Diversify Online Learning Methods

…but take a step back and think about it first

“We need more online tools in schools” — is currently on the top five list of topics that don’t have “corona” in their headline. Yes but how? As a long-time consultant for enterprise change processes, I am a big fan of collaboration methodologies, which allow me to structure the work in groups of people to reach a specific goal. We all in the consultancy industry learned more or less painfully that the front-led knowledge transfer is neither working nor fun. “Death by Powerpoint” is a common name in our business for what we know as “class lesson” in the education domain.

The current crisis, caused by forced isolation, shows the limits of this educational approach so clearly — to schedule a day in video in the same way as you would have scheduled a day of class lessons in school, is simply impossible. The energy which a traditional teacher has to spend to keep her flock of students together online, becomes so obvious here that few really try, and even less succeed. Student churn is inevitable since typical onsite sanctions don’t work in a virtual world.

So we invented a lot of nice shiny new concepts, starting decades ago — “Brainstorming”, “Story Telling”, “Design Thinking”, “Scrum”, to name just a few. And psychology found out a lot about individual thought processes and group dynamics while solving problems, which is nicely summarized in this diagram by Michael Simmons. Busy thinkers try to mix and match these collaborative concepts now to carry on online. For example the Age of Artists’ multidimensional view on phases and needs leads to templates that educate meeting moderators what they have to pay attention to. Others like are Alberto Brandolini not so optimistic and see a systemic slowdown in the effort of creating “Big Pictures” meetings DC (During Corona).

This is also my experience from countless on-premise and online projects — for breakthroughs one needs gatherings of people to work really well. Many learn now in times of isolation that coming physically together in a group or a team has some “magic substance” that the “online of today” has not. Of course, we can use video sessions, online chats and joint remote drawing to move on, but It is simply not possible to achieve the same togetherness that is so often crucial for success.

Wait a minute, for what? Success? Whose success? A lot of those methods optimize a communications process but still are mostly used in a context that strives towards efficiency and controllability, towards a given (business) goal.

So, is the satisfied individual just a “collateral benefit” of those methods? Maybe this is a little harsh, but I think we will have much more concepts to observe and evolve than we thought when going online with our education systems. So what should the new normal, or “no normal”, as Will Richardson recently named it in the #relearn2020 conference of Learnlife, look like?

I think we have to enable learners that they create that magic inside of themselves.

Most important for that is to give everyone a space in the conversation. In physical meetings, this happens automatically. Groups tend to break apart somewhat in these workshops, be it in the chats during breaks, be it in some side conversations when people are given space for “group work”. This is a fruitful exchange when turning to common work again. In online meetings, this rarely happens since more than one person rarely can speak at a time. So we have to find replacement methods. I think at the sociocratic consent rounds that every group has to go through when coming to decisions. Every participant is heard, and everyone has to be consent before the process continues. A good practice that needs empathy, discipline, and time.

Another fine concept is the Bohm Dialogue. Here we even more concentrate on the individual’s need to share thoughts and impressions, because we have a gathering that has no agenda to fulfill, just a question for reflection. No discussion is allowed, no feedback, and no direct visual contact to the speaker. In physical space, participants sit together in a circle, and have a token in the center. Who wants to speak, takes the token and speaks, or keeps silent. When returned, another person can take the token and continue or issue own thoughts. Attendants report that they have had initial difficulties with the concept of creating no “result” but felt personally enriched by the space they got and the exchange they shared.

Meditational elements are fine online, too. I recently jumped late into an online session, and everyone had their eyes closed and followed the moderator in a little meditation exercise. See Stephanie Barnes for their approach with this idea.

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” was one of the core ideas in the Agile Manifesto that was released 2001 by a group of computer engineers (a vastly underestimated species when it comes to solve complex problems with people involved).

I believe it is time that we dim down the efficiency and growth frenzy a little and use our knowledge toolboxes to give learners more space and time to evolve personally — we see since some weeks that a slowdown is possible without a breakdown, and I am convinced that a lot of new thinking comes out of that crisis.

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Martin Jahr

Martin Jahr

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Digital Designer & life-long learner of computers & humans. Now up to create, coach and deliver learning deployment strategies in Germany where things are late.