Thoughts on dialogue and facilitation in open and ‘closed’ courses

We recently closed out week 2 of the open section of #msloc430 and week 5 of the “closed” course for students enrolled in the on-site version of the course (part of their studies in the Master’s Program in Learning and Organizational Change (MSLOC) at Northwestern University).

Both courses are now starting to run on somewhat parallel tracks – topics, questions to ponder, issues to work through.

I am trying to get a read on both communities and in doing so becoming more conscious of the differences in what I (in a facilitator/instructor role) pay attention to and what I think about doing. Or not doing.

In the ‘closed” course I have an unambiguous formal role (instructor) and a defined set of learning outcomes to achieve by the end of the course. There are assignments and grades. The design and facilitation challenge is to establish an environment in which we all explore topics together as a community and do so by solving authentic problems.

Much of my effort in the first few weeks of these ‘closed” courses is to get a read on the online community condition. Are students talking to each other in online conversations – trying to unpack the course topics and content – or are they simply talking to me in a query-and-response pattern (e.g., they write something to no one in particular, expecting the instructor to read it and respond).

I know I become very conscious of where I weigh in (in online dialogue) and how I do it. I spend more effort explicitly calling out positive forms of open communication. In this current class there are long and funny conversations about course content that include references to scenes from The Matrix and Mean Girls. Remember – this is as class about enterprise social networking. The level of engagement in this particular class is really outstanding.

But at the same time there is a very specific set of learning outcomes to be achieved by the end of the course. I do find myself thinking about exactly how, and when, I nudge dialogue toward more critical thinking on specific content.  Or guide the conversation toward synthesizing concepts that move us toward the end-of-the-course objectives. Often I do this by posing questions – but those questions often have a clear directional intent behind them.

In the open section of the course I have less – intensity? – behind my online contributions that are intended to create a path for learners to explore.

I could, I suppose, try to use exactly the same level of intensity in both instances. But that seems in this instance counterproductive.

Here’s why.

The open community is comprised of self-directed, self-motivated learners who apparently have no other reason to participate in the activities other than personal or professional development. Underneath that apparent motivation is another, I think, more important one: The motivation to work through a question or topic with someone else who is also motivated to work through that same question or topic.

And the question or topic could very well be one that I – as designer of the open event – never imagined. And that’s ok.

In the closed class it is a sign of engagement when participants take a side trip to explore how social norms in Mean Girls might or might not be similar to social norms exhibited in communities of practice. But at some point my facilitation switch kicks on and I post some question intended to bring the class back to the course context and objectives (understanding communities-of-practice is one of them).

I wouldn’t do that in the open course. I’d just let it go and let the participants develop it as they wish. They may have just found what they came to the open section for: A learning partner to think with.

The Whole Point


As we close out the first of six weeks of the open section of #msloc430 we are headed into new territory (for me, at least): An attempt at convergence among the open learners and perhaps students in the on-site class section of the course.

The point of convergence is a shared Google document – an outline, really – that I included in the course design with two intentions.

First, I intended to put into practice one of my favorite lines from Etienne Wenger: “Artifacts without participation do not carry their own meaning; and participation without artifacts is fleeting, unanchored, and uncoordinated.” (Wenger, 2010) In the context of social learning systems, Wenger suggests that it is only through this interplay of artifacts (models, words, frameworks, etc.) and social participation that meaningful learning might occur.

So while the #msloc430 open community is already creating a rich set of artifacts on its own, I am also struck by the potential of nudging the community to create something that might require a wee-bit of convergence. The shared Google document is intended have the community pause and reflect for a short moment to anchor and coordinate its thinking.

Secondly, I also intended the shared document to be something that might create learning value for those who do not (or cannot) dedicate time to participate during the entire six weeks of the course. Let me explain.

The course is designed in three, two-week segments:

  • Weeks 1-2 is focused on networked innovations and learning (e.g., MOOCs, personal learning networks, etc.). A shared Google document to define the concepts we covered, point out unique features of each, and list references and resources is to be created at the end of the segment.
  • Weeks 2-3 is focused on networked innovations and work (e.g., crowdsourcing, “working out loud,” etc). A shared Google document to define the concepts we covered, point out unique features of each, and list references and resources is to be created at the end of this segment, as well.
  • Weeks 3-4 are where we look at both sets and ask: How do we innovate even more, by applying these concepts in new ways or by combining them?

My thinking is this:

  • Someone might participate in weeks 1-2 only. They might get real value by thinking through how they define each concept and collaborating with others to define them in a shared document. Same for someone who might participate only during weeks 2-3.
  • Someone who jumps in only for weeks 4-6 might benefit by reviewing the two shared documents created in weeks 1-2 and 3-4. In doing so, they may retrace some of the footprints left by the community as we worked our way up to thinking about the larger innovation question (How do we innovate even more, by applying these concepts in new ways or by combining them?).

Both of these design intentions were informed by lessons learned from the design and facilitation of Exploring Personal Learning Networks #xplrpln.

One of the most commented-on features of #xplrpln at the end of that five-week event was our use of a case scenario as a way to encourage convergence. To take a lot of discussion and commentary and arguing and ask: Ok, so what do we do with this? How do we sharpen our point-of-view so that it might be expressed to someone we want to influence?

The general consensus seemed to be this: We posed some ambiguous problems and questions. But by adding this element of the case scenario we also created a kind of positive tension – the kind that causes individuals to be cognitively engaged.

Let’s see how this plays out, now, in #msloc430.

A short postscript:

I am incredibly indebted to all of the folks who have commented on my thinking-out-loud posts regarding #msloc430. So much to noodle, and to continue sharing. I am truly energized.


Wenger, E, (2010) Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems: The Career of a Concept in C. Blackmore (Ed.) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice. (pp 179-197) London: Springer-Verlag.

photo credit: Nick Kidd via photopin cc


The lid is popped off: Behind the scenes of the open section of #msloc430

The idea of designing an open section of #msloc430 began with a blog post a few months ago during working-out-loud week.

The official launch of activities began on Sunday, Jan. 25 with the Week 1: Exploring technology, networks and community in the service of learning blog post at the site that serves as the organizing center for the course.

I’ll use this space to share design thinking and reflect on whatever surprises arise as we walk through six weeks of exploring innovations in networked learning and work.

Let me start with the course design.

When I began this idea, my intention was to take “open” as literally as possible. Open means open. Including being open about the course design.

But an open course that runs parallel to, and is integrated with, a “traditional” on-site course creates constraints in design. And I am just beginning to appreciate the nuance of trying to navigate through those constraints.

You can see the design document for the open section – a work that is still in progress. Any participant can see it (which is the point). And I have been fortunate to have a few really smart folks volunteering to lend their design thinking and resources to planning  how the six weeks might progress (Maureen Crawford, Ess Garland, Bruno Winck, Helen Blunden and more).

What I am struggling with is: Did I create too much structure, too many constraints in the original design document to make it truly participatory?

In part I can blame this on time. I started this venture too late to really engage collaborators in thinking through some key design choices (for example – which topics might we attempt to cover? what period of time? do we pose a “problem” to be solved?).

I had a class-start deadline to meet so had to get into some detail on how I saw the “open” section working in parallel to my traditional class.

But it is one of the tensions that I find interesting: How do you, as an open course designer, share enough of a structure to invite thoughtful collaboration while at the same time meeting the constraints of whatever institutional role you must play?

I cut a path by defining topics; setting course pacing (“we’ll cover topics in two-week segments”); articulating the big questions (how do we innovate by first understanding models of networked work and learning?); and establishing key points of convergence (a shared Google document template into which learners co-create content that defines key lessons learned). This allowed me to match the pacing and topics of the open section to the pacing and topics of my on-site course.

I think it is a good structure. A design that incorporates a good bit of white space to allow the community to find its own pace and direction.

But I think there could be improvements in how the architecture of the design is first defined. A more participatory process. Much like a charrette in architecture. Or an open design process such as Open IDEO.

photo credit: Erik R. Bishoff via photopin cc

Another layer to bridging the work and learning communities

During the past couple of years I have become much more intentional in my attempt to bridge two communities: The people who think about learning and network technology, and people who think about work (within organizations) and network technology.

There is another layer to this: It’s people in these two communities who care about people and society.

I am reminded of that after re-reading Sean Michael Morris’ The Critical in Critical Pedagogy, an opening piece for the start of MOOC MOOC: Critical Pedagogy.

Sean and the editorial crew at Hybrid Pedagogy (the conspirators behind the MOOC MOOC series) get it right. Have gotten it right for a few years now. They inspire a reflective conversation among education practitioners who care deeply about their practice and its social impact. The conversation allows for admitting you may be wrong. And that becoming a reflective practitioner is a strenuous journey.

A hat-tip to MOOC MOOC, then, as a map for us.

For me, the take-away is to find the right dynamic between the value gained from experimenting with “technical solutions” and the mission of having those solutions put into service of the public good. I mean “technical solutions” in the larger sense – not just information technology, but practices, models and approaches.

The right dynamic comes from being a reflective practitioner.

I see the struggle around finding this dynamic in one of the classes I co-teach. We’re working on a project with a global organization to see if we can help develop a new, innovative structure to accelerate the good work that is making the organization diverse and inclusive. We have a lot of technical approaches to potentially apply or adapt to meet this challenge. All of the students are experienced, working professionals who can bring a great deal of clever thinking to the challenge.

But in a recent class discussion there was also a deeply-felt theme that developed around a vision of trying to ensure that the technical solution not only improved key metrics but also addressed a cultural shift. Yes, we hear words to that affect a lot. But this conversation struck me as authentic. It strikes me as authentic, I suspect, because each of the students has traveled that journey to become a more reflective practitioner. I know that during the journey they’ve dealt with the possibility of being wrong. And there is something powerful in that.

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Gather your friends. Time to plan the festivities #msloc430 open

Originally posted on Exploring Innovations in Networked Work and Learning:

We’ve opened a new Google Community – MSLOC430 Enterprise Social Networking – to start gathering together as we approach the official start on Jan. 25 of our six-week open section of #msloc430. We’ll also be using the #msloc430 hashtag on Twitter.

So join the community or give us a shout out on Twitter. Introduce yourself and tell us what draws you to the topics we’re covering. If you’re interested in helping to plan or run some activities, check out our planning discussion and document in the Google Community.

What’s ahead

The open section is inspired by a few questions we consider as part of a 10-week graduate course in the Master’s Program in Learning and Organizational Change at Northwestern University.

  • How might innovations coming out of open, networked courses – including MOOCs – change the way we think about leadership development in organizations?
  • How might crowdsourcing be used as part…

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