Building Upon A New Culture of Learning with Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown

September 17, 2012

If doing is learning, there’s plenty to learn and do with the ideas Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown present in A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

Working with the theme of social/collaborative learning that we’ve also encountered in The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner, in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Report 2012 Higher Education Edition  and “Communiqué from the Horizon Project Retreat” held in January 2012, the eLearning Guild’s new “Social Learning: Answers to Eight Crucial Questions” report, and many other books, reports, and documents, Thomas and Brown take us through a stimulating and brief—but never cursory—exploration of “the kind of learning that will define the twenty-first century.” And it won’t, they tell us right up front, be “taking place in a classroom—at least not in today’s classroom. Rather, it is happening all around us, everywhere, and it is powerful” (p. 17).

As we’ve already seen in a series of articles here in Building Creative Bridges, our learning spaces and the way we foster learning are continuing to evolve—which doesn’t necessarily mean, as Thomas and Brown note in their own work, that we’re completely abandoning classrooms and the best of the training-teaching-learning techniques we’ve developed over a long period of time. But the fact that plenty of effective learning that produces positive results “takes place without books, without teachers, and without classrooms, and it requires environments that are bounded yet provide complete freedom of action within those boundaries” (p. 18) offers us plenty of possibilities to rethink what we and the people and organizations we serve are doing.

Their summary of how Thomas’ “Massively Multiplayer Online Games” course at the University of Southern California seemed to be spinning wildly out of control as students more or less restructured the class from lots of lecture and a bit of demo to lots of exploration followed by short summary lectures at the end of each session leads us to the obvious and wonderful conclusion that, by taking over the class, the learners were also taking over control of their own learning and producing magnificent results—a story similar to a situation also documented by Cathy Davidson in Now You See It.

And it doesn’t stop there. As they lead us through a brief summary of instructor-centric and learner-centric endeavors, we see a theme that crops up in much of what is being written now about m-learning (mobile learning, i.e., learning through the use of mobile devices): that the new culture of learning “will augment—rather than replace—traditional educational venues” and techniques (p. 35).

What flows through much of Thomas and Brown’s work—and what we observe in our own training-teaching-learning environments—is what they address explicitly near the end of their book after having discussed the importance of learning environments: the need to foster playfulness in learning and the parallel need to work toward a framework of learning that builds upon the Maker movement and that acknowledges three essential facets for survival in contemporary times: “They are homo sapiens, homo faber, and homo ludens—or humans who know, humans who make (things), and humans who play” (p. 90).

We have plenty of examples upon which to draw: Michael Wesch’s experiments with his Digital Ethnography project at Kansas State University; the YOUMedia Center for teens at the Chicago Public Library; smart classrooms where technology enables creatively productive interactions between onsite and online learners; and even the information commons model that began in academic libraries and is increasingly being adapted for use in public libraries. There’s much to explore here, and that’s why some of us have been promoting the idea that it’s time to add to Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place concept of three key places in our lives (the first place being home, the second place being work, and the third place being community gathering places where we find and interact with our friends and colleagues away from home and work) with a new Fourth Place: the social learning center that onsite as well as online as needed.

Another theme that Thomas and Brown bring to our attention is the way communities—those vibrant foundations of our society that are so wonderfully explored by John McKnight and Peter Block in their book The Abundant Community and continue to be fostered on The Abundant Community website—are developing into collectives—less-than-rigid gatherings of learners and others who are drawn by immediate needs and then disperse if/when those needs are met.

“A collective is very different from an ordinary community,” Thomas and Brown write. “Where communities can be passive (though not all of them are by any means), collectives cannot. In communities, people learn in order to belong. In a collective, people belong in order to learn. Communities derive their strength from creating a sense of belonging, while collectives derive theirs from participation.” (p. 52).

All of which leads us to an obvious conclusion: if we are inspired to do the things within our communities, collectives, and organizations that Thomas and Brown describe and advocate, we will be engaged in building the new culture of learning they describe—while learning how to build it.

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Training, Technology, and Grand Juries

August 10, 2012

A grand jury’s conclusion that “San Francisco’s City Technology Needs a Culture Shock” inadvertently points toward opportunities for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors regardless of where we are living.

“Déjà Vu All Over Again,” the recently-released City and County of San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report, documents the deplorable state of technology coordination and usage at the local government level. And this clearly is not a new or local issue; those of us who follow tech news have seen numerous examples of how our colleagues in government struggle—or don’t even attempt—to effectively incorporate the use of available technology into the workplace to better serve constituents. Think of the situation that led to the formation of the United States Department of Homeland Security when it was clear that the FBI, CIA, and others were far from up to date in their use of effective communication tools and practices. Or think of the sort of reports that have consistently documented the need for tech upgrades at the national level over the past decade or two. And think of what we see among our own workplace learning and performance colleagues if they still haven’t begun to build upon the practices documented by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner in The New Social Learning, in the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) Social Media Toolkit for ASTD Chapter Leaders, or the other resources that continue to come our way on a regular basis.

While the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report deals primarily with the situation here in San Francisco at a high-level administrative level (the fact that seven different email systems are in use among City/County departments, for example), it also speaks to anyone involved in training-teaching-learning through its occasional—and, unfortunately, infrequent—references to the need for staff training. The fact is, the report is heavy on identifying and criticizing political leaders and chief information officers throughout the City and County of San Francisco for not working more cohesively and collaboratively to meet the tech challenges that face many of us on a daily basis, but is light on acknowledging the role teacher-trainer-learners might be playing in remedying the problems identified within the report and better preparing managers and employees to use the tech tools at their disposal.

Sparse references to providing training or staffing help desks means that the focus here remains on the acquisition of tech systems while underplaying the importance of assuring that those tasked with using those systems are prepared to fully incorporate them into the work of serving constituents.

And this is where I believe we can all be doing better in being part of the solution. We need to continue carving out the time to be technologically literate. We need to be playing more of a leadership role in our organizations to help determine the learning course of those organizations rather than just working to implement what others have, for better or for worse, determined are our workplace learning and performance priorities. We need to be collaborating even more effectively than we already are through our professional associations, through the onsite and online learning opportunities that we often ignore because we just can’t seem to make the time to take advantage of them. And we need to be positioning ourselves—to the benefit of our organizations and those they serve, not just for self-promotion—in ways that show we should and can be key players in making decisions that help resolve the sort of tech (and learning) deficiencies that are at the center of that grand jury report.

If we continue advocating for creative, cost-effective ways to support our colleagues to meet their learning needs, we provide the foundations for the sort of tech-savvy workforce that, as ASTD so often says, creates a world that works better. If, through our own training-teaching-learning efforts, we provide examples of how this can be accomplished, we become part of the solution. And, if we’re lucky, we help nurture exactly the sort of culture shock that San Francisco and other municipalities so clearly need in a world where change and learning are constant.


Training Trends, Learning Outcomes, and Setting More Productive Goals

February 10, 2011

When we look at trends and predictions for workplace learning and performance (training) in pieces such as Training Industry, Inc. CEO and Founder Doug Harward’s recent article posted on TrainingIndustry.com, we find an intriguing combination of potentially positive changes and misdirected attention.

The positive elements include predictions that “total spending for training services” will increase by seven to nine percent in 2011; “the role of the learning leader” in organizations is changing for the better; “learning technologies are becoming social, collaborative, and virtual”; and “learning content will be transformed for easier consumption”—situations many of us have already been seeing or can, without too much thought, accept as likely.

Sources including the ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) “2010 State of the Industry Report” confirm that training remains a well funded industry in some ways even though many of us note and lament reductions in training budgets: “U.S. organizations spent $125.88 billion on employee learning and development  in 2009” (p. 5)—the year during which the data in the 2010 report was gathered. The eLearning Guild’s “Getting Started with e-Learning 2.0” and co-writers Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner, in their book The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media, provide support for the idea that social media tools are already making a positive difference in fostering learner-centric training. And interviews that Lori Reed and I conducted for our forthcoming book on trainers as leaders (Workplace Learning & Leadership) document the increasingly important roles workplace learning and performance professionals are assuming in developing, delivering, and evaluating effective learning opportunities.

One particularly interesting assertion among Harward’s predictions is that learning leaders are becoming solutions architects or learning architects—“someone who designs innovative approaches for employees to access knowledge, when they need it, in relevant chunks, no matter where they are.” This, he suggests, moves them/us closer to the role of consultant—a role which trainer-consultants including Peter Block (Flawless Consulting) and the late Gordon and Ronald Lippitt (The Consulting Process in Action—particularly Chapter 6) have abundantly described in their own work when they write of internal and external consultants (long-term employees as opposed to those hired for well defined projects with specific beginning and end points).

As was the case with Training Industry, Inc.’s report on “How to Promote the Value of Online Training Within Your Organization,” however, there is a bit of myopia among the predictions. The proposal that “metrics for learning will be based on content access, view, involvement, and downloads” rather than “how many students attended a program” doesn’t appear to provide a significant and positive change; furthermore, it ignores the larger issue to be addressed: is all this workplace learning leading to positive change for learners, organizations, and the customers and clients they serve? The unfortunate answer, as documented elsewhere, is an emphatic “no.”

More importantly, this proposed shift in focus misses the larger mark because it still makes no attempt to engage in the levels of assessment suggested in Donald Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels™ Evaluation Model, Robert Binkerhoff’s Telling Training’s Story: Evaluation Made Simple, Credible, and Effective, or Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan’s The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development Into Business Results—those measurements of workplace learning and performance’s real results in terms of positive change.

There is much to admire in what Hayward writes. There is also obviously much room for seeking trends that, in his words, “will reshape the training industry” in a significant and sustainable way. All we have to do is keep our attention on the learners and those they serve. And set even more productive, measurable goals.


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