What Does it Mean to be Human in the Digital Age?

Over the last two weeks I’ve facilitated three design thinking workshops around “what does it mean to be human in the digital age? (I would like to thank Kristen Eshleman for her time, guidance and expertise on this topic and the design thinking process). In each case the group seemed somewhat apprehensive. What is this design thinking anyway? What could we possibly learn from a question like that?

The question of “what does it mean to be human” is not a new question. A very natural part of being human is wanting to fit in, have relationships and feel connected. We try to make sense of our role within the social hierarchy, understand stereotypes and for some struggle to have our voice heard. To be human means to struggle with inequality, have a never ending desire to love and be loved, and to be recognized and valued for who we are.

PBS posed the question and collected stories back in 2010. In 2010 what were the questions posed? Concerns about texting and driving and spying on your children’s social media (sound familiar?). Read the stories here http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/participate/ . More recently Yann Arthus-Bertrand created a movie called HUMAN based on the stories of 2,000 people across 60 countries. His goal was to understand “What is it that makes us human? Is it that we love, that we fight? That we laugh? Cry? Our curiosity? The quest for discovery? “

The workshops I led were one hour “crash course” sessions so we moved through each stage at a rapid pace.I spent a short amount of time going over what the Design Thinking process is, instead placing most of my emphasis on the importance of listening to the story and gaining empathy.  Empathy is “…not just sympathy for someone else’s circumstances, but the deep intuition for what it feels like to live their lives”. What is the person feeling? What scares them? Frustrates them? Brings them joy? I advised people to ask “why?” a lot and think of it as a conversation. The energy in the room once people got talking was amazing. They were deeply engaged in the conversation and truly interested in the other person’s story. Yet, there were still questions and reservations as participants asked, “I don’t understand the purpose of this.” “We’re having a great conversation but what am I really learning?” Be patient, you’ll see, is all I said. When we got to the POV (point of view) step it all started to come together for people. They began to “break down their findings” and “unpack the juicy parts” of the story. What does this person need? What surprised you? What are your hunches? Crayons and pencils filled sticky notes as people made meaning of what they heard, thought about what it feels like to live this person’s life and created radical prototypes.

During the entire hour the room was filled with positive energy and you could feel how excited people were to have been given “permission” to break “the rules”. That is, space, place and time to ideate in a world with no budgets, no policies, no limitations and most importantly the lack of the word no. The majority of these people were in the technical field and problem solvers. It was initially hard to get them to shift their mindset from problem solver to explorer.  By the end of the hour they were amazed at how much they not only learned about the person next to them, but how quickly they could gain empathy and develop prototypes (four in four minutes!). In listening to their partner’s story they had gotten to know this person in a way they would not have otherwise.

It turns out what it means to be human in the digital age is, in many ways, no different than what it means to be human in any age. People value meaningful relationships, feeling connected to other people, and having opportunities to learn and share from others. What do people need?

A way to sort through all the information and find what is most important to them in an efficient and easy way (some great prototypes were developed as solutions to this).

To feel safe when sharing their opinions and ideas.

What surprised people?

That the world of social media closely replicates the face to face world:

“There are cliques online, it is just like being in high school”

The fear in having what you say be out there forever:

“How can I be sure that what I say won’t offend anyone or come out the wrong way, there are no do overs.”

How can we make the idea of design thinking a part of our daily life? Taking the time to have a conversation, truly listening to another person’s story and gaining a deeper understanding of who they are and what they value, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and sharing our story, and feeling we have a safe space to to plant our ideas, fertilize them and watch them grow.

What impact might a day of empathy have where you work? If school leaders or professors at your university walked alongside a student for the day or those in support staff positions walked alongside those who we support?

How might we reimagine a digital age where to be human means to strive to eliminate inequality; value care work, and be vulnerable without fear?

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#OLC15, Design Thinking and STEM Professional Development

At #et4online Whitney Kilgore and I connected with a common interest in MOOCs and engaging women in STEM. This led to Google Docs, every other Saturday morning Hangouts, and eventually a Human Centered Design Thinking (HCDT) MOOC. We began our journey thinking we knew what the problem was.  Lots of people were creating STEM MOOCs with the idea of engaging girls in STEM. We wanted to go one step beyond and create a MOOC that would enable girls to make connections with women in the field and gain an understanding of all the opportunities a STEM degree can provide. We wanted to develop a learning community that would live beyond the MOOC.  Through conversations with others this idea grew into a need for k-12 professional development that aligns with NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) and a specific focus on CS (computer science) and engineering. In realizing that a high percentage of MOOC enrollees are teachers we thought, why not design a MOOC specifically for teachers. Again, we thought we knew what the problem was.  As we began to speak with teachers and people doing research in this area we quickly realized we were designing a solution for the wrong problem. We didn’t really understand our users. How do they experience professional development? What are the barriers and challenges they face? How do we gain an understanding of what teachers want, need and desire? What is their story?

Our work in the HCDT MOOC helped us find our way to answering these questions. We recruited a few other participants on our team and began digging in. We brought this work to #OLC15 and a group of 16 eager participants. We arrived with interview questions we developed in the MOOC and our “speed design thinking” templates. Little time was spent with us talking and power points. This was about facilitating a discussion and gaining a deeper understanding of what the problem is and ideating possible solutions. It was about gaining empathy and hearing their story. There were deep discussions, sticky notes and in the end exchanging of business cards and plans to bring this back to their offices, classrooms and universities.

How many times have we heard a teacher say, “professional development is a waste of our time”, “they don’t really understand what we need or the problems we are facing”. We would like to do more than just hear what you are saying, we would like to listen to your story and think thoughtfully and intentionally about a solution.

Over the last 6 months we’ve taken apart and deconstructed our understanding as we had known it to build a new understanding together. We are still in the “understanding” phase.

What is your:

Professional development story?

Teaching story?

How might we create professional development that is replicable and scalable around helping girls develop a STEM identity?

Heading to #OLC15 and #Dlrn15

I was reflecting back on the anticipation I felt as I headed to #ET4online. Relationships were developed before the conference via Twitter, Google Hangouts and Google Docs as we planned a panel from across the country and across the globe. The conference itself had deep conversations, crayons, and a vulnerability you don’t often see at a conference. Today as I head to #OLC15 and #Dlrn15 the bar is high and I am confident it will be met. Already I’ve had some incredible, deep conversations with #Dlrn15 attendees in Slack. We are building relationships and gaining empathy for one another in a way that you don’t often see face to face at a conference, let alone via social media. Slack was a new tool for me, and like many I joked, “should I post this in Slack, Twitter or Yammer”? “How does this thing work anyway?” Initially it was unclear what it’s purpose was or why we were using it for the conference. It quickly became clear and soon I became a Slackaddict. I’m not yet sure if it is the tool, the people, or the content. I imagine it is a “perfect storm”. It’s made me think of how we teach our courses and the discussions we have about community, engagement and interaction. The discussion in Slack is engaging because it is meaningful to us and we are driving the content. While there is a general topic, there is no specific discussion question or learning objectives that constrict our journey. We’ve been given a space to explore something where there is no known answer. The answer can’t be found in the back of a text book or in a Google. search The tools we have are our current knowledge, our experiences, and a safe space to share, reflect, build and rebuild our knowledge together. Isn’t that the learning experience we want for our students?

Underappreciated IT Leadership Skills

This week’s MOR ELP Tuesday reading is based on an article by Whiteny Hischier and Rajiv Ball about 3  underappreciated IT leadership skills.It discusses a transition that is similar to the transition many service based businesses have gone through in the last several years: moving from mass production to personalization; reducing costs; increasing value. In this new world Hischier and Ball suggest there are three needed competencies:

  • Problem Finding, Problem Solving: I was excited to see that the suggestion here was to use the design thinking methodology. I’ve recently used it as a way to understand whether my team was addressing the right problem and found it to be a very effective process. Last week I participated in a symposium organized by George Siemens focused on a MOOCs and creating a vision of Higher Ed in 2030. Upon reflection on our two days of discussion I think a design thinking session would be the perfect next step. We came up with several challenges we felt our universities faced. I think it would be beneficial to use design thinking to narrow in on finding the problem that is at the root of these challenges and then, as a team, developing a solution.
  • Be a True Peer and Sparring Partner to Business: Hischier and Ball suggest IT leaders must, “articulate their own ideas and perspective and do so in a way that resonates across the organizational boundaries”. It always comes down to communication! For me the key phrase here is in a way that “resonates across organizational boundaries”. ELP stresses the importance of developing relationships. No matter how good your communication skills are I don’t think you can effectively communicate with a person or organization unless you truly understand their culture. We recently went through a team building exercise and one of the things that quickly rose to the top was how different our organizational cultures were which impacted how we approached things. Once we had a mutual understanding of each other’s culture we were able to communicate more effectively.
  • Move Others to Action: This aligns with my goal of building a coalition of people aligned with my goal of providing leadership and direction in support of digital learning initiatives and increasing access to education. Hischier and Ball suggest, “nurturing and sustaining trusted, mutually supportive relationships.”  Trust is critical. I recently ran a workshop about how to build collaboration in our IT community. What rose up to the top, across sessions, was that we can’t have collaboration without trust. Something to consider is how you define trust. It is important all stakeholders have a mutually agreed upon definition of trust. I will be attending a Franklin Covey session on The Speed of Trust to learn more about this.

Making the time to read these articles and finding a quiet space to reflect and think has been a challenge. Not different from exercising, it is alway difficult to find the time but when you are done you never you never wish you hadn’t. When I mentioned my difficulty in carving out time, my MOR coach, Susan Washburn said, “We all have the same amount of hours in the day, but some of the ways we choose to spend those hours TAKE energy and some GIVE energy.  Time to reflect, for example, can be a deposit into your energy resources where as time wasted in an unnecessary meeting is energy taken”.