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.

If enterprise social networks might help us remake organizational learning, what is our pedagogy?

In Why Start with Pedagogy 4 Good Reasons, 4 Good Solutions, Cathy Davidson writes: “If your goal is equality in a world where inequality is structural and violent and pervasive, you can at least start with your classroom as a place in which to model a better way...Be an activist in the realm where you have control. You can change to a pedagogy of liberation today.”

This past week was a big week of reminders about structural inequality in the U.S. Although Davidson’s post appeared as many of these reminders were unfolding I don’t believe it was timed as a response to any recent events. My sense is that it is part of her on-going response to just…what is.

But her call to be an activist, to exercise influence in situations where you have influence, is an appealing point of reflection at this particular point of time. How might we nudge toward inclusiveness when we design, lead, facilitate or moderate the spaces in which we learn? Formal classrooms are one. Another, for me, is the space defined by the boundaries of an organization’s enterprise social network (ESN). I see ESNs as a way to remake organizational learning.

What is our pedagogy of liberation for the ESN case?

Davidson’s post describes four effective techniques for modeling inclusiveness in the classroom. Each is a great example of translating vision and intention into action and provides inspiration for making similar translations for the ESN case.

Among the four techniques I particularly love “everyone raise your hand,” which resets the norm for in-class discussion. A question gets asked by the instructor. Everyone must raise their hand. Someone is called on to comment or answer. If they don’t have a comment or answer they say “I don’t have an answer, but I’d like to hear what [names another person] has to say.” And the question is passed forward. The point: You establish a culture where everyone is important enough to say what they have to say, whatever that is.

“Everyone raise your hand” is a great example of a designed nudge. And one with an intention of nudging us toward inclusiveness, to ensuring that we make effort to hear diverse voices.

The ESN case, of course, differs from a physical classroom. Maha Bali’s post Inevitable Exclusion – symbols, hashtags and networked spaces puts a finger on some of the critical challenges that arise when we start to think about inclusion in networked environments. Especially in large, open networked environments. Some challenges have to do with the affordances of social media technology. I can raise my hand on Twitter, but unless I’m using the proper hashtag no one in the classroom may know I am there. The classroom may not even be on Twitter.

Many other challenges exist and, as her blog headline suggestions, her point is that exclusion is inevitable. But inevitable exclusion is different from intentional exclusion.

Let me quote from Maha’s last two paragraphs directly. It’s a great summary of the dilemma and the mindset that will help us lead through the dilemma:

“But all this to say that… exclusion in real life and social media is inevitable. It’s not because facilitators of a space don’t try to be inclusive; it is not because participants are intentionally excluding others… it just is. Some people will speak out about ways it is glaring and can be overcome and that’s wonderful. Others will lurk. Others will leave. Others will say bad things about you behind your back. It’s inevitable. As Dave Cormier once said, every “us” is “not them”.

And that’s OK. As long as we’re not intentionally ostracizing people for no reason. As long as we’re doing our thing and trying to be open (and we don’t always have to be open; it’s OK to sometimes want to be with our friends!)”

So back to my question. How might we nudge toward inclusiveness when we design, lead, facilitate or moderate ESNs as organizational learning environments? What is our pedagogy of liberation?

For ESNs we make design choices about access (who is in/out), what functional capabilities are available and how we relate to each other in virtual groups, communities and networks. And as community managers we facilitate within the boundaries defined by those design choices.

Whether we admit it our not – we are present in the design. We are also present in the way in which we facilitate activities. And whether we admit it our not, this presence is an expression of our philosophy, our assumptions about what the ESN should “be.”

I’d like us to strive to make ESNs more inclusive by intention. To facilitate a culture where everyone is seen as important enough to say what they have to say, even if it’s just “I’d like to hear what someone else has to say.” We need a pedagogy for that.