When a Dutch explorer saw his first black swan at the end of the 16th century (realizing, as a result of that completely unexpected encounter, that not all swans were white), he had no way of predicting that his discovery would be a source of inspiration for us three centuries later. When Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable to explore why we are unable to expect the unexpected, he had no way of predicting that the New Media Consortium would build a conference, foster a follow-up “Continuous Change and Innovation” session, and inspire a new community of learning around the image of black swans as a way of predicting improbable developments in educational technology.

Our contemporary Talebian image of the black swan — that development or event that remains unforeseen until the moment it appears — is rich, powerful, and essential for teacher-trainer-learners. It’s that development that, in retrospect, becomes a part of the world as we know it — but only at the moment in which it manifests itself. Think, here, about the possibility of combining newly-developed tech tools with online access so that learners could absorb lectures asynchronously before attending on-site classes. Consider online learning opportunities that center on experiential rather than passive learning (the flipped classroom model), or the use of tablets as learning tools for learners of all ages. Part of this unlikely progression is free and open access to online learning, which reaches massive numbers of people with massive, previously-unimagined opportunities such as MOOCs or drones as learning tools.

The entire NMC Black Swan approach grew out of concern that while NMC documents where we are in terms of edtech trends, challenges, and developments, we could be overlooking equally important advances because they remain beyond our ability to imagine them. The original “Black Swan Ball” retreat, held in January 2015, was an effort to address this perceived challenge; it remains a first-rate example of how we all might work to shift our attention in subtle, yet important, ways to better serve those who rely upon us in our K-12, higher education, museum, and library learning communities.

10914738_10153939957587619_322490522368307239_oNMC staff created a wonderful infrastructure for all of us who were able to participate in the Black Swan Ball. We were in a comfortable setting just far enough outside of Austin, Texas, to free us from most of our day-to-day concerns, and attendees enjoyed a compact and stimulating agenda that included time for several brief presentations on controversial edtech topics. There was plenty of time for formal and informal discussion. Playful online environments allowed Black Swan Ball participants to capture their face-to-face work and create videos, websites, and other resources that would contribute to Black Swan explorations long after the conference formally concluded. My group created a website designed to foster conversations around the theme of creating a Privacy Bill of Rights for contemporary times; the hope is that these discussions will lead to a conference on the theme so participants can produce concrete results.

10827895_10153939958252619_8207496766264737849_oWhat began at the retreat continued at the session NMC Horizon Report lead writer Samantha Becker and I facilitated at the 2015 NMC Summer Conference in June. We began with an exercise that encouraged participants to try to imagine the unimaginable in edtech endeavors, then identify the skills needed to effectively deal with those Black Swans once they flew into our field of vision. We threw out a few suggestions — a world of learning in which PowerPoint no longer existed and could not be recreated; or, physical classrooms were no longer available for learning purposes; or, grades were abandoned as a way of measuring learning success. Participants quickly embraced the challenge by offering their own Black Swans, including a world in which humor was banned from learning; businesses stopped recognizing degrees; we found out that everything provided through Google search was a lie; and, the power went out — and never came back on.

Obvious skills cited as essential to dealing with these possibilities include flexibility, a sense of humor (particularly for that world where humor was banned from learning), a willingness to say “yes” rather than “no” to challenges and opportunities, and a penchant for engaging in improvisation. There is still more to explore and develop, and we’re hoping that if you’re interested, you’ll join us in our Facebook NMC15BSwan group to see where our collaborations lead us.


Photos used with permission by David Deeds

About The Author

Paul Signorelli pursues a variety of interests as a San Francisco-based writer, trainer, instructional designer, social media strategist, presenter, consultant—and lifelong learner. He explores, writes about, and helps others become familiar with e-learning, social media, MOOCs, mobile technology, innovations in onsite and online learning spaces, and community partnerships (onsite and online) to creatively facilitate positive change within organizations. He also absolutely adores connectivist MOOCs, having participated as a learner in #etmooc (the Educational Technology & Media MOOC) and #xplrpln (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks MOOC) in 2013 and #ccourses (the Connected Courses MOOC) in 2014 as well as having help design and facilitate #oclmooc (the Open and Connected Learning MOOC) in fall 2014. He is active at several levels in the New Media Consortium (including service on Horizon Report advisory boards/expert panels, and previous work as a contributing editor for the NMC Blog), the American Library Association, and the Association for Talent Development (formerly the American Society for Training & Development); earned an MLIS through the University of North Texas (with an emphasis on online learning) and an M.A. in Arts Administration at Golden Gate University (San Francisco); blogs at Building Creative Bridges (http://building creativebridges.wordpress.com); and can be reached at paul@paulsignorelli.com.