The Fourth Place Revisited: Creating an Instant Onsite-Online Social Learning Center (Part 2 of 2)

September 26, 2012

It’s not often that we have the opportunity to produce learning objects as part of a learning opportunity, but that’s exactly what an engaged group of learners (library directors from the state of Virginia) achieved last week during the final two-hour session of the Library of Virginia’s two-day Directors’ Meeting in Richmond, Virginia that Maurice Coleman and I helped facilitate.

By the end of our time together Friday morning, all of us not only had collaborated to create a blended (onsite-online) social learning center that had onsite participants seamlessly engaged with several online colleagues in discussions about the future of libraries and learning and learners, but we had also used the wisdom of the group to capture and produce a viewable record of the conversations that took place via Twitter by using Storify.

How we achieved those results as a temporary community of learners drawn together and supported by Library of Virginia Continuing Education Consultant Cindy Church and her colleagues provides a wonderful example of social learning at its best and most creative. It also provides a wonderful case study of how any trainer-teacher-learner can promote and nurture what we’ve been calling the new Fourth Place in our world—social learning centers that can exist onsite, online, in onsite-online combinations, and even in unexpected places, 39,000 feet above the surface of the earth, when the conditions for social learning are in place.

The creation of our onsite-online social learning center last Friday was a response to necessity: those library directors clearly needed something far different than what Maurice and I had planned to offer, so the two of us, after our Thursday afternoon sessions with them, completely threw out what we had prepared and, instead, spent Thursday evening contacting colleagues who are active and innovative users of social media tools in libraries and others settings. The results were spectacular, and improv was at the heart of much of what we accomplished.

Our new plan for Friday morning was to take the existing meeting room space in the Library of Virginia there in Richmond and transform it into a setting where social learning could occur. We decided to begin with a Twitter feed (#lvadir12, for Library of Virginia Directors’ Meeting 2012) that would connect onsite participants to Bill Cushard, Buffy Hamilton, David Lee King, and Jill Hurst-Wahl so that our online colleagues, well-versed in social media tools and learning, could explore options with the onsite participants. That Twitter  feed, aggregated via TweetDeck, was projected onto a screen in the front of the room; it was also visible to the many onsite participants who followed and contributed to it via their own mobile devices—a stunning example of how quickly we all are adapting the Bring Your Own Device movement into our workplaces and other venues.

Maurice and I also, on the spur of the moment, decided to take advantage of onsite wireless access to connect onsite participants to our online partners via a Google+ Hangout—a plan that had to be abandoned when the wireless access proved to be inadequate for what we were trying to do. Even that disappointment, however, provided a useful learning experience: it helped everyone to not only see and understand the advantages and challenges of trying to incorporate social media tools into learning, but also to see how easy it is, in the moment, to change course and use what is available to produce effective learning in a social context. As Maurice himself observed, we learn as much from our failures as from our successes.

Anyone reading the Storify transcript—it appears in reverse chronological order, so requires that we go to the final page of the document and work out way back up to the top to follow the flow of the exchanges—quickly obtains a sense of how dynamic this sort of learning can be. While there was an overall structure to the discussion, there was an equal amount of on-the-spot adjusting to themes that turned out to be important to the onsite and online learning partners. All of us were learning from each other—an achievement well-documented in that moment when we tweeted out a request for help in capturing the Twitter feed and immediately received Buffy’s suggestion that Storify would produce what we needed.

There was also a clear focus on being engaged in something more than an ephemeral discussion to be forgotten as soon as it was finished. The final segment of the conversation produced commitments by the library directors themselves as to what they would do to apply lessons learned when they returned to their libraries.

Among the offerings:

  • “We will ask our community how we can help them.”
  • “We will ask people how they want to hear from us.”
  • “We will designate staff time to learning-opportunity development.”

And in a wonderful moment of laying the foundations for the concrete results that the best learning opportunities can produce, one discussion group said “We commit that we will post on our listserv, within six weeks, one thing we have done from this session”—thereby assuring that this particular social learning center will remain in existence for at least six weeks after participants formally left the physical site to return home.

If that sounds like a surefire way to demonstrate how social learning centers can produce tangible, sustainable results, then we all will have benefitted from the creation of this particular example as we look for ways to create and nurture our own. And we’re well prepared to further explore the concept of social learning centers as a new Fourth Place (after the first three places—home, work, and social settings where members of a community informally gather) in libraries or any other setting where learners gather in Intersections to enjoy each other’s company while learning from each other.


The Fourth Place Revisited: When Social Learning Center Learners Take the Lead (Part 1 of 2)

September 26, 2012

You know you’re onto a major learning success when your learners seamlessly and playfully take the lead—which is exactly what happened late last week, halfway through the Library of Virginia’s two-day Directors’ Meeting in Richmond, Virginia.

Cindy Church, continuing education consultant for the Library, had brought Maurice Coleman and me in to facilitate a few sessions on the future of libraries and learning. Maurice engagingly initiated our portion of the program with “A Blind Leap of Faith: Keeping Your Library Thriving in the 21st Century.” His presentation Thursday afternoon provoked plenty of positive conversation onsite; it also, in the spirit of what we were doing, reached beyond the walls of the auditorium to be viewed by more than 800 people online after SlideShare’s managers highlighted his PowerPoint slide deck on their home page.

Maurice and I picked up where his initial session ended that afternoon by moving into a presentation/facilitated discussion, “Learning to Meet the Future: Libraries Developing Communities,” that was designed to introduce the library directors to the idea that libraries are serving as a new Fourth Place in our world—social learning centers. A major learning point was to be the idea that libraries often fill this need, but don’t call much attention to it, so are missing a chance to more effectively be at the center of the social learning process that effectively reaches and serves significant numbers of people in life-changing ways within their communities.

But a funny thing happened on the way to our denouement Thursday afternoon. It became clear to Maurice and to me, during our end-of-the-day wrap-up with the directors, that even if they hadn’t been familiar with the jargon of social learning and social learning centers, they were already engaged in using libraries as centers of formal and informal learning. And as if to prove how quickly they were assimilating the idea that learning is social, continual, and playful, one of them incorporated the term they had just picked up to tweet out a reminder about a gathering that was about to take place over drinks in a local hotel bar: “Social learning environment at Hilton Garden Inn 5:30.”

Since social learning often benefits tremendously from flexibility and in-the-moment course adjustments, Maurice and I were delighted to see that some of the formal discussions carried over to that social learning environment at the Hilton Garden Inn. And we were also extremely curious about two elements of what we were seeing: what connected those library directors so effectively to learning, and what we could do, overnight, to abandon what we had originally planned for the Friday session so we could more effectively meet those learners where they were and support them even more in their own work.

It didn’t take long to find the answer to the first question: directors with whom we spoke mentioned that Cindy and her colleagues in the state library (the Library of Virginia) had done quite a bit to foster a culture of learning throughout libraries statewide—again proving that if we have the right person or people in key positions, magic occurs. It’s not that we haven’t seen other colleagues in libraries express a commitment to learning—it is certainly visible here California through efforts supported by our state library, and the American Library Association’s current strategic plan goes a long way in fostering a mission statement that includes a commitment to “promotion and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.” What does not yet appear to be so common is the explicit commitment to social learning expressed and demonstrated so overtly by those Virginia library directors last week.

As for the answer to our second question—how to quickly produce an appropriate learning opportunity the following morning since what we had planned was clearly not going to be sufficient to meet this group’s needs—it came later that evening. Focusing on the idea that the library directors would benefit from hands-on experience in shaping and using a social learning center, we tossed out our original workshop plan and decided to turn the Friday morning session into an exercise of creating an impromptu blended (onsite-online) learning center that facilitated a conversation about what the directors could do upon returning home to their own libraries. All we had to do was find some online participants on the spur of the moment.

Next: Redesigning an Entire Social Learning Opportunity Overnight


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