There are conferences that start and end on a pre-announced schedule; you step away from work, you attend them, you enjoy them, and then you go back to work. And then there are conferences that feel as if they are already underway long before you arrive onsite or online for the first formally-scheduled event and seem to continue for days, weeks, or even months after the final formally-scheduled session concludes—which pretty much captures what I experienced nearly a month ago (January 5-7, 2021) during the Arizona State University ShapingEDU three-day Winter Games online conference for dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age.
You could, at the beginning of the Day 3 (January 7), already see it happening: through the discussions and plans for action that were forming and through the intersections between participants, you could see Winter Games transforming itself into part of a longer-lasting series of conversations and efforts to foster positive action extending far beyond what was happening. Attendees were engagingly interacting with presenters and panelists including elected officials, nonprofit and for-profit business representatives, educators, and a variety of other people exploring how collaboration across a variety of sectors might lead to short- and long-term positive results to everyone’s benefit.
Feeling as if I am (a month later and after having participated in yet another virtual conference) still very much participating in Winter Games and looking back on the final day and everything I saw and learned, I’m not at all surprised by what we accomplished. Nor by what we laid the groundwork to accomplish. The discussions during keynote sessions, during smaller, more intimate breakout sessions, and during a final late-afternoon wrap-up gathering were Frans Johansson’s Intersection (explored in his book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures) coming to life: people from a variety of backgrounds gathering to talk and listen to each other, exchange ideas, and then return to their own communities to disseminate those ideas in world-changing ways.
As Samantha Adams Becker—one of our community leaders—observed that day, a dreamer envisions a better future. A doer makes it happen. And a driver scales it so that the future is more evenly distributed. Which, to me, serves as an acknowledgement of the community’s increasing attention toward placing lifelong learning within the larger context of social change, social justice, and social challenges we are facing and attempting to address through the work we do. It’s a community of educators as activists—where learning is a tool rather than an ultimate goal or achievement.
As always, what we accomplish comes down, at least in part, to the stories we tell. Panelists during the Day Three opening keynote session, “Unlocking the Data to Drive a Smart Region Vision,” told stories about the efforts underway in the greater Phoenix area to foster results-producing collaborations across sectors. Panelists, responding to questions and comments from moderators Brian Dean (co-founder and director of operations for the Institute for Digital Progress) and Dominic Papa (vice-president, Smart State Initiatives as the Arizona Commerce Authority), included Corey Woods, Mayor of Tempe; Elizabeth Wentz, a professor and dean at Arizona State University (ASU); David Cuckow, Head of Digital at BSI; and Patricia Solis, executive director for the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at ASU.
My own notes from that session—captured in the form of tweets prepared while the session was underway—in no way fully capture the depth and nuances of the conversation, which you can watch and hear in its entirety through the archived recording on the ShapingEDU YouTube Community Channel. But they do offer a gateway to a world of thought well worth exploring. Mayor Woods, for example, talked at one point about how the city of Tempe uses data to determine what services stay open; he also noted that city officials are known for making city-government decision based on data, including data related to diversity and inclusion. Another panelist wryly and repeatedly noted that short questions often reveal the need for long, thoughtful answers influenced by data sets as we attempt to address the challenges we face. Collecting data, the panelists suggested, is one step in better serving citizens (and, we might add by extension, learners); it’s about creating networks to look at data, to ask critical questions, and being able to better meet people’s needs by drawing upon and using the data we collect.
Leaving that session with my head still swimmingly in a wonderfully deep pool of ideas, I next moved onto more familiar ground—at least for me—in a session exploring some of the latest upgrades offered through Zoom. Listening to Zoom representatives talk about everything from incorporating PowerPoint slide decks into virtual backgrounds within Zoom to campus-wide integration of communications (telephone) systems and security systems into Zoom demonstrates, once again, that this is a company and product that is far from being content resting on its already well-deserved laurels. The entire session did what I want any great learning opportunity to do: it made me hungry for an opportunity to explore some of what I was learning was possible, and I have, since leaving that session, been exploring ways to build what I learned into the work I am continuing to do with learners.
The final session of the morning, for me, was an intriguing, intense look into the ever-evolving world of massive open online courses (MOOCs), which have remained of interest to me (and, apparently, others) ever since their brief moment in the spotlight several years ago. Led by Arizona State University Director of Digital Innovation Dale Johnson, the “Global Adaptive Instruction Network: Building a Collaborative MOOC Model” was a stunning look at how MOOCs in theory and in fact continue to evolve in ways that offer learners and learning facilitators intriguing ways to create more personalized, engaging learning opportunities than might otherwise be available.
“MOOCs have really become more like the McDonald’s of Higher Ed…” Johnson noted at the beginning of his session. “A lot of people are served but of some questionable educational value….How do we enhance the MOOC?….We are moving from a mass production world to a mass personalization world….The challenge for us is how do we move, in education, from mass production…to mass personalization?”
As we move to delivering the right lesson to the right student at the right time, he suggests, a collaborative MOOC model offers us interesting and intriguing possibilities. (Those interested in learning more can view the archived recording on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel.)
There is so much more to say about Winter Games. About that fascinating intersection/Intersection at the heart of the event. And about the conversations that are continuing even though nearly a month has passed—including one I had earlier today with Stephen Hurley during a “ShapingEDU and Community” segment of his VoicEd Radio “Hurley in the Morning” program. There is much we can learn about organizing effective online learning opportunities/Intersections along these lines, as we see in the ShapingEDU “ShapingED-YOU Toolkit” available free online. And there is much to be said for innovative, playful communities of learning that operate seamlessly throughout the year face-to-face as well as online.
But the Intersection we have reached at this moment is one where looking back, looking forward, and relishing the present moment bring to mind a line I’ve found in poems and many other pieces of writing I have absorbed over the years: The end is the beginning. And if that remains true for Winter Games, the best is still ahead of us.
–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-eighth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the third in a series of posts inspired by the ShapingEDU Winter Games.