CLA Conference 2022: Thanks for the Gifts

June 3, 2022

For three hours yesterday, I was shoulder to shoulder with a wonderful group of colleagues facilitating a highly-interactive advocacy workshop for people working with libraries and the communities they serve throughout California. These are people—Crystal Miles from the Sacramento Public Library, Mark Fink from  the Yolo County Library, Deborah Doyle from the Sonoma County Library Commission, and Derek Wolfgram from the Redwood City Public Library—with whom I interact on a regular basis via Zoom. We have—up to that moment yesterday morning when we were onsite for the preconference workshop here in Sacramento on the first day of the California Library Association (CLA) 2022 Annual Conference—been designing and delivering online advocacy training sessions through the CLA Ursula Meyer Advocacy Training Fund program I manage, and we will continue to be nurturing the online series that continues next week with a free two-hour workshop on presentation skills for library advocates.

But this was that wonderful moment when, for the first time since the COVID pandemic radically altered the way we all work, we were shoulder to shoulder in an onsite setting with a group of dynamic learners who were also relishing the opportunity to be off camera and physically (rather than virtually) together. There were plenty of tongue-in-cheek comments about how strange it was to be seeing each other’s faces without having those faces framed by the all-too-familiar Zoom boxes that provide us with (cherished) opportunities to interact online. And there was also the not-unexpected attention we continue to give to safety protocols—including those ubiquitous N95 masks so many of us continue to wear in a dual effort to avoid unintentionally spreading COVID or to contract it from unsuspecting carriers of the virus.

But when all was said and done, an underlying cause for gratitude and celebration was that all of us in that particular room were acknowledging that the gift of gathering offered by CLA was another step toward our collective commitment to creating “a new and better normal” rather than sitting passively while waiting for a chance to return to a (pre-COVID) “normal” that, in many ways, was not all that great for many of our colleagues and, frankly, many of us.

As we explored the basics of advocacy and how it is evolving in a world that, two years ago, was forced to switch quickly and (sometimes) adeptly to a world where online interactions needed to be a seamless part of our interactions and collaborations, we noted and celebrated some of the positive opportunities that have come out of the tremendous tragedies and losses COVID has brought to each of us. We even, at one point, held a brief, lively, tongue-in-cheek debate about the advantages and disadvantages of onsite vs. online advocacy. (Taking the side of arguing for the benefits of online advocacy, I was gleeful when Crystal, assuming the playful role of the judge awarding points to Derek and me as we went back and forth, ultimately and very generously called it a draw and observed that our new and better normal might be one in which we recognize the importance of incorporating onsite and online efforts into our advocacy toolkits.) And as the session came to an end, we were gratified to hear participants—our co-conspirators in learning—note the ways in which their time with us was inspiring them to seek new ways to become even better advocates for libraries and the communities they serve than they already were.

It doesn’t, however, end there. The shoulder-to-shoulder interactions extended into conversations on the conference exhibits-hall floor, moved outdoors as some of us took our lunches into the plaza outside the conference center so we could unmask and enjoy lunch and extended conversations. And, as always happens in these conference settings where friends and colleagues are unexpectedly waiting for us right around the corner, the conversations became richer and deeper as friends stumbled upon long-unseen friends and picked up right where they/we had left off.

Which is exactly what happened toward the end of the lunchtime conversation Crystal and I were having in that plaza on a warm, pleasant Sacramento afternoon. As Crystal and I were discussing another session we might soon be doing together, I felt the (reassuring) embrace, from behind me, of someone whose voice I could hear but couldn’t quite place. Relishing that unexpected embrace and the sound of a somewhat familiar voice I couldn’t immediately place, I just sat there and admitted “I have no idea who is hugging me, and I’m not even inclined to want to turn around and immediately find out who it is because it feels so good.” And when I turned around and saw familiar eyes peering out from above the mask that was covering the rest of that lovely face, it still took me several seconds to realize that the embrace and the voice belonged to one of my favorite up-and-coming librarians—someone I’ve known since the point in her life when she was still a student in a Master of Library Science program and I had an opportunity to introduce her to people who have helped shape her career.

You can see it coming: she joined the conversation for a few minutes before having to race off for an appointment she had previously set—but not before we agreed to reconvene later that afternoon to sit together outdoors over hors d’oeuvres and beverages that carried us through a lovely chunk of unplanned time we both had. And our leisurely conversation that led us from afternoon into the early evening hours before another colleague joined us briefly before each of us stepped away to join other equally lovely interactions and conversations which will, no doubt, continue today when all of us are back onsite for another day of learning, scheming, dreaming, and working with cherished colleagues to collaborate toward shaping the world of our dreams.

So again, CLA, thanks for the gift of regathering our community in ways that continue the work we have managed to do in online settings over the past couple of years—and will continue to do onsite and online for the foreseeable future. And thanks for the opportunity to carry us one step further down a road that is still very much in a state of development as we grow accustomed to, open to, and grateful for a world in which we no longer carry on, with any level of seriousness, silly arguments about whether onsite interactions are inherently better than online interactions, or vice versa. We are, step by step, embracing possibilities and relishing where those opportunities may take us—if we actively, positively are active participants in shaping the results those opportunities provide.


Giving Thanks 2021: ShapingEDU, Saying “Yes,” and Documenting Pandemic Lessons Learned

December 3, 2021

One of the words that leaves me feeling happiest is “yes.” The power of the word “yes” first became obvious to me when I was listening to a (horrible) guest speaker in a graduate-level management class proudly describe the sign hanging over her desk: “What part of no do you not understand?” “Yes” continually exerts a restorative power over me. It encourages me. It tells me that there is a bridge to be crossed successfully. A collaborative effort to be pursued. An acquaintance who is about to become a colleague/partner/collaborator and, with any luck, a friend.

Graphic by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

“Yes” is a word I consistently hear from members of the ShapingEDU community (operating under the auspices of—and with tremendous support and numerous “yeses” from—the members of the University Technology Office at Arizona State University) as part of their collective commitment as “dreamer-doer-drivers” committed to doing whatever they can to help reshape the future of learning in the digital age, One of the most recent (and significant) yeses I heard was from community members participating in the fourth annual ShapingEDU Unconference (July 20-23, 2021) as we were exploring a set of 10 wicked challenges in contemporary learning—with an eye toward framing them within a newly-created structure of five calls to action that would guide our work over the next 12 months.

Graphic by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

At the end of a series of discussions I helped facilitate on the challenge of identifying, documenting, and disseminating stories about how we are rethinking our approach to learning as a result of the teaching-training-learning experiences we and others have had since the pandemic began in early 2020, I posed a simple question to participants in that set of discussions: Are you interested in continuing this discussion after the unconference so we can find ways to implement what we have been talking about here?

The resounding “yes” from several of the participants led us to begin engaging in biweekly one-hour online meetings a few weeks after the conference ended, and those results-oriented conversations are continuing with the involvement of anyone who wants to join us. Our original unconference-session discussions, under the title “365+ Days Later: Post-Pandemic Best Practices,” are continuing under the newly-established, much more playful project name “Are We There Yet? (Capturing the Evolving New Now in Learning).”

Our newly-adopted name covers a lot of ground. It recognizes that we are stepping away from the idea that we are somehow savvy enough to have identified “best practices” when what we are really doing is documenting what seems to be working for now among our brightest, most creative colleagues; the approach here is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It recognizes that we are far from having reached an end-point in our explorations; this really is a situation and a challenge that is continually evolving in the way that all wicked problems continually evolve (which is part of what makes them so wicked). And, most importantly, by asking “are we there yet?”, we are tacitly admitting that we don’t ever completely expect to “get there” in terms of having definitively established a “new now” in learning; the evolving nature of what we face in pandemic-era conditions and beyond suggests that we will be working together for a good long time. And should we ever actually “get there” and recognize that our work in response to this challenge is finished, we probably, in the best traditions of ShapingEDU, will identify a new challenge in teaching-training-learning to pursue together.

There’s much more to this than having established a new name; our biweekly meetings have produced a (still-evolving) planning document that begins with a summary of the steps we plan to take through Are We There Yet?:

  • Each of us will reach out to members of our communities to draw them into this conversation and this project; the potential here is to quickly begin building a global coalition that engages in research through studies, with real-time support in how to respond to challenges.
  • We will draw upon our colleagues and resources at Arizona State University to build this coalition/project.
  • To get the word out that we are seeking collaborators, we will: 
  • Create an introductory video that is posted on the ShapingEDU site to disseminate this story of how we are telling the stories of others
  • Determine where we will house the stories so that they can be shared
  • Look for opportunities (synchronous and asynchronous; online and onsite; through webinars and workshops) to pair stories with lessons learned and facilitate discussions to broadly disseminate what we are observing and documenting; an example of this is initiative created by Are We There Yet? team member Tula Dlamini’s to have members of his community in South Africa come together in ways mirroring how ShapingEDU community members come together during annual unconferences) to explore and document what they are seeing
  • Work at a global level to find ways to integrate the various stories we have with those we find through our efforts.

the earliest activities we are pursuing are creating an online site, before the end of December 2021, for teacher-trainer-learners to submit stories about how they have successfully adapted their work to pandemic conditions; a highly-interactive online workshop to help participants create their stories about pandemic-era learning successes (possibly in January or February 2022); and an online mini-conference (in March or April) to bring teacher-trainer-learners together to find ways to document and share our learning-success stories. We are also working to call attention to first-rate resources, including the recently-published book Learn at Your Own Risk: 9 Strategies for Thriving in a Pandemic and Beyond, by ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence and Are We There Yet? team member Tom Haymes.

There is plenty to do. There are lots of opportunities to be developed. And all we need now is a “yes” from you indicating your interest in being part of the project—which you can do by contacting those of us listed as team leaders on the project page.

N.B.: This is the eighth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways and the thirty-second in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences.


Promoting Universal Broadband Access in Indian Country With H. Rose Trostle (Part 2 of 2)

June 23, 2021

This is the second half of a two-part interview conducted with H. Rose Trostle (they/them/theirs), Research Professional at the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, and a longtime advocate of broadband access in Indian Country. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

In your paper “Building Indigenous Future Zones: Four Tribal Broadband Case Studies,” you tell some wonderful stories about successful efforts to create broadband access within those four communities. What common elements string those success stories together?

H. Rose Trostle; photo by Christopher Mitchell

Within each of these communities, there are people who took up the challenge and saw opportunity there. They did not just focus on what they did not have, but on what they could do with better broadband access. This enabled them to write grants to show proof-of-concept projects, and they leveraged these initial successes to get larger funding opportunities. They also worked with the community to determine what the community needed and wanted. It was not about improving Internet access for the sake of improving infrastructure metrics, but about what community members wanted to do with better connectivity. The IT [Information Technology] and Planning professionals whom I interviewed really highlighted the importance of understanding the community strengths and how they could get to better Internet service with these strengths. They also were realistic about their financial plans, which meant they could develop networks that made sense for their communities.

A theme that runs through the stories in “Building Indigenous Future Zones” is “patience.” Success often required a decade or more of work and community-building at a variety of levels—which is something any broadband advocate needs to understand. Any tips to broadband advocates in how to develop and use that sense of patience to their advantage so they don’t become discouraged over the long period of time success requires?

It is important to stay grounded in the community, to be aware of how the community changes over time. There is always work to be done, and so it is good to focus your attention on the immediate needs of the community. This may be anything from distributing devices to coordinating with leadership for more opportunities. When funding opportunities are available, there is a better chance of success if plans are already in place and are “shovel-ready.” It is also helpful to stay connected to the wider digital-inclusion advocacy community to hear stories from across the country and to generate new ideas of what can be possible. There is always progress in little ways that might not first be evident, so it is necessary to take a moment to reassess how far you’ve come in a year, five years, or ten years.

Whose work in fostering broadband access do you admire—and why?

I have been really impressed with the work of Matthew Rantanen from Tribal Digital Village. He is always willing to speak with Federal and Tribal government officials on Tribal broadband. He is quite an advocate for broadband and seems to always be at the forefront of broadband advocacy groups. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to him a few times, and I have always come away with more ideas and more motivation to do the work that needs to be done. He is sometimes called the Cyber Warrior.

Marisa Elena Duarte, in her book Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet Across Indian Country, has a section on “Common Impacts of Tribal Broadband Deployment Efforts” (pp. 101-103) in which she suggests that broadband “champions” including Rantanen, Valerie Fast Horse, Brian Tagaban, Gregg Bourland, and J.D. Williams, have “endured failed attempts and slow starts” in promoting broadband access in Indian Country. She then adds “It is important to frame failures and slow starts in a positive way, as opportunities to learn how and where to improve operations.” Can you tell a story about how you or a colleague have framed failures and slow starts in a way that produced positive results?

The story that comes to mind is from my conversation with Jason Hollinday at the Fond du Lac Band’s Planning Division. They spent years at Fond du Lac trying to develop a broadband plan, and they kept being turned down for grant funding. These slow starts, however, made them recognize the importance of describing what the community actually wanted from a broadband network. The planning division got more feedback from the community members and realized that they needed to dream bigger for their network. The wireless network that they had initially proposed would not work for the whole community because of the terrain and the capacity limits. They needed a fiber network, and by learning from all their failed starts, they were able to write a successful grant to secure funding for a fiber network.

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

Locally—Talk to your government officials. Talk to your neighbors. Talk to visitors to your community. Find out what your community values in an Internet  connection. Get involved with local advocacy groups for digital inclusion to distribute devices or offer digital skills trainings. Learn more about different types of devices and different types of broadband technologies.

Regionally—You should encourage your local officials to work with other communities nearby. It is important to keep an eye on funding opportunities and to make sure that smaller communities are not left out of broadband expansion plans. Keep an eye out for state funding opportunities as well.

Nationally—Keep track of what’s happening at the FCC. Remember that your local officials know your story, but that national organizations often do not. Share your ideas and your thoughts because they are valuable. 

What have I not asked that you hoped to cover?

Something that is very important that we haven’t fully touched on here: broadband access in Indian Country is getting better. We do not have great data available, but it has improved over the years. And one of the reasons for that is Native Nations building their own networks or collaborating with other local governments or local cooperatives to build this infrastructure. This is an exciting time with the recent allocation of the 2.5GHz Spectrum to Native Nations. There is more opportunity than ever for  improved broadband access in Indian Country. We are all learning and building together.

An afterthought: The reference to Rantanen as “cyber warrior” made me smile and provides a nice thematic link back to <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://&lt;!– wp:paragraph –> <p><strong>An afterthought: The reference to Rantanen as “cyber warrior” made me smile and provide a nice thematic link back to my most recent broadband access interview—Gina Millsap, who jokingly referred to herself as a “broadband avenger.” Looks as if we are assembling a wonderful group of broadband superheroes. Thanks for your help on that effort. You may be on your way to becoming the Nick Fury of broadband! </strong></p> my most recent broadband access interview—Gina Millsap, who jokingly referred to herself as a “broadband avenger.” Looks as if we are assembling a wonderful group of broadband superheroes. Thanks for your help on that effort. You may be on your way to becoming the Nick Fury of broadband! 

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access in Indian Country With H. Rose Trostle (Part 1 of 2)

June 23, 2021

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with H. Rose Trostle (they/them/theirs), Research Professional at the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, and a longtime advocate of broadband access in Indian Country. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

H. Rose Trostle; photo by Christopher Mitchell

Let’s start with the basics: What first drew you to efforts to support universal broadband access and access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning?

I have always been interested in Internet access. I grew up in a rural community without great access to the Internet, but it was functional. I learned Latin via list-serv and early videoconferencing programs. I got more involved in advocacy around Internet access when I started my first job out of college as an intern at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. That organization focuses on municipal and community networks.

Can you tell a story that shows how lack of broadband access or lack of access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning made this personal for you or someone close to you?

When I was in high school, I took some online courses and would routinely experience Internet connection problems. In at least one case, this was caused by my neighbor down the road cutting through the DSL line. It was a rural area, and the infrastructure was not necessarily well-marked. The Internet connection was also not always functional enough to do video conferencing that was required. It made learning very difficult. Because of this, I have been very focused on expanding broadband access (high-speed Internet access) in rural and Tribal communities.

I’m fascinated by that story of a lost connection because someone cut through the line. Can you recall the conversation you had with the neighbor and how that either brought you together a bit or contributed to some sort of division?

My parents had a conversation with the neighbor, who was apologetic, but it did not bring us closer. He had been performing work in the right of way, which was not permitted at the time. He also did not necessarily understand the importance of having an Internet connection.

Point of clarification: was this in Indian Country, and, if so, would you mind describing the setting and the community a bit?

My hometown is south of Leech Lake Reservation, in northern Minnesota. It is a rural community that primarily relies on tourism of the local lakes. Some of the nearby communities are more agricultural or connected to the Iron Range with a history of mining. My hometown has a current population of about 500 people. It has some paved roads, but mainly dirt roads. The telephone and Internet service is provided by a cooperative, and they have, in the past five years or so, upgraded to a fiber optic network.

The example of the cut line is clearly a compelling and engaging example of what you and others in rural areas face, and your description of your hometown helps create a strong image of that community. What are some of the other short- and long-term problems and challenges people in Indian Country face in terms of accessing the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively?

Broadband access in Indian Country is not just a product of it often being rural and remote. Broadband infrastructure often relies on access to other forms of infrastructure, such as electric lines or cell towers. The short-term problem is determining what kind of technology makes sense for each community because Indian Country is not a monolithic whole. The challenges that are faced in Alaska are very different than the challenges faced in southern California. We need policies and programs that can respond to this diversity. The long-term challenge is infrastructure development generally in Indian Country, from the mapping and development of improved road infrastructure to the further expansion of water lines. We need to consider broadband infrastructure as just one piece of the puzzle and ensure that communities have the planning capacity to determine what works best. 

Another piece of this question is about what tools people need in Indian Country in order to use Internet access effectively. Some of this is basic digital literacy of how to open a web browser, how to recognize an email scam, etc. But there is also a need to recognize all the ways that people can use this to enhance what they do in their daily lives. I have heard great stories about local Facebook groups enhancing the sense of community and allowing for easier exchange of local goods and services in Indian Country. There is a need for devices beyond just cellphones—and these device needs may be different from household to household. My father much prefers a tablet or a kindle; it serves a different need than a laptop, because he’s not using the tablet for typing emails, just for reading. People need to know what options are available to figure out what best meets their community needs.

You’re making several very important points here, including one that centers on levels of engagement and empathy in any discussion about broadband access. To talk about “broadband” is to carry on a conversation that lacks emotional impact. To talk about “the ways that people can use this to enhance what they do in their daily lives” moves it into the realm of storytelling for engagement and inspiration. How do you routinely incorporate storytelling into your work as a broadband advocate?

In my work, I center the voices of the people that I interview and their perspectives on what matters to their communities. These stories form the foundation of the work that I do when I dive into data analysis or mapping. I focus on stories of solutions rather than of deficit. There are many stories about how Native Nations have built their own broadband infrastructure or improved cell service in their communities. But we often do not hear about them because they are local projects that the national media does not pick up on. When I do my work, I try to ask not just about the problems, but on what people have already tried or accomplished to change the situation, to change the narrative. Indian Country has a lot of stories of resilience and creativity, and broadband access is one of them.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Gina Millsap (Part 2 of 2)

March 23, 2021

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Gina Millsap, retired Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL) CEO and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

In your article “We All Need Broadband” [April 7, 2020], you mentioned that “some parts of our community don’t have quality, affordable broadband, especially in the rural areas of Shawnee County.” I’ve always been impressed by how you and your colleagues responded to community needs by setting up an entire online branch of the library to serve those who, living in rural parts of your service area, couldn’t easily visit a physical library building. Can you tell a story that shows how you and your colleagues overcame some of the challenges of Internet access to provide those online services?

There are a few things. TSCPL equipped bookmobiles as hot spots and has been providing technology training for the community for well over 20 years. What is somewhat discouraging is that the “Taming the Mouse” class is still offered. I say that because it’s still needed. And TSCPL installed about 170 public access computers in the early 2000s to ensure that people had the access they needed to communicate, apply for jobs, learn more about technology tools, and provide themselves with entertainment. I have become less enamored of these stopgap measures in the past few years. That’s because I think they’ve allowed other community leaders to think, “The library has this covered, so we don’t have to worry about it.”

So, a question—are you asking about challenges the library faced? Honestly, the big challenge for many libraries were two-fold: did they have the money to upgrade their technology and broadband services as needed and to invest in technology? Did they have the staff expertise to manage that technology and help educate their communities? TSCPL had both, and chose to make those investments. Many libraries didn’t have the resources to do that. 

Makes sense to me; thanks. Whose work in fostering broadband access do you admire—and why?

I’m appreciative of the work that SHLB [Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition] is doing and the fact that they are developing a strong coalition of key partners. They are giving a voice to public-sector needs that hasn’t existed before. I’m also appreciative of the work ULC [Urban Libraries Council] is doing with its Digital Equity Action Team that is working to educate and encourage library leaders to do more in this space than be service providers for the have-nots in our communities. There are a number of individual libraries in the U.S. and Canada that are engaged in excellent work—many of them as part of community coalitions. I’m more interested in those activities and think they will have a greater long-term impact than continuing to provide short-term services like circulating hot spots. Note I’m not dissing those efforts. Those are important because they are addressing immediate needs, but they’re not solutions. 

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

They should become advocates for universal broadband. They should hold their local- and state-elected officials accountable for improving access to broadband for all residents. They should participate in the reframing of this discussion as one of social equity, not technology. Thank the community leaders that are showing an interest, support them. Learn more about the issues—the technology, the legislation, the players in the public and private sectors. 

What have I not asked that you hoped to cover?

I think the main thing is that this is a community, state, and national issue. It’s not about consumerism, or not exclusively about that. It’s about ensuring all citizens have the tools they need to thrive in their communities. I also don’t want to appear as if I’m viewing the service providers as the antagonists, although that can happen—especially if municipalities are considering becoming providers. It’s going to take strong public/private partnerships to make this happen, but elected officials must be knowledgeable enough to write better laws, and visionary enough to understand that, like roads, electricity, and water, broadband should be viewed as essential infrastructure.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Gina Millsap (Part 1 of 2)

March 23, 2021

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Gina Millsap, retired Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL) CEO and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Our friend Maurice Coleman [a keynote speaker, trainer, and facilitator who also serves as host for the T is for Training podcast] has said that advocates and activists don’t necessarily “start out wanting to change the world. They usually start out wanting to change this…that one situation.” What was that “one situation” that first drew you to efforts to support universal broadband access and access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning?”

It actually started for me in the early 1990s, when I had the opportunity to work on the COIN (Columbia (MO) Online Information Network) project. It was the first ISP in the state of Missouri and was a collaboration of the University of Missouri, the City of Columbia, Boone County, the local school district, and the library I worked for—the Daniel Boone Regional Library. I was head of computer services for the library and also became the head of technical and end-user support for COIN because my library had the management contract for it. I saw, very early on, the power of shared online communication and information with community networking and what it could mean for public libraries, local government, and the community. Later, we included small private telephone companies who were often willing to let us locate modem pools in their facilities and whose owners could see the potential of the Internet before the big service providers figured out how to make money on it. 

Can you tell a story that shows how lack of broadband access or lack of access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning made this personal for you or someone close to you?

When libraries first introduced access to computers and then to the Internet, it became clear that there was and would be a huge divide in our communities and in this country—those who had access to technology and those who didn’t. The phrase “digital divide” is pretty hackneyed now, but when I saw how many people engaged with the library for the first time, it was an epiphany for me. I still remember a gentleman in his eighties—Mr. Belcher. His son lived and worked in Japan, but he was seldom able to connect with him because long distance calls were so expensive. When COIN went live, he was one of the first people to sign up. He had a Radio Shack computer with a 300 baud modem. He would call me with updates on how he could communicate via email on a daily basis with his son. It literally changed his life. 

Also, when I realized that no matter how many computers we installed in libraries, in the ‘90s and early 2000s, it wasn’t going to be enough, especially when PCs were so expensive and complicated. So it wasn’t just one story, it was how people saw this, wanted it, and ultimately needed it. It also continued and strengthened the equity work of public libraries. One of the reasons I’ve worked on broadband planning and advocacy so much in the past few years is a concern that libraries have inadvertently contributed to the digital inequity with the investments we make in digital content that isn’t available to those who aren’t digitally literate or who can’t afford the equipment or broadband services. The pandemic put a harsh spotlight on how flawed our systems are and how inequitable they are. 

That raises an immediate question: what are some of those flaws and inequalities? 

From my perspective, the flaws are attributable to the fact that local governments (and many states) haven’t owned this issue. Most of them have left it to the providers, whose business plans don’t align with all community needs. So, the gaps caused by where you live, how much money you have, how technologically adept you are keep getting bigger. I think internet should probably be regulated like a utility and the goal should be universal access.

Public libraries tend to be gap fillers. By that, I mean that needs like access to devices and broadband, have been left to that one institution while it should be a goal for all residents. There’s also a huge need for technology literacy. Even students who have grown up with computers aren’t necessarily information literate. We’ve focused so much on the technology that we’ve neglected what should accompany the use of these tools—critical-thinking skills, civic engagement, and understanding of what it means to participate in a democracy. The tools have become the endgame instead of a means to an end.

There also needs to be more action at the federal level—and I don’t mean just throwing more money at the big legacy providers who own all the fiber networks.

How can we work together to overcome the flaws and inequalities you’re noting here?

Planning and evaluation of the quality of services should be community-based. People need to be viewed as more than consumers. Part of our job as citizens is to participate in our communities, our country. To do that effectively, you need equitable access to the tools. So part of it is reframing this discussion to talk about investing in ourselves and our democracy instead of just upgrading to the latest Apple watch or Samsung phone. 

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Learning With Champions of Learning

February 24, 2021

Less than 15 minutes into the daylong “Champions of Learning” virtual conference hosted last week by colleagues in the ATD (Association for Talent Development) South Florida Chapter, I was already completely engaged and fully attentive.

This was a group that understood the importance of creating a welcoming tone and ambience at the beginning of any event, regardless of whether it is onsite or online. This was a group that didn’t overlook the small stuff behind any large, successful gathering. And this was a group that was using its commitment to engagement and interaction to be sure that participants would have few, if any, temptations to step away from “the room” before the event had reached its conclusion.

We often hear (and repeat) the idea that “the devil is in the details.” I would suggest that our ATD South Florida Chapter colleagues subscribe to the idea that “the angels are in the details,” and do everything they can to flood our virtual rooms with angels that beckon us to their gatherings. Those angels (volunteers, every one of them), during the weeks and days leading up to the conference, provided an appropriately steady stream of encouraging email messages designed to prepare participants—our co-conspirators in the learning process—for an event that focused on the content rather than the (virtual) setting and the technology needed to make that gathering successful. We were told that there would be a beginning-of-the-day session that included a “platform overview” for anyone wanting to explore the technology we would be using to interact with presenters/session facilitators as well as with each other. We knew the opening session would also give us plenty of time to interact with each other to, as much as possible, create the same levels of positive engagement we experienced at onsite gatherings before the shelter-in-place guidelines we have been following for nearly a year in response to the coronavirus pandemic pushed us completely into online interactions.

The series of pre-event email messages also included separate notes about each of the sessions, including the specific links we would follow to attend any of four breakout workshops and other events scheduled throughout the day; this gave us a chance to add those events and links to our own personal online calendars so, on the day of the event, we wouldn’t have to hunt through our archived email messages to find those direct links. And then, in an act that was possible because of the limited number of sessions, our “angels” resent those links, via email, shortly before each session began so that we could move directly from our email inboxes into the events. Recognizing that this would be an impossible and burdensome approach for organizers of much larger gatherings, I also recognize that this was yet another example of conference organizers thinking proactively of what they could do to make the virtual-conference experience—or any other online learning opportunity operating at a similar scale—as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.

Opting for a morning workshop on “Awesome PowerPoint Tricks for Effective Presentations” (led by BrightCarbon Director Richard Goring) after the conclusion of the opening session/platform review, I was expecting to pick up a few tips on how to up my game in PowerPoint. To say that the nearly two-hour session exceeded expectations would be to unforgivably downplay the breadth and depth of what Goring offered all of us: an overwhelmingly positive and impressive overview of numerous tips and tricks that included demonstrations of what he was describing, and the all-important assurance that we would have plenty of opportunities to return to an archived recording of the session so we could more fully incorporate what he was describing into our own work, e.g., how to mask and highlight elements of an image to more effectively use that image on a slide; how to quickly align disparate elements and images on a slide with one command rather than a series of actions involving every separate element; and locating and using sites (including pexels.com, pixabay.com, and lifeofpix.com) that provide numerous free images we can incorporate into our work.

Elane Biech

For many of us, the anticipated high point of the day was the combination of a celebration of local (South Florida) colleagues’ work as champions of learning—those who, by example, remind the rest of us of what our most innovative colleagues are doing to make learning more engaging and transformative—and a keynote address by Elaine Biech, who has inspired many of us through her numerous books and other work in talent development (aka teaching-training-learning). Again, the chapter angels turned a challenge—having to move what is normally an onsite celebration into the online conference environment—into a “champions of learning” success story by having each nominee for the 2021 Champion of Learning awards provide a short, from-the-heart video describing the project. The result was a celebration within the main celebration—our celebration of how engagingly our colleagues embraced the video-presentation format to describe the successful projects so that we were as inspired by the playfulness of the videos as we were by the actual content.

And then there was Elaine: Warm. Engaging. Inspirational, as always. And right on target with a presentation and interactions with conference participants that reminded us of how to “Develop Your Best Self and Tale Charge of Your Career.” When it comes to your career, she reminded us at one point, don’t be beige; be brilliant. And develop your best self. Which is pretty much where she left us by the end of that session, as we headed into an afternoon of additional learning and interaction centered on the champions of learning among us.

Following Anne Beninghof into her “Caffeinated Virtual Training: How to Keep Your Audience Awake and Learning” session, I again learned as much observing a presenter’s approach to presenting virtually as I did from the rich content offered. It was as if she were somehow reaching cross-country from Florida to where I was sitting (in San Francisco) and knew just when to switch things up—as she did, approximately an hour into the session, by telling all of us to get out of our chairs, move away from our computers for a moment, and simply move around to keep from falling into a complete state of torpor from having been sitting in that country-wide learning space for several hours. That, and her focus on making everyone in the room a co-conspirator in learning, produced another memorably playful session and led us to the final two sessions—one for closing remarks and door prizes, the other a virtual happy hour that left us right where we started several hours earlier that day. Reminded that virtual conferences, when well designed and well executed, are no hindrance to fostering a sense of community and engagement. Reminded that spending time with our colleagues in online environments is, in and of itself, a learning opportunity we cannot afford to miss—particularly in pandemic, social-distancing times. And reminded that, when we observe and promise to build upon the positive experiences we have with our colleagues in online learning environments, we and the learners we serve are the real winners.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-ninth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences. 


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Awe, Night Skies, and Inspiration

August 16, 2020

Loudly-rattling windows in our home suggest a raging conversation between those windows and the howling wind. An unexpected downpour of rain starting at 3:30 a.m. offers relief to our thirsty garden and sends water flowing in streams though gutters along the street. Lightning ripping through the San Francisco fog illuminates the west-facing rooms of our home, looking out toward the Pacific Ocean. Thunder careens across San Francisco Bay, roars through the city’s numerous hills and valleys, and reverberates for several very long seconds before fading, only to be followed by more bursts of lightning and thunder.

Memories flow from and through the unexpected, rare summer storm here—one unlike any I can recall experiencing in nearly 35 years of living in the city. Memories of being awakened long before dawn to watch and hear and revel in similar primal screams and bursts of nature from hotel rooms in Austin while I was there to attend conferences with cherished colleagues long before any of us imagined a time when adapting to shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to a coronavirus pandemic would become a way of life for us. Memories of pleasurable, complete immersion in and surrender to similar storms blazing across mid-summer skies in the Tuscan hills surrounding Florence and Siena. Memories of being so overwhelmed by a mid-evening autumn deluge accompanied by lightning and thunder while I was driving on a poorly-lit rural road outside of West Palm Beach, Florida, that my wife and I decided to pull off to the side of the road and wait it out because we couldn’t see far enough to continue driving in those conditions.

A word comes to mind as those memories flow into one cohesive moment: “awe.” And that, in turn, inspires another memory: first encountering the work of one of my favorite essayists, Scott Russell Sanders, more than a decade ago through his book A Private History of Awe. Being completely captivated by his recollection of being wrapped in his father’s arms during a booming blowing thunderstorm and being there to see a magisterial oak “snapped like a stick, its top shattered on the ground, a charred streak running down the wet gray stub of the trunk,” I raced through that book. And have, many times since then, returned to reread large chunks of that lovely, literary exploration broken into sections under the subtitles “Fire,” “Air,” “Water,” and “Earth.”

“Awe” is not a word we seem to hear or use very much these days. “Anger,” “discord,” “strife,” and social and political “gridlock” are much more frequently the terms and topics around which our conversations are centered. We frame conversations as either-or choices around “personal rights” (e.g., the “right” to not wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic) or “public health” (the need to slow the spread of the coronavirus so hundreds of thousands of people won’t die—as is already the case).  Or around the need to “flatten the fear” because we have already allegedly flattened the pandemic (a proposal hard to defend at a time when the death rate in hotspots in the United States have again been increasing). “Awe” is not something I experience when I see colleagues inaccurately using the word “fear” rather than the term “social responsibility” or “commitment to community” in response to our choices to wash our hands, wear masks, and, as much as we can, engage in social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus; some of us believe it’s among the options we can be pursuing to collectively work together to address a tragically challenging situation that has already killed more than 775,000 people globally and more than 170,000 in the United States in less than a year.   

“Awe” is not a word we seem to hear or use very much these days. “Anger,” “discord,” “strife,” and social and political “gridlock” are much more frequently the terms and topics around which our conversations are centered. We frame conversations as either-or choices around “personal rights” (e.g., the “right” to not wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic) or “public health” (the need to slow the spread of the coronavirus so hundreds of thousands of people won’t die—as is already the case).  Or around the need to “flatten the fear” because we have already allegedly flattened the pandemic (a proposal hard to defend at a time when the death rate in hotspots in the United States have again been increasing). “Awe” is not something I experience when I see colleagues inaccurately using the word “fear” rather than the term “social responsibility” or “commitment to community” in response to our choices to wash our hands, wear masks, and, as much as we can, engage in social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus; some of us believe it’s among the options we can be pursuing to collectively work together to address a tragically challenging situation that has already killed more than 775,000 people globally and more than 170,000 in the United States in less than a year.   

I feel sadness—not awe or fear—when I see a friend lose his mother to COVID-19 and know that if we had all taken a different approach to the coronavirus, she might still be alive. I feel sadness, disbelief, and frustration when I see a skeptical member of my extended family ended up close to death in a hospital intensive care unit because he didn’t see the need to take any sort of protection to avoid succumbing to the coronavirus, and am further saddened and frustrated knowing he is now facing the possibility of a year-long “recovery” period that may still leave him permanently disabled. And I feel sadness, disbelief, and frustration knowing that another skeptical member of my extended family who, after testing positive, blithely ignored the likelihood that she would spread the virus, so ended up gifting it to two additional generations of relatives in that one household. What makes these up-close exposures to the human impact of COVID-19 as well as to the economic tragedies so many people are suffering difficult to accept are comments I read from wonderful friends who have a much different view of the situation than I do—insisting that we’re making a mistake by not letting nature run its course so that we, collectively, develop herd immunity (a term that bothers me tremendously because it seems to dehumanize the situation by hiding individual deaths behind a term that groups individuals into “herds” rather than members of our communities). Their contention is that we’re causing more harm through economic devastation than the coronavirus causes through illness and death. From their perspective, the high unemployment rate—impacting millions of people—could have been avoided and still could be remedied if we reacted to that rather than reacting to the “small percentage” of deaths caused by COVID-19.

So, we’re stuck on opposite sides of what appears, for now, to be an uncrossable chasm: millions of Americans devastated by loss of jobs/income compared to “only a small percentage” of people who have died (775,000 globally/170,000 in the U.S.) as a result of contracting COVID-19—their perception that “only a small percentage of people” will die from COVID-19 and my perception that hundreds of thousands of deaths is a national/global tragedy requiring the best, most creative efforts we can pursue collectively to try to avoid additional deaths and avoid the pain and suffering millions of people are facing in the United States because we can’t, legislatively or in any other way, find approaches that address both sides of that awful divide.

Hours have passed since that pre-dawn combination of wind and lightning and thunder drew me to a window, where I stood transfixed. And months have passed since I was, along with so many others, drawn into a much-altered world I had not taken the time to ever contemplate. I’m back to the concept of “awe” and all that it suggests about us being able to notice—and to react to in the most productive, positive, inspired way possible. To remember that there are forces far bigger than we can ever hope to be. To remember that the momentary, tragically painful challenges that produce life-changing results (e.g., loss of cherished loved ones regardless of how small or large a percentage of our communities those people were; loss of the income needed to survive in a wealthy country that can’t find ways to guarantee minimum subsistence for every member—every member—of its communities; acquiring permanent disabilities that in their own way obviously add to the economic challenges we are facing) require that we set aside the differences that divide us so we can work together to find solutions based on our belief that we are stronger and more awesome together than we will ever be alone.

It is now midafternoon. The windows are no longer rattling. The lightning and thunder from that hours-long storm have finally subsided. Clouds and the sun seem to be engaged in a playful dance that sends dappled light upon leaves shimmering in the maturity of a midsummer afternoon. Offering hints of the beauty that surrounds us. The beauty that needs to be nurtured to be sustained. The beauty that reminds us that numbers tell only part of the story of what sometimes makes our world awe-inspiring when we look to something bigger than ourselves and, against all odds and against all likelihood of failure, embrace it.

–N.B.: This is the nineteenth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Adventure Camp

July 27, 2020

Note from Paul: Tom Haymes, my fellow ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence, posted this set of Learning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp reflections on his IdeaSpaces site earlier today, and has given permission for me to share them here. My own reflections are posted elsewhere on my blog.

It’s a scary world out there right now. Pandemics, politics, and economics form their own kind of “PPE” for which we have to all gird ourselves with a different kind of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) than those who are fighting Covid. Like those heroes, we have to face our fears and slay often unseen and ephemeral monsters. And like them our greatest enemy is ourselves and the systems human societies have created. To face this enemy we need a group of diverse heroes, each with a small piece of the map forward in their possession. That is exactly what came together last week at Learning[Hu]man, a summer camp unlike any I’ve ever been to before (or was it?).

The subject of monsters and adventuring seemed to come up again and again this week. This is ironic because the first time I was exposed to Dungeons and Dragons was at a summer camp in West Texas in 1978. That was, ironically, also the first time I was confronted by the real monsters our society struggles with even today. One day a counselor intervened to stop a group of locals from the neighboring town who were harassing some teenage female campers. That counselor happened to be black. That night a long line of cars and trucks streamed into the camp to send a message. We called the sheriff. He was with them. A hundred scared teenagers spent the night in the camp mess hall. Fortunately, the counselor they were seeking had returned to Austin and the night passed without further incident.

I have been reflecting back on that night a lot lately. The last six months have felt a lot like being confined to a mess hall while a messy world swirls around outside the door and the forces of reaction make forays into the camp of civilization. Unfortunately, in our case, the monsters aren’t going home. There are too many and they live among us.

ShapingEDU has always been a community shaped by optimism. Optimism, not for technology, but for the human creativity it unleashes. This week that community resembled nothing more than an adventuring party assembling for perhaps our greatest challenges. If there was a consistent theme that emerged it was that the human challenges far outweighed the technology ones. It became clear that it was time to strap on our magic swords and dust off our spell books to slay the human prejudices that perpetuate inequities in both our society and within the very educational institutions that we have devoted our lives to.

Like every adventure party I’ve ever been a part of there was the initial meeting of the minds, usually over a beer at Lev Gonick’s (aka Mike Callahan’s) virtual tavern. New networks were formed and maps were laid out. Bryan Alexander quickly asked us to imagine what kind of monsters we might face and taught us how to challenge them. The campfires on Digital Equity, Social, and Racial Justice and Digital Education and Tribal Rights showed us some of the real monsters of inequity and access that lock out whole groups of potential wizards whose voices are stifled before they learn their first spell, depriving us of an army of creative forces. My own session took us questing and showed how we could see all kinds of stories as a form of hero’s quest and, perhaps most importantly, that others are likely to perceive those quests quite differently. Our scouting parties reimagined quests from a History class, to preparing our faculty for Covid Fall, to reimagining a Liberal Arts graduate program. You can see their work here.

Conversketch Illustration of Digital Narratives Session

One of the key things I took away from my early years with Dungeons and Dragons was an understanding of the essential nature of good systems design. As Dungeon Master (DM) it was your job to craft a system that channeled the quest. DMs forget at their peril that the system has to work for the world to make sense. On Friday night Ruben Puentedura turned us into Dungeon Masters by asking us to create systems to overcome the plague of black swans raining down upon our kingdoms. His parties were given a choice of ten alternate future university spells and then assigned a second. He then tested our systems by throwing an unexpected swan into our midst. This generated creative explosions that forced us to pull together strands from our week of preparing and training. Common strands that ran through virtually all of the responses were the strengths to be found through diversity and community augmented by the magic of our technology and imaginations. We quickly saw through how these could guide us through the whitest of waters.

At every step along the way this week it was clear that the demons that we face, collectively and individually, are distinctly human. Nature, whether in the form of disease or climate, merely acts as a catalyst for exposing the cracks in our systems, from poverty to educational access to a lack of inclusion. It’s funny how our societies resemble a bad (pre-CGI) science fiction film in which all the aliens and monsters are really humans in disguise.

Taking on these systemic and conceptual demons requires a hard look in the mirror and the ability to try on different faces. Technology provides the mirror and the masks. It can be used to hide but it can also be used as a powerful “seeing” spell. Digital technology is at its root about being able to see, whether that be in the form of crunching vast swathes of complex data in order to see patterns in the spread of disease or rethinking systemic paradigms through realistic simulations that force different lenses upon us.  This week at Learning[Hu]man was fundamentally about seeing the world as it is and what it can be. It showed that as a group we have powerful magic including spells such as “Light,” “Network,” and “Show” that are critical in understanding the nature of the systemic monsters we face. At the end of the day, our community recognizes that the power of our magic is to give that magic to others.

This week we assembled a diverse group of adventuring parties, ready to ride forth and tame the systemic dragons. For in a final irony, it is clear that the systems themselves are a technology. They are dragons to be ridden, not swans to be slain. Our systems need to have a technological and conceptual “Light” spell thrown upon them to reveal them as Ourselves, to be reconstructed as only we can imagine them to be.

Tom Haymes, July 27, 2020


Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Merging Work and Play and Learning

July 25, 2020

The Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp Mess Hall is relatively quiet this afternoon as I sit here writing this fourth in a series of “letters home from camp.” The camper-teacher-trainer-learners at this week-long online conference for dreamer-driver-doers committed to shaping the future of learning in the digital age are sleeping in very late. Or taking virtual nature walks to reflect on all we have seen and done and learned together this week. Or chatting, in small groups, around the virtual campgrounds via access to our Slack channels. Or sitting in the Camp multiplex movie theaters watching Camp Movies (archived recordings of some of some of the archived recordings of sessions recorded throughout the week and available on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel). Or taking an online immersive dive into the ocean to explore another lovely part of our world. And a few of us are taking advantage of some unscheduled time to create pages on the Camp Learning(Hu)Man virtual scrapbook, as I just finished doing.

 

Even at its most quiet, this is community in motion. A community committed to fostering and engaging in lifelong learning—learning that never stops and learning that responds to current events and wants and needs—and even social injustices that prevent some within our communities from having access to the best of the lifelong learning we all are seeking, creating, and promoting. A community engaged in a seamless interweaving of work and play and learning online as well as onsite or in blended (onsite-online) environments that was already taking place within the ShapingEDU community long before we began following shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic); we have, if anything, only become more intensely creatively, innovatively, collaboratively immersed in exploring, fostering, documenting, and embracing examples of productive approaches to learning within the larger context of what is happening in the communities we inhabit.

So here we are on Saturday afternoon, mostly taking time for reflection after a stunningly intense, inspirational, exhaustive and regenerative week of learning with and from each other; continuing our creative endeavors individually and collectively through contributions to the virtual scrapbook and through interactions in those Slack virtual hallways; and thinking ahead to our final Camp Gathering Around the Flagpole Monday morning to try to make sense of all we’ve said and heard and done so we can transform the myriad narratives flowing all round us into some sort of plan for action for the weeks and months ahead of us until our next large-scale community gathering.

[graphic image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

The entire challenge of trying to shape a cohesive, community-wide narrative out of all the learning threads we have been working with is, as a cherished friend and colleague noted yesterday, “challenging.” My narrative—very much based on a commitment to connecting representatives of learning organizations (and the learners they serve) with representatives of workplace organizations that will work with those learners in their capacities as employees/managers/supervisors/CEOs—can and probably should be different from the narratives being shaped by many of our colleagues. That personal narrative, for me, is what my colleague Kim Flintoff (a self-declared “provocateur, educational change agent, futurist, speaker, researcher, writer, teacher, catalyst, and sustainability advocate”) and I consistently attempt to facilitate as “mayors” (aka committee chairs) in the neighborhood (aka committee/taskforce) committed to connecting education and the workforce of the future; it’s what we highlighted during our Learning(Hu)Man session yesterday on connecting learning and workplace representatives. But that’s just one of the narratives flowing through Camp Learning(Hu)Man and ShapingEDU overall. There are narratives/neighborhoods around bolstering intergenerational leadership and learning futures; personalizing learning; recognizing all forms of learning; promoting access & equity in learning; embedding data-driven approaches in student success; humanizing learning, innovating artificial intelligence applications, building constellations of innovations, and fostering immersive learning. There is a community-developed communique providing an outline for dreaming, doing, and driving the future of learning—a document that has provided the underpinnings of much of what we’ve done together this week while camping out together. There are projects and resources in various stages of development. 

And, most of all, there is the continual commitment to drawing new campers into the campgrounds with us. If that appeals to you, please join us in the ShapingEDU community by requesting access to our online community in Slack.  

–N.B.: 1) This is the eighteenth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the fourth in a series of posts inspired by Learning(Hu)Man.


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