How To Chair a Socratic Webinar

Socrates
Socrates, CC-BY-SA licensed picture by Eric Gaba

The Man

Webinars are usually dreadful affairs. There is wise advice from Donald Taylor and there is the webinar manifesto (slightly too commercial: “Never design, deliver or sell lousy webinars again”) that will help you do a better job. I would like to add a completely different way to run a webinar. I call it the Socratic Webinar.

A Socratic conversation is a philosophical method where the participants trust their own thinking, rather than accept the expertise of somebody else. Questions are the starting point. The conversation is explicitly not a discussion, instead you try to listen as the group thinks their way towards an argumented answer. They do this by reflecting on their feelings, their thinking and their actions.

Chairing a Socratic conversation requires some skills. These suggestions are based on my experience and should help you on your way.

Preparation

Traditionally a Socratic conversation would start with questions that are raised by the participants. The chair of the conversation is a guide for the process and doesn’t need to know anything about the questions. This is different if you are asked to host a webinar. The webinar will likely have a topic and you are often seen as the expert.

Start by thinking of questions that you would like to ask the audience. Ideally these should be questions that are very open (or even philosophical) in nature. They will start with “What is”, “Is”, “Why” or “Should”. Questions that begin with “How”, “Can”, or “Will” are less interesting.

In a webinar you can work through one question every 15 minutes or so. So if your webinar lasts an hour, you can address 3-4 questions.

You will not share the questions with the participants in advance.

There is a limit to the number of participants in a Socratic conversation. Ideally you have between 5 and 15 participants, but it should work with up to 30 people. Socratic conversations are great to listen in on too. If you are working with large numbers, then you can invite some to join the conversation and have the rest listen in.

At the start of webinar

It is important to frame the Socratic conversation in the right way (your participants will not be used to this approach). Start by telling the participants that you will be having a Socratic conversation and read them the following rules:

  • This is not a discussion. It is an exploration in which we try to build on each other’s ideas.
  • Only one person can speak at a time. You can ask to speak by raising your (virtual) hand. I will give people the floor.
  • You are only allowed to speak if you are capable of repeating what the person before you said and if you are capable of summarizing the last 15 minutes of conversation. Often we are so intent on making our own point, that we forget to listen. Listening is important in Socratic conversations.

Ask whether there is anybody who can’t agree to the rules. Usually everybody agrees (legimitizing you to remind rule-breakers later on of what was agreed). If somebody has a problem with the rules, then either resolve those problems (convince them the rules are fine or change the rules) or ask them not to participate.

During the webinar

Start the exploration by showing the first question on screen. Ask who would like to say something about the question. Most webinar platforms (like Adobe Connect or Microsoft LiveMeeting) allow people to raise their hand or change their status to a different colour. You can then sort the participant list on this status and can instantly see who would like to say something. As soon as somebody “raises their hand” you can give them the microphone (sometimes this requires you to make some clicks in the system).

When the person finishes you ask the other participants whether somebody would like to build on that point. It is important to be a good facilitator of the conversation. Sometimes you need to summarize what was being said and rephrase the point in a generalized way and then ask for people’s reactions.

Occasionally nobody will come forward to speak. Don’t be afraid of the silence and just let it be for a little while. Soon enough somebody will not be able to tolerate the awkwardness and will step forward to say something. This always happens.

You will find that even a small audience is capable of creating by themselves most standard (or historical) arguments around any particular topic. Only if the participants have exhausted their lines of thinking and you as an expert still know another angle they have not explored, can you bring in your expertise and maybe some good stories and references. Don’t go overboard with this: the participants should be speaking at least 80% of the time.

Now move on to the next question.

Don’t let one person monopolize the conversation by constantly raising their hand or by very lengthy contributions. Say that you now want to hear from somebody who has not spoken yet. Once again: wait through the silence. If you do this well, you will get way more participation and interaction than in any other webinar. People love to be able to talk!

Ideally you will write notes during the session. These should capture both the arguments that the participants created and explored and the stories and references that you brought into the conversation.

After the webinar

If you have taken notes during the session, you can format these nicely and share them with the participants. Because they’ve been active participants in the exploration, they will have a much stronger connection with the material.

Give people the option to continue the conversation with you: share your contact details and how people can connect with you.

I realize that 99% of the webinars are about selling people a product you might have. If you purpose is different, you want your audience to really think, then it is worthwhile trying the Socratic version. Do let me know your experiences with the methodology.

I need to acknowledge my indebtedness to Humberto Schwab for being my philosophy teacher (about 20 years ago) and for showing a Socratic conversation at Picnic 2012. I have done my own interpretation of the process, so blame me for anything that is wrong with this write-up of the methodology.

Delivery Models for Learning

Marcel de Leeuwe, Ruud Smeulders and I hosted a Masterclass on Learning Business Models at the Dutch E-learning Event. TU Delft’s Pieter de Vries has written a solid report (in Dutch) about this session: De waarde van Online Learning gezien door de ogen van Board members.

You can find the Dutch slides from the session on SlideShare:

I particularly like how Ruud adjusted the ubiquitous Business Model Canvas to be suitable for learning business models specifically (see slide 17).

The biggest piece of work that I did for the session was to try and created a typology of learning delivery models. I wanted to stretch people’s minds and make them think creatively about all the different ways that you can implement a learning intervention.

I started by defining five dimensions in which one way of delivering learning can be different from another. Although I define these dimensions as polar states, I do realize that you often have situations that are in between the two poles. The dimensions are as follows (in no particular order):

Facilitated ↔ Self-directed
Many learners ↔ One learner
Integrated in work ↔ Outside of work
Continuous ↔ Beginning and end
Content focused (consume materials) ↔ Activity focused (produce materials)

These binary dimensions give us 32 (2 to the power of 5) different learning delivery possibilities. This frames a broad range of activities as learning: from a magazine subscription (facilitated, one learner, outside of work, continuous and content focused) to team work in a project (self-directed, many learners, integrated in work, beginning and end and activity focused).

Not all possibilities make immediate sense. But with a little bit of thought I came to the following archetypical learning delivery methods (ordered from high to low involvement from the learning and development department):

  • Buying external knowledge (high)
  • E-learning module of about an hour (high)
  • Electronic performance support (high)
  • Few days face to face course with a trainer (high)
  • Multiweek online facilitated course (high)
  • External coach (medium)
  • Newsletter (medium)
  • Online community of practice (medium)
  • “Lunch and learn” session (medium)
  • Open learning materials (e.g. a wiki) medium)
  • Asking an internal expert (low)
  • Master-apprentice relationship (low)
  • Stretch assignment (e.g. a trainee programme) (low)
  • Teamwork in a project (low)

So here is my assignment for you: First try and map each of these archetypes to the five different dimensions. Then try and think which of these you are already using and which ones you would like to use. Finally, it would be good to try and list your personal preference for these five dimensions. For example: I like (to create) events that are activity focused, have a beginning and an end, involve many learners, are as integrated into the work as possible and fall somewhere in between self-direction and facilitation. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!

As this blog is licensed under Creative Commons license, I would more than welcome anybody who would visualize these dimensions and the resulting delivery models.

Changing the Responsibility for Learning

Last week has been a busy week with both the E-learning Event and a webinar for En Nu Online. I’ll share some of the presentations that I did in this short post.


Based on my presentation at last year’s E-learning Event I was interviewed by the Tijdschrift voor Coaching about culture and the quantified self. You can read a PDF of the Dutch interview by clicking the image below:

Culture and the Quantified Self

Culture and the Quantified Self


Marcel de Leeuwe and I hosted a session at the E-learning Event on Do-It-Yourself learning (building on what we had done earlier at the Masie conference last year). The slides are available on SlideShare.

We copied one of Mitra’s Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) experiments and gave all the attendees a challenging assignment to be solved by themselves in groups of four while Marcel and I walked out of the room for 20 minutes. This gave us interesting results: the attendees had no problem engaging with the assignment and were hard to stop after 20 minutes of discussion, while Marcel at the same was struggling with letting go (“Can we please check whether they are doing ok? Shouldn’t we tell them they only have 10 minutes left?”). This taught us that it is often our own behaviour as educators that is an inhibitor for people making themselves responsible for their own learning.

Minimally invasive pedagogy (as Mitra calls it) could then be a way to battle the now pervasive learned helplessness.


During the boardroom session at the E-Learning event I worked with Marcel (again) and Ruud Smeulders to deliver a masterclass on Learning Business Models. I’ll publish a full post about that session a little bit later.


In the webinar for En Nu Online we also discussed self-organized (or self-directed) learning. I did a short presentation, explained my rules for a Socratic conversation and then we discussed on the basis of a few questions. One interesting topic we addressed was the balance between providing a safe learning environment while at the same luring the learner into a stretch or into a zone where they are less comfortabe. The webinar has been recorded (there were some technical issues during the start, heroically battled by Sibrenne Wagenaar and Joitske Hulsebosch). You can view the Dutch recording on YouTube:

The Caledonian Academy: Learning from Incidents, OER en Self Regulated Learning

Earlier this year I visited the Caledonian Academy (part of the Glasgow Caledonian University). Their work focuses solely on technology-enhanced and professional learning. I spent most of a day exploring their delightful areas of research and have now finally found the time to write it all up.

Learning from Incidents

Dane Lukic worked with the Energy Institute and Hearts and Minds (check their set of tools) in the Learning from Incidents project. He created a set of outputs.

In the project they combined the literature around Safety with the literate on Learning. Learning is usually a blind spot when it comes to “Learning from Incidents”. Most approaches come from safety science which is mainly based on engineering (i.e. ergonomics, human factors). In his research Dane used a “Change Laboratory” method (based on Finnish research). This is a way to analyze problems in which you have as many people from the site as you can together, meet in a set of workshops and present a “mirror” as an external view.

Two models were developed through these workshops: a conceptual framework and a cycle model:

Learning from Incidents Framework

Learning from Incidents Framework

Learing from Incidents Cycle

Learing from Incidents Cycle

Next to developing these models Dane learned some interesting things:

  • Face-saving and blame are important elements: you should be aiming for double-loop learning.
  • Currently the approach isn’t changed on the basis of the type of incident: simple, complicated, complex or chaotic (e.g. “best practices” only work for simple problems, not for complex problems). Instead we only look at the level of the hazard.
  • Often it is thought that we have learned once we have disseminated. That is like giving students books and saying that they have learned.
  • You should allow and encourage people to give feedback during the contextualization phase and these should get “feedback on their feedback”.

He is now working on Learning from Incidents Engage (to be finished in June this year), a toolkit on the basis of his PhD work. It will include a questionnaire (780 respondents), an online model of the cycle, a set of recommendations and a Learning from Incidents engagement session (i.e. how can you run a session that helps with improvement). The toolkit will be online and should grow through use. Other staff working on Learning from Incidents are Allison Littlejohn and Anoush Margaryan.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Isobel Falconer and Allison Littlejohn talked to me about a few Open Educational Resources (OER) related projects and studies. The OER4Adults investigates the work and learning practices evolving through the use of OERs. It builds on the earlier UKOER which explores the social aspects of open educational and open knowledge practices in the public and private sectors. Other staff working on OER are Lou McGill and Helen Beetman.

They find that increasingly the private sector (commercial publishers) and higher education collaborate around OER and are interested in exploring the ways that lifelong learners make use of these materials. A lot of the OERs are around providing content, but there are also examples of community formation around them. Take for example Community Energy Scotland.

The professional practice around Open Educational Resources is in development. They found that it really makes people think differently when they start to think about openness. There are many issues to explore. For example: is the license important or is it just access that is relevant (making the learning barrier free). How can the student expectation of being lectured (“it is far more efficient if they tell me, rather than me finding it out myself”) be overcome? What are the barriers of the community? How does trust work? How to deal with the conflicting motivations between people and institutions? How to deal with academics who only blog and stop writing articles (and how does that relate to the Research Excellence Framework)?

Work and Learning at the Boundaries of Knowledge

Pia Fontana and Colin Milligan talked to me about a project titled Work and Learning at the Boundaries of Knowledge which aims to surface, describe and systematize the strategies that knowledge workers use to self-regulate the learning they undertake to maintain expertise and support the generation of new knowledge. Other staff working on the project are Anoush Margaryan and Allison Littlejohn.

For Self Regulated Learning (or SRL) they used Zimmerman’s thinking who has a social cognitive perspective on it. Zimmerman says that there are three cyclic phases:

  • Forethought phase where goal setting behaviour is important
  • Performance or Volitional Control phase (or implementation) where it is about strategies and devoting attention
  • Self-Reflection phase where it is important to measure yourself internally or externally

They did research on SRL in the Change 2011 MOOC. They are still analysing the results but will likely have a typology of SRL activities and strategies of knowledge workers when they are done. Collin has already written about some initial findings on his blog.

The Caledonian has done some very interesting earlier work on what they call Charting (also see their wiki:

"Consume, Connect, Contribute, Create"

“Consume, Connect, Contribute, Create”

“Consume, Connect, Contribute, Create”

This reminded me a lot of Harold Jarche’s Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) (“Seek, Sense, Share”), Scott Leslie’s work on PLE diagrams or Shell’s “Ask, Learn, Share”:

Most of these miss the important part of goal-setting which is an integral part of the charting methodology.

Self Organized Learning Environments: An Assignment

This post is an assignment for the participants of the “Sociale media voor Leren en Veranderen in Organisaties en Netwerken”-leergang by En Nu Online.
(Click here to get a Google Translated Dutch version of this post).

Last February Sugata Mitra was awarded the TED prize for 2013. The prize money will help him carry out his wish:

My wish is to help design the future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together. Help me build the School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India, where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online. I also invite you, wherever you are, to create your own miniature child-driven learning environments and share your discoveries.

Watch Mitra describe his plans here:

I can’t link to this video without also linking to some of the criticism of his work. Audrey Watters raises some questions about, among other things, the history of schooling as it is told in the video, about (neo-)colonialism and about the commercial interests. Donald Clark lists 7 reasons for doubting Mitra’s success story.

Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE)

According to Mitra you can organize a Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) for children by putting multiple children in a group, adding some broadband Internet and some encouragement and then drop in what he calls “curiosity catalysts”: large, open, difficult and interesting questions for these groups of children to answer. Self-driven learning is also becoming a current topic in professional development. See this post by Jane Hart as one example. We will explore whether Mitra’s thinking can help us in the workplace.

Basic assignment

For this assignment please do the following:

  1. Please download the Mitra SOLE toolkit from the TED website
  2. Read the toolkit
  3. Answer the following three questions by posting a comment at the bottom of this blog post:
    • What might be the key differences between child-driven learning (self-organized, curious, engaged, social, collaborative, motivated by peer-interest, fueled by adult encouragement and admiration) and the way adults learn?
    • What are the skills of a self-learning professional? How can professionals be supported in their self-directed learning?
    • What curiosity catalysts can you think of that you could ask your direct colleagues (or customers)? Think of two good questions.
  4. Find a new web-resource about self-directed learning (or self-organized learning, do-it-yourself learning, new-fashioned learning etc.) and post it as a comment on this blog post. It is “new” when nobody has posted it here before (so be quick!). It would be interesting to know why you chose this resource in particular.

Bonus assignment

There is no better way to judge how something works then to try it out. Starting from page 9 of the Mitra SOLE toolkit there is a home assignment: create a SOLE for children in your own home.

It would be wonderful if some of you could try this out with a group of children. Of course you will then send your feedback to Mitra and his team, but a comment here on the blog and/or some thoughts during the seminar are well appreciated too.