The Fourth Place Revisited: Creating an Instant Onsite-Online Social Learning Center (Part 2 of 2)

September 26, 2012

It’s not often that we have the opportunity to produce learning objects as part of a learning opportunity, but that’s exactly what an engaged group of learners (library directors from the state of Virginia) achieved last week during the final two-hour session of the Library of Virginia’s two-day Directors’ Meeting in Richmond, Virginia that Maurice Coleman and I helped facilitate.

By the end of our time together Friday morning, all of us not only had collaborated to create a blended (onsite-online) social learning center that had onsite participants seamlessly engaged with several online colleagues in discussions about the future of libraries and learning and learners, but we had also used the wisdom of the group to capture and produce a viewable record of the conversations that took place via Twitter by using Storify.

How we achieved those results as a temporary community of learners drawn together and supported by Library of Virginia Continuing Education Consultant Cindy Church and her colleagues provides a wonderful example of social learning at its best and most creative. It also provides a wonderful case study of how any trainer-teacher-learner can promote and nurture what we’ve been calling the new Fourth Place in our world—social learning centers that can exist onsite, online, in onsite-online combinations, and even in unexpected places, 39,000 feet above the surface of the earth, when the conditions for social learning are in place.

The creation of our onsite-online social learning center last Friday was a response to necessity: those library directors clearly needed something far different than what Maurice and I had planned to offer, so the two of us, after our Thursday afternoon sessions with them, completely threw out what we had prepared and, instead, spent Thursday evening contacting colleagues who are active and innovative users of social media tools in libraries and others settings. The results were spectacular, and improv was at the heart of much of what we accomplished.

Our new plan for Friday morning was to take the existing meeting room space in the Library of Virginia there in Richmond and transform it into a setting where social learning could occur. We decided to begin with a Twitter feed (#lvadir12, for Library of Virginia Directors’ Meeting 2012) that would connect onsite participants to Bill Cushard, Buffy Hamilton, David Lee King, and Jill Hurst-Wahl so that our online colleagues, well-versed in social media tools and learning, could explore options with the onsite participants. That Twitter  feed, aggregated via TweetDeck, was projected onto a screen in the front of the room; it was also visible to the many onsite participants who followed and contributed to it via their own mobile devices—a stunning example of how quickly we all are adapting the Bring Your Own Device movement into our workplaces and other venues.

Maurice and I also, on the spur of the moment, decided to take advantage of onsite wireless access to connect onsite participants to our online partners via a Google+ Hangout—a plan that had to be abandoned when the wireless access proved to be inadequate for what we were trying to do. Even that disappointment, however, provided a useful learning experience: it helped everyone to not only see and understand the advantages and challenges of trying to incorporate social media tools into learning, but also to see how easy it is, in the moment, to change course and use what is available to produce effective learning in a social context. As Maurice himself observed, we learn as much from our failures as from our successes.

Anyone reading the Storify transcript—it appears in reverse chronological order, so requires that we go to the final page of the document and work out way back up to the top to follow the flow of the exchanges—quickly obtains a sense of how dynamic this sort of learning can be. While there was an overall structure to the discussion, there was an equal amount of on-the-spot adjusting to themes that turned out to be important to the onsite and online learning partners. All of us were learning from each other—an achievement well-documented in that moment when we tweeted out a request for help in capturing the Twitter feed and immediately received Buffy’s suggestion that Storify would produce what we needed.

There was also a clear focus on being engaged in something more than an ephemeral discussion to be forgotten as soon as it was finished. The final segment of the conversation produced commitments by the library directors themselves as to what they would do to apply lessons learned when they returned to their libraries.

Among the offerings:

  • “We will ask our community how we can help them.”
  • “We will ask people how they want to hear from us.”
  • “We will designate staff time to learning-opportunity development.”

And in a wonderful moment of laying the foundations for the concrete results that the best learning opportunities can produce, one discussion group said “We commit that we will post on our listserv, within six weeks, one thing we have done from this session”—thereby assuring that this particular social learning center will remain in existence for at least six weeks after participants formally left the physical site to return home.

If that sounds like a surefire way to demonstrate how social learning centers can produce tangible, sustainable results, then we all will have benefitted from the creation of this particular example as we look for ways to create and nurture our own. And we’re well prepared to further explore the concept of social learning centers as a new Fourth Place (after the first three places—home, work, and social settings where members of a community informally gather) in libraries or any other setting where learners gather in Intersections to enjoy each other’s company while learning from each other.


The Fourth Place Revisited: When Social Learning Center Learners Take the Lead (Part 1 of 2)

September 26, 2012

You know you’re onto a major learning success when your learners seamlessly and playfully take the lead—which is exactly what happened late last week, halfway through the Library of Virginia’s two-day Directors’ Meeting in Richmond, Virginia.

Cindy Church, continuing education consultant for the Library, had brought Maurice Coleman and me in to facilitate a few sessions on the future of libraries and learning. Maurice engagingly initiated our portion of the program with “A Blind Leap of Faith: Keeping Your Library Thriving in the 21st Century.” His presentation Thursday afternoon provoked plenty of positive conversation onsite; it also, in the spirit of what we were doing, reached beyond the walls of the auditorium to be viewed by more than 800 people online after SlideShare’s managers highlighted his PowerPoint slide deck on their home page.

Maurice and I picked up where his initial session ended that afternoon by moving into a presentation/facilitated discussion, “Learning to Meet the Future: Libraries Developing Communities,” that was designed to introduce the library directors to the idea that libraries are serving as a new Fourth Place in our world—social learning centers. A major learning point was to be the idea that libraries often fill this need, but don’t call much attention to it, so are missing a chance to more effectively be at the center of the social learning process that effectively reaches and serves significant numbers of people in life-changing ways within their communities.

But a funny thing happened on the way to our denouement Thursday afternoon. It became clear to Maurice and to me, during our end-of-the-day wrap-up with the directors, that even if they hadn’t been familiar with the jargon of social learning and social learning centers, they were already engaged in using libraries as centers of formal and informal learning. And as if to prove how quickly they were assimilating the idea that learning is social, continual, and playful, one of them incorporated the term they had just picked up to tweet out a reminder about a gathering that was about to take place over drinks in a local hotel bar: “Social learning environment at Hilton Garden Inn 5:30.”

Since social learning often benefits tremendously from flexibility and in-the-moment course adjustments, Maurice and I were delighted to see that some of the formal discussions carried over to that social learning environment at the Hilton Garden Inn. And we were also extremely curious about two elements of what we were seeing: what connected those library directors so effectively to learning, and what we could do, overnight, to abandon what we had originally planned for the Friday session so we could more effectively meet those learners where they were and support them even more in their own work.

It didn’t take long to find the answer to the first question: directors with whom we spoke mentioned that Cindy and her colleagues in the state library (the Library of Virginia) had done quite a bit to foster a culture of learning throughout libraries statewide—again proving that if we have the right person or people in key positions, magic occurs. It’s not that we haven’t seen other colleagues in libraries express a commitment to learning—it is certainly visible here California through efforts supported by our state library, and the American Library Association’s current strategic plan goes a long way in fostering a mission statement that includes a commitment to “promotion and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.” What does not yet appear to be so common is the explicit commitment to social learning expressed and demonstrated so overtly by those Virginia library directors last week.

As for the answer to our second question—how to quickly produce an appropriate learning opportunity the following morning since what we had planned was clearly not going to be sufficient to meet this group’s needs—it came later that evening. Focusing on the idea that the library directors would benefit from hands-on experience in shaping and using a social learning center, we tossed out our original workshop plan and decided to turn the Friday morning session into an exercise of creating an impromptu blended (onsite-online) learning center that facilitated a conversation about what the directors could do upon returning home to their own libraries. All we had to do was find some online participants on the spur of the moment.

Next: Redesigning an Entire Social Learning Opportunity Overnight


Building Upon A New Culture of Learning with Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown

September 17, 2012

If doing is learning, there’s plenty to learn and do with the ideas Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown present in A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

Working with the theme of social/collaborative learning that we’ve also encountered in The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner, in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Report 2012 Higher Education Edition  and “Communiqué from the Horizon Project Retreat” held in January 2012, the eLearning Guild’s new “Social Learning: Answers to Eight Crucial Questions” report, and many other books, reports, and documents, Thomas and Brown take us through a stimulating and brief—but never cursory—exploration of “the kind of learning that will define the twenty-first century.” And it won’t, they tell us right up front, be “taking place in a classroom—at least not in today’s classroom. Rather, it is happening all around us, everywhere, and it is powerful” (p. 17).

As we’ve already seen in a series of articles here in Building Creative Bridges, our learning spaces and the way we foster learning are continuing to evolve—which doesn’t necessarily mean, as Thomas and Brown note in their own work, that we’re completely abandoning classrooms and the best of the training-teaching-learning techniques we’ve developed over a long period of time. But the fact that plenty of effective learning that produces positive results “takes place without books, without teachers, and without classrooms, and it requires environments that are bounded yet provide complete freedom of action within those boundaries” (p. 18) offers us plenty of possibilities to rethink what we and the people and organizations we serve are doing.

Their summary of how Thomas’ “Massively Multiplayer Online Games” course at the University of Southern California seemed to be spinning wildly out of control as students more or less restructured the class from lots of lecture and a bit of demo to lots of exploration followed by short summary lectures at the end of each session leads us to the obvious and wonderful conclusion that, by taking over the class, the learners were also taking over control of their own learning and producing magnificent results—a story similar to a situation also documented by Cathy Davidson in Now You See It.

And it doesn’t stop there. As they lead us through a brief summary of instructor-centric and learner-centric endeavors, we see a theme that crops up in much of what is being written now about m-learning (mobile learning, i.e., learning through the use of mobile devices): that the new culture of learning “will augment—rather than replace—traditional educational venues” and techniques (p. 35).

What flows through much of Thomas and Brown’s work—and what we observe in our own training-teaching-learning environments—is what they address explicitly near the end of their book after having discussed the importance of learning environments: the need to foster playfulness in learning and the parallel need to work toward a framework of learning that builds upon the Maker movement and that acknowledges three essential facets for survival in contemporary times: “They are homo sapiens, homo faber, and homo ludens—or humans who know, humans who make (things), and humans who play” (p. 90).

We have plenty of examples upon which to draw: Michael Wesch’s experiments with his Digital Ethnography project at Kansas State University; the YOUMedia Center for teens at the Chicago Public Library; smart classrooms where technology enables creatively productive interactions between onsite and online learners; and even the information commons model that began in academic libraries and is increasingly being adapted for use in public libraries. There’s much to explore here, and that’s why some of us have been promoting the idea that it’s time to add to Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place concept of three key places in our lives (the first place being home, the second place being work, and the third place being community gathering places where we find and interact with our friends and colleagues away from home and work) with a new Fourth Place: the social learning center that onsite as well as online as needed.

Another theme that Thomas and Brown bring to our attention is the way communities—those vibrant foundations of our society that are so wonderfully explored by John McKnight and Peter Block in their book The Abundant Community and continue to be fostered on The Abundant Community website—are developing into collectives—less-than-rigid gatherings of learners and others who are drawn by immediate needs and then disperse if/when those needs are met.

“A collective is very different from an ordinary community,” Thomas and Brown write. “Where communities can be passive (though not all of them are by any means), collectives cannot. In communities, people learn in order to belong. In a collective, people belong in order to learn. Communities derive their strength from creating a sense of belonging, while collectives derive theirs from participation.” (p. 52).

All of which leads us to an obvious conclusion: if we are inspired to do the things within our communities, collectives, and organizations that Thomas and Brown describe and advocate, we will be engaged in building the new culture of learning they describe—while learning how to build it.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: Addressing the Couch in the Middle of the Room

June 25, 2012

A colleague entering the room where Sharon Morris and I were facilitating the ALA Learning Round Table’s “Ignite, Interact, and Engage: Maximizing the Learning Outcome” session yesterday here in Anaheim at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference admits to being momentarily confused.

“I didn’t remember ordering a couch,” she said when she joined the session in progress.

And I have to admit that we didn’t, either—at least not directly. For when we started the session, it had the typical session room set-up. Round tables surrounded by chairs. Lectern with microphone. A couple of tables with chairs for presenters and panelists. A projector throwing PowerPoint slides onto a large screen in one corner of the room. And the usual drab/neutral walls.

But we quickly changed all that by projecting a Twitter feed onto the screen via TweetChat during parts of the session and beginning the workshop with a wonderful presentation/learning technique I acquired from writer-trainer-consultant Peter Block’s presentation at the 2008 ASTD International Conference & Exposition in San Diego: we encouraged “Engage” participants to take two minutes at the beginning of the session to reset the room in any way that would create a space conducive to their own leaning experience. The we added to Block’s exercise by inviting them to use simple supplies we had provided—clay, construction paper, colored clay, and a few other items—to decorate the room in a way that served the same purpose. And even I, after running variations of this particular learning exercise, was astonished when a few participants carried “resetting the room” to a wonderful extreme I’d never before encountered: they stepped outside, snagged a small couch from a corridor, and brought it into the room for themselves.

As we moved through the session, we left plenty of time for learners to practice what Sharon and I were sharing with them about various styles of presentation: lecturing/telling, storytelling/sharing knowledge, inquiring/reflecting, experiencing—lots of that with this group—and creating/developing something as we did by developing a comfortably appropriate learning space for the duration of the session. We also brought blended (onsite-online) learning into the picture by explaining how many trainer-teacher-learners are using Twitter and other social media tools to connect on learners within a learning space—a fourth place, or social learning center—with learners not physically present, yet capable of engaging in what is being accomplished.

Attendees clearly absorbed and responded to ideas about incorporating an opening exercise and improvisation into learning. When someone mentioned how we often avoid the most difficult and obvious of challenges—in essence, ignoring the elephant in the middle of the room—we even suggested that we had a perfect moment to change our own clichés by agreeing to “address the couch in the middle of the room.” And then we used Twitter to share, with other conference attendees, the idea that we need to begin addressing the couch in the middle of the room.

As we brought that very lively session to a conclusion, we reminded each other of the need to carry learning back to workplace settings where what was learned is actually used rather than lost—not wanting to be among that 70 percent of learners who never even try applying what they’ve learned. And you probably know what happened next: when we asked how participants would apply what they had learned, everyone stood up and engaged in a very spirited chanting of what had become the session mantra—“We won’t be part of the 70 percent.”

Late in the afternoon, I finally had time to go back to the Twitter feed (#ala12soclearn, for ALA 2012 Annual Conference Social Learning; parts of it remain available as posts on June 24, 2012 at @trainersleaders). It was very encouraging to see how effectively the session participants had engaged with the material and with each other. And I had a confirmation that we still have a long way to go in Library Land in terms of how we incorporate Twitter and other social media tools into our daily work this morning: a conference attendee used the Twitter conference backchannel (#ala12) to note that someone had shouted at him for using Twitter at the conference. I hope that he and others will join us in whatever post-session conversation continues at #ala12soclearn. And that we’ll all remain ignited and engaged as we return to our workplace learning and performance (staff training) spaces.

N.B.: The PowerPoint slides and speaker notes for the presentation are available on SlideShare.


ASTD International Conference 2012: Cliff Atkinson, the Backchannel, and Many Happy Returns

May 18, 2012

I already had quite a few friends and colleagues in the world of training-teaching-learning a couple of weeks ago. Now the social fabric that sustains me has grown quite substantially. Let’s credit the backchannel for this change. Then think about what that backchannel could mean to you and all you serve.

Seeing dynamically interactive online extensions of the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) 2012 International Conference & Exposition Twitter backchannel in the week since the conference ended provides all of us with yet another example of how blended the world has become for trainer-teacher-learners. How quickly we are informally and quite naturally developing the sort of blended onsite-online social learning center/fourth places colleagues and I have been exploring. And how the interactions we have at conferences no longer start and end with physical onsite arrivals and departure.

As is the case with any form of effective training-teaching-learning, those conference interactions flourish through planning before the learning event/conference begins (someone has to create the Twitter hashtag that draws us all together); active participation during the event (the more you give, the more you receive); and sustainable long-term attention that continues far beyond the days a learning opportunity/conference brings us all together (following and contributing to the backchannel after the conference ends keeps this virtual social learning center alive and vibrant).

And discovering Cliff Atkinson’s The Backchannel: How Audiences Are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever as I was beginning to resurface a bit from the ASTD conference backchannel (#ASTD2012) a few days ago tells me that the best is yet to come in terms of where backchannels deliver on the promises they are offering.

An effective backchannel, as I wrote in an earlier article, works at many levels. It connects those who might otherwise be separated by the smallest as well as the largest of physical distances. It fosters a form of  mobile learning (m-learning) in that what we’re learning is disseminated to an even larger group of learners. It is increasingly providing a delightfully accessible tool that can as easily facilitate and augment the learning process in academic settings as it can in workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors.

On the other hand, it carries the potential to completely disrupt a presenter-teacher-trainer’s presentation. This is where Atkinson’s book on the backchannel comes into play invaluably. A guide every bit as appealing and potentially influential in the world of backchannel learning as his Beyond Bullet Points remains for onsite-online presentations, The Backchannel entices us into the subject immediately through a chapter carrying the title “Why Are You Calling Me a #@*% on Twitter?” and helps us see how a tweeter with a large following (nearly 15,000 people as I’m writing this) and a well-known presenter clashed quite publicly when the presenter saw the tweeter’s note with her derogatory remark about him. (For the record, she called him “a total dick,” and he decided to confront her face-to-face, while the presentation was still underway, by asking “What…what is my dickiness?”)

If you already sense that Atkinson’s mastery of storytelling and training is a wonderful talent to see in action, you’re well on the way to understanding that his book has something for each of us regardless of whether we’re new to the backchannel or already fairly comfortable in that rapidly-flowing stream of words and thoughts and resources. He shows us how to join a backchannel. Entertainingly reviews the rewards and risks of backchannel engagement with copious amounts of screenshots to lead us down that path. Offers presentation tips to make us more effective in our use of Twitter and its backchannels. And leads us through the process of effectively dealing with those dreaded-yet-inevitable moments when a backchannel becomes dangerous.

By the time we finish racing through this book and absorbing what we can—I suspect I’ll be rereading this one at least a few times— we’re far more comfortable with and appreciative of all that backchannels offer, and much more aware of how to be effective and civil members of the Twitterverse and its various interconnected streams. We’re richer for having explored and reflected upon the online resources supporting the book, e.g., his “Negotiating a Backchannel Agreement.” And we’re appreciative for what our own levels of involvement in backchannels returns to us.

Through the #ASTD2012 backchannel and subsequent online interactions including the #lrnchat session on May 17, 2012 , I came away from a conference with 9,000 attendees much richer at a deeply personal and professional level than I was two weeks ago. Through their confrontation and subsequent discussion, the tweeter and the presenter in Atkinson’s book walked away with their differences resolved. And you—yes, you—may end up finding your own rewards and satisfactions there the moment you are prepared to take the plunge into the backchannel/The Backchannel.


ASTD International Conference 2012: M-Learning, M-Conferencing, and Expanding Social Learning Centers

May 17, 2012

Let’s temporarily set aside the debates about whether mobile learning (m-learning) is up-and-coming or already here and focus on a different part of the equation: learning through m-conferencing (which, as we’ll see, provides an immersive and tremendously rewarding form of m-learning).

Attending Good to Great  and Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All author Jim Collins’s keynote address last week at the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) 2012 International Conference & Exposition in Denver, I was viscerally struck by how seamless our onsite-online interactions have become.

Even before Collins began speaking early Monday morning to an audience of thousands of conference attendees in one of those cavernous, impersonal auditoriums that is designed to focus attention on the stage to the exclusion of all that is occurring around us, those of us with laptops, smartphones, and tablets were using a Twitter backchannel (#ASTD2012) to begin documenting what was happening—for ourselves as well as for colleagues who couldn’t be present for the onsite presentation.

When Collins began speaking, we tweeted out the highlights as we saw them. And one obvious sign that m-learning via m-conferencing is already firmly in place—at least with ASTD members—came when we realized that we were a large enough group to overload the superb wireless connections and 3G/4G networks to which we had access. Even though the Twitter feed was somewhat slow and clunky—at times even completely frozen because so many of us were trying to tweet at the same time—we somehow managed levels of engagement unimaginable even two or three years ago. As we were tweeting out our bite-sized notes and attempting to keep up with Collins’s completely engaging presentation, we also had the much-desired learner’s reinforcement of seeing other tweets that captured thoughts we otherwise would not have noticed.

In the act of retweeting those items we ourselves initially missed, a couple of amazing things happened. Each of us was able to create a more complete record of what was happening than any of us could have done on our own without simply recording the entire event. And many of us overcame the physical limitations enforced by seating arrangements in a setting so largely overwhelming; we were able to interact with each other in the moment and much later.

By attending, tweeting, and interacting at that level, what we found and continue to find is that a community of learning otherwise impossible to develop comes to life virtually on its own. Seeing other tweeters’ comments made me aware of their presence. And through the serendipity that often comes with attendance at large conferences, I found myself unintentionally and quite gratefully making face-to-face connections with those I somewhat impersonally encountered through that blended onsite-online social learning center that Twitter, tweeting, and mobile devices combined to helped create.

Because many of us who were tweeting and retweeting became curious about those tweeters we hadn’t formally met face to face, we began asking well-connected colleagues to help us identify each other. The payoff—as is often the case when social media tools are used effectively and judiciously—was magnificent. In a couple of cases, colleagues helped identify fellow tweeters who were sitting in sessions I was attending so that face-to-face connections became possible. But in an experience that is increasingly becoming common, I also gleefully found myself at small receptions and even a small dinner where those whose tweets I had been following were also present and available to extend the overall conference conversations.

That certainly doesn’t seem like such a big deal for those who have been at large conferences or using social media tools since the beginning of time. But the fact that this sort of unexpected meeting could occur at a conference with 9,000 participants who are connected through their mobile devices is as visceral an example as we’re going to see about how much the world has changed. How the old concept of “six degrees of separation” has quickly been reduced to nearly “no degrees of separation” in our highly connected world. How accessible our means of communication and our tech tools have made us.  And how effectively this form of m-conferencing leads us right back to m-learning as we learn from each other in the moment. And beyond.

Next: Cliff Atkinson on the Backchannel


Rethinking Learning and Learning Spaces (Pt. 4 of 4): Rethinking With the Authors We Are Reading

March 23, 2012

Let’s take a quantum leap in rethinking what a learning space is. Without abandoning anything that is already effectively in place, let’s think beyond the physical classroom. Past the online learning spaces we inhabit now via platforms including WebEx, Skype, and many others. Let’s think about a world where learning spaces can be almost anything that facilitates learning. And then laugh when we realize how full circle we have come.

At least one idea comes sharply into focus as we move through the rethinking process via books by John Medina, Seth Godin, Cathy Davidson, and others, including Bruce Wexler: the “places” where we learn are in a dynamic state of change, and they all benefit from being stimulating rather than static. When we look at what Michael Wesch is doing at Kansas State University and documenting on his Digital Ethnography site, we see engaged and effective learning facilitated by an engaged teacher-trainer-learner. When we turn to the YouMedia project at the Chicago Public Library, we see a learning organization blending online-onsite learning in incredibly innovative ways. When we see how colleagues are using LinkedIn discussion groups, live online conversations linked together via Twitter hashtags like #ASTDChapters or #lrnchat or #libchat, or through Google+ hangouts, we see our idea of learning spaces expand even further since each of them creates a sort of space where learning can and does occur.

When we consider how effectively wikis are being used to draw teacher-trainer-learners together asynchronously to actually produce learning objects like the annual New Media Consortium Horizon Report, we can see those wikis as learning spaces. When we see how individual blog postings on topics ranging from various learning styles to learning in libraries include extensive links and references and serve as self-contained online asynchronous lessons, we have further expanded our horizons. When we use smartphones and tablets as conduits to sites such as Smarthistory while we are standing in front of a work of art in a museum, we viscerally understand that the learning space is a blend of the museum gallery and the website and the device since they combine to provide a more comprehensive learning opportunity than would be possible without that combination. And it’s just one small additional step to move ourselves to the concept of blended learning spaces along the lines of the onsite-online social learning centers a few of us are promoting, or to see the newly created TED-Ed site as a dynamically innovative learning space.

But there’s still one obvious oversight, and it comes to our attention as we rethink what knowledge is through books like David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know, which examines our move from print-based knowledge to online knowledge. Or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which suggests that using the Internet is rewiring our brains in ways that make it difficult for us to read book-length works. Or William Crossman’s VIVO [Voice In/Voice Out]: The Coming Age of Talking Computers, which is predicated on the author’s belief that text and written language will be obsolete by 2050. The oversight for many of us may be in not seeing that books themselves (in print as well as online) remain a form of learning space—a place where we encounter other trainer-teacher-learners, learn from them, react to the ideas being proffered, and even, at a certain level, engage with them through our reactions to their work and through the conversations they inspire. Which makes it tremendously ironic, as I have repeatedly noted, that these wonderful thinker-writers still are drawn to express themselves most eloquently within the very containers—the books—they think are being replaced by other options.

If we were to travel down a similar path of overlooking what so clearly remains before us, we, too, might look at all that is developing and lose sight of a valuable learning space: the physical learning spaces that have served us in the past and will continue to serve us well if we adapt them and expand them—and ourselves—to reflect and respond to our changing world as well as to our learning needs. And our desires.


Rethinking Learning and Learning Spaces (Pt. 2 of 4): Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams

March 9, 2012

If you think developmental molecular biologist John Medina’s ideas for rethinking leaning and learning spaces in Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School require a bit of an open mind, wait until you see what author-presenter-entrepreneur Seth Godin is (re)thinking.

In Stop Stealing Dreams (What Is School For?), Godin’s  newly released FREe-book (which is about the only term I can come up with to describe a book-length manifesto published free of charge online by someone whose work routinely reaches and inspires large audiences in traditional print form), he joins Medina and others in encouraging us to reconsider—and fight against—the ways our learning systems and learning spaces stifle creativity and steal learners’ dreams. And what he offers should be of interest equally to those working within formal academic settings and those involved in workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors.

It doesn’t take him long to get to the heart of our problems and challenges: “Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars…Every year, we churn out millions of workers who are trained to do 1925-style labor” in spaces far from conducive to learning even though that has little to do with what is needed to succeed in the contemporary workplace (p. 7). We use measurement tools such as multiple choice tests—created in 1914 by a psychologist and popularized by a professor who referred to it as “a test of lower order thinking for the lower orders” before disowning it as a learning tool a few years later, according to Godin (pp. 12-13). But we continue to use it in training-teaching-learning from the moment students first enter school all the way through the time we complete formal certification programs that are supposed to be offering some sort of guarantee to employers that the certified job applicants standing before them are fully prepared to meet those employers’ needs.

The “new job of school” is “to inculcate leadership and restlessness into a new generation” (p. 18) if we’re going to meet the needs of employers, communities, and the larger global community into which we’ve so quickly been thrust, he reminds us—and I would suggest the same should be said of workplace learning and performance offerings designed to produce the employees needed for workplace success.

Getting there is going to require that we more quickly move in the direction that our most innovative and forward-thinking learning programs are taking us: group (collaborative) projects rather than a reliance on rote learning so that no child (or adult) is left behind; learners who are encouraged to dream—and to act on those dreams—rather than learning ephemerally to pass tests and receive certifications; the nurturing of the artist—whom Godin defines as a person “who brings new thinking and generosity to his work, who does human work that changes another for the better. An artist invents a new kind of insurance policy, diagnoses a disease that someone else might have missed, or envisions a future that’s not here yet” (p. 32).

We should, he maintains, “rebuild the entire system around passion instead of fear” (p. 37), and that includes focusing on learning as much outside as inside formal learning spaces by devoting time each day “to learning something new and unassigned” (p. 42) so we keep passion and drive in training-teaching-learning. We should also be encouraging “an open-book/open-note environment” instead of one where “drill and practice” is the default setting (p. 52). And one in which homework is done during the day in group settings while recorded lectures are delivered at night in online settings so that live instructor-learner time facilitates active learning and experiential learning rather than rote recitation and often unsuccessful attempts at passive absorption of material flowing from the mouth of an instructor to the often unreceptive ears of learners at the instructor’s convenience rather than at the learner’s moment of need—or passion.

School, Godin says toward the end of his manifesto, “needs not to deliver information so much as to sell kids on wanting to find it” (p. 78)—an overt reminder that learners of all ages benefit as much from getting away from us and following the leads we inspire them to follow as they do from taking in what we offer them (pursuing interesting discoveries, seeking exciting growth opportunities, and learning from those places and experiences where their learning passions lead them).

Godin begins Stop Stealing Dreams by providing the example of a public school where administrators “create a workplace culture that attracts the most talented teachers, fosters a culture of ownership, freedom and accountability, and then relentlessly transfers this passion to their students” (p. 6). The learning spaces he ends up describing are libraries “where people come together to do co-working and to coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring to bear domain knowledge and people knowledge an access to information” (p. 88)—the sort of space some of us are referring to as social learning centers or the new Fourth Place (both onsite and online).

For those of us immersed in serving learners who become dynamic members of our communities, the possibilities are inspiring.

Next: Cathy Davidson and “Now You See It”


Finding Our Place in the World, Part 2: Place in an Onsite-Online World

November 6, 2011

Many of us, having incorporated online communities into our professional and personal lives, reach the moment when we decide that the idea of place is dead—that geography no longer matters.

But it doesn’t take us long to realize we’re wrong. And reading and thinking about Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision in Your Life (2008) drives the point—and us—home. Florida, continuing to focus on the role creativity plays in making communities vital, vibrant social and economic centers, writes clearly and engagingly as he points out how “spiky” the world remains in terms of having peaks of social and economic centers that offer opportunities not to be as readily found in the valleys that exist elsewhere.

“Today’s key economic factors—talent, innovation, and creativity—are not distributed evenly across the global economy,” he reminds us (p. 9). “They concentrate in specific locations” including centers of innovation such as Tokyo, Seoul, New York, and San Francisco (p. 25). There are also mega-regions that continue to thrive, including Boston-NewYork-Washington-Baltimore, Osaka-Nagoya, Frankfurt-Stuttgart, and several others he cites throughout his book.

“More and more people are clustering in urban areas,” he writes (p. 18), and that clustering encourages people “to do more than they otherwise would, such as engage in more creative activities, invent new things, or start new companies—all things that are both personally fulfilling and economically productive…This creates a regenerative cycle: the stimulation unleashes creative energy, which in turn attracts more high-energy people from other places, which results in higher rates of innovation, greater economic prosperity, higher living standards, and more stimulation” (p. 159).

This won’t be news to those familiar with Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction (1977), The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and just about everything he has written, William Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1988), Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place (1989), Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect, or writing colleagues and I have done on the proposed Fourth Place in our lives—the social learning centers that serve as our onsite-online sources of learning opportunities in a world where continual learning is one of the keys to success.

But it does remind us that the geography of place is far from dead—even if it now so clearly co-exists with place as an online construct through the sort of communities and associations I wrote about two days ago to describe my own onsite-online sense of community and professional family through the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD).

As is the case with so many blanket statements we make and eventually have to recant, the role of place in our lives is evolving to accommodate that sense of place that includes onsite as well as online places. Rather than creating either-or distinctions here, we’ll find ourselves on terra firma and in terra virtual if we see place in a blended seamless way. The place we call home. The places we temporarily join when we travel to work. The third and fourth places in our lives—those coffee shops, restaurants, community centers, and social learning centers which so clearly contribute to our onsite-online place in the world. And the online places that facilitate the connections that matter most to us in terms of making us members of a variety of interconnected world-wide communities of learning, interest, and practice. With a renewed appreciation for all that home offers in this still evolving onsite-online world.


Innovations in Social Learning: From Print-based to Digital Environments

May 2, 2011

When a classmate introduced me to Michael Wesch’s 4.5-minute video The Machine Is Us/ing Us on YouTube a few years ago, I sat in stunned silence for quite a while. Because it introduced me to Web 2.0 in a uniquely visceral way. Showed me that the world had changed significantly while I had been asleep intellectually and socially. And because I knew I would be working through the thoughts inspired by that brief video for months, if not years, to come.

I had the same reaction two nights ago when I finally made the time to watch the online archived version of the MacArthur Foundation’s 100-minute Panel Discussion on Re-Imagining Learning in the 21st Century and immediately followed a link to see Digital Media: New Learners of the 21st Century,  the 50-minute PBS program which is at the heart of the Panel Discussion program.

To say that all trainer-teacher-learners should watch, think about, and discuss how the content of these two beautifully interwoven presentations is already affecting what we do is to underplay the significance of programs’ content.

Both presentations are forward-looking, as suggested by inclusion of John Dewey’s reminder that “If we teach today’s students as we did yesterday’s, we are robbing them of tomorrow.” And both shows document the growing impact of what Karen Cator, Director of the office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education, calls the transition from print-based classroom learning to a digital learning environment in one of her contributions to Panel Discussion.

While the focus of both programs is on education for students not yet in college, the message for all of us is: if we don’t learn from how these students—members of our future workplace learning and performance audience—are learning and if we don’t effectively apply those social learning techniques to what we are offering our adult learners, we’re going to become obsolete as learning leaders.

Cator—just one of several first-rate and thoughtful Panel Discussion presenters—overtly reminds us that “We have an incredible opportunity to transform learning into a deeply social experience, one that can leverage mobile technologies, social networking, and digital content. We can leverage the long tail of interest and design education environments that include prior experience, outside-of-school experience, multiple languages, families, the community, all the places that students live and breathe…”

It’s a change many of us are noticing as we acknowledge and attempt to foster the growth of new onsite and online spaces in our lives—social learning centers (also referred to as learning environments). And both programs—the Panel Discussion and Learners of the 21st Century—provide plenty of encouragement for those efforts by showcasing five innovative programs and projects.

There’s Quest to Learn, a school for digital kids. The Digital Youth Network and its fabulous YOUMedia collaboration for teens with the Chicago Public Library. The Smithsonian Institute’s digital scavenger hunt. Middleton Alternative Senior High’s augmented reality project in Middleton, Wisconsin. And the Science Leadership Academy sponsored by Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.

And there are the voices of the students themselves. Engaged. Confident. More articulate and innovative than many people twice or three times their age. And the sort of people all of us should very much look forward to working with very soon in our own workplaces and learning environments.


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