The Value of Newbies & Naysayers in Online Learning Innovation

I’ll admit it. I can be a snob about some things, which is why I need daily reminders that the novice perspective can sometimes lead to greater innovation than that of person who has years of experience in a domain. For example, I’ve been exploring the affordances and limitations of online learning since the middle 1990s, so when I read a news article about this “new” development called online learning, I get a little frustrated. Or, when people write about MOOCs as if they are the birth of online learning, I become suspicious about the veracity of their “research.” I get a little irritated when people miss the fact that distance learning is centuries old, that online learning is decades old, and that there is a substantive body of research about both. That is why it is humbling but important for me to remind myself that we really need the newcomers and what might seem like “the uninformed” to imagine the future of blended and online learning.

Consider this conversation that I’ve probably had with more than a hundred people over the years, people who are new to online learning as a student, teacher, or some related role. They bring up critiques or concerns that I’ve settled in my mind a decade ago, but their concerns remind me that they are not settled for them. It isn’t enough for me to say, “Well, that is a great question, but we’ve already looked at that and it isn’t an issue.” Of course it is an issue. If 100+ people bring it up, it doesn’t matter how much I want them to think or feel differently, or to not consider it a worthwhile problem.

Take the use of live video in online courses as an example. How many times have I talked to new faculty or students who tell me how the course can feel less personal, and how we could address this by making the course more centered around live video interactions. I’ve heard countless people tell me that they think online learning will take off once the video conferencing technology reaches a certain level of quality. I’m tempted to point out that there are completely different paradigms for looking at the design of online learning that make little to no use of streaming video. If only they would read the great research about the promise and value of threaded discussions, asynchronous online collaboration tools, and dozens of online teaching strategies that are exceptional at helping students learn as much (or sometimes more) than they might have in a traditional face-to-face course. I can look at the sheer number of comments about how streaming video would make online learning better and more personal, and chalk it up to mass ignorance and being uninformed about the research. Or, I can get really curious about this trend. Why do so many people keep coming back to this? What is it about streaming video that draws so many people to it as an affordance? Maybe it isn’t just trying to apply a face-to-face teaching mindset to the online space. Maybe there is more to this, something that truly does have the potential to amplify both formal and informal online learning. Maybe it would lead to greater adoption and engagement because perceptions can influence reality for the online teacher or learner.

I have learned so much from so-called novices and online learning newbies. I’ve learned just as much from critics. They look at blended and online learning with lenses that are not standard to me. They see what I miss. They feel what I don’t. They ask questions that I rarely or never considered. They propose solutions that sometimes seem absurd to me, but when they try they, they actually work sometimes.

That is why I believe that students and teachers new to online learning, curious outside observers, and entrepreneurs with no background in the field may well be the future of the field. Some of the most promising and disruptive ideas might come from these groups. They don’t self-censor their way to inactivity. They are not simply building incremental changes based on past research and practice because they know very little about those things. They have the advantage of looking at the field with a fresh perspective, uninformed by the educational ruts of past practice and dominant policy. The humility to listen and learn from these people, to partner with them, to invite their candid input and critiques may well be the source of the next great developments of education in a connected world.

15 Must Read Non-Education Blogs for the Educational Innovators

Are you an innovator in education? Reading and learning from all the good research and work in education is a given. On the flip side, it often takes going beyond our normal sphere to gain new insights or fresh perspectives on some of the most pressing education problems, challenges and opportunities. That is one of the reasons why I try to read books, articles, and blogs outside of the field of education; that and the fact that I just don’t see any need to limit myself to some arbitrary category, discipline or boundary. Innovators are innovators and entrepreneurs are interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and a-disciplinary by nature. Going beyond education sources is refreshing, inspiring, and often just the push I need to look at something in a new way. With that in mind, here are 15 sources partly or fully outside of typical education blogs that help broaden my perspective, reminding me that education is a piece of the larger world of social innovation and entrepreneurship. Perhaps you’ll find some of them helpful as well.

The Aspen Idea Blog – The Aspen Institute’s mission, “is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.” Their blog is rich with examples of inspiring social innovations that are tackling some of the most pressing issues in the world. The articles are thoughtful and informed, and they are a great spark for potential new connections or some of your own social innovations in the education sector.

Austin Kleon’s Blog – Maybe you’ve heard of or read his books Steal Like and Artist or Show Your Work. If you’ve read them, then you will love his blog, a connection of thoughtful reflections about the creative life, informed by a mind that delightfully ignores boundaries between genres and disciplines. Maybe I resonate with Kleon’s thinking so much because it parallel’s my own work and thinking in the education space.

Positive Psychology Program – This web site + blog will help you stay current on emerging research related to human flourishing. Positive psychology research is one of the more significant developments for education, and I’m convinced that it will be a huge help in bridging achievement gaps and addressing critical needs in contemporary education.

GapingVoid – This is art meets business, with each article representing a concept in a cartoon followed by a thoughtful written reflection. You’ll learn from how they approach ideas as much as the topic that are exploring.

Creative Mind – This is a fun read, providing insights on the psychology of creativity.

Mashable Tech Section – This is still one of the better online resource to stay current on new technological developments, noting that many technologies find their way into society long before they find their way into education.

TechCrunch – Here is another “go to” source for trends and developments in the tech world, startups, and social media.

Harvard Business Review – The reports of counter-intuitive and myth-busting articles about all aspects of business is informative and often serves as the spark for a new question or way of looking at something in education for me.

Pando – Want to stay up on news in Silicon Valley and startups? This is a great place to start.

LinkedIn Pulse – This one will give you a sense of what is capturing the interest of others, but it is also a modern example of “the daily me”, news curated based on your interests.

Daily Good – Imagine a news source that focuses on good things happening the world. That is daily good, and it is rich with tales of social innovation.

Ashoka – This is a massive community of social entrepreneurs with a frequent updates about what is happening in that world.

Seth Godin’s Blog – You’ve probably read his books. His blog is a near-daily dose of the same. His fresh way of looking at life, business, leadership and marketing is an invitation for readers to produce the same sort of fresh perspectives in the education sector.

Philanthropy News Digest – A resource of the foundation center, this provides thoughtful commentary about philanthropy and social entrepreneurship. Along the way you get fresh perspectives on important aspects of social innovation.

Leadership Wired Blog – This is John Maxwell’s blog. I’ve long appreciated his books and perspectives on leadership. This blog give bite-sized versions of the same practical, principled, forward-thinking ideas about leadership.

What Does / Should it Take to be a K-12 Teacher?

If you follow K-12 education news, you probably heard the buzz in May/June 2015 about a portion of the proposed 2015 Wisconsin state budget bill that addresses requirements to become a K-12 teacher, although this will almost certainly be changed before the budget is passed (7/3/15 update – this portion of the bill was significantly softened). Currently, to get a Wisconsin teacher license, one needs to earn a bachelor’s degree, complete teacher education training, and pass a series of tests; among other things. The training focuses upon verifying expertise in content areas knowledge and teaching. In Wisconsin, training to become a teacher is focused upon ten standards. You can think of these as ten questions we ask before licensing one to become a teacher.

  1. Do you know the content / subject that you want to teach?
  2. Do you understand child development on how that impacts teaching and learning?
  3. Do you have knowledge about how students learn differently, and how you can design learning experiences that accommodate those differences?
  4. Do you know how to leverage various strategies and technologies to facilitate learning that helps students develop new knowledge and skills (including critical thinking and problem solving)?
  5. Do you have the necessary knowledge and skill to manage a classroom effectively? This involves student behavior, fostering a positive culture of learning, and designing for student engagement.
  6. Do you have strong communication skills?
  7. Do you know how to design various lesson plans based upon the content area, the specific students, the community and context, and the curricular goals?
  8. Do you know how to design and use formative and summative assessments to track and help students progress?
  9. Can you engage in reflective practice that allows you to continually grow in your effectiveness as a teacher?
  10. Can you foster positive and ethical relationships with colleagues, parents, and other stakeholders in the community?

With the wording in the proposed budget, many have expressed concern that these standards are no longer a requirement. A bachelor’s degree would be necessary to teach core subject areas like English or math. However, a college degree would not necessarily be required to teach courses outside of the core. And the wording would seem to diminish the need for going through a formal teacher education program in more cases. In addition, each school district would have the responsibility to make sure that they hire people who are competent in the content areas and with other knowledge and skills deemed important to teach in that district. This leaves room for different standards to become a teacher in different districts.

The stated intent of the new wording was to provide more flexibility for rural districts when they struggle to find qualified, licensed teachers for certain content areas. Consider a school needing someone to teach biology and there was a retired medical doctor in the community who was willing to help out? Under this change, that would be allowed, granted the district deemed the doctor qualified. The same would be true for having a local artist teach art class, a mechanically minded person to teach a shop class, a computer programmer to teach computer programming, an owner of a local photography business to teach photography, the maestro of the city orchestra to teach band, or a ballerina to teach dance class.

Scan the news and the dominant responses to this proposed change range from concern to outrage, with only a few outspoken voices in the media and blogosphere in favor of it. Is this another attack on public education? Is it a statement of mistrust or disrespect for teachers who met all the standard requirements by going through a teacher education program? Is the passing of such a bill the certain demise of Wisconsin public education and student performance in schools?

I work at a University and while I don’t teach very much these days, my faculty rank is in a school of education. I know the hard work that faculty put into developing future teachers, and I’ve witnessed students growing in competence and confidence as they relate to the ten standards/questions listed above. As such, I am an advocate for a teacher education system like our’s that clearly and consistently helps people become effective teachers.

At the same time, I see great opportunity in having a system that allows room for maestro’s to teach band, a Martha Stewart to teach home economics, CEOs with MBAs to teach business class, artists (many perhaps with MFAs) nurturing young creative minds, and skilled dancers and dance instructors teaching dance. As it stands, you could have a PhD in physics from MIT who has a record of effectively teaching children, but she would still be deemed “un-hirable”to teach physics in most public schools. Someone like this may or may not meet the ten standards listed above as they are currently measured, but what if we got creative about this?

I’m not convinced the current wording in the Wisconsin state bill is the best way to go about it, but I want to take this as a chance to challenge my assumptions and explore the possibilities. What if districts hired some teachers with such backgrounds provided they go through a summer crash course followed by ongoing professional development that deepened their knowledge and skill related to the ten standards? What if they were paired up with teachers or coaches who did have the formal training, who could provide coaching and assistance to these other teachers? There are so many other possibilities as well. These people may not be as equipped to help students with different learning disabilities or many other important aspects of teaching in a K-12 school, so whatever creative effort would undoubtedly need to take this into consideration. Yet, if we scan the routes to teaching across the United States, in both public and private schools, we see that there is clearly more than one way to go about it. Why not explore the possibilities?

It certainly seems like today’s formal education system too often becomes more focused upon regulations, prescribed learning pathways, and standards than creative exploration of how we can devise safe but the most engaging and stimulating learning environments for all young people. The fact is that parents have already expressed an openness to let their children be taught and guided by people who have not gone through a formal program demonstrating that they meet the ten standards listed above. Parents send their kids to dance lessons, content area tutors, martial arts classes, music lessons, city leagues for various sports, Vacation Bible School, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, independent schools that sometimes hire teachers deemed qualified but without a state teaching license, foreign language lessons, riding lessons, chess club, and hundreds of other educational settings; and we typically don’t take issue with the fact that the “teachers” in these contexts usually don’t have the training that includes all ten areas mentioned above resulting in a formal teaching license. We even send our kids away to summer camps and multi-day summer experiences to learn robotics, what it would be like to be an astronaut, how to cope with anxiety, and dozens of other things. We send them to driver’s education classes with people who often don’t have K-12 teaching licenses. We want to know that our kids are safe, in good hands and with competent teachers; but most parents don’t demand a uniform license for all these “teachers.” Yes, this is different from formal schooling, but these are all part of a young person’s formation and education.

The wording in the bill appears dangerous to the extent that leadership on the district level lacks the competence or conviction to assess applicants for teaching positions and hire only people who are qualified. If there are school leaders who are willing to carelessly hire people who lack evidence to work effectively with young people and others, then the wording in the budget is a huge problem. Of course, that also seems to beg another question. Why would we allow school leaders like that to remain in their position? After all, having a teaching license doesn’t necessarily assure that a person is an effective teacher or that one has maintained current knowledge and expertise in the ten standards. That needs to be assessed by the people hiring the teachers in the first place. Without local accountability, everything else falls short.

Please don’t confuse my openness to explore the possibilities with support for the current wording in the proposed Wisconsin budget. Something like this is not best thrown into a bill without widespread conversation with all key stakeholders; including parents, teachers, school leaders, board members, and the broader community members. Nonetheless, I’ll use this as a chance to stretch myself to consider the possibility that there are better ways to go talent management in the public education system.

Isn’t it just a little strange that we have a system that would label Einstein or Feynman as unqualified to teach high school physics? Being brilliant isn’t necessarily the key to being a great high school science teacher. At the same time, as a parent, I would love to have my kids learn from Feynman, a physicists praised for his skill as a teacher. In fact, ironically, we do have such a system today, even in Wisconsin. It is called dual credit programs. Get this. If you are a University professor with no high school teaching license, students can take a college class from you that also counts as a high school requirement. You get college and high school credit at the same time, and from a teacher who does not meet the requirements to teach high school. Go figure.

My point is just this. The current wording in the bill misses the mark, and we need a better way to have such discussions. Yet, I still contend that it is a great discussion to have. Let’s use this a chance to have a rigorous, substantive conversation about the role of teachers and talent management in K-12 education. Let’s prove to ourselves that this is not about self-interest or self-preservation, but that we are genuinely and deeply committed to devising the most engaging and impactful K-12 learning communities possible.

Will LinkedIn Transform the Global Workforce?

Answers to this question will range from “Never!” to “LinkedIn has already changed the game!” Regardless, allow me to use that question to reflection on the emerging future of people, companies and learning organizations.

I just got my copy of the summer 2015 Aspen Edition. This is an inspirational publication because it highlights to great work that The Aspen Institute supports and amplifies. While there were many announcements and articles that captures my interest, one entitled “The 3-Billion-Strong Workforce” was a highlight for me, providing a powerful example of how a socially minded entrepreneur can leverage life in an increasingly connected world. It is an example that shows how LinkedIn helps people connect with organizations and others who can benefit from their gifts, talents, skills and passions.

In the article, Jeff Weiner (CEO of LinkedIn) explains his vision for the company this way: “our dream is to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. That begins with representing your professional identity to the world – your experiences, your skills, your ambitions, the knowledge that you possess.” (Aspen Idea, Summer 2015, p. 34). In Show Your Work, Austin Kleon supports the impact of such a vision when he writes that having an online presence is part of existence in the connected world. As Kleon explains, “if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.” This may not be a fact, but is an important proverbial truth for life in a connected world, and LinkedIn is a company built around this truth, leveraging it for business success while also connecting people with other people and organizations.

This is about economic opportunity for people. How often someone miss having an impact because she doesn’t find the organization where her gifts, talents, abilities and passions are valued, needed, strengthened and used? In the short article, Weiner shares a crisp, six-step plan for LinkedIn.

  1. Create a “digital profile” for every person in the global workforce.
  2. Have a profile for every company.
  3. Have a record of every job needed in each of those companies.
  4. Break down the skills needed for each of those jobs.
  5. Include a profile/presence for every higher education institution that provides education and training related to each of those discrete skills.
  6. Let these people, companies and IHE’s connect; sharing what they have to offer with one another.

Clearly LinkedIn has a ton to gain with such a plan, but it is one that has several potential outcomes.

1. It helps people display what they have to offer.

Since I first created my profile on LinkedIn several years ago, I’ve received dozens on contacts from companies and search agencies about possible job opportunities. Well over a hundred others have reached out to me for potential collaborations on projects, consulting work, to share our insights with one another, or just to encourage me in my work. Other forms of social media, namely Twitter, have provided similar benefits. My work hasn’t really changed. It is just that more of it is visible to the rest of the world, and that provides an opportunity for meaningful connections.

Most people find jobs by finding out about the job and applying. That is still a significant part of the workforce, but platforms like LinkedIn make it that much easier for potential employers and interested others to reach out to you with possibilities and opportunities. You don’t even need to know that a job exists to be contacted about it, and that means that you have yet another opportunity to discover how your gifts, talents, abilities and passions meet the critical needs of others. In addition, as analytics continue to mature in communities liked LinkedIn, they will get even better at surfacing potential matches between people and companies, providing that information to both parties.

2. It helps higher education institutions articulate part of the value they bring to society, companies and individuals.

Point #5 in Weiner’s list needs to be expanded, but I still commend the general concept. If a company needs people with certain knowledge, skills and abilities; then it is great to match people with those companies. However, there are times when the current workforce lacks enough people who have those skills. Maybe it is a shortage of people with certain programming skills, leadership skills, the requisite knowledge and experience to handle important international business interactions, or abilities in a new or emerging area. In this case, matching people and companies is not enough. We need to match people with routes to acquire the in-demand skills and abilities.

Focusing on IHEs as the provider of these skills is too narrow of a vision. As a higher education administrator, I love the idea, and it can help us find prospective students who need and want what we can provide. At the same time, there are too many education companies, online communities, and other routes to new knowledge, skills and competencies to limit this “linking” to only higher education institutions. If LinkedIn is willing to broaden the vision to include the larger world of learning opportunities, that will increase access and opportunity for people. It will help people consider their options. Taking a class or getting a certificate or degree might be the best route, but why not help them learn about the many other options? This would magnify the impact of Weiner’s vision in important ways.

Of course, as an advocate of open badges, one way of expanding these connections between people who need/want to learn a new skill and resources/providers to help would be to take advantage of the growing open badge ecosystem. We already have the technological beginnings of a way for us expand the credentialing of learning beyond just formal learning organizations. Connect that to Weiner’s vision for LinkedIn, and we have a powerful and potentially impactful alliance.

3. It helps companies find the people who will best help them achieve their business goals.

As I mentioned in #1, people don’t always know about all the jobs available. This means that companies don’t get a chance to interact with some of the best potential prospects for their job openings. They only get what comes to them or what a search agencies brings to them. LinkedIn changes that, allowing for a larger and stronger of qualified candidates.

4. In doing so, it has the potential to transform the way people/organizations/IHEs relate to one another.

In some ways, Weiner’s 6-part plan gives greater voice and vision to individuals, organizations and education providers. By creating a system where the conversation can be initiated by any one of them, we give each of them a greater chance to achieve their goals. We create more opportunity for companies and IHEs (or other education providers) to discover synergies that might lead to new partnerships. We create more opportunities for people to find jobs or training that they need or want. We create more opportunities for companies to find the talent they desperately need. In doing so, we strengthen the economy and find that we are far more effective at leveraging the gifts, talents, abilities, passions, and callings of people around the globe.