It’s been thrilling to see the growth of online educational opportunities for librarians. From OPAL, to SirsiDynix, to HigherEd BlogCon, to WebJunction, to podcasts, screencasts and countless blogs… there’s a lot of great free online educational content out there! Learning to be a tech-savvy, user-centered 21st century librarian doesn’t need to cost money or require travel to far-flung locations. You can learn it by reading articles, having conversations on blogs, IM-ing librarians, and attending online Webcasts and conferences. Information wants to be free isn’t just the name of this blog. It really does reflect my desire to get useful information our to as many people as possible. I think many bloggers feel that way. It’s not often an ego thing and it’s certainly not a money thing for most of us. We blog because we want to share information with others and to make it as accessible as possible. It fits very well with our mission as librarians.

When I was asked to chair the Library and Information Resources track of HigherEd BlogCon, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Not everyone has the institutional funding to attend Computers in Libraries or ACRL or whatever. Lots of people are also really busy, so having presentations available to be read, watched and listened to anytime allows people to make learning fit their schedule. And so the idea of helping to make a free online conference a reality appealed to me. And the result of the planners’ and the presenters’ efforts are an amazing collection of presentations on applications of social technologies in all areas of higher education. A collection that people can access anytime and at no cost.

I really don’t know what costs were incurred in putting on the conference, but I think they were minimal. Web hosting was provided by Thomson-Peterson’s (I think), but I can’t imagine that was expensive considering what I pay for hosting. We used a WordPress blog. I didn’t get paid for my time — maybe other people did, but I doubt it. The presenters did not get paid either. I guess the wiki cost a bit, though we certainly could have used a free one. We had a few conference calls while planning, which we could have done through Skype for free. I can’t think of any other part of the (free portion of the) conference that would have cost money. So clearly an asynchronous online conference consisting of podcasts, screencasts, and presentations as blog posts is do-able for the cost of hosting the stuff (which sure ain’t much).

What are the negatives of doing a conference like HigherEd BlogCon? Well, Steven Bell is right that people who attend a free conference may feel less committed to show up and participate. HigherEd BlogCon’s strengths were also its weaknesses — it was free and it was asynchronous. When people pay money, they will want to get their money’s worth. They will want to get as much out of the presentations as they can. When people only have one chance to watch, read or listen to the presentations, they will make it more of a priority. When people know that they can look at the presentations a day, week or month later for free, there isn’t that same sense of urgency. While we did get a lot of visitors to the site, we didn’t get a lot of conversation about the presentations in the comments section. I take some blame for this, because I really should have tried to stir up conversations. I had the flu the week of the Library track, so I was barely able to post the stuff, much less think analytically. Steve Lawson suggests that perhaps a threaded discussion board or live chats would have increased conversations and I agree. Perhaps we could have asked questions on a discussion board about how attendees use social software in their institutions or what they think about this or that topic. Perhaps we could have had lots of live chats with presenters (something we had actually talked about doing, but we just didn’t have time to organize it with all the other stuff we had to do to prepare for the conference). I think the biggest failing of HigherEd BlogCon was the lack of conversation, but I think we could have sparked conversations without charging money and without making the presentations themselves synchronous. The failing was on us, the organizers, for not doing more, and not on the format of the conference. We could have done better and I’m sure next year HigherEd BlogCon 2007 will be better.

After doing a Webcast for OPAL, I found that I really liked the Webcast format. It allows people to access educational content from their computer for free just like with HigherEd BlogCon. But it’s synchronous and allows participants to interact with the presenter. As questions occur to them during the presentation, the participants can ask them. I really enjoyed the social aspects of the Webcast and the audience gave me as much food for thought as I gave them. I think I answered questions for as long as I talked! And so many people who were interested in wikis but wouldn’t fly across the country or pay $200 bucks to learn about them had the opportunity to learn about them for free and from home/work.

I didn’t attend the ACRL’s Virtual Conference because it cost money, but I think their model was much more what I’d like to see a virtual conference be (other than the price). I love that they had a combination of live Webcasts, roundtable discussions, asynchronous discussion boards and asynchronous poster sessions. Other than the drunken late night conversations with luminaries in the library field, they really tried to duplicate the format of an in-person conference. And, from Steven Bell’s description, it sounds like it was pretty darn successful. I think a combination of synchronous and asynchronous activities allow for more conversation and encourage participation much better than a totally asynchronous conference. But no matter what the format and whether they do or do not charge people to register, I think the archives should be made available for free. Things can easily be recorded and archived in an online conference and it usually costs nothing to make it available online (other than server space).

Sometime during Computers in Libraries and in the thick of getting HigherEd BlogCon ready for primetime, I had a bit of a revelation about online conferences. Although online conferences have thus far been organized by organizations, they don’t have to be. Although only a few regular folks organized HigherEd BlogCon, HigherEd BlogCon originated from a corporate entity. But did it have to? Couldn’t I have just hosted the whole darn thing on my server? Couldn’t conferences — especially conferences about social software — be developed from the bottom up? Couldn’t I get together with a bunch of librarian friends and create something like HigherEd BlogCon or even like the ACRL conference? In the age of the Read/Write Web, couldn’t we plan the conference for free online and market it well enough to get great presenters and participants? If corporate entites are involved, couldn’t they only be involved to the extent that they give us needed costly technologies (Web conferencing software, forum software, etc.) in exchange for their name somewhere on the Web site and a big thank you? In theory, I bet we could find a way to do Web conferencing for free or almost nothing and there is certainly open source forum software, so I bet it could all be done for the cost of Web hosting (though it definitely would be easier to use a more sophisticated Web conferencing solution). Couldn’t we regular librarian folks be in the drivers’ seat in developing a free online conference for our colleagues? My answer is a resounding yes. And what is more 2.0 than developing things (be they services, community, educational programs, or conferences) from the bottom up?

And I decided that I wanted to do something like that. But it wasn’t until the ALA 2.0 Bootcamp kerfuffle this week that I realized how much I wanted to do it and how I wanted to do it. A free conference that is open to everyone may not make people feel as invested in the process of learning and participation. However, people usually feel far more invested when they’re taking a class with several dozen other people and where they have a profile and an online presence. This is especially true when they know what the committment will be time-wise and they know what the learning objectives are, and they choose to commit themselves to it. While you can reach more people with a HigherEd BlogCon, you can have much more of an impact on a smaller group of people with a course like the ALA 2.0 Bootcamp.

I think the Bootcamp is a brilliant idea. Using social tools to learn about social tools and how to apply them in libraries is genius! And I love how conversations are going on on so many levels — through IM, through Web conferencing, and through blogging and commenting on blogs. And while the course itself wasn’t free for the ALA, the class was free for the participants, making this educational experience much more accessible. I think Jenny and Michael came up with some great reading lists and have been offering participants an amazing educational experience. However, I do not necessarily like how the whole thing was executed. My first concern was the seeming lack of clear learning objectives. I’m not in the course, so I may be missing something, but it seems like a number of the particiants were confused about what they’d be learning and commented that the course was focused on different objectives than they’d expected. Peter Bromberg, one of the terrific bloggers at Library Garden said it best in this post:

It would be helpful to me if you could clarify: What is the objective of the boot camp? What is the end result we are supposed to achieve?

Much of my work involves providing continuing education to librarians and I always try to list objectives like, “By the end of this workshop, participants will be able to…” This lets everyone know right from the start why they’re there and what they’ll be able to do when they walk out the door. It gives them a sense of how to direct their energies, and gives everyone a shared measure for success. This is what I need now. [...]

My initial perception was that the goal was for us, the participants, to learn a lot about web 2.0 and by virtue of our positions in our organizations and in ALA help implement web 2.0 based changes.

I’m starting to feel that my perception was off, and that the goal is for the teams to come up with some usable project ideas that ALA could/would actually implement.

Looking at the assignments for the groups, I can’t help but agree. Rather than having participants do projects based on the applications of social software that interest them most and for the areas they work in every day — be it ALA, a library, or a consotrium — the assignments seem to be designed to give ALA good ideas for how to become more 2.0. That certainly wasn’t what I had thought the course was about when I created my podcast… I thought the course was teaching people how to use social software and a library 2.0 service philosophy to make libraries better. While I’m sure what they learned will rub off on their work in their institution, I just would have liked to see a course with more flexibility in readings and assignments. I see constructivism and flexibility as hallmarks of Teaching 2.0.

People have talked a lot about the problematic technology choices made by the Otter Group in putting this class together. I agree strongly with criticisms from Michelle Boule, Karen Schneider (and here), and Michael Casey and have been rather appalled by the way the criticisms were taken by the company hired to develop the technological infrastructure. Refusing to accept criticism or admit any fault, attacking the critics, misrepresenting what they said, asking them to take down what they wrote, and not really accepting that it could be done better couldn’t be less 2.0. If anything damages the Otter Group’s reputation in all this, I think it was their reaction to the critics. My favorite comment came from Kathleen Gilroy (of the Otter Group) who wrote on both Michelle and Karen’s blogs “The larger lesson here is that if you think you can just throw together a few pieces of technology and get things to work differently you are deluding yourselves.” Jinkies! If that doesn’t sound like a challenge, I don’t know what does! I don’t know what she means by “throw together a few pieces of technology” but yes, I think I can do it better (with a little help from my friends). At least I’d like to try.

So I don’t know what this is leading to, but I feel so strongly that there should be more educational opportunities freely available online. And not just offered by corporate entities or consortia or professional organizations (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I think this is a kind of professional service many of us fiercely independent Gen-Xers can get behind (as evidenced by how many people are involved in Second Life Library and are willing to do OPAL Webcasts for free. I don’t want to serve on committees for ALA (blech, boring!), but I’m willing to work my butt off to create a free online conference or free online courses. I’m not sure exactly how this nugget of an idea will take shape, but I already have spoken to a few interested parties who are also curious to see how a bunch of techie librarians can provide free education about social software online to librarians who could never attend the big conferences and whose libraries would benefit so much from having someone who knows about this stuff. I just want to show that it can be done from the bottom up. Then people would realize how easily we can directly improve the profession without having to be a member of a professional organization (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there are other ways to serve).

It is a damn exciting time to be a librarian.