Better Together – A #SquadGoalsNetwork Reflection from Angela Gunder

Better Together – A #SquadGoalsNetwork Reflection from Angela Gunder

A reflection by Angela Gunder on the power of personal learning networks.

ACCESS – Does regular access to other individuals from other institutions and institutional perspectives challenge your definition of access and what it means? If so, how?

We spend a lot of time within academia mitigating feelings of “lone wolfism” – we’re stuck in our challenges on our own and have to go it alone in figuring out what to do.  Worse than that, we’re completely dependent on the resources we’re able to source ourselves in order to implement the solutions that our institutions desperately need. How can we increase our connectedness and our effectiveness in better serving our students?

Key to conquering the insurmountable challenge of accomplishing more with less is extending the reach of one’s network with an interconnected group of trusted experts.  By breaking down the silos that separate us at our individual institutions, we can crowdsource solutions, collaboratively test effective practices, and learn from the failures and iterations of our colleagues.  I’ve seen this in action no stronger than in my connections to the individuals I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with after meeting at conferences, and chiefly my collaborations with the Online Learning Consortium.  The folks that I’ve met, first an attendee and later as a committee member, have been instrumental in the formation of my trusted network of colleagues. Without them I would not have the ability to effectively serve the members of The University of Arizona community I’ve been entrusted with supporting, chiefly the students of UA Online.  Beyond the connection working to of tear down the walls of proprietary knowledge within institutions, my PLN helps me to balance all of the responsibilities on my plate. When I came to The University of Arizona in 2014, I quickly earned a seat at the table in the build out of the team entrusted with producing all of the fully-online degree programs for UA Online.  I wore (and continue to wear) many hats, to include manager, mentor, designer, educator and student (as I write this, I am, along with many others in our squad, pursuing a Ph.D.). My network supported (and continues to support me) in all of these endeavors, clearing the pathway for me to expand access to a rigorous, experiential online education for our students. I am humbled by their generosity and will do anything to pay it forward and return the favor by supporting them in all of their efforts.

The Squad Goals Network website serves as an artifact of this expansion of access – like a star map, the site attempts to chart the reach of not only the network that I sit within (a constellation), but of all of the interconnected networks (think galaxies) that allow me to be successful within the field.  And the site can only dream of capturing the sheer, unmitigated joy that we all experience when working together. Our passion is amplified, and this is spun out into rich collaborations, open research, and dance moves. So many dance moves.

FACULTY SATISFACTION – How has your participation in the PLN benefitted faculty and colleagues at your home institution?

There is a synergistic relationship between the support that I have received from my network and the work that I do at my institution in supporting my faculty and colleagues.  Conversely, the work that I do at The University of Arizona allows me to bring back to my network new methods, techniques, and tangible resources that aid them in their efforts.  As the network expands, so does the depth of the collection of resources, thereby ensuring that my faculty are robustly supported in their work within and beyond the classroom.

Concrete examples of this in action can be seen with the way that I have been able to take initiatives that were incubated at the conferences I’ve attended and planned, and bring them back to The University of Arizona to remix them with my colleagues.  The chief example of this would be my serving as a chef in the Technology Test Kitchen (TTK) at OLC Accelerate – the exploratory makerspace became a trusted hub for working out challenges that my faculty and colleagues faced. I could crowdsource approaches to issues with scaling access to education, and bring back new technology that had been tested and proven effective.  Moreover, the collaborations that began in the space extended out beyond the conference itself. For instance, after working in the TTK for two of the OLC conferences, Ben Scragg, Dave Goodrich and I were tasked with building out a new space called the Innovation Lab. Created as a design thinking “collaboratorium,” the conversations that the entire team had around designing and facilitating the lab quickly evolved into a weekly podcast that kept the design efforts alive throughout the year.  It was in these recordings that we forged deeper connections with the members of the network, interviewing our colleagues and workshopping our ideas for new initiatives and efforts. For me personally, this was also the space in which I truly learned to podcast, and I’ve been able to share that knowledge with faculty who have wanted to add this modality to their toolkit for offering course content to their online students.

The TTK and Innovation Lab also served as the catalysts for the ways in which my office delivers professional development both within and beyond our institution.  A TTK chef and my colleague at The University of Arizona, Michael Griffith shared an idea at a debriefing meeting to bring the TTK home to individual institutions with a “tech crawl.” Faculty and staff would travel from station to station and learn more about the tools and innovative practices that their colleagues were enacting that were “best-kept secrets” within their institution.  We created our first UA Tech Crawl the evening before we hosted an OLC Collaborate event, allowing our faculty and staff to network with participants arriving early for the one-day conference the next day. The event was such a great success in bringing folks together over shared effective practices, we’ve since held several for different colleges and campuses within the UA and for our neighbors at Pima Community College.  The format is lightweight (each station requires a laptop and that’s it!) and provides participants with the opportunity to leave with anywhere from 8-10 brand new, actionable approaches that they can implement in their teaching and learning. An added benefit is that the format affords presenters a way to connect and bond over shared practices as well, serving as a team building exercise within and across offices.

Lastly, born from the OLC Innovate conference, the Solution Design Summit (SDS) was an initiative that allowed interdisciplinary, institutional teams to come together to solve challenges brought in directly from their schools live at the conference.  While initially designed as a competition, the format allowed for the creation of sharable effective practices of immediate impact. After participating in the SDS as a UA team, Matt Romanoski and Janet Smith decided to take the format and remix it to allow for monthly team design challenges.  Team members would crowdsource and upvote challenges to tackle, and then another member of the team, Katy Holt, would facilitate a design thinking exercise to generate approaches to solving the issue. At the end of the session, participants would choose components of the proposed solution to work on for a set timeline, and report out on the progress at later meetings.  This remixed SDS format worked so well that in the 2018 Innovation Lab, members of the UA Online team contributed their findings and the event format to the planning of the SDS at the conference. This was one of many examples of how participation in the PLN effectively created a push and pull of information to and from the conference, creating an organic system by which faculty and colleagues were better supported.

LEARNING EFFECTIVENESS – When you reflect on your work, how has meeting and learning from individuals from other institutions and institutional perspectives helped you to clarify or re-define what it means for learning to be effective?

A huge part of our work in the field of online learning is situated within research – beyond the need for many to publish as part of their job duties, everyone within our field is called to improve practice with data-driven decision making.  Expanding access to research is critical to not only innovation, but also to ensuring that our daily practices are truly in service to students and their learning. For many practitioners, there seems to be divide between their work and the work of the stereotypical researcher, when in fact, we are all in the business of sharing practice.  At its heart, research is as simple as sharing evidence of the effectiveness of a practice (or lack thereof) in the hopes of helping others in the field. The PLN has served as way to not only demystify the practice of research, but as a means of expanding access to new ideas that have been rigorously tested, iterated and remixed. Our collaborations on articles, book chapters, conference proceedings, white papers, and even academic blog posts have all allowed us to determine what it means to measure learning effectiveness in our unique contexts, and more broadly across online education as a whole.  My favorite collaboration to come out of the network has been our research on the concept of applying Joseph Campbell’s monomyth to the online course design process. What started as a “What if…” question posed by my UA colleague, Cathy Russell, has now morphed into a framework and a bevy of resources that have been generated by a team of epic win (which includes Jess Knott, John Stewart and Keegan Long-Wheeler in addition to Cathy and myself), each of whom has left their indelible mark on the shared work of reimagining the epic heroes of online education.

These co-writing and publishing efforts are underscored by cross-institutional visits and collaborations, many of which occur both online and in-person and include the connecting of entire teams.  The conversations highlight institution-specific variations in ubiquitous challenges as examined at the regional, national and international levels. They also serve as a way to discover new avenues and topics for critical research, illuminating questions that will help to generate new knowledge to better inform our practice.  In the short time that I have been involved with my squad, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with dozens of institutions, many of which I’ve been able to visit in person. I’ve had the honor of connecting my team to other individuals seeking answers to critical issues that we’ve been able to work on (and in many cases, that we’ve tackled).  Best of all, I have learned firsthand of the depth of support that one benefits from in having a network of dedicated to the sharing of knowledge, collaborative research, and open iteration of ideas.

SCALE – Is the PLN scalable and/or replicable by others at other institutions/organizations? If so, how? What challenges do you encounter?

It’s easiest to discuss scale when talking about this effective practice in that, at its heart, it’s built around the concept of expanding the reach and access of our efforts.  We intrinsically know that we can’t meet the needs of our institutions – chiefly increasing access to education – without scaling our access to resources.  As budgets are lean and in some places personnel limited, we must find other ways to be innovative in service to students.  The creation of a rich and robust PLN is, by definition, scaling resources to support students.  Plain and simple.

STUDENT SATISFACTION – Do you feel that your involvement and/or collaboration with the PLN has helped you create better student experiences at at your institution?

In a position dedicated to the support of students, I simply could not do my job if I did not have a robust network of colleagues to lean on for assistance.  Beyond expanding my access to research and support, joining efforts affords the network the ability to test at scale without losing the freedom to fail. It also extends the impact of the research that is generated.  Innovation takes risk, to be sure, but it also requires discipline and tenacity. Working within a trusted group of networked colleagues mitigates risk, but also answers that bigger question of how we persist when we find ourselves struggling with the challenges in front of us.  Knowing that I have the support of my colleagues helps me to focus on and enact the decisions that are best for my students as opposed to simply implementing the solutions that are the easiest. I lean on my colleagues to help me create meaningful and measurable initiatives that directly impact student engagement, retention and satisfaction.  Best of all, my work is elevated by our collective efforts to bring student voices to the table and champion them the best ways that we can only do if we work together.

About the Author /

When she's not helping maintain this site as one of the authors of the Squad Goals Network, Angela Gunder serves as the Director of Instructional Design & Curriculum Development for the Office of Digital Learning at The University of Arizona.

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