Creating conditions for Second Order Learning in a digital space (Part I)

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As explorers of transition, TIPC members are keen to understand how we might lock in more sustainable practices emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as a reduction in air travel and a more permanent shift to online events for learning, knowledge creation and exchange.

This change presents particular challenges for ‘Second Order Learning’ – the often difficult and painful process of questioning the roots of long-held ideas, thoughts or values.

In Part I of a two-part series exploring how we can create the conditions for deeper learning in digital settings, Christina Miariti – TIPC Programme Director, reflects on TIPC’s Nordic learning event, observing how the virtual environment affected the behaviour of participants and their engagement with the learning themes.

I had the opportunity last September to participate as an observer to our TIPC online ‘learning’ event, which brought together the Nordic members of the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC) to discuss and learn from each other about Transformative Innovation Policy in practice.

The event was organised against the backdrop of ongoing work by Sweden’s innovation agency, Vinnova, to apply a mission-oriented innovation approach within the organisation to address societal grand challenges via specific challenge-driven projects.

I was keen to explore how digital delivery shapes opportunities for learning and mobilises co-created knowledge. This piece gathers some thoughts from the observation process.

The background: commitment to transformation

It was as refreshing to be in a virtual room full of people who were genuinely interested in transformation, as it would have been in a face-to-face setting. Participants had been asked in advance to bring with them to the first session a picture that signified transformation for them – the diversity of perspectives was striking and informative. Objects, landscapes and historical artefacts revealed a wealth of understandings of transformation that laid the foundation for the event.

It was obvious that the participants approached transformation not purely as an academic or policy concept, but as a personal responsibility. Their commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the environmental and societal needs came through from the start as a common theme. People were keen to understand how it might be possible to transform anything, including themselves.

Observing how questions advance learning

It became clear that ‘transformation’ is a vast concept. The question of ‘how to transform’ prevailed in the discussions and linked to the broader underlying question of how to do something that has not been done before. Satellite questions kept popping up around relevant topics: When has transformation been achieved? Who experiences transformation, and how? What are the measurable benefits of change, and who can define them?

As the event progressed, several ‘how to’ questions revealed an attempt to pin down practical suggestions on transformation processes. This reflect natural tendencies to refer to established points in thinking and practice to mark our own journey. However, when discussing transformation, often, there are no such answers. Even if there is agreement on what ‘works’, context is important for understanding if and how the same approach can be applied in different conditions.

The lack of definitive answers at the event seemed to facilitate the process of learning. This was because the questions did not just reveal a need for new information; they revealed tacit knowledge and understandings of some participants, which others found useful. The reflective questions encompassed so much more than information; they also reflected the feelings and values developed as part of participating in a transformation process. As soon as these became explicit, they marked a starting point for the creation of new meaning, as each participant processed and interpreted what they heard, while comparing it to their own experiences and translating it to new insights (such as those shared in the chat function).

Therefore, the potential gap from a lack of answers seemed to be alleviated, in this case, by the opportunity for new meaning that these questions presented. As the discussions progressed and as time allowed for further reflection also outside the event, the new meaning signified, to a certain extent, new learnings. And, like in face-to-face events, we can assume a multiplier effect in the process of ‘sharing – processing – understanding – learning’ as each participant makes the new learnings explicit in their own organisation and life.

Observing enablers of learning

In the virtual event, one element seemed to facilitate a deeper kind of reflection: personal sharing and the lived experience. It was remarkable how the conversation moved on from the set group questions of the agenda into something that made sense to the specific breakout groups. It was encouraging to witness online this type of ‘deviation’ that is common in face-to-face events, where groups might stray beyond the scope of an established question or activity to a specific topic of interest. Typically, it helped to have one person to kick-start the process of more intimate sharing for others to follow.

The departure from the pre-arranged questions indicated an appetite to pursue topics of interest as these emerged during the event. I reflected then that online events could potentially be the perfect setting for a flexible agenda to be shaped during the event. The chat function allowed the monitoring of questions and insights both from the plenary session and breakout groups. The agenda could accommodate space for an open discussion on dedicated questions that emerged throughout the event. This approach requires close observation and facilitation skills to ensure that the topics of common interest have been identified, accurately captured and dealt with at the right time in the event.

In this event, participants showed caring learning behaviors: they were keen to speak openly, to seek feedback and to interrogate the speakers respectfully. No views were rejected or criticized, even when they were contested. The event was intended as a safe space for deeper questioning and reflection among professionals in key organisations in three Nordic countries. The extent to which it was used in this way is not clear. I wondered if these same values, deterred an even more open and constructively critical discussion. In a face-to-face event, would this have happened more organically?

My expectation was that the virtual setting would allow for deeper sharing, with little else going on outside each session. However, it felt from time to time that people were holding back to a certain extent from sharing more intimate information about their way of working and their organisation. Some participants seemed to subtly steer away from a deeper questioning prompted by others around the challenges they faced in their journey of transformation. Others felt the need to highlight that their views may not have been fully representative of the whole organisation or that they may have been biased. The depth in which challenges were discussed or overcome did not feel too great. Perhaps in the online setting, any moments of ‘uncomfortable truths’ may have had a more lasting effect with everyone looking straight to their screens and with varying levels of familiarity and connection among the participants (especially those coming from the same organisation).

It became apparent that human relationships and trust were at play during the digital event. As participation to digital events increases and reflection carries on, further consideration is required on the extent to which and how these observations can be taken into account and affect the planning and delivery of digital events.

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