Next Steps for a Beyond Horizons (2.0) Community

January 4, 2018

The following piece was prepared collaboratively by Lisa Gustinelli, Jonathan Nalder, and Paul Signorelli; each of us is publishing and sharing it on our own sites in the spirit of the collaboration that the piece documents. Please repost.

We’re a community that knows how to work, play, and, when necessary (as we have recently learned), grieve together. The key to dealing with those unexpected moments of grief seems to be in looking ahead as we bury our dead and tend to the survivors.

Those of us who were part of the NMC (New Media Consortium) global family, tribe, and community of learning for many years were stunned, a couple of weeks ago, by the sudden, completely unexpected news that our NMC friends/staff/colleagues had been suddenly laid off during the holiday season and, as the official (unsigned) statement distributed by former Board President Gardner Campbell via email noted on December 18, 2017, the “NMC will be promptly commencing a chapter 7 bankruptcy case. A trustee will be appointed by the court to wind down NMC’s financial affairs, liquidate its assets and distribute any net proceeds to creditors…” Those who loved the ed-tech reports issued through NMC’s Horizon Project, which documented ed tech projects, developments, trends, and challenges across both formal and informal learning sectors, are concerned that a project with more than 16 years of insights and impact worldwide could die along with the NMC.

Here one minute, gone the next: It’s the classic Talebian Black Swan—something so stunningly unexpected and world-changing for those involved (akin to the first, completely unanticipated sighting of a black swan where only white swans had previously been seen) that it shakes our beliefs and perceptions to the core. (None of us has been able to overlook the irony that one of the biggest Black Swans we have encountered came in the form of the dissolution of the very organization that had brought the concept of the Black Swan to our attention through a combination of conversations, articles, and a summit some of us attended in January 2015—three years ago this month.)

Dissecting the situation to determine what caused this particularly unwelcome Black Swan to land in our pond is going to keep a lot of people busy for a very long time.

Frankly, that’s not our concern. As we heard so many times decades ago on the original Star Trek television show, “He’s dead, Jim,” and others will have to handle the NMC funeral and respectfully deal with what remains of the corpse.

In less than two weeks, however, numerous members of the community that was originally fostered and sustained through the New Media Consortium have come together to determine what we will do to continue our work and play and exploration together in a post-NMC world. It only took us a few days of intensive online conversations and phone calls to determine that our greatest asset—one that cannot be monetized by any trustee or sold  through any bankruptcy proceedings—is the extended, collaborative, global group of innovative educators-trainers-learners-doers (what one of us lovingly calls “Edunauts”) who produced, under Creative Commons licensing, much of what made NMC such a dynamic organization with such far-reaching impact.

We are members of a vital, vibrant, dynamic community. That community is not dead, even if the organization that helped it grow and thrive is. By the end of the same week the announcement of the NMC’s immediate dissolution appeared, four of us (Lisa, Jonathan, Paul, and Bryan Alexander) had initiated community-wide conversations that led to creation of a landing place for the community: the Beyond the Horizon community on Slack.

We are at a very early stage in the evolution of this community—in some ways, it feels as if the NMC’s body hasn’t yet been placed into the ground—but we are already seeing the genesis of a community bootstrapping itself forward in hopeful and promising ways:

We are, individually and collectively, working as friends/colleagues/collaborators/cultivators, each tilling the vineyards we know best, collectively working toward the same goal of moving past this tragedy and keeping the momentum of this community going. And we hope you’ll join us, informally and formally, as we continue the learning journey the NMC community was on for nearly 25 years.

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NMC and ALA: Black Swans, Conversations, and Collaboration

January 29, 2015

We’ve known, for a long time, that having key players in the room is an essential part of fostering achievements in training-teaching-learning and many other endeavors. What wasn’t as obvious until recently is that drawing those essential colleagues into the room is becoming increasingly simple by redefining what the room actually is.

ALAMW15--LogoAttending the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project retreat—“The Black Swan Ball”—in Austin, Texas a couple of weeks ago provided a fabulous reminder of how our concepts of meeting spaces are changing. Arriving in Chicago yesterday for the American Library Association (ALA) 2015 Midwinter Meeting is supplying another dynamic example of this development. And other ongoing personal experiments in creating a virtual presence within onsite meetings convince me that we’re seeing a major shift in how our changing concepts of meeting spaces, learning spaces, participation, and collaboration are working to our advantage.

While drawing an offsite colleague into onsite meetings as a co-presenter via Google Hangouts over the past couple of years, I have asked onsite meeting participants to describe how big our meeting spaces are. It quickly becomes obvious to everyone that our videoconferencing capabilities have improved to the point where those offsite participants feel as if they are physically present with us—and we with them—so the room is no longer defined by the immediate four walls that surround us—it extends over the hundreds (or thousands) of miles that would separate us if our technology didn’t create a visceral, virtual presence for all involved.

Our NMC colleagues at the Black Swan Ball—an event inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable and designed to help us develop the skills needed to adapt when what seemed improbably quickly becomes commonplace—were exemplary in creating a meeting space that transcended physical walls. Even though we were all in the same conference center room for much of the discussion, we were also using virtual spaces created online by NMC staff so we could create, in the moment, learning objects that would carry the discussion out of the room so the explorations would not end when the conference did. And, by the simple act of tweeting observations while those discussions were underway, we found the discussions spreading far beyond the conference center premises even while invited participants were still onsite.

Our ALA colleagues are taking this expansion-of-the-room concept further than what I have seen most organizations attempt. Acknowledging that there is frequently a conference backchannel conversation nurtured by those who consider themselves “left behind” by their inability to be onsite (united via the hashtag #ALALeftBehind), conference representatives have already encouraged the “left behind” crowd to expand the size of the room and join the conversation via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and pages on the Association’s website:

“You can get a flavor of the event and insights by following American Libraries coverage at http://www.americanlibrariesmagazine.org/alamw15 and the show daily, Cognotes, at http://alamw15.ala.org/cognotes.

“You can also

“And looking ahead–for information about the 2015 ALA Annual Conference & Exhibition June 25-30, and to find resources to help you make your case for attending, visit http://alaannual.org.”

NMC_Black_Swan_LogoThis is a magnificent example of how a commitment to inclusivity and a bit of advance planning can create opportunities for extended conversations; greater levels of engagement among members of an association, a community of learning, a community of practice, or any other collaborative body; and an awareness of how existing tools and resources can create possibilities where barriers once existed. If each of us at the Midwinter Meeting (or any other onsite convocation) contributes to the effort to draw our offsite colleagues into the onsite conversations, and our offsite colleagues reciprocate by contributing via the channels available to them, we will have taken another positive, productive step toward expanding the size of our room and fostering the levels of collaboration that produce results beyond anything we previously imagined.


NMC “Black Swan Ball” 2015: Teaching-Training-Learning-Birding

January 14, 2015

There’s an interesting, temporary migration taking place this week in Lost Pines, Texas—a spectacular rural setting on a slow-flowing segment of the Colorado River roughly 20 miles southeast of Austin. Many of the “birds” involved in this migration have flown in, from a variety of spots around the world, to nest for less than 48 hours. They/we can be observed eating and interacting together for brief, concentrated periods of time in ever-changing groupings that are far from predicable at any given time. And, if we are successful once we return to our regular habitats (schools, colleges, universities, classrooms, museums, libraries, and other educational organizations around the world), the eggs we lay and hatch here in Lost Pines could help change the way teaching-training-learning takes place.

NMC_Black_Swan_LogoOur gathering—“The Black Swan Ball”—is a by-invitation-only educational-technology symposium unlike any I have ever seen before. Organized and produced by the New Media Consortium (NMC), it has attracted approximately 50 of us who have varying levels of involvement in NMC’s Horizon Project—that ongoing global endeavor to document and examine “key trends, significant challenges, and emerging technologies for their potential impact” in a variety of educational settings.

What makes this particular gathering unusual and tremendously intriguing is that it has been framed around a specific book—Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable—and appears to be structured to produce what Taleb promotes in his book: a greater awareness of the incorrect assumptions we make in formulating predictions, and, with that enhanced awareness, a better ability to react to events and situations we previously considered “improbable”—particularly at that lovely intersection of the teaching-training-learning process and the educational technology that supports that process.

The “improbable” element that originally gave Taleb’s book (and our NMC symposium) its title was the long-held belief in Europe that all swans were white—a belief maintained until a Dutch explorer, in 1697, encountered black swans in Australia, a Wikipedia article reminds us. From this, Taleb draws (on the first page of the prologue to his book) the conclusion that a “single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans.”

NMC CEO Larry Johnson at the Black Swan Ball

NMC CEO Larry Johnson at the Black Swan Ball

Taleb, in his book, is extremely specific about what a Black Swan is in the world he inhabits: “First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable” (pp. xvii-xviii).

This makes the idea of a “Black Swan Ball” intriguing—not just for those of us in Lost Pines, but for anyone who wants to move from the familiar nest of ed-tech trends as we perceive them into the Black Swan world of teaching-training-learning where we look to what we see as the improbable to imagine how we might effectively react to it to the benefit of those we serve.

Where the “central idea of this book concerns our blindness with respect to randomness particularly the large deviations” (p. xix), a central element of this NMC gathering seems to be an exploration of how we can move beyond documenting and examining ed-tech trends, challenges, and emerging technologies so we set aside our existing assumptions about what is or is not improbable in the settings in which we work and live and play—a process that began unfolding yesterday as we arrived onsite in Lost Pines and gathered for an opening-night reception.

It didn’t take me very long to start seeing parallels between what Taleb has written and what at least a few of us are already experiencing at the Black Swan Ball. He begins, for example, with that story of the “discovery” of a black swan by a European visiting Australia; my own evening began with an unexpected face-to-face conversation with an Australian colleague I had previously only encountered via Twitter. Taleb, furthermore, consistently encourages us to set aside the pervasive, inaccurate assumptions that blind us to the existence of what we previously saw as improbable—just as my wonderful Australian colleague spoke eloquently of the need for many of us to look beyond the assumptions me make within our own countries so we can learn from what our worldwide colleagues—in places including Australia, for example—are doing.

And in what may be a completely inaccurate reading of where the Black Swan Ball is going, I left the opening-night reception wondering whether our playful and innovative colleagues at the NMC were recreating at least a bit of what Taleb describes to inspire significant Black-Swan thinking: an exercise designed to draw groups of us together so we could discover what we had in common led to inconclusive results among the members of the group to which I had been assigned—which makes me wonder, in the early-morning hours before the symposium reconvenes, whether we had been “purposely assigned” to groups with strong, shared connections simply to see whether we would “concoct explanations” for those assignments even though the assignments were actually random.

Detail from graphic facilitator Giselle Chow's work at the Ball

Detail from graphic facilitator Giselle Chow’s work at the Ball

I’m not sure whether I’ll encounter any Black Swans here in Lost Pines. But I do know that, in the spirit of that European who found his swans in Australia more than 300 years ago, I’ve already had the pleasure of literally seeing unexpected birds I had not previously seen—Carolina chickadees, Black vultures, Common nighthawks, and Eastern bluebirds—during an hour-long walk I took along the Colorado River before joining colleagues at the opening-night reception. If attending and documenting even a little of what comes out of this gathering helps all of us better identify and work with the Black swans and other lovely, infrequently-encountered birds in the world of training-teaching-learning, we will have been engaged in yet another rewarding intellectual migration thanks to our NMC colleagues and those who did all that was necessary to pull themselves away from the routine in search of wonderfully rewarding improbables.


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