How Training without Lecturing breaks the fourth wall

There is, I have discovered, an imaginary wall between the teacher and the taught, and you will feel it no more strongly than when you opt not to lecture.

What I have learned in the last five years of teaching faculty how to use courseware is that my grand ideas sound really good on paper, and sound good to the ears of chairs, administrators, and even instructors themselves, but they rarely work out as planned. My grand ideas have been these: don’t waste time with fake “training” courses, encourage instructors to use the time we’ve booked to actually build their own courses, with help on hand. If asked, any instructor will tell you that they have more important things to do than sit in a lab and listen to some instructional technologist or (in my case) librarian go on at great length about best practices or feedback we’ve heard from students. They have a deadline, and it’s usually something like tomorrow or the next day, to get this course ready and online. They are often annoyed that they system doesn’t work the way they want it to/hope it will/expect it will, and have exactly 12 seconds of attention to spare. This is why I thought my grand ideas would work out: I’m not going to ask you to sit and listen to me for an hour before you go home and build your course alone. I say: forget the first part, let’s jump to the second, but do it more efficiently. You work on your course: I’ll answer your questions as required. We can learn from each other’s questions. We’ll all walk away having accomplished something.

It never worked. First off, the labs where these training/work sessions happen are built like classrooms, with a podium and a screen and desks that usually face the front. The room itself tells everyone what they should be doing, and it’s not what they want to do or what I hope they will do. Second, no one’s ever ready. We do the training a week or two before classes start, and 9 times out of 10 the syllabus is still in progress, the documents are all over the instructor’s home computer (not in the lab with us), TAs haven’t been assigned, assignments are still being sorted out. So I can book a room to get the work done, but the content is rarely with us. So what happens instead is I (or one of my esteemed colleagues) gets in front of the room and lectures. We lecture about courseware. We point out where the tools are, we walk through the clicks. Here’s how you do it, guys. We pepper the lecture with experience, feedback from students, ideas we’ve seen work well, and those that don’t work so well. We end up serving up exactly what everyone would tell us they don’t want.

So this year, we decided to throw the whole process out and start again. As with any educational enterprise, we had to sit and think about where the value in our training lies. While I can talk at great length about all the tools and how best to use them, my experience is that little if any of my grand words sink in. Of course that’s how it works: the research clearly shows that training of this nature isn’t terribly effective, and I can vouch for that based on the phone calls I get. How often do we get questions from faculty where the answers were delivered in at training session several weeks (or days) prior? About 95% of the time, easily. It’s not that they’re not paying attention; our method just doesn’t work. They feel successful at the time; we have really good interactions with faculty, they clearly understand that we know what we’re talking about, they appreciate that it is our job to help them and we will pull out all the stops to do so. Everyone walks away happy. It’s just that our training objectives (giving instructors the tools to feel confident in creating an excellent, effective online course presence) are rarely met.

We distilled the positives of our current situation down to these: we need to continue to make sure instructors know that we’re friendly, helpful, and available for them on an on-going basis. If nothing else comes across, this has to. The thing we value the very most is our one-on-one discussions with instructors about their use of technology in their courses; we want to keep that. That interaction is valuable for both of us. Beyond that, everything was fair game.

So first, we decided to stop using classrooms to conduct training. The format is too familiar and too controlled. We don’t want everyone to take a seat and stick in it. We want them to move around. A moving body learns better than a stationary one. So no claiming seats. Next, we would not lecture. No lectures. The learning that was going to happen around us would be active, not passive. We’re not going to insert answers into your head. You’re going to have to forage for your answers.

We set up four zones in a room. At the front near the entrance we have a demonstration zone, with no seating, but one very large whiteboard, a projector, a wii remote, and a IR pen. In the demonstration zone you can use the IR pen to interact with a training shell. Here we demonstrate how tools are used, where to click, how to create elements, etc. based on the questions that are coming from faculty. It’s off-the-cuff and tailored to the instructor in front of us. The advantage of the large format is that other instructors see what’s being demonstrated from anywhere in the room and come forward to interact with it (and us) if they’re interested in the topic.

The second zone is simple a table. Here we encourage instructors with their own laptops to open them up and work with a familiar machine. On the table we have our “how to get your course into Blackboard in a hurry” document, which walks you through each of the basic, necessary steps.

The third zone is the Petting Zoo, which consists of six computers each displaying a different training course shell. They’re designed so that you can play with or look at the tool in action. If required there is a laptop sitting next to the computer with the student view of the same course shell, so you can set it up/create/add content as an instructor and then see what it looks like for a student. There are printed signs on each station advertising which tool is being displayed. On the desk at each station are post it notes with ideas on them for how and why to use this tool. Next to the monitor are printed sheets with step-by-step instructions on exactly how to set up and use this tool.

The fourth zone is simply two computers against the far wall where instructors can log into their own accounts and build their courses.

The basic plan was this: we knew everyone would be a bit uncomfortable at first, not knowing what to do, so we thought we’d start with a short lecturette about some concepts rather than tools. First: the idea that the “course menu” shouldn’t remain in its default state, but rather should be understood as a table of contents for the class. We’d give them a brief dissection of the main page, so they knew where the basic elements were. After that we’d introduce the areas to the instructors, including a brief introduction about each of the petting zoo stations. Point out the instruction sheets. Encourage them to ask their questions and check out whatever stations interest them. Then we let them go.

The very first time we did this, I shuddered a little about two beats after I stopped talking. You can feel the uncertainty, the tiny bit of panic, both on our side and theirs. They expect us to edutain them. There is a silence that needs to be filled, and it should be filled with my confident voice. They (and we) expect us to do the work, the song and dance, while they observe us. This is, at the heart of it, what “learning” looks like in higher ed, doesn’t it? We are so familiar with this set up that taking it away causes real insecurity for everyone involved. But within about four minutes we had faculty playing with tools at the petting zoo, getting questions answered at the demonstration area, and talking to each other at the workstations and around the table. Rather than spend all my time going through the basic rigmarole, I was answering specific questions and brainstorming creative ways to encourage student participation. How to get students to comment on each other’s blogs, which tool to pick for a specific task, how best to tackle groups within large classes. Rather than reciting the content of our tip sheets and how-to documents, we got to spend time using our imaginations and experience. It was exhilarating.

Not only that: most of the instructors stayed longer than the booked time, took more printed paper than usual, and actually (gasp) worked on their courses. I couldn’t believe it. When we give everyone their own computer to work on, no one wants to build their own courses. I think perhaps the fact that we spend most of the time lecturing has the effect of us claiming all the air in the room. When we stop, and force everyone to become an active participant in the training, there’s more autonomy to go around. Everyone seems to take charge of their situations a little more. When instructors have to choose their spot rather than having one essentially assigned, they seem far more willing to get to work. I felt like I did more, even though I was talking to the crowd so much less.

And all those basic questions? The paper does the talking. I don’t have to worry about forgetting to mention how to make your course available, or how to upload a document. There’s a simple set of instructions for that. People with experience and imagination are far more valuable sharing that rather than the basic how-tos.

Every time we run one of these training sessions, and we’ve done five of them so far, it starts out with the same tension; everyone in the room looks at us, a little nervous, wondering what they heck we expect from them. With the librarians, they all stood in an orderly row.

“I know this is uncomfortable at first,” I said as we started. “When we don’t lecture, it breaks the fourth wall.”

“There is no fourth wall,” one of the librarians protested, clearly uncomfortable with being put in this situation. (I can always count on librarians to voice what few others are willing to.)

I looked up at them, in a line, literally forming a wall themselves. “Yeah,” I said. “There really is.”

Within a few minutes, they were all hard at work, papers in hand, discussions on-going. The demonstration area was busy. All the petting zoo stations were occupied, mostly with a pair looking at the tools and discussing them. It’s not the trainers and the trainees anymore. It’s just us, together, learning.

4 thoughts on “How Training without Lecturing breaks the fourth wall”

  1. OH totally forgot to mention: Lauren (my esteemed colleague) suggested we have music playing for the next sessions. Nothing crazy, just something ambient and upbeat, to underscore that it’s not US who need to fill that silence. Such a good idea! We’ll try that next week.

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