Technology, Learning, and More Wicked Problems

February 25, 2013

For anyone fascinated by the concept of wicked problems—those complex, ambiguous challenges that are not subject to easy or perfect solutions and that were a topic of discussion at the recent New Media Consortium (NMC) Future of Education summit in Austin, Texas—a book called Dancing with the Devil would seem to keep us in the right company.

Katz--Dancing_with_the_DevilWritten by Richard Katz and several of his associates for EDUCAUSE and published by Jossey-Bass in 1999, Dancing with the Devil: Information Technology and the New Competition in Higher Education is fascinating not only for the way it addresses the wicked problem of effectively incorporating technology into learning, but for how contemporary it continues to be more than 12 years after publication in a field of study that feels as if it is evolving faster than we can document that evolutionary process. The book also offers plenty of inspiration for anyone involved in learning—not just those in higher education—and can, in many ways, be a valuable resource for those involved in workplace learning and performance (staff training) programs as well as with libraries, museums, and other organizations with clear and vital roles to play in lifelong learning.

Dancing even stands out as another example of how learning expands rhizomatically in ways that are increasingly familiar to those of us exploring #etmooc, the Educational Technology and Media massive open online course (MOOC) that Alec Couros and others are currently offering. The book’s various writers anticipated, through the six essays they published in 1999, the very forms and themes of learning that #etmooc in 2013 is encouraging learners to explore: online, learner-centric/learner-driven efforts that are encouraged through well-run MOOCs; learning opportunities that are available anywhere and anytime that learners can access them;  “the need for new thinking about property rights, risk sharing, royalties, residuals, and other cost-sharing and compensation strategies” (pp. 44-45); and reminders that online learning isn’t necessarily or even inherently less costly than face-to-face learning—a valuable response to those who mistakenly promote online learning primarily as a way to reduce expenses (pp. 90-91).

Each of these rhizomatic learning tendrils can and will keep us busy for quite a while and leave us free to put as little or as much time into them as our interests and available time allow—something that becomes obvious as we read Dancing with the Devil with an eye toward how timely it remains.

James Duderstadt’s opening chapter (“Can Colleges and Universities Survive in the Information Age?”), for example, offered the prediction that “The next decade will represent a period of significant transformation for colleges and universities as we respond to the challenges of serving a changing society and a profoundly changed world (p. 1).” All we have to do is look at the expansion of online learning and the best of the MOOCs that have been developed since MOOCs were first offered in 2008 to see how prescient he was. It only requires one small additional step for us to be able to acknowledge that similar transformations are occurring are occurring in any learning venue.

etmoocHe also suggested that twenty-first century instructors would “find it necessary” to become “designers of learning experiences, processes, and environments”—something we see in settings as varied as #etmooc itself, library and museum learning offerings, and the best of workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts. This is not to say that the transition is anywhere near complete or universally embraced—that’s why it remains part of the wicked problem we are exploring here and in gatherings including the NMC Future of Education summit last month. It’s still fairly easy to find articles asking why we rely so heavily on lectures and other long-established methods of learning facilitation in spite of evidence that many of these models are far less effective than experiential learning, flipped classrooms, and other models can be in the best of situations.

The virtual time travel that Dancing with the Devil offers is wonderfully obvious when we read the 1999 version of a few case studies Duderstadt (president emeritus and university professor of science and engineering at the University of Michigan) documents, and then revisit those studies via the websites that suggest where the University of Michigan projects are in 2013: the School of Information, the Media Union (now the James and Anne Duderstadt Center); and the Millennium Project. Further online searching leads us to yet another virtual program thriving in Michigan: Michigan Virtual University, started by the State of Michigan in 1998.

Duderstadt ends his chapter with a challenge that flows through the entire book: “Rather than an ‘age of knowledge,’ could we instead aspire to a ‘culture of learning,’ in which people are continually surrounded by, immersed in, and absorbed in learning experiences?” (p. 25)—and I suspect that efforts such as #etmooc show that we’re well on our way toward responding positively to that question and gaining a better understanding of the digital literacy skills necessary for us to function effectively and creatively in our onsite-online world.

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


Hate Speech vs. Legitimate Political Expression: A Wicked Problem in Our Social Media Landscape

October 21, 2017

It’s a stunningly blunt and emotion-laden headline: “Facebook’s Secret Censorship Rules Protect White Men From Hate Speech But [Do] Not [Protect] Black Children.” And the full ProPublica article posted online in June 2017 appears beneath an equally blunt subhead: “A trove of internal documents sheds light on the algorithms that Facebook’s censors use to differentiate between hate speech and legitimate political expression.” The discussion extends into the ProPublica Facebook account (irony, anyone?), which includes a series of slides summarizing how “Facebook has used these rules to train its ‘content reviewers’ [aka “censors”] to decide whether to delete or allow posts.” And there is an additional thought-provoking follow-up in an article (“What Does Facebook Consider Hate Speech? Teach Our Quiz”) published in The New York Times this month.

The articles and that post provide a highly-nuanced, very thoughtful examination of the difficulties we face in establishing universally acceptable standards in a world where universal standards appear impossible to establish—and raise questions for at least a few of my colleagues as to whether we should even be attempting to establish those standards.

Let me be blunt: when I read the six statements included in The New York Times article to see how our own conclusions might differ from the conclusions resulting from those Facebook guidelines for its content reviewers, I don’t see a single comment there that I’m comfortable expressing or defending. I’m not going to tell anyone that they can’t say any of those things, but I’m also not going to remain silent face-to-face or online rather than expressing my firm opposition to those words and other thoughts that are so patently and disgustingly uncivil, incendiary, and destructive; terribly hurtful to friends, colleagues, and other members of our extended onsite and online communities; and in opposition to so much of what I hold to be foundational beliefs as to how we should be treating each other. I want us, collectively and collaboratively, to be seeking ways to make America (and our social media environments) a bit more civil again, and I believe that starts with us doing our best to find some acceptable minimum standards to which we can comfortably adhere.

Let’s start with the six “true-false” statements cited by Times staff members Audrey Carlsen and Fahima Haque, including their up-front statement and question (“Most readers will find them offensive. But can you tell which ones would run afoul of Facebook’s rules on hate speech?”) and the same question (“Would this statement meet Facebook’s criteria for hate speech?”) posted after each of the six statements:

  • “Why do Indians always smell like curry?!They stink!”
  • “Poor black people should still sit at the back of the bus.”
  • “White men are assholes.”
  • “Keep ‘trans’ men out of girls (sic) bathrooms!”
  • “Female sports reporters need to be hit in the head with hockey pucks.”
  • “I never trust a Muslim immigrant…they’re all thieves and robbers.”

The final entry on the ProPublica slide deck provides answers purportedly taken from the training Facebook has provided to its content reviewers, and a follow-up article in The Times provides additional information on that topic. It’s not pretty; as ProPublica suggests in its in-depth article, some of those comments make it past the Facebook guidelines, as users of Facebook must know from reading some of what comes into their feeds. But that doesn’t make them defensible, acceptable, or right—at least to many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, from a variety of political spectrums, with whom I communicate via Facebook and other social media platforms.

I have the same reaction to those six statements that I had last week to some extremely crude and derogatory comments an acquaintance made the mistake of making to me, face to face, in front of my wife and another woman—in a way that suggested he thought he was being clever and funny: I want to—and in this case did—ask him what made him think that what he was saying was acceptable discourse among friends or acquaintances (although my wording was much less civil and much more crude than the paraphrase I’m offering here). Being tone-deaf to the question, he continued in a similar vein for a few more seconds until I explicitly told him—again, in much cruder and far less clever language—that he could take his trash to a different garbage can.

As I carry that thought back into that ProPublica article written by Julia Angwin and Hannes Grassegger, and the responses Facebook representatives provide in that article, I’m not left feeling that the people at Facebook are completely tone-deaf, despicable, or out of touch with the world around them. One important conclusion reached by reading and re-reading that article is that they—and we—are struggling with some very wicked problems here. I also acknowledge the truth behind one of the many thoughtful observations included in the story:

“‘The policies do not always lead to perfect outcomes,’ said Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook. ‘That is the reality of having policies that apply to a global community where people around the world are going to have very different ideas about what is OK to share.’”

That article is also very good about citing positive steps Facebook employees have taken when they create their own do-not-cross lines (“graphic violence, child abuse, revenge porn and self-mutilation”) and how they have apologized when some of their decisions and actions (including deleting comments and temporarily locking users out of their Facebook accounts).

But what we’re left with is a classic example of a wicked problem: how to establish minimum community standards when significant numbers of people within a community are far from being in agreement. Which, of course, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Winter/Spring 2019. This is the first in a series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.


NMC Horizon Report 2014 (Pt. 3 of 6): Opportunities Among Solvable, Difficult, and Wicked Challenges in Learning and Technology

February 7, 2014

Any of us involved in training-teaching-learning might take comfort in the idea that we’re not alone in the challenges we face—something made abundantly clear in the latest Higher Education Edition of the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project reports on key trends, significant challenges, and developments in educational technology.

Horizon_Report--2014-CoverAlthough by definition focused on challenges in academic institutions, the report readily lends itself to serving as first-rate documentation of challenges—and potential solutions to them—far beyond the physical and virtual walls of its intended audience in higher education. Those “significant challenges,” arranged along three distinct time horizons, are grouped into solvable challenges (the low digital fluency of faculty members and the relative lack of rewards for teaching); difficult challenges (competition from new models of education and ways to scale innovations in teaching); and wicked challenges (expanding access to educational opportunities and keeping education relevant) that will take much longer to resolve.   

One consistent theme that connects several of the challenges is the need to help teachers (and, by extension, other learning facilitators) develop better teaching/training skills. It’s an obvious element of addressing the problems of low digital fluency among teacher-trainer-learners, lack of rewards for teaching/facilitating learning, addressing new models of education as well as workplace learning and performance (staff training), and keeping education (and training) relevant.

It’s not as if we’re lacking in options in dealing with some of these issues. The report contains links to a variety of articles documenting creative approaches, such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/Davidson College collaboration to “create a comprehensive curicular model of digital studies to support the faculty’s development of digital skills.” With a bit of creativity, we might be able to apply, to other training-teaching-learning settings, what comes out of that collaboration.

Sahlberg--Finnish_LessonsMoving to an even deeper level of engagement, we might find ourselves inspired to seek productive and creative collaborations by the fact that “[e]mployers have reported disappointment in the lack of real world readiness they observe in recent graduates who are prospective or current employees” (p. 21)—something clearly not solely a problem for those in academia. Pasi Sahlberg has already, through his book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, provided one potentially fruitful route of exploration for those seeking business-education collaborations. Sources cited within the Horizon Report, including the UK-based JISC, provide other collaborative models through which “schools, public libraries, and community learning bodies” partner to explore information and communications technology in learning (quoting from Wikipedia).

And our own experiences working in and with a variety of learning organizations places us in a great position to tackle a broad and particularly wicked problem: “It is difficult for institutions to stay ahead of workforce needs” (p. 21).

My own involvement in New Media Consortium projects, American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) activities, and a variety of training-teaching-learning endeavors through the American Library Association, has convinced me that collaborations among these three first-rate learning organizations could produce positive results that the organizations and their members cannot accomplish on their own—it’s really no different than the JISC approach to bringing schools, libraries, and community learning bodies together. And I suspect that trainer-teacher-learners with experiences and affiliations far different from my own can readily see equally strong prospective partners capable of addressing the challenge of finding ways to stay ahead of workforce needs.

nmc.logo.cmykThe resources mentioned in passing in the “Significant Challenges” section of this new Horizon Report could (and probably should) keep us busy for several weeks or months. In addition to the references to JISC, we find brief, easy to overlook mentions of the 2013 Report to the European Commission on Improving the Quality of Teaching and Learning in Europe’s Higher Education Institutions; Harvard University’s WIDE World online resource for teachers, professors, teacher trainers, and administrators; and the European Commission’s Opening Up Education and Training initiative in addition to numerous links to shorter articles and videos. There are also abundant reminders that expanding access to learning opportunities relies as much on helping people learn to learn in online environments as it does on technology infrastructure. Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars’ “Adaptability to Online Learning” report through the Community College Research Center at Colombia University is one significant resource that carries us far beyond what can be documented within the pages of the new Horizon Report and is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in helping learners thrive in online learning environments.

Learners themselves seem to understand that we need to be working more diligently to create a vibrant and responsive lifelong learning environment moving beyond traditional silos within our organizations (academic learning opportunities that don’t interact with staff training programs that don’t interact with learning opportunities provided by libraries). There is clearly recognition—at least among Millennials—that lifelong learning has become essential to lifelong success in the contemporary workplace, the 2010 Pew Research Center report Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next, documented. Expanded interactions among NMC, ASTD, and ALA members alone could produce positive responses to that perceived need and the challenges noted in the latest Higher Education Edition in the Horizon Report series.

What the report does, then, is highlight the challenges we face so we don’t lose sight of them. It reminds us that we are far from alone in trying to resolve those challenges. And it encourages us to draw upon available resources to better serve those who rely on us to provide effective learning experiences that address their—and our—short- and long-term needs.

NB: This is part of a series of articles exploring the latest Horizon Report. Next: On the One-Year Horizon—Flipped Classrooms and Learning Analytics


Revisiting Our Recent Wicked Past: Malcolm Brown, John Cleese, Creativity, #etmooc, and Light Bulbs

February 28, 2013

If we want to learn at a deeply significant and long-lasting level, we clearly need to keep re-walking familiar paths while remembering, each time we recreate those journeys, to look at them as if we’ve never seen them before this moment.

This becomes more obvious than ever to me earlier today when I have an unexpected opportunity to re-view EDUCAUSE Director Malcolm Brown’s stimulating “Ideas That Matter” presentation from the New Media Consortium Horizon Project Summit on the Future of Education held in Austin, Texas in January 2013. I enjoy the presentation when Brown originally delivers it. I take notes that I reread with fresh eyes a few days later. But it isn’t until I watch the newly-posted video of that discussion of the creative process needed to address wicked problems—those complex and ambiguous problems requiring innovative approaches—that I see how much my perspective on the topic has evolved over the period of a single month.

What makes the viewing of that video transformative is that it places me, in a very visceral way, in two distinct yet interwoven moments and frames of mind. The original moment, environment, and frame of mind is the one created by the act of being part of a summit where all attention is focused on a single, spectacular theme—the future of education. The contemporary moment is the one that is here and now, just one month later, when I continue to be part of a group absolutely transformed by participation in #etmooc, the Educational Technology and Media massive open online course (MOOC) that Alec Couros and others are currently offering through March 2013.

etmoocBrown, like Couros and his associates (his “co-conspirators”), lays the foundations for explorations without establishing a clear vision of the outcome. We know we’re going somewhere, we know it’s going to be a journey well worth taking, and we know we’re going to experience unexpected pleasures along the way, but we have no idea what the destination is until we help create it through our own participation. It’s a learning process, and the most successful learning processes are those that the learners themselves—ourselves—help define, create, and complete. We allow for successes far greater and more significant than we can envision at the beginning of the learning process; we create an expectation and acceptance of the possibility and likelihood of failures along the way; and we create the most wonderfully odd juxtapositions that in and of themselves serve as the sandboxes capable of producing results worth seeking.

Brown, at a key point in his presentation, draws our attention to John Cleese’s lecture on creativity—a spectacularly entertaining and thought-provoking presentation that was originally delivered in 1991, yet continues popping up via online links with great regularity and proving itself to be as timely today as it was more than two decades ago. Being onsite with Brown means that we experience Cleese second-hand; watching the video of Brown’s presentation provides the invitation (consider it a command performance) to take the time to actually relive Cleese’s lecture in the moment, in juxtaposition with what Brown is offering. And we’re all the richer for this opportunity to re-walk both those paths again as frequently as we allow ourselves to be drawn to them, just as we’re able to re-walk some of the paths we’re creating, visiting, and revisiting through the various platforms that #etmooc uses (Blackboard Collaborate presentations; blog postings; live tweet chat sessions; postings in a Google+ community; and a variety of other settings limited only by our own imaginations and the amount of time we have to give to our continuing education efforts in a vibrant community of learning).

But let’s stay with a key point that Brown makes by quoting from Cleese’s earlier yet virtually contemporaneous presentation: creativity “is not a talent; it is a way of operating.” Every time we creatively pull ourselves back into an inspiring learning moment by re-reading our notes, or re-viewing an online presentation, or re-reading a blog posting (and, perhaps, adding to what is already there by posting a new comment that draws the original blogger back to what he or she wrote days/weeks/months/years ago), we keep our learning moments alive, productive, and fertile.

Jumping from Brown to Cleese also takes us deeper into that fabulously Cleesian world where he begins by telling his audience (which, thanks to the video, now includes us in the sort of wonderfully synchronously asynchronous moment that I’m attempting to create with this article) that he can more easily explain humor than he can explain the creative process. Then proceeds to do both by talking about creativity while continually interrupting his own presentation with a seemingly endless string of light bulb jokes. Then finds a way to connect the learning dots by helping us understand how the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas (like creativity and light bulb jokes) can move our minds from a comfortably closed state (that is antithetical to creativity) to one open to unexpected possibilities (which provides a field where seeds of creativity can sprout, grow, and thrive). He makes us laugh repeatedly by reminding us how important these absurd juxtapositions are, and then producing more of them to prove the point. By the time we leave Cleese and Brown, we have strengthened our ability to engage in the process—and even make sense of the sort of juxtapositions I calculatingly create in the headline to this article.

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


NMC Horizon Project Summit 2013 (Future of Education, Day 2): Fun and Wicked in Austin

January 24, 2013

Wicked problems, a high-tech Shark Tank, a survey of ideas that matter, and fun provided the foundations for an inspiringly overwhelming second day of the 2013 New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project Summit on “The Future of Education” here in Austin, Texas.

nmc.logo.cmykLev Gonick, Vice President, Information Technology Services and CIO at Case Western Reserve University, laid the foundations for the discussion of wicked problems by reminding summit participants that those challenges are complex and ambiguous; require disruptive thinking; and require innovative solutions that actually change the nature of the problems and the contexts in which they operate. They are not generally subject to perfect solutions, but they can be fun to tackle. And that’s where Gonick, summit graphic facilitator David Sibbet (President and Founder of The Grove Consultants International), and NMC Founder/CEO Larry Johnson led us in an exercise designed to identify wicked problems we thought would be fun to address in the world of teaching-training-learning.

By early afternoon, we had identified a core set of 10 of those wicked problems in learning:

  • Reducing risk aversion in education
  • Finding ways to set aside time for learning innovations
  • Rethinking roles and identities for students, faculty members, and administrators
  • Reinventing education
  • Creating successful all-device interfaces in learning
  • Addressing the need for social and emotional development in curricula
  • Reinventing online learning
  • Addressing the challenges and benefits of learning from around the world
  • Fostering an ecosystem for experiential learning
  • Defining ethical boundaries and responsibilities in learning

There were a variety of other playful ideas, including one inspired by one participant’s mention of laws in several countries (Costa Rica, Estonia, France, Greece, and Spain) guaranteeing internet access to every citizen: advocating for a constitutional right to internet access as strong as the constitutional right to bear arms.

Joining the discussion on reinventing online learning, I was impressed by the range of options compiled during that brief segment of the daylong proceedings:

  • Start with a goal of creating engaging online course that address subjects to be taught; don’t just transfer onsite courses to online settings
  • Include lots of choices, e.g., collaborative and individual study, and synchronous and asynchronous, that provide learner-centric experiences
  • Use social media to engage learners, and foster plenty of interaction
  • Design courses that move learners out of a learning management system and into online communities that continue to exist after courses formally conclude
  • Engage in blended learning by using asynchronous courses to serve learners world-wide, and build in live online and onsite interactions whenever possible
  • Partner with other teaching/learning organizations
  • Strive for more authentic learning opportunities
  • Provide more project-based learning opportunities that produce learning objects
  • Involve learners from all over the world so that the learning experience is enhanced by increased exposure to diverse perspectives
  • Entice faculty into online learning by creating faculty communities of learning to draw upon the knowledge base of that faculty
  • Develop flexible formats for crediting learners’ accomplishments
  • Capture and document teaching and learning for repurposing
  • Provide more just-in-time learning experiences

Comments from all of the breakout discussion groups were to be compiled this evening so discussions on the final day of the three-day summit could be used to propose plans of action in addressing these various wicked problems.

Interspersed throughout the activities conducted during the second day of the summit were wonderful presentations on a variety of “ideas that matter,” and the culmination of that process was the Shark Tank competition in which eight predetermined competitors were each given 10 minutes to describe an education-tech initiative under development and make a pitch for support (including a $2,500 cash award) from the New Media Consortium.

It was a winning exercise for everyone. The eight competitors involved in the first round (round two, with three survivors, was scheduled to be conducted at the beginning of the final day of the summit) had an opportunity to finely tune their project pitches, and audience members had an opportunity to learn about eight wonderful cutting-edge proposals that combine creativity, learning, and collaboration in ways designed to further our approaches to educational successes.

A sampling of the proposals provides an enticing glimpse into the state of tech and learning innovations:

  • Learning from experience through the Scroll Ubiquitous Learning Log
  • The One Million Museum Moments social media tool providing museumgoers and museum professionals an opportunity to document their museum experiences
  • A learning analytics project centered on “X-Ray Analytics”
  • The Taking IT Global project designed to cultivate future-friendly schools and foster global collaboration in addressing the world’s greatest challenges
  • The development of digital technology supporting educational software simulators and other products through Axis3D
  • Global collaboration among students through the Global Efficient Cook Stove Education Project
  • The FLEXspace community of practice, centered on an interactive database that serves as a flexible learning environment exchange
  • Capturing learners’ information and analytics through Citelighter, a free social media tool that allows learners to store, organize and share research data and other educational information

The entire round of presentations left many of us not at all envying the tough choices the judges had to make, and we’re looking forward to seeing how finalists Citelighter, Taking IT Global, and X-Ray Analytics fare when the summit resumes in the morning.


Changing Ourselves as We Try to Change the World Through Social Media

January 2, 2018

Change often starts small, with the most simple, innocuous of acts. For some of us, it was our reaction to the news that a Minneapolis Public Schools administrator, DeRay McKesson, had driven from Minneapolis to Ferguson to witness and document what was happening in Ferguson in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by a member of the Ferguson Police Department in 2014. We had been reading about shootings of fellow citizens who were African-Americans—by members of our police departments, by private citizens who felt threatened by the presence of a young men like Trayvon Martin because those citizens were Black. We were—and continue to be—increasingly horrified by what we were and are seeing in “post-racial” America.

DeRay McKesson, from Wikimedia Commons

When McKesson began reporting from Ferguson, via Twitter, we recognized that something had changed significantly. In addition to all the other forms of media that provided first-rate, reliable information about critically important issues we were facing, we now had an ever-increasing level of access to and involvement in defining, reacting to, and seeking information about and solutions to those issues. This was raw and visceral—far beyond the polished, often pseudo-objective reporting that comes from our cherished mainstream-media representatives. We were experiencing and willingly joining multi-level, non-curated, expansive reports and conversations and calls to action through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts, and other online resources. Social media was not completely replacing one-way broadcast media including newspaper, radio, and television as important, significant, much-needed primary sources of information; those resources remain the meat and potatoes of information-gathering at a time when we struggle to distinguish between fake news and reliable reporting. On the other hand, social media tools were increasingly adding an important, dynamic, potentially world-changing element to our conversations and our perceptions about our world, how we interact with it, and how we might attempt to change it in positive ways.

Those already familiar with Twitter and other social media platforms need only glance at the most cursory list of the hashtags to become aware of the scope of our conversations and the way that the use of hashtags is making action-based conversation easier for even the most inexperienced of activists:

#BlackLivesMatter, #Brexit, #BringBackOurGirls, #DACA, #Dreamers, #Ferguson, #GunSense, #HealthReform, #MeToo, #NODAPL, #NotOneMore, #NotInOurName, #OccupyWallStreet, #ParisAccord

Let us make no mistake about it: This is a deeply personal, highly transformative level of change to some of us. It began changing the way we used and viewed social media tools including Facebook and Twitter. We began initiating conversations that we previously thought of as being too risky for online conversations; our shift came out of a decision that avoiding those online conversations that exposed and forced us to confront some of our deepest differences was far more risky than not exposing and confronting them. We openly reached out to friends and colleagues whose experiences and political beliefs differed tremendously from our own. We sought to listen, to learn, to find common ground, and to attempt to produce positive change in response to the difficult and often painful challenges that so often seemed to irrevocably separate us.

At times, our tongue-in-cheek approach (e.g., my own promotion and use of the hashtag #MakeAmericaCivilAgain in response to the disgustingly uncivil nature of discourse that was on full display during the Presidential election campaign in 2016) produced surprisingly encouraging results: colleagues from all walks of life found common ground in the idea that promoting civility in our interactions would be a great first step in trying to address some of our most wicked problems. We also realized that incorporating humor into our discussion was an important element in trying to re-civilize our exchanges.

We are drawn into these conversations, and we are engaged by small- and large-scale desires to positively respond to the challenges we face, because we all are potential activists. The use of social media tools is one of many resources we have in our personal and collaborative toolkits; the people I am interviewing for my book Change the World Using Social Media know and understand this because they use social media nearly every day.

Cayden Mak, 18 Million Rising

Some (e.g., Samantha Adams Becker, Maurice Coleman, David Lee King, and Jonathan Nalder) have been friends and colleagues for many years and are people who, before they agreed to be interviewed for this book, did not overtly identify themselves as activists. The fact that, as librarians, educators, and writers, they foster social change at small- and large-scale levels through their activity in a variety of social media platforms, will, I hope, encourage you to see that you don’t need to be famous or have thousands of followers in your social media accounts to be able to contribute to positive change in the communities you serve. Others (e.g., Cayden Mak, Elizabeth Myers, and Camila Mariño Venegas) have titles and responsibilities that put them at the heart of facilitating positive change within their communities; they are people I met through the use of social media and other online resources as I was seeking activists from a variety of backgrounds so I could provide examples of effective use of social media in a variety of environments and involving a wide range of issues attracting the effort of activists fostering positive social change.

Regardless of your current use of social media and your reach in promoting change, you can easily find plenty of examples via social media platforms themselves to help you see how social media, as part of your overall activist’s toolkit, can provide opportunities for conversation, planning, collaboration, and action that will bring you and others closer to riding waves of change rather than being drowned by them. You can also easily find plenty of examples of how some of our most creative colleagues using social media remain committed to honestly and openly cultivating a sense of trust and engagement with their online and onsite collaborators and those they serve.

“I think it’s not a coincidence that our staff still tends to be highly educated—not just in a book/academic way—but many of them, past and present, have been schooled so to speak in the history of social movements and stuff like that,” 18 Million Rising Executive Director Cayden Mak said during our initial interview for Change the World Using Social Media. “That kind of expertise allows us to speak from a very genuine place—I think the voice an­­d the tone that we built was intentionally comradely in that way because we share a set of cultural references, but we’re interested in bringing more people on board with those cultural references. I think it’s been a careful effort to ensure that we both demonstrate our expertise while making that accessible to people.

“The thing that this process taught me is the importance of trust. With other organizing formations I was a part of at the time, we were building trust in order to do high-stakes things like shutting down New York State Assembly meetings and risking arrest in order to highlight hypocrisy in the university system. Online, there isn’t necessarily a sense that there are high-risk actions to take. However, I think online organizers often do themselves a disservice when they emphasize that their tools and platforms make social action ‘easy’ or ‘simple.’ Because the whole point of organizing, to me, whether it’s online or off, is to build trust among a group of people in order for them to take calculated risks towards a goal.” 

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Winter/Spring 2019. This is the second in a continuing series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.


Rethinking Digital Literacy: Defining Moments

July 17, 2015

With the roll-out of a new four-week ALA Editions online “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course a few days ago, I’m once again happily immersed in an ever-expanding, extremely intriguing moment of training-teaching-learning-exploring with a fantastic group of colleagues.

Rethinking_Digital_Literacy--Course_GraphicAt the heart of the course is a newly-forming community of learning (comprised of 45 library staff members and administrators from the United States and several other countries) creatively tackling the challenge of attempting to define digital literacy in ways that help community members more effectively design, develop, and deliver learning opportunities to foster greater digital literacy among those they serve. And there’s the rub: it turns out that even defining the term, as we’re seeing from Doug Belshaw’s Ed.D thesis (What is ‘digital literacy’?), is one of those enticingly wicked problems—something that is “difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements”—that can keep us up late into the night…for many nights.

I have gladly and very rewardingly spent quite a bit of time exploring digital literacy as a result of participating in discussions that began among those of us enrolled in the Educational Technology & Media MOOC—#etmooc—in early 2013. Some of those explorations led me to what I believe to be an essential digital literacy skill: an ability to work within much different time frames than we normally envision—time frames in which a “moment” (particularly in online learning, as described by Pekka Ihanainen and John Moravec in 2011) extends forward over periods of weeks, months, and even years while also extending backward as we come across, and respond to, threads of conversations we hadn’t previously seen. Think of all these exchanges as one magnificent synchronously asynchronous moment, and you begin to see what some of us are already viscerally experiencing.

Let’s be explicit here before we drown in jargon and fanciful proposals. Exploring digital literacy within the flexible structure of #etmooc started as a shared two-week journey with colleagues worldwide. By interacting with each other synchronously as well as asynchronously, supported by first-rate learning facilitators—including Alec Couros and Belshaw himself—we learned plenty. At the end of those two weeks, we walked away with more questions than answers, as is often the case when we are drawn into the exhilarating challenge of attempting to address a wicked problem. The result is that some of us continued to explore the theme; found and responded to tweets, blog posts, and online articles; and became part of an ongoing conversation with no easy-to-define beginning or ending point.

Even more rewarding for those of us who continue to explore ways to better serve our learners was the realization that the #etmooc connectivist approach provided plenty of inspiration as to how we can interact with and engage learners—an invaluable tool in a world where adult learning—particularly workplace learning—is often mistakenly viewed as something that detracts from “real work” rather than being seen as an integral element of successful work.

Building upon what I had already been doing to engage online learners (e.g., facilitating online office hours through Facebook, tweet chats, Google Hangouts, and other social media platforms), my colleagues and I continually look for ways to foster the creation and growth of communities of learning that support results-driven learning—we’re looking for positive, results-driven, meaningful change among learners here, not just blasting through a one-time session that produces nothing more than a learning badge or certificate of completion that fades almost as quickly as memories of the learning session do.

etmoocPerhaps one of the key lessons learned in that connectivist massive open online course (MOOC) was that rewarding, connected, significant learning is going to expand beyond the time constraints we initially expect to face when diving into a course with specific start and end dates—the #etmooc community, for example, continues to thrive long after the course formally ended. We need to keep that in mind; plan for it; and, when appropriate, support it so that our—and our learners’—learning goals are met.

This more or less brings us full circle to the current Rethinking Digital Literacy course. Inspired by those #etmooc discussions and creatively flexible pedagogical approaches, I developed a course that begins within a formal learning management system (Moodle); offers opportunities for the learners to carry the discussions and the learning beyond the boundaries of that course (e.g., into blog postings, tweets, shared videos); and encourages the learners to explore and use any digital tools they want to use in their exploration of digital literacy. Much to my delight, the discussions among the learners are already well underway just days after the course formally opened to them.

The spirit of exploring digital literacy via their digital literacy tools is stunningly and encouragingly on display within the course discussion boards. One learner, quickly understanding that the challenge of defining digital literacy is going to be an iterative process, posted an initial definition that was followed by two refinements within the first few days all of us began working together. A few others are already reaching out to each other to establish a formal hashtag that they can use to extend their conversations into Twitter—one way of retaining access to their discussions long after their access to the learning management system ends. Another, with a strong background in IT, is already extending our definitions by suggesting that one aspect of digital literacy involves “an ability to translate the functionality of one [digital] application or format to another”—in essence suggesting that digital literacy implies an ability to help others learn how to use digital tools and resources.

What is striking about all of this is the breadth of experience, the depth of thought, and the levels of engagement these adult learners are already bringing to the course in its earliest stages—and how many apparently disparate learning moments are combining into a shared/collaborative moment that is continuing to grow as I write these words.

Ultimately, I suspect that our collaborations will lead us to acknowledge this defining moment as one in which, by attempting to define digital literacy/literacies and expand our view of the synchronous and asynchronous moments we share in our online training-teaching-learning endeavors, we gain a deeper understanding of what digital literacy might be, how it works, and what it means to us and to those we serve in a rapidly evolving learning and work environment.

N.B.: This is the first in a series of reflections inspired by our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course.


Massive (and Not-So-Massive) Open Online Courses: Libraries as Learning Centers

March 5, 2013

Completely immersed in #etmooc (the Educational Technology and Media massive open online course) with more than 1,600 other learners from several different countries since early February, I have just received a lovely reminder that we make a mistake by not paying attention to what is happening in our own learning backyards.

SFPL_LogoAlthough far from massive, a new free learning opportunity provided by the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) system for its users is beginning to roll out. It promises to be another great step in libraries’ efforts to brand themselves as learning centers within the extended communities they increasingly serve in our onsite-online world.

Using courses purchased from Cengage Learning’s Ed2Go, San Francisco Public is making these courses available at no cost beyond what we already pay in the tax revenues that support library services. The list of subject areas covered is magnificent: accounting and finance; business; college readiness; computer applications; design and composition; health care and medical; language and arts; law and legal; personal development; teaching and education; technology; and writing and publishing.

The initial list of courses is spectacular, as even the most cursory review reveals. Following the teaching and education link, for example, produces several subcategories of courses: classroom computing; languages; mathematics; reading and writing; science; test prep; and tools for teachers. Following that classroom computing subcategory currently produces links to 13 different offerings, including “Teaching Smarter with Smart Boards,” “Blogging and Podcasting for Beginners,” “Integrating Technology in the Classroom,” and “Creating a Classroom Website.”

SFPL’s Ed2Go offerings under the personal development link are organized into 10 subcategories including arts; children, parents, and family; digital photography; health and wellness; job search; languages; personal enrichment; personal finance and investments; start your own business; and test prep.

The offerings appear to be wonderfully learner-centric in that each course listing includes a “detail” page that provides learners with a concise description of the learning need to be met by the course; a formal course syllabus; an instructor bio; a list of requirements so learners know in advance what they need to bring to the course; and student reviews offering comments by previous learners.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Ed2Go roll-out is how it reflects SFPL’s growth as a learning organization that uses learning to serve its community; when I last spoke with colleagues a couple of years ago about their plans to offer online learning to library users, the plan was still in its early-development stages. Discussions, at that point, were centered on short staff-produced videos using Camtasia or other online authoring tools. Members of the library’s Literacy and Learning Area Focus Team have clearly made tremendous progress since that time in finding ways to offer learning opportunities to library users, and they are far from finished.

“We’re rolling it out slowly,” a colleague told me this afternoon. “Training is one of our big pushes right now. It [Ed2Go] is our first start, and we have other ideas down the pike…We’re serious about internal [staff] training, external [non-staff] training—going out to the public.”

The idea of having staff produce videos is still under consideration, as is the idea of having library staff take an even more active role in providing more learning opportunities for the public: “We’re talking about doing out own trainings and putting them online, but that’s down the road. We’re not reinventing the wheel—but we are rounding it.”

As I have mentioned in other articles, the wicked problem of reinventing education continues to receive plenty of creative attention in a variety of settings, including the New Media Consortium’s recent Future of Education summit in Austin, Texas, and the “Future of Education” document that came out of that summit. Seeing increasing collaboration among the various providers of learning opportunities (e.g., our colleagues in academia, in museums, in libraries, in professional workplace learning and performance organizations including the American Society for Training & Development and other professional associations including the American Library Association) helps us understand why offerings along the lines of the massive open online courses and libraries’ freE-learning opportunities are quickly becoming part of our learning landscape—and suggests that those collaborations might be part of what leads us closer to effectively addressing the wicked problems we face in training-teaching-learning.

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


The Big Ideas Connecting People, Conferences, and Conversations

January 27, 2013

Developing and acting upon big ideas sometimes requires big leaps, so it’s no surprise to me that the leap from San Francisco to Austin to Seattle over the past several days has left my head spinning.

ALA_Midwinter_2013Three days of participation in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project summit on “The Future of Education” in Austin, Texas followed by a few days with colleagues attending the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting here in Seattle created the sort of Intersection discussed by Frans Johansson in The Medici Effect, a book about “breakthrough insights at the Intersection of ideas, concepts, and cultures.”

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.

nmc.logo.cmykHaving 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.
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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 Hamiltonthe 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 Twitter backchannel—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.


Connecting the Dots in an Onsite-Online World: Metatrends in Travel, Life, and Learning

January 26, 2013

Having the unusual experience of jumping from one professional conference to a second this week is providing learning experiences most of us rarely encounter—and one that shines an extremely bright spotlight on what it means to live, work, and learn in a completely blended onsite-onsite world.

nmc.logo.cmykAfter leaving San Francisco on Monday, I was completely immersed in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project Summit on “The Future of Education” in Austin, Texas from mid-day Tuesday to mid-day Thursday. Trying to capture even most cursory set of highlights of the discussions held on Tuesday and Wednesday meant absorbing highly stimulating and challenging ideas from some very bright colleagues from schools, colleges, universities, museums, and libraries all over the world—then condensing them into blog–sized posts late at night before returning to the intellectual arena the following day for even more of the same.

Making the transition from Austin to Seattle Thursday evening to attend part of the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting at first suggested the need for a major shift in thinking. I assumed ALA_Midwinter_2013I was leaving behind the education summit themes of wicked problems including the need to rethink higher education, rethink online learning, and deal with how we effectively incorporate technology into learning. Diving into the ALA conference, I suspected, would instead focus on a different set of wicked problems, including the roles libraries play in a variety of arenas including lifelong learning, information literacy, intellectual freedom, and the overall development of communities—geographically defined communities as well as global online communities.

It didn’t take long to realize that there were dots to be connected between the two conferences and the two sets of wicked problems—and one of the major connections is the technology that makes it possible to jump between two such conferences so seamlessly.

Some of the subtle connections rapidly became apparent as I started running into colleagues in the Washington State Convention Center here in Seattle late this afternoon in hallways, reception lounges, and more formally organized activities; the conversations we had were amazingly similar to those in which I participated during the education summit—the need to rethink what we’re doing, abandon some of our core assumptions, and take advantage not only of our face-to-face opportunities to explore and act upon the challenges we are facing, but also to draw offsite colleagues into the conversation via tweets and twitter feeds, posts on Facebook, and other online extensions of the onsite conversations.

There were also the completely unsubtle reminders that geographic barriers are far less constraining then they were even ten years ago—barriers often reduced or completely knocked down by how quickly relationships are established in one arena (e.g., virtual communications), extended into a physical setting, and then extended even further in both settings.

My latest moment of revelation came this evening when I connected the dots between meeting, for the first time, an NMC Horizon Summit attendee Tuesday because we were both live-tweeting the summit from different parts of a meeting room housing approximately 100 attendees. By mid-day Wednesday, she and I had managed to engage in face-to-face conversation, then continued the conversation via the Twitter feed throughout the afternoon, and then ended up across a dinner table with eight other colleagues that evening. We said good-bye to each other early Thursday afternoon in Austin—and then unexpectedly were face to face again this evening while walking the exhibits floor at the ALA Midwinter meeting—an event drawing thousands of people from libraries across the United States. But even that isn’t the remarkable and marvelous part of the story. We ran into each other twice in that huge exhibition area this evening, and it was only during our second encounter that I realized the colleague with whom she was traveling is a member of an ALA committee that I chair—a colleague, I should add, that I’ve only met face to face one time, and with whom I will be having lunch tomorrow before our committee meeting begins. Turns out the two of them are rooming together here at the conference, and neither of them had known how the three of us were connected until we met on the exhibits floor.

While all of this may sound like some freakish “who would have thought it” sort of encounter worthy of little more than a “wow, how strange” sort of reaction, I believe it speaks to something far deeper and more important in our world of rapid travel, seamless onsite-online communication, and learning. It speaks to our natural inclination toward socializing and learning since a thirst for learning drew us to these events; our need for affiliation anywhere we can find it; our drive to create, nurture, and sustain community wherever and however we can develop it; and our willingness to continually push the envelope on what it means to “meet” somebody, engage with somebody, and build upon relationships that, without attention, could begin to grow and then quickly wither away if left unattended. It also speaks to the almost magical, mystical nature of how we forge connections in a world of countless interweavings through a variety of means— not the least of which is the creative and effective use of social media tools—with an eye toward solving some of those wicked problems we continued exploring at the NMC education summit.


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