Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: The Whatfix Digital Adoption Summit and Social Isolation

May 27, 2020

Missing out on social interaction is, not surprisingly, one of the greatest concerns among more than 2,500 trainer-teacher-learners recently polled about their reactions to adapting to shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic, James Hudson reported yesterday during his first-rate “Impact of COVID-19 on Learning & Development” presentation on Day 1 of the three-day (May 26-28, 2020) whatfix Digital Adoption Conference online.

Those of us immersed in training-teaching-learning-doing are, by nature, people who thrive on helping other people learn what they want and need to learn to more effectively deal with workplace challenges they face. We are lifelong learners who take great pleasure in supporting the efforts of other lifelong learners. We are, in many ways, happiest when we see the face of one of our co-conspirators in learning light up in response to having gained an insight or having developed an understanding about something that matters to that learner. So, the thought/fear/horror of not having that opportunity for interaction and success—and the pleasure that accompanies it for learning facilitators as well as for the learners with whom we work—is, at the very least, a bit distressing, as Hudson’s survey confirms.

The good news for many of us is that the creativity and innovation inherent in much of what we do has been amply on display recently while individuals and organizations have been struggling—and, in many cases, succeeding—to meet the challenge of quickly moving from onsite learning environments into online learning environments. Even better is the news that companies like San Jose-based whatfix and many other organizations have been stepping up to the plate to support us during our transition—something that the currently-underway Digital Adoption Summit is accomplishing magnificently—and providing yet another opportunity to avoid social isolation while engaging in social distancing.

What makes an undertaking like the summit successful is that there is something to be gained by everyone involved. Whatfix, for example, benefits from the opportunity to make many more people aware of what the company offers through a platform “which provides in-app guidance and performance support for web applications and software products. Whatfix helps companies to create interactive walkthroughs that appear within web applications.” Summit presenters have an opportunity to discuss—and, by extension, promote—what they are doing in the field of digital adoption at a time when enormous numbers of people are, with little choice and preparation—having to go online to accomplish what they have been comfortably doing face-to-face for years or decades. Summit participants—free of charge, thanks to whatfix’s decision to not charge a registration fee—have an opportunity to pick and choose from among more than 30 sessions, led by a total of 41 presenters, to learn more about topics that are important to them in their/our day-to-day work. And writer-trainer-presenter-consultants like me have yet another opportunity to both participate in and to step back from the action so we can reflect on what goes into making an online summit/conference successful.

This is learning that meets short-term (shelter-in-place) needs while also laying foundations for long-term positive transformations in the way we work and interact in an onsite-online blended/digital world. It is well-targeted and engagingly presented. It features presenters/colleagues who are learner-centric in their offerings. And it is presented in nicely-designed bite-sized chunks—sessions rarely last more than 30 minutes, with plenty of breathing/reflection time between each one, and the daily opening sessions highlighting what whatfix offers have been much shorter.

The online summit is a great example of how to make an online conference engaging even when participants have minimal, if any, contact among themselves. The decision to pre-record the presentations and then make each initially available during specific time slots does, in essence, transform a series of webinars into pieces of a cohesive three-day event—which, of course, suggests low levels of in-the-moment interaction between presenters and summit attendees. (This is something that Steve Hargadon avoided during his own daylong Learning Revolution “Emergency Remote Teaching & Learning” online conference by having presenters facilitate sessions live and engage in speed-of-light interactions via the chat function of Zoom—the platform used for that session.) The whatfix summit approach, on the other hand, offers the opportunity for live interaction if participants find their way onto Twitter and connect through the #DigitalAdoptionSummit hashtag—something, surprisingly, that few have done so far. But what is lost in synchronous interaction has provided other unexpected gains for any of us who do seek the social-media connections: each presenter whose sessions I have attended has been great about providing contract information. Some—like writer-presenter-entrepreneur Charlene Li, whose session was centered on applying the content to her book The Disruption Mindset to the situation we are currently facing—have taken the extra step of posting materials on their own websites and, as Li did, fostering further engagement by providing a link to a site providing a free copy of her book so those of us who are so inclined can read that book while its content is fresh in our minds and, possibly, continuing the conversation in other online settings.

An additional unexpected benefit of the synchronously-arranged presentations through recordings has been that it’s possible to stop a speaker at any point when those of us who are tweeting want to capture a thought by composing a tweet, reviewing it for accuracy, posting it on Twitter, and then returning to the talk without missing a single word of what the presenter is providing. It’s yet another example of how our world of intertwined synchronous-asynchronous interactions offers us opportunities to more fully absorb what is available to us in terms and under conditions that let us bend time a bit to serve our training-teaching-learning needs. And whatfix is spreading the opportunity to providing post-session links to the recordings of any sessions we added to our schedules, and posting links on Twitter to places where those who did not register for the summit can gain free access to the session recordings.

Another positive aspect of the whatfix approach well worth noting is the high level of incredibly responsive online support company representatives are consistently providing to summit attendees. Initially distressed that I wasn’t seeing the live feed of the opening session yesterday morning, I took advantage of the open customer-support chat window that is continually available during all summit presentations. The response, delivered within a couple of minutes of my having posted a question regarding access to the session, was tremendous. “Sunil” not only provided a new link that immediately gave me access to the session from its opening moments, but also was very reassuring through his suggestion that there might have been a bug causing the problem (so I knew it wasn’t a problem from my side of the equation). A couple of hours later, he was just as cordial and helpful when I inadvertently closed out a session that had been underway for almost 25 minutes and was nearing its conclusion. Relogging into the session, I was briefly disappointed and frustrated to find that I was apparently going to have to rejoin it from the opening moments, so asked Sunil if there was a work-around—which, of course, there was, and I was soon back in the session exactly where I had left it. This is the sort of just-in-time response to a conference-related problem that is common at the best of the onsite events I attend, and it’s an example of how that level of customer service can easily carry over into online conferences/summits when organizers carefully think through what it takes to create that level of support and engagement.

We are not going to have the lovely, unexpected, and ultimately rewarding hallway conversations in this summit that we have at onsite conferences and some of the other online conferences I’ve recently attended. We are not going to have the in-the-moment presenter-audience interactions and collaborations I cherish. But what we will find, through approaches like the one taken by whatfix, is a different sort of opportunity that ultimately helps eliminate the sense of social isolation that concerns our colleagues in training-teaching-learning and in many other contemporary settings. And for that, we can be thankful as we leap at the opportunity to learn things we might not otherwise have learned and open doors to meeting people we might not otherwise have met.

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

May 27, 2020


Connected Learning, Project-Based Learning, and Learners as Authors

August 20, 2013

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” Peter Steiner suggested in his well-known The New Yorker cartoon two decades ago. And nobody would know that a recently-published book on connected learning and learner-centric education that effectively incorporates technology into learning and is available on Amazon.com is a project-based learning achievement produced by 27 Norwegian high school students under the guidance of their teacher, Ann Michaelsen—unless they had found the ebook Connected Learners: A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Global Classroom or heard a few of the authors interviewed this afternoon on the latest episode of Steve Hargadon’s Future of Education series online.

Connected_Learners--CoverHigh-school projects generally aren’t available as ebooks on Amazon.com. Then again, most high-school projects don’t effectively and engagingly lead us into an exploration of contemporary “webucation” while providing a first-rate example of what project-based learning can produce among students of any age. Michaelsen herself describes the book as a “compendium of articles, advice and how-to instructions, designed to help high school teachers and their students around the globe shift from classrooms that are isolated and teacher-centered to digitally rich environments where learning is student-driven and constantly connected to the global internet.” But there’s no need to believe that the publication doesn’t apply to a far wider audience of trainer-teacher-learners.

The writers’ goal is explicitly stated up front: “…we want to teach YOU how to master the skills of webucation. We will teach you how to make a blog and integrate it into your learning. We will discuss the positive effects of a digital classroom and inspire you to use digital tools.”

And while this is hardly a revolutionary idea—the #etmooc Educational Technology & Media massive open online course (MOOC), Buffy Hamilton’s Unquiet Library, and the Social Media Basics and other courses I design and facilitate for ALA Editions, are just a few examples of how richly rewarding many of us are finding online experiential learning to be. It’s also another fabulous reminder that anyone involved in teaching-training-learning needs to be aware of these explorations not only to keep our learning toolkits fresh, but to be ready for the learners who are entering our worksites rapidly and in increasingly large numbers.

Future_of_EducationOne of the benefits of learning from these learners via Hargadon’s Future of Education interview was the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of their own learning environment. The live chat, for example, suggested that what Michaelsen facilitated is widespread in that particular Norwegian school; confirmed that final exams were replaced by reviews of the work the learners produced for the book; and showed that the learners themselves found the work to be “extremely interesting and exciting” and instrumental in fostering “student engagement and motivation”—elements apparently equally strong in the innovative Finnish school system, as we saw in Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland.

Another benefit was to hear the students’ post-learning assessments. Asked whether he would consider writing another book collaboratively outside of school, co-author Haakon Bakker admitted “Maybe not; it’s a big process. But that would be really fun.” Another co-author, Ulrik Randsborg Lie, suggested that a key lesson learned was the importance of advocating for educational change: “It’s all about making the teacher take action” to move toward more connective, experiential technology-supported learning.

Even the most cursory skim of the book excerpts available on Amazon.com suggests that the writers have produced a book rich in resources. There are links to recommendations for setting up Twitter accounts and blogs, using Google Docs and Dropbox, and tips on embedding videos into PowerPoint presentations. There are explorations of 21st-century learning skills. And there are chapters on gaming to learn, digital literacy, and assessment.

Hearing Bakker acknowledge that collaborative authorship is “a big process” suggests how successful this particular learning experience can be. And the possibility of inspiring other learners to produce equally impressive learning objects to help others reminds all trainer-teacher-learners of the key roles we can and must continue to play in contributing to effective and inspirational learning at all levels.


Synchronous Sessions, Asynchronously: Blending Meetings, Learning, and Digital Literacy

February 20, 2013

The borders between well-designed synchronous and asynchronous experiences are becoming increasingly indistinguishable. And that raises a fundamental question for all of us: in an onsite-online world where interactions travel rhizomatically, how do we as trainer-teacher-learners define, plan, and deliver a learning event or any other event grounded by a specific timeframe and centered around online meetings? The answer may be that as we explore ideas about digital literacy/literacies and 21st-century learning, we’re finding the word “event” becoming less and less important while the word “process” much more adequately describes life in a digital world.

etmoocMy own recent experiences with virtual meetings and my ongoing participation in #etmooc—the Educational Technology and Media MOOC (Massive/Massively Open Online Course) organized by University of Regina professor of educational technology and media Alec Couros and others –suggests how permeable those (perceived) barriers between synchronous and asynchronous interactions have become and how expansively we can define the concept of meetings.

Unable to attend Howard Rheingold’s wonderful live #etmooc session on “Literacies of Attention, Crap Detection, Collaboration, and Network Know-How” yesterday within Blackboard Collaborate, I “participated” this morning by watching the archived version. I could see and hear Rheingold as if he were speaking to me live, in the moment. Skimming the very lively chat as it was appearing on the screen augmented the impression that I was part of a live event. Following numerous links to related resources provided by those who contributed to the live chat allowed me to gain from the collective wisdom of that community of learning as effectively as I would have had I been participating in the original program. Reviewing the Etherpad transcript that includes links to the numerous resources mentioned in the live chat further engaged me in that synchronous/asynchronous experience. And carrying that newly-acquired knowledge into a live #etmooc tweet chat at noon PT today took me even further.

etmooc_blog_hubIn a very real sense, the separations between the Rheingold recording and the tweet chat are insignificant. Some of the same participants were present for both. The opportunity to learn more about digital literacy by treating both sessions as one continuous “meeting” helps me define what digital literacy actually implies (the ability to move seamlessly within these various digital platforms to create one cohesive experience). And, as MOOCmate Glenn Hervieux observed recently in one of his #etmooc blog postings, participation in #etmooc through its various online gathering places gives participants incredibly rich and rewarding opportunities to “help nourish each other.”

Flexibility, adaptability, and participation—particularly participation—seem to be key elements of this experience as well as of digital literacy, for the less we tether ourselves to time and place, the more deeply we can engage each other—something that became more obvious to me last week during an online meeting I was facilitating for the American Libraries Advisory Committee. We have, over the past half year, made the transition from being a group that met face-to-face twice a year to being a group that meets monthly; we augment those semiannual onsite meetings with monthly conference calls via FreeConferenceCall.com and opportunities to continue our conversations asynchronously online via a site provided by the American Library Association. It wasn’t until we had an unexpected miscommunication last week that I realized how continuous our interactions had become. Part of the group had the impression that the monthly call was beginning at noon ET, while the other half of the group believed that the meeting was beginning at 1 pm—something I didn’t discover until those meeting at 1 pm contacted me via email to find out whether I was going to attend.

The opportunity was irresistible. I joined the 1 pm group; briefly covered the same agenda items with them; shared the comments from the earlier discussions so they had a chance to interact (asynchronously) with who had already participated one hour earlier; and will close the circle by posting minutes of the meeting that includes all the comments. The result: two synchronous meetings, held asynchronously, will become a synchronous experience for any of us who take the few minutes required to read the set of minutes. And we can continue those discussions through our online site over the next few weeks and/or resume them when we meet virtually again in March.

What we can’t afford to miss here is that there certainly is a set of skills needed if we’re going to operate in this sort of synchronous-asynchronous world, and those set of skills can move us a bit closer to seeking broad definitions for digital literacy/digital literacies,” as #etmooc participants are attempting to do at this point in the course.

Rheingold, in his session that complemented what Doug Belshaw provided two days earlier in his #etmooc digital literacy/literacies session, drew from a lifetime of experience and the content of his book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (“wh@t you need to know to use soci@l medi@ intelligently, hum@nely & mindfully”)  to move us toward a deeper understanding of a topic many of us have explored only at the most superficial of levels. Trying to summarize the session here is unnecessary not only because the archived version remains available online, but also because #etmooc colleague April Hayman summarized it so beautifully in a masterful display of digital literacy on her own blog.

Those still hungry for more of Rheingold’s work—and who wouldn’t be?—will find plenty of nourishment through some of the links provided by the #etmooc community, including Steve Hargadon’s Education 2.0 conversation with Rheingold; Rheingold’s 10-minute YouTube video on “crap detection”—determining credibility of information on the Internet; his 2008 TED talk on “The New Power of Collaboration; and online excerpts from Net Smart. One additional resource well worth perusing: a reposting of Neil Postman’s 1969 essay “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection”—a wonderful reminder that the issue isn’t solely a product of the digital age or a digital literacy challenge.

N.B.: This is the tenth in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc.


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