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Today I attended the public defense of the PhD thesis of Freddy Veltman-van Vugt, titled ‘Grensverleggend leren’ (roughly translates to ’moving the frontier of learning forward’). She focused on what it takes for teachers to learn and teach skills critical to our highly digitised and interconnected world in a self directed way. Her doctorate already started some 14 years ago (I think she started writing in earnest after her retirement), and I was invited because one of my all time favourite projects, the Homo Zappiens 2008 project, was one of four cases that were the subject of her empirical research. Ten years ago Freddy promised me to invite me to her public defense, and she kept word. This is the third time my work has become the object of study of a PhD thesis, and today I thought it’s a rather fun indicator of whether I’m working on something novel and worthwile. (The other two were my blogging practices and my open data work). Today when asked by one of the learned opponents at the defense, Freddy said she saw our 2008 project as one with the most compelling predictive value. During the reception afterwards she followed that up with the remark that our project from 10 years ago is still a rare and unique approach. She asked me if I had done any more projects like it, and actually there’s only the current project with the Library Service Fryslan ‘Impact through Connection’ that resembles what we tried to do then.

In the Homo Zappiens project about a dozen teachers of the Rotterdam university of applied sciences took a year to informally work together on changing their teaching towards more self-directed learning, while incorporating more of the affordances networked technology gives us. The form of the project was shaped exactly the same, self-directed, action-oriented. We held that you can’t learn to teach differently if that’s being taught the traditional way. The results clustered around authenticity, co-creation, the skills involved in creating that, knowledge transfer to colleagues not involved in the project, and formats for new or altered work forms during teaching to let form follow function. The project meant deep personal change for many of the members of our ‘gang’. Rediscovering the fun of learning, finding the guts to experiment, getting so much closer to students and colleagues. “I came to change my teaching module, I left having changed my world”. It’s a project I’m still very glad about, and I feel I was able to co-create what I think of as a Reboot—like turning point for the participants.

I also picked up a useful new word today from Freddy’s PhD thesis, “agency shyness”. She talked about the critical factors involved in self directed learning, and next to engaging with real intractable problems, then also referenced the guts needed to experiment in a settled working environment. Not all teachers she came across in her cases dared to experiment, to try and do things differently. They were shy to explore new agency.

Agency shyness is very much relevant to my current work with the Library Service Fryslan on networked agency. We encounter it in the teams we work with, in contrast with my own mission behind networked agency, battling feelings of disempowerment.

It was good to see Freddy get her doctorate, and to realise our 2008 project is still standing strong, and would still be novel to most. After ten years it is still an iconic project.