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Last week, the Center on Innovations in Learning (CIL) hosted its second annual “Conversations with Innovators”

Socrates, ready for conversation.

Socrates, ready for conversation.

at Temple University.  This invited event is intentionally kept small and intimate to enable participants, largely representing state departments of education and regional comprehensive centers, to engage in a dialogue with selected experts at the leading edge of educational innovation.  

Last year was CIL’s first time running this event, and our evaluation feedback reinforced how thankful participants were to engage in a more “low-tech” and personal way: a real dialogue about weighty and important topics related to innovation. There is so much web-based information out there (including this site), and virtual forms of professional development are gaining ground.  In fact, just yesterday I was involved in a meeting (virtually, naturally), when a colleague outside CIL described in-person meetings as “dinosaurs”…i.e., relics from another time, now replaced by more convenient and less expensive virtual modes of convening and learning.  Maybe so.  But maybe, like so many things, it just depends.

Initially conceived as modern-day “fireside chats”, the “Conversations” event was aimed at making esoteric and academic topics related to educational innovation relatable and approachable to a broader set of leaders and practitioners.  The limitation with that approach, however, was its unidirectionality.  To move from awareness-building to real understanding, revelation, and potential application, CIL felt dialogue was required.  And an in-person format was favored for intimacy and community-building.

For a Center focused on innovation, gathering people together to listen to experts, question them and each other, and engage in facilitated conversations may sound quaint….”old-school.”  And maybe it is.  In keeping with the idea that knowledge and learning is socially-constructed, the “Conversations” event is consistent with Gordon Pask’s Conversation theory,, which posits that learning occurs through conversations about a subject matter, which brings ideas and new knowledge to the surface.  Exploratory talk, dialogic talk, and interthinking are also valued pedagogical approaches for children.  Hence this approach, while sound, is not innovative (Unless, perhaps, your name is Socrates.)

But it’s not dead, either.  Yes, theories of mobile learning are taking the strengths of conversational learning and applying and transforming them with varying platforms that are personal, ubiquitous, and networked.  I can attest to the learning I’ve experienced by following the Twitter feeds of colleagues I respect, reading the comments section of various blogs, posting my own reactions, and watching the dialogue virtually unfold.  Still, participants in our Conversations event expressed the value of face-to-face interaction, the ability to network at a personal level, and the need to “slow down” and devote continuous time to deep thought and reflection.  This may not be inconsistent with a virtual platform for sharing and reflection, yet it may also provide something different, valuable, and increasingly unique and important  in our professional experiences.

When to convene virtually and when to convene in-person?  With more options available to us, we may all need to get more sophisticated in our ability to tailor learning experiences to the most appropriate and efficient forum.  Yet at a time when budgets are tight, time is scarce, and virtual resources are plenty, a Center focused on Innovations in Learning may rightly consider well-chosen opportunities for real-time, in-person, sustained and focused conversation to be innovative.

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One thought on “When the face-to-face conversation IS the innovation

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