We Expect Commitment – That’s Why We Have to Commit As Well.

I’m currently in Cupertino, California, to talk about how my University (or, to be precise, a Faculty in my University), starting using iPads in First Year by giving them to all starting students. As a result, last night I found myself at a large table on highly committed and passionate people in Education, talking about innovative support mechanisms for students.

Pizza and beer – Fuelling educational discussions since forever. (I love the Internet: I didn’t take any pictures of my food but a quick web-search for BJ’s Pizza Cupertino quickly turned up some good stuff.)

I’ve highlighted committed and passionate because it shows why those people are even at this meeting in the first place – they’re here to talk about something very cool that has been done for students, or a solution that has fixed a persistent or troublesome problem. From my conversations so far, everyone has been fascinated by what everyone else is doing and, in a couple of cases, I was taking notes furiously because it’s all great stuff that I want to do when I get home.

We expect our students to be committed to our courses: showing up, listening, contributing, collaborating, doing the work and getting the knowledge. We all clearly understand that passion makes that easier. Some students may have a sufficiently good view of where they want to go, when they come in, that we can draw on their goal drive to keep them going. However, a lot don’t, and even those who do have that view often turn out to have a slightly warped view of what their goal reality actually is. So, anything we can do to keep a student’s momentum going, while they work out what their goals and passions actually are, and make a true commitment to our courses, is really important.

And that’s where our commitment and passion come into things. As you may know, I travel a lot and, honestly, that’s pretty draining. However, after being awake for 33 hours after a trans-Pacific flight, I was still awake, alert and excited, sitting around last night talking to anyone who would listen with the things that we’re doing which are probably worth sharing. Much more importantly, I was fired up and interested to talk to the people around me who talking about the work that had been put in to make things work for students, the grand visions, the problems that had been overcome and, importantly, they could easily show me what they’d been doing because, in most cases, these systems are highly accessible in a mobile environment. Passion and commitment in my colleagues keeps me going and helps me to pass it on to my students.

Students always know if you’re into what you’re doing. Honestly, they do. Accepting that is one of the first steps to becoming a good teacher because it does away with that obstructive hypocrisy layer that bad teachers tend to cling to. This has to be more than a single teacher outlook though. Modern electronic systems for student support, learning and teaching, require the majority of educators to be involved in your institution. If you say “This is something you should do, please use it” and very few other lecturers do – who do the students believe? Because if they believe you, then your colleagues look bad (whether they should or not, I leave to you). If they believe your colleagues then you are wasting your effort and you’re going to get really frustrated. What about if half the class does and half doesn’t?

We’re going through some major strategic reviews at the moment back home and it’s really important that, whatever our new strategy on electronic support for learning and teaching is, it has to be something that the majority of staff and students can commit to, with results and participation drive or reward their passions. (It’s a good thing we’ve got some time to develop this, because it’s a really big ask!)

The educational times are most definitely a-changin’. (Sorry, I’m in California.) We’ve all seen what happens when new initiatives are pushed through, rather than guided through or introduced with strong support. Some time ago, I ran across a hierarchy of commitment that uses terms that I like, so I’m going to draw from that now. The terms are condemnation, complaint, compliance and commitment.

If we jam stuff through (new systems, new procedures, compulsory participation in on-line activities) without the proper consultation and preparation, we risk high levels of condemnation or under-mining from people who feel threatened or disenfranchised. Even if it’s not this bad, we may end up with people who just complain about it – Why should I? Who’s going to tell me to? Some people are just going to go along with it but, let’s face it, compliance is not the most inspirational mental state. Why are you doing it? Because someone told me to and I just thought I should go along with it.

We want commitment! I know what I’m doing. I agree with what I’m doing. I have chosen to not just take part but to do so willingly and I’m implicitly going to try and improve what’s going on. We want in our students, we want it in our colleagues. To get that in our colleagues for some of the new education systems is going to take a lot of discussion, a lot of thinking, a lot of careful design and some really good implementation, including honest and open review of what works and what doesn’t. It’s also going to take an honest and open discussion of the kind of workload involved to (a) produce everything properly as a set-up cost and (b) the ongoing costs in terms of workload, physical resources and time for staff, organisations and students.

So, if we want commitment from our students, then we must have commitment from our staff, which means that we who are involved in system planning and design have to commit in turn. I’m committed enough to come to California for about 8 more hours than I’m spending on planes here and back again. That, however, means nothing unless I show real commitment and take good things back to my own community, spend time and effort in carefully crafting effective communication for my students and colleagues, and keep on chasing it up and putting the effort in until something good is achieved.

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