May 09, 2008

Stephen Heppell: the gaps are where the good stuff is

Stephen_heppell virtual, actual, temporal, agile, dissolved, playful, effective, delightful, better: this is my rundown of Stephen Heppell's talk at Urban Learning Space in Glasgow, complete with mistakes, editorial and personal views. David captures things differently over here, and managed to get the Q&A session tapped in.

Bits of our world need to be seen in a context. The Dubai indoor ski slope is not, as Westerners would say, a crime against global warming. In the context of Dubai water costs more than oil, so creating an expensive indoor area to keep the snow from melting is actually most sensible in the long-term. The context is sometimes frustrating - London Grid for Learning blocks Heppell's website because it concerns 'Criminal Skills' (his boat's called Cracker...). Filtering and blocking, home and abroad, is often a contextual issue, and new disruptive mobile technologies are changing that context.

Today's context is different from a few years ago. Information is free (and those who block it are putting their nation at a disadvantage), but the thing that is becoming scarce is the ability to learn, to exploit this information and knowledge to come up with ingenius ideas, creative offshoots and fill in the gaps in our lives.

We don't watch television so much any more, without also taking part in the online communities around the shows (C4's work in this sector is world-beating).

The inbetweenies
So, in the past we used to have me/you, broadcast/viewer, teacher/learner, but all the interesting stuff in 2008 is happening between these space. The people and projects in this space are the "inbetweenies", working outside the hierarchical historical norms in this superb learning space. Clay Shirky alludes to this, too, when he says that the innovation in organisations often happens in the 'gaps' in the organisation and it is the connectors who bridge these gaps who are often seen as 'creative'.

There's even a technology for this space: nearly now technologies. These are asynchronous technologies, but where we expect an answer in the near future (when I started blogging I'd expect an answer in a week, but now have an expectation that the first comments will appear within minutes. Things have changed. Twitter leaves me wanting almost instant nearly now communication, but where I have the option to come back later if I want.)

Stephen reckons that the new media companies are different in leadership, too, from traditional companies, in that they don't lead users. I think this is a little simplistic, not quite right, although there is a change. But Caterina Fake greeted the first 10,000 Flickrers in person. Every MySpacer's first friend it the company boss. MySpace leads users towards content every day through its homepage. Google Ads lead users into transactions they didn't even know they wanted.

Getting away from the learner's cell
All this is going on, the edges are becoming fuzzier the world over, except in most school buildings. They are designed on a spreadsheet, where spreadsheet cells represent the classrooms, cells in themselves in more than one sense.

In the online community work that Stephen and colleagues did at Ultralab, amongst all the things I've heard from him before about being seductive and engaging, 24/7, the term 'mixed age' made me think about how most Glow groups for students may, perhaps, fall into the traditional cell format: age, stage, subject or project. I hope that teachers in schools get together to help create some mixed age groupings, composite Glow classes if you will. I know some parents aren't so happy when their offspring are placed in physical composite classes, but perhaps Glow offers the advantages - potentially - of composite classes that I experienced at school, but in a more intense and long-term basis for all students, not just those in small schools.

Above all, I hope that the students take it on themselves to fuzz up those edges a bit further.


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I'd hope that all users of Glow 'fuzz up' the edges - the last thing I'd like to see is a rigidly proposed structure of age/stage/subject. Perhaps the most powerful area of glow will be 'my glow' where users choose to interact with others in their own area?

There's always a risk that new technologies get used to do the same old things, but in new electronic ways.

So some of those consulted on what Glow should do would inevitably build some existing assumptions into what they asked for.

People saw video conference, at first, as a way to hold the same monthly meetings but save on travel. It took a while for them to realise it enabled new, short meetings that wouldn't have been feasible before.

One of the most important things Mentors can do is highlight this risk, and encourage exploration of new possibilities.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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