Aerial view of Finney Chapel, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, United States (

The idea of a university (updated)

Reda Sadki Quotes

So I’m reading John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, which begins by asserting that the university “is a place of teaching universal knowledge”. I’m fascinated by the historical context (Catholicism in Protestant England), by the strength and substance of the ideas, and by the narrative style of carefully-constructed arguments. I’m also struck, however, by the centrality of learning as transmission, the line of demarcation between invention and teaching, and the belief that it is possible to know by disconnecting from society (although I acknowledge that concentration and flow tend to require quiet, in a pragmatic sense):

To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person. […] He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new. The common sense of mankind has associated the search after truth with seclusion and quiet. […] It must be allowed on the whole that, while teaching involves external engagements, the natural home for experiment and speculation is retirement.

If all three of these characteristics of institutionalized knowledge creation and production no longer align with the demands of the world we live in, what needs to change and how likely is the change to occur within organizations founded on very different ideas and assumptions?

Newman’s Idea is also crystal-clear with respect to the relationship between the university and the corporation (in his context, the Catholic Church):

Just as a commander wishes to have tall and well-formed and vigorous soldiers, not from any abstract devotion to the military standard of height or age, but for the purposes of war, and no one thinks it any thing but natural and praiseworthy in him to be contemplating, not abstract qualities, but his own living and breathing men; so, in like manner, when the Church founds a University, she is not cherishing talent, genius, or knowledge, for their own sake, but for the sake of her children.

Through the lens of organizational learning and the need for mission-driven organizations in a knowledge economy to invest in their people, this rationale stands, in my opinion.

Photo: Aerial view of Finney Chapel, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, United States (

Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab (1950-1951) (

MOOCs for teachers, then and now

Reda Sadki Quotes

In February, Daniel Seaton and his colleagues shared data about the very high level of teacher participation (28% identified as past or present teachers) and engagement (over four times more active in discussion forums than non-teachers) in a series of MITx MOOCs.  Very interesting article when thinking of teachers as multipliers, mediators and facilitators of learning (and not just transmitters). Unlike earlier MOOC research that has been criticized for being ahistorical, Seaton shares the following example of pre-MOOC massive, open online education:

One of the earliest precursors to modern MOOCs targeted high school teachers in the United States. In 1958, a post-war interpretation of introductory physics called “Atomic-Age Physics” debuted at 6:30 a.m. on the National Broadcasting Company’s (NBC) Continental Classroom. Daily viewership was estimated at roughly 250,000 people, and over 300 institutions partnered to offer varying levels of accreditation for the course. Roughly 5,000 participants were certified in the first year. Teachers were estimated to be 1 in 8 of all certificate earners,  indicating reach beyond the target demographic of high school teachers. Through its expansion of courses between 1958 and 1963, the Continental Classroom represented a bold approach in using technology to address national needs in education reform. In contrast, the current MOOC era has largely focused on student-centric issues like democratizing access.

Source: Seaton, D.T., Coleman, C., Daries, J., Chuang, I., 2015. Enrollment in MITx MOOCs: Are We Educating Educators? EduCause Review.

Ho, A.D., Chuang, I., Reich, J., Coleman, C.A., Whitehill, J., Northcutt, C.G., Williams, J.J., Hansen, J.D., Lopez, G., Petersen, R., 2015. HarvardX and MITx: Two Years of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2014. Social Science Research Network Working Paper Series.

Photo: Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab (1950-1951) (

The last Saturn V launch carried the Skylab space station to low Earth orbit in place of the third stage (Wikipedia/public domain)

Education Moonshot Summit

Reda Sadki Events

This should be fun (and interesting). I’ll be heading to Amsterdam on July 21st for Google EDU’s Moonshot Summit. This event aims to bring “together top innovators from around the globe to design moonshot projects that will be launched in the Fall”. Attendees were selected, we are told, because of our “experience and belief that education can be improved for innovation”.

The moonshot co-exists with skunk works, DARPA, braintrust and many other terms that describe the conditions, process, or outcomes that foster and drive innovation. Google’s concept of a moonshot intersects innovation and scale, and posits that, in specific circumstances, scaling up can define innovation. “Instead of a mere 10% gain” Google’s Project X team explains, “a moonshot aims for a 10x improvement over what currently exists”:

The combination of a huge problem, a radical solution to that problem, and the breakthrough technology that just might make that solution possible, is the essence of a moonshot.

This event in Amsterdam is led by Esther Wojcicki, whose work  around moonshots in education (and specifically blended learning in the classroom) I’ve just discovered.

Photo: The last Saturn V launch carried the Skylab space station to low Earth orbit in place of the third stage (Wikipedia/public domain).

Wet Times Square (Kenny Louie/

Choose your own adventure

Reda Sadki Learning strategy, Presentations

This is my presentation at the Online Learning Summit in London on 16 June 2015. I asked participants to choose between a set of four questions: Question #1: Why are learning, education and training so impervious to change? Number two is the Extinction Event question: It’s 2025. Your organization ceased to exist in 2020.  What happened? What was your role, i.e. the role of the learning leader in what happened?  What are you doing now? Question #3 is about LSi’s capabilities: What problems can we help you solve? And, last but not least, Question #4: why does e-learning suck? I will let you guess which question(s) were chosen for the discussion and workshop…

Credit where credit is due: the Then-And-Now photo series is from a brilliant presentation by Michael T. Moe at the Global Leadership Congress held in Philadelphia a long time ago where I was a featured speaker. The Ferrari pit stop crew as a model for mission performance was first shown to me by Karen E. Watkins (University of Georgia) and Maya Drobnjak (Australian Army). Kermit Washington’s story (completely unknown to the London participants) is told by James Surowiecki in his New Yorker article Better All The Time.

All the way down (Amancay Maahs/

Can analysis and critical thinking be taught online in the humanitarian context?

Reda Sadki Events, Learning design, Presentations

This is my presentation at the First International Forum on Humanitarian Online Training (IFHOLT) organized by the University of Geneva on 12 June 2015.

I describe some early findings from research and practice that aim to go beyond “click-through” e-learning that stops at knowledge transmission. Such transmissive approaches replicate traditional training methods prevalent in the humanitarian context, but are both ineffective and irrelevant when it comes to teaching and learning the critical thinking skills that are needed to operate in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments faced by humanitarian teams. Nor can such approaches foster collaborative leadership and team work.

Most people recognize this, but then invoke blended learning as the solution. Is it that – or is it just a cop-out to avoid deeper questioning and enquiry of our models for teaching and learning in the humanitarian (and development) space? If not, what is the alternative? This is what I explore in just under twenty minutes.

This presentation was first made as a Pecha Kucha at the University of Geneva’s First International Forum on Online Humanitarian Training (IFHOLT), on 12 June 2015. Its content is based in part on LSi’s first white paper written by Katia Muck with support from Bill Cope to document the learning process and outcomes of Scholar for the humanitarian contest. 

Photo: All the way down (Amancay Maahs/

Peter Paul Rubens. From 1577 to 1640. Antwerp. Medusa's head. KHM Vienna.

Experience and blended learning: two heads of the humanitarian training chimera

Reda Sadki Design, Events, Learning design, Learning strategy, Thinking aloud

Experience is the best teacher, we say. This is a testament to our lack of applicable quality standards for training and its professionalization, our inability to act on what has consequently become the fairly empty mantra of 70-20-10, and the blinders that keep the economics (low-volume, high-cost face-to-face training with no measurable outcomes pays the bills of many humanitarian workers, and per diem feeds many trainees…) of humanitarian education out of the picture.

We are still dropping people into the deep end of the pool (i.e., mission) and hoping that they somehow figure out how to swim. We are where the National Basketball Association in the United States was in 1976. However, if the Kermit Washingtons in our space were to call our Pete Newells (i.e., those of us who design, deliver, or manage humanitarian training), what do we have to offer?

The corollary to this question is why no one seems to care? How else could an independent impact review of DFID’s five-year £1.2 billion investment in research, evaluation and personnel development conclude that the British agency for international development “does not clearly identify how its investment in learning links to its performance and delivering better impact”… with barely anybody noticing?

Let us just use blended learning, we say. Yet the largest meta-analysis and review of online learning studies led by Barbara Means and her colleagues in 2010 found no positive effects associated with blended learning (other than the fact that learners typically do more work in such set-ups, once online and then again face-to-face). Rather, the call for blended learning is a symptom for two ills.

First, there is our lingering skepticism about the effectiveness of online learning (of which we make demands in terms of outcomes, efficacy, and results that we almost never make for face-to-face training), magnified by fear of machines taking away our training livelihoods.

Second, there is the failure of the prevailing transmissive model of e-learning which, paradoxically, is also responsible for its growing acceptance in the humanitarian sector. We have reproduced the worst kind of face-to-face training in the online space with our click-through PowerPoints that get a multiple-choice quiz tacked on at the end. This is unfair, if only because it only saves the trainer (saved from the drudgery of delivery by a machine) from boredom.

So the litany about blended learning is ultimately a failure of imagination: are we really incapable of creating new ways of teaching and learning that model the ways we work in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) humanitarian contexts? We actually dialogue, try, fail, learn and iterate all the time – outside of training. How can humanitarians who share a profoundly creative problem-solving learning culture, who operate on the outer cusp of complexity and chaos… do so poorly when it comes to organizing how we teach and learn? How can organizations and donors that preach accountability and results continue to unquestioningly pour money into training with nothing but a fresh but thin coat of capacity-building paint splashed on?

Transmissive learning – whatever the medium – remains the dominant mode of formal learning in the humanitarian context, even though everyone knows patently that such an approach is both ineffective and irrelevant when it comes to teaching and learning the critical thinking skills that are needed to deliver results and, even more crucially, to see around the corner of the next challenge. Such approaches do not foster collaborative leadership and team work, do not provide experience, and do not confront the learner with complexity. In other words, they fail to do anything of relevance to improved preparedness and performance.

If you find yourself appalled at the polemical nature of the blanket statements above – that’s great! I believe that the sector should be ripe for such a debate. So please do share the nature of your disagreement and take me to task for getting it all wrong (here is why I don’t have a comments section). If you at least reluctantly acknowledge that there is something worryingly accurate about my observations, let’s talk. Finally, if you find this to be darkly depressing, then check back tomorrow (or subscribe) on this blog when I publish my presentation at the First International Forum on Online Humanitarian training. It is all about new learning and assessment practice that models the complexity and creativity of the work that humanitarians do in order to survive, deliver, and thrive.

Painting: Peter Paul Rubens. From 1577 to 1640. Antwerp. Medusa’s head. KHM Vienna.

Marble statue of the ancient greek philosopher Plato (Source:

Blame it on Plato

Reda Sadki Quotes

Even as computer-mediated communication is now embedded into nearly every aspect of life, the sentiment persists that written and therefore distance communication is intrinsically inferior. Here is the very interesting introduction from Andrew Feenberg’s classic article – written in the late 1980s – calling into question the presumption of superiority in the face-to-face encounter:

In our culture the face-to-face encounter is the ideal paradigm of the meeting of minds. Communication seems most complete and successful where the person is physically present ‘in’ the message. This physical presence is supposed to be the guarantor of authenticity: you can look your interlocutor in the eye and search for tacit signs of truthfulness or falsehood, where context and tone permit a subtler interpretation of the spoken word.

Plato initiated our traditional negative view of the written word. He argued that writing was no more than an imitation of speech, while speech itself was an imitation of thought. Thus writing would be an imitation of an imitation and low indeed in the Platonic hierarchy of being, based on the superiority of the original over the copy. For Plato, writing detaches the message from its author and transforms it into a dead thing, a text.

Such a text, however, can cross time (written records) and space (mail), acquire objectivity and permanence, even while losing authenticity (Derrida, 1972a). That we still share Plato’s thinking about writing can be shown in how differently we respond to face-to-face, written, typed and printed forms of communication. These form a continuum, ranging from the most personal to the most public.

Feenberg, A. The written world: On the theory and practice of computer conferencing. Mindweave: Communication, computers, and distance education 22–39 (1989).

Photo: Marble statue of  the ancient greek philosopher Plato (Source:

Read the news (Georgie Pauwels/

Publishing as learning

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

We are both consumers and producers of publications, whether in print or online.

Publications are static containers for knowledge from the pre-Internet era. Even if they are now mostly digital, the ways in which we think about them remains tied to the past. Nevertheless, at their best, they provide a useful reference point, baseline, or benchmark to establish a high-quality standard that is easy, cheap and effective to disseminate. In the worst, they take so much time to prepare that they are out of date even before they are ready for circulation, reflect consensus that is so watered-down as to be unusable, and are expensive – especially when printed copies are needed – to produce, disseminate, stock and revise.

With respect to the knowledge we consume, some of us may heretically scorn formal guidelines and other publications. Reading as an activity “remains a challenge”. Others manage to set aside time to pore over new guidelines and other reference content, journals, or online sources. Yet others cannot justify such time because they prioritize their own knowledge production rather than its consumption.

The development of guidelines, training manuals, and other standards- and evidence-based approaches remains an accepted formal process of knowledge development that also embeds many of the benefits of informal learning, at least for its participants. When peers gather to think and work together, to figure out what should be put into the publication-as-container and why, this is often a dynamic learning process. Dialogue as real-time peer review mixes with more formal review, editing, and revision. Serendipity and creativity are not just possible, but more likely in those spaces, especially when there is one or more layer of social interaction.

So the challenge for learning strategy is to figure out how to capture not just the knowledge artefact of such a process, but also the community, affective, and other social dimensions that help build trust and relationships, to then keep this knowledge current and put it to work – for both the immediate participants and those learners who, in the past, were mere recipients or readers.

Photo: Read the news (Georgie Pauwels/

Empty (schnaars/

Why we secretly hate webinars

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Webinars reproduce the structure and format of the formal training workshop in an online space. The sole positive distinction for participants is that they may now participate from anywhere. However, to ask questions or otherwise contribute requires one to be present at a specific time (synchronously). Recordings of webinars are usually made available, so in theory we may catch up after the event but lose the ability to connect to others… and seldom actually do. If there wasn’t time (or justification) when it happened, that is unlikely to change later.

Like the face-to-face workshops they emulate, webinars require us to stop work in order to learn, which we can seldom afford or justify. They are mostly transmissive, as the available tools (Webex, for example) do not facilitate conversation. By default, most facilitators will mute everyone in a conference to avoid an unintelligible cacophony of multiple squawking voices.

Despite the existence of a chat feature (a “back channel”) that could be used for dialogue, most of us bring online the etiquette of face-to-face events, where chatting during a presentation is frowned upon.

Yet, despite such limitations, two affordances of webinars represent a dramatic improvement over other learning technologies. First, they help to reduce the need for mission travel. Second, they allow us to display a slide deck, share a screen (making them a visual medium), or show participants (using their webcams).

Where, initially, teams tend to use webinars for one-way knowledge transmission, as they gain experience they may begin to use the same technology for less formal communication, such as rapid feedback and evaluation from the field or between stakeholders who cannot gather in the same place.

Photo: Empty (schnaars/

Doc Porter Museum of Telephone History, Houston Texas, USA (Texas.713/

Why supposedly boring conference calls are actually amazing

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Where phone and Skype remain the gold standard for one-to-one communication (and learning), many of us find value in conference calls, irrespective of the technology (phone, Skype, Webex, Hangouts…) used.

Conference calls may seem as unimpressive or mundane as that other piece of paradigm-changing learning technology, the whiteboard – but that’s the point. They are learning technology that is already embedded into the fabric of work, and directly contribute to informal and incidental learning across time and geography.

The pedagogical affordances of conference calls include structure, transparency, dialogue, and accountability.

  • “Structured agenda”
  • “Used as a to-do list”
  • “Ensures that I’m focusing on kind of priority one-two-three”
  • “A very good way to stay organized when you have people traveling”
  • “forces us to be transparent”
  • “If there are cloudy areas, it exposes [them] and moves us forward.”
  • “anyone can join ”
  • “a forum”
  • “open discussion”
  • “conversation is a much more efficient way to work than using email in a lot of cases”
  • “So you say look: why don’t we get on the phone and talk this through. ”
  • “your peers and your colleagues are on the calls”
  • “allows for people to say, by the way here is an issue that I am facing that I haven’t thought about.”

Photo: Doc Porter Museum of Telephone History,  Houston Texas, USA (Texas.713/