There’s been something of a theme running through the last half dozen or so posts here. I guess it’s a function of the time in the new academic year … beginnings and the raising of issues that are challenging us all. I was at another faculty meeting last week where e-learning was discussed. You could feel spines stiffen a bit as the topic went round the table. The conversation went something like this: ‘People won’t (make an effort/change their way of doing things/appear to be even slightly interested in innovation or … add your own phrase here) unless they are made to.’ Now the ‘people’ being referred to are academics. I’m moved to ask what happened to the spirit of intellectual inquiry and the desire to develop one’s scholarly practice? Well that’s another matter, but for now there’s a management imperative that has to be addressed by individuals in the faculty collective, and fast.
The particular effort being referred to at this meeting centered around developing course materials for offering as online packages. This is hardly difficult stuff, but it does require a particular skills base, and perhaps more importantly the galvanising of the individual to step out of resistance to e-learning and into acceptance. However, I’m getting the distinct impression that many of my colleagues prefer to adopt the good old head in the sand position, hoping the whole thing will just go away. It isn’t going to, and whilst sticks and carrots form part of the whole incentive package being promoted by management, and given the stick of organisational change is whacking away, it’s useful maybe to ask how can the incentive carrot can be dished up in a more palatable form.
A better way to train?
The usual methods of organisational training such as online courses and group instruction are probably not the best way to ensure everyone gets what they need when they need it. Forget online training; you’ll never get to first base. For wary newcomers, that’s like asking them to risk drowning whilst learning to swim. Group training sessions are useful, but still time and location limited, time consuming, and often generic in content as well as formal in delivery. Content is inevitably premised on some kind of accepted notion of a collective skills base: introductory and advanced sessions are common. Introductory and advanced to whom? Well-intentioned, sessions of this kind are by their very nature incapable of addressing specifics e.g., the experience and skills base of an individual lecturer, as well as noting these within the context of a particular discipline field. We’ve all been to group training sessions where a needy individual has hijacked the time and attention of the instructor. And about group instructors, they are usually well prepared and knowledgeable about the course content … but are often unknown to the group’s members, and are similarly often never seen again after the course is over. And then there’s instruction overload from these sessions … a feeling of being given a drink with a fire-hose, and the fear that all that crammed information is going to dissipate very quickly.
What I’m suggesting as an alternative is hardly new but perhaps it’s time to get back to instructional basics and to remind ourselves how we best learn. I believe that we should diversify training by adding another layer to the instructional cake. Let’s try focussing on small interpersonal cluster groups of colleagues within and across related discipline fields. We’ll surely provide sounder learning opportunities. As teachers we know that an individual’s particular skill set baseline and training needs are often only identified and then best dealt with in a one on one situation. I’d also suggest that the organisation use colleagues as mentors or cluster leaders … these are faculty members who have some experience with e-learning. Problems are better suited if you know you can get help from someone you know, who works a couple of doors up, and who is someone who understands your needs, has a passing familiarity with your work, and who knows the right button to press literally and metaphorically to make your job easier.
These cluster leaders need to be identified, supported, and released from some of their other work tasks. Personal development through skills acquisition is then facilitated by real, live assistance. You know the kind … sit beside me and talk me through. Show me, model your own approach, reflect and hopefully enthuse perhaps over a drink. It’s a sociable approach, not a bad thing in a community of academic practice.
Coincidentally, Michelle Martin on the excellent Bamboo Project blog talks about developing an organisational culture of reflective practice. Take time also to read the brief but excellent introduction What is Reflective Practice? by Joy Amulya which is also hotlinked from Michelle’s post.