Learning moments are precious

I’ve been back in the classroom this fall and winter, co-teaching MSLOC 430 Creating and Sharing Knowledge. Two things are new.

Our program moved to a new community platform – from Jive to SAP Jam. The platform provides the space for both formal and informal engagement with students, faculty, staff and alumni. It is where we conduct discussions, work-out-loud and post many assignments for classes. So MSLOC 430 had a new online environment to work with this year.

The second new thing is that I’ve been co-teaching parts of our curriculum that focus on using design methods – “design thinking” if you will – to address the types of challenges we address in our learning and organizational change curriculum. We don’t design products. But we do try to create environments where positive change can take place, and that usually means designing something – programs, tools, approaches – intended to create a type of experience. That also includes courses.

I have found myself most interested in design methods that force me to rethink my assumptions about how empathetic I am. Do I really understand the daily lives and experiences of those who participate in the courses I teach? And – once I grasp some insight from new-found empathy – what do I do with it, that actually works?

Both of these two new things came together this fall and winter. MSLOC 430 explores how people might engage in learning and knowledge sharing when there is some type of collaboration technology involved. Which means it’s always been a perfect opportunity to explore using technology for learning and knowledge sharing by examining how we actually use our own collaboration platform.

So we’ve been collecting stories from students about how we are using Jam for course purposes. The class is a hybrid – we actively use the online community space between our weekly face-to-face meetings. The online space offers an opportunity to learn out loud in a way that is visible and connected and persistent.

The story-collecting approach we are using is one advocated by my colleague Teresa Torres, who is guiding me (patiently) through the journey to discover the inner workings of design thinking.

The stories we collect focus on what people actually do. For example: We had an online discussion last week. We ask students to tell us what they did when participating in that discussion. In detail. Where were you, what time was it, what were you thinking, feeling and doing.

Through those stories, I’ve now learned (re-learned) to deeply appreciate two things.

  1. People lead really, really busy lives. It’s like we’re always running through airports.
  2. Learning moments are precious.

The first one needs some context. Most of the students in our program are part-time, working professionals. A few are full-time students who are experienced professionals taking a brief (and risky) break in their careers to pursue something new. All of them are enthusiastic learners attempting to make some type of pivot in their career.

I’ve always known that. And I do appreciate how people must balance many different elements impacting their lives. But when you start to systematically peer into their weekly lives – as we did by collecting weekly stories – and see just how they try to make room for thinking and doing “assignments.” Wow. Just, wow.

And no, this is not about people needing some heroic injection of time management skills. You don’t time manage getting the flu and still having work deadlines to meet. You don’t time manage getting a job interview that requires you to leave town for a day and totally making chaos out of your careful plans for the week. You don’t time manage work, family, and school projects all piling up on one weekend because no one is checking your calendar to see if that was really an open weekend for you.

This leads directly into the second thing: Learning moments are precious.

What I mean by that is this: When we think about designing a course, we focus on content and activities and assignments and feedback and (because we have to) assessments.

But I wonder: Have we looked across that set of things and really thought about, where are there the learning moments? Those little slices of time where our students are taken out of their normal day-to-day existence, get a chance to really think, and realize that they are connecting ideas into something new? How and where do content and activities and assignments etc. come together to spark those moments?

That moment when students are sitting on their couch at home, their kids are finally asleep and it’s finally quiet but the cat is still making its presence known by trying to get comfortable in their lap while they are reading some assigned reading for the week on their laptop and there is a question the instructor asked that is still hanging in their head and then they read something…and aha. Bits come together.

Or that moment when they are lurking in the class discussion thread because they wanted to take a little break in the middle of the day from the drama in their workplace and they read some comments where two students are openly sharing that they are struggling with what this one course concept really means but are hacking away at trying to interpret it anyhow…and aha. They see they are not the only one who doesn’t quite get it. And they tuck away how the others have put the bits together because it helps them continue to explore the concept.

These little moments are reframing how I think about what I might do in the classroom, when we have a little more control over creating space for thinking.

First, it helps me value even more the time we set aside to meet in formal settings. It is just so difficult for working professionals to step outside of their normal lives and be allowed to explore, think, and connect ideas with other people. Every hour of class time is more precious.

And second, I start to wonder about designing the flow of the course and its activities so we might spark learning moments – real inquiry, synthesizing, reflection – in those little slices of time that happen in so many various settings outside of the classroom.

How might we think about designing for those moments? That’s the question that intrigues me.

Photo by Andy Beales on Unsplash