Privilege Active Learning: In-Person and Online

Here's a very simple principle anyone who designs and/or facilitates meetings or workshops should commit to memory:  for every content segment, a more engaging format likely exists. In the recent rush to move workshops and conferences online, engaging participants in the process of learning does not seem to be a priority.

How should this reality inform our workshop or meeting design?  In The Chronicle Higher of Education's Teaching newsletter, a Grand Valley State University professor suggests we should privilege active learning.

I agree wholeheartedly with one minor caveat:  we must remember that engagement, participation, and active learning mean different things to introverted and extroverted learners.  

Our design choices must intentionally honor and leverage those differences for a stronger experience for all participants in a workshop, meeting, or conference.  It is too easy for presenters or facilitators to instead unintentionally privilege those learning formats and teaching techniques with which they are most comfortable, regardless of their potential appropriateness for participants.

For me, this intentional design involves a simple process for each content segment of a program:
  1. brainstorm possible ways to teach it (workshops) or explore it (meetings), ones that move participants from passive to active whenever possible;
  2. select one of those options as an initial planned format/teaching technique;
  3. order the content in an appropriate flow, both in terms of content and learning format
  4. examine the flow of the draft teaching techniques and formats and how different learners are engaged through the session, revising as desirable; and
  5. identify backup formats for each individual segment and an alternative revised flow so you can make adjustments in real-time while preserving the desired engagement from/for all learners.
What often happens, however, is a presenter or facilitator focuses almost exclusively on content or format.  Design becomes an either/or activity for them instead of one involving the AND.

Great content, poorly presented, sucks the life out of participants.  This is the shortcoming of many subject matter experts presenting at association conferences.  They know their stuff, but don't really know how to engage others in learning about it any way other than talking at them.  I previously wrote about this challenge and offered some practical tips in this piece for the ASAE Professional Development newsletter.

Or a presenter gets so excited about using a teaching technique (case study, audience voting, role play) that they lose the necessary connection between content and learning format. Interesting and varied teaching techniques can initially mask weak content selections, but ultimately are like cotton candy: the good feeling dissolves and leaving nothing behind.

Calibrating the selection of appropriate content and learning formats is as much art as science, but doing so is a commitment each of us needs to make to honor the interest and attention of participants and the process of learning.  I like how Jeff Cobb defines learning on his Mission to Learn site"Learning is the lifelong process of transforming information and experience into knowledge, skills, behaviors, and attitudes."

For virtual programs, this tranformation process will require intentionally calibrating the mix of synchronous conversations and interactions online in a learning community and asynchronous interactions done offline. I find it easiest to determine those critical moments and formats for synchronous online interaction and to then build the asynchronous elements around them.

Bottom line?
Robust content presented in ways that engage participants in active learning should be a minimum standard for success, not an aspiration only few strive to achieve.  Too many speakers and program designs (online and in-person) still focus on presenting information instead of facilitating learning. Let's change that.