Dave over at Massage Therapy has been thinking about some of my ideas on flexible learning development and mixing them up with his own. His post reminded me that I need to update the flexible learning in New Zealand series. This post relates directly to the ideas that Dave is stewing, although I will use another subject area (Horticulture) to describe the design as it is with teh Horticulture Department that we are going to test out this model.
Short courses open to community

My first encounter with the Horticulture Department at the Otago Polytech was through a number of short, weekend courses they run. The first one I went to was Chainsaw Maintenance. There I learnt how to check, clean and sharpen a chainsaw. Maintaining and operating a chainsaw has been one of those things I have wanted to be confident in for a long time. It was a great one day course! I learnt a lot about it actually, and feel 100% more confident with a chainsaw. I video recorded as much as I could of the demonstrations on the day, because one thing I did notice that was missing from the course, was any availability of follow up information to support the course. This was a one day event. That was it – no more, no less.

At the chainsaw maintenance day I found out about another short weekend course being offered by the Horticulture Department up at the Botanical Gardens nursery. Propagation. Sunshine and I have been developing an interest in gardening, and we thought propagation would have a few tips and local know how to help us. We were right! It was a great day and we not only learned a lot about plant propagation, local plant species and horticulture generally, but we maintain a confidence and motivation around our garden to this day. It is amazing what one day around the right people can do.

At the propagation day I met Kim, the Horticulture lecturer who organises the short courses. I got to chatting to her about them and found out about a whole bunch more of these stand alone short courses. Things from eatable local seaweeds, to dry stone wall building and therapy gardening… I said to her, “you must score a few full-time students into Horticulture doing this?” to which she agreed and showed me a list of names of people who started out on weekend courses and gradually became fully fledged horticulturalists.

A few weekends later I was spending another $50 and learning how to build a dry stone wall out of local rock. Great fun it was too!

Online lead in and follow up

The biggest thing that was missing from the weekend short courses was the availability of information in the lead up to the course, and afterwards. When we arrived on the day, the usual photocopied handouts were passed out, and on we went with learning how to do. I dunno where those handouts are now.. in the garden as mulch I’d say.. they were very limited resources from memory.

What I wanted was for that info to be available to me before the course and afterwards. After signing up for the courses I was motivated then and there and could have used a little outlet of demo videos and reading to keep my psyched. After the course I was fully psyched! That’s when I wanted more. More things to look at, more local knowledge, things to go on with. I guess they could send out the handouts, but that’d be pretty daggy and it would not solve the limited nature of the resources. As I said before, I video recorded the demonstrations on the day (go back and check those links). Someone could no doubt do a more professional job than I and make them available also.

Watching the videos of the workshop that went before would be a good way to prepare for a course. It doesn’t have to be video either. Pictures would do, audio might work, a course blog would be cool, a course wiki would be even better! The point is that the resources that support the face to face session are available before and after the course. Designed right, they could lead me into the next level of the course, or into a number of related fields, feeding my curiosity for the field of horticulture, and seeing me arrive at more and more short courses.

Is there any reason why these short courses can’t be credited towards something? It should be done in such a way so as I didn’t even know it was happening, so after doing a number of short courses I get a little notice saying, “congratulations Leigh! You are 1/3 of the way to becoming a level 3 Horticulturalist🙂 – background record keeping and admin, someone keeping track of what I do and always ready to respond to me with guidence on the next thing I should do. Maybe something as advanced as Amazon does with their book recomendations – recomending another book to me as I buy this one (does anyone else get weirded out by how good those recomendations usually are?)

More widely available

Ok, so the person who has some how found out about these short courses is sorted. Each course has a good body of dynamic and interesting online content to support it, and it is designed in such a way so as to directly support the face to face workshops and lead into other courses and suggested pathways for further learning. But with these resources being openly online and available on a number of popular platforms from YouTube to Flickr, and even TradeMe if I can come up with an idea to make that work!?.. So now we have a different sort of person interacting with our courses. Most likely they are people just browsing Net, ships passing in the night, clicking the next video, or searching for something specific that our piece of content only partly helps with. Every now and then it might be a person who thinks they have scored what they have been looking for all along and will download every piece of info you have made available. Online is like that, its all good, if your rock wall video gets 150-1000 views in a couple of months, that’s a pretty good feeling isn’t it?

But there are other environments where people use learning resources with apparently more focus and with potentially more benefit to the Horticulture Department. They are Community Learning Centres, High Schools, other initiatives that might be wanting to teach horticulture in some way – prisons, rehabilitation programs, job skill programs etc etc. By making the content available both online AND in print and portable media formats for use in such centres, the materials may attract more participation in the short courses, and perhaps even enrolments in the Horticulture Programmes.

Imagine it.. you have dropped into a Community Learning Centre. You’re browsing the shelves of self paced learning materials and you spot Chainsaw Maintenance. You remember that on the weekend you will be helping your dad drop a few dead trees for fire wood and think, maybe this has something in it for me. You pull the box from the shelf and to your surprise, written on the cover is:

Successful completion of this unit results in a discount in hire rates for chainsaws at the following hire places..

that’s right! the Horticulture Department has struck a tasty deal with the local hire places. The hire places see benefits in attracting people who have completed courses offered by the Polytech as it reassures them that the customers know what they are doing, and that their hire equipment will last a little longer as a result. They even go so far as to recomend their staff and customers to the courses!

So now, you are even more interested in looking through the resources. You sit down and go through a number of short and fun exercises and after about 20 minutes you come to a notice that says:

Stop! You now have to see the centre facilitator and book yourself into a short course in: Workshop One – Chainsaw maintainance: Cleaning air filters, sharpening chains, checking operations.

Your suspision is raised, the hairs on the back of your neck rise up as you remember Mrs Lines from year 9. You can smell the chalk and wooden rulers. You’re not sure if its worth committing to something that sounds like the school you left years ago, but you see a link on the notice that says:

hey! watch a few videos from the last workshop.

You click the link and see a huge range of videos from shots of the free lunch that was put on, to a number of recordings of the demos.

Whether or not this person takes the step and signs up for a one day workshop is anyone’s guess. The fact that completion would result in a discount at the hire place may be one motivation, maybe being able to help dad a bit better is a motivation, who knows. The main thing is that it should be as easy as possible to enter into a short course, that it is non committal, and that once involved – all activities logically lead onto more activities and that someone is keeping score. Its about the educational institution building a relationship with someone who for many understandable reasons may have a dim view of formal learning. Its about maintaining that relationship not just in terms of enrolment timetables and a student number, but more where the whole person is catered for and looked after.

That’s all for now. I’m off to the shops to grab a DVD and a pizza for Sunshine and get back to our Sunday night together.