Social Media, Learning Innovation and Comedy Clubs

The cost of visibility.

March 27, 2019

How is higher education learning changing? How do changes in how universities construct learning change universities? What is the relationship between higher education change, including navigating challenges related to funding and costs and demographics and technology, and how learning is evolving? How and why do colleges and universities prioritize and enact organizational change to align with learning science?

These and other questions are at the heart of a new interdisciplinary field of learning innovation that we are trying to will into existence.

What do any of these questions have to do with comedy clubs? Stick with us.

This scheme to develop a new interdisciplinary field of learning innovation is predicated on the ability to erode the barriers between faculty and staff, scholar and practitioner. Getting this thing off the ground will be very hard. How should we go about getting it done?

One way -- and we think the only way -- is to gain traction for the idea of an interdisciplinary field of learning innovation by sharing lots of ideas about this work, to create the nascent scholarship, to try things out. This is not a field that will come into existence through administrative fiat. It will require that the people doing the work of learning innovation within learning organizations and academic departments pivot in how they view their own work.

It will require nonfaculty educators to adopt norms of scholarship (hypothesis testing, peer review) of faculty educators. And it will require a realignment of incentives, rewards and structures to support the intermixing of applied and scholarly academic work.

Ideas are never fully formed at birth. Ideas have their own life course. A precarious and exciting childhood. A difficult adolescence. A struggle to gain independence and resiliency in early life. The hopeful accretion of wisdom with age. A new interdisciplinary field of learning innovation is an idea. It needs to grow up.

One way that this idea will mature is through exchange. And one major way that exchange happens nowadays is through social media. This post that you are reading is a part of the social media ecosystem. So are tweets. Social media is the petri dish in which the idea around a new discipline of learning innovation can start to grow and divide. It is the nursery. Blogs and tweets are the NICU of newborn thinking.

Or maybe social media is like high school -- the place to do all the dumb things on the road to hopefully a life of better decisions. OK, lots of metaphors here, but we’re almost there.

Which brings us back to comedy clubs. (Thanks for waiting.)

Comedy clubs are where comedians develop their sets. The jokes that you will one day hear on a Netflix special or in late night with one of the Jimmys have been refined for years (sometimes decades) in small comedy clubs. Getting paid to make people laugh is infinitely more difficult than changing higher education to align with learning science -- though making people laugh while realigning higher education might be even more difficult. Infinity plus one.

Most comedy in small comedy clubs is pretty bad. But that’s good. We need bad comedy so that we eventually get to that amazing Netflix special.

This system of comedy development, however, may be in trouble. Historically, comedy clubs were safe places to try out and refine new jokes. The audiences were small. The sets were rough at best. They certainly weren’t recorded. Nowadays, everyone is bringing their smartphones to small comedy clubs. Sets that were intended as early first drafts end up on YouTube. Sure, some comedians get discovered this way. But the aggregate result for the comedy world is that we end up with fewer good jokes. Less good comedy.

So what does that have to do with learning innovation?

Blogs and tweets should be a way to refine our material. For learning innovation people to figure out how to tell the equivalent of better jokes. This space -- the space we are in now -- should be one of the places where ideas are worked out. Where bad ideas eventually (hopefully) become better ideas. The problem is that once a necessary immature idea ends up on a blog or a tweet, it may never go away. And not in a good, sustainable scholarly kind of way. The no-so-fully-formed idea can dug up months or years later. What is said sticks around like a bad comedy set.

For learning professionals and nonfaculty academics (those without tenure), but ideas can come back to haunt you.

Ideally, social media would be the pre-smartphone comedy clubs of yesterday, but it is not. Instead, writing about learning innovation on blogs and tweets is like working out your jokes on stage that everyone can access at any time.

What is the alternative?

If we accept that for good ideas around an academic discipline of learning innovation, then we will have to be patient and generous as our community works out what we think. That conversation can happen at conferences, but convenings can only take us so far. We need to write and then get feedback and reactions. We may have to accept, as a new generation of comedians are doing, that technologically mediated transparency has both risks and advantages. Comedians can now reach a national audience directly before they are booked on late night.

Learning innovation scholars can find each other online before what we do is recognized by anyone else as scholarship. What do you see as the costs and advantages of co-creating a new interdisciplinary field in the open? How do you manage the risk of writing things on social media that have the potential of provoking negative reactions by current or future academic employers? When is the last time you visited a comedy club?


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