“I’m afraid” has to be one of the most common and dangerous phrases a teacher-trainer or student-learner can utter or hear. Fear leads to stress, stress shuts down the functioning of the neocortex, and learning becomes severely constrained or completely impossible.
Johansson spends considerable time in The Medici Effect explaining that the best ideas and experiences to emerge from the Intersection, that meeting of people from different fields of study or walks of life, come from taking risks and overcoming fear of failure. He cites studies and examples which confirm what many of us already suspect: that success requires multiple attempts and the willingness to actually fail so that lessons can be learned from failures.
One payoff to decreasing the fear of failure, he suggests, is that as the sense of danger decreases—physical danger or the much less serious danger of looking bad because of failure—people take more risks and therefore increase their chances of achieving even more innovation and success. Which sounds to me like a perfect breeding ground for first-rate learning which helps us and our students contribute more in our workplace and the larger community in which we live.
If we try a risky lesson plan or technique which takes us into the Intersection with those whom we are teaching or training, we become more effective. We have and share that magnificent jolt which actually makes us crave even more Intersectional experiences. And, if we are lucky, we have planted important seeds. We, and those we teach or train, become engaged. Excited. Collaborative. Associative. We are inspired and, in turn, inspirational. Which leaves us with a final question: is there any reason to let fear deprive us and our students of these potential training successes? Having read and thought about The Medici Effect, I fear not.
We help ourselves and our students if, on a regular basis, we consciously work to break down these associative barriers—including our own assumptions of how easy a particular subject is to master. If we have, for example, learned how simple it is to use wikis, blogs, or RSS feeds, we also have to remember that there were moments when we struggled with these subjects.
There is nothing quite like the experience of returning to a classroom or a workshop to remind ourselves how our students—and we—feel while learning something new. We might, for example, be sitting in a class and find ourselves annoyed by an instructor who is impatient or annoyed because we are not quickly grasping a concept which the instructor finds elementary. When this instructor makes the mistake of criticizing us for being slow, we snap in two ways: we remind the instructor that we are trying to learn, and, more importantly, we remind ourselves of how we hinder learning when we are insensitive to our learners’ struggles.
Through this associative and empathetic process, we become better teacher-trainer-learners. Those whom we help become equally excited by the possibilities they might otherwise have ignored. And our entire community—onsite as well as online—becomes more vital than it was even a moment earlier. We learn. We grow. And everybody wins.
This really is not much different than what happens in the best of all teaching and training settings, whether they are in a formal classroom, meeting room, lunch room, or through an online offering such as a webcast, Elluminate session, Skype session, or in Second Life. It is all about the community that we as teachers-trainers-learners help establish through the perspective we develop and bring to our work and to our play.
Sometimes, developing new perspectives can be as easy as stepping into a familiar place and looking at it in a way we previously have ignored. If, for example, we always teach from the front of a room with which we are familiar and are chained to our computer work station, we can shake things up by walking around the room during our presentation, enjoying exchanges with the students to whom we have figuratively and literally become closer. At other times, we might really turn things around by asking for a different room set-up: chairs facing in a direction the students usually have not looked. In that process, we change everyone’s perspective—even our own—as we redefine the front and back and sides of the room. The simple act of modifying the learning space at least subliminally suggests and promises that something is amiss in a potentially exciting way. If it is approached in a natural rather than pointless and gimmicky fashion, it can be a way of waking up those who are prepared to just glide through yet another training workshop. It also creates the possibility that the teacher-trainer will see something unexpected from this new perspective and, through the wonders of improv, incorporate it into that day’s workshop.
There is, of course, the danger of alienating the participants if the change does not make sense.
I recently was part of a group which met daily for a few weeks in a particular room, with an established (u-shaped) set-up of tables and chairs. When one group of presenters decided to switch rooms without explanation, those of us who were in the audience found ourselves in a much less comfortable room with much less possibility for the interchanges we all craved. We sat in rows of seats similar to what we sat in when we were in elementary school. Everyone faced the presenters, who stood in the front of the room. There was little chance for spontaneous interactions since the room itself placed the seminar leaders completely in control of every moment of the seminar, including the all-too-brief question-and-answer period. This was a stark and dispirited contrast to the normal set-up where everyone saw everyone else and exchanges were very lively. Although the presenters had the illusion of absolute control over everything that happened during the seminar, they could not control the participants’ resistance to this unexpected and unwanted change. A few of my colleagues were so disenchanted that they overtly refused to join in the very limited discussion which the presenters half-heartedly tried to conduct during the final few moments of the session.
So, where does all of this leave us in terms of our perspective? In a world wide open with possibilities, where, by encouraging exchanges and creative interactions, we all learn, grow, and spread the word. And, perhaps, we become actively engaged in the Intersection where our sense of community and possibility leads to even greater things.
Next: Training, the Intersection, and Breaking Down the Barriers
“When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary ideas,” Johansson writes (The Medici Effect, p. 2). “The name I have given the phenomenon, the Medici Effect, comes from a remarkable burst of creativity in fifteenth-century Italy.”
And for those of us who work in the field of staff training, it is where we learn just as much from students as we can offer them, with the result that all of us are teacher-trainers as well as student-learners and what we find is spread to others we will soon encounter.
There is really nothing new in the concept of drawing from a place we can’t clearly define. Carl Jung calls it the collective unconscious and suggests that when we properly prepare ourselves, we can draw from incredible reservoirs of useful archetypes. Others refer to the sense that they benefit from the experiences of past lives. (I’ve always loved the words a friend once blurted out: “I don’t really believe in past lives—except for the brief glimpses I’ve had of my own!”)
So where does this take us in our role as trainers and educators?
Johansson might suggest that we are constantly dancing at the edge of the Intersection if not completely immersed in it. Many of us travel and, therefore, are constantly exposed to a wide range of stimulating settings, challenges, and people. Our students—even if they are all from a particular field such as libraries—themselves interact routinely with people from incredibly diverse backgrounds and with tremendously varied interests. We are, more and more, expanding our definition of community through the contacts we make with the resources available to us in a Web 2.0 world. And some of us plant and nurture seeds through what we teach and learn in every session which we lead, thereby adding to what grows within Johansson’s Intersection.
We are also constantly exposed to seemingly disparate elements—Skype, reference services, and those who use library services without actually entering a brick and mortar library, for example. This leads to the sort of connection which produced a panel discussion during the Library Staff Development Committee of the Greater Bay Area’s “Future of Libraries, Part III: Embracing the Invisible Customer” conference at the San Francisco Public Library September 26, 2007 and featured a reference librarian from Ohio University Libraries explaining Skype as a reference tool—via a live Skype connection into the auditorium.
The beauty of the Intersection is that it really does not require very much effort—just a commitment to remain inquisitive. We need to be able to question what we learn and know and teach. Break down the barriers. And be open to a constant stimulating change of our perspective. Most of all, we need to listen: to ourselves, to those around us, and to those we meet in books and magazines, online, in classrooms, and even in our dreams
There are conferences that start and end on a pre-announced schedule; you step away from work, you attend them, you enjoy them, and then you go back to work. And then there are conferences that feel as if they are already underway long before you arrive onsite or online for the first formally-scheduled event and seem to continue for days, weeks, or even months after the final formally-scheduled session concludes—which pretty much captures what I experienced nearly a month ago (January 5-7, 2021) during the Arizona State University ShapingEDUthree-day Winter Games online conference for dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age.
You could, at the beginning of the Day 3 (January 7), already see it happening: through the discussions and plans for action that were forming and through the intersections between participants, you could see Winter Games transforming itself into part of a longer-lasting series of conversations and efforts to foster positive action extending far beyond what was happening. Attendees were engagingly interacting with presenters and panelists including elected officials, nonprofit and for-profit business representatives, educators, and a variety of other people exploring how collaboration across a variety of sectors might lead to short- and long-term positive results to everyone’s benefit.
Feeling as if I am (a month later and after having participated in yet another virtual conference) still very much participating in Winter Games and looking back on the final day and everything I saw and learned, I’m not at all surprised by what we accomplished. Nor by what we laid the groundwork to accomplish. The discussions during keynote sessions, during smaller, more intimate breakout sessions, and during a final late-afternoon wrap-up gathering were Frans Johansson’sIntersection (explored in his book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures) coming to life: people from a variety of backgrounds gathering to talk and listen to each other, exchange ideas, and then return to their own communities to disseminate those ideas in world-changing ways.
As Samantha Adams Becker—one of our community leaders—observed that day, a dreamer envisions a better future. A doer makes it happen. And a driver scales it so that the future is more evenly distributed. Which, to me, serves as an acknowledgement of the community’s increasing attention toward placing lifelong learning within the larger context of social change, social justice, and social challenges we are facing and attempting to address through the work we do. It’s a community of educators as activists—where learning is a tool rather than an ultimate goal or achievement.
My own notes from that session—captured in the form of tweets prepared while the session was underway—in no way fully capture the depth and nuances of the conversation, which you can watch and hear in its entirety through the archived recording on the ShapingEDU YouTube Community Channel. But they do offer a gateway to a world of thought well worth exploring. Mayor Woods, for example, talked at one point about how the city of Tempe uses data to determine what services stay open; he also noted that city officials are known for making city-government decision based on data, including data related to diversity and inclusion. Another panelist wryly and repeatedly noted that short questions often reveal the need for long, thoughtful answers influenced by data sets as we attempt to address the challenges we face. Collecting data, the panelists suggested, is one step in better serving citizens (and, we might add by extension, learners); it’s about creating networks to look at data, to ask critical questions, and being able to better meet people’s needs by drawing upon and using the data we collect.
Leaving that session with my head still swimmingly in a wonderfully deep pool of ideas, I next moved onto more familiar ground—at least for me—in a session exploring some of the latest upgrades offered through Zoom. Listening to Zoom representatives talk about everything from incorporating PowerPoint slide decks into virtual backgrounds within Zoom to campus-wide integration of communications (telephone) systems and security systems into Zoom demonstrates, once again, that this is a company and product that is far from being content resting on its already well-deserved laurels. The entire session did what I want any great learning opportunity to do: it made me hungry for an opportunity to explore some of what I was learning was possible, and I have, since leaving that session, been exploring ways to build what I learned into the work I am continuing to do with learners.
The final session of the morning, for me, was an intriguing, intense look into the ever-evolving world of massive open online courses (MOOCs), which have remained of interest to me (and, apparently, others) ever since their brief moment in the spotlight several years ago. Led by Arizona State University Director of Digital Innovation Dale Johnson, the “Global Adaptive Instruction Network: Building a Collaborative MOOC Model” was a stunning look at how MOOCs in theory and in fact continue to evolve in ways that offer learners and learning facilitators intriguing ways to create more personalized, engaging learning opportunities than might otherwise be available.
“MOOCs have really become more like the McDonald’s of Higher Ed…” Johnson noted at the beginning of his session. “A lot of people are served but of some questionable educational value….How do we enhance the MOOC?….We are moving from a mass production world to a mass personalization world….The challenge for us is how do we move, in education, from mass production…to mass personalization?”
As we move to delivering the right lesson to the right student at the right time, he suggests, a collaborative MOOC model offers us interesting and intriguing possibilities. (Those interested in learning more can view the archived recording on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel.)
There is so much more to say about Winter Games. About that fascinating intersection/Intersection at the heart of the event. And about the conversations that are continuing even though nearly a month has passed—including one I had earlier today with Stephen Hurley during a “ShapingEDU and Community” segment of his VoicEd Radio“Hurley in the Morning” program. There is much we can learn about organizing effective online learning opportunities/Intersections along these lines, as we see in the ShapingEDU “ShapingED-YOU Toolkit” available free online. And there is much to be said for innovative, playful communities of learning that operate seamlessly throughout the year face-to-face as well as online.
But the Intersection we have reached at this moment is one where looking back, looking forward, and relishing the present moment bring to mind a line I’ve found in poems and many other pieces of writing I have absorbed over the years: The end is the beginning. And if that remains true for Winter Games, the best is still ahead of us.
Yet another article—this one from Inside Higher Ed—is purportedly documenting the idea that MOOCs (massive open online courses) are dead—again. Which is news to those of us who are current relishing and being transformed in dynamically positive ways by George Couros’s#IMMOOC (the Innovator’s Mindsetmassive open online course). #IMMOOC and others are far from being the educational equivalent of the zombies inhabiting the mythical Land of the Living Dead Learning Opportunity; in the best of situations, they are dynamic learner-centric, inspiration-laden learning spaces where communities of learning can and do develop.
One of the most unexpected and rewarding aspects was the realization that the communities of learning that develop in a course (onsite or online) could, as soon as they become learner-driven by those who see themselves as “co-conspirators” in the learning process rather than sponges striving for little more than a grade or a certificate of completion, take on a life that can and will continue far beyond the timeframe of any individual course or other learning opportunity. The #etmooc community continued actively online for more than three years; it was only when numerous key members of the community changed jobs or retired that the impetus community members had for continuing to meet vanished and the community became dormant.
Yet another unexpected and rewarding aspect came with the realization that the community of learning fostered by a well-designed and well-facilitated is not a closed community. Many of us in #etmooc found that our course-based explorations put us in touch with others who were not in the course—but who became interested in the #etmooc community—because of the two-way (and sometimes multi-way) face-to-face and online conversations that started in #etmooc, continued via social media tools and other resources, and further added to the development of the #etmooc community by drawing those non-#etmooc players into the land of #etmooc. For me, it was a wonderfully expansive example of what Frans Johansson so clearly described as “The Intersection” in The Medici Effect—the type of third place (e.g., a pub) where strangers briefly come together, exchange ideas (involving plenty of listening as well as talking), then disperse and help disseminate those ideas among others whose paths they cross long after the original pub discussions (or MOOC community of learning discussions) took place.
I saw this in action again last week in terms of the #IMMOOC community expanding beyond its tremendously permeable walls when I helped initiate a one-hour conversation about one particular aspect of The Innovator’s Mindset with colleagues who meet online to record sessions of Maurice Coleman’s podcast T is for Training. The conversation began with little more than participants having a link to an online resource—“8 Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (Updated)”—that George Couros wrote and eventually incorporated into his book. We summarized the resource during the first few minutes of that episode of T is for Training, then used it as a springboard for a discussion exploring how it could be incorporated into the library training-learning programs that we help shape and facilitate.
The result was that, by the end of the hour, we were energized and ready to transforms the words from The Innovator’s Mindset into concrete actions designed to support innovative approaches to learning within the organizations we serve. We had also created a new learning object—the archived recording of the discussion—that contributes to the resources available to those exploring the topic—including those of us participating as co-conspirators in #IMMOOC. And we had created a new, ready-to-expand Intersection whereby the T is for Training community and the #IMMOOC community might meet and grow together. And the next possibility—that others who have not participated in T is for Training or #IMMOOC might now begin interacting with the fostering the positive actions both communities support—is a possibility ready to spring to life. Which is not, all things considered, a bad result coming from a form of learning that has just, once again, been declared dead and active only as one of an ever-increasing league of Zombies of Learning.
N.B. — This is the sixth in a series of posts inspired by Season 3 of #IMMOOC.
Which 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.
That NMC summit fulfilled its implied promise of creating an Intersection:–in this case, a gathering of what NMC Founder/CEO Larry Johnson has called “100 thought leaders” to discuss wicked problems and plans of action to address those challenging problems that require entirely new ways of thinking and that help redefine the way we view our world. We were there to try to make a difference.
Having already written about the first and second days of the NMC summit and reflected on subtle and not-so-subtle interweavings of themes between that summit and what I’ve been discussing and experiencing with friends and colleagues at the ALA conference, I continue finding the connections to tremendously strong. It’s as if both conferences have melded into one nearly week-long immersion in a profound, intensely deep well of ideas that challenge us to rethink much of what we take for granted in our work and personal lives.
At the NMC retreat, we were looking for ways to address the challenges of redefining roles and identities for students, faculty members, and administrators; fostering an ecosystem for experiential learning; and defining ethical boundaries and responsibilities in learning, among other things. Here in Seattle, some of us are looking for ways to address the challenges of redefining roles and identities for library staff and library users in a world requiring intensive lifelong learning efforts; fostering an ecosystem for information literacy, digital literacy, and open access to information resources; and defining ethical boundaries and responsibilities in strengthening the communities we serve.
But it all comes down to people. That’s what was at the heart of the future of education summit and the ALA Midwinter meeting. Sitting with my colleague Buffy Hamilton—the Unquiet Librarian—at an ALA conference session on “the promise of libraries: transforming communities” this morning, I quickly realized that this was yet another opportunity to engage in metalearning—learning about learning—by observing how all of us in the room were learning from the presentation.
The obvious primary focus was the content of that panel discussion—something so deeply inspiring, challenging, and rewarding that I’m going to return to it in a separate article. Equally important was the way content was being offered, consumed, and disseminated. It wasn’t just about how the presenters engaged us. It was equally about how Buffy and I, along with several other audience members in the room, were recording and commenting on that content via the conference Twitterbackchannel—and how that content was reaching and being further disseminated outside the room by others retweeting what we were documenting. There were even times that Buffy and I, even though we were sitting side by side, interacted by retweeting each other’s notes when one of us had missed something that the other had captured.
Because I work with and help others learn to use social media tools in ways that open up opportunities for them by providing access to people and resources that might otherwise not be available to them, I know we still have plenty of people who see Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and many other tools as frivolous distractions. But what continues to become clearer to me day by day is that those tools can equally serve as means to foster the dissemination of information that helps us tackle those wicked problems that are at the heart of so many challenges we might otherwise be inclined to ignore. And whether we use them to augment our daily face-to-face interactions, the Intersection moments that are created at events along the lines of the future of education summit and the ALA Midwinter meeting, or backchannel exchanges, we miss something essential if we don’t acknowledge the seeds we plant each time we gather, talk with, listen to, and build upon the conversations that turn big ideas and dreams into even bigger solutions that sustain healthy communities. It’s learning as a step toward action, and each of us helps build the world of our dreams when we embrace these offerings.
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.
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.
One of the most fascinating stories embedded in any New Media Consortium (NMC)Horizon Report is how the reports themselves are produced: in a highly collaborative, asynchronous fashion using a well-facilitated technology tool—a wiki—as I’ve noted elsewhere. The process draws together colleagues from a variety of walks of life to produce something that none of them could individually ever hope to achieve. And if that somehow sounds familiar, it’s because the underpinnings of these interactions—so important for trainer-teacher-learners and others—is all around us in a variety of printed and online resources.
If we continue down this exploration of why these broad collaborative gatherings are so effective, we find ourselves in Clay Skirky’sHere Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, which builds upon The Wisdom of Crowds by exploring how collaboration produces magnificent—and highly accurate—resources like Wikipedia. And that, of course, brings us nearly full circle back to the wikis that are an integral part of the Horizon process.
Jonah Lehrer’s recently-released book Imagine: How Creativity Worksadds a final dimension to our exploration of the creative process that produces Horizon reports and other worthwhile and inspirational results. Lehrer, among other things, documents how creativity is fostered by online projects such as InnoCentive, where experts apply their expertise to areas in which they don’t normally work and, by bringing an outsider’s point of view, solve problems that don’t come from those well-versed in the field in which the problem is embedded. It’s exactly the same sort of process that supports the work of communities of practice and allows Horizon Report Advisory Board members to come together in an intensively creative way to see elements of the world of training-teaching-learning that few of us would ever notice if we weren’t immersed in this collaborative endeavor.
There’s a deliberate attempt to avoid inbred thinking in the sort of collaboration fostered through the Horizon process: our New Media Consortium colleagues attempt to replace at least a third of the composition of the Horizon Report Advisory Board each year so a new flow of ideas is an integral part of the process. And in providing that model, they leave us with a thought-provoking and effective approach that we can and should easily be incorporating into our workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts: one that mixes experience with infusions of fresh ideas. Takes advantage of our resources. And engages the wisdom of the crowd to help us better serve as the effective facilitators of learning that so many of us strive to be.