Tuesday, November 06, 2012

A Humbling Experience

I would contend that the abundance of content and connections is as fundamental shift in education as any we are likely to encounter, and there has, to date, been little attempt to really place this at the centre of a model of teaching.

An event called Designing Learning in the Digital Age took place here in Adelaide a week or so ago. After the initial keynote (which was generally very well received) there were a number of break-out sessions that, according to the majority of the feedback, failed badly.


  • Will certainly not attend any future events where these presenters are involved.
  • The event did not model or address the issue of 'facilitating disruptive and transformative learning experiences' as advertised.
  • no leveraging of the knowledge in the room or attempt to understand where the audience was at or, understanding of the technological capacity in the room for participants
  • the session on disruptive innovation delivered zero. No content, no strategies
  • I was hoping for tangible ideas from other contexts. The flyer made it sound as though it was for people currently working in this space ... The focus on social networking sites as a source of knowledge and content was, for mine, overdone and not reflective of the promotional material.
  • little new knowledge or ways of representing it were offered.
The first of these comments is the most damning:

Will certainly not attend any future events where these presenters are involved.

I was one of the presenters involved. In 30 plus years of working as an educator in schools, adult education, professional development, and as an invited or keynote speaker at conferences feedback on my efforts has been largely positive, so to get such a bad wrap for the first time in my professional life hurts. And so I must look at why it happened.

In 2006 I had the great privilege of participating in the inaugural Future of Learning in a Networked World Unconference in NZ. This was the first time I experienced first hand how a group of connected educators could generate vast amounts of significant content in a relatively short time. And I had hoped that participants in this recent event would be able to replicate something like that NZ experience.

Promotional materials for the day said things like:

  • Intending participants are those who "want to see change in the way education is delivered, and who see the value of networked learning"
  • participants will be actively curating their own learning
  • It is expected that participants will already have skills in the use of educational and mobile technologies, and social media
  • you'll ... ideally be used to creating and sharing content and/or media on the open web.
  • handy...would be an account on one or two (or more) social media sites eg: blog, podcast, wiki, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, LinkedIn or even Facebook  
  • develop that resource you would like to show your key decision-makers
  • locate, generate and tag content to create usable resources

Extracting some key words from the above list we get:

  • networked learning
  • actively curating
  • skills in ...social media
  • used to creating and sharing content and/or media on the open web
  • develop
  • locate, generate, tag

I think it’s clear from the above description that participants would be
doing things.  The intent was that those who attended this event would come ready to share, learn, collaborate, create and curate content. That is, it would not be an event where facilitators would be instructing, but rather an event where emphasis was squarely on the participants, and the knowledge and expertise they brought to the event would make or break the day.

But that it is not what happened. It is clear from the feedback that some came expecting to be taught and talked at. I had no intention of putting myself in that role for such an event. It would be ludicrous to even try. All my co-facilitator and I wanted to do was provide a time and place for connected educators to extend their personal learning networks, and tap into the collective intelligence of those who attended. To practice what is sometimes touted as a methodology for the digital age - paragogy.  The notion of ‘paragogy’ relates to the peer production of learning

I wanted to provide a platform for participants to talk and learn from each other. I assumed that people would quickly self-organise into groups of mutual interest, decide what they were going to do,  and do it. We would collect the resulting resources at the end of the sessions. It was also hoped that participants would be happy to complete tasks in the days after the event and share everything via a public Google Doc created for the event.

I have been part of such events before and that is what happened. It did not happen at this event. Why not?

1. the promotional materials and session descriptions obviously did not make what we trying to do explicit enough.

As I think back to previous events where this approach has been successful I realise that the term unconference had been used to describe the methodology employed. My mistake here was not to describe at least the events I was hosting as akin to unconference sessions. People came to learn from me as the facilitator; I was there to host a situation where people could learn from each other. Cross purposes.

2. people needed more time to get to know each other and explore what areas of mutual interest they might work on.  I badly misjudged this, and more time should have been allocated to allow this to happen.

3. the technology at the venue failed. While this was really disappointing, many had access to their own network connection anyway. Several participants also had fairly basic levels of ICT literacy and were unable to use their devices to quickly produce content.

While I don't think the failure of the venue's technology was the crucial factor in determining the ultimate success or otherwise of the day, it certainly didn't help, and I imagine this would have got several people offside. For the record I feel cheated by the venue. In the lead-up discussions with Rydges Southpark I was very specific about the nature of the event and said that 60 people would be making intensive use of their in-house wireless and they assured me several times that their Internet could cope with such use. They were wrong, and they should never have accepted our booking for this event. And I should not have believed them. A hard lesson learned.

4. There was not enough space for people to work comfortably in groups. I had envisaged people working alone, in pairs or groups as desired. We have to accept responsibility for this - we misjudged the amount of space needed for people to interact in the way we hoped they would.

So - really quite  ironic. We wanted to host an event where people could talk, share, create, and learn from each other to model how designing learning in the digital age needs to take these approaches into account, and we got feedback based on an expectation that we would be running teacher-led sessions that we had no intention of running. 

We tried something new. We took a risk. We were trying to place “the abundance of content and connections ...at the centre of a model of teaching.” We failed. Innovation theory is quite clear that taking risks and failing is a necessary prerequsite for eventual success so I guess on that score we can salvage some hard learned lessons from the event, but ultimately we failed, and I have to accept responsibility for that. I'm really sorry that so many were disappointed. And you're only as good as your last gig...


deliab said...

It is superb to see such a fine educator reflecting out loud, in public. Thank you for modelling this often-neglected pedagogical virtue. For me, humility, is not holding a 'low' view of one's self but a requirement for fertile self-appraisal, evaluation that generates fresh (transformative and disruptive) visions and educational possibilities.

CoachCarole said...

Hey Michael, I admire this fine example of critical reflection as a method of 'paragogy'. I have some takeaway actions, prompts from your posting, to consider for events I am about to host.
BTW I wonder if you might like to be a presenter at one or more of these.
I am really keen to explore in more depth the power of paragogy.
Coach Carole
PS can't help smiling as I try for the sixth time to get the Captcha Text correct!

Mike Seyfang said...

Yes, there was clearly a gap between what we had hoped to achieved and what actually happened. By lunchtime on the day I had attributed the lack of online activity around the event to the issues with the venue. On reflection, I think we had attracted people who wanted a different experience to what was planned. Perhaps we could have picked up on this and changed course? Maybe next time consider separating the "un-conference" / "barCamp" style from keynotes, presentations etc...

Thanks for involving me and for this opportunity to learn 'the hard way'!


Graham Wegner said...

Hi Michael, I was there and really got a lot out of the whole day so it think it may well be that the crowd who came were mismatched to the whole concept of the event. It is interesting that so many people who have interest in technology and networked learning still expect to be spoonfed information and concepts. It would be interesting to ask the extra question of the feedback givers - "What did you expect would happen?"
Yes, the venue turned out to be less than ideal but when you have the chance to exchange ideas etc with like-motivated people, surely you as the facilitator don't need to be doing a song and dance routine. I had my own wi-fi, and tapped into stuff as the day progressed even as it became apparent that others weren't going to open up a great deal. But I can relate to how you were feeling - I was a cohort facilitator at a conference earlier this year where we were meant to be engaging in a conversation about 21st century learning and well, when it wasn't lock step, tightly routined, people voted with their feet and left my group. As you have said, very humbling.

Marlene Manto said...

Hi Michael,
A shame that this event didn't go as planned, but keep things in perspective - I recall e-Dayz conferences where I got *very* negative feedback from a few. But then over the years, I came to realise that 'you can't please all the people all the time'....and just learned to expect a smattering of very negative comments on every feedback survey. As long as it wasn't the majority! [grin]

In a current discussion in the E-learning Conversations LinkedIn Group (http://lnkd.in/D74dWR), Leo Gaggl has provided a link to a fabulous idea...a FAILFaire (http://failfaire.org/). We're well past 'ordinary' conferences and perhaps even Bar camps and Unconferences. Maybe this is a great idea for a future event? AND...it would definitely encourage sharing. LOL

Michael said...

Thank you muchly to those who came by and offered support. Graham - sounds like you experienced something similar recently and know what it feels like. The good news is that a few other people have come forward with much more positive evaluations of the event so we're feeling a little better about it now. Clearly those who were moved to do the evaluation immediately after the event were those who were not happy.