Posted by: networklearning | November 21, 2006

Professional Development – The Usability and Empowerment Divide, Unconferences and the Role of Management

The Usability and Empowerment Divide is worrying in the context of the many thousands of teachers in organisations who may be currently being left behind in terms of the opportunities to develop skills and knowledge for today’s knowledge economy.

Recently I was lucky enough to have attended a number of professional development events in New Zealand as part of the Future of Learning in a Networked World tour where the potentialities of unstructured professional group learning were revealed, that is the unstructured conversational – ad hoc tell me what I want to know – talk to me about what I’m interested in – nature of the unconference format.

‘An unconference event begins with face to face schedule making which allows for emerging developments in the rapidly moving technology field to be covered. The opening includes time for attendees to introduce themselves and orient to the whole group. Participants are invited to write their name and session topic on an 8.511 piece of paper. They announce the title of their session to the whole room and then post it on a schedule on the wall. Once all the sessions have been posted, the community can stand in front of the schedule wall and decide which sessions they would like to attend. Sessions are about an hour long with 15 min breaks. Lunch lasts for about an hour. The day closes with all the participants gathering in a circle in one room and sharing for 2030 min the highlights of the day.’

Check out the feedback from participants from Auckland on the unconference format.

Derek Chirnside takes a wander around.

Consider the following similar learning environment for smaller groups, in particular the use of open space for clusters of conversational activity for all levels of learning.

I asked Jana Holly of how she felt about her sense of participation.

  • Me – So you’re part of the circus called FLNW and you feel like a participating audience member?
  • Jana – When I walked into this room I realised here where rings of activity going on, it was all very entertaining and exciting and I want to participate but I’m also more in an audience role.
  • Me – Would you say you are participating in the style that Leigh is explaining to you (relaxed conversational show and tell)
  • Jana – It feels to me like my very presence here contributes to the process even if my fingers don’t touch the keyboard.
  • Steven – Would you be able to take what Leigh has just shown you and use it yourself?
  • Jana -I think with practice yes, I’ll have to go to the circus summer school.
  • Leigh – I think it’s important thinking there that just by being here you are contributing alot of people even in our group feel like ‘what am I here for?’ because they are not very vocal, but just being here is enough.

The Usability and Empowerment Divide

For an explantation of the problem of the Usability and Empowerment Divide read Jakob Nielsens Digital Divide: The Three Stages , a very revealing paper on the barriers to the on the use of technology and lack of digital literacy skills across learning organisations. Ken Burgin of Profitable Hospitality neatly summarises the issues raised.

‘There is:

  • An Economic Divide – who can and can’t afford a computer (and I would add, fast broadband). Less of an issue in Australia with el-cheapo PCs and $2 ph internet cafes.
  • A Usability Divide – problems related to lower literacy and for difficulties in understanding for seniors.
  • An Empowerment Divide – inability to use search, access to good software or participation in useful social networks.’

What role does management play within an organisation in addressing this?

Consider Don Perrin’s assertions from his paper ‘The New Knowledge Society and Higher Education’ from 1996, ten years ago!

‘Drucker, in his “Theory of the Business” published in the Harvard Business Review, postulates that for an organization to be effective there must be a balance between environment, in this case the students, employers, and extended community; the university mission should reflect client needs and expectations, and competencies, in this case relevant professional and teaching skills of faculty. The academy as we know it is being challenged in all three areas, and to the extent that these three areas are out of balance, effectiveness is reduced.’

‘The luxury of having thousands of teachers researching and producing their own courses, many of which are essentially similar, is grossly inefficient. Students will be empowered to explore, inquire, and learn cooperatively and interactively, and undertake more creative tasks. They will have access to great teachers in a spectrum of learning styles and a variety of media. Consortia of institutions will share their best teachers through quality lesson materials for their virtual classrooms as well as for on-campus courses.’

‘It is important to identify new markets and ways to market and deliver educational programs.’

The biggest untapped market for education is the non-traditional learner.’

Some schools are responding accordingly for example…

Talks about 24hr school
related video

Make the best of your organisation’s assets – The teachers

Assertion: In Professional Development Make the best of your organisations assets, teacher’s collective skills knowledge talents and energy enmasse?

Many educational technologists including myself are making the obvious assertion that the latent knowledge talents and skills needed that need to overcome the Usability and Empowerment Divide already exist within educational organisations. Innovators and Mentors can be harnessed to support educators with basic to intermediate skills working with them in groups, both online and face to face.

  • Learning from each other in short intense bursts of group activity
  • Discussing what technologies teaching practices and relevant to them and off intertest
  • Connecting together using technology
  • Using show and tell in the context of their teaching
  • Asking questions off each other continually over time.

In his paper Jakob Neilsen asserts ‘Almost 40% of the population has lower literacy skills’. If this is the case in educational organisations then what is needed is the awarenesss and will of management to strategically identify mentors and innovators and enable those with low level digital literacy skills to get together enmasse when needed. (in terms of raising awareness in this context the concept and ideas of the unconference seems appropriate).

Group learning events will will not solve the vast digital divide immediately they can energise and can catalyse the interest and awareness of those people who wish to become informed with the implicit aim that attendees start to ask question each other, become familiar with group learning and support each other in developing their skill development and shared knowledge OVER TIME!!!!

To enable this what is needed is management support and strategic programming of regular organisational professional development events in day to day activities that enable group learning and communication between teachers and that are driven by the learning needs of teachers.

In this context Management’s role and responsibility is to enable teachers the time and resources to autonomousily organise PD events. For example helping motivated teachers to get the numbers and attract interest from peers to make an unconference PD event economically viable.

Why not?

  • Fund short professional development events which enable interested teacher’s of all skill levels (basic to advanced) to physically and freely come together in large groups for a few hours, to gain skills, freely communicate with each other ask questions and figure things out together in an ad hoc manner as part of day to day business.
  • Identify existing Mentors and support and enable them to show their peers how to communicate and connect with each other online
  • For those with lower literacy skills Mentors can demonstrate what’s possible. The group supporting each other and instilling confidence in those who lack confidence individually.

The Teachers responsibility following PD

The individuals responsibility is to connect their resultant work with their students, learning group and peers after the PD event so that others can learn from their activity over time.

Teacher’s with lower level literacy skills can also seek more focused structured professional development if required. It is the Educational technologist’s responsibilty to enable people of all skill levels to access open professional development and be able to connect and ask questions of each other.

This is all nothing new but the reality is it’s very difficult to sustainability implement these ideas within an organization without Management continuing to promote teachers ongoing participation in day to day teaching

Conclusion – Top down support for bottom up networking of teachers enmasse.

Top Down support for bottom up networking of teachers is required to bring about organisational Change.

Managers and Head Teachers need to drive and facilitate this change change in order to begin to address the the problem of the Usability and Empowerment Divide. Participation can’t obviousily be enforced from all teachers, however a culture of networked innovation in day-to-day activities will promote participation and sharing practices as part of a wider sustainable professional development model. More research has to occur into processes to achieve the following outcomes:

  • Sustainability – Follow through with the support of the implementation of mentor networks at an organisational level through PD- Professional Development.
  • Adaptability Be flexible and responsive to the emergent needs of the Teacher Innovation Network. Eg: Recognising the time and equipment needed to adopt new innovative practices that work.
  • Enablement – Give teachers ability to self regulate what gets filtered through firewall, and take on the development through to the students and Teacher Network.

As the pace of change ramps up in the knowledge economy many teachers will be unable to remain informed and keep up. Without innovative professional development action enmasse it appears the Usability and Empowerment Divide in relation to technology and new teaching practices may become so difficult to overcome that many people, teachers, students and management alike will fail to relate to each other’s professional working world thus impacting on the business of the ‘educational’ organisation.


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