School of digital

SchoolofDigital is bringing together something I’ve been wanting to do for a few years now – effective online training that brings together the advantages of e-learning with the benefits of face to face training.

It’s a hard nut to crack, but with some of the experiments I’ve been running recently with Steve DaleDavid Wilcox and others; and following the online learning thought leadership of the likes of Donald Clark, I think I’ve come up with the best balance.

Hence SchoolofDigital – which is where I’ll be running courses on innovating online, by using innovative online delivery methods. The key elements are:

  • asynchronous – learners don’t have to be in the same place at the same time
  • social and personal – as well as shared resources, content and discussion areas, learners get one to one support from the course facilitator
  • responsive – because this isn’t a pre-prepared day long course, there is the opportunity for content to be created to meet the specific needs of delegates as they arise

The first course we will be running will start at the beginning of May, and is on successful digital engagement.

Here’s a quick summary of how that course will work:

The course consists of eight lessons, which last for a week each. Total learner time per lesson is around an hour, which they can do in one chunk or spread throughout the week – it is entirely up to them. The idea is to provide a social, asynchronous learning environment  where the learner can access materials and get involved at a time that suits them, within the framework of a weekly lesson format. We do as little synchronised activity as possible, to make things as flexible as we can.

Support is provided both to the group as a whole, with discussion and sharing of experience and knowledge encouraged; and privately through email or telephone discussion between the course facilitator and learners.

Each lesson will include some or all of the following elements:

  • An introductory video introducing the topic and explaining some details
  • Downloadable templates, resources, guides and case studies
  • Links to further reading and case studies
  • Interviews with practitioners
  • Screencast demos of how to perform certain actions
  • Learner discussion areas
  • One to one private email or telephone support
  • Additional content in response to queries and requests
  • Assignments to practice learning

The eight lessons in this course are:

  1. Introductions, objectives, how the course and the platform works
  2. What is digital engagement and what defines success?
  3. Strategies for successful digtial engagement
  4. Popular platforms
  5. Emerging platforms
  6. Other tools and techniques
  7. Skills and roles
  8. Bringing it all together

The course is suitable for people already comfortable with the internet and social media, and who want to take their use of these tools to the next level in terms of meeting personal or organisational objectives.

The course costs £450 + VAT per delegate.

Confessions of a justified camper

A little while ago, Paul Coxon wrote a blog post querying the long term viability of unconferences in the public sector. I didn’t respond, because I felt I couldn’t do so without sounding defensive and chippy.

This evening, the weekly Twitter chat, #lgovsm, was based on Paul’s ideas. I did decide to involve myself, and it turned out that everything I said was defensive and chippy. Ah well.

Paul’s basic point is that there are a lot of unconference type events going on – perhaps too many – and that this saturation means people will soon get annoyed that they don’t get enough out of all these events, all these Saturdays that they have to give up and so the ‘movement’ will implode and the sector will be no better off.

I think my issue here is not necessarily with what Paul is saying – he is of course perfectly entitled to his opinions. Nor am I touchy about criticism of these events – after all, I am only vaguely responsible for two a year, and there’s usually some critique of them afterwards, which doesn’t tend to bother me.

Instead, I think Paul is perhaps criticising a group of events – and I can only speak for the ones I am involved with of course – against a set of criteria (ROI, measurable outcomes etc) that we never aimed to meet – which strikes me as being a trifle unfair.

Unconferences for me are social learning events. People learn from each other. But it’s just one type of learning event, and there’s room for many. I get involved in traditional conferences too, and they can be extremely valuable when done well (e.g. when they have me speaking at them).

So here’s a quick overview of how I see this stuff and why I think that some of the things Paul is talking about don’t matter for me all that much.

1. When I am involved in these things, I have no objectives other than people turn up, sessions are pitched, people talk to one another and there is plenty of smiling. That’s it. Others may have their own outcomes in mind – good for them!

2. The content of the event is of course driven by the attendees and that can have variable results. I’ve attended some sessions at ‘camps that were frankly rubbish. I’ve attended others that were simply a room of people telling one another how great they are. The point is that I could leave, and I did.

The other point is that if people want to spend time discussing how great they are then of course that’s fine and I am delighted to have provided a space for them to do that in.

3. The echo chamber argument is true to a certain extent and not in another. The attendance of the events I am involved in grows all the time and there’s roughly a 50% churn in attendees each time. So new people come, veterans come, and they all add what they feel comfortable with. There’s a lot of agreement, because it’s a self selecting group – and again, that’s fine. But it’s not true to say it is a load of continual back-slapping, because it isn’t. There is debate and disagreement – albeit very polite debate and disagreement.

4. I feel no responsibility for anyone else’s personal development. If you got nothing from an event, then that’s a shame, but at least you tried.

5. The best people to attend an event are those that attend the event. I don’t like the idea of trying to get specific groups along – it’s a melting pot of the enthusiastic, the curious and the weird. Let’s keep it that way.

6. What a good unconference is, at the end of the day, is a room full of interesting people. What people choose to do with within the time and space that they have chosen to be in is entirely up to them.

7. There are lots of ‘camp type events going on. I guess we will now when saturation happens because people will stop going. But of course nobody goes to all of these things (I hope!!) and it’s a case of picking and choosing the best ones for you. Nobody ought to feel under an obligation to attend (unless it’s the sort of thing like when you go to the pub with your mates, even though you really don’t feel like it, just in case you miss something).

8. Sponsors see value in these sorts of events, increasingly so. Also, they don’t ask for ROI, or direct sales, or access to budget holders. They come for two reasons, I think. First, it’s to get to talk to people they rarely get to talk to – often the people who actually use their products, or products like theirs. Second, they just want to support the sector, and a bit of the sector that feels dynamic and motivated.

9. If you feel you can do these events in a better way, that appeals to different people, or more people, then go for it! Steph might even let you have some money to make it happen.

10. It might be that nobody will want unconferences any more, which would be fine by me. They are a pig to sort out, and other than a bit of goodwill, aren’t terribly productive. But it seems to be that for the moment, there is plenty of demand and plenty more people who want to be involved, and plenty of interest in more specific, focus events.

Unconferences are an important part of the learning mix for any sector, but it’s important not to think of them as more than they are, nor to ascribe overly high expectations for what they might achieve.

By the way, UKGovCamp is back on 19th January 2013. See you there?

Experiments in social learning

Social learning is a really interesting concept. It’s basically the idea that we can often learn better from each other rather than from an expert or teacher.

There’s an obvious usage for the internet and the kind of social tools I write about here in social learning, and an additional argument in favour of making them available within organisations.

Creating easy to use, informal spaces for learning to happen is something I am really committed to – GovCamp and LocalGovCamp are offline examples and lately I have been experimenting in online social learning too.

Two examples are fairly similar. Earlier this week, FutureGov‘s Dom Campbell and I were in Exeter, speaking with Devon County Council’s managers about the opportunities of digital innovation in local government.

My talk was an expansion of this ancient blog post, entitled If Place is a system, lets make it an open source one (slides here). Part of the talk is to tell some of the interesting stories about the birth of hypertext, the internet, the world wide web and free software.

Folk like Vannevar Bush, Doug Englebart, Ted Nelson, Richard Stallman and others. People for whom the primary role of technology was to support learning and knowledge sharing.

Devon

Anyway, before the event, Carl Haggerty and I threw together a very quick private WordPress site to enable some social learning to happen around the talks Dom and I were giving. We kept it very, very simple, choosing five or six examples of digital innovation, providing a bit of background with some text, links and videos, and then opening up the comments for people to discuss how that technology might affect their service.

So, nothing clever, technology-wise. But such a simple setup clearly resonated with people – we had 67 comments in less than a week – many of which were left in the evenings, or at the weekend.

By doing this, we managed to turn a short, half day learning event into a conversation, with ideas and experience being shared between people at a time and in a place covenient to them. It makes complete sense.

I’m taking a similar approach with a group of up and coming local government folk who are taking part in the SOLACE Springboard programme. Again, I’m providing a one hour workshop session later this month, on digital innovation.

To make this a bit more useful, I’ve built a similar site to the Devon one, with a few pages outlining some of the concepts, with some text, videos, documents, links and so on, and encouragement to use the comments to discuss these issues before and after the face to face session.

Again, the aim is to reinforce the discussion at the face to face event and add some value to it – not necessarily to replace it entirely.

The key thing to me in terms of making social learning like this work is to make it as easy to get involved with as possible and to allow it to be as self-directed as possible – not to make too many rules or force people to do things in a certain way. Again – pretty much like GovCamp!

The second example takes more of a lead from social networking ideas, and uses BuddyPress to create a dedicated social learning network.

This was done following conversations with my friends David Wilcox and Steve Dale, inspired by the work on social learning shared by Harold Jarche.

Social Learning NetworkThe site has all the usual social networky bits like profiles, friends, activity walls, groups, wiki type pages and so on. But of course it isn’t the features that matter but how you use them. Steve and David have used this platform to provide an easy to use environment for an exploratory learning exercise on behalf of the Nominet Trust around the use of technology by those in later life – something they both know a lot about, of course 🙂

People share their stories, links to interesting things and so on – and follow up what interests them. Nobody claims to be an expert, there are no hierarchies and people get as involved as they want to.

As I have mentioned here before, we do a fair bit of training for various organisations and increasing I see that we need to offer an element at least of online social learning as part of this.

I’m even planning how a whole course could be delivered in this way – although I suspect that’s for another post.

On a slightly related note, this post by Clay Shirky on the concept of the “massive open online course” is a really good read.

Tools I use for learning

Recently, as part of a survey of members of the Social Learning Centre, I put together a list of ten sites or apps I use a lot in my own learning activity. Actually, I thought ten was rather a lot, so to share it here, I thought I’d whittle it down to half that number.

I think it’s useful to always remind yourself of the tools you use regularly in your own activity, particularly if you spend time designing sites, systems and platforms for others to use.

What’s also interesting for me is that everything in this list is pretty old! It turns out I am not exactly on the cutting edge. Who knew?

Google Reader

The source of all knowledge! OK, maybe not, but I’m subscribed to over 500 blogs and sites in Reader and it’s the second place I go to every day, after my email inbox. Maybe 80% of everything I scan through on there is of no use, but that’s ok –  the 20% is what matters.

I do worry about the future of Reader – RSS is not the hippest of technologies and I’m concerned Google might switch it off some day… which would make me very sad.

Everything I find really useful gets starred in Reader, and thanks to IFTTT, gets pinged to Twitter as a link, and dumped into Evernote as an archive.

Evernote

My portable archive of everything. Web pages get copied into Evernote, everything I star in Reader ends up in here, notes in meetings and during phone calls… pretty much everything that passes my eyes online ends up here in case I need it later.

What’s interesting about Evernote is that it has reached that stage of ubiquity in my way of working where I don’t even recognise that it’s there most of the time, I just perform various actions, look stuff up in it, type in notes, clip a web page, without even thinking. Evernote fits right into my workflow, which is a key thing for any technology.

Wikipedia

I was thinking about putting Google search in here, but actually most of the time what Google produces is a link to a Wikipedia page, so I thought I’d disintermediate for you. No matter what I’m doing, I find myself looking stuff up on Wikipedia to find out more – reading a book, watching TV, whatever. It’s one of the things I use my Nexus 7 tablet for – just so handy a form factor for quickly looking stuff up.

Twitter

Not just where I share stuff I found illuminating, but where I get to find things out too. Whether ‘overhearing’ interesting conversations or picking up on links and stories shared by others, Twitter is a hugely important part of my learning network.

Interestingly (perhaps) is that now I have been on Twitter for a little while, and built up a fairly substantial follower/following count, I find it less useful for asking questions myself and getting responses. Perhaps this is because the network is just that much more busy these days – who knows? – but the apparently logical idea that if you have more followers you get more responses doesn’t seem to be true.

Maybe I’m just asking the wrong questions.

WordPress

Blogging is where all the stuff I’ve learned elsewhere gets written up and formulated into something that’s usually even less coherent than it was before. This has gotten increasingly difficult as the various stresses and strains of life, running a business, etc get in the way; but I do try to blog thoughts and ideas as often as I can.

Hopefully this helps others – but the primary benefit is my own. The process of writing for a public audience forces you to critically analyse your ideas and thinking and there is as much value in the countless posts that never get published because of their idiocy as there is in those that are seen and commented by others.

WordPress is a publishing platform that I feel I have grown up with since I started using it back in 2004 and it just gets out of the way for me.

Two cool tools for knowledge and learning

Neat applications for sharing knowledge and learning are like buses, it turns out.

Icon

Icon is a new app from Spigit, who are the leaders in innovation management software. It’s a really simple concept (which is good) – the online question and answer format, but for an internal audience.

So, what Yammer is to Twitter, Icon is to Quora.

It’s a fab idea and to be quite honest I have no idea why nobody has done it before.

Icon is free to get going with, and could be an incredibly easy way to build up a useful internal knowledge base. For those using Yammer already, there seems to be a way to integrate them, which is a good idea.

Lore

Lore is an online course platform. Unlike than big systems like Moodle, it focuses on making it really easy to make single courses, and to just get them out there.

It provides a place for discussions to take place between learners and teachers, accept and grade assignments, share resources, and to have a calendar for real life get togethers and webinars.

What’s remarkable is that it is free!

I’m going to be having a play with Lore to see how well it works, and perhaps put together a test online course about digital engagement, if folk would be up for it.

Thanks to Rich Millington for bringing Lore to my attention. Rich and his colleagues are running a free course about online community management using the Lore platform, which will be well worth signing up for!

The wacky world of webinars

I’ve done a few webinars now with the Learning Pool posse and am planning to do a lot more as both a marketing thing for Kind of Digital and as a part of the training work we do.

Webinars are going to be a really important part of the training and communications mix, as they provide a lot of the benefits of face to face learning without the travel expense and time lost of traditional events. The only thing that really sucks about webinars is the name, but I guess we’re stuck with it.

Here’s some lessons I’ve learned from my experiences of running a webinar.

1. Have a wingman

By this I mean someone sat behind the scenes, not talking but just keeping a watching brief over what’s happening. Someone to ping the odd message out to the chatroom, help manage the questions, and to remind you to do and say stuff.

Presenting a webinar can be a bewildering business and having someone to keep you on track is vital.

2. Have a co-presenter

This came as a bit of a surprise to me, but it turns out people don’t want to sit and listen to me talk at them for an hour down the phone. Madness!

Having somebody else involved can make a real difference to the dynamic of the webinar, especially if it brings multiple perspectives to the session. Also, it means that witty banter is on the cards, which improves things for delegates no end.

3. Practice

Always have a run through an hour or so before the actual performance. It improves flow, points out any obvious problems that might happen and gives everyone a chance to rehearse what they will say.

Never skimp on practice!

4. Keep talking

As I found out when doing  webinar this morning, stuff either goes wrong, or at least goes slowly – especially when you are demonstrating a website or online service. If you’re waiting for something to happen, or if you are having to have multiple goes at getting something to work, don’t go quiet!

Keep chuntering on – not just moaning about how the technology never seems to work, but go over some of the stuff you’ve already said, which will probably be a fairly useful refresher to the attendees. Not saying anything can make attendees think that everything has broken, including the sound, so even if you aren’t exactly setting the world alight with your commentary, keep it coming.

5. Interact

Webinars without audience participation can be pretty dull. Set up a couple of polls to run during the event. One great feature of GoToWebinar, the software both Learning Pool and Kind of Digital use, is that it shows you who is paying attention – ie those who have the webinar window in focus on their desktop.

If someone has flicked to check their emails while you are talking, you know about it, and that’s always a good time to launch a poll! You can also get people to type in questions and comments throughout the webinar which keeps participation up and people concentrating.

6. Follow up

When people register for the webinar, they leave their email address – so use it! Send them a link to a recording of the webinar so they can share it with their colleagues and other resources. You can also get attendees to fill in a quick survey at the end which is another great way of grabbing a bit more information from delegates.

Do you have any tips or experiences to share about webinars? Leave them in the comments!