Spiros Soulis and Howard Errey got together to discuss this question in a cafe. It was very noisy. Instead they decided to open a Google Doc and write.
Spiros: Are we really making a difference to the student experience? Looking at the graduation ceremony from my Ivory tower, I didn’t feel a sense of emotion or nostalgia, and trust me I am usually the first to reach for the box of kleenex…so why then did I not feel those strong emotions after all isn’t that why I am here to help make a difference to our student experience? I proceeded to verbalise my feelings by saying; “well we are not making a difference because we are too detached” a member of the team then answered by talking about getting very emotional while attending graduation ceremonies, but that emotion was born through being a teacher, seeing her students graduate, an emotion I remember well watching my students graduate from the courses I taught. So now being removed from teaching do I feel nothing?
But are we not impacting on educators and their teaching so are they not our learners? And is that why I reach for that box of kleenex when they tell me the change I have helped them make, has completely altered their course and will change their teaching practice. I feel so detached at times from our student cohort I pass them by on the way to meetings, meetings that are all about improving their experience, yet they are completely alien to me, interesting faces amongst our buildings, but that is all. So how do I know that the work I am doing is actually having an impact on their experience at RMIT?
Perhaps looking ahead to a new year I need to shift my focus on how I can ‘be’ a better experience for our students, creating empathy, sharing my thoughts about their learning, talking with them. Perhaps such an approach will then give me that sense of nostalgia and emotion that I lacked as I looked down on the graduation parade from my Ivory tower, I don’t know. But what I do know is that I will be stocking up on the tissues next year.
Howard: Should I offer congrats for getting past the Kleenex? More seriously, is it our job to feel something for our students at their graduation? It might be fine that we don’t feel anything and what matters is that the students do experience great emotion, uplift, relief, happiness, joy, and some grief at leaving. And just as importantly it matters that we know in some way that they do have a meaningful experience, that even the thinkers amongst the graduates feel something or experience meaning.
As for those educators we work with it is interesting you experience something with them. For me I often think of it unconsciously as a large family. There is that old and simplistic model of feelings passing down the line, usually depicted as negative emotion moving so that eventually the youngest child kicks the dog or something else equally awful. What if feeling passed down our organisation in similar ways? That we excite our educators may be enough. When we set the light bulbs off with innovative ideas or practices they can adopt I imagine that they always have their students in mind. Angela Nicolettou and I had this discussion with Gus Balbontin recently. It’s not an economic model of presenters and consumers, although students are customers to a degree. What motivates educators, is that they can make a difference for their students, that their students can go on to succeed in their chosen field and that they are better citizens at the same time.
Which still leaves the problem of how do know that what we do makes the essential difference that makes our own efforts worthwhile? I suspect analytics helps with this but I also think the awareness we have on student impact could be more direct. Meeting them, talking with them and being involved in their lives is a different experience to whatever data we can collect. I am lucky here in that I have a daughter who is a student and can see the long term overview. I’ve seen the failures and successes and through experience can see now how to help her succeed, and more importantly how to help her help herself to succeed.
So maybe there could be some mentorship. I am fond of mentioning an IBM project of a few years ago where the young people in the organisation got to mentor the older staff. It was a nice turnaround but also presumably the impact went both ways. It has been refreshing to come across other students in some of our projects and I have had the positive experience in working side by side with a student in one small project this year. We now have something of a friendship and so there may be future collaborations.
I am left with 2 questions: How can we bring more students into projects? Spiros and I have already committed that we will take this into planning for next year. I also wonder if we had a flatter management structure with less “distance” between the top and the bottom, if that would help. Your thoughts?
Photo Credit: RMIT Autumn view from the DSC college office. Howard Errey, cc licence on Flickr.