Mobile devices are not the enemy of learning

Towards the back of his book Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning, published in 2005, author Marc Prensky discusses the potential for using cell phones as a tool for learning in schools. I read the book back in the fall of 2006, and though I agreed with much of what he wrote in the book, I just did not see the potential for cell phones that he did. A huge failure of imagination on my part.

In my Google Reader feeds recently was an item shared by Harold Jarche (@hjarche), an interview with Royan Lee – “a teacher who’s not afraid of technology” – entitled Class, turn on your cellphones.

Interviewer Jesse Brown introduces the topic with the following:

One of the only places where it is still totally unacceptable to instantly learn about anything with a mobile device is in school.

Like so many things that bring about drastic change, the biggest concern that most parents and teachers (and administrators and school board members) have regarding mobile devices in the classroom is a fear of the unknown. They don’t understand it, so it must be bad, it is something to be afraid of and avoided.

If you are a parent or a teacher  (or administrator or school board member) who thinks that mobile devices have no place in school, then you really need to listen to this interview. It may not change your mind, but at least you’ll have a better understanding of what it is you are preventing.

Mr. Lee also takes on what he sees as a huge myth that needs to be overcome, that because students use this stuff so much they actually know how to use it. (See my post Social savvy, yes – tech savvy, not so much for some more thoughts on that.) Starting at 10:25 –

One big myth that we have is that because students are using Facebook on their own that somehow savvy already in terms of using these devices and their digital literacy…. It never ceases to amaze me how untrue this is. It’s almost frightening, especially the older kids who’ve been using it for a while. In many cases they’ve built up some really bad habits in terms of online behavior and posting behavior.

What if your organization functioned like a video game

My earlier post on games got me digging through my archives (yet again), where I found two posts looking at knowledge management and knowledge work through the lens of games. Both of these posts are based on James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

This second post looks at the role affinity groups play in learning through video games, and compares this to how many organizations work.

– – — — —–

Although James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy is primarily about how individuals, especially kids, learn, there is a lot in the book that can be applied to how organizations learn. This list describes what Gee sees as common features of what he calls affinity groups and their implications. Those familiar with knowledge management concepts will recognize these as traits of a good community of practice.

  1. Members of an affinity group bond to each other primarily through a common endeavor and only secondarily through affective ties, which are, in turn, leveraged to further the common endeavor. Implication: Affective ties and sociocultural diversity can be dangerous, because they divide people if they transcend the endeavor, good otherwise.
  2. The common endeavor is organized around a whole process (involving multiple but integrated functions), not single, discrete, or decontexualized tasks. Implication: No rigid departments, borders, or boundaries.
  3. Members of the affinity group have extensive knowledge, not just intensive knowledge. By “extensive” I mean that members must be involved with many or all stages of the endeavor; able to carry out multiple, partly overlapping, functions; and able to reflect on the endeavor as a whole system, not just their part in it. Implication: No narrow specialists, no rigid roles.
  4. In addition to extensive knowledge, members each have intensive knowledge – deep and specialist knowledge in one or more areas. Members may well also bring special intensive knowledge gained from their outside experiences and various sociocultural affiliations (e.g. their ethnic affiliations) to the affinity group’s endeavors. Implication: Non-narrow specialists are good.
  5. Much of the knowledge in an affinity group is tacit (embodied in members’ mental, social, and physical coordinations with other members and with various tools, and technologies), and distributed (spread across various members, their shared sociotechnical practices, and their tools and technologies), anddispersed (not all on site, but networked across different sites and institutions). Implication: Knowledge is not first and foremost in heads, discrete individuals, or books but in networks of relationships.
  6. The role of leaders in affinity groups is to design the groups, to continually resource them, and to help members turn their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, while realizing that much knowledge will always remain tacit and situated in practice. Implications: Leaders are not “bosses,” and only knowledge that is made explicit can be spread and used outside the original affinity group.

As most of us know all too well, most organizations today operate in ways very different from how these, often self-forming, groups operate. Some thoughts, item by item:

  1. The common endeavor in most organizations is dictated from the top down. Members of the organization don’t usually join the organization because of the ‘endeavor,’ rather they accept the endeavor because they have joined the organization.
  2. In most organizations (in my experience), specific functions are highly structured into departments and sub-departments. Successful cross-functional activity is the exception rather than the rule.
  3. Because of the highly structured nature of organizations, most people know only their area. Because the ‘endeavor’ is not their own, there is very little incentive to understand the ‘big picture.’ Those who do try to understand the big picture are often seen as ’stepping out of their lane’ and put back in their place. After all, how can they be doing their job if they are worrying about what someone else is doing.
  4. This is what most organizations expect of their members – a high skill level in their specific area.
  5. More and more organizations are recognizing the tacit nature of knowledge and the value of network relationships is sharing information. More than any of the other items in this list, it is this area that is receiving much of the attention in the field of knowledge management. It is hard, though, for individuals and organizations to get over the cultural expectation of knowing everything yourself, the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome, and the sharing – freely – of what you know with others so they can be successful.
  6. Most ‘leaders’ are still just bosses.

Looking back over my list, I think I may be a bit pessimistic, but I’ve been involved with knowledge management, social networking, etc. for almost 10 years now and am still amazed, and frustrated, at how many organizations still don’t get it. Those who know me know that I’m really a glass-half-full kind of guy, and I must admit that I do hold out hope that things will change.

Maybe it will just take the current generation of young gamers, Marc Prensky’s digital natives, to finally get us there.

—– — — – –

Knowledge work, video games, and learning

My earlier post on games got me digging through my archives (yet again), where I found two posts looking at knowledge management and knowledge work through the lens of games. Both of these posts are based on James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

This first post looks at the learning aspects of knowledge management and knowledge work. It could use a little updating, especially the part about “managing tacit knowledge” (which we all know can’t be managed), but I’m still pleased with it overall.

– – — — —–

After reading (and writing aboutMarc Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me, Mom, I’m Learning!, I picked up James Paul Gee’sWhat Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. I was expecting a book about video games and the potential ‘good’ they offered. And the book does discuss this.

But the book is really about how video games are an example of how good learning can be enabled, encouraged, and accomplished in any environment. His area of choice is K-12 science education, but the learning principles – 36 of them– can be applied in many other areas.

In fact, Gee compares the environment that players of modern computer and video games inhabit to the world of what is commonly known as knowledge work. In the process, Gee describes a couple of key concepts and processes that those who work in the field of knowledge management will be familiar with.

Because Gee looks at these topics from the perspective of learning, his depictions are a bit different from what I’ve typically seen. For example, here is how Gee describes ‘tacit knowledge‘ (emphasis is mine):

Finally, the Intuitive (Tacit) Knowledge Principle is concerned with the fact that video games honor not just the explicit and verbal knowledge players have about how to play but also the intuitive or tacit knowledge – built into their movements, bodies, and unconscious ways of thinking – they have built up through repeated practice with a family of genre of games. It is common today for research on modern workplaces to point out that in today’s high-tech and fast-changing world, the most valuable knowledge a business has is the tacit knowledge its workers gain through continually working with others in a “community of practice” that adapts to specific situations and changes “on the ground” as they happen. Such knowledge cannot always be verbalized. Even when it can be verbalized and placed in a training manual, by that time it is often out of date.

What stood out to me was the emphasis on the importance of the “community of practice” in the development of an individual’s tacit knowledge and the fact that tacit knowledge is dynamic, never fixed. Tacit knowledge is, in my experience, typically addressed as something unique to an individual, something static. And while it is true, I suppose, that individuals do possess a certain amount of truly unique knowledge that never changes, to be useful most tacit knowledge must be flexible enough to be useful as the individual interacts with the environment.

A key challenge in the field of knowledge management is how to manage this tacit knowledge. Understanding both the individual and social nature of tacit knowledge is an important consideration to keep in mind. In fact, the social aspect, the tacit knowledge of the group if you will, may well be more important than the tacit knowledge of any one individual.

—– — — – –

Life is not a game (or is it?)

Games, especially video games, have always been a big part of my life, both when I was young and now with my family. We all know that games are an important part of growing up, and despite the bad rap that video games get they can be a very positive experience, too.

Over the past few years, I’ve also been contemplating the role games, including video games, influence our life and work. In my “to blog” list, I have a draft, started about 3 years ago, called “Welcome to the World of KnowledgeCraft”.

A couple of days ago, Hacking Work posted this TED Talk from Jane McGonical in which she tells us that if we want to solve the world’s big problems — hunger, war, environmental devastation and more — we need to be gaming more.

Time to dust off that draft and add my own thoughts.

Most managers don’t want creative employees

A couple of summers ago I read Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson. The book lives up to its title and one that I heartily recommend. It contains a wealth of ideas and views on management that you don’t often come across.

For example, this on the management of creativity:

Real creativity, the kind that is responsible for breakthrough changes in our society, always violates the rules. That is why it is so unmanageable and that is why, in most organizations, when we say we desire creativity we really mean manageable creativity. We don’t mean raw, dramatic, radical creativity that requires us to change.

As much as managers and organizations say they want to be innovative and groundbreaking, they usually don’t mean they want each of their individual employees to be innovative and groundbreaking. They want the rules to be followed, because that’s how things are supposed to work. They don’t believe that rules are meant to be broken.

The real message, though, is this: break the rules and be successful and we’ll back you all the way, but break the rules and fail and you are on your own.

This is something that Seth Godin talks about quite a bit. Don’t expect any cover from your boss when you try something new, he tells us, because that’s not your boss’s job. If your creativity, your art, is important to you, the best thing you can do is to simply do it. Or, as he says in Linchpin:

The reason you might choose to embrace the artist within you now is that this is the path to (cue the ironic music) security. When it is time for layoffs, the safest job belongs to the artist, the linchpin, the one who can’t be easily outsourced or replaced.

Update: This post is an updated version of something I first wrote in June 2008. I was inspired to update it by a common search term in my referral logs (rules are meant to be broken), my earlier post (Some) Rules are meant to be broken, and the recent series of Hey Leaders, Wake Up! posts at

Chance favors the connected mind (Where Good Ideas Come From)

I’ve read the reviews, I’ve seen the video (also embedded below), and I’ve listened in on the webinar. And now that the UPS guy has made his afternoon delivery, I can finally read Steven Johnson‘s (@stevenbjohnson) latest book Where Good Ideas Come From – The Natural History of Innovation. (Though it is going to have to wait a day or two until I finish The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing.)

Having read many of Johnson’s previous books, I know that I like his writing style and approach and fully expect to enjoy reading this book. More than anything, though, I’m looking forward to his ideas on ideas, especially the idea that chance favors the connected mind. If this isn’t enough to convince you that you should probably go out and get the book, please read on.

A couple of tidbits from reviews:

  • In “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” Steven Johnson, an author and Internet entrepreneur, draws on natural science, intellectual history and 21st-century technology to identify the environments that are conductive to innovation. Johnson doesn’t define “good ideas” — or indicate whether their pathways to implementation differ from those of “bad ideas.”  – The Oregonian
  • Where do good ideas come from? That is the question posed by Steven Johnson, a writer known for the agility with which he makes interdisciplinary analogies, in his latest book. His “natural history of innovation” provides a taxonomy of seven ways in which new ideas can sprout from old ones. But this is no management text: for each of his seven patterns of innovation, Mr Johnson provides wide-ranging examples from technology, the natural world and culture. – The Economist

Luis Suarez (@elsua) has some excellent thoughts on Johnson’s TED talk on the subject, along with this ringing endorsement:

Do you happen to have about 18 minutes of your precious busy time … to spare to go ahead and watch one of those TED Talks that will surely keep you thinking for a while on what true innovation is all about? You do? Then you have got to go and watch Steven Johnson‘s Talk on Where Good Ideas Come From. It’s worth the 18 minutes and so much more!

Johnson is currently touring for the book, and will be in St. Louis on 14 October. (I must now make a choice: stick around at the Strange Loop Conference for theStrange Passions party or duck out to see Johnson. Decisions, decisions.)

The blog of Samuel Pepys

Much of what we know about the events of history comes from the personal writings – journals, diaries, letters – of the people that lived those events. Reading these diaries is simple enough – assuming they are in a language you can read – but understanding them in their original context can be a bit daunting. That’s why we have historians to help us make sense.

An excellent example comes in the form of the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Written over nearly 10 years beginning on the first day of 1660, Pepys’ diaries give an incredible insight into life and politics in London during this exciting period in history. If, that is, you understand what it is he is talking about.

Enter Phil Gyford and The Diary of Samuel Pepys. In addition to turning the diary into a blog (the first entry was published on 1 Jan 2003), Phil has provided extensive contextual detail about people, places, and events to help readers better understand the significance of individual entries and – perhaps more importantly – be able to follow the story line.

If you are even remotely interested in what was going on in London in the 1660’s, this is one site you don’t want to miss.

It’s hard not to wonder how these diaries might have been different had they been written as a blog, or if he had Twitter to post his thoughts. (I’ve asked this question before, about Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci). More interestingly, would we think about our history differently if we were reading of it in blogs and tweets instead of personal – and often private – journals and diaries?

Much of what future historians will know of us will come from our online writings. Will they get an accurate picture of our lives? Are we, and future generations, losing something by having so much out there for everyone to see? Or will future generations have a better understanding of why the world is as it is because of all this openness and discussion?

(photo: painting of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls, 1666)