The Hole in the Wall

March 30, 2010

An A-ha! moment in 2 parts:

Yesterday I attended a series of professional development workshops looking at the experience of international and CALD students in university  group work and assessment. My interest in attending was driven by my experiences in my SWSP7123 class and what I perceived as the struggles of a number of international students (in particular) with the digital requirements of the course. My analysis has been that there are two potentially opposing policy agendas within the university at present. On one hand there is a drive towards internationalisation, and with this, the importance of attracting international students to our courses. On the other there is a massive push to embrace new media and online learning, blended learning and flexible delivery of content.  In watching students come to terms with this I have been worried by what I perceive as extremely high stress levels. I worry that I am creating an unfair playing field, with those new to IT having to do a great deal more work and learning. The workshops didn’t answer my concerns.

However afterwards I went for coffee with my IT guru and he told me all about a fabulous project called ‘The Hole in the Wall’ in India. The aim of the project is to build digital literacy through enquiry based learning. In a nutshell, a computer scientist, Dr Sugata Mitra, explored what would occur if poor children had unlimited access to computers and the internet. He made a computer available through a hole in the wall. He provided no training or support – just letting the children play and discover. As the attached story says, “Within minutes, children figured out how to point and click. By the end of the day they were browsing. “Given access and opportunity,” observes O’Connor, “the children quickly taught themselves the rudiments of computer literacy.” “

This was such an important reminder to me and was very humbling. I’ve been so concerned about my duty of care to people I’ve forgotten to respect their ability to learn for themselves and to ensure I don’t take responsibility for people’s emotional state. 

The one piece of information from the afternoon’s workshop that was incredibly useful to me,  was a throw-away line, where one presenter reminded us of the “Big 5” personality traits – those few personality traits believed to be enduring over time.  (For those of us not undertaking Psych 101, the  Big-5 factors are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neoroticism – see Costa, P.T.,Jr. & McCrae, R.R. (1992). Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R) and NEO Five-Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI) manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources. And  yes I did have to go back to my undergrad psych books for that one!) The presenter reminded us that part of what guides the learning process is the openness trait, and our individual responses to change and to new situations. What I understand this to mean is that the anxiety about IT I have been witnessing may be a personality variable rather than a cultural factor. Some students will struggle more with the anxiety a new situation produces. It therefore wouldn’t matter what new situation I was introducing, some students would automatically have higher levels of anxiety simply because it is new. In this case it just happens to be IT. So what this tells me as a teacher is that I need to be cautious about my interpretations.

This is not to deny the place of cultural sensitivity and an awareness that members of some cultures may – as some of my students have suggested – be less inclined to expose feelings or reveal private thoughts. I also need to hear the way in which some students negate their own agency within the process, an abandonment of self to cultural identity.

The fact that international students are here in Australia, learning in a new system, away from home and supports and learning in their 2nd, 3rd or 4th language, tells me that these are already a group of people who have a higher level of openness. They ARE at the more open end of the spectrum.

 I therefore need to be conscious of the resilience and complexity of human beings, and acknowledge our ability to stand in multiple sites at once.



Embracing My Fears

March 12, 2010

Ok so I’m in this strange space of course innovation. I’m trying to be innovative at four levels: firstly I’ve put together a totally new content for the course, moving it from the old planning orientation to a greater systems perspective. I’m trying to teach in ways that are highly participatory (not easy when teaching systems theory to 60 students in a traditional classroom). I’m trying to be innovative around assessment, basing it in real life experience (which thankfully students seem excited about). Finally I’m trying to be innovative in the trial of various IT processes. I’m trying to capture all of this as I go in this blog.

 What I’m finding of course is that it’s not all working. Bits are spectacular (you should see the discussion board – I can’t keep up – hundreds of posts). Bits are falling over (my assessment item based on the discussion board is pretty much useless!). I’m having to change things as I go, which for at least half of my students is an enormous stress in itself (“What do you mean you don’t know what the final presentation will look like yet?”)

 So, what is keeping me in a place of fear is that I’m aware this may really come back and hit me in the face – with 60 students slamming me at the end of semester seeing my co-creative processes as a cover-up for disorganization and chaos. Sure they’re saying lovely things now – but I know things will get much tougher as assessment looms.

 I’m wondering if there is any mechanism within the uni to have courses quarantined, so that student assessments might be treated differently? And if so, what one might need to do to qualify? I really love all of this – but it’s not just the students who are being assessed and taking some pretty massive risks.

And more importantly will all the cool kids still talk to me when my teaching rating plummets?  

Image reproduced with kind permission of Eugenio Recuenco (I am in love with this man’s work!)

A Leap of Insight!

March 11, 2010

I had an A-Ha! moment today. I was sitting in a meeting listening to a discussion about assisting students to understand CD frameworks. The conversation centred on “DISCOVERY LEARNING”. Talk about lightbulbs everywhere: I can’t believe I spent all yesterday talking about paradigm shifts and forgot to observe the one straight under my nose!

Of course students are frightened. I’m asking them to make a paradigm shift through this class. I forget that for some students, this way of learning is quite new. They are used to having things broken down and presented piece by piece. Whereas this is a much more intuitive kind of learning style. I’m asking them to grasp the whole – not the parts. As we discussed yesterday it’s also a step into uncertainty. How sad it is that we’ve lost the idea of discovery learning. We expect knowledge to be given to us, instantly. I suspect our instant IT world supports this notion. Have a problem? Just google it and the answer will appear. Have a concern? Just email someone and they will respond straight away. But developmental work is not instantaneous. It evolves. It is reflexive.

And of course all of our systems support the idea of lecturer as expert and reinforce the idea of knowledge to be handed down, rather than co-created. I’ve been so busy concentrating on the projects and the technology that I forget that the classroom itself is part of the stress for some students. I’ve done this so many time I easily dismiss it. I’m asking them to trust me – even though I may not have the complete map of where we are going.   I imagine if you’ve come out of a more conventional education system, the idea of aspects of the course evolving over time might seem incredibly disorganised and chaotic.  And the part of me that is a less than subtle control freak feels that stress too. I want to help students and resolve issues on the spot. But some things need time to incubate.

All I can do is trust the process.

And of course, include more  Leunig.

Image used with the kind permission of Eugenio Recuenco

A Leap of Faith

March 11, 2010

I was heading home yesterday afternoon after my second workshop, feeling absolutely shattered. A student helped me understand it this way: she said, the room is full of energy – half of it is excitement and enthusiasm and the other half is anxiety and fear – and it’s like a giant wall coming right at you! It was a fascinating insight and helps explain why my head is mush by the end of the day. So my questions this week are firstly about the levels of enthusiasm and fear I’m witnessing.

I don’t want to lose all that lovely excitement and goodwill, but I do wonder how sustainable it is. Hopefully it will simply settle and not come back in my face. I appreciate enormously all the lovely feedback so far – it reminds me of the many students who understand what learning is about and of the many people who aren’t just here for a piece of paper! What I’ll be intrigued to see is if that same goodwill is present after I’ve gone from being the smiling face of week 1 – to “the evil witch who marked my paper” in week 7! It’s the horrible reality of teaching in university – at some point I have to don the assessor hat. I’m trying to work as participatively as I can – but I am ultimately compromised by the structure I am in.

It’s interesting to watch students grapple with their own compromised situation. It’s a great example of the Foucauldian notion of power both liberating and oppressing. Being a student enables a great many things to happen. In our context it may open doors and provide entry to groups. However as one student observed in class, it also means that one’s ability to fully walk alongside a group is compromised. At some point the student has to draw a line between the personal and the collective, in order to meet academic requirements. I liken this to most workers, who, in working alongside community, are also employees of an organisation, whether it be an NGO or church or government department or private enterprise.  They too have more than one master. The situation is not so different. I recall my role when I was working for government. I remember trying to work alongside community groups, but then having to report back on their activities to legitimise my time. The only way to guarantee the resourcing was to make clear the vital role I had played, which of course sat in contradiction to my desire for the group to avoid dependency upon me. Every time I wrote a report I would silently beg forgiveness of the group. Even when one is working independently – say, for example, simply as a community member alongside other community members – one still constantly has to mediate between one’s own agenda and the agenda of others. Sooner or later a group asks someone to be a spokesperson, or to represent them at a conference or in politics or in the media and there are personal ego gains to be made. It’s all part of this lovely messiness of CD. It’s not easy to resolve and I feel for students as they grapple with these issues. But I take enormous comfort in the fact that they ARE grappling.

Another issue that emerged was the issue of intellectual property. I’m asking student to develop a project plan and place it in a public space. For some students working in highly competitive environments and wanting to do a project that is located within their work context, they feel that there are enormous risks in their ideas being stolen and used by competitors. In class, when faced with the question of how to handle it, I said I would help student negotiate it. But now I think maybe it’s an example of a risk that is too great. Maybe the students need to choose another project where they won’t feel compromised. Afterall, my agenda has to be about their learning – the organisational agenda is not mine and I’m not willing to compromise the learning agenda so that an organisation can meet its needs.

Thinking further about energy I am struck by the enormous levels of anxiety and fear. The fact that people are anxious about the developmental work I am inviting them to do, and the assessment that sits alongside this is entirely predictable. What’s more worrying is the extreme level of fear around technology. I wonder if I’ve set the bar too high? My thinking has been that if I can do it then anyone can. Afterall, I’ve also had to make the time to understand it alongside my family demands, all my community and volunteer work and my three jobs. But yesterday the level of anxiety was almost a presence in the room and that worried me. There is a point where technology interferes with learning and I wonder if that’s where we’re at. I don’t want students to spend entire weeks on technology. The project needs to be their focus. The technology should be the enabler. In my head it’s very simple. I’ve based it all on an action learning cycle: they plan, they do, they reflect. However the use of technology seems to have made this overwhelmingly more complex: blackboard and discussion boards, blogs and wikis. Maybe it’s just all too much. These aren’t IT students and it’s a lot to demand. On the other hand these are adult learners and part of being a student is learning to manage the anxiety and learn new skills. I’m just not sure.

Part of the reason it’s tricky comes back to the freedom observation earlier and the idea of power and both enabling and restricting. I’m inviting students to work in public space so they have the freedom to share and build on their work outside of the classroom context and hence enrich the experience. BUT that then gives me no vehicle for assessing their work (unless I’m willing to go and check out 70 individual blogs every week). So I’ve had to ask them to also contribute to the discussion board: which splits their energy. The number of posts on the discussion board has been amazing: more posts than there are students. I”m doing cartwheels of excitement. However the pattern so far is very much of the question and answer style post. It’ s only week 1 so I’ll reserve judgement and cross my fingers that this will deepen over time. If not, I’ll need to change my tack.

The number of international students presents some other interesting dilemmas that I hadn’t thought through adequately beforehand. As one student explained yesterday, I’m asking them to set up a blog and using that as a vehicle to access the first two pieces of assessment. However some students are working with their own cultural communities and it makes more sense for them to set up blogs etc in their own language. So the question was how to run a blog in one language but have their proposal and plan in another? I confess I hadn’t thought that one through adequately – and unlike my clever students I only have one language! I guess I had assumed that students would simply carve off a piece of their blog purely for assessment purposes, but I can see the difficulty if they then want to make that accessible to their own communities.

It’s one of the reasons I’m so terribly disappointed that we haven’t been able to pull together the formal study we had envisaged with CEIT. I think there could be enormously rich learning. I have so many questions and long to explore them. But I’m already at full capacity. I’m pretty much working seven days a week at present and I don’t have the energy to drive anything else (it’s why I’m blogging at 4am in the morning!) I’m loving the work – I just wish I had a few extra days each week to act on all the interesting work there is to do. I know none of these are original questions or observations and in the context of IT enriched learning these are pretty standard concerns – but what I don’t have are the answers to these.

On a personal techno-struggle note I haven’t found the spare ten minutes I need to learn how to manipulate SNAPP. I need to do it before the next class.

However on the upside I finally got the facilities guys to agree to an extension cord so now I can get the laptop to reach the power point in the classroom. I guess that’s an IT success of sorts.  

One of the students yesterday reminded us of the third Indiana Jones movie. At the end of the movie, Indiana has to cross a deep chasm to reach for the Holy Grail. But the bridge will not appear until he takes a step. It requires a leap of faith. That’s what I’ve asked students to undertake with me. So far they are all closing their eyes and putting out their foot, but I worry that if I answer one more of their questions with “Well, that depends..” or “It’s all part of the process” they will retract their foot and strangle me with my new extension cord!

Photograph used with the kind permission of Eugenio Recuenco:

At last!

March 4, 2010

At last class has started. As I told my students, I was so fuelled with adrenalin that I couldn’t sleep the night before. Much of that adrenalin was excitement: the first day of class feels like a shiny present waiting for us to carefully unwrap together. I love meeting everyone and the energy that is always present on day 1. But of course some of that adrenalin comes from anxiety: how do I ensure that I make the most of our time together? How do I honour and make best use of the time students are giving to this course? I’ve had months of thinking and planning. How do I adequately communicate all that I need to in a mere six hours? And how do I do that in such a way as to convey the excitement of this topic area? And to 70 students? My greatest fear is that one of the processes I run will do damage to a student and I won’t be aware. I know students are adults and need to  take responsibility for their own learning and wellbeing. But I also need to be aware. Afterall it’s about being in relationship with each other. And it’s why it’s so important that students take the time and effort to connect with each other and use each other to support them in ways that I can’t. The evidence so far is that students are willingly entering this space:

So here’s what went well: firstly, as I had hoped, the diversity of students was incredibly rich and right from the beginning they embraced this as a strength of the class. Students understood that this would be incredibly valuable to them and there appeared to be a genuine attempt by all to really hear what each other was saying and to listen deeply and be open to each other. Lots of goosebump moments! Overall the students did REALLY well to trust me and the process and allow things to unfold. Perhaps it was the depth of experience in the room: people who have been working in developmental processes understand the messiness of the space we are working in. What I felt was a generosity of spirit, as they held on to their questions and fear and worked to gently make sense of things. There was lots of humour and good will and this bodes really well for the semester.

I was nervous about utilising a guest speaker so early in the course, but Sandra Bayley did a beautiful job in illustrating the CD experience and helping us begin to speak the same language. It was exciting to see students grasp the theory and deconstruct Sandra’s story by utilising the morning’s discussion. It also meant that we all had a common story we could communicate through.

The things that didn’t work were all things I predicted and all I can say is that my safeguarding strategies that I had put in place helped at least minimise the damage.

Firstly, as usual, the room was pretty awful: much better than last year’s college dining room setting, but still not ideal. Very cramped and WITH SOME OF THE FURNITURE BOLTED TO THE FLOOR???! I can only surmise that when it comes to designing good teaching spaces, our architects really have had a very limited educational experience. Again, I am grateful to the generosity and goodwill of students in this. There was also the usual technology woes: power chords that didn’t reach to the power point, microphones that were switched  and came on and off of their own choosing, air conditioning designed for the equatorial regions. Secondly, despite weeks of my best efforts with Blackboard there are still a bunch of problems that I can’t work out. A number of students hadn’t been able to – or hadn’t known how to – access Blackboard and so came unprepared. This will no doubt sort itself out in the next week or so. I need to be patient.

Thirdly, there were also some frustrations for me as a teacher: there was the unavoidable annoyance of students who arrived late due to rain and being lost and so forth. I deliberately leave discussion of the course objectives and assessment until the afternoon for this reason. Every year it’s the same. From a teaching perspective it’s incredibly frustrating as it is difficult to then help them catch up and engage.  This is not about lecturing, it is about group processes and the processes are designed to very deliberately build upon each other. It’s why when people say things like “I can’t make it to class, will I miss anything?” it’s so hard to explain. What they will miss is a deepening of relationship, which is all too often undervalued in our university experience. It’s also upsetting for the students: they arrive stressed and anxious and overwhelmed and then spend the rest of the day trying to fit in with what’s been set in place. Thankfully people did a lovely job of helping each other adapt.  It’s just an inevitable frustration of day 1 on such a large campus.

In terms of process, the conversation cafe worked really well to help students connect, but the space and environment did not work particularly well and I could not manage the process as tightly as I usually do. I couldn’t even physically access the tables to double-check that students were on track: and one poor table even had the wrong instructions that wasn’t discovered until the end of the exercise. It drives me crazy that a university cannot get teaching environments right. As someone who has worked in adult ed for so long I am used to “making do” and have taught in some pretty terrible environments. But I had hoped that teaching at UQ would mean appropriate teaching spaces. As we pour our efforts into online resources and IT it makes me wonder whether this is at the expense of our basic teaching resources – like space.

In terms of my own development I think I also was a lot more comfortable this time in the ‘organised chaos’. When you have a room full of people anxious about assessment, cross about dates, worried about details, it’s very easy to get sucked into the  emotional space. However this year I was able to simply observe people’s concerns without adopting people’s anxieties. I felt confident that I had created a time and place to deal with concerns and hopefully this will help students trust me. As anticipated there were high levels of anxiety about the role of IT. However there were also many students with high degrees of IT experience and comfort so I’m hopeful this will balance out and students will again learn to turn to each other for assistance. (I think I will run our IT experience survey – I’d love to see the data).

The other thing I’ll say is that I am absolutely exhausted. Happy with how it went but absolutely exhausted. It takes a lot of energy to manage group processes for 70 students. Even more so when you’re an introvert like me. I have to pull up every ounce of energy I have and move very deliberately into a performance space. Today I feel like I’ve been run over by a large truck and that’s probably reflected in the tone of this blog. I now need to summon up the spark to teach my gorgeous undergrads.

Despite these setback I am again reminded of what a joy and privilege it is to be a teacher and to step briefly into people’s lives. I live vicariously through 70 other people all at once and am humbled by their stories and experiences. Next Wednesday can’t come fast enough for me.

Photo by Lynda, day 1, SWSP7123 (and yes it’s deliberately blurry to mask identity)