I really am someone who learns anywhere and anytime but there is something about completing a course that makes me feel as though I have REALLY accomplished something . I know that is old school but part of me is that way. As my good friend Nada always says, “I need my gold star!”

Online Learning

From Content to Process

I have just completed teaching my second online course with the Ontario Principals’ Council (OPC). These courses are divided up into modules and each of the 25 hour modules is part of a 5 module series which culminates in a qualification for the in service principals and vice-principals in the program. There are still modules that are being developed but currently, this is the list:

Module 1 — Principal Legal Duties and Liabilities** 
Module 2 — Pedagogical Leadership for School Improvement 
Module 3 — Leading an Equitable and Inclusive School 
Module 4 — Mentoring Coaching and School Leadership 
Module 5 — Collaborative Leadership Inquiry/Digital Leadership Portfolio**
Module 8 — Leading the Kindergarten Program 
Module 10 — School Administrators Supporting Students Who Are or Identify As LGBTQ

with modules 1 and 5 as compulsory and three others to complete the series with the qualification.

I taught the “Leading the Equitable and Inclusive School” course in the spring and the “Collaborative Leadership Inquiry/Digital Leadership Portfolio” with The Ontario Principals’ Council. It was an incredible learning experience. In the spring I also co-wrote a course for them on Digital Leadership with my friend and colleague, Lisa Neale, which is a 125 hour course which will hopefully be offered this year.

This is a sketchnote I created based on PPM 159, Collaborative Professionalism for Ontario Schools.

This is a shift for principals and vice-principals. It used to be that once you went into leadership, your learning was limited within education to opportunities such as graduate work. The additional qualifications offered to in-service teachers were not extended to principals and vice-principals although they still did enrol in the courses from time to time, it was not pervasive. The learning that we need as principals and vice-principals is different. Although we are co-learners, we are not generally teaching lessons each day so we must design courses that consider, what is the leader learning with this content and what processes will support principals and vice-principals in developing learning cultures in their schools?

Taking Courses

I have taken many online courses in my career and more lately through online schools like Udemy where I took Elizabeth Gilbert’s Creativity Workshop and Seth Godin’s Leadership Workshop, Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets through Stanford Professional Learning, Sunni Brown’s course, Visual Notetaking 101, Brené Brown’s courses, Daring Schools and Daring Leaders through Brave Leaders Inc and The Wisdom of the Story on her Courage Works site and currently, Storytelling for Influence with IDEO U. These are all in the last year and a half and what I have found is that the content can be enough but when you want feedback, community and relationship, the content has to be more than the curriculum.

One of the people in my current course, Denise Humphreys, a principal in the Toronto District School Board wrote, “one must view curriculum as the living and breathing application of learning how to learn”. And I was struck by what she had written. It is precisely this and goes well beyond the curriculum documents from the ministry. It is the null curriculum/hidden curriculum, the content and process and most definitely ALWAYS tied to relationships.

So what of these online courses? How do we define what is good? How do we measure impact?

I have found that learning is something that is up to the individual. Steven Katz says, “Cognitive psychologists define learning as the process through which an experience causes permanent change in thinking and behaviour. What does it take to create the conditions for this kind of professional learning?”

When I seek a course, it is because I want to learn more about the content or more about the person offering the course and her/his/their beliefs. I seek courses that I can take at my own pace knowing that life throws many surprises at each of us so it needs to be flexible. I want to SHIFT my thinking and the decisions I make as a result of this learning. I want to be able to access content. I don’t want it to disappear after I take the course and lose all connection to the content so I take screen shots, copious notes and/or sketchnotes to preserve the learning because I want to be able to go back to it when I need it.

Teaching Courses

Teaching the courses is a very different experience. First of all, the community is smaller than the courses I have taken and local, meaning from Ontario and specifically principals and vice-principals. They are also enrolled in the course to receive a qualification rather than simply learning for learning’s sake. It is more traditional in a sense as well because it is clear that although we can learn from anyone in the course, I am the sole instructor and I tell them when they are complete. These larger courses I have taken provide little feedback and when I teach the courses I make an effort to respond to every post either by sharing how the individual’s post provoked my thinking, a connection I make to their post, offering a resource or challenging thinking through questions in the hope that through this feedback, relationships, rapport and ultimately, deeper learning will occur.

I have not yet taught an online course where I have developed the content, although having said that, OPC allows for the instructor to make changes to the content as appropriate given the participants. I have also learned to keep a running record of all the shared resources throughout the course so that participants can access it once the course is closed to them. This for me is a vital piece as an instructor because it values the many voices at the table and not just mine. I also feel that these shared resources can enhance the course going forward so that subsequent courses are improved with possibly more engaging content.

The other part is that OPC offers support led through Cam Fraser who is the individual who coordinates these professional development courses, workshops, conferences as well as their principal qualification programs. Cam checks into the web conferences, reviews the course and connects new instructors and writers with those in the province with experience. He plays a vital role in the quality control around these courses and has been an amazing mentor to me through the last few years that I have been working for OPC in different capacities.

Content AND Process

What struck me most in teaching these two courses is the vast difference in how content and process play a role in the learning. The Leading an Equitable and Inclusive School felt more traditional in the approach. There was course content, books that the participants had to read and respond to in posts and web conferences, videos, and each other. There was A LOT of content and based on my experience with the course, it took far more than the 25 hours indicated but I suppose it depends on the individuals’ commitment to the learning and the time spent online. As I was teaching this course, I was also writing the course on Digital Leadership and I tried to create content that would build on previous learning while asking for more video responses and blog posts rather than “post your response to the same questions that everyone else responds to and then respond to two other posts approach” which is typical of an online environment.

The second course, Collaborative Leadership Inquiry/Digital Leadership Portfolio, was different. The course had five assignments and they were broader, open ended questions that had the potential for both depth and breadth. Assignments included

  • writing a blog,
  • developing an online portfolio and,
  • determining how one does this by researching content both inside education and in other industries on digital portfolios.

The learning was most definitely made richer by the participants and watching them develop their voice in this online space was nothing short of spectacular in such a short time. Many would start with, “I am not a blogger but…” and then go on to share their thinking, challenges, reflections, voices all tied to school leadership in education in Ontario. Interestingly, at the same time, Cam told me that OPC was looking for leader blogs in the province and there were not many we could find. Many teachers blog and they do amazing things but to find a Principal or a Vice-Principal who blogs seemed to be a challenge. Now that this course is drawing to a close, I can say we have twenty more principals and vice-principals in Ontario who blog in a vulnerable, creative and informed way. I can’t wait to see what they continue to do going forward.

So in the end, for me, teaching has informed my decisions about what courses I might take. Taking courses, has informed how I will teach and write differently. I have truly enjoyed this learning and can say without out a doubt that there has been a tremendous shift in my thinking and actions in this process. The process for me, must work with the content. The content cannot be the only driver. To bring it back to what Denise wrote, “one must view curriculum as the living and breathing application of learning how to learn”. I am incredibly grateful for this new space of learning as my career shifts and changes into different spaces.

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