The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Tower of Babel

Reda Sadki#DigitalScholar

What happens when a fledgling, start-up foundation convenes learning leaders from all over the world to explore digital learning? Over 800 participants from 103 countries have joined the Geneva Learning Foundation’s #DigitalScholar course developed in conjunction with the University of Illinois College of Education and Learning Strategies International.

The course officially launches on Monday. Yet participants  joining the online community have begun introducing themselves and, in the process, are already tackling challenging questions on the pedagogy, content, and economics of education and its digital transformation.

“Look at all the people here!” exclaimed one Digital Scholar. And, yes, we are from everywhere. You could start from “cloudy England”, a hop-and-a-skip away from “rainy Amsterdam” and then keep travelling, stopping in any of the 103 countries where participants live. You might end up in the “paradise island” of Mauritius, “sunny but chilly” Sidney, or “hot and humid” Puerto Rico.

Think about it. When Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis describe the affordance of “ubiquity”, the anywhere-anytime in digital learning, that describes the ability of learners to connect to a course. But ubiquity also enables our connections to each other, across time and space. A banal weather report becomes a way of relating here to there, a way to refer the diversity of contexts and paths that have led us here.

“Thrilled” and “excited” and “delighted” come up more than once. But why are we here? In the words of one Digital Scholar: “I hope to learn and obtain skills to rock!” It is the “opportunity to learn new skills” about the “nuts and bolts” of digital learning. It is also for “professional and educational growth”.  Yes, technology is the “new shiny” but our task as learning leaders is to be “always thinking about how it can best be used in learning”.

So we are here to begin building our own digital course. Not everyone is sure what to expect – and I was surprised by the number who do not know what course they want to develop. That will be the first order of business on Monday and throughout the first week of the course. What we express is of course situated in our context of work and life. The diversity of contexts is staggering – and harder to wrap my head around than the weather. I get that the choice, for example, to focus on “citizen-centered community action”, education, peace, or social justice issues is of course no accident.

The Geneva Learning Foundation’s initial call for applications focused on its own network, in the humanitarian, development, and global health space. So there are public health specialists, evaluators, crisis mappers, knowledge managers, leadership developers, school principals and teachers.

But our bet was that the call would then escape the boundaries of our known circles and reach other industries. And we have. Hence we find decision-making and risk management, writing, faculty development, and the occasional topic that intersect specialties, such as the course on “Twitter for health professionals”.

The common thread is the yearning to share, translate, grow, develop, fusing experience and practice and networks.

So you want to build a course. How do you know that there is a demand for it? Yes, that is the crass language of Economics 101 supply-and-demand intruding in a world of learning that we would like to imagine pure and removed from material considerations. But one of the key lessons we hope to convey in this course will be the realization that there is a political economy to knowledge and learning. “There seems to be an interest to learn more” about Twitter for health professionals, explained one participant, after giving presentations “at various local medical organizations”. Is that sufficient to demonstrate demand for a course that will require investment of time and resources and possibly carry a price tag? There is, in fact, only one business model for education that can happen fast and be sustainable: institutions, individuals or both must be prepared to pay enough to cover the costs of the operation.

Traditional institutions of higher education already have channels for marketing, recruitment, sales, and so on. But what about those of us who do not work within one of these institutions – or who wish to develop learning that does not fit into their sometimes-narrow constraints, especially as we push to innovate the practice of education?

For one participant, the logic is one of austerity, of how to do more with less: “Due to the sharp decrease in training funding from the government, we are looking seriously at the fully-online mode” rather than blended learning that had been used in the past. The caveat is that the mere fact that technology does enable you to make “services more widely accessible” does not mean they will be more affordable – and nor does accessibility mean that people will come (much less pay for) an educational programme.

My premise is that content and pedagogy are the easy parts (tongue in cheek) to figure out. The real challenge is in taking it to market (even if the learners won’t be the ones paying for it). In developing their course announcement, #DigitalScholar course participants may well find that this is the most challenging part of the endeavor. How do you test and verify your assumptions about who would actually want to take your course? What if you are wrong?

My last question to incoming participants is about the Digital Transformation. Yes, that’s with capital letters, originally used in management theory to describe how conventional industries are transformed by “e-business”. I believe that this is one useful lens to reframe our role as learning leaders, to help us adapt and perhaps even stay a step ahead of the accelerated pace of technological change.

Some Digital Scholars are not sure about what it means. For others, it referred to the impact of technology on learning, “how we interact with content” or “with each other in a Digital Age”, “how content is made available, and how it is utilized” in a “mix of dynamic possibilities”. Others ascribed the concept with inspirational or aspirational aims, leading to “a transformed learning experience” “potentially offering innovative and dynamic courses”, in the name of “deeper, more meaningful learning” and “rich interactions with peers and the instructor”.

Many of us keep coming back to scale (““improving access of education to more learners”) as the starting point for thinking about what we can afford to do through effective use of technology. What we will explore in the course is that there are, in fact, many more affordances of digital learning’s amazing economy of effort.

You can still join to become a #DigitalScholar until Sunday, 3 July 2016. The course will launch on the 4th of July. Read the full course announcement and apply here. We also have Facebook, Twitter, and Slack.

Image: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).