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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Reflections of a Grumpy Old Far - er, I mean Learner

One thing I remember about my elders, as I was growing up, is that they had both good days and bad. Some days they woke up feeling chipper as a robin in spring. Other days they felt slow. They complained of being bothered by arthritis and various aches and pains. Well, now, I'm 60 myself, and I can appreciate the truth of certain of those stereotypes. For instance, maybe I am getting Grumpy, but like Andy Rooney of 60 minutes, certain things really irritate the hell out of me. So be forewarned. This post is not only grumpy, it's downright grouchy. Furthermore, it comes out in fragments, incomplete sentences, and and probably breaks every convention of English (or, in certain cases, programming)  that we are not supposed to violate.

I'm taking a graphics class - we are supposed to go out on the web and find tutorials. We're supposed to avoid youtube.
Grumble #1: Teacher, get over it - everybody is going to eventually use that venue, professionals and amateurs alike, just like Wikipedia, Facebook, texting on their cell phones, and whatever else new comes down the pike.
Granted students need to distinguish between professional tutorials and amateurish ones, especially those that may not teach the best approaches. But it strikes me that at this particular stage of our learning, the ability to differentiate online tutorials is not our primary job. We're just trying to learn Photoshop and Illustrator.

Grumble #2: It irritates me to have to spend a precious two-hour block of time surfing the web to find a suitable tutorial on a particular topic. They are not always out there. They are not always easy to find. They are not always on the right version of the software - and how the hell would I know if that even matters? This is not conducive to adult learning. Adults learners are busy people. How many are actually going to take the time - or find the time to do this? Granted, utilizing the amazing, plentiful, and various resources on the web is a WONDERFUL way to teach / learn Photoshop and Illustrator skills. Frankly, I find a textbook to be an awkward medium for teaching skills in these particular products, especially Illustrator (we use the Classroom in a Book Series). A well executed three minute video ( or even short web page tutorial) can effectively convey the same information in fractions of the time. I understand the need for professional artists to be adept at finding quality resources on the web in these days and times, but often they will be researching a particular task that is way beyond basic. So really, teacher, you need to scaffold that assignment a little bit better - unless you want your students to spend more time on your class hunting for something than actually working in / and learning Illustrator and Photoshop.
Today, we have 2 chapters, complete with exercises, an additional reading, and two web tutorials due. No lates accepted. The day after tomorrow, we have another 2 chapters, complete with exercises due. Wonderful. I'd LOVE to do it. I WANT to do it.
Grumble #3: But I also have to finish a chapter and do a project for my Visual Basic class and prepare for an upcoming exam, visit a grieving sister-in-law (out of town), check on my eighty-year-old mother, apply for jobs so I can get my unemployment and keep my family fed, winterize the windows on our 100 year old farm house, feed and water the chickens and clean their coop, take the dog to the vet, cook supper, go to the dentist, and post two discussions and write a memo for my Technical Writing class. And it's Indian Summer and lovely outside and we'll  have such a long cold stretch before we'll enjoy such weather again. (Yeah, I know, so what adult learner, or teacher for that matter, doesn't face these challenges and distractions?) But wait a minute - let me take a look at our syllabus. Hmmm ... for the rest of the semester, it looks like we don't have anything but a project. Hey, teacher, can't you space that work out a little? I'd really love to do all the work in all my courses.

Sometimes, when your students do poorly, it's not always their fault.
While we're on the subject (of grumbling, that is) how about matching the appropriate educational strategy to the task at hand? If it's a psychomotor skill, as in Photoshop, and Illustrator, there are very specific best practices for teaching psychomotor skills, including breaking down the learning tasks and providing adequate time for practice and two-way feedback for each sub skill. The student may grasp your wonderful explanation. But a good way to scaffold them and reinforce that into their long-term memory is to allow them verbalize it back to you, perhaps as they are actually trying to do the steps. Yes, it takes some time. And yes, some students will grasp the whole picture sooner than others. But if you don't do your work up front, the rest of us will probably remain a little fuzzy and confused on the finer points of Pen tools and Bezier Curves  for years to come - unless we take the time to sort it out on our own, that is.

I'm taking a Visual Basic class. The author really did a great job with the book - efficient prose and examples, lots of exercises, but who has time to actually do them on our course schedule? I did try for the first few chapters. The chapter on arrays was (oddly) about a third of the book - the course assigned the chapter to be completed in a week's time, just like all the other chapters. The chapters containing more complicated and less familiar material to most were condensed down to the last three weeks of the course - almost as an afterthought. This newer material takes a little longer to absorb, learn and apply. So not enough time was allowed to integrate the new knowledge with that learned early on. Besides, some of the later stuff SHOULD HAVE been learned early on. Okay, get ready, I feel a rant coming on:
Public Class RANT
Private Sub btnStartRant_Click(...) Handles btnStartRant.Click
Rant.Text = _ 
"What's WRONG with the IT CURRICULUM?  They still spend 90% of the time teaching structured programming and 10% on OOP.
Structured programming should be taught in the context of OOP from the get go. And I don't mean just having students write in an OOP programming language. I mean ALL OF IT. Students should be introduced to the concepts of OOP FIRST and then taught the structured techniques for the methods. Structured Programming is a way of thinking. OOP is also a way of thinking. If you want people to think OOP when they approach problem-solving, then teach them OOP. I came back to school at age 60 to learn newer techniques and 90% of the course is the same freakin' stuff  they taught 30 years ago - with the new stuff tacked on as an after thought. Don't get me wrong, review's always a good thing, but as a student, how far ahead do I actually come out for the time and effort I'm asked to put forth?"

End Sub

Talk about misnomers. I'm taking a "technical writing" course. It is a condensed (eight week) class, and we are half way through it. So far we've written an email, a business letter, a memo, and a persuasive memo with, get this, citing in APA format.


Besides ... time for adult learners is short, especially in a condensed class - So, do you want to teach students how to write a persuasive letter or do you want to teach APA format? I guarantee you that if the students approach the assignment conscientiously, they will spend far more time gathering and researching sources and worrying with getting them in APA format than crafting a persuasive argument! I can almost guarantee that if students struggled with how to cite (let alone in APA format) - either because they were rusty or because they were just learning this skill - their prose was choppy.

Grumble #4: For my part, I have a freakin' master's degree for going on ten years now, and have published a scholarly piece, and if I'm a little out of practice with citing and APA format, THIS IS NOT THE VENUE. I'm taking this class to learn more about technical writing, (I have written system and user manuals at work without the benefit of formal training). I'm looking for technical writer jobs. Teach me the finer points of 21st century technical writing and project management - not emails and everything else but!!! 
Next we're going to do a resume and cover letter - do you have any idea how many classes and disciplines have had me do that same assignment? I don't, I've forgotten! All I'm wondering is when I'm done with this course, will I know anything more about technical writing than I did to begin with? And would any employer really believe the exercises in this class will qualify me for the technical writer position they are looking to fill?

Let's put it this way: not from the technical writing job descriptions I have read.
Okay. Apart from taking issue with some of the topics in the book, I do think the author of the text did an excellent job of modeling his definition of technical writing. In fact technical communication (Markel, 2010) is the best textbook I've ever seen in "practicing what you preach" or "modeling what you teach." (BTW, I have no idea if I cited that inline title correctly).

Conversely, Blackboard is an excellent NEGATIVE EXAMPLE of technical writing by Mr. Markel's definition. The student has to go to five different places just to figure out what the professor wants them to hand in and when and where. (And this is not the case with just the online English Class.) The sad news is that unlike Mr. Markel, we've missed an obvious and valuable opportunity in Blackboard itself to teach and to model the course objectives. The good news is that Blackboard does not have to be that chaotic. Well, not totally. I know because I took some rudimentary classes way-back-when in how to set up WebCT learning environments (before WebCT was assimilated by Blackboard). Again, institutions should scaffold and provide resources to busy professors in setting up effective distance learning environments in the institution's course management software rather than enforce some awkward "across the board" standardization of said product. The best approach would incorporate elements of both standardization and customization of online learning environments.

And wouldn't it be WONDERFUL if Blackboard provided some sort of one-stop-shopping view or organizer for students so that on any given day, or week ( or whatever or period of time) they could see on ONE screen what they had due for ALL classes? And if Blackboard just did this automatically for them? It's not unfeasible.
Grumble #5: Also if everything we write is supposed to be business format, then shouldn't the instructor be the model?

And putting a word count on posts while trying to teach how to write efficiently and concisely and effectively? I'm sorry, but that's just an oxymoron. I know the problem the teacher is trying to address - making students spend the time to produce high quality, original posts applying the knowledge gained in the course - but there has to be a better way.
Moving on from my classes to some general topics:

This whole concept of education as drinking out of a firehose is freakin' STUPID. It BLOWS. Yup, you guessed it - another rant coming on:
Begin Rant:

When you approach education in that fashion, often all you get is wasted bits and pieces of knowledge scattered all over the ground along with the dead bodies of students' (or employees') talents and abilities that with nurturing might have had a productive life in society. I don't care how busy business is and how fast they want their employees to learn. It has almost become cliche for an employer to say they want a fast learner in a job description. In this era of rapid technology change, we all know that's a given. What employers often mean, when they say this, is they want someone who either already knows the job and the organization perfectly, is magically on the same wave length, or is a genius or savant. Well, who can blame them for that. Those folks don't need training - but like the rest of us, they likely do need the employer to at least stay out of their way or not throw hurtles and barricades in their path in the form of an onboarding program run like your worst reality tv show nightmare.
End Rant
For my part, I would like to enjoy my life, and that includes ENJOYING this wonderful second chance I have been given to learn (as opposed to being rushed through it once again).  And at age 60, who can blame me for that? By the way, I've been at the top of the class throughout my academic career, and to my surprise, I still am. I also helped break plenty of new ground at work during the desktop revolution and beyond. So I must have been able to learn "fast enough."

It's ironic that the education that (usually) costs money to get often has the poorest teaching techniques - while  the education we get for free at least raises the odds that we get a professionally trained educator who knows what techniques match each task and how to apply them effectively. I know it takes a while for professionally trained educators to get up to speed with the demands from industry, especially in the IT field - because the folks out there learning and doing, and breaking new ground are not trained teachers - they are engineers and artists and what-have-you. When they return to academia to share what they have learned and created, they may or may not be effective teachers. If they are not, much of the cause can be attributed to lack of knowledge of good educational principles and best practices. And who can blame them for that? They were trained to be engineers, not teachers. However some of the problem can also be attributed to a professional or academic arrogance we don't even realize we have, and some to just not caring and lazy attitudes which ALL of us blindly have. And finally, some of the problem can be attributed to a highly inflexible imposition/implementation of standardization by the institution or state that disempowers and discourages teachers from plying their craft - as well as a lack of investment by said organizations in instructional support to scaffold teachers in making the most of their resources.

When I was young, the burden was put on me to learn - sometimes in spite of the teacher. However, now that I'm sixty, I'm no longer buying that crap. Yes, I have to construct the knowledge in my own head - and put forth that time and effort. And yes, it is true that you can learn something from everybody. But students, young and old alike, deserve to be scaffolded with thoughtful, effective, appropriate teaching techniques. And guess what, folks - that takes some up-front work, forethought, caring, and investment from the educators, the institution, and the state. And in educating the various stakeholders about that need, ATTITUDINAL learning may pose our biggest challenge - because not only teachers, but also administrators, politicians, and even students must question their basic beliefs about how to educate.

Maybe if we ALL were not so busy pushing and shoving ourselves and one another through life, students might actually take the time to learn and teachers to teach.

At any rate, teachers and students have to figure out how to meet in the middle. Ultimately, we should be molding learners who know how to take charge of their own learning and education. We should be scaffolding learners as they pursue their learning goals - because once they understand what is required, they alone may best understand how they need to accomplish it.
For example - perhaps I wouldn't find my adult learning experience so frustrating at this point, if I weren't sixty, faced with job-hunting, and struggling to stay out of  the Walmart uniform for the rest of my working life (which now looks to be a lot longer than the traditional retirement age if I want to have any degree of  financial security or comfort) - even though I've done some darn fine, useful, and lasting work in my career. I have been taking these courses gratefully, hoping they will scaffold / prepare me to take certification exams - if I can just grasp and retain all the material needed to pass them. Not only that, I enjoy my field, and I really do want to learn and understand this stuff.

But approaching every lesson like I'm going to have to remember it and be able to prove myself perhaps as much as a year from now takes me a lot longer than just flipping the pages and going through the motions of skipping, scanning, and cramming. After all, I am 60. How much longer do I have to get this right?


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