Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Transformative Learning and Research in Action

Transformative learning occurs when our frames of reference change as a result of critical reflections upon which our interpretations, beliefs, habits, and points of view are based (Mezirow, 1997). The December 2017 issue of the International Journal for Transformative Research stays true to this foundational perspective, while at the same time offering us new and exciting opportunities to deepen our understanding and practice by exploring diverse experiences of practitioners from around the globe. To this end, as an editorial board member, I’ve been asked to write the forward to this issue and am delighted to introduce you here to what’s in store as you peruse its articles. I’m struck by the delightful mix of pieces derived from the authors’ experiences in primary and higher education situated in varied developmental contexts. I’m confident you’ll find them as inspiring as I did.  

In the first paper (p. 1-6), authors David Smith, M. Asim Qaayyum, and Natasha Hard from Charles Sturt University in Australia share findings from the latest phase in their research, which explores how specific interventions can help university students grappling with the complexities of finding information online. In this pilot study, their students were asked to use an open source software program, “Wordsift,”to identify and understand key concepts in assignments. This program incorporates text visualization techniques, the intent of which is to synthesize and summarize text into more concise visual representations to provide insight and increase document comprehension (p. 2). Over time, the researchers note how students spent less time searching for information while also using the program to reflect upon their progress. As a result, they conclude that automated assistance in the form of visualization tools can scaffold the way students conduct online searches. This conclusion speaks to the transformative nature of the researchers’ work and should pique our interest as educators challenged by teaching and learning in online environments. 

The second paper (p. 7-17) follows the transformative action research project undertaken by authors Sigrid Gjotterud and Erling Krogh of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Starting out as a voluntary project with orphaned Tanzanian youth managing a group of dairy goats, it morphed into a parallel process of inquiry with the young people and researchers alike tracking their own development throughout the process of working together. The researchers observe how the orphans grew in self-esteem as they managed and mastered an evolving set of circumstances, concurrently developing their individual sense of belonging and compassion. In such circumstances, they conclude, we have “the ability for creative problem-solving andleadership based on social responsibility.” (p. 15). The reader can’t but share the authors’ sense of hope as they report on these transformative processes. 

Gjotterud and Krogh’s research report project creates a context for the next and third paper in this issue, from Donna M. Mertens of Gallaudet University (p. 18-24). Drawing on personal research experiences, she puts forth a concept of transformational research that potentially changes the individual as well society at large. In fact, she maintains, one without the other falls short in terms of fulfilling the true potential for our work. Examining underlying ethics, assumptions about research, and relationship with communities is essential. Thinking about her work in this way, Mertens concludes, “prompts me to engage differently with study participants, ask different kinds of research questions, and design studies that are focused on supporting changes that challenge an oppressive status quo.” (p. 23). Indeed, as we ponder future possibilities for our own work, we need to heed this message.

The final two articles in this issue return to specific educational contexts. Bernie Tobin’s piece (p. 25-33) explores the possibilities of parental involvement for influencing the totality of the primary school experience. A PhD student at Dublin City University, she frames her work as a co-operative inquiry action research study that tracks the evolution of her understanding of how to best help parents engage with their children’s learning. Her professional values inform personal accounts of efforts to provide additional support to a small group of children in the form of parent workshops and subsequent parent-child sessions. Tobin’s enthusiasm for her work is palpable throughout the article, in particular as she summons the concept of a pedagogy of the unique (p. 31) to highlight her appreciation of the need to accommodate the individual in melding parental engagement with their children’s educational experience.  

Our fifth and last article (p. 34-41) considers the realm of business education, specifically how to cultivate entrepreneurial skills in students using a real-world business environment. Yvonne Crotty (Dublin City University), Tom Kinney (Invest Northern Ireland & Centre for Innovation and Workplace Learning), and Margaret Farren (Dublin City University) explain how the Business Model Canvas strategy tool helped students to understand business development prior to their participation in an online business game (Erasmus + Play4Guidance, or P4G). The tool featured video-based instruction on business planning and strategy as well as designing and building business models, drawing on 25 entrepreneurial competencies identified by the European Union’s P4G Consortium. Their work not only highlights the transformative potential of hands-on exercises provided by the game but, perhaps more importantly, the need to provide critical supplemental support to help participants maximize their learning from the experience. 

I trust you’ll find these five articles as valuable as I did. As you read them I encourage you to consider how sharing your own efforts could equally benefit the readers of this journal. We encourage submissions and commit to a mutually productive peer review process that we feel will help you to deliver your best work. If you're interested, please let me know. 

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New directions for adult and continuing education74, 5-12. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Sometimes You Only Need to Listen

I was exiting a Whole Foods when I noticed him. I knew him from a professional association I once belonged to. It had been nearly a decade since we had spoken.

I called out his name. He greeted me with a big smile. I sat down at his table. I asked how he was doing. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked if he was still writing.  I knew he had written highly-acclaimed nonfiction books as well as some novels.

He indeed was and proceeded to tell me about them. At length. His jovial tone turned more serious and increasingly strident. He became more animated and even agitated.

My friend been writing articles and books covering political issues. His positions were undoubtedly controversial to some, anathema to others.

While his views on many subjects conflicted with my own, I listened. I asked questions. I discerned some points where we shared similar views and noted them.

I didn’t argue with him.

I didn’t contradict him.

I didn’t have to make a point or be right.

I wasn’t thinking about countering each point he made.

I just listened. And learned. And connected with him.

It wasn’t difficult. It wasn’t painful.

I parted ways with my colleague in a good frame of mind. I felt neither angry nor emotionally triggered.

He suggested that I call him when I’m next in his town to have dinner. And I will.

A commitment to listening served me well here. In our polarized times, perhaps it’s the most important commitment we can make to each other and society at large. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Provide Instructions, Please!

I have several folders in a file cabinet in my office. They include guides and other instructional materials for products I own. These include electronics, office and kitchen supplies, and miscellaneous others. Yes, I’m the kind of person who saves, files, and refers to these hard copy materials. I inevitably will need to do so at some time while I own a product. 

That’s when manufacturers provide these instructions. You think that it should be mandatory that all products come with user manuals, but they don’t. Let me offer a recent example.

I was recently in the market for a selfie stick. I wanted to use it to take photos with students and other clients. The popular ones on the market did not appeal to me given their obtrusiveness (i.e., look at me! I’m taking a selfie!!) so I continued looking for what I hoped would be a less intrusive option. I found one online and ordered it. The product was relatively new. I read positive reviews about it in several respectable online publications. It seemed to offer a solution to my problem. The low price point ($50) appealed to me. The bottom line is that this product promised to fill a need I had been aching to fix. 

I eagerly awaited the product’s arrival. It arrived when I was out. I returned to my office to find a three-foot long box. I began to enthusiastically peel back the packing tape to reveal its contents. I carefully removed them. They included a tripod and a mélange of metal and plastic parts. I removed each of the parts from their packaging and laid them out on a table.   

I look in the box one last time to make sure I had removed everything. I had, and here’s where my problems began. 

First, a list of the parts wasn’t included. I didn’t know exactly what I had received, much less what to do with each piece. Some I could make an educated guess about; others, well, I didn’t have a clue.

Second, assembly instructions were absent. 

Lacking any guidance, I tried to put together the product based on what I thought would work. I’m not what you’d call mechanically inclined, so I only made so much progress. Frustrated, but not defeated, I investigated further. I figured the company must provide additional information to help people like me. I just needed to find it.

I visited the company’s Web site. There I had initially been wowed by the product in a short video depicting its various uses. I found a list of packaging contents! I was hopeful, but as the list didn’t associate part names with pictures I still didn’t know what I had. I comforted myself by knowing at least I had a list.

My quest to find help continued. I read further on the company’s web site. I noted they referred to YouTube videos which explained how to set up the product and use it. My enthusiasm bubbled up as I turned to YouTube to find the videos.

Except they weren’t there. There weren’t links to videos from the company’s web site. And my search on the video titles and the product name yielded nothing. 

I remained empty handed. Frustrated. Perplexed. 

I emailed tech support. I waited.

Then I emailed the company’s founder (and creator of the product). He had sent me a personal email upon receipt of my initial order. I shared with him my frustration.  I inquired about the availability of materials I needed. Here’s the response I received:

*******Hey Mitchell,

Thanks for your support. I’m sorry you had a bad experience. The truth is the (name of product) is a one man shop and we are still working on designing an easy to use instruction manual and videos. If you have any specific questions let me know and I can walk you through set up.********

What a nice guy, I thought. He’s willing to take time on the phone to help me set up the product. 

But what about if (and when) I needed help in the future? Would he be so willing to spend time on the phone with me?

The more I thought about his offer the less comfortable I felt about the entire experience. I didn’t want to wait for materials to use the product. So, I asked for (and ultimately received) a refund. 

My decision was based on what I consider a simple request: Tell me how I can use your product when I buy it. I don’t care that you’re a one-man operation. I don’t care if you’ve been busy developing the product. In short, I don’t care about any of your problems. I just want to solve my problem. I want to learn how to use your product. That’s it.  

Even the best products need quality support materials to help consumers understand and enjoy them. Starting now let’s demand them when we weigh purchasing decisions. Let’s not let organizations off the hook when they promise to develop materials later if we buy now. Let’s reject poorly made videos and/or vague written instructions. Product designers, if you want to succeed help us succeed. Guide us to use your product as you intended. Provide instructions, please!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Check Out My New Look on Social Media!

Check out my new look on social media! You'll start seeing it on select profiles, specifically LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. My friend and colleague Vincent Carrella created it, and he can do the same for you. Explore his fine work work here! 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Some of My Current Thoughts about Public Relations and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)

I am a member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), as well as its San Francisco Bay Area chapter. The latter asked me to respond to questions based on my 20+ years of experience in the field. My full responses are below.

Why did you join PRSA? What is one of your favorite benefits of being a member?

If you claim to practice a profession, you should take three actions. First, join its professional organization. Second, advocate for best practices. Third, mentor up-and-coming practitioners. I joined PRSA in 1993 in support of the first action. Since then, I’ve done the other two. I speak, coach, and mentor at the chapter, district, section, and national levels.

The hard work of dedicated of volunteers makes possible professional organizations like PRSA. Yes, paid staff members offer indispensable support. But practitioners don’t step forward, all the staff support in the world won’t matter. The organization will wither away and die. That’s why I'm inspired by the tireless, dedicated volunteers who lead PRSA. They enable chapters like the one I belong to in the San Francisco Bay Area to persist through good times and bad.

You have been in public relations for over two decades. Share a few ways it has changed over the years and where you see it going.

I landed my first agency job in 1988 and chose to become self-employed in 1992. Few professionals were working for themselves then. And many of us who chose this route often had our sanity questioned! We had to figure things out on our own. There were few role models. Today, self-employment and entrepreneurship are much more common. Clients and prospective clients consider us legitimate!

Media has democratized, thanks to the Internet, social media, and related technologies. The competition for information increases. With it comes a lack of tolerance for poor quality information that's sloppily presented. This development raises the bar for our work as public relations practitioners. We have to continue to strive to improve our skills. Otherwise, our services may become dispensable. Non-public relations professionals at consulting and other firms will benefit. Untrained individuals with limited understanding of effective communications will as well.

Finally, lines between public relations, advertising, and marketing will continue to blur. Throw in concepts du jour like “strategic communication” and it’s harder to figure out who does what. And in the eyes of the client it may not make much difference.Still, we cannot become complacent about our skills, insight, and ability to contribute. I’m frustrated when public relations professionals turn a blind eye to this issue. I recall a conversation with an agency principal about 20 years ago. The discussion turned to defining public relations. He responded flippantly, “I don’t care what they call it as long as they pay my bill.” We must care deeply about making the case for what we do every day. We must proclaim the value we deliver to our clients and organizations. We must act with all due speed lest our profession fade into oblivion.

Tell us about one of your most memorable experiences during your career.

I've been a public relations practitioner, educator and professional development consultant. I’ve been on the front lines. I've helped clients to generate awareness, change behavior, and/or achieve other goals. I’ve provided education and training to professionals charged with these responsibilities.

Above all, I relish opportunities to facilitate groups that are creating innovative public relations campaigns. That might be in the classroom as an academic exercise. Or in the conference room as they grapple with their latest client assignment. The quality of the work they’ve delivered has been amazing. I often get more excited about their success than they do!

What’s your best advice to the new generation of public relations professionals?

Success in public relations requires an insatiable curiosity about the world around you. To this end, I urge practitioners to cultivate intellectual interests outside the field. Let's say you majored in history, as I did. You can explore the history of time periods, disciplines, or geographic regions. Or you find any other subject to explore. Such immersion changes your perspective for the better. You’ll gain new, exciting insight. You’ll see old problems in new ways. Your horizons will expand by leaps and bounds. Most important, this ongoing effort will help you improve the quality of your work. Besides, broad, deep interests make you interesting to others.