Preparing Learners…For the 20th Century?

September 5, 2013

Students, faculty, and administrators at Wyoming Catholic College are voluntarily, collectively, and enthusiastically engaged in an unusual approach to the use of contemporary technology, a Yahoo!News “Born Digital” series article reports in the following terms: “No cell phones allowed: Some colleges ban modern-day gadgets.”

Yahoo--Born_Digital“Also banned…are televisions and access to most websites in dorm rooms,” Ron Recinto writes in his article about the small liberal arts college. “Administrators allow only limited Internet connectivity throughout the campus, so students can do online research.”

It’s a fascinating contrast to the approach taken by another school with strong spiritual roots—Abilene Christian University, in Texas—which was the first university in the United States to provide incoming students with smartphones. It’s also a fascinating response to a problem described by a Wyoming student as “our inability to genuinely communicate at a human-to-human, face-to-face level,” and an interesting approach to the school’s stated “primary educational objective” of offering “a traditional liberal arts education that schools the whole person in all three dimensions—mind, body, and spirit.”

And while I couldn’t help but feel drawn to and impressed by the school’s description of its rigorous intellectual standards and broad-based curriculum embracing “history, imaginative literature, writing, reasoning, oratory, Latin, art history, music, mathematics, natural science, philosophy, theology, spirituality, outdoor leadership, and horsemanship,” I am left wondering whether the approach of agreeing to prohibit the use of cell phones except in extremely well-defined situations really is an effective way to help contemporary learners respond to the problems they believe technology fosters and the challenges technology produces.

The college’s dean of students, for example, explains that the policy helps eliminate the temptation to disengage from face-to-face interactions by answering cell phone calls and text messages as if “people you aren’t with are more important than the people you are with.” He also is quoted as suggesting that “We’re allowing a freedom and a vacation from all that so that students can work on something different: true friendship, true virtue, true study.”

What all of this seems to miss—at least as described in the Yahoo! News article—is a greater, far more dynamic learning opportunity: the chance to develop first-rate 21st-century person-to-person and online communication skills, friendship, virtue, and study by discussing, adopting, and maintaining nuanced forms of positive behavior in our onsite-online world rather than simply agreeing to remove bits and pieces of contemporary technology from an apparently wonderful learning environment.

Wyoming_Catholic_CollegeHelping students develop practices that prepare them for effective engagement in a highly-collaborative, globally-interactive world where tech tools can, if used judiciously, foster incredible levels of creativity, innovation, and collaboration seems far more responsive to contemporary learning needs than simply removing widely-available tech tools from their daily lives. Helping students develop habits that encourage them to control rather than be controlled by their tech tools seems to offer greater long-term benefit to them than having them, during this phase of their formal education, withdraw from what is commonly used in the world they inhabit. And helping students define, develop, and maintain digital literacy to remain competitive and effective in the contemporary workplace seems to be a more productive approach to their intellectual and societal development than setting aside the tools those workplaces and that society expect them to be able to effectively use.

I’m not at all unsympathetic to the challenges the Wyoming Catholic University community is attempting to address. As my own friends, colleagues, and learners know, I’ve traveled similar extremes over the past several years, having gone from having little interest in using laptops, cell phones, and social media to being someone who works face to face and online with learners across the country to help them adopt new technology and social media tools in their professional and personal lives. I’ve gone from holding a strong preference for face-to-face learning to an evidence-based belief that the best of online learning can be every bit as engaging and effective as the best of face-to-face learning. I’ve gone from not having a cell phone to having an admittedly old cell phone—a friend disparagingly refers to it as a “cellosaurus”; a (fairly up to date) laptop; and a tablet that provides me with levels of connectivity and engagement at a deeply personal and professional level I couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago.

What I’ve also developed, with continual experimentation as a trainer-teacher-learner, is a sense of when to set the technology aside so that I don’t miss that human-to-human contact the Wyoming community seems to crave. By consistently paying attention to people rather than technology, I believe I’ve had the richly-rewarding benefits of experiential learning to become even more adept at nurturing the person-to-person connections that make life worth living—on as well as off campus.


Connected Learning, Project-Based Learning, and Learners as Authors

August 20, 2013

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” Peter Steiner suggested in his well-known The New Yorker cartoon two decades ago. And nobody would know that a recently-published book on connected learning and learner-centric education that effectively incorporates technology into learning and is available on Amazon.com is a project-based learning achievement produced by 27 Norwegian high school students under the guidance of their teacher, Ann Michaelsen—unless they had found the ebook Connected Learners: A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Global Classroom or heard a few of the authors interviewed this afternoon on the latest episode of Steve Hargadon’s Future of Education series online.

Connected_Learners--CoverHigh-school projects generally aren’t available as ebooks on Amazon.com. Then again, most high-school projects don’t effectively and engagingly lead us into an exploration of contemporary “webucation” while providing a first-rate example of what project-based learning can produce among students of any age. Michaelsen herself describes the book as a “compendium of articles, advice and how-to instructions, designed to help high school teachers and their students around the globe shift from classrooms that are isolated and teacher-centered to digitally rich environments where learning is student-driven and constantly connected to the global internet.” But there’s no need to believe that the publication doesn’t apply to a far wider audience of trainer-teacher-learners.

The writers’ goal is explicitly stated up front: “…we want to teach YOU how to master the skills of webucation. We will teach you how to make a blog and integrate it into your learning. We will discuss the positive effects of a digital classroom and inspire you to use digital tools.”

And while this is hardly a revolutionary idea—the #etmooc Educational Technology & Media massive open online course (MOOC), Buffy Hamilton’s Unquiet Library, and the Social Media Basics and other courses I design and facilitate for ALA Editions, are just a few examples of how richly rewarding many of us are finding online experiential learning to be. It’s also another fabulous reminder that anyone involved in teaching-training-learning needs to be aware of these explorations not only to keep our learning toolkits fresh, but to be ready for the learners who are entering our worksites rapidly and in increasingly large numbers.

Future_of_EducationOne of the benefits of learning from these learners via Hargadon’s Future of Education interview was the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of their own learning environment. The live chat, for example, suggested that what Michaelsen facilitated is widespread in that particular Norwegian school; confirmed that final exams were replaced by reviews of the work the learners produced for the book; and showed that the learners themselves found the work to be “extremely interesting and exciting” and instrumental in fostering “student engagement and motivation”—elements apparently equally strong in the innovative Finnish school system, as we saw in Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland.

Another benefit was to hear the students’ post-learning assessments. Asked whether he would consider writing another book collaboratively outside of school, co-author Haakon Bakker admitted “Maybe not; it’s a big process. But that would be really fun.” Another co-author, Ulrik Randsborg Lie, suggested that a key lesson learned was the importance of advocating for educational change: “It’s all about making the teacher take action” to move toward more connective, experiential technology-supported learning.

Even the most cursory skim of the book excerpts available on Amazon.com suggests that the writers have produced a book rich in resources. There are links to recommendations for setting up Twitter accounts and blogs, using Google Docs and Dropbox, and tips on embedding videos into PowerPoint presentations. There are explorations of 21st-century learning skills. And there are chapters on gaming to learn, digital literacy, and assessment.

Hearing Bakker acknowledge that collaborative authorship is “a big process” suggests how successful this particular learning experience can be. And the possibility of inspiring other learners to produce equally impressive learning objects to help others reminds all trainer-teacher-learners of the key roles we can and must continue to play in contributing to effective and inspirational learning at all levels.



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.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: When Learners Create Learning Objects

June 26, 2012

Put a group of trainer-teacher-learners into a room, and you’ll quickly see barriers dissolve and information flow, as happened yesterday during an ALA Learning Round Table “Nuts and Bolts of Staff Training” discussion here in Anaheim at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference.

Facilitators Maurice Coleman and Sandra Smith, who serve on the Learning Round Table board of directors, facilitated a 90-minute session that informally took participants through a start-to-finish tour of problems and solutions in workplace learning and performance (staff training) programs. And most of the solutions came from participants themselves as experienced colleagues shared ideas and resources with those new to the profession—and those relatively new to the profession quickly learned that they had plenty to contribute through the questions that they raised and the suggestions they themselves contributed.

The session also served as a good example of facilitated and experiential learning. Participants initially identified key challenges they face in their workplace learning and performance programs. That exercise helped establish the start-to-finish overview: how to successfully manage programs with a one- or two-member training department; identify and respond to the needs of different learners (including those with diverse cultural backgrounds); choose the tech tools that allow us to manage course offerings, registration, course content, and feedback through evaluations; make learning accessible to learners; deliver effective learning opportunities; and decide how to effectively manage the evaluation process.

Attempting to tweet the responses provided a learning opportunity in and of itself: how to create a learning object from learners’ class discussions as documented through a Twitter feed in TweetChat. By capturing comments in 140-character summaries, we were able to produce the Twitter feed (available at @trainersleaders for June 25, 2012) that participants can review, and I’ve also written this article in the hope that it can alone as a useable lesson/summary of best practices cited by active trainer-teacher learners.

Several samples from the twitter feed, edited and expanded since we are not constrained by the 140-character limit in this posting, are offered here:

  • To be an effective trainer-teacher-learner, strive to play a leadership role within your organization.
  • Reach learners who are new to tech tools by using peers as instructor/facilitators rather than always relying on those seen as “techies,” e.g., members of the organization’s IT staff.
  • Connect learners with learning opportunities by making information about training sessions clear and accessible.
  • Be sure that training sessions support organizational goals and objects so learners are effectively served by the learning opportunities they accept.
  • Provide clear, concise, and measurable learning objectives so managers and learners know what to expect and so that we have the framework to conduct successful and meaningful evaluations after learners return to their worksites and begin using what they learn.
  • Recognize that learners best absorb new information in relatively brief chunks—generally no more than 10 minutes in duration, although there is quite a bit of disagreement among trainer-teacher-learners on this topic—and offer learners frequent opportunities to apply what they are learning.
  • Incorporate playfulness into learning to decrease stress (which limits a learner’s ability to absorb new information) and to make the learning experience memorable, e.g., offer “sit and play” sessions where new learners become comfortable by actually using the tech devices they are going to use in their workplace.
  • Create online sandboxes for learners—spaces where they can find tools and resources they want to try and master.
  • To be sure learners use what they learn, create clear tools and avenues for accountability.
  • Use evaluation models including Donald Kirkpatrick’s four levels of learning evaluation and Jack Phillip’s model for Return on Investment in Training and Performance Improvement Programs.

There was, of course, much more to the session than can be captured in a relatively brief summary—including the idea that some of the best learning occurring yesterday came from the realization that people from small training units are far from alone when they turn to their own communities of learning, including the ALA Learning Round Table.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: Addressing the Couch in the Middle of the Room

June 25, 2012

A colleague entering the room where Sharon Morris and I were facilitating the ALA Learning Round Table’s “Ignite, Interact, and Engage: Maximizing the Learning Outcome” session yesterday here in Anaheim at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference admits to being momentarily confused.

“I didn’t remember ordering a couch,” she said when she joined the session in progress.

And I have to admit that we didn’t, either—at least not directly. For when we started the session, it had the typical session room set-up. Round tables surrounded by chairs. Lectern with microphone. A couple of tables with chairs for presenters and panelists. A projector throwing PowerPoint slides onto a large screen in one corner of the room. And the usual drab/neutral walls.

But we quickly changed all that by projecting a Twitter feed onto the screen via TweetChat during parts of the session and beginning the workshop with a wonderful presentation/learning technique I acquired from writer-trainer-consultant Peter Block’s presentation at the 2008 ASTD International Conference & Exposition in San Diego: we encouraged “Engage” participants to take two minutes at the beginning of the session to reset the room in any way that would create a space conducive to their own leaning experience. The we added to Block’s exercise by inviting them to use simple supplies we had provided—clay, construction paper, colored clay, and a few other items—to decorate the room in a way that served the same purpose. And even I, after running variations of this particular learning exercise, was astonished when a few participants carried “resetting the room” to a wonderful extreme I’d never before encountered: they stepped outside, snagged a small couch from a corridor, and brought it into the room for themselves.

As we moved through the session, we left plenty of time for learners to practice what Sharon and I were sharing with them about various styles of presentation: lecturing/telling, storytelling/sharing knowledge, inquiring/reflecting, experiencing—lots of that with this group—and creating/developing something as we did by developing a comfortably appropriate learning space for the duration of the session. We also brought blended (onsite-online) learning into the picture by explaining how many trainer-teacher-learners are using Twitter and other social media tools to connect on learners within a learning space—a fourth place, or social learning center—with learners not physically present, yet capable of engaging in what is being accomplished.

Attendees clearly absorbed and responded to ideas about incorporating an opening exercise and improvisation into learning. When someone mentioned how we often avoid the most difficult and obvious of challenges—in essence, ignoring the elephant in the middle of the room—we even suggested that we had a perfect moment to change our own clichés by agreeing to “address the couch in the middle of the room.” And then we used Twitter to share, with other conference attendees, the idea that we need to begin addressing the couch in the middle of the room.

As we brought that very lively session to a conclusion, we reminded each other of the need to carry learning back to workplace settings where what was learned is actually used rather than lost—not wanting to be among that 70 percent of learners who never even try applying what they’ve learned. And you probably know what happened next: when we asked how participants would apply what they had learned, everyone stood up and engaged in a very spirited chanting of what had become the session mantra—“We won’t be part of the 70 percent.”

Late in the afternoon, I finally had time to go back to the Twitter feed (#ala12soclearn, for ALA 2012 Annual Conference Social Learning; parts of it remain available as posts on June 24, 2012 at @trainersleaders). It was very encouraging to see how effectively the session participants had engaged with the material and with each other. And I had a confirmation that we still have a long way to go in Library Land in terms of how we incorporate Twitter and other social media tools into our daily work this morning: a conference attendee used the Twitter conference backchannel (#ala12) to note that someone had shouted at him for using Twitter at the conference. I hope that he and others will join us in whatever post-session conversation continues at #ala12soclearn. And that we’ll all remain ignited and engaged as we return to our workplace learning and performance (staff training) spaces.

N.B.: The PowerPoint slides and speaker notes for the presentation are available on SlideShare.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: Learning, Leading, Engaging, and Transforming

June 23, 2012

If you were in the right room but weren’t paying attention yesterday at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference here in Anaheim, you easily could have missed one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of experiential and transformative learning and leadership in action.

The set-up was simple. Members of ALA staff, along with members of ALA’s Training, Orientation, and Leadership Development Committee (TOLD) and incoming ALA president Maureen Sullivan, worked together seamlessly to deliver the association’s annual orientation session for volunteers who will be serving as chairs of ALA committees for the next 12 months. The traditional set-up for the session, according to those familiar with it, has been for the incoming president to offer a few words of welcome and then leave others to conduct the session.

Sullivan, as the association’s lead volunteer for 2012-2013, suggested a different model for this year’s offering. And program organizers immediately agreed, she noted at the beginning of the session as an example of how change can sometimes easily be implemented. The standard “orientation” became a “strategic leadership meeting.” We were active participants in determining how we all will work together and with others during the next 12 months. And, by time we left that room three and a half hours later, we had not only become familiar with what was expected of each of us as volunteers, leaders, and potential facilitators of change within an association we very much love and admire, we had been reminded by a master trainer-leader-consultant/change agent that the first step in being effective is believing that we can be effective in the roles we choose to play.

Because I’ve known Sullivan for several years and have had a few opportunities to work with her and see her in action, I wasn’t surprised by any of this. When she facilitated a two-day conference for students who had not yet completed their graduate-level work to enter the library workforce, she completely inspired those participants—and her work has paid off as we’ve seen several of those conference attendees begin working their way into management positions with libraries across the country. And when I was struggling with a less-than-satisfying educational experience, Sullivan was there not only as a willing and sympathetic set of ears, she was among a small and cherished group of people who helped me find a way to turn a bad situation into something full of potential—and tremendous results.

So as I sat with other incoming ALA committee chairs yesterday; was engaged by the energy, dedication, and inspiration that Sullivan, author-consultant-presenter Eli Mina (101 Boardroom Problems [and How to Solve Them]) provided; and saw how my volunteer efforts might effectively make a difference in further supporting ALA and all it serves, I realized how lucky I was to be in that particular windowless room—with the most spectacular view of what a few involved people can accomplish under the tutelage of a trainer-leader-consultant who sets the best example possible through her own efforts as an association volunteer.

Others may have been enjoying quality time by a pool. Or preparing to visit the conference exhibits hall. Or tweeting wonderful (or snarky) observations about the conference. Or frantically trying to decide which sessions they wanted to attend and which ones they reluctantly will miss. Or trying to acquire another ribbon to attach to their conference badges. And I have to admit I hope to make time for all of those activities myself.

But being in that room, with that group of people, with that level of inspiration, reminded me once again of the absolute pleasures and rewards we find through volunteering to support those causes that appeal to us. We all know that it’s easy to make commitments. Set high standards and goals for ourselves, and encourage others to set high standards and goals they believe they too can achieve. And then, with the best of intentions, return to our day-to-day work and lose sight of the essential elements of what we set out to do. This, however, is an opportunity where I don’t think that’s going to happen.

It’s completely possible that the association will, a year from now, look exactly as it does today; and the average member will continue to pay dues, attend conferences, complain about bureaucracy, and wonder why nothing ever changes. But those of us inspired by Sullivan certainly hope that won’t be the case. And if we’re effective in reaching out to foster an even greater sense of engagement than already exists within ALA—remembering to listen and to act—we may actually have a report card well worth taking home when the time for our final exam as learner-leader/change agents is administered a year from now.

N.B.: Sharon Morris and I, on Sunday, June 24, 2012, will be facilitating a 90-minute workshop on how to engage workplace learners and others in libraries. The session, under the auspices of the ALA Learning Round Table, begins at 10:30 am at the ALA Annual Conference here in Anaheim, in Convention Center Room 203B. Hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an engaging discussion.


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