Virtual Trust Falls and reflections after #ettsummit

Yesterday I attended #ettsummit, and through some good luck, good choices, and reflection, I am now able to explore some ideas that have been percolating for me about my skills for teaching online, trust, and the power of questions in learning.  I share my reflections, and incomplete thoughts, and the journey.

I had the amazing opportunity to learn with Mary Cantwell @scitechyedu to learn more about Design Thinking  #deepDt (thanks Dan @wickeddecent for the nudge). Her presentation was amazing, but for me, the most important moment came when she shared about being a parent, and an audience member reacted in the ways we often do – with advice and a solution.  Mary, in stride, kindly responded in a way that to me demonstrated her willingness to be vulnerable in that moment, and explained that the advice may not work because there is more to the story, and we must ask questions more, and offer advice less.  The interaction was brief, but as an observer it was for me the most human moment of the day.  We need more of these moments in education when we take risks as learners and teachers, and seek support not to solve, but rather to find this energy:

I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship. Brene Brown

Isn’t this always true in our work as educators – that there is more to the story? When I share a challenge others can be so quick to exert their expertise, rather than hear and empathize with me. When I hear a challenge from a student or colleague I am so quick to offer a strategy or solution. But what might happen if I offered a question, or space to listen?

As a teacher I committed to relationships as the foundation of my practice.  I am a huge fan of Brene Brown, and her work on vulnerability.  The space she describe is my goal as an educator and a leader. And so I am wrestling with my current problem of practice: How might we design a community of educators that capture the energy, value, and sustenance of shared learning and living? Is this even possible in an online graduate course? Is there another space that would allow us to do this more authentically?

This idea has been floating around my head over the last six months, and I am finally able to begin to articulate the ideas.  I also got a chance yesterday to see Justin Reich who co-founded EdTechTeacher, and who I worked with at the Chewonki many years ago.  It was a pleasure to reconnect, and he and I have both moved into higher education now and specifically in the field of exploring how technology can shift pedagogy and praxis. Saying hello in the morning to Justin, and a few conversations throughout the day got me thinking back to the days of working in outdoor education, and how much I loved the work.  In this work there is a great deal of focus on using relationships and the community as a way to support learning.  In my work in outdoor and adventure education I loved the power of these conversations, and helping students and adults build skills with communicating, sharing, and being vulnerable.  With some groups you were able to work up to the trust fall, an experience that asked group members to physically step up and take risks.  As a leader it was a careful balance of when, or if, to engage groups in this activity.

Trust Fall
“Dr. Garland prepares to fall”  by klndonnelly under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Scaffolding the experience was vital, and being in tune with the group essential.  As I moved into a traditional elementary school classroom, I took my attention to this chemistry with me, and spent huge amounts of time building community, respect and trust with my students as individuals and as a group.

Now I teach online and blended learning experiences for graduate students, and I am faced with some current challenges in my practice.  I am struggling to find space for virtual trust falls. Is is possible to create authentic trust in this community? Can educators work to be more open to share the journey rather than have the answers? What would help to build this community? How as the leader of an online graduate course can I make the spaces and conditions for deep listening and reflection on our goals as educators, not offering solutions, advice, or recipes.

How in an online course can I create spaces where my students are willing to support each other in risk, failure, vulnerability and success? Do I have the skills to create and facilitate such a space?

So I wonder again: How might we design an online community of educators in a graduate course that capture the energy, value, and sustenance of shared learning and living in?

I am currently teaching EDT 520 Digital Age Teaching and Learning for the University of Maine System Collaborative MEd In Instructional Technology.  In this course I ask students to collaborate, connect, critique and take risks with their learning.  I ask students to grow their professional learning network through twitter, GHO, AdobeConnect and Google Communities.  I ask them to share their work publically through a blog or website.  For some students these are natural and next steps, for others, there is so much learning happening about the technical elements, and ideas that they are in places of resistance, and cognitive dissonance.  My goal is to create a space where they feel ready to take virtual trust fall, and that our community of practice will support them.  But I worry at times because we do not sit, walk, and laugh together as you do in a f2f environment.  There are more backchannel options for conversations, and I sometimes feel like the dynamic I see is very different than the students are feeling.  I am concerned that I may not be reaching my goal.

And in my conversation with Mary yesterday I asked her about my current challenge, of how do I bring human-centered design thinking to my work in online education.  She wisely offered to ask more questions, and in reflection today, I guess what I realize here is that the course is my design challenge and I am playing with this question to begin the journey.

  • How might we design an online community of educators in a graduate course that capture the energy, value, and sustenance of shared learning and living in?  
  • Is this even possible in an online graduate course?
  • Is there another space that would allow us to do this more authentically?
  • Is a virtual trust fall possible? Under what conditions?

I’d welcome your thoughts on where I am in discovering this challenge, and beginning to empathize with online learners. If you have more questions about #edt520, virtual trust falls, or ideas for this project, I’d like to hear from you.  

We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Brene Brown

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