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Invention Sessions vs. Personal Learning Communities

Creative Commons License photo credit: Nathan Y

Recently, on Darren Draper’s blog, I commented on the sort of “invention sessions” that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about and that Darren suggested would be an interesting addition to the field of education (I agree completely, BTW).  I wrote: “I wonder if electronic communities are sufficient. Classroom 2.0 is a wonderful resource, but do ‘invention sessions’ necessarily require prolonged f-2-f interactions among a small group of smart people? I think this is an empirical question.

In response to my comment, Darren wrote, “Strange, but you’re right about the f2f interactions. There is something about having a face to face relationship with someone – and the power that comes from bringing it to online settings. It’s as if one without the other isn’t quite as effective. I know that as I’ve met people f2f, our interactions online become more rich…That said, I think many would argue that f2f interactions aren’t required for effective ‘invention sessions’. This topic needs to be addressed further.”

I henceforth address the topic further, and I respectfully disagree (though maybe it’s just a matter of how we interpret Gladwell’s writing about invention sessions). Please don’t get me wrong…I think there are incredible opportunities and ideas to be pursued through the use of networking sites such as Ning, and the learning opportunities afforded by the combination of networking tools such as Ning, Twitter, UStream, Elluminate, etc. are endless.

However, I think what we are doing by collectively using those applications is creating individualized yet overlapping learning communities.  And, with NECC 2008 approaching, I will meet (with) many of those within my learning community and add face-to-face communication to that community.  I believe this is ideal for two reasons.  First, my own learning is aided because growing evidence suggests that e-learning is best when supplemented with f-2-f interactions (i.e. “blended” learning).  Second, as I’ve written about before, based on the work of Etzioni and Etzioni (THE experts on “community”), the ideal form of community is a hybrid one. Communities that utilize hybrid systems “would be able to bond better
and share values more effectively than communities that rely upon only one or the other mode of communication” (Etzioni & Etzioni, 1999, p. 247).  Thus, adding Web 2.0 tools to traditional learning spaces such as presentations, conferences, etc. creates perfect personal learning communities; the learning is better and the community is better.  PLN/PLE + F-2-F = PLC [NOTE: I believe the PERSONAL learning community is distinguishable from the PROFESSIONAL learning community made famous and popularized by Rick DuFour and others.  But, that’s the subject of another blog post…].

However, I understood the “invention session” to be an action/change-oriented, synchronous interaction between a small group of really smart individuals with very different personal and/or professional perspectives.  I suspect that those in the sessions of which Gladwell wrote extended their discussions with computer-mediated communications (CMC), but I think the initial brainstorming needed to be done together, in the same room at the same time for an extended period of time.  I’m as much an advocate of CMC as anyone, but things happen f-2-f that cannot be replicated digitally.  I also think the action orientation of invention sessions necessitates limiting the number of participants.  If you’ve ever chaired a committee or a task force, you can probably appreciate such a limitation.

If someone can offer an example of a major “invention” or “innovation” that was developed purely through CMC among a large group of individuals, I’d be willing to reconsider my argument.  Until then, I throw out two questions:

  1. What do you think?  Can an invention session be held solely online?
  2. If there were to be an invention session to. let’s say, eliminate the achievement gap, which 5-7 living individuals would you want to be involved?

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