Blog Post

Differentiating Participation: How We Need to Rethink Our Notions of Participation for the Adult Learners

We know that professional development should be differentiated (Glickman, 2004; Long, 2004), so one of the reasons that I LOVE the Teaching and Learning with Technology Symposium (TLT) is that it incorporates an aspect of differentiation for me as a learner. Differentiation comes in many forms, and in this case, TLT differentiated in terms of their participation. In a previous blog post, I describe this conference, but in this entry, I'd like to talk discuss in more detail the various ways in which the designers allow for different layers and levels of participation based on preference and comfort level with regard to technology.

This conference, TLT, allows you to participate in many ways of engagement, and those ways can be traditional or non-traditional. First, while attending concurrent sessions, you can simply sit and listen as a participant, take, notes, and ask questions by raising your hand. These acts of being present, listening, and possibiy talking are all forms of participation, albeit traditional notions of participation but participation nonetheless. For some learners, this kind of participation in a conference is expected; this is their vision of a conference, but TLT has warped all sense of participation for me and now I expect more from other conferences. I want what they have offered me in terms of what I am going to call non-traditional forms of participation.

At TLT, in addition to sitting and listening, one can also take photographs and post them on Flickr using the tag tltsym11 (go check it out). If pictures are not your cup of tea, which they aren't mine, then you could participate on Facebook as well. While I am a Facebook user, I did not follow it much during this conference, so TLT offered me still another option to participate - Twitter. Here is where TLT captured my heart and attention!

Twitter created a back channel - a second layer of conversation happening not only in the room in which I was sitting but also for the conference. I was able to post my thoughts about conversations that were occuring in my concurrent sessions while simultaneously watching and responding, if I chose to, posts from conversations happening in other concurrent sessions, booths, and rooms from around the conference. Twitter kept the conversation alive for me! I was abuzz with activity and alertness! I was stimulated and on a participation-high, feeling connected, engaged and part of the conversation(s). 

The last session of the day, Cole Camplese led a panel discussion between students and faculty. Audience members were invited to partipate via clickers and a live Twitter stream which was projected behind Cole. I was one fire - so excited to be a part of this kind of experience, ready for the amount of participation and stimuli about to fly - wait that were already flying. Looking around, I was probably on the younger end of the spectrum of the audience. As the Twitter stream starting running and the panel began talking, Cole starting polling the audience and we were in full swing of participation. The woman sitting next to me leaned over to the person sitting next to her and said, "This is distracting." To her, she was in information overload. She could not handle all of the participation. For me, I was LOVING it. I was finally in an environment where I was not bored, where I was not forced to sit and be passive. I was not yawning! I was engaged! I was a member of a community! I was tweeting! My thoughts were being broadcast and people were responding to what I had to say! Yes! That was my RT (That stands for Retweet) up there. While it was scary in a way that I had people responding to my thoughts in the moment and I could respond to others, it was EXCITING!

And yet, I had to pause - as an educator, I had to think about her - yes, you, that woman sitting next to me. I was the one being surpressed for all those years yearning to be engaged and here I was in my shining moment, surpressing you because you were being distracted. Hmmm... dilemma?

Those were the thoughts running through my mind, and I know that there are opponents to the back channel. They think it's distracting. They think that they can't control it, so they won't use it. AND YET it can be such a powerful tool for engagement and participation! I challenge us (and myself here) to think about how we can offer differentiated forms of participation so that we can reach the many levels of participation from those learners like ME to the woman sitting next to me.

What I can say is that when TLT is over and I lost that back channel, which happens every year, I feel a sense of loss. I go through a withdrawal in terms of participation. I have commented on participation before and how that participation relates to community, and maybe coming are more thoughts on that notion. For now, our challenge will rest with considered differentiated participation in the classroom because although I have commented on it with regard to the higher education classroom, I know that there are children out there like me and like the woman next to me. So in essence, differentiated participation could be applied to the K-12 classroom as well. What can we do to support our learners in meaningful ways?



Glickman, C., et al. (2004). Adult and teacher development within the context of the school. In Supervision and Instructional Leadership: a Developmental Approach (pp. 60-104). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Long, H.B. (2004). Understanding adult learners. In Adult learning methods: A guide for effective instruction (pp. 23-38). Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co.


No comments