Enter This Squad: A #SquadGoalsNetwork Reflection from Ben Scragg

Enter This Squad: A #SquadGoalsNetwork Reflection from Ben Scragg

A reflection by Ben Scragg on the power of personal learning networks.

ACCESS – Does regular access to other individuals from other institutions and institutional perspectives challenge your definition of access and what it means? If so, how?

Having this rich network of professional colleagues – and now friends! – has been profoundly formative for how I’ve been rethinking what access is and means to me over the past handful of years. Most of the work I have done over the past few years, particularly at the intersection of education, technology and innovation, can often feel like a perpetually looming horizon without clear pathways or even destinations. When change feels like the defining constant of my work, and when every initiative or project or plan also feels like a move into unchartered territory for myself and my institution, it can feel hard to know where to go, where not go, and when to rest or stop. Enter this squad.

At the root of this network, there is a humility and respect for the experiences and insights that others’ bring. And by being a part of this community, I have come to see just how monochromatic my default or established professional learning network had been. I’m someone who has probably always prided myself on my ability to appreciate others’ perspectives and experiences, but by joining arms and working and playing with these folks, I’ve gained a more intimate view  have come to better understand and deeply respect the variety of perspectives that have arisen through the network, not merely in the demographic or cultural identity sense, but in the attitudes and orientations toward pedagogy, the LMS, or scaling practices across departments or institutions.

FACULTY SATISFACTION – How has your participation in the PLN benefitted faculty and colleagues at your home institution?

I am continually inspired and informed by my colleagues in the network, and my home institutions have benefitted tremendously. Whether I need a brilliant idea for a keynote as I plan to lead a national conference from my office, or whether I need some advice on management conversations with newly on-boarded employees, enter this squad. Without fail, this collection of amazing humans always has insights and expertise that help enliven my work back home.

Here’s a story that illustrates what this network means to me. In the fall of 2016, I took a short visit to the University of Oklahoma, mostly to see a football game, but somewhat wrapped in the guise of meeting the digital learning folks there who have become integral members of my PLN. John Stewart and Keegan Long-Wheeler, along with Adam Croom and Mark Morvant, welcomed me with open arms and invited me into all of the amazing work they’re doing (really, these guys are doing awesome stuff!). Keegan had launched a professional learning workshop series for faculty and staff called eXperience Play, which engaged people in designing and launching educational games. I sat in on a session with Keegan and OU faculty, and even contributed to a critique of some faculty’s games.

After returning home, I quickly reached back out to Keegan to see if he’d be willing to share XP with me to run an instance of it at my institution. Through a lot of generosity by Keegan and enthusiasm from my team, we ran a well-attended and well-received version of XP with our folks. Over the course of the program, a staff member working at the cancer research center at our medical school even created a game where players explore the pathology of cancer by playing the role of a mass of cancerous cells. We were astounded at the effect of the game to both educate and help people feel more comfortable with a serious illness that is often super scary. Those of us who tested the prototype of the game throughout the workshops were shocked at how taking on the role of cancer and exploring the different pathologies somehow reduced the anxiety and fear that the word “cancer” had previously produced in us. My XP experience is just one instance at one institution, but it was all sparked because of the network of folks like Keegan who are willing to share and spread the good.

LEARNING EFFECTIVENESS – When you reflect on your work, how has meeting and learning from individuals from other institutions and institutional perspectives helped you to clarify or re-define what it means for learning to be effective?

More than anything, the social nature of learning has really reified itself to me through this; we have really developed into a community of practice in a Wenger-esque (1998) fashion. Though the gradations and particulars of our common challenges and needs may differ, being a part of this network has actually calmed my fears about those local, acute challenges I seem to face – if for no other reason than because I know my colleagues across the country are dealing with similar stuff! My learning has certainly become more effective, because I have a community to check-in with and kind of verify the reality I’m living in (read: my learning). Sometimes that’s just to assure myself that I’m not crazy or alone in this, that others are dealing with these things, too. And sometimes, I want to float out a possible solution or idea that my network has often already tried. In those moments (as has become the custom), enter this squad, and I usually end up in a better place.

The other way that this network has helped me clarify effectiveness is in the production. By nature, I think I tend toward being much more of a pilgrim than a disciple, in the sense that I love to explore and think about things, but can often fall short as a doer. This network has really been a good boost to go do – whether that takes shape as a podcast, a conference proposal, a journal submission, or a meetup for dinner. I really feel a strength in numbers to go produce when I’m with this crew!

SCALE – Is the PLN scalable and/or replicable by others at other institutions/organizations? If so, how? What challenges do you encounter?

YES to scale. I think that because of the robust number of digital tools at our disposal, the most important ingredient is often the will to connect. I’m probably most thankful that this PLN allows us all to engage or step away as we need – whether that be driven by busy schedules or personal introversion. Scheduling / finding time is always a difficult challenge, but we all have made small commitments to holding regular time for each other on the calendar. There’s a bad sports cliche that offers the best kind of ability for an athlete is availability, but to some extent that feels true for this group. We often get together with no set plan or agenda, but because we invest in each other, authentic learning and productivity takes shape. As a mentor once asked , when prompting me to reflect on my relationships and networks, who shows up for you? For whom do you show up? Enter this squad.

In terms of capability for scaling, I’m guessing the tools I’ll throw out won’t wow or surprise anyone. Google Drive and Hangouts, Zoom, Slack, Flipgrid, email, group texts, and occasionally a Marco Polo chat are all the default/norm options for how we connect. It’s definitely fair to say that we leverage those of us who have access to premium or institutional accounts for these things, and we tend to be creative in making it work. 

STUDENT SATISFACTION – Do you feel that your involvement and/or collaboration with the PLN has helped you create better student experiences at at your institution?

Yes! Through conversations about online teaching and learning, we’ve co-developed better course shells through our institutions’ various LMS platforms, which offer our students a more cohesive and beautiful course experience. Through conversations about accessibility and access, we’ve been able to advocate for students through better design and pedagogy. Through conversations about our own need for mindfulness and self-care, we’ve taken these practices back to our courses and online spaces where we impact students. More broadly, as we support students on a variety of fronts – as instructors, as support staff, as advisors, and as instructional designers – we give and share of ourselves. And as we grow, our opportunity set to help our students grows, too.

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