While many of us are aware of how new technology is changing the way we engage within the learning space, far too few in our industry are paying attention to the changing expectations of the learners moving into these spaces. While attending the New Media Consortium (NMC) Summer 2014 [ed-tech] conference in Portland, Oregon recently, I saw what our future learners—those currently in K-12 and higher education—are encountering.

It’s fascinating. It’s creative. That space is producing magnificent results through collaboration and the use of a variety of learning technology and learning models. And these advances are going to leave our community dead in the water if we don’t pay attention to what those learners are doing—and will expect from us as they continue moving into our learning spaces over the next 10 to 15 years.

Smart classrooms

Let’s start with the somewhat familiar setting of the smart classroom—where technology connects online learners and learning facilitators with learners located in other sites or simply interacting via mobile devices. Consider the Rochester Institute of Technology’s (RIT) Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction, and Creativity (MAGIC). During the “It’s MAGIC!” session at the NMC conference, RIT professor Al Biles explained how MAGIC was created to facilitate, support, and promote multi- and cross-disciplinary media projects and activities.

What we can learn in talent development from MAGIC is obvious the moment we visit its website and read that it “features a round meeting area that seats approximately 100 people,” that it “has three round curved walls that define the outside of the space, across which 9 HD projectors are seamlessly aligned.” Better yet, applications for the space include:

  • shared media experiences
  • data visualization
  • medical simulation
  • data analytics displa
  • media-centric artistic and expressive performances.

This is clearly a space where lecture is no longer king; people are learning through project-based endeavors and the kind of collaborative efforts that make our workplaces and colleagues thrive in the collaborative and creative environment we inhabit.

However, as we think about the siloed nature of so many of our organizations—to their own detriment and to the detriment of the customers and clients they ultimately must serve effectively if they are to survive—we still see many learning models that can lead to workplace learning efforts that meet contemporary needs effectively and in engaging ways.

Idea spaces

Tom Haymes,  director of technology and instructional computing at Houston Community College Northwest, was equally visionary in his description of what he calls “idea spaces.” Haymes describes these as flexible places where tech tools are seamlessly interwoven into the learning process rather than in any way controlling (or limiting) the learning process.

For example, the library information commons model for learning spaces, feature furniture designed to be easily rearranged by learners themselves to create the sort of space that facilitates rather than hinders learning. This set up fosters creativity, interactions, and exploration among learners in ways that encourage them to apply what they learn. It also replaces a “What do I have to do to pass this course?” approach with a much more important question: “What can I learn?”

Haymes, through his presentation, even presented an example of how to make learning a process rather than an event. A website created with Wordpress was already available for learners who wanted to further explore what he was covering in his session, and that stand-alone website can also be a small virtual textbook on idea spaces as well as a resource incorporated into his live presentations.

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Peer-to-peer interaction

We could just as easily draw insight from onsite conversations about makerspaces, innovation centers, and other collaborative learning spaces into this summary of what the NMC conference brought to light, but we would be missing one of the most stunning examples available to us: the idea that the conference itself—like so many ATD conferences—serves as an onsite and online learning space we simply cannot ignore.

Just as ATD’s annual Chapter Leaders Conference brings together approximately 300 colleagues from across the country to learn about leadership from each other (and connects us with colleagues offsite through our use of the conference backchannel), the NMC Summer Conference brought together approximately300 educators from around the world to learn about ed-tech from each other—peer-to-peer learning and dissemination of ideas and best practices at its best.

The result was that the learning began as soon as we arrived on site and began talking with each other over meals. Learning continued during the formal keynote and breakout sessions. And learning took fascinating twists by turning an open conference center meeting space into an innovative learning space through an “Idea Lab” series of poster sessions.

The Idea Lab space was one that every trainer-teacher-learner should have been able to experience first-hand. Some presentations mirrored the traditional poster-board format with presenters using printed posters as the backdrop for their brief live presentations. A presentation on massive open online courses (MOOCs) had participants use tablets to view a variety of short pre-recorded presentations on the topics. And a stunningly effective and engaging session about  how an elementary-school teacher integrated social media tools into the learning process across a wide range of topics:

  • Using Skype so students can talk to other students across the country as a way of learning geography
  • Using tablets to write essays on substantive matters including the civil rights movement
  • Using Twitter to hone English-language skills by writing grammatically correct sentences before tweeting them out.

One Idea Lab session by teacher-trainer-learner (Cheryl Steighner) had her fourth- and fifth-grade learners talk to us informally about how and what they learned through the learning she facilitated—thereby making them part of our trainer-teacher-learner community.

Moving forward

We have all read about learning organizations through the work of Peter Senge in his best-selling book The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. We have experienced the power of participating in communities of practice through ATD and other organizations. We have been engaged through our own communities of learning and personal learning networks. And a few of us have been experimenting with enhancing our onsite-online learning spaces through presentations at ATD chapter meetings along the lines of what NMC colleague Samantha Becker and I most recently accomplished again with the ATD Golden Gate Chapter’s Horizon Report session.

But it takes a gathering at the level of NMC’s ed-tech conference or ATD’s Chapter Leaders Conference to remind us that our learning spaces are all around us—. Whether onsite, online, or blended, learning spaces have extremely permeable physical and virtual walls. Learning spaces are changing in ways that require our attention and our collaboration so we can continue shaping them in ways that meet the needs of our current and future learners.