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From ‘Kinky Boots’ to Kigali: How a Broadway Producer is Bringing Storytelling Back into Learning

By Harold Elletson

There are certain professions, which seem somehow linked to the stage, even if the connection is only in the minds of those who practise them. Politics, for example, has been described as “show business for ugly people.” The law is full of exhibitionist types who would have been just as happy in greasepaint, as in a wig and gown. And the teaching profession has often provided a home for various eccentrics, who have been a source of constant entertainment for their pupils. So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that one of the biggest names in learning technology is also a Broadway producer with a long list of smash hits, including ‘Kinky Boots’ and ‘SpongeBob SquarePants.

Elliott Masie is the exception to Bette Davis’s rule that “the only reason anyone goes to Broadway is because they can’t get work in the movies.” He was a success in his own line of business long before the bright lights of Broadway beckoned. He is one of the best known figures in eLearning and last year he even reached first place on the industry’s list of ‘movers and shakers.’

Mainly known for his work in corporate learning and organisational performance, he is the editor of the influential ‘Learning TRENDS by Elliott Masie.’ He  is also Chair of the Learning Consortium and founder of the Masie Center, a think-tank, which researches the changing nature of employment and the learning and training needs of tomorrow’s workforce. It includes a 10,000 square foot ‘Learning Lab,’ a $2 million facility in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, which is used for “learning research, innovation and benchmarking.”

An active “sandbox,” it includes an array of learning tools, virtual teaching studios, mobile devices, video capture, robots, 3D printing, wearables, iBeacons and much more. It sounds like an Aladdin’s cave, full of edTech goodies to enchant both techies and teachers.

Masie’s Learning consortium is driving new thinking about workplace learning and how organisations can support learning and knowledge within their workforce. It includes some of the biggest names in corporate America, such as Walmart, CNN, American Express and General Electric. Masie has got them thinking about the changing nature of both work and education, and cooperating not only with him, but with each other, on the evolution of new learning strategies and the development of models to accelerate the spread of knowledge and collaboration in organisations.

All of which may seem a long way from Broadway but there is a link and Masie is convinced that it is an increasingly important one.

“We want to put the story back into learning,” he says.

Entertainment and storytelling are becoming increasingly recognised as important parts of the learning process, along with gaming. Masie talks about the need to “blow up the barriers between silos” and his experience has convinced him that learning is intimately connected with storytelling and entertainment. He recalls that this was brought home very clearly to him in Africa, where he and his wife Cathy have been involved for over a decade in initiatives to use eLearning to fight the spread both of malaria and HIV / Aids.

“A lot of learning is about storytelling,” he says. “We were in Senegal and in Mali. We were talking to Aids trainers about how to get sex workers to protect themselves. We asked ourselves ‘what is the best way to teach them?’ Then, we realised that the real question was ‘what is the best way to tell the story?’ And everything changed.”

The remarks perhaps reflect Masie’s broader belief not only in the importance of storytelling in education –  “We have to figure out how to bring stories back into learning” – but also his belief that teaching has to be adaptable. Global learning cannot simply be imposed regardless of local contexts. He sees global learning as something that is both universal and local.

“If we believe in global learning,” he says, “it’s not just about getting learning distributed globally, but about looking at the learning DNA locally.” In Africa, as he discovered, storytelling is still very much part of the process of learning.

It’s a view that will find an echo among his audience on September 26 at eLearning Africa, where he will head a list of high profile speakers from the world of edTech. African educators, managers and political leaders have long complained about the impossibility of imposing global learning programmes without regard to local contexts, culture, customs or languages. Masie’s view that, to be effective, global learning must also be local will be music to African ears.

Elliott Masie is an optimist – both about African economies, which have ‘great opportunities,’ and about the positive changes technology can bring to African education. He is not a techno-zealot, though. He doesn’t hold some fanatical belief that everything can simply be handed over to technology, as a sort of panacea for all human ills. Africans are often reluctant to let go of traditional methods and, for all his understanding of the potential of new technology, Masie shares something of this belief in not jettisoning methods that have been tried and tested, but adapting them instead.

“Learning is not a publishing business, it is an experiential business… I think learning is part of human experience and people want to learn from experience.”

It’s a view that makes him believe that, ultimately, no matter what new developments technology brings, the teacher, in one form or other, will remain irreplaceable.

“We never imagined the teacher would vanish,” he says. “Teachers might vanish from your classroom but you will still have to have a digital input of what the teacher does… Keeping the essence of teaching will be vital. ”

One of the world’s leading thinkers about the theory and practice of education in an era of rapid technological change, Elliott Masie is at once challenging and reassuring, disruptive and reflective.

At eLearning Africa, this Broadway producer will be centre stage and he is very likely to be the star of the show.

 

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