Reflections on a month …

William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson).

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Nearly at the end now, and days 29-31 have been about wrapping up the 31 Day Comment Challenge. The final 3 days focus on the learnings: to prepare a commenting guide for students, to consider how learnings from this commenting project could change one’s teaching practices, and finally … to reflect on what we’ve learned from the challenge.

I have to say that the task of preparing a commenting guide for students is more difficult than I’d imagined. I know that students do know how to comment, can comment if they want to, or if the encouragement to do so … the incentive is sufficiently meaningful, and if the atmosphere is conducive to discussion. The challenge is to make the horses drink once you’ve brought them to the water.

Now I teach in the world of the performing arts where expressive, imaginative commenting out loud is almost a given; most of these students have the confidence to contribute their opinions in a lively and engaging way. I also teach non-performance majors in arts history courses. Encouraging these students to contribute in live tutorial sessions often proves difficult … especially if the class is shared with a group of voluble actors or musicians. The challenge with a live class is to generate a good discussion, to enable commenting from everyone who wishes to contribute … not all do of course … and not let one or two dominate the session. Useful to remember though that it’s OK to lurk … you can learn this way too.

Now when it comes to interacting online, I remain convinced that for most students, their insecurity about technology, lack of access or poor net connection, along with anxiety about the concreteness of words really do prevent the kind of free-flowing discussion that we like to encourage. Further inhibitions could come from the fact that you can’t read body-language in words on a screen, and can’t see a face or hear vocal tone … think how the simple upward inflection at the end of a statement actually encourages further comment. And that’s not the same as a question mark on the screen.

Yesterday I had a scheduled tutorial session which followed on the previous day’s lecture. It was a cold day and the class was sluggish as they entered the room. I wondered whether creating a playful but purposeful environment mightn’t warm them up. So I applied the kind of approach more often found in a rehearsal room. I asked a student (an acting major) whether she could run the discussion as tutor for the day … to be provocative, outspoken if necessary, and to encourage comment. She went immediately into role as ‘lecturer’ and it worked far better than I’d hoped. Students relaxed … I felt the fear factor diminished … I wasn’t out front for a start … and the discussion rolled along even amongst the quieter contributors. This strategy worked ‘live’ but I wondered whether throwing responsibility to one of the group mightn’t work in the same way in stimulating online discussion. Variety as the spice and all.

What else have I learned from the challenge to change or value-add to my teaching practices? The tension between the ideal and reality in the use of online digital media has surfaced on an almost-daily basis in comments. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise the potential of e-learning, but like many I am frustrated by the slow uptake and even resistance to it … from colleagues as well as students. I realise the necessity to tread softly but persistently and judiciously as I model and mentor learning in this 21st century medium. And to be patient.

5 Learnings

  1. I’ve learned more about what I’ve been calling the commenting fear factor. It appears that we are still sufficiently anxious to be wary of putting our opinions out there. As a result, we’re perhaps less likely to comment than we should; a bad experience via a comment has the potential to do a lot of damage. And … people are less secure about commenting via video (technology, personal vulnerability) than they are about commenting per se. Will video and audio commenting develop? Yes.
  2. I’ve been reminded of the power of one comment to revive a flagging spirit. Someone out there is reading or watching, or listening, and thought enough of what was said to take the time to engage.
  3. What I’ve experienced has been the reinforcement of one of the greatest strengths we have as teacher-learners, and that is our capacity to generate and nurture a community of practice … whether online as in this project, or live and face to face. This lessons of this challenge have reinforced for me the necessity of collegial support amongst educators … by encouraging and supporting a colleague next door or down the hall; by engaging in a discussion in the lunch room, or by posting a video or written comment in a blog from a colleague half a world away. What matters is that we keep talking, sharing, and valuing contributions.
  4. I’ve been reminded of the power a well-designed tool has to encourage or turn off a learner. I don’t like design that’s flaky or loud with ads … sorry CoComment, it just didn’t do it for me! And I’m not convinced yet by Snapvine (audio). Seesmic is here to stay.
  5. I work better in my busy life in short, focussed or intensive bursts of work. For this reason, I would like shorter challenges … say a 5 or 10 day rather than a whole 31 days of tasks.

What will stay with me from this experience? Posts from a few new blog discoveries will continue to arrive in my feed reader. I’ve met up with and traded ideas with some wonderful thinkers, writers, and creative souls during the past month, and I’d like to continue this engagement.  I’ve received so much valuable, direct and indirect feedback, support and advice on my writing and on the tone and substance of my comments. My thanks to all of you. I look forward to continuing the discussion.

Hello June … and welcome winter to the southern hemisphere.


7 responses to “Reflections on a month …”

  1. Ken Allan Avatar

    Kia Ora Kate

    There is so much in this post that speaks of loneliness in elearning in the presence of colleagues. You speak of a ‘community of practice’ but of being ‘ frustrated by the slow uptake and even resistance to it … from colleagues as well as students’.

    I feel you are right to doubt that familiar ways in the physical, tangible world may not translate metaphorically to the ethereal, intangible world of cyberspace.

    I too experience the irritating inertia to adopting new technology and associated techniques among colleagues. But I’m also exasperated at the almost ignorant but authoritative few who make sweeping inferences from bygone studies like those of Lev Vygotsky (whose work and research I respect and admire). But the translating out of one context to another twice or three times removed from that is simply beyond my comprehension.

    Time will sort it. When Alexander Graham Bell invented his version of the telephone its adoption by society wasn’t exactly a bonanza, and that reluctance to adopt remained for decades. Perhaps elearning techniques, that we may recognise as being powerful and far-reaching, may take a similar path in time before awareness of its usefulness is common.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  2. Colin Warren Avatar

    thanks for sharing this Kate, another thoughtful post that reminded me why we’re in the game – to learn with/from each other. I appreciate the summary of your learnings through the challenge and they have challenged me to have a go at trying something new & fearful – the video post. So, coming to a screen near you…

    I wonder too about the uptake of digital online media by the mainstream. It’s hard at times (to walk in their shoes) because using this stuff seems normal to us and we are surrounded by so many boundary pushers encouraging us along . I’ve started thinking about the ‘discourse’ (James Gee, 1999) of digital/online media and how we need to have a think carefully about how we try and engage those who may be afraid, unfamiliar, can’t see the value, etc. Anyway, at least it’s got me thinking and I’ll definitely be sharing whatever ideas/answers I come up with.

  3. Kate Foy Avatar

    Ken Allan Thanks Ken. Yes, as I noted it’s patience which needs to keep step with persistence as we blaze trails … as we are. The cyber community of practice actually does keep me going I have to say.

    Colin Warren I’m looking forward to that video post and to continuing sharing with colleagues in online forums. Thanks for the reference to Gee. I’ll check it out.

  4. Britt Watwood Avatar

    Great summary. Your five lessons are very insightful and I found myself nodding to each – particularly number 2. And Ken added a great comment!

  5. Kate Foy Avatar

    Britt Watwood Thanks. Great minds think alike, eh? 🙂
    Glad you related to number 2; I’ve never forgotten my first comment … gave me a thrill and still does when a new person drops by. Regards.

  6. Kevin Avatar

    Once again, you provide us with great insights. The fear factor is interesting and right on, I think. Too many people may feel intimidated or feel as if their voice is not going to be listened to. The promise of the technological age is that it can give voice to anyone with access (and access is entirely other topic of importance).
    Take care

  7. Kate Foy Avatar

    Kevin thanks for your kind words. The ‘fear factor’ is something I address just about daily with students and clients. Being yourself in front of other people … commenting in person via video … is offputting for many. Yes, technology is doing its best to give voice, but many are not ready yet to do so.

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