Contagious without direct contact

The two ideas from Connected that I've seen get the biggest buzz are not the two I mentioned yesterday as my biggest takeaways. One is how many facets of life can be contagious. The other is how we can catch them indirectly, from weak ties like a friend of a friend of a friend.

We are acculturated to accept the concept of "catching other people's germs via direct exposure". We assume there has to be a pathogen involved to come down with another person's sickness. We're aware of maladies that are not contagious like broken bones, acne and diarrhea. We're also apprehensive about getting contaminated when someone is highly contagious, as when they are sneezing and coughing. When there's a pandemonium like the fear of anthrax shortly after the 9/11 attacks or the H1N1 influenza strain last fall, we're doing more to wash our hands or mask our noses and mouthes. This is our paradigm of contagion by direct contact in operation.

Our familiar paradigm cannot explain how we could catch someone else's happiness, bad moods, obesity, or promiscuity. We assume those are conditions like broken bones, acne and diarrhea. We can know about it, hear about others with it and even see it for ourselves, all without coming down with it. We presume we are not as connected as we really are.

Nicholas A. Christakis's book confirmed a long-held intuition of mine: that competencies and incompetence are usually contagious. We catch on to someone who seems capable of producing results with effective methods. We easily imitate someone we admire. Likewise, we can become as awkward, ineffectual or scatterbrained as someone in that condition. We can become like our enemies, pets, or other obsessions without even trying.

What's new for me from Connected is how we can catch on to competence indirectly, from weak ties like a friend of a friend of a friend. That explains how pervasive we find mismanagement, poor teaching and failures of regulatory agencies. That also amy give us hope that large segments of the population can catch on to effective ways to enhance others' lives, communities and opportunities for their contributions.


Connected to free riders, punishers and loners

It's been a week since I finished reading Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. With the added perspective that has come since, I see Nicholas A. Christakis's book offering two big takeaway ideas. The first is the need for diversity amidst cooperation. When everyone is on the same page, a pattern of failure emerges. The agreement becomes excessive. Compatibility becomes too important. Consensus becomes collusion which then silences dissent. This reminds me of similar patterns with groupthink among top executives and governmental cabinet ministers. It also ties into a pattern I previously explored here of unavoidably bad decisions.

The bigger takeaway from this book gives us a pattern that's new to me. When one of more of us have adopted a cooperative role, there is a predictable pattern of other roles that emerge. Not everyone follows the examples of the cooperators. Acts of cooperation, sacrificing for the greater good and supporting others' successes attract role conflicts with free riders, punishers and loners.
  1. Free riders: It's inevitable that some will feel compelled to take advantage of the generosity as free riders who fail to do their share, take some responsibility or get some of their own needs met independently.
  2. Punishers: The combination of cooperators and free riders infuriates another portion of a tribe, gathering, team or community. These punishers feel compelled to attack, discredit and exclude the free riders. They react to signs of dependency with counter-dependent tactics, hostile-vindictive behaviors and
  3. Loners: It eruption of dramatic conflicts, hysterical reactions and irreconcilable differences produces a cadre of loners. These individuals are better suited to survive on their own than by being brought down by the entangled role conflicts. The constraint environment produced by their isolation induces more personal resourcefulness, problem solving and freedom from excessive obligations.
As I tied this pattern to the model for open/closed rational/irrational minds, heres the ways they've combined thus far:
  1. Cooperators are OPEN MINDED and RATIONAL. They are effectively listening to others, learning from differences and finding ways to serve others interests. Their situations are COMPLICATED by their awareness of so many varied points of view, agendas, common interests and opportunities for collaboration.
  2. Free riders are CLOSED MINDED and IRRATIONAL. They are incapable of functioning in less dependent and exploitative ways because their state of mind is CHAOTIC. They are haunted by past memories, chronic anxiety and apprehensions about reoccurrence of misfortune. They cannot structure their own activities, discipline their urges or focus their efforts for extended periods of time.
  3. Punishers are CLOSED MINDED and RATIONAL. They get easily provoked to attack free riders because they cannot relate, empathize or feel for the others. Their mindset is linear, reductionistic and logical. They rely on SIMPLE methods, diagnoses and solutions as if the situations they face are actually SIMPLE. They assume their literal reading of evidence is realistic and underlying dynamics, complexity, inter-relatedness and evolving processes can be appropriately dismissed.
  4. Loners are OPEN MINDED and IRRATIONAL. Their minds embrace paradoxes which causes them to stand out from the crowd and handle greater COMPLEXITY. They are open to inner guidance which gives them ways to function very effectively on their own. Their non-reactive, non-judgmental and non-dual awareness feels emotionally detached from the other roles while feeling deeply satisfying, significant and purposeful. (I speak from personal experience here).
Thus it seems to me that these roles are like the four seasons of every year or the four sides to any square. It takes all kinds to make the whole arrangement.


Open minded irrationality and Cynefin

This morning I've been pondering how to overlay the Cynefin model with my new model of open and closed minds. It only took a slight rearrangement to access the explanatory power of the combined models. Here's some of what the mash-up revealed to me:

When our minds are closed, we can handle SIMPLE tasks and situations. We're amenable to procedures, job aids and policy compliance formulas. Our left brains are functioning optimally for taking action. We become proponents of formal learning because our rationality dictates the use of linear models and logical sequences. We cannot handle self directed, improvisational or informal learning which are all far from SIMPLE. We make a thing of learning rather than an ongoing process. We relate to others in "I - it" dehumanizing terms, not with "I - thou" empathy.

When our minds are closed, our emotions, urges and passions become CHAOTIC. We cannot handle them rationally other than by repressing and denying them. Our inability to integrate them results in a "worst of both" solution. We experience outbursts of stifled emotions, pent up frustrations and simmering resentments. We rationally think these embarrassments give us "all the more reason" to keep a SIMPLE lid on all that seething CHAOS.

When our minds are open, we can handle COMPLICATED tasks and situations. We're amenable to working with others in collaborative enterprises. We're open to the complicated dynamics of social learning that Harold Jarche recently explored. We consider learning to involve ongoing processes that are full of surprises and satisfying discoveries instead of boring deliveries.

When our minds are open, our passions become positive, constructive and inspired. We're in tune with inner guidance that gives us a great sense of timing, a source of creativity and a freedom from anxieties. We experience our inner world as very COMPLEX and fascinating. We realize the "best of both" open minded quadrants. We get inspirations for what to say to others, do for others and seek from working with others. We learn to not oversimplify or repress our irrational side. We learn to value outlets for self expression as that integrates our passions with our productive purposes and projects.These rewarding experiences give us all the more reason to maintain COMPLICATED collaborations by serving them with our COMPLEX irrational sources of inspiration.



Predictably whiney incumbents

When phonograph records were invented, symphony orchestras thought the sound was so bad that it posed no threat to their ticket sales and concert attendance. "Who'd want one of those pieces of junk", said the concert master as he tuned his violin with panache. When AM radio came along, the tonal range was so pitiful that it appeared as no competition to everything with better sound quality. When portable transistor radios made it possible to walk around with tinny sound coming through an earphone, it too was presumed to be too bad to be worth anything to the mass market. No one expected the very bad invention to evolve into an industry standard by getting better and better.

My model for giving college dropouts a second chance is going to look bad at first also. In my Executive Summary, I predicted seven different objections that incumbents will raise against my approach. Since the submittal deadline, I've thought of a few more. The chorus of dissidents I'm expecting include the dropouts parents, college advisors, student services counselors, faculty, and college administrators. They're all convinced that preparation for effective roles in the next economy requires a college degree, content delivered by authoritative faculty members, textbooks published for use in college courses and frequent tests administered by watchdogs to catch the cheaters.

Here's some of the whining I expect to hear once this value proposition becomes available:
  • This cannot be worth the time it takes to complete the process since it offers no diploma or transcript of grades.
  • Students won't walk away with any useful knowledge or skills since there are no faculty to instruct them correctly.
  • Enrollees won't have a clue how well they're doing since there are no tests to study for or texts to memorize.
  • This won't prepare anyone for employment in corporations that reward compliance with authority figures and policies.
All they're really saying is that they are right about how things have always been done around here. They're like the mystified citizen seeing his/her first automobile and figuring it won't get down the road since there's no horse hitched up to it. When a disruptive innovation moves the goal posts, the new play action makes no sense to the referees, scorekeepers, fans, coaches or players of the tried and true ways to win. Game changers are not incremental improvements or respectful of legacy practices. They make do without the essentials of the previous paradigm to make a bigger and better difference in the long run. In the beginning, they only have to be good enough for those non-consumers who are put at a disadvantage by the incumbent product/service mix. My model for giving college dropouts a second chance will do just that.


Precluding motivation problems

Over the weekend, I attended a dessert party hosted by my sister and brother-in-law. I spent most of the evening talking with a fascinating, high school science teacher from a nearby charter school. That conversation got me immersed in the world of motivation and behavior problems that persist in spite of efforts to engage the students, make the material interesting and mentor individuals starved for attention. I mentioned that I view motivation problems as a symptom of content delivery systems, not as an isolated or personality problem. I realized my own model for giving college dropouts a second chance did not address this issue adequately. The next day I came up with a framework to ensure enough robustness and complexity to preclude motivation problems. Here's a look at the model that can apply to every system for serving learners.

Sometimes we're open minded and sometimes we're closed minded. This can be a good thing. Likewise, we alternate between being rational and irrational which can offer us tremendous benefits also. However, when we fail to cover all four ways of functioning, we make problems for ourselves that appear to have no solution or any permanent fix. Weak systems inherently favor the two closed-minded alternatives. The teachers will exalt rationality while the students compensate for that extreme by favoring irrationality. The closed-minded condition of all participants perpetuates the conflicts ad infinitum.

  1. Closed minded irrationality is the realm of emotional baggage, addictions and humans behaving badly. It's negative experiences that happened to us and where we went with them after we internalized them in limiting ways. It's a world of living in the past with the same old history repeating itself. It's as if what can happen gets constrained by what already happened that cannot be changed. Those convictions are very emotional and run very deep. There are nothing like more superficial intellectual beliefs and rational convictions.
  2. Open minded irrationality defies logical reasoning just like its closed minded twin. This is the space where all is possible that we can imagine. It's explored with a sense of wonder and the use of what-if questions. We uncover unforeseen avenues to explore by delving into different scenarios. We play out our future here and find what we'd love to do and how rewarding it could feel. We live in our chosen future instead of our dreaded past. This realm is equally emotional and deep, but in contrast to closed minded irrationality, it's brimming with positive feelings about ourselves, activities and others we can help out.
  3. Closed minded rationality is where we go to get things done. This is the realm of being productive, task focused and reliable. We do things in a logical order for rational reasons. We justify our methods and measure our results. This is the world where we can look good, impress others and win their approval.
  4. Open minded rationality is how it's possible to relate to others and collaborate with them. We listen enough to gain a sense of where they are coming from. We connect with their intentions to respond in ways they will find helpful, supportive or valuable. We see what they need and ways we can assist them getting those needs met. We grow to value their diverse interests, different outlooks and distinct priorities.
When all four quadrants get called upon in an educational experience, it's no longer possible to have lingering motivation problems. If one arises, it's merely an exploration of closed minded irrationality that can get responded to or counterbalanced by any of the other three realms. A motivation problem can be a sign of no future to look forward to emotionally at the moment. It may be an indication of relationships or collaborations that fell apart or deteriorated into abuse. It may reveal an opportunity to launch a new project, complete something that's already started or upgrade the rationale for something that needs to get done. When it's said "motivation problems are thing of the past", participants in these experiences will get the pun.


Eliminating the weak

Any large public university implements shared governance practices through the use of over 400 standing committees. In his recent book: Saving Alma Mater: a rescue plan for America’s Public Universities ,the former President of Miami University, James C. Garland, has recognized several patterns in this widespread practice:
  1. Those faculty members recognized as exceptional researchers and/or teachers rarely serve on any these 400+ committees
  2. Those faculty who want to appear cooperative are eager to sit on those committees indefinitely in order to compensate, in part, for their lack of research and/or teaching talent
  3. Effective committees thrive on participants who prepare extensively for each meeting and take their membership responsibilities seriously (much like the approaches taken by exceptional researchers and teachers to all their work)
  4. Most committee members do a disservice to the committees they sit on, but furiously object to more effective governance models as violation of their right to participate in administrative decision making
  5. Universities find they can add more committees but not eliminate more than few, resulting in a growing number of committees that mostly do a disservice at great expense
  6. Decisions to eliminate weak performing departments, degree programs, faculty members or standing committees cannot be made by committees populated with those who would be eliminated.
Earlier in this insightful book, Garland notes how legislative attempts to curtail cost increases or to improve access of higher ed backfire. The "one size fits all" approach does more harm than good to those in need of the intervention. Costs go up for them and their access declines. To solve this problem, he recommends the introduction of market mechanisms, competitive dynamics and responsiveness to small niches of customers. This will eliminate the weak components without waiting for committees to make those decisions. It will become obvious what the marketplace dictates to cut back on or to eliminate entirely. The market will then be a final arbitrer in what can be financially viable, self sustaining and most valuable for the public getting served.

As I see the complex system of higher ed perpetuating itself, I predict that "eliminating the weak" will backfire like those well-intentioned legislative maneuvers. The real problem here involves the nature of the pervasive weakness, where the weakness comes from and how much of the system is actually weak. Higher ed is not strong enough in the right way to utilize the marketplace to eliminate weak performing departments, degree programs, faculty members or standing committees. Higher ed can only be eliminated altogether if "eliminating the weak" gets adopted, like those committee members deciding to eliminate their own jobs.

The best of strong systems are resilient and sustainable. They benefit from the paradox of being "strong in a weak way" where weakness is a kind of strength. Weak strength makes for flexibility, spontaneity and serendipity. Strong strength makes for reliability, consistency and determination. In combination, the two kinds of strength yield a robust breed of responsiveness to changing environments, also known as "buffering the core technology with a requisite variety of response capabilities".

These strong systems do not have committees, assigned jobs or administrative departments. They discover an erratic and unpredictable supply of tasks, problems and issues to address. The people adopt roles in the moment and then change roles often. They think of themselves as avatars of their own invention rather than identifying with a rigid reputation or personnel file of qualifications. They are individually responsive to situations which makes for system-wide responsiveness. They quickly remediate breakdowns in cooperation resulting from free riders, threatened turfs or battles between constituencies. There are developmental pathways and support systems for any weakness to become a strength of both kinds. There's lots more to get done besides the daily routines in order to keep the overall system resilient, responsive and resourceful.

Within this frame of reference, most institutions of higher ed comprise a pervasively weak system. The pathological dynamism breeds the obvious weakness in departments, degree programs, faculty members and standing committees. It's structured to have the problems it endures with finances, internal conflicts, cultural stagnation, costly participation in governance and the rest. When it attacks weakness within its ranks, it is misdiagnosing the symptom of its own pervasive weakness. It's trusting it's "weak way of seeing" that is guaranteed to find weakness and remain blind to strong, sustainable and resilient responses.


Funeral for higher ed

Yesterday, the students at CU Boulder held a mock funeral as if all of higher ed is dying. They constructed a coffin and many protest signs with ingenious commentary like "higher ed is too young to die". They will take their demonstration to the state legislature in Denver later this week in hopes of turning the tide against the students who are drowning in soaring cost increases.

Over the past week, I've been reading the best book ever by a college President: Saving Alma Mater: a rescue plan for America’s Public Universities by James C. Garland. I gained a lot of new insights into the reasons that legislative funding is declining, costs are soaring and innovations are getting shot down. Garland agrees with my own writing about the business model in higher ed being broken. Yet he understands why it cannot be fixed better than I have. In the book he proposes the elimination of state subsidies, the distribution of state funding as scholarships to students and the introduction of competitive pressures into the decisions of public colleges.

I especially enjoyed Garland's understanding of faculty committee incompetence, inevitable conflicts with administrations and the impossibility of any college President fulfilling all of the position's responsibilities. He opened my eyes to the huge cost and predictable avoidance of tough decisions that are endemic to participatory decision making. All these details speak to problems with academic bureaucracies, administrative hierarchies and subsidized enterprises.

James Garland is optimistic that a change to a competitive business model could revise decision making, priorities and spending within a public university. He sees private universities as far better managed and worth emulating. He anticipates the end of state subsidies will force the faculty to agree to cutting weak departments, degree programs and faculty members. He hopes the empowerment of students to "vote with their wallets" will improve the quality of teaching, relevance of course requirements and utility of capital expenditures.

I am more convinced, however, by his thorough explanations for the declines in the present situation. It seems more likely that stagnation, stubbornness and self pity will predominate the varied reactions among faculty and administration as they face their deteriorating situations. See students marching with a coffin on their shoulders on the local TV new last night seemed like a perfect picture of the prognosis for higher ed in the coming decade.


Buffering the core technology

I've been working on the internal processes for the business model that gives college dropouts a second chance. As I've explored different ways to conceptualize those processes, I've come back to a favorite model of mine from the field of "sociotechnical systems". The model is comprised of a core technology that gets buffered by a requisite variety response capabilities to deal with environmental turbulence. Lets unpack that one piece at a time.

A core technology is something we want to keep doing regardless of changing circumstances. Our body functions are a core technology. We want to keep breathing, circulating blood cells, replacing dead cells, eating, etc. regardless of how crazy things get around us.

Environmental turbulence is the craziness unlike "business as usual" that can disrupt a core technology. Our body functions experience getting suffocated or stabbed with a knife as turbulence which jeopardizes our core technology of bodily functions.

Response capabilities deal with the environmental turbulence so the craziness does not disrupt the core technology. Our abilities to fight off attackers and evade confrontations are response capabilities that keep us from passing out or bleeding out.

Buffering the core technology occurs when we have enough different response capabilities (requisite variety) to deal with the full range of assaults we may encounter.

We each have many different core technologies in use personally. Production systems contain numerous core technologies also. When we're caring for others, there are core technologies between us that make it possible to have positive effects on others and ourselves. As I will explore in some of my future posts here, each of these core technologies can be buffered by response capabilities to avoid disruption by environmental turbulence.


Proponents of formal learning

Anytime I ponder the value of informal learning like I did on Saturday, professional training departments appear to be in big trouble. When I explored the possibility of collaborative training departments last month, I'm under the same impression. As I read Learning in 3D, the authors shared this view of training departments in big trouble. They see training departments excluding themselves from the space of generative learning, teachable moments and self exploration.

I've taught Employee Training & Development many times at the undergraduate level. I noticed the students who enrolled in those classes were unlike those in my classes on leadership, entrepreneurial creativity or managerial effectiveness. I've also consulted the training departments in large organizations that we're plagued with a lack of skill transfer from their "indoctrination programs". The employees of those training departments exhibited similar characteristics to the college students learning to conduct TNA's, work with SME's and design instruction according to the ADDIE protocol.

With these experiences in mind, I've developed a theory about the differences in mindsets, personalities and emotional baggage between those who favor formal vs. informal learning. Both "types" are creating experiences of being right, making the other type wrong, and justifying their experiences in ways that avoid cognitive dissonance. Here's a brief outline of the theory I'm developing:

People with lots of experiences with learning being difficult for themselves inadvertently make learning difficult for others. Formal instruction fits their world view nicely. Those who find learning comes easily to them naturally expect learning to be easy for others also. They favor informal modes of learning.
  • People who lose focus, curiosity and motivation to learn often expect others to suffer the same impairments. They will commiserate with their misfortune by avoiding any depth to exploration, personal reflection or collaborative interpretation. Those who experience themselves being naturally determined, inquisitive and inspired will set up others to delve deeply into alternative theories, viewpoints and models for framing the superficial level of data.
  • People who have trouble shopping for things they need, finding what they want or discovering better ways to search will spoon feed others every morsel of information. Those who succeed at finding what they're looking for set up others to go on adventures to discover for themselves also.
  • People who have written things that got ignored or received bad grades for -- expect information provided in archives, wiki and libraries to get ignored. They favor required reading, handouts and slide presentations to make sure the content does not get ignored. Those who have received lots of attention and recognition for what they have written expect that to continue. They are eager to generate digital archives of searchable tagged content that others may find useful at a later time using their own keyword searches.
All this suggests that we cannot talk others into "informal learning" or expect them to change their approach to learning. They have been convinced that formal learning is necessary by their persuasive prior experiences. They live in worlds which manufacture further evidence of their being unquestionably right. When they get assaulted by advice to switch to informal learning, they simply experience more difficulty learning that, a recurring loss of motivation, a repeated failure to find what they're looking for and further evidence of their viewpoint getting ignored. In others, they are seeing "all the more reason" to stick with formal learning.


Evaluating ourselves informally

Informal learning makes it nearly impossible to give fair grades to process or outcomes, to score accurately or to objectively compare informal learners. When we adopt informal learning as I explored in Learning to formalize informal learning, we will also need to adopt informal evaluation schema.

When we're playing games, we naturally keep score "in our heads". We know how we're doing as we're immersed in activities. We may even have some ideas of how we could do even better. Anytime there is an outcome from our efforts, we're learning from that feedback. We can see whether we made the difference we intended with our effort. We may even be able to assess whether we should next try harder at the same approach or wise up and try a different strategy.

When we're interacting with others, we can continually observe how we're doing. It's apparent by observing the others in our interchanges. We can get a sense of how we are meeting expectations, getting along, contributing effectively and doing our fair share. The readouts to watch are in people's eyes, body language, tone of voice and subtext of what they say to us.

When we're getting something done on our own, we can usually assess our effort from the effects we're having. We can discern whether we are making a problem worse, doing harm to the materials, or taking a long way to get a simple task completed. Likewise we can become impressed with how much we've accomplished, how we went about it, and the quality of the final result.

In each of these cases, we rely on our informal evaluation schema. We have already internalized criteria to rate ourselves and resolve in our own minds "how we're doing?". These standards give us many other open questions to continually consider. They focus our attention on performance indicators. We're looking for feedback that answers the questions raised by the criteria we have in mind.

When we get practiced, experienced and confident in our own informal evaluation schema, another benefit gets realized. We can take other's evaluation of us with a grain of salt. We can differ from their assessment with our self evaluation. We can prefer the criteria we apply to our efforts and outcomes over their way of scoring us. We can see how their way of evaluating us has a autobiographical dimension to it, saying more about them than us. We can be wonderfully selective about which feedback we accept and how we let it get to us. As with informal learning, there are these many benefits to informal evaluation.


Learning to formalize informal learning

When we don't already know how to formalize informal learning, there's a lot to learn. We can welcome the challenge if the process of learning is informal enough to engage us. We can dread learning how to formalize informal learning if the process is too formal.

Whenever we're formalizing informal learning, it's a formal requirement that we welcome useful mistakes. Without productive errors, we won't know how we can get our understanding or practice wrong. We may assume incorrectly that there can never be too much of a good thing or we may fall short of enough effort to succeed. When making mistakes like these help to develop our competencies, we can take our setbacks in stride. When we have learned from our mistakes, we feel like we've really taught ourselves what we know. What we learned then appears to be something that can be learned, but not taught to us, because we have to learn it for ourselves. Our own mistakes became our teachers instead of relying formal instruction, requirements, testing or practice drills. The formal requirement to encourage useful mistakes invites us to engage in a bounty of informal learning.

When you're learning to formalize informal learning, you haven't really begun until you find out for yourself that you have over formalized the learning, formalized formal learning instead or relied too much on informal learning emerging on its own.

Whenever we're formalizing informal learning, it's also a formal requirement that scatter what needs to be learned amidst many different places, people or contexts. Without going on a search for new ideas, skills and strategies, we won't enjoy a sense of adventure. We may rely excessively on authorities to give us the answers and then act helpless when we're expected to act on our own. When we discover what we need to know by looking for it on our own, we end up with more curiosity than before. We then entertain more questions, open ourselves to more possibilities and explore more avenues that intrigue us. Our own inquiries become our teachers instead of formal presentations that involve no discoveries at all. The formal requirement to scatter what needs to be learned results in lots of informal explorations and satisfying realizations.

When you're learning to formalize informal learning, don't take it from this write up. Look for people who are doing it successfully, how they differ from those who are not and what facets of their situations facilitate their sense to formalize informal learning effectively.

Formalizing informal learning also requires us to walk learners through scenarios up to the point where they have unlearned their misconceptions. Without providing assistance to expose false premises, to reveal partial understandings and to challenge half truths, we may go off on misguided adventures. We may start out overconfidently, get shot down and then lose our confidence in a hurry. When we've been guided to through the of labyrinth of misunderstandings, we become well oriented to take it from there. We can proceed with a sense of the pitfalls to watch for, the tempting conclusions to avoid and the misleading signs to read with suspicion. We remain confident as we journey forward into unknown territory. We achieve early successes that become good habits with continued advances.

When you're learning to formalize informal learning, you may assume nothing can go wrong until you fall for any these pitfalls and get quickly discouraged:
  • Providing bad examples of conduct, speech or thought processes (hypocrites, incompetents, egomaniacs, etc) for learners to emulate and imitate
  • Leaving the learners with too many choices which undermines their abilities to make up their minds and to choose wisely
  • Giving the learners too much to figure out on their own rather than an open framework to fill in creatively
  • Bombarding the learners too much content in hopes it will be stimulating, rather than killing their appetite for further self exploration
Knowing to beware of these pitfalls, an adventure lies before you. How can you formalize informal learning in ways that produce the results you want with the people you're serving? How can they pick up the ball and run with it informally after the formal handoff from you? How can you set them up to find out for themselves what needs to be realized by them, not told to them?

As you may have already been realizing as you read this, formal learning poses the opposite requirements from those of formalized informal learning:
  • Instead of encouraging useful mistakes, formal learning penalizes mistakes. Formal learning presumes that mistakes are made from a lack of paying attention, insufficient studying, or poor academic skills. There's nothing useful about mistakes in developing comprehension and competencies. Mistakes are only useful to identify who deserves bad grades, remedial assignments and identification as a deficient learner.
  • Instead of scattering what needs to be learned, formal learning delivers required content in centralized locations like classrooms and books. Formal learning opposes adventurous exploration as opportunities to lose focus, get distracted and become unproductive. Time spent looking for answers is viewed by advocates of formal learning as time taken away from covering as much material as possible in the given time.
  • Instead of assisting students in unlearning their misconceptions, formal learning assumes errors will get obliterated by providing more content. Unlearning could only cause learners to understand less, become more easily confused and appear poorly informed. Expertise is comprised of knowing more than others so they can be properly informed, corrected and advanced through the requirements.

I've been thinking since I wrote everything above earlier today, that there is a fourth requirement when we're formalizing informal learning. It's been called "giving an incomplete", "giving an open specification for what is expected but not how to achieve it" or providing the framework for the learners to in-fill in their own ways". You can take it from there and figure out this one on your own. That way I'll be giving you an example of fulfilling this requirement and setting up your own informal learning. By the way, that may be yet another formal requirement: providing an example worth imitating........


According to the factory representatives

When there is work to be done, some say there is only one way to get it done. Anything else is messing around, failing to pay attention, getting distracted and losing focus. Others say there are many ways to get the work done and which way to use depends on the people, timing, available resources and contextual situation. Getting work done is an act of creativity rather than compliance. It won't necessarily get done the same way as last time or the next time. When routine work becomes non-routine due to contextualized responsiveness, two or more heads are better than one. The work gets done collaboratively, co-creatively and communally. Imagine how cool it would be if we had handheld devices for soliciting advice, viewpoints, solutions and strategies from a network of followers while we were getting something done. It would look like we weren't paying attention when we are doing something better than that.

According to the factory representatives, school work is perfect preparation for slaving away in cubicles and assembly lines after dropping out or graduating from prep school. Sitting for long periods in classroom seats get us ready for the mindless experiences of laboring to get the same work done repeatedly. The class requirements and grading are sufficiently degrading to endure the subjugation from the hierarchy above the worker. The conformity of students' submittals, reading and tests gets students thinking work is matter of compliance. It's no wonder advocates of creativity find schooling eradicates our ability to innovate pretty thoroughly.

According to the factory representatives, multitasking with handheld devices is worthless and Wifi/G3 connectivity is a distraction. They sound like the skeptics of those new horseless carriages a century ago. The opponents of progress were convinced that autos didn't work like they should. Horseless carriages could not muck out the stalls in the livery stable, shoe or groom a horse, tidy up a tack room, pull the fire wagon or harvest a field of hay to feed the horses. They were a distraction from the work that had to get done as always.

According to the factory representatives, they are always right about what is the wrong way to get work done.


Is multitasking making us scatterbrained?

It's too easy to take potshots at changing brain functions from our cushy seats in the bygone era. The new ways our brains have begun to function appear deficient compared to the ways they have since ink showed up on paper. However, what appears on the surface as deficient, is actually efficient in ways we don't yet appreciate. In my view, multitasking is not making us scatterbrained. It's restoring our natural way to be alive.

Our brains go through phenomenal gyrations to follow a printed sentence on a page or screen. Our natural inclinations to scan the panorama get overridden by the need to focus our sight on the squiggles we're paying close attention to with effort. Our instinct to look that the sound we just heard or movement that caught our attention has to be suppressed. Then we're obligated to turn the squiggles of text into letters, words and sentences. Once we've figured out what it says, we work on what it means. Then there's another sentence after the one we've just devoted significant processing capacity to decoding.

Marshal McLuhan forewarned that our brains would alter how they process sensory data thanks to the hidden effects of electronics. A trend that started with the telegraph, phonograph and telephone is in full swing with ear buds and video screens on cellphones, PDA's, laptops and tablets. He suggested we would get a divorce after being wedded to mechanical technologies and remarry all things electrical. Our senses would return to immersive experiences of acoustic spaces and panoramic vision. We'd lose our isolated point of view and get back into oneness with what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch.

The word "multitasking" speaks in reference to factories, motors and mechanisms. It's a transition word like "horseless carriage" that clings to the past while describing the future. It imagines that multitaskers are getting jobs done, being productive and making progress by multitasking. It assumes that we are "human doings" that grow up to function like reliable printing presses, scheduled railroads and organized factories.

I've been wondering what word will replace the word "multitasking", like "automobile" replaced "horseless carriage". I've been toying with possibilities like "multi-queuing", "multi-attentions" or "multi-responsiveness". It's not that we're getting things done simultaneously when we "multitask". It's that we've got several windows open and several responses we're in the midst of formulating. We're paying attention to more than one follower from our network paying attention to us. We're immersed in the oneness of multiple streams of inputs. We're functioning just like our brains when were "letting it all in" from all five senses at once. We acting naturally once again. We're acting like human beings.


Internalizing evaluations

Having submitted my Executive Summary for the Penn/Milken business plan contest yesterday, I've moved on to the designing the system architecture I proposed. This morning I've been focused on the ways the contributions of participants get evaluated. One facet of that process I'm modeling explores where we take an evaluation when we internalize it. It's not lost on me that I'm using a spatial metaphor that's very amenable to exploring in a virtual immersive environment. Here's the framework I developed for visualizing the places in our psyche that we take evaluations that we receive from others:

When others tell us how well we worked in process (formative assessments) or how our final outcome rates (summative assessment), we've suddenly got a lot on our plate. First we need to discern if we understand what we are being told. Then we may determine whether we accept the feedback or not. We may then notice how we feel about it, whether it agrees with our own evaluation and how we might put the imposed feedback to good use. All those considerations influence our rejection or internalization of the evaluation.

If we choose (usually unconsciously) to let the evaluation in, there are four places we can go with it:
  1. Upgrading our hindsight - If the evaluation yields a constructive effect, we can review some of our past incidents with a new frame of reference. We can begin to take more responsibility, admit our own mistakes and stop blaming others as much.We can learn from the past to make better predictions about the future and foresee better ways to react next time if presented with a similar challenge. However, if the evaluation produces a destructive effect on us internally, we will fortify our defensive rationalizations, blame others with more conviction, and refuse to admit our own mistakes. We will make the same old predictions, react routinely and suffer the same consequences of our mistaken outlook.
  2. Making better progress - With a constructive effect, we can use what we've been told about our process and/or results to take different approaches. We can realize how to be more efficient, discerning, clever or productive. We can suddenly see how we were getting in our own way, making things more difficult for ourselves or passing up valuable shortcuts. With a destructive effect however, we will second guess ourselves, doubt our abilities and hesitate to take any risks. We will become less efficient, observant, ingenious and productive. We will get in our own way and make things more difficult for ourselves.
  3. Expanding our horizons - If the effect on us is constructive, we can utilize the evaluation to understand where other people are coming from, to relate to their outlooks and value different lenses for looking at the same situation. Our own ability to diagnose problems, size up situations and judge opportunities will be upgraded by internalizing the additional frames of reference in the external evaluation. However, if the effect is destructive, our new familiarity with others' outlooks will breed contempt, intolerance and distance in relationships. We will misdiagnose, misperceive and misjudge more often.
  4. Deepening our experience - When the effect of an evaluation is constructive, we can internalize it as a facet of our identity. We can be as good as that assessment, live up to that expectation and represent that quality in our choices. If the effect is destructive, we can internalize the evaluation as proof of our being a mistake or a real loser. We will argue for our limitations to control our options on the basis on being defective, deviant or deficient.
With so many places to take internalized evaluations, there's no predicting how people will take feedback and what they will make of it. However, this model defines lots of ways to be there for them, lend support for their changing their minds and helping them find relief from chronic problems.


Exploring conceptual space

While virtual immersive environments (VIE's) are in their infancy, we will continue to see familiar places recreated in the vastness of cyberspace. The majority of structures will expect our avatars to show up in human sized forms. The experiences will prepare us for replicas in the physical world. Those experiences can be much less expensive to recreate in virtual environments than physical reality - like crash sites and other critical incidents. They can be places that are difficult to gain access to, schedule time in or clean up after invasion of students. As the book Learning in 3D shows us, there will also be experiences where we crawl around a gigantic version of a tool, fly over the North American continent with all the air traffic displayed in real time or enter into human organs at the scale of a blood cell. VIE's will not be boring during their infancy unless they replicate lecture halls and reading material.

I'm looking forward to the phase that comes after infancy. I'm hoping it will be far more pleasurable than the "terrible twos" of human infancy. II'm foreseeing breakthroughs in our ability to visualize what we conceptualize. Where we currently draw diagrams and animate them sometimes, I expect we will be able to move around conceptual spaces in this next phase. Since that's not something we do in physical reality, it calls for more creativity than it takes to replicate familiar surroundings. Here's some of what we will need to get more creative about:
  • Picturing what it's like to "go there" and "come from there" when we're identified with a conceptual framework, positional stance or theoretic model.
  • Visualizing the process of moving from one idea to the next, once the first concept is well enough understood to build on it.
  • Comparing two concepts while poised between them where their commonalities and differences can be observed clearly.
  • Rearranging several concepts that make more sense when placed in a different sequence or juxtaposition.
  • Exploring the intersection of two unrelated ideas that reveal some unforeseen possibilities when they overlap.
  • Combining several concepts into a comprehensive design solution that responds effectively to a full range of use cases.
  • Imagining what it will look like to unlearn something that only made partial sense and replacing it withl a better understanding.
Notice how we already use visual metaphors to speak of our conceptual acrobatics. It seems perfectly natural to me that we will be exploring conceptual spaces like these virtually before long.


Spaces surrounding higher ed

Most institutions of higher ed go to great lengths to improve the completion rate of its enrollment. The institutions are neither callous, cynical or indifferent. Here's a list of some of the ways they try to catch students before they fall out of college:
  1. Remediate their reading and writing skills if they are below college level competencies
  2. Provide freshman courses in study skills and other practices for success in college
  3. Accommodate changing majors if their first choice proved to be too stressful, demanding or boring
  4. Allow failing grades to be replaced by taking the course again with a different instructor
  5. Make arrangements to change roommates or living quarters if the current accommodation is counter productive
  6. Provide RA's, TA's, peer mentors and tutors to work with students on issues haunting them
  7. Offer athletic facilities and other amenities for reducing stress and taking minds off of school work
  8. Provide professional counseling if problems with anxiety, sleep loss, depression are getting worse
  9. Offer financial aid if the burden of making tuition and fee payments becomes unmanageable
  10. Allow changing to part time enrollment to lower the cost per semester and to provide additional income
  11. Allow students to take more than the 2 or 4 years to complete the degree program
  12. Permit students to go on academic leave to sort out what they really want and to gain a different perspective

In spite of all these efforts, 1.2 million students become new college dropouts each year. Perhaps it's not higher ed's problem. What-if the community around higher ed helped out here. The higher ed space is surrounded by other spaces that it dances with and feeds. The 1.2 million is an insignificant space compared to it's competition for attention, resources and responsive solutions. This picture has been a source of inspiration for my development of a model to give college dropouts a second chance.

Each of the surrounding spaces except the dropouts already give money to the higher ed space. Each benefits from the knowledge, skills and credentials that higher ed puts into their own spaces. Each could not do what they do without college educations un
der the current range of post secondary educational alternatives. All are in a position to get impacted by the college dropout problem directly or indirectly. If the dropouts were not stigmatized as "losers lacking in self discipline", each of the surrounding spaces could help alleviate the problem one way or another.


Viewed from an innovation space

I've spent most of today in the space of the innovation I'm currently developing to submit to the business plan contest next week. I've been finding it very enjoyable to get immersed in my imaginative exploration of this new possibility space. It's also fun to look back on current reality as if it's a bygone era from the vantage of the innovation space. The new found sense of freedom from all the problems we take for granted is exhilarating because it seems like a new adventure and an ongoing process of discovery.

In the future I've just returned from, it seems extremely weird to speak of learning, teaching, instructing or educating. Those words are still in use, but they are like saying "I'm hydrating myself" instead of "I'm drinking water". It was very necessary to speak of learning when the outcomes were so dicey, sporadic and difficult to achieve. We didn't see how all those efforts to teach, instruct and educate were inadvertently contributing to the erratic outcomes. We assumed there was no alternative but to deliver content and provide educational experiences. We insisted that the so-called "students" pay attention, face forward and show up on time. We acted as if so-called "learning" could be coerced successfully like the ways we force our minds to follow lines of ink on paper or text on screens.

In the future it will be absurd to expect people to pay exclusive attention to presentations, experts, broadcasts or printed pages. Minds adapted to audio visual immersion won't compute such singular focused inputs. Those that have already stopped paying singular attention are forerunners of the change in what makes sense, sinks in and proves to be significant.

Those who currently demand unilateral payment of attention will be labeled "extortionists". Meanwhile, phenomenal amounts of progress will be made by receiving attention from those who reciprocate with us. We will experience what is a fair amount of attention to receive and give in return. We will expect attention to be rewarded continually, rather than paid with no return on the investment.

Hopefully you got distracted while reading this or multitasked this input with several others :-)


Situations that call for innovations

Some situations call for productivity. We can keep things simple and do what needs to be done. There's no need to ask troubling questions or second guess our every move. We can rely on what's worked in the past and do what's been done before. If anybody asks, we can tell them to "mind their own business" while we mind our own. What's on their minds is none of our business. We've got a job to get done and that's that!

Other situations call for innovations. We've got to make things more complicated before we can get any more accomplished. We need to ask troubling questions about our past conduct, effects on situations and underlying premises that alter our perceptions. We cannot rely on whatever worked in the past because there is a bend in the road ahead, a change in the context or differences to be addressed since last time. If anybody asks, we need to dialogue with them. They probably see things we don't, look though different lenses or take an entirely different viewpoint from our own. What's on their minds may reveal to us what's missing, broken, misunderstood or overlooked. We've got an innovation to formulate and that's that!

When we're being productive, different ideas come to mind compared to when we're being innovative. A productive frame of mind shuts out distractions and remains focused on the task at hand. Some minds cannot be productive, remain focused or shut out distractions. They get diagnosed as ADHD or ADD. These minds thrive on multitasking and simultaneously exploring many inputs. A innovative frame of mind is somewhat like that. We have uses for distractions, divergent ideas and detours. Otherwise, we'll end up the same place we always come to with no innovation to show for our efforts. But distractions get combined with the focused exploration. We enjoy the benefits of a paradox.

When we're innovating, we're asking very different questions from "how do we get this done?" Here's some questions that breed innovations:
  1. How can we take a different approach to this that seems like we're trying smarter, instead of our usual trying harder to make the same thing work like before?
  2. How can we redefine the problem before we begin to solve it so we end up solving a different problem entirely or see the familiar problem in a whole new light?
  3. How can we stop claiming this is a real problem and consider how it may be a partial solution, blessing in disguise or lesson we need to learn first?
  4. How can we make a different difference on our situation, change the effect we're having or influence others to take a different approach with us?
  5. How can we get turned around so we're no longer going against the current, fighting uphill battles and making things extra difficult for ourselves?
  6. How can give to the situation before we get something from it to prime the pump of everyone looking out for each other as much as possible?
  7. How can we find a way out of the same old story to rewrite our future, envision better possibilities and move toward goals we find appealing?
With questions like these in mind, innovations happen. We stay focused on the question until we get a new answer. We welcome distractions that may give us clues to the question we're exploring. It dawns on us to see things differently, consider unforeseen possibilities and explore new avenues. We let go of being productive for awhile and get into being innovative in the meantime.


Evaluating immersive learning

Two decades ago, I was playing Tetris on my computer. The game issued one block at a time for me to orient before it fell into place, filling in the growing pile without gaps. Because my movements were so limited, the game could learn my habitual reactions and then outsmart me. It would issue an unexpected block that was also turned in ways I was not ready for. A decade later, Macromedia offered add-ons to Flash and Dreamweaver software for so-called learning. The user's movements were limited to dragging objects within a frame and inserting text into fields. The accuracy and time taken could both be scored.

This week, I reviewed some SCORM compliant software that supports avatars moving around in virtual space and conversing with programmed characters. Once again, the accuracy of movements, object selections and text entries could be scored, as well as counting mistakes and the amount of time taken. In spite of all the maneuverability of each learner's avatar within the virtual environment, the learning was as confined as if Java scripted objects were sliding around on a web page.

In pondering this experience since, I've realized how spellbinding the measurement of learning must be. We assume that measurable learning is what counts at the expense of intrinsic, serendipitous and social modes of learning. This spell induces uses of immersive environments for learning to pass up the rich opportunities for locating learning in space.

I suspect this pattern will persist until we rely on synchronous encounters with peers and coaches who's avatars observe our avatars in action. "Learning to evaluate others" will become part of the instructional objectives. We will get practiced at noticing the conduct, choices, confusion, and repetitive movements we can see in other avatars. We can also interact with other avatars in conversation and collaborative efforts. This will give us impressions of comprehension, competencies and ongoing curiosity they bring to the issues or skills under development. Evaluation of others' learning can then involve 360 degree feedback models, instead of quantitative measures of accuracy and duration of efforts. Individual bias will get diluted and compared by the variety of viewpoints included in an assessment.


Innovating by changing our thinking

A few weeks ago, I read Roger Martin's new book: The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage. It's stayed on my mind since in a way where I've realized what a great approach it offers to innovation. Here are the key ideas that stood out for me -- translated into my own way of conceptualizing creativity:

When we're making money, enjoying a success, or getting a job done, we're in a mode of exploitation. We're taking advantage of available resources, familiar situations and established routines to realize more of the same results. Improvements are within reach, but real innovations are not on the menu. To come up with breakthrough ideas, approaches and solutions, we need to switch modes from exploitation to exploration. We've got to move in the direction of unknowns and unfamiliar ground.

When we're exploiting a situation, we're either thinking deductively or inductively. We're moving from the general principle to the specific example or generalizing from the specific to the broader concept. In both cases we're dealing with truth, facts and proven approaches. We're on the safe ground of knowing what's what, what to expect and what happens after what. To innovate, our thinking shifts into abduction. We don't yet know what is true, factual or proven. We're thinking "I'll get back to you on that", "I'm finding out what works every time right now" or "I only know enough to look for the truth so far". We cannot move toward innovations by knowing what is true, only move toward what might be true which will be an innovation if it works.

When we're competing with rivals, we're improving what's already selling. We start from the premise of what's working and build on that. We come up with better ideas inside the box. We add new features and functionality to proven products and services. We don't have a better idea, we start from a different premise. We come at the entire business from a different angle and end up in a different place.

When we're good at producing results, we like to look over the metrics and identify improvement areas. We notice gaps in performance, inconsistencies in the data and trends to be turned around. When we're good at innovating, we like to stare a mystery in the face. We think like a kid again that does not know what this is or what to think about it. We are full of questions and enjoying being mystified by it. We sense there are secrets to be revealed by delving into it without jumping to conclusions before any clues are revealed to us.

Each of these ways of seeing the process of innovating and the adaptations to become more innovative invite us to change our thinking. We cannot be innovative with the thinking that proves to be productive.


Dislocated learning experiences

As it becomes the norm that learning experiences get located in space, we will develop new ways to critique educational offerings. The practice of finding where learning experiences are located and moving between locations will give us a difference sense of what to expect, what works and what could improve. Here's some possibilities I'm playing with for how learners will criticize locations when they become sophisticated consumers of immersive learning in space.

Too obvious a location: Delivered content will seem to be "plastered on billboards". When the thing needed to make progress is on the next page of text, it will lack challenge. If it can be found by simply following a link on a web page or in a pdf document, that will seem way too blatant. Locations can also err by being too hidden and difficult to find.

Too easy to find hidden locations: Learning experiences will get valued for how well hidden they are. Searching with difficulty will be part of the fun. Locations that are "hard to miss" will undermine the challenge and rewards for the learners. Hidden locations can also be so well hidden that no one finds them.

Too scattered a layout: The distribution of locations can lack "any rhyme or reason". If no pattern emerges for how the locations are spread out, it will seem like senseless busywork to the learners on the prowl. Distributed locations can also seem to be too centralized, contiguous or convenient.

Too straightforward a sequence: The order of locations can lack suspense, mystery and surprises. The sequence can come off like the predictable plot in a boring story. Sequenced locations can also seem too mysterious and incomprehensible to make sense of the order.

As we become accustomed to applying new criteria like these to learning experiences, conventional delivery of content and exercises through classrooms and online venues will seem increasingly antiquated. Just as the introduction of superior sound quality of FM stereo radio made AM radio sound tinny, well located learning experiences will make conventional education seem dislocated.