Connecting and Community Building to Support Risk Taking

I had the great pleasure of talking with Jeff Utecht and David Carpenter as a guest on their S.O.S podcast the other day. The connections we share, all quite by chance, made this even more fun for me. I had met David Carpenter as a result of exploring graduate programs while I was teaching overseas in Shanghai back in 2001. I was planning on attending the University of Virginia’s IT program, where David happened to be finishing up in the same program, and he was headed with his family to HKIS to do some cool things there. We swapped stories, and places. The connection to Jeff Utecht is through the Shanghai American School, where he is currently working. I was at SAS from 1997 – 2002, and witnessed some amazing growth and change at that school, not the least of which was the creation of SAS Pudong. It was fun to share a memory of the building of the Pudong campus, which back in the late 90’s was a sea wall and a several thousand acre mud pit. My how things have changed! It seems like a world away for so many reasons…I want to thank both Jeff and David for the opportunity to relive a little of that and for hosting me on their podcast.

I really love what David and Jeff are doing with their podcast, which is to ask the big questions that drive the conversation about what it means to shift our schools. I enjoyed the conversation which unfolded around the episode’s essential question of, how do adults learn? I don’t know that we answered the question very well, but I do think we were able to push it in a direction to consider some important possibilities as it relates to teaching and learning with technology. For me, there were three themes that emerged, and I’ll try to summarize them here.

Supporting the self-directed nature of adult learners has become more complex in the wired world
It is important for adult learners in educational settings to be self-directed in their efforts to use technology to support teaching and learning. This is crucial for obvious reasons, but I think it is also made more challenging by the context in which we find ourselves today. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but we live in a time that has witnessed unprecedented growth in access to information, web-based tools, and opportunities for exchange and collaboration. The pace is blistering, and while the “new tool everyday” is exciting, it contributes to a bit of option paralysis in my opinion. This can be overwhelming even for those who are steeped in it and live it everyday. Self-direction in a sea of opportunity can add a layer of challenge that prevents some adult learners from ever moving forward with an exploratory learning project. To say that we should be sensitive to this is an understatement. And while I think it is important to always ask the question about pedagogy – what do you want to achieve instructionally with the technology? – I’m not entirely convinced anymore that this should always be the first question. George Siemens, over at the Connectivism Blog, has a very interesting post addressing this idea.

Risk taking is paid for by overcoming fear
When we ask teachers to use technology in meaningful ways to support teaching and learning, we are asking them to take a risk. We are asking them to step outside their comfort zones, to experience some uncertainty, to be vulnerable, to wrestle with the idea that maybe the students do know more (or maybe not) about the technology, to question notions of expertise and to come to terms with fundamental shifts about power relations in the classroom. How can this kind of risk taking – the kind that results in transformative learning – be supported? How can we help teachers navigate the bumpy terrain bought about by the exploration of instructional technology? Perhaps one thing to do is simply start by acknowledging the fear. To admit that all of us – even the uber geeks – and I mean that as a term of endearment, experience fear when it comes to teaching and learning with technology. There was a presentation at the recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative conference that did a wonderful job of starting this conversation.

Risk taking can be supported through connecting and community building
When you feel a part of a supportive and engaged community, you begin to share experiences, build relationships, and discuss the success and failures. There is support. You are not playing without a net…and so maybe…you can ride a little closer to the edge than you might otherwise have done. In the podcast, Jeff Utecht talked about learning events at his school where he regularly brings teachers together to explore technology, and build connections. He also mentioned the role professional conferences (at least those that are edtech related) seem to be playing, in that they are more like kick-off events for the creation of community that can be sustained after the conference. In the work we do with faculty at VCU the theme that permeates nearly everything we do is to create community and connections among the faculty. We have found that cohort-based programs related to IT, and specific faculty learning communities where we bring people together an entire academic year can go a long way towards building those connections. It is a slow process, but one we think is worth investing in. The glue among these examples, I think, is the idea of an environmental event in the lives of people that can bring them together and serve as place holder… an organizing circumstance…for subsequent community building and perhaps some strengthened self-directed learning. I think there is something to be gained by paying more attention to the environmental contexts in which we engage with adult learners – teachers – and reflect on how, as a result, some meaningful self-directed learning can be supported and sustained. That is a challenge worth spending some time on.

Bottom line…building connections and community are central to supporting adult learners in taking risks to use technology to support teaching and learning…and I want to again extend thanks to folks like David and Jeff for advancing the conversation about this.

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