Not Nearly the Threat I Thought I’d Be

One of the last presentations that I did before I finished at William and Mary was to Mark Hofer’s doctoral class on student engagement. The topic was engaging adult learners, and it gave me the opportunity to look back over my time at William and Mary and to think about how it was shaped to a small set of core values about the way adults learn. These values are based on my belief that higher education would be more effective if we saw our core mission as helping our students become more effective and confident lifelong learners rather than as experts “delivering instruction.”

For me, the prime directive for understanding adult learning is:

Adult education is concerned not with preparing people for life, but rather with helping people to live more successfully [right now]. Thus if there is to be an overarching function of the adult education enterprise, it is to assist adults to increase competence, or negotiate transitions, in their social roles (worker, parent, retiree etc.), to help them gain greater fulfillment in their personal lives, and to assist them in solving personal, [professional] and community problems[1].

Within that prime directive, I’ve tried to stay true to several principles:

  1. Every learner is unique—as is every faculty member. Technology has given us extraordinary tools (bags of gold) to dig as deeply as we want to into areas of personal interest—and to help students learn to do the same. Our course designs should nurture that uniqueness.
  2. Learners are whole human beings. Thoughtful course design allows faculty members to be extremely creative in helping persons develop an integrated view of themselves as lifelong learners.
  3. The most effective classes are inquiry communities where participants work support each other in building new knowledge based on their individual backgrounds and experience. Engaging course designs allocate time to helping participants articulate and plan their own learning projects and to identifying ways they can help others accomplish their goals.
  4. Adults tend to organize their learning around solving problems rather than around “covering the material”. The simple shift to having students think about problems that they want to solve rather than assignments that they have to complete changes the dynamic of the class.

Through my discussion with the students in Mark’s class, it became clear that these core concepts are still seen as pretty radical, both by my colleagues and by many students. I feel a bit like folksinger Arlo Guthrie, who says that he still received a fair amount of attention from the TSA when traveling by plane. He acknowledges that most of the TSA officials have never heard of him, and he feels that he should let them know that “I’m nowhere near as big a threat as I had hoped to become”. When I finished my doctorate in Adult Education at Syracuse, I never thought these ideas would still be on the fringe of higher education practice 30 years later.

Sneak Peek at a New Program on Teaching Excellence

Last week I spent two full days in sessions of the University Teaching Project in preparation for a new partnership at William and Mary focused on using the best combination of traditional and emerging technologies available to broaden and deepen the conversation about excellent teaching. IT’s academic information services staff will be working closely with the Roy Charles Center–the nerve center for WM’s interdisciplinary programs, competitive scholarships, University Teaching Project and the Sharpe Community service program. As a result, the Charles Center is the home of some of the most interesting programs focused on expanding the range of teaching and learning at the College, and dozens of faculty members are working on projects to make learning even more interactive, integrative and imaginative.

We’ve worked closely with the folks at the Charles Center on a number of initiatives, including one focused on understanding the process of undergraduate research, and we’ve laid the groundwork even more expansive projects in the future. The grand plan for the next two years calls for our group to focus the time and resources that we’d been investing in the former Technology Integration Program on expanding the reach of the University Teaching Project. Our efforts in creating TIP had some very real successes, but we never achieved the kind of seamless integration that we had hoped for.

In practical terms, we’re going to help develop a fully interactive web site that fosters communications and consolidates resources about teaching in a common location. We know that teaching is highly valued at WM, but a visitor from Mars would have to look pretty hard for evidence of our commitment. Efforts at teaching improvement have generally been highly personal and private–shared only with a few close colleagues and department members. Our goal is to keep the support for grassroots efforts at teaching improvement, closely tied to the individual classroom, while publicizing some of successes so that others can build on them. In the early stages of the project, we’ll focus on listening, gathering information and trying to understand what the teaching community of practice is really like.

We’re optimistic about the potential value of this partnership because of the strong alignment between our way of working in the academic computing group and that of Joel Schwartz, Dean of Interdisciplinary Studies:

I am a catalyst,” he said. “What a good teacher does is kind of catalyze thinking and productivity in students. Teaching is not something in which you have a student sit at your feet while you dispense wisdom down to them and they soak it into their heads. You try to help them become original, creative people.” (link)


University Teaching Project

Finding a Philosophical Base for Educational Technology

Parallel Universes | Learning In a Flat World

I’ve been trying to find a way to sort out some of my impressions and thoughts about the University of Mary Washington Faculty Academy. Britt Watwood, an online learning specialist at VCU, may have provided the opening in this post where he compares his experiences at the faculty academy to the those at a VCU faculty development program that was being conducted at the same time.

The focus of the VCU Summer Institute was on the philosophical issues that shape decisions about teaching and learning. The Institute description noted:

Furthermore, absent a cogent, unifying teaching and learning philosophy, many courses appear to students as a maze instead of a roadmap—after all, it is called a course.

Developing a coherent, unifying vision and philosophy is central to good practice and requires a level of thought that goes well beyond decisions about whether allow laptops in class or pay attention to the back channel at a conference. Roger Hiemstra, my former professor in the adult education program at Syracuse University defined educational philosophy this way: “Putting the nature of the universe, including meaning, people, and relationships, into an understandable or explainable perspective”. Students in both the masters and doctoral programs developed personal philosophy statements spanning multiple courses as our understanding of our roles as teachers, researchers and citizens deepened and grew. Roger’s own personal statement of philosophy, personal code of ethics, and statement of professional commitment served as models for my work. Few of us spend much time each day contemplating the fundamental questions that shape philosophical inquiry.

  • What do you believe is the purpose of higher education?
  • What do you believe about the nature of the learner?
  • What do you believe about the nature of teaching?
  • What does it mean to “know” something?
  • What is the right relationship between “content” and “process”?

The end of the academic year provides an excellent time to revisit these broad questions. Venues such as faculty faculty academies, summer institutes, and conferences provide the opportunity for conversations with others in our communities. As Britt points out, getting colleagues to question and adjust their paradigms is difficult and engaging in that kind of deep reflection requires testing our ideas and beliefs in the presence of others who may hold deeply different ideas.

In preparing for my presentation at the Faculty Academy, I noticed that it’s been a long time since I updated and articulated my own statement of philosophy, ethical assumptions and personal commitment. Would we be more convincing in our work with our colleagues if we were operating from more thoughtful, comprehensive frameworks ourselves? To what extent do those of us who work in Educational Technology even have any shared values? Maybe this summer would be a good time for those of us in the ed tech “profession” to think about some of these things in the same cogent, unified way we’re asking our faculty colleagues to think about their teaching.