Humans vs. tech: Reflections on #et4online

Let me start with the ending. I left the Online Learning Consortium’s 8th Annual Emerging Technologies Symposium inspired.

But I was also struck by a game at play that has been going on forever. It was tiring – exhausting really – to see this game played out again. And frustrating.

Humans vs. tech. Or more precisely, technical solutions vs. emergent, adaptive, messy, social, human solutions. I am likely seeing this as a “game” while under the influence of the good folks at TvsZ (the Twitter-based game formerly known as Twitter vs. Zombies). My conference experience started and ended with sessions that unpacked this emergent, adaptive, messy, social and human online game experience.

As I reflect on the past few days – a conference sandwich built between two slices of TvsZ bread – I am struck how the lessons of the emergent rules of TvsZ may be a way to reframe this human vs. tech game. On the final day of the conference the TvsZ organizers shared a video history of the game by Janine DeBaise. It’s worth watching to understand co-creation and evolution of a concept.

A key point in the evolution of the game is adoption of the idea of “the spirit of the game” (borrowed from Ultimate Frisbee). Meaning: The game is self-officiated. New rules may emerge (and they do) and players expect to be called out on adherence to the rules (and they are) but it is all done under the participants’ sense of the spirit of the game.

So my reflective questions: Do conferences such as #et4online allow self-officiating of the game – or do they force an either/or human vs. tech ruleset? And do we, as participants, have a clear enough sense of “the spirit of the game” in learning and tech to self-officiate?

The rules of the human vs. tech game suggest that you play in one of two camps. You’re a tech entrepreneur or edtech enthusiast who creates or uses a tool to solve a problem that you barely understand (and in some cases I am kind by saying “barely”). Or you play in the human camp. People are messy, tools are tools, humanity is at risk unless we pay attention, but when we do we create amazing moments.

This in-game dialogue came out most clearly in Teacher Tank, a take-off on the show Shark Tank. In the conference version, edtech leaders who were also showcasing their companies in the conference exhibit hall pitched their companies to a panel of three of the sharpest minds I know of in the world of tech and learning: George Siemens, Bonnie Stewart and Tanya Joosten.

I have to admit: The session was entertaining. And therapeutic. What George, Bonnie and Tanya said to the five tech presenters who pitched their solutions is what I always think, but often don’t say, as I wander through every tech vendor exhibit hall I’ve ever been through: “What the fuck were you thinking?” Followed closely by: “Would you also be kind enough to give me $50K of your funding (because I can certainly put it to better use)?”

Teacher Tank provided the forum that put the game into high-def. But it played out throughout the conference in several ways.

The three keynote speakers are exemplary voices on the messy, human side of the game: Mimi Ito, Bonnie Stewart and Gardner Campbell. Ito’s work in connected learning and connected courses; Stewart’s work on connected scholars and identity; and Campbell’s story of his collaboration in an innovative connectivist MOOC all land squarely on the side of inspiration to adhere to the spirit of a more human game. And if you are keeping score by who stands on the keynote podium: It’s humans 3, tech 0.

I saw the tech voice more dominant in a selection of the concurrent sessions. Some (which I did not attend) were to my eye technology pitches disguised as conference sessions. Maybe I was wrong. I doubt it.

But I also found myself reacting and being aware of the tech-first mindset in sessions where I was interested in hearing about topics of interest to me. A session on predictive analytics focused on solutions that put all the good stuff into the hands of university administration. Subtle message here: If faculty and staff have better data, we can “do” something to students and help them. The goal of helping at risk students is laudable. But it’s an overly technical solution to a messy problem. Where is the conversation about how we actually put really powerful apps into the hands of students? And learn how to facilitate their capability to learn how to learn – and to let them tell us more about how we’re doing on that goal? Maybe I am naive here. Or missed something. But that didn’t seem to be on the radar of anyone in the room.

I participated in a couple of other sessions where the conversation kept being pulled back into tool-talk, a sure sign to me of a tech-solution bias. If we just learn the tools, we’ll all be better. For example. A session on establishing “teaching presence” netted out to this: “Teachers” can use text, audio or video to establish presence. Holy shit. (Insert audio and video version of me saying “holy shit” here just to show that I learned something).

Onto more inspirational notes.

I was inspired by the stories told by Adam Croom at the University of Oklahoma and Chris Mattia at California State University Channel Islands and their work using the domain of one’s own concept. OU Create and CI Keys put digital tools and control of them into the hands of students with the purpose of facilitating exploration, creativity and learning. Not doing tech to them. Doing tech for them. Love this. I am inspired to find a path to doing this in my own work.

I was inspired also by meeting a number of people I’ve come to know on Twitter and through blogs and writing. Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris of Hybrid Pedagogy and a host of other adventures. The TvsZ crew: Pete Rorabaugh, Christina Hendricks, J.R. Dingwall, Andrea Rehn and the amazingly ever-present-even-when-she’s-a-world-away Maha Bali. Thanks to all of you for continuing to be, in Mimi Ito’s sense, my #learninghero.

Which brings me back to my reflection questions: Do conferences such as #et4online allow self-officiating the game – or do they force an either/or human vs. tech ruleset? And do we, as participants, have a clear enough sense of “the spirit of the game” in learning and tech to self-officiate?

I had a brief conversation with Jesse Stommel after Teacher Tank. While I was still enjoying the verbal spanking dished out by the panelists, Jesse noted that one in particular seemed to have the right voice. That style of bluntness that changes the conversation rather than beating it into submission.

I think he’s right. The spirit of the game in learning and tech needs to be more about finding that proper voice. I don’t think #et4online got it exactly right. But it wasn’t exactly wrong, either. You could find paths – as I did – to find the both/and. The affordances of technology can and do help us find new ways to explore the emergent, adaptive, messy, social, human side of learning. But that’s a real complex challenge requiring critical thinking on all sides. Sign me up for any conference that self-officiates that dialogue.

Part II: Popping the lid off of #msloc430

The Winter quarter session of the course I teach – MSLOC 430, which explores enterprise social networks (ESNs) and their impact on work and learning – ended a month ago. It was my first attempt to pop the lid off of the course by designing some ways in which both the enrolled, on-site graduate students and any “open learners” might engage in exploring a few common questions.

The questions centered on this: How might we innovate use of ESNs and extended, open networks for both work and learning?

Our approach was an attempt to bridge two worlds: Those who are experimenting with new models of working (i.e., working-out-loud, open design, idea management) and those who are experimenting with new models of learning (personal learning networks, MOOCs, Community of Inquiry). What might happen if we started thinking about how these models might come together?

Let me first share a short summary of outcomes from the Winter class session. Then a bit about Part II – an upcoming working-out-loud week.

Much of the initial approach for the Winter session is explained in detail in the outline of topics for the open section of #msloc430 which ran for six weeks in February and March. We produced two documents of resources:

We conducted a wide-ranging discussion on innovations and learning via a Twitter chat and several brainstorming discussions in our Google Community:

These are big topics. And really we are just beginning to brainstorm. Free from a lot of judgment on ideas. But looking for sparks of inspiration that might lead us to build something new and try it out.

The Spring class session (of enrolled students in the MSLOC program) began almost almost 3 weeks ago. I’ve proposed to the students the idea of doing a working-out-loud week May 4-10. The dates coincide with when the class of 20 students will be on-campus for 2 1/2 full days of face-to-face activities (May 7-9). So we will have a good opportunity to build in some working-out-loud time into the class sessions.

The questions we will explore are the same as in Winter. How might we innovate, by thinking more creatively about how we integrate different models of networked work and learning?

If you want to join us, follow the #msloc430 Twitter hashtag.

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.


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