Learning for My Life

Stuff is coalescing. . .I’ve got a bunch of ideas tumbling around in my head, coming from a variety of directions. I’m trying to decide how to bring it all together, and I think the best thing is to attack it chronologically.

About a year and a half ago, while attending my first NMC conference in Indianapolis, on a whim one afternoon I purchased the domain name riskyu.org. It was a kind of cutesy reference to “Risky University” and it was inspired in part by what I was seeing at the conference as well as by what I had experienced a few weeks earlier at Faculty Academy here at UMW — particularly Barbara Ganley‘s presentation, which I had felt was a “call to arms” to embrace risk in our shared missions of teaching and learning.

Before coming to UMW, I worked for a few years as director of Web development at the University of Montana where I got to think a lot about the nature of a University Web site. Since then, I’d had the good fortune of working with amazing people who had pushed my thinking about this subject in lots of directions, forcing me to consider how our public (web) presences needed to more transparently represent our institutions. Barbara’s talk also reminded me that we needed to find ways to demonstrate how our schools were/are taking risks and embracing the inherent messiness of education. So, that’s why I bought riskyu — my idea was to think through what a University should look like by modeling what its Web site should look like (with the idea that the Web site, in an ideal world, should reflect all of these values that were becoming increasingly important in my head: risk, transparency, messiness, connection, humanity). The site never went anywhere — it was an interesting project in my head, but I didn’t really know how to tackle it. I got as far as creating some really spiffy headers for the home page, and then sort of lost momentum. In fact, if you go to the domain now, there’s nothing there (although, I *think* I still own it).

Fast forward to the somewhat recent past. . .

Since moving into my new position at UMW last fall, I’ve been trying to tackle a number of projects, including redesigning DTLT’s Web site. Doing so requires me to dive into aspects of WordPress that are, currently, beyond my ken. I’m not a programmer. I don’t speak php. I can sort of hack my way out of a paper bag — but it isn’t pretty. I’m decent with css, but, truthfully, most of my Web skills are a bit rusty these days. WordPress, as a platform, offers me an “in” — I can use the core application and plugins to frame out some pretty neat stuff, but going any further requires, well, learning stuff.

And there’s the rub. I realized that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve forgotten that I can still learn stuff! That sounds ridiculous, given what I do and what I care about. But I realized that increasingly I’ve found myself throwing my hands up in the air and saying, “Oh well, this goes beyond my expertise. Guess I gotta wait until someone builds another plugin that does what I need.”

When I stopped to reflect, I realized how silly this was. I don’t actually believe that learning only happens at school (although I DO believe that schools can be wonderful places to learn — they were for me). I know that I actually learn things all the time; I just don’t reflect upon it very much. And I rarely set out to learn something. Learning is something that just happens to me as part of living.

I wonder how true that is for a lot of people. In our culture, once we’ve graduated and have that nice diploma to hang on the wall, do we actively think about how we continue to learn — and, perhaps more importantly, do we determine what we want to learn and when and how?

Around the same time that I was reflecting on all of this, I came across a this blog post on Michael Nagle’s blog. I don’t know Michael; I found this post because I was googling “intellectual identity” as part of another project that we’ve got brewing in DTLT. As it turns out, Michael sounds like someone who would get what I’m writing about. He runs an “alternative camp” for kids are “free to make things and play all day.” Cool.

Michael’s post was really interesting. Basically, he suggests taking “10 minutes, and writ[ing] down anything you’ve ever been really fascinated by (something you’ve had the urge to tell someone else about).” What follows is his own list, with everything from Burning Man to laser cutters to Thomas Pynchon.

I love this idea! When I read it, I realized how many things I could list, and, consequently, how many things I really want to learn about. And, honestly, I am constantly learning about new things from a list like this all the time. I bet a lot of people share this experience: I hear something on the radio (probably on a show on NPR) and make a mental note of it. When I get home, I tell my husband about it or I call my dad to talk about it. Later that night, I get online and search Wikipedia. Depending on what I find, I could spend 10 minutes or several hours reading about the topic (and not just on Wikipedia, of course — that’s just where I might start). I’ll probably mention it to one or two people the next day at work. It gets filed away in my memory (I may or may not be able to recall it later). This entire process is infinitely more possible because of my access to the internet. Twenty years ago, had I heard about something of interest on the radio, I would have had to make a much bigger effort to get myself to the Library to look something up. I’d like to say I would do that — that my commitment to lifelong learning is that strong. But the truth is, life is complicated — I’d rarely follow through. I would be a LOT less ignorant and informed.

Okay, that’s not a big revelation. The internt is a great source of information. Yeah, it is.

What’s sort of revelatory to me is what this says about my own identity as a learner, and about our collective identity as learners. Arguably, we should be the most “learned” society, well, ever! We have more opportunities to learn than ever before. We should know more and think more than ever before! But I don’t really think of myself that way. Do we think of ourselves, as a society, that way?

I think what’s missing is reflection. Sharing. Shared commitment. Re-telling our learning (would that be a form of “teaching?”).

So all of this has been rolling around in my head. Rolling. Rolling.

Then, last week, I came across the announcement of spokenword.org, which the Conversations Network is putting together as a huge repository of online audio about, well, anything. And then this morning, I was reading Dean Shareski‘s blog, and I came across a link to Academic Earth in his delicious sidebar widget. Maybe everyone else has seen this? I hadn’t. The site simply describes itself as “thousands of video lectures from the world’s top scholars.” I thought about these two sites and they’re relationship to something like the Internet Archive, and how easy it is, really, for me to build my own learning out of the pieces that are readily available to me online.

But, more importantly, I thought about how vitally important for me to be an agent in my own learning. To decide that I am going to learn about something, to reflect on it, to collect what I find, to share it, to maybe even teach it.

And that’s really what Risky U. was about — building someplace to explore this kind of self-determining education. Not because I want to leave behind our institutions of higher education, but because I want those institutions to embrace these kinds of ideals. And the only thing I know how to do is to try and model the thing I think they should become.

So I’m rethinking that project, and I’d love any insight anyone has. I’m going to work on my “10 minute list” sometime soon, and I’ll post it here. Then, I’m going to try and figure out a way to tackle my learning and share it — so that I can make something for others but also so I can make something of me.

I’m also going to try and be more self-aware of those moments when I tell myself I can’t do something because I don’t know how. Really, with all of the resources, information, community at my disposal, I have no excuse to not learn.

(As I re-read this post, I see a bunch of holes and missed points. Like the importance of the teacher or a learning community to support the learner. I’m not trying to suggest I know how this all unfolds. Just trying to explore all of these ideas I’ve been mulling over. I know I’ve got more mulling to do.)