NMC 2014 Summer Conference: Not In My Wildest Dreams!

June 20, 2014

The words “ambassadors” and “learning spaces” might not be at the forefront of your mind if you’re attending an educational-technology conference, but they certainly were for me while I was in Portland, Oregon for the New Media Consortium (NMC) 2014 Summer [ed-tech] Conference earlier this week.
NMC Summer Conference - PortlandIt was, in fact, at the intersection of ambassadors and learning spaces that I again saw what most attracts me to ed-tech and all other aspects of training-teaching-learning: the learners themselves. And what I saw needs to be seen by every one of us involved in and passionate about learning.

The ambassador connection initially came within hours of my arrival onsite early in the week through my conference roommate, Jonathan Nalder—an Australian educator/ed-tech enthusiast who partially funded his trip to the conference by running an online fundraising campaign via Kickstarter. Nalder was among the more than 20 ed-tech aficionados worldwide chosen to serve in the first cohort of NMC ambassadors for their willingness to play the role of “knowledgeable members of NMC Horizon Project K-12 Advisory Boards in the discussions that lead to future K-12 editions of the NMC Horizon Report series, be the experts in their field in the NMC Commons, and gain recognition among an international body of colleagues as innovative educators,” as we are reminded on the NMC website. (The ambassadors earned their positions by submitting video applications that describe the innovations taking place at their schools and also give us a wonderful overview of what was happening in the world of K-12 ed-tech at the time those videos were submitted.) So it was an unexpected pleasure to join him and several other ambassadors for dinner—which is when the learning-spaces connections began.

Hearing NMC Ambassador Lisa Gustinelli chat, during dinner, about a library that had become an “innovation center” she recently joined in a private high school in Florida teed up the topic nicely because it connected transformations I have been following: learning spaces that feature equipment and furniture that can easily be moved to accommodate the needs of learners and learning facilitators; collaborative environments; and the continuing evolution of libraries in ways that more overtly acknowledge and promote their long-standing role as learning centers. My own extremely rewarding onsite conference explorations of learning spaces continued during the week through a series of experiences including attendance at Houston Community College Northwest Director of Technology and Instructional Computing Tom Haymes’ session on idea spaces, and Al Biles’ engaging session providing an overview of innovations at the Rochester Institute of Technology Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity (MAGIC)—which is beautifully described on the MAGIC website.

The ambassador-and-learning-spaces connection came full circle early in the afternoon of the final day of the conference when I joined colleagues in exploring the conference “Idea Lab”—a stimulating ed-tech version of poster sessions designed to serve as “a dynamic place where creativity flows,” and where displays took various shapes including simple yet elegantly-designed stand-alone posters and informal presentations that incorporated content viewable on tablets.

 

Cheryl Steighner with students

Cheryl Steighner with students

Walking over to the “Social Media: Connecting Young Learners to the World” session organized by NMC Ambassador Cheryl Steighner, I found what I hadn’t even known I was seeking: learners at the center of an Idea Lab session about the training-teaching-learning process. And not just any learners: Steighner’s co-presenters (lovingly referred to as her “Steighnerds”—were an amazing group of fourth- and fifth-grade students who were the youngest presenters ever to be included in an NMC Summer Conference, conference organizers confirmed. With Steighner standing nearby and intentionally taking a back seat to her learners, the students described how they had studied an interwoven variety of subjects by using Skype, Twitter, and other social media tools. Via Skype, for example, they interviewed students from other parts of the United States; their initial challenge, shaped through gamification techniques and involving a series of yes-no questions, was to determine where their Skype colleagues were physically located. Once they determined the geographical setting inhabited by their fellow students, they located and marked those places on a map that is usually kept in their classroom and was brought onsite to the NMC conference to be incorporated into their Idea Lab display. But the learning didn’t stop at that elementary level during the Skype sessions; the students learned about their Skype-partners’ cities and states through conversations during those online sessions. The students also honed their English reading and writing skills by composing grammatically correct sentences that became tweets, and by using iPads to compose writing assignments on a variety of topics including the civil rights movement in America.

Skyping to learning geograpny...and more

Skyping to learn geography…and more

Most striking about this blended learning/blended presentation approach is that it made me think far more broadly about the interwoven nature of our learning spaces than I ever had before. The Idea Lab space was a temporary learning space in which adults were learning about Steighner’s approach to teaching as well as about her learners’ sophisticated and enthusiastic approach to learning. The students’ learning space is an intriguingly blended onsite-online classroom that reaches as far as Steighner, Skype, Twitter, and NMC Summer Conference attendance will take them. The conference itself was a dynamically-inspiring learning space comprised of numerous elements: the smaller overlapping learning spaces ranging from the Idea Lab displays, workshops on massive open online courses (MOOCS) and other topics, and session break-out rooms to the larger ballroom settings where plenary sessions were held—and then beyond the hotel where the conference took place, extending into the restaurant where the ambassadors and I talked about innovation spaces and so much more Monday night, then extending even further into another restaurant the following evening with a slightly expanded group that included NMC staff, a workshop facilitator, and one of the conference plenary speakers.

NMC CEO Larry Johnson chats with one of the youngest conference presenters

NMC CEO Larry Johnson chats with one of the youngest conference presenters

I clearly wasn’t the only one to notice the spectacular nature of what was occurring in this wonderfully expansive learning space. NMC CEO Larry Johnson, visiting with Steighner’s learners during the Idea Lab session, was clearly as moved by the experience as any of us were. After listening to the students describe what they have gained, he reached into his pocket and in what was clearly an unplanned act, handed each of them a business card and told them that when these fourth- and fifth-grade students were ready to enter the workforce, there would be a place waiting for them at the New Media Consortium.

“When NMC started the Ambassador Program a year ago, did you have any idea that people like Cheryl would be producing results like this at an NMC conference?” I asked him a few minutes later.

“Not in my wildest dreams,” he responded without hesitation.

It simply has to be said: the ambassador project is one well worth observing and emulating, and those fourth- and fifth-grade learners who are becoming our partners merit all the attention we can give them, for they are going to be entering our workplaces sooner than we think. And the learning experiences and expectations they bring with them are going to offer us magnificent opportunities to continue growing with and responding to the evolving challenges of training-teaching-learning—or they are going to leave us in the dust.

“They are going to change the world,” Steighner predicts in a way that cannot be denied, for they already are as we spend time with them. Learn from them. And are inspired to be even better than we are at what we do.


NMC 2014 Summer Conference: Lighting Candles and Taking It Down  

June 18, 2014

Listening to Tom Haymes (director, technology & instructional computing at Houston Community College Northwest) talk about how to create idea spaces this afternoon at the New Media Consortium (NMC) 2014 Summer [ed-tech] Conference here in Portland, Oregon, I realized that worlds were converging. What better place, after all, to be hearing and dreaming about those creatively dynamic and innovative academic learning centers than at a conference which brings colleagues together to at least temporarily form an inspiring space for the development and sharing of ideas?

Haymes--Idea_SpacesThe topic Haymes was addressing—the need to be “looking at our spaces, the time allotted for reflection, and the mental, institutional and cultural structures we put into place to support teaching and learning”—isn’t just something of interest to those of us at this first-rate ed-tech conference; it’s a topic that is essential to what I see my training-teaching-learning colleagues in workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors and in libraries, museums, and other community-based learning organizations considering, promoting, and doing.

While Haymes posed it in terms of academic settings by rhetorically asking why our classrooms often continue to look the way they have looked for generations, he could have just as easily been posing the same question to anyone involved in training-teaching-learning. Whether we are absorbing gems from the best of lecturers or suffering through deadly-dull lectures, we have access to a steady stream of research showing how relatively ineffective the lecture as a learning tool is, yet it continues to be the paradigm in much of what we encounter through our lifelong learning efforts.

Increasingly, however, we are also encountering wonderful extensions of the decades-long search for models more effective than the learner-as-sponge lecture model: the best of our connectivist massive open online courses (MOOCs), for example, create cross-platform virtual settings for engaging learning experiences; the information commons model that has extended beyond the walls of academic libraries into public library settings seems to be morphing into makerspaces and innovation centers that are changing the shape of some of our community learning centers, and those idea spaces that Haymes so tantalizingly dangled before us this afternoon give us something else to dream about—and strive to produce. It’s all part of moving us from what Haymes described as the quintessential learner question—“What do I have to do to get an A in this course?”—to the all-too-infrequently-asked question, “What can I learn in this class?”

And Haymes wasn’t quite done with us at that point; he also described how he and his campus colleagues are designing for synergistic innovation: “We really designed the entire campus to be a learning space, where all of the pieces work together”—which, again, is a wonderful goal for all of us in training-teaching-learning to explore and pursue since it places an emphasis on the same holistic approach to learning-space design as we should be taking to the learning process itself.

NMC Summer Conference - PortlandWe come full circle here: classrooms as idea spaces, and conferences as idea spaces where learning occurs naturally. We heard NMC CEO Larry Johnson begin the first full day of formal keynote addresses, presentations, and other activities with the playful directive “Let’s light this candle!” We heard him at the end of the day offer what I’ve come to accept as the “Conference Lament”–an acknowledgement that when you convene a creative group of trainer-teacher-lifelong learners who incorporate conference backchannels into their learning experience, you’re going to find that no conference wireless system can possibly keep up with all of us: “We’re an Internet organization; everywhere we go, we take it down,” he told conference participants in a moment of levity near the end of the day. “”We bought you a great Internet experience; I’m sorry you’re not getting it.” But what we did get as we reconvened as a group at the end of the day was a fabulous series of five-minute presentations from colleagues whose learning innovations make us wonder why we would settle for anything less than the most adventurous and productive approaches possible. And the icing on the cake was an end-of-day keynote presentation by photographer-visual storyteller Bill Frakes, whose short films on cranes and “a teacher remembered” were stunningly, heartbreakingly beautiful explorations of artistry, creativity, innovative use of technology, and the power of storytelling.

There’s still another full day of sharing our temporary idea space here in Portland. And I have no doubt that when it comes to an end, the sense of augmented emotional reality that this sort of immersive environment creates will once again begin to dissipate. But the important and more long-term transformation that the idea spaces in our lives inspire are the learning model most worth pursuing—which is the gift our NMC colleagues are once again providing.


NMC 2014 Summer Conference (Prelude): Nomenclature and Starting Points  

June 16, 2014

There was a time when the term “innovation center”—at least for me—reflected one of the world capitals described by author/thought leader/researcher Richard Florida in books including The Rise of the Creative Class and Who’s Your City?

NMC Summer Conference - PortlandBut that was before I arrived in Portland, Oregon earlier today, a full day before the 2014 New Media Consortium (NMC) Summer [ed-tech] Conference formally begins with preconference workshops; by the time I was having dinner with several conference attendees earlier this evening, I was learning from one of them—Lisa Gustinelli—what innovations centers have become. As director of instructional technology at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Boca Raton, Florida, she has the fascinating challenge of helping familiarize her colleagues at a newly-opened innovation center with what the center means to the school, the faculty, and the learners it serves.

Listening to Gustinelli, I realized that what students, faculty, and the school librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas are beginning to encounter is a perfect example of a disruptive technological change that combines elements of several tech developments we have been following through the NMC Horizon Project (e.g., smart classrooms, telepresence, and collaborative environments) along with a few we haven’t yet encountered (e.g., classrooms with glass walls upon which learners can write). Teachers not only must learn to incorporate new technology into their day-to-day work, but must deal with the repercussions of working in a classroom that is, through its glass walls, visible to those passing by rather than being the more self-contained onsite or online space in which so many of us have worked during our entire training-teaching-learning career. Furthermore, the school librarian is going to quickly have to cope with an environment where books are in storage while digital resources are in the forefront of faculty-librarian/media specialist/learner interactions.

And lest any of us think of this as someone else’s challenge, let’s not forget that the sort of transformation Gustinelli was describing is not going to remain behind the glass walls of a private high school for long if it leads to learning successes in that environment; those learners—and many more like them—are going to graduate into our college and university settings sooner than later, join our workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts, and use our libraries to support their lifelong learning endeavors.

nmc.logo.cmykThere’s an even more interesting—but rarely considered—aspect to the challenges we all face as our learning environments quickly change to reflect the rapid rate of technological change that is all around us: we literally don’t have the words to describe what we are doing in a world where our old labels (e.g., teacher, trainer, learning facilitator) are simply not broad and rich enough to capture the nuances of all we are doing. It’s as if we’re facing a vocabulary deficiency that is every bit as challenging as the attempt to define digital literacy has become. We see this as school librarians struggle to not completely lose that term to the more contemporary “media specialist” appellation. It’s the same struggle we see happening in workplace learning and performance as ASTD (the American Society for Training & Development) transforms itself into ATD (the Association for Talent Development). “Talent Development” may be where industry jargon is headed, but “training” is still the far-from-adequate descriptor that is most familiar to trainer-teacher-learners.

And yet that sort of wicked problem—not only dealing with the changes coming our way, but also finding the words to define and describe what we do—is a large part of what attracts us to attend the 2014 NMC Summer conference. In fact, NMC CEO Larry Johnson addresses it directly in his “Welcome” statement in the conference program: “The NMC was founded on the values of collaboration and sharing, and every year, new projects are born from the conversations that take place here. Every year, I look forward to the chance to learn from some of the very best minds in new media anywhere, and judging from the program, I will learn a lot this year from all of you.”

So it’s probably no surprise that as our pre-conference dinner was breaking up and someone wondered aloud when the conference formally begins, I didn’t miss a beat before responding: “Oh, that’s easy; it started the minute we sat down together this evening and started talking to each other.”


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