Sunday, June 30, 2019

Brainstorming works best in silence

A recurring theme on this blog is a plea for more silence in a world drowning in noise. An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review, The case for more silence in meetings, reinforces this when it comes to effective meetings. The main idea is that effective brainstorming and creative thinking that involves all participants is a largely silent activity. This goes against the popular image of creative teams in spontaneous, lively and very vocal discussions in open office environments. The article describes how noisy meetings are influenced by flock behaviour where the opinions of the most vocal members are valued and those of less influential members are either dismissed or are never even voiced due to fear of rejection.

Attendees often hold back in meetings, waiting to hear what others say and what their boss might say out of fear of being perceived as difficult, out of touch, or off the mark. Silence can be a solution to this problem, allowing space for unique knowledge and novel ideas to emerge.

A more effective alternative is to brainstorm in silence and in writing allowing everyone to have their say and ideas are anonymous. It's the same in the classroom where genuinely creative ideas often drown in the noise and groupthink dominates. Really creative thought often happens when we're alone and can concentrate; just think of the good ideas you often come up with at night or on a long journey. The article describes a number of strategies for more creative meetings where the participants don't even need to be in the same space to contribute effectively. In addition the use of asynchronous collaboration spaces allow us to harvest ideas from colleagues at other locations. We simply need to get away from a lot of stereotypes about effective meetings. Maybe we also need to design more office spaces that can offer silence.

While we typically default to traditional approaches to meetings, silence-based approaches present additional options that research shows can yield better results. Leveraging independent brainstorming, the cluster technique, anonymous voting, and written communication will expand leaders’ toolboxes — ultimately making them more effective. While silence certainly shouldn’t replace talk entirely, there are times it may be useful. Silence can even be golden when it comes to promoting meeting success.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Trans Europe express - flightless conference travel

Hamburg Hbf, one of many stops on my travels
Having been responsible for a considerably large carbon footprint due to frequent flights to conferences and project meetings I decided this year to try and cut unnecessary flights from my work schedule. I have travelled by train to two activities in Norway and last week I tried a more ambitious project. I attended both the EDEN 2019 (European Distance and E-learning Network) conference in Bruges, Belgium and a project event and meeting in The Hague, Netherlands and did it all by train. I felt doubly motivated for this since I and a colleague planned to run a workshop at the conference on the challenge of organising engaging, interactive online conferences to minimise the need for air travel. I simply couldn't fly to the conference to run a workshop on that theme! Sadly the workshop did not attract much interest this time but we will try again elsewhere later in the year. You can read the abstract for our workshop in the EDEN 2019 Book of abstracts (p 72).

Changing train in Amersfoort, Netherlands
Some reflections then on my feelings after my first Interrail journey for almost 40 years. The whole journey consisted of 15 trains, two ferries and two rail replacement buses and took a total of three days and two extra overnight stays. Only one train was seriously late and although I missed my planned connection there was a later train I could take. I had planned to get some work done on the journey but to my surprise almost none of the trains had any wifi to offer and several did not even have electricity sockets so once the rather weak battery of my iPhone ran out of juice that was the end of the little connectivity I had. Many hours of just sitting on trains takes its toll and I was very tired after a long day on rails. Changing trains was always quite exciting working out which platform to get to and carrying my bags from one platform to another. I did however make short excursions outside many stations dragging my case on a bit of fast sightseeing, something you certainly can't do at airports. I read a lot, gazed at some beautiful German, Belgian and Dutch countryside and made brief contact with many cities I knew about but had never visited. It was a generally pleasant experience and gave me a sense of distance that you lose completely when flying. It just takes so much time.

My Interrail pass - valid all over Europe
There is no doubt that the explosive increase in international air travel over the last 20 years has had a major effect on global CO2 levels and that we need to reduce this as quickly as possible. Of course this is only one of many factors that are contributing to our environmental crisis but it's one that we can directly change if we only put our minds to it. However, if even a fraction of today's air travellers changed to rail transport then today's railways simply could not cope with the increased demand. Long-distance trains are already full and in most countries there are major capacity issues that need to be fixed immediately. It will take billions of euros to upgrade Europe's railways to meet the massive demand of the future and this investment must happen now, not in ten years or later.

At the same time we need to continue meeting each other to find global solutions to global problems. The need for effective digital meeting spaces is therefore the key to international development and we can certainly replace many physical events with online meetings, as long as we are prepared to test new methods and change our traditional approach. It may not be the same as meeting physically but in today's climate crisis, we simply don't have that alternative, at least not as the default form of meeting.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Educational projects in rural areas - a Nordic perspective

Klaksvik, Faroe Islands (own photo)
Rural areas all over the world are suffering from depopulation as young people leave for the cities to get education and employment. This means that local companies are unable to find qualified staff and in many cases choose to move their operations elsewhere. The public sector has to deliver services on shrinking budgets due to the loss of tax income as the population decreases. It’s a vicious circle but one of the keys to reversing this trend is to provide opportunities for the local population to access education and training without having to move away from home. Those who do leave to go to college or university tend to find work in urban areas and seldom return home. Reversing this trend is a key to economic and community development in rural areas and an obvious enabler for this is the use of technology to offer education to all. Today there is a wealth of online education available, as well as blended courses that allow learners in rural areas to study mostly from home apart from a few campus meetings. Despite this, the brain drain continues apart from a few notable exceptions. These exceptions are extremely interesting of course and the question is why some places have found a sustainable solution for offering higher and further education whilst other places have failed?

This was the question behind a Nordic project (Nordplus project Presence at a Distance) I have been involved in over the past two years and we are now working on our final report (the project group are all members of the NVL Distans network). The project's focus was the question: what are the success factors behind educational initiatives in rural and sparsely populated areas in the Nordic region? We looked at a lot of good practice throughout the region but also investigated cases where local initiatives had disappeared. The key factor behind all the success stories was stable and long-term funding but also a common vision of a sustainable and diverse local economy. The establishment of learning centres was a catalyst for development in many rural areas; acting as a broker to match the needs of local companies and public sector with suitable education from colleges and universities. These centres also act as a hub and meeting place for students, teachers and organisations, offering guidance and support as well as access to technology and learning spaces. Having someone to talk to about the mysteries of online education can make the difference between a student succeeding in their studies or dropping out. Many learners have negative experience of education, especially from school, and so they feel apprehensive about going back to education. It is therefore essential that they feel included and valued in this new educational setting and a combination of support both online from the university and on-site from staff at a learning centre or local library.

In our study, we interviewed representatives from successful distance learning initiatives in all the countries and self-governing areas of the Nordic region with the exception of Greenland.  We saw that many initiatives to set up learning centres in rural areas have failed over the last 15 years and this was nearly always due to a lack of long-term vision on the part of the local authority. Many centres were started with the help of EU funding but once that funding dried up the venture suffocated and died because it was not part of any long-term strategy. Many centres also relied too heavily on the initiatives of a few dedicated enthusiasts with little help from the mainstream organisation and if any of those enthusiasts left there was noone willing or able to take over.

The successful educational initiatives we studied had the following factors in common:
  • Commitment and engagement from all interested parties to a shared vision. A vital element in all successful initiatives was close co-operation between the educational institutions, local authorities and local businesses as well as sustainable long-term financing. Many successful initiatives grew from the needs of local industry for qualified staff and this spurred the local authorities to find a solution. It is also essential that the local or regional authority include access to lifelong learning as a key element in their development strategy. Access to relevant higher and further education is not only an educational priority, it is also integrated with employment and economic development.
  • Local meeting places (learning centres) as hubs for educational activities. This must also be a long-term strategic initiative with qualified staff who work closely with all stakeholders to provide relevant courses and programmes that can be studied with a minimum of travel. Even if most people have internet access at home there is still a need for physical spaces for meetings, support and coordination.
  • Efficient and flexible systems for supporting learners wherever they are and building inclusive learning communities. This is largely the responsibility of the educational institutions and involves course design that is focused on building a supportive learning community for distance students. Too many online courses today are largely self-study and only those with great resilience in terms of digital and study skills can hope to succeed.
  • Incentives for universities to offer decentralised/distance education. We saw many good examples where universities responded to the needs of major companies or regional authorities but it is very difficult for the needs of more sparsely populated areas to result in action. While there are many distance/online courses and programmes available they are lack the scaffolding and course design features that are needed to prevent isolation and drop-out. No Nordic country has an open university whose focus is on lifelong learning and with distance as default. As a result the campus is still core business for our universities and this is unlikely to change unless government funding is provided.
Of course, even if all of these conditions are fulfilled it will not stop young people from wanting to spread their wings and move to the cities in search of education and new horizons. That is only natural. However, there is an urgent need to address the needs of those who already live and work there and want to stay. If the established higher education system is not able to develop lifelong learning then we need to create an institution that focuses on this field.