Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Sheltering, Associating, and Thriving

April 17, 2020

One of the most stunningly impressive and inspiring displays of positive action coming out of the current sheltering in place efforts to fight the spread of the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic is the display of flexibility and adaptability I’ve seen in a variety of sectors—not the least of which is the training-teaching-learning environment that is so much a part of my life.

I’ve seen firsthand, written about, and talked extensively and been involved in discussions about the way in which the mostly-onsite ShapingEDU 2020 Unconference moved, overnight, into being a completely online gathering of dreamer-doer-drivers committed to help shape the future of learning in the digital age. I’ve been observing (through news articles, blog posts, participation in webinars, and personal conversations) how rapidly and radically administrators, teachers, and students are moving from onsite to online environments—sometimes successfully, sometimes painfully much less so—in attempts to avoid a complete shutdown of our formal education systems globally. And I continue to be impressed, fascinated, and supported by associations—those wonderful groups that even in the least challenging of times, bring us together—through a shared interest—to commiserate, learn, play, survive, and thrive together.

My colleagues in local ATD (Association for Talent Development) chapters as well as in the parent organization, for example, have turned the very bitter lemon of having to cancel onsite gatherings into an incredible pitcher of lemonade in the form of highly interactive, engaging, and productive online gatherings—what I have consistently referred to as “face-to-face sessions online.” It’s a fairly straightforward—and hardly new—approach that is becoming more and more easy to implement through the use of an increasingly varied array of teleconferencing tools designed to pull us as near as possible to a sense of telepresence—the perception that we are sharing a physical space, side-by-side, regardless of the actual physical distance between us.

It’s as if we had formally decided to counteract the frustrations of social distancing by engaging in an updated version of virtual proximity—and we are, increasingly, seeing this virtual proximity become widespread through necessity. The ATD South Florida Chapter, for example, reacted magnificently to shelter-in-place by proposing and implementing, in less than a month, a series of online weekly gatherings that have all the spirit and camaraderie of the long-standing onsite chapter meetings that are a staple of ATD chapters throughout the United States. When chapter leaders decided to experiment with this face-to-face online approach through the use of Zoom, they immediately put out a request for proposals from chapter members interested in being part of this initiative. I saw the first request, via email, on Friday, March 27, 2020. A week later, I was in the virtual audience for the first session, led by longtime colleague and chapter member Jennifer Dow, on the topic of “Engaging Your Audience While Facilitating Virtually.” Two weeks after receiving that email message, I was in the audience for the second session, led by chapter member George Romagosa, on the topic of “Quick and Easy MicroLearning.” And this morning—three weeks after seeing the initial request for proposals, I was leading a session centered on a few case studies of organizations that were making the switch from onsite to online operations almost—if not virtually—overnight.

As we look at how my colleagues in that first-rate, highly innovative, and very playful chapter managed to create this new series so quickly, we would do well to begin with a glance at the cordial, transparent, collegial manner in which they invited participation while also creating awareness of what was in the works. Under a banner containing a simple message—“Let’s support one another at this time”—they quickly drew us in: “ATDSFL remains focused on supporting your professional needs. During this time, we are seeking talent development professionals who would like to share best practices, tips and strategies in virtual training delivery. Small and large organizations alike may be struggling with how to transition quickly to online or virtual training and we would like to equip our members with the skills to tackle this challenge! Please contact the Director of TD Talks Selen Turner at selenturner@comcast.net if you are interested in being a virtual speaker.”

It’s all there, and completely reflective of the tenor of all interactions with ATD South Florida Chapter members: the statement of need, the proposed action to be taken, a clear statement of what is being sought, and guidance on how to respond.”

As a rare chapter member whose interactions are all virtual except for those rare times when I’m actually in Florida (rather than San Francisco or other parts of the country) for a project, I was intrigued. And as a prospective session facilitator, I was as impressed as I always am by the quick response I received to my initial proposal. This is what makes an association thrive. This is what makes an association be seen as the place to be. And this is an association that, through its collaborative approach to implementing its mission, vision, and value statements, is there for us—and we for it—in the best and the worst of times.

The parent organization, at its best, is every bit as creative and responsive as its chapters are; no surprise there. Faced, for example, with the difficult decision so many associations are currently having to make—to go ahead with planning for large conferences that are routinely held on an annual basis or cancel them in acknowledgment that gathering large numbers of people together during a time of pandemic—ATD recently announced that its annual gathering (as usual, scheduled for May) is being cancelled, and that the Association would look forward to gathering onsite next year for its five-day conference and exposition—presumably when health and safety issues had been overcome. But it didn’t stop there. Several days later, a follow-up note went out to the thousands of us around the world who belong to ATD: an invitation to attend an ATD 2020 Virtual Conference to be held a couple of weeks later than the onsite conference would have been held. It’s still very early in the process of disseminating information about what specific sessions will be held, but signs are already promising that our Association colleagues are doing everything possible to recreate, virtually, what is being lost through that onsite cancellation: dozens of formal learning opportunities; networking opportunities in group and one-on-one situations; and an opportunity to “be a part of ATD’s history as we come together for a new learning experience.”

I have often reflected on and written about the value of associations—and association! I’ve documented the high regard in which I hold colleagues in the American Library Association, ATD (initially in those years when it was still ASTD, the American Society for Training & Development), ShapingEDU, the New Media Consortium before financial difficulties led its board members to make the decision to dissolve the organization, T is for Training, and others. And I was inspired to do so again today after coming across a prompt from ATD on its Facebook page: “What does being a member of ATD mean to you?”

The answer flowed effortlessly, without requiring much thought: It means the world to me. ATD is a magnificent community of learning. A large laboratory/sandbox for exploring and engaging in lifelong learning. A source of support in the best of times and the most challenging of times. A meeting place. A testing ground for new ideas and a place to improve what we have already developed. A professional family. A state of mind. A place we can call home. And because it is so good at what it does, it helps define the word “association” in numerous, varied, nuanced ways.

So, there we are: association in all its glory, even in times requiring us to shelter in place…while still offering us opportunities to nurture proximity in all the important ways.

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


NEKLS Innovation Day 2015: Training-Teaching-Learning While Hanging Out in Kansas

April 30, 2015

I’ve hung out before, and I’m sure I’ll hang out again, but I can’t imagine a more intensely innovative and emotionally-rewarding approach to incorporating Google Hangouts into training-teaching-learning than the one collaboratively created as part of the 2015 Northeast Kansas Library System (NEKLS) Innovation Day program yesterday.

nekls_logosm_400x400What we’re continuing to explore with Hangouts is highly-engaging, low-/no-cost web-conferencing, a rudimentary and surprisingly effective form of telepresence, and  notably strong levels of interaction in training-teaching-learning made possible through the use of an easy-to-learn social media tool—something that fell into place nicely in two consecutive sessions during Innovation Day.

It has taken a fair amount of experimentation and practice to reach the point we reached yesterday: an onsite event that seamlessly expanded to include two offsite presenters (Harford County Public Library Technical Trainer Maurice Coleman and me) so we not only could interact directly with onsite participates but with each other as if we were all in the same room—and the room expanded further via connections simultaneously made with Twitter.

My own experience in training-teaching-learning through web conferencing and rudimentary telepresence dates back to a successful experiment to bring an offsite presenter (from Ohio) into an onsite event attended by more than 200 people here in San Francisco in 2007 in a way that encouraged some limited, direct interactions between the online presenter and members of the onsite audience. I expanded the exercise a bit a few years later by incorporating Skype, Twitter, and onsite colleagues into one of these blended learning events at a Sacramento ASTD (American Society for Training & Development meeting, then carried it a bit further with my New Media Consortium colleague Samantha Adams Becker when we switched over to Google Hangouts for onsite-online blended sessions with ASTD Mount Diablo and Golden Gate chapter colleagues.

What many of us were realizing at that point was that with proper preparation (which included abundant amounts of rehearsal time) and the right equipment (most of which was already available to us in each of the venues we used), we could erase geographic barriers in ways that caused onsite participants to forget that the online participants weren’t physically in the room.

An expansion of the experimentation included adding an onsite Twitter facilitator (colleague Larry Straining, who ad-libbed from a basic script to tweet out what Samantha and I were doing via Google Hangouts for ASTD—now ATD, the Association for Talent Development) at a conference in the Washington, D.C. area in late 2014. Adding Twitter to the mix in this focused, pre-planned way helped make the point that the “rooms” in which each of these events was physically taking place was actually expanding to include a global audience comprised of participants working synchronously and others who could participate later in an asynchronous fashion by seeing and responding to the tweets in an ongoing conversation. Carrying this another step further by drawing “left-behind” colleagues (including Maurice) into the 2015 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting (held in Chicago) provided yet another example of how Hangouts could produce live as well as archived learning opportunities —and further laid the groundwork for what we accomplished yesterday during the annual NEKLS Innovation Day conference: live interactions between the two of us who were offsite, interactions between the two of us and those who were physically present at the conference; and interactions with non-conference attendees who saw the tweets and shared content through retweeting. All that was missing yesterday was synchronous two-way interactions between those non-conference attendees and those of us who were participating onsite or via the Hangout)—but we had a hint of it as my own Innovation Day tweets were picked up and retweeted by several unfamiliar tweeters here in the United States and elsewhere.

NEKLS Continuing Education Consultant Patti Poe initiated the process as part of her overall Innovation Day planning by inviting me to use Google Hangouts as the vehicle for a presentation/discussion on using online collaboration tools. When she mentioned that Maurice would be doing a separate (closing keynote address) session via Hangouts, I asked if it would be possible to also include Maurice in the session I was facilitating and schedule that session in the time slot immediately preceding his keynote address. The experiences Maurice and I had with the ALA Midwinter Meeting experiment primed us to attempt something that was both structured—with specific learning goals and objectives—and improvisational so that onsite conference attendees would very much be involved in learning while also shaping the nature of the session.

Rehearsal for Innovation Day Hangout (Photo by Robin Hastings)

Rehearsal for Innovation Day Hangout (Photo by Robin Hastings)

As Patti noted shortly after the day ended, it exceeded everyone’s expectations and once again demonstrated that it’s possible to have this technology as the vehicle for—not the central feature of—learning opportunities and to have all of us interacting almost exactly as we would have if we hadn’t been spread over a 2,800-mile distance—in essence, creating a 2,800-mile-wide room. Maurice and I had a PowerPoint slide deck (with extensive speaker notes) and a supplemental resource sheet that I prepared and that served as our roadmap even though we actually didn’t display either during the live session (we wanted onsite attendees seeing us rather than slides as part of our effort to create the sense that we were  in the room in a very real sense); the slide deck and resource sheet were posted online later as additional learning objects and as a way to give the synchronous session an extended asynchronous life. We also allowed for plenty of interactions via question-and-answer periods throughout the entire hour-long “Using Online Collaboration Tools” session just as we do when we’re physically present in training-teaching-learning sessions. And when that initial hour came to an end, we took the same sort of between-session break we would have taken if we had physically been onsite, then returned with Maurice assuming the lead and with me maintaining an onsite-onscreen presence through a small window at the bottom of the screen as I watched his onsite-online presentation.

All of us had set out to create the sense of presence (i.e., close physical proximity) that we believe—and continually prove—is possible in well-planned, well-executed onsite-online learning environments capable of transforming learners. All of us confirmed with those onsite that we had achieved that goal. But several hours passed before I realized that in my playful role of the trickster who creates the illusion of physical proximity, I had unintentionally even tricked myself, for as I sat in the comfort of my own home here in San Francisco last night—never physically having left that home—I unexpectedly felt the same sense of melancholy I sometimes experience after intensively engaging in learning with colleagues at onsite conferences and then being physically separated from them as we return to our own homes and workplaces across the country. And I have the same sense of longing to be back with them again sooner than later to continue the connected-learning process that brings all of us such deeply rewarding experiences and relationships.


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