Digital learning for everyone – project management + socio-emotional support

I’m into Year Two (of two) leading digital strategy for the K-12 system here in PEI. I landed in a wonderful situation where almost all the hardware (computers and wires) system-wide had just been replaced when I arrived, and where the educators and curriculum/governance people involved are interested in having conversations about a way forward. But we want a way forward for everyone. How do we make a plan that is inclusive, that develops web literacy and helps support our learners becoming good digital citizens? I’ve become really interested in trying to build some key strategies into the process to help everyone succeed. This is where that thinking is at now.

Where we are in the digital strategy
Year One was mostly about setting the stage for change.

  1. We’ve built a system wide committee with decision making responsibilities (more on this in another post)
  2. We’ve built a platform to house curriculum and resources for each course
  3. We’ve developed a two course approach to building literacy (my own digital practices course and Google Certified Educator)
  4. We’ve identified and started working on a massive list of things that need attention
  5. We’re working on grants and partnerships to bring cool stuff (and training) to the system

The targets we’re looking to address
Digital citizenship
This one is first because it’s the most important. We need to understand what literacies we need to be good members of our society in a world that has the internet in it. The internet can give us access to wonderful things, and it also contains piles of people who are purposely trying to mislead us so they can make money off of ads. The internet has entertainment for us and also has terrifying Peppa Pig videos. I would love to be part of a society where each individual is trying to make good choices based on their values and not on fears stoked by some kid in Veles.

For so many reasons. Once we start talking about technology, the idea of gender equality inevitably comes up. And it should. Our numbers around tech and girls are still not great and there is still way more work to be done. But there are lots of other issues in here as well. Technology (as its often taught) favours the autodidact. It also favours people who have certain kinds of support at home, whether it be access to tech or the habits that are privileged by our education system. I have seen countless folks over the years, big and small, who come to this work with a great deal of fear. I like to think that I have helped some of them succeed through that, but how do you plan that for a system?

Silicon Valley Narrative
I could call this a lot of different things, but lets just say that it’s the ‘we all need to be coders because coding is the future’ argument. The idea that the purpose of this technology is somehow that we are all going to make millions or have nice cushy jobs pushing the world through its fourth revolution. Go and read Hack Education. It’s amazing and will cover these issues way better than I can. Suffice it to say there are more reasons to work on internet things than coding. Coding isn’t bad… it’s just not some panacea that will save the children.

Technology is hard
Well… it is. I have no interest in taking something like an Arduino, or blogging or web literacy and breaking it into tiny bits that will slowly combine over 13 years in our education system. I want each interaction with this stuff to be meaningful, so that means it’s going to be hard to do. I’m not terribly worried about that. Kids are actually quite smart if you let them be. But it’s important always to remember that this stuff can be difficult technically, socially and emotionally.

Project management and socio-emotional support – a partnership
My solution to address this has developed over 15 years. Much of it comes from my experience working with the concepts around rhizomatic learning and watching people struggle to come-to-know using the rhizomatic approach. My approach is based in hundreds of conversations with educators, research I did for Academic Planning at UPEI two years ago, researchy stuff and lots of time spent staring out the window.

Project Management
Nothing has had a bigger impact of my professional career than learning how manage a project properly. I certainly wouldn’t claim that I have fully reached that goal, but it’s something I’m working on constantly. I’ve learned to ask questions like: What is the real goal we’re working on? What change are we trying to make in the world? What objectives will tell me that I’m getting there? What strategies will I use? Who will do the actions? When?

I’d like to see these concepts applied constantly to our work around tech. We do…kinda. What I’m hoping to encourage (I don’t write the curriculum, I’m working with the people who do) is that we standardize the language around project management and the literacies required. We can use it with 7 year old and with 17 year olds. Imagine a school system graduating people that could directly go into the workforce with strong project management skills. Forget about the workforce. Just imagine how much easier it would be for them to plan a weekend party.

Some people seem to come out of the womb with these skills. I am one of the legion that did not.

Socio-emotional support
I’ve waffled on what to call this. I started out by calling it resilience… but I’m finding that I don’t like the connotations sometimes attached to this. Resilience also, to me, suggests that growth as a human is somehow just about sucking it up and trying harder. That’s not what I mean here. I’m talking more about that reflection that allows you to process your feelings when you’re working. The pressure of idea generation. The frustration when something doesn’t work. That feeling you’re falling behind. What do we do about those things? Is it really about just trying harder?

I’ve been walking around with an Arduino kit in my backpack and doing a little test with it. I’ve been putting it in front of people, opening it up and asking them how it makes them feel. Some people say they are really excited by it. Most are not. The majority of the response I get sits somewhere between revulsion and fear. That kind of response doesn’t encourage learning.

How do we build supports to work and talk our way through those feelings, as learners of whatever age? How do we encourage the kind of reflection that allows people to ‘succeed’ AND feel supported and good about themselves in the process?

Putting them together
I think both approaches get stronger when you think of them as a team. Some learners will certainly favour one approach over the other – but I’m fine with that. Structured conversations about what your goal looks like and how to create a timeline are going to keep people on task and give them success milestones. Reflecting on your feelings in that process – “What did you do when you felt like you were lost in the process?” “How did you deal with having too many ideas (or none)?” and, eventually, “How did your idea generation impact your project charter? Did you have to change your timelines?” is important too.

I would love to see us focus our assessment on these two things. I don’t particularly care if your tech project is perfect, or all the lights blink or whatever… what I care about is how much you’ve grown through that process. Did you develop your search literacies when you got stuck? Did you hit your timelines? Did your goal change as you learned more about the process?

I’m not 100% convinced that this needs to stop at digital. I can totally see it applied in the exact same way to a science project or an essay. Imagine if we focused all the project work we work around those two pieces? If we all used the same language, and pulled together towards preparing our kids to have healthy approaches to running projects?

Wish me luck 🙂

A Change Sprint – workshopping new ideas in a hurry

During a conversation in my back yard this summer with the excellent Robin DeRosa, she and I decided, once again, that most of us trying to do things differently in education all face the same kinds of issues.

We also noted that as our roles become more embedded and visible in our respective institutions, it is more difficult to do the deep speculative work necessary to come up with plans for change in education. Or at least, it’s more difficult to do it in the open.

I need to think out loud. But out loud isn’t so easy when my work is institutional and not just a MOOC run out of my basement. Being public before you’re ready means the work you’re trying to do can go in a negative or damaging direction.

And yet. The complexity at the core of the educational system requires a particular kind of multiplicity that can only be achieved with many perspectives. I realized, talking to Robin, that not having access to multiplicity was keeping me stuck in my own head.

The genesis of ChangeEd
We all have some core people in our network that we turn to for practical advice and who, when they are stumped, sometimes turn to us. I’ve spent much of the past dozen or so years working out loud with an excellent group of thinkers and practitioners. Two of my favourite people to work with on nasty problems are Rebecca Petersen and Lawrie Phipps. One day in September of last year, a few months after the conversation with Robin, I was talking to Rebecca and Lawrie separately about some work that we were poking away at. In each conversation, we talked about our desire for the intensity that can come from MOOC like experiences, or conferences (eventedness you might call it). We noticed that the calls to Twitter for participation weren’t quite doing the same thing they used to.

And then the three of us, in separate conversations, started talking about what a model for participation could look like. It turned out that they had both had conversations similar to the one I’d had with Robin in the summer. We decided to develop a model for how we could pull together the expertise we needed in a semi-protected way, and still participate in a broader open dialogue that is such a part of our practice.

The goal: make a call out to a group, think really fast, make something, call it quits.

There are any number of sprint models out there to choose from, agile development methodologies etc…but this one has been working well so far, emergently, the three times we’ve tried it.

Change Sprint
I love to work with people f2f, but the challenges of pulling together a conference/project to trying to fit everyone’s schedule is impractical. The problems we were looking to solve were mostly time dependent, and we all have other things to do. There have been a couple of synchronous discussions via Google hangouts over the course of our Change Sprints so far, but we are mostly using Slack. Not perfect, but it allows people to drop in for five minutes when they can, and participate as they can.

A Change Sprint is focused on a central question posed by the member who calls or convenes the Spring to action. Each question, so far, has changed at least slightly in the course of each of the Sprints – the question can be iterative but it guides the discussion. A participant will convene a Sprint because they want help with an idea, a problem, a challenge…and are looking for a particular kind of outcome. They might want a model. They could need something said in a particular way, or need an idea workshopped before it goes out into the wild.

Before beginning, each convenor has to create a simple project charter that explains the necessary background in a simple, organized way. The charter allows people to get up to speed in a hurry, and provides a location for discussion around broader contextual issues.
We have a google template that has been working well for us.

It’s been really important to us that the sprints are as efficient as possible. We put the time limit on a sprint at 5 days, but any can end if the initial target is met and the convenor’s challenge addressed.

Success Measures
Ultimately these will be judged by the success measures that are part of each charter. They could include…better questions. A model. A rationale. A paper. A sketch of a plan. A series of guidelines. Constant movement towards an outcome is a good way to keep the discussion moving forward. That outcome also creates the potential of participating in a broader open conversation after the Sprint is complete.

Criteria for participants
We picked the first 10 people we could remember having this conversation with. We weren’t interested in people who would ‘take over’ a conversation, but rather, busy, practical people who love an opportunity to take a run at a thorny problem. We really wanted to keep the number small, and have tried not to think of all the terribly smart people we didn’t invite.

The Change Sprints have been hard on the logically minded among us. If you wish to understand each item that whizzes by in the chat or if you want to read each entry this may not work for you. If you miss the first 25 minutes of the starting hour, you could be 300 messages behind. We had a couple of people who have withdrawn themselves because they aren’t able to ‘just’ donate an hour or so of their week to a conversation… they need to be all-in or all-out. That’s cool. That’s part of what makes them great professionals.

You also can’t guarantee that you are going to get to any kind of resolution. Sometimes the conversation rolls in the right direction and sometimes it doesn’t. Our first Sprint went so well (with the Learning Participant Ecosystem Model) that it’s easy to get disappointed when you don’t finish with a nice drawing :).

CC by Non Commercial
Learning Ecosystem Participant Model CC by Non Commercial

You really can’t do them very often. I wouldn’t think that more than 3 or 4 a year for any group would be possible and still maintain the enthusiasm. I might be wrong about that… Dunno.

Why you might want to do this
The Change Sprints we’ve done have replicated some of the power of the connected conversations I used to have on the open web, while cutting out much of the institutional risk. The focus on an specific outcome keeps people on task (mostly) and gives people something to rally around. You could setup a Slack channel (or a private Facebook group or whatever) fill out a charter, setup a start time and say go. You just need ten smart people to work with and a reasonable vision of where you want to get.

The thing I like about how this model works out is that it provides a clear structure for participation.

Participate as much as you can over the next five days. Then its done. If you can’t participate this time, or something comes up, that’s not a problem. If you can participate, be constructive, and keep nudging the problem around. Focused effort can do amazing things

Learning Ecosystem Participant Model

A group of us had a conversation a couple of weeks ago about creating a learning community(ies) for an existing nonprofit open online learning site. How do you go about it? How do you translate what we believe about open learning to language that will respond to a project plan? Who are the multiple audiences? What do they want? It was a very interesting five or so days of chatting. We had some very smart, very experienced people chime in and while we certainly didn’t all come down to one final conclusion, there was a fair amount of overlap in our thinking.

Near the end of our sprint discussion, I proposed a model that could potentially serve as a starting point for discussions around the planning table. You might use it to talk to people about how someone can come into your ecosystem from any of these points, how people can move from being one kind of participant to another, and how those participants might interact with each other.

The model got bounced around between us with people adding to it and debating one part or another. This is my version. I’d love to hear what you think about it, whether it resonates with you or what you might hate about it.

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Learning Ecosystem Participant Model CC by Non Commercial

When we teach in a classroom, we get to define the start and end times, we decide how much time investment is appropriate, the workload, the content choices etc… basically the syllabus of a course. Students have already committed to learning in a structured way. They have, in many cases, self-selected or at least they know they are going to have to take your course. The reason they are learning is generally clear to anyone.

When we work in an online space, we get all kinds of learners. As a learner, I’m not always going to be invested in a deep learning experience. Sometimes i just need to find out how to cook a turkey – i don’t need to push turkey theory to new levels. Maybe, after cooking some turkeys… i might change my mind, but i’m not going to be able to do ‘turkey theory’ cold.

Four kinds of participants in a learning ecosystem

  • Consumer (What temperature do i take the turkey out?)
  • Student (How do I prepare a turkey from purchase to eating)
  • Rhizomatic learner (How can I come to my own approach to turkeys?)
  • Mentor (How can i help others with their turkeys?)

Moving from one group to another
This model is, in some ways, a directional development model that says that if you want people to learn the thing that you want them to learn… whether mental health, non-profit or whatever… that you generally want (a certain percentage of ) people moving from

  • Consumer to student
  • Consumer to rhizomatic learner
  • Student to rhizomatic learner
  • Rhizomatic learner to Mentor
  • Student to Mentor
  • Mentor to Rhizomatic learner

Spaces needed to support the model
Not all platforms are ready for this kind of interaction, some are focused on delivering content (to consumers) some are lock-step course platforms and others are designed for communities. I think all three of these can be (and probably should be) used together. My feeling is that there is a mix here, a combination of these spaces that can be achieved to reach that ecosystem. I should add… it need not all be on the same website.

  • Information space
  • Course spaces
  • A place for people to gather

Mentors aren’t really a space, which is why this isn’t a space chart. It’s a membership chart. Mentors are going to live across all three spaces. They will, potentially, answer questions in the information space. They will, potentially, be part of the audience, or be the teachers in the course space. They will, potentially, be participants in the community space.

What problem does this solve?
What it does for me is it gives me a framework that allows me to talk about how to create an online learning experience. In a course like #rhizo14/15 (a course on rhizomatic learning) I’m focusing almost entirely on the community. Should I make more of an effort to leave people with answers to their questions? Should I have an onboarding process that people could use that would give them a structured introduction to the idea? Should I make an effort to organize mentors who can help direct traffic for new people?

Community can do a great deal to support an organization in the work it wants to do… but it’s mostly hard work. I’ve spoken to many groups over the years who are willing to do that work, but didn’t have the language they needed internally to plan for what need to be done. In looking long term for any organization that wants to achieve its goals through open learning, these could help with planning by providing some language for a conversation. It could also allow you to keep track of the community over time. Are we seeing fewer mentors over time? Is our student community growing? A different balance is going to be struck depending on your goals…

If you’re looking to enact a change, say, to a more open environment or a more collaborative environment, hopefully this gives you a place to start. Take, modify, share.


  • This model certainly owes some of its inspiration to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model.
  • There are potential similarities here to the Visitors and Residents model.
  • This chart was built through a sprint process, from October 19th to 24th. Original draft by Dave Cormier. Draft 2 Tayte Willows. Draft 3 Rebecca Petersen & Dave Cormier. Sprint members – John Schinker, Maha Bali, Michael Rutter, Jennifer Maddrell, Rebecca Petersen, Lawrie Phipps, Robin DeRosa, Tayte Willows, Bonnie Stewart, Erin DeSilva and Dave Cormier