Monday, June 17, 2013


Workshops Don't Work

When C-SPAN hit the cable airwaves -- “cable airwaves” is an oxymoron, but you know what I mean -- it was greeted as a breakthrough for democracy.  Finally, the public would be able to watch its elected representatives unfiltered, in their natural habitat!  Surely such unfettered access would lead to a better informed public, a more vigilant eye on the government, and a golden age of the common weal.

Well, no.  As it turned out, the government was far more interested in watching us than we were in watching it.  Who knew?

The flaw in the theory that C-SPAN would save us all was that it assumed that public indifference to politics was a sort of sour grapes born of lack of access.  If only we could expand access, the theory went, interest would follow.  Stream it and they will view.  But they don’t, mostly.  As it happened, indifference was the independent variable.  

I’m increasingly convinced that the same idea applies to workshops.

I’m referring here to on-campus workshops that are designed to engage faculty and staff.  Typically, someone who wants to encourage adoption of some new technology or practice -- whether it be Respondus or outcomes assessment -- hosts a series of workshops open to all, ideally hitting different class periods to minimize schedule conflicts.  One or two people show up, the presenter gets frustrated, and the cycle repeats in a few weeks.

Asking about workshop non-attendance is sort of like asking about non-voting.  The excuses are thin, ritualistic, and post-hoc.  (I don’t think it’s a matter of conscious lying, exactly; it’s closer to rationalizing.)  Rebutting the rationalizations doesn’t really help, either; people who want to skip -- which is to say, most people -- will skip.  

Shaming certainly doesn’t work, and bribery raises issues of its own.

Instead, I’m thinking that we should drop the “cable tv” model and move to the internet model.  Instead of a single channel or meeting hoping to attract as many people as possible to a relatively passive experience, the way to go is to engage some early adopters, and then encourage viral transmission.  Dave sees what the program can do, and he tells Steve and Jen.  Steve and Jen get on board, and each tell a few friends of their own.  

In other words, the key is to define indifference, rather than non-attendance, as the problem.  Attack the indifference -- preferably by having trusted colleagues show or discuss the cool new thing they’ve found -- and the non-attendance will take care of itself.

That’s not because the content or delivery of workshops is poor.  As with anything, they range from outstanding to awful.  The problem is that workshops tend to presume a context of awareness in which the usefulness of what’s being offered is already clear.  And most of the time, it isn’t.

The occasional raging success -- okay, I should say workshops usually don’t work, but that’s a boring headline -- suggests that interest is the key.  We recently had a well-attended and very well received workshop on Open Educational Resources.  Part of what made that as successful as it was, I think, was that people understood the appeal.  OER could reduce textbook costs for students, which isn’t just an economic issue.  In a community college context, many students don’t buy books in order to keep costs down; over time, they struggle to keep up academically.  If students had access to free OER, we could take costs out of the picture, and give the student of limited means a fighting chance.  That message resonated with a gratifyingly large group, and I suspect there are more to come.

In that case, the cause was appealing enough that the workshop format wasn’t a deal-breaker.  

But in the absence of something as obvious as OER, the viral model strikes me as far more promising.  As long as the early adopters are supported and feel valued rather than used, it seems likelier to work and far less likely to result in mostly-empty rooms.  Watching the occasional Representative orate to an empty House on late-night cable can be darkly funny, but I’d rather not replicate C-SPAN here.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen the viral transmission model work well on your campus?  Any hard-won lessons for what to do, or not to do?

There's also the sort of person who really, really likes workshops, and they are generally some mix of scary and annoying. It's like they drank a whole bunch of kool-aid and they can't get over how awesome it was.
I was going to highlight "relatively passive experience" (because that explains the "once burned, twice shy" problem that keeps many people away from most workshops) but changed my mind when I got to this tidbit:

"The problem is that workshops tend to presume a context of awareness in which the usefulness of what’s being offered is already clear. And most of the time, it isn’t."

Yep. And one reason it isn't is that they violate one of your rules of meetings -- no agenda and no information in advance, so everyone but the presenter is blindsided by the true goals of the event. Your counter example (and a few I could offer) serve to reinforce this. People attended your OER workshop because they had an interest in the problem and already knew what questions they wanted answered. They could tell in advance that it wasn't going to be someone with a cutsey-edu event title disguising the fact that they were going to lecture about not lecturing.
lecture about not lecturing

There's a certain type of person who loves that sort of lecture. They tend to be the sort who enjoy a variety of other consciousness-raising things.
You're doing it wrong.

You're supposed to classify your workshop as "professional development," which makes (at least in my state) attendance mandatory.

Problem solved.
lecture about not lecturing

Yes, this. I am skeptical that the problem of indifference is independent, rather than an actual product of bad workshop experiences. I was pretty excited about them as a young grad student, until I went to a few teaching workshops and realized they were just a way to spend my lunches hearing a lot of talk about why I SHOULD do something without gaining much information as to HOW. Given that I went in excited, and looking for practical advice on things I wanted but wasn't sure how to do, that was really frustrating.

Maybe instead of trying to convince workshop attendees that the topic of the workshop is worthwhile, or spending an hour going over the latest educational jargon, people running workshops could actually ask attendees why they are there, what their prior experience is, and what they need help with. They could even do this ahead of time!

Now, I am sure it's true that there are good and bad workshops, like there are good and bad anything. But I am not sure the average is very good.
I've kind of gone to this model. I host a lunch every week. Generally, interested people show up. We talk about stuff. I show them some stuff or they show me some stuff and then they go back and show their colleagues. It works, except that often the people you need to reach aren't connected in any way to the interested folks.

I've even had some people who I know have things to share and are generally interested not show up for things. And then complain that I don't offer enough workshops. Bleh! Sometimes it helps to bring someone in from the outside. Prophet from a different land and all. But sometimes, you just have to make it required.
Completely unrelated. I love watching the prime minister's questions. I know we probably couldn't ever have that kind of interaction in our governmental houses but the polite way that the English will insult their public...on camera is hysterical and fascinating.
One potential addendum to the suggested model: Assuming Dave is willing to walk interested people (besides Steve and Jen) through the program, send an all-staff/faculty email alerting everyone to the existence of the software and Dave's offer to help people learn to use it.

I've heard some of my colleagues express irritation in the past about our school not letting everyone know about the existence of cool new toys. If you send out an email to everyone, you probably won't get many responses, but you'll have an answer for anyone who complains later about not having been informed.
There are a number of reasons people don't go to workshops (bad prior experiences, boredom, lack of interest in the topic, better uses of their time, etc.).

However, for several years I have slowly been coming to the opinion that the biggest issue is the lack of perceived value or immediate benefit of attending the workshops. I see it all the time with students ("Interview workshop? Why should I do that--I don't have an interview lined up.."), and frankly faculty and staff can be remarkably similar in their attitudes ("Management workshop? I have too much to do as it is--I don't have time to do extra..").

In my opinion, you have to incentivize people in ways that they want to be incentivized, so that they'll be more likely to respond. This may well be what you call "bribery," but if it gets people in the door who are then willing to evangelize the value of the workshop to their colleagues, so be it. So I'll do an interview workshop for student RA applicants, who know that Residence Life will find out who went to the workshop and they'll get a bump in their candidacy (which is important to at least 50% of them). And they'll tell their friends in the future.

At my current university, the corporate & foundation relations folks are hosting proposal-development workshops with the goal of increasing the number of proposals submitted to external grant-making organizations. They're encouraging faculty to participate by offering them funds to go to the workshops and just submit a proposal. So, cynically, the C&F people are paying for participation. But I think that they're recognizing the market reality that they're going to have to incentivize behavior to move the needle because faculty place a premium on their "free" time (like everyone else).

Like @CCPhysicist, I keyed into this line:

"The problem is that workshops tend to presume a context of awareness in which the usefulness of what’s being offered is already clear. And most of the time, it isn’t."

At my teaching center, we've found this to be quite true. As a result, we have two genres of workshops: "Teaching Workshops" which focus on building teaching skills and presume existing interest on the part of participants, and "Conversations on Teaching" which focus (mostly) on raising awareness of and interest in particular pedagogies.

We're very selective about which Teaching Workshops we offer, since we don't want to plan a workshop only to have two people show up. Using PowerPoint effectively and leading good class discussions are two topics that almost always draw a crowd (say, 15-25 faculty and grad students). We're betting the flipped classroom is another good topics; we'll find out this fall when we offer a workshop on that topic.

How do we draw a crowd for the Conversations on Teaching? We put Dave on the panel. Or whoever "Dave" is for the topic at hand. Faculty want to hear from other faculty, not so much from my staff, even though they have great expertise in teaching. If we want to raise awareness or interest, we put together a faculty panel, and that usually does the trick.

I tweeted earlier today, in response to this post, that you can't plan viral. Henry Jenkins uses the term "spreadable media" for such things. You can't make something go viral, but you can design something "spreadable" that is more likely to go viral. Putting "Dave" on a panel is our version of spreadable media. And we make clear that anyone interested in what "Dave" is doing can ask us for help and support.

We've also found, more recently, that those Teaching Workshops can work really well, if the awareness and interest is already there. Last year, our assistant directors started meeting with department chairs to talk with them about teaching and learning challenges (and opportunities) in their departments. These conversations have led, in several cases, to our staff being invited to give workshops in particular departments on topics of interest to those departments.

When we're invited by a department chair to address a topic of interest to the faculty in that department, we'll often have just as a large a crowd (say, 15-25 faculty) as one of our come-one-come-all events. That's a really good return on investment, but it takes building those relationships with departments and chairs.

I think we need to keep holding our come-one-come-all events, to build awareness of particular teaching issues and to keep our name out there. But the department-based workshops seem to have more potential for significant impact on faculty teaching practices.
I have slowly been coming to the opinion that the biggest issue is the lack of perceived value or immediate benefit of attending the workshops.

After 20 years in the business, I can say that this is my default assumption. Based on past experience, most workshops are held not to help the attendees, but to help the presenters look busy/justify their job/get promoted/do their research.

If you want me to show up willingly, you'd better show me up front how this will be a better use of my time than sitting in a quiet room with a good book and a pad of paper for notes. And don't mandate attendance on top of all the other tasks you've dropped on me, or I'll see it as a tax on my time — especially if the presenter is simply repeating platitudes, many of which are based on pop-psych with no evidence to back them up.

If you can show me something that will help me do my job better, with evidence to prove it works, then I'll willingly invest the time. But after so many wasted days, I want to see the evidence first, and have a chance to decide for myself if it's worth my time.
I beg to differ and suggest that your metrics for determining this are perhaps too poorly designed to produce meaningful and accurate data. For the programs in my unit, I developed an instrument that we use to pre- and posttest participants in programs that run from as little as one-week in length to eighteen months. We repeatedly find double-digit normalized gains on many of our items and constructs, many of which are (highly) statistically significant with relatively small numbers (<30). Moroever, with one quasi-experimental project that was longitudinal in scope, we have evidence that the impact of the program is also transferred to the students. Although we haven't updated the results posted on our website for program evaluation, I invite you to take a peek at what we have there and to contact me with any further questions.
I LOL'd at the comment on IHE from a faculty development coordinator who didn't realize the indifference and sarcastic comments were actually cogent criticism. We all know when negative comments from our students carry a grain of truth. Contrast that with the comment above from someone at UMn that critically evaluates their own programs. Outcomes assessment!

One quick evaluation is whether the faculty are actually working away on their phones or tablets. They usually come out during the lame "present what each group learned" session. Better to submit a bunch of docs for editing and go home.

What I left out of my initial remarks is my view that the other major problem is that most workshops aren't. When a couple of research groups interested in a common physics problem got together for a workshop, we worked. Why go to a clicker workshop if you can't start from some frag of PowerPoint or a quiz of your own and turn it into a working clicker application in an hour or so?
We recently had a well-attended and very well received workshop on Open Educational Resources. Part of what made that as successful as it was, I think, was that people understood the appeal.
I think you found the key -- offer workshops on topics your faculty and staff care about. How do you find out what they care about? Surveys, conversations, suggestions during other workshops, questions submitted to your unit. It may mean finding a presenter qualified to speak to the topic or setting up a panel discussion instead of a click here, do that workshop. Meet 'em where they are.
Good post - I completely agree. After 20+ years supporting faculty in technology integration, just in time training paired with recognition for innovation and change works. Having a strong instructional technologist with experience teaching helps to in MHO.

This is cool!
if you’re already fluent enough that you can blast through a six hour program in thirty minutes, more power to you. get redirected here

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