NEKLS Innovation Day 2015: Training-Teaching-Learning While Hanging Out in Kansas

April 30, 2015

I’ve hung out before, and I’m sure I’ll hang out again, but I can’t imagine a more intensely innovative and emotionally-rewarding approach to incorporating Google Hangouts into training-teaching-learning than the one collaboratively created as part of the 2015 Northeast Kansas Library System (NEKLS) Innovation Day program yesterday.

nekls_logosm_400x400What we’re continuing to explore with Hangouts is highly-engaging, low-/no-cost web-conferencing, a rudimentary and surprisingly effective form of telepresence, and  notably strong levels of interaction in training-teaching-learning made possible through the use of an easy-to-learn social media tool—something that fell into place nicely in two consecutive sessions during Innovation Day.

It has taken a fair amount of experimentation and practice to reach the point we reached yesterday: an onsite event that seamlessly expanded to include two offsite presenters (Harford County Public Library Technical Trainer Maurice Coleman and me) so we not only could interact directly with onsite participates but with each other as if we were all in the same room—and the room expanded further via connections simultaneously made with Twitter.

My own experience in training-teaching-learning through web conferencing and rudimentary telepresence dates back to a successful experiment to bring an offsite presenter (from Ohio) into an onsite event attended by more than 200 people here in San Francisco in 2007 in a way that encouraged some limited, direct interactions between the online presenter and members of the onsite audience. I expanded the exercise a bit a few years later by incorporating Skype, Twitter, and onsite colleagues into one of these blended learning events at a Sacramento ASTD (American Society for Training & Development meeting, then carried it a bit further with my New Media Consortium colleague Samantha Adams Becker when we switched over to Google Hangouts for onsite-online blended sessions with ASTD Mount Diablo and Golden Gate chapter colleagues.

What many of us were realizing at that point was that with proper preparation (which included abundant amounts of rehearsal time) and the right equipment (most of which was already available to us in each of the venues we used), we could erase geographic barriers in ways that caused onsite participants to forget that the online participants weren’t physically in the room.

An expansion of the experimentation included adding an onsite Twitter facilitator (colleague Larry Straining, who ad-libbed from a basic script to tweet out what Samantha and I were doing via Google Hangouts for ASTD—now ATD, the Association for Talent Development) at a conference in the Washington, D.C. area in late 2014. Adding Twitter to the mix in this focused, pre-planned way helped make the point that the “rooms” in which each of these events was physically taking place was actually expanding to include a global audience comprised of participants working synchronously and others who could participate later in an asynchronous fashion by seeing and responding to the tweets in an ongoing conversation. Carrying this another step further by drawing “left-behind” colleagues (including Maurice) into the 2015 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting (held in Chicago) provided yet another example of how Hangouts could produce live as well as archived learning opportunities —and further laid the groundwork for what we accomplished yesterday during the annual NEKLS Innovation Day conference: live interactions between the two of us who were offsite, interactions between the two of us and those who were physically present at the conference; and interactions with non-conference attendees who saw the tweets and shared content through retweeting. All that was missing yesterday was synchronous two-way interactions between those non-conference attendees and those of us who were participating onsite or via the Hangout)—but we had a hint of it as my own Innovation Day tweets were picked up and retweeted by several unfamiliar tweeters here in the United States and elsewhere.

NEKLS Continuing Education Consultant Patti Poe initiated the process as part of her overall Innovation Day planning by inviting me to use Google Hangouts as the vehicle for a presentation/discussion on using online collaboration tools. When she mentioned that Maurice would be doing a separate (closing keynote address) session via Hangouts, I asked if it would be possible to also include Maurice in the session I was facilitating and schedule that session in the time slot immediately preceding his keynote address. The experiences Maurice and I had with the ALA Midwinter Meeting experiment primed us to attempt something that was both structured—with specific learning goals and objectives—and improvisational so that onsite conference attendees would very much be involved in learning while also shaping the nature of the session.

Rehearsal for Innovation Day Hangout (Photo by Robin Hastings)

Rehearsal for Innovation Day Hangout (Photo by Robin Hastings)

As Patti noted shortly after the day ended, it exceeded everyone’s expectations and once again demonstrated that it’s possible to have this technology as the vehicle for—not the central feature of—learning opportunities and to have all of us interacting almost exactly as we would have if we hadn’t been spread over a 2,800-mile distance—in essence, creating a 2,800-mile-wide room. Maurice and I had a PowerPoint slide deck (with extensive speaker notes) and a supplemental resource sheet that I prepared and that served as our roadmap even though we actually didn’t display either during the live session (we wanted onsite attendees seeing us rather than slides as part of our effort to create the sense that we were  in the room in a very real sense); the slide deck and resource sheet were posted online later as additional learning objects and as a way to give the synchronous session an extended asynchronous life. We also allowed for plenty of interactions via question-and-answer periods throughout the entire hour-long “Using Online Collaboration Tools” session just as we do when we’re physically present in training-teaching-learning sessions. And when that initial hour came to an end, we took the same sort of between-session break we would have taken if we had physically been onsite, then returned with Maurice assuming the lead and with me maintaining an onsite-onscreen presence through a small window at the bottom of the screen as I watched his onsite-online presentation.

All of us had set out to create the sense of presence (i.e., close physical proximity) that we believe—and continually prove—is possible in well-planned, well-executed onsite-online learning environments capable of transforming learners. All of us confirmed with those onsite that we had achieved that goal. But several hours passed before I realized that in my playful role of the trickster who creates the illusion of physical proximity, I had unintentionally even tricked myself, for as I sat in the comfort of my own home here in San Francisco last night—never physically having left that home—I unexpectedly felt the same sense of melancholy I sometimes experience after intensively engaging in learning with colleagues at onsite conferences and then being physically separated from them as we return to our own homes and workplaces across the country. And I have the same sense of longing to be back with them again sooner than later to continue the connected-learning process that brings all of us such deeply rewarding experiences and relationships.

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Community, Collaboration, and Learning on the Road

March 28, 2014

An article on the Guardian website—“How US Libraries Are Becoming Community Problem Solvers”—provides yet another reminder of the numerous ways various learning organizations (e.g., libraries, schools, community colleges, universities, museums, ASTD, the New Media Consortium, and many others) actively collaborate with members of their communities to make a positive difference in those communities.

The article—for those of us deeply immersed in community, collaboration, and learning locally, online, and through travel—inspires far more than the writer may have expected: it makes us see libraries within the larger landscape of learning organizations. It also makes us reflect on the magnificent way libraries are transforming communities by serving as a place to meet, talk, learn, dream, and sometimes even take positive actions through partnerships with other members of our extended communities.

Northeast Kansas, the setting for our conversation and collaboration

Northeast Kansas, the setting for our conversation and collaboration

This has become deeply personal for me in the work I’ve been doing to facilitate learning as well as community conversations with and through libraries and other organizations in a variety of settings. Trips to northeast Kansas and to Mendocino County here in California over the past few months, in fact, created unexpected and searingly emotional experiences far beyond anything I could have expected—the best kind of learning imaginable. I’m grateful to the library representatives who invited me to those areas for the expanded perspective they provided, and I’m grateful to the individuals who provided those unforgettably transformative learning moments that make me see the world differently than I did before our conversations took place.

The Kansas workshop—an opportunity under the auspices of Patti Poe and her colleagues in the Northeast Kansas Library System (NEKLS) to work with library directors interested in the topic of “Community Collaborations: Helping Shape Our Communities”—was designed as a daylong series of interconnected interactions. One of our most important goals was to explore overlooked opportunities for collaboration to strengthen connections between library staff and other members of the communities in that region. There was no expectation that I was arriving with prepackaged solutions to challenges they faced; the workshop was designed to be an exercise in which our own collaborations would serve as models for how they might approach potential community partners to identify and address issues of interest to all of them.

Reflections in Northeast Kansas

Reflections in Northeast Kansas

It didn’t take long for us to begin identifying potential collaborations and create concrete plans for how to pursue those collaborations, but what took place at an emotional level was far more valuable than anything I expected. As I listened to this dynamic, well-connected group of community leaders—for that really is what the best of our library and other learning colleagues are—I was struck by how deeply they cared about their communities. How frequently they shared the joys and successes that occur within their communities. And how much they viscerally felt the pain of their communities when those communities struggle. Talking with one librarian who serves the population of a small town with little in the way of a social gathering place beyond the walls of the public library there, I felt as if I had been dropped into a real-life version of the town in The Last Picture Show—that town that everyone knows is losing its population, its heart, and its soul. We were honest with each other in terms of what she was describing and what I was seeing through her eyes without actually visiting the town: that the town might not survive, and that the loss of the library would be one more nail in a coffin that was aggressively seeking an occupant.

Being in Mendocino County with county librarian Mindy Kittay and her colleagues for an entirely different project less than a week ago—facilitating community meetings for residents interested in documenting what they like and don’t like about their libraries, and how they would like to see their libraries develop over the next few years—I was again quite taken by numerous conversations during those meetings, but was most touched by an unexpected one-on-one conversation that took place outside a meeting room.

Mendocino_Library_Computers--2014-03-21

Mendocino County–Library as facilitator of connections

Arriving a full hour before the first meeting was scheduled to begin, on a Saturday morning, I stood outside, enjoying the pleasant early-spring weather, and relishing the sound of little more than birds in nearby trees. Glancing up, I saw someone approaching—a man who was walking slowly while pulling a suitcase behind him. My immediate assumption was that he might be homeless; since there appeared to be little about him that was threatening, I greeted him as he drew near. He returned the salutation. The ensuing conversation—without either of us knowing anything other than what we could visually observe about the other—quickly turned to his descriptions of his lifelong experiences there in that town. He grew up there. Went to local schools. Joined the military. Eventually returned home. And worked successfully in sales until the recession left him without a job a few years ago. He expressed no bitterness, just amazement that others in town were not willing to make the changes in the community that might attract more businesses. The issue, as he saw it, was that the type of business that could improve the economic situation there would also change the small-town character of the town that had attracted all of them and continued to make them want to live there.

At the end of our conversation, he wandered off, and I joined colleagues inside the building to prepare the room for the meeting. And this being the sort of story that has to have an upbeat ending, it leads to my surprise and delight to find that he had been in the area all along so he could join others in his community in expressing his support and wishes for the local library. It was fascinating to discover that he was far more open than a few others in the room to the sort of changes library administrators and staff are proposing and making to keep their library responsive to community needs. But it was no surprise to find that he was as committed as anyone could be to remaining in that town, contributing to its growth, and helping sustain what gives it a heart.

Living in San Francisco, I have to admit that I’m not blind to the economic challenges so many people face. I see, meet, and talk with people who are homeless nearly every day—sitting on benches in my neighborhood, using local libraries, and enjoying the same public spaces I enjoy. I see and talk with people who find the cost of living prohibitive and who are thinking about leaving the Bay Area—or have already left the area and have just returned for a visit. So it’s not that the conversations in Kansas and Mendocino County were unusual. They were simply emotional and memorable reminders that communities need meeting spaces—the sort that libraries and other learning organizations can and often do provide. They need people who will listen to each other. And they need us to be moved enough to take actions that make our communities better than they already are.


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