How To Level Up

My favorite part of any conference is the trip home.

Because it’s only then, soaring high above the landscape or cruising across state lines on the asphalt, that I can really start to process all that I’ve learned – the new ideas and fresh conversations that get me thinking and rethinking what I do in the classroom.

Of course, the many panels and keynotes and sessions of the recently completed TLC were all held virtually, like virtually everything else these days. So instead of my various epiphanies and plans taking place at 35,000 feet, or with cruise control locked in on the interstate, my balcony became my lab – a local sandbox where I tried to sort through all innovative practices, all the ways I could leverage the latest tech, and how I might respond to the various calls to action.

But behind the excitement lies a bigger, and messier, question – one I tried to address head on in my TLC presentation. We know that making a change in our teaching habits, or in the classroom itself, takes time – not just the operational time to do the task, but the strategic time needed to think our way forward. So how are we supposed to find the time to do this stuff? The best best practice stuff. That Advanced / Expert / Mastery magic? How are we supposed to find the time to LEVEL UP? Most days, it’s all we can manage to just teach mindfully in the online modality. So how can we also be expected to find the time necessary to optimize the learning experience, to both iterate and innovate within the online classroom?

In my presentation, I talked about digital sediment those tasks and duties that are part and parcel of online teaching, and which always threaten to bury us. To start digging out, I want to borrow a term from archeology, overburden, that encapsulates this. Overburdened is how we feel, I know, but overburden, one word, in archaeological terms, is all the soil, all the mud, the rock and other materials that lie on top of what you’re trying to get to in a dig. And our classes, our teaching, can easily be crushed under the weight of this overburden.

What we have to realize is that we will never clear the decks, never fully eliminate the digital overburden. We can’t …and we wouldn’t want to, actually, since that’s were so many vital teaching and learning tasks take place. But what we can do is come up with a plan that equally prioritizes strategic thinking with those overwhelming tactical tasks. We can make a place for the overburden, shift it to the side, reconfigure our mindset to prioritize innovation, green fields, and the bluest blue sky.

There are always more papers to grade, more emails to write or respond to. What I suggest is that we stop thinking of these two domains as hierarchical, or that you have to complete one before progressing to the other. It’s easy to put things off, in the face of the vast dailiness of the world, but we need to prioritize strategic thinking, be proactive in how we embrace innovation and change action. Establishing a productive workflow for online faculty, and engineering a more efficient workload, are not destinations. I think we should always be chasing solutions, always scrutinizing and evaluating ways to work smarter in service of our students. But in order to do that, I think we need to take a fundamental step back, realign our priorities in the classroom, and approach the entire predicament with a fresh mindset.

In my talk, I presented a couple of ideas to help reconceptualize that workflow in such a way as to allow for more development time, more thinking, more reflection. It’s not a magic bullet, but it’s a step in the right direction. If you want to start using the insights and ideas gained from the TLC presentations – whether you saw them live, or are going to watch the recordings – the key is to take them a step at a time. Trying to do everything at once can only lead to burnout and disappointment. But once we reimagine the cycle of incremental progress that fuels the online classroom, once we manage and deploy our thinking on larger ideas about our online teaching, we can open a window. And this window shows us a wider scope of iteration and innovation in our teaching, and in the classroom itself.

We need to stop thinking with our fingers on the keyboard. We need to remember to take a breath. I can’t imagine all the things I can’t yet imagine… but a conference as rich and robust as our 2020 TLC reminds me that I have to try.

Nathan Pritts, Ph.D

Full Professor at Ashford University

Center for the Enhancement of the First Year Experience

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