NMC 2015 Summer Conference: Full Participation & Circling Back to Conversations

June 9, 2015

When a few hundred of your favorite educational-technology colleagues from all over the world gather to explore trends and developments in teaching-training-learning, you certainly don’t want to miss a single minute of it. So you arrive a day or two before formal activities start. Spend inordinate amounts of time engaged in face-to-face conversations in the various hotel lounges and lobbies. Skim the conference Twitter feed (#nmc15 for this one). Pore over the conference program book and website trying to decide how to be in five places at the same time. Reach out via social media to colleagues who couldn’t be onsite so they won’t be left out of the conversations. Grab every available opportunity to join colleagues for breakfast, coffee, lunch, coffee, dessert, coffee, dinner, coffee, dessert and coffee. And just when you believe you’ve covered all your physical and virtual bases, you unexpectedly find delightful additional ways to be so plugged into and help plug others into the overall conference conversation that it feels as if it will never end.

NMC_2015_Summer_Conference--LogoWhat we’re talking about here is a magnificent part of the connected learninglifelong learning process at conferences that becomes exponentially more rewarding with every new effort we make to be part of the conversations that contribute to the growth and innovation fueling first-rate teaching-training-learning efforts, as we’re seeing again this week during the New Media Consortium (NMC) 2015 Summer Conference here in the Washington, D.C. area. Formal conference keynote presentations, breakout sessions within a variety of pathways, and other activities start tomorrow; half-day preconference workshops took place today. Onsite conversations were already underway two days ago as a few of us arrived Sunday evening. And pre-preconference online conversations have been taking place for at least a few weeks. All of which raises an interesting question: given all the resources we have to interact face-to-face as well as virtually and synchronously as well as asynchronously, when can we actually say an intensive onsite-online learning experience begins and ends, and what (if any) geographic boundaries define a conference site?

TwitterTwitter has been an essential part of my conference experience for the past few years. By skimming the feed from a conference hashtag a few times a day (and understanding that it’s far from necessary to read every tweet if I want to gain a sense of what is occurring), I’m able to asynchronously join conversations and “attend” sessions I otherwise would not have time to sample. By live-tweeting sessions and monitoring the feed from those sessions, I’m able to share content with offsite colleagues, occasionally draw them into what is happening onsite, and interact with others in particularly large meeting rooms. And, by commenting on colleagues’ tweets during and after sessions, I’ve found Twitter serving as yet another portal to meeting colleagues I might otherwise not have met—even though we were (or are) in the same room during a conference session.

And that’s where conversations can both meander and circle back upon themselves in the most unexpected ways and at the most unexpected times. I’ve met colleagues face-to-face for the first time by responding to their tweets during a session, and then seeking them out before any of us have a chance to leave a room at the end of a session—which, of course, leads to extensions of the conversations fostered by those facilitating the conference sessions we were attending. I’ve also had the wonderful opportunity to serendipitously pick up the threads of a conversation hours later when small groups of colleagues gather in those aforementioned hotel lounges and lobbies. Conversations occasionally extend over Twitter for several days after a conference formally ends, and can also continue as those of us who blog read and comment upon each other’s posted reflections on those blogs.

Coffee in a local shop

Coffee in a local shop

But today brought a wonderfully new and unexpected variation on the theme. Needing some time away from all those preconference conversations and preconference workshops, I decided to go offsite for the first half of the day to have brunch and visit one of Washington’s magnificent museums. As I was finishing brunch, I couldn’t resist the temptation to engage in what was going to be first of three check-ins to the conference Twitter feed throughout the day. And there it was: a colleague’s wonderful summary of high points from a three-hour workshop—which I was able to skim in less than 10 minutes, with a few additional minutes set aside to retweet a few comments I thought off-site colleagues might appreciate reading. After a couple of hours in the museum and a little more reading time in a local coffee shop, I made the quick cross-town trip back toward the conference hotel via Washington’s subway system, and planned to catch the shuttle that completes a circle between the hotel, the closest subway station, and the airport (which is only a very short distance from the hotel where we are staying) every 30 minutes.

The shuttle arrived as expected. What I hadn’t in any way anticipated was the discovery that the presenter from that morning preconference workshop was sitting across the aisle from me on the shuttle. So as he was heading back to the airport and I was planning on staying on the shuttle to return to the hotel, we had a few minutes to ride that circular route together while discussing his presentation, laugh over the idea that we didn’t have to send follow-up tweets (at least for the moment) to continue our conversation, and that his part of the circle that was taking him to the airport so wonderfully overlapped with part of my own circle back to the onsite conference conversation.

It may be months before we see each other face-to-face again. But already, as I capture this set of reflections late at night, I see the conversation extending further—along with the reach of the “conference site” via a follow-up email message he sent. And if he and I (and others here at the NMC 2015 Summer Conference) carry these extended-learning lessons back to our own learners, who can say when the conference will really end?

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Social Media Feast and Fast: Disconnecting for a Day

July 20, 2012

I was feeling wired in the best and worst of all possible ways after feasting on nonstop, extremely intense face-to-face and online contact with colleagues at American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and American Library Association (ALA) conferences recently.

The cumulative effect was wonderfully alarming—or alarmingly wonderful, depending on your own attitudes toward social media tools. The positive result was that engaging with colleagues face to face and via Twitter backchannels created a remarkably rewarding level of engagement. The worrisome part was that the nonstop engagement created a social media/digital equivalent of delirium tremens in the days immediately following each conference.

Some of the contradictory responses should not, in retrospect, have been difficult to anticipate. I did, after all, move without any sort of conscious transition into dawn-to-dark social media immersion from a routine habit of spending an hour or less each day engaged with others through Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Facebook; the exception to my usual habits generally comes in the form of a weekly or biweekly engagement in a formal online discussion session, e.g., a tweet chat, or through the act of live-tweeting an event for colleagues who cannot be present.

The conference interactions turned those patterns completely on their virtual heads. Conference days generally began with a quick skim, on the screen of my laptop, of the conference backchannel feeds via TweetDeck; this helped me spot last-minute announcements regarding events I didn’t want to miss, or summaries of presentations and discussions I wasn’t able to attend. Then I would skim a (print) copy of a newspaper before switching over to a mobile device (in this case, a Samsung Galaxy tablet)  to keep up with the various feeds throughout the day. I would turn back to my laptop when I was live-tweeting events I was attending or writing blog postings late each evening.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the level of engagement was spectacular; the combined online and face-to-face contacts produced connections I otherwise would have never made. But the predictable crash was quick to come in the days immediately following each conference. I found myself compulsively continuing to follow the backchannel post-conference feeds via my tablet. Craving and missing the obvious social media buzz that comes from that level of stimulation. And feeling as if the transition from conference routines back to normal day-to-day routines was not happening as naturally as it had in the past.

When I found myself feeling that way after returning from the second conference, I began thinking about University of San Francisco associate professor of media studies and environmental studies David Silver’s recent summary of a digital fast experiment. Silver’s engaging presentation at the San Francisco Public Library under the auspices of BayNet (the Bay Area Library & Information Network) in May 2012 made many of us think about our own online practices as he described how he had encouraged a group of 80 digital natives to go without any electronic or digital media as long as they could—in essence, to “remain logged off until it becomes dangerous, impossible, or unbearable.”

The student who maintained the fast for the shortest period of time gave up after only a few hours. The person who lasted longest went all of three and a half days. Some of the participants’ observations were funny—one wanted to know how to take a bus without an iPhone and then what to do while on the bus with no digital distractions. Another concluded that it was impossible to work out at a gym without music. A third participant reported staring at a pizza for lack of anything else to do over a meal. Some participants’ observations were poignant—their friends who continued texting acted as if they had stepped out of the room by not being equally engaged in online conversations, and one reported that it was “weird to be stuck in my mind…I didn’t like it.”

Armed with memories of those observations and recognizing that I needed my own digital fast, I set aside a Saturday recently when no one was expecting me to work. I could actually feel my body and my thoughts relaxing as I opened the pages of a book that morning and slowly relished the joy of slowly absorbing thoughts from printed sources rather than feeling as if I had to race from tweet to tweet. Brunch with my wife was a relaxing and invigorating combination of conversation and time spent skimming that day’s edition of The New York Times—in its printed format. A walk through parts of San Francisco that afternoon gave us time to talk as well as simply take things in, and dinner in the relative silence of our home—no television, CD player, or radio providing distractions—led to a quiet evening without interruptions.

Beginning the fast with the intention of letting it run from midnight to midnight, I actually was in no rush to check for messages the following (Sunday) morning, so the fast actually continued well into the afternoon. By the time I wandered back to briefly check for phone messages—nothing pressing there—and online contacts, I realized I had accomplished what I set out to do. Set the virtual world aside for an all-too brief retreat. Slowed myself down significantly. And managed to break the compulsive need to monitor those post-conference backchannels and other online enticements. So I’m back to normal patterns of online interactions. And apparently none the worse for wear.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: To Tweet or Not to Tweet

June 28, 2012

Although I was more intensely engaged in the twitterverse than ever before while attending the 2012 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference this week in Anaheim, I was surprised to find that at some levels it was a far different experience that participating in the recent American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) International Conference & Exposition Twitter backchannel.

Both conferences had streams of tweets that were virtually impossible to completely follow; there was simply too much content for anyone to absorb. And I was relieved to hear an ALA colleague who was dedicated to keeping up with it finally admit, halfway through the conference, that even she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the flow. Both conferences also had a core group of tweeters who recorded and disseminated information about what was happening in conference sessions.

But one thing that was distinctly different between the two conferences was that ASTD members who were prolific at tweeting were capturing content from a teaching-training-learning point of view—live-tweeting from sessions to share information that the rest of us could later incorporate into our own workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors—while many of the more frequent conference attendees who were tweeting in Anaheim were producing a combination of personal tips about where to find the best conference freebies; sightings of keynote speakers and other celebrities onsite for conference events; personal observations about the experience of attending a conference with more than 20,000 other people; or, at an extreme edge of the backchannel, an overtly snarky set of observations—sometimes live and from sessions where the subjects of their criticisms were in the front of a workshop room or on stage in a crowded auditorium. Fortunately for those tweeters, none of their targets seemed aware of or inclined to respond to those criticisms in the moment as happened in a situation described by Cliff Atkinson in his book The Backchannel.

Anyone inclined to think the comparison between the two groups of backchannel contributors is unfair or an apples-and-oranges sort of effort needs to remember that members of library staff are increasingly finding themselves in the role of trainer-teacher-learner as a core part of their responsibilities to those they serve, as Lori Reed and I document in Workplace Learning & Leadership. Members of library staff also need to be as up-to-date in their knowledge of tech tools as workplace learning and performance practitioners need to be—yet there were signs at the ALA conference that we’re somewhat behind others in our acceptance, use, and promotion of those tools.

When Sharon Morris and I introduced a live Twitter feed via TweetChat into our “Ignite, Interact, and Engage: Maximizing the Learning Outcome” session at the conference, for example, one of the first tweets to go out from a session participant was one of amazement (and, we hoped, happiness) that we were encouraging our learners to incorporate Twitter into that learning experience.

There were signs elsewhere at the conference that others were not at all pleased by the presence of a Twitter backchannel and the use of the mobile devices that connect so many of us and those we serve without regard to geographic barriers. One conference attendee noted, via Twitter, that someone had yelled at him for tweeting, and another attendee reported via Twitter that she was told she shouldn’t be using her iPad during a general-assembly keynote presentation.

It’s obvious that we’re still very much in a state of transition in terms of how we use and accept the use of Twitter, backchannels, and tech tools in public settings. And I firmly believe we need to develop a better sense of etiquette—perhaps along the lines of something I usually do: asking those around me if my use of a laptop or mobile device to capture session notes and share them with others via Twitter will disturb them. I’ve never had a colleague turn me down, and only had one presenter—one who was going to give a presentation on e-learning best practices in a venue far removed from the ALA conference—defer.

Discussing this with a colleague at the conference, I found myself in the strange position of actually speaking up in favor of the tweeters—strange because, five years ago, I really didn’t want a cell phone or a laptop or anything else that I perceived as a burden/distraction rather than a resource, and I had little experience with social media tools. But colleagues, friends, and outright necessity have completely reversed my thinking, and I don’t believe it’s an understatement to say that those of us involved in training-teaching-learning—workplace learning and performance practitioners, library staff members, people involved in customer service in an onsite-online world, and many others—really can’t afford to overlook these resources if we want to be competitive and effective in meeting the requirements of our work.

My colleague’s observations about the conflicts between those using Twitter and mobile devices and those distracted by or resentful of the presence and use of tech tools and resources produced an interesting exchange. Perhaps, she suggested, we could resolve the conflicts by setting aside a special area during keynote addresses and smaller workshops for those who want to tweet. Perhaps, I responded, we could set aside a special area for those who want to be free of the presence of mobile devices and tweeters. For in an onsite-online world where the majority of those we serve actually appear to be ahead of us in their acceptance and use of Twitter and mobile devices, we might as well intellectually as well as physically make a clear and visible statement about where we stand in terms of meeting them where they are and prefer to be met—as unobtrusively, civilly, and respectfully as possible.

N.B.: To hear an extended (45-minute) conversation on the topic of Twitter as a learning tool at conferences, please listen to T is for Training Episode 101, “Instant Professional Development,” hosted by Maurice Coleman on June 28, 2012.


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