I want to Remember this Moment

CDLI‘s eLearning team is spread out over 15 locations within the province. We mostly communicate and collaborate online using both synchronous and asynchronous tools–after all eLearning is what we’re about and if we can’t walk the walk well…who can?  Twice a year we get together for meetings. On June 17-19 we gathered at Gander, NL and I had the opportunity to address the team for the last time before I retire in August. It went like this…

What to say when your message took decades to build but you only have time for a few words? Sure, you could break the rules and say them all anyway but the message needs to fit the listeners’ needs too. The few minutes you get have to count.

Thirty years—you could summarize. These phrases fit:

  • I’m grateful and to have been a part of this team.
  • I, too, learned a lot along the way.
  • It was hard work.
  • It was worth it.
  • It’s been fun.

That can’t be it, though. Thirty years of kneading a bit of clay leads to a transformed piece of muck. The stress, the deadlines, the learning, the…work. It has to result in something better than grey hair, a belt that seems tighter than it used to be and, maybe, an overwhelming sense of weariness…

…else there would be no real reason to celebrate.

But that’s how it’s supposed to be. Fortunately, those aren’t the only changes. With experience comes patience, a willingness to listen rather than talk (but I can do that too) and, best of all, a few lessons.

The best things have been team efforts. Sure, individual efforts count, but if you look at the bigger things we’ve accomplished you’ll see that none of them were the work of just one person.

It’s important to be confident. The tentative, shy voice is generally ignored. There are times, when we have to just speak up, move to the front and do what has to be done. There’s no time to second-guess, just time to act and at those times you must seem to be sure of what you do. And, yes, sometimes it’s okay to just fake it if you are not too sure.

That said…

It’s even more important to be humble. We have lots of good ideas. Coming up with new ways of doing things and, even new things to do is exciting. It’s been my happy discovery, though, that, without fail, every time I’ve shared one of those good ideas with my colleagues, and listened for feedback the result has been an even better one. Perhaps the idea thrown out was met with one that was better but, more often, bits from the one offered were joined with pieces from the ideas of others and the result was far better than what any one of us could have come up with alone.

So, then, that begs an important question. If it’s important to be both humble and confident then which one should lead? It’s hard to be both…at the same time. Fortunately we don’t have to choose. It’s possible. You know how it is. We can be the people we need to be, as the situation requires. Sometimes it requires confidence and sometimes it requires humility. Perhaps it’s best to see the whole thing as one long protracted dance between the two. And who calls the tune? Hopefully, your better judgment.

This year marks twenty-five years of DOE supported distance education in our province. I sort of came on board twenty-four years ago when my school became a part of the new system but formally joined twenty-one years ago when we started teaching physics through the system. There’s never been one moment in that time when I thought we were on the wrong track. For sure there have been doubts about pieces of what we’ve done, been many times when it became necessary to simply sweat it out and push through hard times. But the goal has always been the right one.

Together we’ve been able to change along the way. We:

  • Tightened up the legacy system; made it more reliable.
  • Shifted our legacy instructional model to bring it into alignment with school schedules and needs.
  • Added courses, as needed.
  • Built one digital provincial network, based mostly on dialup.
  • Then another, an urban part and a rural part that relied on the hybrid satellites.
  • Then, another—the frame relay one.
  • Then finally another—the one based on fibre. It’s incomplete, of course.
  • Experimented to learn how to do synchronous and asynchronous on digital networks.
  • Made the shift over to digital.
  • Added an LMS, then another.
  • Added new synchronous tools.
  • Made forays into content creation.

Most importantly, the work continues.

Now, here we are, different, in so many ways, from the entity that was originally created twenty-five years ago. The org chart is different, as are the technologies and, of course, there are completely different personnel. Through it all, we are still fundamentally the same. In the end we’re here because of our students and their success is what matters most. Everything else, as vital as it is, is subservient.

And we are resilient.

Through all of the changes our core objective has persevered and we have gotten better and better at it. But, like a tsunami the recent budget and school district restructuring is rolling right through our system. Almost nothing is being left untouched. The districts are rolled together—different in ways we do not even know at this point. We, ourselves, were not immune to the cuts that happened. We are wounded; diminished.

But the wave can wash clean too and we are resilient.

We will continue to do our part. This fall will be difficult; only a fool or a liar would believe otherwise. But we are not alone—our team is part of a larger one and, bit by bit, it will all come back together, hopefully, stronger than ever; maybe different, yes, but better.

These past few years we have been mainly focused on making the small improvements that could be made. Now, though, in the midst of profound change perhaps this is a time for us all to, once again, set sights on the bigger picture.

Our world today is not the one it was when I started out in ’83. Boundaries that define countries have changed, wars have been fought, ideologies have changed and yes, electronic devices have become parts of everyday lives. While they offer the opportunity for us to reach out to others they bring dangers too. They are addictive and, what’s more, they encourage a type of thought that is, at best, shallow and, at worst, in-keeping with an ever growing global consensus driven primarily by big corporations intent on nothing but their own profit and power. A consensus that tries to say among other things that your needs are more important than those of the environment and of society at large and, oh, by the way, here are your needs. Trust us; we know what’s best for you.

Now, more than ever, we need so much more than just naïve but highly skilled workers. Sure it’s in the interests of big business to have eager, trained workers all ready to dig up or refine another blob of Athabascan tar or bucket of Grand Banks crude. But is it really good for the economy to build a single-commodity petro-state while doing so? Of course not, in the end that leaves us completely at the mercy of the energy market.

Does it serve society to force-feed information sugar-coated and conducted through slick, new iPads (this is not to dismiss tablets and such; they’re amazingly useful and it’s only a problem when they, and not the students’ learning, become the focus) and such or delivered through the gun barrel of large-scale, high-stakes international testing to the extent that our students lose track of how to really think. Of course not. The hard-fought social and environmental reforms that our parents and grandparents attained are really what are under siege and our young people will need to be vigilant, critical and well-spoken if they are to continue to work toward an evolving society that is both just and sustainable.

And finally, if nailing good jobs is the only goal that education seeks then what sort of lives will our students really lead? Without having spent the carefully-guided, thoughtful time developing their future lives then what can our young people look forward to? Long hours slaving away in work camps far from home and family with just occasional visits punctuated by the purchase of flashy, expensive toys. Things that will give, at best, 48 hours of pride leaving only bills requiring even more work. Lives punctuated by plaintive shouts through the megaphones that are Facebook, twitter and the like. “Look at my new quad/truck/apartment, whatever.” Too bad no-one’s listening anyway. They’re too busy doing the same. Nothing left but to anaesthetize through alcohol or worse.

We know it does not have to be that way. A nurtured, educated soul is much more likely to live a life that is prosperous, productive and, most of all, worthwhile. That’s why we are here. It’s not just about the individual subjects, yes, each one matters, but it’s the totality that really counts.

That’s never been easy: insufficient resources, budget cuts, conflicting views on what we should be doing and how, and, of course, the unwanted baggage that so many of our young people have to bring: ill health, bad situations at home, the list goes on.

But that’s why we are here.

And we are resilient.

And so, here we are. The path ahead is uncharted and littered with obstacles. But you know why you are here; you know the goals you seek and, most importantly, you are not alone.

In this time of uncertainty and change, now is not the time for divisiveness. Now is the time for us—all of us; those who are staying and those who will be moving on, whether it be by choice or otherwise—to continue to work together, to challenge ourselves to find renewed courage and skills to face that uncertain future with the combination of confidence and humility that is so needed at this time.

As you move forward I may be watching from the sidelines now but rest assured I will be watching, with hope. I look forward to seeing this thing advancing; thriving. And I will expect that wisdom, through the spirit of cooperation and respect will always be your guide.

The team. Too bad they thought I was taking a video and started waving...blurred up the panorama.
The team. Too bad they thought I was taking a video and started waving…blurred up the panorama.

ELTM4: Curriculum and Instruction—Rub Your head, Pat Your Tummy

Years ago I overheard an exchange between two young professors. Both were about to teach new courses on-line the following semester and they were talking about how they were going to prepare for it. They were clearly new to this whole teaching thing—you could tell by their “we’re going to change the world of teaching because we’re new, bright and clearly in-touch with what the students need” attitude. Within groups, talking is often (but not always) a process of consensus building. The participants feel one another out until they establish the boundaries of common ground. From there, they to flesh out the details and, in the process, often become even more firmly convinced in the positions they establish. In short, these like-minded types of groups tend to become polarized, often to the extreme. Some of this was clearly happening in the conversation.

The two decided that they’d had enough experience with the subject area—after all they did have Ph.D’s—that they could just go ahead and get started with the process of writing content. They knew what had to be taught and liked the idea of writing it down since a logical, ordered representation of the content was by far the best was of getting the students to learn it. Besides, as they noted, we can all read much faster than we can listen so it would definitely be the most efficient way of transmitting the knowledge across to the students. They discussed some of the previous experience they’d had as instructors and realized they had excellent teaching skills, the evidence being the overwhelmingly positive feedback they’d gotten from many former students. They figured that if they put down their heads and just went at it they could likely have most of the content written for their courses in time for the next faculty meeting. By then it would be developed clearly enough that it would discourage the somewhat annoying and un-asked-for comments they both were used to getting from their colleagues. They parted, shaking hands, wishing one another well on a venture sure to have a profoundly positive effect on shaping their future lives. Exciting times!

Even now, over a decade later, it’s easy to remember staying at my nearby table long after they’d left and thinking about what had happened. It turns out that I was involved in several similar projects at the time so many of the items they’d been discussing were pertinent to those projects too.

Mostly, though, I was left thinking that the two were setting out on ventures that would be doomed to failure.

“Well-started is half-finished.” That’s something a lot of the old-timers from my hometown used to say. As true as it was for one of their ventures, whether it was building a boat, a wharf or a fishing stage, it is even more so today with constructing an on-line course. Straightforward edits are easy but making the fundamental changes that are necessitated by not taking everything into account generally require rebuilding an entire structure. Things are inter-connected and it’s best to think it through before you start. Too many course developers jump right in, confident that they know what has to be done, Sadly, especially for the students, they are generally unaware of many things that could be pointed out if only they’d asked. As a result, the finished product is usually one-sided, incomplete, inconsistent and nowhere near as good as it could have been.

Start with the “jumping right in” idea. This assumes that the instructors were perfectly clear on the curriculum right from the start. But how could they be? Even in straightforward courses such as “methods for solving ordinary differential equations” there’s great latitude. Which “solution methods,” exactly? How complex will the examples be; that is, how difficult should be the ones that the students are expected to solve? What prior knowledge of mathematics will be assumed? How will you evaluate the students? All of these questions need to be clearly answered.

Then there’s the separate but related area of instruction. The two professors did not talk about that at all, thus leaving this nosy listener to deduce that they thought the methods they’d experienced themselves would be just fine. They probably were very wrong! Let’s play a little game. Think for a half-minute about the most recent concert you attended. In that same half-minute, prepare a ten-second ‘talk’ on the concert that you might say to a friend who asked about it.

Go on, do it—the next paragraph will be more meaningful if you do.

So, thinking back on your ten-second “talk,” was it about:

  • What you saw there? In which case you might be primarily a visual learner. You like to have things shown to you. The written word, videos, pictures and diagrams are very useful to you—probably the tools by which you best learn. In particular, you find yourself somewhat out-of-sorts if what you see does not match with what you imagine. Based on what I heard the two profs were primarily visual learners, by the way.
  • What you heard (it was a concert after all)? In which case you might be an auditory learner. You likely have strong speaking and listening skills and learn well through discussion and through such things as radio shows and podcasts. Learning languages probably comes fairly easily to you and you might also have a good ear for music.
  • How it made you feel? In which case you may be (warning—I’m stretching it here) a kinesthetic learner. You are constantly in motion—some may think of you as hyperactive. You are at your best when you get to manipulate things. You learn mostly by doing.

In truth, no one word completely describes a learner. We are far too complex to be described simply. The above is a superficial and incomplete touching on the idea of learning styles. You can easily find better and more if you just search based on the term but the above is sufficient to make an important point: learners are not uniform. People learn differently. Add that to this fact: un-seasoned teachers tend to use a combination of the methods they have experienced and with a distinct emphasis on the ones that have worked well for THEM. That’s dangerous, especially as applied to the case I described. The two professors were intelligent and well educated but, unfortunately, also cocky and blind to the likelihood that they did not know much about how people learn. They certainly did not seem it was all that important to find out what worked best for their students. They just believed they knew it anyway.

Notice also how they, in fact, dismissed the students’ feedback entirely? They just said they many students had given them positive feedback. Did they expect students to tell them that they suck? Did they count the number of students who gave positive feedback and compare this to the total? While the words from a few students are always powerful this would have to be put against the total number of students in the course. If, for example, you taught 300 students and 20 of them came to you to tell you the course was great, the fact is that as many as 280 of the students may have found it was not. Overall, the consensus about the good feedback was simply an exercise in confirmation bias. The two profs had an expectation of the result and just looked at only the results that supported that view. In all seriousness, people with Ph.D.’s SHOULD know better! Nothing replaces honestly and validly connecting input from students.

Then there was the matter of getting as much of the work done as was possible in a short period of time so as to ensure that peers would not be able to provide meaningful feedback. Clearly the two agreed that this was unwanted but you’re left wondering why. Perhaps the faculties to which they belonged were so dysfunctional that no good would have come from it—but I doubt it. While there exist some “bad” faculty members out there, throughout my fairly lengthy career it’s been my experience that the overwhelming majority of tenure-track faculty are erudite, highly skilled and willing to work. Some may be a bit jaded and some may have an unrealistic sense of entitlement but just about all are very good at what they do. Nope—I seriously doubt the faculties were the problem at all. It was rather much more likely that the two in question were over-confident in their abilities, over-eager to finish the product, and overall not patient enough to let their ideas be subject to the in-depth scrutiny that academic institutions have been created for. A slower, more reflective start would likely have been a much better idea.

Out of all of it, what was most bothersome, at the rational level, was the obvious conflating of two related but still distinct concepts: curriculum (the ‘what’ of teaching) and instruction (the ‘how’ of teaching). You’re thinking, “Why on earth would you want to separate the two? After all, why design a course, curriculum first, without thinking of how you would deliver it? That’s just plain stupid!”

Agreed—it would be foolish to construct a set of outcomes statements, stating what students will be able to do, upon successful completion, without giving due consideration to how you might achieve those outcomes. Doing so would likely result in an unrealistic course, much of which would be impossible to teach! But that’s not what’s being said here. This is not to say, “First develop a complete list of curriculum outcomes. Then, and only then, can you develop your instructional strategies.” NO.

So what IS being said here? This: when developing a course constantly remind yourself that curriculum (the what) and instruction (the how) are two distinct but inter-related things. Developing curriculum requires one mindset and developing instruction, another. Yes both can be done by the same people, but not necessarily at the same time and not necessarily to the same degree.

Think about rubbing your head while patting your tummy. Sure you can do it but it’s much better when you decide to do the two separately! Think also about playing a sports position you’re not totally used. Yes, a forward can play guard well enough but not to the same degree of excellence. Same thing here! So what should you do? There are lots of answers. If it has to be a solitary effort you could do both, It is quite doable as long as you try not to do the two at the same time. Do what’s necessary to write a decent curriculum outcome. Now, read the outcome and think of what it takes to achieve it. Now go back and revise the outcome if you need to. Take one more look through your instructional lens. If all’s well, move on. See—it’s possible. If it does not have to be a solitary effort then think of putting together a small team. Assemble these strengths: familiarity with the content, skill with teaching in general, technical skill both in assembling course content and with using various technologies related to the subject matter. No one member need have all of the skills but ensure that it is there in the aggregate. Most of all, if you are the team leader, be respectful of your committee; they have been assembled because you do not know it all!

There are two kinds of bother. One type—the type addressed above—is the type that you arrive at logically. This is what happens when you examine a systemic process and realize that there are things about it that are out of whack; things that can be addressed through channels that everyone can work with. You deal with them by doing what a professional would be expected to do. Things like conferring with members of the team, drafting a logical report explaining the issue and suggesting alternatives, and so on.

Then there’s the kind of bother that primarily involves feelings. Face it: some things just plain piss you off, leaving it difficult for you to respond without at least some attitude. For me, unwillingness to accept that one can be anything less that 100% right happens to be one of those things. Come on! Good as we may be we’re all rather flawed in many respects and it’s best when we acknowledge that and work within our limits. Unfortunately, that over-confidence and/or polarity in point of view is just what tends to happen when committees complete tasks. Yes, some committees are rancourous; divisive; dysfunctional. They are the minority. It’s much more common that the committees (democracy—houses of representatives and senates, for example, being a major exception to this) have been engineered to work together. The members know this and, so, seek out the commonalities and work within those boundaries. Once established, the work generally reverts to fleshing out what’s inside; establishing the Canon. When that’s done, heaven help those who disagree, as they’re considered to be wrong, stupid and, more likely less skilled, people to be ”handled.”

That’s exactly what happened when the two profs got together. Whatever frame of mind they had before that grand conversation, in the end they were a tight team, completely convinced that they, alone, had the answers. They know how to put the course together and were not about to let the uninformed outsiders deter them from the path, so they engineered in steps to ensure that the vision and execution would be theirs and theirs alone. They figured it would be best that way.

And in all likelihood they would be quite wrong. That’s what brings up the anger!

Taking a step back and looking in, which is just what I was able to do, it was so easy to see how this small, closed, highly skilled and competent group had so expertly set itself up to fail. Had they decided to spend about one-third of their time getting advice from fellow faculty and students, scoping the course out before constructing anything (it’s easy to make fundamental edits to a written document, but virtually impossible to do the same to a web; it’s often easier to start over), thinking about diversifying the instructional approach to meet the needs of many learners and just plain thinking it through with good advice, they would have been so much better off, and with no extra outlay of time.

I don’t know how their story ended but in the dozen years in between I have not heard anything of how their two courses revolutionized teaching and learning in their two fields. Who knows?

Those of you who follow my blog may have noticed that it’s been a long spell—three weeks—between posts. An impending, completely overhauled school district structure in my province, coupled with imminent departure from my current position (retirement) has resulted in a brutal June. There’s not been much time for personal pursuits like blogging but, I’m happy to note, a fair bit of work getting is done. Today’s Father’s day and the crowd had decided to let me off the hook for my normal domestic duties…for now. Hence this post.