Changing the World Using Telepresence

February 20, 2019

When members of the Elders Action Network want to meet, they don’t immediately begin booking flights, hotel rooms, and meeting sites. They often turn to Zoom, one of several videoconferencing tools that are increasingly becoming low-cost (or no-cost) go-to places for meetings that can combine onsite and online interactions.

The Network, primarily comprised of older activists living throughout the United States and actively engaged with each other locally, regionally, nationally, and through international travel and online interactions, includes educators, nonprofit administrators, environmentalists, writers, and others actively working together to change the world. Among the nearly three dozen representatives listed on the organization’s website and promoting positive solutions to societal and environmental challenges are Michael Abkin, National Peace Academy board chairman and treasurer; Lynne Iser, founding executive director for the Spiritual Eldering Institute, founder of Elder-Activists-org, a symposium facilitator for the Pachamama Alliance, and a participant in the making of the film Praying with Lior, which explores the story of how a member of her family (her stepson) with Downs Syndrome interacts in his community of faith as he prepares for his bar mitzvah; and Paul Severance, administrative director for Sage-ing® International, is a member of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

Cross-pollination between members of the Elders Action Network and other complementary groups through teleconferencing and other tools is obvious from the most cursory exploration of the Network’s website. Severance and others are involved in Sag-ing International—another elder organization, dedicated to “teaching/learning, service, and community” in ways that involve mentoring and creating a legacy for its individual members. At least one member is also active in the Seniors Action Network. Another serves as executive director of Gray Is Green, “an online gathering of older adult Americans aspiring to create a green legacy for the future.”

Their live and archived Zoom sessions provide a dynamic example of how you can easily use what you already have—a desktop or laptop computer, or a mobile phone or tablet—to incorporate videoconferencing into your work to consistently develop communities committed to fostering positive actions regardless of where you live. Zoom—with free and low-cost versions—offers them a dynamic social media tool that creates an onsite space for workshops, book discussion groups, webinars, and monthly community conversations among members of the organization’s “Elder Activists for Social Justice” and “Elders Climate Action” groups. In the live sessions, participants can see any colleague using a webcam and can hear any colleague enabling the audio capabilities of his or her computer or mobile device. Zoom, like many other video-conferencing tools, offers visual options including a screen filled by the image of the person speaking; a screen that has thumbnail images of all participants using their video feed; sharing of material (including slide decks) from a speaker’s desktop; and a live chat function that allows for backchannel conversations augmenting what is taking place in the main audio feed.

Some of the community conversation recordings are archived so the life of those meetings/conversations extends far beyond the live events themselves to engage others who are interested in but unavailable to participate live during the recordings.  They become part of the seamlessly interwoven conversations you, too, can be having with members of your own community.

As members of the Elders Action Network have discovered, you don’t need to be physically present with your colleagues to have “face-to-face” conversations. Using Zoom or other videoconferencing tools can, under the right conditions, make participants feel as if they are in the same space, having productive, community-building interactions regardless of where each participant is physically located. Recordings that are well produced can even leave asynchronous participants feeling as if they are/were in the live sessions. (I have repeatedly found myself reaching, without thinking, toward my keyboard to respond to comments in a chat feed before remembering that I am trying to respond to a live conversation that ended days, weeks, or even months earlier.)

In many ways, Zoom offers a great contemporary example of how your onsite and online interactions are increasingly merging if you take time to explore how Zoom, Skype, and other videoconferencing tools can create a sense of presence—telepresence or virtual presence—that creates engaging, global spaces where activists work together to foster social change. When you begin exploring the possibilities of collaborating online through the use of telepresence tools—those ever-evolving platforms including Skype, Zoom, and Shindig that, when used effectively, can make you feel as if you are in the same room with people who can be sitting on the other side of your state, your country, or the world—you discover what so many others before you have realized: our options for communicating with each other regardless of our physical locations are continuing to evolve rapidly in ways that can make our work easier than would otherwise be possible.

Exploring the technical side of telepresence tools provides a somewhat cold, efficient understanding of what they can offer you and those you serve. Actually seeing them used or using them yourself to achieve concrete results carries you right where you need to be: understanding that they can create a sense of presence and engagement that further expands the breadth and depth of your community, your levels of engagement, and the size of the community in which you work, live, and play. And remember: play, as always, is a key element of using these tools to their fullest potential; bringing a sense of playfulness to the ways in which you incorporate them into your change-the-world efforts is a surefire way to use them to produce results rather than making them the focus of your work and, as a result, detracting from rather than supporting what you and your colleagues are attempting to accomplish.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2019. This is the sixteenth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting: Bringing Offsite Colleagues Into the Room

February 1, 2015

With informal help and encouragement from our staff colleagues in the American Library Association (ALA), several of us successfully managed, this afternoon, to reduce the number of people “left behind” during the current ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting being held here in Chicago. And, in the process, we produced a learning object designed to help members of ALA and other associations achieve similarly rewarding results.

ala_leftbehind“ALALeftBehind” has been a bittersweet movement for quite a while now: those unable to be onsite for the Midwinter Meeting held early each year and the Annual Conference held early each summer contact onsite Association members via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms for news about what is happening onsite. They also, via the #ALALeftBehind hashtag, comment on how much they wish they could be part of the onsite action.

This was the year we reduced the onsite-online gap a bit more. Largely thanks to the efforts of ALA staff, those who could not attend the conference received tips about resources that could help connect them to onsite activities and colleagues. That commitment to offsite members as well as to the onsite members who could afford the time and cost of traveling to Chicago inspired at least a few of us onsite to seek ways to support that effort and find ways to further draw our offsite colleagues into the onsite rooms.

ALAMW15--LogoAs we were meeting (during the first day of the conference) in the Midwinter Meeting Networking Uncommons—a wonderful space meant to facilitate unplanned encounters and conversations at a significant level—a few of us were expressing the same sort of comments expressed by those left behind: sadness that familiar faces weren’t present for Midwinter 2015 conversations. One person who is particularly important to us is our training-teaching-learning colleague Maurice Coleman, who brings us together online through his biweekly T is for Training conversations/podcasts and has been making audio-recordings of live face-to-face T is for Training sessions at ALA Midwinter Meetings and Annual Conferences for the past few years. Without Maurice onsite, we realized we would miss our semi-annual face-to-face session—until we decided that if we couldn’t bring Maurice and “T” into the Uncommons and the rest of the conference, we would bring the Uncommons and the conference to Maurice.

We were lucky enough to be sitting with Jenny Levine, the ALA staff member who remains the driving force behind the Uncommons (and much more), as our plan began to develop; she quickly confirmed a reservation for the final 30-minute slot remaining for formal use of the Uncommons during the 2015 Midwinter Meeting. We then contacted Maurice and a few other T is for Training colleagues who were offsite to see whether they wanted to participate in a unique T is for Training session via a Google Hangout rather than the usual audio-only format we use through TalkShoe.

There was a conscious decision that we weren’t going to make the Hangout appear too well-rehearsed, and we also agreed that we would rely on our improvisational skills to address any unexpected problems that came up during the session. Having experimented with blended onsite-online conference attendance via Twitter and blended learning opportunities via Google Hangouts, I saw this as an opportunity to pull a session together with minimal planning, preparation, and rehearsal so that #alaleftbehind colleagues would see how easily similar gatherings could be arranged while also seeing what can go wrong with this sort of impromptu erasing of the Left Behind brand.

Virtual Maurice Coleman before he joined the live Hangout

Virtual Maurice Coleman before he joined the live Hangout

That’s exactly how it played out during the live session earlier this afternoon. The opening segment with guest host Kate Kosturski, T is for Training colleague Jules Shore, and me in the Networking Uncommons began right on time and featured a decent quality of audio and video. Our first (not-unexpected) glitch occurred when Maurice was unable to join the Hangout in its recorded version, so came in through a virtual back door: my tablet. Figuring that low-quality Maurice was better than no Maurice, I took the only action I could imagine taking: I held the tablet up to the webcam and hoped for the best. Watching the archived recording shows that it was a gamble that paid off: the audio and video feed captured from the tablet was even better in the recording than it was for those of us in the Uncommons—which doesn’t mean it was great (far from it), but as a spur-of-the-moment solution, it worked. Better yet, it added the sort of levity to the session that is such a valuable and valued part of all T is for Training sessions.

The experiment gained momentum about12 minutes into the session with Jill Hurst-Wahl, another key part of the T is for Training community, was able to join the Hangout from her home. After a moment or two of trouble-shooting, she was completely integrated into the exchange and the conversation resumed where it had stopped when Maurice first came in via the tablet.

Our moment of success came just after the halfway point, when Maurice was able to switch from the tablet feed to the version visible in the archived recording. And, for the remainder of the program, we once again showed how a conference room can quickly expand from being a small onsite space to a space that extend across entire states.

It could have been better; we should have been able to include other participants via the chat function in Google Hangouts. But as an example of how low-cost, high-impact technology can help us redefine our meeting and our learning spaces and how it can further reduce the size of our Left Behind groups, it offers an effective case study. And it will continue reducing that Left Behind group person by person as more people view the recording and use it to create their own no-longer-left-behind experiences.


#oclmooc, Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses), and ATD Chapter Leaders: How Big Is the Room?  

October 17, 2014

A recent week-long trip to spend time with Association for Talent Development (ATD) colleagues and other friends in the Washington, D.C. area provided yet another reminder of how seamlessly interwoven our blended (onsite-online) communities have become. Walls are permeable. Distances become negligible. And connections—and connected learning—are abundant in many parts of the world.

ATD_LogoThe “Perfect Blend: Seamlessly Serving [Chapter] Members Onsite and Online” session I designed and co-presented with New Media Consortium colleague Samantha Adams Becker and Larry Straining (serving as our tweet-stream manager) at the 2014 ATD Chapter Leaders Conference was designed to demonstrate how well-blended we all are becoming through training-teaching-learning. What it really did for me, at a personal level, was serve as a central example of a weeklong intensive immersion in pushing the envelope of what the combination of people and easy-to-use tech tools can produce.

What made “Perfect Blend” work for so many of us was the onsite interactions my colleagues and I had with Samantha, who participated in the session, from her home in the Chicago area, via a Google Hangout. Samantha and I had successfully engaged in this level of interaction with other ATD colleagues several times, so the gist of what she, Larry, and I were attempting to convey was that tools such as Hangouts and Twitter, when used effectively, make it possible for us to feel as if we’re physically in the same space with people who are actually hundreds or thousands of miles away. It’s telepresence without the associated high price tag. And, once again, it worked very well as we quickly jettisoned the formal presentation we had prepared and simply engaged with our colleagues face-to-face, via the Hangout, and via the Twitter stream that Larry so masterfully managed during the hour-long session. As the session came to an end, we knew that we had effectively answered a question I asked at the beginning of the hour (“how big is this room?”) with the obvious answer: our room—our learning space—is as big as our use of technology makes it—700 miles wide if we consider the distance between Chicago (where Samantha was sitting) and the Washington, D.C. area, where most of us were participating. Or a couple of thousand miles wide if we consider some of the interactions we had via Twitter with others during and after the formal session.

oclmooc_logoIt was clear to everyone that, as we said during the session, we (trainer-teacher-learners) are social people who are frequently drawn together in social situations, so we’re becoming increasingly comfortable with our ability to socialize while we learn onsite and online. It’s equally clear that the technology we’re exploring allows us to create social learning spaces that are variations on the Third Place that Ray Oldenburg first described in 1989 in his book The Great Good Place. It’s very much a part of what we see through our interactions within connectivist massive open online courses (MOOCs) such as the Open and Connected Learning MOOC (#oclmooc), the Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses), the Educational Technology & Media MOOC (#etmooc), and the Exploring Personal Learning Networks MOOC (#xplrpln). It’s also very much a part of a world where connections overlap with connections that, in turn, overlap with other connections.

ccourses_logoAnd that’s what I saw throughout the week. The conversations during the “Perfect Blend” session were interwoven with face-to-face and online exchanges in the days preceding and following that learning opportunity. Some were with ATD colleagues; others were with my #oclmooc and #ccourses colleagues. They even carried over, via the conference backchannel, into exchanges with training-teaching-learning colleagues who were completely unfamiliar with the ATD Chapter Leaders Conference, but entered the conversations a bit and interacted directly with each other without any previous face-to-face or online contact by retweeting comments from the conference and offering their own observations about the various topics we were discussing. They extended further as I had brief exchanges with learners in the “Rethinking Library Instruction: Libraries as Social Learning Centers” I’m currently facilitating for the American Library Association, and carried some of those learners’ thoughts back to my ATD Chapter Leaders Conference colleagues.

But it didn’t stop there. After the conference ended and after I had a couple of days to relax in our nation’s capital while continuing to interact with various members of my overlapping communities of learning, I saw one additional enlargement of the room: I was able to interact, from 37,000 feet above our planet, with #oclmooc colleagues in a live session that connected my cross-country flight with trainer-teacher-learners in Alberta (Canada) and several places throughout the United States.

So I return to the expansive question—how big is our room?—and see, as I shared with many of those colleagues, that the room is as big as we and our technology can make it. Cross-country. International. And even above the planet. Which makes our social learning space a wonderfully large and magnificent place to be.

N.B.: This is the eleventh in a series of posts documenting connected learning through #ccourses and #oclmooc.


Blogging, Connecting, and Learning

October 14, 2013

Looking for wonderful examples of connectivity in action leads us directly to “Personal Learning Networks: Knowledge Sharing as Democracy,” written and posted by Alison Seaman for the Hybrid Pedagogy digital journal/blog in January 2013—particularly if we’re celebrating Connected Educator Month and immersed in the five-week Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) MOOC (massive open online course) that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program.

xplrpln_logoSeaman’s wonderful example of how a well-written blog posting can engagingly serve as a valuable learning object—the piece is among the recommended readings during the second week of Exploring Personal Learning Networks—not only carries us through a first-rate exploration of what personal learning networks (PLNs) are and how they function to our benefit, but also extends our own personal learning networks if we care to follow the numerous well-chosen links to other writers’ work on the subject.

Even reading nothing more than the first paragraph of the piece leaves us with the recognition that our personal learning network is expanding in very rewarding ways and our role as connected educators working at trainer-teacher-learners is similarly growing. Seaman herself becomes part of that PLN if she wasn’t already there. Then, by following the link to Nathan Jurgenson’s Cyborgology blog article about digital dualism (the questionable practice of seeing our onsite and online personalities as different rather than seamlessly interwoven), we add Jurgenson, the blog he and PJ Rey created, and Rey into the mix.

While the potential connections to be forged through Seaman’s links are numerous, one that is particularly rewarding introduces us to global networker Shelley Terrell. It has the added benefit of calling attention to its writer (Howard Rheingold) if we’re not already familiar with his work, and it brings the topic back to human scale through Rheingold’s description of how Terrell refers to PLNs as “‘passionate learning networks’ and defines simply as ‘the people you choose to connect with and learn from.’”

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoWe don’t need to dissect the entire article paragraph by paragraph and link by link to see the value of exploring these online resources and increasing our PLN via connections on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ (particularly its communities, including—in the context of connected educators and personal learning networks—#xplrlrn and #etmooc), and the MOOCs in which we encounter these wonderful learning partners. But we can step back a bit, recognize the interactions that are already in place between the potentially new PLN resources (several of us have shared virtual space in #etmooc, #xplrlrn, and #lrnchat—a weekly online tweet chat for those involved in training-teaching-learning), and marvel at the real lesson to be absorbed here: our online interactions in personal learning networks continue to stretch our most rudimentary ideas of what it means to “meet” someone for the first time. (Does it have to be face-to-face, or are we already reaching the point in which interacting via a Google+ Hangout, Adobe Connect, or other more sophisticated forms of telepresence provide that initial all-important meeting? Does it have to be that traditional in-the-moment synchronous experience, or can it be via a much more protracted exchange that starts with someone posting an idea that we come across days, weeks, months, or even years later; respond to; then find ourselves engaged in online exchanges that remain alive in a very extended moment via our online means of communication?)

These are the sort of contemporary, mind-twisting, landscape-changing questions and challenges we can explore through our ever-expanding and resource-rich PLNs, drawing upon the people and the resources at our physical and virtual fingertips.

Reading James Paul Gee’s The Anti-Education Era, leads us to an interesting extension of how we and our resources interact to produce something positive that might otherwise not have come our way:

“The genius of human beings was and is the invention and use of tools to make themselves smarter. It is misleading to talk about human intelligence and think only of unaided humans. Humans are tool users. The real unit of analysis for intelligence ought often to be human + tool. If you want to know how much a human can lift, pair them with a forklift. If you want to know how much information they can store, pair them with a computer. If you want to know how far they can see, pair them with a telescope” (p. 122).

And, to continue his thought: If you want to know how much they know, connect them with a vibrant and vital personal learning network and then see where that takes them—and the rest of  us.

N.B.: This is the second in a series of posts about Connected Educator Month and the second  in a series of reflections inspired by #xplrpln (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks massive open online course).


NMC Horizon Project Summit 2013 (Future of Education): Prelude

January 21, 2013

Given the magnificently overwhelming number of great learning opportunities available to trainer-teacher-learners, it’s difficult to choose one that stands out above all others. But the annual process of creating the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project Higher Education report has to be right up there for anyone interested in learning, technology, creativity, and possibilities.

nmc.logo.cmykIt isn’t necessary to be a member of the report advisory board to gain much of what the process offers. Through the creative and trend-setting work of NMC staff in facilitating research via a publicly accessible wiki, the work of advisory board members is completely transparent and accessible to anyone who wants to follow the development of the report.

And it’s a process well worth following. It begins each fall with a posting, from NMC staff, of recent press clippings, videos, and other online resources to introduce some of the tech tools, trends, and challenges to be explored; the resources listed here could, by themselves, serve as a semester-long course surveying the state of technology in education and other creative endeavors. Sifting through even a relatively small number of those offerings in late 2012 provided introductions to a wonderful app called “Field Trip”; took me even further into the use of Google+ Hangouts for educational purposes than I had already gone; and led me to updates on the Google’s Project Glass initiative into augmented reality.

In spite of how much there is to absorb from that resource, it’s just a prelude to the heart of what the wiki and the Horizon Project overall provides. Jumping to the topics page leads to a list of more than 30 topics to be considered by advisory board members, and that, too, could provide the foundation for another semester-long course as visitors and advisory board members explore 3D printing, augmented reality, flipped classrooms, learning analytics, massively open online courses (MOOCs), tablet computing, telepresence, virtual assistants, wearable technology, and many other subjects that appear to be on the horizon for many of us.

Discussions among advisory board members about the tech topics are conducted within the wiki and can be read by anyone visiting the site—as are advisory board members’ discussions about key trends and critical challenges. The voting process to determine which tech tools, trends, and challenges are most likely to have the greatest impact within one-year, two- to three-year, and four- to five-year horizons produces a short list that is posted on the wiki and which remains the penultimate step before advisory board members engage in one final vote to determine what will be included in the new Higher Education report. While the final report that NMC staff writes is an invaluable resource to anyone involved in learning, that short list is also extremely important in that it calls attention to technology and trends that might otherwise be overlooked.

But even this is not enough to keep our NMC colleagues fully occupied, Celebrating ten years of Horizon Reports, staff organized an invitation-only retreat in Austin, Texas in January 2012 to reflect on what technology would mean to educational institutions in the next decade. The result , after more than two days of well-facilitated discussions among approximately 100 participants, was another learning resourced—a retreat wiki—and a communique that documented a set of megatrends.

So as I sit here in Austin the night before the second annual retreat/summit begins, I think about all that so many of us have gained from the work of the New Media Consortium—and wonder what is yet to come.


%d bloggers like this: