Reflecting on learning and seeing the world in exciting new ways.

Archive for November, 2010

Experiential learning

Ever since I participated in a three-day workshop about inquiry based learning with Lane Clark back in 2001, I have kept her words in my head: “Are we educating our children for our past or their future?” As I spend more time pondering the relationship between formal and informal professional learning, I try to keep in mind what is essential, what is desirable, and what is probably unnecessary in the programmes we develop. We take care to unpack and differentiate between the phrases ‘just in case’ and ‘just in time’ learning, but I can’t help but wonder where all the ‘just in case’ learning goes at the end of a programme or course. Two key thoughts arise for me:

  1. Just by describing a skill or competency as essential, we automatically make this a priority. But does this mean it needs to be taught via  a formal presentation or workshop before learning that is deemed desirable, or can learners participate when they are ready for this experience?
  2. What is the most effective way to cement essential learning and ensure that it makes it into our teaching practice?

I believe that in order for effective, long term learning to take place, learners need to be able to experience, experiment, fall back, fall forwards, pick themselves up and try again. It is a natural instinct to learn this way when we are young but rarely makes it into the realm of adult professional learning. Why is this? What is it about an experiential learning approach that is deemed less favourable for teaching educators essential skills and competencies relating to their teaching practice?

Babies and young children are the ultimate experiential learners, always figuring things out on the job. They don’t stick to a formal learning program. We have basic learning objectives and desired outcomes for them (walk, talk, etc) but they are not aware of our agenda; they probably wouldn’t care if they knew, anyway. Parents support their babies’ learning as they figure out each vital stage in their development, but ultimately they work out how to sit up, pull themselves up, experiment with sounds, start taking tentative steps, and do things when they are ready. A pre-designed plan doesn’t come into it, yet the outcomes are usually quite successful with long-lasting results.

Early childhood teachers recognise children’s natural tendencies for experiential learning and have used these concepts as a basis for the ECE curriculum. A good teacher recognises the value in finding out what their learners are currently able to do, knowing where they what their student to end up, deciding what the next learning step should be, and supporting them in order to achieve success. I would like to see us do more of this when it comes to professional learning in the workplace. Just as we wouldn’t expect a baby to go from sitting up to running in one giant learning step, we need to be mindful of the goals we want professionals to achieve and ensure well-scaffolded learning pathways exist

So how can we make professional learning for educators as experiential as the learning that we experience in our first few years?


Online thinking spaces

This morning, I revisited the EDtalks video by Paul Reynolds: Living and learning in the cloud. Paul, formerly of McGovern Online, was a dynamic speaker and a pioneer in internet development who sadly passed away in May 2010. His talk stimulated my thinking in several key areas.

Recently, we have been talking about professional learning with reference to the 2 Cs: content and context. Paul talks about “dancing with the 3 Cs“: connection, capability/confidence and content. The 3 Cs expands context by adding connection to the list and coupling it with capability/confidence, essentially giving them equal weighting with content. They acknowledge the affective domain, which refers to people’s reactions and emotions in relation to their learning. Connecting also supports ideas around social networks of learning, imperative to effective learning in changing times, an area which George Siemens talked about during his visit on Monday.

Paul talked about digital literacy. Now, more than ever, it is vital that we teach our students how to process and making meaning from the flood of information they can access, otherwise they are simply drowning in it. He referred to the contentious question raised by Nicholas Carr: Is Google making us stupid? Floods of skeptics would love to reply, “yes”. I’d be far more hesitant to make such a broad claim. The debate refers to the depth of thinking and processing information that goes on in a Google-world. In an age where information is readily accessible in a ‘drive-by’ or ‘takeaway’ form, Paul asks, “Where are the spaces for deep, reflective thinking?” What do online thinking spaces look like? And, if they existed, would you use them? This is where equipping our learners with the skills and strategies they need in order to become digitally literate comes in, enabling deep, critical, reflective and creative thinking to occur.

Watch Paul’s video here.

Walking meetings

A mother duck and her duckling familyWe are very lucky to work in a picturesque part of Lower Hutt, alongside a stream and surrounded by lots of trees and gardens. Our gardening club grows vegetables for the Lower Hutt Food Bank. There are flower beds both on site and in the streets around us. It has been particularly beautiful during spring as we saw the emergence of spring blossoms popping up after a long, wet winter. Recently, we have had visitors of the feathered variety wander through our grounds and quack their hellos.


Our team has taken to having walking meetings every day or so. They involve a ten minute walk around the block and along the riverside when we feel the need for some fresh air, a change of scenery, or a quick break to stop and think or talk about something we’re working on. Despite how luxurious they sound, walking meetings work wonders; we achieve heaps! I firmly believe that productivity is not necessarily synonymous with the number of hours spent sitting at a desk in front of a computer. Apart from the physical benefits of exercise and fresh air, they are a great way to touch base and connect with team members on a less formal basis. We discuss almost everything, sound each other out for ideas, come up with suggestions, and arrive back at our desks knowing we’ve either a) solved the problems of our world, b) discovered what needs to be done to solve the problems in our world, or c) found renewed energy to go about a) and b). It’s a very refreshing approach.

Ewan McIntosh’s blog post about variable learning spaces comes to mind when I think about our walking meetings. Often, a change of perspective or the flow of creativity can be stimulated by a change of scenery. Google, MIT, HP and several other large multinationals recognise the value of providing differentiated work spaces. Areas for staff to interact informally or as part of their work are both attractive and available. Whether or not this includes a pool table or foosball table is irrelevant; an informal workspace can be as simple as a couple of comfy couches and a whiteboard. I’ve certainly seen this work successfully at my former workplace headquarters, CORE Education in Christchurch.

Connectivism and changing times

George Siemens photo

George Siemens

This morning, we had the pleasure of hosting George Siemens. George held two one-hour sessions; one for all staff and another specifically for our learning and teaching development team. George had us all captivated without the aid of slides, the web, or any digital tools. He arrived fresh from the Vice Chancellors’ Symposium 2010 at Massey University on Friday, where he gave a presentation entitled Connectivism and Changing Times: Learning for a Socially Wired World.

George had our staff positively buzzing with ideas and questions during and after the session, some of which I will explore here.

Key roles of knowledge institutions

Throughout history, knowledge institutions have mapped their activities to the societies that exist and that they serve. Universities themselves were developed to service the model of knowledge from a time. Libraries essentially ‘capture’ knowledge and information from an era and the development of the printing press allowed this information to be published and generated further. This contributes to the concept of placedness, that is, activities and events occurring in or around a particular place or within its vicinity. Social network learning can help allow learners access to knowledge and information regardless of their location.

Change theory

George talked about three major types of change.

  1. Paradigm shift: It usually occurs about once every century or 200 years, often as the result of an anomaly in current thinking or practice.
  2. Broad technology adoption: Moving to the adjacent possible, while still retaining the essence of the original underlying experience, ie sustaining change. For example, the introduction of the dynamo to aid factory production. I wonder if the same could be said of technology enhanced learning for existing paper-based programmes, rather than a pedagogical shift to e-learning?
  3. Disruption: Google competed with Microsoft by entering the web market. Our institution could do this by offering a distinct style of open distance learning in New Zealand.

The secret to success with regard to information production nowadays is rapid iteration. That is, in order to keep up with the pace of information development and change, we need to be able to throw out ideas quickly, get feedback quickly, change our ideas quickly and move on. We often don’t have the time it requires to wait for the perfect article or learning resource to be produced before publishing and sharing it. Also, ideas need other people to contribute to them and help develop them. The cost for this is essentially zero thanks to tools such as blogging, microblogging, web cam, laptop, tablet, videos, and so on. This contributes to low-end disruptive change, an area explored by Stephen Marshall during his workshop on e-learning and organisational change a few weeks ago. Stephen gave the example of YouTube, with its low-quality, quickly-made videos by its community of users, taking a serious chunk out of the status and popularity of television production for news and other short video items. Sometimes there is a very valid place for resources that are “quick, dirty and disposable”.

Social network learning – connectivism

George asked, “Who can build and fly a 747 plane?” The answer is, “no-one – on their own”. This is a process that requires connected specialisation between individual expertise and a system which connects the right people with the right skills to do the right task. Just as we relied on social systems in the past to teach our children how to farm or build a house, we can create global social networks to help us understand knowledge. The possibilities are endless.

Informal learning

Informal Learning coverI am an avid reader, both in my personal and professional life. Occasionally I will come across a book, article or blog post which makes me wants to jump up and shout, ‘Yes!’, such does the content resonate with my thinking, work or experience. Informal Learning by Jay Cross is one such book. I have been exploring the complementary relationship between formal and informal learning from my perspective as a professional learning advisor.

So many interesting points have already presented themselves from the first few chapters of Informal Learning. Referred to by Cross as ‘the other 80%‘, informal learning is that which we naturally learn from other people, either on the job, in the coffee room, or in our everyday lives. However, formal training programs and receive the lion’s share of corporate budgeting for professional learning. He depicts the spending vs outcomes paradox as follows:

Cross is quick to point out that informal learning supports, complements and enables formal learning to be successful. It’s not an either/or option and an extremist approach is not recommended. However, ‘informal does not mean lackadaisical’ (Cross, 2007, p. 21); far from it. He suggests that people like change; they just don’t like to be changed by others. This is especially important to remember with adults and professional learning in the workplace. I am going to reproduce a list from chapter 2 of Informal learning.

People learn best when they:

  • know what’s in it for them and deem it relevant
  • understand what’s expected of them
  • connect with other people
  • are challenged to make choices
  • feel safe about showing what they do and do not know
  • receive information in small packets
  • get frequent progress reports
  • learn things close to the time they need them [‘just in time’ learning]
  • are encouraged by coaches or mentors
  • learn from a variety of modalities (for example, discussion followed by a simulation)
  • confront maybes instead of certainties
  • teach others
  • get positive reinforcement for small victories
  • make and correct mistakes
  • try, try and try again
  • reflect on their learning and apply its lessons. (Cross, 2007, p. 21)

It makes so much sense when you think about it. So how do we go about enabling the above conditions and ensuring an effective balance between formal and informal learning programs? For me, it comes down to starting with the basics: build a workplace culture in which professional learning is both valued and expected. It takes time but reaps ultimate rewards.

Cross, J. (2007). Informal learning. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
Image source Used without permission

The most important number is one

Finding Your Online Voice book coverI have been dipping in and out of the book Finding Your Online Voice: Stories Told by Experienced Online Educators in recent weeks. It is a compilation of chapters edited by J Michael Spector, a research professor from the Learning and Performance Support Laboratory at the University of Georgia. It has made for interesting reading. As an educator who has worked in online distance environments for the past ten years, there were many points which adequately represented my research and experience as well as providing further food for thought. The foreword was written by Donald P Ely and contained one recurring phrase which set the tone for the rest of the book: the most important number is one.

The most important number is one

Why is this such a big concept? Who is this ‘one’? Ely is referring to early efforts to teach via distance learning programs. His 1970 paper of the same name was a reaction against initiatives which required the greatest good for the greatest number. Where did this leave the individual learner who might not fit the generic mould of the greatest number? In time, this thinking evolved into the best for each. But what does this actually look like? Individual learning programs peculiar to the circumstances of individual students? A generic program tailored to meet individual needs? A new program developed independently and in isolation with the individual in mind? Or something else?

As our collective thinking and understanding about personalised learning has evolved, it is obvious that e-learning, now more than ever, offers new and creative approaches to allow authentic personalised learning to happen. No longer does personalised learning need to be synonymous with individualised or isolated learners working independently. Truly collaborative learning opportunities within an authentic, meaningful context can be designed with both individual and group needs in mind. Well-designed open and distance learning activities can facilitate personalised learning while capitalising on the benefits of collaboration, sharing and group capability building. And still, the most important number is one.

10 online portals for education

I gave a paper bag lunch presentation today called, “Where can I find …?“. I’ve come to realise that we make a lot of assumptions about people’s ability to search for and organise the flood of information available online. Apart from the ubiquitous Google, many people have few other tools at their disposal to help them with their searching. We talk about using online resources with our students to complement our teaching and learning. However, where do you go to find, investigate and explore resources that are both relevant and suitable?

In today’s session, I gave an overview of ten ‘portal’-type websites (some self-publishing) that I find are great starting points for stimulating my thinking, along with some valuable suggestions from one of our friendly library staff. There are many, many more and we could have gone on for much longer than our lunch hour allowed. The examples we looked at today are primarily free for non-commercial use and most offer both public and private setting options.

YouTube logoYouTube
Possibly the ultimate video sharing website, YouTube allows users to upload, share and view videos online. You can find almost anything on YouTube. That’s both a good and a bad thing. As with any form of social media, users need to be understand how to make a service work for them while being aware of potential security issues. However, this should not mean that we avoid using services like this ‘just in case’ we encounter issues. We talked about making good use of features like playlists, favourites, and channels, as well as tools such as embedding, sharing, and user comments and ratings.

TeacherTube logoTeacherTube
Kind of like YouTube for teachers. There are multitudes of educational resources available including video, audio, documents, photos, groups and blogs. The range of resources can be used to support teaching and learning from early childhood to tertiary education as well as professional learning and teacher development.

Flickr logoFlickr
Photo and video sharing. Flickr can act as a hosting site for blogs and wikis which require images to be linked from an existing URL (rather than uploading them to their particular platform), as it generates the necessary code. JPEGs, non-animated GIFs and PNG files up to 10MB can be shared or up to two 150MB videos per month.

SlideShare logoSlideShare
A sharing site for slide show presentations in PPT, PDF and Open Office formats. SlideShare generates URLs and embed codes for blogs and websites and provides a transcript of each presentation.

TED logoTED Talks
Stemming from the TED global conferences, the TED Talks section features keynote-style videos from international thought leaders in science, technology, design, education, thinking and global issues.

EDtalks logoEDtalks
A collection of video interviews, discussions and presentations from thought leaders, innovative educators and inspirational learners. Videos range in length and depth from 5-minute ‘conversations’ to full-length keynote presentations. EDtalks is produced and published by CORE Education.

Arts & Letters Daily logoArts & Letters Daily
A service from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Arts & Letters Daily shares stories from around the globe 6 days a week. Seemingly random, there is guaranteed to always be something to spark your interest.

ReadWriteWeb logoReadWriteWeb
A web 2.0 and technology blog launched in 2003 by a Lower Hut resident from his living room. It is now ranked as one of the top 20 blogs and has writers based all around the world.

Mashable logoMashable
Another living room blog; this one started in Scotland. It is one of the busiest websites in the world with 30+ million monthly page views. The focus is generally on social media but Mashable also blogs about technology, entertainment, gadgets and more.

Common Craft logoCommonCraft
A series of three-minute videos that introduce and explain topics or concept. Largely technology related, they are presented in a very low-tech style and using a plain English approach. They look deceptively simple but do a great job of explaining topics which can be, well … hard to explain.