Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Voice, Collaboration, Virtual Choirs, and Rising Up

October 10, 2020

There’s a heartbreakingly beautiful story to be told here—the story of how online interactions involving music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism are creating light and fostering positive action in times of darkness. The story of how online collaborations are drawing us together at a time when “social distances” are overwhelming so many people. And the story of why the arts remain an essential part of the human experience.

The story is rooted in the realization that there is something primally comforting and deeply inspirational about musical collaboration involving the human voice. It flows from the recognition that singing together can be a language of community. Creativity. And hope. Singing together and hearing others sing together in our online/social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world are proving to be ways—for those of us not facing barriers to our access to the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively—to build or further develop strong social connections rather than succumbing to isolation and social distances. Singing together and/or hearing others sing online are ways of using technology to overcome rather than to create distances, to bring us together in ways that allow us to build upon our shared interests and social needs rather than being dispirited by challenges that appear to be too large to tackle.

My own introduction to the concept of virtual choirs and online performances came a little more than a year ago (in May 2019), in a pre-coronavirus world, when I was lucky enough to see and hear virtual-choir pioneer Eric Whitacre demonstrating and embracing us with the power of global online choral collaborations in a closing keynote session presented during the ATD (Association of Talent Development) annual International Conference & Exposition (in San Diego). Hearing Whitacre describe and demonstrate what was involved in creating and nurturing virtual choirs and producing online performances was world-changing; it was a first-rate example of what we foster when we use technology as a tool and focus on the beauty of our creative spirit in the arts and many other endeavors—including training-teaching-learning, which draws the thousands of ATD members globally together.

Thoughts of virtual choirs and online performances receded into the inner recesses of my mind for several months. Then, in March 2020, we entered the “three-week” (now seven-month) period of sheltering-in-place guidelines put into place here in a six-county coalition within the San Francisco Bay Area and, soon thereafter, in other parts of the United States, in response to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic on our shores.

It was a recommendation from friend/colleague/co-conspirator in training-teaching-learning Jill Hurst-Wahl that rekindled my interest that month in virtual choirs and what they suggest in terms of online collaborative possibilities for all of us: the recommendation to watch a virtual-choir rendition of “Helplessly Hoping,” performed and recorded by Italy’s Il coro che non c’è (The Choir That Isn’t There). As was the case with seeing and hearing Whitacre’s virtual choir a year earlier, the experience of hearing and seeing the students in Il coro was transformative. Encouraging. Emotionally-engaging. Inspiring. Tremendously moving. And it made me want to hear more. Which led me to the work of Canada’s Phoenix Chamber Choir. The playfully creative online performances of musicians involved in a live virtual “coffee house” concert, complete with audience interactions via a conference backchannel, during the ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man weeklong summer camp in July 2020 for dreamer-doer-drivers working to shape the future of learning in the digital age. The virtual sing-along videos (including two versions of “Vote Him Way (the Liar Tweets Tonight”) created by singer-songwriter-satirist-activist Roy Zimmerman and his co-writer/wife Melanie Harby. And so many more.

But it’s Zimmerman’s work that most effectively shows us how we might use social media and online interactions to create that intersection of music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism. Because he is engaging. Because he is part of that ever-growing group of first-rate artist-activists who are exploring online alternatives and environments in response to the loss of the onsite venues and interactions that were their lifeblood before the coronavirus arrived. Because he is effectively using Facebook and YouTube, through his “Live from the Left Coast” performances, to not only to stay in touch with and further cultivate his audience, but to nurture relationships between those audience members through his use of online chat within those platforms. Because he is among those participating in the new “Trumped By Music” project initiated by a Dutch/American team “that wants to provide a platform for anti-Trump musicians to be seen and heard… We want to provide maximum exposure for this passionate and vocal community! Our aim is to help our featured artists gain exposure for their message, as well as stimulate musicians to send us new content.” And because his work is reaching and inspiring others equally committed to using music in deeply-emotional ways to foster social change—as was the case with Wilmington Academy Explorations teacher Sandy Errante and her husband, Wilmington Symphony Orchestra conductor Steven Errante.

The pre-coronavirus virtual meeting of Zimmerman and the Errantes is centered around Zimmerman’s incredibly moving song “Rise Up” (co-written with Harby). It was inspired by the students who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School [Parkland, Florida] on Valentine’s Day in 2018 and who turned their experience into the March for Our Lives/Vote for Our Lives/Never Again movement that, six weeks later, inspired marches in more than 500 cities around the world. His rendition of the song as a duet with Laura Love was included on his Rize Up CD in 2018. And that’s where the story becomes very interesting, as Sandy Errante explained in a recent email exchange we had:

“My husband and I had heard Roy perform at the Unitarian Church in Wilmington before. We loved his satire, his energy, his passion, his humor and his music. And then…

“One Thursday evening after my rehearsal with the Girls’ Choir of Wilmington, I was on the way home when our local radio station, WHQR, started advertising an upcoming concert at the UU with Roy. The radio announcer, George Sheibner, played a song I had not heard before—Rise Up. As I drove along listening, I was captivated by the lyrics, the music, the harmonies and suspensions, and the message. By the end of the song and the final chorus, I was in tears. I knew the Girls’ Choir had to sing this piece. But how to make that happen? 

“I reached out to my husband, who was on his way to a rehearsal with the Wilmington Youth Orchestra. Steve is an arranger and a composer, and I needed him to know right away that this was something we absolutely HAD to do. He asked me to find a recording of the song. I did. And I hunted down the contact info for Roy, using my contacts at the UU church. Once we had permission from Roy to proceed, we started imagining this song as told from the children’s perspective. We altered the lyrics just a bit [changing it from the point of view of adults addressing the Parkland survivors to the point of view of the students themselves]. Now we had a song that the girls could sing from their hearts. We had a youth orchestra that could accompany. We had a performance in the making.­

“After all was said and done, we concurred, this IS their world and this was their song.”

And it remains our song—our anthem—in this pandemic, shelter-in-place world, through its availability on YouTube (with the girls’ choir) and on the CD. It’s there for them—and for us—as we continue seeking light and inspiration while living through devastatingly tragic times. Times of great division and conflict. Times that are, for many, overwhelming. And, as is often the case in tragic, divisive, conflict-ridden times, times that are also inspiring tremendous levels of creativity and opportunities for collaboration designed to foster positive change—which we nurture through our support and engagement in any and every way we can.

Update: Roy Zimmerman and Melanie Harby have posted a piece about the collaboration that produced their recent “My Vote, My Voice, My Right” video and included links to other virtual collaborations of that particular song: https://www.royzimmerman.com/blog/my-vote-my-voice-my-right.

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


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: The Clivias Are Blooming

April 2, 2020

The clivias are blooming in our atrium and in our backyard. They don’t care that, for the moment, our world is again completely topsy turvy. That we are sheltering in place in an effort to lessen the impact of what is obviously a terrible situation. That our loved ones (and we) are losing loved ones, and that the losses are increasing exponentially. That some of us are struggling just to make it through another day.

And yet…and yet…as difficult as it is to struggle through our current circumstances under shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m finding plenty of inspiration from colleagues around the world. The ones, like George Couros, who are making time to blog honestly, rawly, and inspirationally about how they are reacting and what they are doing to support efforts to recognize that this is an opportunity to focus on “creating a ‘new and better normal’” rather than simply looking forward to entering “a new normal.” The ones like Jill Hurst-Wahl, whose continual postings of links to fantastic resources along the lines of the article, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, on “Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure” as well as much-appreciated links to humorously thoughtful (and thoughtfully humorous) sites like the Pluto Living Facebook page with its (nearly) daily Pluto Service Announcements from Pluto the schnauzer and her online co-conspirator, Nancie Wight, remind us that “social distancing” doesn’t have to mean being distanced from friends and colleagues. The ones, like Laura Fothergill, who combine their family-oriented social-media postings with links to thoughtful observations about what it means to currently be working remotely: “You are not ‘Working From Home’, you are ‘At your home, during a crisis, trying to work’,” which is from a tweet by Suparna Chaudhry

Perhaps that is one of the keys to surviving, if not actually thriving, during the current separations: links. The word “link” has never felt more multi-faceted or encouraging, for it not only applies to what connects us to resources online, but it also reminds us of the cherished connections we work diligently to nurture and maintain with family, friends, and colleagues—during this time when we cannot be together onsite as well as during times when “distancing” is not an overarching theme. “Link” can be the quick-and-easy act of pushing a button on a computer or mobile device to reach something we want to reach, or can be the much more meticulous and rewarding act of carving out time to make family, friends, and colleagues the center of our universe in ways we often forget to do.

Which brings us back to clivias. In spite of all the demands on our time, we’re still finding ways to nurture them, so the clivias are blooming. Because we tend to them. Because we nurture them. Because we care about them. And we, inspired by their beauty, try to create as much beauty in our world as we can at a time when sadness threatens to overwhelm all thoughts of beauty. The beauty that comes from reaching out to someone by phone or online tools just to say “hello,” or ask how that person is doing, or offer condolences. The beauty that comes from members of communities reaching out to laugh together or share a link to something that will make us laugh. Together. Collaboratively. In friendship and support. With a commitment to finding ways to work together rather than allowing ourselves to be torn apart even further than we were before “distancing” became the tremendously unsatisfying word of the day. And with a commitment to apply everything we have ever learned into our efforts to better function—short-term as well as long-term. We see this on a daily basis in the way members of our various and varied onsite-online (blended) communities reach out to each other via social media posts as well as by taking the time to set up and participate in online sessions via Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, and other videoconferencing tools, as well as through some of the other tools we routinely use, e.g., Slack.

It’s all about our commitment to maintaining our relationships—in good times as well as in times of overwhelming adversity. Keeping our commitments to each other. To the communities which we serve. To the individuals who are essential elements of those communities. In a world that appears to be much different than the one we knew a month or a year ago. But is the one that’s left to us. A world where the clivias are blooming.

–N.B.: This post is an expanded version of something I wrote for my Instagram and Tumblr accounts, and is the first in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online.


Changing the World Using YouTube and Podcasting

December 5, 2018

If the thought of reaching your current or prospective community of activists and other collaborators via YouTube or podcasts feels daunting, start simply, openly, and honestly—with something you know—as Phillip “Brail” Watson does. Watson, on his Facebook “Our Story” page, describes himself as “a classically trained vocalist, cellist, songwriter, rapper, clinician, producer and Berklee College of Music graduate” who wants to “change the world through music.” His extensive, well-developed, engaging presence on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms fully integrates his commitment to music, spirituality, and social change in ways that make it seem like the easiest thing in the world to do. And it can be for you, too, if you pursue it as diligently and purposefully as he does.

If you spend time with Watson online by exploring his use of social media, you begin to see and appreciative the possibilities available through the effective use of a platform like YouTube. His stunningly moving TEDxTopeka talk “Giving Back” on YouTube begins with a brief, beautiful, sung prayer—obviously an element of his work that flows from the core of all he is. He then quickly pulls you in by admitting “I’m going to do this all wrong”—an admission that challenges and begs you to stay with him to see where he is going in the 18 minutes he has under the standard TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk format. He asks you—just as he asks the live audience he is addressing in that recorded talk—to walk with him; to see what he sees, from his perspective; and to “feel the places” where he has been—in the hope that you, as he has, will come to understand the value of giving something back to the community you cherish. It’s an invitation to be part of something positive, something greater than you already are or might ever be—and it is an effective call to action because Watson draws upon his highly-developed use of language, poetry, musicianship, and inspirational skills to integrate all of those elements into the wonderfully moving video that documents his TEDxTopeka talk in 2015.

This is about far more than making and placing content on a social media site; it is about using everything you have developed and will continue to develop to effectively reach audiences and inspire positive action. It is about developing a body of work that weaves through everything else you do. It is about integrating that work in unexpectedly creative ways with other work you do and other opportunities you pursue. It is about transforming the (sometimes) simple act of recording and sharing your thoughts on YouTube and through podcasts into an act of inviting engagement with people you may never actually meet—and recognizing that you don’t have to physically meet someone to very much be drawn into their causes and being inspired to action by them, or inspiring them and drawing them into yours.

Describing the unexpected sequence of events that led to me finding and being inspired by Watson provides some lessons worth learning:

  • Although you want to have a specific audience in mind as you prepare a YouTube video or podcast, you will have no idea initially of how broad and diverse an audience you will eventually reach and inspire.
  • A presentation given in one venue, e.g., the TEDxTopeka talk, that is recorded, posted, and shared online, gains an extended life far beyond anything you could have provided if you had simply given that presentation and then moved on to something else.
  • The efforts you make to reach your audience produce only a small part of what is accomplished when others see and share your work; those efforts offer the same expansion you see when others retweet your tweets or share your Facebook posts in ways that produce rhizomatic expansion of what you thought might be little more than a moment lived and then forgotten.

My initial unplanned step toward finding Watson online was taken when my Topeka-based colleague David Lee King and I were doing another in our series of interviews for Change the World Using Social Media, my book-in-progress for Rowman & Littlefield. I had asked David for examples he had seen of how YouTube was part of the process of promoting positive change within a community. He did not mention Watson; instead, he responded with a description of a magnificent activist’s-dream initiative, Go Topeka’s Momentum 2022, which is described on the project’s website as “a comprehensive, actionable, and consensus-based plan…to make Topeka-Shawnee County a better place to live, work, play, and do business.” King pointed me toward a two-minute video that very much impressed me: “Topeka & Shawnee County Have Momentum,” posted on YouTube by the citizen-activists in the Greater Topeka Partnership. It seemed to have everything that a video call-to-action should have: high production values, a clear message (that Topeka has lots to offer and can become even better if community partners work together to build upon its existing strengths to chip away at its weaknesses), and an obvious call to action—until I heard from Jill Hurst-Wahl during separate conversations for part of the book.

There is no gentle way to express what Jill noted after viewing the video I had so enthusiastically shared: it didn’t have many images of people, but the images included in the video did little to hint that nearly 25 percent of Topeka’s population is African-American or Hispanic. That’s when Jill found and offered a different video version of the topic: Watson’s “Topeka Proud” video, posted on Vimeo. Same city, much different viewpoint—and one that aligns with parts of the Momentum 2022 initiative calling for efforts to foster and promote greater diversity and inclusivity in Topeka. And seeing what Watson had produced led me to seek out much more of what he was doing—on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere.

This provides another opportunity for a reminder worth repeating: you can certainly choose one specific social media platform that best suits your goals as someone attempting to foster positive change in your community, but creating an integrated presence over multiple platforms tremendously increases the chances that you will reach the largest possible group of community partners to help you reach those goals.

As you move into a more complete exploration of YouTube and podcasts as tools you can use in your efforts, it’s worth noting that there is at least one more encouraging piece to the Go Topeka/Topeka Proud story: a second video, posted on YouTube by the Greater Topeka Partnership eight months after the first one appeared, pushes the story forward with a much broader cast of characters featured: the ethnic diversity that is obvious through the inclusion of Enimini Ekong (Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Site), Leo Espinoza (College and Career Advocate, Topeka USD 501 Schools), Marcus Clark (senior pastor, Love Fellowship Church, East Topeka), Angel Zimmerman (Zimmerman & Zimmerman, PA), and others. This is clearly a community that is effectively and creatively working to promote the most positive results it can imagine.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the fifteenth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


How We Work: Asking the Right Questions—And Then Doggedly Pursuing the Answers

September 29, 2017

Don Bennett, a friend whose work and play has included making music and architectural models for a very long time, once suggested that we make the mistake of thinking that work and play are two different things.

“Man,” he suggested with an impish gleam in his eyes, “is never happier than when he is picking berries.”

Don Bennett

And although I don’t combine the work and play of picking berries nearly as often as I should, I was thinking of Don again this week when a colleague interested in expanding his writing and training efforts asked a series of questions about what leads some of us to the successes we have. The implicit short form of my answer was to share Don’s advice to make work and play as seamless as possible. The longer version took the two of us down a path of thinking about simple, yet essential, moments and actions that move us closer, ever closer, to the world of our dreams.

When I think about what has given me the moderate successes I’ve had using my writing and teaching-training-learning skills, I think about the unwavering long-term commitments I’ve made to and the decades of effort I’ve put into developing those skills—something Malcolm Gladwell captured so well in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Writing, for me, is something requiring a very serious, meticulous, dogged approach—yet it also involves a great deal of playfulness.

I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. I wrote daily news stories for the campus newspaper at UCLA, which was tremendously valuable experience in terms of learning how to write quickly, effectively, and engagingly (not that I always do that). Writing seems to be one of those passions embedded in my DNA: it gives me pleasure, drives me to continue working, and connects into virtually every other endeavor I pursue.

The same is true for me in my teaching-training-learning endeavors, the instructional-design work I do, the work I do as a social media strategist, and the consulting work that is fully integrated into nearly every moment of my days of work and play.

I also, as I told the colleague who was asking questions, benefit tremendously from ongoing, first-rate mentoring from very supportive colleagues. Without the support of those fabulous, generous, altruistic mentors—some who are peers, some who are much younger than I am, and some who have many more years of experience than I’ve managed to acquire—I wouldn’t have the breadth and scope of knowledge that I attempt to bring to work and play. With all of this goes a lifelong commitment to learning, accompanied by a rich, ever-expanding community of friends and colleagues who are there to support and encourage me on a daily basis.

This carries us quite a way down the road of responding to my colleague’s questions, and leads to the all-important question of how to identify topics that would be well-received by my (ever-changing) target audience. My own approach involves lots of reading (my friend/colleague/mentor Jill Hurst-Wahl consistently teases me about my inability to carry on a conversation without dropping titles of the numerous books I seem to always be devouring; I can hear her saying “See? See? What did I tell you?” as she gleefully points to my mention of Outliers earlier in this piece). Lots of listening. And, most importantly, close attention to the reactions my work produces (positive as well as negative). A simple process I follow involves identifying ideas that seem worth spreading (very TED of me, right? my influences are showing again), then researching them, discussing them face to face and online with colleagues, and writing about them. If an idea proves productive, I continue working on—and with—it; if it doesn’t, I put it on a back burner to see if something might come of it later in a different context or with a different approach.

A commitment to continue learning is obviously a key element of the approach I take. Every informal and formal learning experience has proved useful to me at some level. Earning a B.A. in Political Science nourished my passionate interest in politics, social movements, community, collaboration, history, and positive social change. My M.A. in Arts Administration (a degree for nonprofit arts organization administrators) gave me transferable business skills that continue to serve me to this day. My MLIS (Master of Library & Information Science) degree more closely connected me to what was and is happening in Library Land—one of the primary countries in which I travel. And the numerous workshops, webinars, online courses (including connectivist MOOCs), and conferences I attend reinvigorate me while also reminding me what it feels like (in the best and worst of learning situations) to be in the learner’s seat; this helps keep me from subjecting others to what has troubled me about how we approach training-teaching-learning-doing.

A final, essential element that seems to produce wonderful results is to be flexible, responsive, and attentive—to listen and then react. Many years ago, when I was looking for opportunities to write more book reviews than I was producing at that time, I unexpectedly met the editor of a monthly book review publication. We were at a conference and were chatting about the possibility of my submitting reviews to him. Without thinking, I blurted out the question, “What unfilled niche can I fill for you?” That led to a number of very interesting book review opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise sought, and taught me the importance of asking that question of any potential or current client. Very simple. Very effective. Very playful. And it produces enough work to leave me with time to go pick some berries if that’s where heart leads me.

N.B.—Thanks, Jeff Marson. for inspiring this piece through your wonderful questions.


When Words Fail Us (Revisited): T is for Training, Augmented Reality, and Mobile Learning

December 11, 2015

Hearing T is for Training host Maurice Coleman unexpectedly and creatively expand the definition of augmented reality during a discussion on the show earlier today made me realize, once again, how inadequately our language and nomenclature represents our quickly- and ever-evolving training-teaching-learning world.

T_is_for_Training_LogoAs Maurice, Jill Hurst-Wahl, and I were talking about the intersection of lifelong learning and individual learning events, I was describing the wonderful experiences I had as a trainer-teacher-learner attending the LearniT! Technology Adoption Summit here in San Francisco earlier this week. What I was describing to Maurice and Jill was how LearniT! Vice President of Professional Development Jennifer Albrecht had, in her sessions, very creatively used every inch of the learning space and had, in providing a steady stream of additional resources, inspired me to pull out my tablet a couple of times, log into our local library’s online catalog, and place reserves on those books so I could continue my learning after leaving the classroom. And that’s when Maurice made the connection: by expanding the classroom, in the moment, by connecting it virtually to the library, I was augmenting the experience in a significant way that further extended the learning as well as the learning space.

Augmented_Reality_at_NMC_2015_Conference[1]–2015-06-08

Most of us familiar and intrigued with current definitions of augmented reality would, up to that moment, have envisioned the term as referring to overlays on a computer, or mobile-device, or wearable technology screen that provide additional information about an environment we’re visiting or studying. But I think Maurice was spot on with his observation: using my tablet to augment Jennifer’s list of resources by accessing them through a library catalog is no less significant than what we have, up to this moment, pictured when discussing and exploring the concept. And I could just as easily have augmented that particular learning reality by using the same tablet to find ebook versions of those works and downloading them immediately.

Engaging in this augmentation of a definition of augmented reality made me realize how inadequately the term itself reflects the levels of augmentation we already are taking for granted. It also made me return to other situations where commonly-used terms no longer adequately suggest the nuances of what those terms suggest.

Augmented reality via Google Cardboard

Augmented reality via Google Cardboard

The term mobile learning, for example, suggests the (often-wretched) formal-learning modules that allow us to continue our learning asynchronously on mobile devices rather than having to be in a physical classroom or other learning space. But many of us have come to acknowledge that those formal-learning modules are only a small part of a much larger mobile-learning landscape that includes a wide range of possibilities. Mobile learning can include just-in-time learning that is no more challenging than using a mobile device to find an online article, video (e.g., a TED talk), or other resource that quickly fills the learning gap. It can include participation in a Google Hangout via mobile devices. It can include exchanges between onsite and online colleagues reacting to learning opportunities in conference settings. It can include an informal exchange of information between us as learners and a colleague, mentor, or other learning facilitator who teaches us something via a mobile phone or tablet at the moment when we need that level of “mobile learning”; and given that informal learning provides a huge part of workplace learning, we clearly are underestimating the reach and significance of mobile learning if all the term conjures up for us is the image of formal learning modules viewed on a mobile device.

In the same way, the words “libraries” and “classrooms” are beginning to overlap and expand in interesting ways as libraries feature stimulating state-of-the-art learning spaces that are at times indistinguishable from other state-of-the-art learning spaces. The words “librarian” and “teacher” and “learning facilitator” are also beginning to represent interesting and nuanced variations on professions with increasingly overlapping functions and goals.

This is not meant to suggest that our training-teaching-learning nomenclature is completely obsolete. Quite to the contrary, it connects us to very deep roots from which incredibly dynamic branches are developing. And one of our many challenges is to not only observe and acknowledge the growth of those branches, but to help shape them in small and large ways—just as Maurice did, in the moment, during our latest T is for Training conversation.

N.B.: An archived recording of today’s episode of T is for Training remains available online through the T is for Training site. 


Rethinking Digital Literacy: Collaboration, Experience, and Riding Digital Waves

July 27, 2015

There is no denying that playing and working in a variety of digital environments can sometimes feel akin to trying to drink out of a fire hose. There is also no denying that there’s another way to approach digital/online interactions: as if they produce magnificent waves well worth riding to a warm and welcoming shore—which pretty much describes the experiences I had riding rather than drowning in digital interactions last week as our ALA Editions four-week online course “Rethinking Digital Literacy” continued.

Rethinking_Digital_Literacy--Course_GraphicWhile the learners I am supporting—and have, as an extension of what I have learned elsewhere, begun referring to as my “co-conspirators” —spent the second of four weeks trying to define and determine ways to foster digital literacy among those we serve, I continued engaging in my own efforts to see where a blend of onsite and online interactions involving a wide range of friends and colleagues might take me—a tremendously satisfying exercise that culminated in a richly rewarding conversation with T is for Training colleagues at the end of the week.

Plenty of disparate elements had to come together for that particular wave to carry us all to shore, and they seemed to coalesce around a very specific digital-literacy skill: an ability to collaborate across numerous platforms and environments. The experience began early in the week as a local (San Francisco Bay Area) colleague (Clark Quinn), with whom I tend to interact more frequently online than face to face, was confirming lunch plans with me. Taking advantage of an hour-long trip via public transportation to reach Clark, I read several recent posts on his blog, where he consistently and engagingly addresses training-teaching-learning issues of interest to those of us working with adult learners in workplace learning and performance (staff training) settings. The punch line to one of his most recent posts—“…it’s not about content [in learning]. It’s about experience [in learning]. Are you designing experience?”—led to an intriguing conversation over lunch as I carried that online resource and inspiration into our face-to-face environment.

T_is_for_Training_LogoBut it didn’t stop there: I sensed there was plenty more to explore, and suspected a perfect venue drawing upon our digital literacy skill of collaborating within digital environments was back in the online sandbox I share with colleagues through Maurice Coleman’s biweekly T is for Training conversation/podcast—a program designed for those of us involved in library training-teaching-learning efforts. When Maurice and our T colleague Jill Hurst-Wahl agreed that Clark’s post and the question regarding content vs. experience would be a great topic for discussion, I notified Clark to see if he wanted to join us; he and I also continued the conversation briefly via exchanges in the weekly #lrnchat tweet chat (with an entirely different set of colleagues discussing tech trends) the night before the T is for Training was scheduled to take place.

Initially indicating he wouldn’t be available, Clark ultimately was able to join the conversation a few minutes after that episode of T began, and the results were every bit as stimulating as any of us might have hoped. A core group of the T “usual suspects” quickly welcomed Clark and interacted in ways that brought his non-library learning and development expertise to the forefront of the conversation; Clark, in turn, dove into the conversation in ways that helped him better understand how designing experiences in library training-teaching-learning efforts paralleled as well as differed from what he has seen elsewhere.

etmoocBy the end of the hour-long exchange, many things were obvious. The cross-pollination that occurs through interactions among members of various online communities—particularly the kind of online connected-learning communities with which I’m familiar—can bring benefits to everyone involved. This variation on hyperlinked learning—comprised of playing, learning, telling stories, transparency, participation, harnessing user-generated content (in this case, Clark’s blog post), and making connections, as Michael Stephens has suggested—benefits tremendously from our willingness to carry a variety of approaches into our continually evolving and ever-increasing tech tools. This combination of cross-pollination and hyperlinked learning produces notable results, small and large: T, for example, may have picked up a new usual suspect (if Clark is able to join us for additional conversations); Clark may be continuing the conversation in an upcoming Learnlet post to carry it to a larger audience; I’m certainly continuing this set of explorations further via my own blog and a tweet chat I’ll join later this week with #etmooc (Educational Technology & Media massive open online course) colleagues; and I will carry it back to the learners/co-conspirators in Rethinking Digital Literacy in the hope they can use it with their own colleagues in a number of different countries.

Ultimately, this level of collaboration, designing learning experiences, and riding rather than drowning under waves of digital interactions and resources creates exactly the sort of learning experience I pictured when I read Clark’s blog post. More importantly, it supports our efforts to hone that very important digital-literacy skill of collaboration that, at its essence, supports the way we live, play, and work positively, creatively, and enthusiastically in a hyperlinked world.

N.B.: This is the third in a series of reflections inspired by our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course.


On a Bit of a Rant: Motivating Our Learners…and Ourselves

April 3, 2015

“I was on a bit of a rant the other day…” may not seem to be the most auspicious way to begin a dynamic, wide-ranging, and inspiring conversation about fostering self-motivation among learners. Nassau Library System Outreach Services Specialist Andrea Snyder, however, may have hit upon a training-teaching-learning truism when she made that admission earlier today on the latest episode of Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training—the unspoken truism being that we are often motivated (to rant as well as to learn) by our levels of passion about a given topic or situation.

T_is_for_Training_LogoSnyder’s alleged rant—and the entire T is for Training discussion—was inadvertently inspired by one of her colleagues who not only seemed completely unaware of an important element of contemporary librarianship, but displayed little interest in plugging that knowledge deficiency. Listening to Snyder’s description of the situation, we couldn’t help but understand the underlying challenge: how do trainer-teacher-learners help their colleagues in learning fill critically important gaps in their knowledge when those learners don’t even seem to be aware that those gaps exist?

The underlying problem for so many of us, as Coleman noted at the beginning of the discussion (available online in an archived recording and briefly described on the T is for Training site) is that we don’t know what we don’t know. That, as we all agreed during our discussion, is where trainer-teacher-learners play important roles grounded in our own passions about learning—our own learning as well as the learning of those we are committed to supporting.

“It’s tough because there are students who are self-motivated…and then there are students who come into a program…and think ‘You’re going to tell me what I need to know,’” T is for Training colleague Jill Hurst-Wahl suggested. And it becomes even more difficult when contemporary learners don’t seem be aware of the need to commit to a program of lifelong learning: “You don’t just come out of a degree program and stop learning.”

ccourses_logoFor me, it begins with acknowledgement of and commitment to fostering collaborative learning—the type of learning where everyone has a role to play and there isn’t necessarily a single person serving start-to-finish as the primary mover in the process. It’s the type of learning that we see in connected learning settings, in the best of our connectivist MOOCs (massive open online courses), in well-nurtured communities of learning, and so many other settings where the role of learning facilitator is shared in an ever-changing way between the person or people designing and delivering a course or other learning opportunity and the learners themselves. In terms of workplace learning, it’s the difference between a learner showing up to a mandated two-hour “Preventing Sexual Harassment” session online (where the learner passively absorbs canned lectures and then completes the learning experience by taking a quiz) and the same learner showing up for an interactive onsite or online session that provides essential information, includes discussion and chances to absorb and immediately use the information through deeper and richer explorations, then extends to opportunities back in the workplace to demonstrate an ability to apply, in a positive way, the lessons learned. If we’re serious about supporting our learners, nurturing their self-motivation to learn, and gaining the most from the time and resources invested in learning opportunities, we need to passionately and with great dedication show that appropriate application of learning is more important than simply attending a session and passing a test.

What is abundantly clear from that T is for Training discussion and numerous conversations I’ve had with colleagues in training-teaching-learning is that the best of those colleagues really do care about the learners they serve and are motivated to support their learning—which is why we spend relatively small amounts of time ranting about the sort of situation Snyder described and much larger amounts of time seeking and implementing ways to help learners identify what they need to know and then supporting their efforts to fill their knowledge gaps. Again, this is collaborative: if we make ourselves accessible to our learners by visiting their worksites, listening to their concerns and watching for gaps they themselves might not have identified, and working with them to create effective, creative, engaging learning opportunities, we all rise together in our learning efforts.

Jill Hurst-Wahl

Jill Hurst-Wahl

It’s far more than an attempt to justify the time, energy, and money that goes into workplace learning and performance/staff development/staff training programs; it’s an acknowledgement that those who aren’t self-motivated and well-supported are not going to survive in contemporary workplaces: “We’re in an economic environment where if you’re not a self-directed learner…you’re going to get left behind,” Hurst-Wahl observed. “That being left behind may not happen immediately [but] in some way, you’re going to be left behind. People are going to look at you and say, ‘Oh, you don’t know that thing? Huh. OK. I’m moving on.’”

None of which is to say that learning facilitators don’t have important roles to play and that a commitment to the learning process is anything less than an essential element to be cultivated by all parties in the learning process: “I talk about things that I have at least some sort of feeling about,” Coleman noted. “When I’m out presenting or training, usually I feel some affinity for the material…I’m energized; I’m buzzed by it. I want people to be energized by it, too [and talking about it]. If you’re talking, you’re engaged”—and, I would add, cultivating the passion that fosters self-motivation among learners as well as among those of us supporting those learners.

 


ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting: Bringing Offsite Colleagues Into the Room

February 1, 2015

With informal help and encouragement from our staff colleagues in the American Library Association (ALA), several of us successfully managed, this afternoon, to reduce the number of people “left behind” during the current ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting being held here in Chicago. And, in the process, we produced a learning object designed to help members of ALA and other associations achieve similarly rewarding results.

ala_leftbehind“ALALeftBehind” has been a bittersweet movement for quite a while now: those unable to be onsite for the Midwinter Meeting held early each year and the Annual Conference held early each summer contact onsite Association members via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms for news about what is happening onsite. They also, via the #ALALeftBehind hashtag, comment on how much they wish they could be part of the onsite action.

This was the year we reduced the onsite-online gap a bit more. Largely thanks to the efforts of ALA staff, those who could not attend the conference received tips about resources that could help connect them to onsite activities and colleagues. That commitment to offsite members as well as to the onsite members who could afford the time and cost of traveling to Chicago inspired at least a few of us onsite to seek ways to support that effort and find ways to further draw our offsite colleagues into the onsite rooms.

ALAMW15--LogoAs we were meeting (during the first day of the conference) in the Midwinter Meeting Networking Uncommons—a wonderful space meant to facilitate unplanned encounters and conversations at a significant level—a few of us were expressing the same sort of comments expressed by those left behind: sadness that familiar faces weren’t present for Midwinter 2015 conversations. One person who is particularly important to us is our training-teaching-learning colleague Maurice Coleman, who brings us together online through his biweekly T is for Training conversations/podcasts and has been making audio-recordings of live face-to-face T is for Training sessions at ALA Midwinter Meetings and Annual Conferences for the past few years. Without Maurice onsite, we realized we would miss our semi-annual face-to-face session—until we decided that if we couldn’t bring Maurice and “T” into the Uncommons and the rest of the conference, we would bring the Uncommons and the conference to Maurice.

We were lucky enough to be sitting with Jenny Levine, the ALA staff member who remains the driving force behind the Uncommons (and much more), as our plan began to develop; she quickly confirmed a reservation for the final 30-minute slot remaining for formal use of the Uncommons during the 2015 Midwinter Meeting. We then contacted Maurice and a few other T is for Training colleagues who were offsite to see whether they wanted to participate in a unique T is for Training session via a Google Hangout rather than the usual audio-only format we use through TalkShoe.

There was a conscious decision that we weren’t going to make the Hangout appear too well-rehearsed, and we also agreed that we would rely on our improvisational skills to address any unexpected problems that came up during the session. Having experimented with blended onsite-online conference attendance via Twitter and blended learning opportunities via Google Hangouts, I saw this as an opportunity to pull a session together with minimal planning, preparation, and rehearsal so that #alaleftbehind colleagues would see how easily similar gatherings could be arranged while also seeing what can go wrong with this sort of impromptu erasing of the Left Behind brand.

Virtual Maurice Coleman before he joined the live Hangout

Virtual Maurice Coleman before he joined the live Hangout

That’s exactly how it played out during the live session earlier this afternoon. The opening segment with guest host Kate Kosturski, T is for Training colleague Jules Shore, and me in the Networking Uncommons began right on time and featured a decent quality of audio and video. Our first (not-unexpected) glitch occurred when Maurice was unable to join the Hangout in its recorded version, so came in through a virtual back door: my tablet. Figuring that low-quality Maurice was better than no Maurice, I took the only action I could imagine taking: I held the tablet up to the webcam and hoped for the best. Watching the archived recording shows that it was a gamble that paid off: the audio and video feed captured from the tablet was even better in the recording than it was for those of us in the Uncommons—which doesn’t mean it was great (far from it), but as a spur-of-the-moment solution, it worked. Better yet, it added the sort of levity to the session that is such a valuable and valued part of all T is for Training sessions.

The experiment gained momentum about12 minutes into the session with Jill Hurst-Wahl, another key part of the T is for Training community, was able to join the Hangout from her home. After a moment or two of trouble-shooting, she was completely integrated into the exchange and the conversation resumed where it had stopped when Maurice first came in via the tablet.

Our moment of success came just after the halfway point, when Maurice was able to switch from the tablet feed to the version visible in the archived recording. And, for the remainder of the program, we once again showed how a conference room can quickly expand from being a small onsite space to a space that extend across entire states.

It could have been better; we should have been able to include other participants via the chat function in Google Hangouts. But as an example of how low-cost, high-impact technology can help us redefine our meeting and our learning spaces and how it can further reduce the size of our Left Behind groups, it offers an effective case study. And it will continue reducing that Left Behind group person by person as more people view the recording and use it to create their own no-longer-left-behind experiences.


Training-Teaching-Learning and Librarians: Describing What We Aren’t

July 15, 2014

Having recently written about the wicked problem of trying to find words that adequately describe what we do in our ever-changing work environment, I found myself completely drawn into a question forwarded by a colleague (Jill Hurst-Wahl) via Twitter this morning: “What are some things a librarian isn’t?”

ASTD_to_ATDThe basic question about what any of us isn’t is one that far transcends librarianship and obviously extends into the entire field of training-teaching-learning (of which I clearly believe librarianship is a part) and many other fields. One current example is provided by the way the American Society for Training & Development recently completed a 2.5-year-long effort to find language other than “training” and “development” or “workplace learning and performance” to represent the work its members do; the solution was adoption of a new name (Association for Talent Development) that is far from the obvious solution Association managers were seeking.

Tackling the question of what librarians (and other trainer-teacher-learners) are not, I quickly found myself sinking deeper and deeper into quicksand. Trying to be absolutely ridiculous, I started with the idea that we’re not ditch-diggers—but then realized I know of librarians who occasionally become involved in digging into the soil within library gardens. Then I mulled over the idea that we’re not plumbers—but recalled working with colleagues who had to unclog plugged drains and toilets in library facilities. I even briefly thought about the idea that we’re not chauffeurs—but was quickly able to recall colleagues picking me up at airports or hotels and delivering me to sites where I’ve been involved in facilitating library events. So I puckishly fell into the only response that made sense to me in the moment: a librarian is not a cab driver; nearly everything else is on the table.

And that, I believe, captures part of the beauty, wonder, challenge, and difficulty of looking at librarianship, training-teaching-learning, and so many other professions that exist or are about to exist. (For more on the theme of trying to imagine what sort of work we’ll be doing just a few years from now, please see Michael Wesch’s moving video “A Vision of Students Today” and one of the students’ comments about preparing for jobs that don’t yet exist.)

The context for the question about what librarians are not is the University of Syracuse iSchool (the School of Information Studies) IST 511 “Introduction to the Library and Information Profession” course currently being taught by R. David Lankes. In the draft course syllabus, Lankes encourages his learners to engage in “content exploration” through participation  in poster sessions centered on the question of what a librarian is. Some of his learners have obviously taken the challenge a step further by asking what librarians are not—themselves inspired by the Magritte image of a pipe, accompanied by the words “Leci n’est pas une pipe”—and  it makes me wonder how training-teaching-learning colleagues would answer a similar question about our own profession.

ALA2014--LogoWhat struck me, during recent conversations on this topic with numerous colleagues at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Las Vegas, was how much we are all struggling with finding exactly the right, concise word or combination of words to describe what we do. “Librarian,” for the average library user (or former user), is still a term firmly connected to the use of books—which completely ignores the numerous other roles library staff members play (e.g., subject-matter expert, often in more than one field of study; learning facilitator; innovation facilitator, through makerspaces, innovation centers, and other learning centers; community partner; grant-writer/fundraiser; manager/supervisor; writer;  and so much more). In the same way, “talent developer” and “trainer” are equally and woefully inadequate to reflect our roles as learning facilitators; change managers/change facilitators; coaches and mentors; instructional designers; evaluators; writers; presenters; and so much more.

As the learners interacted with each other via Twitter today—and thanks to Jill Hurst-Wahl and others, with many of us not previously affiliated with the IST 511 course—they were clearly having fun with the topic. One student suggested “a librarian is not an obstacle on the path to equality,” “a librarian is not a building or a shelf of books or a search engine OR a computer,” and “a librarian is not a follower.” Another learner suggested that “a librarian is not a book-sitter but is a community advocate.” And Jill herself suggested that “a librarian is not timid.”

What is clear from the exchanges so far is that librarians (and other trainer-teacher-learners) are also not the kind of people who limit their exchanges to well-defined insular spaces; the extension of this class project into a larger virtual classroom that includes many of us not formally enrolled in the course is just one of numerous examples that librarians and many others are defined and driven by their ability to function within a variety of settings that quickly shift without warning.

From "Virtual Dave...Real Blog"

From “Virtual Dave…Real Blog”

I don’t envy Lankes’s learners as they struggle with the overall question of defining what they aren’t and what they are: Trying to define what librarians aren’t (or are) in just a few words appears to be an impossible task—one that is equally daunting for trainer-teacher-learners (a term I’ve consistently used for lack of anything better to suggest the scope of the work many of us do). But I do envy them for the possibilities that are before them as they build upon the work of those who preceded them; find ways to partner with colleagues in the larger training-teaching-learning sandbox; and continue to define and create labels, policies, and practices that will help them maintain the key roles they play in the communities they/we serve.


Tactical Urbanism: Community, Collaboration, Innovation, and Learning

April 10, 2014

Sometime, in an effort to accomplish something in our communities, we move so quickly that we don’t even take the time to slap a label onto what we’re doing—until we come across a lovely term like “tactical urbanism” and wonder why we didn’t coin it first.

Tactical_Urbanism--CoverNate Berg, writing for the Atlantic Cities website, describes the term concisely: “Guerrilla gardening. Pavement-to-parks. Open streets. These are all urban interventions of a sort—quick, often temporary, cheap projects that aim to make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable.” And when we begin to dive into all the loveliness behind tactical urbanism, we find something that serves us well in a variety of settings: the reminder that great accomplishments don’t have to address problems and challenges at a macro level; sometimes we help change our world through small, incremental steps rooted in community, collaboration, innovation, and learning.

The learning element, for me, was obvious from the initial moment I learned about tactical urbanism (yesterday morning, while skimming a Twitter feed): a couple of training-teaching-learning colleagues—Heather Braum and Jill Hurst-Wahl—were attending a conference presentation on the topic, and both saw connections between what keynote speaker Mike Lydon was describing and what they had heard from me about the Hidden Garden Steps project here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District. After skimming notes prepared and posted by Jill and Heather, I immediately downloaded the wonderful Tactical Urban2 online manual produced by Lydon and his fellow tactical urbanists; devoured the descriptions of tactical urbanism projects documented within that manual; relished the idea that several of these projects are in place here in San Francisco or under consideration; thought about how they might inspire positive actions within libraries; and even began thinking about how the spirit of tactical urbanism flows through the best of learning projects I have encountered.

And yes, I immediately understood why Heather and Jill would think about a $467,000 project like the Hidden Garden Steps within the context of a philosophy rooted in “quick, often temporary, cheap projects that aim to make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable”: the Steps, like so many of our training-teaching-learning efforts, appear to be large, complex, and daunting when seen out of context; within context, however, they are organically interwoven segments of a much larger tapestry that builds upon what is already in place and provides additional foundations for further development.

When we look at the broad brushstrokes of urban development within Lydon’s work, we immediately—if we have already encountered these volumes—think of Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961); Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction (1977), The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and just about everything he has written since then; William Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1988); and Peter Harnik’s Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities (2010). When we think beyond the explicit references to urban development, we think of how libraries increasingly engage in flexible use of their spaces for everything from community meetings addressing needs of libraries and the communities they serve to remodeling of spaces to create everything from an information commons to makerspaces. And when we stretch this even further into learning organizations, we find the sort of on-the-fly quick, often temporary, cheap experimentation some of us pursue in our communities of learning when we attempt something as simple as using Facebook or Google+ Hangouts to conduct online office hours with our learners in the hope that they will establish learning communities that last far beyond the formal end of a course we have facilitated.

Tactical urbanism in action: neighbors maintaining the Hidden Garden Steps

Tactical urbanism in action: neighbors maintaining the Hidden Garden Steps

Let’s draw explicit parallels here. Lydon and his colleagues document guerilla street tactics including painting a crosswalk where one doesn’t exist, but is needed, and shows how that simple action leads city officials to acknowledge and act upon the need. Libraries can create book discussion groups that go far beyond the traditional recreational approach to that action: by organizing discussions around a book that addresses a community need, the library can be part of a collaborative effort to substantially and positively address and act upon a community need. Those of us involved in training-teaching learning—which, I believe, includes tactical urbanists who teach by example; library staff, which facilitates learning through much of what staff members offer; and those involved in workplace learning and performance—engage in the spirit of tactical urbanism by exploring easy-to-implement low-cost/no-cost innovations that, when successful, quickly spread throughout our extended learning landscapes. And those of us engaged in projects like the Hidden Garden Steps—that 148-step ceramic-tiled mosaic surrounded by gardens tended formally and informally by neighborhood volunteers—are immersed in the spirit of tactical urbanism by building upon the example of those who came before us and inspiring others to create their own versions of these magnificent community meeting places that serve a worldwide community of visitors.

The punchline remains one I frequently recite: all we have to do is dream.


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