The Fourth Place Revisited: When Social Learning Center Learners Take the Lead (Part 1 of 2)

September 26, 2012

You know you’re onto a major learning success when your learners seamlessly and playfully take the lead—which is exactly what happened late last week, halfway through the Library of Virginia’s two-day Directors’ Meeting in Richmond, Virginia.

Cindy Church, continuing education consultant for the Library, had brought Maurice Coleman and me in to facilitate a few sessions on the future of libraries and learning. Maurice engagingly initiated our portion of the program with “A Blind Leap of Faith: Keeping Your Library Thriving in the 21st Century.” His presentation Thursday afternoon provoked plenty of positive conversation onsite; it also, in the spirit of what we were doing, reached beyond the walls of the auditorium to be viewed by more than 800 people online after SlideShare’s managers highlighted his PowerPoint slide deck on their home page.

Maurice and I picked up where his initial session ended that afternoon by moving into a presentation/facilitated discussion, “Learning to Meet the Future: Libraries Developing Communities,” that was designed to introduce the library directors to the idea that libraries are serving as a new Fourth Place in our world—social learning centers. A major learning point was to be the idea that libraries often fill this need, but don’t call much attention to it, so are missing a chance to more effectively be at the center of the social learning process that effectively reaches and serves significant numbers of people in life-changing ways within their communities.

But a funny thing happened on the way to our denouement Thursday afternoon. It became clear to Maurice and to me, during our end-of-the-day wrap-up with the directors, that even if they hadn’t been familiar with the jargon of social learning and social learning centers, they were already engaged in using libraries as centers of formal and informal learning. And as if to prove how quickly they were assimilating the idea that learning is social, continual, and playful, one of them incorporated the term they had just picked up to tweet out a reminder about a gathering that was about to take place over drinks in a local hotel bar: “Social learning environment at Hilton Garden Inn 5:30.”

Since social learning often benefits tremendously from flexibility and in-the-moment course adjustments, Maurice and I were delighted to see that some of the formal discussions carried over to that social learning environment at the Hilton Garden Inn. And we were also extremely curious about two elements of what we were seeing: what connected those library directors so effectively to learning, and what we could do, overnight, to abandon what we had originally planned for the Friday session so we could more effectively meet those learners where they were and support them even more in their own work.

It didn’t take long to find the answer to the first question: directors with whom we spoke mentioned that Cindy and her colleagues in the state library (the Library of Virginia) had done quite a bit to foster a culture of learning throughout libraries statewide—again proving that if we have the right person or people in key positions, magic occurs. It’s not that we haven’t seen other colleagues in libraries express a commitment to learning—it is certainly visible here California through efforts supported by our state library, and the American Library Association’s current strategic plan goes a long way in fostering a mission statement that includes a commitment to “promotion and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.” What does not yet appear to be so common is the explicit commitment to social learning expressed and demonstrated so overtly by those Virginia library directors last week.

As for the answer to our second question—how to quickly produce an appropriate learning opportunity the following morning since what we had planned was clearly not going to be sufficient to meet this group’s needs—it came later that evening. Focusing on the idea that the library directors would benefit from hands-on experience in shaping and using a social learning center, we tossed out our original workshop plan and decided to turn the Friday morning session into an exercise of creating an impromptu blended (onsite-online) learning center that facilitated a conversation about what the directors could do upon returning home to their own libraries. All we had to do was find some online participants on the spur of the moment.

Next: Redesigning an Entire Social Learning Opportunity Overnight


Social Learning Centers and the Intersection at 39,000 Feet

September 18, 2012

I’m sitting next to Rob, someone I met a couple of hours ago at the beginning of an American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport this afternoon. We’ve been talking about the work he does on data protection and retention and the training-teaching-learning work I do in helping people learn to creatively incorporate technology into their workplaces. And we’re having an extended Intersection moment—the Intersection being that phenomenon described by Frans Johansson in his book The Medici Effect, about how when people from different backgrounds briefly come together and share ideas, they walk away with more than they ever would have developed on their own.

Our meandering conversation is punctuated by periods of silence during which we return to reading material we brought with us on the flight—he on his Kindle, me within the pages of printed books and magazines. And each time we resume our conversation, we learn something new. Rob, for example, learns a bit about social learning as well as about how different contemporary libraries are from those he used to frequent. And I, a moment ago, learned about BookShout!, which Rob pointed out to me after finding it described in the inflight magazine he is continuing to browse.

BookShout!, it turns out, is a new social media offering for readers interested in sharing comments online as they read books together. Having been introduced to the marketplace earlier this year by Founder and CEO Jason Illian, VP of Technology Rick Chatham, and VP of Creative and User Experience Josh Stone, according to the inflight magazine article (American Way, September 15, 2012), the service is already accessible through its website and an Apple app for iPhones and iPads; an Android version is scheduled to come out in October 2012.

Users of BookShout!, Illian notes in an online interview, can have their online discussions in groups as small or as large as they want them to be. First-time visitors to BookShout!’s Google+ site or company website will quickly spot the service’s roots in promoting discussions of Christian literature, but a bit of exploration shows that this is a site with aspirations to provide discussions about books from a wide and wonderfully diverse range of subjects.

And that’s what makes Rob point the article out to me.

“I bet this could be useful in online learning,” he observes, already having gathered from our conversation how immersed I am in creative approaches to training-teaching-learning.

“It’s as if we have our own temporary social learning center right here on this plane,” I blurt out as I realize what is happening.

For in the space of less than two hours, we have met, talked, found enough common ground to have more than a passing grasp of each other’s interests, and we’re already sharing information with each other in the midst of the Intersection.

Whether our social learning center will continue online via LinkedIn or some other social media tool after we land at the airport and part ways remains to be seen. But the learning that occurred, in true Intersection fashion, is already on its way to being disseminated. Through presentations a colleague and I are doing two days from now on social learning centers. And through this article you are reading. Welcome to the Intersection and a budding social learning center. Let’s see where this can take us.


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.


eLearning Guild: Big Answers to “Social Media in Learning” Questions We Should Be Asking

September 14, 2012

There’s a marriage waiting to be made in heaven for trainer-teacher-learners reading learning technology innovator Ben Betts’ Social Learning: Answers to Eight Crucial Questions, published this week by the eLearning Guild.

In his concluding remarks within the 36-page document (available free of charge to paying members of the Guild), he reminds us that social learning “usually means a learner being more active in the [learning] experience, connecting, creating, and curating ideas.” He also suggests that our “role as learning professionals” may be undergoing a shift from “creating simple and accessible learning resources” to “curating content that already exists.”

It’s a theme that was discussed among colleagues a couple of years ago at an American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) conference—we were acknowledging the fact that we had created so much content that users were having trouble locating and accessing it. The theme is also an essential element in the shifting responsibilities colleagues are assuming in libraries all over the country. Which leads me to think that if members of library staff continue to more fully embrace lifelong learning as part of their natural responsibilities and services—it’s a commitment that already exists in the American Library Association (ALA) 2015 Strategic Plan, where the need “to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all”  is part of the organization’s mission statement, and in ASTD, where the mission is to “empower professionals to develop knowledge and skills successfully”—we could be looking at very effective partnerships between library staff and members of ASTD itself since we’re all working toward the same goal: meeting an overwhelming need for effective learning opportunities in an onsite-online world where those who stop learning will be left behind.

Betts, in Social Learning, does a fantastic job of helping us frame the discussion as to how we can better meet a tremendous need. The questions he asks focus on needs and results and set a positive context by beginning with the question “What Is Social Learning?”; continuing with questions about the benefits of social learning and business risks of leveraging social learning; and moving through a review of existing frameworks, ways to generate value from social learning, tools of social learning, measuring success in social learning, and our own roles in the field.

By the time we have completed this wonderfully inspiring and straightforward journey with him, we’re in a position to see that the instructional/learning and information-management skills required of workplace learning and performance (staff training) practitioners and library staff have never been more overlapping. It’s as if this need to combine learning, information sharing/literacy, and content curation is priming us for a merger of ASTD and ALA into an International Society for Training, Learning, Information Literacy, and Content Creation/Curation (although I have to admit that the acronym doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue—ASTLILCCC?—and may need a bit of work even as a Twitter hashtag).

Betts is very effective in helping us understand what already is in place—social learning (learning that is not entirely dependent on formal teacher-trainer-instructors) is hardly a new concept or practice—and what is changing (social learning, he suggests, has been co-opted by members of the e-learning industry to be about “how we learn from one another via digital devices”). But there’s no denying the positive role social learning plays whether we are discussing online, face-to-face, or blended learning. Collaborative/social learning clearly produces positive results for the learners and those they ultimately serve, as he consistently documents throughout his report, and social learning augments formal learning in addition to supporting professional learning and individual’s self-organized learning endeavors.

He reminds his readers that effective social learning, like any form of effective learning, starts with efforts to assure that “your approach makes sense” within the context in which we are designing and implementing it. He suggest that we pay equal attention to the people we are serving, the objectives we are establishing, the strategies we will use, and whatever technology will help us foster the social-learning endeavors we are implementing.

In attempting to generate value, we are encouraged by Betts to engage in instructional scaffolding—“creating a supporting framework for learners to gradually grow in confidence in a new area until they are fully able to support themselves.” And he reminds us that we are building toward success if we use social media tools our learners already use and like rather than trying to develop new tools that learners will only reluctantly embrace, if at all.

“Perhaps it should come as no surprise that workplace uptake of social technologies has been slow when most of us can’t use the tools we’d prefer,” he says near the end of the report, offering a learning nugget that ought to be plastered all over the physical and virtual walls of every trainer-teacher-learners’ workspace to help keep us on track toward fostering effective learning.

He brings us to a strong conclusion by suggesting that we engage in a collaborative learning cycle: design for performance improvement; support existing communities; create, source, and curate resources; leverage appropriate technologies; champion effective social learning; and measure and prove impact.

If those of us who are not already seamlessly moving between libraries and other learning organizations are inspired to reach across the aisle by what Betts writes, we may help bring to fruition the wonderful goal ASTD has so consistently proposed: “creating a world that works better.”


Our Brains on News and Learning

June 17, 2011

Jack Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, proves with his book What Is Happening to News that all of us involved in workplace learning and performance need to read far beyond the artificial walls surrounding our field of play.

While the book ostensibly leads us through the well-documented crisis and evolution of contemporary journalism, its focus on how our brains absorb and cause us to react to all the stimulus we encounter is perfect reading for anyone involved in training-teaching-learning.

As James Zull (The Art of Changing the Mind) and many others have already done, Fuller starts off with explorations of how our brains actually learn. His third chapter, “Models of the Mind,” is particularly helpful both in its brief survey and its description of the physiological reasons why practice makes perfect: “the connection between neurons strengthens through the coincidence of their mutual firing. As the neuroscience slogan has it, ‘Cells that fire together wire together.’ The more frequent the coincidence, the stronger the connection” (p. 34). For Fuller, that helps explain why repetition of statements through the  media we use has a long-term impact on how we perceive the world; for trainer-teacher-learners, it’s a first-rate reminder that being aware of how our brains work puts us in a position to be more effective in fostering the sort of learning experiences that produce positive effects among our learners and all they serve.

Fuller again, within the context of a discussion about contemporary journalism, reminds us that much of what we are facing is far from new: “We are not the first era to sense that distraction has altered our ability to think,” he observes as he notes that one of our seminal journalists, Walter Lippmann, documented the same effect in 1921 (pp.57-58).

And when he moves into a section on “the inundated brain,” he offers a thought worth quoting not only to those interested in why news reporting focuses so much on negative stories but also to those of us interested in knowing what happens to learners who are attempting to do too many things at one time: “Time  pressure alone also increases cognitive challenge and emotional response. Some studies have shown that when given tasks under severe deadlines, people use  more negative information—which suggests that negative emotions are in play—than when doing the same task without being time pressured. Multitasking and information overload, too, increase the challenge to the brain’s processing resources. And when a person’s information processing capacity is stressed through information overload or multitasking, she is more likely to rely on emotional cues and use social stereotypes in making decisions about another person” (p. 61).

Where Fuller’s analysis of our approach to the news really comes to life for trainer-teacher-learners is in his exploration of how we have moved from a dispassionate to an extremely passionate or emotional approach to journalism, as any of us recognize when we think of the difference between classroom lectures and highly interactive, skillfully facilitated learning opportunities: “The curve has shifted toward emotional presentation,” Fuller notes in exploring how news is commonly presented now. “The fact that you can’t find a new Walter Cronkite on television today is no fluke. The dispassionate approach embodied by Cronkite does not attract the audience that it used to. Walter Cronkite was lucky to have worked when he did… Today he would be cancelled. So, by the way, would Walter Lippmann” (p. 72).

And so, I would suggest, would any of us who insist on approaching learning as a one-way instructor-to-learner enterprise when our communication tools and our expectations are all directed toward the collaborative experiential approaches that social learning environments and tools along with social learning itself inspire us to seek.


Innovations in Social Learning: From Print-based to Digital Environments

May 2, 2011

When a classmate introduced me to Michael Wesch’s 4.5-minute video The Machine Is Us/ing Us on YouTube a few years ago, I sat in stunned silence for quite a while. Because it introduced me to Web 2.0 in a uniquely visceral way. Showed me that the world had changed significantly while I had been asleep intellectually and socially. And because I knew I would be working through the thoughts inspired by that brief video for months, if not years, to come.

I had the same reaction two nights ago when I finally made the time to watch the online archived version of the MacArthur Foundation’s 100-minute Panel Discussion on Re-Imagining Learning in the 21st Century and immediately followed a link to see Digital Media: New Learners of the 21st Century,  the 50-minute PBS program which is at the heart of the Panel Discussion program.

To say that all trainer-teacher-learners should watch, think about, and discuss how the content of these two beautifully interwoven presentations is already affecting what we do is to underplay the significance of programs’ content.

Both presentations are forward-looking, as suggested by inclusion of John Dewey’s reminder that “If we teach today’s students as we did yesterday’s, we are robbing them of tomorrow.” And both shows document the growing impact of what Karen Cator, Director of the office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education, calls the transition from print-based classroom learning to a digital learning environment in one of her contributions to Panel Discussion.

While the focus of both programs is on education for students not yet in college, the message for all of us is: if we don’t learn from how these students—members of our future workplace learning and performance audience—are learning and if we don’t effectively apply those social learning techniques to what we are offering our adult learners, we’re going to become obsolete as learning leaders.

Cator—just one of several first-rate and thoughtful Panel Discussion presenters—overtly reminds us that “We have an incredible opportunity to transform learning into a deeply social experience, one that can leverage mobile technologies, social networking, and digital content. We can leverage the long tail of interest and design education environments that include prior experience, outside-of-school experience, multiple languages, families, the community, all the places that students live and breathe…”

It’s a change many of us are noticing as we acknowledge and attempt to foster the growth of new onsite and online spaces in our lives—social learning centers (also referred to as learning environments). And both programs—the Panel Discussion and Learners of the 21st Century—provide plenty of encouragement for those efforts by showcasing five innovative programs and projects.

There’s Quest to Learn, a school for digital kids. The Digital Youth Network and its fabulous YOUMedia collaboration for teens with the Chicago Public Library. The Smithsonian Institute’s digital scavenger hunt. Middleton Alternative Senior High’s augmented reality project in Middleton, Wisconsin. And the Science Leadership Academy sponsored by Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.

And there are the voices of the students themselves. Engaged. Confident. More articulate and innovative than many people twice or three times their age. And the sort of people all of us should very much look forward to working with very soon in our own workplaces and learning environments.


When Trainers Lead: Drawing From the Past to Build the Future

August 19, 2010

A magnificent—and not unexpected—success story is continuing to develop for the trainers-as-leaders at the ASTD Mt. Diablo Chapter in San Francisco’s East Bay Area: long-missing colleagues, including former members of the Chapter Board, are continuing to return to the organization after months or years of absence. More importantly, they are quickly becoming re-engaged in the organization’s growth and sustainability and are offering much needed skills.

Some are becoming formal business partners. Others are considering new volunteer non-Board roles in support of initiatives like special interest groups to serve members’ and prospective members’ professional development and workplace learning and performance needs. And still others are simply being drawn back to the Chapter’s monthly meetings because of the learning opportunities offered by guest speakers at those events.

As noted in earlier articles, this 80-person chapter of the 40,000-member national/international organization (the American Society for Training & Development) with more than 130 chapters in the United States and more than 30 international partners, was near collapse three years ago. A few dedicated Board and non-Board members refused to let it go under, and their (our) efforts have helped to bring it back to its position as a well focused, structurally sound, vital, vibrant, and sustainable community of learners in a heavily populated part of the San Francisco Bay Area.

The rewards to the Chapter and its supporters are obvious. Our members go far beyond the usual pay-your-dues-and-run sort of relationship often maintained within organizations. They bring a level of engagement which shapes and nurtures the sort of third place—community meeting place—described by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place and the complementary fourth place—a community gathering place for social learning—that several of us are just beginning to define and promote.

Our still-evolving vision of business partners through our Chapter Community Involvement process builds upon existing strengths instead of attempting to create something from scratch through cold calls with those who are completely unfamiliar with what we do and offer. Those business partnerships are a real point of pride for us and serve as an easy model for others to pursue. They begin with us looking at resources far-too-long ignored: Diane Fleck, a former Chapter Board president who became inactive in the Chapter after successfully establishing a business through the contacts she developed via ASTD—not her fault that she fell away, mind you; it happened because the Chapter no longer worked to be an important part of what she needed. That’s a chilling warning for those who don’t know that they’ve got till it’s gone.

Lynda McDaniel, our second business partner, came as naturally as the first: she is a Chapter member with tremendous writing and outreach skills—which she is willing to use on our behalf in exchange for the additional visibility it creates for her. Again, everyone wins. And our latest partners, Steven “Shags” Shagrin and Thornton Prayer through The Networking Lounge, are two consultants who have offered invaluable pro bono organizational development support at critical times in the Chapter’s growth; by acknowledging what they have done in ways that bring them visibility, we’ve nurtured another important relationship while gaining additional resources—including free meeting space—at a time when the number of activities we are scheduling is increasing and free meeting space will be critically important to the success of those events.

So here we are, a small and growing community of learners creating a fourth place for those who want and need it. And all that is needed—how strange and encouraging that what once seemed so daunting now is almost casually dismissed with the phrase “all that is needed”—by anyone wanting to build from this example is a core group of dedicated members who would not and will not give up something that they value; a shared vision which evolves to meet the community’s needs; and a willingness to cherish past resources in ways that re-engage them in the present and the future.


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