Sunday, March 27, 2011

Just sayin'...

I passed a car today - "Student Driver" sign on the top, with the name of the school emblazoned on the side, an outfit called the Internet Driving School.  Apparently it's a misnomer as they offer hands-on instruction.  Driving is one of those things, like brain surgery, that I would not care to learn through the internet.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

What do students miss with virtual education?

A friend sent me this article from ZDNet about the lack of socialization in a world of virtual education.  It's funny to me because I don't think of myself as an incredibly social person but I do find, four weeks into my first virtual class, that I'm missing physical interaction with my fellow students.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Managing the Class

After I'd plunked down tuition on my first training class at NYU but before I had actually begun said class, I had the opportunity to spend a day shadowing a trainer who was doing exactly what I wanted to do - teaching writing in a corporate setting.  The writing session was a one-day component in a weeklong training for up-and-coming businesspeople who had just been promoted at their company. 

You'd think they'd be eager to hone their skills so they would be able to perform at the higher level required by their newly elevated status.  You'd be wrong. 

These 30-something professionals were as sullen and uncommunicative as a roomful of high-schoolers.  Sitting in the back, I could see them web-surfing and working on spreadsheets. They stirred to life a bit when the trainer broke them into small groups, but snapped right back into inattention at the end of each exercise.

It didn't take long for me to wonder just what I was getting myself into.  By the time lunch rolled around, I was the proverbial deer in the headlights.  And all I had to do was sit in the back and listen to the class.  Why in the world, I wondered, had I ever thought about leading one of these things?

Which is to say that classroom management skills were high on the list of things I wanted to learn when I began my training program.  Several classes in, I no longer felt like a deer in the headlights.  And then I encountered this strange beast called the online class. 

Given the experiences I've had in this, my first taste of synchronous online learning, I would say that the greatest challenge in classroom management is that there is no classroom, there's only technology.   And if the technology fails, as it has done to some extent in every one of the four sessions we've had so far, it compromises the classroom experience. 

Where an instructor in a live classroom has a number of ways in which to corral students whose attention begins to wander, an instructor who is booted out of an online classroom due to technical difficulties loses the students entirely.  For how long depends on the duration of the tech blackout and the patience level of the students. 

If I had not already amassed a reservoir of goodwill for my current teacher - based on two experiences with her in live classroom settings - I might have left the class long ago.  But not every student in an online class will have that background to draw on.  So "technology failure" has officially replaced "student apathy" as my biggest teaching-related fear.

Friday, March 18, 2011

An obnoxious story about learning by experience

When I was a toddler – I don’t think I had started Kindergarten yet – I taught myself to count by twos.  I didn’t actually know that was what I was doing, or even that it was a valuable skill.  I was just playing a game I made up, counting playing cards while dropping them on one side or another of a picture frame on my grandmother’s living room table.  When a card dropped on the far side of the frame, I would say its number out loud: (one), TWO, (three), FOUR, etc.  I didn’t attach any significance to my game until sometime later, when I was in the car with my mother and one of her teacher friends and the friend said something about when (at some later point in my schooling) I would learn to count by twos.  I declared, “I already know how to count by twos” and proceeded to demonstrate.

Is that an obnoxious story?  Forgive me if it is, but this week’s assignment is to write about “learning by experience” and that's my earliest memory of doing so.  My mathematical prowess did not survive into adulthood; I grew up be neither an astrophysicist nor (to my abiding regret) a champion poker player.  But to this day, if you need to count something by twos, I'm your gal. 

Looking back, I see that “doing” has always been my favorite mode of learning.  Sometimes this has happy results (the card game) and sometimes not (my first experience of riding a bike with hand brakes left me with a broken tooth in the front of my mouth until a dentist friend repaired it decades later), but I’d still much rather (as Nike says) "just do it" than spend hours reading about it first. This correlates moderately well with my learning styles profile: My card game was "solitary" (the adult Elaine scored 13 out of 20 on that mode), and "aural" (14), but I'd have to say it was also "physical" - which was one of my lower scores (8).  Perhaps toddlers learn by physical means because they are less developed verbally?

Of course, learning-by-doing has its limitations.  It’s fine to dive in and write a speech when you’ve never really written one before; less fine to dive in and perform brain surgery under the same conditions. (Fortunately, I’m not a doctor – though I have written speeches for them.)  As a speechwriter who learns by experience, I read a great deal – and not just business books.  And I analyze well-written speeches, see what makes them work for me – and where I think they fall short.

In the movie Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray character relives the same day over and over again, until he learns the things he needs to do to grow as a person.  People who learn by experience have to be careful to take in a range of experiences and inputs, or we risk rehashing what we know over and over again.   This might work well for someone in a factory, who repeats the same action every day; but knowledge workers must recognize that the world’s store of knowledge increases daily, and unless our personal stores of knowledge follow suit we will render ourselves obsolete.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Who teaches? Who learns?

My journey to teaching writing in a corporate setting continues: For the next month or so I'll be blogging occasionally about issues related to designing and teaching courses online.

Most of the online training I've had so far has been very passive - clicking through screens full of text for hours on end (okay, maybe half-hours, but it sure seemed like hours) and answering the occasional multiple-choice question.  In that kind of asynchronous web-based training, the "teacher" remains invisible - the Great & Powerful Oz behind a curtain of html.  Web-based training was not a particularly rewarding experience for me as a student; I'm not a passive person. And it's hard for me to imagine that it's rewarding for the instructor/designer/creator (or if we're sticking with the Oz metaphor, the Wizard). 

One of the things I enjoy most about training is collecting feedback from the students.  Since all of the training I've done so far has been real-time, real-world-based, that feedback has come from seeing the light dawn on a student's face or hearing well-reasoned answers to my questions.  So far, no applause.  But I'm still hopeful.  But Oz, our web-based trainer, will never get to experience those things.

Synchronous instructor-led online training offers slightly more feedback for instructors: they can see and hear the students and interact with them in something close to real-time (though the magic of technology can't eliminate the awkward pauses of dead air in between speakers).  In instructor-led online training, instructors function in much the same way they do in classrooms: as facilitator, expert, authority, resource, coach.  Additionally, they are able to personalize instruction to clarify confusions or suggest additional resources.  And students are able to ask questions and enrich the "classroom" discussion with their own thoughts and insights.  These things are not possible with an asynchronous, web-based program.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


It's official: I am now an award-winning speechwriter!  The folks who judge the Cicero Awards decided that my speech "The Sound of Leadership: What women know and businesses need to hear" was this year's best-written speech on the subject of diversity.

Back in May I blogged about the process of writing the speech.  Now it's been published in a special issue of Vital Speeches of the Day

I'll probably write more about this later, but right now I have a victory lap to complete.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Shipping News

I don't usually obsess over my work.  I write; I edit; I send, or as Seth Godin puts it, "ship." No problem.

It's easy to ship when you know the reaction will be favorable.  I just signed my fifth or sixth annual contract with my main client.  I know they love me and respect my work, and even if I should happen to fall short on an assignment (hasn't happened yet, but you never know...) or try something a little too off-the-wall for them, I trust they'll give me the benefit of the doubt: They know what I'm capable of.

Absent that warm reassurance, shipping turns out to be not so easy.  Case in point, the Test Speech.

A prospective client recently offered me the opportunity to be one of several speechwriters creating a speech for the same event.  All of us would get paid, but only one of us would win a new client.

It's nerve-wracking enough to write for a new client when you get to meet the speaker (or at least the communications team) first, talk about their expectations for the speech, and ask questions.  It's even more nerve-wracking to write for someone you've never met and never heard speak - they wouldn't even send me written copies of the guy's speeches!  And although they sent me a detailed outline, I found I disagreed with it at several points (I think that was part of the test), so the speech I turned in was not the speech they were expecting.

They gave me a week to complete the assignment; I did it in six days.  And the last day or day and a half was just pure obsessing.  Is this word right?  Could that be said just a little better?  I finally gave myself a stern talking-to and just pushed Send.

The good news is, once the speech was gone, so was my obsession.  Even better news, I aced the test and won myself a new client.

I can't wait to meet him.