On a day when friends and colleagues are feeling isolated by current shelter- in-place guidelines designed to fight the spread of the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic), I’m feeling lucky. I have been immersed in plenty of live, stimulating, rewarding, interactions with dozens of teacher-trainer-learner-doers attending a global conference. We have been listening to and asking questions of a first-rate set of presenters. We have been chatting with each other about what we are seeing and hearing. We have been sharing resources we can all begin to use—or continue using—with the learners we serve. And we have been doing all this, without needing to wear protective masks and by abiding with shelter-in-place guidelines, by maintaining distances of hundreds, if not thousands, of miles between us—because the fabulously innovative “Emergency Remote Teaching & Learning; Survive, Thrive, & Plan for What Comes Next” daylong miniconference organized and facilitated by Steve Hargadon and his Learning Revolution colleagues has been entirely online.
One of the most interesting responses I’ve seen to cancelled face-to-face learning opportunities among trainer-teacher-learners is the rapid, often positive transition from onsite face-to-face to online face-to-face interactions through the use of Zoom and other teleconferencing tools, as I have noted in previous blog posts. (The transition obviously works best for people who were already comfortable working online, and obviously is problematic where people lack online access and/or lack laptops or mobile devices.) At least two of my favorite learning organizations have made the decision to move their popular, well-attended onsite conferences into onsite environments this year: the Association for Talent Development (ATD) Virtual Conference and the American Library Association (ALA) Virtual Conference). A glance at news updates suggests that ATD and ALA are far from alone in following this innovation-in-response-to-necessity approach to supporting members of their communities in times of need.
As we consider the gargantuan task of implementing such massive change within short timeframes, it’s worth returning to the Learning Revolution miniconference to see what made it work. It helps, of course, that Hargadon, his longtime partners, and his colleagues are hardly new to this endeavor; they routinely organize and facilitate global worldwide virtual events, including the Global Education Conference (since 2010) and Library 2.0 online conferences.through collaborations with the spectacular Learning Revolution project. And it helps that the presenters were uniformly engaging and well-prepared.
In a day full of ideas and inspiration, it’s impossible to try to summarize the content in a meaningful way, so I’m left with recollections of moments and themes that somehow capture the overall beauty, creativity, and fun of the entire endeavor. Like opening session presenter Candy Mowen’s reminder, during her “Engaging Online Learners” webinar, that enhancing online learning flows from the creation of great learning environments. Or Zaretta Hammond’s commitment, during “Culturally Responsive Teaching Through Remote Learning,” to the idea that culturally responsive teaching “focuses on improving the learning of diverse students who have been marginalized educationally.” Or Steven J. Bell’s opening comments, during “Let’s Commit to Making Webinars Better,” about the importance of being relaxed, being ready, and taking your time getting started when working with our online learners. Or John Spencer’s sharing of numerous resources during his “Empowering Students in a Distance Learning Environment.” Or the opportunity to see George Couros, Katie Novak, and A.J. Juliani do wonderful variations on the themes they explored in an earlier webinar a few weeks ago and add updated material, including a very short, very funny video in which a music teacher performs a song she wrote to demonstrate her process of making the transition from onsite to online learning.
I didn’t try to attend every session; extensive experience attending conferences has helped me to realize that creating some time for reflection between sessions is an important and integral part of learning through the act of being a conference attendee. And I didn’t make the mistake of thinking that I would remember more than a few of the numerous points made or more than a few of the numerous links and other resources shared by presenters and participants; I took more than a dozen pages of hand-written notes and actually took the step of copying the extensive chat from a few of the sessions and then pasting it into a Word document—a document that ended up running more than 80 pages—that I can later review, in a more leisurely fashion, to jog my memory and help me continue my learning far beyond the day of the live event.
There’s plenty to learn from the miniconference in terms of how to successfully create and facilitate an online conference. It was, first and foremost, very well organized. Registration was easy; it simply involved applying for membership in the Learning Revolution for those who were not already members (a straightforward process that results in an amazingly quick response). Information was easily accessible online through the Learning Revolution website. A page on the Learning Revolution website itself served as the program book, with session descriptions and links to each online session. The presenters themselves were uniformly engaging and learner-/participant-focused in their approach to leading their sessions. Bandwidth issues did, at times, temporarily make the presentations a bit choppy, but Hargadon was there to smooth the gaps and help presenters and audience members quickly reconnect and move beyond those momentary blips. Interactions among participants was lively, and the numerous question-and-answer sessions between presenters and audience members were well-supported by the presenters themselves as well as by Hargadon in his role as producer/co-host/trouble-shooter. And best of all, the conference didn’t end when the live sessions formally concluded. Archived recordings are scheduled to be posted on the Learning Revolution website within a day or two after the conclusion of the live event, so the training-teaching-learning-doing can and will continue as long as any of us continue to call attention to those recordings and continue the conversations in any onsite or online setting we care to use for that purpose.
I’ve seen—and disagreed with—numerous comments I have seen online about how the cancellation of onsite conferences is creating a gap that simply can’t be replaced. I’ve seen—and disagreed with—numerous comments about the irreparable losses those cancellations are causing in terms of missed opportunities for interactions. I am not at all suggesting that onsite and online conferences and other gatherings are completely interchangeable. I know and recognize that going online creates barriers—particularly for those who don’t have adequate (or any) access to online activities; I also know and recognize that onsite conferences create barriers—costs of food and travel, the amount of time it can take to travel great distances to attend an onsite conference. But I am suggesting, based on my own short- and long-term experiences, that online conferences are far from the death knell for community gatherings as we know them; they have been and are increasingly becoming fascinating, engaging opportunities for communities to survive and thrive.
Observing and participating in today’s daylong virtual conference offers plenty of hope and guidance for anyone interested in sustaining strong communities of learning that thrive on online as well as onsite engagement. The conference is providing yet another example of the benefits and challenges of taking a conference online. And it suggests that if we positive approach our challenges collaboratively, we can sometimes produce positive results far beyond anything we might have ever imagined.
–N.B.: This is the sixth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online.