Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Arlene Krebs (Part 2 of 2)

September 8, 2020

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Arlene Krebs, a ShapingEDU colleague who is consulting in the arts, education, and technology and was honored as a California Broadband Champion in 2014. Arlene and I serve together as members of the organizing committee for ShapingEDU’s “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s stay on Loaves, Fishes and Computers for a moment. What role did you play in establishing/nurturing it?

I have worked hand-in-hand with the Founder and Executive Director [Christian Mendelsohn]. He came to my University office in 2011 to ask for advice on funding and grant writing. (I am the author of four editions of The Distance Learning Funding $ourcebook: A Guide to Foundation, Corporate & Government Support for Telecommunications and the New Media—last edition was 2000, so you can see the “old” references to new media). So, Christian asked for my help. I began with the first Board of Directors—I have served on nonprofit boards for 40 years now—and I began grantwriting for LFC. Since 2011, I’ve helped bring in nearly $700,000 in funds to support his organization, which has kept it afloat. Since SIP [sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic], we’ve distributed over 1,500 computers to those in need—low-income families, seniors, individuals, veterans, people with disabilities. I just completed eight grant applications for Loaves, Fishes & Computers, totaling $149,500 in requests for our work, of which we’ve heard from two funding agencies, awarding us $50,000 (our request and its maximum allotment) to distribute even more computers.

Another aspect concerns my work with the Central Coast Broadband Consortium—which I helped to found—and, being part of the statewide initiatives to close the digital divide, and the resulting grant opportunities through California’s Public Utilities Commission and also the state’s Broadband Council.

So many lovely threads to follow here. Let’s take this down to an individual level. Would you mind telling a success story in terms of how Loaves, Fishes, and Computers affected one participant or one participant’s family?

Hold on: I will cut and paste a recipient’s testimonial.

Fantastic! Thanks. I do want to get us to the current situation and how it’s giving us opportunities, but first want to get back to the Central Coast Broadband Consortium connection.  “When people want to find out what’s happening on broadband in Monterey County, they call Krebs,” CETF [California Emerging Technology Fund] President and CEO Sunne Wright McPeak wrote when you were recognized as a Broadband Champion in 2014. What were some of the most rewarding experiences you had that led to that level of recognition among your peers?

Founding the Wireless Education & Technology Center, organizing the Wireless Community & Mobile Users Conference more or less annually from 2003-2015, in which we gathered some of the true pioneers in the field of WiFi, Broadband, and Applications who represented the tech, business, nonprofit, and education “industries,” and who envisioned what policy, financing, technical challenges and more to overcome to make nation-wide broadband a reality. Also, I was invited by Cisco in 2004 to attend its Global Education & Broadband conference in Stockholm and Oslo (convened during the same time as the Nobel Prize ceremonies; Lev Gonick was another US representative of 10 of us, and I the only woman). At this summit, I learned about how government initiatives, funding, policy, and support in other countries were solving these issues, but not here. In the U.S., we have private companies providing infrastructure and services, so without private and some public sources of monies—in grants and investments—broadband infrastructure has lagged here. So, in 2004, Stockholm was connecting all of its public housing to broadband, Portugal had a nation-wide plan, Ethiopia was seeking ways to provide city-wide access etc. It opened my eyes to the possibilities—and inspired my work and commitments.

The ShapingEDU “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative clearly has grown out of the challenges we’re seeing as learners across the country—and those facilitating their learning—have made a sudden pivot from mostly-onsite to primarily online learning in an incredibly short period of time. What opportunities do you see this shelter-in-place period providing for those supporting universal broadband access throughout the United States?

Over the past few weeks, there have been numerous articles in our local press and nationally about this persistent challenge of providing the tools and the connectivity to those without access. It is especially potent now where “remote learning” is at the forefront of the national discussion. How over 700,000 students in California alone do not have adequate tools or connectivity, how in our Monterey County 17,000 students of 78,000 K-12 students, do not have access. So it is a two-fold dilemma. The first is the economic, geographic, racial, social justice and digital divide; the other side of the coin, so to speak, is access to education (as well as access to health, social services, government & employment resources) on the Internet. As for distance learning, as I mentioned, I’ve been involved in this since the early 1980s with the first nationwide educational satellite networks, to two-way interactive videoconferencing to today’s online arena, and am a founding member of the United States Distance Learning Association, a nonprofit organization that brings together the business, government and education (K-12, higher ed, lifelong learning) arenas.

I used to travel this country teaching about distance learning, the professional development that’s required for K-12 teachers and higher ed, the tools that are necessary, the time and money commitments, the assessing of the skills that a learner/student needs to bring to the table, so to speak, to participate fully and effectively. What we have now is a “hodge-podge” emergency-laden response, so I am glad and grateful these issues are at the forefront, but concurrently distressed that we have 1) not solved the technology and broadband infrastructure issues and 2) that distance learning potentials are being met in a haphazard, uncoordinated manner that is leaving many students at the wayside—either turned off to what their teachers are so desperately and heroically trying to provide without proper professional development and the use of readily available curricula and distance ed resources—or students who are excluded because of no technology or access.

Yes, the issues are glaringly at the forefront right now. However, with the uncertainties festered by the global pandemic and the global economic downturn, I fear that broadband and technology access may be pushed aside once again for those who are not empowered. Broadband will continue to be provided for those in urban areas and for the workers of global and national corporations/agencies—but not for those who need it, too. 

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

Oh, this is too long a response, but: 

  1. Learn what’s going on in your region. Who are the service providers, how can local government negotiate with them to provide access to your community?
  2. Ditto, research which organizations are actively working on these issues, school districts, county offices of education, libraries, local business community that requires broadband to survive and expand.
  3. At the state level, find out what policy and funding the state is offering. Does it have a broadband policy? Who is overseeing this—and, by the way, just about every state does have a policy—how can you get involved?
  4. At the federal level, see what the FCC is doing—its National Broadband Plan—what does its state, what is its status?
  5. Learn what organizations involved in these issues are doing—for example, the United States Distance Learning Association, COSN [the Consortium for School Networking], ISTE [the International Society for Technology in Education], Silicon Valley, the Wireless Communications Alliance here in California, these are examples of the kinds of government, business, nonprofit, education, telecom providers are doing. For example, Comcast, AT&T, and Spectrum Charter each have initiatives to provide monthly low-cost Internet (generally $10-$15 per month).

In other words, research, explore, involve yourself. Collaborate, Cooperate and Activate!

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Arlene Krebs (Part 1 of 2)

September 8, 2020

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Arlene Krebs, a ShapingEDU colleague who is consulting in the arts, education, and technology and was honored as a California Broadband Champion in 2014. Arlene and I serve together as members of the organizing committee for ShapingEDU’s “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s start by setting some contemporary context for our conversation. During the recent week-long ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man virtual summer camp [July 2020], you talked about your evolving view of the term “digital divide,” and later circled back to broaden those comments. Care to summarize that here?

I’ve been working in this arena all my life, with initiatives to assist the most underserved and underrepresented members of our nation…be it in education-teaching, in working with other pioneers in the field of distance learning to assure equitable access to learning resources, teachers/faculty, and participation, and when the Internet “kicked off” in the late 1990s, to help expand opportunities for wired and wireless connectivity for Internet access. 

When everyone began to call it the “digital divide,” it first meant—was understood as—access to technology and connectivity—be it DSL, satellite communications, or—as it evolved—“high-speed bandwidth.” So at that point it became clearer, as I worked in this arena, that technology and bandwidth are part of the solution. Having the financial means to acquire technology and pay for Internet access was another part of the equation. So I began using the term “the economic and digital divide.”

As I worked in this arena and helped to form the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, and organized annual regional conferences—“The Wireless Community & Mobile User Conference”—I became more aware, learned from others, that access is more than money and technology and connectivity. It became clearer that the telecom providers were not going to wire or provide connectivity in areas that did not produce an ROI, or where the geographic terrain is too difficult. These are referred to as underserved areas. So then it became a geographic, economic and digital divide. As the push for broadband evolved, as the FCC, cities, states, and our own California became more involved in policy and public awareness, I realized that the divide is a geographic, economic, racial, social justice, and digital divide. Today, not having access to the tools, the connectivity, the resources to participate fully in our increasingly digital and virtual culture, is a form of exclusion. It is a “locked-out” form of denying equitable participation in our democracy.

I’m going to come back to much of what you just said to explore it a bit more fully, but want to step back a bit for a moment. You mentioned your lifelong interest in this topic. Was there any one personal incident/experience that initially drew you into becoming an advocate for Internet access?

Yes: education and distance learning, I am a pioneer in that arena. When I left my home in New York City to come here for one year to help kickstart distance learning at the new university—California State University, Monterey Bay—it had written a vision statement (summarized here) that included “serving the most underrepresented people in our region and to use technology as a catalyst to transform people’s lives.” So I left my work in lifelong learning and as a Communications professor working with underrepresented urban residents, to pick up the banner, so to speak, of underrepresented farm and hospitality workers in this region.

Sounds like a great example of the “follow your heart” idea. What has been most encouraging to you during all those years of activism on this issue?

I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve had an amazing, fulfilling career that encompasses the education, business, and non-profit arenas. I did my graduate work in the 1970s on the Impact of Communications Technology on Culture—with the launch of the first communications satellites (1976) and its applications for interactive videoconferencing for education. This was the “beginning of modern distance learning”—as opposed to radio, one-way broadcast TV, and snail-mail usages previously. So participating in and watching how education, business, and nonprofits—particularly in the arts—began and continue to use technology and connectivity is especially heartwarming—though not without lingering issues. Moreover, I began working with one nonprofit [Loaves, Fishes & Computers] that focuses on computer refurbishing and digital literacy for underrepresented communities, and this, too, has been very fulfilling. I am Chair Emerita for it, and continue to envision its future and how we can assist for 11 years now. Also fulfilling.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Adventure Camp

July 27, 2020

Note from Paul: Tom Haymes, my fellow ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence, posted this set of Learning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp reflections on his IdeaSpaces site earlier today, and has given permission for me to share them here. My own reflections are posted elsewhere on my blog.

It’s a scary world out there right now. Pandemics, politics, and economics form their own kind of “PPE” for which we have to all gird ourselves with a different kind of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) than those who are fighting Covid. Like those heroes, we have to face our fears and slay often unseen and ephemeral monsters. And like them our greatest enemy is ourselves and the systems human societies have created. To face this enemy we need a group of diverse heroes, each with a small piece of the map forward in their possession. That is exactly what came together last week at Learning[Hu]man, a summer camp unlike any I’ve ever been to before (or was it?).

The subject of monsters and adventuring seemed to come up again and again this week. This is ironic because the first time I was exposed to Dungeons and Dragons was at a summer camp in West Texas in 1978. That was, ironically, also the first time I was confronted by the real monsters our society struggles with even today. One day a counselor intervened to stop a group of locals from the neighboring town who were harassing some teenage female campers. That counselor happened to be black. That night a long line of cars and trucks streamed into the camp to send a message. We called the sheriff. He was with them. A hundred scared teenagers spent the night in the camp mess hall. Fortunately, the counselor they were seeking had returned to Austin and the night passed without further incident.

I have been reflecting back on that night a lot lately. The last six months have felt a lot like being confined to a mess hall while a messy world swirls around outside the door and the forces of reaction make forays into the camp of civilization. Unfortunately, in our case, the monsters aren’t going home. There are too many and they live among us.

ShapingEDU has always been a community shaped by optimism. Optimism, not for technology, but for the human creativity it unleashes. This week that community resembled nothing more than an adventuring party assembling for perhaps our greatest challenges. If there was a consistent theme that emerged it was that the human challenges far outweighed the technology ones. It became clear that it was time to strap on our magic swords and dust off our spell books to slay the human prejudices that perpetuate inequities in both our society and within the very educational institutions that we have devoted our lives to.

Like every adventure party I’ve ever been a part of there was the initial meeting of the minds, usually over a beer at Lev Gonick’s (aka Mike Callahan’s) virtual tavern. New networks were formed and maps were laid out. Bryan Alexander quickly asked us to imagine what kind of monsters we might face and taught us how to challenge them. The campfires on Digital Equity, Social, and Racial Justice and Digital Education and Tribal Rights showed us some of the real monsters of inequity and access that lock out whole groups of potential wizards whose voices are stifled before they learn their first spell, depriving us of an army of creative forces. My own session took us questing and showed how we could see all kinds of stories as a form of hero’s quest and, perhaps most importantly, that others are likely to perceive those quests quite differently. Our scouting parties reimagined quests from a History class, to preparing our faculty for Covid Fall, to reimagining a Liberal Arts graduate program. You can see their work here.

Conversketch Illustration of Digital Narratives Session

One of the key things I took away from my early years with Dungeons and Dragons was an understanding of the essential nature of good systems design. As Dungeon Master (DM) it was your job to craft a system that channeled the quest. DMs forget at their peril that the system has to work for the world to make sense. On Friday night Ruben Puentedura turned us into Dungeon Masters by asking us to create systems to overcome the plague of black swans raining down upon our kingdoms. His parties were given a choice of ten alternate future university spells and then assigned a second. He then tested our systems by throwing an unexpected swan into our midst. This generated creative explosions that forced us to pull together strands from our week of preparing and training. Common strands that ran through virtually all of the responses were the strengths to be found through diversity and community augmented by the magic of our technology and imaginations. We quickly saw through how these could guide us through the whitest of waters.

At every step along the way this week it was clear that the demons that we face, collectively and individually, are distinctly human. Nature, whether in the form of disease or climate, merely acts as a catalyst for exposing the cracks in our systems, from poverty to educational access to a lack of inclusion. It’s funny how our societies resemble a bad (pre-CGI) science fiction film in which all the aliens and monsters are really humans in disguise.

Taking on these systemic and conceptual demons requires a hard look in the mirror and the ability to try on different faces. Technology provides the mirror and the masks. It can be used to hide but it can also be used as a powerful “seeing” spell. Digital technology is at its root about being able to see, whether that be in the form of crunching vast swathes of complex data in order to see patterns in the spread of disease or rethinking systemic paradigms through realistic simulations that force different lenses upon us.  This week at Learning[Hu]man was fundamentally about seeing the world as it is and what it can be. It showed that as a group we have powerful magic including spells such as “Light,” “Network,” and “Show” that are critical in understanding the nature of the systemic monsters we face. At the end of the day, our community recognizes that the power of our magic is to give that magic to others.

This week we assembled a diverse group of adventuring parties, ready to ride forth and tame the systemic dragons. For in a final irony, it is clear that the systems themselves are a technology. They are dragons to be ridden, not swans to be slain. Our systems need to have a technological and conceptual “Light” spell thrown upon them to reveal them as Ourselves, to be reconstructed as only we can imagine them to be.

Tom Haymes, July 27, 2020


Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Merging Work and Play and Learning

July 25, 2020

The Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp Mess Hall is relatively quiet this afternoon as I sit here writing this fourth in a series of “letters home from camp.” The camper-teacher-trainer-learners at this week-long online conference for dreamer-driver-doers committed to shaping the future of learning in the digital age are sleeping in very late. Or taking virtual nature walks to reflect on all we have seen and done and learned together this week. Or chatting, in small groups, around the virtual campgrounds via access to our Slack channels. Or sitting in the Camp multiplex movie theaters watching Camp Movies (archived recordings of some of some of the archived recordings of sessions recorded throughout the week and available on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel). Or taking an online immersive dive into the ocean to explore another lovely part of our world. And a few of us are taking advantage of some unscheduled time to create pages on the Camp Learning(Hu)Man virtual scrapbook, as I just finished doing.

 

Even at its most quiet, this is community in motion. A community committed to fostering and engaging in lifelong learning—learning that never stops and learning that responds to current events and wants and needs—and even social injustices that prevent some within our communities from having access to the best of the lifelong learning we all are seeking, creating, and promoting. A community engaged in a seamless interweaving of work and play and learning online as well as onsite or in blended (onsite-online) environments that was already taking place within the ShapingEDU community long before we began following shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic); we have, if anything, only become more intensely creatively, innovatively, collaboratively immersed in exploring, fostering, documenting, and embracing examples of productive approaches to learning within the larger context of what is happening in the communities we inhabit.

So here we are on Saturday afternoon, mostly taking time for reflection after a stunningly intense, inspirational, exhaustive and regenerative week of learning with and from each other; continuing our creative endeavors individually and collectively through contributions to the virtual scrapbook and through interactions in those Slack virtual hallways; and thinking ahead to our final Camp Gathering Around the Flagpole Monday morning to try to make sense of all we’ve said and heard and done so we can transform the myriad narratives flowing all round us into some sort of plan for action for the weeks and months ahead of us until our next large-scale community gathering.

[graphic image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

The entire challenge of trying to shape a cohesive, community-wide narrative out of all the learning threads we have been working with is, as a cherished friend and colleague noted yesterday, “challenging.” My narrative—very much based on a commitment to connecting representatives of learning organizations (and the learners they serve) with representatives of workplace organizations that will work with those learners in their capacities as employees/managers/supervisors/CEOs—can and probably should be different from the narratives being shaped by many of our colleagues. That personal narrative, for me, is what my colleague Kim Flintoff (a self-declared “provocateur, educational change agent, futurist, speaker, researcher, writer, teacher, catalyst, and sustainability advocate”) and I consistently attempt to facilitate as “mayors” (aka committee chairs) in the neighborhood (aka committee/taskforce) committed to connecting education and the workforce of the future; it’s what we highlighted during our Learning(Hu)Man session yesterday on connecting learning and workplace representatives. But that’s just one of the narratives flowing through Camp Learning(Hu)Man and ShapingEDU overall. There are narratives/neighborhoods around bolstering intergenerational leadership and learning futures; personalizing learning; recognizing all forms of learning; promoting access & equity in learning; embedding data-driven approaches in student success; humanizing learning, innovating artificial intelligence applications, building constellations of innovations, and fostering immersive learning. There is a community-developed communique providing an outline for dreaming, doing, and driving the future of learning—a document that has provided the underpinnings of much of what we’ve done together this week while camping out together. There are projects and resources in various stages of development. 

And, most of all, there is the continual commitment to drawing new campers into the campgrounds with us. If that appeals to you, please join us in the ShapingEDU community by requesting access to our online community in Slack.  

–N.B.: 1) This is the eighteenth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the fourth in a series of posts inspired by Learning(Hu)Man.


Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Spreading Our Love Wings

July 24, 2020

I’m sensing growth. Rapid change and evolution. A blossoming of gorgeous flowers that were aching to unfold their petals, reach for the sun, and revel in a summer day they suspected that they would, one day, experience—even if they lacked a sense of when that day would ultimately arrive. It’s the sort of blossoming that we can never fully anticipate in all its myriad permutations. The sort of blossoming we question while it is actually underway. But when it does arrive, it is clear. Tangible. And nothing around it will ever seem the same to any of us present for the wonderfully explosive moment.

We are more than halfway through a week of campy virtual summer camp as I write this third in a series of “letters home from camp” (camp, in this case, being the playful online Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man conference for dreamer-driver-doers committed to shaping the future of learning in the digital age, where we participate via Zoom, or through the VirBELA virtual platform). While joining others who continue to follow shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic), we have been flipping scary stories around the campfire online, artfully crafting learning experiences, and—following the theme for today’s activities—“swimming (a)synchronously” through discussions and demos of student success experiences, programs, and products with direct application for live or anytime learning

The tremendously engaging and wonderfully transformative activities have been overwhelming positive and well worth describing even if at only the most cursory of levels—you’ll be able to more fully see and experience some of those events and activities online as members of the Camp Team continue posting recordings on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel. The real story well worth telling late this evening is how the ShapingEDU community is rapidly becoming so much more than any of us thought it might become even a few months ago.

It’s the sort of community that under expert leadership and with a firm commitment to collaborative effort and action produces the kind of extraordinary day we have had again today. It began with an early-morning breakfast in the virtual Mess Hall—a Zoom meeting room created as a gathering place for camper-colleagues interested in beginning-of-day breakfast and warm-up activities. That Mess Hall gathering today included an exploration of mindfulness combined with a brief yoga session led in that online environment by wonderful facilitators, and was followed immediately by a dynamic panel discussion exploring “The Rise of the Digital Campus.”

The community is also one that produces the daily Learning(Hu)Man sessions along the lines of what we were able to chose from today: explorations of Slack in collaborative learning, Zoom as a learning platform, storytelling in learning, and so much more. Deciding to begin my dive into those sessions by attending one (“Surfing Chaos: Narratives Across the Digital Divide”) facilitated by my fellow ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence Tom Haymes, I again found myself learning in layers: Tom’s amazing ability to lead us through some explorations of how to tell the stories we need to tell to promote the best possible responses to teachers’ and learners’ struggles with the rapid transformation of onsite learning into online learning for so many contemporary learners was layered over demonstrations of and hands-on experience with how to effectively use online collaborative tools such as Google docs to fast-forward discussions and planning sessions we need to be completing now. The result is that we walked away with usable ideas and, at the same time, had begun developing relationships with colleagues with whom we can continue to learn and work long after this first offering of Learning(Hu)Man formally concludes four days from now.

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

This is also a community that, even though firmly grounded in a commitment to effectively incorporating educational technology into lifelong learning while never losing its learner-centric approach, seems to be in the middle of an important pivotal moment—that moment in which we are overtly acknowledging and beginning to grapple with some of the toughest social challenges facing anyone involved in lifelong learning. That became a bit more clear to me as I sat through the third of the three end-of-day plenary sessions Learning(Hu)Man has offered during the current virtual conference. The first plenary session—two days ago—was centered around a highly-interactive panel discussion on the theme of “Digital Equity, Social + Racial Justice”—something far removed from the sort of tech-based sessions which have been a staple of our previous ShapingEDU onsite gatherings and online offerings in the form of webinars. The session late this afternoon was equally compelling, thoughtful, and inspiring: “Digital Education and Tribal Rights,” a session masterfully led by Leah Gazan, Matt Rantanen, Traci Morris, and Brian McKinley Jones Brayboy. They framed what easily could have been an educational-technology conversation much more deeply—in terms of Internet access as a “human rights issue,” something integrally intertwined with the issue of “sovereignty” for indigenous peoples, and centered on “self-determination” as those lacking access to work and learning opportunities online work together to gain that access. Listening to them and briefly interacting with them within Zoom provided an expansion of the reach of the ShapingEDU I had really not seen coming even though I’ve seen several of us, over the past few months, taking on challenges including seeking solutions to the student debt crisis and fostering universal broadband access for work and learning throughout the United States.

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

Rather than immediately following my fellow campers into the evening play and entertainment session, I stepped away from camp long enough to meet a friend here in San Francisco. As I returned home and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to join the last portion of the evening activity—a live concert, via Zoom, featuring several performers—I continued thinking about how completely immersive and transformative Learning(Hu)man has been in its first few days. And as I settled in to watch the last few performers, I again began chatting (through the chat window Zoom provides) with other campers who were attending that lovely series of performances—having exactly the sort of chats I would have had face-to-face with colleagues at any of the onsite conferences I have ever attended. And as we continued to chat and enjoy the music, I realized how completely the Learning(Hu)Man summer camp was providing the same richly rewarding experiences I have had onsite—which prompted me to remark to a colleague (via chat) that after this week of camping out at Learning(Hu)Man, I’m not going to be at all patient with anyone who tries to tell me we can’t be completely engaged, moved, and together in online settings. The comment drew agreement from a few others, and then we turned our attention back to one of the performers, who had just sung the line “Your purple mountain majesty is only for the free…”—a wonderfully poetic line that somehow seemed to fit right in with all the attention we had increasingly been giving to the social-issue side of the work we are pursuing together. That, in turn, prompted me to float the idea, in the ongoing chat, about how rapidly this community seems to be evolving/maturing. At which point the singer, Terra Naomi, was drawing to the end of a song that included the line “I believe in love more than I want to hate.” And then Walt Richardson took the virtual stage to sing “Light Revolution” (a song written by his brother), which made me think even more about the “revolution” I am sensing in this community.

The ongoing backchannel discussion quickly led me to respond to a colleague’s comment about our last community gathering, just days before many of us began officially sheltering in place in March 2020, with the observation that the moment when our last onsite gathering switched overnight into an online gathering “came at such a difficult time for so many people [and] really set the tone for much of happiness and success I’ve had in spite of and because of sheltering in place. We might, at some point, look back and see that as a pivotal moment–at many levels–in the development (at light speed) of this community and other dynamically blended, creative communities.

“When I’m at onsite conferences, I attend sessions, sometimes facilitate sessions, have hallway conversations (like we are having here and now), share meals, sometimes draft some writing while sitting with others and then stay up late fine-tuning fragments into blog pieces—just like I’m doing right now [and continued to do well after midnight to finish this piece before going back to camp in the morning].

“I suspect my next ‘letter home from camp’ is going to feel somewhat familiar to anyone watching this rough draft of it taking shape here in a chat window….And, being really meta about this: I often thought it was fun to watch writers who would sit in bookstore windows and write as people walked by and watched a bit of the creative process in progress…and here I am, knowing I’m on camera, writing in front of colleagues without the slightest bit of self-consciousness.”

At which point I began to laugh, because Walt had just sung the line “there will never be a time so right,” prompting me to add to the chat: “See? Now even Walt has worked his way into the piece-in-progress. It’s all about timing.”

His final song, “Love Wings,” seemed to hold all of us spellbound, but I broke away from the spell long enough to react to the line “We’ve got to share our battle scars” and observe that “it feels as if Walt is offering us the balm to soothe and heal those battle scars. If we came to Learning(Hu)Man feeling a bit beaten and scarred, at least we will go home having been provided with a bit of what we need to sustain us.

Two more lines from the song then floated across the virtual concert hall:

“With Love Wings we can fly

Into the clear blue open sky…”

As I draw to the end of my third letter home from camp, I’m among those who feel as if Walt’s beautifully poignant and wonderfully-delivered song has lifted us up; reminded us of what is possible online as well as face-to-face; and given us our own set of love wings to carry us through the rest of Learning(Hu)Man and into the work and challenges we face and willingly are going to work to address.

–N.B.: 1) This is the seventeenth 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 Learning(Hu)Man.


Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Arts & Crafting Learning Experiences

July 22, 2020

If I really were the eight-year-old that I so frequently still feel I am, I would be crafting a letter home from summer camp to my parents right now. Telling them how cool the other kids at the week-long Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp are. How inspiring the Camp Counselors (aka, session facilitators) are. How much I’m enjoying singing the Learning(Hu)Man Theme Song. How much fun I’m having during Day 2, which is “Arts & Crafting Learning Experience Day”—a nice switch from yesterday’s “Flipping Scary Stories Day.” How much I’m learning through hands-on virtual experiences. And how proud I am of having earned two of the four badges I need to earn to return home with an “Education Changemaker Digital Credential.”

But I’m obviously not really eight years old anymore. And one of my parents has been gone for more than three years, so I can’t write home to her. And letter-writing with pen (or pencil) and paper was long ago replaced, for me, by online communication, including love letters in the form of blog posts. So here’s my second daily love letter capturing much of the joy of camping out with dreamer-driver-doers committed to shaping the future of learning in the digital age (while currently following shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic) thanks to Camp Director Laura Geringer and the rest of the Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man Camp Team:

Morning comes early around here. We again gathered in the Mess Hall for virtual breakfast via Zoom, at 7:30 a.m., hosted by Day 2 Head Happy Camper (HHC) Allan Novak, who is renowned for his work as an executive producer, director, writer, and editor—in addition to being a first-rate facilitator, as was obvious by the way he engaged us in conversation and activities during the time we had together. HHC Novak fostered a wonderful warm-up conversation that had us learning experientially as he incorporated an innovative online presentation and polling tool—Mentimeter—into the conversation. Watching and participating in that setting made me again realize how quickly and how far we are moving from a world in which we can (mistakenly) assert that it is always impossible to craft conference experiences online that are as engaging as those we create onsite. We have to admit that it takes a lot to design and run an engaging online conference. But then again, it’s far from easy to accomplish the same onsite; you have to work with what you have. When you have a group as comfortable as Learning(Hu)Man participants are with technology, as willing as we are to experiment with a variety of online tools in the moment without being flustered by the occasional failures that come when learning about and using any form of technology, and as well supported as we are by those in charge of the event, magic can and does happen.

The sort of unexpected and wonderfully rewarding hallway and workshop conversations that draw us to onsite conferences are increasingly possible and likely to happen through the use of the chat window in Zoom and the willingness of people like HHC Novak to draw people in visibly and audibly through the videoconferencing capabilities of platforms like Zoom. The all-important act of meeting new people and unexpectedly running into long-term cherished friends and colleagues, chatting with them, and planning on how we will maintain (or continue to maintain) contact after the conference ends has been as common for me here at Learning(Hu)Man as it has been at the best of the onsite conferences I have attended over a very long period of time. In some ways, this part of it really doesn’t take much—just a willingness to leap at opportunities and a commitment to action. Those unexpected initial and recurring encounters are among the highlights of any conference I attend, and Learning(Hu)Man has already provided plenty of them. The idea that “what I most look forward to at conferences is that which I am not expecting to find” remains true in this virtual setting, too.

After enjoying an hour-long “around the flagpole” gathering for a first-rate panel discussion on “The What, Why, and How of Learner-Centered Everything” and still cherishing what I had seen and learned from Novak, I followed him into the first of two morning sessions I attended—his workshop on “Video Post-production: Good, Fast, and Cheap in the 2020s”—and was extremely happy that I did. Using the same facilitation and organizational skills he had displayed in the Mess Hall, he took a highly playful, interactive approach to a session that was built upon the premise that all of us could learn enough about a platform he was introducing to us—WeVideo—to craft a short public service announcement promoting online learning—in less than an hour. The learning here was layered: we did learn enough to produce part of that video announcement online—which Novak apparently finished up after the session ended—and we also learned how to design and facilitate a session like the one he was leading—just by watching him lead ours. To speed up production, he had prepared a template for the script and made it available to us in a shared document online. He then used Mentimeter to help us craft some of the vocabulary we would incorporate into the script. He asked each of us to volunteer to produce very short (several-second) videos we would upload to a shared folder he made available online. And he showed us how to edit all that content into the announcement-in-progress. It was an amazing display of training-teaching-learning in action, and I left that session feeling as if I were one very happy camper.

The day, as days at camp often do, is already becoming a blur. More wonderful learning. More time to take a virtual walk in the woods, reflect on what we were seeing-doing-learning. Time for a quick refresher nap. And, at the end of the day, after additional opportunities to learn and craft and dream, we reconvened in the camp Mess Hall for an evening of game-playing-with-a-purpose.

[Image from Opening Night Session by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

Joined by Second City star Linda Kash, Novak set the stage for 90 minutes of Zoom-prov—familiar improvisation-based games all conducted via Zoom rather than face-to-face. We started with “Blind Portrait,” a game in which we each had to try to draw the face of someone else we could see in that Zoom gathering—without ever looking away from the screen. Kash played it for all it was worth, cajoling anyone who made the mistake of breaking eye contact with the webcam, and brought it all home by reminding us that as an educational tool, the game reminded everyone that we are all in the same pool and need not be embarrassed by what we produce. A series of equally entertaining challenges all drawing upon the best techniques employed in improv had all of us laughing out loud, collaborating wildly in friendly competitions, and achieving what any evening around the learning campfire is meant to achieve: an opportunity to bask in community, friendship, shared experiences, and the promise of more to come when the sun reappears above the grounds of our virtual summer camp tomorrow.

–N.B.: 1) This is the sixteenth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the second in a series of posts inspired by Learning(Hu)Man. 2) Paul is one of two ShapingEDU Storytellers in Residence, serving from July 2020 – June 2021.


Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Flipping Scary Stories

July 21, 2020

Going to summer camp was something I thought was long behind me—particularly at a time when I am joining so many others in following shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic. But I had that wrong. I’m back at camp. A newly-organized virtual summer camp. As a participant, facilitator, and occasional volunteer monitoring and fostering online conversations via Slack during the week-long Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp.

It’s only one day old, and already it is an extraordinary experience produced by leadership and volunteers within a community of dreamer-doer-drivers who consistently demonstrate an unbelievable ability to plan and bring to fruition the most complex of endeavors within incredibly brief periods of time.

Some of the more than 2,000 of us who have registered joined the opening ceremony around the virtual campfire last night, and more of us continued to participate today through a series of dynamic, highly-interactive sessions featuring colleagues and a variety of visionary guests working together to shape the future of learning in the digital era. The theme for our first full day together has been “flipping scary stories,” and there certainly are plenty of scary stories to tell and flip. Virtual campers began the day with some early-morning online Mess Hall interactions, then gathered around the flag pole for an inspiring keynote presentation by Arizona State University President Michael Crow, who spoke eloquently and movingly of this moment in time when we have a chance for the first-ever full release of human potential through egalitarian access to education. A panel discussion on “the next normal” in learning—“the one we’re creating together” in response to the tremendously scary stories that are continuing to unfold around us—kept all of us standing virtually at attention for the remainder of that early-morning gathering.

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

We then went to our own smaller online camp sites to choose from more than a dozen 50-minute sessions slotted into two consecutive time periods for the next couple of hours; among the choices were “Learning Futures: Avoiding the Zombie Apocalypse to Create the Brave New World”; “Using Data Science, Data, and the Power of Community to Address the Student Loan Crisis”; and the “Using Design Thinking to Close the Digital Divide” session I co-facilitated with ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence Lisa Gustinelli, FutureWe Founder Jonathan Nalder, and educational technologist Gordon Shupe (centered on the ShapingEDU “Connected for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative that is beginning to attract attention and support from a variety of collaborators). Other subsequent Learning(Hu)Man activities throughout the morning and early afternoon gave everyone plenty of options for playing, learning, interacting, dreaming, and plotting before we had an afternoon break to step away from the structured events and to reflect while taking virtual walks through the woods or much-needed naps.

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

Refreshed from our walks and naps, many of us came back together for two overwhelmingly and richly dynamic sessions—the first featuring a live interview with Zoom Founder/CEO Eric Yuan, the second featuring three over-the-top brilliantly passionately engaging presenters (Nicol Turner-Lee, Director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation; Larry Irving, President and CEO of the Irving Information Group; and Joshua Edmonds, University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative and City of Detroit Digital Inclusion Fellow). Yuan, responding to deeply thoughtful questions from Zoom Chief Diversity Officer Damien Hooper-Campbell, addressed a variety of topics including Zoom’s commitment to quality, communities served, and willingness to collaborate with others seeking positive responses to some of our most challenging social issues; he assured Learning(Hu)Man campers that a priority for Zoom, post-pandemic, will be how to unleash the power of the Zoom platform in continuing to serve a variety of educational, artistic, and socially-diverse communities.

[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

Just when it appeared there was no way to top the momentum and excitement of what Learning(Hu)Man and its partners had produced, it did exactly that. The final session with Turner-Lee, Irving, and Edmonds showed virtual conferencing at its finest. The formal question-and-answer segments between those inspiring presenters was accompanied, seamlessly, by session audience members interacting with each other and the presenters, via a live-chat window, in a positively overwhelming flow of give-and-take. One of the many comments that stood out to me came from a fellow participant and, in a heartbeat, changed the way I have been viewing the challenge of the digital divide and overcoming less-than-ideal broadband access throughout our country: “Frankly, getting so tired of hearing ‘Digital Divide’…it’s a social, economic, social justice, bandwidth divide and it’s been going on for decades. So, despite funding from the FCC, state governments, private foundations, etc. We are Still Discussing…so what’s the solution? It’s not just technology, it’s a reflection of the inequities in our society.”

Both exhausted and exhilarated, I decided to skip the set of live conversations and playful activities that were scheduled to continue via Zoom before camp shut down for the evening and we began recharging our creative batteries in anticipation of reconvening early tomorrow morning in the camp Mess Hall for another day of thoughtfully engaging interactions designed to spur us toward positive action.

What remains for me this evening is to acknowledge the absolutely stunning accomplishment represented by the first full day of summer camp—an achievement in virtual conferencing described eloquently online by “Camp Groundskeeper” Samantha Becker on behalf of the entire Camp Team:

“Learning(Hu)Man 2020 is an experimental fusion of hands-on learning, storytelling, tech hacks and the good kind of shenanigans. In short, it’s total camp. Summer camp! This weeklong series of events will convene a global community of education changemakers to push the creative envelope for how we serve students and advance learner success.

“Interactive experiences led by a cohort of camp counselors (read: education and industry leaders) will uncover best practices in learning design, edtech tools and development, and emergent thinking around the art of the possible—all with the shared mission for enabling student success in all of its dimensions.

Thank you to [Camp Chef] Lev Gonick, who started passing me ‘back of the napkin’ ideas over Slack on this—and then never stopped.”

There are still several more days of camping ahead of all of us. And when everything formally wraps up next Monday morning with a two-hour session to summarize what we have experienced and what we hope to accomplish as a result of having gone to camp together, it still will not be over. There will be weeks, if not months, of reflections and follow-up interactions synchronously and asynchronously. There will be opportunities to view archived recordings as they are posted on the ShapingEDU YouTube channel. There will be continuing discussions on the ShapingEDU Slack site. There will be unforeseeable positive concrete actions. And, most of all, there will be that dynamic, unique ShapingEDU community “dreaming, driving, and doing” together in one long, uninterrupted moment that began long before we arrived at Learning(Hu)Man summer camp and will extend long after we “leave.”

–N.B.: 1) This is the fifteenth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and to our continuing interactions online. 2) Paul is one of two ShapingEDU Storytellers in Residence, serving from July 2020 – June 2021.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Rejoining Our Families

May 15, 2020

“Family,” for me, has always been an expansive term—one that has only taken on even more importance and meaning to me during what is now about to become a third month during which I am gladly following shelter-in-place guidelines adopted in response to the current coronavirus pandemic. “Family” obviously includes spouse/partner, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, cousins, and much more. It’s something we are celebrating today through recognition of International Day of Families—a celebration that came to my attention quite accidentally as I was watching the latest in the wonderfully funny Pluto Living videos written and produced by Nancy Wight. And, for me, it includes the numerous friends and colleagues with whom I am in touch—sometimes frequently, sometimes sporadically, but always in ways that involve trust, respect, affection, and a sense that my life would be far less rich and fulfilling if they were not part of it.

Sheltering in place and engaging in social distancing has not in any way left me feeling socially isolated; I’m lucky to have “family” as committed to working at maintaining strong, positive relationships as I am. In a pre-coronavirus world, I frequently came across those family members while walking around San Francisco. Or sitting in any caffè that served as a meeting place for us. Or during business trips that gave me an excuse to work in various places around the United States. Or while attending onsite conferences. Or while engaged in online gatherings such as the biweekly recordings for Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training podcast or monthly meetings and webinars facilitated by members of the ShapingEDU family. Or via Slack…or…or…or…

Maintaining an overly busy schedule has often resulted in my stepping away from some of those “family” gatherings, as has been the case with my involvement—or lack thereof—with a first-rate family in the form of a magnificent community of learning: #lrnchat, a family that has been meeting weekly (Thursdays, 8:30 – 9:30 pm ET/5:30 – 6:30 pm PT) via Twitter, in the form of a well-facilitated tweet chat that always is centered around a pre-announced topic of interest to trainer-teacher-learner-doers. I have, occasionally, taken the time to reflect on and write about what that family means to me. But I fell out of the habit of participating in those weekly gatherings a couple of years ago when shifts in my work habits made those meetings much harder to squeeze into my schedule.

Although being lucky enough to stay very busy while following shelter-in-place guidelines, I have used this unusual period of time to re-examine how I spend my time, and one of the changes I have made is carving out time to dive back into my #lrnchat-family gatherings on a biweekly basis—on those weeks when T is for Training isn’t recording within part of that same time slot. And, as is always the case with family reunions, it has been a wonderful opportunity requiring very little transition. I just show up. Others continue to show up—or rejoin after similar periods of absence. We spend a few minutes with introductions and in-the-moment observations. Then we get down to the heart of what draws us together: interactions with those we love and admire. Listening to (or, since this all takes place as an online typed chat, reading) what other members of our family want to say and share. Responding—sometimes seriously, sometimes with tongues deeply in cheek, but always with curiosity and respect. And, most importantly of all, learning. Together. In ways that make us better than we were before the latest family conversation began. And, as a result, make us better at serving those who, in turn, look to us, for support in their own lifelong learning endeavors.

The conversations, facilitated by family heads Jane Bozarth, Tracy Parish, and David Kelly, always draw us in quickly. Engage us from start to finish. And leave us with important questions, including “what did you learn from this conversation?” and “what will you do with what you learned?” Those are critically important questions for any trainer-teacher-learner-doer, and, because of what I have learned over the years from my #lrnchat family, those are questions I put to every one of my co-conspirators in learning at the end of classes, workshops, webinars, and other learning opportunities I design and facilitate. They are questions that continue drawing me back to #lrnchat and my other families. They are fruitful questions to ask every day that we continue following shelter-in-place and social-distancing guidelines. And they are questions that, when asked, serve as fabulous reminders of why we cherish our families. All they offer. And whatever demands they place upon us and the limited time we have. For if we don’t have time for family, for whom do we have time?

–N.B.: This is the tenth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online.


ShapingEDU Unconference 2020: Taking It All Online During the Coronavirus Pandemic (Pt. 2 of 2)

March 26, 2020

An innocuous little note at the bottom of the “living” online agenda for the 2020 Arizona State University ShapingEDU Unconference (for “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age”) earlier this month proved, in retrospect, to be one of the most prescient and useful comments anyone could have injected into the planning process: “While the start and end tines each day will not change, all activity times are fluid/subject to change…because it’s an unconference.”

The two previous ShapingEDU unconferences (in 2018 and 2019) had been tremendous examples of what can happen when a blended (onsite-online) community of learning meets face to face on an annual basis with an understanding that the agenda—and the Unconference itself—is subject to change in any way that fosters positive conversation and action. (As I noted in the first of these two sets of Unconference reflections, the 2018 Unconference produced a framework—10 Actions to Shape the Future of Learning—for action and archived materials, including graphic facilitator Karina Branson’s visual representations of what occurred there; the 2019 Unconference produced an online 18-page communique of “actionable ideas and strategies that can humanize learning, promote greater access to and equity in learning experiences, better connect education to the future workforce and world, and nurture highly collaborative communities of practice” that continues to be shared globally.) The overall structure of both events—an clear, concise statement of purpose provided the framework for discussion, planning, and implementation; the flexibility of the living agenda allowed and encouraged participants to alter the agenda at any time during which it became apparent that changes would produce greater results than the previous version of the agenda nurtured—fostered the perfect response to the swift transformations that literally took place overnight during the event this year. It also suggests a framework for trainer-teacher-learners to emulate as we move forward in designing and facilitating the best possible learning opportunities for those we serve.

The key moment in the ShapingEDU community’s response to the spread of the coronavirus occurred at the end of the first full day of onsite-online activities. Unconference organizers, responding to the fear that airlines might soon be cancelling flights and leave onsite participants separated from their families, made what was for them a very difficult decision: cancelling the onsite portion of the Unconference and simultaneously moving the mostly-onsite event completely online.

More importantly, they used every avenue available to quickly disseminate news of the decision and provide clear instructions on how we would continue during the second day of the two-day event. There were face-to-face conversations in the lobby of the hotel where many of us were staying. There was an email message sent to all participants. There were posts in the ShapingEDU Unconference Slack channel. To say it as bluntly as possible: there was complete transparency about what was happening and there was a magnificent effort to convey the news in the most positive way possible.

It’s well worth sharing a slightly-edited version of the note that was drafted by Samantha Becker, who serves as a driving force and supportive colleague in virtually everything related to the community and the Unconference, and that went out to all of us:

“Dear Dreamers, Doers and Drivers:

“Thank you so much for your brilliant participation and rallying today to advance some awesome and actionable outputs to better education. You made it insightful and you made it fun. You have truly embraced the spirit of the unconference!

“We have made a decision to pivot to online-only activities tomorrow, beginning again in our Zoom room [the link was shared here to make it easy for attendees to continue participating] at 9am AZ time / 12pm Eastern US Time. This was a very difficult decision to make, and one that has been made to take every precaution for our community, given the updates unfolding around us in real-time. Those here in person that wish to take earlier flights can.

“That said, we except a robust online program tomorrow, kicking off at 9am with a special talk from Adobe’s Todd Taylor on digital and creative fluency. Our graphic facilitator Karina Branson will be online and making her graphics all digital! Watch us flex. :wink:

The goal tomorrow online is take all the actionable ideas and products we came up with in our neighborhood working sessions, narrow them down and start firming up concrete plans for the ShapingEDU community to weigh in on. Even if you couldn’t make today or only part of today, you can jump in tomorrow and contribute in a major way.

Zoom Room: [again, the link was provided]  (9am – 1pm AZ / 12pm – 4pm Eastern US)

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. The Slack workspace has been lively and we’ll pick our conversations back up there in the #unconference2020 channel.”

Reading that note can’t help but leave us with an appreciation for how quickly, effectively, and positively Samantha and other Unconference organizers (with input from available attendees) made and publicized the transformation. We can’t help but notice how effectively they used every resource available to them. And, above all, we have to acknowledge how well-prepared (through its consistent exploration and use of online communication tools) community members were for this massive shift in plans—the same sort of massive shift that is occurring in training-teaching-learning worldwide.

Visual Summary, by Karina Branson (ConverSketch), of Virtual Planning Session

The result was that when we reconvened (online) the following morning, most of us were present. Ready to work. And deeply appreciative for the creative, playful way with which the change was managed. One of the first spur-of-the-moment adaptations came from Laura Geringer, the community engagement, writing, and project leadership consultant who does much of the day-to-day work of reaching out to ShapingEDU community members to keep us informed and involved. Acknowledging that this was a group that thrived on collegiality and effective use of videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, she encouraged all of us to activate the webcams on our laptops so we could produce a global wave. And even for those of us who found our webcams choosing that moment to malfunction, the gesture was a success. We waved. We laughed. And then we got down to business, putting the technology in the background and bringing the interactions into the foreground to produce a set of proposals for projects the community will consider pursuing as a result of the time we spent together at ShapingEDU 2020.

ShapingEDU 2020 Virtual Wave

So, let’s hear it for flexible/adaptable communities of learning and all that their members do to make them successful through an approach of considering everyone a co-conspirator in the training-teaching-learning-doing process. A willingness to work with technology that sometimes produces spectacular results and sometimes leaves us frustrated by short-term failures. And living agendas that are created with an understanding that “all activity times are fluid/subject to change”…because that’s one of many approaches we can take to produce first-rate learning opportunities and the results they can produce.

N.B.: Trainer-teacher-learners worldwide are creating and sharing magnificent resources to help colleagues make the transition from onsite to online learning. Among those are Cindy Huggett’s “Virtual Presenter’s Guide to Using Zoom Meeting Tools” and the numerous suggestions posted in the Facebook  Pandemic Pedagogy group. If you want to share your own resources, please don’t hesitate to respond to this post via a comment.


ShapingEDU Unconference 2020: On Learning, Pandemics, and Rapid Adaptability (Pt. 1 of 2)

March 25, 2020

While trainer-teacher-learners globally are struggling to adapt to a rapidly-changing learning environment created as a result of the current coronavirus pandemic, examples of communities of learning adapting quickly through positive actions are abundant. It’s fascinating to watch—and participate in the growth of—global networks including the Facebook Pandemic Pedagogy group which, as of today, has more than 26,000 members online creating/sharing/absorbing information, resources, questions, and ideas regarding the large-scale, blink-of-an-eye movement from onsite instruction to online learning opportunities. It’s exciting to be part of smaller communities of learning, including Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training group centered around his biweekly podcast exploring training-teaching-learning-doing in libraries across the United States, as they create and facilitate informal online community discussions via Zoom and numerous other videoconferencing tools as a way of keeping up, staying socially connected in a time of social distancing, and doing what it they do best: promoting the best possible approaches to fostering positive learning experiences for those who rely on them for support.

In the midst of all this, the 2020 Arizona State University ShapingEDU Unconference (for “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age”) earlier this month stands out as a stunningly successful example of how those of us comfortable with and experienced in working in blended (onsite/online) environments are well-positioned to pivot on a very small (digital) dime when necessary. More importantly, it may be useful example/case study for trainer-teacher-learner-doers globally not only during the current coronavirus pandemic but during any period during which our approach to the work we do has to change as fast as the world around us is changing.

The third annual Unconference was planned, over a months-long period of time, as an onsite gathering (in Tempe, Arizona) with the potential for some online interactions for those community members unable to attend onsite. It was scheduled to begin onsite with an opening reception on the evening of March 11 and conclude around noon on March 13. Registration—by invitation only—peaked at nearly 220 participants in the days before the event was scheduled to begin. But when coronavirus concerns increased in late February and early March, cancellations accelerated; by the time participants began arriving in Tempe, there had been more than 50 cancellations, and the opening night reception had fewer than 50 people in attendance.

What could have been a deal- (or Unconference-) breaker simply became a challenge in adaptability for those onsite as well as for those online. Onsite participants doubled down on our efforts to draw our online colleagues into the conversations via Twitter, via the Unconference live feed (via Zoom) that was already in place, and through quick adaptations in the way onsite sessions were managed.

It’s important to acknowledge that quite a bit goes into creating a community and an event as flexible/adaptable, focused, innovative, and productive as the ShapingEDU community and Unconference have proved to be during their first couple of years of operations. This is not something that we master and implement overnight. It starts with a shared vision: in this case, a commitment “to assemble a diverse collection of dreamers, doers, and drivers who believe that we can collectively shape a rich and impactful future for the application of emerging technologies to the design of learning and learners over the next chapter of the digital age” [the quote is from the invitation to attend the first Unconference, held in April 2018]. It grows through the work of first-rate planners and facilitators with a talent for including, at every possible opportunity, all interested community members in the actual planning process through numerous tools including a “living” online agenda. It is supported year-round through formal and informal online interactions, including webinars focused on specific elements of the overall ShapingEDU initiative and online publications that serve as resources for trainer-teacher-learner-doers worldwide. And, most importantly of all, it is grounded in a commitment to maintain a positive approach—particularly in times of adversity.

The community and its annual unconferences are seamlessly interwoven: the onsite interactions support the year-round online interactions, and the online interactions and projects fuel the onsite gatherings. ShapingEDU as an initiative and a community, furthermore, thrives through a combination of cherishing and promoting dreaming as well as doing—there is plenty of room within this community for those who love contemplating big ideas and those who want to get something done. In fact, one of the biggest strengths of the ShapingEDU community is that the dreamers are also drivers and doers who are not at all satisfied with coming up with ideas and then leaving the development and implementation to someone else. It’s a community that values and seeks and produces results. (The 2018 Unconference produced a framework—10 Actions to Shape the Future of Learning—for action and archived materials, including graphic facilitator Karina Branson’s visual representations of what occurred there; the 2019 Unconference produced an online 18-page communique of “actionable ideas and strategies that can humanize learning, promote greater access to and equity in learning experiences, better connect education to the future workforce and world, and nurture highly collaborative communities of practice” that has been shared globally.)  

Acknowledging everyone involved in the development of the community and the unconferences would invariably result in an unbearably long post here on Building Creative Bridges and inadvertently leaving someone out, but a few key players are well worth mentioning as resources to anyone interested in knowing more about how to replicate its early successes. There is Lev Gonick, Arizona State University chief information officer and a founding force behind ShapingEDU. There is Samantha Becker, a cherished long-time colleague and collaborator who, as community manager for ShapingEDU, serves as a driving force and supportive colleague in virtually everything related to the community and the Unconference. And there is Laura Geringer, the community engagement, writing, and project leadership consultant who does much of the day-to-day work of reaching out to ShapingEDU community members to keep us informed and involved. Working alongside them physically and virtually are the volunteers who take bite-sized pieces of the overall initiative and work toward transforming dreams into positive, meaningful, measurable results.

What Lev and Sam and Laura nurture was clearly visible onsite. Because we are used to blended onsite-online interactions, it wasn’t much of a stretch for us to integrate our online colleagues into our activities on the first full day the 2020 Unconference. And when it became clear that the much lower-than-expected number of online participants was going to radically curtail the effectiveness of the breakout sessions we had planned for each group pursuing a part of the overall ShapingEDU framework, we quickly merged some of the groups with overlapping areas of interest and expertise to create more dynamic conversations, then further improvised by fully integrating what had initially been envisioned as conversations divided between onsite and online groups—which meant, for example, that my colleague Kim Flintoff (working from Australia) and I quickly snagged a room with projection and audio/loudspeaker capabilities—so we could hook my laptop up to those systems; the result was that we co-facilitated a session that extended from our room in Tempe all the way to Kim’s home on the other side of the world—and also drew in a couple of other onsite facilitators and a few online participants into the same highly productive completely blended session. One of the most rewarding signs of success came when we stopped paying attention to the technology that was making the session possible and focused on the results we were hoping to produce.

Just when all of us at the Unconference thought we had pushed our ability to adapt to its limit, another unexpected twist occurred—at the end of our first full day together: the increasing fear of cancelled flights home because of the then not-yet-implemented shelter-in-place orders that started going into effect less than a week later in parts of the United States drove the unexpected decision to move everything online overnight. Which meant that almost everyone had to scramble to rebook flights. Cancel their overnight reservations at the conference hotel. Scramble to pack everything that had been brought to the conference. And take actions that would have us all back together the following morning for Day 2 of what was about to become a completely virtual conference—with just a handful of us continuing to work together (in the Unconference online environment) from the dining room of the Unconference hotel.

Next: Going Online to Continue Dreaming, Driving, and Doing


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