CLA Conference 2022: Thanks for the Gifts

June 3, 2022

For three hours yesterday, I was shoulder to shoulder with a wonderful group of colleagues facilitating a highly-interactive advocacy workshop for people working with libraries and the communities they serve throughout California. These are people—Crystal Miles from the Sacramento Public Library, Mark Fink from  the Yolo County Library, Deborah Doyle from the Sonoma County Library Commission, and Derek Wolfgram from the Redwood City Public Library—with whom I interact on a regular basis via Zoom. We have—up to that moment yesterday morning when we were onsite for the preconference workshop here in Sacramento on the first day of the California Library Association (CLA) 2022 Annual Conference—been designing and delivering online advocacy training sessions through the CLA Ursula Meyer Advocacy Training Fund program I manage, and we will continue to be nurturing the online series that continues next week with a free two-hour workshop on presentation skills for library advocates.

But this was that wonderful moment when, for the first time since the COVID pandemic radically altered the way we all work, we were shoulder to shoulder in an onsite setting with a group of dynamic learners who were also relishing the opportunity to be off camera and physically (rather than virtually) together. There were plenty of tongue-in-cheek comments about how strange it was to be seeing each other’s faces without having those faces framed by the all-too-familiar Zoom boxes that provide us with (cherished) opportunities to interact online. And there was also the not-unexpected attention we continue to give to safety protocols—including those ubiquitous N95 masks so many of us continue to wear in a dual effort to avoid unintentionally spreading COVID or to contract it from unsuspecting carriers of the virus.

But when all was said and done, an underlying cause for gratitude and celebration was that all of us in that particular room were acknowledging that the gift of gathering offered by CLA was another step toward our collective commitment to creating “a new and better normal” rather than sitting passively while waiting for a chance to return to a (pre-COVID) “normal” that, in many ways, was not all that great for many of our colleagues and, frankly, many of us.

As we explored the basics of advocacy and how it is evolving in a world that, two years ago, was forced to switch quickly and (sometimes) adeptly to a world where online interactions needed to be a seamless part of our interactions and collaborations, we noted and celebrated some of the positive opportunities that have come out of the tremendous tragedies and losses COVID has brought to each of us. We even, at one point, held a brief, lively, tongue-in-cheek debate about the advantages and disadvantages of onsite vs. online advocacy. (Taking the side of arguing for the benefits of online advocacy, I was gleeful when Crystal, assuming the playful role of the judge awarding points to Derek and me as we went back and forth, ultimately and very generously called it a draw and observed that our new and better normal might be one in which we recognize the importance of incorporating onsite and online efforts into our advocacy toolkits.) And as the session came to an end, we were gratified to hear participants—our co-conspirators in learning—note the ways in which their time with us was inspiring them to seek new ways to become even better advocates for libraries and the communities they serve than they already were.

It doesn’t, however, end there. The shoulder-to-shoulder interactions extended into conversations on the conference exhibits-hall floor, moved outdoors as some of us took our lunches into the plaza outside the conference center so we could unmask and enjoy lunch and extended conversations. And, as always happens in these conference settings where friends and colleagues are unexpectedly waiting for us right around the corner, the conversations became richer and deeper as friends stumbled upon long-unseen friends and picked up right where they/we had left off.

Which is exactly what happened toward the end of the lunchtime conversation Crystal and I were having in that plaza on a warm, pleasant Sacramento afternoon. As Crystal and I were discussing another session we might soon be doing together, I felt the (reassuring) embrace, from behind me, of someone whose voice I could hear but couldn’t quite place. Relishing that unexpected embrace and the sound of a somewhat familiar voice I couldn’t immediately place, I just sat there and admitted “I have no idea who is hugging me, and I’m not even inclined to want to turn around and immediately find out who it is because it feels so good.” And when I turned around and saw familiar eyes peering out from above the mask that was covering the rest of that lovely face, it still took me several seconds to realize that the embrace and the voice belonged to one of my favorite up-and-coming librarians—someone I’ve known since the point in her life when she was still a student in a Master of Library Science program and I had an opportunity to introduce her to people who have helped shape her career.

You can see it coming: she joined the conversation for a few minutes before having to race off for an appointment she had previously set—but not before we agreed to reconvene later that afternoon to sit together outdoors over hors d’oeuvres and beverages that carried us through a lovely chunk of unplanned time we both had. And our leisurely conversation that led us from afternoon into the early evening hours before another colleague joined us briefly before each of us stepped away to join other equally lovely interactions and conversations which will, no doubt, continue today when all of us are back onsite for another day of learning, scheming, dreaming, and working with cherished colleagues to collaborate toward shaping the world of our dreams.

So again, CLA, thanks for the gift of regathering our community in ways that continue the work we have managed to do in online settings over the past couple of years—and will continue to do onsite and online for the foreseeable future. And thanks for the opportunity to carry us one step further down a road that is still very much in a state of development as we grow accustomed to, open to, and grateful for a world in which we no longer carry on, with any level of seriousness, silly arguments about whether onsite interactions are inherently better than online interactions, or vice versa. We are, step by step, embracing possibilities and relishing where those opportunities may take us—if we actively, positively are active participants in shaping the results those opportunities provide.


Lessons Imparted, Lessons Learned: Making Them Personal

May 18, 2022

The trainer-teacher-learners I most admire are those who understand that every learning opportunity we facilitate provides us with an opportunity to learn alongside our co-conspirators in learning (aka our students).

It’s an idea that inspires me to review, after each workshop or webinar or course or even a highly-interactive keynote address that encourages participants to learn with me, what I myself might learn from what we have just done together. It proves to be a rewarding, comforting endeavor each time I take the time to complete it, as I’m reminded today during a review of some of the sessions in which I’ve recently been involved.

Those sessions are a part of a continuing series of facilitated conversations, arranged under the auspices of Claremont EAP, on a few dozen workplace issues with which we all struggle at various levels. Each session comes with a PowerPoint slide deck provided by my colleagues at Claremont. It also comes with a workbook that can be integrated into the hour-long conversation. But the real payoff for the learners and for me comes from open discussions I facilitate and which are inspired by what’s in those decks and workshops. Using small chunks of the time we have together to show them slides about mindfulness in our workplaces, or adapting to change, or managing priorities, or incorporating acts of gratitude into our daily routines as I’ve done over the past few weeks through Claremont sessions with clients around the San Francisco Bay Area, is just the starting point. It’s the questions I pose in response to information contained on the slides or within the workbooks, the avenues I pursue with them vis-à-vis how those topics apply to what they are facing in their own workplaces, and the inevitable final question I pose at the end of each session—what is one thing you will do differently during the next week as a result of having spent time together today?—that brings it all together and transforms what on the surface appears to be an ephemeral conversation into what any learning opportunity should be: an opportunity to pursue positive change and to take away some level of pain that a learner is currently facing.

The conversations about adapting to change, being grateful for things we tend to overlook, and being mindful (attentive) to what is happening to us in any given moment and cherishing what it offers were not exactly at the forefront of my mind yesterday afternoon after I finished the latest offering of “adapting to change”; it had been a rewarding, inspiring day of meetings and sessions, but nothing out of the ordinary. All three of those topics, however, have been on my mind pretty steadily over the past several months as a lovely cat that has been an integral part of our lives for more than 14 years has been steadily declining in response to the progressive ravages of kidney disease. We think about her and respond to her at a deeply emotional level, but I also think and respond to her in terms of recognizing the massive change that will occur in our lives when she is no longer with us. When she appeared to be entering end-stage last September, and we were actually about to set up a time to put her out of the misery she was experiencing, we viscerally understood the importance of being mindful—cherishing every remaining moment we had with her. And when some new medications and simple, non-invasive measures suggested by the wonderful vet who has been treating and supporting her produced a turn-around none of us really expected to see, we were relieved and tremendously grateful for what the vet accomplished and for the unexpected gift of additional time we were being given with her. And we were mindful. Recognizing that this beloved companion was once again (at least temporarily) comfortable. That she was displaying as much joy as any six-pound ball of fur has ever displayed. That we might have her for a few more days or weeks. And that this was nothing but a postponement of the day, all too soon, when we would have to make the difficult decision to let her go—that moment when the lack of a decent quality of life overrode our desire to have her with us.

Those mindfulness conversations I have been having with learners have made me conscious every day—every time the cat sits on my lap and naps while I read, every time she goes skittering across our hardwood floors chasing a ball as if it were her sole mission in life to protect us from any harm that evil ball might bring us, every time she puts her sometimes damp nose in my ear at three or four a.m. to remind me that she expects a bit of attention in gratitude for all the joy she brings us—of what a magnificent gift those simple moments have become. The gratitude and mindfulness has always helped me enjoy the in-the-moment pleasures of having her with us, and helped me to not fritter them away by worrying about when her moment of departure might arrive.

So, I was surprised and not surprised, early yesterday evening, when I noticed something radically different about her. She suddenly seemed unsteady. Unsure of herself. Continually, slowly, moving her head from left to right and back again as if looking for something that remained beyond her field of vision. As if she were bewildered by what she was or was not seeing. And then it struck me. She was bewildered because regardless of how much she tried, she wasn’t seeing anything. Testing my suspicion, I moved my hands across her field of vision and saw no obvious response. I looked closely into her eyes and saw that her black pupils were filling the entire space that just a few hours ago had been mostly filled with luminescent gold-green—a color that now had completely vanished. I tried again to elicit responses by quickly moving my hands toward her face and stopping just short of the moment of contact, without eliciting any level of reaction. A quick internet search confirmed for me that sudden loss of vision was one of the signs that kidney disease in a cat was in its final stage. So, with heavy hearts and mindful that these could well be our final moments with her, my wife and I took turns holding her on our laps. Hugging her with every bit of love she had earned by being such a joyful companion over such a long period of time. Doing everything we could to figure out how the loss of her vision was going to impact her ability to function around the house. And seeing her gently bumping into walls and furniture whose position had been familiar to her over a period of many years, we were mindful of what this sudden change meant in terms of quality of life for her. So we made the call.

We’ve had to do this before. It’s never easy. But it is, for us, part of what we feel we owe to the cats who have relied on us to be there for them during the easy as well as the difficult times. The rest of the evening, of course, is already a bit blurry in our memories. Comforting her as we transported her to the vet’s clinic. Having a frank discussion about what was reasonable and not reasonable in terms of expecting her to adapt to the unexpected change she had just experienced. And what quality of life she was going to have as the loss of vision was just one of a rapidly approaching series of losses that would make her more miserable and ultimately result in her death. None of that made the decision easy. But it made it the best of the decisions we felt we could reach, given our desire to offer her the gift of sparing her additional pain at a moment when her life—and ours—had inevitably changed.

I’m numb and filled with grief today. I feel her presence everywhere around our house, and think about and visualize all the things she was doing here less than 24 hours ago. But I also am mindful of the fact that I have a great community of friends and colleagues around me who are already doing all they can to join the circle of grief and, through their caring comments, offer me a lifeline out of this overwhelming grief and back into life when I’m ready to begin adapting to the terrible change that has just occurred. I’m grateful that I have the continuing opportunity to work with people who trust me enough to help them through the small-, medium- and large-scale changes they face just as others now are doing that for me. And I’m grateful, that because of their attentiveness and dedication to lifelong learning to produce positive changes, they offer me the gift of lessons imparted and lessons learned through every interaction we have as co-conspirators in learning.


Because of a Teacher: Learning With Stories

April 20, 2022

Our greatest teacher-trainer-learners often turn out to be wonderful storytellers. Through their stories, they provide a context for our own learning. They engage us and inspire us. And they transform us. So when innovative teaching, learning, and leadership consultant, speaker, and author George Couros published a collection of stories by teachers—Because of a Teacher: Stories of the Past to Inspire the Future of Education—last year, we just had to know we were in for a treat: a collection of stories by storytellers who incorporate storytelling in their work. It’s as if we were invited to an evening of stories by some of our best peers.

We recognize, as we dive into the opening pages of the book, that we are in for a real treat. And Couros and his co-conspirators in producing this wonderfully engaging evening of learning with the storytellers do not let us down for even a moment. We know, from the title, that we’re going to be hearing teachers talk about the art of teaching; those of us involved in lifelong learning as trainer-teacher-learners recognize that we are with kindred spirits as we spend time with those teachers working in formal academic settings. We also know, if we are familiar with Couros’s “Three Questions on Educators That Inspire” series on his Innovator’s Mindset podcast, that those stories, as Couros himself writes, “have the potential to help improve current practice. And they can inspire current teachers while honoring the educators who once inspired them” (p. 3).

Certain themes flow consistently through the book. The teachers with whom we are spending time acknowledge the support they have received, throughout their careers, from peers, mentors, and administrators. They consistently cite the power of collaboration with their peers and with their learners. They are, themselves, consummate learners who learn from their own mistakes and recognize that the temporary failures we all face are part of our lifelong learning endeavors and actually make us more appealing and accessible to our own learners because, through our actions and admissions, acknowledge that we, too, are human and fallible.

There’s something absolutely universal and appealing about many of the stories, and I found myself appreciating the pleasant, transformative experiences I have been lucky enough to have had as I read these storytellers’ variations on the themes we shared. Steve Bollar, in his “The Art of Relationships” chapter, for example, recalls how his art teacher nurtured his growth by providing a safe space—her classroom—for him to work before the formal beginning of the school day. When he suggested “letting a few of my friends hang out in the morning with me,” the teacher readily agreed so that, “by the end of the school year, there was a sizable group of students hanging out in the art room before the school day began.” Hearing that story produce an effect akin to being struck by a (non-fatal) bolt of lightning, for it vividly brough back memories of the high school history teacher who provided a similarly safe and stimulating meeting place for many of us when we were in school. Furthermore, it brought back memories of how creatively that teacher approached his own efforts to nurture our growth as learners and how it created a lifelong desire for me, in working with my own (adult) learners in a variety of settings, to create those same types of open, welcoming, dynamic learning spaces that produce the results my co-conspirators in learning and I produce whenever we meet face to face or online.

There are numerous gems among the gorgeous stories. Deidre Roemer, for example, reminds us that “the power of a caring teacher can be felt for a lifetime” in her “Inspiration for a Lifetime and Beyond” story (p. 33). “Making students feel welcome in their learning environment is a critical first step for building strong, lasting relationships as an educator,” Mary Hemphill writes in “Teaching Full Circle” (p. 36). “It’s all about relationships,” Tom Murray remembers hearing a cherished mentor say in “Fingerprints of Impact: The Legacy of a Mentor.” “‘If you make that the core of all you do, you’ll have amazing success in your career’” (p. 43).

George Couros

The first third of the book, capturing stories about the teachers who inspired these teachers-as-storytellers, leads us naturally into the second section: stories about administrators who inspired our peers in Because of a Teacher. Couros himself sets a nice tone for that section in his opening story, “When Someone Believes in You.” He recalls feeling as if he had completely destroyed his chances of being hired into an assistant principal position by being drawn into serious arguments during his interview for the position. Discovering not long afterward that he was being offered the job because the principle wanted someone who would disagree with him when disagreement was productive, Couros walked away with a valuable lesson: “Archie [Lillico, the principal who hired Couros as his assistant principal] and I had a ton of disagreements in our time together, and that made us both better at our work. Isn’t that the point of education? Shouldn’t we want to learn new ideas and take actions to best grow in our pursuits?” (p. 56)

Couros, one page later, recalls an earlier interview completely comprised of talking “about the things that made me passionate and the things that excited me. It felt less like an interview and more like a conversation about education with colleagues in a staff room. Looking back on it, I realize that was intentional. The typical interview process doesn’t happen often in our everyday practice, but those conversations do. How we interact in those spaces really matters.”

We read (and hear) these words. We reflect on what they suggest to us. We feel inspired by them and want to immediately work them into our own practices. And by the time we finish reading the book and relishing what the stories suggest to us in terms of possibilities  in our lifelong learning landscapes, we realize we have absorbed what Couros and his colleagues set out to offer us. We are better off then we were before we picked up the book. Because of a teacher.


Fostering Creative Collaborations: CoSN and ShapingEDU

February 25, 2022

Participating in two recent highly-interactive and engaging CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) online summits woke me up a bit to the latest fruit coming off the tree of creative collaboration between organizations I very much adore.

But what intrigued me as much as the content under review was what came out of watching colleagues from the Arizona State University ShapingEDU community as they put on their CoSN hats and created/facilitated those wonderfully engaging summit experiences. This was far from a dry lecture/presentation of newly-released reports; it was a two-part invitation to explore the content within the context of playing within an engaging learning sandbox that made audience members “co-conspirators” in the learning process—in ways that encouraged all of us to explore and absorb the information from the report so we could and would immediately begin applying what we learned to our own settings. In K-12. In higher education. In workplace learning. And, to be frank, in every imaginable corner of our overall lifelong-learning landscape.

At the center of the summit action, with strong support from and collaboration with several other CoSN members, were Laura Geringer and Karina Branson—longtime ShapingEDU colleagues I very much admire and from whom I draw tremendous inspiration in my own training-teaching-learning efforts. Laura, who as project manager was at the  heart of facilitating the process of producing those reports with Writer/Communications Manager Stephanie King, specializes in helping create tremendously engaging “immersive” experiences online and onsite through ShapingEDU; Karina, as a tremendously respected graphic facilitator, is in many ways the visual face of ShapingEDU through the imagery she produces and which is heavily integrated into much of what I encounter whenever I look at the ShapingEDU website, participate in ShapingEDU onsite and online conferences, and contribute to the ShapingEDU Reshaping Learning blog.  

Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

And that’s where the across-the-organizations collaboration struck me immediately. Seeing Laura’s engaging approach to facilitating each of the summit sessions and seeing Karina’s create-them-as-they-happen visual renditions of what was happening during each of those sessions, made me feel as if I were a longtime member of the CoSN community rather than a relative newcomer. It was as if, in essential and engaging ways, any separation between CoSN and ShapingEDU melted away. Because the style and approach each brings to the ShapingEDU community was strongly evident in their work with CoSN and felt completely natural.

This is not to say that ShapingEDU had absorbed CoSN or that CoSN was absorbing key elements of what to me is a still-evolving ShapingEDU approach—captured wonderfully in the online publication ShapingED-YOU Toolkit—to onsite, online, and blended gatherings. It was, to be direct, an example of how the right people, collaborating the multiple organizations they serve, respond to each organization’s needs with a consistent and adaptable creative approach that produces magnificent results.

Those results, in this case, were playfully interactive exercises that encouraged summit participants to explore the material highlighted in the first and second summits. Become familiar with each other at a personal level. Begin forming connections that can and probably will extend far beyond the constraints of those brief summit sessions. And look for opportunities to dream, do, and drive together in ways that have the potential to produce positive measurable results for the summit participants and those they serve.

To take this one step further: It’s not at all surprising that the level of collaboration on display within those CoSN sessions and between CoSN and ShapingEDU should be so strong and consistent in its approach. Some members of CoSN and ShapingEDU—particularly among the sometimes overlapping leadership of those communities and the projects they undertake—have a shared lineage connected to the NMC (New Media Consortium), which served as a global learning community for educators in K-12, higher education, community colleges, libraries, and other segments of our lifelong learning environments. The spirit of community that NMC colleagues achieved continues to grow and evolve within CoSN, ShapingEDU, EDUCAUSE, and other communities that have members in common.

What it all means to me at a highly personal level and might be inspiring to you is the reminder that we all have magnificent opportunities to gather—often briefly—at the “intersections” so effectively described by Frans Johansson in his book The Medici Effect. To work together. To then return to our other communities to foster positive change by telling the stories of what we encountered during those intersection gatherings. And to relish the thought that our efforts might have ripples of impacts far beyond what any of us see in the relatively small ponds in which we swim.


Resilience

February 15, 2022

I’m exploring and practicing resilience this afternoon. Which is not a particularly difficult undertaking since I was scheduled to facilitate a conversation on the topic of resilience earlier today.

Preparing for the conversation was, itself, an exercise in resilience. We had originally scheduled the workshop for April 2022. But something happened in the workplace that inspired the client to request that we conduct the session sooner. So we reset it for today, and I gladly re-immersed myself in this extremely familiar topic over the past few days. Thinking about all the conversations I’ve had with Ruben Puentedura and other ShapingEDU colleagues on the topic and its close cousin, antifragility—the ability to experience something extremely challenging and, as a result of having had that experience, emerging stronger than before. Recalling people I have known and adored who displayed that desirable combination of resilience and antifragility. And watching for examples of resilience in what I have been reading over the past few days.

One of the people who came to mind was David Moebs, a cherished friend who succumbed to AIDS more than 20 years ago but who still feels consistently present in my life because of the resilience he displayed in the darkest of times. There was the devastating period during which he had been told he had an incurable, rapidly-progressing degenerative disease connected to AIDS and that he had less than two months to live; as he, my wife, and I were sitting together one evening and watching My Fair Lady on television (he did love his musicals), he suddenly sat upright as a commercial describing the symptoms of diabetes came on and included much of what he was experiencing.

“Oh, thank God,” he cried out in mock exaltation. “I thought I had PML.”

He was, in some ways, lucky and incredibly resilient. PML didn’t take him down at that point; he actually experienced a period of remission, during which he lived his life as fully as he could under all the constraints accompanying PML And when he did finally leave us, he left a gaping hole in our lives—one which has been accompanied by an ongoing sense of awe over how resilient he was in the most difficult of circumstances.

So I suppose it wasn’t particularly surprising that, as I thought of resilience within the life-threatening situation David experienced, that I sat upright myself as I was continuing to read Beppe Sala’s Società: per azioni (Society: For Actions) this morning and came across an extremely moving passage in which this inspiring and resilient politician (mayor of Milan) described having received a diagnosis of cancer and the resilient approach he took to that diagnosis. He recalled how his father had also been diagnosed with cancer years earlier and had surrendered to it rather than fighting it—something he refused to do. He talked about his own personal discoveries/revelations stemming from the diagnosis and his responses to it: “I discover that time is not money, but that money is time. The definitive measure of value is time. More time, more life. The battle against time. Time that flees.” (p. 33) And that beautiful set of passages continues: “It’s not easy to understand what hope might be, the humblest of virtues, a risky virtue because it is often hidden….Hope is the question that permits the response of trust, of a faith.”

All of this flows through me as if it were an electrical current jolting every cell within me, for I realize that is that moment of inspiration. That moment when preparing for a learning opportunity that I’m about to facilitate has come together with everything I need to lead a successful session. There are the opening stories that flow one into another seamlessly. The anticipation of using those stories to create a context for the transformative experience all of us are seeking as co-conspirators in the learning process. The joy of anticipating being with a group of learners I’ve come to know and admire over the past few months. And the pleasure of sharing stories that help us bring some level of understanding and encouragement that will, by the end of that hour, looking at the topic of resilience with widened eyes and some sort of plan for what we will do differently, in the week ahead of us, as a result of our having spent time together.

I set my notes aside. Prepare my workspace for the online session I’m about to facilitate. Pull a few books off my shelf as points for reference for the conversation that is about to begin. Settle in to wait for the first learners to arrive. And nothing happens. It’s just me, my notes, my PowerPoint slide deck, and a clock showing that I’m five minutes away from the scheduled beginning of the session. Which does not actually begin because it turns out that the person organizing the session had intended to reschedule it again, but lost track of the need to notify me.

This was not something that left me angry. (It helped to know that cancellation with little or no notice means I’m paid my facilitator’s fee.) This is not something that was even deeply disappointing. Because I know we will reschedule that conversation. And that the preparation that went into it will serve all of us well when we finally do gather to explore what resilience means to each of us in our work and in our play. Because, we know, we want to be resilient. And we are. Resilient enough, in fact, to recognize that the time I would have dedicated to leading the session could just as easily be used to write a new piece for my blog.


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


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