Digital Storytelling in the US Army

This week Jonathan Silk, a US Army Officer stationed at the United States Military Academy at West point, NY, shared his digital story telling practice with the CPsquare community. For this digital storytelling work he won the 2012 Pepperdine Award for outstanding work in community development.

CPsquare group shot

Storytelling is used in many organisations as a knowledge management strategy. Through storytelling tacit knowledge is elicited and shared for the benefit of the whole organization. Jonathan has shared his own story in a blog post ‘Why I tick when I run’.

In the US Army, storytelling has been used to great effect within the MILSPACE Community of Practice  to share leadership stories from the field; this has been the subject of Jonathan Silk’s action research.

The key point that came out of Jonathan’s CPsquare presentation and the discussion, was that although storytelling is a powerful tool for binding a community, it needs to be managed carefully in terms of the technology, in terms of the stories and commitment to gathering those stories, and in terms of learning from the stories.

The technology

The MILSPACE community uses an ordinary video camera. Videos are edited on a Mac with Final Cut Pro . The Army has a designated person to do this editing and to date has over 1500 video stories of 3-5 minutes in length.

The main issue for the MILSPACE community has been to make the videos easily accessible to community members, easy to search, and easy to comment on and discuss. JCarousel is used to support this and recent work has focused on tags and video titles. Appropriate titles have been found to be very influential on the number of times a video is viewed (see Jonathan’s report for further details).

Managing story collection

The MILSPACE community has over 20,900 members and focuses on the leadership development of cadets, lieutenants and captains in the US Army. Stories are collected in the field. A dedicated team went out to locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan to create the videos. Leaders were almost universally keen to be interviewed and understand that sharing their stories and learning adds value to the whole community.

Video interviews can be conducted with a single leader or with a group and are usually around a given topic, e.g. eight leaders have given video interviews on the topic of ‘Your first 30 days in a country’.

The stories can be highly emotive and elicit deeply reflective thinking. This requires careful, sensitive and experienced management by the interviewer. Trust and positive relationships are essential to the story collection process and it is understood that the videos are ‘owned’ by the interviewees. No videos are published without the consent of the interviewee, although they are carefully screened for any potential security issues.

Learning from the video stories

The collection of over a 1,500 videos does not necessarily mean that they are used effectively for learning. The MILSPACE community is currently exploring means of increasing discussion around the videos. Recent work has involved developing a more structured approach to the management of discussion around the videos, through establishing groups of topic leaders (peer panels) who make personal contact with interviewees and seed discussion and comments around the videos to build learning relationships. This is work in progress.

Final thoughts

It is not difficult to understand what a powerful effect video stories could have on the learning of a community, particularly one such as the US Army where as Jonathan Silk has put it the cycle between action and reflection is so fast and chaotic that it’s difficult to capture the learning.

This potential has been recognized and supported by the hierarchy in the US Army, which has devoted technology and manpower to the process.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the process and potentially the most interesting is yet to be fully developed, and that is an exploration of just how do video stories add value to a community of practice.  This is a process that has recently been highlighted by Wenger et al in their publication

Wenger, E., Trayner, B., and de Laat, M. (2011) Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework. Rapport 18, Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open University of the Netherlands.

I found Jonathan Silk’s presentation very interesting and valuable, because it helped to clarify the issues surrounding the collection and management of video stories.  It will be interesting to see how the work develops.

(This post has also been copied to the CPsquare blog).

#betreat12 Communities of practice and learning

These notes are from the Academic BEtreat reading on communities of practice and learning, pages 72 -102 in Etienne’s book Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity 

Chapter 2 on Community raised one question for me

How does social learning theory relate to complexity theory and connectivism? I would like to hear what Etienne and others have to say about this.

Chapter 3 on Learning gave me a surprising ‘Ah-ha’ moment in the following three lines

For those who do not think of their job as learning (Etienne is referring to the work of claims processors here) – this is because what they learn is their practice. Learning is not reified as an extraneous goal or as a special category of activity or membership (p.95)

This was an ‘Ah-ha’ moment for me because last year I had difficulty relating to the cultural context and work on communities of practice done by the large corporate organisations represented at BEtreat11. I blogged about it in this post.   And then recently when Etienne and Bev spoke to the FSLT12 MOOC,  Bev caught me on the hop when she challenged me to explain what I meant by my blog post and I realised that I hadn’t thought this through clearly enough and wasn’t able to articulate what I meant. I only knew at the time (last year) that the work of the large corporations did not resonate with my experience or understanding of what is a community of practice.

Following Bev’s challenge I thought about it a lot and came to the conclusion that the difference was to do with values, i.e. ultimately the purpose of a CoP in an organisation like Shell seems to me to be principally about knowledge management and through this making money for the company, or gaining strategic advantage. Learning in these CoPs serves this purpose. As Etienne writes above, what they learn is their practice. In the CoPs that I work in (which are education related), whilst learning is entwined with practice, it is also reified as an extraneous goal or a special category of activity. In some academic communities the reified learning is supremely important – this thought comes to mind as I am currently writing this whilst staying at Exeter College in Oxford, where reified knowledge is almost palpable in the air around you. 🙂

So Chapter 3 has, I think, answered my troubling question for me – but I’ll be interested to hear what others think (if they are interested in whether there is a distinction between corporate and academic CoPs).

For the purposes of the BEtreat, here are my notes from the reading.

Chapter 2 Community

Key words

Mutual engagement, joint enterprise, shared repertoire, relationships, negotiation, accountability, meaning


  • Mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire define the community
  • Practice does not exist in the abstract (p.73)
  • CoPs are not necessarily homogeneous
  • Engagement defines identity and involves ours and others’ competence
  • Mutual accountability is an integral part of practice
  • CoPs are more about sharing than expertise
  • Joint enterprise is negotiated
  • Joint enterprise creates resources for negotiating meaning. These resources become the shared repertoire/history of the community, which is inherently ambiguous

 Chapter 3 Learning

Key words

Participation, reification, history, learning, practice, peripherality, legitimacy, emergence, remembering, forgetting, identity


  • Not everything we do is learning
  • Learning is not just the acquisition of skills, habits, memories, but also the formation of identity
  • Participation and reification can influence practice through memory, continuity and discontinuity, convergence and divergence
  • p.87.’The world and our experience are in motion, but they don’t move in lockstep’ so there is always uncertainty (I noted this because of my interest in and research on emergent learning)
  • p.89 ‘Our identities become anchored in each other and what we do together. As a result it is not easy to become a radically new person in the same community of practice. Conversely it is not easy to transform oneself without the support of a community.’ (I find this a fascinating statement as it alludes to the difficulties of getting the balance right between ‘group think’ and  support)
  • Participation and communication are channels of power available to participants. (I hope we have further discussions about the role of power in relation to learning)
  • p.93 Because the negotiation of meaning is the convergence of participation and reification, controlling both participation and reification affords control (but not complete unchanging control)over the kinds of meaning that can be created in a certain context and the kinds of person that participants can become.
  • Control must constantly be reproduced, reasserted, renegotiated in practice.
  • Practice is not an object to be handed down from one generation to the next – it is a shared history of learning.

Academic BEtreat (#betreat12) pre-conference call

The Academic BEtreat is underway. We have had our first conference call, to prepare for next week.

Screenshot from the Pre-Conference Call

There are 16 participants from across the world – eight will be in California meeting face-to-face and eight will join the BEtreat online. I am in the latter group.  There will be a ‘buddy system’ where face-to-face participants will be paired up with online participants. The idea is that f2f participants will represent the online participants. I wonder if it could/should also work the other way round.

Juggling time zones is going to be a challenge for the synchronous meetings – since participants are from the US, Europe and Japan. Evidently we will negotiate times for synchronous sessions, but realistically I think I will be working at least until midnight for most of the week. Although I know it could be worse than this I am naturally more of an early bird than a night owl – so it will be an interesting challenge.

The format is similar to the format for last year, although I think there is more asynchronous time built into the programme this year and more time for reflection – which is good.

Academic BEtreat Programme

As for last year the programme is divided up into different group activities and colour coded according to these activities.

  • Pale yellow marks the start and end of the BEtreat.
  • Pink is for leadership group activities. I will be in the Critical Friends group where we reflect on the process such as taking care of online and offline integration. We will be able to do some of this work asynchronously
  • Purple is for theory discussion activities in which we will review Etienne’s book. There are 5 theory review sessions covering – Meaning, Learning in communities of practice,Boundaries and scale, Identity, Identification and power
  • On Wednesday morning there is a theory preview session in which Etienne and Bev will present their most recent work.
  •  There are also three thematic discussion groups to deepen discussion on – Learning theory and research, Value creation and evaluation, Adult pedagogy, technology and professional development (I will be in this group)
  • Gold and yellow sections are for social activities (for the f2f participants)
  • Finally, we need to introduce ourselves – in the case of online people through creating a wiki page to provide a context for who we are and what we do. At the end of the week, we will create an action plan to take our work forward and post it on this page.
Academic BEtreat Wiki Homepage

It will be very interesting to be online on this BEtreat this year having been there in person in California last year. I’m wondering whether it will make a difference to how I feel about the integration of online and face-to-face working. (I made this blog post after last year’s betreat).  I also want to see whether it is easier to understand the cultural context than it was last year given this is an Academic BEtreat. (This was the blog post I made last year in relation to this). Finally, I am hoping to learn more about the relationship between meaning, learning and identity in terms of how an understanding of this would apply in the practice of teaching and learning, and more about the value creation framework and how to apply this in practice. I have started blogging about this and hope to continue if time allows – but it might be a bit hectic!

Questions to ask when planning a MOOC

The task that has been set by Stephen Downes in Week 25 of ChangeMooc,   is to create and present an artifact, which answers the three questions below.

Since I am currently working on planning a new MOOC (massive open online course) – First Steps into Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, May 21st – June 22nd  – I thought I would focus on this as a response to this task (this is called ‘killing two birds with one stone’!), although I suspect that this is not quite the kind of artifact that Stephen had in mind 🙂 But taking my autonomy into my own hands – here it is with the questions and my answers below.

Q.1. How does your learning artifact instantiate knowledge? And what is the knowledge the artifact represents? Focus not simply on the statement or expression of that knowledge, but also on the organization that constitutes a deeper and more complex knowledge.

I am aware that this artifact looks over simple. There has been a lot written about the organization of MOOCs, not least by Stephen himself.  Having just started with George Roberts  and Marion Waite to plan a MOOC myself (First Steps into Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, May 21st – June 22nd) I have become aware that the planning depends on asking the right questions.  The quality and validity of the questions  in my artifact depends on what I already know and will only be as good as what I know. What I know about MOOCs is a result of my direct experience over the last four years in a number of MOOCs, the research I have conducted and my gradual increasing ability to recognize emerging patterns in my own understanding.  So the questions in the artifact are my questions, that are specific to my context, reflect my understanding and are personal to me … but might also (hopefully) be recognized as helpful to others.

(Not sure that I’ve answered this question correctly or adequately.)

Q.2. How does a student use your artifact to learn? In what way does the artifact replicate or emulate the experience and performance of a person who already has this knowledge?

The artifact models and demonstrates my belief that raising questions is usually more effective than providing answers. I hope the questions I have raised are open enough to be answered by any learner at any level, in the sense that if the learner doesn’t know the answer, then the learner will be encouraged to find out. They are only ‘starter’ questions. Each question leads to a whole load of further questions, some of which I have indicated as possibilities. I have deliberately not provided answers to the questions. A MOOC runs on principles of autonomy, diversity, openness and interactivity. I would like to think that the questions in this artifact also promote these principles.

Q. 3. What is the community around that knowledge – is it a community of language speakers, or practitioners, of adherents of a faith? What would characterize the community – does it revolve around an object, set of beliefs, way of looking at the world? How does the community learn?

There is a recognizable community/network ‘MOOCers’ – a community which, for me, is searching for new and more effective ways of ensuring that everyone on the planet has a right to an education that leads to effective learning.  The community interacts to explore this concern through open sharing  of diverse resources, made richer through the belief that autonomy is fundamental to effective learning. It makes use of advancing technologies to increase the network and the affordances of the web to run massive, open, online courses. Through these MOOCs we give voice to some of our dreams and aspirations for a better future for education across the world.

Knowledge, Learning and Community: Elements of Effective Learning

This is the title of Stephen Downes’ presentation to Week 25 of ChangeMooc

Here is the link to a Recording of the session

Also here: Slides, audio and Elluminate video recording

My notes from the session

What is knowledge? It is not memory. It is not facts or laws, which are slippery. It is not in the network. It IS the network, the recognition of the emergence of patterns. We are recognising beings. Knowing is NOT being able to NOT recognise (the double negative is important).

Emergence is how we see patterns of connectivity, how we recognise patterns as something,

Patterns form in different ways, e.g. Hebbian Associationism (based on concurrency), Back Propagation (based on desired outcome), Boltzman (based on ‘settling’ , annealing). Experience results in forming and breaking connections.

Meaning is contained within the mind itself. We cannot tie meaning to what it directly represents. The external referent is not important. It’s what is in our own mind that is important.

Theorists confuse public and personal knowledge. Personal knowledge is in our own mind. Public knowledge is out there in artefacts. They are different. There is no transformation from one to the other.

Knowledge is the organisation of connections in networks.

If a human mind can come to ‘know’, and if a human mind is essentially a network, then any network can come to ‘know’, and for that matter so can society. (Slide 13)

04-03-12 Correction: The comment from Matthias Melcher below has prompted me to listen to the recording of the session and present this more accurately. This is what Stephen said in the session about personal and public knowledge.

Knowledge is the organisation of a set of connections in a network. It follows directly that if there are different kinds of networks there are different kinds of knowledge. There are two distinct kinds of knowledge (but not only two kinds). Our personal knowledge is the organisation of the set of connections in our own mind. Public knowledge is the organisation of all the artifacts in society. The organisation of society is not the same as the organisation of a personal mind.

What is learning? Learning is to practice and reflect (teaching is to model and demonstrate). We can only create an environment in which learning can occur. For personal learning we use the social network (physical) to create neuronal connections (personal).

Developing personal knowledge is more like exercising than like inputting, absorbing or remembering (Slide 17)

We recognise neural connections by performance in the environment/network. A personal learning environment is one in which we immerse ourselves into the workings of a community. Learning is ‘being’ in an environment.

What is community?  We don’t need a personal learning environment to engage with the community. We do not need to all do things the same way. The main thing is that we are connected. Knowledge emerges from the set of connections between us. Groups work on the premise of collaboration and sameness, but networks and community work on the premise of cooperation and connection.

Networks work on the basis of four basic principles – autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction. Without these, the network will stagnate and die.

What stood out for me? One thing Stephen said really jumped out at me.

Learning is becoming more and more like the person who is doing the teaching.

I think I must have misunderstood the intention behind this statement, as on one level I find it disturbing – and on another just completely counter to my own experience.

As a teacher, I want learners to develop their own identities. The last thing I want is for them to turn out like me! Whilst some learners will choose to model themselves on their teachers, many others will make a conscious choice to be as unlike their teacher as possible. The issue is surely more about how learners develop and recognize their own identities than becoming like the person who is doing the teaching?

04-03-12 Clarification: Again, in response to Matthias Melcher’s comment  here is a bit more about what Stephen said in the session:

A person who practices in the environment is going to come to be like the person who is doing the teaching.  The person who is teaching is not presenting simply facts but presenting an entire way of being. The person who is learning is watching this and attempting to replicate it.

04-03-12 Further comment from me. I am aware that there is some risk in sharing my notes. They will be read ‘out of context’ and obviously interpreted according to the personal perceptions of the reader in their context and I am not and never will be ‘infallible’ in my interpretations. Stephen himself has said that he knows that his writing and presentations are likely to be misinterpreted however careful he is with his use of words.

I was also reminded during this presentation of a comment made in the most recent Networked Learning Hotseat  about how ‘we notice things when we are ready’.  I have heard Stephen talk about some of these ideas a few times before, but this time I noticed things I haven’t noticed before  – must be patterns emerging?

Context and culture in communities of practice

A predominant feature of BEtreat was the impact of context and culture on the learning process. There was an expectation that we would share our experience of communities of practice with a view to learning from each other. However, whilst the sharing was easy enough, the understanding of where people were coming from was more difficult. Participants came from very different backgrounds. Large corporations such as Shell, Deloitte and Microsoft represented the ‘for profit’ sector and within the ‘not for profit’ sector there were those who were working with many communities across large geographical areas and those who were working with much smaller more localised communities. The disparity in the amounts of funding received by these different communities was huge.

These differences in contexts led to mismatches of understanding of what we mean by communities of practice and also to different uses of language. I found myself listening to conversations which were quite unlike the types of conversations I usually have about communities of practice and I’m not sure that I ever did really understand what the other participants were doing with their very different communities of practice. There was a lot of ‘talking past each other’.

On reflection it might have been helpful to go further than the descriptive sharing that we did, most of which was not relevant to other contexts, and instead focus on analysing the culture of the different communities with a view to understanding them better and being able to better make comparisons. One possible useful approach to analysing culture is the ‘Culture Web’, which Julia Balogun writes about in her article ‘Strategic Change’ in Management Quarterly Part 10 January 2001. This captures, through stories, symbols, routines, power structures, controls and organisation structure (see p.5 of the article), what the central paradigm of a culture is. If context influences how communities of practice are understood, then could we argue that an understanding of this central paradigm is needed? Maybe this would have helped us to better understand each others cultures and the different issues that each of us are facing in our work with communities of practice.

Etienne Wenger talked to us at BEtreat about learning in a landscape of practice and working on the boundaries between communities of practice, so that we can find new ways to talk across boundaries. At BEtreat the boundaries between the different practices were very evident and, I think, problematic. It was said that there is a need to manage cross boundary working. For me, sharing practice was not enough. We needed to analyse and question the different cultures and it might have helped to use an approach such as the Culture Web.

That said, it was very stimulating to be able to work alongside people I would never normally come in contact with and the experience has caused me to further reflect on Etienne Wenger’s work on landscapes of practice.

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.