Yesterday I attended a workshop on facilitating online education with Nancy White. White is an ‘international practitioner in understanding and practicing online group facilitation of distributed work, learning and community groups (presenter, writer, teacher, coach, facilitator, rapporteur).’ The workshop blurb implies she is a guru of online practice.
Now, normally when I’m spruiked workshops for this and that, particularly at the end of the year, which is marking season, I’m reluctant and cynical but for some reason when this workshop was flagged, I felt a stirring of anticipation. Not that I knew anything about Nancy White and, indeed, contrary to my normal curiousity, I didn’t even Google her. I just felt, well, a little excited.
I wasn’t disappointed. One thing I’ve noticed that Americans tend to do very well is to cherry pick information and ideas from everywhere and reassemble them to construct dynamic models for whatever topic is under discussion. This is particularly true in the sociological areas, which are constantly being challenged by new technological developments. White’s inspiring grab bag of ideas included appropriations from the Occupy movement, positive psychology, social networking (obviously) and non-profit organisations.
I found that alone useful – too often I isolate education and educational theory from my broader reading and understanding of the world. I often don’t even take the time to make the connections in my head, let alone consciously map them out in my teaching practice.
We began the workshop with a reverse brainstorm – what would we need to do to create an online course that was a 100% failure? Reverse brainstorming, a technique I have never before used but will certainly be using now, creates a non-judgemental environment in which to explore and identify problem areas. Because you’ve been given the licence to fail – and fail spectacularly – you note everything that could go wrong. Only then do you link these problems with your own practice. Once we’d done this step, we then divided the problems into four areas: governance, technology, teachers and students.
Many of our specific problems were to do with governance – it’s a shame that management hadn’t thought it appropriate to attend this workshop as it would, hopefully, have opened their eyes to some of the issues online educators face in terms of governance, time-management and realistic workloads. (And there’s a lesson there that educational institutions should take on board regarding the strict division between management and educators.)
White then took us through a fishbowl exercise in which a person with a specific issue sits in the centre of the group and one or two other participants begin to ask them questions about that issue. If someone in the larger group has a question or idea, they simply stand up, tap one of the fishbowl participants on the shoulder and take their turn in the fishbowl. It’s a good way of keeping discussion focussed and managing a larger group.
White then asked the workshop group to ‘Play it forward’ – collecting from us what we had found most important or illuminating during the session so she could take that on to the next workshop. This is a skilful way of gaining feedback on the session and reminding us what we’d learnt during the afternoon. Instead of being asked what we’d learnt, we were being asked to contribute to the success of the next workshop – our opinions were being valued.
Finally White asked each of us what we, personally, would be taking away from the workshop – she also gave us the option of passing. Personally I found the workshop inspiring and energising. It reminded me that I shouldn’t compartmentalise my teaching but allow more interaction between my writing life and my role as an educator.