A Common Purpose

It’s 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and I’m sitting in a rapidly filling high school cafeteria in Philadelphia. As I look around, a see a few familiar faces, and even more familiar names. But for the most part, these are strangers.

They’re not part of my world. They’re from urban schools. Charter schools. Parochial schools. Private schools. They’re teachers. Integration specialists. School leaders. Professors. Students. They represent 40 states and five countries.  Zoe Strauss’s opening comment from the previous night’s panel discussion leaps to mind:

Chris, what the hell am I doing here?

The panel had included some pretty heavy hitters. Strauss, a photographer and artist, was joined by Dan Barcay, the lead software engineer for Google Earth. Alex Gilliam founded Public Workshop, an opportunity for teens to take an active role in shaping the designs of their communities. C. J. Taylor is a computer science professor in the GRASP Robotics Lab at U. Penn. Phoenix Wang founded Startl to help get new media learning projects into students’ hands. These people know a thing or two about innovation, and they were discussing how to sustain innovation in schools.

But this was no ordinary audience. The 500 people packed into the auditorium and adjoining overflow room aren’t observers of this process. They’re participants. The Twitter stream for this session was flying by faster than anyone could read it. If I had been on stage, I could have looked up to see a couple hundred people typing furiously on their mobile devices. But they weren’t being rude. They were engaged in the conversation. They were simultaneously listening to the panelists, asking questions, challenging statements, agreeing, disagreeing, and applying the conversation to their own situations. The panel provided a catalyst for a much larger discussion on innovation, and thanks to the magic of video streaming, the discussion transcended that little auditorium at the Franklin Institute and included educators from all over the world.

The high level of engagement set the stage for the weekend. This isn’t a conference where you sit through an hour of boring, bullet-laden Powerpoint slides. This isn’t an opportunity for experts to tell everyone how things should be done. This is a time for asking questions, for challenging assumptions, and for exploring new ideas and possibilities together. When Chris Lehmann took the podium in the cafeteria on Saturday morning, he described this assembly as a tribe. We are united by a common purpose. We seek to improve learning for our children. Like any tribe, there are differences of opinion. We really can’t even agree on what we mean by “improve” or “learning.” But this community of mutual respect in an environment that invites discourse allows everyone to participate in a conversation that benefits the whole. I feel humbled to be a part of that discussion. I know that I’ve taken away much more than I’ve contributed, and I feel apologetic for not keeping up my end of the discourse bargain.

Near the end of the conference, I sat in the library and reflected on the weekend. I tried to jot down a few notes on the take-aways. There was some validation of things I already believed. There were some contradictions as well. Mostly, though, there was a lack of clarity. We’re in uncharted waters. What is the purpose of education? What do we mean by learning? What is the role of the teacher in a world of information abundance? How do you convince people that schools must change? Is this a top-down revolution, a grass-roots revolution, or not a revolution at all? And how did we have a gathering of technology and social media experts and manage to not talk about the technology?

I’m looking forward to building on the new relationships I’ve made. I can’t wait to engage others in some of the discussions we’ve had. I need to do a lot more reflecting on some of the issues raised, and how they affect my particular school district. But above all, I’m proud to be part of the tribe.

What’s not to MOOC?

The two-week break in the #change11 MOOC has given me an opportunity to catch up a bit, and to reflect on the experience so far. It’s now sixteen weeks since the start of the course, which has included thirteen weeks of content, a week of introduction, and a two-week winter break. According to Stephen Downes, the course has 2,000 registered participants. The course web site has had 38,000 visits. There have been 1300 blog posts tracked with the #change11 tag, and there have been 2500 tweets with the same tag.

On a personal level, I’ve spent about 25 hours on the course, I’ve blogged about it four times, and I’ve tweeted about it, umm, more than once (I think).  I’ve read or consumed more than 70 posts, documents, videos, and web conferences related to the course, and I’ve commented on about 10% of them. My notes are more than 16 pages long and are summarized in the Wordle image on this post (click on it for a better view).

Mostly, I’ve kept up by reading the daily email that comes from the course, which lists the upcoming events, recent blog posts, and tweets that use the #change11 course tag. I also set up a Paper.li newspaper using the #change11 course tag. This gives me an overview of the links posted via Twitter related to the Change course, all formatted as a daily newspaper. Admittedly, I haven’t always been faithful about using the tag, and I’m sure others have been doing the same thing. So the numbers cited above are probably estimates on the low side.

I’ve been trying to keep track of my level of engagement because I’m participating in a pilot project involving graduate workshop credit for MOOC participation. We’re trying to figure out how to make this authentic learning experience fit into the framework of formal continuing education workshops. Why shouldn’t work in a MOOC count toward teacher licensure renewal or salary advancement? Some would argue that participation is a MOOC is more relevant than taking a graduate workshop at a university. But the challenges are many. We have to find a way to ensure that people are really participating, that they’re really engaging with the content and other participants, and that they’re finding a way to make it relevant to their own professional lives. Plus. the regents like to see things like contact hours and some sort of tangible product that can be assessed.

In my case, then, a typical week consists of about 107 minutes of engagement. I read about 5 web resources. I take just over a page of notes. I make a comment on a blog post about every two weeks, and I post on my blog about the course roughly once a month. That’s well below my expected level of engagement, which called for about 30% more consumption of others’ content, and about double the contributions from me.

But none of this counts the related non-change11 stuff I’ve been doing. I bought and read Chris Lehmman’s new book on Web 2.0 tools and Will Richardson’s book on Personal Learning Networks. I passed them around among our administrative leadership team, and we’ve had many conversations about the future of schools. I attended a 21st Century Learning summit with my superintendent, and we spent a lot of time talking about how to reinvent our successful public school to continue to meet the needs of our students. And because my professional learning network is already in tune with many of the topics in the Change11 course, the same ideas keep coming up over and over in the normal conversation flow through those networks. That happens with or without the course tag. For most, that’s just lifelong learning. It’s great that my personal professional development is so embedded in my professional life and my online identity. But in this case, because I’m trying to track it, it’s a little messy.

The challenges for me, moving forward, are to increase my level of engagement with the other MOOC participants, and to bring some of these conversations down to the local level. I need to be engaging my teachers, my administrators, and my community members in these ideas about what next generation learning looks like. I hope to use several different strategies to accomplish this. Without using the terminology and structure, we may be bringing some of the elements of the MOOC into our school district as a professional development model.

2012 is going to be an exciting year.