Saturday, October 15, 2011

Learning at the Chalkface

I am in the middle of a teaching commitment, and having taken it up, I have started regretting it somewhat. This is indeed because of pressures of my day to day life, with many things demanding attention at once, not least the management work at the college. We are at an interesting point in the 'journey', when the changes I have been advocating for finally come to be implemented, and I am hopeful, the college will emerge as a completely transformed entity in the next 12 months time. My own business is also coming together, a logo, an office, ideas about technologies and courses, a partnership, various disparate elements: All of this is demanding my time too. Finally, I have reached the last taught module of my MA course at UCL, and this is possibly the most interesting one I have done so far. This is about learning and learning environments, and we have made trips to museums, cafes and finally to British Library to start thinking about learning environments.

At this time, having to teach 18 hours a week is quite demanding. This means long nights and starting early in the mornings to do the preparation. I don't, as a matter of principle, recycle my old materials when I teach: I try to update them with new information and incorporate things which I learned from the last session. May be I am being a bit naive and creating work for myself, but having signed up to be a professional teacher, it would have been wrong for me to settle for anything less.

But no regrets, as this teaching makes me revisit the assumptions about teaching and learning I had. The model of British Postgraduate Education is essentially research-based, and I had woven together a series of themed exploration based on their own personal experiences. That plan, quite elaborately made, lasted till my first contact with the class. Clearly, some of the international students I had did not have the experience or the inclination to do this at all. They were expecting to be 'taught', be told what is the right formula of marketing, and asking them to use their own judgement and come up with answers to difficult questions started to disappoint them.

Indeed, the other philosophy I wanted to carry was to be student-centric. Standing up to deliver the lecture, however, it is difficult to define what it means. Does it mean that I must do everything I can to encourage the students to do more, even if something is clearly beyond their capability or interest, knowing that this would possibly meet the end requirements of the course? Or should it mean that I allow the students determine what they would like to be taught, activities etc? Trying to do both, which, admittedly, I have been trying for last two weeks, is a struggle, and this has taken more time and effort than I initially planned.

One of my key problems is that most of the students I had didn't want to read. They were, instead, interested in knowing what would be there in the examination, and wanted 'notes' to address these areas. By no means, I am suggesting that this is illegitimate or problematic, but confining myself to these areas would have meant a series of disjointed conversations rather than any meaningful exploration of the subject. I handed out a number of reading materials, though the nature of these materials changed as we went along: I started with some scholarly articles, and soon had to move to more 'pop' ones. Again, this was okay, given my inclination to talk about concepts like Long Tail and how to compete against free in the class: I am anyway more in Fast Company and Wired territory than in the realm of Journal of Marketing. But it would be quite a significant leap for the students, I reckon, to transform their writing from where they are to where they need to be, writing academic pieces laden with references and complex concepts, in only a few weeks' time.

So, overall, teaching this MBA class was interesting. I have this suspicion that I learned more through this experience than did the students. It is only coincidental that this happened to be one of the most interesting times of my life and my priorities did indeed clash. This would also mean that I would not take a teaching commitment at least till next March, until after U-Aspire is completely set up and going. From that perspective, I am glad I did this now, as I shall take away an enormous amount of learning from this experience.

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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