Posts Tagged ‘listening’

In which I avoid the phrase “running aMOOC,” address the personal, and serve hotdish.

How do you approach a party where you know few people, if any? Chat with anyone? Loiter near the potted plants? Maybe the hosts can offer some initial introductions, circulate, and foster conversational ease, but they can’t be everywhere at once. They’re not really there to entertain you; instead, the event is simply an end in itself. And there’s almost always food. Maybe the hosts kindly provide snacks, but in Minnesota, it’s often the guests who bring hotdishes.


A variety of party preferences


Inevitably, some people leave the party earlier than others. Some people hang around for the “after party.” Some people gather to play strange instruments in the den. Me? If I have a good conversation somewhere along the line with two or three people, it’s been a successful evening—usually for all three or four of us. Hosts or other guests may choose to drink merrily, play strip poker, or sing with the karaoke machine; if these excitations become expectations, people might be disappointed in me. I understand if they don’t invite me again… but it probably isn’t an event I’d attend again, anyway.

This party-oriented digression is really a follow-up to what I wrote two years ago about my thoughts on participating in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). While find my thinking at this point is roughly the same, I would offer one newer observation: that a MOOC designation might cause unnecessary concern among new participants and lead to an expectation of differentness or magnitude that distracts from the small, cumulative learning moments that such opportunities create.

I have begun to wonder if a MOOC creates AIA, or Acronym Induced Anxiety. With the MOOC known as PLENK (Personal Learning Environments, Networks and Knowledge) steeped in examination of PLEs and PLNs, maybe the desire to capture complex concepts by catchphrase and abbreviation—the desire to create an identifiable banner around which people might rally– might interfere with the very concepts being promoted. Might these terms be OBN (OverBurdened Nomenclature)? Learning in a massive open online course sounds…big and scary. How about learning as an open, online salon, or an open, online party… with an abundant buffet (on)line? Might take some pressure off of everyone.

In a similar vein of trying to communicate a vision of the MOOC concept, Stephen Downes recently sounded a call that those with experience in these courses/parties/buffests should take responsibility for assisting newer learners, rather than leaving this to the “teachers.” In other words, perhaps, he’d like guests to share more hotdishes.

“…my thinking was that more experienced people should be creating introductory content to help people new to the material… traditional learning … leads to a selfishness in learning, as you are encouraged to focus only on your own learning (even when you are working in groups) and not on helping other people (that’s “teacher’s job”)…”

One thing I know after years of hotdish exposure: they’re not always to everyone’s taste, and nothing distracts from an elegant buffet more than tater-tot topping framed in Corningware. And while I agree that unique understandings contribute to the overall whole, given the bountiful smorgasboard available to everyone in PLENK, I’m not inclined to presume I have any recipe of helpfulness in this environment that others cannot– or perhaps would better– arrive at on their own, following paths that are more meaningful to them and their own circumstances. In understanding various communication styles, it has been helpful for me to recognize that an expression of concern or frustration or confusion or annoyance is not (necessarily) the same as a request for help. And often as not, one person’s “helpfulness” can be another’s “interference.”


Choosing a personally meaningful path to learning


Along the lines of putting on one’s own oxygen mask before assisting others, I’m pretty sure that an emphasis on one’s own learning is not really an obstruction to helping others’ learning. Far from the idea that “personal learning” or a personal focus embodies a selfish approach to learning (since this seems to be the underlying concern), the “personal” in learning for me recognizes, among other things, the imperative of taking personal responsibility for learning, as opposed to externalizing the responsibility for learning (or the blame for not learning) to a course, an institution, a delivery style, a system, another person, or even a network.

I agree that this should not result in focused development of “my” learning, and my learning only, forever and ever. I would, however, gently observe that just because learners’ outreach and artifacts are not visible in one community or network at a given time does not mean they do not exist in another. Quid pro quo is a problematic calculation in a temporally and geographically dispersed and diverse world (and in recognizing the diverse agendas brought to a MOOC), and technology is not always the answer. Additionally, I am inclined toward heutagogical views that suggest effective adult learning is largely achieved through challenging and understanding the self, and suggest that the act of self-challenge, more than any resulting artifact, is a useful and empowering model for others. (True,”ROI” or “assessment” folks aren’t going to find enough nourishment here.)

In this potluck environment, I do think a note of caution is needed here. I have been concerned when ideas about support and connection and openness and separateness and independence and learning that is personal (in any context) are placed into boxes of mutual exclusiveness or opposition. While the approaches of mapped, quantitative, “show me the openness” social connections are considered to be social visions based in positive community development and generosity, I could also see the elevation of these values as an effort to address fears about loneliness or isolation. In a related vein, I am concerned that too great an emphasis on the communal and a rejection of the personal and the idea of the independent self in connective learning may not respect developmental processes, including those related to adult learning. While it is not necessary to swallow such concepts wholesale, I would be reluctant to ignore theories related to individuation and psychological differentiation, and am led to wonder if the insistently communal prevents us or allows us to avoid peeking into the conceptual existential abyss of aloneness – a process which has been posited as a necessity for adult maturation. I continue to consider whether or how connective learning theory might need to recognize quieter and qualitative connective intimacy (or resonance) and self-efficacy.


Like all learners, adults have developmental and affective–dare one say "personal"– learning needs


(As a side note: George Siemens observed in an Elluminate session last week that advances in neuroscience are providing groundbreaking new understandings about learning psychology. Much of this work addresses so-called “abnormal” mental functions in learning and decision-making, but this work, Rifkin notwithstanding, is relatively new – and is controversial–  in its approach to empathy, mindfulness, and other tenets of the humanistic psychology referenced here.)

Ultimately, I believe the concepts of support, connection, independence and the personal are not so much ends of spectrums or dichotomies as they are ingredients in the worldview stew of complexity and ambiguity we are attempting to pin down (perhaps too narrowly?) through the alphabet soup of learning referenced above.

By the same token, since we all have different seats around the living room, I can see where a host might see the benefit of more or different fare to expand the party buffet and atmosphere. So I will share here three recipes I have used in my learning– MOOC or no MOOC– that have provided some nourishment.


A playful mindset has been a pretty important element not only for its own sake and for enhancing learning in unconventional ways, but also as a way of leavening some of the deeper and darker considerations that learning about learning brings forth.

What’s your problem?

I find myself inclined to look at new ideas not as a totally separate land, as a topic to be mastered, or as a simple disciplinary expansion, but as a set of concepts and approaches to be sorted through, applied, adapted and/or discarded in order to solve a problem. Indeed, without the existence of a problem, conundrum, issue, or puzzlement to apply new learning to, I’m not sure I’d see the point in pursuing a MOOC—or any course, for that matter.

This might sound like a slippery slope to anti-intellectualism—bypassing learning for learning’s sake, and all that—but as far as I’m concerned, life’s busy and I’ve got important things to do—including nurturing others in learning. In this context, I’m willing to entertain all ideas, no matter how initially bizarre, as long as I can ultimately subject them to a rather ruthless evaluation of what works at this moment in time for a given set of particular circumstances. That I am also filing away ideas that don’t work for future reference, knowing that time and circumstances change, is both a bonus and an essential part of any creative process, contributing to the incubation of further ideas.


Incubation doesn't create a lot of "artifacts"


And, should it be helpful to other learners, I will defend the quiet and slow process of incubation as a known and legitimate stage of learning, intuition and creativity. (I suspect that creativity and wisdom are potentially states that both result from and go beyond connective learning, but that’s a different conversation.) While I cannot guarantee that the bigger and less easily captured/more complex/ill-defined/wicked any given problem is, the more incubation it takes, I do know that producing artifacts for the short term can take away time from the longer-term processes related to creative development. (See also: “one good thought a week.”)

And to the immediate objections that a “problem” not discussed in an open environment is cutting off its nose to spite its face, let me counter that complex, creative and even social problem solving draws on elements well beyond the metrics of sharing and connecting. I don’t think that sophisticated thinkers in this area are claiming otherwise, but I do think we have a gap in how this is being communicated to broader publics. I’d suggest that any complex problem includes the qualitative, the affective and even the psychological within a community, and that process evaluations based on openness/not open or connected/insufficiently connected are overly-simplistic measures when working with human beings.

Working in translation

A third approach I take to learning is related to the first in instigating a problem scenario, and is an oldie-but-goodie: make a commitment to communicate or “teach” what I’m learning. This doesn’t necessarily mean hashing out my developing view of the fine points among the like-minded or similarly curious within the MOOC. Rather, testing and translating new concepts among more diverse and less familiar communities and contexts offers a different set of emergent challenges. Yes, few of us are “experts” in the acronymic concepts here. But I’ve found no better reality check than taking even the basics to the local street corner.

While I appreciate the idea of learning from the modeling of masters and in conversation with similar peers, I also find much of my learning occurs in trying to understand others’ not-understanding, and in trying articulate my understandings in the face of reasonable skepticism (but preferably stopping well short of evangelism). Relocating to another’s viewpoint, adopting the beginner’s mind, and working to understand how and why people think about, believe, and react affectively to new ideas helps me understand what essential elements or worldviews might inhibit or incapacitate shifting conceptions of learning, and perhaps to discover some unexpected conceptual compatibility.

That said, discussing my learning in relation to others’ learning efforts and conversations in any detail offers an ongoing ethical conundrum, inherent in the ambiguous dance of qualitative, participant-observer situations. So ultimately, I do more listening at parties than talking. As noted in a previous post, this “silence” is not necessarily demonstrating a lack of participation or support.

And to return to the OBN of the MOOC: as far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t really mattered if the party is massive or not. If the party is small, I may have more conversations as those fewer people maneuver around the room, but might find less resonance as the array of ideas and expression is usually quantitatively smaller. Among bigger events, it’s always entertaining to hear the range of conversation, and the statistical chances of finding resonance are often higher, but it takes time and persistence to filter through the ambient noise… or to adequately sample the buffet.

So, whether PLE, PLN or OBN, here’s my hotdish buffet approach to a MOOC like PLENK:


Work a puzzle…


…and party on.

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In which I explore the rudiments of a concept and reflect on connective knowledge through listening…

There’s slow food. Slow travel. Slow blogging. I’m a fan across the board. So it’s no wonder, then, that I’m also inclined toward what I’ve decided to call “slow listening.”

Someone I’d consider an internationally known “slow listener,” Studs Terkel, died last month. The Washington Post reported:

Terkel was an artist of conversation who once described his work as “listening to what people tell me.” He was unusually skilled at drawing out his subjects, who told him about their dreams and memories, their fears, frustrations and anxieties, the condition of their lives….

Despite his national celebrity status, his presence as an interviewer was barely discernible in most of his books. Like a psychoanalyst, he allowed his subjects to talk freely, with minimal questioning.

Anyone listening?

Anyone listening?

I still remember finding Terkel’s books in a small back room of the junior high library, and realizing we were probably being duped in history class with the incessant focus on military battles and famous people/men and grand pronouncements.

This encounter with Terkel, among other things, led me toward the small and local in studies and research, and to the use of oral interviews (i.e. oral histories) as a technique and a resource. I never fail to hear at least one fascinating concept, colorful adventure, or something deeply personal. Skin a skunk caught in the trapline on your walk to school? Apparently the teacher sends you home, right away. Need to smuggle liquor from Canada across border during Prohibition? It helps if you know a train conductor. Painful memories? Those shall remain private today.

Researchers have a deep appreciation for people who are willing to share so much of themselves in relation to someone else’s goals. But interviewing isn’t just about people “telling you stuff” and then writing things up. Interviewing in this context is also about listening carefully and deeply and repeatedly. This is how I define slow listening, and this is really hard work. As the Associated Press reported about Terkel:

For his oral histories, Terkel interviewed his subjects on tape, then transcribed and sifted. “What first comes out of an interview are tons of ore; you have to get that gold dust in your hands,” he wrote in his memoir. “Now, how does it become a necklace or a ring or a gold watch? You have to get the form; you have to mold the gold dust.”

While I was drafting this post, one of the people I follow on Twitter noted that teaching, lecturing, writing etc., were easy, but face to face encounters with new people were exhausting. I identified completely. Because broadcasting, while “work,” is not nearly as exhausting or time-consuming as listening slowly… as sifting through the “ore.” And doing both at the same time? Almost impossible, even according to brain research.

Much of the listening I do nowadays is channeled through online environments, but the effects and affects are often the same. The whirl and world of online information is like one big, never-ending interview. It requires huge amounts of sifting. Some sifting can be achieved technologically, but some still must be done cognitively… through listening. And, for it to be of value to me, through listening slowly.

This has been a particular issue for me as I try to mesh my understanding of connective learning with others’ understandings. In particular, I “hear” an underlying popular assumption that connectivism can be “measured” or detected by language-based exchanges between people. How many blog responses, how many Twitter followers, how great the conference attendance, how numerous the posts?  

Connecting socially, listening slowly.

Connecting socially, listening slowly, or both?

I keep coming back to George Siemens’ description of three facets of connectivism. Social connections are one type, and biological/neurological and conceptual are other types. These layers or facets seem important in understanding listening. Certainly there is an overt social act involved in “active” listening, where the speaker talks and values the attentiveness of the listener, and the listener elicits and appreciates the sharing of the speaker.

But an understanding of slow listening seems to relate more to the conceptual and even neurological facets of connectivism. For me, slow listening is a major tool in the development of insight and intuition.

When I began working online in small venues a while back, I thought that it was the relative newness of the digital experience that made it seem “off.” Through slow listening, I realized that I was frequently encountering explicit and tacit statements that said lurkers must step forward or they were cheating the group, that we should share raw thoughts as they pop into our heads for the sake of knowledge production, that we must connect socially and emotionally. It turns out these things go against some very situated inclinations that I have as an introvert, a learner, and a modeler (be it as a parent, a professional or an educator).

Listening, and, hopefully, listening well, comprises a large part of what I have been able to contribute to past ventures. (Yes, “listening” to dead people included.) After a “long” while in digital terms, discussing what I have heard, or what can be interpreted or inferred from what I have heard, is another part. 

It takes time to listen to a range of voices, or to one voice with enough thoroughness, to adequately discern the emergence of broader contexts or messages. At the same time, listening is not all about words; it’s about subtexts and gestures and tone of voice and style and behavior and immediate context. This is what makes listening, whether in person, online, or in multimedia environments, so intense. Many times these non-verbal things contradict the actual words. But these intersections are where the insights are the greatest and, sometimes, where the most internally consistent patterns are discovered. Additionally, slow listening is not a single act; it’s a cumulative process, one in which premature statements are simply not valid, because patterns and themes are not yet apparent.

But many days, my processes for listening and sifting seems to run up against a culture that promotes and even demands high-speed, high volume transparency and production. There are days when I wonder if this culture is suggesting that if the development of my thoughts can’t be documented and updated like a Wikipedia page, I’m not “participating.” 

The “contribute more and quickly” phenomenon may be an issue of perception. But even so, it feels a bit like living in a foreign country (or eating at McDonalds). I can adapt for a while to the understanding that, for many in this country, immediate transparency and visible mutual reciprocity is the measurement of validity. But “home” for me is where validity is conceptually cumulative and tested over time. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive views, but they do not always align on a temporal and affective plane.

This perceived push for rapid disclosure and exchange is not necessarily an unusual phenomenon in a world where an estimated 60% to 75 % of the population is considered “extroverted.”  Seeing this iterated in the online environment doesn’t really come as a surprise, either. But it does, perhaps, have some implications for the ideas of “community” that are being considered, studied, defined and sometimes even prescribed for online life.

Yep... slow listening.

Yep... slow listening.

Does this mean it’s OK  to “just” listen slowly and never let people know what I’m thinking? Well, sure, it’s “OK.”  But this doesn’t do any good for causes and ideas that are important for slow listeners. Advocacy of slow listening does not imply advocacy of doing nothing else. I would say that slow listeners are busy and contribute in their own ways, on their own time… but we need to know we’re not going to be meeting some widely assumed hallmarks of community or participation, and sometimes this will have a cost.

There’s no real resolution to this post. It may serve, perhaps, as an explanation of one particular flavor of brain. And maybe one could draw some practical or cautionary conclusions about the “implementation” or “use” of connectivism as an educational or community framework. Certainly, community building, on or offline, is a worthy endeavor. But requiring or tacitly expecting overt social connections and behaviors (whether as posts or conversations or anything else, especially at a certain volume or rate) seems to neglect two-thirds of connectivist theory. And I can guarantee that this won’t bring out the best in those strange, slow listeners.

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