Even at its most quiet, this is community in motion. A community committed to fostering and engaging in lifelong learning—learning that never stops and learning that responds to current events and wants and needs—and even social injustices that prevent some within our communities from having access to the best of the lifelong learning we all are seeking, creating, and promoting. A community engaged in a seamless interweaving of work and play and learning online as well as onsite or in blended (onsite-online) environments that was already taking place within the ShapingEDU community long before we began following shelter-in-placesocial distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic); we have, if anything, only become more intensely creatively, innovatively, collaboratively immersed in exploring, fostering, documenting, and embracing examples of productive approaches to learning within the larger context of what is happening in the communities we inhabit.
So here we are on Saturday afternoon, mostly taking time for reflection after a stunningly intense, inspirational, exhaustive and regenerative week of learning with and from each other; continuing our creative endeavors individually and collectively through contributions to the virtual scrapbook and through interactions in those Slack virtual hallways; and thinking ahead to our final Camp Gathering Around the Flagpole Monday morning to try to make sense of all we’ve said and heard and done so we can transform the myriad narratives flowing all round us into some sort of plan for action for the weeks and months ahead of us until our next large-scale community gathering.
The entire challenge of trying to shape a cohesive, community-wide narrative out of all the learning threads we have been working with is, as a cherished friend and colleague noted yesterday, “challenging.” My narrative—very much based on a commitment to connecting representatives of learning organizations (and the learners they serve) with representatives of workplace organizations that will work with those learners in their capacities as employees/managers/supervisors/CEOs—can and probably should be different from the narratives being shaped by many of our colleagues. That personal narrative, for me, is what my colleague Kim Flintoff (a self-declared “provocateur, educational change agent, futurist, speaker, researcher, writer, teacher, catalyst, and sustainability advocate”) and I consistently attempt to facilitate as “mayors” (aka committee chairs) in the neighborhood (aka committee/taskforce) committed to connecting education and the workforce of the future; it’s what we highlighted during our Learning(Hu)Man session yesterday on connecting learning and workplace representatives. But that’s just one of the narratives flowing through Camp Learning(Hu)Man and ShapingEDU overall. There are narratives/neighborhoods around bolstering intergenerational leadership and learning futures; personalizing learning; recognizing all forms of learning; promoting access & equity in learning; embedding data-driven approaches in student success; humanizing learning, innovating artificial intelligence applications, building constellations of innovations, and fostering immersive learning. There is a community-developed communique providing an outline for dreaming, doing, and driving the future of learning—a document that has provided the underpinnings of much of what we’ve done together this week while camping out together. There are projects and resources in various stages of development.
I’m sensing growth. Rapid change and evolution. A blossoming of gorgeous flowers that were aching to unfold their petals, reach for the sun, and revel in a summer day they suspected that they would, one day, experience—even if they lacked a sense of when that day would ultimately arrive. It’s the sort of blossoming that we can never fully anticipate in all its myriad permutations. The sort of blossoming we question while it is actually underway. But when it does arrive, it is clear. Tangible. And nothing around it will ever seem the same to any of us present for the wonderfully explosive moment.
The tremendously engaging and wonderfully transformative activities have been overwhelming positive and well worth describing even if at only the most cursory of levels—you’ll be able to more fully see and experience some of those events and activities online as members of the Camp Team continue posting recordings on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel. The real story well worth telling late this evening is how the ShapingEDU community is rapidly becoming so much more than any of us thought it might become even a few months ago.
It’s the sort of community that under expert leadership and with a firm commitment to collaborative effort and action produces the kind of extraordinary day we have had again today. It began with an early-morning breakfast in the virtual Mess Hall—a Zoom meeting room created as a gathering place for camper-colleagues interested in beginning-of-day breakfast and warm-up activities. That Mess Hall gathering today included an exploration of mindfulness combined with a brief yoga session led in that online environment by wonderful facilitators, and was followed immediately by a dynamic panel discussion exploring “The Rise of the Digital Campus.”
The community is also one that produces the daily Learning(Hu)Man sessions along the lines of what we were able to chose from today: explorations of Slack in collaborative learning, Zoom as a learning platform, storytelling in learning, and so much more. Deciding to begin my dive into those sessions by attending one (“Surfing Chaos: Narratives Across the Digital Divide”) facilitated by my fellow ShapingEDU Storyteller in ResidenceTom Haymes, I again found myself learning in layers: Tom’s amazing ability to lead us through some explorations of how to tell the stories we need to tell to promote the best possible responses to teachers’ and learners’ struggles with the rapid transformation of onsite learning into online learning for so many contemporary learners was layered over demonstrations of and hands-on experience with how to effectively use online collaborative tools such as Google docs to fast-forward discussions and planning sessions we need to be completing now. The result is that we walked away with usable ideas and, at the same time, had begun developing relationships with colleagues with whom we can continue to learn and work long after this first offering of Learning(Hu)Man formally concludes four days from now.
[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]
This is also a community that, even though firmly grounded in a commitment to effectively incorporating educational technology into lifelong learning while never losing its learner-centric approach, seems to be in the middle of an important pivotal moment—that moment in which we are overtly acknowledging and beginning to grapple with some of the toughest social challenges facing anyone involved in lifelong learning. That became a bit more clear to me as I sat through the third of the three end-of-day plenary sessions Learning(Hu)Man has offered during the current virtual conference. The first plenary session—two days ago—was centered around a highly-interactive panel discussion on the theme of “Digital Equity, Social + Racial Justice”—something far removed from the sort of tech-based sessions which have been a staple of our previous ShapingEDU onsite gatherings and online offerings in the form of webinars. The session late this afternoon was equally compelling, thoughtful, and inspiring: “Digital Education and Tribal Rights,” a session masterfully led by Leah Gazan, Matt Rantanen, Traci Morris, and Brian McKinley Jones Brayboy. They framed what easily could have been an educational-technology conversation much more deeply—in terms of Internet access as a “human rights issue,” something integrally intertwined with the issue of “sovereignty” for indigenous peoples, and centered on “self-determination” as those lacking access to work and learning opportunities online work together to gain that access. Listening to them and briefly interacting with them within Zoom provided an expansion of the reach of the ShapingEDU I had really not seen coming even though I’ve seen several of us, over the past few months, taking on challenges including seeking solutions to the student debt crisis and fostering universal broadband access for work and learning throughout the United States.
[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]
Rather than immediately following my fellow campers into the evening play and entertainment session, I stepped away from camp long enough to meet a friend here in San Francisco. As I returned home and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to join the last portion of the evening activity—a live concert, via Zoom, featuring several performers—I continued thinking about how completely immersive and transformative Learning(Hu)man has been in its first few days. And as I settled in to watch the last few performers, I again began chatting (through the chat window Zoom provides) with other campers who were attending that lovely series of performances—having exactly the sort of chats I would have had face-to-face with colleagues at any of the onsite conferences I have ever attended. And as we continued to chat and enjoy the music, I realized how completely the Learning(Hu)Man summer camp was providing the same richly rewarding experiences I have had onsite—which prompted me to remark to a colleague (via chat) that after this week of camping out at Learning(Hu)Man, I’m not going to be at all patient with anyone who tries to tell me we can’t be completely engaged, moved, and together in online settings. The comment drew agreement from a few others, and then we turned our attention back to one of the performers, who had just sung the line “Your purple mountain majesty is only for the free…”—a wonderfully poetic line that somehow seemed to fit right in with all the attention we had increasingly been giving to the social-issue side of the work we are pursuing together. That, in turn, prompted me to float the idea, in the ongoing chat, about how rapidly this community seems to be evolving/maturing. At which point the singer, Terra Naomi, was drawing to the end of a song that included the line “I believe in love more than I want to hate.” And then Walt Richardson took the virtual stage to sing “Light Revolution” (a song written by his brother), which made me think even more about the “revolution” I am sensing in this community.
The ongoing backchannel discussion quickly led me to respond to a colleague’s comment about our last community gathering, just days before many of us began officially sheltering in place in March 2020, with the observation that the moment when our last onsite gathering switched overnight into an online gathering “came at such a difficult time for so many people [and] really set the tone for much of happiness and success I’ve had in spite of and because of sheltering in place. We might, at some point, look back and see that as a pivotal moment–at many levels–in the development (at light speed) of this community and other dynamically blended, creative communities.
“When I’m at onsite conferences, I attend sessions, sometimes facilitate sessions, have hallway conversations (like we are having here and now), share meals, sometimes draft some writing while sitting with others and then stay up late fine-tuning fragments into blog pieces—just like I’m doing right now [and continued to do well after midnight to finish this piece before going back to camp in the morning].
“I suspect my next ‘letter home from camp’ is going to feel somewhat familiar to anyone watching this rough draft of it taking shape here in a chat window….And, being really meta about this: I often thought it was fun to watch writers who would sit in bookstore windows and write as people walked by and watched a bit of the creative process in progress…and here I am, knowing I’m on camera, writing in front of colleagues without the slightest bit of self-consciousness.”
At which point I began to laugh, because Walt had just sung the line “there will never be a time so right,” prompting me to add to the chat: “See? Now even Walt has worked his way into the piece-in-progress. It’s all about timing.”
His final song, “Love Wings,” seemed to hold all of us spellbound, but I broke away from the spell long enough to react to the line “We’ve got to share our battle scars” and observe that “it feels as if Walt is offering us the balm to soothe and heal those battle scars. If we came to Learning(Hu)Man feeling a bit beaten and scarred, at least we will go home having been provided with a bit of what we need to sustain us.
Two more lines from the song then floated across the virtual concert hall:
“With Love Wings we can fly
Into the clear blue open sky…”
As I draw to the end of my third letter home from camp, I’m among those who feel as if Walt’s beautifully poignant and wonderfully-delivered song has lifted us up; reminded us of what is possible online as well as face-to-face; and given us our own set of love wings to carry us through the rest of Learning(Hu)Man and into the work and challenges we face and willingly are going to work to address.
But I’m obviously not really eight years old anymore. And one of my parents has been gone for more than three years, so I can’t write home to her. And letter-writing with pen (or pencil) and paper was long ago replaced, for me, by online communication, including love letters in the form of blog posts. So here’s my second daily love letter capturing much of the joy of camping out with dreamer-driver-doers committed to shaping the future of learning in the digital age (while currently following shelter-in-placesocial distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic) thanks to Camp Director Laura Geringer and the rest of the Arizona State University ShapingEDULearning(Hu)ManCamp Team:
Morning comes early around here. We again gathered in the Mess Hall for virtual breakfast via Zoom, at 7:30 a.m., hosted by Day 2 Head Happy Camper (HHC) Allan Novak, who is renowned for his work as an executive producer, director, writer, and editor—in addition to being a first-rate facilitator, as was obvious by the way he engaged us in conversation and activities during the time we had together. HHC Novak fostered a wonderful warm-up conversation that had us learning experientially as he incorporated an innovative online presentation and polling tool—Mentimeter—into the conversation. Watching and participating in that setting made me again realize how quickly and how far we are moving from a world in which we can (mistakenly) assert that it is always impossible to craft conference experiences online that are as engaging as those we create onsite. We have to admit that it takes a lot to design and run an engaging online conference. But then again, it’s far from easy to accomplish the same onsite; you have to work with what you have. When you have a group as comfortable as Learning(Hu)Man participants are with technology, as willing as we are to experiment with a variety of online tools in the moment without being flustered by the occasional failures that come when learning about and using any form of technology, and as well supported as we are by those in charge of the event, magic can and does happen.
The sort of unexpected and wonderfully rewarding hallway and workshop conversations that draw us to onsite conferences are increasingly possible and likely to happen through the use of the chat window in Zoom and the willingness of people like HHC Novak to draw people in visibly and audibly through the videoconferencing capabilities of platforms like Zoom. The all-important act of meeting new people and unexpectedly running into long-term cherished friends and colleagues, chatting with them, and planning on how we will maintain (or continue to maintain) contact after the conference ends has been as common for me here at Learning(Hu)Man as it has been at the best of the onsite conferences I have attended over a very long period of time. In some ways, this part of it really doesn’t take much—just a willingness to leap at opportunities and a commitment to action. Those unexpected initial and recurring encounters are among the highlights of any conference I attend, and Learning(Hu)Man has already provided plenty of them. The idea that “what I most look forward to at conferences is that which I am not expecting to find” remains true in this virtual setting, too.
After enjoying an hour-long “around the flagpole” gathering for a first-rate panel discussion on “The What, Why, and How of Learner-Centered Everything” and still cherishing what I had seen and learned from Novak, I followed him into the first of two morning sessions I attended—his workshop on “Video Post-production: Good, Fast, and Cheap in the 2020s”—and was extremely happy that I did. Using the same facilitation and organizational skills he had displayed in the Mess Hall, he took a highly playful, interactive approach to a session that was built upon the premise that all of us could learn enough about a platform he was introducing to us—WeVideo—to craft a short public service announcement promoting online learning—in less than an hour. The learning here was layered: we did learn enough to produce part of that video announcement online—which Novak apparently finished up after the session ended—and we also learned how to design and facilitate a session like the one he was leading—just by watching him lead ours. To speed up production, he had prepared a template for the script and made it available to us in a shared document online. He then used Mentimeter to help us craft some of the vocabulary we would incorporate into the script. He asked each of us to volunteer to produce very short (several-second) videos we would upload to a shared folder he made available online. And he showed us how to edit all that content into the announcement-in-progress. It was an amazing display of training-teaching-learning in action, and I left that session feeling as if I were one very happy camper.
The day, as days at camp often do, is already becoming a blur. More wonderful learning. More time to take a virtual walk in the woods, reflect on what we were seeing-doing-learning. Time for a quick refresher nap. And, at the end of the day, after additional opportunities to learn and craft and dream, we reconvened in the camp Mess Hall for an evening of game-playing-with-a-purpose.
[Image from Opening Night Session by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]
Joined by Second City star Linda Kash, Novak set the stage for 90 minutes of Zoom-prov—familiar improvisation-based games all conducted via Zoom rather than face-to-face. We started with “Blind Portrait,” a game in which we each had to try to draw the face of someone else we could see in that Zoom gathering—without ever looking away from the screen. Kash played it for all it was worth, cajoling anyone who made the mistake of breaking eye contact with the webcam, and brought it all home by reminding us that as an educational tool, the game reminded everyone that we are all in the same pool and need not be embarrassed by what we produce. A series of equally entertaining challenges all drawing upon the best techniques employed in improv had all of us laughing out loud, collaborating wildly in friendly competitions, and achieving what any evening around the learning campfire is meant to achieve: an opportunity to bask in community, friendship, shared experiences, and the promise of more to come when the sun reappears above the grounds of our virtual summer camp tomorrow.
Going to summer camp was something I thought was long behind me—particularly at a time when I am joining so many others in following shelter-in-placesocial distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic. But I had that wrong. I’m back at camp. A newly-organized virtual summer camp. As a participant, facilitator, and occasional volunteer monitoring and fostering online conversations via Slack during the week-long Arizona State University ShapingEDULearning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp.
Some of the more than 2,000 of us who have registered joined the opening ceremony around the virtual campfire last night, and more of us continued to participate today through a series of dynamic, highly-interactive sessions featuring colleagues and a variety of visionary guests working together to shape the future of learning in the digital era. The theme for our first full day together has been “flipping scary stories,” and there certainly are plenty of scary stories to tell and flip. Virtual campers began the day with some early-morning online Mess Hall interactions, then gathered around the flag pole for an inspiring keynote presentation by Arizona State University President Michael Crow, who spoke eloquently and movingly of this moment in time when we have a chance for the first-ever full release of human potential through egalitarian access to education. A panel discussion on “the next normal” in learning—“the one we’re creating together” in response to the tremendously scary stories that are continuing to unfold around us—kept all of us standing virtually at attention for the remainder of that early-morning gathering.
[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]
We then went to our own smaller online camp sites to choose from more than a dozen 50-minute sessions slotted into two consecutive time periods for the next couple of hours; among the choices were “Learning Futures: Avoiding the Zombie Apocalypse to Create the Brave New World”; “Using Data Science, Data, and the Power of Community to Address the Student Loan Crisis”; and the “Using Design Thinking to Close the Digital Divide” session I co-facilitated with ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence Lisa Gustinelli, FutureWe Founder Jonathan Nalder, and educational technologist Gordon Shupe (centered on the ShapingEDU “Connected for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative that is beginning to attract attention and support from a variety of collaborators). Other subsequent Learning(Hu)Man activities throughout the morning and early afternoon gave everyone plenty of options for playing, learning, interacting, dreaming, and plotting before we had an afternoon break to step away from the structured events and to reflect while taking virtual walks through the woods or much-needed naps.
[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]
Refreshed from our walks and naps, many of us came back together for two overwhelmingly and richly dynamic sessions—the first featuring a live interview with Zoom Founder/CEO Eric Yuan, the second featuring three over-the-top brilliantly passionately engaging presenters (Nicol Turner-Lee, Director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation; Larry Irving, President and CEO of the Irving Information Group; and Joshua Edmonds, University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative and City of Detroit Digital Inclusion Fellow). Yuan, responding to deeply thoughtful questions from Zoom Chief Diversity Officer Damien Hooper-Campbell, addressed a variety of topics including Zoom’s commitment to quality, communities served, and willingness to collaborate with others seeking positive responses to some of our most challenging social issues; he assured Learning(Hu)Man campers that a priority for Zoom, post-pandemic, will be how to unleash the power of the Zoom platform in continuing to serve a variety of educational, artistic, and socially-diverse communities.
[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]
Just when it appeared there was no way to top the momentum and excitement of what Learning(Hu)Man and its partners had produced, it did exactly that. The final session with Turner-Lee, Irving, and Edmonds showed virtual conferencing at its finest. The formal question-and-answer segments between those inspiring presenters was accompanied, seamlessly, by session audience members interacting with each other and the presenters, via a live-chat window, in a positively overwhelming flow of give-and-take. One of the many comments that stood out to me came from a fellow participant and, in a heartbeat, changed the way I have been viewing the challenge of the digital divide and overcoming less-than-ideal broadband access throughout our country: “Frankly, getting so tired of hearing ‘Digital Divide’…it’s a social, economic, social justice, bandwidth divide and it’s been going on for decades. So, despite funding from the FCC, state governments, private foundations, etc. We are Still Discussing…so what’s the solution? It’s not just technology, it’s a reflection of the inequities in our society.”
Both exhausted and exhilarated, I decided to skip the set of live conversations and playful activities that were scheduled to continue via Zoom before camp shut down for the evening and we began recharging our creative batteries in anticipation of reconvening early tomorrow morning in the camp Mess Hall for another day of thoughtfully engaging interactions designed to spur us toward positive action.
What remains for me this evening is to acknowledge the absolutely stunning accomplishment represented by the first full day of summer camp—an achievement in virtual conferencing described eloquently online by “Camp Groundskeeper” Samantha Becker on behalf of the entire Camp Team:
“Learning(Hu)Man 2020 is an experimental fusion of hands-on learning, storytelling, tech hacks and the good kind of shenanigans. In short, it’s total camp. Summer camp! This weeklong series of events will convene a global community of education changemakers to push the creative envelope for how we serve students and advance learner success.
“Interactive experiences led by a cohort of camp counselors (read: education and industry leaders) will uncover best practices in learning design, edtech tools and development, and emergent thinking around the art of the possible—all with the shared mission for enabling student success in all of its dimensions.
Thank you to [Camp Chef] Lev Gonick, who started passing me ‘back of the napkin’ ideas over Slack on this—and then never stopped.”
There are still several more days of camping ahead of all of us. And when everything formally wraps up next Monday morning with a two-hour session to summarize what we have experienced and what we hope to accomplish as a result of having gone to camp together, it still will not be over. There will be weeks, if not months, of reflections and follow-up interactions synchronously and asynchronously. There will be opportunities to view archived recordings as they are posted on the ShapingEDU YouTube channel. There will be continuing discussions on the ShapingEDU Slack site. There will be unforeseeable positive concrete actions. And, most of all, there will be that dynamic, unique ShapingEDU community “dreaming, driving, and doing” together in one long, uninterrupted moment that began long before we arrived at Learning(Hu)Man summer camp and will extend long after we “leave.”
Every day seems to bring a new opportunity, and that certainly was the case less than two weeks ago when friend/colleague/collaborator/-co-facilitator and owner of PCI [People Connect Institute] WebinarsAndrew Sanderbeck and I met online via Zoom, ostensibly to brainstorm projects we could initiate and offer during the second half of this year—post shelter-in-place. The conversation began as most of our conversations do: talking with and listening to each other about what we are currently doing and how we are responding to our training-teaching-learning landscape. Andrew asked how I was faring in a shelter-in-place world, and I told him that a) it hasn’t been much of an adjustment since I do so much of my work in online environments, and b) that I recognized I am extremely lucky that an abnormally higher-than-usual percentage of my current work had already been scheduled for online environments during the first half of the year. The picture for Andrew was much different: he talked about missing face-to-face encounters; mentioned that online conversations even using the most highly-praised and ostensibly engaging of tools weren’t offering him the same level of satisfaction and pleasure that onsite interactions do; and told me a bit about what he had been finding and reading online.
“A few years ago, Michael Michalko, a former US army officer, came up with a fascinating idea to sharpen creativity,” Matthew Syed writes in that BBC News article. “He called it ‘assumption reversal’. You take the core notions in any context, subject, discipline and then, well, turn them on their head.
“…suppose you are considering a new taxi company. The first assumption might be: ‘taxi companies own cars’. The reversal would be: ‘taxi companies own no cars’. Twenty years ago, that might have sounded crazy. Today, the largest taxi company that has ever existed doesn’t own cars: Uber. Now we are living through a disruption (you might even call it a reversal) of unprecedented scale….”
“Reversal techniques are typically used by people working in the creative industries to come up with new products or innovations. I wonder if we can all use it to seek out a silver lining or two amid the grey clouds.”
Without even reading the article I just finished quoting, and thinking only about Andrew’s brief description of Assumption Reversal, my mind was already racing.
“You gonna use that?” I immediately ask, and Andrew temporarily appears to be uncertain as to what I am really asking.
It is, I continue, exactly the sort of opportunity we were looking to explore when we set up this particular conversation online. We and many people we know are trying to figure out what the world is going to look like after shelter-in-place ends. We know that trying to predict the future usually produces lousy results, but taking steps to help shape the future can be very productive and rewarding. At a time when so many people are struggling to identify ways to even cope with what to them appears to be a bleak and extremely uncertain future, a workshop or a webinar proposing Assumption Reversal as a potentially useful tool might be a game-changer for some of those people.
Quickly displaying an increasing amount of interest in the possibilities, Andrew asks what I have in mind. I suggest that we could design and develop something for roll-out for late summer or early fall.
“I’m thinking about something a little sooner,” he teases.
“Doesn’t it take a while to set things like that up, schedule them, and get the word out?” I respond with what was meant to be rhetorical rather than real curiosity.
“You forget I own a webinar company,” he coyly answers, obviously relishing my surprise at what he is suggesting.
Less than two weeks later, he had filled the webinar to the capacity we had set—a maximum of 75 participants, so we could foster high levels of interactivity among the participants; had identified resources including Michalko’s description online of the Reversing Assumptions technique and a Joker News video on “Assumption Reversal in Pandemic Crisis” connecting the process to ideas for responding to our evolving landscape during the coronavirus pandemic; had a waiting list of people interested in attending a similar session; had loaded up the slides on the PCI Webinars site so we had a visually-stimulating set of images to inspire conversation during that hour-long session; and was ready to roll with me for what turned out to be a very stimulating, positive learning experience for all of us.
Participants reacted, at the end of the session, with tremendous gratitude for the opportunity we had provided to explore positive, creative action in very challenging times. One of our colleagues who serves as host/producer for PCI Webinars and generally stays in the background during the live sessions became an active and tremendously valuable contributor to the entire conversation. And Andrew and I, once again, walked away having learned quite a bit about how we can best serve our clients, colleagues, and friends in the best as well as the most challenging of times.
There are obviously numerous buildings with “closed” signs on them as many of us continue to follow shelter-in-place guidelines in effect because of the coronavirus pandemic. But “closed” remains a relative term for many, e.g., libraries and other learning organizations, because the buildings may be closed, but the learning is continuing online. In offerings that sometimes are arranged so quickly that everyone’s head is spinning. And, sometimes, in offerings done effectively enough to leave learners with useful, memorable, engaging learning experiences that they can either immediately apply or can begin incorporating into learning opportunities with buildings once again sport open doors.
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, through all of this, to have had several projects underway that were primarily set up as online learning experiences. And one that was scheduled to begin with a daylong series of onsite sessions (in Tampa, Florida) and then continue with three subsequent one-hour online sessions. That train-the-trainer course, for learning co-conspirators (aka “adult learners”) through the Tampa Bay Library Consortium, was charmed from the beginning. Our onsite time together in Tampa took place less than two weeks before shelter-in-place suddenly became an all-too-familiar experience and temporarily put on hold most face-to-face training sessions. The first of the three webinars was held a week after shelter-in-place went into effect, and offered us an opportunity to begin exploring what trainer-teacher-learners could—and have to—do when their world suddenly goes topsy-turvy and many long-held beliefs and expectations fly out the window in a rapidly, ever-evolving learning environment. And the final webinar, completed earlier today, brought us full circle through explorations of how to design and facilitate online, onsite, and blended learning opportunities—by engaging in onsite, online, and blended learning opportunities using whatever tools we have available.
Some things, we confirmed together through a highly-interactive and collaborative approach, remain constant at a time when “emergency remote learning” is all around us: Following a learning model such as ADDIE (Assess, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) and USER (Char Booth’sUnderstand, Structure, Engage, and Reflect) continues to provide strong foundations for effective learning. Preparation, flexibility, confidence, empathy, attention to detail, and humor all remain essential elements of what we do. Collaboration produces magnificent results, as we frequently saw when the learners were participants in shaping sessions in the moment; there were times when learners’ questions and suggestions inspired me to set aside activities I had planned and, on the spot, replace them with activities the participants themselves helped create and implement. And there were times when delivery/facilitation of a session changed on a dime, as when a slide deck I had planned to use for the first webinar wasn’t loading properly through screen-sharing—so we set aside the deck and simply covered the material in that online environment through virtual “face to face” conversations that pretty much replicated the spirit of what we had achieved a few weeks earlier in the physical learning space that was our initial meeting place.
Learners had a variety of options available to them because a well-designed infrastructure. They had an online asynchronous meeting place—the Bridgelearning management system—where they could easily find materials, updates, and guidance as to what they needed to be doing. They had an easy-to-use online platform for meetings—Zoom. They had a wonderful organizer/liaison/host/–TBLC Manager of Programs and Services Kelly McDonald. They had the opportunity to participate in the live webinars or participate asynchronously by viewing archived recordings of those webinars. And they had access to all PowerPoint slide decks, which included copious speaker notes so they could review topics of special interest to them.
Because they were engaged in further improving their own training-teaching-learning skills, they also had—and created—ample opportunities to practice what they were learning. While onsite, they engaged in impromptu presentations that helped them experiment with different ways to use their learning spaces. While online, they sometimes became presenters themselves by picking up themes from the typed chat and explaining and exploring those themes with their online collaborators. If there were missed opportunities for engagement, we would be hard-pressed to identify them because we jumped at those opportunities whenever we could.
The series concluded with plans for how that particular community of learning might continue through learner-directed interactions and collaboration; with reminders that the series had formally concluded but the learning would continue as they applied what they had absorbed; and with reminders that taking time to reflect upon our shared experiences would provide an additional platform for gaining all they could from all the effort we all expended together.
Following my own guidance and longtime commitment to reflective learning, I took a few minutes, after logging out of the final session, to reflect on what the time with those learners inspired. And those moments of reflection rekindled memories of previous training-teaching-learning experiences, including one that began more than a decade ago when I had the unexpected pleasure of being paid to attend a TED conference. A friend who owns a bookstore here in San Francisco was the official onsite bookseller for the conference, and he offered me a last-minute chance to attend the conference as one of his employees in the bookstore. It was every bit as fun and inspirational as I expected it to be, and there was the obvious thrill of watching that spectacular live feed of TED talks on a screen in the bookstore and chatting with some of the presenters as they wandered through onsite bookstore.
One of the more memorable encounters was a brief face-to-face conversation with Matt Harding, who at the time was receiving tremendous, well-deserved attention and praise for his “Where the Hell is Matt?” videos showing him doing a brief, playful dance with volunteers in settings all over the world. (A video available online shows him explaining how he created his work.) I loved Matt. I loved the videos. And I loved the sheer joy that flowed through his work.
A year or two later, working with a training partner on a series of classes and workshops on a challenging topic, I was looking for a playful way to end one of the most difficult hour-long workshops, so suggested to my partner that we end that session with a “victory dance”–which, of course, involved showing one of Matt’s videos to the learners as a way of leaving them smiling.
We had no idea whether it would be successful, but we tried it. And we knew it had worked when, at the end of a subsequent workshop (the following day), someone smiled and said, “What? No victory dance today?”
I still love those videos. I still return to them occasionally. When I want to smile. Or when I want to celebrate something that has just occurred. And so, after facilitating the final webinar in the four-part blended (partially onsite, partially online) set of Train-the-Trainer sessions for the Tampa Bay Library Consortium earlier today, I decided to celebrate in private by watching a Where the Hell Is Matt? video and do a virtual victory dance to celebrate the successful conclusion of the latest successful collaboration with the learners who continually enrich my life in ways that surpass anything I will ever be able to offer them. And at the end of all of this, I’m left with one of the best suggestions I can offer to any training-teaching-learning colleague: let’s dance.
I engaged in what I’m going to call a “not-so-guilty pleasure” this morning: I joined approximately 30 colleagues for coffee and conversation in an intimate, wonderfully welcoming caffè while attempting to follow shelter-in-place guidelines which remain in effect for many of us in response to the coronavirus pandemic and which may last for at least another month. I have to admit that I had begun to forget the pleasures of walking into a coffee shop that serves as a community meeting place—Ray Oldenburg’sThird Place. Hearing inviting music in the background. Looking around to see familiar faces. Grabbing a cup of coffee. Sitting face-to-face with inspiring friends/colleagues who form the heart and soul of a tremendous community of learning. And discovering, once again, the hidden gems that/who are within that community, just waiting to be discovered.
We met. We talked. We laughed. We learned. And we adhered to the best, most stringent social-distancing practices possible. Because writer-trainer-presenter Joshua Fredenburg, the person at the center of that “Virtual TD [Training & Development] Talks” gathering of ATD [Association for Talent Development]South Florida Chapter members, created the feeling of a face-to-face caffè gathering online through a combination of creative use of Zoom, his first-rate presentation and facilitation skills, and his commitment to fostering a conversation rather than placing himself at the center of a stage in a virtual learning space. This was a virtual caffè extending from South Florida all the way to where I was sitting, in San Francisco—a 3,000-mile wide caffè which managed to feel as small, intimate, and welcoming as any caffè, virtual or otherwise, that I have ever entered. We could see each other. We could hear each other. And we could even pass virtual notes under the virtual tables via the chat function within Zoom.
ATD South Florida Chapter leaders deserve a lot of credit here. For effectively and positively responding to shelter-in-place and the potential disruption of our community. For quickly and creatively organizing and hosting a dynamic, flexible, informal set of online gatherings. For providing ample opportunities for interactions, during these sessions, that create a sense of presence (telepresence) through brief (45-minute) online sessions. And for making us aware of the “hidden gems” like Fredenburg who routinely draw praise for the way they operate at the national level while those of us “at home” remain (tragically) unaware that we have people like that nearby—until our Chapter brings us together.
And presenters like Fredenburg deserve a lot of credit for creatively and positively exploiting the possibilities created by the online TD Virtual Talks format. When I logged into the online session this morning, I expected to be joining a presentation on and conversation about “Keeping Yourself and Team of Remote Workers Engaged & Productive During COVID-19.” And I certainly wasn’t disappointed; Fredenburg’s expertise and excitement about best practices in leadership was on display and fully engaging from start to finish. But, as so often happens, there was as much to learn from a colleague’s—Fredenburg’s—presentation/facilitation style as there was to learn from the content he was sharing.
Joining the session approximately 10 minutes before it was scheduled to formally begin—I always like getting my coffee and getting settled before caffè conversations, onsite or virtual, are fully underway—I was pleasantly surprised to see Fredenburg (whom I had not previously met) using a Zoom virtual background that made it appear that he was sitting in a wonderfully inviting coffee shop. (Presentation Tip #1: Provide plenty of surprises; they can help make a learning session more memorable/effective.) And I was particularly surprised to hear background music exactly as I would hear if I had been walking into a physical coffee shop. (Presentation Tip #2: Create an inviting learning space online as well as onsite; it adds to engagement and keeps us alert.) Fredenburg, who usually is suited up and ready to roll for his onsite presentations, was dressed casually—which, of course, added to the informal nature of the caffè conversation he was about to facilitate. (Presentation Tip #3: Details—e.g., what you are wearing, how you “set the space”—can help make or break an online as well as onsite session.) And he, like any good host, immediately reached out to me online with a warm welcome as I virtually entered the room. (Presentation Tip #4: Warm up the online room just as you would warm up an onsite room; create the sense of a virtual lounge or virtual gathering of colleagues around a water cooler to foster social learning.) He, the host (Chapter Director of TD Talks Selen Turner), and I immediately began chatting about how he had created that ambience—using a jury-rigged green screen that allowed him to incorporate the caffè background into his teaching-training-learning space, and having music from a YouTube video audible in the background. (Presentation Tip #5: Make every moment a learning moment—without making learning in any way seem like a chore. It’s all about being ready to engage learners in terms of what they want to learn as much as it’s about making sure you foster learning that the session is designed to nurture.)
There was plenty to learn and admire from the session. And much of it revolved around the way that Fredenburg treated everyone as co-conspirators in learning. The result was another spectacular example of turning-challenge-into-opportunity. Community members supporting community members in time of need. Colleagues supporting colleagues by simply doing what they/we do best: working with what we are given. Learning from each other. And remaining committed to, as ATD so often suggests, making a world that works better. Because we can. And because we will.
Perhaps that is one of the keys to surviving, if not actually thriving, during the current separations: links. The word “link” has never felt more multi-faceted or encouraging, for it not only applies to what connects us to resources online, but it also reminds us of the cherished connections we work diligently to nurture and maintain with family, friends, and colleagues—during this time when we cannot be together onsite as well as during times when “distancing” is not an overarching theme. “Link” can be the quick-and-easy act of pushing a button on a computer or mobile device to reach something we want to reach, or can be the much more meticulous and rewarding act of carving out time to make family, friends, and colleagues the center of our universe in ways we often forget to do.
Which brings us back to clivias. In spite of all the demands on our time, we’re still finding ways to nurture them, so the clivias are blooming. Because we tend to them. Because we nurture them. Because we care about them. And we, inspired by their beauty, try to create as much beauty in our world as we can at a time when sadness threatens to overwhelm all thoughts of beauty. The beauty that comes from reaching out to someone by phone or online tools just to say “hello,” or ask how that person is doing, or offer condolences. The beauty that comes from members of communities reaching out to laugh together or share a link to something that will make us laugh. Together. Collaboratively. In friendship and support. With a commitment to finding ways to work together rather than allowing ourselves to be torn apart even further than we were before “distancing” became the tremendously unsatisfying word of the day. And with a commitment to apply everything we have ever learned into our efforts to better function—short-term as well as long-term. We see this on a daily basis in the way members of our various and varied onsite-online (blended) communities reach out to each other via social media posts as well as by taking the time to set up and participate in online sessions via Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, and other videoconferencing tools, as well as through some of the other tools we routinely use, e.g., Slack.
It’s all about our commitment to maintaining our relationships—in good times as well as in times of overwhelming adversity. Keeping our commitments to each other. To the communities which we serve. To the individuals who are essential elements of those communities. In a world that appears to be much different than the one we knew a month or a year ago. But is the one that’s left to us. A world where the clivias are blooming.
An innocuous little note at the bottom of the “living” online agenda for the 2020 Arizona State University ShapingEDU Unconference (for “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age”) earlier this month proved, in retrospect, to be one of the most prescient and useful comments anyone could have injected into the planning process: “While the start and end tines each day will not change, all activity times are fluid/subject to change…because it’s an unconference.”
The key moment in the ShapingEDU community’s response to the spread of the coronavirus occurred at the end of the first full day of onsite-online activities. Unconference organizers, responding to the fear that airlines might soon be cancelling flights and leave onsite participants separated from their families, made what was for them a very difficult decision: cancelling the onsite portion of the Unconference and simultaneously moving the mostly-onsite event completely online.
More importantly, they used every avenue available to quickly disseminate news of the decision and provide clear instructions on how we would continue during the second day of the two-day event. There were face-to-face conversations in the lobby of the hotel where many of us were staying. There was an email message sent to all participants. There were posts in the ShapingEDU Unconference Slack channel. To say it as bluntly as possible: there was complete transparency about what was happening and there was a magnificent effort to convey the news in the most positive way possible.
It’s well worth sharing a slightly-edited version of the note that was drafted by Samantha Becker, who serves as a driving force and supportive colleague in virtually everything related to the community and the Unconference, and that went out to all of us:
“Dear Dreamers, Doers and Drivers:
“Thank you so much for your brilliant participation and rallying today to advance some awesome and actionable outputs to better education. You made it insightful and you made it fun. You have truly embraced the spirit of the unconference!
“We have made a decision to pivot to online-only activities tomorrow, beginning again in our Zoom room [the link was shared here to make it easy for attendees to continue participating] at 9am AZ time / 12pm Eastern US Time. This was a very difficult decision to make, and one that has been made to take every precaution for our community, given the updates unfolding around us in real-time. Those here in person that wish to take earlier flights can.
“That said, we except a robust online program tomorrow, kicking off at 9am with a special talk from Adobe’s Todd Taylor on digital and creative fluency. Our graphic facilitator Karina Branson will be online and making her graphics all digital! Watch us flex.
“The goal tomorrow online is take all the actionable ideas and products we came up with in our neighborhood working sessions, narrow them down and start firming up concrete plans for the ShapingEDU community to weigh in on. Even if you couldn’t make today or only part of today, you can jump in tomorrow and contribute in a major way.
“Zoom Room: [again, the link was provided] (9am – 1pm AZ / 12pm – 4pm Eastern US)
“If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. The Slack workspace has been lively and we’ll pick our conversations back up there in the #unconference2020 channel.”
Reading that note can’t help but leave us with an appreciation for how quickly, effectively, and positively Samantha and other Unconference organizers (with input from available attendees) made and publicized the transformation. We can’t help but notice how effectively they used every resource available to them. And, above all, we have to acknowledge how well-prepared (through its consistent exploration and use of online communication tools) community members were for this massive shift in plans—the same sort of massive shift that is occurring in training-teaching-learning worldwide.
The result was that when we reconvened (online) the following morning, most of us were present. Ready to work. And deeply appreciative for the creative, playful way with which the change was managed. One of the first spur-of-the-moment adaptations came from Laura Geringer, the community engagement, writing, and project leadership consultant who does much of the day-to-day work of reaching out to ShapingEDU community members to keep us informed and involved. Acknowledging that this was a group that thrived on collegiality and effective use of videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, she encouraged all of us to activate the webcams on our laptops so we could produce a global wave. And even for those of us who found our webcams choosing that moment to malfunction, the gesture was a success. We waved. We laughed. And then we got down to business, putting the technology in the background and bringing the interactions into the foreground to produce a set of proposals for projects the community will consider pursuing as a result of the time we spent together at ShapingEDU 2020.
So, let’s hear it for flexible/adaptable communities of learning and all that their members do to make them successful through an approach of considering everyone a co-conspirator in the training-teaching-learning-doing process. A willingness to work with technology that sometimes produces spectacular results and sometimes leaves us frustrated by short-term failures. And living agendas that are created with an understanding that “all activity times are fluid/subject to change”…because that’s one of many approaches we can take to produce first-rate learning opportunities and the results they can produce.
While trainer-teacher-learners globally are struggling to adapt to a rapidly-changing learning environment created as a result of the current coronavirus pandemic, examples of communities of learning adapting quickly through positive actions are abundant. It’s fascinating to watch—and participate in the growth of—global networks including the Facebook Pandemic Pedagogy group which, as of today, has more than 26,000 members online creating/sharing/absorbing information, resources, questions, and ideas regarding the large-scale, blink-of-an-eye movement from onsite instruction to online learning opportunities. It’s exciting to be part of smaller communities of learning, including Maurice Coleman’sT is for Training group centered around his biweekly podcast exploring training-teaching-learning-doing in libraries across the United States, as they create and facilitate informal online community discussions via Zoom and numerous other videoconferencing tools as a way of keeping up, staying socially connected in a time of social distancing, and doing what it they do best: promoting the best possible approaches to fostering positive learning experiences for those who rely on them for support.
In the midst of all this, the 2020 Arizona State University ShapingEDU Unconference (for “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age”) earlier this month stands out as a stunningly successful example of how those of us comfortable with and experienced in working in blended (onsite/online) environments are well-positioned to pivot on a very small (digital) dime when necessary. More importantly, it may be useful example/case study for trainer-teacher-learner-doers globally not only during the current coronavirus pandemic but during any period during which our approach to the work we do has to change as fast as the world around us is changing.
The third annual Unconference was planned, over a months-long period of time, as an onsite gathering (in Tempe, Arizona) with the potential for some online interactions for those community members unable to attend onsite. It was scheduled to begin onsite with an opening reception on the evening of March 11 and conclude around noon on March 13. Registration—by invitation only—peaked at nearly 220 participants in the days before the event was scheduled to begin. But when coronavirus concerns increased in late February and early March, cancellations accelerated; by the time participants began arriving in Tempe, there had been more than 50 cancellations, and the opening night reception had fewer than 50 people in attendance.
What could have been a deal- (or Unconference-) breaker simply became a challenge in adaptability for those onsite as well as for those online. Onsite participants doubled down on our efforts to draw our online colleagues into the conversations via Twitter, via the Unconference live feed (via Zoom) that was already in place, and through quick adaptations in the way onsite sessions were managed.
It’s important to acknowledge that quite a bit goes into creating a community and an event as flexible/adaptable, focused, innovative, and productive as the ShapingEDU community and Unconference have proved to be during their first couple of years of operations. This is not something that we master and implement overnight. It starts with a shared vision: in this case, a commitment “to assemble a diverse collection of dreamers, doers, and drivers who believe that we can collectively shape a rich and impactful future for the application of emerging technologies to the design of learning and learners over the next chapter of the digital age” [the quote is from the invitation to attend the first Unconference, held in April 2018]. It grows through the work of first-rate planners and facilitators with a talent for including, at every possible opportunity, all interested community members in the actual planning process through numerous tools including a “living” online agenda. It is supported year-round through formal and informal online interactions, including webinars focused on specific elements of the overall ShapingEDU initiative and online publications that serve as resources for trainer-teacher-learner-doers worldwide. And, most importantly of all, it is grounded in a commitment to maintain a positive approach—particularly in times of adversity.
Acknowledging everyone involved in the development of the community and the unconferences would invariably result in an unbearably long post here on Building Creative Bridges and inadvertently leaving someone out, but a few key players are well worth mentioning as resources to anyone interested in knowing more about how to replicate its early successes. There is Lev Gonick, Arizona State University chief information officer and a founding force behind ShapingEDU. There is Samantha Becker, a cherished long-time colleague and collaborator who, as community manager for ShapingEDU, serves as a driving force and supportive colleague in virtually everything related to the community and the Unconference. And there is Laura Geringer, the community engagement, writing, and project leadership consultant who does much of the day-to-day work of reaching out to ShapingEDU community members to keep us informed and involved. Working alongside them physically and virtually are the volunteers who take bite-sized pieces of the overall initiative and work toward transforming dreams into positive, meaningful, measurable results.
What Lev and Sam and Laura nurture was clearly visible onsite. Because we are used to blended onsite-online interactions, it wasn’t much of a stretch for us to integrate our online colleagues into our activities on the first full day the 2020 Unconference. And when it became clear that the much lower-than-expected number of online participants was going to radically curtail the effectiveness of the breakout sessions we had planned for each group pursuing a part of the overall ShapingEDU framework, we quickly merged some of the groups with overlapping areas of interest and expertise to create more dynamic conversations, then further improvised by fully integrating what had initially been envisioned as conversations divided between onsite and online groups—which meant, for example, that my colleague Kim Flintoff (working from Australia) and I quickly snagged a room with projection and audio/loudspeaker capabilities—so we could hook my laptop up to those systems; the result was that we co-facilitated a session that extended from our room in Tempe all the way to Kim’s home on the other side of the world—and also drew in a couple of other onsite facilitators and a few online participants into the same highly productive completely blended session. One of the most rewarding signs of success came when we stopped paying attention to the technology that was making the session possible and focused on the results we were hoping to produce.
Just when all of us at the Unconference thought we had pushed our ability to adapt to its limit, another unexpected twist occurred—at the end of our first full day together: the increasing fear of cancelled flights home because of the then not-yet-implemented shelter-in-place orders that started going into effect less than a week later in parts of the United States drove the unexpected decision to move everything online overnight. Which meant that almost everyone had to scramble to rebook flights. Cancel their overnight reservations at the conference hotel. Scramble to pack everything that had been brought to the conference. And take actions that would have us all back together the following morning for Day 2 of what was about to become a completely virtual conference—with just a handful of us continuing to work together (in the Unconference online environment) from the dining room of the Unconference hotel.
Next: Going Online to Continue Dreaming, Driving, and Doing