Monday, July 18, 2005

Teaching as Modeling

I'm in San Francisco now for the WebCT Users Conference that starts tomorrow. One of my staff is making a presentation on Wednesday about our training program. He sent me his first pass at the PowerPoint he was going to use and then we had a talk about how that might be revised. I'm just back from that.

I tried to encourage him to explain what it is that we do in these training sessions. The one on Vista basics (which is the intro) is two hours. There is much more to show about Vista than can be done in two hours. Things that are absolute musts concern how to request a course site, browser configuration and java, our policy for uploading rosters, and how they can get additional help. That takes a chunk of time.

The trainers know from a bunch of evaluations they have done previously that most people attending these sessions come to learn about document distribution, navigation within the system, and user management. So the bulk of the time is spent on the file manager and linking with organizer pages, navigation, and an overview of the Vista grade book, all nuts and bolts stuff.

We talked about different views on how to deliver the training, where this trainer differed from the other staff who work for me and who also do training. The issue amounted to how structured the approach would be versus how flexible it might be to accommodate the specific needs of those in attendance. They have found a middle ground by leaving about 15 minutes at the end for Q&A and the possibility of showcasing other tools in Vista in response to questions posed by attendees of the sessions.

Our training is now voluntary, but it used to be mandatory. And it used to have a first piece that had the instructors play in a student role so they could get a sense of the environment from the student perspective. The teaching goal is admirable but both because the training was required and because instructors getting this training are extremely instrumental in their view of the course management system, this part has been excised from the current approach.

I suggested that they bring it back in as follows. At the very end of the session they have the attendees do a paper based evaluation - for lessons learned and also to get the general impressions of the attendees. Why not do that survey online, instead, using the Vista survey tool? And why not show some other slick features of Vista from the student's perspective, like selective release.

In other words, put the attendees in the role of students for tasks that would be done in the training session anyway. So they take the survey online and after the survey is done some documents are released to them that show how prior attendees had completed the survey. The whole thing would take 5 0r 10 minutes. It would give an inkling of what these features are like from the perspective of the students. And for those attendees who put two and two together, it might suggest something they should try in their own teaching.

This, of course, is how I think we all should teach. Many of the lessons are en passant. That doesn't mean they are without forethought, quite the contrary. But they are not an explicit object of the lesson. The problem with making things explicit is the problem that all novices encounter. There is too much to process. But there may be a lot of flavor to what is being presented. So from the instructor's perspective, make overt a few specifics and then let more of the nuance in en passant.

The reaction from the student that you are trying to evoke is, "that was interesting, and useful." In fact, I'm going to go back to review to see what I didn't pick up on the first pass. The reaction that you're likely to get if everything is made explicit up front is, "This is too hard. There is so much to learn. I'd be better off doing something else."

So there is a risk in being too structured in the teaching. There can be a risk in erring in the other direction too. The only way I know to find the right balance is try it out and then tweak.

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