Training is Broken

By training, I mean technology training. Instructional technology training for faculty in higher education, in particular. I’m not sure how this applies to other forms of training provided by librarians; I don’t do other forms of training, so I can’t really speak to that. But instructional technology training is definitely broken.

There are several competing factors in play when you sit down (or, more likely, get up in front of a podium) to teach a group of faculty how to do something (anything) with a computer. The first factor is that you want them to know how to use this tool so that they can teach (or research, I suppose) effectively. You want them to feel confident in their knowledge about this tool. In our dream world, they will grasp the basics and move on so that we can all get to the more interesting topics, like using this piece of software in new and interesting ways. But the first thing is always to just grasp the basics. Somehow, we end up just sticking to the basics for years (and years and years). Possibly that’s a giant, flashing sign pointing to our failure, and it should help us understand that our training program is broken.

The second competing factor that gets in the way of effective instructional technology training is the goals of the faculty; they want this silly process over with. They want to get their questions answered, but mostly they just want to get through this required practice as painlessly as possible and hope that something makes sense. Often the easiest way to get through it is just to sit still, listen, pick up any hand outs, and leave when the thing seems to be finished. What helps tremendously is if the thing is shaped like a class: there’s someone at the front giving a lecture of some kind, there is homework no one will ever check, and there is a definite, obvious moment when they’re allowed (and in fact expected) to leave.

A third competing factor: our own burning desire to tell this group of faculty everything they need to know to be successful, as if that will help them. We really, really want to do this. If only they would listen to us, all would be well! We recite The 15 steps they need to do, each subdivided into it’s own series of steps. Don’t forget to do this. Oh, did I mention you also need to do this. And this other thing. 15 times. There is a deep sense of satisfaction involved in getting up in front of a group of faculty and telling them everything they need to know. You did it; you imparted the information. It’s in their hands now. We can sleep well at night having done this needful job.

Too bad it doesn’t actually work.

I’ve been experimenting with training for a couple of years now, trying on different methods, trying to engage the faculty and not just lecture to them. The truth: I don’t want to spend my time pointing out where to click. I’m not a tip sheet. I’m not a list of bland instructions. I have spent the last six years observing, reading about, and experimenting with courseware so that I can help faculty to use technology effectively in their teaching, not so I could tell someone (once again) how to add a TA or make their course website available to students. Why would I deliberately bury my true value by spending an hour (or more) reciting how-tos that go in one ear and out the other?

So we’ve thrown all that out. We put all the instructions for how to do every blessed thing onto ipads. Want those instructions? Touch the document, press the button, email them to yourself. Done. You have them. Relax. Now, talk to us. What are you trying to accomplish? What’s giving you grief?

It doesn’t look like normal training. It doesn’t look like a classroom. It looks like a group of people talking and laughing. Yesterday, the faculty all gave us hugs when they left. It’s not about my burning desire to make sure you know which buttons to click; it’s about the individual needs of each of these people. It’s about helping them use the right tools to make their lives (and their students’ lives) easier. It’s helping them to use a tool to accomplish their teaching goals. They can refer to the instructions later. You know what they can’t get from a piece of paper, or from a website? One-on-one, personalized, interactive advice. That’s what my value is.

This is awkward a bit, at first, because the rules are different. Everyone feels comfortable when someone lectures in academia. We know what to do when someone lectures. It’s comfortable. But you can’t passively wait until it’s over when the whole point of a session is to talk about what you want to do, in very concrete terms. It’s impossible. You have to open up, talk about your experiences, the things you don’t understand. And I can listen to you, make suggestions, show you how to avoid that problems you run into. I can explain what’s coming. I can show you how to use the tools available to do the kinds of things you want to do. We just need to spend the time talking it out.

It’s great. I can’t tell you how great it is. It’s exhausting, of course. But I have never in my career gone to this kind of depth with our faculty. I’m recommending tools and those recommendations are embraced. I’m discovering new uses for tools I couldn’t have imagined before. We’re making collaborative timelines and providing students with a way to interact with each other. We’re thinking hard about what students need, working out plausible and functional means to communicate with them effectively. The revelation on the instructor’s faces when we explain that the best thing they can do for students is edit the course menu to reflect the language and content of the course; it’s the secret they’ve been waiting to hear. Everyone’s shoulders relax. This is what training is supposed to be.

Scratch that: it’s not training. Training is what you do to dogs and horses. I don’t train faculty. I support, advise, guide, and, on a good day when I’m really lucky, inspire them to try something new and unique. I help them to accomplish what it is they have been wanting to accomplish all along, but the tools kept getting in their way. I let them feel like someone’s got their back so they can reach out and do something innovative and extraordinary with something that looks mundane and dull.

Here’s what I’ve learned: get down from the podium. Put the powerpoint slides away. Sit down and talk to the people you’re trying to train. Show them how valuable your knowledge and experience actually is. It’s so much more fun.

And, if we’re lucky, more effective.

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