What Does Making Pasta Sauce Teach Us About Backchannel Learning?

There are very few things in life that you can count on with 100% certainty.  One of the few things on that list is this: If I’m cooking dinner, chances are we’re having pasta.
And so it was with this assurance in place that you would have found me in my kitchen earlier this evening, preparing dinner.  Pasta could be an incredibly low-maintenance meal, consisting of boiling water and opening a jar of sauce.  However, I am half Italian, and as my grandmother would often say: “No self-respecting Italian would ever use jarred sauce!” 
Because this rule has been ingrained into my skull from an early age, what could be a quick 15 minute preparation lasts 60-90 minutes because I make my own sauce.  I use canned tomato sauce, which the Irish side of me allows me to describe as ‘from scratch’.
Shortly after beginning to sauté my onions and garlic, I look down and see the setup for my next steps.  This is what I see.
One of the techniques I often use to enhance my learning is to build connections between what I’m learning about and something completely unrelated.  As examples, in recent posts, I explored what Angry Birds and the 1982 video game E.T. have to do with Employee Learning. 
This past week the Learning Solutions Conference was held in Orlando Florida.  While I was not able to attend in person, I did actively follow the conference’s backchannel.  I’ve also been compiling a list of resources shared through the backchannel, reading many of the great reflective posts people have shared.  So with the backchannel very prominent in my focus, I suddenly was not looking at cans of sauce and spices.  I saw something very different.
That’s right, as I was making my sauce for the evening’s meal, I was consciously thinking “Hey, this is kind of like a conference”.  My mind continued down this path and suddenly I had connected it all the way to the end, creating an almost complete metaphoric loop with the pot I cooked the sauce in being very much like a conference backchannel.
Stay with me here – I think it’ll all make sense by the end. At least, I hope it will.
Learning as the Spice of Life
When I attend a conference, I want to absorb as much of the learning as I can.  My goal at a conference is to learn information that I can actively use and transfer into skills, essentially altering me into an enhanced version of myself.
Making sauce is not all that different, which is where that image above came from.  The spices are the information that is needed to transform the plain tomato sauce into the tasty sauce specific to the meal I am making.
Being Exposed to New Information
I’m not sure if this is ‘proper cooking’ or not, but when I add spice to my sauce, I’ll add one spice, and give the sauce a good stir before adding the next spice. If I tasted a random spoonful of the sauce immediately after adding the spices, chances are I would taste one of two things – either strongly over-spiced sauce or sauce with absolutely no spice at all.  Why? Because the spices are essentially sitting on the drops of sauce they landed on, and have not yet had a chance to spread to other drops of sauce in the pot.
Learning at a conference is no different.  When I attend a session, it’s like I’m the drops of sauce at the top of the pot that the spices landed on.  The drops underneath the top layer?  They were not in the session so they don’t get exposed to that ‘spice’. 
Stirring: The ReTweet of the Sauce
In order for all of the drops of tomato sauce to be exposed to the different spices I added to the sauce, I need to stir.  Doing so will share the ‘information’ of the salt, pepper, oregano and other spices amongst all of the drops of sauce in the pot.
In the case of a conference, the ‘pot’ would be the backchannel – built around the structure of a hashtag in which all resources for the ‘sauce’ can be found.  When it comes to a backchannel ‘pot’, the stirring is not done with a spoon; it’s done via Tweets and ReTweets.  Attendees that are exposed to a useful piece of information add a tweet about it to the backchannel.  This shares the information with other conference attendees, much the same way stirring a pot of sauce will share a single piece of oregano among many more drops of sauce then it originally landed on.
It’s Not Pasta Sauce Unless the Spices are Absorbed
When I make sauce, it’s not like I add the spices, stir it a few times, and it’s ready to be served.  I’ll add the spices, bring the pot to a boil, and then let it simmer for a bit, stirring occasionally.  I do this to allow the sauce ample time to absorb the flavor of the spices, and I continue to stir to spread the flavors being absorbed throughout the sauce.
To me, this is the most critical part of an effective backchannel.  When attendees tweet during a session, most often what they are doing is sharing information.  There may be some light real-time reflection involved, usually under the theme of “That was a good point”, which is what inspires the sharing.   The speed and activity of backchannel sharing by definition do not allow for deep reflective thoughts.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to imply that sharing through the backchannel is not useful; I believe exactly the opposite.  I think the backchannel provides an invaluable resource for engaging with the content and the other attendees in ways that are incredibly powerful.
What I am saying is that for many, they engage in the backchannel during conference sessions, but do not use it for a resource beyond that.  Most of what is shared during a session amounts to information sharing.  That’s very useful, especially when you would not be exposed to the information otherwise.  It also leaves most of the potential of a backchannel unexplored.
This is the equivalent of adding the spices to the pot, stirring them around a few times, and then immediately taking the pot off the stove.  All of the sauce may have been exposed to the different spices added to the pot, but it won’t taste nearly as good as it should.  You need to give the sauce time to absorb the flavor of the spices; it’s not about adding the spice – it’s about adding the flavor the spices provide.
That’s kind of where the backchannel for the recent Learning Solutions conference is right now.  We’ve been exposed to a great deal of information at the conference and via the conference backchannel.  If we leave the information where it is and do not give ourselves an opportunity to reflect on it, we are taking the pot off the stove too soon.  The value of learning isn’t in the receipt of new information; it’s in exploring how that information applies and can be used to improve our lives.  It’s in that exploration that we absorb the ‘flavor’ of the information.
And remember, at this point the sauce is still in the pot, so to speak.  As you reflect on the meaning and implications of the information you are exposed to, share those reflections using the conference hashtag.  Continue to review the backchannel after the conference to absorb the reflections of others, and continue stirring the pot by ReTweeting reflections of value.
One Last Thing: Where Do Non-Attendees Fit into This Equation?
One of most unique learning opportunities that a backchannel provides is making learning available to individuals who are not physically present at the event.  As I was preparing our dinner with this ‘sauce as a metaphor for the backchannel’ thought process bouncing around my head, I wondered where non-attendees fit in this analogy I was creating.  This was especially applicable to my situation, as I did not attend Learning Solutions in person, yet did soak in tremendous value from the conference backchannel.
The non-attendees that absorb learning from the backchannel are indeed part of the sauce analogy.  Non-Attendees would be the first thing added to the pot – the onions.  They are there, just waiting in the pot for the sauce to be added and the conference to begin.  They can be a critical part of the backchannel, adding additional value to the overall sauce.
Now… It’s time to eat!
As you can see, there are a great number of parallels between the process of making pasta sauce and how an effective backchannel works.  Do you see other connections?  If so, please feel free add them to the comments section below.