Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses) and #oclmooc: Assessing Connected Learning Outcomes  

September 22, 2014

Mimi Ito, Vera Michalchik, and Bill Penuel take us into the wonderfully intriguing deep end of the Connected Learning swimming pool in the latest Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses) session, as anyone who attended the live version or catches it through the archived recording can confirm. And that’s a great thing since the deep end of any body of water is often where we find the interesting signs of life.

Continuing the massive open online course’s current two-week exploration of what drives the learning process (“Why We Need a Why”), the three educators interact with their online learners by exploring connections between learning (particularly connected learning), learning assessments, and learning outcomes.

This is far from the usual review of how well learners do within the confines of an explicitly defined learning experience—a semester-long course or, by extension, the sort of workplace learning and performance (staff training) offering that so many of us as trainer-teacher-learners provide and then review through a formal assessment process. It’s a connected-learning session that takes us into the outer reaches of models like Donald Kirkpatrick’s four levels of learning, where the gold standard is to ask what impact the learning eventually has not only on the learner, but on the community the learner ultimately serves. And it encourages us to take the learner’s point of view into account rather than focusing solely on the learning facilitator’s or learning organization’s vantage point.

“When you look from the perspective of the learner…the learning ecosystem looks very different than when you’re looking from the perspective of the class,” Ito reminds us during the session; it requires that we are as cognizant of what the learners bring to the learning space as we are of our own approach to facilitating the learning process—thinking about the learners “and how our practices in the classroom connect back out.”

“We want to take a long view of the outcomes,” Penuel suggests. “Do kids get to where they want to go next?…Where did this class lead them?”—questions we should just as firmly be asking within any training-teaching-learning setting.

All three presenters lead us into the deeper, far more significant question: Do we follow up with our learners to see “whether learning made a difference in their lives?”

“We have so few tools and practices that enable us to know what happened to students over time…a lot of these outcomes play out over time…you don’t really know what happens a few years down the line because nobody actually studies that,” Ito says.

ccourses_logoBut the picture is not completely bleak, she adds. A Gallup-Purdue University study released in May 2014 and designed to document post-graduation levels of workplace engagement and overall “well-being” provides some guidance for learning facilitators seeking ways to provide long-term positive benefits through their efforts. Learning that was project-based and that provided meaningful connections between the learners and those facilitating their learning led to significantly higher levels of workplace engagement and overall chances that the learners would thrive “in all areas of well-being.”

“It’s not just what kids got out of the course…but what happens next, “Ito reiterated.

Much of this, of course, leads us back to the goal of better understanding what connected-learning practices (fostering learner-centric approaches, finding ways to “harness the advances and innovations of our connected age to serve learning,” and nurturing deeper learning and understanding) might provide for learners of all ages, in a variety of training-teaching-learning settings.

“Interest is the beginning point, but the idea of cultivating an interest is that you don’t know where it is going to go,” Penuel notes. “Our interests are really a starting point, and we really do need experiences of various kinds that allow us to learn in order to deepen them—so develop knowledge related to our interests, to engage with others in relation to our interests—to find out what others are interested in and to perhaps do something with them. I think interests evolve, and I think new interests emerge from this deep engagement.”

All three presenters, as the session draws to an end, remind us that we are not lacking resources if we want to join them in their explorations. The Connected Learning Research Network, for example, engages in learning research, design, and practice. And the National Survey of Student Engagement is currently looking into how much time and effort students in higher education put into their learning—as well as how our colleagues in higher education are “deploying resources” to foster engagement among learners.

oclmooc_logoAs we reflect upon what #ccourses and another current connectivist MOOC—the Open  and Connected Learning MOOC (#oclmooc)—offer trainer-teacher-learners in terms of guidance and inspiration, we can’t help but be encouraged. They remind us to reflect upon what our own learning produces. They also consistently and continually serve as examples of how the connections these connected-learning opportunities contribute to our own growth, productivity, and satisfaction within the extended communities of learning we create, nurture, and sustain over a very long period of time.

N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of posts documenting learning through #ccourses and #oclmooc.


Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses) and #oclmooc: Connections (and Learning) Everywhere

September 19, 2014

It’s no surprise that diving into two new connectivist MOOCs (massive open online courses) would be a richly-rewarding connecting and learning experience. But what is particularly inspiring is how quickly engagement produces results.

Being among the learners in the Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses) offered by a “collaborative network of faculty in higher education developing online, open courses that embody the principles of connected learning and the values of the open web,” and being a “co-conspirator” in the Open Connected Learning MOOC (#oclmooc) open to trainer-teacher-learners worldwide only adds support to the research-proven assertion that well-designed online learning can produce positive results at least equal to what well-designed onsite learning produces. An unfortunate corollary is that many learners walk away from online learning after one bad experience—a situation that may change as connected-learning efforts continue to grow.

Connections and connectivity were abundant earlier today during the “Blogside Chat” moderated by Mimi Ito and featuring Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, co-authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses and Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates. Ito, for example, provided a tremendously effective example of how to facilitate online connections: she consistently brought learners and the co-authors together via the Twitter feed during what was an incredibly fast-paced hour of online interactions and learning. Furthermore, several of us participating in the Twitter feed while listening to the presenters’ comments were also able to connect with each other through our tweets, retweets, and exchanges that produced a rudimentary online version of a class discussion. To further strengthen the online connections fostered by this MOOC, at least a few of us will probably continue the discussion via our blog postings (this one, for example) and responses to those blog pieces; through #ccourses Google+ Community postings; through the newly-established Twitter connections we are creating by following each other now that we’ve met through that Blogside Chat session; and through cross-MOOC exchanges between #ccourses, #oclmooc, and others.

(An aside to those skeptical of the sustainability of online communities of learning growing out of interactions within or between MOOCs: the Educational Technology & Media MOOC—#etmooc—community continues to thrive 18 months after the synchronous offering of the course formally ended. Participation in that community, moreover, has led several of us to continue learning together in other MOOCs as if we were part of an open MOOC cohort, and our participation in that sustainable community has inspired us to work together as co-conspirators for #oclmooc—which, in turn, started as an effort to connect educators in Alberta and has now expanded to connect any interested trainer-teacher-learner regardless of geography.)

ccourses_logoParticipation in the latest #ccourses session, earlier today, inspired interweavings so wonderfully complex (and tremendously rewarding) that it could be days or weeks or months before those interweavings are completely apparent. The authors’ assertion that college graduates are working less/reading less in class than their predecessors and, as a result, are struggling to succeed in their chosen career paths two years after graduating, for example, can be explored for connections to what we frequently see in staff training (e.g., learning opportunities that are not supported or applied when learners return to their workplaces). But we can begin by acknowledging that it’s far from impossible to connect learning to workplace results—we just don’t put enough effort into in assuring that those connections are forged.

The suggestion within the Blogside Chat session that greater challenges to learners in higher education produce greater results after graduation might be explored for parallels with what we see in workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts: if learners are engaged, supported, and encouraged, they are much more likely to apply their learning in ways that provide personal benefits as well as benefits to the businesses and organizations they serve—and to the customers and clients they serve. But if they—like the higher-education students who are the focus of Arum and Roksa’s studies—are unclear on what their learning opportunities are meant to produce, they are going to gain and produce far less than otherwise might be possible.

There’s something to be said for building connections between academic learning and workplace needs, the authors suggested—something that could as easily be said in terms of the need for building connections between what is offered through workplace-learning opportunities and how learners in the workplace are supported. Roksa cited the tremendous success she is providing by having her learners engage in projects within communities (outside of formal classrooms) and then bringing those projects back into the classroom to provide additional learning opportunities; we could easily predict that well-designed workplace learning that is project-based would produce satisfaction for those learners, their employers, and their customers.

What all of this leads to is another call to reenvision how faculty members—and, by extension, others facilitating the training-teaching-learning process—approach learning as much as a call to reenvision how learners learn, we heard again today. Arum, furthermore, sided with our colleagues who believe that those engaged in facilitating learning need to learn to more effectively incorporate educational technology into the learning process. And we need to move far beyond the all-too-common onsite and online learning sessions that end with true-false or multiple-choice testing that inadequately measures learning.

oclmooc_logoThere’s at least one more important connection to be made from this #ccourses connected-learning experience: the connection between our recognition that we can be doing better and our recognition that if we are unsatisfied with the results our learning-facilitation efforts produce, we need to work with our colleagues and our learners to produce more satisfying results for everyone involved—a goal we might draw closer to reaching through our immersion in #ccourses, #oclmooc, and other connected-learning endeavors.

N.B.: This is the third in a series of posts documenting learning through #ccourses and #oclmooc.


Connected Courses MOOC and #oclmooc: The “Why” of Connections, Collaboration, and Learning  

September 15, 2014

Various learners often walk away from learning opportunities with tremendously different results and rewards. And that’s certainly going to be the case in two new connectivist MOOCs (massive open online courses)—the Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses) offered by a “collaborative network of faculty in higher education developing online, open courses that embody the principles of connected learning and the values of the open web,” and the Open Connected Learning MOOC  (#oclmooc) open to trainer-teacher-learners worldwide. That each-learner-his/her-own-reward outcome is one of the many strengths this sort of innovative, high-engagement learning opportunity provides: we grow with colleagues within dynamic global communities of learning; we set and achieve our own learning goals; and we emerge from the experience as better, more empathetic facilitators of learning.

ccourses_logoThis is a world where the concept of “failure” is left behind and the idea that learning is documented in positive ways (e.g., badging or points for achievements) changes the way we approach our work, author-educator Cathy Davidson reminded us during the live online panel discussion that formally opened #ccourses earlier this afternoon. Panel moderator Michael Wesch was (virtually) right there beside her with his mention of providing “not-yet” grades so his learners know that they haven’t failed—they “just haven’t gotten there yet!”

It’s a lesson that resonates for me, for I’ve spend considerable time with on-the-job adult learners who enter their learning spaces fearing that their presence in “training” is the precursor to losing their jobs (because they lack essential skills). Reminding them that their employers are paying my colleagues and me to help them gain skills needed so they can continue working is the essential first step in lowering their stress levels and facilitating the learning successes that benefit them, their employers, and the customers and clients they ultimately will continue serving.

Listening to Davidson, Wesch, and their co-panelist Randy Bass address a series of thought-provoking questions that would resonate with any inquisitive trainer-teacher-learner (e.g., what is to be taught, how should something be learned, and why should a particular subject or skill be learned?)—and simultaneously interacting with other learners via Twitter—provided what Davidson cited as one of the many benefits of connected learning: all of us had plenty of time during that stimulating online session to reflect on the “why” behind the learning we facilitate, and we left the session encouraged to engage in additional reflection (via this sort of blog article as well as through online interactions that help us, sooner than later, to use what we are learning).

It was also, for anyone who took time to dive into some of the course readings and videos before attending the live online session, an opportunity to experience the flipped classroom model of learning and also viscerally see how expansive (and potentially overwhelming) learning in a connected-learning environment can be.

Watching Wesch’s 33-minute “Why We Need a ‘Why?’” video lecture just before the live session began this afternoon, for example, nicely teed up the topic for me and prepared me to better use the live (virtual) classroom time to more deeply engage with others during the session. His taped video lecture, in turn, led me to another of the posted class materials—the fabulous “This is Water” video excerpt from writer-educator David Foster Wallace’s  commencement speech delivered at Kenyon College in 2005; it includes the poignant and powerful reminder that “the freedom of real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted” is that we “get to consciously decide what has real meaning and what doesn’t.” Davidson’s live-session mention of how her Duke University courses include opportunities for learners to go well beyond the traditional setting of closed/private-classroom discussions to include projects open to online interactions with those not formally enrolled in her courses carries us over to an article she wrote as part of a course project with her learners: “How a Class Becomes a Community: Theory, Method, Examples,” from one group of learners’ course project (a full-length online book, Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies). It makes us wonder why more of us involved in on-the-job adult learning don’t encourage learners to produce learning objects (e.g., simple work samples or more ambitious on-the-job manuals from which others can learn) as part of their learning process. This could be a digital-era variation on an each-one-teach-one approach that brings tremendous rewards for everyone involved.

Bass’s live-session observations round out the picture: they entice us into continuing our connected learning experience by reading his article “Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education,” from the March/April 2012 issue of EDUCAUSE Review, and learning more about the evolving nature of our basic assumptions about what a course is and how team-based learning (where “…the instructor is no longer at the center. Instead, the course and student learning are at the center, surrounded by all these other players [teaching center staff, technology staff, librarians, and others] at the table”) is creating levels of engagement that might provide additional rewards for everyone involved in the training-teaching-learning process.

It’s enough to make our heads spin. But we’re too deeply immersed and appreciative to overlook some of the key repercussions here. These connectivist MOOCs draw us into learning that meets our current learning needs. They help us understand the value of online communities of learning by making us members of engaged online communities of learning. They offer us as many learning pathways as we care to explore, and they put us virtually face-to-face with learning facilitators, mentors, colleagues, and other learners we would otherwise not have the opportunity to meet.

oclmooc_logoAs those of us who are learners in #ccourses and trainer-teacher-learners in #oclmooc begin (or continue) to interact not only within the formal learning environments of weekly interactive sessions but also through synchronous and asynchronous interactions over a variety of platforms including blogs and Twitter and Google+ communities (as well as between the two MOOCs and other communities of learning), the real connections themselves and the learning itself will continue providing the compelling “why?” that brings us all together in ways that will better serve learners worldwide.

N.B.: This is the second in a series of posts documenting learning through #ccourses and #oclmooc.


#oclmooc and Connected Courses MOOC: The World as Our Learning Space

September 5, 2014

Diving into two connectivist massive open online courses (MOOC) this month, I am learning to pay more attention to how rapidly our learning space is evolving.

Each of the MOOCs—the Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses) offered by a “collaborative network of faculty in higher education developing online, open courses that embody the principles of connected learning and the values of the open web,” and the Open Connected Learning MOOC  (#oclmooc) originally started by a group of educators in Alberta and now expanding rapidly to include trainer-teacher-learners worldwide—offers me a different learning opportunity.

ccourses_logoIn #ccourses, I’ll be among those learning from and with a group of educators I very much admire and whose work I have been following for many years. There’s Mizuko Ito, whose work as a cowriter of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub report Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design broadened my understanding of and appreciation for connected learning after I read and wrote about it in early 2013. And Michael Wesch, whose YouTube video The Machine is Us/ing Us about Web 2.0 entirely changed the way I taught and learned and saw the world after watching the video in 2007. And Cathy Davidson, whose book Now You See It introduced me to the concept of “unlearning” as part of the learning process and who is listed as a participant in the September 15, 2014 #ccourses kick-off event. And Alec Couros, whose work on #etmooc (the Educational Technology & Media MOOC) in 2013 opened my eyes to the wonderful learning opportunities inherent in well-designed connectivist MOOCs and drew me into a community of learning that continues to sustain me in my training-teaching-learning efforts. And Alan Levine, whom I first met through the New Media Consortium several years ago and whose work on creating a blog hub for #etmooc set a high standard in terms of facilitating connected learning online and continues to provide learning objects to this day—nearly 18 months after the course formally concluded. And Howard Rheingold, whose writing on “crap detection” and so much more is a continuing source of inspiration.

oclmooc_logoThe #oclmooc experience, for me, will be very different. I’ll be working, as a “co-conspirator” helping design and deliver the MOOC, with an entirely different group of educators I very much admire—colleagues from other connectivist MOOCs, including #etmooc and the Exploring Personal Learning Networks MOOC (#xplrpln) designed and facilitated magnificently in 2013 by Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott at Northwestern University. I know that the learning curve for all of us has been tremendous—moving from learners in MOOCs to learning facilitators in MOOCs in less than two years—and that the best is yet to come. We’re already honing skills we developed in #etmooc and elsewhere—using Google Hangouts for our MOOC planning sessions, scheduling tweet chats to facilitate learning, organizing a blog hub so #oclmooc learners can create and disseminate their own learning objects as an integral part of their/our learning process. And as energetic and inspired trainer-teacher-learners, we’re pushing ourselves to further explore open connected learning and educational technology with our colleagues worldwide.

So yes, I am learning to pay attention to how rapidly our learning space is evolving—because I am continuing to learn viscerally, through the use of online educational technology, that the entire onsite-online world, more than ever before, is our primary learning space.

N.B.: This is the first in a series of posts documenting learning through #ccourses and #oclmooc.


Learning With Our Learners: Online Master Class

August 15, 2014

The thrill of watching instructors and learners interact in a master class setting—where the master works as a coach, one-on-one, with a highly-developed learner while others observe the process—has struck me as one of the most intimate and rewarding levels of interaction possible between learners and learning facilitators ever since I first observed master classes many years ago at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Learning vicariously from world-renowned musicians as they coached extremely talented music students who performed highly-rehearsed pieces created a combination of excitement, tension, and inclusion for everyone. In the best of circumstances, the master class had a transformative effective on everyone present.

When there is real chemistry between the master and the learner, it’s a beautifully dynamic process to observe. And when arrogance creeps in—as when a learner plays a piece, then the master plays a passage from the same piece and attempts to stimulate conversation by asking, “Why does that sound so much better when I play it than when you do?”—we receive a much-needed reminder that hubris has no place in the learning process (other than to provide examples of what we should never do with our own learners).

SEFLIN_LogoWorking as much online as I do face-to-face these days, I’ve always wondered how an online master class might be designed and delivered. And thanks to colleagues in the Southeast Florida Library Network (SEFLIN), I had a chance to try it out earlier today by conducting an online master class for learners in the four-part “Mastering Online Facilitation” series I have designed and am facilitating for SEFLIN and its Florida-based learners (July 30 – August 22, 2014).

It was even more exciting and rewarding than I had hoped it would be.

Synchronous_Trainers_Survival_Guide

Wonderful resource for online facilitators

The set-up was as simple as we could possibly make it. Interested learners, who have been exploring various parts of the design and delivery process for facilitating webinars and online meetings, were invited to submit a brief PowerPoint slide deck that they would use as the basis for a five- to 10-minute live, online presentation, or exercise in facilitating meetings. The very small group of us participating in the experiment arrived online 15 minutes before the master class was scheduled to formally begin; that gave us time to engage in a brief tech check so that the sole learner scheduled to present could familiarize herself with the various tools within the platform (Adobe Connect) that we were using. That pre-session time provided something far too few of us remember to incorporate into our learning-facilitation space: time for the learner to become familiar with the learning environment before the formal learning experience begins. More importantly, it left us with a brief period of time to further develop the rapport that creates a supportive learning sandbox and eliminates as many distractions as possible so that the real focus is on learning (not the technology behind the learning—that’s a different part of the lesson).

At the scheduled time, we started recording the session so the learner would be able to focus on her presentation and know that she would be able to review the entire session later. As is the case with any successful master class, this one worked well because the learner already had significant, well-developed skills (from the face-to-face presentation and facilitation work she does). It was also helpful that she was using a presentation comprised of content she had already successfully used onsite (i.e., it was well-rehearsed), so she could almost completely focus on how to provide content engagingly in an online environment.

When she was finished, I couldn’t help but blurt out the first thought that came to mind after being drawn into what amounted to an introductory segment to a longer presentation: “Keep going.” (To keep up our comparison to musical master classes, we could refer to her master class performance as the performance of a prelude to a much longer piece of music.)

It took her only a few seconds to realize the not-so-subtle compliment behind the words: she had hit a home run on her first online outing.

Presentation Zen

Great tips for incorporating dynamic visuals into presentations

We then circled back on the presentation at a few levels. I first asked her how she felt about her presentation, and the two of us serving as her audience assured her that her perceptions of being halting and a bit off kilter were far from what we as audience members had experienced. I then walked her through her seven-slide presentation, slide by slide, to comment on what struck me as being strong about the slides and her verbal presentation—stopping at the end of each slide to ask her if she had any additional questions or observations. Our final pass through the slide deck was to discuss possible variations to what she had designed (e.g., using more visual elements and smaller amounts of text, finding creative and subtle ways to highlight parts of text so members of her own audience would be immediately drawn to specific elements on a slide at the moment she was verbally addressing those elements).

What was probably most rewarding for all of us was that the lines between alleged master and wonderful learner, in this case, were extremely permeable. We learned as much from her presentation and her questions as she learned from our reactions (and I learned even more when I went back to the recording myself to see how I could improve my own skills at facilitating master classes); we were not telling her how she should have designed and presented her information, we offered variations on her theme and left it to her to decide what she believed will best work for her own learners when she takes that presentation back to them; and we all understood that for every moment we spend in and benefit from occupying the master’s seat onsite or online, we benefit so much more by sharing all the learning that has shaped us—and will continue to shape us—in our own lifelong-learning efforts.


NMC 2014 Summer Conference: Adventures, Guilds, MOOCs, MOLOs, and Gamification (Play With Me)  

June 17, 2014

You won’t hear any of the “MOOCs are dead” lamentations here at the 2014 New Media Consortium (NMC) Summer [ed-tech] Conference in Portland, Oregon. In fact, many of us attending New Mexico State University Assistant Professor of Curriculum & Instruction Julia Parra’s pre-conference workshop this morning walked away understanding that the world of MOOCs (massive open online courses)  is still very much evolving. As is the approach to designing and delivering them. As is the vocabulary that attempts to describe them.

nmc.logo.cmykParra took an appropriately playful approach to the topic as she suggested that incorporating concepts of gamification into the evolving world of MOOCs might produce more engaging and rewarding learning experiences for all involved. If we apply the playfulness of gamification to MOOCs, she suggested, we begin trying to cultivate “fans” rather than designing coursework for “students.” Those “students” then become “adventurers” in learning “adventures” rather than completing uninspiring assignments in weekly “modules,” and they engage in connected learning by working in small “guilds” comprised of less than 10 people per guild so they can more effectively become learners as creators rather than learners solely as consumers—something I’ve experienced and documented through participation in #etmooc—the Educational Technology and Media MOOC—and other connectivist MOOCs.

Even the terminology applied to these online courses can reflect the variety of options available, Parra noted: MOOCs, in a variation she is exploring through an “Adventures in Learning Design, Technology, and Innovation” course she is developing, become MOLOs—Massive Open Learning Opportunities. Other variations she noted in passing include LOOCs (little open online courses), SPOCs (small private online classes), and LeMOOCs (limited enrollment MOOCs).

The way we and our learners approach MOOCs and define completion and success is equally open to variations. One of her own practices is to engage in what she calls “scavenging”—diving into a MOOC long enough to find something of value to her or to achieve a particular learning (adventure) goal rather than feeling that she has to finish every assignment designed by those creating and facilitating the adventures she is pursuing. It’s the same approach many of us are taking in our lifelong-learning endeavors: we maintain that we have “completed” this sort of learning adventure when we have met our own learning goals rather than standard one-size-fits-all definitions of the term “course completion.” The bottom line, of course, is that we help create and foster a culture of lifelong learning that provides the opportunity for learning facilitators to learn alongside their learners.

NMC Summer Conference - PortlandParra further helped us explore our ever-evolving learning environment by reminding us that some of our familiar approaches to learning (e.g., pedagogy and andragogy) are complemented through increasing attention we give to other “gogies,” including heutagogy (the study of self-directed learning) and hybrid pedagogy. The push to explore, synthesize, and build upon the myriad approaches and influences trainer-teacher-learners encounter every time we step back from our work enough to see all that goes into it helped clarify the exciting range of possibilities that come our way each time we convene at a conference as inspiring and as eye-opening as the NMC Summer Conference is.

Leaving the session—and looking forward to all that is before us for the next few days—left at least  few of us appreciating the elements of a framework for learning that Parra outlined: clarification; community and collaboration; creation; crystallization; and contemplation—a framework that should serve us well as we continue learning from our colleagues here in Portland and within the much larger communities of learning to which we belong through all that we attempt and accomplish.


Location, Location, and Location: Hanging Out and Learning With Samantha Adams Becker and ATD

May 17, 2014

Being in the same room with my friend, colleague, and co-presenter Samantha Adams Becker earlier this week along with colleagues from the Golden Gate Chapter of the Association for Talent Development (ATD)—formerly the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD)—required a combination of technological sleight of hand; some knowledge of the neuroscience of the brain, learning, and magic; and plenty of practice.

Horizon_Report--2014-CoverWhat helped make the evening intriguing was that Samantha, in a very real sense, was not more than a few feet away from me in San Francisco for our “Ed-Tech, Learning, and NMC (New Media Consortium) Horizon Reports: What’s In It for Us..and Our Learners” discussions with local ATD colleagues while simultaneously being more than 1,850 miles away, in Baton Rouge.

I’ve been learning how to be in at least two places at once ever since colleagues and I, in fall 2007, used Skype to connect a colleague from Ohio with an onsite audience in San Francisco to show how the use of free online tools could effectively and viscerally bring people together in ways that simulate face-to-face conversations—think of it as telepresence without costly investments. I continued the experiment  with Skype in a different context for a virtual face-to-face just-in-time lesson in using Excel and PowerPoint two years later to help a friend prepare for a job interview she was about to do. Racheted it up a bit more via Skype by bringing two offsite colleagues into an onsite presentation for ASTD Sacramento Chapter members in May 2011. And returned to the experiment with Samantha in June 2012, shortly after Google Hangouts became available as a way to viscerally connect individuals regardless of geography: she was co-presenter, from New Orleans, for an onsite session I was facilitating in San Francisco’s East Bay Area for ASTD Mount Diablo Chapter colleagues.

We knew we had exceeded participants’ expectations—and our own—when I managed to step out of the room unnoticed while the Mount Diablo Chapter members were interacting with Samantha; rejoin the conversation from outside the room by logging into the Google Hangout via a tablet I was using, and briefly talk to her about how that interaction by tablet was an example of how smartphones and tablets were allowing us to engage in a variety of m-learning (mobile learning) opportunities regardless of whether those opportunities were asynchronous or synchronous—which is what the ATD Mount Diablo Chapter event had become at that moment.

ASTD_to_ATDOur latest collaboration with members of what is now the ATD Golden Gate Chapter included some interesting twists, and those interested in how to duplicate the experience have plenty to consider. Basic equipment includes a desktop or laptop computer; webcams (mine is built into my relatively lightweight Toshiba Portégé laptop); ability for us to hear each other (both of our laptops have small built-in speakers that produce high-quality audio output when hooked up to an onsite speaker system), and she usually doesn’t wear a headset or have any other visual cues that would remind people she is not physically in the room; a small, portable back-up speaker system that can be hooked up to my laptop in case the onsite speaker system isn’t working properly on the day or night of a presentation; and a projector and screen (or blank white surface) to project Samantha’s video feed from the Google Hangout in a way that made it easily and clearly visible for everyone onsite.

Onsite rehearsal time is critically important. When using a site for the first time, rehearsals can extend from an unusually short 45 minutes if all works well—it rarely does—to as much as two two-hour sessions if intensive trouble-shooting becomes necessary. (We once had to solve an unexpected Internet connectivity problem by ending one very frustrating two-hour session so I could obtain a 4G hotspot device and make arrangements to purchase enough online time with that device to carry us through an additional rehearsal and the live event itself.) Rehearsal includes checking sound levels from various points throughout the room, locating the best position for the webcam so it captures enough of the room for Samantha to be able to see as many participants as possible, and trying to create the least-intrusive tech set-up possible: the point is to create a set-up which has participants looking at the projected image of Samantha, me, and each other as much as possible so that the technology quickly fades into the background—which, thankfully, it generally does!

Sleights_of_MindUnderstanding how our minds process visual and audio information also helped us more effectively take advantage of creating the illusion of presence even though she was physically in Baton Rouge, so reading the section on ventriloquism in Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde’s book Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions. The key element here is understanding that our brains process sound the same way they do when we watch movies in a theater, matching sounds with images to make us believe the sound is coming from the screen rather than the speakers, so we always attempt to have speakers unobtrusively placed as close to the screen as possible and match the sound level as much as possible to the level of my own voice onsite.

We have also come to understand that worries about lack of synchronization between what participants hear and see (as when lip movement is ahead of or behind what they hear) is not as important as many of us might assume. Macknik and Martinez-Conde convincingly demonstrate, in their book, that we focus on an extremely small part of what is in our overall field of vision. Extrapolating from what they show, we realize that the only time participants notice discrepancies between sound and lip motion is when they focus their visual attention on the motions of the speaker’s lips onscreen. If they are looking at Samantha’s eyes, or at me, or at anything else in the room, the illusion of presence is not at all interrupted.

Our onsite-online blended presentation this time also carried the experiment one step further. To control and limit potential bandwidth problems, Samantha and I were the only two participants in the Hangout; other offsite participants received the program feed via a separate remote-viewing option that Chapter members routinely provide. If offsite participants had wanted to ask questions, the person monitoring that external feed would simply have repeated questions to Samantha and me, and we would have responded orally so the outgoing feed carried the response from the room to the offsite participants.

But all of this is just a prelude to the real magic that occurs through this type of learning experiment/experience: it’s a perfect match of content and delivery method for everyone involved. We were introducing participants to current trends, challenges, and developments in educational technology that affect them and their own learners, and we were facilitating discussions on the topic through the use of relatively low-cost technology that they themselves could immediately use if they chose to do so. We had cobbled together a smart classroom to show how relatively easy a task that could be. We learned from the questions they asked as much as they learned from the presentation we offer.

Emergency responders needed for e-learning trauma?

Emergency responders needed for e-learning trauma?

Most importantly, it became another example of the power of learning opportunities that are engaging. One of our most rewarding discussions came from participants’ observations that e-learning/online learning experiences generally are far less engaging than they should be and almost leave learners requiring the assistance of trauma-unit personnel—which made us laughingly agree that one service ATD and other learning organizations could provide would be an e-learning trauma/paramedic service to minister to those who had suffered through traumatically bad learning experiences online. We also used our ersatz smart-classroom set-up to exchange ideas about how to address digital literacy challenges among ourselves as trainer-teacher-learners as well as among the larger group of learners we all serve.

The conversation came to an end with the all-important confirmation that everyone in the room felt as if Samantha had been there with us in our blended onsite-online learning experiment—and in every significant way, she had been! The technology we have and the technology that others are continuing to develop creates magnificent opportunities to meet and interact with first-rate colleagues and provide effective learning opportunities—as long as we focus on each other and see the technology as the background tool that facilitates learning, communication, interactions, and meaningful collaboration.


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