Giving Thanks 2021: ShapingEDU and the Art of Gathering During (and After) the Pandemic Era

December 2, 2021

Writing about ShapingEDU and Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering recently as part of this continuing series of blog posts has made me more grateful than ever for the people and communities that serve as a source of support and inspiration to me in much of the work I do. What connects that disparate group of capital-M Muses is that each, without overtly embracing the label, serves as an activist within the communities served—a theme I intend to address more fully in a different post.

When I think about my colleagues and many other people I have met through my involvement in the ShapingEDU project (under the auspices of the University Technology Office at Arizona State University) and their collective commitment as “dreamer-doer-drivers” committed to doing whatever they can to help reshape the future of learning in the digital age, I think with tremendous appreciation about our collective/collaborative approach to gathering—and our willingness to share lessons learned about gathering with others, as was done through the fabulous ShapingED-YOU Toolkit providing guidance on how to successfully produce “focused, collaborative Unconference and Community Camp-style events.” Our meetings, face-to-face, online, and in blended environments (those wonderful intersections where online and onsite colleagues meet using platforms including Zoom), consistently create the sense of a global meeting room that quickly erases the usual constraints of geography and are, in significant ways, one long-extended, often asynchronous conversation designed to produced positive, measurable results.

At the heart of our approach to gathering is a commitment to listen. To learn from each other. To maintain a playful approach to the work we do. To foster a sense of inclusiveness that welcomes newcomers as well as returning community members. And to focus heavily on those we are attempting to serve through our efforts. (Our commitment to reshaping learning, furthermore, includes a commitment to include students and other learners in our planning efforts and our events.) That’s something that is clearly visible through the online gatherings we have had this year—particularly the fourth annual ShapingEDU Unconference which, because of remaining concerns about gathering onsite during the pandemic, was once again completely held online (over a four-day period in July 2021).

Shaping the unconference around the theme of “Reshaping Wicked Problems” allowed and encouraged us to reshape our unconference structure a bit this year. Where previous unconference gatherings centered on an initial set of 10 actions the community was attempting to pursue, the latest unconference identified (though collaborative pre-conference exchanges online) 10 wicked challenges to be explored by unconference participants with an eye toward framing them within a newly-created structure of five calls to action that would guide our work over the next 12 months.

Among the wicked challenges were attempts to find ways to more effectively connect strategies to the tools we use in teaching-training-learning—an ongoing effort spearheaded by ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence Tom Haymes through the Teaching Toolset project he is developing (and also writing about on the ShapingEDU blog); better engage virtual learners and avoid burnout; and identify, document, and disseminate stories about how we are rethinking our approach to learning as a result of the teaching-training-learning experiences we and others have had since the pandemic began in early 2020—something that has turned into another long-term ShapingEDU project under the newly-adopted name “Are We There Yet? (Capturing the Evolving New Now in Learning).”

A glance at the “living agenda” for the unconference gives you an idea of the approach to and scope of the work we planned to do—and, more importantly, offers you a template you can adapt for your own gatherings. Looking at the archived recordings of some of the sessions on the aforementioned ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel or directly from links within that living agenda will more fully immerse you in what we did—and, possibly, provide you with ideas you can incorporate into your  own action-oriented gatherings. You’ll see the day-long context-setting series of exercises ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence Ruben Puentedura facilitated on the second day of the conference through his use of a Black Swan approach as a framework for our discussions. You’ll see a series of keynote presentations and panel discussions, including an engaging discussion centered on “The Intersection of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Technology” from the third day of the unconference and the tremendously thoughtful and inspiring “Student Panel” discussion that opened the final day of the unconference. An archived recording of the final hour-long unconference report-out session also remains available on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel, along with plenty of other recordings of ShapingEDU unconference sessions, ShapingEDU webinars, and other sessions the community has produced since its formation in early 2018.

If drawing you into this level of immersion in the ShapingEDU community is successful, it will leave me with one more thing for which I will be grateful: I’ll see you there in the community as a contributor to the positive goals we are pursuing.

Next: ShapingEDU, Saying “Yes,” and Documenting Pandemic Lessons Learned

N.B.: This is the seventh in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways and the thirty-first in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences.


Giving Thanks 2021: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering

November 28, 2021

When you’re still thinking about, feeling grateful for, and applying lessons learned several months after reading a book, you know the book is a winner—which perfectly describes Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters and how it will transform anyone interested in making each gathering/meeting/training-teaching-learning offering as engaging and memorable as it can be.

Priya Parker; photo by Jeff Allen, from Parker’s website

Described (by its subtitle) as a book on “how we meet and why it matters,” it might not immediately catch the attention of my colleagues in training-teaching-learning—which is a real shame, for in adjusting our thinking so that “lessons,” “workshops,” “courses,” and “panel discussions” are seen through the powerful lens of “gatherings,” we find magnificent ways to liberate ourselves and our learners—what some of us call “co-conspirators in learning”—from the “tedium of learning” and find new ways to turn those lessons/workshops/courses/panel discussions into engaging, transformative gatherings with long-term impact.

The initial chapters of this engagingly-written book focus on social gatherings and the gatherings that occur when, for example, students and senior citizens living together in a retirement community interact over a long period of time. She offers concise reminders that successful gatherings grow out of myriad up-front decisions about the purpose of the gathering, the location in which it will be held, the duration of the gathering, and even the number of people who will be included in the gathering—all of which, of course, are elements considered and decisions made as we design and facilitate effective, memorable, transformative learning opportunities. She reminds us that “…a venue can and should do one further thing: displace people. Displacement is simply about breaking people out of their habits. It is about waking people up from the slumber of their own routines” (p. 62)—again, something that any creative, learner-centric trainer-teacher-learning facilitator knows and considers regardless of whether a gathering is taking place onsite or online.

One of the sections where she tremendously inspires us in our lifelong-learning environments is in her discussion, near the middle of the book (pp. 172-173), on the importance of providing a memorable opening to any gathering:

“Openings are a big missed opportunity in gatherings. They all too often underwhelm us, and they don’t have to. After all, openings lay the track for a gathering….Our brain effectively chooses for us what we will remember later. Studies show that audiences disproportionately remember the first 5 percent, the last 5 percent, and a climactic moment of a talk….And yet we often pay the least attention to how we open and close them, treating these elements as afterthoughts.”

Continuing on this theme (pp. 177-178), she reminds us that we have plenty of adaptable models for providing stimulating, memorable openings for our gatherings—including the formats common today in movies and television programs:

“The cold open is the practice of starting a TV show directly with a scene rather than with opening credits….Your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people. And in grabbing them, it should both awe the guests and honor them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.”

And that, for me, is the reason I’m including Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering in this series of “Giving Thanks” essays: I’m grateful that I came across that passage about the cold open and then had an opportunity to discuss and explore it with Stephen Hurley during an episode of our “Collaborations in Learning” conversations for his voicEd Radio program earlier this year; it made me completely change the way I open any learning opportunity I design and facilitate face-to-face or online. Gone are the (occasional) openings I used to offer about what was on the agenda for the session I was about to facilitate; the learners already knew that from the session or course description that had lured them to that particular learning gathering. Gone are the introductory comments designed to provide a brief overview of whatever topic we are going to cover; that, again, is generally covered in the brief descriptions or pre-session work that so often accompanies sessions I facilitate.

What we are left with is the best, most engaging story I can provide—that cold-open approach that grabs a learner’s attention, immediately inspires conversation, makes my co-conspirators want to know more about the people or circumstances at the heart of that story, and makes it clear that we are not going to waste time on turgid, unnecessary scene-setting. We’re here to work, to learn, and, in the best of situations, have some fun along the way through the act of sharing stories and drawing, from those stories, ideas we can immediately adapt in our workplaces or other places where what has been learned is meant to be applied. We are left with learning as storytelling and community-building rather than something that is focused on a lecture and ends with a quiz or formal exam.

There’s plenty more meat on the bones of this book. Parker leads us through an exploration of the value of storytelling. She describes the importance of creating gatherings that are “safe” places as well as places that offer challenges—those places where we are not afraid to take risks (the sort of personal risks obvious to any learner who tries to avoid the pain of “failure” while learning, even though temporary failure is an integral part of the learning process).

And she eventually travels full circle by coming back to a discussion of the combination of supporting vulnerability in our gatherings while fostering storytelling as she quotes Moth founder George Dawes Green (p. 212):

“Story is about a decision that you made. It’s not about what happens to you. And if you hit that and you get your vulnerability and you understand the stakes, and a few other things, people will intuitively find great stories to tell, and as soon as they do, we know them. We know them as human beings. This is no longer my boss’s colleague. This is a real person who had heartbreak. Oh, I know that.”

Parker, nearing the end of her book, reminds us that gatherings need to include appropriate, satisfying conclusions/endings (p. 268): “Part of preparing guests for reentry is helping them find a thread to connect the world of the gathering to the world outside.” And, in a parallel moment of recognition, we recognize that the learning opportunities—the gatherings—we facilitate also need to end with those all-important moment of preparing our learners for reentry into the environments in which they will—with a sense of gratitude for what they have obtained during their time with us—put lessons learned to work. If our gatherings produce those gem-like moments, we are well on our way to success…and a reputation for gatherings worth attending.

Next:  Shola Richards, Community, and Ubuntu (“I Am, Because We Are”)

N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Giving Thanks 2021: Maurice Coleman and T is for Training at 300

November 25, 2021

As we look forward  (on December 2, 2021) to recording Episode #300 (you can listen to the episode here)—where have all those years gone?—of Maurice Coleman’s fabulous T is for Training podcast for trainer-teacher-learners working in and with libraries, I think, with gratitude, of all that Maurice and that community add to my life and to the lives of so many others.

Initiated in 2008 when Maurice decided—correctly, as it turns out—that a podcast might be an effective way to “replicate the vibe and comradery I felt at conferences where I was surrounded with brilliant members of my ‘tribe’ of trainers, computer folks and other gear/near/cool folk heads.”

T has always been more than a podcast. It’s a virtual meeting space that occasionally—at least before the coronavirus pandemic drastically altered our training-teaching-learning landscape and so much more—went onsite for live recordings at conferences where members of the T is for Training community gathered. It’s a biweekly opportunity to learn with and from an ever-growing group of creative, inspired, playful, and irreverent colleagues who also are, in every sense of the word, “friends” worth celebrating. It’s a Frans Johansson-like “intersection”—one of those places where people meet, talk, learn, and then go their separate ways to disseminate what they have learned. In other words, it’s the sort of place where people who want to change the world in small-, medium-, and large-scale ways can gather to remain inspired.

Having joined the show/community as a sporadic attendee more than a decade ago and eventually becoming a core member of the group that keeps the show evolving while not abandoning that original commitment to “replicate the vibe and comradery” we so often feel at onsite and online conferences, I remain deeply grateful for what Maurice and so many others bring to those biweekly conversations. It was Maurice who, by having me participate in those online discussions, took my own online skills and presence to new levels of achievement and made me aware of how much any trainer-teacher-learner can assimilate through the act of participating on a regular basis in well-facilitated online conversations. It was Maurice who believed in me enough to offer—before even one word was written of the book—to write an introduction to a book on training, learning, and leadership with a colleague. It was Maurice who continually introduced me—and continues to introduce me—to people within and beyond the expansive boundaries of our industry to people well worth knowing (and whom I probably would not have met without his generous and timely intercessions). And it is Maurice who serves as a mentor-colleague-brother patiently, supportively, and with a killer sense of humor that lifts me even in my darkest moments. Anyone who didn’t feel compelled to acknowledge gratitude for that combination of gifts probably ought to just walk away from Thanksgiving Day celebrations and never come back!

As is the case with any endeavor worth pursuing, T is for Training continues to evolve—something evident to anyone who has been participating in or listening to the recordings completed since July 2021—a period of time during which we have more consciously drawn in new participants to discuss their recently-published books and/or their recent conference presentations on challenging topics well worth exploring. The series of guests—some of whom are well on their way, through ongoing participation, to becoming “Usual Suspects” in the T is for Training community in this ongoing set of conversations—began an interview/conversation with cherished colleague R. David Lankes, who joined us to talk about his newly released book Forged in War: How a Century of War Created Today’s Information Society. We followed that up two weeks later with a conversation centered around Usual Suspect/Keeper of the T is for Training blog/author Jill Hurst-Wahl on the topic of the impact volunteering has on a person’s life and career—in honor of Jill having received the Special Libraries Association John Cotton Dana [Lifetime Achievement] Award in July 2021.   

August 2021 found us again combining the return of a cherished colleagueClark Quinn—for a discussion of his newly-released Learning Science for Instructional Designers: From Cognition to Application—and an opportunity to explore new avenues, this time by scheduling an hour-long conversation, with writer-friend-colleague James Richardson (one of my first editors, dating back to that period of time when we were both working for the UCLA Daily Bruin) on the theme of “moving from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ in training-teaching-learning.” It was a unique program for T in that Jim does not work for libraries; has teaching-training-learning in his life as a subsidiary rather than primary element of his lifelong career arc that started with journalism, has included publication of a thoughtful, engaging, well-balanced biography of Willie Brown; and took a complete career turn that led him to become an Episcopalian minister who, among other things, served as Chaplain for the California State Senate for two terms between 2005 and 2008. (It was Jim’s story to me earlier this year about how he moved from “no” to “yes” in terms of leaving his journalism career to begin his seminary studies that led to the invitation to discuss that theme within the context of training-teaching-learning.)

September, October, and November brought equally inspirational conversations featuring a variety of new and returning faces including Sardek Love, Elaine Biech, Rita Bailey, and I exploring what we had learned about training-teaching-learning-presenting as a result of our participation in the 2021 ATD International Conference & Exposition in Salt Lake City; Tom Haymes and Ruben Puentedura on sustainability, antifragility, and gamification in training-teaching-learning (Tom has also been featured several times as we have talked about lessons learned from his thoughtful, story-laden book Learn at Your Own Risk: 9 Strategies for Thriving in a Pandemic and Beyond); Brian Washburn on his book What’s Your Formula: Combine Learning Element for Impactful Training; Ken Phillips on assessment and evaluation in training-teaching-learning; Jared Bendis on just about anything he wants to discuss—in this case, back-to-back episodes on gamification in learning and, expanding on a comment he made in that episode, the follow-up conversation about the role hope plays in learning; and, in our most recent outing, the return of Elaine Biech and Rita Bailey, with their/our colleague Tonya Wilson, for a deeply thoughtful, honest, heart-felt exploration of diversity, equity, and inclusion in training-teaching-learning inspired by their session at the ATD conference in September.

These are my peeps—a fact for which I remain tremendously grateful today, on Thanksgiving Day 2021, and throughout the year, These are your peeps—something I hope you will benefit from by listening to what they said on T is for Training, through the archived podcasts, and sharing links to those recordings to help us reach the audience the show deserves.

T is for Training is a meeting place for all of us; hope you’ll join us for one (or more) of our biweekly Thursday evening (9 pm ET/6 pm PT) recording sessions via TalkShoe. I suspect you’ll be grateful you did.

Next: Howard Prager on how to make someone’s day

N.B.: This is the first in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Rethinking Lectures, Learning, and Engagement

June 23, 2021

­­­I have, for quite a long time, not been a big fan of lectures as a primary way of fostering learning and the positive transformations that accompany learning at its best—particularly when the learning is centered around training sessions for adults in workplace settings. Within the learning environments onsite and online in which I most frequently work, learning is doing and doing is learning—which leaves lengthy formal lectures near the bottom of my learning toolkit in most situations. And I can’t say that I have changed my mind substantially. But reading an article—“Good Riddance to Boring Lectures? Technology Isn’t the Answer—Understanding Good Teaching Is,” by Christopher Charles Deneen and Michael Cowling for TheConversation.com—brought to my attention by ShapingEDU colleague Kim Flintoff, has inspired some rethinking on the subject—particularly after engaging in an unexpected set of asynchronous exchanges with colleagues via Facebook.

The article by Deneen and Cowling is thoughtful, balanced, and inspiring. The writers begin by describing how a vice chancellor at an Australian university is suggesting that as students return to onsite learning this year, lectures “would be much less common and not a ‘crutch for poor pedagogy.’” They deftly dive into an exploration of the idea that lectures will “be replaced by superior, technology-enhanced substitutes.” And after exploring our long-standing love-hate relationship with lectures in learning, they circle back to what is, for me, a perfect, well-reasoned conclusion: “We need to reject the notion that lectures will sink our students and technology will save them. Instead, let’s dig deeply and critically into both, reflect upon how to improve our practices, and apply sound teaching methods and practices to create learning engagements that are captivating and profound.”

Kim Flintoff

Kim, in posting (on Facebook) a link to the article, offered the briefest of comments: “I think the issue is engagement. Some lecturers can be very engaging. Many are not. Creating space for the learner is one of the criteria for engagement.” And that’s where the fun starts, for Barry Altland, a cherished ATD (Association for Talent Development) colleague here in the United States, responded to Kim’s comment with this opening salvo: “This [comment] states the ‘lecturers can be engaging.’ By their very definition, they are not. Facilitators are. But lecturers, presenters, speakers and instructors are not. Nor are teachers. For those are all movements that one does ‘at’ another, not ‘with’ another. Only a Facilitator invites the voices of many others into the learning conversation.”

My response did little to hide my surprise:I’m seeing the ‘lecture’ format evolve in engaging ways, and don’t sense that an appreciation for what first-rate facilitators inspire and accomplish precludes an appreciation for what a first-rate lecturer inspires and accomplishes. 2) I wouldn’t trade memories of lectures I have attended by Stephen Jay Gould, David Halberstam, Ann Patchett, Eric Whitacre, Jeremy GutscheR. David Lankes, and numerous others for anything. Furthermore, TED talks I’ve seen or attended suggest how vibrant, engaging, and transformative a lecture can be when the lecturer uses the power of storytelling to draw us into powerful communal experiences. And the best of the teacher-lecturers I’ve found in formal academic settings have had a lifelong impact on my approach to work, learning, and play. Really sorry if you haven’t had experiences along those lines. As Lankes would say: Expect More!”

Barry Altland

Dave himself, tagged in my response on Facebook, almost immediately joined the conversation: “The best lectures stimulate a dialog within the individual. A good book can be engaging, a song can change a life.” Which drew a response from Barry: “Books and songs are inanimate. When human beings come together, they both have something to offer the learning moment.”

R. David Lankes

With the ball back in Dave’s court, the exchange continued: “You used the word ‘engagement.’ A good lecture spawns conversations, internal and between people. Also, a lecture can absolutely be interactive one to many and many to one. I absolutely know the power of facilitated learning and workshops. Mastery requires going beyond lectures to practice. But to dismiss lectures as a simple broadcast of inherently less value I find problematic.”

Jill Hurst-Wahl

Other colleagues contributed to the exchange. My T is for Training colleague Jill Hurst-Wahl, in a series of posts, began by saying “I would add Larry Lessig as a person who gives engaging lectures. From what I’ve seen of her, I think Rep. Katie Porter would be a very engaging lecturer.”

Quoting from the original article, Jill continued: “‘Instead, let’s dig deeply and critically into both, reflect upon how to improve our practices, and apply sound teaching methods and practices to create learning engagements that are captivating and profound.’ I like the phrase ‘how to improve our practices.’ We are not taught as teachers how to improve our lectures. I remember when I joined my academic institution, I asked for advice on how to prepare for three-hour class and was told that what I did was up to me. I would have welcomed advice and training! Over the years, I have learned from workshops, by watching others, and by doing. Imagine if all teachers—no matter how they got into the profession—were taught on how to be engaging when they needed to lecture?”

And directing her final contribution to Dave, she added the following: “Like a lecture, if a book, song, video, etc. causes me to think deeply and have a conversation with myself, I will learn.”

Laura Fothergill

The final contribution (at least up to this moment) comes from long-time ATD (Association for Talent Development) South Florida Chapter colleague Laura Fothergill: “Loved the article, really dislike the title and perpetuation of us vs them (lecture vs technology). Can we stop even putting this into the ethos? Why not title it ‘Be critical, be reflective, be better’ or ‘Lose your Assumptions.’ By spinning the concepts into either or and inviting that conversation we are not helping individual faculty with their own personal professional development.” So, in a relatively brief period of time, we went from lectures and learning to whether lectures and lecturers (and presenters, speakers, instructors, and teachers) could even be engaging or whether engagement was exclusive to facilitators. And, just for good measure, Dave and Jill took us down the intriguing path of what learning is and how we learn, with Laura advocating for elimination of the us vs. them element of our explorations.

Although the obvious starting point for me is a preference for a “learners as co-conspirators in the learning process” approach to learning (as compared to the boringly passive approach to learning that is obvious in the worst of lectures and lecturers) in the settings in which I work, I was intrigued by the fond memories of what I had learned from the best lecturers I have heard—and I also thought about how my own approach to “lectures” has continued to evolve. When I work synchronously face-to-face onsite, online, or in blended environments (combining onsite and online learning into a cohesive, seamless package), I play with and combine numerous approaches. I find it rewarding, for example, to follow a Flipped Classroom model approach by providing learners with pre-session prep work (videos or short articles) so that our time together “face to face” onsite or online focuses on application of what we have learned—with a strong emphasis on what the learners will do with their newly-acquired knowledge/skills the minute our time together comes to an end. In asynchronous settings (e.g., through the four-week online courses I design and facilitate for the American Library Association), I start with weekly “typed lectures” that provide my own content interspersed with plenty of links to other people’s videos, articles, and online, easily accessible resources to support the learners’ explorations. I also include focused exercises that encourage the learners to apply what they are learning, interact with other learners, and even adapt the assignments in ways that produce something they can use in their own workplaces while and after the course is underway. The emphasis is always on having learners define what they need to know and encouraging them to focus on what addresses their learning needs as quickly as possible.

Just as participation in a creative online learning opportunity exploring The Innovator’s Mindset (led by George Couros in 2017) made me rethink my perceptions about what “reading” is in the early 21st century, the exchanges via Facebook have inspired me to further rethink my perceptions about what a great “lecture” is in contemporary times. It is focused. It is engaging. It inspires inquisitiveness by serving as an invitation to explore a topic further. It can—but doesn’t necessarily have to—be creative in its use of tools available to the lecturer and the people sharing in that learning experience. (I often think, for example, of how Jonathan Haidt so effectively turned the TED Talk lecture format on its head by doing a formal lecture that “ended” a few minutes early so he could offer an entirely different version, during the final few minutes of his allotted time, by seamlessly and in the most stunningly successful of ways completely integrating video into the live presentation. I also think of how effectively Eric Whitacre incorporated a demonstration of a virtual choir into a live lecture on virtual choirs at a conference I attended a few years ago.) The learning, in each of these cases, was effective, engaging, inspirational, and transformative—because of, not in spite of, the “lecture” format.   The rethinking continued over the weekend when I finally made time to watch the first couple of lectures in The Great Courses’ series on “The Learning Brain”—a series of 24 30-minute lectures captured on a CD and accompanied by a course guidebook. As I sat there in the comfort of my own home with the book in hand and the first few minutes of the video playing, an obvious revelation struck: The lecture can very much be a like a part of a spoken (audio) book, and the book can very much be like a set of printed lectures–even if it isn’t actually one of those lovely books providing the text of lectures. Both, when produced effectively, can be and are engaging. Dropping them completely from our learning toolkits makes no sense to me, and arguing against them in absolute, non-nuanced terms, seems counterproductive. The important decision to be made is when each is the best tool for a particular learning situation, and then to produce the best version of the learning resource that we possibly can produce. So we learn. With our learners. To inspire the best results possible.


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


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.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Our Communities of Learning Are Responding

April 10, 2020

The massive transformation of our onsite world—at least temporarily—into a coronavirus pandemic shelter-in-place online world dominated by social distancing (but far from complete social isolation) has been breathtakingly quick, as I noted recently in two posts about how the ShapingEDU 2020 Unconference went online overnight.

There has been plenty to make our heads spin: a global “incompetence pandemic” displayed through lack of leadership; the massive spread of misinformation contributing to “an infodemic: ‘an over-abundance of information’—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”; an ever-increasing spread of the pandemic in terms of confirmed cases and deaths attributed to the coronavirus, which may be only the tip of a terribly large iceberg, given the low percentage of people tested globally; increasing levels of fear, and much-needed sources of information about how to cope with fear and anxiety in challenging times; and the rapid move from onsite learning into online environments by countless people who are ill-prepared—yet valiantly struggling to—successfully support that move in academic and workplace learning settings.

All that head-spinning, however, doesn’t mean that all of us are completely in a shut-down, wait-it-out mood. For those of us lucky enough to have great friends and colleagues, good internet access, and decent infrastructures in place for online communication, our work continues. Our interactions remain strong. And our desire to be of positive use to those we serve is finding plenty of outlets.

Family, friends, and colleagues are responding creatively and positively to the need to avoid isolation in a time of social distancing. We are spending a bit more time than usual taking advantage of the opportunities provided by social media interactions—some playful, some completely work-related, and all of them in some way keeping our communities as strong and thriving as they can possibly be in the current situation. I am, for example, sure I wasn’t alone in being part of an effort to take a celebration—in this case, my father’s birthday party—online via Zoom a few days ago, and creating some online “face-to-face” (telepresence) time via FaceTime a few days earlier to offer happy birthday wishes to a cousin on the other side of the country. Friends and I have been having rudimentary virtual brunches by phone and informal community drop-in gatherings via Zoom to stay in touch, share resources and updates about what we are seeing in training-teaching-learning, and offer support to those who, at any particular moment, might be struggling more than the rest of us are—because we know they will be there to do the same thing for us when we find ourselves falling into a dark place that threatens to overwhelm us.

Through all of this, my colleagues and clients and I are continuing to do business as we always have by phone, email, and a variety of online social media and videoconferencing tools. We are continuing to work on our online projects—courses, webinars, and publications, for example—and plan new ones to develop and facilitate to meet the ongoing training-teaching-learning needs we are committed to meeting.

Among the many developments for which I remain grateful is the magnificent way so many organizations and individuals are stepping up to the plate to provide much-needed information and support. The American Library Association (ALA) Public Library Association division, for example, has done a spectacular job in quickly documenting how public libraries are responding to community needs while shelter-in-place guidelines remain in place—an invaluable resource for those of us working with colleagues in libraries as well as for anyone interested in learning what is available in communities across the country at this point through these wonderful learning organizations. Local libraries including San Francisco Public are doing a great job of publicizing online resources such as kanopy, a service through which we can watch up to 15 movies a month free of charge—which has been a wonderful opportunity to catch up on old favorites while viewing some I hadn’t previously seen. And the San Francisco-based Internet Archive, in a somewhat controversial move, has tremendously expanded access to its online holdings through creation of a National Emergency Library providing access to millions of resources for trainers, teachers, and other learners who would otherwise be cut off from those volumes while library buildings remain closed.

My go-to professional families, including ALA, have been as responsive as they have ever been. ATD (the Association for Talent Development), for example, has curated “resources for virtual training design and facilitation,” on its website, for its members; there are numerous links to articles, videos, blog posts, and webcasts for those of us who support the parent organization through our membership dues throughout the year. And the resources extend to the regional and local levels through the wonderful way that colleagues in chapters including the ATD South Florida Chapter are strengthening their already strong communities of learning by quickly scheduling events along the lines of South Florida’s weekly Virtual TD (Talent Development) Talks via Zoom. What they are doing, by the way, is far from unique; I can’t even imagine trying to keep up with all the wonderful online learning opportunities I’m currently finding online every time I open my email and social media accounts to check for updates.

As if that weren’t enough, I am seeing—and taking advantage of—highly-interactive webinars offered by colleagues whose work I consistently admire, including George Couros. The spectacularly successful “Opportunities for Learning and Leading in a Virtual Space” webinar that he, Katie Novak, and AJ Juliani designed and facilitated last month, and have made accessible online free of charge, was a tremendous example of leaders responding to the needs of their co-conspirators in learning—and further nurturing the informal communities of learning they have fostered through innovative massive online open courses and other creative online learning opportunities. The event attracted more than 600 participants who engaged with Couros, Novak, and Juliana via a speed-of-light chat flowing down the side of the screen while their slides were visible and they were facilitating the session. It was a tremendous example of engaging, effective, memorable online learning in action. And if you’re still looking for thoughtful resources, check out the George Couros blog, which offers new, consistently high-quality posts with unbelievable frequency

Sardek Love, a cherished ATD friend/colleague/mentor who knows equally well how to work and play, has consistently been reminding all of us that it is during times of challenge or crisis that we can find some of our best opportunities, and that we need look no further than our own mirrors to see some of our best resources reflected back at us. I love, admire, and only partially succeed in attempting to emulate his commitment to pushing everyone as hard as he pushes himself. To remind us what we are possible of achieving. To remind us of how to nurture all that is most positive within us.  And to remind us that, through our actions—alone as well as collaboratively—we will respond to the best of our abilities. And come out of this with as much to celebrate as we might be left with to grieve.

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


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


T is for Training: Innovator’s Mindset, Instagram, and Trolls

February 14, 2020

Empathetic, problem finder-solver, risk-taker, networked, observant, creator, resilient, reflective: eight characteristics of The Innovator’s Mindset. And eight terms that could easily have been applied to Maurice Coleman during the recording of the latest episode of his long-running, biweekly T is for Training podcast last night.

The podcast—designed for anyone interested or involved in training-teaching-learning in libraries (and a variety of other learning venues)—wasn’t perfect last night. But that’s OK; like the learning that T is for Training so often explores and fosters through playful hour-long discussions among a core group of participants and an occasional guest, the podcast is not meant to be perfect. (If you decide to listen to the latest episode, you can skip the first three minutes and join it at the four-minute mark to dive right into the discussion.) It was, however, a great example of the topics under consideration: the book Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning]and the Innovator’s Mindset (by George Couros and Katie Novak) and the innovatively engaging Innovate Inside the Box (IITB) Instagram Book Study group is inspired—where Instagram became the platform for the core of the discussions.

With just two of us—Maurice and me—initially participating in the recording, we worked our way through some technical problems we were having with the podcast software during the first few minutes of the recording (resilient!…and grumpy, although that’s not one of the eight characteristics we were exploring). And, after those first few less-than-perfect moments, we began with a quick summary of the content of the book before exploring how the online book study group functioned and produced some interesting learning experiences and results…and the beginning of a potentially dynamic new community of learning.

he risk-taker element of the endeavor is that T is for Training is live and open to anyone who wants to call in—which means we often have some lively discussions, and occasionally find ourselves visited by that awful beast known as a troll. That, as you correctly assumed by reading the title of this post, is what happened about a third of the way through the recording last night. Maurice, always willing to engage in a bit of empathy, gave the troll a couple of (mercifully brief) opportunities to actually rise to the challenge of contributing positively to the conversation. Displayed resilience by bouncing back quickly from each interruption this somewhat persistent troll attempted to create. And ultimately engaged in another session of our favorite podcast pastime—whack a troll. The conversation ultimately continued, successfully, as if nothing had ever happened (problem found, problem solved).

Moving into a discussion of the Instagram book study group, we found ourselves doing far more than simply reviewing what it produced in terms of learning; innovation; products (e.g., the Instagram posts, tweets, and blog pieces) made by the creators who were participating in the group; and reflections. We were (occasionally) reflective, and networking came into it through mentions of T is for Training community members who were not present for the recording but will ultimately be part of that episode when they listen and respond to the content we managed to create. The role of creator, furthermore, is on display because the recording and dissemination of that episode of the podcast is becoming another contribution to the community initiated through the Instagram book study group and continuing on Instagram (and elsewhere) under the general #InnovateInsideTheBox hashtag.

For me, the real punchline here is that T is for Training has just been drawn into yet another rhizomatically-expanding community of learning—one that includes the Instagram Book Study group, the #InnovateInsideTheBox Instagram/Twitter/Facebook collaborations, the blog postings several of us have created in response to what we have encountered in the book as well as in the online conversations, and others yet to be determined. It’s one of the characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (networked); the best trainer-teacher-learners I have met and with whom I regularly interact; and the T is for Training community itself. And the best news of all is that you’re welcome to join any part of it, at any time, if you want to explore and nurture your own Innovator’s Mindset.

–N.B.: T is for Training generally records every other Thursday evening at 9 pm ET/6 pm PT. More information is available on the podcast website.


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