On web conferences, talking with other educators, and reflection

I may be showing my age here, but the state of modern technology never ceases to amaze me. Yes, I actually remember a time when to communicate with someone who was out of earshot you had to either call them on a telephone that was plugged into a wall and hope they were home to answer their telephone, or to take pen (or, if you were being very formal, typewriter) to paper and write them this thing called a letter…

Point is, the fact that “web conferencing” is actually a thing that exists is, when you get right down to it, really quite incredible. We (as a society) have apparently been dreaming about such technology for a rather long time. And we have it! So… now what?

For one thing, it allows students in online, distance education courses to have personal interactions with each other in real time. Alright, yes, phones do that too, but web conferencing allows you to do that without worrying about long distance charges showing up on your telephone bill 😉

But enough waxing on about the wonders of the modern day. I had a web conference with my learning partner in the intro course for PIDP, to talk about some of the articles we’d found while researching current trends in education and roles of educators in adult education. We talked (among other things… but those are topics for other posts) about “returning learners”, students who were coming to formal education after some time away, and the different attitudes that students can develop after spending extended periods of time away from formal education. Although both my learning partner and myself have science backgrounds and are teaching (in different subfields of) biology, most of my experience has been with students who were continuing their education straight from high school, while my learning partner has had more experience with students who have been in the workforce for some time.

It was very interesting to compare notes with another educator from a different (recent) background, especially as I had just recently started working more recently with returning students myself. There are some characteristics that on first glance I thought were more evident in one group than the other (returning vs. continuing students). Early on my assumption was that they would differ in their reasons for being in a class: that most continuing students were there mostly because of their parents or because they weren’t sure what to do with their lives, while returning students had more concrete goals in mind, i.e. job-specific training for employment advancement. But the more we talked about these issues and the more I tried to focus on my goal of treating students as individuals rather than (solely) members of a broader class group (“class” as in “classroom”, not “socioeconomic”), I’ve come to understand that the group difference aren’t really all that great, or even all that relevant. In both groups there are students who are primarily motivated by internal forces (e.g. their own desires), and those primarily motivated by external forces (e.g. parents, coworkers, employers, personal partners, children, etc.). In both groups there are students who have rather vague goals (e.g. “get a degree”) and those who have very specific goals in mind (e.g. earn a specific credential for a specific job). There are those who look in the short-term (e.g. work on each specific assignment or course as it comes along), and those who hold a longer view (e.g. “I have to get at least 80% on each of the assignments in this course so I can end with at least 85% overall so I can get into program X and eventually land job Y…”). And there isn’t any way to tell them apart other than to… drumroll, please… ask them!

Alright, so I’ll admit it probably shouldn’t have been quite as surprising as it was for me to learn something that in retrospect should be blindingly obvious: that individual students are different, and shouldn’t be assumed to be representative of any group to which they happen to belong. But that’s another important thing I’m learning as I work my way through this course: the value of focussed introspection and reflection. It’s not something that comes automatically to me at all, so if I am to be an effective educator it’s something that I’ll need to continually work at. For now, I plan to set aside a specific time each week to take a step back and review my approaches… and hope this sort of exercise gets easier, or at least more natural, over time.

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