This is my presentation for the Geneva Learning Foundation, first made at the Swiss Knowledge Management Forum (SKMF) round table held on 8 September 2016 at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Its title is “Meeting of the minds: Rethinking our assumptions about the superiority of face-to-face encounters.” It is an exploration of the impact of rapid change that encompasses learning at scale, the performance revolution, complexity and volatility, and what Nathan Jurgenson calls the IRL fetish.
The point is not to invert assumptions about the superiority of one medium over another. Rather, it is to look at the context for change, thinking through the challenges we face, with a specific, pragmatic focus on learning problems such as:
- You have an existing high-cost, low-volume face-to-face learning initiative, but need to train more people (scale).
- You want learning to be immediately practical and relevant for practitioners (performance).
- You need to achieve higher-order learning (complexity), beyond information transmission to develop analytical and evaluation competencies that include mindfulness and reflection.
- You have a strategy, but individuals in their silos think the way they already do things is just fine (networks).
- You need to develop case studies, but a consultant will find it difficult to access tacit knowledge and experience (experience).
- You want to build a self-organizing community of practice, in a geographically distributed organization, to sharpen the mission through decentralized means.
These are the kinds of problems that we solve for organizations and networks through digital learning. Can such challenges be addressed solely through action or activities that take place solely in the same time and (physical) space? Of course not. Is it correct to describe what happens at a distance, by digital means, as not in-real-life (IRL)? This is a less obvious but equally logical conclusion.
If we begin to question this assumption that Andrew Feenberg pointed out way back in 1989 was formulated way back when by Plato… What happens next? What are the consequences and the implications? We need new ways to teach and learn. It is the new economy of effort provided by the Internet that enables us to afford these new ways of doing new things. Digital dualism blinds us to the many ways in which technology has seeped into our lives to the point where “real life” (and therefore learning) happens across both physical and digital spaces.
The idea for this round table emerged from conversations with the SKMF’s Véronique Sikora and Gil Regev. Véronique and I were chatting on LSi’s Slack about the pedagogy of New Learning that underpins Scholar, the learning technology we are using at the Geneva Learning Foundation.
With Scholar, we can quickly organize an exercise in which hundreds of learners from anywhere can co-develop new knowledge, using peer review with a structured rubric that empowers participants to learn from each other. This write-review-revise process is incredibly efficient, and generates higher-order learning outcomes that make Scholar suitable to build analysis, evaluation, and reflection through connected learning.
Obviously, such a process does not work at scale in a physical space. However, could the Scholar process be replicated in the purely physical space of a small round table with 15–20 participants? What would be the experience of participants and facilitators?
It took quite a bit of effort to figure out how we could model this. Some aspects could not be reproduced due to the limitations of physical space. There was much less time than one could afford online, and therefore less space for reflection. The stimulation to engage through conversation was constant, unlike the online experience of sitting alone in front of one’s device. Diversity was limited to the arbitrary subset of people who happened to show up for this round table. This provided comfort to some but narrowed the realm of possibilities for discovery and questioning.
I have learned to read subtle clues and to infer behavior from comments, e-mail messages, and other signals in a purely digital course where everything happens at a distance. That made it fascinating to directly observe the behavior of participants, in particular the social dimension of their interactions that seemed to be wonderfully enjoyable and terribly inefficient at the same time.
Only one of the round table participants (Véronique, who finished the first-ever #DigitalScholar course during the Summer) had used Scholar, so the activity, in which they shared a story and then peer reviewed it using a structured rubric, seemed quite banal. At a small scale, it turned out to be quite manageable. I had envisioned a round robin process in which participants would have to move around constantly to complete their three peer reviews. However, since they were already sitting in groups of four, it was easier to have the review process take place at each table, minimizing the need for movement. This felt like an analog to what we often end up doing in an online learning environment when an activity takes shape due to the constraints of the digital space…
Image: Flowers in Thor. Personal collection (August 2016).