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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

Ahoy! Acrostic: Takeaways from the Social Age Safari with Sea Salt Learning

Just over a week ago I had the utmost privilege to fly over two oceans and be part of the inaugural cohort of Sea Salt Learning’s “Social Age Safari” in Bristol, U.K. It was only my second time in England and first time meeting some of the lovely thinkers I’d been engaging with on Twitter for so long – in particular, the “Captain” of the event and fellow Paper by Fifty-Three user, Julian Stodd.


my virgin “passport” awaiting stamps

There is truly so much on which to reflect, but I thought I’d get all “Picasso Bull” on the situation and simplify into an acrostic of sorts.


is for Spaces

Carefully curated niche areas…each with a theme (such as “creativity” and “storytelling”)…The venue, Paintworks, was a large open loft-y spot conveniently underneath a great little pub. There were several tables outside so we could soak up the vitamin D in our small group work. For me the key was natural light…I can’t be creative or think straight in harsh, fluorescent lighting. I enjoyed how we were introduced to all the spaces and their respective functions at the start of the experience (I hesitate to call it a conference). Captain Stodd made it clear from the get-go that these were spaces to gravitate to…that there would be a lot of personal choice in where we went and why. I found myself very attracted to the graffiti wall, for example, and lost myself there a few times. Others preferred the “knowledge nook”, taking solace there to blog or chat.

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that’s me in the heels drawing “Cloud is Our Campfire”

How one designs a learning space is so important – particularly in the social age (for more on my thoughts check out my CUE E-Learning Symposium keynote). Spaces can be virtual, physical, ephemeral or constant…they can be designed with intention or simply set up to be conducive to discussion, reflection, creative thinking and making.

This is Space as Muse…Learning as a Happening…the Mise en Scène of an Event.

The #socialagesafari  succeeded in offering a variety of formal and informal spaces…contrived and ad hoc spaces…purposeful and improvisational spaces…In fact,

much like the spaces we negotiate daily in the social age.

We all have to learn the etiquette of these varied spaces in our lives, and how to conduct ourselves within them. In some we are meant to work and contribute…in others, listen and learn…in others, create with abandon, ignoring our “inner critic”. These are the affinity spaces we are drawn to based on our particular interests and needs, which, according to John Paul Gee allow for the “robust characterization of the ebbs and flows and differing levels of involvement and participation exhibited by members”


is for Ambient Intimacy

The phrase “ambient intimacy” (one I am quite fond of by the way), was coined by blogger Leisa Reichelt in a 2007 post. She describes it as being “about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible”

Living in Hawaii – the most geographically remote place on Earth – I fully embrace this concept. I’ve long felt that

Geography May Define Us, But Doesn’t Confine Us

Cultivating a broad and varied network is a huge part of my personal approach to ambient intimacy, and I use several platforms to facilitate it (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIN and G+ Communities being my top-used). Some people might feel more comfortable with a more select personal network, sticking close to Dunbar’s Number and perhaps using only Facebook. Whatever floats your boat (to extend the sea metaphor)…but we can all admit that we feel, through wires and devices and “The Cloud”, that we are no longer bound by the shackles of time and space.

One of the unique aspects of the #socialagesafari was that it aimed from the get-go to involve both physical and virtual cohorts. Leading up to the event we discussed pairing the virtual participants with those present in Bristol. While that didn’t necessarily happen there was a highly active backchannel (via Twitter) going on and a “Twitter feed wall” prominent in the room. Moreover, Julian Stodd frequently stopped to take into account the voices from beyond…calling attention to the tweets and (I think) a few times Skyping with virtual attendees.

Prior to and throughout the 3 day event various members of the Sea Salt Crew were Periscoping live video feed and posting to social media (I particularly enjoyed the pre-conference set-up Periscopes because I love seeing process). The challenge questions for our “Hack” discussions were clearly posted to Twitter much like a synchronous Twitter chat, inviting those not in the room to voice their thoughts on social media. Finally, there were many photos and sketches pushed out by either the crew or the participants.


@helen_farmer sketchnotes


a sketch I was asked to do


Periscoping the Graffiti Artists


is for Folk

What makes an event is people. The Internet is people. Knowledge, as it is now, is about connections, and people and what they produce are the nodes. People are what put the “social” in “social learning”, or indeed “The Social Age”. We do not learn in silos, and we learn best with others (for an excellent exploration, see Steve Wheeler’s Learning Theories for the Digital Age). We riff on each other, much like jazz musicians. Sometimes, even whilst working somewhat independently but in the presence of others, we can benefit from what I call a “Studio Vibe”. Think of an artists’ studio with all sorts of visual artists doing their thing, yet surrounded by one another, peaking over, asking a peer or mentor a question now and then, observing how others work….

This “Studio Vibe” is quite appropriate to the digital age, because a lot of what we do is “alone together” (though not really in Sherry Turkle’s sense). We are asynchronous most of the time, yet still connected. My “working together” or “thinking together” is divorced from time and space.

The conversation extends past the usual boundaries.

I think this is a benefit, because it gives us the “white space” to reflect and ponder before we reply hastily, for example. And in that incubation period creativity flourishes.

One thing we need to be wary of, however, is creating our own cocoon or “filter bubble” (check out Eli Pariser’s Ted talk on this). For genuine innovative thinking to occur it’s best to break out of the immediate affinity group and dip your paint brush into other buckets. Sometimes this is called the “water cooler effect”, because that is the edifice where different sectors of an office space would typically meet and chat.

The intermingling of people from disparate disciplines is crucial to creativity.

An interesting aspect of the #socialagesafari was that although most of the attendees were in the L & D world, they did come from a variety of companies and roles, and some traveled far from outside the UK (I think I travelled the farthest!). I was glaringly a bit of an outsider, having come from K-12 and Higher Ed education with some Silicon Valley start-up experience and really just starting my stint as a full time consultant. But this was a good thing. I could see things others perhaps were not able to step far back enough to see, and in turn I learned so much about the needs and nuances of the corporate world.

I recently read a piece about the original MadMen, and how great things started happening with they placed the copywriter in the same room as the graphic designer. And this wonderful article talks about how bringing in artists into the STEM world can really “shake things up”. That is exactly what Sea Salt Learning did, too – we were privileged to have “real world” guests in the various arts share their expertise – everything from spoken word poetry to graffiti to cyborg music (though that was really more about the crowdsourcing of hackers to do design). Instead of another “learning consultant professional” presenting the obvious, we could project our understanding of the social age into other realms, far more tangible than L&D.

In a way these “guestperts” were like living metaphors

Finally, I must mention something I really think went well – perhaps due to its simplicity – the wordcloud name tags. At almost any event people introduce themselves awkwardly gazing down at their peers’ chests (can I get a second awkward?) trying to make out the name and rank (well, usually title and place of employment but you know what I mean). This is serviceable as an approach but not very human, interesting, or fun.

We are not roles, we are people.

I recently wrote a post about taglines in social media, questioning if our tag line should reflect what we DO or what we BELIEVE? What about what we love? For #socialagesafari we were asked to provide a list of words of things that represented us or we held dearly and 1 thing we didn’t like. These became stunning word clouds that gave fellow participants a glimpse into one’s persona (though, one brilliant gentleman had all “cycling”). It was whimsical and helped us spark casual conversations and bonding. Of course, it was really fun to try to guess what the outlier words were (so, gamified a bit). This goes along with my thinking that

instead of asking people what they do ask them what they love to do


my name tag was black and pink by special request!


is for After Hours Discussion

Like any conference event, the best conversation happens after-hours in the pub or restaurant. There’s something about the communal nature of breaking bread with someone that frees up the mind for more creative thinking. If there is a moderate amount of alcohol involved, this can be liberating as well. It gets you in the flow of thought and of course breaks down many social barriers and apprehensions we harbour (i.e. “liquid courage”). Sea Salt also provided wonderful live music and poetry performance – two major things that bind us as humans. After a long, productive day filled with cognitive tasks, it was a much needed respite while still keeping us in the “zone” of thinking about the Social Age.

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this lovely artwork came about because I mentioned I was staying at the Mondrian Hotel

Cultivating one’s network is one of the most significant aspects of The Social Age, and I think these “down times” were perfect for doing just that. On a side note…my one great takeaway was that I learned – from TWO distinct participants, mind you- that in various parts of Africa (South Africa and Zimbabwe to be exact), the term for the phenomenon of rain when it is sunny is “a monkey’s wedding”.


is for Real-Time C0-Creation

The #socialagesafari was advertised as a “co-created conference”...sort of

dérive – a winding path of learning and making with no definitive outcome

Of course there were the goals that we would, through experiential play and active discussion, somehow arrive at our own understanding about what it means to learn and lead in the Social Age. “The Captain” and “crew” could provide us with the tools and rations…they could guide us with a framework…

…but it must always be acknowledged that the sea has a mind of its own

As we sailed through topics, we shared perspectives and experiences, ideated, and then “created” (usually in the form of large posters we could present) in “hack sessions”. My particular favourite was my group’s “Sailing the 4 C’s” idea, for which I drew four types of ocean craft.


But the Safari also included on-the-spot podcasts, a daily newspaper comprised of writing and images from the attendees, the graffiti wall of course, and a host of other diversions we could involve ourselves with so it became a custom experience.


there is something cool about having a tangible object

I learned long ago that the key to teaching was to let go

that is, allow the learner to do the most work, but create the spaces or sparks that will be conducive to inquiry and autodidactic learning. A conference designed like this will be different every time, because 

it’s the people who are the wild cards

And really, there needs to be more “wild card” – like events…more “wild card” learning experiences…more “wild card organizations (to some extent, but it’s really about allowing members of the organization, regardless of hierarchy, to “co-create” and “co-own” the story, as Julian Stodd says).


A sketchnote I drew from one of Julian’s presentation moments

One of my favourite mini breakout sessions was discussing the whys and wherefores of Julian’s experimental project – a limited edition “zine” on social justice called. =Q@L. I saw the announcement for contributions on Twitter a month ago and right away hashed out a few sketches (monochrome was the creative constraint) and sent them off. Two of mine were featured and Julian asked me to chat a bit about it when we discussed the process of a crowdsourced, ephemeral publication bolstered by a mission.


It was a thrill to see one of my sketches in a printed format, actually


is for Inspiration

One of the best aspects of the #socialagesafari was the consistent theme – this “seafaring / adventure / pirate-esque” tone carried throughout as many elements as possible…right down to our passports, the shanty tunes, and the rum! (ok that was a tiny tiny aspect but still…)

Metaphors are so important for communicating complex ideas or frameworks, and this is something Sea Salt Learning does very well. A fun theme can set people at ease and make the experience more engaging to be sure, but also can drive home some points.

The atmosphere inspired – as in, “breathed life and spirit”

True inspiration is lasting. That means a successful experience will leave you talking about it – participating actively in it – long after it is technically “finished”. I experienced this once with a connectivist MOOC called #etmooc in 2013 and the cohort has anniversary events and other collaborative exploits ever since. Whenever I put on a workshop or give a talk, I invite people to a G+ community I’ve curated for the event – that way, the conversation can continue well after the “gig” and they may contribute resources as well.

A few of us extended our reflections to the pub which was conveniently located on the walk back to the hotel (as you do). We thought of many ideas that could enhance the Safari for the next round, and reminisced about our key takeaways. I like that the Sea Salt Crew has encouraged blog reflections so we can be a part of the final “book” – a souvenier of the inaugural event. I look forward to more experiences like this and working with some of my crewmates met at #socialagesafari.


Some of my little sketches on the graffiti wall


#julianstodd #uk #Bristol #space #seasaltlearning #socialage #storytelling #socialagesafari #LampD #amyburvall #learning

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