What this slow learner learned at Northern Voice – The 2008 Edition

I am not certain enough time has passed yet to have fully digested the last few days (heck I haven’t even left Vancouver and still get one more culinary delight before I go in the form of Dim Sum with the crew). (Sheesh this post has taken a while to write and it is still rushed and not very clear…) This year was different than last; the learning was more in the form of themes that emerged from numerous conversations rather than thunderous emotional epiphany. Anyways, here it goes, what (I hope) I learned this year at Northern Voice:

The Importance of Stories and Narrative

I am a former English major. So I will forgive you if you ignore me from here on out as a perennial dimwit when I tell you that it took me this long to ‘get’ how crucial narrative and storytelling are to everything we are doing, be it learning online, connecting, weaving one’s online presence, blogging… From cogdog‘s masterful 50 Ways performance, to Nancy White’s drawing party, from seeing the WordPress hotshots demonstrate the myriad ways it can be used to tell different stories, to a comment from Keira that “living online is like being in a movie,” to my own little story of blog love that dared speak its name, at each step there seemed to be another story, or someone urging me to re-approach all my convoluted configurations through the simpler (and as some convincingly argued, innate) frame of “storytelling.” Like I said, slow learner.

People deserve simple tools that give them control and choice

Another important theme that emerged for me is that it’s not the specific tool itself that is critical but instead the motivation to use the tool, the problem that is trying to be solved, the itch scratched, that largely determines success or failure. Human instrumentality is such that we will find a way to connect, to work, to change, even if it means using smoke signals or rocks to do the trick.
Sure, ‘bad’ tools get in the way of motivated people, and ‘good’ tools help them work even better. But when people are motivated to connect, to collaborate, to communicate, to learn, they will find a way, make the tools at hand bend to their purpose.

Our job, then, as tool makers is in part to make tools that they can bend to their needs, that are useful because of the uses they can be put to and not only because of the intentions of their designer. Twitter is a great example of this that came up time and again. The many disguises that WordPress can wear another.

But place this alongside Brian‘s usability demonstration of checking discussion threads in WebCT (25 clicks that told a 1000 words), that usability, simpleness, is not a simply a “nice to have.” I wish we had video of it. Instead I would just urge all campus decision makers be forced to monitor a discussion thread in a CMS, like their instructors have to do, for a few weeks. I think we could get the revolution started overnight this way.

The welcoming heart

Now that I think of it, I guess there is some commonality with the revelations of last year. Last year I had my heart opened to the impactful, authentic ways in which people were using blogs, in strong contrast to the often intellectual exercise they can be for me. This year it was my assumptions on the social/network skills and fluency that I require people to bring to participate in the form of connected, networked learning and community that were challenged and hopefully opened my heart a bit more.

It happened a few times, but the most notable was during the “Blogging is Dead – Long Live Bloggers” when (I will blame it on my somewhat addled Saturday morning state) I made some obnoxious assertions about online identity that were really exclusionary. I didn’t mean them that way, but they were.

Yet as the Reverend Jim helped remind me later that day “People call me on my bullshit…and I like it.” I got a bit defensive in the session when it was called to my attention, but because of one of the people doing the calling (and her inimitable, gentle way of doing so), I tried to hear past my defensiveness. And I came to see that while one can be ‘open’ and available on the web with one’s writing & one’s work, that is different than being open and having a ‘welcoming heart.’ That is, a (I’m struggling for a word here – stance? posture? feeling? revealing?) well, an “open heart” that welcomes those you come across, who come across you, instead of an egoful one always needing to be regarded. I don’t think I am expressing this well. Maybe that simply belies that I have not learnt it well yet. Like I said, slow learner.

There’s more. So much more. But I can’t get it out of me right now. (Plus I’m off for a hike with the cogdog, so that struggle will have to wait). But like others, I did not come away from NV unchallenged or (hopefully) unchanged. – SWL

OPML file of all Northern Voice attendee blogs


I hate technorati. It doesn’t freakin’ work. And this year, for whatever reasons, there seems to be a reluctance to provide a “Planet Northern Voice” aggregator like in past years. So my solutions was to cull all of the “blog” feed URLs from the attendees pages. I’m using this directly in my Google reading – I had not realized that Google Readers let’s you constrain your search to a folder of feeds, so by simply searching on “Northern Voice” in this folder of feeds, I’ve got my own aggregator of just NV posts that in my opinion provides way more depth of coverage than technorati (and without all the cruft of the Jaiku feed someone put together which includes all the flickr and twitter feeds as well). Hope it is of help – you are of course free to use it yourself and add  other feeds if you feel it isn’t comprehensive enough. – SWL