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: http://www.eugeniorecuenco.com

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2 Responses to “A Leap of Faith”

  1. andrimulia Says:

    Hi Lynda,

    It’s really nice to read your blog this morning. Perhaps to lift a bit of that ‘anxiety’, personally, I am not concern about assessment. Even though I’m not saying that it’s not worrying me at all, especially for a student under the support of Australian scholarship, and to be assessed based on my intellectual and academic conformance. However, I’d rather put my anxiety on my encounter with the community. I’m struggling at the moment to find the most appropriate strategy so that I could be accepted and welcomed by the community in a polite manner, rather than being judged or sending out an impression of the ‘invader’ or the destroyer of their balance.

    That Indiana Jones story really helps to calm my self. As you put it nicely, I need to make the ‘leap of faith’. I remember Peter Westoby once said that, “community is messy”. I guess I have to fall in love with that messiness. And for that, I need to have my metamorphosis…

    Cheers,
    Andri

  2. Shashi Says:

    Hi Lynda,

    In response to the fear about blogs/IT and whether you’ve set the bar too high – I think alot of the fear around IT comes from people’s lack of experience and exposure to it. What I’ve noticed in a few of the posts on the discussion board (and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of this) is that once students take the first step (do a quick google search about setting up blogs, trying out a blog site), they realise that it’s a much easier process than expected!

    I think this is a great way to expose students to a tool that they might otherwise have been too afraid to explore on their own. Asking students to extend themselves a bit out of their comfort zones can be immensely rewarding for everyone involved.

    Take care

    Shashi


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