Monday, June 30, 2014

Thinking openly

Image: osmar01, via
It's finally time to sit back and reflect on the Learning & Skills Group Conference, and I can't think of a better place to start than with David Price's keynote session. This session is particularly important for me since I am involved in both workplace learning and the education system, both of which are experiencing a massive change in the face of technology and the accompanying shift in peoples' attitudes and behaviours. David's book ties in well with a growing number of themes that I have been exploring lately.

For the workplace, we are experiencing a shift in the normal hierarchies, with smarter companies realising that learning has to flow up as well as down. Employees simply have to be trusted to think and adapt in a rapidly changing landscape, one where job security and trust are becoming scarce commodities. Even our relentless drive to get everyone a degree cannot guarantee success, as this actually seems to drive the cost of skilled labour down through the Dutch auction effect. The only skills that seem to have real value are those which are self-taught, and the value of knowledge has changed from economic to social.

The six imperatives of social learning:

  1. Do it yourself - we can share information amongst ourselves faster than our institutions can
  2. Do it now - immediacy
  3. Do it with friends - to share and reinforce learning
  4. Do it for fun - playfulness can be used to surprising effect
  5. Do unto others - generosity
  6. Do it for the world to see - high visibility

There's a lot in common here with the theme of personal learning networks, coupled with a growing understanding of how these diffuse interactions can slowly but permanently change society. In the emerging future, education has to move from pedagogy towards heutagogy, with an emphasis on learning how to learn - content may indeed remain king, but it will be created increasingly by the learners themselves.

With a greater sense-making network around them, people feel more able to take on the 'fail fast and iterate' approach of Google. Companies that operate this way have more in common with the 'machine shop' culture, where learning is social and horizontal, and learners are free to roam and combine their ideas with a 'freedom to fail'.

'Thinking that the role of leadership is to act and make short-term decisions misses out on how well fully functioning human networks can deal with most problems without intervention from above. When managers and executives get involved, they often make things worse for those doing the day-to-day work. This is even more pronounced when those doing the work are connected to their peers in social networks and communities of practice that have established and trusted knowledge-sharing practices.'

Harold Jarche, Good leaders connect

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Digital futures

As the World Wide Web turns 25 years old, common themes are beginning to emerge about the impact it has made, and continues to make, on global society. Tyler Falk (2014) highlights 15 predictions for the digital future, based on the findings from the Pew Research Internet Project (Anderson & Rainie, 2014), many of which show the massive implications for learning and education that stem from the presence of internet technology. In particular, the pervasive connectivity will threaten the existing business models employed by education establishments and publishers.

A global learning environment

Having the right information to hand at the right moment is crucial to learning - whether it's for a teacher explaining a new concept to a student, or having a timely reminder available as a new task is attempted. The seamless connectivity that is growing across the internet, and the availability of convenient devices to access it from, is lowering the cost of learning transactions everywhere. Disruptive movements are on the rise that take advantage of this ability to share information and ideas without the normal barriers of time and distance, exemplified by the Khan Academy and MOOCs.

How will this affect the traditional education establishments? Some of the respondents in the survey predict less spending on real estate and teachers - does this mark the demise of traditional education and educators, or an opportunity to adopt networked pedagogy to make our existing structure more powerful by adopting models of networked pedagogy (Wheeler, 2014)? Organisations will have to adapt too, learning to deal with bad acting and replace current norms with newer ones more appropriate for a digital age. Regardless of the final outcome, expect the technology to be continuously operating in the background, woven into the fabric of everything we do, as leaders chase the dream of 'a more informed and more educated world population'.

Social evolution

The rise of networks and their disruptive effect on society has been a subject of interest from many authors since the creation of the World Wide Web. Weinberger et al. (1999) put forward the Cluetrain Manifesto as a stark 
warning to corporations - the markets that they were used to dominating were rapidly becoming smarter than any corporate policies could keep up with. Corporate lifespans continue to deteriorate - the average lifespan of leading companies in the US is now just 15 years (Gittleson, 2012). This disruptive effect on the existing social order also echoes the model for social evolution put forward by Ronfeldt (1996, 2012), whereby the addition of a new form of organisation will subvert the existing structure before the full benefits are realised.

The ultimate form of the 'network' is a matter for ongoing discussion, as many people have their own definitions of what constitutes a network - it is likely that they will continue to be characterised largely by the disruptive influence that they exhibit, and the inability of our existing structures to adapt, rather than by specific organisational structures. As Nishant Shah observes 'It is not merely a tool of enforcing existing structures; it is a structural change in the systems we are used to'.

Persistence of time

From all the potential positive and negative impacts, one factor that may have the most powerful effect on education is the ability to create persistent institutions for the long term, as observed by Jerry Michalski. Moving to systems based on trust, rather than distrust, will be the crucial factor for creating a better education system - our present organisations lack the ability to overcome the minority who wish to harm others, but a system based on trust holds the promise to reverse this trend. The last thesis on the list holds the key here: The best way to predict the future is to invent it'.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Internet safety

Yesterday was Safer Internet Day - I find it interesting that this coincided with another campaign: The Day We Fight Back. Because the future of the internet is under threat from many different angles, all stemming from the darker side of human nature.

There are those who would use the internet to bully and harass individuals for their own gratification, as Steve Wheeler discussed in his post. We all need to consider how to fight back against these threats from those who just can't behave sociably, no matter the technology. But there are much more pervasive, long-term threats looming in the background.

Above all, the promise of the internet is that of free and open sharing of information, promoting an exciting future that supports development of knowledge without artificially imposed restrictions. But governments seem to be happy to bulldoze over human rights in the name of national security, and while we may feel safer for this, without some appropriate principles in place, none of us would feel safe in sharing any information, thus devaluing the potential of the medium.

There are also threats looming from the corporate sector - some have warned of an internet apocalypse with the US and EU ready to hand corporations the right to impose selective speeds on internet traffic according to ability to pay. This would erode human rights everywhere, from developing countries to global activism against greed and recklessness.

I hope you had a safe day with the internet - and may you continue to do so.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

So far, so good, so what?

I've been an Online Learning Consultant for just over a year now. It's taken me a while to get here, and I'm the first one to hold the role in my organisation. Come to think of it, I was the first one to hold the previous role (e-Learning Technician) I had before that on my way up from being a generic Administrator. I thought it would be good to stop and reflect, to get my bearings as I start to ask 'What's next?', but first of all perhaps I should ask 'How did I get here anyway?'.

How did I get here? Kind of by accident really, I just happened to be working in the right department where someone needed to master the technical tools to produce software demonstrations, and I showed a flair for it. After a few years of mastering first WebEx recorder, then Camtasia Studio, Adobe Captivate and Articulate, plus all the different software packages I was demonstrating, and converting briefing presentations to online materials, I finally got offered a development opportunity in doing a Masters degree, and attending the Learning Technologies Conference. Getting back to the world of academia seemed very strange, but after some initial struggles I got the hang of things. Going to the conference was another experience entirely, because here I found the meaning of the elusive 'community of practice'. I've learned the hard way that academic degrees are no sure way to success; you need to create your own identity and find relevant employment.

I've been very fortunate to have the opportunity to do all these things together, allowing me to get the most out of my course. The problem with traditional academic courses is that there's no access to real problems that you need to solve - the course just doesn't have enough doing for you to actually learn anything that will serve you well in the outside world.  Fortunately the part-time course I was taking had enough flexibility to mould around work projects, and I also took to heart the idea of the story-centred curriculum, always seeking ways to push my limits whilst working through the course and make things relevant. The course material became subservient to the narrative of me actually understanding challenges, seeking out alternative approaches, creating solutions and implementing them. Not everything worked so well, but in taking on the challenges I internalised a great deal more than I would have done without context, or without broadening my world-view by by seeking out the feedback of others, particularly through social media.

I've gradually progressed from an under-performing, depressed and frustrated individual to having an irrepressible drive to perform and innovate, and being recognised for having some real leadership qualities. My leadership is not in the traditional management sense, instead it's drawn from personal responsibility for my work, speaking my mind regardless of hierarchy and choosing my own approach. I get a lot more satisfaction from work, and my personal life has improved, with my better self esteem keeping depression in check. My Masters degree is coming near to the end, it's been a long journey with lots of ups and downs, but very worthwhile for getting to grips with the complex, even chaotic, field that we call learning. I still remember speaking to Clive Shepherd at a conference, and saying that I felt I was never sure if I really understood it, or if I was just going mad. Clive simply simply smiled and said 'Welcome to learning.'

So where do I go from here? When asking myself this question, I remembered reading Harold Jarche's blog post 'So you (still) want to be an elearning consultant?' some time ago and revisited this for ideas, along with with the original blog post and article it was based on, for some ideas about where I need to turn my focus. The helpful Venn diagram pretty much sums up my development needs - although I have plenty of cognitive and technology skills, I need to seek out ways of being more directly involved in the business. Most of my remaining frustrations stem from the feeling that most of the important decisions (and assumptions) have been made before I get involved with projects. I'm now actively seeking ways to get more directly involved in new projects from the outset, although I can be limited in choice because I'm already committed - perhaps I'm doing something right then.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What is the future for work and wealth in a digital society?

I've been following ideas on the future of working and learning in the digital age for some time, and the trends inescapably point to increasing automation.  Who are the drivers behind this, and how will it affect the future world of work?  How will society change as a result of this - for better or for worse?

Smart Planet has recently put out a number of articles that touch on the potential implications.  Many workers don't seem to be worried, apparently being more keen than their CEOs to push for the adoption, according to an article by Joe McKendrick.  They are keen to adopt for a competitive advantage, and resent managers who refuse to make time for adoption of digital tools.  However, the potential for automation to destroy jobs is not restricted to manufacturing it seems.  Charlie Osborne's article cites research from Gartner that suggests the appearance of self-learning systems that may replace human workers at a faster rate than the market can create new roles.  Will we resort to legislation banning the use of such tools?  Further changes to our standard workforce model may come in the shape of 'open source talent', with people offering their services in improving products for free.  Could this offset the loss of jobs, or is it just another tactic for employers to shed costs?

The trend for wealth inequality in developed countries is alarming.  Research in the UK (via GlobalNet21) and the US points to an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor.  Is automation helping to widen the gap, or can society adapt to bring the situation back into balance?

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Influence and the anatomy of networks

Some interesting thoughts from Bruce Marko, about the different types of influencers in a network, got me thinking about some of the other models I have encountered.

First up is a summary of the types that Bruce identifies:
  • Primary: Massive followings, drive traffic & spread messages rapidly; Sometimes hard to gain access & understand how they got there in the first place
  • Threader: Own postings can fluctuate, contribute to conversations, can bring knowledge and clarity; More likely to contribute on the fly
  • Maker: Has an effect through production of content, ripples spread out through others; Sometimes appear not to engage

Harold Jarche, in his posts The work of many and Twitter and the law of the few, elaborates on the different players in a network identified in Malcolm Gladwell's work 'The Tipping Point':
  • Salesperson: Influences people to take action; High Social Capital; Gain influence by knowing what people want
  • Connector: Has many relationships; High Creative Capital; Gain influence by sharing with others
  • Maven: Deep knowledge in a field; High Intellectual Capital; Can gain huge followings through reputation

Finally, Anatomy of a social network, a post from David Grey, cites the work of Ron Burt.  This identifies two activities for creating value in a network:
  • Brokerage: Developing weak ties, building bridges between clusters
  • Closure: Developing strong ties, building trust within clusters
Further, there are three dimensions for gauging the power of a node:
  • Degree: Number of connections; Potential to interact & connect
  • Closeness: Ease of making new connections; Potential to gain access
  • Betweenness: Power of link between other nodes; Potential to block or grant access

So it looks like a great convergence of different viewpoints, that strengthens my own understanding:

Primary = Salesperson; High Closeness and Social Capital
Threader = Connector; High Degree and Creative Capital
Maker = Maven; High Betweenness and Intellectual Capital

Thanks to Bruce for getting me inspired :)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Reflections on Gerd Leonhard's session (LSG13)

How is learning changing in the digital age?

Digital is now becoming the default for everything, with the divide between digital and physical learning spaces continually eroding.  Our assumptions about linear change have to be thrown away, because technology is changing at an exponential rate, and we won't keep up and remain relevant unless we change our attitudes.

How is work changing in the digital age?

Businesses still sit on the fence, uncertain of when the real shifts in economics - such as digital advertising, the internet of things and cloud culture - will really start to take effect.  Mobile internet access is expected to be particularly disruptive, with mobile money transfers already commonplace in Africa.  Many standardised jobs based around transactions are becoming automated, so how do we adapt to this future?  The key is not to try to beat the machines, but consider how best to use new technology to our advantage.

The future is 'humarithms' - not algorithms

Companies that base their value on logic alone will eventually find themselves obsolete, because everyone is converging on the same set of logic, and it is only our intuition that can lead us to discover new ways of doing things.  As standardised work and protected spaces come to an end, businesses need to move towards a decentralised model, and e-learning can become a key part of organisational strategy.  But this has to move away from the standard perception of e-learning as distributing content - it has to be disruptive in nature, focused on breaking down the traditional silos.

Where are the future job roles?

Physical output is reaching its peak - we simply cannot continue with our model of outsourcing labour to cut costs.  As more value gets placed on the intangible products of a company, real human work will become focused on such areas as interface design, visualisation of data and software programming.  So as we move towards the complete automation of work, we have to ask ourselves if this will set human beings free, or doom us to become unemployable?  A tough question, but several members of the audience were quick to give their solutions:
  • Developing your identity in a world of automation will be increasingly important.  Know your value’ (via Ben Betts)
  • The future of work? Become indispensable’ (via Steve Wheeler)
  • Maybe we need some Big Wisdom – Wisdom trumps knowledge and information which will also trump data’ (via David Wilson)
See also: Learning & Skills Conference 2013 curated backchannel resources.