“Time is everything. Because social capital compounds with time. So teams that work together longer work better because it takes time to develop the trust you need for real candor and openness. And time is what builds value.”
How many of us have, in our daily working lives, the time we desire to develop and grow trusting relationships with our colleagues? How many of us work in organizations that are structured to prioritize meaningful connections to our colleagues? Meetings, so often focused on the urgent needs of the moment, rarely provide adequate time for allowing new ideas to surface, let alone the creative space that nurtures insights, inspiration, and deep listening. And as much as we may endeavor to construct that space on campus, sometimes getting off campus, out of the familiar work environment and routines, is required to be able to see and listen to new possibilities, new ways of imagining our work together, ways of being more less busy and more creative together.
In 2016, the Solution Design Summit at OLC Innovate provided my colleagues and I on the Digital Learning Team one such space of possibility. For us, SDS was a small haven for informal, unstructured, and sometimes messy conversation within the much larger OLC Innovate conference. Laura Pasquini and Mike Goudzwaard were tirelessly patient co-chairs and shaped the space and experience for us to think creatively and even courageously about the challenges we hoped to address at our institutions. And they surrounded teams with a multidisciplinary gathering of talented and generous leaders in the field ready to push our thinking further.
I’m writing this blog post to encourage readers to consider applying to SDS–here is this year’s call for proposals (deadline for submissions: November 2!). I hope that by sharing a little bit about our experience and its value to our work, readers will have another perspective on what to expect and look forward to at SDS 2017.
Joshua Kim and Kristen Eshelman note in their summer article, 5 Reasons We Will Avoid Edtech Conferences:
“The modern edtech conference leaves too little time for conversation. So much of the conference is scheduled for sessions—and so much of our time is spent organizing and running those sessions—that little time or energy is left for the important conversations.”
Time and space to connect is what SDS does best. As someone who led a team to SDS in 2016, and is now part of the SDS 2017 organizing team, I have experienced from both perspectives–participant and organizer–the summit’s intentional focus on supporting groups with both time and space for conversations that matter. SDS is organized to provide teams dedicated time to create, ideate, and hone their project proposals. It is also designed to connect teams with a wide network of helpful, experienced, and brilliant educational leaders. Patrice Torcivia (SDS 2017 chair), Adam Croom, Julie Larsen, and Kyle Johnson are a few of the many people who offered substantive feedback that changed our project for the better.
My colleague, Tim Clarke, has done an awesome job capturing the work that has evolved out of our SDS experience in a new blog post. While focused primarily on our fledgling Domain of One’s Own initiative, bergbuilds, Tim describes its roots in our SDS initiative:
The heart of that proposal is the, “creation of an innovative peer education model that empowers students to develop the relationships, skills, and competencies they need to excel as leaders in digital learning contexts”. A major part of this work, clearly, concerns our plans forstudent uses and student peer support of Domain of One’s Own.
Just prior to the start of this academic year, we launched a new pre-orientation program centered on digital learning and digital literacies. For a few days prior to the start of the semester, we hosted 9 incoming students and 3 student leaders. We worked together on digital mapping, digital archiving, and digital storytelling projects (and had a bunch of silly fun, too). We also handed out our very first bergbuilds.domains accounts to students. In fact, our tagline for this entire pre-orientation experience was, “A Dorm & A Domain” — emphasizing that a Muhlenberg experience is as much about staking out an online presence as it is setting up a dorm room or learning your way around campus.
I’m also thrilled that all of our student leaders and many of our pre-orientation attendees have agreed to be among our very first Digital Learning Assistants.
Tim traces more succinctly than I can how far we’ve come with this work since arriving in New Orleans last spring: we developed and implemented the digital learning pre-orientation and one giant measure of its success is the fact that more than half of the pre-o participants have signed up as Digital Learning Assistants. What this tells us is that students the 5-day pre-orientation provided experiences that are helping to empower students as digital learners. Digital Learning Team members designed a schedule that included: interactive digital mapping activities to learn the campus, Instagram scavenger hunts to locate less visible gems on campus, digging into the library’s special collections and digital archives, and creating digital resident/visitor mind maps. Playing ultimate frisbee at night on the college green with LED light up discs and designing and programming digital light displays and play lists for all the other pre-o groups on campus ensured that an element of play and discovery animated the program.
But none of this was anywhere near fully articulated when the Digital Learning Team first arrived in New Orleans. We had some broad ideas and visions, but it wasn’t until the first SDS session that we were really able to spend concentrated time to imagine what it would all actually look like. I began this post with a quote from Margaret Heffernan’s 2015 TEDWomen talk. In this talk, she takes on “the superchicken model,” where value in organizations is attributed to “star” employees who outperform others (usually at the expense of others). I overheard some jokes about “shark tank” at SDS, but SDS really creates an entirely different model. The SDS model recognizes that all innovation, all design thinking, is social. The SDS experience designed to encourage social connectedness, and the greatest benefit of SDS was the time it afforded our team to work together, uninterrupted, over the space of a few days.
Participating in SDS was a chance to work in the open on an idea that was emerging but not yet fully shaped. SDS teams shared their project ideas openly in a room full of generous, helpful leaders from various kinds of institutional contexts. They were there to listen to us, reflect back to us what they were hearing, and challenge us to improve ur designs. Heffernan’s words below beautifully describe the process we experienced at SDS:
“No idea is born fully formed…It emerges… kind of messy, and confused, but full of possibility. And its only through the generous contributions, faith, and challenge, that they achieve their potential.”
Our team’s thinking was transformed, strengthened, and fueled through the many generous contributions and productive critiques we received from the engaged community of experts at SDS. This value on generosity and collaboration infused the SDS formal sessions, but also spilled out into the hallways and elevators and corners for coffee breaks throughout the conference. Literally.
Here’s Jill Leafsteadt and colleagues from CSU Channel Islands who generously agreed to observe a final run through before our presentation. Their willingness to spend 10 minutes and then share their sensitive feedback mattered a great deal to us as we prepared to go present our ideas to the SDS reviewers. SDS privileges collaboration and social support over competition. Even while SDS does select an overall “winning team,” the primary emphasis is on providing each participating team with the opportunity for rich dialogue and collaboration. The purpose is to create conditions for teams to think together creatively and courageously about the challenges they are working on, in a challenging but enormously helpful context.
Heffernan’s research on work led her to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. The observations and interviews she conducted there surprised her. “[W]hen I talked to producers of hit albums, they said, ‘Oh sure, we have lots of superstars in music. It’s just, they don’t last very long. It’s the outstanding collaborators who enjoy the long careers, because bringing out the best in others is how they found the best in themselves.'” This is the sentiment that defined the environment of SDS. We had carefully honed our pitch to exactly 10 minutes, so it was a risky few seconds at the outset when I went off-script added this spontaneously to our introductions and thanks: “We should all be going back to our campuses and doing what we can to create this kind of space for our colleagues.” The outstanding collaborators at SDS helped bring out the best in each team. This was learning by doing, undoing, and redoing. And each team left SDS with an improved design to take back to their campuses.
In sharing these experiences from SDS I hope to encourage readers to consider submitting a proposal (by November 2!). It’s hard to capture just how much the time with my team and the helpfulness of generous SDS collaborators has catalyzed our digital learning work at Muhlenberg. In a blog post reflecting on her recent visit to campus, Lauren Brumfeld from Reclaim Hosting notes the “togetherness” she observed among the Digital Learning Assistants. I believe that togetherness, the value of social connection, is the key to our winning SDS design project.