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.


Presentations on Presentations: Levels of Engagement

February 14, 2012

Given the strong belief that a fear of public speaking is the greatest fear most people have, it’s probably no surprise that we’re surrounded by presentations on presentations. Or that we can’t seem to be around our training-teaching-learning colleagues without finding ourselves engaged in conversations on the topic.

Looking at upcoming events for members of American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) chapters recently, even I was surprised to see how many, without formally coordinating their efforts, had scheduled keynote addresses on presentation skills and how to engage learners. (I’ll be attending one with ASTD Mount Diablo colleagues later this month, and just missed one at the ASTD South Florida Chapter earlier this month.)

Diving into a live online discussion with colleagues on Maurice Coleman’s latest T is for Training podcast late last week brought the topic to center stage again as we spent most of our time together talking about the challenges of writing training materials for other trainers. And during the discussion, a colleague mentioned a newly-posted and completely fascinating TED talk, by Nancy Duarte, on the structure of highly effective speeches (Steve Job’s introduction of the iPhone, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech).

All of this comes right at a time when I had the great good fortune to spend a couple of hours with Jerry Weissman, one of the most highly respected presentation coaches in the corporate world, and author of several books including Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story.

You have to be good if you’re going to sell more than 100,000 copies of a book about how to be a better presenter. Jerry Weissman is good. And he gets to the heart of great presentation skills by reminding us, throughout this wonderfully engaging book, of the importance of story if we want to hold the attention of audiences at a time when attention spans are as ephemeral as yesterday’s tweets.

Whether we’re new to the art of presentation or are experienced presenter-trainer-teachers benefitting from the useful reminders Weissman provides, he carries us through the presentation cycle with lots of guidance, including warnings of how we can go wrong: not offering clear points, not offering a clear benefit to our audiences (what’s in it for them, not us), not creating a clear flow of thought and information in our work, offering more details than an audience can absorb, or creating presentations that last too long.

He also offers the structure that telling a good story provides: taking listeners from where they are (Point A) to where they need to be (Point B) in ways that focus on them rather than on us. He provides a concise survey of structures we can incorporate into presentations to make them flow and reminds us of the importance of “verbalization”—rehearsing our work out loud “just as you will on the day of your actual presentation” (p. 164) numerous times so that the story that is at the heart of all we do will flow naturally from us to those who are depending on us to make that all-important journey from Point A to Point B. Furthermore, he models the very skills he is trying to develop by incorporating presentation stories throughout his book in an effort to help us understand the process viscerally as well as intellectually.

It’s often the lines that seem to be most casually tossed off that take us most deeply to the heart of presentation professionalism. Writing about his attendance at investment banking conferences, he tells us that he is there “because they let me observe many presentations in one place, in a short time.” And if someone of his experience and reputation is attending presentations to pick up tips, it makes us ask ourselves why we aren’t equally engaged in seeing what others are doing if we’re at all serious about continually honing our own skills.

There’s no mistaking the seriousness with which Weissman expects and encourages us to approach the art of presentation: “…every presentation is a mission-critical event” (p. 168). With that as our guiding light, we should all be on our way to successful and engaging experiences for those we serve.

We have plenty of great role models out there, including Cliff Atkinson and his Beyond Bullet Points, and Garr Reynolds and his PresentationZen. And we’re all aware of the syndrome known as “Death by PowerPoint”—those dreadfully painful moments when someone fills a slide with incredibly dense blocks of illegible type—and then insists on reading every word of the text as if that somehow is going to engage us in the topic rather than make us wish we were dead.

With so many resources available, we need to remind ourselves that help is on the way. In fact, it’s all around us. If only we’re willing to grab it and run with it.


Creativity, Innovation, and Evolution in Publications

July 8, 2010

I’m not among those who feels compelled to worry about the future of magazines and newspapers. The way we share information in print and online is evolving so quickly that discussions of the future can’t possibly keep up with the reality of current innovations.

Attending the semi-annual meeting of the American Libraries magazine Advisory Committee while I was in Washington, D.C. for the 2010 American Library Association (ALA) Conference last week helped bring a lot of the picture into focus for me. Editor and Publisher Leonard Kniffel and his colleagues provided an intriguing summary of what they’ve been sharing with the magazine’s readers over the past year: a print publication which has been seamlessly interwoven with an online presence including featured videos, a photo gallery, and archives of the print editions and digital supplements; a readership that is responding well to a variety of information resources including the print and online versions of American Libraries; a weekly online publication—American Libraries (AL) Direct—which provides dozens of summaries and links to articles of interest to the more than 60,000 members of the American Library Association; an editor’s blog that is an integral part of the mix; and a growing appreciation for print articles which tackle larger themes rather than focusing on the sort of breaking news items which are more effectively disseminated via the online resources.

The result is a family—in the best sense of the word—of offerings that serve as a focal point for Association members and others interested in the state of libraries. It’s an early 21st-century version of the old local newspaper as center of a community, but serving a much larger and geography dispersed population than small-town papers ever imagined reaching.

I think Kniffel and his colleagues are doing a great job of drawing from the publication’s best traditions while taking advantage of opportunities offered by online resources. Articles which begin online can find their way—in revised versions—onto the pages of the print publication which, in turn, is posted online to reach an even larger audience than would have been possible a few years ago. Thematic publications, in the form of magazine-length digital supplements, give readers even more opportunities to explore issues of interest to them. And the creative use of eye-catching and easy-to-read design makes the offerings visually as well as intellectually appealing—an aspect of publication that is all too often ignored in a world where thoughts and imagery are extremely ephemeral.

While members of the American Libraries Advisory Committee spent little time during their meeting discussing articles and presentations on the state of magazines and publishing, their conversations implicitly acknowledged many of the innovations receiving attention in a variety of venues. The 2009 TED talk about a Polish newspaper designer’s innovative efforts to make each issue of his publication an event for readers is not far from what American Libraries accomplishes through its digital supplements and its annual print edition dedicated to innovations and achievements in library architecture. James Fallow’s article in the June 2010 issue of The Atlantic magazine“How to Save the News”—about how Google is supporting the evolution of newspapers is consistent with the moves American Libraries has already made to be present where readers are congregating rather than bemoaning the loss of print-publication readers to online sources. And Clay Shirky’s thoughtful presentation and discussion on “Internet Issues Facing Newspapers” explores new models for publications which American Libraries appears to be embracing.

Because our newspapers and magazines have—far longer than any of us have been alive—served as centers of the communities they serve, we have a vested interest in being sure that they continue to meet our needs and that we continue to support them through our patronage. It’s clear to me that their evolving onsite-online formats connected to print counterparts are continuing to reflect, support, nourish, and even help create new communities of interest, and those who are mourning their loss are simply not paying attention to the underlying health that print and online entities like American Libraries are displaying as they continue to evolve to meet their readers’ needs.


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