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.


ASTD International Conference 2012: M-Learning, M-Conferencing, and Expanding Social Learning Centers

May 17, 2012

Let’s temporarily set aside the debates about whether mobile learning (m-learning) is up-and-coming or already here and focus on a different part of the equation: learning through m-conferencing (which, as we’ll see, provides an immersive and tremendously rewarding form of m-learning).

Attending Good to Great  and Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All author Jim Collins’s keynote address last week at the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) 2012 International Conference & Exposition in Denver, I was viscerally struck by how seamless our onsite-online interactions have become.

Even before Collins began speaking early Monday morning to an audience of thousands of conference attendees in one of those cavernous, impersonal auditoriums that is designed to focus attention on the stage to the exclusion of all that is occurring around us, those of us with laptops, smartphones, and tablets were using a Twitter backchannel (#ASTD2012) to begin documenting what was happening—for ourselves as well as for colleagues who couldn’t be present for the onsite presentation.

When Collins began speaking, we tweeted out the highlights as we saw them. And one obvious sign that m-learning via m-conferencing is already firmly in place—at least with ASTD members—came when we realized that we were a large enough group to overload the superb wireless connections and 3G/4G networks to which we had access. Even though the Twitter feed was somewhat slow and clunky—at times even completely frozen because so many of us were trying to tweet at the same time—we somehow managed levels of engagement unimaginable even two or three years ago. As we were tweeting out our bite-sized notes and attempting to keep up with Collins’s completely engaging presentation, we also had the much-desired learner’s reinforcement of seeing other tweets that captured thoughts we otherwise would not have noticed.

In the act of retweeting those items we ourselves initially missed, a couple of amazing things happened. Each of us was able to create a more complete record of what was happening than any of us could have done on our own without simply recording the entire event. And many of us overcame the physical limitations enforced by seating arrangements in a setting so largely overwhelming; we were able to interact with each other in the moment and much later.

By attending, tweeting, and interacting at that level, what we found and continue to find is that a community of learning otherwise impossible to develop comes to life virtually on its own. Seeing other tweeters’ comments made me aware of their presence. And through the serendipity that often comes with attendance at large conferences, I found myself unintentionally and quite gratefully making face-to-face connections with those I somewhat impersonally encountered through that blended onsite-online social learning center that Twitter, tweeting, and mobile devices combined to helped create.

Because many of us who were tweeting and retweeting became curious about those tweeters we hadn’t formally met face to face, we began asking well-connected colleagues to help us identify each other. The payoff—as is often the case when social media tools are used effectively and judiciously—was magnificent. In a couple of cases, colleagues helped identify fellow tweeters who were sitting in sessions I was attending so that face-to-face connections became possible. But in an experience that is increasingly becoming common, I also gleefully found myself at small receptions and even a small dinner where those whose tweets I had been following were also present and available to extend the overall conference conversations.

That certainly doesn’t seem like such a big deal for those who have been at large conferences or using social media tools since the beginning of time. But the fact that this sort of unexpected meeting could occur at a conference with 9,000 participants who are connected through their mobile devices is as visceral an example as we’re going to see about how much the world has changed. How the old concept of “six degrees of separation” has quickly been reduced to nearly “no degrees of separation” in our highly connected world. How accessible our means of communication and our tech tools have made us.  And how effectively this form of m-conferencing leads us right back to m-learning as we learn from each other in the moment. And beyond.

Next: Cliff Atkinson on the Backchannel


Rethinking Learning and Learning Spaces (Pt. 4 of 4): Rethinking With the Authors We Are Reading

March 23, 2012

Let’s take a quantum leap in rethinking what a learning space is. Without abandoning anything that is already effectively in place, let’s think beyond the physical classroom. Past the online learning spaces we inhabit now via platforms including WebEx, Skype, and many others. Let’s think about a world where learning spaces can be almost anything that facilitates learning. And then laugh when we realize how full circle we have come.

At least one idea comes sharply into focus as we move through the rethinking process via books by John Medina, Seth Godin, Cathy Davidson, and others, including Bruce Wexler: the “places” where we learn are in a dynamic state of change, and they all benefit from being stimulating rather than static. When we look at what Michael Wesch is doing at Kansas State University and documenting on his Digital Ethnography site, we see engaged and effective learning facilitated by an engaged teacher-trainer-learner. When we turn to the YouMedia project at the Chicago Public Library, we see a learning organization blending online-onsite learning in incredibly innovative ways. When we see how colleagues are using LinkedIn discussion groups, live online conversations linked together via Twitter hashtags like #ASTDChapters or #lrnchat or #libchat, or through Google+ hangouts, we see our idea of learning spaces expand even further since each of them creates a sort of space where learning can and does occur.

When we consider how effectively wikis are being used to draw teacher-trainer-learners together asynchronously to actually produce learning objects like the annual New Media Consortium Horizon Report, we can see those wikis as learning spaces. When we see how individual blog postings on topics ranging from various learning styles to learning in libraries include extensive links and references and serve as self-contained online asynchronous lessons, we have further expanded our horizons. When we use smartphones and tablets as conduits to sites such as Smarthistory while we are standing in front of a work of art in a museum, we viscerally understand that the learning space is a blend of the museum gallery and the website and the device since they combine to provide a more comprehensive learning opportunity than would be possible without that combination. And it’s just one small additional step to move ourselves to the concept of blended learning spaces along the lines of the onsite-online social learning centers a few of us are promoting, or to see the newly created TED-Ed site as a dynamically innovative learning space.

But there’s still one obvious oversight, and it comes to our attention as we rethink what knowledge is through books like David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know, which examines our move from print-based knowledge to online knowledge. Or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which suggests that using the Internet is rewiring our brains in ways that make it difficult for us to read book-length works. Or William Crossman’s VIVO [Voice In/Voice Out]: The Coming Age of Talking Computers, which is predicated on the author’s belief that text and written language will be obsolete by 2050. The oversight for many of us may be in not seeing that books themselves (in print as well as online) remain a form of learning space—a place where we encounter other trainer-teacher-learners, learn from them, react to the ideas being proffered, and even, at a certain level, engage with them through our reactions to their work and through the conversations they inspire. Which makes it tremendously ironic, as I have repeatedly noted, that these wonderful thinker-writers still are drawn to express themselves most eloquently within the very containers—the books—they think are being replaced by other options.

If we were to travel down a similar path of overlooking what so clearly remains before us, we, too, might look at all that is developing and lose sight of a valuable learning space: the physical learning spaces that have served us in the past and will continue to serve us well if we adapt them and expand them—and ourselves—to reflect and respond to our changing world as well as to our learning needs. And our desires.


Horizon Report Retreat (Pt. 2 of 3): Reflections, Reinvention, Transformation—And Watching Evolution Happen

February 7, 2012

The world of technology, education, and creativity is changing so quickly that it’s as if we are sitting in a Darwinian doorway and watching evolution happen, a colleague at the recent New Media Consortium “The Future of Education” Horizon Project Advisory Board retreat in Austin, TX observed.

And that pretty much sums up how it felt to be at the second day of that three-day retreat with nearly 100 very creative educators from academic institutions, museums and museum organizations, companies involved in the development and diffusion of new technology, libraries, and other game-changers in teaching-training-learning.

To try to capture the level of discourse that flows through and from a gathering like that one is like trying to fully capture a profoundly moving dream hours after waking up. Except that there was no sleeping going on there. That was a fully-engaged group of dreamers who knew that their (our) dreams document and even have the ability to shape the world in which we live, breathe, and work. A group of people who are deeply passionate about and engaged in how technology and creativity affect training-teaching-learning. And one that never for a moment seemed to lose sight of the human element of an industry driven and affected by the rapid rate of technological change.

Convened to reflect on what 10 years of Horizon reports have produced;  to consider ways of reinventing the annual flagship report on technology in higher education and its various subsidiary versions (taking specific looks at technology in museums, technology in kindergarten through 12th-grade education, and even regional variations on these themes; and to foster discussions about how those reports will continue to transform the ever-increasing world of teaching-training-learning, we began Day 2 with encouragement from NMC Founder/CEO Larry Johnson to stretch ourselves into an idealized future. To identify a set of big ideas capable of guiding people in the larger world for years to come. And to find ways to keep the Horizon Report relevant in a world that seems to change as quickly as sand shifts under our feet in a pounding surf.

There was talk of libraries as learning centers; the ubiquitous nature of mobility in learning at a time when the use of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets is absolutely exploding at a global level; the need to seek a new form of literacy—“deluge literacy”—to help learners cope with the deluge of information they face on a daily basis; and discussion of a TED talk about building an architecture for participation—lubricating the wheels for collaboration—a creativity process capable of inspiring innovations and change from the ground up. And there was a poignantly compelling reminder that “global” doesn’t necessarily mean “universal.”

You could sense, moment by moment, that this was a group with dreams of inclusivity rather than exclusivity. A group focused on how technology is changing the way we learn, but also keeping technology in a position subsidiary to the human element of teaching-training-learning. And a group intensely, passionately engaged in responding to learners’ needs and looking for ways to effectively and engagingly incorporate technology into the learning process.

It’s obvious that the hundred of us there were all attending, participating, and sharing ideas in the same conference/retreat at very significant levels. And yet because of the masterful way the event was facilitated by David Sibbet, President and Founder of The Grove Consultants International, and the way face-to-face and online communication was supported (through a very active Twitter backfeed under the hashtag #nmchz; I contributed via @trainersleaders), it’s possible to assert that we all attended and participated in 100 different, highly personal, and overlapping conferences where the levels of engagement were increased by our abilities to listen, talk, take notes, exchange tweets, and read those tweets during breaks and after hours while we were all onsite together.

At one of the break-out discussion sessions, I found myself at a table with colleagues from Brazil, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, Puerto Rico, Shanghai, Spain, and the U.K. During rides to and from the conference hall, I was with an Australian who works for the BBC, in Manchester. You can’t physically be in these situations and settings without viscerally understanding how small the world has become in many ways. And how inspiring and transforming it can be to even be able to spend a few minutes listening to the various perspectives an opportunity like this reveals. As we watch evolution unfold.

Next: Reflection and Inspiration in Six-Minute Bites


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