Start at someone else’s mid-way


When approaching self-study, the learner is essentially their own instructional designer. “You are in charge,” says the screen full of internet staring back at you. “Now make some learning happen.”

This is at once liberating and daunting. So many learning possibilities…but then again, aren’t instructional designers trained extensively on how to scope and sequence online learning over many semesters of Master’s level coursework? Sounds like a lot of stuff that we don’t have the time, or skill, for.

In simple terms, though, learning designers start out a course of study with three principal questions:

  • Where do I start?
  • How do I know when I’ve achieved proficiency?
  • What should the learning process look like between these two endpoints?

The best source for answers to these questions is, not surprisingly, other folks on the internet. But don’t just find folks who were in your shoes and then read about their trials and successes — join the conversation itself, in the process leveraging a pedagogical technique called social constructivism.

Social constructivism is an offshoot of the discovery-based, maker-empowered constructivist model, but multiplied by the collective wisdom and hive-mind heft that collaborative thinking can produce. To take a silly example: you could teach yourself a bit about architecture by making your own Lego castle, but you’d probably learn a lot more — and make a cooler castle, too — if you had some buddies along to bounce ideas off of.

Good thing we have the internet, right? All the buddies, all the time. And that’s how you can determine a starting point, or refine your learning process, or gauge proficiency. It quite neatly satisfies those three principal design concerns we highlighted above.

But you do have to take a few specific actions. Social constructivism, after all, requires the learner to be active in the formation and application of his or her knowledge. These steps, in order, are:

1. Define your tribe(s)

Who are you? Who who, who who. Nail that down now, because having the right identifying phrase or job descriptor will make all your RSS indexing and Google+ Communities scouring much more straightforward. For me, I knew I wanted to become a technology-minded educator. I discovered the term for that was “instructional technologist.” Who knew? Not me, until I started typing job descriptions into queries.

2. Map out goals

Determine the frequency with which you aim to participate in communities, and to what extent. And here’s the thing: you should literally map it out. In their seminal work Adding Some TEC-VARIETY, education psychologists Curtis Bonk and Elaine Khoo reiterate what we all sort of knew in the back of our minds: “Cognitive psychology has taught us that among the most important skills learners can have is the ability to organize and represent their knowledge in personally meaningful ways” (196).  Take out a piece of paper, make a chart for Monday through Friday, and chart out your weekly learning journey across various platforms. Is the beginning of the week best for batting around ideas in various sub-reddits, whereas by the weekend you’re more in the mood to produce publishable content for your blog? Map it out. And, just as importantly, map out your metrics for success. Are 10 tweets a week reflecting on trends in your specialization enough to demonstrate mastery, or familiarity, or…well, this is where I stop suggesting and you fill the rest in. Quantify what a solid output would look like, as well as what kind of output you are aiming to receive from others.

3. Determine digital media habits

You want to learn a lot, but not spread yourself too thin, both in terms of content and platforms. In the words of Bonk and Khoo, “The dilemma for instructional designers, therefore, is to find ways to reduce extraneous cognitive load while increasing interactivity in ways that are more germane to the learning process” (184). If you subscribe to 8 social media services for professional development purposes, the cognitive load may be too high, diminishing your retention because you’ve sapped your mental bandwidth with too much content across too many conversations. You’re only human, and you probably have plenty of other mentally taxing activities on the side. Target social media that are central to your field, and be a real presence in those chosen few. In my case, I attended a conference on education technology and took note of the top 2 social media platforms being used by thought leaders and presenters. These ended up being Twitter and WordPress, which, in addition to daily Panda dashboard check-in’s, makes for a diverse and informative — but manageable — set of 3 platforms on which to keep tabs.

4. Seek out feedback

The manner in which you get feedback on your learning process is in some ways more crucial than the feedback itself. For social constructivism to flourish, responses will need to be aggregated and arranged for perusal and (this is the crucial part) natural group interfacing free of professional or ideological baggage. As Bonk and Khoo point out, platforms like Piazza act as anonymizing feedback engines that organically collate ideas as they grow: “Importantly, learners can choose to be anonymous in Piazza, thereby freeing them up for participation. The nonhierarchical and interactive functionality of Piazza nurtures an environment rich with student questions and associated answers” (188). Bonk and Khoo suggest that one could extend these conversations into meta-cognitive reflection; once the ideas settle and a resolution is at hand, the intellectual product can be “returned” to the owner, who can then incorporate the new understandings and perspectives into his or her own learning process going forward.

5. Develop mentoring relationships

I have to be honest with you, I’m behind on this one. Turns out working full-time doesn’t afford a lot of time for critical exchange outside your current field. But Bonk and Khoo saw this one coming, too, and have a suggestion — backchanneling, or indirect conversations via digital media that are a conduit for more intimate feedback down the line. At a conference, for example, “There might also be a conference hashtag for Twitter activities and quick response (QR) code for mobile applications associated with the conference that can be photographed or scanned in. When audience members add an event hashtag to their tweets, others can search and review all the background tweets associated with the event” (204). This is all to say that it’s not enough to just look at those QR codes — actually utilize them when the situation presents itself. It may lead to a event or other informal, small group get-togethers that foster mentor-mentee relationships. The key is to crowd-source from a large pool, e.g., industry-wide conference or broad social platform, then hone in on the sub-groups that orbit or outright result from such a collection of minds.

Hopefully these 5 steps will get you on your way. I’ve seen social constructivism take me from the kid with no friends and no skills to the kid with some friends and some skills…and I reckon the best is yet to come. It will be interesting to see how interoperability and “software eating software” across social media platforms will come to shape what these apps do and how far they can reach across, and thereby integrate, professional and personal niches of social media. If WeChat in China is any indication, cross-service backchanneling is yet to really flourish in the US, and with it the development of more robust professional development communities.


Your second-best self


Before delving into self-study, it’s crucial to understand just what kind of learner you are. (Yes, very good; a human learner. Let’s keep the dad jokes at a minimum, shall we?)

When it comes to determining just how your brain learns best, Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence can be an incisive starting point. Three leaner types emerge from this hypothesis: analytical, creative, and practical. An analytical learner is one that does well with synthesizing complex information in a prescribed manner, such as economists. A creative learner adapts well to “out-of-the-box” and innovation-driven tasks such as graphic design or sales presentations. A practical learner deals well with concrete tasks informed by real world experience accrued over time in roles such as event planner.

The tricky part is not identifying which type you predominantly identify with. The tricky part is determining just how the less dominant types play into your overall learning schema, and how you can access these less obvious strengths in your course of self-education.

Myself, for example: I am primarily an analytical learner. Give me a study guide and a test, and I’ll do an acceptable job. I can teach myself to take a test by now, largely from years of schooling and routinizing this process. However, to truly tap into my full potential with self-directed study, it’s essential that I acknowledge my creative learning tendencies, less obvious though they may be.

For example, when learning responsive design grids for web design, I will only get so far if I follow the instructional video and do the required exercises. To truly grok the material, I need to tap into my visual mapping tendencies; without abstract and innovative idea mapping, I have a really hard time later on employing new permutations of the disparate ideas I’ve learned. I have to literally draw out further connections on a piece of paper – how this JQuery script could enhance or detract from this layout feature.

Design your primary and secondary learning schema with your field in mind. In a field like web design it is imperative that you debug your own mistakes. Without mapping out why things work and don’t in various combinations, my synapses feel withered when it comes to fixing my mistakes. My knowledge is just not broadly applicable enough to solve what needs to be solved. But if my field were, say, architecture, I might employ more of a practical leaner approach, as I have hands-on experience with pouring cement.

Now, this can widely vary for each task, learner, and delivery model. But do take the time to consider for yourself just as your teachers did long ago: note how you learn best – and 2nd best — and accommodate accordingly.