Social Learning Centers and the Intersection at 39,000 Feet

September 18, 2012

I’m sitting next to Rob, someone I met a couple of hours ago at the beginning of an American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport this afternoon. We’ve been talking about the work he does on data protection and retention and the training-teaching-learning work I do in helping people learn to creatively incorporate technology into their workplaces. And we’re having an extended Intersection moment—the Intersection being that phenomenon described by Frans Johansson in his book The Medici Effect, about how when people from different backgrounds briefly come together and share ideas, they walk away with more than they ever would have developed on their own.

Our meandering conversation is punctuated by periods of silence during which we return to reading material we brought with us on the flight—he on his Kindle, me within the pages of printed books and magazines. And each time we resume our conversation, we learn something new. Rob, for example, learns a bit about social learning as well as about how different contemporary libraries are from those he used to frequent. And I, a moment ago, learned about BookShout!, which Rob pointed out to me after finding it described in the inflight magazine he is continuing to browse.

BookShout!, it turns out, is a new social media offering for readers interested in sharing comments online as they read books together. Having been introduced to the marketplace earlier this year by Founder and CEO Jason Illian, VP of Technology Rick Chatham, and VP of Creative and User Experience Josh Stone, according to the inflight magazine article (American Way, September 15, 2012), the service is already accessible through its website and an Apple app for iPhones and iPads; an Android version is scheduled to come out in October 2012.

Users of BookShout!, Illian notes in an online interview, can have their online discussions in groups as small or as large as they want them to be. First-time visitors to BookShout!’s Google+ site or company website will quickly spot the service’s roots in promoting discussions of Christian literature, but a bit of exploration shows that this is a site with aspirations to provide discussions about books from a wide and wonderfully diverse range of subjects.

And that’s what makes Rob point the article out to me.

“I bet this could be useful in online learning,” he observes, already having gathered from our conversation how immersed I am in creative approaches to training-teaching-learning.

“It’s as if we have our own temporary social learning center right here on this plane,” I blurt out as I realize what is happening.

For in the space of less than two hours, we have met, talked, found enough common ground to have more than a passing grasp of each other’s interests, and we’re already sharing information with each other in the midst of the Intersection.

Whether our social learning center will continue online via LinkedIn or some other social media tool after we land at the airport and part ways remains to be seen. But the learning that occurred, in true Intersection fashion, is already on its way to being disseminated. Through presentations a colleague and I are doing two days from now on social learning centers. And through this article you are reading. Welcome to the Intersection and a budding social learning center. Let’s see where this can take us.


ALA 2011 Midwinter Meeting: Trainers, Starfish, and Levels of Engagement in an Onsite-Online World

January 7, 2011

It wasn’t all that long ago that many of us involved in workplace learning and performance saw our face-to-face and online communities as nonintersecting elements of our lives. Face-to-face contact was perceived to somehow be more rewarding, offering deeper, richer relationships than those we had online.

Having dinner last night with a small group of ALA Learning Round Table colleagues who are here in San Diego to attend the 2011 American Library Association (ALA) midwinter meeting reminded me once again how far we’ve come. What became a tradition of gathering a few of us involved in learning opportunities for or within libraries for an evening of dinner and conversation spiced abundantly with an exchange of ideas and resources has, over the past few years, evolved into an opportunity to create and sustain a third place not defined by a physical geographical location—and it really continues to grow through the online contacts we maintain throughout the year.

What in Ray Oldenburg’s concept of The Great Good Place was a world comprised of our home as our first place, work as our second place, and a third place comprised of the treasured community site where we, our friends, and colleagues come and go has, in the age of Web 2.0 and online communities facilitated through social networking tools, come full circle. We now have a third place which can begin either face to face or online, be nurtured through frequent and productive online exchanges—meetings, online chats, regularly scheduled conversations on themes of interest to all participants—and also include those face-to-face encounters in physical settings which change from month to month and year to year depending on where members of the community find themselves crossing paths.

More importantly, the result of this sort of fluid and flexible community which moves back and forth between physical and virtual encounters produces the sort of development and exchange of ideas that Frans Johansson so effectively describes in his The Medici Effect—a tribute to what happens when people of differing backgrounds meet, exchange ideas, and, through their intersection, develop and disseminate new ideas.

Which is exactly what happened again last night. The five of us who were able to extend our continuing long-distance conversations did not arrive with an agenda—that’s neither third place nor Medici Effect thinking. And we did not limit ourselves to discussing what is happening in workplace learning and development or in libraries, although those are the common threads which originally brought us all together. The conversation actually began as many third-place conversations do: with comments about issues that are on our minds, including the anger and frustration we feel that basic social issues such as finding ways to do more than feel bad when we see homeless people sleeping on the streets of the cities which are our homes are not being addressed while members of our national legislature read the American Constitution to each other.

And here’s where our onsite-online third place took an interesting Medici Effect twist: one of our colleagues mentioned that out of her personal frustration came the practice of having a bag of groceries in her car so that when she is running errands and comes across someone in need of food, she has something she can give them.  It seems to be an inadequate response to a huge problem, she suggested, but it serves as a step in the right direction of remaining engaged with members of her own community.  Another colleague present for our third-place gathering jumped in with what she called the story—dare we use the word parable here?—of the girl and the starfish: a young girl, spotting thousands of starfish being washed up on a beach, began throwing some back into the water and, when questioned why she was addressing such an insurmountably large challenge with an action that seemed so insignificant, responded that it wasn’t insignificant to the starfish that she saved.

It didn’t take us long to identify the Medici Effect moment in both stories: what was, up to that moment, an individual effort of providing small offerings of food took on greater import through the sharing of the story about the bags of groceries. If even one of us hearing the story adopts the practice of carrying and distributing groceries to those in need, then our colleague’s action has been multiplied and we are one step closer to supporting what she has inspired to the benefit of those who might otherwise not receive the gift of being acknowledged as members of our overall community.

And at a human level, there was even more: one element that makes our third-place/Medici Effect onsite-online community continue to thrive and grow is that there are no overtly closed doors—new members join as quickly as they express interest in becoming part of the overall conversation.

That happened again last night when our wonderful waitress at Mint Downtown Thai restaurant became part of the various conversations we had and, upon learning that we were among the more than 5,000 people spending the next several days in San Diego to attend the ALA midwinter meeting, immediately asked us each to tell her what our favorite books are so she would have more works to explore. Among those suggested: the novels Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett; The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruis Zafón; and The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay, along with the Notzake Shange’s poetry collection For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. And, as is the obligation of any member of a third-place/Medici Effect community, she responded with her own favorites: Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

So, for those of us who were present—including new community member Ashli at Mint Downtown Thai—we had our cake and ate it too: we walked away with encouragement and inspiration to continue doing what we do, and we had the added benefit of being reminded of books we need to read—or reread—as our onsite-online connections continue growing.


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