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Looking in the Mirror

By Pat Wagner / June 2010

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Looking in the Mirror

June 1, 2010

What are the mistakes that even an experienced online trainer and educator can make?

As resources for training and education collapse (time, budget, personnel), e-educators hunt for new efficiencies and shortcuts. However, we don't spend as much time as I think we should thinking about what we personally should be doing differently.

I can't say I wasn't warned.

More than 40 years ago, I attended the first session of my first college class in education. The instructor, June Edson, changed my life and set me on a path of discovery and service. I still remember, almost verbatim, her opening remarks.

"All our attempts to discover and apply models of learning are really our efforts to replicate the skills of the master teacher. Should we not be more interested, therefore, in becoming master teachers ourselves, regardless of the models we use?"

To that end, she required that we begin the lifelong task of learning about ourselves as human beings, especially our weaknesses and blind spots.

[ I can't hide behind curriculum, content, pet theories, or in the case of e-learning, technology. My students will know me and my flaws in ways and at a depth that might surprise me.]

Writers learn that they reveal themselves on the page in the same way that actors reveal themselves on the stage. The choices I make in the words I use, the activities I initiate, and even the software platforms I prefer when I design virtual classrooms tell the participants something about me.

Whether my online classes are live webinars, videoconferences, asynchronous discussions, or self-paced courses, I know I can delude myself into thinking that I can maintain a safe anonymity.

Do I engage my audience members, or do I use technology to keep human beings at arms' length?

Do I treat participants like peers, or do I establish a hierarchical distance to maintain the illusion that I am their superior?

Do I subscribe to the "empty vessel" model of funneling facts and figures into a subservient brain?

In other words, do I view the virtual classroom as a collection of transactions with human beings or as colored dots on a sight chart? I think that the indifferent, cynical, and apathetic online instructor fools no one, and his or her posturing leads to the same attitudes in the students.

[My students, even if they are physically thousands of miles away, are to an extent captives of my intellectual and emotional limitations.]

Is the Way You Know Best the Easy Way Out?
Like yourself, I am a product of the limits of my experience and education, as well as the choices I make as an educator. I have developed antipathies to certain practices in the e-classroom, based on emotional reactions rather than more logical research and experimentation. I carefully cherry-pick studies to promote practices I already believe are right, rather than try to expand my horizons.

My main problem is that I have been successful. Most of my students like me. I received very good evaluations as a college instructor, and I tend to be asked back as a management consultant and trainer. Online, my self-paced and facilitated programs are well-received.

Success easily leads to smugness. I know The Way, even though most of what I rely on to justify my online behaviors are anecdotal reports that cater to my biases. Eventually (and this is something I teach and conveniently ignore), what starts out as a process of discovery and growth turns to stone. It is the 21st century version of the notorious grade school teachers from 50 years ago who would mimeograph their handouts and tests from the same stencils for decades. You knew from your older siblings and even your parents that each week of world history or science would look the same as it did years before.

Online years are more like dog years. If I am using material from three years ago, is it any different from Miss Teacher circa 1955 using the same lecture for two decades?

[When did my online persona become tedious?]

So, what can I do instead?

Leaving Your Comfort Zone

One reliable method is to continually challenge myself to learn something well that is outside my areas of expertise.

My personal experience is that the field of e-learning is dominated by smart, impatient people who live by the mantra of "perfect, instantly, free." They solve educational problems with more bandwidth and better software. However, they will sometimes shy away from activities that require them to fail repeatedly before they achieve their goals, which is more like how many of their online students experience life.

I need to seek out virtual and physical experiences that are hard, where I won't automatically build on previous success, and where I don't have the vocabulary and context to be the smartest kid in class. I need to surprise my brain and body so that when I return to my virtual classroom, I have more empathy with students who struggle with things I find easy.

To this end, I have taking drawing classes (I was the worst student by a mile), run for public office (I lost), managed the tech board for a theater company (where I turned out the lights during the climax of a mime's performance), became a radio talk show host (I was fired three times), debated a debonair politician in front of his supporters, planted gardens (most of the plants died in the first five years), and most recently, struggled to master ideas from books that are really, really, really hard. At least, they are hard for me.

I also am breaking out of the "reliable box" when it comes to my teaching online and trying some methods that I rejected years ago. And I am seeking out people who are very different from me from whom to learn.

What about you?

About the Author
Pat Wagner and her husband Leif Smith own Pattern Research, Inc., a 35-year-old research and training business headquartered in Denver. They specialize in working for innovators in the public, private, and nonprofit sector. Most of Pat's focus as a management consultant and trainer (both online and face-to-face) is on people who work for libraries, higher education, local government, and nonprofit organizations. She is also the library relations associate and a subject matter expert for the University of North Texas [email protected] (Lifelong Education @ Desktop) program. She makes a lot of mistakes every day.


  • Wed, 13 Oct 2010
    Post by David Hopkins

    Sorry ot be picky but the link to the Univerity of Plymouth's reference does not work, it ought to be

    Otherwise, thank for you for this excellent article - it is something I can take back and refer my colleagues to in order they can better understand what my role is.

  • Mon, 05 Jul 2010
    Post by Barb Klassen

    You made me laugh. You made me learn. God I love finding ah ha moments!! Thankyou! I am a teacher with 25 years behind her of experience who is jumping into technology with both feet. This whole new arena is hard for me. Yes I can email, wave, surf, google but finding worthwhile technologies to inspire my students now that is hard for me. By the way, I have no idea what HTML syntax is so I may have used it here. Anyways, many thanks from up here in Canada. Barb