Monday, May 07, 2007

The Workshop Model

Up until this academic year, I used to hold workshops every week. The topics ranged from the practical (burning dvds and cds) to the esoteric (the philosophy of open source software). At first, the sessions were well attended. At their peak, I had as many as 25 people attending. Most of the people coming to my workshops were staff but there were always a handful of faculty. I wanted to reach more faculty, so I started gearing topics specifically to faculty, focusing on curriculum or classroom issues. Attendance dropped dramatically until one day, I was offering a workshop on podcasting and no one showed up, not even the people who'd signed up. I retooled my strategy and began covering a topic every week and offering one-on-one assistance for those interested in the topic. I got a flood of responses and scheduled one or two sessions, but the logistics soon became impossible to manage. And certain topics were more popular than others. Then, I scheduled targeted workshops, only two, at the request of specific faculty. At each of those, I had about 6 people, a good turnout in my mind. Still, 6 faculty out of 150 is not a good percentage.

I've become disenchanted with workshops.

But workshops can be an efficient way to convey information. There are two main reasons I've held workshops--to provide instruction on things that I've been asked about and to introduce ideas that may be useful to faculty. That first reason is an openly selfish attempt to reduce my own workload. Providing instruction on Blackboard, for example, may head off a certain amount of questions and requests for one-on-one tutorials. Imagine, if you will, if instead of having a class full of students all taking Introduction to Literature, you had to meet with each one of them individually according to their schedule and teach them. Each meeting with each student would go over the same material. That is, essentially, what I do at times.

There's a saying that often gets invoked when discussing the lack of faculty interest in workshops: "just in time and just for me." It's getting more and more difficult to provide that kind of support as more and more people want it. One way to meet this need without going crazy is to provide online tutorials and faqs and other documentation and that's something I've done something with. I believe a fair amount of it gets used, but I need more. And the software changes and so I still have to keep up with it.

And what I really want to do is to get away from spending so much time on the how to and spend more time discussing the why. Why use a blog at all? In what ways can it be effective? What aspects of Blackboard can be used to support student learning? How might I use video or audio effectively in my class? I know that knowing how to is an important first step to getting to these questions, but I also think too many people think that if they know how to, they'll figure out the rest later. Increasingly, there's nothing to the how to and there's a lot to figuring out the best way to use the various tools. I know a lot of people think about and figure out these things on their own and don't need me to help them think through such issues. I'm still struggling with how to reach those that do.