James Paul Gee, the Anti-Education Era, and Personal Learning Networks

October 15, 2013

You won’t find the terms personal learning networks (PLNs) or connected learning anywhere in James Paul Gee’s wonderfully stimulating book The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Though Digital Learning. But his plea for greater collaboration, the use of what he calls “affinity spaces,” and  recognition that the combination of “human + tool” is a winning equation suggests that trainer-teacher-learners (and many others) are on the right track by developing those dynamic combinations of people and resources that help us cope with a world where formal and informal learning never stops.

Gee--Anti-Education_EraGee, in providing a no-nonsense and often critical view of the state of our early twenty-first-century learning landscape throughout his engaging preface to the book, sets the stage for an exploration of our “human + tool” predilections regardless of whether we call our communities of learning “personal learning networks,” “affinity spaces,” “communities of practice,” “personal learning environments,” or any other term I may inadvertently be overlooking. (And yes, there are subtle differences between the way each term is used and what each represents, but they all appear to be products of our drive to associate, collaborate, learn, and create something of meaning and value to ourselves, our onsite and online communities, and those we ultimately serve in our day-to-day work.)

“We live in an era of anti-education,” he writes. “We focus on skill-and-drill, tests and accountability, and higher education as a marker of status (elite colleges) or mere job training (lesser colleges). We have forgotten education as a force for equality in the sense of making everyone count and enabling everyone to fully participate in our society. We have forgotten education as a force for drawing out of each of us our best selves in the service of an intellectually and morally good life and good society” (p. xiv).

We have no shortage of opportunities to pursue what Gee describes and advocates in The Anti-Education Era. The five-week Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) MOOC (massive open online course) that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are currently facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program, for example, is inspiring a newly-organized and quickly evolving community of learning connecting participants from many different countries via explorations of personal learning networks while fostering the creation of one of those networks, affinity spaces (through Google+, Twitter, Adobe Connect, and other online resources), and a community of practice that has the potential to thrive long after the formal coursework ends.

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoWe gain a visceral understanding of and appreciation for this far-from-radical yet still-underutilized manifestation of social learning through participation in Exploring Personal Learning Networks; we’ve also seen it through #etmooc, the Educational Technology & Media MOOC that earlier in 2013 drew many of us together for our first experience in a connectivist MOOC (cMooc); and we’re seeing it through our participation in Connected Educator Month activities.

Gee’s work fits right in with what so many of us are currently pursuing as trainer-teacher-learners: collaborations that help us better acquire the skills and knowledge needed to make positive improvements in the local, national, and global communities that our use of contemporary technology fosters.

“I am now convinced that we cannot improve our society by more talk about schools and school reform, but only by talk about what it means to be smart in the twenty-first century,” he explains in the preface. “I will argue that when we make people count and let them participate, they can be very smart indeed….by education I mean what a twenty-first-century human being ought to learn and know and be able to do in order to make a better life, a better society, and a better world before it is too late. A good deal of this education will not go on in schools and colleges in any case, and even less if schools and colleges do not radically change their paradigms….

“I want to warn that digital tools are no salvation,” he adds, turning to a theme explored effectively in the final sections of the book. “It all depends on how they are used. And key to their good use is that they be subordinated to ways of connecting humans for rich learning and that they serve as tools human learners own and operate and do not simply serve.”

xplrpln_logoAs if addressing the need for personal learning networks, Gee offers what I have only half-jokingly referred to as a PLN manifesto: “People who never confront challenge and frustration, who never acquire new styles of learning, and who never face failure squarely may in the end become impoverished humans. They may become forever stuck with who they are now, never growing and transforming because they never face new experiences that have not been customized to their current needs and desires.” (p. 115). We can’t, I believe, actively create and participate in our personal learning networks without being open to hearing about and reacting to a variety of ideas; expanding our understanding of how we learn and applying that learning to the world around us; and finding ways to effectively collaborate to produce results that further nurture (rather than stifle) community development in the most positive ways imaginable.

Gee, in his consistently intriguing book-length exploration of “how we can all get smarter together,” leads us toward a question that again supports the development and maintenance of affinity spaces and, by extension, personal learning networks: “…what if human minds are not meant to think for themselves by themselves, but, rather, to integrate with tools and other people’s minds to make a mind of minds? After all,” he adds, “a computer operates only when all its circuit boards are integrated together and communicate with each other. What if our minds are actually well made to be ‘plug-and-play’ entities, meant to be plugged into other such entities to make an actual ‘smart device,’ but not well made to operate all alone? What if we are meant to be parts of a networked mind and not a mind alone?” (p. 153)

There is much more to explore in Gee’s work. We can certainly continue those explorations on our own. Or, as the author suggests, we can pursue them together. Using the tools available to us. Including our personal learning networks and the wealth of resources they provide.

N.B.: This is the third in a series of posts about Connected Educator Month and the third  in a series of reflections inspired by #xplrpln (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks massive open online course).


#etmooc and #lrnchat: When Communities of Learning Discuss Community—and Produce Results

September 27, 2013

There was no need this week to read yet another book or article on how to effectively create and nurture great communities. Participating in live online sessions with colleagues in two wonderful communities of learning (#etmooc, using the #etmchat hashtag and a Google+ community for online exchanges, and #lrnchat) provided experiential learning opportunities among those trainer-teacher-learners: participating in discussions to explore what makes our communities attractive or unattractive, and contributing to the conversations in ways that produced immediate results, e.g., a name for a new learning community that is in the early stages of formation in Australia.

#lrnchat_logoThe first of the two communities—#etmooc—is relatively young, having grown out of the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course (MOOC) developed by Alec Couros and colleagues earlier this year, while #lrnchat appears to have been in existence at least since early 2009 and is currently facilitated by David Kelly, Clark Quinn, Cammy Bean, and Jane Bozarth.

While #etmooc draws together a worldwide group of trainer-teacher-learners interested in improving their ability to effectively and engagingly incorporate technology into the learning process, #lrnchat has the somewhat broader goal of serving as a community “for people interested in the topic of learning [and] who use the social messaging service Twitter to learn from one another and discuss how to help other people learn”; those first-rate #lrnchat organizers also routinely post session transcripts that in and of themselves are great learning resources for others involved in training-teaching learning.

Participants and discussion topics sometimes, as was the case this week, overlap in #etmchat and #lrnchat sessions in fortuitous ways. Those of us who joined the #etmchat session on Wednesday and then joined #lrnchat on Thursday were able see these two overlapping yet significantly different communities explore (and, in many ways, celebrate) the elements that have made both communities dynamically successful. (Stats posted this afternoon by #lrnchat colleague Bruno Winck, aka @brunowinck, suggest that the one-hour session produced 642 tweets and 264 retweets from a total of 79 participants.)

What was obviously common to both groups was the presence of strong, dedicated, highly-skilled facilitators who kept the conversations flowing, on topic, and open to the largest possible number of participants. There was also an obvious sense of respect and encouragement offered to newcomers as well as to those with long-term involvement—a willingness to listen as well as to contribute, and a commitment to extending the conversation to others not immediately involved. (Retweeting of comments was fairly common in both groups, indicating a commitment to sharing others’ comments rather than trying to dominate any part of the conversation solely through personal observations). What we continually see in both groups is an invitation to engage and a willingness to listen as well as contribute rather than the tendency to create and foster cliques that exists in less effective and less cohesive communities.

A sense of humor and a fair amount of humility also appears to support the high levels of engagement visible in both groups—those who are most inclined to offer the occasional ironic/sarcastic/snarky comment just as quickly turn those comments back on themselves to draw a laugh and make a point that contributes to the overall advancement of discussion—and learning—that both communities foster.

There also is more than a hint in both communities of creating learning objects through the transcripts and conversational excerpts (e.g., through the use of Storify) generated via these discussions. And that’s where some of the most significant results are produced, for embedded in those transcripts and excerpts are links to other learning resources that many of us may not have previously encountered.

etmoocFollowing those links during or after the conversations continues our own personal learning process and, as was the case with #lrnchat yesterday, actually produce something with the potential to last far longer than any single discussion session. One of those unexpectedly productive moments of community-sharing-in-action yesterday came when, from my desk here in San Francisco, I posted a link to a Wikipedia article about third places—that wonderful concept of the places outside of home and work that serve as “the heart of community” and the third places in our lives, as defined and described by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (1989). A colleague in Melbourne (Helen Blunden), seeing that link, quickly followed it to familiarize herself with the concept, then realized that “Third Place” would serve nicely as the name for a new learning and development community she is currently forming in Melbourne—which means that when members of #3placemelb (Third Place Melbourne) interact online, they’ll be the latest offshoot of a learning tree with roots in Oldenburg’s book first published in 1989; a well-developed trunk that has branches representing a variety of settings, including libraries; and continues to sprout twigs in online virtual communities such as #etmooc and #lrnchat, blended (onsite-online) settings, and that latest growth in Melbourne—all because great communities seem to beget additional great communities through collaboration rather than competition.

N.B.: The #lrnchat sessions currently take place every Thursday from 8:30-9:30 pm EST/5:30-6:30 PST; #etmchat sessions are generally announced on Twitter via the #etmooc hashtag and are also promoted in the #etmooc Google+ community.


Teaching-Training-Learning with Evolving Tools and Practices

June 20, 2013

The continuing rapid evolution of our teaching-training-learning tools and roles is sparking some interesting conversations among colleagues in a variety of sectors, and those conversations, increasingly, are helping to create connections and collaborations in what once felt like a terribly siloed learning industry.

T+D_LogoASTD (American Society for Training and Development) Human Capital Community of Practice manager Ann Pace, in a brief column in the May 2013 issue of T+D (Training+Development) magazine, succinctly takes us to the heart of the matter: we’re spending considerably more on social learning than we were a year ago (a 39 percent increase over that 12-month period), and we’re increasingly overtly acknowledging that each of us can serve as a “facilitator and enabler of learning” as we “create the structure that allows [the] shift [from learning occurring at specified times in predetermined locations to being something that is continuous, formal as well as informal, and experiential as well as including teacher-to-learner knowledge transfers] to occur.”

Some refer to this perceived shift as a learning revolution; others of us, as we review the writing of those who preceded us and talk to teacher-trainer-learners in a variety of settings (e.g., K-12, undergraduate, and graduate-level programs; corporate training programs; and learning programs in libraries and healthcare settings), have the sense that this isn’t so much a revolution as a recognition that the best of what we do has always involved the transfer of knowledge from instructor to learner; the acquisition of knowledge by learning facilitators through their interactions with learners; a combination of formal learning opportunities with opportunities that foster informal learning in synchronous and asynchronous settings; and much more.

What Pace helps us see is that incorporating the vast array of social learning and social media tools available to us into what we have always done well significantly expands the learning resources available to us in the overlapping roles we play as teachers, trainers, and learners. And it requires only one additional very short step for us to recognize that the continually-expanding set of tech tools at our disposal (desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets, and, soon, wearable technology including Google Glass devices) and delivery methods (blended learning opportunities, the use of Skype, Google+ Hangouts, live online sessions enabled through products ranging from Blackboard Collaborate to live tweet chats and similar exchanges through chats conducted within Facebook private groups open only to learners within a specific class or community of learning) helps us cope with a world where the need for learning never stops.

There are even obvious, positive signs that we all are continuing to benefit from our expanded ability to reach colleagues through online resources in addition to our continuing attendance at conferences, workshops, and other events designed to facilitate the exchange of information, ideas, and innovations. The tendency many of us have had of allowing ourselves to be locked into learning silos—it is as silly as librarians in academic settings not seeing and learning from what their public library colleagues are doing in training-teaching-learning (and vice versa), or ASTD colleagues in local chapters not being aware of what colleagues in other chapters or at the national level are doing—seems to be diminishing as conversations between colleagues are fostered by organizations such as ASTD, the American Library Association, and the New Media Consortium (NMC),  which gathers colleagues from academic settings, museums, libraries, and corporate learning programs together onsite and online to share resources, spot the metatrends and challenges in teaching-training-learning, and encourage collaborations that benefit a worldwide community of learning.

We see, within that NMC setting, conversations about the shifting roles of educators in academic settings that parallel the comments that Ann Pace made through her T+D column. We realize that the shifts we see in our individual learning sandboxes consistently extend into many other learning sandboxes in many other industries where learning is the key element differentiating those who are successful from those who aren’t. And we see realize that by meeting, collaborating, and then sharing the fruit of those collaborations throughout our extended social communities of learning, we are part of the process of implementing ASTD’s goal—workplace learning and development (staff training) professionals’ goal—of making a world that works better.


Learning Social Media With Our Learners (Pt. 1 of 4)

January 13, 2013

Teaching any “basics” course face to face or online can be one of the best ways to (willingly) be pushed into advanced exploration of a topic, as I’ve been reminded this week.

Social_Media_BasicsDiving into the latest version of the four-week online “Social Media Basics” course I developed with colleagues at ALA Editions, I’m working with a wonderful group of adults who are beginning to set up and learn how to use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ accounts effectively. But it’s not just about sending tweets and posting updates: their entry-level work with social media tools is inspiring them to engage in advanced-level exploration about what it means to go from having a slight or non-existent presence in the world of social media to becoming adept users of those tools professionally and personally. And, as expected, the work they are doing, the questions they are asking, and the resources they are discovering and sharing with their course colleagues make me as engaged a learner as any of them are.

The two-way learning began early in the course when they began exploring some of the extras within Moodle, which is the open source platform used by ALA Editions for online delivery of its courses. The best surprise for me—at least up to this point—came when someone explored the basic tools available and found a way to include a photograph of herself in one of the postings to a course forum. Since that simple act of reaching out socially via a friendly headshot of herself provided a first-rate example of the spirit of social media use, I went back into the course tools to learn how to duplicate what she had done. By responding with a note (visible to all course participants) that included an informal snapshot of myself, I called other learners’ attention to what was possible in our course postings and was happy to see others adopting the same practice so that a bit of social cohesion was already developing even before we jumped out onto the Web to use any of the social media tools.

Even more encouraging was how quickly many of the learners began jumping back and forth from the safety of that private course forum to the much more open and public venue of Twitter as they worked through the first assignment of starting (or updating) a Twitter account. Some were able to quickly create and post first-rate Twitter profiles, start following a combination of course colleagues and other outside resources that will be of use and interest to them in their day-to-day work, and send their first tweets. A couple, uncomfortable about having their tweets seen by complete strangers, discovered and explored the use of accounts that keep tweets private and visible only to an approved group of followers.

One of the most interesting learning opportunities for all of us came from those who were struggling with that same idea about how openly social and accessible to be in a social media setting. They set up their accounts, admitted they felt uncomfortable posting content that strangers could see, and wrote about feeling equally uncomfortable reading content that sometimes is far more personal than what they want to encounter from people they haven’t met. So we brought that level of discourse back into the course forum and provided a discussion thread that allows all course participants to exchange thoughts about the benefits and disadvantages to operating so transparently within a social media context. It will be interesting to see if/when someone in the course becomes confident and comfortable enough to begin tweeting out that sort of question to explore the issue with experienced Twitter users they haven’t yet encountered.

A key element of what we’re doing together is that we’re engaging in deeply important and richly challenging exchanges online as effectively as we would if we were face to face—with the understanding that ultimately there will be no one-size-fits-all answer. We’re pushing the tools themselves into the background and using them to have the sort of discussions that foster effective collaborations via those tools. (With any luck, this posting here on Building Creative Bridges will become part of the overall conversation and another example of how we can extend discussions across a variety of platforms.) And the learners—my learning colleagues in every sense of that term—are quickly seeing that I’m happy to facilitate the discussions and bring additional useful resources to the conversations, but that I’m not going to serve as the sort of social media advocate who insists that everyone has to use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and the many other options available to us.

We all appear to be comfortable with the idea that we adopt a social media tool at the moment we see that tool meeting a need we haven’t filled elsewhere, and that trying to force someone to learn and use something before they’re ready is the worst and least successful way to foster effective learning—probably the most important lesson to be learned and relearned by any trainer-teacher-learner.


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


Social Learning Centers and the Intersection at 39,000 Feet

September 18, 2012

I’m sitting next to Rob, someone I met a couple of hours ago at the beginning of an American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport this afternoon. We’ve been talking about the work he does on data protection and retention and the training-teaching-learning work I do in helping people learn to creatively incorporate technology into their workplaces. And we’re having an extended Intersection moment—the Intersection being that phenomenon described by Frans Johansson in his book The Medici Effect, about how when people from different backgrounds briefly come together and share ideas, they walk away with more than they ever would have developed on their own.

Our meandering conversation is punctuated by periods of silence during which we return to reading material we brought with us on the flight—he on his Kindle, me within the pages of printed books and magazines. And each time we resume our conversation, we learn something new. Rob, for example, learns a bit about social learning as well as about how different contemporary libraries are from those he used to frequent. And I, a moment ago, learned about BookShout!, which Rob pointed out to me after finding it described in the inflight magazine he is continuing to browse.

BookShout!, it turns out, is a new social media offering for readers interested in sharing comments online as they read books together. Having been introduced to the marketplace earlier this year by Founder and CEO Jason Illian, VP of Technology Rick Chatham, and VP of Creative and User Experience Josh Stone, according to the inflight magazine article (American Way, September 15, 2012), the service is already accessible through its website and an Apple app for iPhones and iPads; an Android version is scheduled to come out in October 2012.

Users of BookShout!, Illian notes in an online interview, can have their online discussions in groups as small or as large as they want them to be. First-time visitors to BookShout!’s Google+ site or company website will quickly spot the service’s roots in promoting discussions of Christian literature, but a bit of exploration shows that this is a site with aspirations to provide discussions about books from a wide and wonderfully diverse range of subjects.

And that’s what makes Rob point the article out to me.

“I bet this could be useful in online learning,” he observes, already having gathered from our conversation how immersed I am in creative approaches to training-teaching-learning.

“It’s as if we have our own temporary social learning center right here on this plane,” I blurt out as I realize what is happening.

For in the space of less than two hours, we have met, talked, found enough common ground to have more than a passing grasp of each other’s interests, and we’re already sharing information with each other in the midst of the Intersection.

Whether our social learning center will continue online via LinkedIn or some other social media tool after we land at the airport and part ways remains to be seen. But the learning that occurred, in true Intersection fashion, is already on its way to being disseminated. Through presentations a colleague and I are doing two days from now on social learning centers. And through this article you are reading. Welcome to the Intersection and a budding social learning center. Let’s see where this can take us.


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.


eLearning Guild: Big Answers to “Social Media in Learning” Questions We Should Be Asking

September 14, 2012

There’s a marriage waiting to be made in heaven for trainer-teacher-learners reading learning technology innovator Ben Betts’ Social Learning: Answers to Eight Crucial Questions, published this week by the eLearning Guild.

In his concluding remarks within the 36-page document (available free of charge to paying members of the Guild), he reminds us that social learning “usually means a learner being more active in the [learning] experience, connecting, creating, and curating ideas.” He also suggests that our “role as learning professionals” may be undergoing a shift from “creating simple and accessible learning resources” to “curating content that already exists.”

It’s a theme that was discussed among colleagues a couple of years ago at an American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) conference—we were acknowledging the fact that we had created so much content that users were having trouble locating and accessing it. The theme is also an essential element in the shifting responsibilities colleagues are assuming in libraries all over the country. Which leads me to think that if members of library staff continue to more fully embrace lifelong learning as part of their natural responsibilities and services—it’s a commitment that already exists in the American Library Association (ALA) 2015 Strategic Plan, where the need “to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all”  is part of the organization’s mission statement, and in ASTD, where the mission is to “empower professionals to develop knowledge and skills successfully”—we could be looking at very effective partnerships between library staff and members of ASTD itself since we’re all working toward the same goal: meeting an overwhelming need for effective learning opportunities in an onsite-online world where those who stop learning will be left behind.

Betts, in Social Learning, does a fantastic job of helping us frame the discussion as to how we can better meet a tremendous need. The questions he asks focus on needs and results and set a positive context by beginning with the question “What Is Social Learning?”; continuing with questions about the benefits of social learning and business risks of leveraging social learning; and moving through a review of existing frameworks, ways to generate value from social learning, tools of social learning, measuring success in social learning, and our own roles in the field.

By the time we have completed this wonderfully inspiring and straightforward journey with him, we’re in a position to see that the instructional/learning and information-management skills required of workplace learning and performance (staff training) practitioners and library staff have never been more overlapping. It’s as if this need to combine learning, information sharing/literacy, and content curation is priming us for a merger of ASTD and ALA into an International Society for Training, Learning, Information Literacy, and Content Creation/Curation (although I have to admit that the acronym doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue—ASTLILCCC?—and may need a bit of work even as a Twitter hashtag).

Betts is very effective in helping us understand what already is in place—social learning (learning that is not entirely dependent on formal teacher-trainer-instructors) is hardly a new concept or practice—and what is changing (social learning, he suggests, has been co-opted by members of the e-learning industry to be about “how we learn from one another via digital devices”). But there’s no denying the positive role social learning plays whether we are discussing online, face-to-face, or blended learning. Collaborative/social learning clearly produces positive results for the learners and those they ultimately serve, as he consistently documents throughout his report, and social learning augments formal learning in addition to supporting professional learning and individual’s self-organized learning endeavors.

He reminds his readers that effective social learning, like any form of effective learning, starts with efforts to assure that “your approach makes sense” within the context in which we are designing and implementing it. He suggest that we pay equal attention to the people we are serving, the objectives we are establishing, the strategies we will use, and whatever technology will help us foster the social-learning endeavors we are implementing.

In attempting to generate value, we are encouraged by Betts to engage in instructional scaffolding—“creating a supporting framework for learners to gradually grow in confidence in a new area until they are fully able to support themselves.” And he reminds us that we are building toward success if we use social media tools our learners already use and like rather than trying to develop new tools that learners will only reluctantly embrace, if at all.

“Perhaps it should come as no surprise that workplace uptake of social technologies has been slow when most of us can’t use the tools we’d prefer,” he says near the end of the report, offering a learning nugget that ought to be plastered all over the physical and virtual walls of every trainer-teacher-learners’ workspace to help keep us on track toward fostering effective learning.

He brings us to a strong conclusion by suggesting that we engage in a collaborative learning cycle: design for performance improvement; support existing communities; create, source, and curate resources; leverage appropriate technologies; champion effective social learning; and measure and prove impact.

If those of us who are not already seamlessly moving between libraries and other learning organizations are inspired to reach across the aisle by what Betts writes, we may help bring to fruition the wonderful goal ASTD has so consistently proposed: “creating a world that works better.”


Our Brains on News and Learning

June 17, 2011

Jack Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, proves with his book What Is Happening to News that all of us involved in workplace learning and performance need to read far beyond the artificial walls surrounding our field of play.

While the book ostensibly leads us through the well-documented crisis and evolution of contemporary journalism, its focus on how our brains absorb and cause us to react to all the stimulus we encounter is perfect reading for anyone involved in training-teaching-learning.

As James Zull (The Art of Changing the Mind) and many others have already done, Fuller starts off with explorations of how our brains actually learn. His third chapter, “Models of the Mind,” is particularly helpful both in its brief survey and its description of the physiological reasons why practice makes perfect: “the connection between neurons strengthens through the coincidence of their mutual firing. As the neuroscience slogan has it, ‘Cells that fire together wire together.’ The more frequent the coincidence, the stronger the connection” (p. 34). For Fuller, that helps explain why repetition of statements through the  media we use has a long-term impact on how we perceive the world; for trainer-teacher-learners, it’s a first-rate reminder that being aware of how our brains work puts us in a position to be more effective in fostering the sort of learning experiences that produce positive effects among our learners and all they serve.

Fuller again, within the context of a discussion about contemporary journalism, reminds us that much of what we are facing is far from new: “We are not the first era to sense that distraction has altered our ability to think,” he observes as he notes that one of our seminal journalists, Walter Lippmann, documented the same effect in 1921 (pp.57-58).

And when he moves into a section on “the inundated brain,” he offers a thought worth quoting not only to those interested in why news reporting focuses so much on negative stories but also to those of us interested in knowing what happens to learners who are attempting to do too many things at one time: “Time  pressure alone also increases cognitive challenge and emotional response. Some studies have shown that when given tasks under severe deadlines, people use  more negative information—which suggests that negative emotions are in play—than when doing the same task without being time pressured. Multitasking and information overload, too, increase the challenge to the brain’s processing resources. And when a person’s information processing capacity is stressed through information overload or multitasking, she is more likely to rely on emotional cues and use social stereotypes in making decisions about another person” (p. 61).

Where Fuller’s analysis of our approach to the news really comes to life for trainer-teacher-learners is in his exploration of how we have moved from a dispassionate to an extremely passionate or emotional approach to journalism, as any of us recognize when we think of the difference between classroom lectures and highly interactive, skillfully facilitated learning opportunities: “The curve has shifted toward emotional presentation,” Fuller notes in exploring how news is commonly presented now. “The fact that you can’t find a new Walter Cronkite on television today is no fluke. The dispassionate approach embodied by Cronkite does not attract the audience that it used to. Walter Cronkite was lucky to have worked when he did… Today he would be cancelled. So, by the way, would Walter Lippmann” (p. 72).

And so, I would suggest, would any of us who insist on approaching learning as a one-way instructor-to-learner enterprise when our communication tools and our expectations are all directed toward the collaborative experiential approaches that social learning environments and tools along with social learning itself inspire us to seek.


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