Closing the Human Distance

We are a connected people.

Years ago, the telephone was a feared technology.  Imagine the heated debates in the business boardrooms – What in the world will happen if we allow people to have them?  Why, they could call anybody, and say anything!!

By and large, people didn’t, although I feel sure that some fraction of the general population for whom the house or work phone was a new tech did transgress lines of propriety.  Technology is just a set of tools; what we choose to do with them is on us.

And I remember in the 70’s as a young teen, vying for time on the home phone to call that particular friend.  We had agreed at school on the specific time – it had to be within a particular window because there was dinner time, chores, homework, etc. and there was only one phone in a house of seven people.  wallphone

Once on the phone, we would stay on for as long as we possibly could, seeking whatever privacy could be afforded by the length of the cord.  And, yes, some unkind things were said, as young teens will often do.  That telephone technology, though, allowed us to talk intimately about things that were going on in our lives, and in our friend’s lives.  It became an essential channel for connection when we were not together at school, or church, or whatever.

Later, as a nineteen year old on a year abroad in France, that same technology was the only


Me on my way to a year in France – pre-Internet or cellphones!

means of live communication with my parents.  It was expensive, making an international call, so I only did it very occasionally, and always after having arranged weeks ahead of time when that call would be.  ‘Very occasionally’, by the way, means that I only had maybe 4 or 5 phone calls with the US during my entire year. The other means of communication was the postal service, and, if they weren’t on strike in France, the most expedient service still required about 10 – 14 days before receipt of a letter.

And so, on either the house phone of the family where I lived (with ZERO privacy) or at a booth at the local Postes Téléphones Télégraphique (PTT) office, I’d dial a million numbers and wait for the connection, hear a crackly voice on the other end, and dive into a rushed conversation trying to get as many details in as I could in the minutes I had purchased.  Sometimes the connection was amazingly clear, and someone would inevitably say “Wow! It sounds like you are right next door!”

Those were vital moments, though, reconnecting over great distance through technology.

I once observed a public phone in Paris that had a long line of obviously foreign people standing and waiting turns.  That was a clear sign that something had broken on the phone, and that it was basically open for service to any number you’d care to dial.  I waited in line behind I think a Russian man.  Given the fortuitousness of the situation, I did not have anyone prepared to receive my call back in the States, so I just took a chance on my best friend.

When the Russian finally hung up, I dialed the many numbers to get to my friend.  (Remember when you had to remember phone numbers?)  It eventually rang.  He picked up.

Communications technologies today abound.  The sheer number of apps available on portable devices has very nearly made the conventional telephone obsolete.  And with wireless services, we are free to connect just about wherever we are, and whenever we wish.   My sons have never known a world without mobile phones.  They have had their own since they were teenagers.  And they’ve had access to computers and all the good and bad that the Internet provides.

Let’s look at the good power of the mobile phone, coupled with the Internet.

Think about this:  If you know the mobile number of a phone anywhere in the world, and if you have a Skype account, you can call that number from your computer for just pennies per minute.  Say, for example, you happen to have the number for a person in Cambodia, or Rwanda, or Columbia you can, in the comfort of your home (or at a local coffee shop for that matter) call them up.

Think about this, too:  If you have a Skype conversation going, you can use other Internet-based technology to broadcast your conversation to a particular channel on the web.  Kind of like having your own personal radio station.  Other people on computers wherever they are in the world could ‘dial in’ to your channel, and hear your conversation with that faraway person.  And all that faraway person needs is a basic cell phone.  And suddenly, they can be heard by many people.  Indeed, a LOT of people.

And finally:  If you have this conversation happening, and you’ve let the Internet-going listeners know when you are going to have it, suddenly you have a live, web-broadcasted conversation with someone very far away from you (and perhaps from most of your audience), AND your audience can use a chat tool to tell you what questions THEY have for the person on the other end of the line.  A one-to-one conversation suddenly becomes a facilitated one-to-many


The ‘digital cockpit’ in my house, and the locations of individuals / organizations I ended up connecting with for non-profit work.

Everyone is learning.  Human distance disappears.   Everyone feels connected.

What if we really are all ‘right next door’?  Would that change how we feel about people that are far away, geographically?

This is the promise of new communications technologies, to bring us closer as humans who happen to live at great distance from each other.  We feel connected to them, and empathize with them.  Just as I felt my friend’s anguish over middle-school drama back in the 70’s, so we feel our fellow human’s joys and sorrows.

The good power of text messaging.

In the late 90’s there were a few chat clients that came out.  Being a person interested in new communications technologies and education, I was (and am) always trying new things.  I downloaded the AOL Instant Messenger client and created an account.  aolrunningman

At the time, you could just see whoever was online – anyone, anywhere.  I remember randomly choosing someone I saw that had an interesting name.   I think I just said ‘Hello!’.   I remember now the nervous giddiness that ensued, waiting to see if I’d get a response.


“Hello!”, the answer came.

What followed was an exchange of basic information – who we were, what we did for jobs, where we were, etc.  He was Turkish gentleman, employed at a bank there in Istanbul.  I had never, and have never, been to Istanbul.  He had never been to the US.  We chatted for some time.

Over the weeks and months that followed, we would occasionally just say ‘Hi’ to each other, and ask each other about our kids, work, etc.  I had a connection with this guy, and I had never met him.  I cared about his story – his family, his life, his worries, etc.  I didn’t know how much I cared at first.  Not until the earthquake of 1999.


Istanbul.  1999.

I must’ve heard about it in the news, I’m not sure.  But the first thing I did when I got to work was IM my friend in Istanbul.  No answer.  Several days went by with me checking in.  Finally he answered – he was quick to tell me that he and his family were fine, but that there was some pretty serious local damage.  We had a short exchange about that.  I was relieved to know he was okay.  And I felt special, to be honest, that I had an insight from someone there.

I honestly believe that if I had not made that early, text-only, connection, that the events in Istanbul would have just rushed past me like so many other news items do – just noise in the background that may cause a moment’s superficial concern.  The connection with my friend there was human, not just technical.

I lost touch with that friend in Istanbul – I’m not sure why or how, honestly.  I think my friends list grew and that the technology changed in some ways that I ended up switching to other services.  But that’s okay; to this day, I still think about Turkey and Istanbul in particular, and feel like I know someone there.  And I care about what happens there as a result.

I believe mine is a story shared by many; and as communication technologies continue to develop, we will very likely have more tools at our disposal for connecting with people in meaningful ways. Connecting carries the possibility of care, and that is a very good thing.  And you might agree with me that care (connection, compassion, concern) is something that we can never have enough of.

I invite you to join me (and millions of others) in closing the human distance that would otherwise be there.   Choose your channel.  Reach out.

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Faith in the back seat

The other night my wife and I were out to get some Sunday dinner.  The events of the weekend having conspired to leave us little energy or food ready to cook, we set out to find something simple at a local restaurant.  That’s when we met Faith.

Turning the corner onto a 2-lane highway, there was a lady standing on the side of the road, shifting and looking nervously back and forth down the road.  Given the time of day (getting dark), location and weather, I pulled over and rolled the window down.

Faith grew up in New Jersey, and spent some time traveling in Europe.  She was at one faithpoint a model living in NYC, and she rattled off the names of ‘haute couture’ designers for whom she had worked.  She could speak a little French, as her mother-in-law was French – we had a good laugh about ‘merde, alors!’.

She raised four children, was divorced years ago, and went to school in Florida following a dream of becoming a lawyer.  Bills piled up and work was hard to find, and she quit school with $90,000 in student loans.

We drove past a house where she thought a friend might be, but the car wasn’t there.  She told us how she was working odd jobs, and was scared to death to get a full time job because the loan collectors would find her.  Her friend owed her five dollars, after partial payment for cleaning a room in the house.

We wound up at a local pizza joint – we were all hungry.  Faith gestured and scratched with the pattern of those under the influence.  I’m pretty sure she was a drug user.  And we had a conversation about history, politics, international culture and kids.  She said she’d probably vote for Trump in the upcoming election because we need a strong military and need to kick ISIS out of our country.

All of this just reminded me of how lucky I am (and we are), and also how much more we need to do to connect with those that are so often marginalized, so that we understand their reality – so that we empathize, and are more considerate in our thinking about those, including Faith, who might be standing in the cold.


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Soft Skills, Hard Results

This is a repost of something I wrote for work.  We often overlook the opportunities to structure follow-up and reconnection with participants after the ‘event’ of learning is done.   This is just a little story about that…

It was pretty early in my day.  I set my coffee maker up the night prior, with an early start of 05:30.   By 6:00, I was in my desk chair, at home, logging in to a webinar hosted from the other side of the world.

These leaders run businesses around the world – from cement factories to retail clothing to telecommunications services.  I sip my coffee and think back to what feels like ages ago – when we were all together in Mumbai, sharing stories, debating issues, gaining insights, and resolving to do something important – to make a difference.

It was actually only 3 months ago, and the time had gone by very quickly.  In today’s world, you blink and things change.  This is the reality that these business leaders face, and what’s fascinating for me is their sense of responsibility for the world around them.   It was this whirlwind of change that fueled much of our discussions together in Mumbai.   They were not only concerned about the performance of their various businesses (the ‘bottom line’), but also the well-being of their workforce, and of the larger communities in which they operate.

It won’t be news to anyone that has spent time working in that part of the world, but for those that haven’t, India is a fascinating, bustling, deeply culturally complex nation.  It is growing, in population and in business operations.   Much of India is still quite rural, with villages scattered around its vast land area.  And of course there are the giant urban areas of key cities.  In the outlying areas, however, the businesses that operate there often are the sole providers of employment.

I had quite a mix in the classroom.  Some had traveled from Canada to be in the room.  Others had come in from rural areas northeast of Mumbai.  Still others had arrived from  Indonesia and North Africa.  All of them were excited to have some time together, as is always the case – time to learn from each other, and learn more about themselves, as leaders.  We spent a good deal of time working on issues pertinent to the overall enterprise, including trends affecting the various businesses, natural resource shortages, environmental impacts, new hire attraction and retention, and local community stewardship.  These are heady issues.  They go beyond what we may think of as basic management skills.  This is really about helping these leaders be ready for what’s next – for them, their businesses, and the communities within which they operate.

It was time to start.  The presentation slides were in place.  Only 5 slides.  Mostly photos from when we were together to spur memories and hopefully a few smiles around the world.  The participating leaders arrived – each greeting the rest with gusto.  The lines were crackly and sometimes there were strange noises that sounded like an echo chamber.  But we got down to it – the last slide simply said “What have you achieved?”.

The program sponsor, a senior executive in the organization, was on the line, and gave a heartfelt message of pleasure to be rejoining this group.  As I opened the floor up to the participants, I saw the hands go up in the webinar.  I started in. It was great.  There were a number of stories told; some were about ongoing progress being made with new projects taken on.  Other stories were about issues that were uncovered, and requests for advice from others in the room.  Hands went up – it was easy to moderate.  Ideas were shared and the network established 3 months prior was put into action.

One particular story stands out.  As part of the design of this developmental  program, each of the leaders went through a 360 process.   Their results were conveyed to them by a qualified expert while we were together in Mumbai.  They had time, individually, to reflect, discuss and plan what steps they would take, given their results.  Notably, a number of participants needed to be more enabling and less authoritarian in their leadership style.

This one man, let’s call him S.P., he was quite affected by his scores and realized that his style in his team meetings was creating the very source of frustration that he’d been struggling with for so long.  His team was silent.  They never brought any ideas to the table.  He was constantly having to tell them what to do.

After receiving his 360 scores, discussing with our educator and with his peers, he decided to do something about it.  Each of the participants were asked to articulate 3 actions they were going to take at the end of the residential program, how they would know those actions were successful, and a general timeline for completing them.  His was really simple:  Open up his team meetings by doing a lot more listening, encouraging his team members to share ideas, and having them lead parts of the meetings.

As he relayed his story, others on the line affirmed that they, too, had similar results.  S.P.s were quite dramatic.  One of his team members had recently brought forth an innovative idea on how to improve a process within their workflow that is now saving the organization, by his calculation, over $10,000 every month.

It’s not a million-dollar idea.  But it is just one of potentially many more, and, more than the positive bottom line impact on the financial report, this shift in mindset and skillset towards ‘soft’ skills in leadership has created a sense of shared ownership and innovation, with clearly some ‘hard’ results.

I looked out the window after closing down the webinar.  The sun was out; time for another cup of coffee.


Original post; August 24, 2015 @ 

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On Social Learning

I’m participating in a MOOC called Exploring Social Learning offered by some very kind folks out of the UK, and powered by a range of technologies, including HT2’s Curatr platform.

A discussion has sprung up there about the definition of social learning.  I tend to go back to my freely admitted preference for social constructivism as the most effective idea set for designing education.  I did some work around this some years back, and still appreciate the fine work of the late Dr. David Jonassen.  His focus, while on the notion of problem-solving generally, informs us today on the roles technology can play in enabling socially constructed meaning.

Here is the quoted text from Jonassen’s work, with some additional linking thoughts / references from me for each point:

Learning environments should emphasize the qualities below. That is, technologies should be used to keep students active, constructive, collaborative, intentional, complex, contextual, conversational, and reflective. What do these mean?

  • Active: Learners are engaged by the learning process in mindful processing of information where they are responsible for the result. In natural learning situations, learners and performers of all ages, without the intervention of formal instruction, can acquire sophisticated skills and advanced knowledge about what they are learning. For instance, before playing sandlot baseball, do kids subject themselves to lectures and multiple choice examinations about the theory of games, the aerodynamics of orbs, and vector forces. No! They start swinging the bat and chasing fly balls, and they negotiate the rules as they play the game. Through formal and informal apprenticeships and communities and play and work, learners develop skills and knowledge which they then share with other members of those communities with whom they learned and practiced those skills. In all of these situations, learners are actively manipulating the objects and tools of the trade and learning by reflecting on what they have done.
  • Constructive: Learners integrate new ideas with prior knowledge in order to make sense or make meaning or reconcile a discrepancy, curiosity, or puzzlement. They construct their own meaning for different phenomena. The models that they build to explain things are simple and unsophisticated at first, but with experience, support, and reflection, they become increasingly complex. As we explained earlier, we believe that it is impossible for learners to know what the teacher knows. They can only know what they know, so they should be supported in the process of coming to know.  (see also Lev Vygotsky and Social Constructivism -sm)
  • Collaborative: Learners naturally work in learning and knowledge building communities, exploiting each others skills while providing social support and modeling and observing the contributions of each member. Humans naturally seek out others to help them to solve problems and perform tasks. Why then do we in schools insist that learners “do their own work” and if they don’t, we accuse them of cheating. Individualized, reproductive methods of instruction cheat learners out of more natural and productive modes of thinking.   (also think of Bruce Tuckman’s stages of team work -sm)
  • Intentional: All human behavior is goal directed (Schank, 1994). That is, everything that we do is intended to fulfill some goal. That goal may be simple, like satiating hunger or getting more comfortable, or it may be more complex, like developing new career skills. When learners are actively and willfully trying to achieve a cognitive goal (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1993/1994), they think and learn more. Learning environments need to support learners in articulating what their goals are in any learning situation.  (also brings to mind Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs – sm)
  • Complex: The greatest intellectual sin that we teachers commit is to oversimplify most ideas in order to make them more easily transmittable to learners. In addition to stripping ideas out of their normal contexts, we distill ideas to their simplest form so that students will more readily learn them. But what are they learning?; that the world is a reliable and simple place. However, the world is not a reliable and simple place. Problems are multiple components and multiple perspectives and cannot be solved in predictable ways like the canned problems at the end of textbook chapters. We need to engage students in solving complex and ill-structured problems as well as simple problems. Unless learners are required to engage in higher order thinking, they will develop oversimplified views of the world.   (see Bloom’s taxonomy, too – sm)
  • Contextual: A great deal of recent research has shown that learning tasks that are situated in some meaningful real world task or simulated in some case-based or problem based learning environment are not only better understood, but also are more consistently transferred to new situations. Rather than abstracting ideas in rules that are memorized and then applied to other canned problems, we need to teach knowledge and skills in real life, useful contexts and providing new and different contexts for learners to practice using those ideas.   (consider simulations or game-based learning – sm)
  • Conversational: Learning is inherently a social, dialogical process (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). That is, given a problem or task, people naturally seek out opinions and ideas form others. Technologies can support this conversational process by connecting learners across town or across the world. When learners become part of knowledge building communities both in class and outside of school, they learn that there are multiple ways of viewing the world and multiple solutions to most of life’s problems. (consider social networking – sm)
  • Reflective: Learners should be required by technology-based learning to articulate what they are doing, the decisions they make, the strategies they use, and the answers that they found. When they articulate what they have learned and reflect on the processes and decisions that were entailed by the process, they understand more and are better able to use the knowledge that they have constructed in new situations.  (consider webinar follow-up meetings – sm)
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Opera on the N1

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It’s not whether, it’s how.


It creeps into so many conversations and those perpetrating racist ideology (yes, I’ll call it that) don’t even realize it.  It’s the ethical equivalent of unconscious incompetence when it comes to awareness of one’s own prejudices when it comes to races.

Don’t believe that you are a racist?  Great.  I invite all my friends and those I don’t know to do a painfully honest bit of reflection on the example below, and ask yourself – do I ever do this?

In a conversation amongst a set of well-to-do white folk, stories of robberies were shared.  One participant in the conversation shared a story of being robbed in a fast food restaurant.  Here’s the catch:  at one point, the raconteur shares that “well, it was a black guy”.  And that he went after him.

Now stop.

What should we infer from that small little verbal ‘tell’ (as if playing poker)?  Are we supposed to be more afraid?  Less afraid of the thief?  Are we to assume that it all makes sense now that race has been clarified?  Are we to think our raconteur even more brave as he tells his story of chasing the thief down?

I’m sure that my teller would refute the possibility of being racist, if challenged.  That’s because racism is some distant concept that I believe is still equated with open slavery, unequal rights, separate water fountains, etc.  No, the much more insidious and ever-present racism is that which reveals itself in these small verbal gestures in conversation.

The fact that the thief was black had NOTHING to do with the story, other than to propagate an idea that black guys are somehow more frightening and dangerous than any other dudes.  Don’t think this has an effect?  Just do a little research into how racial bias plays itself out in new hire selection, promotion, police action, loan granting, grading patterns in education, the list goes on and on.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think the speaker was intentionally trying to propagate a negative racial stereotype.  I fully believe he is unconsciously incompetent.  That’s as charitable as I can be.

By the way the real problem is poverty – lack of education and opportunity.  Let’s solve those, and perhaps we’ll be on our way to reducing crime.

It’s not a question of whether we are racist, but just how we are racist.

And yes, I too have an ongoing conversation with myself about this, having grown up white and privileged in the US.  I am on a journey to minimizing (hopefully eradicating) my racist beliefs and actions.  I am proud to have a very diverse set of friends – people I admire, respect and love – who are of all varieties.

Keep me honest, guys and gals.

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Connecting Social Media to Learning

I’m confused.

I hear the term ‘social media’ being used as a place holder for new hardware (tablets, smartphones, iPods, etc.) AND for content that is accessible through new hardware or web distribution mechanisms, AND for software people are using (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) AND for the particular behaviors that people are engaging in.

I’m trying to simplify my life a bit.  Communication of ideas demands that we define things together, or at least attempt to do so, so that we can know what we are talking about.  And I’m thinking about the link between social media and learning.  So.  I’d like to propose the following:

Social media is a changing set of tools that provide channels through which people can connect, create, share and interact. 

Too often I hear and see people approaching this from a publishing standpoint.  “Oh wow, we can now push our content out through social media!”

Please don’t.

Or at least consider the ‘social’ part of social media.  This is about people connecting to people way before anything to do with content.  We are social creatures.  Social media tools have simply provided a vast new (and changing) array of methods by which we can be what we are – humans.

  • Social media behaviors arise from the proliferation and availability of the tools, and our natural inclination to connect with others.
  • Social media tools continue to change.  Beware he or she who claims to be an expert in a field of such shifting sands.
  • Social media tools are primarily software.  Your smartphone is a dumb paperweight without the software on it.

(steps down from soapbox)

The link to learning.

The use of social media tools (such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) does not necessarily connote ‘development’ or ‘learning’ of course.  I don’t doubt that we are learning things through social media tools (thank you, FB friends for sharing your insights on living in London!), but the question for me is how to wisely use social media tools in a designed learning experience.

It strikes me that, as some have identified, there are hundreds of social media tools, and that each of them may present the education designer with unique opportunities.  It’s like suddenly discovering your spice cabinet when you’ve been cooking with salt and pepper only.  (note to self.  must buy spices)

Overdrive Interactive's map of social media tools

Here are just a couple of ways I’m thinking about the tools:

  • Access to published material for commenting (YouTube, Flickr, etc.)
  • Collaboration and co-creation (Wikis, Google docs, etc.)
  • Quick sharing of info in a broadcast or narrowcast approach (Twitter, Facebook)
  • Aggregators of feeds and other tools (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.)
  • Immersion for shared experience (virtual worlds, gaming spaces)

The above is imperfect and incomplete.  As education designers, we need to think pedagogy first, then examine what each of these new tools can do, and (importantly) take a constructivist view – put the tools in the hands of the learners.  Give them a goal that is meaningful.  Provide guidance and source materials.  Step aside.  Let them be humans and actively connect with each other to build and create meaning, practice new behaviors, get feedback, and have access to support.

I think that the constellation of social media tools provides a new array of possibilities regarding how an individual accesses networks of information and people that are important to her or him, how they interact and make meaning of new information socially with others, and therefore how they gain insight and translate that into effective behaviors for work and personal contexts.

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