Starting a Learning Process Online

Offline presentation of tools and discussion (photo Gerdi Keeler)

Offline presentation of tools and discussion (photo Gerdi Keeler)

On 31 January last, Gerdi Keeler and I conducted a workshop for NVO2 on how you can start a learning process online already before the first face-to-face event. In order to enable our participants to experience this concept, rather than just hearing about it, we created a closed online environment in which we shared smaller and bigger assignments with the participants. All assignments were related to the use of an online tool. Assignments were also all related to sharing experiences and information.

Using assignments before a learning process or training starts is of course nothing very revolutionary. In the sign up form, future participants are often asked about their motivation, about what it is they want to learn exactly and about their experience with the subject matter. Trainers or teachers also quite regularly ask participants to read something beforehand. All this information could be used to make participants aware of their own personal motivation to take part, to tailor the training to the real needs, to avoid spending time on something everyone already knows and to render the time spent together more effective by sharing some of the theory beforehand.

Also not new is the fact that such assignments tend to yield limited results, and that you mostly find out about how little results were achieved during the face-to-face event.

However, with the existing wealth of online tools you as trainer or teacher have much more possibility to get acquainted with your prospective participants than before. If you do not want to bother them, you can simply look up their LinkedIn profile to see what their experience is, and what skills they think they have. You can check out their Twitter account to see what makes them tick, and if they have a blog you can find out even more about their interests, activities and skills.

If you would like to engage with your participants before the training you can make use of many different online tools. You can ask them to share pictures, videos, cartoons, etc. or to comment on a blog post if you want to go in the direction of Flipping your Classroom.

These assignments can of course be sent out and collected via e-mail. But why take the risk of miscommunication? We all know a thing or two about “Reply all” in moments when it shouldn’t have been used and vice versa, as well as those times that you think you are sending something to one person and it turns out your address book selected another person with the same name. And why not use the chance to create a network of the participants? In other words, it is worth your while to create an online environment where you  and participants can post assignments, results, questions and replies.

Yammer network

Yammer network

In any case, we decided to create a closed network on Yammer for our communications with the participants.  We felt that this tool would provide the best possibility for discussion and sharing, and would probably not be too difficult to use for most people. Just in case, we shared a short guide on using Yammer via e-mail as well as in the Yammer network itself, so that participants could look up certain functionalities as they went along.

Most of the assignments we shared  involved visual tools, like Bitstrips, Wordle, Tagxedo, ReciteThis and the like. In all, some 12 tools were shared, excluding Yammer. Some tools were used by all participants, some by none and most by the majority of participants. Bitstrips, Wordle, Tagxedo and ReciteThis were the most popular tools: they were the most used and participants were the most enthusiastic about them.

What did you gain from the online start? In Spiderscribe

What did you gain from the online start? In Spiderscribe

Participants were very enthusiastic about the online start. They liked getting acquainted online. They found this way of starting “inspirational“, and had learned a lot from the tools and tips shared and from the exchange online. The tools presented were useful and clarifications provided were helpful. They had gotten a lot of ideas for their own work. This had motivated them hugely.

Reflections on the online start underlined the importance of selecting the right tool for the online environment. For some participants Yammer had been easy to use, and as the few questions they had were answered swiftly, they did not experience problems much. For others, however, it felt as if they had to learn two things: to use Yammer and to learn about the online tools offered through Yammer. It seems that they did not consider Yammer itself as one of the tools to be learned for an online start – just as your regular participant would see less use in investing time to learn working with Yammer compared to investing time in the course topic.

Another issue that was mentioned was that of expectations management. Participants had the feeling that they had to do everything that was offered, and that there was not enough time for this. In the end, no one managed to try out everything, although a few participants managed to try most of the tools. This issue could be seen either as a communication issue or as a responsibility issue: should trainers communicate precisely what needs to be done and how much time needs to be invested? Or should participants take responsibility for and ownership of what they want to learn, and also for those things that they decided are not top priority right now?

Here, I think, are some issues at stake that you might not encounter as much in case of offline assignments or even e-mailed assignments. While all assignments were individual-based, sharing them in an online environment where you also collect the products for all to see, could result in peer pressure, even if unintended. Participants see what others have done, they read the stories, questions and answers. In Yammer they can also easily check the statistics (although I do not believe they did in this case). They can also see when something was done – for instance, it would have been pretty much obvious if there had been a “last minute” worker included in the group. This is not the case if you send out assignments via e-mail and collect all replies individually. In that situation, people can be blissfully unaware of who has done what and whether that was within a suggested time frame or not. They also cannot see the quality of other people’s work. Of course, they can also not be inspired by each other, nor help each other out or learn from one another. Which is why we chose to create a network.

Another issue is that of the possibility to use certain online tools on the job. Some organisations do not allow the use of certain tools on work computers, and some people do not feel free to do such assignments from their work desks. This then leads to a need to do these assignments after work hours, from a home device. And that is something that some people simply do not like to do. That may not just be the case for employed participants, also freelancers can find it difficult to find time for self-development and can fail to see that certain tools will help them as professional as well. I do not think that this issue of work versus private sphere was too important for this group, but it was mentioned as an issue that could be important or even crucial to other groups of participants.

A last issue I would like to mention is that starting a learning process online offers the opportunity of a diversity that can be overwhelming and that is accelerated by the group process. As said above, during our ten days of online work with the group we shared 12 tools. Some of them were similar to each other and others not, some of them we asked participants to use, others we just asked them to look at. Some assignments could be ticked off in 5 minutes or less, other could take up more time.

Variety of tools shared, collected on Pinterest

Variety of tools shared, collected on Pinterest

Our idea was to share a variety of things that could appeal to different people, and to make sure that nobody would get bored by not seeing something interesting for a few days. This is also what we had experienced in an online course in which we were the participants ourselves: that people tend to “cherry pick”, depending on time available and the connection they see between what is offered and their personal and professional development goals. However, this is not how it worked for all members of our group. They got overloaded by the tools, the assignments, the products and reactions of others and seemingly unrelated discussions. My conclusion is that an online start requires a great level of discipline and balancing from the participants: they should dedicate time to it on a regular basis in order not to get lost, they should be very clear on what it is they want to learn and why, and they should make sure the online group process does not get in the way of their own plans and needs. On the other hand, as facilitator you will have to nurture these skills in the group members. I do not believe that labelling one assignment as obligatory and another not will help, nor that setting a requirement in terms of time investment will solve this. But I do believe that a facilitator should help participants set their own goals and that a facilitator should help create understanding for the different goals within the group.

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IPARD in Croatia

A year ago, Croatia and the European Union Member States signed the Accession Treaty through which Croatia will become the 28th Member State of the European Union as of 1 July 2013.

At the time, I wrote a post about bottlenecks in the process of preparation of accession. Bottlenecks encountered not just by Croatia, but also by countries that joined the EU in 2004. I wasn’t referring to the tremendous challenge of adopting 80,000+ pages of legislation and policies.

What I find even more challenging is the real change needed to fit in – the change needed in strategic programming and planning, monitoring and evaluation as well as the change needed in looking at social partnerships. Copy-pasting relevant legislation is just a small start of that process, which in the end is in my view much more significant than adoption of the acquis on paper.

In November this year I worked with HMRR – a Croatian network of civil society organisations working on rural development. This network consists of a wide range of groups that are all committed to improving life in rural areas in Croatia. Some of them operate on the local level, as so-called LAGs (Local Action Groups, part of the bottom up LEADER approach to rural development), while others focus on capacity building of stakeholders or on influencing national policies and strategies. Their joint expertise and experiences could potentially be very valuable to the country’s rural development programming through IPARD and the like. They decided to contribute to improving IPARD and future programmes by developing a report on IPARD design and implementation, including practical recommendations based on experiences from the field. Last month, I facilitated a workshop in which they shared ideas and planned for the writing of this report, which is expected to be ready in the beginning of 2013.

Challenges with measures already activated

Challenges with measures already activated

During the workshop we went through the different measures IPARD provides, using the official reports on IPARD in 2010 and 2011 and experiences from the group members in the period 2010-2012.

Interestingly, only 4 out of 7 planned measures have been activated to date. It is worrying that the measure on participatory local sustainable development of rural areas (the LEADER measure) has not been approved yet. At the moment, it is expected that this measure will become operational in early 2013, but that still leaves precious little time for Croatia to try to catch up before the new programming period of the Common Agricultural Policy (2014-2020).  It is puzzling that this measure has somehow been left so late – considering its pivotal role toward the other measures (the LEADER measure is supposed to lead to local strategic plans for sustainable development which would form the framework for all other investments) and considering that the IPARD programming document itself states clearly that this is an area that is new to Croatia and would require significant development. The good news is that despite the fact that the measure has not been activated, local stakeholders have not resigned themselves to simply waiting it out. Over the last few years civil society organisations like HMRR and its members have managed to initiate 31 Local Action Groups that are ready to move into action once the measure gets the green light. And that are being active even now.

Plenty of ideas for promotion and support for beneficiaries

Plenty of ideas for promotion and support for beneficiaries

Also puzzling is the fact that the measure for Technical Assistance has not been approved yet, and is thus not operational. The reason I find this fairly bizarre is because this measure would actually enable the Ministry to implement IPARD. The measure aims to provide financial support for preparation, monitoring, evaluation, information and control activities necessary for implementation of the programme (IPA Regulation 718/2007, Art 182). In its reports over 2010 and 2011 the Ministry complains about the fact that up until now all promotional activities are being covered from the national budget only, since IPARD budget is not available while the measure is not activated. It seems pretty weird that this measure was not prepared and approved first – before all the others – and I cannot fathom why the European Commission has not insisted on this. If they have, and if somehow the Ministry failed to prepare a decent ordinance I still do not understand why in that case the Commission has not lent a hand in drawing up a proper ordinance that they could have approved sooner.

Of course I can fully relate to the idea that a Candidate Country has to develop capacities to take care of such things by itself. But what I do not get is why there is not a more intensive – or successful – investment in actually building those capacities. We all know that existing EU Member States did not get where they are in terms of governance and programming overnight. And we all know that achieving real change is a tedious and time consuming affair. Croatia’s been at it for less than two decades and has been swamped with things to get done in that period on account of the massive operation of integration into the EU. It’s no wonder that not everything is done perfectly, even with the best of intentions. There is simply too much of it to be done in such a short time and under challenging circumstances.

It is a shame that there are millions of Euro set aside for IPARD in Croatia while only a small part of this amount is being used: as of end 2011 approx. 16% of allocated funds had been committed, while less than 2% of the total amount had been in effect paid out. Of course there have been tenders for the 4 active measures in 2012 so that by now use of allocated funds will be higher, but at the same time there are a lot of reports from different sides that approval rates are still low, and procedures take long to be completed. Delays seems to increase over time rather than decrease as a result of practice as you might expect.

Conclusion of HMRR workshop participants

Conclusion of HMRR workshop participants

All of this, in my view, points to a great need for support in handling IPARD. Support that, again in my view, should be provided with or via the Commission, with help of civil society organisations on the ground that can help identify bottlenecks and formulate possible solutions that will bring daily practice in rural areas closer to the intricacies of IPARD, that as a European funding programme needs to meet European standards in management and control. A network like HMRR, with a combination of keen policy thinkers and local community organisers, might be ideally placed to provide such support.

The realisation of such cooperation could also serve as a practical example of how a partnership between government institutions and civil society could help achieve crucial improvements for society – in this case, for rural communities. For the sake of those communities I hope this will happen sooner rather than later, because IPARD in Croatia is in urgent need of decisive action by all stakeholders to ensure that available funds are used effectively to genuinely increase the quality of life in rural areas.

Want to learn more about the 28th Member State of the European Union?

INFOGRAPHIC: Get to know Croatia - the 28th member of the European Union
Infographic design by: Stedas dizajn – infographic design and web usability

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Change Is Never Easy But It Can Be Done

Recently, I had the great pleasure of reading the book “Switch – How To Change Things When Change Is Hard” by Chip and Dan Heath. Apart from it being very well written, and thus fun and easy to read, this book is a must-read for all of us. Not just for the so-called professionals, but truly for every one of us out here. After all, in one way or another we are all dealing with change. Changes that are forced upon us, changes that we want to see in others as well as changes that we want for ourselves and our communities and societies.

Infographic Rider Elephant Path via Visual.ly

Infographic Rider Elephant Path via Visual.ly

The Heath brothers dish out many stories about people involved in change – in different environments, on different levels and with very different goals. All of them are used to visualise different aspects of their in principle very simple framework for successful change. It consists of an elephant, a rider on top of the elephant and a path they can take. Since you all must read the book, I will not say more than this about it: change needs motivation from the heart, energy and dogged perseverance (elephant) as well as a rationale – understanding of the ultimate goal and the need for change – combined with clear thinking and analysis of the situation (the rider). It is possible to shape the path so that it is easier-going. And: small steps are all-important.

What made this simple framework so appealing to me, is that I could easily recognise my own experiences in it. I, too, have found that in order to achieve change you need to get people motivated to move and that this is more than just explaining to them why such and such change is important. Knowing is by far not enough to get into action, while at the same time not having certain background information can make it difficult to move in the “right” direction. I, too, have noticed that small steps can lead to bigger changes, and that it is important to pay sufficient attention to the value of every achievement, however small it may seem to the ambitious change-maker. I recognise these notions from my own personal life of course, but also from projects that I was engaged in professionally.

For instance, after reading this book I much better understand why the Green Agenda approach for local sustainable development that I was involved in developing is so powerful and successful in many local communities.

Some local values in a community in Kosova

Some local values in a community in Kosova

It starts out simple: bring together as many local stakeholders as possible and ask them what they value about their community. Those that have read Switch will recognise an elephant appetiser here (Find the Feeling) combined with a hint for the rider (Point to the Destination). People are invited to tap from a feeling of pride in their community and challenged to overlook problems for the moment.

Working group in Nedelisce, Croatia, explains what they have done

Working group in Nedelisce, Croatia, explains what they have done

Next in the Green Agenda method, thematic multi-stakeholder working groups are formed – each dealing with one of the selected priority values. Each group performs a thorough analysis of the value: what trends can be seen in regard of the value, what impacts do the trends have, what is the ideal situation of the value, what is the difference between the current or projected future situation and the ideal (=problem), what are (root) causes, and what could be solutions. During all these steps the groups are intensively supported. Also, groups are encouraged to break down the causes and solutions into manageable ones (proposing to build a 2 million euro sewerage system is not exactly within the reach of local stakeholders in a small rural community – at least not for starters). Again – elephant feed all around: the needed change gets down to a doable level (Shrink the Change) and the groups strengthen their common identity (Grow your People). At the same time, the rider is called upon for his or her analytical skills and powers.

The final steps in the Green Agenda method include the formulation of a strategic plan, an action plan and a monitoring plan incorporating the findings and proposals of all thematic multi-stakeholder working groups. And preparing a so-called Green Agenda document which describes these plans, and includes information about the steps taken to develop them. The document is presented at local meetings in which people can still propose changes. Finally, the document is adopted by the local authorities and implementation starts – with involvement of local stakeholders. Here, it’s easy to recognise elements of rider incentives: concrete steps are proposed and adopted (Script the Critical Moves) as well as aspects of shaping the path: local people are mobilised to get involved and become engaged (Rally the Herd), whereas adoption of the document developed by local stakeholders also changes the status of the ideas of these stakeholders and increases local ownership of local policies (Tweak the Environment).

Watermill project: realised after Green Agenda project ended!

Watermill project: realised after Green Agenda project ended!

The method as a whole also contributes to Building Habits – another way of shaping the path – as it develops ways and means of realising genuine stakeholder involvement. All the steps taken, linkages built and communication channels opened can be used in future processes as well, and in reality they are.

So quite apart from understanding why some of my worse habits are still with me, this book helped me understand more of the actual strengths of a method I have been using and propagating for almost a decade now. Understanding this better will certainly help me in developing more successful approaches to groups I work with and projects I help design. I wish you the same experience when reading this must-read book – and I hope that my small hints of the treasures you will find there are sufficient to make you curious enough to go find Switch!

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Playful Visualisation Tools

If you want to spend 5 minutes and have some fun with a twist, then you should try BigHugeLabs, ReciteThis or Picture2Life. All you need is a picture or a quote. And a plan. And in a few minutes you will have an inspiring poster or a picture with a caption.

BigHugeLabs: Captioner

BigHugeLabs: Captioner

If you haven’t got inspiration, ReciteThis has a wide range of quotes you can choose from and make a nice poster-type picture of.

Uplifting! ReciteThis

Uplifting! ReciteThis

All this is of course a nice break away from work.

But you could also use these tools for work-related messages.

You could make a ReciteThis out of a quote of one of your participants.

Participants defining the aim of a shadow report. ReciteThis

Participants defining the aim of a shadow report. ReciteThis

Or you could use the Motivator tool of BigHugeLabs to add a message to a photo of an activity.

BigHugeLabs: Motivator

BigHugeLabs: Motivator

Or you could personalise a message to someone using Captioner in BigHugeLabs.

Or, if you want others to do the dirty work, you could invite your participants to share a picture with a quote or message by way of introduction or as an assignment related to the topic of your workshop.

100_0374-1_original

So even a bit of fooling around with tools like these can give you tons of ideas for your work – justifying those 5 minutes break in a heartbeat! Have fun!

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Pinterest

Finally, I can say I started using Pinterest. Obviously, I had been reading about it, and had looked at other people’s pin boards and made good use of them. I also set up an account months ago and dabbled a bit. But I have to admit I was still more hooked to Delicious as a tool to create online libraries and was uncertain whether Pinterest would provide me with real added value. Especially now that Delicious has become much more visual as well.  Now I can say I got it.

Organise saved links in pin boards (Eric Sheninger)

Organise saved links in pin boards (Eric Sheninger)

Like in Delicious, you can save links in an organised way. In Pinterest this organisation is called a pin board, in Delicious it is a stack. Like in Delicious nowadays, these links are shown in a visual way: you get a one picture preview. The difference is, that you can save all links in Delicious whereas Pinterest needs a “pinnable” element on the location you want to link to. Not all sites have such elements, but there is a way around that, see below.

Example of a pin (Eric Sheninger)

Example of a pin (Eric Sheninger)

Both tools allow you to add a short description of the link, so that other people are able to see if this link may be interesting for them before clicking on it. In Delicious you can also tag your saved links, making it easier for visitors and yourself to select even within a stack which links might be useful. As far as I can see, this is not yet possible in Pinterest.

Like Delicious, Pinterest is a social media tool. Meaning that you can make your own profile and follow what other people do. You can re-pin pins saved by others. And you can comment and discuss.

Both tools allow for very easy saving of links, by adding an element to your bookmarking menu (“Save on Delicious” or “Pin It”.)

Both tools can be used in class and for trainings; sharing background materials in one location, collaborating in a group on this collection, etc.

So what is the added value of Pinterest that I truly realised only just now?

Go to the Add button on the top and upload a pin!

Go to the Add button on the top and upload a pin!

Easy! Pinterest allows you to upload your own content, too.  Content that is not online and thus does not have a link to bookmark. You can make pins out of your pictures, infographics and screenshots.  That way, your pin board can become a collection of links and photos, instead of just a library of links. This aspect is also the key to including links without so-called pinnable elements. You can make a screenshot of part of the page, upload it as a pin, and add the link afterwards.

Add a link to a screenshot of a site with unpinnable elements

Add a link to a screenshot of a site with unpinnable elements

This combination of links and own materials makes it, for example, possible to create a pin board relating to a certain event or activity that you have organised. You could collect all press releases, media clippings, photos and videos about the event in one pin board. That way, both people who were there and people who weren’t can easily see what went on and find all related materials in one publicly accessible place.

But, like Eric Sheninger, you can also create a pin board sharing methodsWeb2.0 Tools for Educators.

Possibilities are endless. And although I am sure I will continue using Delicious, I will definitely start using Pinterest more actively than I have.

So, just get started like I finally did and see how you like it!

Example of a pin board about an event

Example of a pin board about an event

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On Safari With Social Media Tools

At the IAF the Netherlands annual conference in June this year, Simon Koolwijk, Gerdi Keeler and I conducted the workshop On Safari with Social Media Tools – how to embed lessons learned in your learning process. In two hours we tried to share experiences of using social media in learning processes and communities as well as to give the group an idea of some of the tools we referred to. To start up the conversation we introduced a social media bingo with a variety of questions, like “Find a person in this room who has made 10 or more tweets“, “Find someone who knows possible uses of QR codes” and “Do you have 3 or more apps on your smart phone; which ones?“.

During this short exercise it became clear that we had quite a diverse group on our hands. Several participants already were quite experienced but were looking for more in-depth insights into best practices, while others were not so experienced and wanted to practise.

After a short Prezi presentation we therefore decided to split up and work in 3 smaller groups, in order to meet the different needs.

To check to what extent we had succeeded, we invited participants to share their opinions by answering 3 questions on Polleverywhere.

The main insights and ideas participants gained were:

  • There is much more possible than I thought!
  • Possibility to create a community for small groups in a learning process
  • Importance of blended learning & change (mix of online and offline learning)
  • More online meetings!
  • I want to get to know Yammer
  • To plan for use of social media tools in learning processes
  • Ideas for online and offline activities before and after face-to-face events
  • I will need to practise – I am lagging behind in the field of social media
  • Better to be proficient in a few tools, and to use them well than to try to use them all at once
  • Variety of social media tools available that can help embed results of my workshops

Tools that participants were interested in using were:

In order to start using these tools most participants indicated they would need time and patience. A few participants mentioned that they would search for more information online and just try out the selected tools. Overall, participants were satisfied with the workshop and felt they gained new ideas and inspiration to use social media in their work.

And what did I learn? It became clear to me that while there are many tools out there not that many facilitators are familiar with them or are using them in their work. Some are making use of the possibilities social media offer, but are not always satisfied with the return on their time investment in this. This may be caused by the learning process involved in getting to know tools and discovering their possible uses. But it may also be caused by a feeling that dabbling with social media is taking away precious time from the real work – and the fact that social media use is not perceived as a genuine part of that work, yet.

This attitude will change only as and when professionals will see concrete examples and best practices of how social media can actually facilitate their work and how social media make them more effective on the job. Though it is relatively easy to try out different tools on your own, it is not as easy to successfully deploy them within your organisation or learning processes. Exchanging experiences, ideas and fears in combination with practical tips on how to use certain tools, tailor-made advice regarding suitable tools for your specific situation and practising in a small (online/offline) group over a period of time, may help bridge the gap between knowing about a tool and effectively applying it. With our workshop we wanted to give a peek preview into what social media can do for your work and how useful further “training” in this area can be, also for facilitators. Looking at the positive reactions, I think we succeeded in this first step. So now – on to the next!

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What I Learned from Trying to Introduce Social Media in 2 Organisations

In the last 6 months I have been busy with 2 failed attempts to help 2 organisations work with social media. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Well, if you like to learn, then it was!

So why did I fail?

Basically – who knows! But I have a few ideas that I would like to share.

Again Yammer!

Again Yammer!

What I tried to do was to introduce different social media tools that would help these organisations to share information, ideas and experiences, to collect documentation in one place, and to collaborate on joint strategies and plans. In both cases there was a genuine task to be carried out, which could benefit from using these tools and which had a limited time frame with an upcoming deadline. Really a hot idea. Or so I thought. And at the start, they liked it, too.

But then – nothing further happened. In one case, the task was postponed to some future date as yet unknown, and in the other case a Yammer network was set up which was used by only few people who used it only to send out ideas and information but were not really aimed at two-way communication, collaboration or engagement. The task did not get done.

Very rough "assessment" of the two organisations

Very rough “assessment” of the two organisations

What I found interesting when I started to identify reasons why was that both organisations had quite a lot in common. They both consist of  “loose parts” that work independently based on a clear task division and very clear “stay out” signs for others, with only one of the parts being focused on the organisation as such. The part having the organisation itself as a main task is working on things like strategies, policies, fundraising and the like, whereas the other parts implement activities and do not commit a whole lot of attention to strategising and such.

Within the organisations there is limited informal communication and limited personal contact between people, especially between people from the different sections. Perhaps as a result of that, there is a limited connection between both people and the functions being carried out by the different sections, and it looks like people do not feel safe enough to share freely. They may feel judged by others, they may feel that others cannot be trusted with certain information, they may be afraid of meddling by others.

In short, internally all signs for open communication through social media or otherwise are a fiery red.

No wonder nothing happened!

Hand Heart Head

Hand Heart Head

So what did I learn from all this? A lot! And probably more than if everything would have worked out perfectly!

  • Whether you can successfully complete a joint task using social media depends a lot on to what extent you can complete the task without social media – social media can make your life easier, certainly, but if it is impossible to get people to work together offline or via e-mail, then social media may not do the trick.
  • Collaborative capability depends on the level of development of an organisation, network or community and on its internal organisation and culture. The fact that there are common tasks does not necessarily mean that such capability exists.
  • The role of a facilitator is limited – a facilitator can definitely smooth the path but cannot from the outside in “enforce” a collaborative environment, especially not within a very limited time frame.
  • That is not to say that a facilitator needs to be completely helpless in the face of such a situation. A facilitator can perhaps more easily than the organisation itself notice what is going on and can re-group; try to find another angle and another path to achieve the learning, change or strategic objectives set by the organisation or individual.
  • A facilitator needs to keep his or her cool at all times! Patience is key to getting there. And getting there is key. All the rest is just what happens on the way.
  • It helps a lot if a facilitator can stay enthusiastic and motivated, even if a new path needs to be cut out through the jungle.

Thankfully I found that I was able to remain enthusiastic and optimistic and that in the few moments that I was not, I had a variety of social media networks and tools available to me through which I could share my experiences and questions. Or through which I could play my way back to optimism!

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Online Learning and Focus

For almost a year I have taken part in the Curriculum Social Media for Learning & Change. It’s been a wonderful ride and I am sorry to see it end next week with a final face to face workshop and closing presentations of all participants, sharing their lessons learned in applying social media in learning and change processes.

While I think I managed to get in much of the planned learning, I also learned from being a part of the curriculum and observing what happened in the internal learning environment and within the group. What I noticed is that keeping engagement and focus of participants is not easy, even if they are all highly motivated individuals and even if the three facilitators are extremely committed and observant.

Presentation of Group Assignment

Presentation of Group Assignment

It seems that 8 months is a long period to keep hard working professionals engaged, even though

  • This long period was cleverly broken down in 4 learning blocks of two weeks online learning plus one face-to-face workshop and one webinar each;
  • Learning was connected to the participants’ day to day jobs through work and reporting on real life cases in which newly acquired knowledge was applied;
  • Each of the learning blocks consisted of a variety of questions or assignments, ranging from testing a tool to sharing your ideas and experience to analysing different examples;
  • Some tasks were assigned to small sub-groups of participants leading to an online or offline presentation of results and findings.
Online Individual Assignment

Online Individual Assignment

It also seems to me that individual online learning requires a level of focus and discipline that is not easy to steer as educator, even though

  • The course facilitators used different communication tools to check up on and motivate absent participants;
  • Each block provided a variety of assignments, paying attention to different learner types;
  • The course facilitators provided rapid, constructive and positive feedback;
  • All assignments were carefully phrased and well-focused, with clear links to day to day work of different participants.

What struck me was that especially in the two final blocks not all assignments were addressed, not even by one participant. A common feature of these assignments was that they required more reading, thinking and combining of knowledge and skills than the other assignments which focused more on testing a few tools or answering a question related to your own case. In other words, these assignments required more action as well as more reflection, and in the end more time and energy of the learners. Precious time, that may be harder to assign to yourself if no-one else depends on it.

In addition, these assignments may also have been perceived as “more risky”. Learners were asked to make an analysis and propose conclusions or steps to be taken – basically for steps in the process of designing and implementing an online learning or change process. Things most or all of them do regularly, even if subconsciously. It may thus have been perceived that “getting it wrong” would reflect more negatively on the learners in their professional capacity. This perception may subconsciously have reinforced the idea that these assignments would need more thorough attention and thus more time than others.

The conclusion might be that if you want to include such more analytical and design-oriented assignments in your online course you would do well either to allocate them to one or more individual learners who then post their findings and elicit reflections and reactions from other learners, or to assign them to small sub-groups.

In all, observing the structure and implementation of the course has provided me with at least 8 lessons learned (see the bullet points above) that were implemented and one that was not. Not a bad score if you take into consideration that as active participant I learned loads of other stuff, too. Some of these other things I have shared in previous posts, and some I will still share later on this year. However, don’t think that reading my posts will get you there – if there is one lesson I learned most of all it is that you should go out there, try and err, reflect, get yourself back on your feet and continue!

Having 3 marvellous facilitators and a few active other learners around you certainly helps to stay motivated and optimistic and to get the most out of both failure and success. So if you can follow a course, you should take that opportunity. And I warmly recommend the one organised by Joitske Hulsebosch, Simon Koolwijk and Sibrenne Wagenaar of En nu online.

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Starting a Project

Writing a sound project proposal is not easy, and getting project funding is becoming more and more like winning a lottery. However, once you do win that lottery not all your problems are over! Why not, you may wonder. After all, getting money for something you want to do is not a bad deal at all.

Well, to a certain extent that is indeed true. However, project proposal writing has become such a highly specialised job that the people who are supposed to implement the planned activities which will achieve projected results need to “translate” the proposal into concrete steps to be taken.

Such project planning should include not just steps needed to implement the planned activities but should also specify steps to be taken to collect certain data and steps to compare these data with the targets set.

Project grant = money IF we do what was promised and prove it!

Project grant = money IF we do what was promised and prove it!

Before the project team can start planning, they will need to thoroughly understand the project as a whole: what are activities foreseen, what are the outputs to be generated by these activities, to which results will these outputs lead and ultimately what is the reason behind the project – what is the aim they should strive towards achieving?

This understanding will bring perspective to the implementation and will shift the focus from simply trying to do what has been written down to doing what is needed in view of the bigger picture. It could well be that circumstances in the field are not as foreseen and that the planned activities alone will not lead to the desired results. For example, if you had planned an Internet-based e-learning intervention it is necessary that your target group can access this platform. If they for whatever reason cannot do so, you will need to rethink the intervention (and perhaps use an e-mail based platform) or you will need to add steps to enable your target group to go online (for instance organise Internet connections for them).

Grasping the above is basically understanding part of the Logical Framework. But there is another side to most Logical Frameworks or Performance Measurement Frameworks – the part in which targets, baselines and indicators are formulated along with sources of verification and the like.

This is the part where many project teams can feel cheated by the person who created the framework: do we have to do this, too? Aren’t all these activities enough already? No, indeed, they are not. Because in order for a funder to reimburse costs incurred they will want to see some evidence that you have really achieved what you promised.

And that is where the indicators and their friends come in. This part of the framework will help you collect data that can show clearly and without doubt that you have been successful in your implementation. It tells you what data to collect, where to find them, and when to collect them. And once you’ve got them, it provides you with standards that can show you whether you are on the way to achieving your targets or not.

Proving success: part 2 of the Logical Framework

Proving success: part 2 of the Logical Framework

I use the phrase on the way on purpose – with help of the indicators you cannot only assess success at the end, but you can also monitor during project implementation. This gives you a chance to make adjustments as needed if you see that you are not getting where you planned to be at the end. These data collection and monitoring actions are not always included in the general project planning and thus will need to be added to the activity plan by the project team.

The final step in this project start up phase is of course to assign roles and divide concrete tasks, so that every member of the team will know what to do and when to do it. As a result of the process of “getting” the project, they will by then also understand what other team members are up to, how their work is related to that of others and above all else, why they are doing it all. This insight, more than the mere planning of own tasks assigned by a project leader, will result in a greater team feeling and a sense of responsibility.

In my experience it helps tremendously to hire an external facilitator for a day or possibly two to guide the project team through the project and build a real, responsible team in the process. Of course, being such external facilitator myself, you might expect me to make such a case. But having been a project manager, too, I really believe in having an external party with good understanding of project management take care of this task so that the project manager him or herself can take active part in the discussions and the work instead of being side-tracked by having to pay attention to the process and ending up being the one voice not heard in it.

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Welcome to the EU!

European Parliament accepts Accession Treaty

European Parliament accepts Accession Treaty

This Friday, 9 December 2011, all 27 EU Member States and Croatia will sign the Accession Treaty making it possible for Croatia to become the 28th Member State. This will happen, if all Member States and Croatia itself ratify the Treaty without hitches, on 1 July 2013. From Croatia’s application for membership in February 2003 until then a bit more than a decade will have gone by.

So what happened in that time?

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