14 January 2015

2014 - a year of connection, disconnection, and loss

I believe that I learned more in 2014 than in any year of my life since Kindergarten. A close second would have to have been 2001, during which I lived in New York City, studied composition with the great Ludmila Ulehla, and experienced the terror of '9/11', or 1996, when I graduated from high school and spent my first semester of college studying abroad in Nepal.

The past year was the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Horse, and I, being born in the Year of the Horse, sought to make it a year of work. I set my professional goal for the second half of the 2013-2014 school year to learn and practice as much as possible about Project Based Learning, self directed learning, and self determined learning in order to best facilitate my sixth grade class' culminating Exhibition. To that end, I participated in the Deeper Learning MOOC and Macromedia University Design Thinking MOOC.

With that learning as inspiration, I have been inquiring into and blogging about PBL, project management, and design thinking in education using the label 'LX Design'.


Unfortunately, tragedy struck in September of 2014 when my father died. It happened unexpectedly just two weeks after my family and I returned home to Japan from a trip to my hometown in California to introduce our two year old son to his grandfather and other family and friends.

It was a devastating way to start a school year, and a bitter way to end what was otherwise a sweet summer.


Visiting California after being away for four years provided many lessons in perspective through reflecting on familiar sights and experiences from a new point of view. It was also a chance to practice using the Visual Supply Co photo editing and sharing tools. I began sharing my attempts at artistic photography there on my VSCO Grid as well as following the feeds professional and highly skilled photographers.

Of course, people have shared bazillions of vacation photographs via social media, but my goal was to find opportunities to create and share meaningful art through my experiences. Finding moments to express myself as a travel, food, landscape, and artistic photographer, however amateur, was fun and enriched my travels by allowing me to enjoy and reflect more deeply.

At the same time, I have become quite enamored of Instagram, especially as more of my friends begin exploring and sharing their visual worlds. I post more personal day to day photos, as well as most of my VSCO stream, on my Instagram feed. I plan to do this more often, as it's a fun way to stay connected with people and pass time during my subway commute.

Technology as context

All of the online activities in which I've been participating became overwhelming in 2014. The article, An education prof. goes back to high school, finds technology is no longer a tool but a context, by Tony Talbert and Jason Trumble, helped me to understand what had happened to me. By experimenting with so many online tools, I was building a sort of digital fort around myself which filters the vast oceans of content according to my design.

As my participation in these communities grew, I became increasingly sensitive to their unique personalities. Tumblr is a creative space, intensely visual, and internationally minded with a strong sense of social justice. Twitter, on the other hand, is chaotic and useful for skimming and making quick connections that often lead to deeper and more meaningful interaction and collaboration via other platforms.

Every network joined brought with it a sense of belonging, but also extra responsibility. As one of my mentors on Google+, John Kellden, might post in the Conversation Community, our networks are like gardens. They must be tended, cared for, and occasionally pruned and weeded.

Unfortunately, in 2014, my attachment to online communities sometimes interfered with my presence and engagement in the moment.

One of my favorite features of social media has always been its asynchronicity. In the excitement of connecting, it was too easy for me to have my attention dominated by 'likes' and 'retweets' despite the fact that they are neither urgent nor necessarily important.

An important lesson I learned after all was not to bogged down in the vast selection of digital creation and sharing tools. It took time for me to attain a level of fluency sufficient to evaluate new tools quickly. While it is important to tinker for the sake of tinkering, sometimes it's also important to identify a purpose and usefulness in support of vision and expression.

As examples, take Pinterest and Ello. After joining Pinterest, I determined that I enjoy using it to browse pins of classic cars, men's fashion, travel, and food. Ello, on the other hand, is apoplectically pretentious and will become a repository for my poems (of questionable quality).

A critical lesson learned in 2014 was to take control of my connected environment. I should only check my smartphone for notifications when I have a spare moment. As Doug Johnson points out in his post, How many times did you check your phone today?, 'it's not how much you use your phone, but what you use it for - and when.'

Megan Garber's article, Saving the Lost Art of Conversation, was inspiring for me as I battled the slow invasion of social media and connected technologies into my psyche. Klaus Krippendorf's Conversation and Its Erosion Into Discourse and Computation (which is four years old yet I only was introduced to it last year), stands out as a model text in the context of meaningful interaction and the importance of presence, authenticity, empathy, and understanding.

In 2015, I hope to apply principles of conversation in both my personal and professional life.


As enjoyable as it was to practice connected living this year, our vacation was also an opportunity for a break from constant connection. As children of the 90s fearful of bank breaking roaming charges, we elected to not use the global features of our smartphones and instead limit our online time to wifi hotspots.

Paul Jarvis' post, A Social Sabbatical, which Terry Elliot shared in his series of tweets reflecting on his social media sabbatical, helped me to clarify my feelings as I considered how the roles that social media and connected technologies have grown in my life.

I can say from experience that it is a bit like a trek in Nepal. When I visited Nepal nearly twenty years ago, international telephone calls were prohibitively expensive. In Kathmandu, emails could be sent and received fairly cheaply and copy shops (like Kinko's, but dustier). The funny thing was that if you were expecting an email, you had to call or walk to the shop to see if they received one for you, which they would print out and leave in a file for you to pick up.


Severing the connection from the distant made me more aware of the near. The current trend of mindfulness has deep roots for me in Zen and the Art of Archery, a book that helped my father overcome alcoholism though meditation and which he gave to me to help to overcome my nervousness as a pitcher in baseball, and the writings of Thích Nhất Hạnh, to whom my old friend Patrick Campbell introduced me many years ago.

In California last summer, I took time to enjoy the briny air at Asilomar State Beach. I noticed my son's growing understanding of the world as he marveled at the tuna and sea turtles at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I enjoyed getting reacquainted with my old friends, the brown pelicans. 

A photo posted by Bart Miller (@botofotos) on

During the trip, I entertained on the idea of Connected Living as an application or generalization of Connected Learning. One of my desires as a teacher and learner is to obscure the artificial boundaries that exist between formal and informal learning, 'school' and 'real life'. Such distinctions between digital connection and analog, 'face to face' connections should also be blurred.

Sometimes, I am discovering, not shooting a picture to share on Instagram is infinitely more profound than doing so.

Relocating the muse

This New Year marks the tenth year in a row that I have resolved to finish a piece of music. At the conclusion of 2013, it was my string quartet. I have the first several measures of dozens of pieces, but they are all merely sketches in a notebook.

It's not surprising. In the past ten years I have started a family and a career.

However, this year it is an especially solemn resolution to make in the shadow of my father's death. One of my planned projects for years has been to publish arrangements of 'Songs My Father Sang', of which my jazz big band arrangement of Streets of Laredo is technically the first and regrettably the only.

Indeed, wrestling myself away from my smartphone might be just the signal my muse needs to come around to visit me again. I certainly have support from my connected learning friends and especially Brent Bedford, creator of the International Society for Fugues, who has been doing his best to inspire and motivate me to get out behind the woodshed! I hope he knows how much his efforts are appreciated.

2014 was a year of work. 2015 should be a year of fun. That's my resolution.

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