Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The reality of flexible learning in the context of eMentoring

I am currently living the experience of flexible learning from a design and implementation perspective, and it is not an easy experience.

eMentoring project
I am currently implementing an eMentoring program. To start people off, I am asking them to attend education sessions which include information about eMentoring, computer workshops for people who do not know how to use communication tools like Skype, and one on one work with mentor/mentee to create mentoring agreement or contract.

eMentoring workshops
The workshops are being held in Brisbane, Cairns and Longreach in Queensland. It goes without saying that I want as many people to attend the workshops as possible. It is really important that people understand what mentoring is and how to do it effectively. So these education sessions provide a framework for the eMentoring program.

The computer skills aspect of the workshops is also very important because many of the mentees and mentors have only very basic computer skills.

But suffice to say, the same old barriers prevent people attending the workshops including lack of time, lack of financial support to pay for flights and accommodation, huge geographical distances between home and the workshops.

Alternative approaches to face-to-face workshops
There are a number of people who are unable to come to the workshops so I have had to come up with ideas about alternative ways of delivering information and encouraging the project participants to engage with each other. I have developed a handbook and CD Rom (funded by the Gaming Community Benefit Fund) as an asynchronous learning resource, and will be offering online seminars. If I had more time within this project, I would look at designing some supporting learning materials such as videos and podcasts.

Learning needs of mentees
But the need for flexibility extends beyond the actual workshops - I have also had to be very flexible in the way I have facilitated the mentees' thinking about their learning needs and how those needs can be met by the mentors.

I started the project with very fixed ideas about the project, what I expected people to achieve, and time frames. But what I have found is that I have had to talk to people individually in a lot more depth to tease out their issues and learning needs, and take time to make suggestions and guide their decision-making about their goals and objectives. I have also had to come up with completely alternative approaches and tailored packages to suit specific needs and populations.

For example, I am having to make myself available for one-on-one support and tuition, especially with working with indigenous staff in very rural and remote areas. I am also realising that I have to be a lot more flexible with time frames (which is very difficult to do as I am working with a set time frame). Everyone works to their own clock, which begs the question about how we manage the issue of time within formal education programs.

Implications for design of flexible learning
So what have I learned about flexible learning in the last couple of weeks?
  1. Learners are not all square pegs that fit neatly into the square holes we design for them -sometimes they come to us as round pegs, so we need to work with them to manage the fitting of their learning needs with education packages, and/or visa versa.
  2. It is worth investing the time to fully explore learner's needs and how they can be met.
  3. If you want people to engage with your education programs, you have to be prepared to be challenged, which can be quite uncomfortable at times - you may need to very carefully examine your own pre-conceived ideas about education and turn them on their head.
Logistics of flexible learning for educators
My concern about all this 'flexibility' is how much of a time commitment it is for the educator compared to cost - in other words, how cost effective is this 'one to one' work that I have been doing. It has had to be done because of the type of project I am involved with - but would this level of interaction be sustainable in a more lengthy education program?

I would not be able to sustain the sort of one-to-one computer support that I am currently committing myself to. And it just would not be feasible to run around all areas of Queensland running small computer workshops. So I would need to think about how I can utilize community networks and resources to support people in their local environment, especially people in very rural and remote areas.

If you are an educator, what is your experience of designing flexible education programs? How much is it 'nice to do' but in reality is impossible to achieve and sustain? If you are a learner either in a formal education program or undertaking professional development at work, what does 'flexibility' mean to you?

Image: 'Flexibility' Bob.Fornal


starpath said...

Challenge each person at the workshop to ‘spread the word’ or ‘teach two other people’ at least. In this way, they will embed the knowledge they learnt in your workshop (a help to them) and your message will spread like wildfire.

Minhaaj said...

It invokes some really important points Sarah like all learners cannot be pegged into same holes. Very comprehensive post i must say. I share most of the notions you present in the post and some of them whetted the appetite for mind.

Sui Fai John Mak said...

Would you like to consider your mentoring relationship be like friends? What would your friend be expecting from you? What did she want to get from you? If you ask her (YOUR FRIEND) to come with you and attend an education session, what was her reaction? That was my humble experience.
Have I share my responses with you?
Would flexibility be that important to you or to HER?
At the end, if you wish to have another friend, then what would you do?

Sarah Stewart said...

Thank you all for your comments-sorry it's taken so long to get back to you.

starpath: loving the idea of the 'train the trainer' idea. thanks.

Minhaaj: The thing is, it's all well and good talking about how you work in a flexible way with individuals, but what about the realities of implementation?

John: thanks so much for your comments but I am not sure if a mentor is a friend. I think a mentor may become a friend as the mentoring relationship develops. Therefore, I am not sure if the 'friend' analogy works here. What do you think?

Minhaaj said...

Sarah, you know what.. education is somewhat like coaching a soccer team. You work whole season and motivate the kids but when they're on field, you just sit back and watch. Whats amazing is that you think passionately and sincerely about education and i tell you this is scarce in commercialized world. Keep it alive :)

Sarah Stewart said...

Thanks for your support and encouragement, Minhaaj.