Friday, January 7, 2011

Sharing Our Way to Learning Innovations

Five years ago today I underwent open heart surgery to repair a faulty valve and an aneurysm in my aorta.  Why on earth am I sharing this on my blog?  Because that event, as physically and emotionally difficult as it was for me and my family, led to deep change in the way I teach and taught me some valuable lessons about the process of learning.  I believe sharing is central to learning and learning is central to innovation. 

At the time, I was a full-time professor of art history at a community college.  It was my dream job...thought I'd never leave.  I think many professors feel that way when they are hired into a full-time position. Tenure is as coveted as a winning lottery ticket in today's volatile economy and job market.  But about a year and a half ago, I resigned from my tenured position and I now believe my heart surgery was the mark in my life that caused me to reevaluate what I was doing and where I was going both personally and professionally. 

I'd imagine many people who are faced with the reality of never walking through their front door again can relate to this.  I have shared with many people that the hardest part about my surgery was leaving my house at the crack of dawn and saying good-bye to my precious boys, who were only 3 and 5 at the time. 

Derailments May Lead to Good Things
After my surgery, I was fortunate to have the support of my institution to take an entire semester off to recover.  But after I was feeling better physically, I quickly realized that I don't cope very well with "time off."  Without my teaching responsibilities and still not much energy, I found myself spending a lot of time online.  Remember, this was 2006 -- a year after YouTube's introduction, before the mainstream of Facebook, and during the iPod craze.  I watched archived conference presentations online for the first time ever.  That was a huge mindshift -- you don't have to be there to learn.  I began listening to educational podcast series featuring terrific interviews between educators who were debating something called Wikipedia and talking about some crazy new authoring tool called a blog.  The phrase "web 2.0" was introduced into my life.  At the time, I had no idea how these ideas would inspire me. 

My surgery and my time off from teaching completely derailed my from my routine -- and that's what enabled me to learn new things.  This is something all educators need in this time of digital, mobile transformation.  Instead, faculty continue to take on more and more work and have and less time to immerse themselves in our participatory society.

In addition to the unraveling of my "you must be there to hear/listen/watch/learn" values, I taught myself how to podcast and began to record lectures for my classes the following semester.  I was so excited about the idea of having my online students be able to hear my voice.  Wow.  Soon thereafter, I discovered VoiceThread and felt elated about the ability to construct online conversations in voice around visual media -- rather than using text to talk about text (which doesn't jive when you're teaching art history).  A lot was shifting for me and I was about to embark upon a complete reinvention of my teaching and my students' learning -- first online and then face-to-face.

While most faculty were asking, "Is online as good as face-to-face?" I began to ask, "Why isn't face-to-face as good as online?"

Learning in Community
Another important learning experience occurred in the weeks prior to my surgery.  I had learned quite a bit about valvular disorders and my surgery from my cardiologist and surgeon. I had even held a prototype of the valve that would be installed inside my chest.  Despite all the facts and figures I had been provided with, I wasn't ready for this surgery.  Again, I found myself online -- looking, searching for something.  Then I found it.  A website called  At the time, I considered it "just a website" but  now I know it was an early form of a social network.  After I joined, I was able to connect with other people just like me who had either gone through the surgery I was about to have or had it on their horizon.  I "found" a woman in Australia who was my age, had my condition, and also had two boys of her own.  As she shared her story and I shared mine, I realized I had found what I was seeking.  I found a community of people who shared my experiences.  A place to connect, discuss and express oneself.  Yes, I had a fabulous community of friends and family by my side the whole way, but this online community brought me something that I felt was missing.

As an online instructor, that single lesson has stuck with me the most.  I wasn't online looking for "information" about heart surgery.  I was online trying to "learn" about heart surgery.  Processing information is part of learning but there's more to learning than understanding facts.  Learning is social and the online community I found fostered that missing link for me. Communities don't exist without sharing and that's exactly what online technologies, at the time, were beginning to foster.  That experience inspired me to seek out tools and methods for establishing that type of "togetherness" in my online classes.  In the following years I had success achieving a stronger sense of community through a blending of VoiceThread and Ning

Sharing is Innovating
After a few years of reinventing all my course content and my pedagogy, I felt an urgent prodding inside me that was holding me accountable for living genuinely.  I was constantly asking myself if I was happy, if I was doing what I should be doing, if I was where I wanted to be.  I knew I loved teaching.  But I really, truly wanted to share my teaching methods with other teachers.  I wanted to be a bigger part of transforming education. 

I am now an independent consultant.  I am fortunate to be involved with many exciting projects...really fortunate. I've met so many inspiring innovators in the past year and a half and my life has been enriched by them.  I've met people who have been inspired by my own blog, which continues to drive me. But what I've learned about me is that I am a teacher and without my students in my life, I feel a void. 

Ultimately, I know there are other educators out there like me -- maybe not who have had heart surgery --- but who thrive in a culture of innovation and who may be questioning whether or not being in a full-time, tenured faculty role is the right career for them.  That's a hard inner dialogue to have.  Here's what I'd share with you:  know that educators like you are essential to evoking change.  You can change the world from a classroom.  When you innovate in your classroom, your students notice and that will stick with them -- "She taught differently and it was amazing." Professors/teachers are role models and when you innovate, you not only teach your students the necessary learning outcomes for your class, but you also teach them the value of taking a risk and trying something new.  Our students need more of this modeling in their educational careers. 

What's critical is that you share what you're doing in your classes ... through a blog, Twitter, a social network, conference presentations (that YOU should record and share if it's not done for you), through YouTube videos...whatever works for you.  You have many options.  There are many teachers out there who are thirsty for great ideas.  And understand that the changes you inspire may not be visible at first and don't let that frustrate you, as they may begin like a seed planted in a grand forest or subtle ripples in vast, tranquil waters.  But that seed will slowly grow and those ripples will continue to spread and take on new forms, well beyond what you will be aware of.


Maryanne said...

Thanks so much for sharing your story. One thought you had in particular struck a chord with me. You said, "Why isn't face-to-face as good as online?"

This made me laugh b/c you often hear people state the opposite view. However, I think that an online course has the potential for so much more learning than a f2f class b/c it can truly be used as a community of practice. The Internet now provides us with a plethora of ways to do this.

We are lucky to be alive and be part of this exciting learning revolution!


Paul Lanning said...

Yours is a powerful and inspirational story Michelle...thanks for sharing such a personal experience. You've inspired me to renew my commitment to thinking creatively about what's next rather than simply accepting what is.

Okyay said...

What a poignant story about the way life's difficulties can ultimately cause us to live more intentionally, and dream a bigger dream.
As a wise friend of mine says, "After a bad thing, always a good thing!" Your story really helped me connect the fact that a series of unfortunate events led to my new passion for using 'the cloud' to connect to my students in a much deeper way. I particularly liked the way you described learning as about sharing.

Anonymous said...

Great post -- and very true. While I'm not facing any imminent surgery, those are the questions that sit with me everyday in my classroom. I sometimes wonder if I can be more effective my profession, my children, and the world without the restrictions of academia looming overhead.

Unknown said...

Michelle, thank you for sharing this powerful, personal story - not only for the tale of challenge with your surgery -- but for the great insight for the your readers -- great challenges are not always setbacks, but in your case, a way for a new life journey. This is a special MPB Reflection...Thank you.

Nathan said...

wow thank goodness I didn't need to go through the pain you had to, and good to see you still are blogging and I assume feeling better. It is strange that I had a similar but less physically challenging Web2.0 shift thing. Mine was inspired by the birth of my two wonderful identical twin boys in 2007 and watching Did you Know it really hit me that school really had to change and I hope that it does for the sake of my sons. I have done two postgraduate degrees by distance and I am constantly baffled by the lack of awareness or enthusiasm for eLearning... It is like inventing the printing press and ignoring it.