Finding Creativity All Over the World: Nelle Sacknoff Speaks to Learn.org

Nelle Sacknoff is a graduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), a graduate school of Middlebury College. Last winter, she traveled to Latin America on a 'scavenger hunt for innovation' to assess the role of innovation and technology in international management in the public, private and non-profit sectors, and practice her Spanish along the way. Learn.org caught up with her recently to learn more about what she found on this trip.

Nelle Sacknoff

Before starting graduate school, Nelle Sacknoff spent several years working with the international NGO World Teach in Central and South America in order to gain experience in the field. Upon her return, she entered the private sector in the field of global marketing and communications to gain experience in the professional world. She's currently seeking to 'fuse it all together' by earning her Master of Public Administration (MPA) and certificate in business at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS). Nelle is also a freelance communications consultant and professional at the MIIS Digital Learning Commons, where she helps students, faculty and staff integrate technology into education and helps local and global organizations fuse technology into their work to make a greater social impact and find a way to realize their missions sustainably.

Learn.org: How have you tied these diverse interests together?

Nelle Sacknoff: My focus in international development is on public-private partnerships and how resources and money can be moved to better serve the forces of good and social impact industries, and do so sustainably and efficiently. One way to do that is to gain funding and publicity by creating partnerships and another way to do that is through technology and innovation.

So I strategically started my career on the public side, getting my hands dirty out in the world in order to learn more about international development and relations on the ground in Costa Rica and Chile. For example, in my first year with World Teach in Costa Rica, I lived as a local and earned local wages while working for the National Ministry of Education. Piloting the first ever public bilingual program with very little resources, I learned very quickly I had to engage the private sector to help source the resources and funding we needed to improve our educational programs and provide a higher level of education to our students. But it had to be done the right way. The programs had to be innovative - fundraising and community development campaigns had to help those businesses and the community in addition to the school, if they were to help us.

Though I was fortunate to experience a lot in Latin America and learn from many incredible mentors and colleagues, when I got back I realized I was missing a lot of office and management skills. So I went into the business world, knowing that I eventually wanted to go to graduate school but needed several years of professional and project management experience first. While working in the Bay Area, I got turned on to innovative start-ups, the technology sector and the social engagement of impact investing, corporate philanthropy and working on Corporate Sustainability (CSR) programs in business that contribute to environmental and social responsibility in the community.

As a result, when I came to MIIS, I already knew I wanted to continue to focus on social impact enterprises and industries to improve international development through public-private partnerships and technology and innovation.

DD.org: With the support of the MIIS Digital Learning Commons, you traveled to Chile, Argentina and the Dominican Republic as an MIIS digital media consultant in the field on a 'scavenger hunt' for technology innovation. What types of organizations did you visit? Were there any that particularly stood out?

NS: The Digital Learning Commons was amazing to support my idea to do consulting and research 'in the field' to bring back curriculum and service offering ideas to our program. MIIS offers a 5-week January term to pursue an internship or research project. I wanted to practice my Spanish skills, work on some professional development goals to better serve the Digital Learning Commons patrons and improve the curriculum we offer for our workshops. So I thought, 'Why don't I do a little bit of everything to maximize my learning opportunity and give back to my school and job?'

During this time period, I conducted 40 different management interviews from the public, private and non-profit sectors. I was looking at innovation in technology and management, and the role it played in realizing these diverse organizations' missions. I observed numerous classes of other higher education programs and teacher trainings, and I held a bunch of my own digital media trainings to learn more about open source educational resources and to better model real-world opportunities and practical experience in the classroom.

However, some of the organizations that stood out were innovating without technology. For example, I interviewed a group in the Dominican Republic called Caminante - Proyecto Educativo that didn't even have a website. But they have been pioneers in the way that they run their organization and tell their story. They have found creative means and partnerships to gain the resources they need and the publicity they earn. The leader incentivizes her staff not through bonuses or salaries, but by never saying no to professional development opportunities and creating trainings and open education learning models for the staff. I realized that their narrative was so captivating that it could help them fundraise online, so I ended up building them a very basic website as a school project after my return, as well as giving them a Digital Innovation Clinic (see below).

Another group that stood out was the Universidad Católica in Santiago. They're combining executives and engineers in this business master's program, with really fascinating results. They hold the classes on the weekends because the students all have full-time day jobs and I participated in a Saturday class.

The class was filled with a lot of innovative activities that brought the different mindsets of the engineers and executives together. They forced the right-brain and left-brain people to work together, communicate and come up with a solution. This reinforced the idea that you have to knit together these skills and come up with a captivating idea 'offline,' really developing a clear objective before you can make it official or start effectively utilizing digital tools. If you don't, then sometimes technology will do more harm than help.

After observing so many different organizations, I learned you don't want to confuse the challenge you face, but confine it. The opportunity comes from focusing in on what you're lacking and what you need, then using technology to carry you through once the problem area is clear.

DD.org: Of all the innovations that you encountered, which do you think is having the most impact on higher education?

NS: Cisco Systems in Argentina was one of the groups that really stood out for the incredible things they're doing in higher education. They're providing technology to share information between instructors, which improves teacher training and allows instructors to share resources as they build curricula and identify best practices. They've also piloted this program in Mexico and Brazil.

Another organization is a social enterprise called Connect 123, which is giving 'experiential educational' opportunities to students before, during or after their higher education in emerging markets abroad. In addition to offering internships to students abroad, they run their entire organization online and use social media and blogging strategies to reinforce the international learning experience. This creates the opportunity to engage in true offline educational sharing opportunities through the non-profits and entrepreneurs they work with and the peer networks they form. Connect 123 has a network of 900+ individuals that continue to share experiences and professional development dialogue through LinkedIn and other social media, which will add to their education beyond the classroom.

DD.org: Did you speak to any organizations that are focusing on open educational resources (OER) or working with technology that might be applied to open education?

NS: As mentioned above, Connect 123 uses OER to reinforce the experience of living and working abroad to their vast audiences during and after their trips.

World Teach, the NGO I worked for previously and interviewed again on this trip, has actually been working with the Harvard education department to put their materials online and use other multimedia resources to educate their volunteers during the teacher training and recruitment processes and to improve communication and knowledge sharing between volunteers. Because World Teach works closely with the national Ministries of Education in the countries where they work, this technology and OER model reinforces their partnerships and impact in the classroom with greater resources.

In addition to World Teach and Connect 123's resources, I also observed the undergraduate program at Middlebury College use OER to make their study abroad experiences more robust and have the professors and advisors from Middlebury and their host countries and universities better collaborate with students while they're working on their independent research projects. Middlebury also uses the OER model for sharing research projects through their MiddLab, which is a shared resource designed to enhance both the MIIS graduate and Middlebury undergraduate research communities.

DD.org: After returning from your trip, you hosted a series of 'Digital Innovation Clinics.' Tell us more about those.

NS: The idea behind the Digital Innovation Clinics is to take a problem that an organization is facing and hold a consulting session that focuses on using digital tools and innovation to overcome it. I also chose to mix and network individuals from various programs, including staff, students and faculty, together to provide a consulting session with more diversity of ideas and backgrounds and make the time more productive. You can't solve an organizational problem or challenge in one session, but you can get the organization on the road to recovery - that's why I call them 'clinics.'

For example, if it's a communications challenge, you bring together different elements of the organization to better understand the problem, including HR and operations and finance, and ask them to map out their goals for the session. Then the participants start the ideation process to figure out what their next steps could be.

We piloted the idea at the Digital Learning Commons this spring, and plan to come together in the fall to mold it into an official program that will incorporate key experiences from the spring. The process has been an innovation in itself and helped bridge the 'digital divide' for some who were initially not interested or engaged enough to come to our workshops. Typically, there's usually a lot of digital tools that they just don't know about, and it's up to the clinic participants to help them learn about more options to troubleshoot their problem, or use products that could send them on a road to recovery through increasing collaboration and better efficiency.

DD.org: In an MIIS blog entry on the trip, you note that 'One of my most compelling findings is that if technology or social media is not used in the right context or misunderstood by its users, this hampered innovation and held teams or organizations back.' Can you elaborate on this issue?

NS: If an organization isn't ready to use a specific technology, it's going to actually hold them back in reaching their goals. From an education perspective, it is similar to when a teacher is going to teach a new unit - he or she needs to make sure the class has the foundation laid and understands the context before moving forward into new skills.

For example, when I went to Caminante - Proyecto Educativo, they had no website but they really wanted one. Though I intended to do a digital media training with them, I realized I had to be innovative to make the best use of our shared time. If I jumped in and taught them technology skills in the session that were above where they were as an organization, that would not be sustainable. Instead, we started basic and did a training on branding and marketing. From there, we moved into a facilitated discussion on how they want to be represented online.

In other organizations I met with, I found that they didn't integrate technology effectively in their internal communications plans, which hampered their external communications and public relations and held back their internal management collaboration and efficiencies. On the other hand, the organizations that did integrate technology well were able to move forward in realizing their missions and focus more on moving their programs further.

By contrast, I thought that the program at the Universidad Católica was a really good example of developing strategic communication. If you throw all these people - engineers, business people, tax people - in the working world together they will struggle to communicate because they think differently. But if you put them together as students first, they learn to function together academically and can translate that into the professional world.

Organizations need to clearly specify their goals and ensure that everyone is on the same page, and an internal and external strategy should be in place before technology is even introduced. If your strategy isn't clear, then you won't have a clear idea of how to train, motivate and manage your students or staff, and technology will end up holding people back even more.

DD.org: What other information did you gather that you think could directly benefit the Digital Learning Commons and other educational technology organizations in the U.S.?

NS: Collaboration is important, not just studying or working together, but actually being in the same physical space together. One organization I spoke to put everyone together in an open room, physically setting them up to collaborate more naturally and even take breaks together; they felt social time helped them build stronger and more effective teams while consulting both on and offline.

Another thing I learned is how important it is to have all of your stakeholders really actively listening and participating in experiential learning. This not only improves your learning, it can improve how you work in the field. One way you can incorporate this into meetings is by using collaboration technologies where people can be in a class listening to each other but also visually following along on the screen, all while asking questions live through various technologies such as Typewith.me and blogging or sharing with a Ning community or Box.net.

We incorporated both active listening and experiential learning in our Digital Innovation Clinics. For example, we'd have one team write down the problem in words, then another draw visually how they understood the problem and then another map out the behavioral attitudes that they observed underlying the problem. This appealed to different types of learners in the class and helped us reach multidimensional, innovative solutions.

DD.org: What advice would you give to another student who hopes to pursue an international research project like yours?

NS: First, you have to have enough time - you need at least four weeks to undertake something like that. Second, have a clear vision of what you want to do and where you're going to do it. You can develop this by getting feedback from as many professors as possible beforehand who can review your plans and give you advice on pre-readings, research and other helpful professionals to speak to before you go. They'll help you determine the scope of the project and what research you should do first, and having this clear vision will help you secure funding.

Next, take advantage of the contacts your school can offer you. This helped me focus my project and get really productive interviews. It can also help you find more grant and scholarship funding. Also, there are many grant opportunities out there to be funded if you are helping non-profits along the way as a community services like I did through my digital media trainings.

Finally, push yourself. Get out there with guts and grace to apply the knowledge you have and the new skills you're seeking to refine and to learn from others who have so much to offer. In the case of both technology and language learning, it's important to dive in and immerse yourself to achieve proficiency. You might have to be innovative to get there, but you can do it. There will be a lot of challenges along the way, but if you don't go and just do it, you'll never know how much you can really improve yourself academically or professionally.

DD.org: Is there anything else you'd like to share about your trip?

NS: I would like share Lao Tsu's famous saying, 'A journey for a thousand miles begins with one single step.' I learned this first while in college almost a decade ago on a Semester at Sea study abroad around the world program. There I learned how important it was to pick particular criteria that drive you through your research and exploration, and just make you happy. You need to keep some personal passion in mind because that keeps you going when times are tough or the path is not clear.

Innovation on this trip, whether I was discussing in Spanish or English, was always followed up with talk of creativity or 'invention.' So in order to connect with innovation and my personal passion, I snapped photos of every innovative thing I saw, from art to food to digital media, and everything in between. Taking time out of my day to connect with this sort of creativity in daily life was very inspiring, and thereby rejuvenated the academic and professional work I was doing.

I'd always encourage folks to take that 'first single step,' whether it's to explore innovation and technology or other things in education - it's all a learning experience. The best advice I can offer is figure out what works best for you, how you learn best and what engages you. Personal inspirations and passions are always a great place to start, and the lessons and learning usually follow suit. Enjoy yourself on that next journey!

You can find Nelle on LinkedIn or at FriendsofNelle.com.

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