Day 1 #wolweek reflections: Idea selection in a project-based innovation course

My goal for this year’s International Working-Out-Loud week is to make some headway on MSLOC 430, the course I will be co-teaching in January. Today’s workday ended up being dedicated elsewhere. But it ended on an interesting note.

We are a little more than 2 weeks away from the end of our academic quarter and closing in on the finish of a project-based course we teach at the Master’s Program in Learning & Organizational Change at Northwestern University. In this course we take 10 working weeks to use a design process to address some challenge faced by an organization. This quarter we collaborated with the YMCA, whose national headquarters are based nearby in Chicago.

Eleven graduate students were divided into three teams. They were briefed on the challenge by Kathy Kuras, Sr. Director of Organizational Change Management at Y USA, along with other Y leaders representing the national organization and several local Y branches. Essentially the challenge was to look at new opportunities to build off of an existing Y strength – its commitment to connecting with and having an impact on the communities it serves. Might there be new ways that the Y can foster community engagement among staff and members? I am oversimplifying the challenge a bit, but the essence is intact. The focus is community engagement and the scope includes both staff and members.

What I thought worth sharing here is what we’ve learned about the design process in a context such as this.

The teams spent about 5 weeks of class time doing discovery research to understand the environment at the local Y branches and different perspectives about “community” held by staff and members. At the end of the research phase, each team shared observations with our Y project-team collaborators to assess potential insights. All three teams shared the research base and the assessment of potential insights.

We then went into generating ideas. Separately – each team generated 10 possible “framed opportunities” that might turn into ideas worth piloting. In reality – most teams brainstormed many, many more ideas and then used various rubrics to narrow down their brainstormed list to 10 ideas. Most of the rubrics were variations of voting techniques – i.e., each team member had 50 votes to cast across up to 10 ideas, and could allocate votes more heavily to ideas for which they felt were particularly innovative or addressed an aspect of the challenge most effectively.

Three teams, 30 ideas. We presented them all to a panel of Y project collaborators, who rated each of the ideas on desirability and feasibility (feasibility to pilot at a local branch). The Y collaborators also identified at least one idea per team as that team’s “most innovative idea.”

That’s where we were last Wednesday.

From that day until today, the Y project team continued to assess the ideas and came back today with recommendations on which ideas they would like to see further developed in the last two weeks of the quarter. We went from 30 ideas to 8.

That’s the process. Let me share some insights related to the results.

First, we have a few advantages:

  • Our graduate students come from a wide range of professional backgrounds, resulting in us having a fairly diverse set of thinkers in each class and on each team.
  • As a general case, our graduate students have a knack for empathy. They are pretty good at putting themselves into the mindset of others in some organizational context (in this case, Y staff and members).
  • We are working with collaborators – the Y – who truly trust the design process and value experimentation.

But still – the results today follow the pattern with other projects:

  • Every one of the 30 ideas paved new ground. This is absolutely a testament (in my view) of the value of diverse minds, who share a common (professional) language, taking on a shared challenge. Diversity of the background of members of our student teams is vital – but so is a common appreciation and language for the subtleties of organizational and individual change (which is what we study).
  • 80% or more of the ideas where characterized as “things we could implement today.” Those 20% that were not were intended to be stretch ideas. What we continually find interesting about this result (which is typical of our projects) is that we do pretty rapid research. We don’t live with the targets of our change. We observe, interview, listen. I don’t know yet how best to parse this out – but this is definitely some combination of process and having people who are skilled at “organizational empathy.”





Re-habiting the working out loud habit: What I am working on this week #wolweek

It is International Working Out Loud week. Which is serendipitous, as it coincides with my usual routine of a) having a lot of half-baked ideas about how to tweak the course I teach that begins in January (#msloc430) and b) waiting until the last possible moment to put it all together.

So here we go again.

My goal this week is to bring closer to completion. The site is my first attempt to put out a centralized class blog that syndicates student blogs as well as other interested “open” participants – practitioners or students from outside my class who wish to contribute their thinking or work products.

The “work product” bit is something that I really want to address this week. In the course, students work on potential innovations for leveraging enterprise social networks (within organizations or extended organizations) to do work or work-related learning differently. After exploring different models of doing work or learning in networked environments – for example, crowdsourcing, personal learning networks, MOOCs, communities of practice – students think about combining and tweaking these models to create something new. For example: What would a model of learning look like that combined and crowdsourcing and personal learning networks?

The bit that I want to work on this week is defining a template or some recommendation on how we might describe these new models. What I’d love to end up with is a growing list of new ideas that integration different existing models of work and learning. But it should be more than just a list of combinations; it should define and describe a new “model” in a way that might be useful for practitioners who are interested in adopting it.

How much detail is best for that use case? And are there examples that use visual representations (as well as some text) that might be fit for this purpose?

Space to make ideas your own

Helen Crump caught my attention earlier today with her reflective post Literacy: Not a desk job, but an identity job. It’s a great story reminding us of the connections between literacy, identity, learning and teaching.

And then I learned there is more to the story.

Helen’s post was inspired by an image, shared as part of the #blimage blogging challenge begun by Steve Wheeler and members of his personal learning network (PLN). You send an image to a colleague and challenge them to write a learning-related blog post about it. Helen sent me the public-domain image below. Along with some wisdom: Don’t overthink it. Just go with it.


As random as Helen’s selection was, it actually is quite familiar to me. I live and work in Evanston, a city that shares a border with Chicago. Each sits on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Every day this summer, I walk home along a path that follows the beaches and parks between my workplace – Northwestern University – and my home. The sight of sand fences and grasses similar to this are common. I know just enough to know that the intention behind both the fence and the grasses are sand dune or beach preservation. They are light-touch attempts to nudge natural forces to progress maybe a little quicker. The result is preservation of an important, resilient part of the water/shoreline system.

And what a great metaphor for pedagogy.

When thinking about how we design interventions to nudge learners to progress maybe a little quicker, there is something important about paying attention to the natural contours of the landscape and how we might combine low-tech tools with organic elements to find a productive collaboration.

The more I teach adult learners – an activity that is a combination of both design and facilitation – the more I appreciate the skills necessary to let learning just…emerge. The contours may be shaped a bit by fences and grasses, but the important stuff is what happens in emergent, organic form.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. A student recently told me about a successful graduate-school course. What made it work for them was the design and facilitation: “There was space for us to take ideas and make them ours.” And by “space” they meant time. Each minute of the course was not packed with directive activity. Students had time to socialize, to explore, to diverge, converge and reflect as they discussed course topics either online or in person. And my sense is that behind this was not just time, but realistic problems to address and thoughtful questions to consider.

These, I am beginning to understand, are the subtle but powerful elements we have to shape the contours of learning: Time, realistic problems and great questions.

Addendum – Pix from my walk home today.



Proto. Type. (cont’d) Messing with WordPress themes

Back at hacking around my prototype for the next iteration of popping-the-lid off of the course MSLOC 430. I can point you to – the work in progress – but just be warned that it changes a lot. And all the photography used on the site is simply placeholding.

I spent a wee bit of time searching through WordPress themes and landed (temporarily) on the free version of Sento. Finding a suitable theme is something of a challenge and that led me to this point, trying to articulate what it is I am looking for. It was actually really helpful to mess around with several themes to see how they played out.

So here goes. All recommendations and suggestions are greatly appreciated.

The course structure:

  • I’m landing on having syndicated feeds of 1) “enrolled” student blogs 2) “open participant” blogs 3) Diigo bookmarks and 4) Twitter (course hashtag)
  • I need some place on the home page to briefly set the context for what the whole course is about and how to participate in it. Sento gives me a little space under the sliders to do that and to add a button for an action – I chose “add your blog” – or just a link to some other page. That works.
  • I’d also prefer some space to highlight other items. These could be static or dynamic – links to key pages, announcements, featured posts. Sento has a static section to do that (three featured items, below the slider). Works ok. Would have to think about how I create other pages that these sections point to…or how I might use them to highlight featured posts.
  • I DO want to feature specific posts. And you can do that with Sticky posts, as one option.
  • I am ok with the current design choice I made to place the blog posts on the front page – rather than just a static page. But I think I could go either way. Would be great to have at least some featured content (blog posts) on the home page.
  • Overall – I think about the home page as an orienting space for both “enrolled” students and open participants. And since this will be an open, on-going active site, the home page will have to be structured to play that orientation role well.

My general design sensibilities:

  • Readability is big for me. So fonts and spacing are important. Overall  – clean, minimal, light design.
  • I lean toward more of a business look-and-feel – partly my own preference, but also because the people who are taking the course are organizational professionals (mostly corporate).
  • Sento has sliders – and sliders are not really a huge deal for me. But I do like the flexibility to mess with images as a key part of the design – it’s an area I’d like to work on more. My work will always be text-heavy, so figuring out a way to add more visual appeal through images is key.

My general functional preferences:

  • The theme should be responsive – adaptable to mobile and tablet.
  • In general – I don’t want to code. :-) So I am looking for a theme that provides theme options that allow easy manipulation of site design and functions.

The Web and Ed We Want via Justin Reich

Justin Reich’s recent Berkman Center talk – “The Web We Want and the Ed We Want” – is a great, actually entertaining tour through the recent history of the web and the parallel narrative of the web and education.

I am posting it here as a note to myself. At this point in time, Reich captures key themes of conversations I have been dropping in on at conferences, on social media and in exchanges with educators I admire. The key theme, in Reich’s words: “Students should own their means of production. Our technology should connect students to each other and to their work.”

I was particularly interested in his tour of his course – T509 Massive: The Future of Learning at Scale. The course is built on a blog-and-social-media syndication model based on the work of Jim Groom, Alan Levine and others. It is also in line with the recent work and discussion associated with Christina Hendrick’s Teaching with WordPress.

The first 30 minutes is the formal part of talk, followed by discussion. Lots of lessons to be taken from the T509 design (and how it might impact my thinking about msloc430). Also a lot of great quotable moments.