Train the Trainers: On Inclusion, Trust, and Co-Conspirators in Learning

May 24, 2021

The word “co-conspirators,” as Stephen Hurley (half-jokingly) suggested during our latest “Collaborations in Learning” conversation for his VoicEd Radio “Hurley in the Morning” show this morning, conjures up images of people furtively meeting to plan some sort of insurrection. And I have to admit that it makes me smile by reminding me of those comically sinister little figures from the Spy vs. Spy series I enjoyed many years ago.

But it also, as our conversation suggests, is a wonderfully subversive and productive word to describe the relationship between learning facilitators and learners when they toss out assumptions that learning involves one person providing information and another person (passively) absorbing that information. Co-conspirators in learning, as I learned from my time with Alec Couros and others in #etmooc (the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course) several years ago, are those who see the learning space as a place where everyone learns—teachers and students alike. It’s a space where we toss out quite a few assumptions about what learning involves and place a focus on the collaborative nature of learning.

It requires tremendous levels of trust. Learning facilitators (aka “teachers” and “trainers”) must trust their learners to be willing participants in the shaping of their own learning. Learners must trust the learning facilitator’s assertion that everyone has something to bring to the table during a formal or informal learning opportunity and makes the experience stronger, more productive, more results-driven, and more transformative than learning situations where learners are an audience drawn to words of wisdom provided by the person at the front of the room. In fact, as I suggested to Stephen, there really is no “front of the room” in a learning space (onsite or online) where everyone is seen as a co-conspirator in the learning process. Every part of that learning space is a dynamic space in which trainer-teacher-learners interact with other trainer-teacher-learners to achieve the learning goals they are pursuing. Together.

But all of that is far too theoretical. Far too academic. It misses the dynamic nature of “learners as co-conspirators” that becomes obvious when we see how it plays out. As I did last week during the first of six two-hour online sessions with a group of wonderful adult learners in a train-the-trainer series I have designed and am currently facilitating.

I made it clear, during the opening session, that we would be doing far more than learning the basics of training in a way that supported course participants in their efforts to hone their own training skills. I am encouraging them, through different approaches I am taking in each of those highly-interactive learning sessions conducted within Zoom, to interact within the basic structure of each of those formats. I try to get them to help shape each of those sessions by participating in discussions and activities that give them practice at using the skills we are exploring. And I make efforts to inspire them to question and understand the approaches and techniques and skills under discussion so they can decide for themselves which were worth using with their own learners and which might not work within the specific contexts in which they foster learning.

Image by truthseeker08, from Pixabay

Which means I need to be ready for those hoped-for moments in which they take control of the learning space and ask questions I might not have anticipated so I, too, am a learner in those sessions. Like the stunningly-unexpected question that came during the second half of the first session: why are there so few people of color included in the images used in the slide deck for this session?

Understand, please, that the question was sent privately through Zoom’s chat feature so I was the only person initially aware that the question was being raised and the only person seeing the brief, very polite, almost apologetic comments surrounding the question. It was in no way confrontational, and the learner explicitly expressed the hope that I wouldn’t be offended by the question. It was clearly a difficult question posed by a wonderful learner who felt comfortable enough to raise that question in a way that had none of the public-shaming aspects that we so often see these days through social media posts and other online interactions.

It deserved an immediate and honest answer. So I took a deep breath, stopped the lesson-oriented conversation that was underway, and told all participants that I wanted to share and address a comment that had been directed at me privately—because I felt it was an issue well worth acknowledging and addressing in a virtual room with co-conspirators in learning. Without identifying the person who had raised the question, I started by saying I was appreciative that our co-conspirator had brought the thought to my attention. And, glancing quickly at the images I had been using in the PowerPoint slide deck supporting the discussions we were having, I acknowledged that I had not been as diligent as I always try to be in creating something that was visually representative of the diversity of our community of learning. I assured everyone that I would be applying a different, more critical eye to the decks for the remaining five sessions. Then, after again thanking the person for the comment, I returned us to what we had been doing. And, afterward, took the small amount of time it takes to review decks already prepared for subsequent sessions and making adjustments that were easily made.

This might seem like something that, once addressed, would be done. But the real work is to see what sort of positive impact our actions with our co-conspirators in any learning situation have. So, without doing anything to overtly continue that particular thread of conversation and learning, I worked with that same group of learners during the next session and, as always, let the learners know that I would stay for a few minutes after the formal end of that virtual session in case anyone had further questions or items to explore—the online equivalent of staying in a physical classroom for post-session conversations with interested learners. You can, of course, anticipate what happened next: The only learner to stay was the one who had raised the question about the lack of images of people of color in the first session. And the reason the person stayed was to continue a conversation springing out of the second session. Because that learner was engaged. Comfortable. Interested in gaining all that could be gained during the time we had together.

As the post-session conversation around Session Two content wound down, I couldn’t resist asking whether there had been any noticeable difference in approach to the images used for that session. “Yes,” the learner replied simply and directly. “It felt more on point.”

And those few simple words, for me, spoke volumes in terms of how much we all gain when we are co-conspirators in learning. We all learn. We all improve. We all gain. We are all transformed, long-term, by the positive nature of those all-too-brief short-term interactions. And those we serve long after our shared learning moments have ended are the real beneficiaries of what we accomplish together.

N.B. – This is the first in a set of reflections inspired by a collaboratively run online train-the-trainer series.


ShapingEDU Winter Games: Driving and Intersecting with the Dreamers and Doers

February 1, 2021

There are conferences that start and end on a pre-announced schedule; you step away from work, you attend them, you enjoy them, and then you go back to work. And then there are conferences that feel as if they are already underway long before you arrive onsite or online for the first formally-scheduled event and seem to continue for days, weeks, or even months after the final formally-scheduled session concludes—which pretty much captures what I experienced nearly a month ago (January 5-7, 2021) during the Arizona State University ShapingEDU three-day Winter Games online conference for dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age.

You could, at the beginning of the Day 3 (January 7), already see it happening: through the discussions and plans for action that were forming and through the intersections between participants, you could see Winter Games transforming itself into part of a longer-lasting series of conversations and efforts to foster positive action extending far beyond what was happening. Attendees were engagingly interacting with presenters and panelists including elected officials, nonprofit and for-profit business representatives, educators, and a variety of other people exploring how collaboration across a variety of sectors might lead to short- and long-term positive results to everyone’s benefit.  

Feeling as if I am (a month later and after having participated in yet another virtual conference) still very much participating in Winter Games and looking back on the final day and everything I saw and learned, I’m not at all surprised by what we accomplished. Nor by what we laid the groundwork to accomplish. The discussions during keynote sessions, during smaller, more intimate breakout sessions, and during a final late-afternoon wrap-up gathering were Frans Johansson’s Intersection (explored in his book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures) coming to life: people from a variety of backgrounds gathering to talk and listen to each other, exchange ideas, and then return to their own communities to disseminate those ideas in world-changing ways.

As Samantha Adams Becker—one of our community leaders—observed that day, a dreamer envisions a better future. A doer makes it happen. And a driver scales it so that the future is more evenly distributed. Which, to me, serves as an acknowledgement of the community’s increasing attention toward placing lifelong learning within the larger context of social change, social justice, and social challenges we are facing and attempting to address through the work we do. It’s a community of educators as activists—where learning is a tool rather than an ultimate goal or achievement.

As always, what we accomplish comes down, at least in part, to the stories we tell. Panelists during the Day Three opening keynote session, “Unlocking the Data to Drive a Smart Region Vision,” told stories about the efforts underway in the greater Phoenix area to foster results-producing collaborations across sectors. Panelists, responding to questions and comments from moderators Brian Dean (co-founder and director of operations for the Institute for Digital Progress) and Dominic Papa (vice-president, Smart State Initiatives as the Arizona Commerce Authority), included Corey Woods, Mayor of Tempe; Elizabeth Wentz, a professor and dean at Arizona State University (ASU); David Cuckow, Head of Digital at BSI; and Patricia Solis, executive director for the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at ASU.

My own notes from that session—captured in the form of tweets prepared while the session was underway—in no way fully capture the depth and nuances of the conversation, which you can watch and hear in its entirety through the archived recording on the ShapingEDU YouTube Community Channel. But they do offer a gateway to a world of thought well worth exploring. Mayor Woods, for example, talked at one point about how the city of Tempe uses data to determine what services stay open; he also noted that city officials are known for making city-government decision based on data, including data related to diversity and inclusion. Another panelist wryly and repeatedly noted that short questions often reveal the need for long, thoughtful answers influenced by data sets as we attempt to address the challenges we face. Collecting data, the panelists suggested, is one step in better serving citizens (and, we might add by extension, learners); it’s about creating networks to look at data, to ask critical questions, and being able to better meet people’s needs by drawing upon and using the data we collect.

Leaving that session with my head still swimmingly in a wonderfully deep pool of ideas, I next moved onto more familiar ground—at least for me—in a session exploring some of the latest upgrades offered through Zoom. Listening to Zoom representatives talk about everything from incorporating PowerPoint slide decks into virtual backgrounds within Zoom to campus-wide integration of communications (telephone) systems and security systems into Zoom demonstrates, once again, that this is a company and product that is far from being content resting on its already well-deserved laurels. The entire session did what I want any great learning opportunity to do: it made me hungry for an opportunity to explore some of what I was learning was possible, and I have, since leaving that session, been exploring ways to build what I learned into the work I am continuing to do with learners.

The final session of the morning, for me, was an intriguing, intense look into the ever-evolving world of massive open online courses (MOOCs), which have remained of interest to me (and, apparently, others) ever since their brief moment in the spotlight several years ago. Led by Arizona State University Director of Digital Innovation Dale Johnson, the “Global Adaptive Instruction Network: Building a Collaborative MOOC Model” was a stunning look at how MOOCs in theory and in fact continue to evolve in ways that offer learners and learning facilitators intriguing ways to create more personalized, engaging learning opportunities than might otherwise be available.

“MOOCs have really become more like the McDonald’s of Higher Ed…” Johnson noted at the beginning of his session. “A lot of people are served but of some questionable educational value….How do we enhance the MOOC?….We are moving from a mass production world to a mass personalization world….The challenge for us is how do we move, in education, from mass production…to mass personalization?”

As we move to delivering the right lesson to the right student at the right time, he suggests, a collaborative MOOC model offers us interesting and intriguing possibilities. (Those interested in learning more can view the archived recording on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel.)

There is so much more to say about Winter Games. About that fascinating intersection/Intersection at the heart of the event. And about the conversations that are continuing even though nearly a month has passed—including one I had earlier today with Stephen Hurley during a “ShapingEDU and Community” segment of his VoicEd Radio “Hurley in the Morning” program. There is much we can learn about organizing effective online learning opportunities/Intersections along these lines, as we see in the ShapingEDU “ShapingED-YOU Toolkit” available free online. And there is much to be said for innovative, playful communities of learning that operate seamlessly throughout the year face-to-face as well as online.

But the Intersection we have reached at this moment is one where looking back, looking forward, and relishing the present moment bring to mind a line I’ve found in poems and many other pieces of writing I have absorbed over the years: The end is the beginning. And if that remains true for Winter Games, the best is still ahead of us.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-eighth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the third in a series of posts inspired by the ShapingEDU Winter Games.


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