Sunday, November 29, 2009

Learning from masters and across disciplines

Rom Violist (Budapest, 2006)Image by daskar via Flickr

It is much easier to learn from practitioners who are doing similar things and are working in similar ways as you do. But maybe are slightly ahead of you in some ways.

Weggeman in his book 'Leiding geven aan Professionals? Niet doen!' about managing professionals recounts the story of a famous violist. The story illustrates at the one hand that there may be masters who may find it hard to explicitate their knowledge in words. On the other hand, it show that it is hard to learn from someone who is not a practitioner with a similar knowledge base. Here's the story:

A journalist asked him what the secret was of his success. He thought for a while and then said: "I think it is the way I use my bow, look, this is the way I do it. And this is the way a lot of my colleagues do it." The journalist didn't understand it and couldn't turn it into any sensible information. There was a masterclass pupil of the violinist who had heard the interview and was busy for about half an hour to try and explain to the journalist what the famous violinist had meant.

The journalist did not have the same basic knowledge about playing the violin as the masterclass pupil had. As a result the journalist could not understand the explanation. the pupil was able to understand it and make sense of it.

This bites the idea that you can learn and innovate by working across disciplines. The potential to learn from other disciplines may be high- but the risk that you never understand a thing is very high too.. It may explain for instance the sometimes apparent closedness of the development sector. You hear complaints that the sector is not open to learning from other sectors. It probably needs brokers like the masterclass pupil to make sure that learning is possible at all.
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Friday, November 20, 2009

Learning that Sinterklaas doesn't exist = double loop learning

{{nl|:nl:Sinterklaas tijdens het :nl:Het Feest...Image via Wikipedia

Sinterklaas time again in the Netherlands! Even though my children are getting bigger and we don't go to the intocht by boat, I enjoy this period quite a lot.

My youngest daughter is eight years old. At this age, you are not supposed to believe in Sinterklaas, hundreds of years old, coming by boat from Spain and bringing all the presents. At school, the children are not invited to the Sinterklaas celebration, but have a new type of celebration where you draw lots (lootjes trekken). You buy a present, make something nice and write a poem for that person.

My family is surprised though, that my daughter still believes in Sinterklaas bringing the presents. An intelligent girl, how come she doesn't see that the beard is not real? That the presents in her shoe are not brought by 'zwarte piet' in the night?

I think this is an example of double loop learning. Single loop learning involves the detection and correction of error. You want to do something and learn how to do it. Double loop learning, however, in contrast, involves questioning the role of the framing and learning systems. In other words, single loop learning takes place within the framework of existing belief system, double loop learning questions the belief system. It takes a lot more for double loop learning to occur.

My daughter has always been told, by friends, family and the media that Sinterklaas exists. She has seen him arrive by boat. She has seen the presents he brings. This has become part of her belief system. Even though there is now evidence against this belief: friends telling her he doesn't exist, buying your own presents for friends, the belief is so firm that it will take more to change this belief. Probably if I'll tell her that he doesn't exist... But let's wait another year, because it is a lot of fun to hide the presents and surprise them!
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Saturday, November 14, 2009

I want to facilitate online discussions but how do I choose the right platform?

Photo: participants in our workhshop on online facilitation

In many situations non-ICT specialists want to organise some online conversations and are looking for a good online space. A discussion forum functionality is key for this purpose, other things are nice to have but often blur the decision about the forum to choose.

Situation 1: You're looking for an online platform for your sailing club or for your family to prepare for the yearly family reunion. You make an easy choice and open a ning or groupsite. It is free (with ads), you do not have to install anything, it is easy to manage, so you're ready in a few minutes.

Situation 2: Now at work. You work for a company and may be asked to guide the process to develop a platform. There has been an intranet and an agency that has built the intranet. Now you're probably going into process to build a platform on your intranet.

In these two different situations seem as if the choice is made by the circumstances and often the choice is made for a platform that people are familiar with. It is very difficult to see the trees through the forest with all the tools.

But what are really the options you have for online community platforms and how you do it right choices? In this blog post I want to outline various possibilities especially for non-ICTers in organizations (like me) because it is a question I'm often asked. First it is good to know that many many online platforms offer similar functionality: a discussion forum, the possibility of personal pages, one page with the members, a document sharing tools, the ability to create subgroups and management tools for administrators. In order of increasing investment required I will present five practical options. The book Digital habitats of Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John Smith has been an input, as well as the blogpost by Christian Kreutz: a starter for development organisations engaging in online networks.

Possibility 1. Opening a group on an existing social network sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn.

What is it? Most major social network sites such as MySpace and LinkedIn have the opportunity to start your own group. You can invite people to join your group. Often there are good functionality including announcing events, hold discussions and news announce.

Advantages: If all your participants are accustomed to this social network (and often already logged in), they do not get used to the technique. Since you appear in the list of groups, it is easy to attract new members, spontaneously. It's free. It's easy to set up.

Disadvantages: It does not work for participants who are not members in this social network (or you have to convince them they should become a member). Also, you do not have many possibilities to get the look and feel to suit your own organization. It feels like you are in the pub of this social network. This is not bad if everyone feels at home there, but it gives less the feeling of a home for the community or group. Also you have to do with the features available. Your information is stored externally.

So you can use this property for a group with a clear goal where almost all members already are a member of this social network, and it is not so important to create an 'own' online place for the group. The basic functions are sufficient for your group. It may also be strategic if you want to attract member who are frequently on this social network.

Option 2: A (free) Create email list like google group, or a yahoo group

Advantages: This is a way of communicating online that anyone who can email can handle, and is very low threshold. The advantage over email is that you have an archive, and a list of members you can share documents online. It is easy and free.

Disadvantages: It is limited to one single simultaneously discussion. Everyone follows (or does not follow) this discussion, but you can not run multiple parallel discussions. It does not look attractive.

This is still a great opportunity for groups who are not used much online to exchange email and do not have a need to feel part of a larger organisation. There is no learning curve (or a small learning curve). If you can email, you can do this. If you want to set up several online communities for an organizations, it may be less appropriate, unless you link the spaces.

Option 3: Your own social network platform like Ning, group site,, Socialgo, collectivex, MINDZ.

What is it? There are web2.0 services for building your own free social network for your group can make. This is a revolution compared to the 'old' way of building a platform, with huge development costs. It is often free if you can cope with advertising, but you pay if you don't want advertising or other paid services. You can often host your own domain (redirect to a different Web address) or support for some payment.

Advantages: It's an accessible way to see if this type of exchange is working. If not so, then the platform can easily be deleted without having invested a lot of energy and money in developing a good platform. You lift on the success of a social network concept which is designed with the idea of strengthening relationships. It is common that every member has their own page. These services are often very well developed in the social aspect. It is easy to use even for administrators.

Disadvantages: You can not change everything to suit your own needs, and you are dependent on a number of choices that are made by the service. Nevertheless, you can customize some aspects, such as the number of tabs, or a number of features you want or not, etc. Content is hosted externally.

If you have a small budget, this is a good choice. For professional use you can get started with it too, if you want to experiment first and don't know yet how your interaction will flow. Compared with the first 2 options can include creating a clearer sense of group together because you have a special place online. It is also possible to invite a graphic designer to create and apply so that the appearance you want. It is important to make a comparison of the different platforms if you choose this option. Ning for instance doesnot have an easy file sharing possibility and groupsite does.

Option 4: Community software which is designed for knowledge sharing and interaction. Examples are Winkwaves, Tomoye, icohere, etc. or open source software like Drupal, Joomla or elgg (moodle is also used, but is actually optimized for Education)

What is it? Community platforms are software packages designed for use by online communities. In other words, the software is designed with the aim of encouraging online networking, sharing, online discussions, knowledge sharing. There is also open source software that is compatible for this purpose. It is often necessary though to have technical knowledge to install the software and adapt the open source software to the demands, but there are standard modules that you can use. Often there is the possibility to host the platform on your own server, but you can also host it externally.

Advantages: The advantage is that the functionality already fully developed and tested for optimal interaction in an online community. You take advantage of the experiences of others. You can use the software and customize the look and feel, choose the modules you want or not, so it is easy to customize to your needs.

Disadvantages: This is a more expensive option than the previous options. It requires more technical knowledge and the necessary support must be well thought through. The design process is longer.

Just as with option 3 you need to compare the software packages before you choose software for your situation. You should also study the pricing system. With open source software is useful to look at the experiences of others, the software is already well developed? It is good to find developers who have experience with this particular software.

Option 5: Build your own platform as an extension of existing software systems in use throughout the organization (eg. sharepoint)

What is it? You can also create your own discussion forum within existing intranets or other software used in the organization. You build it yourself to suit your own needs, with the help of the host and support of the other software. This requires an investment in the design process and the development (construction) costs.

Disadvantages: Often the existing software is developed for other purposes, such as data storage and document sharing. It is not optimal for social purposes and knowledge sharing. It requires a good design in close collaboration with an IT development company.

Advantage: It can be easy because you already have contacts and experience with you software support company. You do not have to find new external support. Also there is the advantage that people may have developed some routines like logging in to the system.

This is an option you can consider when people are very enthusiastic about the existing software and use it very actively. It is good to list all the technical functionalities that you would like to see upfront and asking whether it is possible to get all the features working. This prevents subsequent disappointments after everything has been built.

NB. It is also possible to combine different options. To create a Web2.0 platform AND create a google group email list. There are also options that offer the possibility to have conversations without having a discussion forum as the key tool, like twitter exchanges, or using the comments page of a wiki.
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Sunday, November 08, 2009

Twitter to start your personal learning network

I'm working with a learning network in education using a sharepoint platform. It's hard to move from face-to-face meeting to online interaction (for a number of reasons and we're writing a whole paper about the challenges). We're experimenting with webconferences and I was suggesting to experiment with other tools like a weblog, ning, or a google group. Some are hesitant: if online interaction with one platform doesn't work well, will other tools not be even more confusing?

When I saw this video on the free technology for teachers blog with about the use of twitter for educators I was struck by the way they see twitter as THE only tool for educators. Watch the 15 minutes video if you're interested.

How is twitter used by the panel? They use twitter to connect with students, parents and other stakeholders, to share resources for teachers and to have tweetpolls and conversations. For instance, every tuesday there are discussions using hashtags. These discussions are with an international group of teachers, including teachers from Turkey etc. The one on the necessity of homework was particularly lively.

They stress that it is not twittering away about learning together. They don't call it twitter but rather a personal learning network. People become learners rather than workers and twitter helps them to continuously learn. It is a great support to teachers. One in three teachers leave because there is lack of support for them, and this can be the way to create support. They decided to start a ning to work as a repository.

Mmm, should we start a twitter experiment? I wonder whether twitter fits the teachers practice because it is so much to the point!

Twitter & Education - #140conf LA from RealPlayer SP on Vimeo.