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Workshops Don’t Work
June 17, 2013 - 10:06pm

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?

 

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