This is a guest post, written by and expressing the views of Dr Steve Hutchinson (founder of Hutchinson Training and Development). Steve runs excellent workshops. He is also one of the editors, and a plausibly prattling contributor to the upcoming book ‘53 interesting ways to enhance researcher development’…

Many years ago, I was trying to successfully navigate the upgrade meeting which would allow me to promote my registration from MPhil to PhD.

This was a scary meeting and not because I didn’t know my science (I didn’t know my science – but I’ve always been good at plausible prattle). The meeting was frightening because straight from the start one of the two panellists fixed me with a steely gaze and asked: “So, what have you learned over the last year that has made you a better academic?”.

A better academic? A better academic?

I knew more about obscure ecological theories, but was I a better academic?

I’d spent many hours watching flies buzz around on cow excrement (oh yes…), but did that make me a better academic?

Thanks to my plausible prattle, I upgraded – but the experience shook me. While I’d obviously learned a great deal in the previous year, I wasn’t necessarily aware of how I’d evolved. Much of my learning had been informal, osmotic, social, and experiential. I certainly hadn’t attended any workshops.

To illustrate my point further, ask yourself the question “What makes a GOOD academic?” and then list how many of those skills and attributes are really obtained in a formalised learning setting. Some of them maybe, but probably only some.

Fast-forward twenty years.

As a professional developer I now run a lot (and I mean a LOT) of workshops. They’re what clients request and I’m good at running them, and so I’m asked to run more. Participants are happily edu-tained, clients can evidence happy-sheet value and I get paid. We all win. However, after each course, I hand out a pile of (client-designed) feedback forms that ask the question “How would you improve this workshop?”.

Each time, the thing I think, but cannot say, is that we could improve things massively by considering whether we should be investing less in formal sheepdip workshops and then redesigning things around less formalised knowledge. I’m not saying workshops are pointless. That would be Christmas and I’m a turkey. But I am saying we should be thinking more widely than just classrooms. Yes, a good workshop can point the way, and provide short-cuts and discussion spaces for knowledge that previous generations had to learn independently but they are certainly not everything.

Perhaps allowing individuals more responsibility for their own development and helping them reflect on, capture and articulate their learning is where our focus should really be. I was part of the movement that pushed for the emphasis on the development of transferable skills within research programmes – and that time should be actually devoted to it. This agenda became administratively quantified as ‘ten days per year’ and then heard by some institutions as ‘ten-days-workshop-attendance-that-can-be-measured-on-a-spreadsheet-to-please-funders per year’. But the notion of development and quantifiable class attendance were never meant to be the same. If I want to improve a skill area, I may read a book or talk to a colleague, reflect on this insight and try it out for myself. This is priceless, but hard to measure and so sometimes not recognised by development schemes.

Many learning organisations (and I am still reluctant to really class universities as such) have embraced the notion that learning is not formal and isolated but comes via knowledge transfer from conversations between colleagues. When a workshop I’ve led is lauded for its tailoring and relevance, it is usually the participant-led contextualization and conversations that I have facilitated that have actually added the value. Pointing the way to social learning opportunities, and allowing individuals to choose where and when they have these interactions increases relevance and amplifies the power of any supplementary generic information. In the traditionally insular world of the PhD this socialisation may once have been problematic, but with the rise of structures such as the Doctoral Training Centres and the recognition and REF requirement for a thriving research environment, such connections are far more likely to occur. Even so, how much knowledge is lost or left untapped because an individual does not share their knowledge gained on a workshop with their supervisor and colleagues?

The norms of education have radically shifted over the past fifteen years. The democratisation of information through the internet and social media has opened up huge potential areas that developers could be exploiting more effectively than we currently do. Academics ask me regularly how they can get their students to switch off their phones for five minutes. Maybe the solution for developers is to embrace the technology instead of fighting it. Forums, polls, quizzes, Skype interviews, animations, infographics, videos, livecasts and podcasts, talking-head answers to common problems and so much more can help to supplement existing programmes. Online action learning sets who connect in virtual space at times and dates convenient to them might actually be more enticing than a workshop – especially as a world of wisdom and insight exists online, just a swipe of a finger away. Even ‘information provision’ material can be adapted so that it sits more closely aligned with what a modern generation of technological learners actually will respond to. Coaching, mentoring, networks, and discussion groups can all be facilitated with technology. Even at the most basic level, condensations of best practice (not regulations) can be shared more widely on intra or internet space.

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[image credit]

You could argue that ‘putting everything online’ is not the way forward and would result in our learners burrowing deeper into their insular research silos. But, there is a difference between an inclusive blended learning approach and listing information on a website. I would argue that if we work with our learners to help them to create and curate resources that they find useful, we wouldn’t lose engagement at all. Quite the opposite.

Sounds good, but it requires time. Which is something that we lack. Yet last week I was booked to facilitate a workshop. I prepared extensively, created useful handouts, designed captivating graphics, travelled some miles, and set up a learning experience that I knew would be empowering, thought-provoking and useful. This took a lot of my time.

One person showed up.

And even if all eighteen expected participants had turned up, was the return on time and institutional resource invested actually justified – especially if they simply took the new knowledge back to their personal research silos?

So, how do we improve ‘The Workshop?’ By helping individuals to capture and reflect on what they’ve learned through classes and social engagements, by embracing social learning, by being facilitators and curators of development and, in that spirit, by coming together more readily to collaborate and share our novel practices. And perhaps, rather than reinventing the wheel we need start by pausing to check if it needs realignment to keep apace with the connected modern learner.