Behind the Scenes: The Science of Learning

How new ways of providing education at events can be a tricky business.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Michelle Russell

We’ve captured the essence of one of the sessions at Convening Leaders in January, “Science Under Fire,” for this month’s CMP Series and cover story. In my role as moderator for that session, I stepped out of the way as much as possible. Because on the panel were the top leaders at three associations — Christine McEntee, American Geophysical Union’s executive director, Roberta Kravitz, executive director of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, and Alessandro Cortese, CEO for the European Society for Radiotherapy and Oncology — all of whom are doing important work in the world and had a lot to say about a complex and troubling trend. They shared, from their perspective, whether the current geopolitical environment is making it more difficult for scientists from around the world to meet face to face and exchange the kind of knowledge that can save lives and heal the planet.

The four attendees who answered feedback forms gave their lowest score in response to the statement, “I had the opportunity to be involved in and contribute to my learning experience.” That didn’t surprise me at all. Held in an open-learning environment called the Future of Face2Face, the session was competing with a lot of other activities taking place in the ballroom at the same time, so the 30 or so attendees were wearing headsets to hear our panel discussion without the distraction of noise bleed. Christine was Skyped in, appearing on a big screen behind Roberta, Alessandro, and me, and the three of us were wearing headsets and mics. It was a bit of a high-tech production.

The discussion was compelling, and the speakers got high scores for “effectively presenting the subject matter” in the feedback forms. Yet there was something about people wearing headsets that made me feel like we were listening to a meeting at the United Nations, where everyone is hearing the speaker in their own language. Those headsets made it feel more like an individual rather than shared experience — like people were locked in their own heads, even though we were in an intimate space. I noticed quite a few weren’t even looking up at the speakers and no one was looking at each other.

Moreover, the set-up didn’t allow for any audience interaction — it was entirely one-way. Attendees couldn’t take their headsets off to ask questions. There was no mic to pass around so the speakers and the rest of the audience could hear them (which I imagine would have created major feedback issues).

It’s ironic how a newer and more intimate learning environment enhanced by state-of-the-art technology can bring us back to the old-fashioned way of passively receiving information. As Dave Lutz points out in his Forward Thinking column this month, the legacy method is to deliver education rather than empower participants to take a more active role in what they learn.

I came away from the session with a few thoughts. From a logistical standpoint, I realized that in open-space learning environments, we’ve got to find a better way to meet attendees’ hearing — and learning — needs. And in terms of the content, I felt galvanized to stand up for science any way I can. Even if it wasn’t my favorite subject growing up.