AEJMC 2015 Annual Conference: MOOCs, Journalism, and Learning

August 14, 2015

When someone talks about actually having several thousand people come to class, I’m all ears—as I was again last weekend while serving on a panel discussion on the closing day of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (AEJMC)  98th Annual Conference here in San Francisco.

AEJMC_2015--Logo[2]The conversation, built around the question of how massive open online courses (MOOCs) are changing universities, gave moderator Amanda Sturgill (Elon University School of Communications) and the four of us serving as panelists a wonderful opportunity to explore, with session attendees, some of the pleasures and challenges of designing and facilitating these still-evolving learning opportunities. Each of the four of us—my colleagues on the panel included David Carlson (University of Florida College School of Journalism and Communications), Daniel Heimpel (University of California, Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy), and Bozena Mierzejewska (Fordham University Gabelli School of Business)—has had hands-on experience with designing and facilitating MOOCs. Each of us, with little discussion, agreed that we see MOOCs augmenting rather than posing a threat to higher education. We acknowledged that preparing for a MOOC is a time-consuming, intense experience requiring plenty of collaboration and coordination of efforts. And we seemed to be in agreement that a MOOC can be means to an end: a MOOC on journalism for social change, for example, engages learners as journalists whose work has the possibility of being published, and a MOOC on educational technology and media engages trainer-teacher-learners in the act of learning about ed-tech by exploring and using ed-tech while ultimately (and unexpectedly) leading to a sustainable community of learning that continues to evolve long after the formal coursework ends.

But perhaps the most meaningful observations were those that took us to the heart of why we are engaged in designing, delivering, and promoting MOOCs: we became teacher-trainer-learners because we want to help people, and MOOCs are a great way to achieve that goal if learners have access to the content and if they are supported in learning how to learn in our online environments. Furthermore, MOOCs provide additional ways to meet the ever-growing lifelong-learning needs so many of us encounter. As each of us discussed projects in which we have been involved, we and our audience members gained a deeper appreciation for the variety of explorations currently underway.

Journalism_for_Social_Change_MOOCHeimpel, for example, brought a couple of his own somewhat overlapping worlds together to the benefit of learners in his solutions-based journalism course, Journalism for Social Change, earlier this year. Combining the platform he has through UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy with his role as publisher at The Chronicle of Social Change, he was able to nurture course participants in their explorations of a specific social issue (child abuse) while providing publication opportunities for those whose work reached professional levels.

Open_Knowledge_MOOCMierzejewska, in her position at Fordham, had an entirely different opportunity: the chance to work with colleagues at four other academic institutions (Autonomous University of the State of Mexico, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Simon Fraser University, and Stanford University) in an Open Knowledge: Changing the Course of Global Learning MOOC while creating something that another of my colleagues (Jeff Merrell, at Northwestern University) has been exploring—a MOOC that has its expected online presence along with onsite interactions among some of the learners. Her preliminary report online is a fabulous case study of what this type of blended learning produces; it includes her up-front observation that being involved in the MOOC “was actually very inspiring and eye-opening to what students can learn online only and how you can enrich those experiences with classes that are flipped.”

Musics_Big_Bang_MOOCCarlson was our resident rock star with his description of what went into the making and delivery of his Music’s Big Bang: The Genesis of Rock ‘n’ Roll MOOC that attracted 30,000 registrations and brought several thousand of those potential learners into his virtual classroom. He mentioned challenges that many of us face—producing engaging videos, having to coordinate his efforts with a variety of colleagues to bring a massive undertaking of that nature to fruition, and the attention to detail required while making videos (e.g., if videos shot on different days were later edited together, obvious discontinuities such as the fact that he was wearing different outfits or had hair that changed in length from shot to shot became obvious).

But while all of us in that room last weekend might have laughed together over the small challenges of clothing changes and changing hair lengths, few of us could have walked away thinking MOOCs were any less than an important and still growing part of our learning landscape—one with tremendous potential to augment our short- and long-term learning opportunities for willing and able to explore them.


AEJMC 2015 Annual Conference: Journalism, Supporting Communities, and Learning Online

August 12, 2015

There were plenty of intriguing juxtapositions for teacher-trainer-learners to observe and absorb last week while attending the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (AEJMC)  98th Annual Conference here in San Francisco—not the least of which was differing attitudes expressed toward serving audiences onsite and online.

AEJMC_2015--Logo[2]It’s a familiar and sometimes far-from-necessary either-or dilemma that exists in many of our contemporary venues—e.g., printed vs. online publication, onsite vs. online learning, onsite vs. online communities and collaboration—and often ignores the idea that looking for ways to blend those two proffered choices into something much more far-reaching and magnificent is sometimes (but not always) possible.

The context for the first of the two stimulating panel discussions was the topic “Who Will Serve the Civic Communication Needs of Cities?: Legacy Media, New Media and Community Discourse in Urban Life,” while the second, “The Experiment: Stopping All Print and Moving a College Newsroom Over to Medium and Twitter,” offered the compelling story of how a journalism instructor and her students transformed an unread print publication into an online multi-platform publication reaching a global audience.

Given the difference in focus—Civic Communication focused on the roles journalism plays in fostering community at a local level, particularly in urban metropolitan areas, while The Experiment was a success story drawing upon lessons learned by staff of the community college newspaper at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California—there was plenty to be considered for those of us interested in contemporary journalism as well as for those of us committed to providing first-rate training-teaching-learning opportunities to those we serve.

Iris-Chyi--Trial_and_Error--CoverCivic Communication was a spirited conversation involving moderator Gary Gumpert (Urban Communication Foundation) and five other panelists (Chris Barr, Knight Foundation; H. Iris Chyi, University of Texas at Austin; Sharon Dunwoody, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Peter Gade, Gaylord College; and Jan Schaffer, American University), so there was far from complete agreement. There was, however, a strong foundation laid during the initial parts of the conversation suggesting that media outlets are making a huge mistake if they ignore the power print publications play in fostering community—particularly at that mid-level metropolitan newspaper level of operation. Among the concerns mentioned by panelists were the short duration of visits to newspaper websites (4.4 minutes); research showing that information read online doesn’t stick with us the same way information read in printed publications does; and an overall sense that online content is “inferior” to printed content—what Chyi referred to as the equivalent of Ramen Noodles as opposed to more nutritious products.

Others on the panel suggested that the whole concept of “mass media” needs to be rethought as our online resources provide access to powerful niches well worth serving within markets/communities. Media today, one suggested, are networked, social, connective, and niche; the quality of the audience is every bit as important as the idea of reaching a mass audience—all of which suggests that journalists need a new “knowledge base” that allows them to engage with members of the communities they serve and to foster citizen participation within those communities. It’s a theme with parallels in our training-teaching-learning environments: we continue to seek ways to engage learners and foster learner-centric, learner-driven engagement that produces positive results within local, regional, national, and global communities through our blended onsite-online interactions.

sac.mediaMoving to the conversation within the Mt. San Antonio College session, we heard instructor Toni Albertson and student journalists Albert Serna, Talin Hakopyan, and Jennifer Sandy describe how they responded to their target audience’s preference for online rather than printed publications by taking the campus paper online across a variety of platforms—and how that affected their approach to identifying and covering newsworthy events. Creating “sac.media: College news without the ink,” the student journalists took on a newly-found enthusiasm for what they did, covering a variety of issues, including how journalism itself is taught and fostered. They also carried their publication across platforms including Medium, Twitter (through @SAConScene), and YouTube so they could give each story the attention and platform they felt it deserved. They also were—and remain—innovative in reaching out to their target audience: when promoting stories they believe are significant, each staff member identifies 12 potential readers who might be interested in that story, then uses Twitter to reach out to those readers—a nice echo of the Civic Communication panel discussion about the need for journalists to more directly engage with members of their communities. The result, according to Nieman Lab writer Dan Reimold, is “one of the most daring college media outlets in the United States.” And if any of us manages to learn from and be inspired by what those Mt. San Antonio college colleagues are doing, perhaps our own writing-training-teaching-learning efforts will be the better for our having encountered them.


AEJMC 2015 Annual Conference, Day 1: On Homecomings, Digital Literacy, and Lifelong Learning

August 7, 2015

For trainer-teacher-learners with backgrounds in journalism—and I suspect there are plenty of us—attending the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (AEJMC)  98th Annual Conference (held here in San Francisco this year) is a bit of a homecoming.

AEJMC_2015--Logo[2]It’s not just the joy of being around more than 2,000 thoughtful, innovative colleagues from all over the world as we explore trends, challenges, and developments in journalism and mass communication; it’s an opportunity to see how our training-teaching-learning colleagues in a vitally important part of our contemporary world are continuing to hone their own skills while fostering the next generation(s) of professionals who will shape the face of the industry and the world it serves.

As is the case with any ambitiously-designed conference, the number of sessions to explore is overwhelming and hints at the importance of incorporating at least a couple of digital-literacy skills into the experience of treating conferences as part of our lifelong-learning experiences: the skill of sifting through torrents of information (in this case, to initially identify what is most likely to contribute to our own lifelong-learning needs), and an ability to use digital resources to enhance our learning. These skills, I might add, are clearly essential not just to the journalism and mass communications colleagues whose company I’m currently enjoying, but to any of us involved in the constantly-evolving world of training-teaching-learning.

The sifting, in this case, takes place at a variety of levels. Access to the online schedule before arriving onsite at the conference gave us an opportunity to make preliminary decisions regarding which sessions would most likely meet our learning needs. Receiving the printed copy of the 270-page conference book onsite allows us to fine-tune those choices a bit more. Following the Twitter feed from the conference draws our attention to colleagues’ recommendations for opportunities we might otherwise have missed. And hallway conversations add the icing to the conference cake by giving us opportunities to meet presenters whose sessions might otherwise not have made it onto our must-attend lists.

Rethinking_Digital_Literacy--Course_GraphicUsing digital resources to enhance our learning not only while we’re here but long after the conference formally concludes is something equally worth noting and exploring. The simple act of tweeting highlights from sessions we attend pays off at several levels: we produce a set of online notes to which we later can return to continue our learning; we see onsite colleagues’ tweets from those sessions and others we are not physically able to join, thereby increasing the breadth and scope of our conference/learning experience; we occasionally engage online with colleagues who couldn’t be here physically but feel less “left behind” because of our online exchanges; and the natural inclination to occasionally, while a session is underway, go online to find a site that further explains what is being discussed means we are extending the reach of these physical learning spaces well into the virtual world to create an onsite-online classroom that is limited only by our imaginations and access to the Internet.

This plays out nicely, as I saw during a “State of the Industry” panel discussion—the first session I was able to attend at the conference—yesterday afternoon. At the heart of the learning experience was a first-rate set of panelists: panel moderator Bob Papper, Director, RTDNA (Radio Television Digital News Association) /Hofstra University Annual [Industry] Survey; Teri Hayt, Executive Director, American Society of News Editors (ASNE); David Smydra, Executive Producer, Google Play Newstand; and Robert Hernandez, Associate Professor of Professional Practice at USC Annenberg. Adding to the experience was our ability, while tweeting highlights of the session, to see tweets from colleagues in other sessions where subject matter occasionally complemented what we were absorbing—which provided an opportunity, at a limited level, to actually create a much larger virtual learning space than any of us might have anticipated. Another element—common to what I experience while attending conferences these days—was the opportunity to extend that virtual classroom to include online resources that could provide additional background to unfamiliar topics the panelists were presenting.

Connected_China--FathomThe online-resources-as-extension-of-learning-space opportunity was particularly rewarding when Smydra introduced us to the concept of Structured Journalism—something he described as being “what digital media wants journalism to be” in that it makes the various bits and pieces of data (in various media) collected by journalists and the numerous resources going into news stories more accessible and reusable than they otherwise might be. While he was valiantly attempting to describe this somewhat complex concept in a brief period of time by providing visually-appealing examples (e.g., the Thomson Reuters Connected China project), I continued to listen to him and glance at his slides while also doing a quick online search to see whether he had any online resources providing a more in-depth exploration of the topic. And there, among the gems, was the article “Structured journalism offers readers a different kind of story experience,” written by Chava Gourarie for the Columbia Journalism Review and including quotes form Smydra, including this one that captures the concept beautifully: “It not only produces incredible stories but creates this reservoir of material that reporters and readers can call upon for future stories.”

AEJMC_2015--logoIt was at that moment that I realized I was experiencing a key learning moment described by so many of our best training-teaching-learning colleagues: that moment of learning that builds upon what we previously learned. As a blogger (as opposed to the broader role of writing articles and co-writing a book), I’ve come to appreciate the obvious and unique art form online writing offers: the ability to develop a cohesive piece of work that, through hyperlinks, allows readers to read start-to-finish or take as many detours as they care to take—and if I also make the piece more visually stimulating by embedding photographs or images of videos that include live links, I’ve further taken advantage of what this particular art form offers me and those who read my work. Smydra’s comments inspired an instantaneous building-upon-previous-learning leap from what I have been seeing in blogging to what I was beginning to see in Structured Journalism: a form that includes writing, imagery, video work, and more combined as unique, innovative, creative mash-ups providing another cohesive form of work/writing/journalism—with the added benefit of producing additional unique elements/source material that could be repurposed elsewhere.

As I continue thinking about what Smydra and his colleagues provided through their presentations, I continue taking advantage of the numerous streams of information and other resources that make conferences so richly rewarding as part of our lifelong learning landscape. There are the tweets. The conversations over a meal during an opening-night reception last night. The Storify recap of conference highlights from sessions yesterday. The bookmarked websites I accessed to write this piece as well as the websites to which I haven’t yet had time to return. My own stream of conference-related tweets (August 6 – 9, 2015) through my @trainersleaders Twitter account. And links to PowerPoint slide decks and other resources allowing us to draw upon our digital-literacy skills to continue the learning that is proving so rewarding in this and expanded moments of learning. All of which makes me suspect that Structured Journalism is already claiming a place in my training-teaching-learning-writing world.

N.B. – This report from the AEJMC 2015 Annual Conference is also the fifth in a series of reflections inspired by our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course.


NEKLS Innovation Day 2015: Training-Teaching-Learning While Hanging Out in Kansas

April 30, 2015

I’ve hung out before, and I’m sure I’ll hang out again, but I can’t imagine a more intensely innovative and emotionally-rewarding approach to incorporating Google Hangouts into training-teaching-learning than the one collaboratively created as part of the 2015 Northeast Kansas Library System (NEKLS) Innovation Day program yesterday.

nekls_logosm_400x400What we’re continuing to explore with Hangouts is highly-engaging, low-/no-cost web-conferencing, a rudimentary and surprisingly effective form of telepresence, and  notably strong levels of interaction in training-teaching-learning made possible through the use of an easy-to-learn social media tool—something that fell into place nicely in two consecutive sessions during Innovation Day.

It has taken a fair amount of experimentation and practice to reach the point we reached yesterday: an onsite event that seamlessly expanded to include two offsite presenters (Harford County Public Library Technical Trainer Maurice Coleman and me) so we not only could interact directly with onsite participates but with each other as if we were all in the same room—and the room expanded further via connections simultaneously made with Twitter.

My own experience in training-teaching-learning through web conferencing and rudimentary telepresence dates back to a successful experiment to bring an offsite presenter (from Ohio) into an onsite event attended by more than 200 people here in San Francisco in 2007 in a way that encouraged some limited, direct interactions between the online presenter and members of the onsite audience. I expanded the exercise a bit a few years later by incorporating Skype, Twitter, and onsite colleagues into one of these blended learning events at a Sacramento ASTD (American Society for Training & Development meeting, then carried it a bit further with my New Media Consortium colleague Samantha Adams Becker when we switched over to Google Hangouts for onsite-online blended sessions with ASTD Mount Diablo and Golden Gate chapter colleagues.

What many of us were realizing at that point was that with proper preparation (which included abundant amounts of rehearsal time) and the right equipment (most of which was already available to us in each of the venues we used), we could erase geographic barriers in ways that caused onsite participants to forget that the online participants weren’t physically in the room.

An expansion of the experimentation included adding an onsite Twitter facilitator (colleague Larry Straining, who ad-libbed from a basic script to tweet out what Samantha and I were doing via Google Hangouts for ASTD—now ATD, the Association for Talent Development) at a conference in the Washington, D.C. area in late 2014. Adding Twitter to the mix in this focused, pre-planned way helped make the point that the “rooms” in which each of these events was physically taking place was actually expanding to include a global audience comprised of participants working synchronously and others who could participate later in an asynchronous fashion by seeing and responding to the tweets in an ongoing conversation. Carrying this another step further by drawing “left-behind” colleagues (including Maurice) into the 2015 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting (held in Chicago) provided yet another example of how Hangouts could produce live as well as archived learning opportunities —and further laid the groundwork for what we accomplished yesterday during the annual NEKLS Innovation Day conference: live interactions between the two of us who were offsite, interactions between the two of us and those who were physically present at the conference; and interactions with non-conference attendees who saw the tweets and shared content through retweeting. All that was missing yesterday was synchronous two-way interactions between those non-conference attendees and those of us who were participating onsite or via the Hangout)—but we had a hint of it as my own Innovation Day tweets were picked up and retweeted by several unfamiliar tweeters here in the United States and elsewhere.

NEKLS Continuing Education Consultant Patti Poe initiated the process as part of her overall Innovation Day planning by inviting me to use Google Hangouts as the vehicle for a presentation/discussion on using online collaboration tools. When she mentioned that Maurice would be doing a separate (closing keynote address) session via Hangouts, I asked if it would be possible to also include Maurice in the session I was facilitating and schedule that session in the time slot immediately preceding his keynote address. The experiences Maurice and I had with the ALA Midwinter Meeting experiment primed us to attempt something that was both structured—with specific learning goals and objectives—and improvisational so that onsite conference attendees would very much be involved in learning while also shaping the nature of the session.

Rehearsal for Innovation Day Hangout (Photo by Robin Hastings)

Rehearsal for Innovation Day Hangout (Photo by Robin Hastings)

As Patti noted shortly after the day ended, it exceeded everyone’s expectations and once again demonstrated that it’s possible to have this technology as the vehicle for—not the central feature of—learning opportunities and to have all of us interacting almost exactly as we would have if we hadn’t been spread over a 2,800-mile distance—in essence, creating a 2,800-mile-wide room. Maurice and I had a PowerPoint slide deck (with extensive speaker notes) and a supplemental resource sheet that I prepared and that served as our roadmap even though we actually didn’t display either during the live session (we wanted onsite attendees seeing us rather than slides as part of our effort to create the sense that we were  in the room in a very real sense); the slide deck and resource sheet were posted online later as additional learning objects and as a way to give the synchronous session an extended asynchronous life. We also allowed for plenty of interactions via question-and-answer periods throughout the entire hour-long “Using Online Collaboration Tools” session just as we do when we’re physically present in training-teaching-learning sessions. And when that initial hour came to an end, we took the same sort of between-session break we would have taken if we had physically been onsite, then returned with Maurice assuming the lead and with me maintaining an onsite-onscreen presence through a small window at the bottom of the screen as I watched his onsite-online presentation.

All of us had set out to create the sense of presence (i.e., close physical proximity) that we believe—and continually prove—is possible in well-planned, well-executed onsite-online learning environments capable of transforming learners. All of us confirmed with those onsite that we had achieved that goal. But several hours passed before I realized that in my playful role of the trickster who creates the illusion of physical proximity, I had unintentionally even tricked myself, for as I sat in the comfort of my own home here in San Francisco last night—never physically having left that home—I unexpectedly felt the same sense of melancholy I sometimes experience after intensively engaging in learning with colleagues at onsite conferences and then being physically separated from them as we return to our own homes and workplaces across the country. And I have the same sense of longing to be back with them again sooner than later to continue the connected-learning process that brings all of us such deeply rewarding experiences and relationships.


Bob Herbert: Finding Inspiration Through Losing Our Way

January 28, 2015

Those of us involved in training-teaching-learning viscerally understand the power of a good story and the value of a good storyteller. So when New York Times columnist Bob Herbert left the newspaper in 2011 to accept a position with the public policy organization Demos, some of us felt as if one of the great storytellers in American journalism was vanishing—and that our world, consequently, would be a bit less vibrant.

Herbert--Losing_Our_WayHerbert’s writing in the Times was always strong, passionate, inspiring, and laser-sharp in its focus on stories that provided context and gave meaning to the overwhelming flow of reports that inundate us day after day. His final column (“Losing Our Way”), in fact, began with the observation “So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.” Those words provided a searing reminder to that learning, libraries, and involvement in the setting of public policy are integral parts of the overall responsibility each of us has to actively working to create the world we would like to have.

It’s a pleasure, therefore, to find that the storyteller has returned with a book that effectively and engagingly expands the thoughts included in that final New York Times column—Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America—and continues what he has occasionally produced via columns for Demos.

Losing Our Way focuses “most intently on four specific areas: the employment crisis, which was badly underestimated and poorly understood; the need to rebuild and modernize the nation’s infrastructure and the relationship of that vast project to employment; the critical task of revitalizing the public schools in a way that meets the profound educational imperatives of the twenty-first century; and the essential obligation that we have as rational and civilized beings to stop fighting pointless and profoundly debilitating wars,” he tells us in his introductory author’s note (p. 6).

As always, the real strength and value of what Herbert produces is in his attention to the human side of the story—just as so much of what we do in training-teaching-learning benefits from focusing on the human element of our efforts. We don’t, in Losing Our Way, find the typical unengaging diatribe against our failing infrastructure; we follow—and are moved by—the story of Mercedes Gordon, a woman who was driving across the I-35 bridge across the Mississippi River the day the bridge collapsed and sent Gordon and others into a plunge that shattered and took lives. We don’t find ourselves in another exploration of the financial cost of wars; we follow Dan Berschinski from the moment he loses his legs in Afghanistan, through the unexpected story of how he struggles to regain an incredible amount of mobility, and then muse, with Herbert, over the way the honoring of Berschinski for his achievements carries with it the deeper question of why “there seemed to be no collective sense that it was insane to allow the maiming of men like Dan…to continue so may long years after the attacks of September 11, 2001….What was the point?” (p. 169)

And when we move into the realm of learning, via an exploration of what is happening in our public schools, we don’t simply rehash the failed policies that, according to Herbert, have undercut rather than enhanced our educational system; we see how individuals including Jessie Ramey and Kathy Newman, in Pennsylvania, refused to accept billion-dollar cuts to educational programs and, through hard work, created partnerships that drew attention to the human cost of those reductions.

“The United States needs to be reimagined…” Herbert writes at the conclusion of his book. “Ordinary citizens far from the traditional centers of power…profoundly changed American society. Through sustained, thoughtful, and courageous efforts they…shifted the nation onto a better path. A comparable effort by ordinary citizens is needed today if the United States is to regain its great promise of fairness and opportunity for all” (pp. 245, 247).

ALAMW15--LogoAs I sit here in Chicago, about to join colleagues for a variety of discussions at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, I think about Herbert’s earlier references to the closing of libraries, about the challenges we face in providing effective learning opportunities, and about his call for reimagining the world around us—and I think I couldn’t be in better company to explore what training-teaching-learning, effective collaborations, and engagement in active communities of learning and communities of practice can produce.


NMC “Black Swan Ball” 2015: Teaching-Training-Learning-Birding

January 14, 2015

There’s an interesting, temporary migration taking place this week in Lost Pines, Texas—a spectacular rural setting on a slow-flowing segment of the Colorado River roughly 20 miles southeast of Austin. Many of the “birds” involved in this migration have flown in, from a variety of spots around the world, to nest for less than 48 hours. They/we can be observed eating and interacting together for brief, concentrated periods of time in ever-changing groupings that are far from predicable at any given time. And, if we are successful once we return to our regular habitats (schools, colleges, universities, classrooms, museums, libraries, and other educational organizations around the world), the eggs we lay and hatch here in Lost Pines could help change the way teaching-training-learning takes place.

NMC_Black_Swan_LogoOur gathering—“The Black Swan Ball”—is a by-invitation-only educational-technology symposium unlike any I have ever seen before. Organized and produced by the New Media Consortium (NMC), it has attracted approximately 50 of us who have varying levels of involvement in NMC’s Horizon Project—that ongoing global endeavor to document and examine “key trends, significant challenges, and emerging technologies for their potential impact” in a variety of educational settings.

What makes this particular gathering unusual and tremendously intriguing is that it has been framed around a specific book—Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable—and appears to be structured to produce what Taleb promotes in his book: a greater awareness of the incorrect assumptions we make in formulating predictions, and, with that enhanced awareness, a better ability to react to events and situations we previously considered “improbable”—particularly at that lovely intersection of the teaching-training-learning process and the educational technology that supports that process.

The “improbable” element that originally gave Taleb’s book (and our NMC symposium) its title was the long-held belief in Europe that all swans were white—a belief maintained until a Dutch explorer, in 1697, encountered black swans in Australia, a Wikipedia article reminds us. From this, Taleb draws (on the first page of the prologue to his book) the conclusion that a “single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans.”

NMC CEO Larry Johnson at the Black Swan Ball

NMC CEO Larry Johnson at the Black Swan Ball

Taleb, in his book, is extremely specific about what a Black Swan is in the world he inhabits: “First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable” (pp. xvii-xviii).

This makes the idea of a “Black Swan Ball” intriguing—not just for those of us in Lost Pines, but for anyone who wants to move from the familiar nest of ed-tech trends as we perceive them into the Black Swan world of teaching-training-learning where we look to what we see as the improbable to imagine how we might effectively react to it to the benefit of those we serve.

Where the “central idea of this book concerns our blindness with respect to randomness particularly the large deviations” (p. xix), a central element of this NMC gathering seems to be an exploration of how we can move beyond documenting and examining ed-tech trends, challenges, and emerging technologies so we set aside our existing assumptions about what is or is not improbable in the settings in which we work and live and play—a process that began unfolding yesterday as we arrived onsite in Lost Pines and gathered for an opening-night reception.

It didn’t take me very long to start seeing parallels between what Taleb has written and what at least a few of us are already experiencing at the Black Swan Ball. He begins, for example, with that story of the “discovery” of a black swan by a European visiting Australia; my own evening began with an unexpected face-to-face conversation with an Australian colleague I had previously only encountered via Twitter. Taleb, furthermore, consistently encourages us to set aside the pervasive, inaccurate assumptions that blind us to the existence of what we previously saw as improbable—just as my wonderful Australian colleague spoke eloquently of the need for many of us to look beyond the assumptions me make within our own countries so we can learn from what our worldwide colleagues—in places including Australia, for example—are doing.

And in what may be a completely inaccurate reading of where the Black Swan Ball is going, I left the opening-night reception wondering whether our playful and innovative colleagues at the NMC were recreating at least a bit of what Taleb describes to inspire significant Black-Swan thinking: an exercise designed to draw groups of us together so we could discover what we had in common led to inconclusive results among the members of the group to which I had been assigned—which makes me wonder, in the early-morning hours before the symposium reconvenes, whether we had been “purposely assigned” to groups with strong, shared connections simply to see whether we would “concoct explanations” for those assignments even though the assignments were actually random.

Detail from graphic facilitator Giselle Chow's work at the Ball

Detail from graphic facilitator Giselle Chow’s work at the Ball

I’m not sure whether I’ll encounter any Black Swans here in Lost Pines. But I do know that, in the spirit of that European who found his swans in Australia more than 300 years ago, I’ve already had the pleasure of literally seeing unexpected birds I had not previously seen—Carolina chickadees, Black vultures, Common nighthawks, and Eastern bluebirds—during an hour-long walk I took along the Colorado River before joining colleagues at the opening-night reception. If attending and documenting even a little of what comes out of this gathering helps all of us better identify and work with the Black swans and other lovely, infrequently-encountered birds in the world of training-teaching-learning, we will have been engaged in yet another rewarding intellectual migration thanks to our NMC colleagues and those who did all that was necessary to pull themselves away from the routine in search of wonderfully rewarding improbables.


On the Make: Co-learning, Making, and Sharing in the Connected Courses (#ccourses) MOOC

November 12, 2014

Let’s create and play a trainer-teacher-learner’s version of blog-hopping (specifically crafted for connected-learning students and aficionados) by seeing how many blogs we can link together into a cohesive asynchronous discussion. Our goal is to see whether the process leads us through the act of making something (e.g., a virtual, sprawling, multi-site learning object) that contributes to our understanding of our own learning, co-learning, and the learning process—and perhaps even to other people’s learning.

ccourses_logoThis particular learning object is already a work in progress thanks to interactions among a few of us connected via the Connected Courses (#ccourses) massive open online course (MOOC). It started with a self-contained set of reflections, by long-time learning colleague Alan Levine, on what constitutes “a make” (something created as part of the learning process to facilitate the learning process itself) within a connectivist MOOC (#ccourses, in this case). It grew a bit through #ccourses co-learner Maha Bali’s reflections inspired by Alan’s article and something I had written about the development of communities of learning similar to what we’re seeing in #ccourses. It continued growing rhizomatically as I posted individual responses to Alan’s and Maha’s posts and then realized that my own comments, if carried over into the article you’re now reading, could provide the foundations for what paradoxically is a self-contained lesson/make on “makes” that, at the same time, is interwoven into other makes—some of which are yet to come.

Alan deserves the credit for unintentionally inspiring this admittedly complex yet intentionally playful attempt at showing how a blog can be a make. He begins by suggesting that blog posts are “part of the regular things to do” in the connected-learning process and he explicitly says that he does not “see blog posts or comments as ‘makes.’” Maha responds by acknowledging how engaging and supportive of the learning process a collaborative make can be, then circles back to suggest that “for some people, blogging is ‘their thing,’” just as other learners may immerse themselves in equally engaging and productive makes. Our colleague Kevin Hodgson, for example, has produced course-related cartoons that are very much his version of a make and inspire the rest of us to absorb Connected Courses lessons through those playful makes. And, she continues, “every blogpost of Simon [Ensor]’s is a make.”

I initially inadvertently extended our make-in-progress by commenting on Alan’s blog. As a big supporter of experiential learning, I assured him that I agree that some level of making is essential in the learning process, and I obviously do believe that blogging can fit that category when we see our blogs as more than personal reflections. Blog postings, I suggested, can also be self-contained lessons (particularly through the use of hyperlinks that lead our co-learners to other learning resources). I’m ultimately not very concerned about what my co-learners and I make; an instructor’s recommended “makes,” in fact, often simply don’t support my own learning goals. I am, however, concerned that we make something that is seamlessly integrated into the learning experience so we have learned something useful, quantifiable, and rewarding to ourselves and others who learn with and from us.

The theme seemed to grow without much effort on my part as I turned back to Maha’s blog to assure her that I agreed about Kevin Hodgson’s cartoons and Simon Ensor’s blog articles being makes for them as learners and for others who see and are inspired by their work.

As we’re seeing through the current Connected Courses two-week module on co-learning, we have countless ways to creatively and effectively engage in making. I would even suggest, as I wrote to Maha, that participating in the “Case of #etmooc [the Educational Tecnology & Media MOOC]” panel discussion earlier this week was a form of making in that it produced a learning object—that online archived recording that is stimulating plenty of conversation and will continue to be a learning resource for anyone interested in knowing how sustainable communities of learning can develop out of well-designed, well-facilitated connectivist MOOCs.

It all very nicely wraps around and draws upon some of the other learning objects we have accessed during our co-learning explorations this week: the Howard Rheingold/Alec Couros interview about building communities of learning, the video of Dean Shareski discussing educators’ “moral imperative” to share, and Rheingold’s “Toward Peeragogy” article for the dmlcentral blog.

If some of the makes that Alan so rightly admires are grounded in collaborative efforts that shape new learning objects from mashups of open educational resources and other freely-shared items, then makes like the one you’re reading—drawing upon a variety of resources to create a unique learning object springing from the learning process itself—most certainly should qualify as makes. The beauty of this type of make is that, like the idea of MOOCs serving as a new form of open textbook, it is never completely finished. If you build upon this in your own blog or contribute through a comment to this piece, you’re contributing to the make—and, more importantly, to the rhizomatically-expanding set of learning resources available to us all benefiting from co-learning through connected learning efforts.

N.B.: This is the fourteenth in a series of posts documenting connected learning through #ccourses and other MOOCs.


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