ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting: Radical Meeting, Learning, and Collaboration

February 5, 2015

You didn’t have to be in Chicago from Friday, January 30 to Tuesday, February 3 to avoid being left behind. American Library Association (ALA) staff, members, and presenters, during the Association’s 2015 Midwinter Meeting, displayed an amazing, noteworthy commitment to bringing colleagues together regardless of geographic, economic, and temporal barriers—and, in the process, provided an example every trainer-teacher-learner can benefit from exploring.

alamw15--LogoAssociation staff began the process, in the days before the conference began, by reaching out to members with a set of tips on how to be part of the conference whether onsite or offsite; they also carried the popular ALA Youth Media Awards ceremony to offsite members through a live webcast of the event. This is clearly not an association that cares only for those paying registration fees and booking rooms in conference hotels.

Onsite individual Association members helped augment these efforts connecting offsite colleagues to the conference in a variety of ways, including the use of a Google Hangout and an extremely active Twitter feed that fostered plenty of back and forth. The Hangout, designed to serve as an episode of Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training podcast series for those involved in training-teaching-learning within libraries, was a successful experiment in creating a gathering that, through the discussion of “bringing offsite colleagues into the room,” engaged colleagues in the moment and produced a 30-minute archived recording demonstrating how Hangouts work (and, in their weaker moments, don’t work) to extend live conversations beyond the barriers of physical rooms and to further extend them beyond their initial synchronous interactions. And the multi-day #alamw15 flow of tweets from onsite and offsite Association members was so heavy during the ALA Youth Media Awards ceremony Monday morning (February 2) that it completely overwhelmed the feed from the social media tool (Twubs) I was using to monitor the exchanges; new tweets appeared to pop up at one-second intervals, and a notification at the top of the Twubs page confirmed, at one point, that more than 480 tweets were waiting to move from a queue into the actual Twubs feed I was observing on my mobile device—which means the feed was, at that point, a full eight minutes behind what all of us were producing. The fast, steady pulse of tweets flowing into the feed made me feel as if I were watching a heart monitor somehow attached to an Olympic athlete engaged in a sprint.

Lankes--Radical_Guide_to_New_LibrarianshipIt seemed that the ALA community’s commitment to inclusivity never faltered. When Atlas of New Librarianship author R. David Lankes began setting up for his hour-long “Radical Conversations on New Librarianship” session Monday morning, for example, he obviously was fully immersed in extending the conversation (and the size of his room) through the same efforts others had pursued. Using Adobe Connect to reach out to offsite participants and using a projector to display the chat feed so those of us inside the physical space at McCormick Place in Chicago could see what our offsite colleagues were saying, Lankes made it possible for us to at least be aware of both sides (onsite and offsite) of an ongoing, intriguing conversation about how librarianship is continuing to evolve to the benefit of all whom it serves. It was clear—as was the case with that Google Hangout Sunday afternoon—that the conversation would continue after the formal session ended: several entry portals to the conversation remain on Lankes’ blog, and the book that will come out of those conversations is sure to inspire additional exchanges long after the ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting begins fading in our memories.

ALA_LogoAnother extended no-one-left-behind conversation that was easy to join during the conference was the Association’s current efforts to update its strategic plan. We often hear, from ALA staff, that “the conversation starts here” at the Midwinter Meeting and the Annual (summer) Conference, but the current strategic planning process shows the conversations are also continuous—beginning before we arrive onsite, continuing (rather than starting) while we are face to face, and extending far beyond the few days we have together during those meetings and conferences. Three town hall meetings had been held online from November through December 2014, and archived recordings remain available for those who don’t want to be left behind; several 90-minute onsite “kitchen table conversation” sessions facilitated by Association members during the 2015 Midwinter Conference were open to anyone interested in helping shape the strategic planning process and, by extension, the near-term future of the Association itself. Conversations are scheduled to continue as the planning process proceeds, and anyone paying attention knows that this is yet another example of an association keenly aware of a foundational tenet: without membership engagement, there is no real association in any sense of that word.

Those of us involved in training-teaching-learning—and nearly everyone in libraries falls into that category at some time during day-to-day library work—are far from unfamiliar with what was on display at the Midwinter Conference. The nurturing of community that took place there (as well as before and after the event) is what we strive to nurture as we develop and maintain the valuable communities of learning that provide meaningful experiences for those we serve. It’s what connects conferences. Workshops. Webinars. Courses. And every other learning opportunity part of our overall dynamic learning landscape. And I, for one, am glad to be part of associations that do more than understand that idea—they transform the concept from idea to reality in ways that make a difference to everyone they/we touch.


The Boring Patient: Continuing to Learn With R. David Lankes

December 12, 2014

R. David Lankes, A.K.A. author of the recently-released The Boring Patient, is a very dangerous man.

Lankes--Boring_PatientIn everything he does, he casts out his line. Hooks us. Slowly reels us in without at all making us aware of what he’s doing while he is doing it. And then he does what he always does so well: he makes us learn in ways that transform the way we see the world we all inhabit. He is, in other words, the consummate scholar, speaker, writer, teacher, storyteller, library advocate, and so much more. But above all, he’s the sort of character Anne Lamott describes in Bird by Bird, her wonderful book about writing and the creative process: the type of character we would follow anywhere—even to the county dump. Or, in The Boring Patient, to doctors’ offices, hospitals, cancer treatment centers, and, at one point, to Disney World.

Written to share the experiences he had after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the book “is not about cancer. It is about my response to being diagnosed, living with, and being treated for cancer,” he tells us in the first few pages. “That is an important distinction because cancer is not funny. Cancer sucks. Cancer does not teach, cancer does not preach, cancer does not comfort, or inspire, or inform. Cancer kills.”

From beginning to end, this brief (138-page) book is a finely-crafted story that displays humor in deep moments of despair without in any way diminishing the seriousness of Lankes’s situation. He never loses sight of his well-honed ability to teach. He occasionally does (very effectively) preach—as is the case in the first sections of the book, when he addresses poignant yet no-holds-barred letters addressed “Dear Doctors,” “Dear Medical Students,” “Dear Heroic Noble Inspiring Cancer Survivor,” and “Dear Everyone Else” in a way that makes us want to buy multiple copies of the book and send them to every doctor and medical student we know. He invokes his wonderfully wicked sense of humor to recall how he and his wife had to comfort others who were finding it very difficult to deal with the life-threatening situations Lankes so often faced in spite of having been assured that those with Hodgkin’s had an extremely high recovery rate. And he continually finds ways to inspire us to find the reserves of emotional strength he found within himself through the support of his family, friends, and colleagues.

Lankes--Virtual_DaveThe cast of characters is far-reaching and well-drawn. We meet “The Bringer of Doom,” an oncology fellow so lacking in social skills that she coldly tells Lankes and his wife that he has Hodgkin’s, then immediately separates the couple so she can whisk him away for a bone marrow biopsy “as the lab was about to close.” The Bringer resurfaces much later in the book with an equally abrupt report on the state of his health that turns out to be emotionally devastating—and completely inaccurate. There are, on the other side of the spectrum of people we meet, the nurses and doctors who seem to understand that “[b]eing a good doctor means being concerned with my life, not what might end it.” Through brief, poignant passages, we meet his wife (Anne Marie) who becomes “Xena the Patient Advocate”—a reminder that the advocates in our lives are among the most valuable assets and resources we have, as anyone familiar with the American medical system knows before reading even a few pages of The Boring Patient. And we even meet Bambi the pole dancer, who accompanies him through some of the most trying phases of his treatment—but let’s not ruin the punchline here: you’ll have to read the book to learn more about Bambi.

Most impressively and importantly for those of us involved in training-teaching-learning, Lankes never loses sight of the important role he plays for his readers—the role of someone who makes information (i.e., information about what he has experienced) meaningful to those of us receiving it through the book: “Doctor, professor, teacher, librarian all can no longer believe that simply pushing information at someone and if necessary fixing it later is acceptable,” he says both as someone who received plenty of information about cancer and as someone who consistently encourages and inspires us to think about the role of information providers in society. “When I learn, when I am ‘informed,’ it is more than my memory and reason you affect. It is my emotions, my needs, my image of self” (p. 111).

And if we can carry that learner-centric view of what we do as information providers and facilitators of learning, we will have emerged from our journey with this not-so-boring patient the better for having joined him.


Training-Teaching-Learning and Librarians: Describing What We Aren’t

July 15, 2014

Having recently written about the wicked problem of trying to find words that adequately describe what we do in our ever-changing work environment, I found myself completely drawn into a question forwarded by a colleague (Jill Hurst-Wahl) via Twitter this morning: “What are some things a librarian isn’t?”

ASTD_to_ATDThe basic question about what any of us isn’t is one that far transcends librarianship and obviously extends into the entire field of training-teaching-learning (of which I clearly believe librarianship is a part) and many other fields. One current example is provided by the way the American Society for Training & Development recently completed a 2.5-year-long effort to find language other than “training” and “development” or “workplace learning and performance” to represent the work its members do; the solution was adoption of a new name (Association for Talent Development) that is far from the obvious solution Association managers were seeking.

Tackling the question of what librarians (and other trainer-teacher-learners) are not, I quickly found myself sinking deeper and deeper into quicksand. Trying to be absolutely ridiculous, I started with the idea that we’re not ditch-diggers—but then realized I know of librarians who occasionally become involved in digging into the soil within library gardens. Then I mulled over the idea that we’re not plumbers—but recalled working with colleagues who had to unclog plugged drains and toilets in library facilities. I even briefly thought about the idea that we’re not chauffeurs—but was quickly able to recall colleagues picking me up at airports or hotels and delivering me to sites where I’ve been involved in facilitating library events. So I puckishly fell into the only response that made sense to me in the moment: a librarian is not a cab driver; nearly everything else is on the table.

And that, I believe, captures part of the beauty, wonder, challenge, and difficulty of looking at librarianship, training-teaching-learning, and so many other professions that exist or are about to exist. (For more on the theme of trying to imagine what sort of work we’ll be doing just a few years from now, please see Michael Wesch’s moving video “A Vision of Students Today” and one of the students’ comments about preparing for jobs that don’t yet exist.)

The context for the question about what librarians are not is the University of Syracuse iSchool (the School of Information Studies) IST 511 “Introduction to the Library and Information Profession” course currently being taught by R. David Lankes. In the draft course syllabus, Lankes encourages his learners to engage in “content exploration” through participation  in poster sessions centered on the question of what a librarian is. Some of his learners have obviously taken the challenge a step further by asking what librarians are not—themselves inspired by the Magritte image of a pipe, accompanied by the words “Leci n’est pas une pipe”—and  it makes me wonder how training-teaching-learning colleagues would answer a similar question about our own profession.

ALA2014--LogoWhat struck me, during recent conversations on this topic with numerous colleagues at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Las Vegas, was how much we are all struggling with finding exactly the right, concise word or combination of words to describe what we do. “Librarian,” for the average library user (or former user), is still a term firmly connected to the use of books—which completely ignores the numerous other roles library staff members play (e.g., subject-matter expert, often in more than one field of study; learning facilitator; innovation facilitator, through makerspaces, innovation centers, and other learning centers; community partner; grant-writer/fundraiser; manager/supervisor; writer;  and so much more). In the same way, “talent developer” and “trainer” are equally and woefully inadequate to reflect our roles as learning facilitators; change managers/change facilitators; coaches and mentors; instructional designers; evaluators; writers; presenters; and so much more.

As the learners interacted with each other via Twitter today—and thanks to Jill Hurst-Wahl and others, with many of us not previously affiliated with the IST 511 course—they were clearly having fun with the topic. One student suggested “a librarian is not an obstacle on the path to equality,” “a librarian is not a building or a shelf of books or a search engine OR a computer,” and “a librarian is not a follower.” Another learner suggested that “a librarian is not a book-sitter but is a community advocate.” And Jill herself suggested that “a librarian is not timid.”

What is clear from the exchanges so far is that librarians (and other trainer-teacher-learners) are also not the kind of people who limit their exchanges to well-defined insular spaces; the extension of this class project into a larger virtual classroom that includes many of us not formally enrolled in the course is just one of numerous examples that librarians and many others are defined and driven by their ability to function within a variety of settings that quickly shift without warning.

From "Virtual Dave...Real Blog"

From “Virtual Dave…Real Blog”

I don’t envy Lankes’s learners as they struggle with the overall question of defining what they aren’t and what they are: Trying to define what librarians aren’t (or are) in just a few words appears to be an impossible task—one that is equally daunting for trainer-teacher-learners (a term I’ve consistently used for lack of anything better to suggest the scope of the work many of us do). But I do envy them for the possibilities that are before them as they build upon the work of those who preceded them; find ways to partner with colleagues in the larger training-teaching-learning sandbox; and continue to define and create labels, policies, and practices that will help them maintain the key roles they play in the communities they/we serve.


R. David Lankes, Learning, and Working Overtime

April 29, 2014

Listening to a recording of R. David Lankes’s “The Faithful and the Radicals” over the weekend felt like going to church. It’s inspirational. Transformative. And steeped in a sense of the divine. It is the sort of plea for community, collaboration, and action that runs consistently from the earliest seminal public presentations of our history through a continuum that includes more recent efforts including Jon Stewart’s speech at the end of his Rally to Restore Sanity in October 2010.

Lankes--Faithful_RadicalAlthough “Faithful and Radicals” is ostensibly about school librarians, libraries, and the society-shaping roles they play and need to play in the extended communities they serve, it’s really far much more than that. If we are at all interested in the present and future of our communities—and who among us can afford not to be?—Lankes’s thoughts can’t help but touch and move us.

He is, as always, funny. (Who else would jokingly threaten to slash the tires on our cars if we spend more time creating booklists and pages full of links to online resources that soon will be broken than fulfilling our potential to contribute to the success of our communities?) Engaging. (The positive reactions to what he says are audible throughout the recording.) Radical (in the complex, multifaceted way that the word “radical” in its varying definitions implies: foundational, rooted, fundamental, and cool as well as extreme). Visionary. (His proposed mission statement for librarians—“The Mission of Librarians is to Improve Society through Facilitating Knowledge Creation in their Communities”—flows right off the pages of The Atlas of New Librarianship into “The Faithful and the Radical.”) Poignant. And humble. (He actually pokes fun at his own title for the presentation, commenting on how it could serve equally well as the name of a PBS production or a soap opera.) Above all, he’s obviously an incredibly talented teacher-trainer-learner—as I learned while participating in his New Librarianship Master Class (a massive open online course) and writing extensively about it last year. And all of those attributes combine to make him the sort of mover and shaker who keeps the world alive, vibrant, dynamic, thinking, and smiling—which is, in itself, a point worth lingering over momentarily, for it wasn’t at all clear a year ago that he would still be with us. He has openly, painfully, and beautifully, via his blog, chronicled his experiences with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and he begins “Faithful and Radicals” by noting that it’s his first major public presentation since undergoing stem cell transplants.

Altas_New_Librarianship--CoverBut that’s just the backdrop to much of what he accomplishes with “Faithful and Radicals.” His starting point is something every one of us needs to remember: that all of us—regardless of profession, interests, values, and experiences—has moments in which our faith is severely tested and doubts can become overwhelming. With that in mind, he recalls a recent, personal crisis of faith in which he asked himself why he continues to remain part of the group fighting to assure that libraries—and, more importantly—librarians (which, as I’ve written many times before, are our close allies in training-teaching-learning, and vice versa) are supported and that they are active participants in shaping their communities.

When all is said and done, the answer was quite simple. He decided that the strong role librarians play in serving communities—similar to the role I see any great trainer-teacher-learner playing—is so overwhelming powerful that he was “unwilling to be part of those who stood by and destroyed something I loved. Ultimately, the decision was, ‘I have a limited time on this Earth, and I’m going to use it to build up and be part of what I believe in because I have faith…that this stuff works. I have faith that we improve people’s lives. I have faith in you.”

It’s far more than the oft-quoted mission to support reading, he noted, adding that he actually hates the pervasive libraries-support-reading promotions because libraries and librarians promote so much more that is essential to learning, community-building, and creativity.

“Working with kids on an interest of theirs to develop an interest of theirs…this gets a big big big happy smiley face,” he reminds us as he moves us into a deeper, richer exploration of what it means to play leadership roles in our communities through libraries or any other significant learning organization. “It’s about using resources to learn, to improve, to build knowledge,” and to help prepare learners for their roles as “stewards of this world.”

The current movement to support the creation and growth of makerspaces within libraries, he suggests, is only part of the story—far from rooted in questions about whether to purchase a 3D printer or any other form of technology to create that makerspace: “If your library is not already a makerspace, you’re doing it wrong.”

Nearing the end of his presentation, he doubles back to overtly address his decision to undergo all the brutally awful treatment he has endured. Reflects on what it means to choose between giving up or fighting against a life-threatening disease through potentially lethal treatments. And acknowledge that surrender would have deprived him of the opportunity to be with us long enough to share “The Faithful and the Radical” with us.

From "Virtual Dave...Real Blog"

From “Virtual Dave…Real Blog”

“I have been at the edge of certain death. When I got my stem cell transplant…I had to go through terrible chemo, chemo that ripped sores in my tongue, chemo that tore out all my intestinal tract, chemo that took my hair, took my energy, took my ability to walk up a flight of stairs, and it even killed the very marrow in my bones. I voluntarily took a lethal injection. Why? Because I had faith. I had faith in my doctors. I had faith in my nurses, and I had faith in my caretaker and my wife and my family and myself that I was going to get there, that I was going to face down certain death and that I was going to move ahead, and I’m here without a hair in my head to show for it. But I’m here…

“Faith can be hard. Radical can be hard. Moving out of your comfort zone and seeing yourself as larger than you think you are can be hard. But it is essential. I have been through my crisis of faith, You have seen your crisis of faith. We will live through it, and we will use it to become even stronger radicals. We will use it to take that faith message to those who don’t really have it…”

Reaching the end of that recording, I was left rethinking long-held beliefs about what decision I might make if/when faced with the sort of life-threatening situation Lankes has struggled; I have to admit that what he says and what he does has, in the most significant of ways, served the purpose of great learning facilitation: he made me do some serious rethinking about personal comfort and preferences as opposed to the greater responsibilities each of us has.

Lankes could have opted to forego the fight. In a sense, however, he decided to work beyond the shift life had apparently decided to assign him and do some overtime by staying with us. It’s the sort of overtime for which there can be no adequate payment. But perhaps we can do our part in rewarding him by listening. Taking action. Thinking about the need to transcend our own comfort zones to take actions for the greater good of the people, the communities, and the societies that support us. And continuing to stand with those we love and admire through the best and worst of times in the hope that the best remains ahead of us.


Standing With Our Friends (Part 2 of 2): I Watched You Disappear

April 25, 2014

That awful moment has again arrived: a cherished friend within one of the communities of learning that sustains me has lost a loved one.

I_Watched_You_DisappearIt was not an easy passing. My friend’s mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer during Easter weekend after all the usual pain, struggles with a health-care system that just doesn’t seem mature enough to adequately support those who are ill and those who love them, and numerous literal and figurative dark nights that never quite produced an obvious dawn.

But among the most stunning elements of this entire passage was the consistent reminder of what it means to be part of an extended onsite-online blended community in which friends stand with friends.

My friend—a fabulously gifted writer in addition to being an inspiring trainer-teacher-learner—was never at a loss for words, nor was she at any point reticent about sharing the most intimate details about what she, her mother, and others within her inner circle were feeling and experiencing. The moments of rage at health-care providers who seemed remarkably insensitive to basic needs. The moments of gratitude expressed toward health-care providers who were the onsite guardian angels. The emails and phone calls and social media postings. And the sharing of information that might be helpful to others in similar situations. All of these interwoven elements combined to produce one of the most moving invitations to celebrate a life well lived and mourn a loss I can imagine accepting.

The results produced amazing reminders of how interconnected we all remain in spite of all the ridiculous assertions we encounter that tech tools and other changes in our rapidly-changing world are somehow stopping people from communicating with each other at a meaningful level. Each time I read a Facebook post from my friend and then followed the dozens of responses from people I knew and from people I had not previously encountered (but came know through these exchanges), I felt my world broadening a bit and also understood that our ever-extending community was gaining the additional strength it would need to adequately support our friend, her mother and father, and others close to them. Every time I followed a link to read something my friend had read and from which she had taken solace, I found my own emotional connections to her experiences and her impending loss growing.

An afternoon during which she mentioned Anya Krugovoy Silver’s latest collection of poetry—I Watched You Disappear—was one of many turning points. A few lines from the title poem (“That fucking doctor killed you. Killed you./But I keep sending e-mails to your account.”) sent me racing to my local bookstore eager to obtain and devour a copy of what includes some of the most beautifully moving poetry I have read in years. Those lines opened a door to conversations my friend and I might not otherwise have had.

My friend’s post written on the evening of her mother’s departure (“Go rest high on that mountain, sweet Mama—your work here is done but will live on…She looked up at me, took her last breath, and was gone…”) put me right there with them in ways I would have never have expected to experience.

From "Virtual Dave...Real Blog"

From “Virtual Dave…Real Blog”

And a from-the-heart set of reflections (“Stand for Those We Miss and Love”) from one of my friend’s colleagues (R. David Lankes) posted earlier this week included passages so searingly poignant that I feel as if our collaborative endeavors over the past several months should once and for all silence anyone who disparages the gifts provided through effective use of social media tools: “I stand as someone who has fought with cancer and as someone who will remember you. Someone who says your life was important. I stand to remind those who remain that life can be hard. I stand to remind everyone that cancer takes and takes and takes. I stand to remind everyone that no matter how much we are loved, or how much good we seek to do, we all can be taken too soon.”

This evening, as I write these words I have been trying to compose for nearly a week, I find cause to celebrate even while consumed by the sense of loss I keenly feel. I celebrate the members of my various communities of learning who help me understand and appreciative what I have. I celebrate the depth of experience those friends reveal and to which they lead me. And I celebrate the importance of remembering we can never be too busy to take the time required to stand with our friends.


On Learning, Testing, and Being Tone Deaf

September 20, 2013

There are plenty of reasons to believe that multiple-choice and true-false tests are among the worst ways to measure whether learning is successful; in the best of circumstances, they tend to measure only the lowest levels of learning achieved, and in the worst of situations they leave respondents without any acceptable responses from which to choose. Yet we seem to remain tone deaf to concerns and criticisms voiced by educators for decades and continue to rely on them.

From Skley's Flickr photostream at http://tinyurl.com/machqej

From Skley’s Flickr photostream at http://tinyurl.com/machqej

The multiple-choice/true-false approach is pervasive in much of what we encounter day to day within and outside of the world of learning. Surveys often incorporate these methods to make tabulation of the results easy—after all, it can easily be argued, we can’t afford to engage in more personalized labor-intensive methods of collecting data (e.g., reading short- or essay-length responses)—although there are signs that mechanizing the testing and grading process in ever-more sophisticated ways is increasingly becoming possible.

But relying on mechanical methods so obviously produces mechanical results that I believe we need to question our own assumptions, be honest about what those assumptions are producing, and seek better solutions than we so far have managed to produce.

A couple of recent experiences helped me understand the frustrations and weaknesses of multiple-choice/true-false testing at a visceral level: taking two very good and very different massive open online courses (MOOCs), and responding to a survey that relied solely on multiple-choice responses which, because they were poorly written, didn’t provide any appropriate responses for some of us who would have been very willing to participate in the project to which the survey was connected.

etmoocLet’s look at the MOOCs first: #etmooc (the Educational Technology & Media MOOC developed and facilitated by Alec Couros and his wonderful gang of “conspirators” earlier this year) and R. David Lankes’s “New Librarianship Master Class” (a MOOC developed and delivered under the auspices of the University of Syracuse School of Information Studies). #etmooc, as a connectivist MOOC (where learning, production of learning objects including blog posts and videos demonstrating the skills that learners were acquiring, and online connections between learners were among the central elements and testing was nonexistent) nurtured development of a community of learning that continues to exist among some of the participants months after the course formally ended. The New Librarianship Master Class, grounded in the more traditional academic model of documenting specific learning goals, relied more on standardized testing to document learning results and offered less evidence that learners were using what they were learning.

The frustrations that some of us mentioned after struggling with standardized questions that didn’t really reflect what we had learned and what we would be capable of doing with that newly-gained knowledge resurfaced for me last night as I was trying to complete in an online research survey. Facing a series of multiple-choice questions, I quickly realized that whoever prepared the options available as responses to the survey questions had underestimated the range of experiences the survey audience had—was, in fact, tone deaf to the nuances of the situation. Opting for results that could be scored mechanically rather than requiring any sort of human engagement in the tabulation process, the writer(s) forgot to include an option for “other” to catch any of us whose experiences didn’t fit any of the options described among the possible multiple-choice responses—which, of course, meant that at least a few of us who might otherwise have been willing to provide useful information abandoned the opportunity and turned to more rewarding endeavors. (And no, there wasn’t an opportunity to simply skip those questions-without-possible-answers so we could stay involved.)

Abandoning a potentially intriguing survey had few repercussions other than the momentary annoyance of being excluded from an interesting project. Being forced to respond to standardized tests that don’t accurately document a learner’s level of mastery of a subject is obviously more significant in that it can affect academic or workplace advancement—and it’s something that is going to have to be addressed in those MOOCs that don’t take the connectivist approach—which raises a broader question that need not be answered within the confines of pre-specified options on a multiple-choice test: why are we not advocating for more effective ways and resources to encourage and document learning successes in both onsite and online settings? Expediency need not be an excuse for producing second-rate results.


MOOCS: Additional Reflections on Great (and Not-So-Great) Expectations

August 23, 2013

We’re far from finished with our efforts to determine how massive open online courses (MOOCs) will fit into our learning landscape, recently published articles and personal experiences continue to suggest.

A MOOCmate’s engaging “A Record of My #ETMOOC Experience, 2013”; a Chronicle of Higher Education article suggesting that “The MOOC ‘Revolution’ May Not Be as Disruptive as Some Had Imagined”; and my own extensive and ongoing reflections on  #etmooc (the Educational Technology & Media MOOC developed and facilitated by Alec Couros and his wonderful gang of “conspirators” earlier this year) and R. David Lankes’s “New Librarianship Master Class” (a MOOC developed and delivered under the auspices of the University of Syracuse School of Information Studies) help us understand why MOOCs continue to provoke strongly positive as well as intensely negative reactions among those drawn to the topic.

etmoocThrough her thoughtful and encouraging “A Record of My #ETMOOC Experience, 2013,” Canadian educator-philosopher-writer Christina Hendricks provides one of the most encouraging in-depth surveys I’ve read from a MOOC participant. The article is a great example of what a well-facilitated MOOC delivers in terms of learning that produces quantifiable results; it also draws more attention to the #etmooc community of learning that continues to thrive in Google+, on Twitter through the #etmooc hashtag, and through other online exchanges. The concrete results, from that MOOC that fostered explorations of educational technology and media, include blog pieces that are, in and of themselves, learning objects organized through a wonderful blog hub hosting more than 3,300 postings from a group of more than 500 individual contributors; videos that can be used by other learners interested in exploring educational technology and media; the thousands of tweets that provided learning resources and extended conversations among learners worldwide; and examples of tech tools used to produce learning objects by learners engaged in learning.

Hendricks concludes her “Record” with the suggestion that “[t]hat’s it for my ‘official’ participation in ETMOOC, but I am certain my connections with others will continue…”—as fine a tribute to effective and engaging learning as I can imagine reading.

Steve Kolowich, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month, offers a different view with his opening sentence: “In California, the MOOC revolution came to a halt unceremoniously.” He accurately describes how a state legislator and educators at San Jose State University backed away from the strong support they had been expressing for MOOCs just a few months earlier, and cites problems the university had with its initial MOOCs: “…a lower pass rate than the face-to-face version” of a course and “similarly underwhelming outcomes” in other MOOCs offered through the university.

Students who earned university credit will, he notes, “get to count those credits toward their degrees,” but those who opted only for certificates were left with little to show for their efforts, the chair of the university psychology department was quoted as suggesting: “You can’t take that and get a cup of coffee with it.”

That can’t-get-a-cup-of-coffee approach, for me, illustrates why reactions to MOOCs in their still-early stages of development continue to vary so widely from person to person: Those seeing them only in terms of academic credits while ignoring the positive learning experiences they can produce are justifiably unimpressed; those of us who are motivated by a desire for learning and participation in effective communities of learning find ourselves amply rewarded by and enthusiastic about what we experience—particularly in the connectivist MOOCs that can foster high levels of long-term engagement.

New_Librarianship_Master_Class_LogoParticipation in the “New Librarianship Master Class” MOOC is offering a view from a position somewhere in the middle of the to-MOOC-or-not-to-MOOC debate. Far less connectivist in its approach, New Librarianship is centered around online pre-recorded lectures and quizzes—but that doesn’t mean that self-motivated learners didn’t find ways to push it a bit toward connectivist interactions. When many of us leapt beyond the confines of the official course bulletin boards and found ourselves engaging with the instructor and each other via Twitter, the levels of engagement began to flow as they did (and still do) through #etmooc. Tweets provided links to related material, inspired conversations through cross-postings on blogs, and even drew comments from people not formally enrolled in the master class—an amazing demonstration of how learning benefits from permeable (physical and virtual) walls. They also reminded us that those initially involved in the development of MOOCs saw these levels of connection/engagement as integral to this type of learning rather than viewing MOOCs as just another way to transfer onsite learning into an online environment.

The writers of the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project  2013 Higher Education report note that “George Siemens and Stephen Downs in 2008, when they pioneered the first courses in Canada…envisioned MOOCS as ecosystems of connectivism—a pedagogy in which knowledge is not a destination but an ongoing activity, fueled by the relationships people build and the deep discussions catalyzed within the MOOC. That model emphasizes knowledge production over consumption, and new knowledge generated helped to sustain and evolve the MOOC environment…. As massively open online courses continue their high-speed trajectory in the near-term [one-year] horizon, there is a great need for reflection that includes frank discussion about what a sustainable, successful model looks like” (pp. 11-12).

Pieces like those produced by Christina Hendricks, Steve Kolowich, and many others contribute to that frank discussion; reports documenting the importance of preparing online learners for their online learning experiences point to the obvious need to support learners in whatever venue they decide to learn. All of these efforts have the potential to inspire us to continue deeply diving into the intoxicating waters of training-teaching-learning and helping us become members of dynamic communities of learning—and they make us far better learning facilitators and learning advocates capable of serving the learners who rely upon us.

N.B.: This is the twenty-third in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc and the ninth in a series of posts inspired by the New Librarianship MOOC.


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