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Improvisation: The Infrastructure of Communicating and Connecting

African music is the birthplace of what became jazz, and the essence of jazz is improvisation. And since the 1990s, American businesses have been turning to improvisation (improv) training centres for help with team building and communication. But is there really a connection between improvisation and ICT for education, training, and skills development in Africa? Though the link is not direct, it definitely exists – and is strong. After all, virtually all efforts that strive to improve the lives of the Continent’s citizens involve people working in groups, and this simple fact is the basis of the importance for people to understand the principles and methods of improvisation. 

One of the main concepts in improvisation theory is incorporated in the phrase “Yes, and …” The idea is simple: When working in a group, always agree, and add something to the discussion. “No” squashes creativity; fear creeps into the process. Creativity in the development process is not individual creativity – there is no “prophet” who brings a message down from the mountain. Contemporary creativity is best achieved in groups. “Yes, and …” teaches an attitude that greatly improves group creativity. Saying yes to the ideas of others instead of no – and then building on those ideas – is more productive than random brainstorming. Arguing and questioning don’t move ideation (the creative process) forward. Saying “Yes, and …” does.

Russel McMahon has been teaching IT-related subject matter since 1980 and has been a faculty member at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Information Technology since 1999. Today he’s an associate professor and assistant director of the Bachelor of Science in IT programme. He teaches computer programming, database administration, business intelligence, and IT security.  

In 1976, Russell McMahon joined the U.S. Peace Corps, serving as a math and physics teacher at a rural high school in Zaire, today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2014, he took a year to explore IT education at key universities in several African countries. Among his many publications is a paper entitled “The Challenges of Information and Communications Technology Education in Sub-Saharan Africa”. 

Russel McMahon’s workshop at eLearning Africa is called Improv’ for Everyone – Especially Those Who Want to Work with Insanely Great Ensembles. In English, the word “ensemble” is usually used in the context of music, but defines it as “a group of separate things that contribute to a coordinated whole.” 

Of course, in French the basic meaning of ensemble is “together”. The phrase “insanely great ensembles” that Russel uses in the title of his workshop is meant to help attendees grasp that using principles of improv can help us work together more effectively and productively toward reaching goals.

In his work on improvisation, Russel emphasises that an ensemble is not about recreation but rather about co-creation. In comparing teams and ensembles, he says members of a team compete against each other for a position, whereas in ensembles they support each other. In ensembles, members are cohesive, and all are equals. Interestingly, according to corporate improvisation training expert Kelly Leonard, “Ensembles become more powerful when they express the differences that exist inside an organisation.”

The focus of improv training is on using the intellect to concentrate on what we see and what we hear, and co-coordinating the emotions and senses. Gaining self-assurance is the first step that should be taken if one hopes to find success. And although improvisation is by definition spontaneous, a good plan and a practical methodology are helpful. This is where the workshop comes in.

Participants will acquire some of the basics of improvisation and take away ideas about how it can be used in many facets of life. Recent studies suggest that improv can help us all to become better team members, learners, innovators, and communicators.

Improv methods can help generate new ideas, boost innovation and collaboration, and develop a positive environment in which to grow ideas. In addition, improv training can help make learning more enjoyable. Come and learn about improv and why companies such as IDEO, Google, Marriott, and Twitter have embraced it.

This will be an interactive workshop that involves all participants. Please attend – and have fun learning how to be more positive, vulnerable, attentive, and playful in your daily life.

This Pre-conference Workshop will take place at eLearning Africa, on Friday, 28 September 2018 (11:45 – 13:00).

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