Category: Work

Tentatively hugging the digital tree

Tentatively hugging the digital tree

As I undertake the design and construction of the new capstone subject Management in Practice for the School of Management at RMIT University I’m aware of the opportunity to embrace some newer, digitally delivered, tools and approaches to learning and teaching. But what does that mean in the context of our students? How might I go about doing it? Does it matter which approaches I use, or is the fact that this course is ‘digital’ be enough?

We’ve seen a significant shift at RMIT over the past few years as we begin to move towards a more digitally enabled organisation. The transformation has been going on behind the scenes for some years, but recently it has become increasingly obvious to front-line people that there is a significant transformation underway. For example, RMIT’s ICT strategy to 2020 is organised around five themes:

1. Best in class digital student experience – Invest in new technologies which transform the student experience and underpin the digital strategy
2. Innovative and efficient Service Integrator – Reposition the ICT function to source and manage services more efficiently and to focus on business outcomes through innovation
3. Elegant global service experience and systems – Move to single global systems and processes which enable the global operating model
4. Data to fuel differentiation & decisions – Ensure quality data and integrated systems are available to support data based decision-making, and enable personalised and contextualised services
5. Simple & secure technology foundations – Ensure foundation technology is simplified, free of duplication, and secure

When looking at that document, I was struck by what the authors had framed as ‘RMIT’s Perfect Storm’ (pages 6 and 7) where they framed the challenges that RMIT is facing:

1. Adaptive learning
2. Re-inventing credits
3. Social media
4. Flipped classroom
5. Self-paced learning
7. Digital assessments
8. Massive computing for research data
9. Listening and sensing technologies
10. Ebooks and digital content
11. Open micro-credentials
12. Predictive analytics
13. Advanced classroom technologies
14. Physical virtual presence

There’s a lot there to consider. Lots of moving pieces. It looks complicated. So what does all this mean for me as a teaching academic? The obvious themes in this document that I are ‘Best in class digital student experience’ and ‘Data to fuel differentiation and decisions’. The challenges that stood out included:

  1. Adaptive learning
  2. Re-inventing credits
  3. Social media
  4. Flipped classroom
  5. Self-paced learning
  6. MOOCS
  7. Digital assessments
  8. Ebooks and digital content
  9. Predictive analytics

It appears these are the drivers of much of the technology adoption in RMIT and if I want to remain an effective educator, I’m probably going to have to adapt my approach to teaching. You know, Academic Expectations and all that….

So, in thinking this through, some of the questions that I have are: How do I go about implementing some of these things in my practice? Do students want any of this stuff anyway? What’s the case for all this digital transformation in the L&T space?


The case for adopting a digital approach to teaching and learning

It appears that the case for the move to digital has been made mostly in the UK and in the USA. Australia seems to be following a similar path although a few years behind. Some interesting reading that I came across included an analysis by Delloits on the adoption of digital tools in education in the schooling system (not HE), and the Digital Student Project in the UK. When I dug into this report a little deeper and looked at the student digital experience tracker pilot report I was struck by some of the statistics:

The following comes from page 17 of the report:

With regards to the overall student digital experience:
Approximately seven in ten of students believe that
when technology is used by teaching staff it enhances
their learning experience
Around 6 in 10 students believe that digital
assessments are delivered well

Technology use by teaching staff:
» 72.2% of HE students and 70.1% of FE and skills
students agreed that when technology is used by
teaching staff, it helped their learning experience

And this is what the Higher Ed Students said they wanted (Pages 19–21):

Offer recorded lectures
Make better use of VLEs: standardise use by staff, add
presentations, teach students how to use it effectively,
and improve access (eg mobile friendly)
Improve online services: more online resources/
activities, assessment submissions
Provide access to better / more computers and devices

And this…

Keep providing online 24/7 access to as much content
as possible
Keep providing 24/7 library access
Keep providing as much material as possible (lecture
notes, slides etc) on the VLE, and make it accessible
any time any place
Keep using technology, and embracing new
technology services and resources

And, finally, this…

Stop sending irrelevant emails! (very many students
said this)
Stop early morning lectures
Stop “death by PowerPoint” and other boring lecture
behaviours eg too long, unbroken

The recording of lectures is a no-brainer. As a student, I wouldn’t bother getting up for an 8:30 lecture if I knew it was going to be recorded. It seems, then, the decision on how to do lectures in this ‘new’ environment is going to be a design question I’m going to spend a little time exploring. If, for example, I choose to put all lectures online, what’s the best way to do that? What opportunities do I sacrifice when adopting an online process? What becomes available to me in the digital space that isn’t as easy in the F2F space?

On Monday and Tuesday I’ll be working with Joyce Seitzinger from Academic Tribe as part of a Digital Design Sprint to learn how to think through many of the issues I’ll be facing as I create the new Management In Practice course. I’m going to capture much of that process as I can and publish it here so that others might learn from it as well. I hope you’ll join me.

The most important 15 minutes of my day

The problem

So much of academia is about administration. It’s a constant swirl of teaching, research, email and meetings.

Oh.My.God. The meetings…

I used to think that most work arrived by email, but after looking closely at it, it’s clear to me now that the critical point at which work gets created is in meetings. Email, as painful as it is, is really about people requesting a response to the fact that work needs to get done; students asking for extensions, colleagues asking about that project you are working on together, program managers asking about that new course design… All this updating can suck the energy out of anyone’s day and make it hard to get things done.

As I see it, there are two main responses that I can take to email: I can react to email, responding and updating as the requests come through, or I can be proactive about the fact that people will want to be updated on progress and I can work to minimise email before it ever gets sent. You might be thinking that the best way to do that is to send the update before it is asked for, but in fact, that only adds more volume to the email problem and really only shifts the timing of the email that I need to write anyway. There’s no net benefit in that.

How I tackle this problem is with my calendar. More specifically, by planning the most important 15 minutes of my day into my day. Here’s how:

  • Work gets generated in meetings.
  • Meetings are where work gets discussed.
  • Most of the time, no work occurs in the meeting, it occurs some time later.
  • Few people get clear about the outcome of the meeting when the meeting is happening.
  • Clarifications of what to do next, (or worse, no clarification ) occurs later by email or in another meeting.

At the end of each meeting, I take 15 minutes to get clear about what was discussed, what the next actions need to be, what success looks like and to put all that into my task management / project management system.

I’m a fan of OmniFocus for this step, but it doesn’t really matter. The key is to make sure that before you do anything else that you have committed it to your system.

The problem in more detail

Modern organisations like universities use software to help people to figure out how to manage their day and to coordinate. The ubiquitous calendar now sits on desktops, mobile devices and, occasionally, in paper diaries <– Yes, this is still a thing. The point is that software (and paper) calendars often pre-suppose how long time slots should be. Usually it is sixty minutes, sometimes half an hour. Rarely is it anything else. The problem here is that people then schedule meetings to fill these 1-hour slots – even if the meeting doesn’t need that long to achieve its purpose.

As a side note: have you ever been in a meeting and watched it slide from focussed discussion down into trivia as the meeting passes its half-way point? People realise that if the meeting concluded ‘early’ but before the time that they had mentally scheduled for it, that they would be in this interstitial space with ‘not enough time to begin something else’ before the next meeting (or teaching, or writing slot…) so instead of going back to their desk, they ‘fill up the time’ with chatter or barely relevant tangents/riffs on the meeting purpose.

Solving the problem in meetings that I organise

I schedule meetings for 45 minutes and then conclude them on time. At the conclusion of the meeting, I get up, leave and go to a private space somewhere to collects my notes, decide on next actions and put everything into relevant projects or as ext action items in my OmniFocus list. This is the most important 15 minutes of my day. It is in this 15 minutes that I can get on top of things. I can plan. I can figure out how the next things I need to do fit into the overall picture of my work and career. Doing it then and there has enormous pay-offs. If I don’t consolidate my thinking into clear actions soon after the meeting has concluded, then I run the risk of forgetting important things, or diving into next actions before I’ve had a chance to understand how it all fits together, making me less effective and less efficient.

I’ve learned over time that for that 15 minutes to be effective, the worst thing I can do is leave the meeting and go directly back to my desk; often colleagues will follow me there for a ‘chat’. On the surface of it, this chat is related to work somehow, but in reality this often little more than them filling in time before the next hour begins. My theory is that because this idea "…any meeting that finishes earlier than an hour suggests that people now have a little bit of ‘free time’ before the next o’clock rolls around has been so thoroughly socialised in the organisation, people will look to fill that ‘free time’ and will not feel guilty about it. I avoid this time-suck by going out and finding a space where I can sit down and collect my thoughts. By the time the next o’clock has come around, I’m clear about what I need to do and have clarified my next steps. I can go into the next meeting not still thinking about the last one.

Solving the problem in meetings that I am invited to

Over time I’ve watched carefully how meetings play out and I’ve noticed how their effectiveness seems to diminish – especially once 80% of the scheduled time has expired. In fact, I’ve noticed the 80/20 rule works pretty well in meetings. Most of the important action in a meeting occurs in the first 20% of it. Depending on the relative importance of the topic that the meeting is about, or who is in it, I have two main options available to me:

  • Leave with 15 minutes of the meeting still to go and go and collect my thoughts/actions, or
  • Stay and turn 80% of my attention to pulling together my thoughts and actions in the meeting while keeping a lazy ear on what is going on as the meeting grinds to a close.

Either way, the outcome I seek is that before the next thing in my calendar rolls around, I am clear about the outcomes of the meeting I’m in/have just left and my head is ready and focussed for the next thing.

I’ve found that this 15 minutes is incredibly important as it allows me to be certain about my next steps and it helps me to structure what may future work looks like. Once it is all in OmniFocus (with due dates associated) it is just a matter of executing my task list.

The last piece of the puzzle is to schedule project updates for relevant stakeholders. I have a TextExpander snippet that I use to pre-format a project update report that I send out on the schedule I’ve established every X weeks (depending on what the requirement is.) This proactive updating mens that I hardly ever get those status update emails from people that I’m working with on projects.

All of this is possible because I slow down after a meeting finishes and take just 15 minutes to consolidate and plan next steps. Running from meeting without taking the time to consolidate is a sure-fire way to end up frazzled at the end of the day and not know what the next steps are.

Take the 15 minutes. Plan for it. You can thank me later.

Doing Academia

I’ve been listening to @tferriss interview Rick Rubin about how he helps creatives (musicians) find their muse and create excellent work. Rick makes the point that if you are in a creative pursuit then you need to surround yourself with excellent examples of creativity. Furthermore, he says it doesn’t matter where this excellence comes from – poetry, a museum, a book, a film – as long as you have access to excellence and tap into it regularly.

What stops excellence, he says, is when the creative person begins to compare themselves with others, losing the focus on what they are trying to create and becoming distracted by those things that are not the work. Once this happens, it is easy to lose confidence, to think that you are not as good as that other person, or that your work will never be as widely read/heard/seen/acknolwedged as that other person’s is. Once you go down that path, it is hard to turn it around.

Rick’s advice? Focus on doing your own work, but each day that you do it, do it a little better than you did the day before.

This advice rang true for me. When I’m not focussing on my work but instead worried about my relative success in terms of my career (will that other person get promoted before I do? Are my teaching reviews as good or better than others in my field? Is my work interesting enough? Is my writing good enough? …) my work suffers. I lose momentum. I stop writing. I obsess over the unimportant, rather than doing the work I need to do to get better.

It doesn’t help that the academy is built on a hierarchy, or that universities are brutally competitive places and that promotion within departments often comes at someone else’s expense. It’s easy to get distracted by the minutiae of promotion applications and petty jealousies (professional or otherwise).

I’m not alone when I complain about the lack of resources in our sector, or the lack of time available to undertake all the teaching, research and administrative tasks that academia calls for, but I do have a choice about how I respond to those challenges. We all do.

We can either get sucked into the vortex of doing academia or we can concentrate on being academic. One of these paths will lead to success. The other, not so much.