Two Ways to Teach Tech

I was in Mexico City for work recently, and I had a chance to explore two very different takes on teaching technology.

Aldea Digital EntranceFirst, I went to Aldea Digital, a huge technology expo set up in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main square. (Yes, I finally made it to the Zócalo.) At first glance, I thought it was a kind of trade show, but it aspires more to showing Mexico’s citizens how technology can transform their lives in even the simplest of ways. The backbone of Aldea Digital is made up of the learning sessions: You could take a class on getting started with email, learning how to use social media, or introducing children to computers. Our guides told us that the most popular session showed how to use smart devices for more than just phone calls and photos. After the expo was over, participants could register for continuing education online through Khan Academy.

Salvador Dali impersonatorDespite the practical content, it was hard not to be overwhelmed by the glitz of it all. Aldea Digital’s centerpiece was the server powering the expo, which generated 100 gbps to power the 1200 computer stations and all of the sessions and exhibit booths. The lily was gilded by things like F1 race cars and art on loan from Museo Soumaya and a Salvador Dalí impersonator to talk about said art.

The person behind Aldea Digital is Carlos Slim, the Mexican business magnate who currently ranks second on the list of richest people in the world between Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Like Gates and Buffett, Slim has been allocating a large part of his wealth to philanthropic causes through his Fundación Carlos Slim Helú. (The Foundation also funds Museo Soumaya, which Slim founded.) Aldea Digital is as much a celebration of Slim’s generosity as it is a tech expo: it was hard to escape the Foundation’s signature logo when roaming the tents,  so you were always aware who had financed it all.

HacedoresOne block away from the Zócalo was Hacedores, a makerspace operating on an upper floor of a shopping plaza called Pasaje Catedral. The people at Hacedores are trying to bring the American/European maker movement to Mexico, and in the four months since they set up this shop, they have created a Willy Wonka Inventing Room for makerspace activities. There are stations for a whole variety of maker projects, from 3D printing and laser drilling to DIY microscopes and wearable technology.

Hacedores offers classes, but also leases space to makers to work on projects.  They are branching out to include makers classes for tourists, giving visitors a chance to learn about Mexico through makers projects.

DIY.bio resourcesThey use as many open source resources as possible, but they court corporate sponsors as well. Intel and Stanley are two of their biggest supporters. They also work with smaller companies like 3D printer makers Proyectil and biology maker kit makers DIY.bio. They are looking for sponsors for additional stations to extend their wearable capabilities (so if you are a sewing machine manufacturer looking to sponsor the maker community, give them a call).

I was impressed by both places; Aldea Digital was definitely dressed to impress, but Hacedores was just as dazzling. Aldea Digital was glamorous, yet practical: you could go to a session to learn how to use apps to improve your health. Hacedores was humble, yet forward thinking: you could learn to make a bag with solar panels sewn into it to charge your iPhone. Frankly, I preferred the more down-to-earth Hacedores, but both offered endless possibilities and enough substance to back those possibilities up.

Taking the Edge Out of Traveling

I think I have a bit of travel anxiety.Monumento a la Revolución In the days leading up to an trip, I start obsessing over the details, like getting to and from the airport, potential delays (particularly when there is a transfer), and things like that.

I am very nervous about getting lost, although there is a kernel of rationality to that fear: I have no sense of direction and cannot read a map. I once went to Mexico City for work and I wanted to visit the Zócalo, the city’s large main square. One of the people I was working with gave me a map and circled the Zócalo on it and sent me on my way. After an hour of walking, I found myself at the Plaza de La Revolución (pictured). It was very cool, but nowhere near where I wanted to be:

I was at least able to retrace my steps and found my way back to my hotel, but since then, I have been sure to check and recheck and recheck anything I want to see whenever I go somewhere. It’s one thing to be prepared, but I feel like I carry it to the point that it’s less preparation and more compulsion.

I spend a lot of energy thinking about all the different disaster permutations, but one of the key bits of advice in any article about combating travel anxiety is, in the words of Rick Seaney writing in ABC News, “Stay calm and let go.”

Well, that ain't goodIt can be a bit difficult to do that when, say, your flight takes off and then immediately lands again because of smoke in the cabin (pictured). But even then, I was able to relax once I accepted the situation. I was prepared enough to update everyone that needed to be updated about what happened. I was friendly to the airline staff who had to deal with lines full of people who thought they were the most important person on that flight. And I went home and slept in my own bed and gave it another go the next day.

As I get ready for another work trip, I looked up some articles on travel anxiety to look for some tips to get through it all. Here a few that jumped out at me:

Time to fly again. I think I’m ready.

 

A Post About Slack That Isn’t Really About Slack

There used to be a website called Meebo. It was a web-based instant messaging system that could be integrated with AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk, and other IM systems. Users had the option to create their own rooms, which allowed groups of folks to chat in one place at the same time. I was first introduced to it in the early days of the Library Society of the World, a library association that is to ALA what Festivus is to Christmas.

Anyway, Meebo was a terrific little website. Then one day in 2012, Google bought it. It integrated the Meebo team with its Google+ team and quietly closed Meebo up.

There also used to be a website called FriendFeed. It was kind of brilliant, in that you could hook it up to all of your various social media accounts and blogs and so forth and all those accounts would feed into your FriendFeed account. You and your friends would be able to see and comment on everything you were populating the web with. The Library Society of the World set up shop there, creating an active conversational community.

Over time, the function of collecting posts from your sundries became less important than just posting stuff directly into FriendFeed and talking with your friends and followers about it. It could be serious stuff, it could be silly stuff, it could be me and my friend Holly doing a call and response to Helix’s “Rock You” (video NSFW):

“Gimme an R!”

“R!”

“O!”

“O!”

“C!”

“C!”

“K!”

“K!”

“Whatcha got?”

“ROCK!”

“And whatcha gonna do?”

“Rock you!”

It’s the little things, really.

Anyway, FriendFeed was a terrific little website. Then one day in 2009, Facebook bought it. Facebook took whatever code it needed for the Newsfeed feature and… well, let FriendFeed continue to exist. Gradually, FriendFeed began to deteriorate: features would stop working and the site would sometimes go down for awhile, to the ire of librarians and of people in Italy and Turkey, who seemed to be the only people who were still using it. For six years, we all felt like FriendFeed was not long for the world, but it only just bit the dust this past April.

Which brings me to Slack. Perhaps you’ve heard about it. Perhaps you are a reporter for the New York Times, who has written about Slack a few times:

The bureau I work for licensed Slack late last year with an eye towards improving telework. Broadly speaking, the idea was to use Slack to get quick responses to short questions and to converse with coworkers about projects rather than bogging down inboxes with emailed conversations or interrupting a home workday to make phone calls.

I have to admit that at first, I didn’t really get it. There were two reasons: one, I have been teleworking regularly for five years, so I already had a routine down. (In other words, I’m a bit stubborn.) Two, Slack was part of a general roll-out of a bunch of other tools, and I admit that I felt a bit overwhelmed by them all. But a lot of people in the bureau were so enthusiastic about it, I kept trying to figure out what was so fab about it.

And then light dawned on Marblehead: Slack is like a combination of Meebo and FriendFeed, except for work. It takes a lot of what I liked about Meebo (channels here instead of rooms) and a lot of what I liked about FriendFeed (integration with other resources, private group discussions and archived direct messaging) and packages it up for a work environment.

Granted, it lacks things I liked about Meebo and especially FriendFeed: for example, the threaded conversations in FriendFeed were  unique in a way that even a message board like the one on the current Library Society of the World website can’t quite capture. But once I made the connections between resources I had used before to this resource, I could start to think about ways I could work it into my job.

The lesson I learned is not so much that everything old is new again. It’s that everything you have learned informs everything that you are going to learn. Just making some simple parallels can be the cognitive breakthrough you need to understand how something works and how it can work for you.

I haven’t tried to do a “Rock You” call-and-response yet with my co-workers, but there has got to be at least one other aging metalhead on there.

Sick Parent: Thoughts on the State of SLA

Art by KieranI have been a member of SLA since 2005. In the 10 years since I’ve joined, the association’s membership and revenue has been steadily declining. I’m pretty sure that’s a coincidence.

This leaves SLA in a precarious position. As Ulla de Stricker and Cynthia Shamel  put it in SLA: Succeed. Lead. Advance. Recommendations Report (available only to SLA members):

…taking no significant action as 2016 arrives would be tantamount to consigning SLA to dissolution, the only unknown being the precise number of months before such dissolution would occur as SLA became non-viable.

Yikes.

What happened? SLA’s current treasurer, John DiGilio, spelled it out in the Special Libraries Association Annual Financial Report for 2014:

What hasn’t changed over the past few years is our underlying business model. When we were a healthy, growing association, we relied heavily on income from conference registrations, membership dues, and vendor advertising and sponsorships. Today, we still rely on these sources, but … they aren’t producing the revenues they once did.

The recommendations report attempts to fix this, while also outlining a new vision for SLA. In an article for Newsbreaks, Marydee Ojada wrote, “SLA is in the midst of an identity crisis.” I’ve heard words to that affect over the past decade, and I’m not exactly sure why. Looking at the roster of divisions, I see an association for librarians working in specialized librarians across a variety of disciplines. That’s the association I joined.

de Stricker and Shamel offer up this mission statement for SLA:

SLA is the association for information professionals seeking to be the best they can be in their careers and striving to advance the goals of the organizations they serve. SLA equips members to succeed, lead, and advance.

It sounds familiar to me. To wit, from Positioning SLA for the Future: Alignment Initiative Results and Recommendations:

[SLA] provides members with continuous learning opportunities to explore and master emerging technologies, develop leadership skills and achieve professional success.

I was struck by something that DiGilio wrote in the financial report: “We have become a stepping stone, something to try out for a few years before moving on the next stone.” That got me thinking: Maybe the real identity crisis is that some members are in SLA to network with fellow librarians working in like disciplines while other members are in SLA to get professional development training. SLA has tried to emphasize professional development training at least as long as I’ve been a member. Perhaps that emphasis has  driven away those who joined for networking, but also has not made loyal members of those who come for the professional development.

I may be over-simplifying things, but keep in mind I’m a bit biased.

The thing is, while I have to admit that I’m not entirely sold on the direction SLA would go in per the recommendations report, I don’t think I have the faintest idea of how to turn things around. I would bet that most of the people who offered feedback on the report would say the same thing. So if not this, then what?

I am not envious of the Executive Board right now as they try to figure out what to do. I wish them good luck.

All humans are created equal…

All humans are created equal. They are only made unequal by the prejudices of their forebears. Those prejudices are pernicious, but they can be overcome. As we have seen in the past couple of weeks, we are not there yet, but we’re getting there. We will get there.