Process versus content in the learning experience

The tensions between process and content were very interesting to observe in the BEtreat workshop that I recently attended California.

The workshop was run over 5 days by Etienne Wenger and Beverley Trayner in their home in Grass Valley. Both during and following the workshop I have reflected on which aspects of it were successful and think that a lot of this hinged on the degree of balance that was achieved between process and content.

The workshop design was ambitious and complex.  There were various parallel themes. This was the agenda for the 5 days. (Click on it to see it more clearly although the font is still small).

Key components of the workshop design were:

–       to integrate, as fully as possible, face to face and online workshop participants and activities (see blog post July 9th 2011). The focus here was on technology – but participants also had to learn new ways of working and communicating.

–       to present our own case clinics in the form of ‘booths’ – we would call these ‘stands’ in the UK. Through these we shared information about the CoPs we work in with other participants, the challenges we face and the questions we are asking. I was only just beginning to feel I knew what other people were working on by the end of the workshop.

–       to daily reflect on the success of the workshop design through the Leadership group activities. These were Agenda Activists (they reported on issues and insights, pushed the agenda forward, and made sure that learning was captured into a collective resource), Critical Friends (who recorded and reflected on what happened), Social Reporters and External Messengers (who kept public and private records of everything that happened in the workshop) and Community Keepers (whose role was to ensure that all voices in the workshop were heard). I was in the community keepers group and these were useful discussions but although each group reported back daily, there was so much going on that I never did get my head round exactly what the other groups achieved. However, each group was expected to keep notes on the workshop wiki, so there is some record of these discussions.

–       Hot topic groups. These arose from an initial World Café activity in which we identified the issues we were bringing to the workshop. These were around evaluation, vision, community readiness, cultural change, online/f2f integration, sponsors, strategy, boundaries, encouraging participation, facilitation, changing leadership and what a thriving community looks like. We then voted for the hot topics we collectively most wanted to discuss during the 5 days and ended up with 3 groups – focussing on online/f2f integration, strategy and evaluation. My group hot topic was online/f2f integration. Again, I never did get my head round what the other groups achieved, and although this activity gave us the participants some ownership of the learning agenda for the workshop, we just did not have enough time to really get to grips with these issues.

–       Tool Share Fare. Four tools were shared, but the only one that I could relate to or felt would be useful to my own work was an open source polling tool –

–       Two presentations by Etienne and Bev. One on Social Learning Strategies and the other on the Value Creation Framework (see blog post July 12th 2011). These were short inputs. I would have liked more.

–       Socialising around shared meals (lunches and dinners), a visit to the Grass Valley Thursday night street market and an end of workshop birthday party. These activities were critical to the success of the workshop and contributed to what made the workshop a unique and unforgettable experience.

Just listing these activities shows a heavy emphasis on process. It also shows how busy the workshop was. We were pretty much flat out all the time and occasional failures in technology meant that we were often ‘playing catch up’. For me it was, on the whole, all too fast and there was little opportunity to explore anything in depth. Four days later I am still trying to catch up when I can stop to think about it (I am currently travelling round California – and am now in Monterey) – but now realise that my notes are not full enough and neither are those of the various groups, who were asked to record their group outcomes on the workshop wiki.

On the other hand I’m not sure whether the workshop would have been so enjoyable and rewarding had it been slower. The intensity and pace meant that it was never possible to control what was going on, nor to predict what would emerge.  It’s not surprising that a couple of people were attending BEtreat for the second time. It would have been interesting to know whether they got more about of it the second time round – but there just wasn’t the time to have this conversation 🙂

So it’s fascinating to observe that in these types of courses, where the course design challenges traditional ways of working and has been deliberately designed as an experiment, there can be no formula or ideal balance between process and content, breadth and depth, action and reflection for a successful learning experience. Learning in these situations is an extremely messy business and it is difficult to capture exactly what it is that makes it a highly stimulating, motivating and memorable learning experience. The sum seems to be greater than the parts. Perhaps this is what makes for a really valuable learning.

3 thoughts on “Process versus content in the learning experience

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