
As our highly-motivated group of Edunauts reached the end of a day of dreaming, sharing, and planning for a future we very much want to help create, we did exactly what the event was designed to stimulate: continued our conversations well into the evening in small groups over dinner. And when we reconvened Friday morning for our final hours together onsite, we were ready to take our efforts even further.
It has been a long emotional journey to arrive here at the Unconference. Many of us had been shocked and tremendously saddened by the sudden demise, in December 2017, of the NMC. Committed as much to the global community of teacher-trainer-learner-doers (this, after all, is in the best sense of the word, a community of learning “activists”) fostered by the organization as to the organization itself, we quickly mobilized via a “Beyond the Horizon” group on Slack—a popular social media tool that can be used to effectively facilitate productive online conversations within a community of interest. Bryan Alexander, Lisa Gustinelli, Jonathan Nalder, and I were among those immediately turning to the challenge of exploring ways to continue working together even though the organization that had brought us together had disappeared. It only took a few days to begin reconvening members of the community; within a few weeks, we had drawn approximately 200 members into that Slack community. What was and is fascinating about the Beyond the Horizon group is that it is was not and is not simply a group of people gathering to hold a wake; new members—colleagues who never had any formal interaction with the New Media Consortium, but who shared the community’s commitment to creativity, learning/learners/lifelong learning, innovation, and educational technology—began joining by invitation so that, in essence, it was rapidly evolving at the same moment that it was reconvening.
But what really gave the community a major push was an invitation from our colleague Lev Gornick to gather here in Arizona for the unconference that will conclude this afternoon. Having attracted nearly two dozen sponsors—including EDUCAUSE, which obtained the NMC’s assets through the Chapter 7 proceedings and is proceeding with plans to publish the 2018 Horizon Report > Higher Ed Edition halted by the closing of the NMC—and reached out to a community that extends beyond the NMC community, Lev is giving us a much-needed opportunity to build upon what many of us have accomplished together so we can continue working to produce positive transformations within the global learning community in which we live, work, and play.
That hotel-lobby conversation that extended over a mid-afternoon lunch blossomed at the Unconference opening reception, where a fabulous graphic facilitator, Karina Branson, helped create the foundations for the conversations and work that went on all day yesterday and will conclude early this afternoon. Karina, by listening to individual participants informally recall their first experiences with digital learning, created a wonderfully illustrated timeline. Not as a way of reveling in perceived past glories. But, rather, as a way to remind ourselves that we have a tremendously rich legacy upon which we can build as the group continues to evolve into something even better and more productive than what we had before the NMC disappeared.
It would be easy to fall into maudlin, clichéd observation that the more than 100 of us gathered here in the Phoenix area arrived to be present for and participants in the rebirth of a community of learning. But that would be a terrible misrepresentation of what I sense is really happening here. This isn’t a rebirth, from the ashes of a wonderful, innovative, inspirational organization, of the community created and nurtured by NMC for more than two decades. This is the reconvening of the members of a dynamic, thoughtful inquisitive, and highly-motivated group of Edunauts—a term coined by Jonathan Nalder and at least two other people, independently of each other!—who as the title of the Unconference suggests, continue to meet and welcome new members into a group of dreamers, doers and drivers interested in being part of the process of shaping a future for learning—to the benefit of those we serve.
And as we left the opening reception Wednesday night and at least a couple of us continued our conversations well into the evening in the parking lot of our hotel, it was clear that our work was not about to begin; it was about to continue with a wonderfully crafted agenda and plenty of work on the table.
The halls of the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, where the American Library Association (ALA)2018 Midwinter Meeting is fully underway, have never felt more lively or filled with stimulating, deeply thoughtful conversations to me. Nor have they ever felt so filled by ghosts.
I have, frankly, lost track of the number of times I have been here for ALA and ATD (Association for Talent Development) conferences. And, as I walked the conference center hallways yesterday morning—only yesterday; already feels like weeks ago—for my first onsite activity during the 2018 Midwinter Meeting, I felt worlds melting into each other. Intellectually, I knew I was here to spend time with my trainer-teacher-learner-doer colleagues working in the library industry. But somehow my body was instinctively reconnecting me viscerally with friends and colleagues I met during previous visits, as if their ghosts—conference-center pentimentior some other form of presence—remained long after they had returned home. I found myself thinking about attending sessions scheduled for other (previous) conferences as if they were still about to happen.
Repeatedly then and now—nearly a day and a half later—I found and find myself looking for and expecting to see friends (some still alive, some now long-gone) encountered during previous ATD and ALA conferences. And it was—and is—comforting and reassuring because it reminds me that the wonderful, ongoing ALA conference slogan—“the conversation starts here…”—only captures part of the overall experience of participating in any well-organized conference.
Conversations both start and continue here, in the sort of extended moment I have explored numerous times in blog posts and conversations. And here, in our wonderfully blended onsite-online world, is far more than the physical conference center spaces. Here is the rooms, the hallways, the simple yet masterfully organized spaces including the Networking Uncommons—where you can stop in anytime the conference is underway, grab a table, recharge your laptop and mobile devices, and with planning aforethought as well as magic of the unplanned moment, see exactly the right person at the right time to talk and dream and plan in ways that produce results you (all) would not have otherwise produced. And, equally importantly, here is the online spaces we create through Twitter backchannels, Facebook, Google Hangouts, and numerous other tools we use to reach out to our #ALALeftBehind colleagues who, in a very real sense, need no longer feel left behind—if they care to join us virtually.
The event itself was masterfully facilitated by our HarperCollins hosts (Library Marketing Director Virginia Stanley, Marketing Associate Christopher Connolly, and Marketing Assistant Lainey Mays): as they were describing a wonderfully rich list of upcoming novels and nonfiction works from their authors, they occasionally brought those offsite authors onsite by showing brief, engaging, videos from authors who had taped greetings to us and brief descriptions of their works that are about to be published. (And it worked! Christopher Moore’s brief, very funny introduction to his upcoming novel Noirsent me over to the HarperCollins booth in the conference exhibits area late in the day to pick up an advance reader’s edition of the books so I don’t have to wait until April—when it’s scheduled to hit the bookstores and our libraries—to read it.) It gets better: our “left behind” colleagues will, a few days after I post this blog piece, be able to virtually attend the session by viewing a recording of it on a new site HarperCollins is about to launch. (I’ll update this article by adding a link to the recording as soon as it is available.)
We really are in what feels to be the early stages of an entire change in the way we meet, communicate, and engage with each other. What I have joking referred to as those “ghosts” in the hallway are actually quite real; when I want to viscerally and virtually re-engage with them, I can go back to pieces I’ve written about our conversations, reread those pieces, incorporate them into later pieces (like this one), and extend the elastic moment of conversation further by adding to it with additional tweets, Facebook postings, Google Hangouts, something as simple as a newly-initiated phone call from the conference center, or a follow-up face-to-face conversation next time we’re actually in this (or another) conference center together. (I actually did attempt to draw in a colleague who is missing the annual Midwinter Meeting for the first time since we began attending them together—the spontaneous attempt to create a Google Hangout with her so I could “walk” the aisles of the exhibits area when it first opened last night was not successful—and we actually chatted by phone for a few minutes to I could teasingly describe all the things she was—not quite—seeing. But when you and I think about those failed and successful attempts, we realize that the concept of being “left behind” is only as large and insurmountable as we and our imaginations allow it to be.
So, I write this piece in honor of all the colleagues I have seen, am seeing, and will ever see when we are “together” at the ALA Midwinter Meeting or Annual (summer) Conference), the ATD International Conference & Exposition, and other professional-family gatherings. I hope it inspires you to reach out via Twitter, Facebook, phone, or any other available means when you are here and others aren’t. And I hope it inspires you to reach out in those same and other ways when you are offsite—and ready to be onsite as quickly as your virtual modes of transportation can get you here. Let’s give those “ghosts” the attention and support they need; the rewards to every member of our communities and to the communities themselves are virtually limitless.
A colleague (Puck Malamud) here in Denver for the American Library Association (ALA)2018 Midwinter Meeting, which formally begins later today (Friday, February 9, 2018), accurately observed during our brunch yesterday that librarians and other trainer-teacher-learner-doers—what Jonathan Nalder calls “edunauts”—are completely “meta.” We love to look at the thing behind the thing: if we’re immersed in learning, we love exploring how learners learn; if we’re writers, we love exploring the writing process itself; and if we’re thinking about the myriad possible futures for libraries and other critically important learning organizations, we’re going to be talking about, re-viewing, and rethinking the very processes we use to help nurture the future(s) of our dreams.
Sitting with University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science Director R. David Lankes for dinner shortly after I arrived late Wednesday afternoon, I found the meta and rethinking flowing freely very early during a conversation about how we are rethinking the roles of libraries and library staff within the communities we serve. Responding to a question I asked him about his latest projects, he described how he and his faculty colleagues are exploring the very terminology they use to describe the sort of organization they are continuing to nurture at the university. Where we have seen “library “ schools evolve into “information” schools, Dave and his colleagues are taking it an additional step and “placing a stake in the ground” to promote the development of a “school of knowledge”—a place where the focus is not on the library or the information, but on the impact that the university’s graduates will have on the communities they serve throughout their careers through thoughtful application of the knowledge they have gained—and continue to gain as lifelong learners.
It’s a theme Dave has been developing and exploring with colleagues all over the world for the past few years—a natural extension of ideas he proposed in The Atlas of New Librarianshipand other books he has written; has developed through presentations and conversations with his peers—what Jonathan would call his fellow edunauts; and will further clarify through a monograph he and University of South Carolina faculty are currently preparing for publication. And the conversation remains open to all of us through writing he has done and presentations he continues to share, including the archived recording of and slide deck (with speaker notes) for “The Opportunities and Obligations of the Knowledge School.” Although the clear and obvious target audience for that wonderfully entertaining and thought-provoking “Opportunities” presentation was a group of school librarians, it would be a shame if it didn’t reach the larger audience of edunauts engaged in training-teaching-learning-doing endeavors. All of us contributing to our wonderfully dynamic onsite-online (blended learning) environment through K-12, higher education, vocational schools, museums, libraries, and workplace learning programs need to be looking for and taking concrete actions that produce positive results. That’s what Dave and his colleagues and many others are attempting to do:
The flow of meta and rethinking continued, for me, the following night in what felt like part of one continuing and ever-expanding conversation as I had dinner with Denver-based colleagues/friends/sources of inspiration Pat Wagner and Leif Smith. The conversation, toward the end of the evening, turned to a discussion about the process of rethinking how to conduct interviews for a book in progress. I mentioned to Leif that I was capturing interviewees’ comments though the use of Google Docs for the interviews themselves. (The interviewees have access to a unique document for each interview. I post questions. They respond in real time, which means I see their thoughts taking shape on the page word by word, and I can actually be formulating and entering new questions that help clarify their response while they are still in the middle of crafting their answers. The completed document, after light editing for style and typographic errors, becomes the accurate transcript from which I draw material for inclusion in the book.) This process produces richly evocative passages in each interviewee’s own voice—often conversational, but also refined in-the-moment through that typed-chat format—and obviously contains more content than I’ll ever be able to use in the book (Change the World Using Social Media). So I have been taking some of the more focused interviews and running them, in their entirety, as separate articles on my blog along with excerpts from the manuscript-in-progress as a way of obtaining early peer review that will help shape the final content.
Leif, fascinated by what was for him a new approach to interviewing, provided one of those amazing observations that just spring full-blown from him as if poetic phrasing and inspiring thought grows on the trees in his head: “A book is like the footprints of a creature that has walked through a magical forest, and if you follow those footprints, something like the spirit of the forest enters into you. That’s what happens if the book is really good.
I later joked with friends who often gather for evening coffee and dessert at the end of the day at conferences, that I never did get around to ordering dessert after that dinner with Pat and Leif. But, I added, that lovely passage really wasn’t, after all, dessert; it was a second main course, expertly prepared by one of the great thought-chefs in my life, and a reminder that our experiences at conferences along the lines of ALA’s Midwinter Meeting extend far beyond the walls of the rooms where the formal presentations and discussions are occurring.
A well-run conference like the annual NMC (New Media Consortium)Summer Conference always sends me into the stratosphere. And the one that officially opens tomorrow in the Boston area with pre-conference workshops has already thrust me into the lovely lofty heights of the teaching-training-learning-doing endeavors I pursue as part of my own lifelong-learning efforts.
Arriving a couple of days early and rooming with Apple Distinguished Educator/Henderson Prize Winner/Future-U Founder/entrepreneur/innovator/NMC Ambassador/colleague/friend (yes, I am a bit fond and in awe of him) guaranteed that I would be flying high very early this time around. As we sat down to dinner last night here in Cambridge an hour after I arrived, Jonathan began telling me about his latest creation, Future-U, and his efforts to “build a framework to scaffold the next phase of work and education into a thriving future.”
The three-hour workshop he will be facilitating here tomorrow afternoon (June 13, 2017) will more fully explore the themes he and I discussed last night, and his workshop description captured the essence of what we discussed:
“With up to 70% of future jobs under threat, education systems need to do more than provide digital skills. A new mindset is needed to help students bypass the ‘know-what game’ that is being mastered by artificial intelligence. Instead, the future belongs to those who can think, unthink, and rethink well enough to make their own jobs. This workshop will benefit anyone interested in unpacking this proposition by canvasing the ‘Agile Thinking’ approach, the Future-u.org framework, and NMC Horizon Reports to build out discussion of where education is heading and how it can get there.
One of the many elements that always intrigues me about the conversations I have with Jonathan and other NMC colleagues/co-conspirators as we are drawn together at NMC summer conferences is the way they zoom back and forth between views that seem to be at the 33,000-feet-above-ground level while never failing at some point to dive to ground zero with an eye toward responding in concrete ways to real challenges we face. The initial conversation in 2014 with Jonathan, Palm Beach State College Director of Innovation and Instructional Technology/NMC Ambassador Lisa Gustinelli, and others initiated a discussion that has literally extended with numerous training-teaching-learning-doing colleagues over a three-year period in a variety of onsite, online, and blended environments: trying to find a word or group of words that adequately describe what we all do.
It was an exploration that continued last night as Jonathan described the work he is doing through Future-U on “future literacies” (which to my eyes seems to share turf with what Doug Belshaw has described in terms of eight elements of digital literacy and other ideas I’ve encountered over the past few years) and Jonathan mentioned, almost in passing, the term “edunaut” that he has been using to describe “educators, experts, and [others] who are ahead of the curve and working to aid a transition to a successful tomorrow.”
Looking to see if others had stumbled on to the same term this afternoon as I was writing this piece, we struck gold in a Czech-language site that described edunauts as people “who are continuing to find new teaching methods, new skills and new learning objects, daringly venturing into places where no teacher has ever been…” and a Danish-language site that describes edunauts as ‘teachers, educators, and executives who will create strong visions, new knowledge and change of educational practice.”
So, there we are: a word that for me captures so much of what I see in training-teaching-learning-doing environments that include onsite and online gatherings of colleagues in ATD (the Association for Talent Development). And similar gatherings of colleagues who are working in libraries—onsite and online environments that are an essential part of our lifelong learning landscape. And so many other gatherings of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who share a passion for helping create a world that works better.
Yes, the thoughts are flowing. The colleagues are arriving. And the best is yet to come here at the NMC 2017 Summer Conference at this latest convocation of the edunauts.
N.B.—Those interested in meeting other edunauts can request an invitation to the private community space at https://future-u.mn.co/
Celebrating Life. Making positive connections and collaborating with people from around the world. Living everyday with positive energy, possibility, passion and peace of mind. Learning from a School Counsellor lens. I'm not a Counsellor because I want to make a living. I am a Counsellor because I want to make a difference. Gratitude for ETMOOC roots.