Sunday, October 12, 2008

Engaged? But We Just Met...

I've been involved in education, mostly adult education, for over 30 years now, and I have come to believe that the single most important thing we do as educators is the engage learners - get them to actively participate and take responsibility for their learning - without engagement there is no learning, just a lot of words being spoken, slides presented, work being done. So here is what I think of engagement and what we as educators can and must do...

As a faculty member, my world was the learning environments, both physical and virtual, that I created and delivered to my learners - my focus was "here they are, in the "room", now let's give them every opportunity to be a successful learner". The learners were already enrolled, they came to class, or didn't, they did the work, or didn't, and hopefully met the course standards and learned something along the way. In my experience engaged learners not only succeed themselves, they tend to engage their peers who otherwise might fall by the wayside. What I was concerned about was getting learners engaged in what they were doing when I was with them, I didn't worry about what happened outside of the classroom - my focus was on keeping learners engaged in their learning in the courses I was facilitating - a fairly micro look at adult education.

I am now in my second year as an academic chair, with 27 full and part-time faculty, and more than 500 learners spread across 16 full-time programmes and a large number of part-time, continuing education and online courses. I have a much more macro view of adult education.

Engagement is now part of the big picture for me and in my mind it begins long before a learner even comes to my College. We need to engage learners as early as possible in their post-secondary education (PSE) choices. Vincent Tinto (an absolutely amazing guy - you must read his books - "Leaving College" is an essential book for any educator's library) says that the first three weeks of a college student's career are the most important and those three weeks often happen before classes even start - it's the application process, the admissions process, orientation, and so on - making the learner feel part of the institution, in other words making them feel part of a community. Community is the key to engaged learners - simply stated our role as adult educators is to foster community, most everything else will take care of itself if a community exists.

So if community is the most important thing we can foster as educators (way more important than content in my opinion), how exactly can we create environments where community can flourish, engaging our learners? Here are some of the ways that I've been thinking about, using, and discussing with colleagues:
  • Engage learners in high school, maybe even junior high school, let them know about your programmes, and career opportunities. To be successful this must be done in concert with industry - employers going into the schools with you to show the education-employment connection that is important to so many learners. At NSCC we have programmes like O2 (Options and Opportunities) and College Prep that help engage high school students early so they can consider the college as their PSE choice. We use Test Drives to show prospective learners a "day in the life" of a college learner.
  • Research has shown that two of the most important influencers on making a PSE decision are teachers and mothers - engage both in the process. We do this through "parents as Career Coaches", and through our College Prep folks talkingto teachers and guidance counsellors.
  • Once a learner is accepted into a programme, actively connect with them, let them know they have made an important (and correct) decision and that they are now part of a community - that they are not alone. This can be done through Admissions or the programme itself sending out information packages (or links to a wiki or Web site with the info) so that new learners arrive on the first day of college as informed learners.
  • Have an orientation that fosters and develops community - team activities, getting to know each other and their environment. One activity that I have used is to ask everyone to tell one thing that they are an expert at (amazing what you hear), and add that expertise to the group knowledge base - make it clear to learners that they are each others' most important learning resource. Balance the amount of information handed out (and there is always so much at the beginning of the year) with learning activities that build community - the information can always get to learners later.
  • Let learners know all of the services and supports available on your campus, that they are part of a larger learning community that is there to support them
  • Maximize the use of problem-based, project-based, and team-based learning. Use projects and assignments that require learners to cooperate and collaborate, strengthening their sense of community
  • Use learning technologies that learners like, not ones that you like. It's much easier for one of you to adapt than a whole class of learners. We have found in the last few years that e-mail is no longer the most efficient way to communicate with learners (they use e-mail to talk to "old folks") - so get to know, learn, and use current learning technologies - Web 2.0, Facebook, IM, Twitter, wikis, blogs, text messaging - go where your learners "are"
  • Give up control of the content in your courses. This isn't quite as scary as it seems. As the facilitator you know the course outcomes - let learners find and share the content - they develop research and presentation skills, become expert in using the Internet and other resources, develop skills in information gathering, interpretation, and use, and develop their learning community.
  • Give control of the learning environment to learners. As a facilitator you will still be responsible for classroom management, but what's wrong with letting learners decide on things like how the environment will look, when tests etc. are scheduled, what kinds of tests are used (meet all learning styles), how they organize themselves, and so on - the community will flourish if the learners are engaged and learners will be engaged if the community flourishes.
These are just some of the things that I have used to engage learners and to develop community. Once learning communities develop and take hold, they are the single most powerful thing you have to keep learners engaged. If you need evidence look at the military (I was in the Canadian Army for 28 years), and in particuar basic training - the individual is subsumed for the team, for the community - it really is Band of Brothers whether you are talking about a platoon of soldiers or a community of learners. Hmmm...