Can the internet teach you how to lead?

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site.

I keep hearing that we are all responsible for our own learning now because we can learn about anything we want to through the internet. Recently the internet taught someone as un-techy as me to change a digitizer on a laptop screen. But what does it mean to be responsible for your own learning in our digital age? And what did I really learn when I changed the digitizer?

For many, the advances in availability of information open up previously closed worlds. Think of the 11 year-old Pakistani girl doing a Physics degree with Udacity, the online Silicon Valley university.  Or my son learning to computer code on a free online course.  You really can learn about just about anything online.

But therein lies the rub – you can learn about anything. The choice and variability of quality is vast.  Searching for what you want can become just another internet burden like having to fill in forms online to book flights when it used to be just a phone call. So where do you start? And then when you find the information, does it actually help you learn?

When I crushed the digitizer on my laptop, I had a very specific problem to solve.  It was fairly easy to find the information I needed.  It’s more challenging to find what you want when you need less specific learning. For example, on leadership there is an overwhelming amount of information: 67,000 books with ‘Leadership’ in the title and over 455 million search results on Google. And whilst there is self-evidently a wealth of information, accessing information does not equal learning. So I think the place to start is to understand how you learn.

I have recently completed a Masters in Innovation Creativity and Leadership. In one of the first sessions we were told we needed to understand how to learn. It struck me as odd: after years of schooling and university education I thought I must know that. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that as adults and especially for leaders the responsibility is not just for our own learning, but for understanding ourselves well enough to know how we learn.

I don’t think I could easily change the digitizer again. So I did not really learn to do it.

On reflection what I learned was

  • there are people who know how to do very specific things I do not know how to do willing to share their detailed knowledge for free;
  • the information gives me confidence to try something I would never previously have attempted;
  • techy stuff is not as scary as it may seem;
  • my computer company charges rip off rates to do something even I could do for a fraction of the price.

I learned by acting and reflecting on it and I think that is how most leaders learn.  It is worth giving some thought to how you learn best,  before choosing an online or face to face course or deciding not to choose a course at all and simply get on and learn by doing. Naturally there is a mass of online material to assist you in that endeavour. You could start by assessing whether you are a reflector, pragmatist, activist or theorist (see below).

I am soon to be delivering the NCVO Barclays Leadership Development Programme.  The course I run does not presume to teach people how to lead but helps them learn about themselves as leaders and offers ideas, tools and stimulation, and a supportive peer group to learn by trying out things on the job backed up by theory, case studies and experience.  I aim for it to appeal to reflectors, pragmatists, activists and theorists alike and to cut through the mass of internet information to provide something relevant and useful to the voluntary sector leader in the 21st century. So yes, the internet is a fantastic resource for learners and leaders but the learning itself is your responsibility.

11 Yearold Pakistani girl doing physics degree

Udacity the online university-  free interactice courses mostly on quite technical things

Top UK Universities launch free online courses

KnowhowNonProfit StudyZone- instant online courses for the voluntary sector

Honey and Mumford learning styles with free assessment of your own here

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