Technology, Trouble-shooting, and Seeking Creative Solutions: Wherefore Art Thou, Google Chat?

August 5, 2010

Having just finished reading Jaron Lanier’s good-natured rant against those who fall into the trap of mistakenly believing and acting as if technology is human (You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto), I caught myself falling into the trap.

Because I have been successfully using Google Chat as a tool for conducting interviews for writing projects as well as for delivering just-in-time learning, I’ve come to rely on it—which in and of itself is not a bad practice. The ability to type questions and receive written responses in a way that immediately produces a complete and printable transcript of interviews is a great way to assure accuracy and avoid misunderstandings.

It’s when it first began to let me down—note the insidious way the words “let me down” so easily sneak into this discourse, as if Google Chat were a friend instead of a sophisticated gadget—that I first felt the sense of betrayal usually reserved for sentient beings: “Oh, Google Chat, how could you let me down?” (Actually, the question was much more expletive-laden when it popped into my head, but there’s no need to be overly graphic here and offend both of you who are reading this.)

The problem began in the middle of an interview for the book Lori Reed and I are co-writing for ALA Editions. The colleague who was sitting across the country from me and responding to my typed questions seemed to be taking longer than usual to respond. After several moments of silence, I shifted my attention to an incoming call—which was, of course, from the interviewee to determine whether I had seen a response he had sent moments earlier. Realizing that our online conversation in the live chat box was showing up less than complete, we stayed on the phone as we attempted to continue, and soon realized that the onscreen version wasn’t conveying everything that was being stored in the transcript in our Gmail accounts. Relieved that we weren’t losing anything, but puzzled by the anomaly, we finished as quickly as we could, assumed that we had somehow angered the tech gods (clearly lower case deities), and soon went our separate ways. (An aside, out of fairness to Google Chat—see, there I go again, anthropomorphizing the tech tool; Lanier would be laughing at my plight if he could see me now—I should admit that the technology of fountain pens has failed me in the writing of the first draft of this piece; my pen just ran out of ink, forcing me to resort to the back-up technology of having a second fountain pen in hand. Let’s chalk it up to user error since I’m the one who forgot to refill the ink cartridge this morning, and return to the point of my own Lanierian rant.)

Returning to Google Chat a few days later for an interview with a different colleague, I warned the interviewee that we might need to use our (old technology) phones as a back-up if the earlier problem repeated itself. Which, of course, it did. With a vengeance.  About 30 minutes after we began, some of our transmissions stopped appearing in the live chat box, but continued to appear in the chat history. Then delays started occurring in the postings to the chat history—just a moment or two, but enough to be annoyingly disruptive. Then the chat history stopped picking up lines in no discernable pattern, but the live chat box retrieved some of what was missing from the transcript. If we hadn’t been laughing so much at our own plight, we probably would have wept. But we persevered by seeking the creative solution of combining the live chat, the incomplete transcript, and the phone conversation, and were lucky to eventually end up with the complete transcript we both needed.

This is where Lanier’s could have served as a voice of reason and good counsel if I had already been reading his book. I began turning to what he variously refers to as “the hive”—that faceless group of online collaborators whom we sometimes mistake for a single online intelligent entity rather than a loosely knit group of individuals contributing to an ongoing conversation—or  “cybernetic totalists,” or, more humanely, “the tribe.” I posted a brief description of the glitch and sought advice from others in a couple of very active discussion groups, but received no response. The hive, apparently, was asleep. I then tried to reach Google representatives online, and still had no success.

Turning to Yahoo! Messenger as an alternative, I at least was able to determine that my (non-sentient) computer was not preventing me from using any form of online chat as a way to continue my interviews. But I still haven’t completely resolved the problems Google Chat is causing. And I know Google Chat is not an enemy. Nor is it a friend. It just is. And I, apparently, am not a gadget. But I am a writer in search of solutions for the problems that the gadgets in my life present.

Now, back to the draft of that book in progress. With our without the gadgets.


Training, Leading, and Creativity

June 19, 2010

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert earlier this week wrote about how those who helped cause the worst financial crisis we’ve faced since the Great Depression remain “unfazed by reality” and are attempting to make it worse. They are, he suggested, creating reductions in the state and local services that are instrumental to building the economy.

He quotes a Northern California school district chief who, rather than seeking creative solutions to a terrible situation, is trying to balance a budget by laying off teachers and health aids, increasing the number of students within classrooms, decreasing the number of days students spend in school each year, and closing school libraries.

“Similar decisions, potentially devastating to the lives of individuals and families and poisonous to the effort to rebuild the economy, are being made by state and local officials from one coast to the other, “ Herbert writes. “For the federal government to stand by like a disinterested onlooker as this carnage plays out would be crazy.”

That’s all too familiar to those of us watching vacancies in businesses and nonprofit agencies go unfilled; watching first-rate trainer-teacher-learners losing their jobs or struggling to find work when the organizations for which they work lose their funding; and watching those who remain behind, employed and overwhelmed by increasing workloads and decreases in pay and benefits.

But we can’t afford to hunker down—we never could, and we certainly don’t have the luxury of pulling back now and waiting for things to improve before we seek creative responses to the challenges our communities are facing. The need for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance to step up to the plate and assume roles of leadership within the organizations we serve remains as strong as it has ever been. We need to position ourselves to be leaders seeking solutions rather than part of the crowd sitting so high in the bleachers that our voices cannot be heard and our actions cannot be seen.

If the companies, agencies, and groups we serve can no longer afford to hire outside instructors to meet our colleagues’ learning needs, we need to find innovative, inexpensive ways to draw from the expertise of those already within our organizations. If organizations continue to struggle to free up employees to attend training sessions with “release time”—an awful term when you think of it; it implies that learning is a perk, something less than essential to every employee’s efforts—then we need to find ways to provide learning opportunities which are stimulating, rewarding, productive, easy to deliver and attend, and offered in ways which keep our colleagues growing in ways that serve themselves as well as the organizations for which they are working.

There’s nothing magic about trying to incorporate learning opportunities into meetings which have already been scheduled for entire work groups, nor is there anything tremendously challenging about setting up optional learning opportunities during pre- and post-work hours as well as during (staggered) lunch breaks—something as simple as a series of “lessons at lunch” in which colleagues share valuable tricks and tips on how to better function in our ever-changing workplaces or view and discuss podcasts (webcasts) and other online offerings. Let’s set up LinkedIn discussion groups to allow for the sharing of learning opportunities when learners are ready to take advantage of those opportunities, not just when we are available to provide them face-to-face or in synchronous online learning sessions. Let’s use Skype and Google Chat and other innovative online resources to quickly reach those who are not geographically accessible. And let’s draw from the expertise available from organizations including the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and blogs such as ALA Learning.

Workplace learning and development remains as important as ever. We are in a position to make a difference even in the worst of times. For us to stand by as onlookers would, as Herbert said in the context of his recent column, be nothing short of crazy.

N.B.–Those attending the American Library Association’s annual conference in Washington DC are invited to join Paul and colleagues Maurice Coleman, Sandra Smith, and Louise Whitaker for a discussion of “Library Trainers as Leaders” on Sunday, June 27, 2010 from 10:30 am – noon in Washington Conference Center Room 201. Paul will also be participating in the ALA Learning Round Table Training Showcase that afternoon from 1:30 – 3:30 pm in the Washington Conference Center Ballroom.


Skype and Low-Cost E-learning Delivered at the Moment of Need

January 22, 2010

Delivering low- or no-cost e-learning at the moment of need seems to become easier every day through the use of Web 2.0 (online social networking) tools. Having written earlier this month about using Google Chat to deliver a dynamic, interactive, and effective online lesson to journalism students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I found myself experimenting on short notice with Skype as a live delivery tool yesterday for basic Excel and PowerPoint lessons.

The good news is that it worked; the even better news is that the immediate payoff for the learner might be a job she would very much love to have.

Our online learning experience developed after she received a call yesterday afternoon to let her know that she was being invited to interview for a position this afternoon. This appeared to be great news until the interviewer told her that the company needed someone with good Excel and PowerPoint skills. The interviewee/learner in this case had a basic familiarity with both programs, but felt less than confident that she could display proficiency during an interview. I assured her that I would be happy to meet with her face-to-face that evening to cover the basics of both programs, but scheduling conflicts and the fact that we live in different parts of the San Francisco Bay Area made that infeasible. We were at a momentary loss until a wonderful intermediary suggested that we attempt to conduct the lessons via Skype—which proved to be a godsend for both of us.

Making this work required little more than the (free) Skype connection; (inexpensive) webcams and audio-visual capabilities (built into her laptop, add-ons to my PC); a bit of creativity; and a lot of patience from both sides. It also obviously helped that we’re both comfortable with Skype and that she is an incredibly fast learner. We decided we would tackle Excel first, so established the Skype connection and kept the Skype window visible in the lower right-hand corner of our individual computers while we talked back and forth. We then each opened a blank Excel spreadsheet and created a sample budget together in the program so we could use and review the basic functions she would need to understand in her prospective workplace. Each time we completed something together, we would explicitly describe what we were seeing on our screens to be sure that we were creating identical documents. By the end of that hour-long session, we completed the rudimentary sample budget and reviewed the steps we had taken to create it, and she had a working document which she could use for further review, study, and explorations of the program.

After taking a break for a few hours, we returned later in the evening to create a sample PowerPoint presentation comprised of just a few slides with a Beyond Bullet Points approach so she again would learn by creating something useful and, at the same time, visually striking. Following the same procedures proved very effective; when she arrived for her interview this afternoon, she received compliments for having creatively crafted something which highlighted the products produced by her prospective employer.

Although many of us still remain convinced that there is a strong case to be made for face-to-face training in an onsite-online world, it’s equally clear that the term “face-to-face” is rapidly evolving as tools such as Skype create extremely effective opportunities for virtual (and virtually) face-to-face learning if trainer-teacher-learners are willing to experiment and those they help are willing to reach across the rapidly shrinking digital divide with their own equipment or through libraries and other gateways to Internet access.


(Work-Life) Balancing Act—If It Doesn’t Kill Us First

January 15, 2010

The most simple of innovations continue to open the world to us, as I was reminded again today while traveling across the country from my desk in San Francisco. Within a three-hour period, I participated in a wonderful online conversation with colleagues who are involved in and passionate about library workplace learning and performance programs; exchanged learning resources online with a Chicago-based colleague from the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD); and unexpectedly found myself drawn in live through a virtual back door to the American Library Association (ALA) midwinter meeting in Boston—an event I had hoped to physically attend before other matters intervened.

The conversation with library colleagues (now archived online) was through the latest T is for Training episode hosted by Maurice Coleman, Technical Trainer at Harford County (MD) Public Library. On the agenda was a discussion about how those involved in workplace learning and performance programs achieve—or struggle to achieve—a balance between work and life away from work. We also talked about how we create our own space for learning opportunities. One of the threads that ran through both conversations was the idea that the more we could integrate our work with the rest of our lives, the better off we seemed to be—as long as we could, at the same time, disengage ourselves from work on a regular basis. Viewing everything we do as a learning opportunity, for example, means that even when engaged in personal learning endeavors, we are continuing to develop skills which are also useful in our workplace endeavors.

As the session came to an end, a colleague who is attending the ALA midwinter meeting in Boston contacted me via Google Chat. She was listening to two people whom I admire very much and rarely see outside the opportunities offered by ALA gatherings, so she decided to relay a little of what was happening—while it was happening. The immediacy of the exchanges certainly was no replacement for actually being there, but it did prove to be a much more satisfying substitute than I would have believed possible. As I’ve written elsewhere, attending conferences serves as an incredibly powerful tool in building and maintaining communities, and even this brief online virtual moment of attendance contributed to that process for me.

Shortly after we ended the online chat, I returned to responding to email messages. Among them was one from my Chicago-based ASTD colleague, who had written to provide an update on some online resources we were both exploring. Noting that there was some overlap between various online discussion groups we have joined or are in the process of joining, we found ourselves musing, through a quick exchange of follow-up email notes, about how difficult it is to achieve a balance between using the various online tools available to all of us and not being overwhelmed in the process.

“All this technology is supposed to help us, right?!” she asked.

“Yes,” I agreed, “if it doesn’t kill us first.”

It didn’t kill me yesterday. It hasn’t killed me today. And I certainly don’t intend to let it kill me tomorrow. Above all, I’m grateful for the way it keeps all of us interacting within our various learning communities, and I’m delighted for the lessons that I’m acquiring through those cherished interactions.


E-learning, Google Chat, and Innovation

January 13, 2010

E-learning, as I wrote in an article for the eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions Magazine, is growing rapidly both in innovativeness and through its unique contributions to the entire field of training-teaching-learning. And it is becoming easy to try even for those with the fewest possible resources and only the most limited knowledge of how Web 2.0 (online social networking) tools work.

An experiment with University of Nevada, Las Vegas Learning Technologies Specialist Michael Wilder and his “Interactive Media Design” course for aspiring journalists in October 2009 offers just one example of how we can more effectively use Web 2.0 tools which are right in front of us. I had, throughout the year, been experimenting with colleagues and interviewees to use Google Chat as a way of conducting interviews for articles and academic research papers I was writing. What was most appealing to me was that the typed chat format produced usable transcripts of the interviews—a tremendous time-saver and a wonderful way to assure that quotes were accurate. Wilder, who had been impressed by the results after completing one of those interviews with me, later contacted me about the possibility of interviewing me via Google Chat for his onsite students so they could see and incorporate the technique into their journalism toolkits.

A brief chat about the project led us to carry it one huge step forward: we decided to treat the session as a formal e-learning lesson for the university students while demonstrating the ease and efficacy of online chat in reporting and other forms of writing. With a copy of the course syllabus in hand and with access to online postings made by students and some of the other guest lecturers Wilder had attracted, I worked with him to create a brief, prepared written introduction to the topic.

On the day of the class, I sat at my desk in San Francisco and arrived, via chat, in the Las Vegas campus classroom a few minutes before the session began. Wilder let me know when he had finished his face-to-face introduction, and that’s when I began transferring the prepared text, paragraph by paragraph, into the live chat window and sending it in a way that gave students a chance to read the words, piece by piece, on a screen in their classroom. That part of the process took less than five minutes, and we then opened it up to a live question-and-answer session during which Wilder typed in the students’ questions and they saw my responses as quickly as I could type and send them back. What was meant to be a 20-minute experiment lasted nearly an hour.

What followed was even better: Wilder posted the transcript of the chat and encouraged the students to post reactions on the class blog. Our online synchronous learning session continued asynchronously for several days, and one of the most encouraging responses came from a student who said she had already used what she had learned to complete an online interview via Skype.

It’s clear that we are moving far beyond the days when e-learning was comprised of little more than the posting of face-to-face lessons and learning resources onto a static website. With a little creativity and a lot of planning, we can easily use resources including online typed chat, Skype’s conferencing (and typed chat) capabilities, and even a LinkedIn discussion group created especially as an asynchronous online meeting place for learners in a particular course or workshop—an idea explored by my colleague Pat Wagner—to deliver learning that is creative, engaging, effective, and memorable.


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