Making our classrooms, and our lives, more personal

Making our classrooms, and our lives, more personal

Making our classrooms, and our lives, more personal. My latest question for reflection: Are we not realizing these days that the future is about making all things more personal, in our classrooms, in our work, and in our lives in general?

When I was preparing to speak to the MBA program directors last week (see the two previous posts) about “creating a positive group dynamic” in the classroom, I thought quite a bit about the interaction of e-learning and classic on-site learning.

One direction education appears to be headed is toward more “blended” models, where students will learn basic concepts online at their own pace. Then, the classroom becomes more of a multi-directional conversation, as instructors are freed from the need to lecture about those things that students can better master with the aid of technology. Professors can spend less time covering basic theories and more time interacting with students about broader significance and real-world applications.

Such blended systems put more pressure on teachers to provide unique and worthwhile experiences. Clearly, the ongoing work of the professor will be to make the classroom an increasingly vibrant place, a true forum for reflection and debate. If students are to see value in a residential education experience, if they are to consider its high price to be a worthwhile investment, the on-site experience must be a highly interactive, and richly rewarding, personal journey.

To me, the one truly key word in the above sentence is “personal”. In fact, my reflection about the future of the MBA brought to mind a concept from David Whyte’s Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. Whyte remarks that “the great question of leadership, about taking real steps on the pilgrim’s path, is the great question of any individual life: how to make everything more personal.”

It is a simple truth about human beings that I am seeing in more and more places today: As technology becomes ever more present in their daily lives, people will simultaneously seek relationships that are more personal.

When I began doing academic writing almost 20 years ago, one of the first notions I became fascinated by, and the first I was to publish an article about, was “high tech, high touch”. While this concept may seem paradoxical or counterintuitive, studies have shown that the more an enterprise or a project employs technological means of communicating, the more teams work and meet remotely, the more there will be need for some type of human touch.

Telecommuting has obvious advantages, including the potential for improved productivity in certain cases, but remote work is most effective when combined with face-to-face social interaction. The bottom line for me: while the freedom to organize their lives may make people more efficient at task completion, work remains a social phenomenon, and the relationships between employees often makes an organization more capable of accomplishing complex tasks.

The recent outcry and subsequent debate around a decision by Yahoo–led by CEO Marissa Mayer–to end work-from-home arrangements shows that this question elicits strong emotions. The CEO’s action was indeed controversial, particularly among the employees themselves. Some Yahoo insiders claim it will make recruiting the best talent harder. Others point out that it is ironic that Yahoo, which aims to “keep people connected”, across devices and around the world, seems to be saying that its own employees can’t communicate effectively unless they are physically present.

But Mayer is sticking to her guns, stating that “to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side”. Personally, I applaud Mayer’s decision. She is simply trying to make work at Yahoo more personal.

Can we say that what is true in the workplace is also true for education? Of course, we will inevitably discover advantages to systems where students, aided by technology, can learn on their own. And, we will continue to invent new and more effective uses of technology for our schools. At the same time, education at its best, like work at its best, will remain to a large extent a social phenomenon. Our challenge in the classroom is to find ways to make the experience more and more personal.

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