Facilitating Creative Learning with Cambridge Public Library… online!

Reflections from our professional development workshop for creative STEAM learning in public libraries

Just a handful of our workshop participants! It's hard to get a group shot on Zoom...

In mid-November, we ran the PLIX Facilitating Creative Learning workshop in collaboration with Cambridge Public Library. This professional development workshop was designed to give library professionals the practical experience they need to facilitate creative STEAM programming, including PLIX activities, for their patrons… And also, it was hosted completely online! The event was made possible by the IMLS Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program Award that PLIX received over the summer. While we've run professional development workshops before (such as our 2019 PLIX@Akron Workshop), we had to come up with new ways to plan and run the special PLIX-brand of workshop—hands-on, playful, and highly collaborative—with everyone in their own individual homes and libraries. A group of about 90 public library professionals joined us from all around the country for two half-days on Zoom. Participants included Branch Managers, Children’s Librarians, Makerspace Facilitators, Outreach Specialists, Adult Services Librarians, and more!

We used the Annotate tool on Zoom in the Welcome portion of our workshop in order to get people in a creative environment. Tic-tac-toe, anyone?

In our two most foundational sessions, librarians learned about creative learning and the practice of being a facilitator. We discussed our facilitation techniques, like frame activities to encourage creative possibilities and encourage peer learning. Later, participants had a chance to put it all together in a “Personas Activity” that we developed. In the activity, two volunteers practiced co-facilitating a Paper Circuits session for a group of about 10 librarians, who were each assigned to play different participant personas. The activity allows us to practice facilitation as well as build empathy for all different types of participants. Adapting this activity for an online setting was quite the challenge, but unsurprisingly the librarians co-facilitating each breakout did a wonderful job at maintaining a playful environment and making participants feel supported.

Facilitating Creative Learning was our most ambitious online workshop to date. As well as designing the logistics of the workshop for the online arena, we also had to recontextualize the workshop goals for an online setting. Some challenges, successes, and other highlights from designing & running our online workshop:

What’s Hands-on When You’re Hands-off?

At PLIX, our workshops are as interactive and hands-on as possible, allowing us to enact our values and beliefs about the best ways to learn. For this one, with participants from all over the country, this value presented itself as quite the challenge. There would be no PLIX in-person workshop staples, like a shared materials station or butcher paper wrapped on the tables so people could draw. So we wondered: how could we curate a playful set of mailed-out materials that would create a cohesive workshop experience? We decided to make “care packages” with an ample amount of materials for our workshop activities + printed PLIX resources (available on our Activity Repository).

Our "care package" materials that all participants received in the mail.

Another concern of ours was how to show examples. At a workshop we often try to have a variety of pre-made projects to display. We didn’t have the luxury of being able to send out several completed paper circuits examples to every participant, so we carefully designed a template that would give just enough information without being prescriptive.

All participants received this simple Paper Circuits template, designed by our Learning Activities Designer, Cara.

Our last—but major—concern was that of food. For in-person events we make sure to get tasty catered food, but this time around, we asked participants to use their imagination that the fruit strip we were sending them was instead a delicious meal. 😉

Exploring Remoteland Together

Two guiding questions for our Remoteland session. 

We created this group + breakout session for librarians to discuss the challenges and opportunities of having to “go virtual” for library programming. We talked about the importance of having low- and no-tech options just as much as synchronous, tech-heavy options. As we discussed in the workshop, and as many others in the library and education fields have mentioned, the learning gap has widened dramatically during the pandemic as many people at home do not have access to a computer and the Internet, either sometimes or at all. Other challenges we chewed over included privacy and library liability issues, as well as getting physical materials in the hands of patrons. Our takeaways from this discussion were then applied to our final session the next day.

Applying What We Learned

Using all of the information we covered and ideas we created throughout the two days, our last session of the workshop was Adapting PLIX Activities and Creative Learning to Your Context, which for most meant distanced programming. After we presented our PLIX activities and gave some initial ideas for remote programming, librarians got together in small groups and created concrete, audience-specific plans for workshops they could run soon for their patrons. In our post-workshop survey for participants, nearly all of the respondents said that they were planning to run an average of three PLIX activities in the future, with strongest interest in running Paper Circuits and Urban Ecology.

Next Steps

This workshop was originally planned to be in-person at the Cambridge Public Library, and the prospect of recreating the experience online made the project feel daunting. Nevertheless, we were really happy with the outcomes of our first large-scale online PLIX workshop. One participant remarked, “The hands-on component was really something special to participate in during the pandemic. Every other virtual professional development program I've participated in has had few opportunities for interaction, and those were purely discussion based.”

Moving forward, we have identified a few ways we want to make the experience even better: incorporating more rest and breaks into our schedules, making our programming even more interactive, and involving even more librarians as co-facilitators. A new change we made to our usual workshops was that this time around, we invited some of alums of past workshops and co-designs to join the facilitation team. We are so grateful that Dave, Blayne, Kris, and Allie were able to accompany us in this experiment in online facilitation and help run the show.

Having leadership from not only the PLIX team but also public librarians in the community (particularly our CPL co-host, Emily St. Germain!) made for better session design and facilitation.

You Can Join Us!

This was only the first of two large-scale synchronous workshops we will run as part of our IMLS grant. The next workshop will be in Spring 2021 in collaboration with the Middle Georgia Regional Library. We also have plans to develop an online course using the principles of creative learning, grow our online Community of Practice, and launch our Ambassadors program.

We have a Community Call on Thursday, December 17, 2020 at 12pm EST. Come join us and learn about our activity development this season! Also be sure to check out our winter workshop schedule and RSVP.

If you didn’t attend our November workshop, double-check you’re part of the PLIX Forum and are subscribed to our newsletter so that you’re first to know when registration for our April workshop opens. See you online!


This event was made possible by the IMLS Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program Award that PLIX received for the grant project, “Building Library Professionals' Creative Learning Competency for Facilitation of STEM Programming” (RE-246380-OLS-20)