Entry #5: Formal Context

A number of years ago I consulted as a subcontractor for a company that provided both professional development about and software for curriculum mapping.  The software was a suite of 3 programs designed to streamline instructional documentation — curriculum maps, unit plans, and gradebook.  All consultants had to be certified in the mapping software and the professional development modules.  Many were certified for the unit planning software and modules.  Even fewer were certified for the gradebook components primarily because of its complexity.  By the summer of 2014 the number of certified consultants was down to two and the company needed to train more consultants to learn the software in order to keep it a viable part of the suite.  

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-2-07-15-pmscreen-shot-2017-02-11-at-2-06-31-pmThe course was conducted by another very senior consultant who had many years experience with the application.  We all knew each other very well, having co-presented PD multiple times over the years.  That made  for a high degree of collegiality and support in the group.  The class met for 2.5 hours once a week at the same time each week throughout the summer.  The instructor had a very no-nonsense demeanor which characterized both her style as well as how she organized the course material.  Goals were clear and immediately applicable for our work.  The structure was mostly a repetitive “I do, we do, you do” model followed by clarifying procedural questions.  She consistently focused on interface elements she knew were particularly complex or non-intuitive and allowed us to ask more questions around these elements.  Each lesson finished with a homework assignment that gave us opportunities to practice what we had learned during the session.  She monitored our work in the program as well as requiring we email additional assignments when completed.  We received feedback only if we asked for it which made it feel as if we were simply emailing documents into the ether.

The instructor mainly lectured and demonstrated the software in a scripted manner.  So the level of equity was dependent upon whether or not our learning style worked with her teaching style as well as our individual ability to self-advocate, ask questions, and solicit feedback on our own work.  It was quite possible to make it through every online session, clicking away at the software without ever directly interacting with either the instructor or other learners.  This always struck me as ironic since the company prided itself on learner-centered PD.

Our classroom was online, though it did not consist of a unified platform like D2L.  GoToMeeting was how we conferenced in with the only video component being the presenter’s shared screen.  As a result, there was a bit of bouncing between G2M and the software when it was time for us to practice.  The lack of video for all attendees to see and interact with each other had a considerable, and I’d say, negative impact.  Not only did this setup make it easy to check out of the class, it also reinforced the individual, non-collaborative nature of the work.  It was mostly a one-way conversation with information flowing from instructor to students and questions going from students to instructor.  Fostering more collaboration between learners — especially with software training — would have made for more diverse perspectives, not to mention learning a complicated program more efficient.

I never want to be the presentation.  When I’m teaching any learners — adolescents or adults — I try to get away with saying the minimum possible while still setting up an effective learning environment.  The more the learners do, the more successfully they will learn.  So I do my best to be the “guide on the side”.  I also believe I’m not the smartest person in the room and that we are smarter collectively anyway.  That greatly influences my planning in as much as my lessons almost always have paired or grouped discussion components.  Regardless of whether I’m working with kids or grownups, all learners benefit from formative assessment and metacognitive thought.  They too are centerpieces of my instruction.  None of these elements were present in my colleague’s instruction. What I would take from her book would be to make more and better use of collaborative work by telepresence.  Plus, our course work in the past few weeks around informal learning contexts has me eager to try to subvert formal contexts by creating informal dynamics within them.

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