Transformative and Reflective Life-long Learning (Part 3 of 3)

January 31, 2010

If we want to provide effective learning opportunities, we need to build reflection into the process from the beginning and encourage learners to participate in setting their own learning goals.

A third critically important element of successful transformative and reflective learning involves acknowledging and remembering that learning is a process, not an event, and that processes, as we know, require participation, and follow-up if they are going to be successful.

The approach De Anza College Distance Learning Center staff take through the “Distance Learning Questionnaire” they adopted many years ago from the PBS-Adult Learning Service leaves us with a first-rate example of what we should all be considering. Although it is designed to help students determine whether they are ready to engage in online learning, it also serves to remind workplace learning and performance professionals that we have an equally important role to play in preparing ourselves and those with whom we work to build foundations for success from the beginning.

What is wonderful about the questionnaire is that it asks questions designed to provoke thought and reflection: How important and time-sensitive is the prospective learning experience to the learner? Do the learner’s habits lend themselves to success in an online learning environment?  

The questionnaire immediately offers guidance to those who complete it. Achieve an appropriate score on that questionnaire and it appears you are ready to proceed. On the other hand, if your score is lower than successful learners achieve, the advice is straightforward: “you may need to make a few adjustments in your schedule and study habits to succeed” or, for those with the lowest scores, “distance learning may not currently be the best alternative for you; talk to your counselor.” Hard advice, yet very helpful to all involved if we’re looking for long-term results.

A final link, from the top of the page, leads readers to a page where the questionnaire, the scoring guidelines, and an explanation of the results are all available, and this is where the real learning and reflection opportunities are for prospective learners. Among the explanations and the tips offered are that “Distance Learning courses give students greater freedom of scheduling, but they can require more self-discipline than on-campus classes,” and “Distance Learning requires at least as much time as on-campus courses. Students surveyed say that Distance Learning courses are as hard or harder than on campus courses.”

If forewarned is truly forearmed, De Anza College staff and instructors are doing a great job of preparing everyone for learning successes, and there’s a lot all of us can learn from their example as we carve out time for our own reflective moments.


Transformative and Reflective Life-long Learning (Part 2 of 3)

January 27, 2010

Bamboo Project blogger Michele Martin’s recent lament about how little time we provide for reflection in the learning process was far from the entire story for her. In talking with Maurice Coleman in the T is for Training interview he did with her, she also returned to a theme she has often written about: the need for learners to take personal responsibility for their own continuing education and creating their own personal learning environments—or, as Stephanie Zimmerman writes in an ALA Learning post, engaging in “feral learning.”

Those who rely on their employers to direct their training-learning opportunities are, Martin maintains, missing one of the most important lessons of all: “We need to take control of our own learning…When the company is in charge of your learning, then you are always learning what they want you to learn…We need to say, ‘What is it that I want to learn? How do I want to develop?’…The people who left it up to companies: at the end of the day, they were obsolete.”

This is far from a theoretical proposal, as Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt suggest in Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom: “The traditional educational model, based primarily on the concept of the school and the teacher in a classroom as islands, standing alone and not interconnected with society or other educational institutions, will not generate competence in a knowledge society” (p. 166).

Workplace learning and performance professionals who serve as leaders within their organizations assure me that they are as eager to provide and facilitate learning experiences as they are to encourage the development of the sort of communities of learning which grow when we direct our own continuing education.

Martin as well as Palloff and Pratt see tremendous opportunities through effective online learning and the use of Web 2.0 (online social networking) tools: “Not only are we helping to shape the creation of empowered, lifelong learners, our participation as equal members of a group of learners supports us in our own quest for lifelong learning,” Palloff and Pratt write (p. 168).

Another element of this process, they note, is that we don’t frequently enough ask whether learners are adequately prepared for or ready to engage in online learning and take advantage of the opportunities which exist for transformative and reflective life-long learning. That doesn’t mean we can’t help them along on their individual paths toward this level of creating personal learning environments and exploring feral learning; De Anza College Distance Learning Center staff actually provide a great example for all of us through the “Distance Learning Questionnaire” they adopted many years ago from the PBS-Adult Learning Service (p. 154) before it ceased operating in 2005.

It’s clear that none of this is particularly new. It’s also clear that it’s an important element of training-teaching-learning which is far from universal. If we embrace the opportunities provided through creating personal learning environments and exploring feral learning, we move one step closer to teaching by example and producing the sort of results which all too rarely are documented within the organizations we serve.

Next: Reflective Preparation—The De Anza College Questionnaire


Transformative and Reflective Life-long Learning (Part 1 of 3)

January 25, 2010

Listening to Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training interview with Bamboo Project blogger Michele Martin about learning, Web 2.0 (online social networking), and a variety of other topics, I was struck by a passing reference she makes to the need for reflection in learning: “One of the things that I find from a learning perspective that is often missing is the whole notion of reflection. We’re just not really great with reflection…and social media, to some extent, can support it…”

What’s notable is not that someone is lamenting the lack of reflection in contemporary learning, but that so many of us recognize and comment on it yet somehow don’t seem able to foster it to a large degree in workplace learning and performance programs.

It’s not as if we’re unaware or it or even unsure as to how to proceed. Those of us familiar with Fort Hill Company’s efforts to create comprehensive leadership training opportunities which draw managers/supervisors and learners together before as well as after learning events take place know that there are great models to be followed and adapted. The Fort Hill Company model is also well documented in Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan’s book The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results; a follow-up manual (Getting Your Money’s Worth from Training & Development) written by Jefferson, Pollock, and Wick is designed to help managers/supervisors and learners better apply what is offered through face-to-face or online learning opportunities.

But the moments of what Jack Mezirow calls “transformative learning” and “critical reflection” seem few and far between in most programs we see and oversee today. Learners often have to fight to obtain release time from work—the very idea that learning is somehow disconnected from or not an integral part of work hints at how deep-rooted a problem we face here—and then often return to worksites where what they learned is not accepted, nourished, or supported. Worse yet, the time to even practice what is learned is seen as a luxury rather than an essential element of the learning process.

As Martin says in different words in her T is for Training interview, one benefit of online learning is that course participants can “engage with and reflect on the course content,” Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt note in Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom (p. 129)—a book which is as fresh and timely as when it was published more than a decade ago. (An updated version was published in 2007.)  The process of making reflection a part of learning, they add, “is a vibrant, dynamic process that is typically not completed when a course ends…the first experience with this process creates a hunger for more and sets the stage for participants to become lifelong, reflective learners” (p. 130).

It all becomes personal—as learning should be—and transformative when we immerse ourselves in a combination of face-to-face and online learning experiences, as I did over the past couple of years. Regardless of whether the courses were online or onsite, the best were the ones that left me hungry for more. Made me continue reading and thinking about books like Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations and Lon Safko and David Brake’s The Social Media Bible: Tactics, Tools, and Strategies for Business Success long after the courses and projects requiring them had ended. And make me appreciative that trainer-teacher-learners like Martin, Palloff, Pratt, and the others mentioned in this article are still among us to remind us what we can accomplish when we are reflective.

Next: Personal Learning Environments and Feral Learning


From eLearning to Learning (Pt. 2 of 5): A Case Study in Blended Learning

May 18, 2016

Setting the agenda (at multiple levels) is always part of a successful learning event/presentation. It’s no surprise, therefore, that my “co-conspirators” on the Mount Prospect Public Library 2016 Staff Inservice Day planning committee and I focused on this for “From eLearning to Learning,” a day-long onsite and online exploration of how staff at the Library can better define and incorporate e-learning into its work, throughout the planning phase (from January through early May 2015).

Mount_Prospect_Discovery_Zone--2016-05-12There was the obvious, simple question we all face at the beginning of the planning process for successful learning: what will we actually do with our co-conspirators (i.e., our learners) on the day we meet as co-conspirators in learning? It didn’t take us long, during our initial telephone conference call, to settle on a structure that included a highly-interactive keynote presentation that would set the tone for the entire day of learning by trying to recreate the high levels of interactivity inherent in any great onsite or online learning experience; my own agenda here was to help staff at the Library quickly move past the idea that online learning has to be formulaic, lacking in engagement, and something done to them rather than with them. We also took little time in reaching the decision to set up a series of breakout sessions so staff members could have meaningful, productive discussions in small groups to explore a variety of interrelated themes and then, at the end of the day, come back together so we could share the wisdom of the crowd in deciding what they would do in the days, weeks, months, and years after participating in “From eLearning to Learning.”

A more subtle, nuanced approach to setting the agenda was at the level of deciding how we, as co-conspirators in the planning and facilitation process, would work together; that’s how we settled on the approach briefly described in the first of these five “case study” postings. We followed an informal “how to run a meeting” process I’ve been successfully using for years: I very much see meetings as theater, with strong elements of improvisation thrown in for good measure. Each item on a meeting agenda is meant to be part of a carefully-crafted script from which we can deviate as needed (hence, the improvisational element), and each item should produce something concrete that leads to the next item on the agenda.

Circle of learning: breakout session in a lovely setting

Circle of learning: breakout session in a lovely setting

When this approach to setting agendas and facilitating meetings works well, it produces results that are as engaging, entertaining, and transformational as a great piece of theater is. We walk away knowing we have been involved in something significant. Something that makes us see our world at least a bit differently than we saw it before we were together. And something that makes us want to transform a potentially ephemeral moment into a very long, extended moment of process that continues to grow as long as we take the time necessary to nurture it.

The Staff Inservice Day “From eLearning to Learning” planning process became tremendously engaging for all of us when we started, during the initial planning conference call, to shine a bright spotlight on a few questions we had already been thinking about before we joined that call:

  • What could we do to be sure we provided the best possible learning environment for the co-conspirators who would be the participants in “From eLearning to Learning?”
  • What could we do to be sure that everything we offered created a visceral sense of understanding the power of eLearning as a component of our overall approach to learning?
  • What could we do to assure that everything that happened during “From eLearning to Learning” connected back to the Library’s strategic plan in terms of incorporating eLearning into its learning offerings?

Mt_Prospect_LogoMy own meeting notes—which I edited and shared with other members of the planning committee to create the same sense of blended synchronous/asynchronous conversation I often try to foster in online learning environments—show that our initial conversation produced numerous substantial elements, including a set of learning goals that helped shape the event. Participants would be told that, by actively participating in “From eLearning  to Learning “, they would be able to more effectively define e-learning; put e-learning in the larger context of learning overall; be able to explain why e-learning is positive and why they should take advantage of it; identify what e-learning provides for them; identify what e-learning provides for those they serve; and, most importantly, what they would decide to do within the next two weeks to foster more effective e-learning opportunities for themselves, their colleagues, and/or those they serve. We also threw in the additional perk of assuring them they would become aware of at least three resources they could use to improve their e-learning efforts. (These are, after all, members of library staff; we love our “see also” references.)

Keeping our focus on the learning experience, we also built plenty of reflection time and shared debriefing time so the learners would be able to absorb what they would be experiencing. We scheduled 15-minute breaks between each of our proposed chunks of learning (keynote, the three break-out sessions, lunch, and the final “bringing it all back together/next steps” session).

Subsequent meetings focused on content for the break-out sessions; discussion about developing a facilitator’s guide—the bones of that simple two-page guide came out of a 15-minute discussion during one of our telephone conference calls; a series of questions the facilitators would ask to foster lively and productive discussions during the break-out sessions; and a final structure that brought everyone back together briefly at the end of each break-out session for additional brief wisdom of the crowd moments. In this way, we made sure there were the small, very fruitful opportunities for each voice to be heard, and the larger opportunities for everyone to stay on track in terms of understanding how these small-picture sessions would contribute to a large-scale transformation of the entire staff’s approach to e-learning as part of the overall learning landscape in which we operate.

A critically-important moment occurred late in the planning process, when we decided that those who wanted to be able to step back a bit over lunch could do so, and those who wanted to engage in a mini unconference to more deeply explore topics that had come out of the morning sessions would have that opportunity in a way that put them at the center of the learning process. We’ll look more at what came out of the unconference in Part 4 of this case study; Part 3 will focus on how and why we had a pre-event onsite meeting the day before “From eLearning to Learning” was held—and the important modifications that came out of that final, lively discussion.

Next: Onsite Fine-tuning

NB: This is the second of five articles documenting the process of helping to plan and facilitate a day-long exploration of how to effectively incorporate e-learning into our learning process. Companion components to “From eLearning to Learning” currently include a PowerPoint slide deck with extensive speaker notes, a facilitator’s guide, a lightly edited and annotated Storify document capturing that part of the conversation that occurred via Twitter, and online shared documents that contain content added by the learners during throughout the day of the main event. Some are shared here through those live links with the express approval of Mount Prospect Public Library training staff. For help in developing and facilitating a similar event tailored to your organization, please contact Paul at paul@paulsignorelli.com.


Clark Quinn: Learning, Nomenclature, and Fomenting Revolution  

May 21, 2015

Clark Quinn, a colleague through #lrnchat and ATD (the Association for Talent Development), is certainly not the first to say that he is mad as hell and to urge us to not take it anymore. Nor is he the first to suggest that the nomenclature we use to describe what we do in what is generically called “training” is far from adequate, or that our event-based approach to learning is often a frustratingly ineffective approach to making a different in a learner’s life, or that it is time for a new manifesto to set things right.
Quinn--Revolutionize_L&D--CoverBut Quinn, in his well-researched, highly- and finely-nuanced book Revolutionize Learning & Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age, does far more than recycle old rants. He effectively draws upon the experience he and his colleagues bring to our workplace training-teaching-learning efforts. He builds upon research-based evidence to show where we continue to go wrong in workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts and how we might change our course(s) to the benefit of those we serve. And he adds to the dynamic literature of training-teaching-learning-doing in a way that encourages reflection as well as action.

“I am on a mission,” he tells us on the first page of the preface to the book. “The stuff I had railed against a decade ago was still in place. I was, quite frankly, pissed off. I decided that I simply had to make a stab at trying to address the problem….I am not temperate in this [first] section, I confess; on the contrary, I may be tarring with too broad a brush. I am not apologetic, believing it better to be too harsh and raise hackles than to have no impact. Reader beware.”

signorelli200x300[1]The issues he tackles are numerous—not the least of them being the inadequacy of the jargon we use. As Lori Reed and I noted in our own book (Workplace Learning & Leadership; ALA Editions, 2011), there are numerous terms used to describe the training-teaching-learning field and those playing in that field; each term, furthermore, overtly as well as subliminally affects the way we approach and engage in our work—which, of course, is why it’s important that we eventually find the right vocabulary: terms that not only accurately and concisely describe what we do, but also guide us toward successful efforts supporting our workplace colleagues and those they ultimately serve. One of the most visible and well-orchestrated recent attempts to update our vocabulary came a year ago when the American Society for Training & Development rebranded itself as the Association for Talent Development for many reasons—not the least of which was a desire to emphasize the result (developing the workplace “talent” of employees) rather than the process (i.e., training/learning). Quinn, whose book was co-published by Wiley and ASTD one month before the ASTD-to-ATD transformation was announced, suggests that we move from our industry jargon of “learning and development (L&D)” to “performance and development (P&D)” for the same reason: to place a focus on the results of our efforts (employee performance in the workplace) rather than the process leading to those results. Neither approach strikes me as completely satisfactory, for “talent development” as an industry descriptor then suggests the less-than-perfect and far-from-inspiring term “talent developer” (instead of “trainer” or “learning facilitator” or any other equally-inadequate term we might also incorporate into our lexicon to guide us in our work). I continue, in my own work, to use the less-than-perfect hyphenate “trainer-teacher-learner” to capture what I believe is a trinity of terms summarizing important facets of our work—but I quickly acknowledge that it misses one of the key attributes Quinn calls to our attention: a focus on what learners do with what they are learning. If workplace learning and performance is—as so many of us believe—a transformative process that should lead to positive action, then the words we use to describe it should also reflect and acknowledge the inherent goals driving the process.

When we move beyond the nomenclature and into the real focus of the first section of the book (“Status Quo”), we find that the author has taken a playful yet devastating approach to describing the state of our industry. The subheadings to Chapter 3 (“Our Industry”) seem to be the result of an effective game of free-association—one that helps make the case for joining the revolution: “inadequate”; “event-ful” (in the negative sense that learning opportunities are treated as isolated events rather than part of a larger learning process that produces positive results for learners, their organizations, and the customers/clients/patrons they ultimately serve); “disengaging”; “antisocial” (in the sense that they underutilize the social media tools that are so important a part of our workplace efforts); “rigid”; “mismeasured” (in the sense that evaluations don’t measure meaningful results from training-teaching-learning efforts); and “no credibility,” among others. If that isn’t enough to make us grab our pitchforks and burning brooms so we can storm and burn the antiquated castles of training/L&D/P&D, perhaps we need to check to see if any of us still has a pulse.

The book (and Quinn), of course, offer us far more than a pessimistic document that would leave us wanting to slit our training-teaching-learning wrists. His second section explores research-based evidence on how our brains react to and absorb learning opportunities—in contrast to what many of our current efforts actually provide—and reminds us that informal learning opportunities, the use of communities of learning, the use of existing resources rather than always seeking to design new workshops and courses, and recognition of the benefits of mobile learning as part of our learning landscape stand to produce far better results than we currently produce.

ATD_LogoHis section on aligning learning with workplace needs provides a great example of what he is attempting to foster: by incorporating case studies and reflections by several of his colleagues (including Jane Bozarth, Allison Rossett, and Marc Rosenberg—people familiar to us through our involvement with ATD, #lrnchat, the eLearning Guild, and other first-rate learning communities), he reminds us that even a book like Revolutionize Learning & Development can serve as a gathering place for colleagues to meet, talk, learn, reflect, and develop effective plans of action.

The final section (focusing on a “path forward”) works well with a short set of appendices to help us reflect on core competencies and practices that better position us to be part of a process of change within our workplace training-teaching-learning (and doing) efforts.

“This book is not a final answer,” Quinn says up front (p. xxiv). “There are answers in many of the component areas, but the integration is new, and a book is a limited endeavor.”

He leaves us with an open invitation to join the discussion through RevolutionizeLnD.com; the “Serious eLearning Manifesto” that he, Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, and Will Thalheimer have posted; and his ongoing series of posts in his “Learnlets” blog. And there are, of course, the continuing opportunities to be part of the conversation and action through participation in #lrnchat (Thursdays, 8:30 pm ET/5:30 pm PT), T is for Training, ATD, and our numerous other communities of learning and action.


Information Services Today: Hyperlinked Libraries, Makerspaces, & Learning in a Collaborative World

April 17, 2015

Trainer-teacher-learners reading Michael Stephens’ “Hyperlinked Libraries” and Kristin Fontichiaro’s “Creation Culture and Makerspaces” chapters in Sandra Hirsh’s newly-released anthology Information Services Today: An Introduction will find inspiring reminders of how learning organizations are evolving to meet community needs.

Information_Services_Today--CoverIn fact, if we substitute the term “learning organization” for the word “library” in a set of observations Stephens offers at the top of the Hyperlinked Library page on his Tame the Web site, we have another first-rate manifesto for trainer-teacher-learners working within libraries as well as for those working in other settings: “The Library Plays. The Library Learns. The Library Tells Stories. The Library is Transparent. The Library is Participatory. The Library harnesses user-generated content. The Library makes Connections.” Stephens, furthermore, has provided a bridge from hyperlinked libraries to a concept of hyperlinked learning that carries us into themes trainer-teacher-learners are exploring worldwide; it encompasses learning models and tools including massive open online courses (MOOCs), a combination of formal and informal learning, Douglas Thomas and John Seeley Brown’s A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, mobile learning (m-learning), connected learning; reflective learning, production-centered learning, personal learning networks, and flexible learning spaces.

Hyperlinked_Library_SiteHis description of hyperlinked libraries in Information Services Today offers us a straightforward point of departure: “Hyperlinked library services are born from the constant, positive, and purposeful adaptation to change that is based on thoughtful planning and grounded in the mission of libraries. Information professionals embracing the hyperlinked model practice careful trend spotting and apply the tenets of librarianship along with an informed understanding of emerging technologies’ societal and cultural impact. Information professionals communicate with patrons and potential users via open and transparent conversations using a wide variety of technologies across many platforms. The hyperlinked library model flourishes in both physical and virtual spaces by offering collections, activities, trainings, and events that actively transform spectators into participants. In participatory culture, everyone is in the business of advancing knowledge and increasing skill levels. The community is integrated into the structure of change and improvement” (p. 185).

Hyperlinked learning includes elements of much of what colleagues and I explore and document through our participation in the New Media Consortium Horizon Project: how we are incorporating technology into the learning process; how tech tools support and expand the collaborative opportunities we have within learning organizations and the communities they serve; and what we should and can do to keep our skill levels where they need to be to meet the needs of the organizations and learners we serve.

When we turn our attention to makerspaces within the framework of  hyperlinked learning, we easily see how makerspaces fit into our experiential (learn-by-doing) learning landscape and how much less vibrant that landscape would be without the creative, collaborative nature of what those spaces produce. They provide a huge and much-needed leap from lecture-based learning—where success is measured by quizzes and other ineffectual measures of long-term learning—into a world of learning that supports the development of the collaborative and creative skills so many people promote as workplace essentials. They are engaging. Dynamic. And transformational. And they build upon some long-established traditions.

Fontichiaro_Makerspaces“Information organizations have a long tradition of supporting a community’s intellectual and personal interests through rich collections available for checkout and through interactive activities online and in the physical space,” Fontichiaro explains in the conclusion to her makerspace chapter. “By unifying the how collections of the information organization with the let’s-do energy of the community, information organizations can create maker learning communities and opportunities that delight, motivate, and inspire communities” (p. 198).

We don’t need to make this overly complex. It really comes down to some simple concepts:

  • Our approaches to learning and to designing/redesigning the spaces in which we learn, while grounded in well-established patterns and practices, offer intriguing possibilities for dynamic change at least partially made possible by the rapid rate of change in the technology we have.
  • Learning is not something with defined beginning and ending points; when supported effectively, it’s a fascinating, rewarding, meandering, lifelong endeavor comprised of informal as well as formal elements carrying us between a variety of learning organizations including academic institutions, workplace learning and performance (staff training) programs, museums, libraries and other information organizations, conferences, and onsite as well as online communities of learning.
  • We don’t have to subscribe solely to a single element of hyperlinked learning or what learning spaces—including makerspaces—contain. Remaining open to an evolving set of options serves us and our learners well.
  • The tools available to support training-teaching-learning are continuing to evolve in intriguing ways, and we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our learners to explore those tools as time allows so we can most effectively support the varied, lifelong learning needs successful participation in our workplaces and our communities requires.

We have, as so many of us have repeatedly observed, come to expect that learning will occur when and where we need it. Our greatest challenge is to find ways to embrace and meet that need through effective collaborations—without becoming overwhelmed by options.

N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of reflections inspired by Information Services Today: An Introduction, which includes Paul’s chapter on “Infinite [Lifelong] Learning.”


Openly Meandering and Learning During Open Education Week

March 12, 2013

A little exposure to openness can carry us a very, very long way, as I’m learning through my Open Education Week meanderings.

Open_Education_Week_2013_LogoInitially inspired to engage in Open Education Week ruminations and activities through my current immersion in #etmooc—an online Educational Technology & Media massive open online course (MOOC) developed by Alec Couros and colleagues—I am now finding myself nearly overwhelmed by how the current open movement module of the course is inspiring me to see rhizomatically-extending roots and shoots of “open” nearly everywhere I look.

There is, for starters, the idea that the open movement itself encompasses an incredibly broad set of terms and actions: the “connect, collect, create, and share” elements of Open Education Week; the four tenets of the open movement as cited in an #etmooc panel discussion (reusing, revising, remixing, and redistributing content); and Don Tapscott’s quartet of collaboration, transparency, sharing, and empowerment from the TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) talk he delivered in 2012.

Moretti--New_Geography_of_JobsBut there is much more, as I’ve been reminded through additional reading and reflection over the past several days. A brief passage that I found in Enrico Moretti’s The New Geography of Jobs, for example, beautifully captures the idea that physically-open spaces within our worksites and coworking settings can facilitate a different—yet not completely unrelated sorts of—open exchanges of ideas and “knowledge spillover”—think Google, Pixar,  the San Francisco Chronicle building Hub space mentioned by Moretti, and so many others that have recently caught our attention. (Not everyone is enamored of these physically-spaces, as the most cursory online search will show, and I certainly don’t believe that physically-open spaces should be universally adopted for all work we do; a little solitude can go a long way in providing us with the time we need to reflect and absorb what we learn.) The open work spaces, however, are far from revolutionary; they’re similar to what we have seen in our more innovative classrooms, for at least a couple of decades, where learners aren’t confined to desks but, instead, interact with each other and those facilitating their learning in collaborative ways. And it’s also the same concept we find in Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place descriptions of how our interactions with friends and colleagues in our wonderful third places (coffee shops, neighborhood restaurants, and other settings which now extend to online communities where we can drop in unannounced and know our social needs will be met through stimulating interactions) produce the sort of creative results fostered by the open movement.

It’s just a short intellectual jump from the open movement and Moretti’s thoughts to the greater world of open-movement exchanges of ideas, as we’ve seen in Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect, that wonderful reminder that chance encounters under the right circumstances between people of varying backgrounds can produce far more than might otherwise be inspired. It’s as if we’ve tossed The Medici Effect into a huge mixing bowl with James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, let them brew a while, and then scooped out a wonderful ladle of open, collaborative thinking to see what new flavors we can discover.

etmoocWhich brings us back to Open Education Week and #etmooc itself: using the online resources available to us and the collaborative, participatory spirit that is at the heart of a successful MOOC and the open movement, we learn to viscerally understand, appreciate, and foster the spirit of open that drives these particular learning opportunities. And encourages us to openly engage within others in the hope that everybody wins during Open Education Week and for many more weeks, months, and years to come.

N.B.: This is the twentieth in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc.


Nicholas Carr, the Shallows, and Reflective Learning

July 1, 2011

An author who begins his book on “what the Internet is doing to our brains” by admitting that he is rarely able to “immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article” raises an obvious question in the mind of even the most lackadaisical reader: So how were you able to write a book inspired by your lengthy article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and how is anyone who uses the Internet going to be expected to actually read it?

Fortunately for all of us involved in training-teaching-learning, Nicholas Carr managed to persevere and even address those obvious questions near the end of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. And, in offering us that book, he provides an engaging look at how the neuroplastic nature of our brains is helping us adapt to the flood of information the Internet brings our way—something we need to understand if we’re going to effectively work with the learners we are serving.

“The very existence of this book would seem to contradict its thesis,” Carr disengagingly admits (p. 199). “If I’m finding it so hard to concentrate, to stay focused on a line of thought, how in the world did I manage to write a few hundred pages of at least semicoherent prose? It wasn’t easy.” He even, at that late point in the book, softens the case he makes throughout the book by writing, “The question, really, isn’t whether people can still read or write the occasional book. Of course they can.”

But by then it is too late for us to quibble. Through his lucid prose and by consistently introducing us to a variety of sources documenting how we absorb information, he builds a strong case for the argument that what we are doing as we quickly jump from Internet site to Internet site leaves us skimming the surface—wading ineffectually through those shallows he cites in his title—rather than engaging in the sort of reflective learning that the act of reading books often supports.

Those of us who do not have trouble reading (or writing) long articles or books would suggest to Carr that he appears to be right on target in explaining how our brains change physiologically in response to the constant inundation of information. Furthermore, he builds a strong case for his contention that quickly leaping from one website to another in a frenetic race through an enticing array of hyperlinks leaves us with little time to reflect upon and absorb the writing in any one article we encounter.

And yet—as usual—I find myself focusing on people as much as on technology. I find it as hard to blame the Internet for what we are doing to ourselves as I would find it hard to blame television or radio or videogames for the shallowness that is so often apparent in our intellectual lives. What I’m actually seeing here is yet another opportunity for trainer-teacher-learners: the opportunity to call our learners’ attention to all that Carr documents and work with them to counteract the shallow learning curve this sort of leaping produces.

It really is no different than the effort our best teachers made, during our academic careers, to help us develop effective study habits. If we accept Carr’s thesis that we’re undercutting our own ability to read and absorb material because, like kids in a candy shop, we’re always racing off to the next bright and shiny bit of information the Internet offers us, then the answer is to help interested learners find ways to slow the process. Step away from the hyperlinks. And spend a little more time in the uninterrupted pursuit of reflecting upon the more thoughtful pieces of writing that come our way—like The Shallows does—so we can have our learning cake and eat it too.

If “information overload has become a permanent affliction,” as Carr asserts (p. 170), then we as trainer-teacher-learners need to play a leading role in acting upon that diagnosis and showing our learners—while reminding ourselves—that slowing down a bit will bring us long-term benefits including reduced stress levels, higher levels of creativity, and more productive approaches to the challenges we face in our work and personal lives.

We don’t really have to go down the unnecessary path of making this an either-or choice between reading books and reading online materials. We can and should continue using the Internet and all those fabulous hyperlinks when they serve our needs. We also can and should continue recognizing that immersion in a printed or electronic book while fending off distractions does require effort on our part.

As Carr notes, it isn’t easy. But it is rewarding enough to be well worth the effort. As anyone who made it this far into this article can probably confirm.


Building Buzz: Microblogging, Learning, and Atlantic Monthly (Part 1 of 2)

February 13, 2010

Being the pseudo-troglodyte that I am, I have not joined Facebook, Twitter, or any number of social networking services that friends and colleagues enjoy on a daily basis. On the other hand, I’ve found LinkedIn, Ning, and a few other tools to be tremendously effective for what I value: using online tools as tools rather than letting them demand minutes and hours I simply cannot spare.

Google, this week, shifted my thinking a bit by pushing a new free and easy-to-use add-on into my Gmail account: Google Buzz. It turns out to be an interesting variation on the theme of microblogging a la Twitter and LinkedIn updates by allowing participants to connect to each other very easily through the posting of short messages back and forth over a shared network.

What really drew me to experiment with Buzz over the first few days of its existence was the realization that I could view—or not view—Buzz entries as time and desire allowed. Friends who use Twitter tell me that if I don’t want to check for updates frequently and respond rapidly, there’s really no point in using Twitter; Buzz, on the other hand, approaches me as I love being approached: it’s available, but not demanding.

Twitter, on its own website, bills itself as “a real-time information network powered by people all over the world that lets you share and discover what’s happening now…[w]hether it’s breaking news, a local traffic jam, a deal at your favorite shop or a funny pick-me-up from a friend.” The result is that users post an overwhelming amount of personal information which can quickly drown readers in minutiae.

Facebook clearly provides a playfully social gathering place for people looking for the online equivalent of the “third place” away from home and work that Ray Oldenburg described so well in The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community more than 20 years ago. With the online Facebook community comes an expectation that responses from community members will be swift and plentiful.

LinkedIn offers a relatively unobtrusive business- and career-oriented variation on the theme, serving as a way to “find, be introduced to, and collaborate with qualified professionals that you need to work with to accomplish your goals.” Controlling the flow of incoming information is easy to manage, which is one of its most attractive features for me.

And now we reach Buzz, which attempts to provide a way to “start conversations about the things you find interesting,” according to the introductory video posted by Google. It’s already clear that much of the information overload seen through other microblogging tools is possible, and it’s equally clear that its success as a valuable information source depends on how we all use it.

While it’s far too soon to know how it will play out, I have to admit that I’ve already been delighted with a few of the results. While several people are posting exactly the sort of personal ephemeral updates which keep me away from Twitter and Facebook, a few are exploring the possibilities of sharing useful resources along the lines of meeting notices and professional print and online resources we might otherwise overlook.

UC Berkeley E-Learning Librarian Char Booth, for example, posted a link providing information on her forthcoming book, Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning: Instructional Literacy for Library Educators right at a time when I had been exploring and writing about the need for more reflection in learning. Writer-instructor-librarian Meredith Farkas initiated an exchange soliciting recommendations for “a really good book (or books) with concrete suggestions for engaging library instruction activities.” And ALA Learning colleague and co-writer Lori Reed posted a link to “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America” in the March 2010 issue of The Atlantic, a fascinating article with interesting repercussions for all of us involved in training-teaching-learning.

So I’ve been Buzzed. And I’ve already absorbed that wonderful article from The Atlantic. And am now ready to Buzz others with thoughts about what that article suggests to the trainer-teacher-learners among us.

Next: What the Atlantic Article Suggests for Trainer-Teacher-Learners


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