Conversation spaces for deep learning

Preface: this is a post I wrote back in March-April 2015 but hadn’t published as I’d wanted to create a more readable version of the diagram (yes. It took THAT long. Mainly because, as is often the case with draft / unpublished posts, I forgot about it then lost the momentum / motivation to go back to it). I’m digging into the blog draft archives and posting them without significant editing to try to develop a ‘WorkOutLoud’ attitude and become more comfortable with publicly sharing work-in-progress.

I’ve been thinking a lot about conversation spaces lately: public and private; online and offline; formal and informal places and spaces, and how each of these might support various ways of knowing and learning.

The seed of this thinking was planted by Kandy Woodfield’s excellent and thought provoking post last year on the ethics of (open) social learning and working out loud. Kandy’s post prompted me to start considering the role, pros/cons, and differences of open, public, professional learning spaces vs closed, private, personal ones – and how our learning across these contexts interact to influence our identity, connections, conversations, mindset and behaviour.

This thinking has been kick-started again as I’ve reflected on recent ongoing private conversations with a friend. This is a person I have only known for about 6 months, who less than 3 months ago I’d have called an acquaintance. The (what feels like) accelerated status from acquaintance to friend has occurred largely through these private conversations, in which we’ve explored complex topics at a personal level, through a variety of mediums: in-person conversations, text messages, email, phone calls. These conversations have been open, honest, challenging and confusing, where I’ve learnt as much about myself as I have about my friend; that have challenged me to think about things that I otherwise wouldn’t have (or wanted to); and inspired and supported me to change the way I approach certain situations.

It’s a personal learning experience that feels something like therapy, counselling, or coaching conversations – but without the formality or power dynamics inherent in these contexts. John Stepper’s WOL circles (based on Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean in’ circles) – an informal model for peer coaching and support might be an apt comparison. But yet more emergent, organic (serendipitous?) – without the guidelines, explicitly articulated purpose, or group dynamic.

As learning practitioners and educators we often ponder how to achieve deep, personally meaningful learning that inspires and supports ongoing, long term behaviour change. The type of learning that – in an organisational context – translates not only to impacts on business measures, but broad and lasting cultural change. That in an educational context – might lead to a breakthrough transition: from uncooperative/disruptive students with low self esteem to enthusiastic students proud of their achievements with a newfound thirst for learning (This inspiring EdContexts post by Éllen Cintra is a great example). The type of learning that prompts individuals to examine within, reflect deeply, question long held beliefs, and change their behaviour or habits.

My instinct is that all of these learning experiences come about through similar underlying processes. I have been wondering about the characteristics of this type of profound learning: how it emerges, whether it could be achieved in an intentionally designed environment, and the conditions that are needed to facilitate it.

And what I’m thinking might drive this type of learning is conversation. Conversations of: openness. honesty. empathy, shared understanding. shared purpose, trust. Vulnerability. Acceptance. Mutual, ongoing support. Conversations that make you FEEL deeply as well as think deeply. That engender emotional, as well as cognitive connection. It may not be so much about finding a solution to a defined problem, as it is about uncovering, unravelling, & exploring complexity and supporting each other to figure out how and what might work.

Can environments be ‘designed’ to support this type of learning?

‘Design’ in this context is not about developing the right set of ‘learning resources’. It’s not about setting up an ESN (Enterprise Social Network) and hoping for the best – or manufacturing reasons for people to ‘interact’. It’s about creating the right type of ‘conversation space’ for these personally or professionally meaningful conversations (and learning > relationships > behaviour change) to emerge.

Here is a ‘back of the envelope’ set of conditions that I’m thinking might be important:

  • Private or semi-private (e.g. a closed group) conversation spaces. High degrees of trust and vulnerability are critical for deep learning. This may be difficult (impossible?) to achieve in an open, public space. Personal conversations, private/direct/text messages, coaching or performance conversations, journals, WOL circles are all examples of private conversation spaces.
  • In-person contact – maybe it’s possible to develop the same level of trust and vulnerability exclusively through online interactions, but I’m still not entirely sure (reflecting on this conversation on Terry Elliot’s blog re the nature of connection). At the least, it might take longer and be more difficult than if there were opportunities for face to face contact. More ‘present’ forms of online interaction like Google Hangouts, Skype or video calls might help bridge the gap.
  • Regular, ongoing contact, ‘check-ins’ – this may be essential for the ‘change’ aspect of this learning – ongoing, mutual support, talking through issues, encouragement to try (and keep trying) different courses of action, following up and reflecting on what seems to work (or not) is a form of social accountability, and helps motivate, kickstart & continue behaviour change.
  • Empathy / shared experiences and/or purpose – empathy can be so important for developing trust. Maybe because when empathy is present there is no judgement. Empathy might come from shared experiences and/or a shared purpose. Or might simply emerge from listening without judgement.

This is something I drafted a couple of months ago, to start mapping out some of this thinking. I always intended to post it as a ‘thinking out loud’ artifact, but wasn’t inspired to write the framing post and backstory for it until my personal conversations with my friend, and the conversation on Terry’s blog got me revisiting this thinking. (Thanks Terry – and thanks to my friend who has been integral to the backstory. I think you might know who you are).

conversation spaces - work in progress

These are the original scribblings and notes that the above diagram evolved from (you can see why I needed to convert it to a more legible format…):

conversationspaces-evolution

Benefits of sharing research-in-progress

I hesitated at first to share my research proposal.  I wondered about the possibility of introducing potential participant bias by making the research methodology transparent. But due to the nature of the research (exploratory, descriptive) I decided this risk was minimal. (It might have been a different matter if I were intending to do blind experimental study though….)

Besides, the benefits of sharing – even research-in-progress – has outweighed any initial reservations I had. As my friend Toni observed:

Sharing my proposal (and a few other research related writings-in-progress: here and here), has generated lots of really helpful feedback, support and conversations via my own PLN, which has in turn developed my ideas and evolved my thinking. For example:

Support from Nick Leffler, Tania Sheko & Toni Rose Pinero

Commenting on my post, Nick Leffler @technkl shared  his experiences and struggles during his own MA research, and also linked me to his research project (which was the first I’d learnt he’d done a research Masters too). Doing research for the first time is no easy task, and talking to someone who’s been through it before and can empathise with the trials and tribulations can really help.

Tania Sheko (@taniatorikova) shared her experiences (challenges & frustrations) of not having informal learning and professional development from her PLN recognised at the school she works at – helping me realise that schools and organisations are probably more similar than they are different.

And…ever since I met her (through #rhizo14) Toni Rose Pinero (@moocresearch) and I have had ongoing conversations about our respective research Masters projects. Posting my proposal helped reignite the conversation and we’ve been checking in with each other more regularly this year to provide mutual support.

This type of support I see as building the  “structural embeddedness” (who knows what) and “relational embeddedness” (social climate of trust and reciprocity) – two of the three components that Van Den Hooff et al 2010 identified as necessary for a network to make a positive contribution to (workplace) performance.

Feedback and resources from Ryan Tracey

I got some great constructive feedback from Ryan Tracey (@ryantracey) including suggestions for refining the research design and proposal. Ryan also sent me an extremely relevant article “Secret Power Brokers – The ties that bind our workplace” – a study on how several large Australian organisations are using social network maps to identify hitherto  hidden ‘power brokers’: extremely well connected employees who hold a lot of influence within the organisation through their (informal) role as trusted advisors, key opinion makers and change agents. Often these critical people are unknown to management, as their influence resides in the informal employee networks that develop through the flow of work rather than the the formal structures represented on the org chart. It reminded me very much of the study by Whelan et al (2011) Creating employee networks that deliver open innovation, which forms a critical base for my own research, and had similar findings to the article Ryan sent me.

Conversations & evolving thinking with Con Sotidis & Helen Blunden

A thought provoking twitter conversation with Con Sotidis (@LearnKotch), following on from a comment on Helen Blunden’s (@ActivateLearn) blog helped developed my thinking on the tension between personal vs organisational values relating to PLNs (a hot topic in #xplrpln). In particular, I was intrigued by this suggestion by Con on developing an ROI model for a PLN:

Whilst I wasn’t entirely convinced of the concept, it definitely got me thinking about how such a thing might or might not work – and why. The twitter conversation got us both thinking.  The next day, Con wrote a LinkedIn post on the value of PLNs, where we continued to exchange thoughts on this – how one determines the ‘value’ of their PLN – who to connect with, who to filter out, how and what we share with our PLNs. Thinking out loud in the comments on Con’s post helped me develop my thinking on this…as did Helen’s blog post on ‘exploring innovations in networked work & learning’ (the open ‘course’ / section of msloc430 that Jeff Merrell is running at the moment).

Part of what I wrote in response to Helen’s post was this:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot more since and think it might come down to alignment in values – between the individual and the organisation. I don’t think an organisation will ever be able to ask an individual to ‘utilise’ their PLN purely for organisational benefit: this will only happen IF the individual wants to. An individual will only ever WANT to build and leverage their PLN to support organisational goals if they are inherently engaged in what they do, and want to improve what they do at work (i.e. if they’re intrinsically motivated). And they will only ever WANT to do this, if their personal values are aligned with the organisation’s.

Through these conversations, I’m coming to the conclusion that the key to an individual leveraging the expertise of their PLN to meet organisational goals will result not from a ‘top down’ implementation / demand from leaders or the organisation that they do so (or even good role modelling of the behaviour from said leaders)…but from an alignment of values between the individual and the organisation. This could be a thread worth exploring further…a thread I may not have realised had it not been for sharing and connecting with my PLN on my research proposal.

Refs

Durkin, P (2014, July) Secret Power Brokers: the ties that bind our workplace. AFR BOSS, 28-31

Retrieved from: http://www.optimice.com.au/documents/secretpowerbrokers.pdf

Van Den Hooff, B; Van Weenen, F; Soekijad, M; Huysman, M (2010) The value of online networks of practice: the role of embeddedness and media use. Journal of Information Technology, suppl. Special Issue on Social Networking 25.2 (Jun 2010): 205-215

Whelan, E; Parise, S; de Valk, J; & Aalbers, R (2011) Creating employee networks that deliver open innovation. MIT Sloan Management Review 53 (1) 37-44

Retrieved from: http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/creating-employee-networks-that-deliver-open-innovation

 

Agree//disagree: a poem and its inspirations.

..or hidden musings on conversation, community & making stuff up.

On Saturday morning, I was sitting with my 3 year old at a cafe having breakfast, and a few moments of silence passed between us.  As my mind wandered vaguely to some of the things I’d read the previous night, these lines came into my head:

Agree, disagree
Debate
Abate…

I looked  for a pen. I didn’t have one. So as a small child ate raisin toast, I typed the lines into Evernote on my phone and some more came tumbling out. I paused a little in between, thinking about discrete things I’d mulled over, mostly during the previous evening. This is the poem (which I later put into notegraphy – thanks Mariana), and some of the thoughts and influences behind it.

agree-disagree, a poem

Agree//Disagree
Debate.
Abate.
The norms we
Storm
Thru
Conversation

The seeds of inspiration for these lines – and much of this poem – came from Mariana’s Storify ‘The interpersonal contract in cMoocs’ , which I’d actually come across from Jeff Merrell’s post ‘Teaching Uncertainly #rhizo14’. Here, Jeff talks about an open blogging assignment/experiment he’s running – and how one of his student’s blog posts (Andee Weinfurner @andeew38) was picked up and woven into this storify ^ by Mariana. I was intrigued (and actually a bit surprised) that he and Mariana hadn’t known of each other prior to this, and touched by the depth and thoughtfulness of their exchange in the comments on Jeff’s post. It reminded me, again, what catalysts blog posts can be in developing deeper connections with people – when you take the time to listen, reflect and respond thoughtfully. I love that I found both Jeff and Mariana in precisely this way – and I guess it’s no coincidence that they found each other this way too. Perhaps this is something of the human connection that Jeff’s student blogger Andee asks about in her post.

I was intrigued enough to click on the link to Mariana’s storify and was blown away by all that it said. It’s about the way we’re relating to each other in #rhizo14 (and cMOOCs generally) and the impact that the lack of explicit norms might have in shaping the rhizo14 dialogue and experience. Mariana’s storify was what I was thinking about on that Saturday morning. In particular, this:

As I read this again some days after, I’m struck by how much of this passage I internalised – its influence unmistakably present in those first few lines that came into my head that Saturday morning. So once again, Mariana has challenged me to think and reflect about my own behaviour (‘Is this something I do?’ ‘What impact might it have on the tenor of the dialogue?’). We tend to be brought up to value debate, logic, to take a strong position on something and defend it – argue to the death. Conceding to another is often perceived as a sign of mental weakness. What impact does this have on our ability to see the grey, the nuances in complexity? How does this impact our willingness to listen – really listen – to what someone else is saying? How often are we already thinking about how we’ll respond – and cutting in – before the other person has even had a chance to speak? I guess that is what this is about:

Communication?
Or
Obsfucation
Sublimation

As I wrote this that morning, I was also thinking about Nick Kearney (@nickkearney)’s post ‘Marram Grass’, and Mariana’s comment on that, which I’d also seen the previous evening. Is conversation the community in #rhizo14? (the precise thought I’d had a couple of weeks ago). If so, where are these conversations occurring? And what do we even mean when we talk of ‘conversation’ online? It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot throughout rhizo14, and also as a result of concurrently helping coordinate a new L&D twitter chat (#OzLearn), plus the Sydney Third Place social/networking meetups – how is conversation taking place within these various spaces, what does it look like, what does it ‘feel’ like, similarities? differences? Is there ‘conversation’? Is there (emergent) ‘community’? It’s something I’ll be writing a more focused post on but this was all in my subconscious as I wrote these lines.

When trying to define something unknown online, you inevitably try to relate it to what’s familiar offline, in real life. And so it was on that Saturday morning. Thoughts of community conjured up visuals of church > nationalism > patriotism.

Congregation
Of a nation
Community
And unity – ?

Then, of course, there’s contrast:

Or distribution
And divergence
Individuals
Do
Convergence.
On their blogs

This ^ is actually a reference to divergent vs convergent thinking, raised by Maureen Crawford in a comment on my previous post, as well as in her own post ‘Networks are expanding our ignorance’. I recall distinctly this having a big impact on me as the realisation dawned that both ‘divergent browsing’ (e.g. rampant blog hopping…?!) and ‘convergent thinking’ (e.g. thoughtful reflection) are important and necessary, essential parts of the creative process.

And, as I started thinking about the process of blogging, what it feels like when you write a post (well, to me, anyway):

Moments of clarity

…simultaneously littered with uncertainty and self doubt, comparisons with others…the wondering of whether what you’re writing even makes sense, the feeling that you’re just  making it up as you go – and hoping that nobody notices (or that at least they don’t call you out too badly for it…)

Parity
Sparity
Sparcity
and farcity

(And yes, I made up those words…cos there aren’t that many words that rhyme with ‘clarity’  or ‘parity’, and once I started, it was hard to stop. Too much fun. And it kinda fits with the theme.)

Embryonic thoughts put out to sea
Posting letters
up in a tree
planting rhizomes
weeds that spread
messages in bottles
we set them free

The sea references ^ are again Maureen-Crawford-inspired, with a little bit of Ryan Tracey serendipity added into the mix. Here’s the story: a few days ago, Maureen tweeted me this:

@jmca3ualberta_machado

Initially I was just going to respond a simple (normal) reply of thanks…but decided that would be boring and responded by poem instead (harder in 140 chars than you might imagine! But it was Friday, I was feeling playful):

@jmca3ualberta_machado_reply

Just after I sent that I went and had a look at a link which Ryan Tracey (@ryantracey) had posted on my previous post…and was amazed to find it led to this:

Wow. How’s that for serendipty?! (We both agreed it was a little creepy….but as it turned out there were more serendipitous moments to be had….).

The bit about trees and rhizomes was, I’m sure, my mind casting itself back to this bit of Mariana’s Storify:

***

Postscript:

And then, later that night, well after I’d written it, I also took at look at another of Mariana’s storifies ‘Help stamp out nouns’, the ending of which communicates exactly the feeling  I was trying to convey with those made up words in the poem.

None of us really know what we’re on about: we’re just all fumbling around in the dark together. And maybe that’s (at least in part) what ‘community as curriculum’ really means. Making sense of what we’re making up. Together.

Reflections on xplrpln

Well, it’s been over two weeks since xplrpln (Exploring Personal Learning Networks open online seminar) finished, and I finally feel ‘ready’ to sit down and write some final reflections.  I’ve been considering how to approach this for a while. There’s much I could say about it – hard to know where and how to start. I’ve also been enjoying getting into other people’s artifacts, and continuing some of the conversations.

But here are some of the Big Things I learnt from xplrpln.

About PLNs and organisations

Although I ended up doing a ‘cautiously optimistic’ pitch to the CEO in my final artifact, I still wasn’t entirely comfortable about the idea. The problem I had/have wasn’t with the idea of PLNs in organisations, or individuals utilising their PLNs to meet their workplace learning needs. This is something that is already happening now. Per tweet I posted in the final xplrpln twitter chat:

PLN_Org_wk5tweet

And I think this sums up my (current) position: I’m comfortable with PLNs in organisations – but on individuals’ own terms. The discomfort I had was with the idea of pitching PLNs in orgs to the CEO. Because the likelihood is that the CEO or other leaders / managers in the organisation will want individuals to ‘use’ their PLNs exclusively to meet the organisation’s needs and goals. This is in conflict with the fundamental tenet of PLNs: that they are Personal, developed and maintained by the individual. So it’s the individual who gets to decide how they use their network, and who they include in it. Not the organisation.

Sure, you can try to put measures in place for mitigating this risk (and I made some recommendations in my artifact around this) but ultimately, the problem is the existing structures within organisations  (incl leader / management attitudes, power issues, performance management processes, hierarchies, closed networks….) simply aren’t set up to support wide scale, networked learning and working in this way. Kristen Corpolongo’s tweet in one of the final twitter chats really brought this home for me:

@KirstenCorpo_PLN_reflectionstweet

It goes back to what Maureen Crawford said early on about society’s move towards networks as a paradigm shift:

MaureenCrawford_PLNs_paradigmshift

And unless an organisation has made that shift, it’s doubtful whether a pitch for PLNs to a CEO will actually ‘work’.

That said, I still believe that individuals can and should continue to develop and draw on their own PLNs to support their workplace learning needs – and encourage others to develop their own. And perhaps, once the groundswell of bottom-up action on PLNs reaches critical mass, leaders within organisations will start actually taking some notice and realise that this is something they need to do themselves too – and support – within their organisation. Because until leaders know the true value of PLNs (and they can only realise this by developing, maintaining and using their own), pitching to them on the benefits of PLNs is likely to lead to ‘exploitation’ of an individual’s PLN – as described by Helen Blunden in her final reflections:

HelenBlunden_PLNreflections

I’ve really appreciated Helen’s sharing of her personal experiences throughout xplrpln (e.g. in her blog post above, plus G+ discussions). It provided unique (and timely) insight into the very real tensions between the individual and the organisation regarding PLNs. It’s been big in helping me  see how much work there still is to do before we get to the paradigm shift that Maureen refers to.

About cMOOCs, connection & conversation

Open attitude + mutual engagement
I’m starting to think that an open attitude to learning / sharing, and mutual cognitive engagement is what drives learning in connectivist online learning environments. It was without doubt, the in-depth conversations that made this so interesting. But this couldn’t have happened without participants being equally interested, passionate and engaged enough in the topic to participate.

Meaningful and authentic conversation
I’m amazed at the depth of conversation we were able to achieve in this space, and all without ever meeting face to face. I think contributing factors included: open attitude +  mutual engagement, the presence of complexity and ambiguity (providing much scope for exploration) and a certain level of comfort with online tools and social sharing.

Diversity of learners
A diverse pool of participants led me to learning things I otherwise would never have known about. I loved how the xplrpln community included those from corporate, higher ed, not-for-profits, freelancers and more. Through Kay Assant’s brilliant ‘PLN House of Horrors’, I learnt that university management have the same control issues as corporates, and Karen Jeanette and Stephen Judd schooled me on Cooperative Extension organisations.

Twitter and G+ as conversation spaces
I’ve been introduced to new experiences with Twitter: as a space for thought provoking, even perspective-changing conversation (which I wrote about previously), and using Hootsuite (thanks to Keeley Sorotki’s excellent post) to follow streams and check in on what’s happening in other MOOCs, chats, conferences etc has improved my Twitter experience a lot. I’ve also discovered G+ as a place where interesting and in depth conversation seems to happen. As a largely open space (but with the option for privacy), it seems to offer a good balance to support online communities. It’ll be interesting to see what our G+ xplrpln community evolves into.

cMoocs & open online learning experiences
Finally, I’ve been thinking a fair bit about cMoocs and what makes them work – and particularly, how much of the experience can be ‘designed’. I do think there needs to be the right balance of structure vs freedom, and I think Jeff and Kimberley achieved this balance. Parts of the ‘design’ that I think were critical to its success (at least for me) included:
  • Overarching structure: this helped to maintain focus, and provided a framework for moving forward (if left to our own devices we might still be in the throes of week 2, debating the differences between PLN, PLE, CoP, NoP, OLN, PKM, and the multitude of other complementary concepts out there!).
  • Artifact assignment: although I thought at one point I might not even submit one, the process of thinking through how I’d communicate my current position and thinking WAS helpful.
  • Encouraging ‘half baked ideas’: pitching the course as an ‘exploration into ambiguity’ was a brilliant strategy. It acknowledged up front that nobody knew any of the answers, that coming up with ‘answers’ was going to be complex and challenging – and that there might be more questions than answers by the end. And that this was ok. Moreover, this exploration was something we would be doing together. And that actually, this was kind of the point of the seminar. This was a master stroke because what it did was open up the conversation from the outset, by making it ok (in fact, desirable!) to put forward ‘half baked ideas’, and to ask lots of questions of each other without feeling stupid.  In the same vein, Jeff’s positioning of the artifact as a representation of thinking….for now – was what encouraged me to actually create one. Thinking about it as something that could evolve took the pressure off: it didn’t have to be perfect, just an articulation of my current thinking.
  • Intentional recruitment of awesome people: I’m aware that (at least) Jeff was quite intentional in scouting out people for this seminar, and I think this had a significant impact on the quality and depth of conversation. There was an energy and level of engagement that you only get when you bring together group of people who are equally interested, enthusiastic, and open to exploring and sharing ideas on a common topic of interest. And whilst this isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this level of engagement and depth of conversation in an online space (it has been reminiscent of collaborative learning experiences from my Masters in Learning Science & Technology), I think the big difference with an open online experience like this, is that these people become part of your PLN. And this opens up potential opportunities to continue developing relationships beyond the learning experience.  This has already started to happen (thanks to a somewhat timely opportunity to meet Helen Blunden at the Learning@Work conference last week!), and there are others who I’ll definitely be following, and finding opportunities to continue conversations with.

Inspired by Kimberly Scott’s opening blog post I was actually going to construct a haiku out of a brilliant tweet from Helen Crump defining PLNs to close this post…however I can’t seem to find the tweet now and it’s Very Late – so might have to wait until next post (tomorrow!).