Training, Learning, and Collaborating on the Other Side of the Horizon

December 18, 2010

Trainers and other perpetual learners are information junkies. We thrive on what we learn and share. We revel in those moments when boundaries dissolve and we embrace a seamless role of trainer-teacher-learner rather than simply delivering a lesson and hoping that participants in a learning opportunity will remember something that we said.

We, like those whose learning we facilitate, have our cherished sources of information: friends; colleagues; printed newspapers, books, magazines, and their online counterparts; our favorite librarian; and/or the waiter, waitress, or supermarket checkout clerk who calls our attention to what we might not otherwise notice given the demands that information overload puts on us and all we encounter.

There are also the reports without which we would feel diminished. One of those, for me, is the New Media Consortium (NMC) annual Horizon Report, an engaging free online document designed to “chart the landscape of emerging technologies for teaching, learning, and creative inquiry,” as Consortium representatives explain on their website.

To read the main and subsidiary reports inspires thought and action. Writing about the reports has become an annual ritual for me ever since I attended a live Horizon Report presentation in 2008. And to cross over to the other side of the Horizon this year by serving on the 2011 Horizon Report Advisory Board and helping shape the next report—which, of course, I can hardly wait to read when it is released in February 2011—has been an exercise in collaboration which has changed the way I work.

At the heart of the Horizon report process is the wiki that provides a virtual meeting place where Advisory Board members from several different countries asynchronously contribute to the development of the report. The lesson here for all of us as trainer-teacher-learners is at least twofold: a) as participants immersing ourselves in using a tech tool as contributors rather than solely as readers, we educated ourselves and became comfortable with exactly the sort of tech change we were documenting for others, and b) we would not have been nearly as successful as we were without guidance—in this case, from New Media Consortium Chief Executive Officer Larry Johnson and his NMC colleagues, who themselves served as trainer-teacher-mentors throughout the brief and intense period of work.

Larry and other NMC staff, throughout the two-month process, guided us with concise, welcoming, supportive email messages; online tutorials; and instructions on how to approach and complete each step of the process—and then they turned us loose to learn, work, and collaborate. The pleasures of exploring new technology with other Advisory Board members via the wiki never seemed to end, and the serendipitous discovery early in the process that an ALA Learning blog colleague—Lauren Pressley—was among my Advisory Board collaborators once again reminded me how small the world has become through the use of shared online tools.

Workplace collaboration, in this case, went far beyond the structure of the staff and Advisory Board’s contributions to the wiki: the entire process was visible, via that wiki, to anyone who wanted to follow it. When the original list of more than 30 technologies we were exploring was winnowed down to a short list, that information was posted publicly for anyone to view—which means that part of the process was to provide a magnificent resource for anyone interested in exploring the topics on their own. The process, furthermore, has produced a list of online press clippings that is an additional resource for anyone wanting to explore the tech topics that were under discussion during the Advisory Board’s online time together.

For anyone who is still wondering why more and more people are exploring wikis as a first-rate collaboration tool and how they provide effective ways for all of us to work together, the entire Horizon Report process is a complete course within itself. And, like any first-rate learning experience, it leaves us with an expanded toolkit that changes the way we work once we have become engaged.

Ultimately, it leads us to another level of building communities of learning.

N.B.: For more resources about collaboration and building communities, please see “Communities and Collaboration in an Onsite-Online World: An Annotated Bibliography.”


Hidden Garden Steps: Building on a Dream

August 31, 2010

A dream achieved has taken on new life.

Several years ago, Alice Xavier and Jessie Audette in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood of San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, dreamed of turning a drab gray set of 163 steps connecting Moraga Street between 15th and 16th avenues into a beautiful ceramic tiled community meeting place. They teamed up with local artists Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr—“local” being a relative term since Aileen arrived in San Francisco from Donegal, Ireland shortly before the project began and is there on vacation as I write these words—and literally had to build from scratch—a process colorfully documented in the artists’ book, 163: The Story of San Francisco’s 16th Avenue Tiled Steps. They also created an incredible group of neighborhood supporters to bring this innovative community-building project to completion.

Inspired by the Santa Teresa steps in Rio de Janeiro as well as Antoni Gaudí’s mosaics in Barcelona and La Scala (the stairway) in Caltagirone, they literally fought an uphill battle in their efforts to create a work of beauty that now entices walkers to climb the stairs for a stunning view of the Sunset District as it extends west to the Pacific Ocean—on those days when the view isn’t obscured by fog. They had to gain political support for the project, convince neighbors that their project was well worth undertaking, attract donors and volunteers—something at which Xavier clearly excels—and organize and orchestrate fundraising events, planning meetings, and in-kind donations to support the project in those years just before Web 2.0 social networking tools like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn grew to make it far easier to reach and/or develop communities of interest.

When the innovative project was complete, many of us who had watched the stairs become a community meeting place were stunned, inspired, and motivated to see this as a beginning, not an end. Furthermore, because the Inner Sunset District has numerous concrete stairways linking streets along the hills and waiting for similar treatment, it’s natural for many of us who live and thrive in the neighborhood to think about how wonderful it would be to build upon what Audette, Barr, Crutcher, Xavier, and all their supporters and volunteers have created.

So it’s no surprise that during a party at the foot of the Moraga Steps less than two weeks ago to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the completion of that project, a group of us were on hand to announce the official beginning of a new project: the Hidden Garden Steps, to tile the dank, overgrown, and graffiti-laden steps linking 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets, create a community garden on either side of the steps, and provide a complementary wall mural at the top of the steps.

N.B.: This is the first in an ongoing series to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. Next: Building a Community of Support.


Community, Collaboration, and Learning: Time for the Fourth Place

August 15, 2010

It appears to be time to further develop what Ray Oldenburg initiated with The Great Good Place. That wonderful and still-influential book, first written and published more than twenty years ago in a pre-World Wide Web era, suggests that our first place is our home, our second place is where we work, and our third place is the treasured community meeting place where we, our friends, and colleagues come and go. The idea of the third place has been embraced by many, and has a counterpart in “the Intersection,” which Frans Johansson describes in his own more recently published book, The Medici Effect, as a place where people of differing backgrounds meet, exchange ideas, and, through their intersection, develop and disseminate new ideas.

What seems to be ripe for development now is a complementary fourth place: a community gathering place for social learning. The idea for this version of a fourth place (more about other versions in a moment) came out of a discussion two days ago with colleagues participating in the latest episode of Maurice Coleman’s biweekly T is for Training podcast—which, in its own way, has become an online third/fourth place for an ever-expanding community of learners comprised of those involved and/or interested in workplace learning and performance in libraries.

The potential development of the fourth place as community gathering place for social learning is worth exploring in and of itself since it embraces all that the concept suggests and it serves as an online example of what both Oldenburg and Johansson describe in face-to-face settings. Coleman’s latest podcast began with a handful of us discussing what we would love to see discussed at the annual Computers in Libraries  conference, to be held in Washington DC in March 2011. Because T is for Training colleague Jill Hurst-Wahl, who serves as Assistant Professor of Practice in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and is involved in planning the conference, was participating in the discussion, we quickly started dreaming about topics that have been on our minds, including the idea that “Computers (and Humans) in Libraries,” with a strong emphasis on listening to what library users want from libraries, might open some doors and eyes. As if on cue, the remaining participants—Coleman, Library System of Lancaster County Training Coordinator Stephanie Zimmerman, Statewide MarylandAskUsNow! Coordinator Julie Strange, and I—were joined in our Intersection by a contributor who had not previously called in during one of the live online sessions: someone who identified himself as Rutgers University student Walter Salem.

Salem was exactly what we were seeking: a person who is not involved in training but who expressed a passion for what libraries are, what they have been, and what they are becoming. While he was commenting via the audio portion of the program, a few of us noted via the typed chat that he seemed to be describing Oldenburg’s third place, and we actually suggested that to him. At that point, he corrected us by emphasizing that what he really loved was the sense of a place where he was surrounded by learning and the potential for learning, and that’s where we started translating his thoughts into something concrete for libraries and any other onsite or online community willing to use all the tech and human tools available to us.

“Maybe we’re looking at a ‘fourth place’: the educational community meeting place where members of the community gather,” I suggested via the typed chat.

“The interesting thing is that this ‘fourth place’ can be anywhere,” Hurst-Wahl immediately typed back. “It needs to be a ‘place’ where there are resources (people, books, computers, etc.) to connect people to the knowledge that they want to acquire.”

It didn’t take long for all of us to agree that this is an idea well worth nurturing and promoting, and Coleman had, before the live discussion ended, provided the refined fourth place definition with which we are working: “a community gathering place for social learning.” And while all of us were specifically thinking of the roles libraries could play as this sort of fourth place, it’s obvious to me that there’s room for fourth places of this level in almost any onsite or online setting where learners come and go, where they seek a community of support and a chance for Intersection-level exchanges, and where the place itself serves as and inspires communities of learning.

Curiosity, of course, compels us to immediately ask whether others have already toyed with the idea of a fourth Oldenburgesque place. The answer is yes, and one of them appears to have made its online debut just a month before we had our own Intersection moment: Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class and other more recently published books, proposed his own version of a fourth place as a mixture of commerce and engagement. And writer-consultant Doug Fleener was actually five years ahead of us with a proposal of fourth place  as “a gathering place inside a store for customers who share a common interest in the products and services the retailer sells.”

So perhaps what we are working with are sub-sets of Oldenburg’s original third place—communities with specific interests. Or an entirely original version and description of the important places in our life. Or, perhaps with yet another nod to the brilliance of the entire Web 2.0 and Learning 2.0 phenomena, we’re looking at Place 4.0, and an acknowledgment that there is room for all three proposals described here: a series which begins with Place 4.1, Place 4.2, and Place 4.3, then continues with the infinite possibilities of places that are different, yet intrinsically connected to, what Oldenburg has set in motion.

Let’s see how many interesting Places this might take us or produce.

Updates: Jill Hurst-Wahl, on August 17, 2010, has continued the conversation on her Digitization 101 blog (at http://hurstassociates.blogspot.com/2010/08/community-collaboration-and-learning.html).


Sarah Houghton-Jan: Tech Training That Works for Anyone

August 12, 2010

Sarah Houghton-Jan, whose work as Digital Futures Manager for the San José Public Library and as author of the Librarian in Black blog has earned her justifiably large amounts of attention and praise, has produced a dream book that is well suited for audiences far beyond its stated target.

Technology Training in Libraries sparkles with Houghton-Jan’s well deserved reputation for jargon-free, plain-talking, and humorously honest help for readers: “…having staff members who are not adequately trained in technology trying to support library users is like having a cardboard egg carton holding up an SUV,” she suggests (p. 5) in a statement that could easily be applied to workers in many other organizations. She also provides at least a partial answer to a question I heard a few years ago: what can corporate knowledge management and training professionals learn from library and information science professionals, and vice versa? Plenty, if we read Technology Training in Libraries and don’t limit ourselves by applying the information solely to those who work in libraries.

Early on, for example, Houghton-Jan provides a list of “essential technology training topics in libraries” and other potential training topics—nearly all of which could just as easily be adapted within a nonprofit or commercial organization looking to develop a cutting-edge workforce (pp. 6-7). Employees in libraries are clearly not the only ones who need to master technology terminology; understand how to effectively use email, web browsers, and online search skills to the benefit of the customers they serve; and be able to avoid ergonomic problems caused by improper set-up of employees’ (and customers’) work stations. And the writer’s list of areas of future growth—cloud computing, surface computing, open source software development among them—are equally applicable and important to workplace learning and performance programs and knowledge managers in nearly any professional setting today.

She also focuses on and acknowledges common-sense elements that are often overlooked, including the importance of providing learner-centric training: “Ask yourself—how would attendees have a better learning experience?” (p. 9).

The remainder of the book is equally useful and well organized as she devotes pithy chapters to planning, implementing, marketing, establishing best practices for, and evaluating the delivery of effective technology training. She doesn’t skimp on the basics: she includes plenty of tips for how to develop a list of skills to be addressed through training (pp. 13-20); a suggested list of “five key elements to keep in mind” when deciding what to include in training (customer demand, organizational goals, immediate return on investment, training effectiveness, and consequences of not providing training—pp. 34-35); and suggestions on how to establish peer training and train the trainer programs (pp. 65-70).

Online training resources receive generous attention throughout the book, particularly on pages 80–86, and there’s even a brief description (p. 83) of an innovation in online delivery that I still remember fondly—the use of Skype as a delivery tool for a segment of the 2007 offering of the annual Future of Libraries conference sponsored by a local San Francisco Bay Area training consortium now known as the Pacific Library Partnership Staff Development Committee. That Skype session was described online at the time both by Houghton-Jan and her Skype co-presenter, Char Booth.

The extensive recommended resources listings and bibliography at the end of the book, furthermore, are icing on a well baked cake, leaving readers with plenty of useful resources—including several used as links in this summary of her work. Those in search of dessert as well as a substantial main course will find both in Technology Training in Libraries, and we all owe Houghton-Jan and her publisher a round of applause for making the information available in such a concise fashion (103 pages of text, followed by the additional resources already mentioned).


Technology, Trouble-shooting, and Seeking Creative Solutions: Wherefore Art Thou, Google Chat?

August 5, 2010

Having just finished reading Jaron Lanier’s good-natured rant against those who fall into the trap of mistakenly believing and acting as if technology is human (You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto), I caught myself falling into the trap.

Because I have been successfully using Google Chat as a tool for conducting interviews for writing projects as well as for delivering just-in-time learning, I’ve come to rely on it—which in and of itself is not a bad practice. The ability to type questions and receive written responses in a way that immediately produces a complete and printable transcript of interviews is a great way to assure accuracy and avoid misunderstandings.

It’s when it first began to let me down—note the insidious way the words “let me down” so easily sneak into this discourse, as if Google Chat were a friend instead of a sophisticated gadget—that I first felt the sense of betrayal usually reserved for sentient beings: “Oh, Google Chat, how could you let me down?” (Actually, the question was much more expletive-laden when it popped into my head, but there’s no need to be overly graphic here and offend both of you who are reading this.)

The problem began in the middle of an interview for the book Lori Reed and I are co-writing for ALA Editions. The colleague who was sitting across the country from me and responding to my typed questions seemed to be taking longer than usual to respond. After several moments of silence, I shifted my attention to an incoming call—which was, of course, from the interviewee to determine whether I had seen a response he had sent moments earlier. Realizing that our online conversation in the live chat box was showing up less than complete, we stayed on the phone as we attempted to continue, and soon realized that the onscreen version wasn’t conveying everything that was being stored in the transcript in our Gmail accounts. Relieved that we weren’t losing anything, but puzzled by the anomaly, we finished as quickly as we could, assumed that we had somehow angered the tech gods (clearly lower case deities), and soon went our separate ways. (An aside, out of fairness to Google Chat—see, there I go again, anthropomorphizing the tech tool; Lanier would be laughing at my plight if he could see me now—I should admit that the technology of fountain pens has failed me in the writing of the first draft of this piece; my pen just ran out of ink, forcing me to resort to the back-up technology of having a second fountain pen in hand. Let’s chalk it up to user error since I’m the one who forgot to refill the ink cartridge this morning, and return to the point of my own Lanierian rant.)

Returning to Google Chat a few days later for an interview with a different colleague, I warned the interviewee that we might need to use our (old technology) phones as a back-up if the earlier problem repeated itself. Which, of course, it did. With a vengeance.  About 30 minutes after we began, some of our transmissions stopped appearing in the live chat box, but continued to appear in the chat history. Then delays started occurring in the postings to the chat history—just a moment or two, but enough to be annoyingly disruptive. Then the chat history stopped picking up lines in no discernable pattern, but the live chat box retrieved some of what was missing from the transcript. If we hadn’t been laughing so much at our own plight, we probably would have wept. But we persevered by seeking the creative solution of combining the live chat, the incomplete transcript, and the phone conversation, and were lucky to eventually end up with the complete transcript we both needed.

This is where Lanier’s could have served as a voice of reason and good counsel if I had already been reading his book. I began turning to what he variously refers to as “the hive”—that faceless group of online collaborators whom we sometimes mistake for a single online intelligent entity rather than a loosely knit group of individuals contributing to an ongoing conversation—or  “cybernetic totalists,” or, more humanely, “the tribe.” I posted a brief description of the glitch and sought advice from others in a couple of very active discussion groups, but received no response. The hive, apparently, was asleep. I then tried to reach Google representatives online, and still had no success.

Turning to Yahoo! Messenger as an alternative, I at least was able to determine that my (non-sentient) computer was not preventing me from using any form of online chat as a way to continue my interviews. But I still haven’t completely resolved the problems Google Chat is causing. And I know Google Chat is not an enemy. Nor is it a friend. It just is. And I, apparently, am not a gadget. But I am a writer in search of solutions for the problems that the gadgets in my life present.

Now, back to the draft of that book in progress. With our without the gadgets.


Rework: Collaboration, Creativity, and the Spirit of Wikinomics

July 25, 2010

The commitment to improvisation, collaboration, and sharing that runs through all successful workplace learning and performance efforts is at the heart of Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s recently released book, Rework, a wonderful collection of very short essays about how we need to rework much of what we currently do.

It’s a book very much of its moment as those preferring Web 2.0-style collaborations and those who feel territorial about everything they produce attempt to find common ground. The writers suggest that we avoid the complexities and turf wars which so often hold many of us back from achievements we might otherwise produce if we weren’t trying to do too much, trying to recreate what others are doing rather than pursuing our own vision on behalf of those we serve, and allowing ourselves to “obsess over tools instead of what [we]’re going to do with those tools” (p. 87).

Readers familiar with Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams’ Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, will find themselves on familiar ground here as they encounter Fried and Hansson’s suggestion to “sell your by-products” (pp. 90-91)—a suggestion rooted in the idea that if we find applications for everything we work on rather than focusing only on what we set out to do and leaving untapped resources as waste material, we become more effective at what we do. Trainers, for example, might take parts of something already finished and find a new use for it, as Gwinnett County Public Library Training Manager Jay Turner did by using video clips from a live staff recognition event to create a new half-hour virtual staff day video which more than 90 percent of staff voluntarily watched after he posted it online for them; Turner found another way to rework the material by writing, for other trainers, about the tools he used to produce the piece.

Another familiar aspect of the book is the light and playful approach the writers take—which also carries over to the promotional videos posted on their website for Rework. The simple graphics which are interspersed with the text throughout the book seem to take a page—or many pages—from Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin and Unfolding the Napkin, which help trainers and other presenters see that we don’t have to display the artistic skills of Michelangelo or Rafael to be able to reach others. The use of the graphics and the stylistic device of providing short sections on dozens of interrelated themes—most pieces are no longer than a tightly written blog posting and have the same sense of informality—make the book a pleasure to peruse and easy to absorb. Which means it again offers a great model for trainers who are tackling complex topics and trying to find ways to break the complexity into small, digestible chunks.

It is not the content that is revolutionary here. Reminders to improvise (pp. 18-20), produce something tangible rather than engaging in endless discussions about producing something tangible (pp. 33-45), undertake a few achievable projects rather than trying to pursue every possibility and ending up completing none (p. 83), ask what problems we are solving through our undertakings (p. 100), and learn by doing rather than always trying to duplicate what others have accomplished (pp. 134-136) simply take us back to basics we should already know but all too often set aside in a frenzy of trying to respond to all constituents without serving any of them effectively. And if we can relearn and rework some of these lessons, just imagine what the learners we assist will gain.


Leaders Emerging

July 5, 2010

One of the great pleasures of attending the 2010 American Library Association (ALA) Conference in Washington, D.C. last week was seeing Emerging Leaders Program participants display and discuss the year-long projects they completed.

Projects on view during a two-hour poster session held on Friday, June 25 in the Washington Convention Center showed a great amount of planning, creativity, and practical application. Among the topics were web-based leadership development; a free-links project “to identify and select free web-based tutorials and professional development information for librarians in other countries to access via the Internet,” with the links being posted on a wiki; a survey of ALA members to determine how interested they were in having the Association adapt Web 2.0 tools into its new content management system;  and revising and updating an online staff development resource center so that individuals and organizations can “share policies, manuals, materials, and other information related to library staff development,” according to printed material distributed  by members of the Emerging Leaders group that completed that project.

Two projects which quickly caught my attention were sponsored by the ALA Learning Round Table (formerly CLENE), an ALA group which serves as an online and conference-level home away from home for me and many others involved in workplace learning and performance. The first, providing a recipe for planning successful staff day activities, drew from responses provided by nearly 600 ALA members and resulted in creation of a wiki which includes a variety of resources for those interested in developing their own staff day successes and a short video documenting their work. The second, creating and documenting the process of offering a sustainable webinar series for workplace learning and performance professionals in libraries, provides information for others interested in developing a similar series and is also described in two separate short online videos.

There really wasn’t a bad project among the more than 20 that were on display, and it’s a credit to those who each year facilitate this dynamic project for library staff members who are either under 35 years old or who have fewer than five years of experience working at a professional or paraprofessional level within libraries.

What was somewhat surprising to me was how few of the sponsoring ALA divisions and round tables actually had members onsite to work alongside the Emerging Leaders during their presentations. Discussions with program participants provided food for thought: although they were tremendously grateful for the opportunities they had under the Emerging Leaders program, many of them said they had not been approached about becoming members of the groups, were not sure whether they would continue their relationships with the groups which sponsored their projects, and wished they had been able to work alongside members of those sponsoring organizations during the  two-hour session on June 25—a clear call to action for those of us who want to support the efforts of these and the other emerging leaders in our lives.


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