Traveling WAY beyond Global Learning

Photo by Doug Levere

With less than three months into our new Project Portal, I am excited on so many levels. Student interest is high and new projects are coming in from all directions. Our digital badges are yielding important data and the resulting stories are already compelling. While there is much to dig into and explore as we build out our new model over the coming months and years, there is one facet that begs immediate attention; global collaboration.

To say that there has been strong interest would be a gross understatement. Inquiries have been coming in almost daily. The students are from diverse backgrounds and areas of study- engineering, communication, public health, psychology, statistics, and computer science; students from the local community and others from countries and regions around the world. But perhaps even more remarkable than their diversity, is the consistent manner in which they are asking to join the projects; articulating a genuine and moving interest in making a difference through their engagement; a desire to give something back or make lives somehow better.

What projects are attracting such strong interest? For now, they are all associated with my Tanzania collaborations. They involve clean water and sanitation, women’s empowerment, early childhood education, and an emerging community bicycle laboratory. They feature long-term partners who are on the ground in Tanzania, extraordinary people who are committed to the work and eager to collaborate with our students, to engage their ideas, talents, and opportunities, and the resources that may follow.    

If you visit these project profiles, you will find articulated learning outcomes that are both familiar and highly regarded. You will see cultural competence, global learning, communication, problem solving and other ideas that represent important skills and competencies valued by 21st century employers and deemed important for a well-rounded liberal arts education. While undeniably important, let’s be clear that these learning outcomes are not what is speaking to our students. Instead, it is the chance to connect with real communities and people, to touch the world, to make a difference, to fulfill a sense of purpose and hope, and to experience the challenges and rewards of collaboration.

I have been experimenting with the complexities of collaboration for over 16 years, and acknowledge its ambitious and perhaps aspirant nature. Even within our own communities, it is difficult to navigate the implicit power imbalances and differences in culture and perceptions that undermine our attempts to collaborate.  But as we search for goals that will challenge and stretch us toward innovation and relevance, I believe that global collaboration is worthy of our pursuit. Put simply, it is inherently meaningful and resonant with the best that we have to offer.

As I look ahead to the future of experiential learning, I am both inspired by the adventures in collaboration that lie ahead and reassured by the knowledge that our students are profoundly ready.

As our universities deepen investments in experiential learning, we need students who are ready and able to play

Increasingly, I see my University as a vast playground filled with experiences and offerings of vibrant shapes, texture and variety. Our playgrounds call us to create, to fill their spaces and open their walls, inviting in and reaching out as we become more experiential, global and integrative.

While our playground is indeed spectacular, I wish there were more students willing and able to play. Instead, many are too busy; consumed with multiple majors, accelerated programs and matters of importance. Others feel squeezed by competing jobs, responsibilities, and day-to-day obligations; and other students simply lack the curiosity or interest to explore.

I know that many of our students will eventually find their spark, but it often takes time. I am increasingly meeting students who wait until their senior year to explore internships or projects, often creating a “gap year” after graduation in order to gain experience and clarity before applying to graduate school or seeking employment. In the meantime, we all stand ready- developing new programs and opportunities, waiting to support students’ interests, passions, and sense of purpose as they become clearer; waiting to connect them with the world and the world with them. I just wish they would come more ready to play.

But how would they even know about our playground? With two college-aged children of my own, I am all too familiar with the seriousness of college preparation. Taking advanced courses, preparing for standardized tests, competing to get into the best colleges, there is virtually no talk of play or leveraging the bounty of experiences once they arrive on a campus.

When I explain to students all that we have created just for their benefit, they seem surprised and somewhat confused. The idea of finding their purpose through travel, research, internships or mentored projects, seems somehow foreign and perhaps in conflict with the prescribed nature of their formalized curriculum. How do we expect them to conform to expectations and competitive standards, while at the same time stretching and soaring, diving into complexity and embracing challenge and ambiguity?

I explain that achievement and mastery are undeniably important, but are not to be sought in isolation, or as drivers of learning. They are not powerful enough to sustain our interest or commitment over time and challenge. Instead, we must seek inspiration, a sense of curiosity, purpose, a drive to innovate, or a passion to lead- goals that are bold and personal, and will provide us courage and comfort when we need them most. These are the ideas that will inspire us to play.

Perhaps it is our responsibility to introduce learners of all ages to our new playgrounds much sooner, inviting them to engage and explore the benefits for themselves. Maybe we can (should) help the community build experiential learning playgrounds of their own. For if we truly believe that experiences can empower students to take their place in a rapidly changing world, then don’t we need to stretch beyond the constraints of traditional programs and curricula, awakening and leveraging our collective sense of purpose and play?

My Excitement for Digital Badges

Through my work at the University at Buffalo, we are embracing digital badges in an exciting and innovative way. We are using them to guide students through mentored projects- helping them prepare, engage, reflect and leverage their experiences in support of their academic and professional goals. (visit site)

As I present on our new Project Portal, both inside and outside the University, audiences seem to get the importance of what we are doing. But as soon as I begin talking about digital badges, the “back end” of our model, I find their attention waning or their cynicism kicking in. Those who have heard of digital badges and micro-credentials immediately dismiss them as the newest trend, or a shallow repackaging of traditional curricula, or even a desperate attempt at sustained relevance. Yet despite these responses, I find my own enthusiasm heightening, and an eagerness to defend their promise, to map out potential designs and demonstrate their latent potential.

What are digital badges? Badging involves isolating specific competencies, dispositions, or skills that are valuable/valued and providing opportunities for students to “earn” them, working toward a threshold of mastery/attainment.  The digital part of the name denotes their online format, and the issuance of a branded digital icon- or badge- once expectations are met. Students can display their badges on social media or their digital resume. And when a viewer clicks on a badge, they can review the evidence indicative of the achievement, usually a project or a tangible representation of that skill.

You can badge just about anything, including many important skills and competencies that remain elusive yet important. Professional development, capacity building, workforce readiness, character development, professionalism, integrity, mindfulness…. I could literally go on forever. Virtually anything that can be named, unpacked, and assessed, can be badged.

Even the process of growth can be badged, if we take the time to define and support it. This is exactly what we are doing with our new Project Portal. In an effort to help students get the most of their mentored projects, we are isolating various steps in the process of project-based collaboration, using our own PEARL framework to serve as a foundation (link to PEARL). In addition to helping the students get and give more to their projects, our digital badge sequence also allows us to assess their progress and share their products along the way. You see, from an assessment standpoint, being able to clarify what you mean and what you expect is critical to effectively assessing it. Without that clarity and definition, assessment is meaningless.

If you can use badges for almost anything, then why are they so exciting? Here are a few of my favorite features that make badging such a valuable design tool:

  1. By badging skills or dispositions, we can bring qualities that have been largely invisible or at least fuzzy into the light. Soft skills, social capital, workforce development, capacity building- these are all critical to growth and equity, but have remained difficult to formalize and access.
  2. Individual badges can be “stacked” or traded up for larger or higher level skills and competencies. Learners can begin with more basic understandings anwork toward more sophisticated applications. By stacking up badges toward “uber badges”, we can create ecosystems that are inherently generative and catalytic.
  3. Because badges are not tethered to credits and are presented through digital formats, we are not limited to traditional curricula or pedagogical design. We can leverage the flexibility and creativity of digital media, and allow students to demonstrate their learning and competencies through personalized platforms and projects.

From a design standpoint, digital badges provide a dynamic canvas for supporting growth, empowerment and innovation. They also allow us to release the restrictive constraints that have defined and limited formalized education. Whether within or outside traditional systems, we can empower learners to steward their own growth and development, earning badges that are inherently meaningful and valuable, while owning and demonstrating the associated evidence and impact. In a way, badges can flip the system, providing students with opportunities and structures to leverage the offerings and affordances that are all around them (us), building their own capacity toward more powerful constructs and competencies.

What I Know to be True

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I am back in Buffalo- having just returned from our 10-year anniversary trip to Mara Tanzania. And just like that, 10 years of my life and professional energies have been wrapped up in a bow; celebrated, honored and commemorated by my dear friends and partners who made me feel special and cherished beyond description.

And now I strain, eager to get my head around the many lessons and insights, allowing me to shift  into the next phase of my work, whatever it may be. Why the urgency- you might ask. Although our partnerships are in many ways impressive, I know that they are inherently precious, and perhaps still fragile. You see, our Tanzania project was never an institutional priority. I was never asked to develop or sustain it. In fact, over the years I have had to be tenacious, finding ways to keep it going, often under the radar, buying time until the landscape shifts and new opportunities emerge.

And even now, as the benefits are both obvious and resonant, I am still working to think ahead, identifying the next manifestation that will allow our investments to keep growing and multiplying. This work of continuously nurturing engagement is both taxing and frustrating, moving at its own pace and rhythm, always precarious, never secure. Perhaps in an effort to coax it along, or instead to simply grasp for those who understand the significance and struggle, I will share some resonant truths in whatever form they offer themselves.

Capacity building is real– both as a challenge and an opportunity, especially in developing regions like Mara. Literally everywhere we look there are assets and resources but if they cannot be harnessed and leveraged, their communities and people (especially women and children) will remain vulnerable. There are organizations and leaders ready and poised to have an impact. But without sufficient infrastructure, incentives, levers of change, they will remain alone and unable to activate their potential. Investments will not trickle down and lives will remain cruel. But if we can weave structures and networks around these assets and leaders, connecting them upward, inward and outward, we can leverage their individual resources toward greater impacts, eventually catalyzing growth and collaboration from within.

Grants and donors are not the answer– no one funding opportunity or single initiative will save our most vulnerable communities or populations. When I see new non-profits or small community organizations waiting and searching for the golden funder, or praying that it’s me, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I see the precious resources they expend trying to court the funder or win the grant- ready to pivot to whatever initiative or remediation is being endorsed. And when partial funding is offered, they eagerly accept, getting started right away, even when funding is insufficient to cover required costs. And then they are back in the weeds and the cycle continues.

Collaboration is key, but it requires strategic support. It’s amazing to see so many organizations and communities dealing with the same challenges and offering such similar programs. And yet they often fail to connect and certainly to collaborate. Instead they compete. Collaboration can be fostered and nurtured, but it needs to be facilitated by skilled mediators and designers. The best place to start (in my experience) is with new opportunities and themes that can add value to individual efforts while not competing, interfering or adding complexity. This can be achieved through identifying broader themes and commonalities that resonate with external trends and resources, and expanding and creating new opportunities rather than relying only on known resources.

Technology can be a game changer, but the “how” must be translated- everywhere we go there are computers and cell phones, and requests for more technology. But most of the computers are not working, and there is little understanding of how technology can be leveraged for individual and collective growth. We have had multiple requests for our students to design and manage websites and provide other critical support. But when we ask to work with individuals who have related job responsibilities and or skill sets we have had no success. Since technology and connectivity are featured in virtually every strategic plan for developing countries and regions, building capacity and expertise among key professionals and youth is absolutely critical.

Higher Education has a pivotal role to play– this is where it gets tough. Because I am part of this system, I cannot go too far. But I can say unequivocally that we can do much more. Our students want to get close. They want high-touch experiences. And our faculty have so much expertise and resources to offer. Our leaders must recognize that this work is not “extra” or outside our core mission. Instead it is the pathway to continued (or perhaps renewed) relevance- it is worthy of scholarship, research and innovation. It is inherently noble and important.

I hope that these insights are not construed as negativity or defeatism. On the contrary, I find myself more excited than ever to continue our relationships and our collective efforts to build capacity through collaboration and engagement. In fact, as I write this post, our students are formulating projects based on their own experiences with our partners in Mara. Their projects will be open to students from all backgrounds and majors who are eager to work on real-world issues and challenges, and to contribute their talents and resources in meaningful ways. What will come of these efforts and the foundation we have built over the past 10 years?  I have no idea- but am hopeful beyond words.

After 10 Years in Tanzania, What Next?

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photo by Doug Levere

In a few weeks I will be returning to Tanzania with my dear friend and co-instructor, Dan Nyaronga, and a new group of students from the University at Buffalo. As always, we will be visiting with our various partners, exploring community initiatives and the complexities of women’s empowerment in this challenged but magnificent part of the world.

While our itinerary will be similar to past trips, this one will be different. I will be celebrating my 10-year anniversary, and (hopefully) ushering in a new phase of engagement.

When I remember the very beginning, the first time we visited in 2009, I am reminded of this video produced by Kevin Crosby, and the model we initially set out to create. Even then, we dreamed of collaboration built on shared understanding and respect, and a commitment to adding value and building capacity, leveraging our vast UB resources, while building synergies with community-based organizations within the Mara Region and beyond. We hoped to seed interdisciplinary efforts, working across silos to develop innovative solutions to improve the lives of women and their families, while stretching our models for university engagement and outreach.

As I reflect on our accomplishments, there is much to celebrate. Over the years we have helped to support the emergence of community leaders, the creation of new initiatives, and the early stages of collaboration among partners. But how to go even further; to transcend the expectations and constraints of traditional support and partnerships; to elevate the notions of collaboration and capacity building both within the community and our own institution?

This time I will bring the promise of an exciting new initiative that we are busy building- so busy that I have yet to write about or introduce it. We are creating a digital portal that will invite students to engage in collaborative projects, mentored by UB faculty and/or select alum and partners around the world- including (and especially) Tanzania. We will construct profiles introducing our partners and their work, inviting students to browse through pictures, videos and reports, learning about challenges and complexities, towards engaging in projects that will add value while helping to clarify and support their academic and professional goals.

For our partners I dream of expansion and empowerment, building their internal capacity around strengths and resources, leveraging engagement with UB and other partners around shared and synergistic goals. For our students I wish them the fulfillment that comes with the knowledge that they are making a meaningful difference and the sense of agency and infinite possibilities ahead.

For me, the portal offers a path to access and equity, allowing students to engage at their own pace and at no additional cost. The idea that anyone can activate their talents and interests, clarifying their sense of purpose, and making a difference in ways that will extend well beyond their own professional success.

This July we will be harvesting projects for our new portal, laying the foundation for future students to engage through collaborative projects. This idea of project harvesting is both compelling and profound.  When we begin to see challenges and needs as invitations for projects and collaboration, opportunities will emerge all around us, and technology will be the transformative tool that allows us to build, catalyze and expand our impacts in ways that we cannot know.

As I return to Tanzania I cannot help wondering what lies ahead. And as I prepare to celebrate my 10 year anniversary, I can’t help feeling (hoping) that this is still the beginning.

 

Education, Beyond Fight or Flight

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When it comes to education, we have gotten ourselves firmly stuck. The lack of a clear and compelling vision coupled with an insatiable thirst for assessment and accountability have left us trapped with little room to move or breathe. Our schools and students are being squeezed by tightening expectations and external scrutiny, thrusting us into a collective tailspin of vulnerability and threat. Naturally, our instincts of fear and self-preservation are kicking in. But unlike in our evolutionary past, the options of flight or fight are no longer sufficient to save us. Instead, trapped within the complexities of our own inventions, we must transform our manufactured constraints into something inherently freer and more expansive.

The how is clear. We need visions and commitments that are more powerful and resonant with the broader world, and we need to put assessment and accountability back in their appropriate place- not as drivers or engines, but instead as tools to help us clarify and strengthen our ability to fulfill our (individual and collective) promise.

Based on my experiences in higher education, K-12 and the community sector, our core commitments are rarely sufficiently clear, compelling, or grounded in core capacities to be measurable, actionable or ultimately meaningful. They are either too vague, too specific, or too vacuous to drive change within the complex and dysfunctional landscapes which they claim to address. It is not surprising that related assessment plans, no matter how sophisticated or comprehensive, cannot measure or inform movement toward some vision or commitment that has not been sufficiently operationalized, internalized, or infused. And yet, assessment has become high-stakes in virtually every sense and sector. Assessment based on externally imposed standards, expectations, and metrics drive investments, public trust and reputation.

Without a clear and compelling vision, these externally imposed standards and expectations become everything. We adapt and optimize our systems and resources to produce outputs that mirror those expectations. And if permitted, we go so far as selecting applicants (or inputs) that are closest to the desired output, minimizing variance and optimizing resources while celebrating our success and superiority.

Yes, we are in need of a compelling collective vision, but we cannot wait. Individual schools can clarify the best versions of themselves, their strengths and gifts brought by their students, histories, communities, staff- virtually any qualities or virtues that are inherently authentic, meaningful and important. They can check these against the ambient world- the needs, the challenges, trends and opportunities. And as they toggle between the processes of looking within and outward, they can infer the essence of what they uniquely have to offer, what they can promise, what they should expect. If they can achieve clarity to the point of knowing and feeling and articulating what they are about, they will be able to see themselves fully actualized, and identify the gaps and needs along the way. Once they can commit, boldly and absolutely, they can create spaces and opportunities for their communities to move toward that vision while finding the sense of security and support necessary to actualize their potential.

To be clear, even in this ideally clarified and resonant state of identify, vision and mission, schools will need to meet external expectations, including metrics that are neither sufficiently clear nor meaningful. Leaders will have to ascertain what is necessary and non-negotiable and what can be relaxed or stretched or translated through more meaningful and textured metrics and stories.  But as the clarified and resonant vision and mission become internalized and permeate through the culture of our schools, those leaders and students and teachers can begin to stretch the spaces and expectations around them, feeling courageous bold and secure in the knowledge that they are successful in ways that are inherently meaningful and important.

It is only in this state of relaxation and movement that we can escape our threat responses, emerging from the traps and cages we have created, and finally enjoying the possibilities that will be catalyzed through our expansion.

 

 

Nimbleness, Resetting and Getting Unstuck

In this video I share a process for resetting your community development work that can be used when you are feeling stuck or out of alignment. By using the modeling framework described in my previous video, I discuss 5 design elements that will allow you to identify changes or challenges and make the necessary adjustments to get your initiative back on track toward greater success and sustainability.

Why Modeling is More Powerful than Strategic Planning

Although traditional planning exercises can be useful, they’re inherently limited and flat, and of little use as we try to navigate the challenges and changes that swirl around our work, lives, and efforts to add value. In this video I make the case for “modeling” as a dynamic and powerful tool to support all stages of creating movement, building capacity and getting unstuck.