NMC 2015 Summer Conference: Full Participation & Circling Back to Conversations

June 9, 2015

When a few hundred of your favorite educational-technology colleagues from all over the world gather to explore trends and developments in teaching-training-learning, you certainly don’t want to miss a single minute of it. So you arrive a day or two before formal activities start. Spend inordinate amounts of time engaged in face-to-face conversations in the various hotel lounges and lobbies. Skim the conference Twitter feed (#nmc15 for this one). Pore over the conference program book and website trying to decide how to be in five places at the same time. Reach out via social media to colleagues who couldn’t be onsite so they won’t be left out of the conversations. Grab every available opportunity to join colleagues for breakfast, coffee, lunch, coffee, dessert, coffee, dinner, coffee, dessert and coffee. And just when you believe you’ve covered all your physical and virtual bases, you unexpectedly find delightful additional ways to be so plugged into and help plug others into the overall conference conversation that it feels as if it will never end.

NMC_2015_Summer_Conference--LogoWhat we’re talking about here is a magnificent part of the connected learninglifelong learning process at conferences that becomes exponentially more rewarding with every new effort we make to be part of the conversations that contribute to the growth and innovation fueling first-rate teaching-training-learning efforts, as we’re seeing again this week during the New Media Consortium (NMC) 2015 Summer Conference here in the Washington, D.C. area. Formal conference keynote presentations, breakout sessions within a variety of pathways, and other activities start tomorrow; half-day preconference workshops took place today. Onsite conversations were already underway two days ago as a few of us arrived Sunday evening. And pre-preconference online conversations have been taking place for at least a few weeks. All of which raises an interesting question: given all the resources we have to interact face-to-face as well as virtually and synchronously as well as asynchronously, when can we actually say an intensive onsite-online learning experience begins and ends, and what (if any) geographic boundaries define a conference site?

TwitterTwitter has been an essential part of my conference experience for the past few years. By skimming the feed from a conference hashtag a few times a day (and understanding that it’s far from necessary to read every tweet if I want to gain a sense of what is occurring), I’m able to asynchronously join conversations and “attend” sessions I otherwise would not have time to sample. By live-tweeting sessions and monitoring the feed from those sessions, I’m able to share content with offsite colleagues, occasionally draw them into what is happening onsite, and interact with others in particularly large meeting rooms. And, by commenting on colleagues’ tweets during and after sessions, I’ve found Twitter serving as yet another portal to meeting colleagues I might otherwise not have met—even though we were (or are) in the same room during a conference session.

And that’s where conversations can both meander and circle back upon themselves in the most unexpected ways and at the most unexpected times. I’ve met colleagues face-to-face for the first time by responding to their tweets during a session, and then seeking them out before any of us have a chance to leave a room at the end of a session—which, of course, leads to extensions of the conversations fostered by those facilitating the conference sessions we were attending. I’ve also had the wonderful opportunity to serendipitously pick up the threads of a conversation hours later when small groups of colleagues gather in those aforementioned hotel lounges and lobbies. Conversations occasionally extend over Twitter for several days after a conference formally ends, and can also continue as those of us who blog read and comment upon each other’s posted reflections on those blogs.

Coffee in a local shop

Coffee in a local shop

But today brought a wonderfully new and unexpected variation on the theme. Needing some time away from all those preconference conversations and preconference workshops, I decided to go offsite for the first half of the day to have brunch and visit one of Washington’s magnificent museums. As I was finishing brunch, I couldn’t resist the temptation to engage in what was going to be first of three check-ins to the conference Twitter feed throughout the day. And there it was: a colleague’s wonderful summary of high points from a three-hour workshop—which I was able to skim in less than 10 minutes, with a few additional minutes set aside to retweet a few comments I thought off-site colleagues might appreciate reading. After a couple of hours in the museum and a little more reading time in a local coffee shop, I made the quick cross-town trip back toward the conference hotel via Washington’s subway system, and planned to catch the shuttle that completes a circle between the hotel, the closest subway station, and the airport (which is only a very short distance from the hotel where we are staying) every 30 minutes.

The shuttle arrived as expected. What I hadn’t in any way anticipated was the discovery that the presenter from that morning preconference workshop was sitting across the aisle from me on the shuttle. So as he was heading back to the airport and I was planning on staying on the shuttle to return to the hotel, we had a few minutes to ride that circular route together while discussing his presentation, laugh over the idea that we didn’t have to send follow-up tweets (at least for the moment) to continue our conversation, and that his part of the circle that was taking him to the airport so wonderfully overlapped with part of my own circle back to the onsite conference conversation.

It may be months before we see each other face-to-face again. But already, as I capture this set of reflections late at night, I see the conversation extending further—along with the reach of the “conference site” via a follow-up email message he sent. And if he and I (and others here at the NMC 2015 Summer Conference) carry these extended-learning lessons back to our own learners, who can say when the conference will really end?

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Checking Out Disagreements and Learning by Re-Viewing Our Landscape

March 26, 2014

One of the many inspiring and great learning moments to occur during recent community meetings sponsored by the Mendocino County Library with support from their Friends of the Library groups came during a discussion of recently-installed self-checkout machines at the Ukiah Library.

The issue was superficially clear cut. Some people in the community appreciate the convenience self-checkout machines provide. Others absolutely hate this introduction of technology in a setting they value for its person-to-person interactions.

Ukiah_LibraryThose appreciative of the service specifically mentioned that they like being to locate library materials online, visit the library to pick up those materials, and handle the checkout transactions quickly (without having to ask for staff assistance). Others mentioned that checking out materials without staff involvement might appeal to teens and others who don’t want others seeing what they are borrowing.

Opponents to the recently-installed machines expressed unhappiness with the appearance of the tall, upright machines for a variety of reasons—and it quickly became clear that more than anti-technology feelings were at the foundations of their objections. They said they didn’t like the fact that the machines, placed just inside the entrance (where those about to leave the library could complete their final checkout transactions just before they exit the building), were the first thing they saw; having the devices there made them feel as if staff were being replaced by machines (something that is not happening, particularly since a local ballot initiative to provide additional funding for library services passed in November 2013 and library administrators have been hiring more staff members to support increased hours system-wide). Further exploration of the feelings leading to their opposition revealed a sense that staff was becoming less accessible to them and that they were concerned they were losing what is extremely important to them: the person-to-person interactions that are a valuable part of their library experience.

Fort_Bragg_Library--2014-03-24

Mendocino County Library staff and users continuing conversation after meeting in Fort Bragg branch

The inspiring part of all of this was that although people attending the meeting and two others held in Fort Bragg and Willits—one element in the library’s current strategic planning process—offered a variety of (sometimes conflicting) opinions on several different issues, there was little overt animosity expressed between meeting attendees. By providing forums for discussion about the library’s future and how the library could even more actively be part of an effort to address community issues, library staff and users were able to document what is important to them, see issues from differing perspectives, and almost immediately begin looking for ways to address some of the less difficult challenges they face.

A few of us, in fact, continued the discussion after leaving the Ukiah meeting by using a technique employed by a colleague who helps library staff improve library users’ experiences: each of us walked into the Ukiah Library with the intention of looking at it as if we had never before seen it, and paying attention to what caught our attention.

Whereas I had, during my first visit one day earlier, quickly walked past the self-checkout machines and immediately looked for (and found) staff—easily spotted both at a desk almost directly in front of me (across the room) and at a service counter to my left after I passed the machines—I spent more time after the meeting looking at the self-checkout machines and how they did serve as a visual focal point to anyone entering the building and looking only at what was closest to the doors. (Wonderfully enough, a staff member approached me while I was looking at the machines and initiated a conversation.)

Conversations with library staff members produced at least a few options they plan to quickly explore for those who fear the loss of that person-to-person level of attention library staff strives to provide: rearranging the entrance in a way that makes the self-checkout machines less of a visual presence; incorporating a few visual changes that tone down the bright lights that are part of the machines themselves so they won’t, as one critical library user commented, look like “slot machines”); and determining whether volunteers (who were unhappy to have been moved out of public service areas and placed next to staff in crowded workspaces in the staff area) would be interested in sitting at a desk in the entrance area to greet library visitors and help first-time users familiarize themselves with the self-checkout machines—a nice solution to two different challenges (the introduction of the machines and unhappiness expressed by volunteers in search of more opportunities to support the library while interacting with other members of their communities).

It was impressive to see the library representatives react so quickly to the concerns expressed; even if whatever changes they propose and implement don’t please everyone, the changes will have come from a position of listening and learning by re-viewing familiar situations and settings. It was equally impressive to see how positively members of the community interacted even when there were clear disagreements that they recognized they, in collaboration with library staff, will have to work to resolve together. And it was wonderfully refreshing to contrast the visible and obvious levels of civility, respect, and collaboration with what we so often see elsewhere when people talk at rather than with each other until conversations sink into confrontation and an inability to address what is important within and to a community.


Talking When It’s Time to Talk (and Remaining Silent When It’s Not)

March 24, 2014

Facilitating a series of community meetings for the Mendocino County Library system here in Northern California over the past couple of days has reminded me of the importance of talking when it’s time to talk and remaining silent when others are meant to have their moment to be heard.

Willits_Library[1]--2014-03-23Sharing ideas—whether those ideas are complementary or in direct opposition to one another—requires that we commit to levels of civility and respect often abandoned in public settings these days; it also requires that we be cognizant of the fact that we will never have as much time as we would like to express the ideas that we have—and that we willingly sacrifice some of the speaking time to which we feel entitled so that others have an opportunity to also be heard within the limited time available to all of us.

It’s a real pleasure and a source of inspiration to see those interested in helping guide the future of their library system rise to the challenge in ways that will serve the communities here in Mendocino County for months and years to come. And as I think about what library staff and library users will accomplish together because of their commitment to honestly documenting their likes and dislikes, their dreams and their concerns, and the resources and the challenges that will affect their ability to implement those dreams and address those concerns, I’m struck again by how the all-too-brief exchanges completed in a single encounter are simply part of a much larger, longer conversation rooted in what has come before and dependent on what occurs over a much longer period yet to unfold.

The same pleasure comes from recognizing that there’s a time to talk with friends and a time to accept the silences that occur when the myriad challenges in all our lives prevent us from communicating with each other—something that came to mind this morning as a friend apologized, by phone, for having been silent over extended periods during the past few months. Not that she needed to offer any apologies or explanations: I know, from her various postings in social media platforms and through the exquisitely-written blog postings she produces as time allows, that she is serving as caregiver as her mother struggles with pancreatic cancer. I also know that my friend has faced numerous workplace challenges requiring tremendous amounts of attention. So I haven’t been and am not at all surprised that conversations that at times develop and conclude in relatively short periods of time are currently extending over much greater periods.

But what is lovely about all of this as we communicate by phone and email and tweets and Facebook posts and responses to each other’s blogging on issues of importance to us is that the timing is not what matters. It’s the willingness to let those shards of conversation develop and blend together seamlessly in spite of what we might have previously thought of as interruptions. We’ve come to appreciate the idea that bits and pieces of an extended conversation, separated by much longer silences, provide lovely periods of reflection that simply deepen what we already share: commitment to nurturing friendship as meticulously as we tend a garden; a willingness to let conversations develop in their own time frame; and shared membership in a community of support that deepens with each additional exchange we have with each other and then share through the writing we produce privately and publicly. 

It’s what I love about the sharing that occurs with my friends, and it’s what I love as I watch members of the Mendocino County Library community—those who actively use and support the Library system as well as those who don’t yet feel drawn into what it provides—interact. These are signs of healthy, respectful, vibrant communities—the communities that help give life meaning and that provide assurance that we are far from alone in our commitment to building the world of our dreams regardless of the impediments we encounter.


Training, Creative Leadership, and Tuscan Evening Conversations

January 20, 2010

Trainer-teacher-learners never seem happier than when they are trying something new. Since repetition breeds boredom and boredom kills learning, we thrive on exposure to anything novel that deepens our ability to serve the organizations and clients with which we work.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that when you place workplace learning and performance professionals in leadership roles, you’re going to find people who combine their love of producing tangible and sustainable results with a never-ending search for new ways to approach routine challenges. Which is what happened again last night when ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) Mt. Diablo Chapter Board members held their first monthly meeting of the new year.

We knew we had to take a series of actions on routine financial and administrative matters, so we blasted through those items within the first 15 or 20 minutes of our time together. We then turned our attention to our continuing efforts to adopt a Chapter strategic plan—a year-long effort which is nearing completion.

But this was not to be a routine discussion conducted by a group of trainers-as-leaders sitting around a table. Because we try to conduct business in a way which provides learning opportunities for us, contributes to our development as a community of learners, and keeps our meetings lively and engaging, we decided to try something new—a way of practicing our ability to deliver elevator speeches (those brief and focused presentations which force presenters to effectively communicate in brief periods of time); we also wanted to be sure that everyone had ample opportunities to contribute to the strategic planning conversation.

The set-up was simple and adapted from something I had seen in an entirely different context: a conversation among long-time friends and neighbors on a warm summer evening in Vagliagli, a small Tuscan village in Italy’s Chianti region, many years ago.  In the original model, two older men sat on a bench directly outside the village caffè while the other men stood in a semicircle around them. Those standing men took turns speaking; when one spoke, he would move forward out of the semi-circle, closer to the two seated men, before making his point and then melting back into the semi-circle. The two in the middle occasionally punctuated this conversation with their own comments, as if to introduce a new theme into the chanting of a Greek chorus, then returned to silence as the others continued their discussion. I could see each man claiming the stage in several ways: the direct act of interruption. Or by stepping forward, closer to their seated friends. Or leaning in toward the center and extending a hand or arm as if to brush some air away to make room for their words. The semi-circle was far from static, and the connections between the speakers also appeared fluid. It was a dynamic version of engaged conversation unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere, and we decided to bring a variation of that Tuscan conversation to a San Francisco Bay Area meeting room on a stormy winter night.

It worked magnificently with minor modifications.

No one sat on the bench during our conversation or acted as a moderator; we formed a semicircle of equal participants, comfortably took turns—in a completely unchoreographed way—stepping forward into the center whenever we had anything to contribute to the fast-paced conversation. Within 15 minutes—more or less the amount of time we had given ourselves to complete the conversation—we had agreed upon a set of steps designed to produce a final draft of the strategic plan before our next monthly meeting is held. And we had fun in the process.

As we returned from our virtual visit to Tuscany and reseated ourselves around the table in our meeting room, we found ourselves in agreement that the experiment had produced the results we were seeking. It gave us a facilitation tool which we can use with other learners. And it had the added benefit of encouraging us to conduct business in a playful and innovative way where no voice went unheard. Where everyone contributed equally to the overall effort simply by adapting a well-tested method of communication into a setting that inspires us and keeps us engaged at the playful level we all cherish. And continues to help us develop as a group of trainers-as-leaders who depend on collaboration, rather than hierarchical methods, to make decisions on behalf of those we serve.


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