I am in love with my students. Yesterday four students volunteered to be part of the UQ Blended Learning conference and to participate on a student panel. Originally I had been approached to present my experiences. I resisted the urge for fame and glory and instead I asked if we could invite students onto the stage to share their experiences. It was the right move. THEY WERE BRILLIANT. The four students were bold, insightful, honest, clever, brave and very funny. They challenged academics to check their assumptions and reminded us that students are not a homogenous group. Their use of metaphors and choice of words were hilarious. I just want to hug them.

At the reception afterwards I had numerous people approach me to say how much they enjoyed the session and how impressed they were by the students. I felt like a proud mother duck!

However there was one moment where I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The students were asked if they were aware of WHY their lecturer had employed a blended learning approach in their course. The answer was a resounding silence! Now I remember going through this on Day 1, but obviously it has become lost in the mists of time and the waterfall of information students receive at the start of a course. So it was a terrific lesson for me in how much harder I need to work at making my rationale clear and selling it to students. It’s not necessarily self-evident. I know that emotion changes how we process information and on Day 1 and with the idea of technology being introduced there was obviously a lot of emotion.

So just for the record, here’s WHY we utilised a blended learning approach:

  1. Student feedback from last year suggested students wanted an opportunity to share and discuss their projects. Blogs were utilised for this purpose.
  2. At the start of semester with my different courses and roles I had 150 students and no other staff. I know there is no way I can be responsive to 150 people. Use of blended learning approaches enables access to a wider body to help resolve issues quickly if I don’t respond within the two hour window hoped for!
  3. Students last year provided feedback that group assessment was not practical as most worked and had other competing demands for their time. I was keen to find ways of creating groups without undertaking groups assessment and I hoped the discussion board would assist in linking students through interests – not just through who they knew in class.
  4. I know community development. I don’t know water management, AIDS education and awareness, corruption, mining, or the context of these issues in Asia or Africa or South America that may relate to these. Utilising a blended learning approach means that students have access to an even wider range of resources and ideas – far beyond whatever I could provide. And it means they are not reliant upon the structured activities of a classroom to provide opportunities to share these.
  5. Blended learning was employed to assist students to move from an individualistic and highly competitive view of study to a networked and more collaborative view of learning. This is essential to being good community development workers. There is no reason for a classroom to be a competitive environment. No one gets a trophy for coming first. If 15 students deserve HDs then that’s how many get handed out. Students are judged against criteria NOT each other. Blended learning is utilised to hopefully encourage a more collegial environment by opening up conversation with each other and not just as a one way closed system between student and lecturer.
  6. Because I have taken an action teaching approach and people’s work was situated in the reality of their lives, I was keen to ensure students could communicate not only inwardly to me and each other, but also outwardly, to their own communities as part of the learning process. For some this worked – for some it was possibly less relevant.
  7. Technology IS a part of our communities. Granted, depending upon which community you are a part of this will have greater or lesser impact. But I think part of university learning has to be about trialling new ways of being and interacting – especially those that take us out of our comfort zones.
  8. Blended learning is useful in encouraging people to share ideas and resources. Although this can certainly happen in a regular classroom, my experience is that students are even more likely to do this when all they have to do is send a URL in an email, or post a link to a great website on a discussion board.
  9. I’m not just teaching community development as an abstract concept. I want students to learn about it experientially, practically, theoretically, kinaesthetically. Blended learning assists us to move out of our heads and into our hearts, hands, and guts. I want the classroom to become a community.

More recently I’ve been thinking about the role of technology in social movements: The Battle in Seattle, Climate change rallies, and the work of social campaigners like “Get-Up”, have all been reliant upon technologies for a groundswell of support. I’m keen to explore the connections further and this would make for some exciting conversations with students. Technology versus community is an unhelpful and false dichotomy. The more interesting questions are about the effects, impacts, limitations and possibilities.

So my biggest learning from the conference was an awareness of the need to spend more time talking about the WHY of what we are doing. Even in their brief moment of thundering silence, my students continue to teach me. Thank you so much. Good luck in your exams.

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I’m in the middle of typing up all the feedback from my Graffiti wall evaluation with my students. It’s hard work not to be defensive and to just sit with students’ outrage, anger or cynicism, but I’m trying. There are also some really lovely comments, some good thinking and some very constructive ideas which balances all of this. And of course the feedback is anonymous which means I can’t check that I’ve understood a student’s message correctly.

However there was one comment that I just couldn’t let slide. The student wrote: “I feel like I’m just being used for a university experiment”. This is one conversation I would love to have with a student. And my response would be “Well, yeah, you are – and isn’t that fantastic?” Having been a psych student at UQ I know what it feels like to be a lab rat. I don’t know if they still do it, but they used to demand all first year students sign up as a participant in a psych experiment. We’d have Honours students conducting hypnosis or sleep deprivation experiments upon us. Despite getting 5 credit points for the experience, and in hindsight understanding WHY they did this, I recall feeling outraged at the time, and like I had to prostitute myself to the university for my degree, so I’m not unsympathetic to the student’s complaint. However I also want to put a different spin on it.

As a student, I’ve also been part of some teaching experiments. For me, they were the richest learning opportunities I’ve ever had (thanks Bob and Tony). I’ve also been part of less dynamic teaching. Having failed an undergraduate subject I had to repeat the course and I remember being astonished to hear not only the same theory – but to have exactly the same jokes in the same places, the same slides, the same stories and the same puns. The only thing worse than having to endure some lecturer trotting out the same old material year after year, droning on in the same tired voice, would be to BE that lecturer: for teaching to matter so little (and let’s face it – it’s only 40% of an academic’s workload) that I would feel no urge to invest in what I’m doing. For me, EVERY course I teach is an  experiment. Every time I stand in front of a group I want it to have something new that I’m trying out: a different process, a different approach. It’s what gives me energy and enthusiasm for what I’m doing. I could not be a passionate teacher if I was merely repeating myself.

And to make it less personal, I think it’s actually the responsibility of a teaching institution to be “experimenting” on students. I went to a talk last week to hear how three schools were utilising Blackboard in different ways. This was an experiment. Bits worked, bits didn’t. But at the end of it they were able to provide us with some terrific ideas about what helped students learn through this medium. I will be taking this knowledge into the next course I teach. I would hope students would actually embrace the idea of us improving our practice.

So what is it that has so evoked the student’s ire? A couple of things occur to me. The first is about  authority. (Now I wish I could claim a flash of brilliance on this one – but it’s taken several sessions with my Professional Supervisor (PS) to work through this one). PS suggested to me that some people need authority. Either due to learning style preference, experience, cultural background or assumptions about learning, some students crave an expert and a more didactic learning approach. They may not necessarily know or admit this, but that need will manifest in the kind of outrage expressed here. According to PS, such students would be highly uncomfortable with loose structure, open-ended processes and the kind of action teaching and action learning approach I employ. Being told this is my approach up front won’t change anything, because the need may be unconscious. What they crave is an expert. The partial positioning of a lecturer as co-learner would create enormous discomfort and open up the space for criticism. If I am not an expert then how dare I lecture? Come back when you know your field and have something solid to teach us! It’s a binary position: either you’re a student or a teacher. (I recall in another course explaining my co-learner stance and having  a student say, “I didn’t pay $600 so I could teach you!”). I have been very clear from the beginning and probably even named it as an experiment. I have said that I’m going to trial new things, and that I don’t actually know if they will work. And when they didn’t, and I had to rework things, some students were upset. The word that was used by student many times was the importance of “fairness”. (The fact that change is “unfair” is worthy of a whole post – but I’ll get stuck into that one later). I told students on Day 1 that I would be running my own project alongside theirs. I have blogged openly about my insecurities and uncertainties. I have admitted fallibility. I have been vulnerable. The idea that one could have mastery of a field and yet still have things to learn appears to be too difficult a chasm to cross.

The other thing that I think may be evoking outrage and a sense of being “used” is a sense that a line has been crossed, from learning for improvement versus learning for personal and professional gain. So not only have I set up this class as a learning “experiment”, but I have formalised that process by gaining ethical clearance for the “project” and I have asked for students’ permission to utilise their feedback, to present at conferences and to write papers (no idea if the latter will happen but I’m hopeful). I am indeed “using” the student’s data and experience and ideas and feedback.  And I am hoping to personally gain from this. I am not apologetic about my desire to move beyond behind casual and part-time teaching contracts! In our class on systems theory we discussed the idea of networks as being linked by a contagion – it could be money, a virus, gossip, resources, etc. In academia the contagion is ideas (developed through research), and we spread this contagion through publishing. Being part of this network exposes me to other ideas and in turn improves my own work. So yes, there is personal gain. But if part of the role of an academic is to contribute to the broad body of knowledge, then it is also gain for the broader field.

So the third thing happening here is sensitivity to power, and a sense of dishonesty about the use of power. So for example, I am positioning myself as a co-learner, as though I was an equal (“look, see, I’m learning alongside you”) but in fact it’s not a relationship of equals. I am ultimately evaluating students. I am in a lecturer role. So what I name as working relationally and being transparent, others might label as disingenuous.

I admit at this point I’m stumped: I don’t know how to work through this. I need to go to the literature. I really hope someone has done some research on this.

Image source: http://lifesagasp.wordpress.com/2007/07/12/rat-in-a-cage/

The Agent Provocateur

June 7, 2010

One of the lines at the IT workshop I went to recently suggested that a part of the role of the teacher was to be an “agent provocateur”. I was intrigued by this concept and went online to ensure I’d understood it correctly. Tragically, the only definition I could find was from Wikipedia. I kid you not – “Agent Provocateur” is the name of a lingerie company and a shoot ’em up style computer game and assuming that I don’t think lingerie, gaming and teaching are deeply connected (or at least not in the areas I teach in!) then I’m left with the following:

“Traditionally, an agent provocateur (plural: agents provocateurs, French for “inciting agent(s)”) is a person employed by the police or other entity to act undercover to entice or provoke another person to commit an illegal act. More generally, the term may refer to a person or group that seeks to discredit or harm another by provoking them to commit a wrong or rash action.”

Now I’m pretty sure our presenter was not suggesting that our role is to get students to commit illegal acts. So if I understand the “spirit” of his suggestion then I guess it’s about being in the role of provoking students to think or act in a way they would usually not. It’s not a term I’m entirely comfortable with as it invites the idea of a malicious power dynamic. However the spirit is one I can ponder. I’ve been thinking back on the idea of pain in learning I blogged about a few posts ago, and the idea of both teachers and students needing self-mastery rather than mere compassion or self-pity. I think this is similar to the idea of meta-process. That one might move outside of content and process to a helicopter view of the interaction. It’s like a broader view of the world where one can feel one’s own discomfort, recognise the discomfort of others, but then move to a third place where you hold the discomfort together. That’s the bit I’m stuck on. Reflexivity doesn’t seem the right word.

Then the question is how does one encourage this in one’s students? Some (not all I hasten to add) of the comments I have heard from students are at the level of ” here’s my idea” and “that’s an idea I agree with, that’s an idea I disagree with”. I’ve been disappointed by the absence of deeper thinking. It feels very reactionary. So my pondering for today is how, as a teacher, can I respond to students in ways that elicits a higher response and moves thinking on? How do I do a better job of disengaging my own defensiveness? How do I hold onto compassion without rescuing?

Image source: http://www.flatrock.org.nz/topics/money_politics_law/cia_needs_you.htm

Reflection

June 7, 2010

I thought I’d spend some time reflecting upon a presentation I went to – all about the use of Web 2.0 technologies in the University. It was a very impressive presentation and showcased a whole range of fascinating technologies that held all sorts of potential for the educative process. What fascinated me though was that despite my immersion into this world for a semester, my first response was still to move to fear. As I listened and watched I could hear my defenses kick in: “Oh no, this is too much, too many..I’m interested, but I don’t have time to explore all of this…”

I had to very deliberately hold myself still and calm and try to move back to love and think about why I was attending. I struggled to “love” the technology. But where I could go to was a love of learning and a love of being at university. I am so grateful that I have access to spaces that offer challenges to my ways of thinking.

What interested me was that only once I had moved to love was I then able to begin to think critically rather than cynically or defensively. So in my reflective space a few things struck me.

The first was very funny. The presenter said: “We’re over blogging, wikis and discussion boards” – it completely cracked me up. Over it? Wait a minute. When did this happen? When did we get “over it”? Some of us are still getting the hang of it! Because I had moved away from fear I was able to giggle at the irony of this – rather than curl up with a sense of failure.

The second thing that struck me was the moral panic that sets in about generational differences. There was a line among some participants about how young people are thinking and relating differently, and I wondered how often through the ages these lines have been sprouted. No great wisdom on my part, just a nice reminder to myself to try to stay open.

Most of all I found myself appreciating the importance of simply having reflective spaces. Learning is a reflective space. Now that may sound obvious, but on the other side of the teaching game there isn’t much space for reflection. You tend to run around madly preparing materials, meeting with students, attending to admin, trying to do your own research and struggling to keep up with the ever amassing pile of literature on your desk. Sitting in the lecture theatre I was afforded the luxury of being able to free associate for the first time in weeks. As I was watching a presentation about IT my head made links to a fascinating range of issues: pieces of technology some of my students would love – and a mental note to self to send them the links, I thought about my own teaching practice and a conversation I’d had regarding support for first years students, I remembered an article I’d read and promised myself to send the author some feedback, I thought about the wisdom of crowds vs the tyranny of the mob, I thought about the move from fear to love. Most importantly it made me remember that finding the reflective space is an important act of self-care.

Image source: Photography by Darren Staples, http://blogs.reuters.com/photo/2007/11/23/continuing-reflection/

Yesterday was my last SWSP7123 class, and for me, the end of this project. But it’s not the end of my learning. Certainly I will have further reflections as I work my way through the feedback on the course and my teaching. I have that lovely “just been run over by a truck feel”! Despite this it’s 2am and I’m awake and buzzing. Somehow if I’m to do this tomorrow with my second year students I need to get to sleep. Clearly some blogging debrief time is needed! So using my favourite process I’m going to reflect on how it all went.

  1. 1. So here’s what I did:
  • A warm-up connection activity
  • Peer assessment of blogs (alongside some surveys on my teaching and their use of technology)
  • A graffiti wall course evaluation exercise
  • An awards ceremony for the course
  1. 2. How I feel is much less clear:

Firstly, I feel enormously relieved: we got through a massive semester; no lives lost, no major catastrophes, no fatalities. I can now go back to working 5 instead of 6 days per week and can get some of my other work done. Hurrah.

Secondly, I am feeling awe-struck. As I went around the room and saw people’s work I was struck by the talent and hard work of students. And I am in awe of the issues they have tackled. They have aimed to much bigger than I had dreamed – and that’s rich learning for me. I know for some students this course was incredibly difficult – even naming a project took weeks. To see where they have ended up and the incredible bounds and leaps in their learning was so moving.

Thirdly I feel exhausted. I think one of my insights from this semester is how hard one has to work to hold processes together. It probably looks enormously chaotic and disorganised, and students would be amazed if they learnt how much preparation goes into the processes I run. I often wonder if this style of teaching looks like lazy teaching: so much occurs behind the scenes. On the day, the students do the work. However I’ve woken up with every muscle in my body absolutely aching. Without even realising it I must have spent the whole day wound tighter than a spring and clenching everything that was clenchable!

Fourthly I feel chuffed! My peer marking process and use of IT somehow worked. We managed to pull it off in a class room with a lack of powerpoints, and limited access to computers. Thanks to the generosity of students we made it work. Woo Hoo!

Fifthly, I am disappointed. I am disappointed in myself: I botched some of the processes and left things behind. I had put together the most detailed instruction sheets so students would be clear on every detail, and then somehow lost the box of handouts on the way to the classroom! I had the whole day choreographed and then had to holler at people all day. So more disappointment – I didn’t debrief the peer assessment process and I’m dying to know how people found it.

Sixthly, I am so very humbled. A group of us went for drinks afterwards and I had the privilege of hearing a little more about students’ personal lives. As they talked about family they had left behind, how much they were missing their lives back home and how much they valued this opportunity to learn (or even how much they were looking forward to meeting their newborn baby!) I just felt such admiration and humility. Too often in Australia we take our education system for granted. International students do it so tough and I am moved by their dedication and willingness to make every moment here count. It is very inspiring.

So as a response to this, I’m annoyed. I KNOW students had exams and assignments due and were under pressure, but it’s the whole grade obsession. I only have the students for six workshops. For them to decide the last class is less worthy because it’s not all about their grade saddens me immensely as it shows they haven’t really understood some of what we’re learning: that the ending is as important as the beginning, that debriefing experiences is where rich learning occurs, that just because something isn’t up on a PowerPoint doesn’t mean that it’s content free. I was still teaching. Experiential learning is as valuable as theoretical learning. I wanted the students to experience an interesting evaluation process. I’m also annoyed on behalf of those students who were present (in both body and mind). But it’s the reality of student life. This is one class of many, and a tiny fragment of people’s busy and demanding lives. Despite my best efforts to construct an alternative reality, this class is NOT the centre of the universe! However I’m human and being asked if people can leave class because they have an assignment due, or need to study for their evening exam, just makes me feel really cross! It’s not my best side I know. I believe that what we’re doing in this classroom is important and valuable and I want to honour the efforts people have made to be here. I think about a couple of students who drive incredible distances (from across the border, and down from the Sunshine Coast) just to be here, or international students who have left their family at home for their education and are here under enormous difficulty, and I get incredibly annoyed on their behalf. Like I said, it is not my most attractive side.

Emotion number 8 is fear. I know that there is lots of negative commentary on those feedback sheets and these are going to be barbs to my ego. I go through this every semester. The feedback is invaluable. But like the students, I have an ego that jumps up and wants to shout “but…but…but…”. I also know that often in the process of debriefing or venting students will write things in a more critical way than perhaps intended. Without the context and broader conversation it is easy to misinterpret and get defensive.  I tried hard not to look as people wrote: but I saw enough to make me flinch a few times: “Long-winded”- moi? But…But…But…”).

So emotion number 9 is courage, mixed with hope. I hope that I will be brave enough to recognise this feedback for what it really is. I need to actually take joy in the criticisms. Going back to my previous post, if the learning process requires us to master our own pain, then I should see the negative comments as part of this pain: to name it simply as sour grapes or venting would be doing students a grave disservice. Teaching isn’t about making people “happy” or “comfortable” or “entertained”. It’s about challenging, taking people out of their comfort zones, providing opportunities to engage with new material in new and interesting ways. If I have done this, then I have succeeded, but I should not expect people to be grateful for pain.

Finally, emotion 10 is a great deal of sadness. For thirteen weeks I get to be part of a community of students, hear their insights, share their ideas, and get a taste of their world. I live vicariously through their work, and rejoice in their humour, thoughtfulness, compassion, friendship, generosity and support of one another. In our “awards” ceremony I heard the very deep bonds students had forged and the love they had for one another and it was all I could do not to cry. This teaching business is such an extraordinary honour and privilege. But then the community dissipates. Like Melucci’s concept of the biodegradable organisation, it exists as a blip in time, serving a particular purpose, and then it goes back to ground. And I will miss that community. It will leave a hole in my life and will be a moment in time I will treasure.

3. So what have I learned?

That’s a question that I will be reflecting on for weeks. Watch this space: so much learning about learning, about teaching, about processes, about use of IT, about students, about group dynamics, about setting up student projects, about myself, about UQ, about life.

4. What would I do differently next time?

    Just thinking about today, I think it’s such a shame I couldn’t get my colleagues to join me. A critical conversation a la conversation café was what I really wanted to do. I know it would have yielded some pretty incredible information and may have been a more engaging process for students. I think my graffiti wall was a reasonable compromise. Obviously next time I would aim NOT to lose information sheets and surveys. But I don’t think I could have been better organised. It was just a lot of “stuff” to have to carry and cart. It would be nice if I could think of an easier way to manage the logistics. Finally I think I would aim to lower my expectations of myself and the students. We’re all human, struggling with competing demands and doing the best we can do. I aimed to create an exciting and engaging process. Maybe next time I need to aim for something more gentle and reflective.

    (And maybe next time I’ll take a sleeping tablet before bedtime! )