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Civic Learning: An Idea Generated from Torrance Learning’s Download Un-Conference

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If you’ve been a reader of this blog, you’ll have seen me working with one overarching idea for a while: what might it look like to have a vendor-agnostic community of practice for instructional design and development for newbie instructional designers? I went through various iterations myself (AWSM Prompts, then Go Design Something) and I’ve known other colleagues who were also interested in this idea, most notably Jennifer Maddrell who has put in a ton of work with her team on Designers for Learning. So it was only natural that I would begin to shop this question with every bunch of victims colleagues I could find.

I recently had the very great pleasure of attending Torrance Learning’s Download. It was my very first conference-type-thing ever and I really couldn’t be happier with the experience. I met a ton of awesome people who were actually practicing in their various fields. Real people running up against real problems and tackling them with real solutions. The size of the un-conference and it’s general structure were exactly suited to me, so I am still just so stoked I got to go in person! While there, I led a session to tackle this same big, hairy question: What does it look like to make a ID community of practice that people will actually use? In this post, I want to detail some of the conclusions we drew.

Big Hairy Questions

I began by detailing my ID journey so far, and my experiencing searching for a way to make things that would push my practice, stuff I’ve talked about in many different places before. And then I just posed questions to the good attendees:

  • What should an ID community look like?
  • Why aren’t current non-vendor tries not getting much traction?
  • If you don’t practice outside of work, why not?
  • What can we learn from the way open source helps newbies in software design and tech documentation to practice their skills?

The feedback I heard was enlightening. My colleagues began to try and break down what they might want from a community and why open source contributions worked. I got responses like the idea that perhaps instructional designers, particularly those who are starting out making things want that face-to-face experience, as opposed to a mostly virtual one. I also heard comments about the fact that open source projects grow because some small group of people working closely together (perhaps sometimes face to face, but probably at least with regular virtual meetings) decide that they would like to solve a problem that they are having and they begin to build a solution to it. That solution begins to be something that other developers see as solving their own problem and they want to contribute. Then, the gravitational pull of the solution encourages even more contributions and engagement. This was, I think, the aha moment for me. I and others had been trying to think up and generate tiny problems for instructional designers and trying to appeal to the spectrum of industries (Designers for Learning in contrast, has started with a real problem of a certain type). But what if a much better, more actionable, more motivating approach was to just create a toolkit to help instructional designers find and solve real problems on their own or with their friends?

Civic Learning

The idea that began to take shape was less of one big open source, community project for ID and more in the vein of civic tech initiatives such as Code for America or Sketch City. These initiatives ask designers and developers to take their skillsets and apply them to problems in their community. These problems could be anything from refugee assistance to resources for homeless veterans, to game design for health or community awareness. What if we could create a toolkit for instructional designers to plug into civic tech and get involved with important, practical, known community issues that they could help tackle with their expertise? I think that such a scheme hits on several important points.

First, it’s presupposes an important problem as opposed to something made up, which gives it a sense of urgency. This is a real thing and learning experience design can be a part of a real solution.

Second, it’s highly practical. As I’ve stressed before, newbie IDs and others looking to build their skills should make stuff. The natural question is, what stuff? How do I make something that has practical applications? In the Civic Learning model, IDs would be applying their expertise to projects that they can develop, test, and release. It’s a capstone or portfolio project in a box! The entire process would be a useful case study and final product for an instructional designer at any level.

Thirdly, the problem is, at least to a degree, known. By leaning as much as possible on local civic tech initiatives, an ID would have access to SMEs who know what the problem is, have some data and some ideas. One of the most difficult things I’ve found and some of the critiques I’ve gotten on my various ID prompt iterations have been that real ID work requires some conversation and details to help us really understand the problem. Civic Learning (as tied to civic tech) would allow for that. It would also allow instructional designers who perhaps weren’t so interested in the development side of things to still have plenty to do and to help with in understanding the problem and the best solutions.

Will you Help?

I am absolutely in love with this idea! I think it has so many promising aspects, not the least of which being that it’s decentralized. The success of any central development or resource is simply to give IDs who want to try this out everything that they would need to approach a local civic organization and get started. I also think that the local aspect of it can reduce barriers to giving it a try for IDs of all stripes.

What I’d love to do, starting this summer, is to approach my local civic tech organization with the idea (and perhaps a local ATD chapter?) and to begin development of the central resource(s). But before I get there, I’d love to know what you all think about this. Would you be willing to make time to solve problems in a Civic Learning model? Do you have any concerns about such an approach? Would you like to be involved in creating the resource site?

Let me know in the comments!

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