The Appalachian College Association is a consortium of private college in Appalachia and among its services, it offers professional development opportunities to ACA faculty & staff. The library ‘arm’ of ACA holds quarterly webinars on relevant topics in academic librarianship which are hosted by librarians at one of the 29 schools. These webinars are enjoyable since the presentations are peers at similar institutions with similar staffing and budgets. The large national library conferences, on the other hand, feature presentations from larger schools whose expertise, funding, and staffing puts my little college library to shame! I often cannot implement ideas shared at these conferences since my institution lacks the tools and resources.
On April 15th, I took part in a Tech Trends Webinar hosted by the Appalachian College Association. Four librarians presented for 15 minutes each. We discussed Google Drive, Padlet, and electronic calendars and how this might assist us with our work. The event was moderated by the Bowen College Library Association’s Director of Library Programs who is responsible for scheduling webinars and professional development. As the moderator, she was able to temporarily grant administrative privileges to each of the presenters for the duration of their meeting. My presentation was on Padlet, a virtual pinboard, was the first in the webinar. I discussed the many ways that Padlet can be used in hand-on learning activities and assessment. We used AT&T Connect to host the webinar – a video conferencing software that captures narration and ‘screencasts’ the participants screens.
Like many people attending webinars, I experienced a bit of context collapse. At no point in the 15 minutes i spoke could I gauge the reaction of my audience. Did they like the presentation? Were they confused by it? Was I explaining concepts too quickly? Too slowly? I would not know. The event had about 30 attendees. Attendees could ask questions by ‘raising their hand’ and asking over their microphone or using the chat box to pose questions. In spite of this, we only received 5 or so questions. I’m certain that many people still find video conferences intimidating, if not plain awkward. It was, however, interactive as I was able to share a PowerPoint and my screen.
In the early days of the Internet, there was a lot of optimism that the Internet would facilitate human communication. Any one could share their opinion in the comfort of relative anonymity. The lack of a physical space (i.e. context), inability to read facial expressions, and the discomfort that some people have with new technologies (such as videoconferencing) has create a situation where people can ‘broadcast’ rather than communicate. There are many uncertainties in a webinar, such as knowing when it is appropriate to ask questions. Webinars are not fully participatory the way Second Life is since individuals can only watch what others are doing. Webinars lend themselves to the ‘broadcasting’ of information, rather than sharing and creating knowledge collectively. Perhaps our growing comfort with technology in general, and more specifically videoconferencing software, will empower all people to fully participate in webinar-like online meetings to discuss ideas.
ACA webinars are very democratic and inclusive in other ways. For one, I know that most of the presenters are from peer institutions, not large, Ivy League universities. The librarians who presented may not be well known outside of their professional circles, but they become ‘experts’ in a subject, if only for a few minutes. These webinars are highly practical and a good source of ‘hacks’ that make our lives easier. I knew how to use Google Drive, for example, but I found new purposes for an existing technology – like using Google Slides to create a scrolling announcement for a web page. At the end of these webinars, some librarian colleagues share other purposes for existing technologies. This sort of collective brainstorming is essential in our profession and in our institutions. I can attest that many librarians in small, private colleges have limited budgets and big ambitions. We practice collegial sharing of information, a value of our profession, and the net result is that we all benefit. While there are many challenges to free and open communication, I think that online communication platforms can facilitate the type of communicative action that Jurgen Habermas praised and is sorely needed among educators.