I’m about done with my stint here in Asheville learning about how to develop and teach online courses. Recently, we worked on how to foster effective learning communities in an online environment. We were asked to think about an effective learning community we had engaged in and an ineffective one and to identify what the characteristics of each were. I decided to approach this task from the student perspective, What communities had I been a part of as a student (not as an instructor) that were effective/ineffective and why?
My framework for thinking about an effective learning community came from my yoga practice. My framework for thinking about an ineffective learning community came from being in attendance at a professional conference. Go figure.
Yoga as an Effective Learning Community
For several years now, I have been practicing Bikram Yoga and running a related blog about my practice. For the last two years, I have chosen to participate in regional yoga competitions. I’m not going to get into the specifics of what it means to compete in a yoga competition because that’s not relevant here. But what is relevant is that as part of this training I participated in an extra class once a week for competitors. And within that class we had a learning community.
What did we have to learn? Well, a lot. We had to learn how to participate in this extra class. This extra class had a lot of postures that were new to most of us. We had to learn the rules of the competition, we had to learn how to put together a routine, we had to learn how to execute out routine. Within that, we had to make decisions about what would be in our routine because there was some room for us to make decisions about what postures to include. There were many more things we had to learn, of course, but that gives you a sense of the basics.
The issue here is what did I find to be effective about my group as a learning community? Several things including:
(a) a focus on pushing ourselves but also being aware of our boundaries and respecting them. Know when and how to push. Know when it’s time to stop.
(b) coming to our session confused was normal. It was fine to show up and not remember how to do a posture you had acquired a basic grasp of the week before. It was fine to be confused about anything. No one thought less of you. People had no problem asking for extra help at any point
(c) everyone was an expert on something at some point. No matter what you didn’t know/couldn’t do at a given moment in time, at some point there was going to be a moment where you were the expert. People fluidly moved from being an expert to not being one, and no one cared. It was just the way it was.
(d) lots of opportunities to continue discussing yoga related issues after the “formal” session was over. Our group has a FB page for sharing information/questions/etc…But we also ran into each other and discussed things at regular yoga classes between the extra training class.
(e) your participation in the discussions (letter D) was optional and depended on what you had to offer or needed to ask. There could be a week or more where your participation was limited or non-existent because you had nothing you wanted to contribute. Then, suddenly, you could be participating like mad because you had so many things you needed to say. Participation, in terms of quantity and content, was fluid.
(f) you set your own goals. Each person had his/her own set of goals that she/he was working on. These goals were generally pretty public. No one was forced to share their goals, but the ways we interacted with each other meant we knew each other over time and became aware of what we all were working on. This lead naturally to fostering a supportive environment as people would come across something that might help another person and share it.
A Professional Conference as an Ineffective Learning Community
Professional conferences are supposed to support professional development, right? And one way they can do this is through the learning communities they create. Now I won’t be naming any professional conferences here. But let’s just say that for about five years now I have had started to develop a sense of boredom and disconnection at most professional conferences. Here’s what I am tired of:
(a) there are groups of people that are always trucked in to talk about everything. Granted, these people are highly senior, they know what they are talking about, and they do excellent work. But you know what? I want to hear from different people – maybe even people I have never heard of that are just starting their careers! Imagine that.
(b) lack of organization. The conferences themselves are organized in terms of what happens when and how to address any problems that might pop up etc…but I am tired of going to talks that are an unorganized, boring mess. Granted, this may be just my opinion but it’s a pattern I have experienced over multiple years. And I’m not talking about small break out sessions. I’m talking about larger sessions with featured speakers. Having speakers who might do great work – but don’t give great speeches – does little to foster a learning community.
(c) difficulty making connections. I’ve been to two conferences – one with about 250 people and the other about 1000 – recently for the first time. Both went out of their way to find ways for participants to meet and interact with each other, particularly around meals. I’m going to a conference in October that allows people to sign up to have meals together. I don’t expect I will know anyone at this conference, and I’m already excited about having the chance to meet new people.
(d) the behavior. Maybe this is just academics. Maybe it is easy enough to find poorly behaved academics in any setting. But I am tired of going to sessions and seeing people lose their temper (not common but no uncommon) or attack people’s ideas (again, not common but not uncommon). The kinds of behaviors I see people engage in often enough do not help to foster a strong learning community.
This is not to say that I don’t have great colleagues or that it’s all bad and so on. I don’t find my experiences at conferences – particularly the ones I used as a framework for thinking about ineffective learning communities – to be entirely bad. However, when I had to consider what an effective learning community looked like, my mind did not go to my large number of experiences with professional conferences. My mind faltered when I thought about my professional environment and eventually found it’s way into my yoga community. When I had to think of an example of an ineffective learning community, my mind had no trouble finding one in my professional environment. That’s all I’m saying here.
So, what to do? Well, for now I am daring to check out of the professional conferences that I am not happy with. If I haven’t been happy with them for some time, then why on Earth should I keep going? I will miss seeing the people that I always love seeing, but I have to look for other communities that I think are more supportive.