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Going the distance: learning fitness for tiring times

Long-distance running has come a long way (pun absolutely intended) in the last century. An ABC article marking the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics shows just how far in describing the utter chaos of the 1904 marathon at the St Louis Olympics. More than half the runners dropped out due to dehydration, one turned up with no kit and competed in dress shirt and leather street shoes, and the winner had to be dragged across the finish line, ‘doped up and hallucinating on rat poison’. 

A century later, we know much more about long-distance sport; not least that depriving athletes of hydration and giving them brandy and rat poison tends not to enhance performance. Over time, research and practical experience have thankfully given us a wealth of knowledge to help both novices and professionals get over the line quicker and in much better shape. 

The marathon mindset

As the global pandemic presents its own long-distance challenge, it’s time to draw on decades of education research and innovation too. Universities and colleges are facing a new academic year whilst still catching their breath from the panicked pivots of the last six months. We know change is happening; how do we decide which short-term approaches are needed, and how can we manage continued uncertainty over the long distance? 

I spoke to four experienced Higher Education leaders from public and private institutions to understand more about their recent experiences, including the methods and mindsets being adopted to build a more sustainable kind of ‘fitness’ in the education industry. We played with the marathon metaphor and tackled seven themes, from planning the training, to getting the right kit and making sure your support squad is in place.

Sit back, grab a drink from the crew at the 10k water station and see what Karen Benson, Cara Dinneen, Peta Bollen and Katrina Hennigan had to say about each theme below.

Knowing what you’re training for provides the focus, structure and motivation to get things moving and bring the team together. The problem is, someone keeps moving the finish line! First we were planning to do a 10k, which people could manage, then it was a 15k and now a marathon, as we go in and out of lockdown, in and out of different modes of teaching… 

KH: It kind of feels like we were all signed up for this marathon event without giving our permission! Accepting the situation and finding institutional and personal goals within it has allowed us to strategically acknowledge our fate. Our ‘events’ have included adapting the learning model to enable ‘learning anywhere’ and developing initiatives to give teachers credit, through micro-badges, for the work they put in at the height of the crisis. 
KB: Our ‘event’ was a sprint to move around 1,000 EAP students online within four weeks. We initiated an Online Learning & Teaching Project team which oversaw ten projects covering all things learning and teaching, technology and wellbeing related. 
CD: Ours was like a bootcamp - first train the teachers, then train the students, then ensure your support mechanisms are in place for the race ahead. Then we had to strategise curriculum adaptations, plan ways to keep connection without further burdening staff who were hit hard by screen fatigue, follow up with students missing from Zoom rooms, start transitioning paper-based tests to Moodle and work out ways to manage academic integrity…it was endless.   
PB: We definitely started out thinking we were doing the 100m sprint, the really prestigious event, creating a best practice online learning experience. We had to change our plans so many times and at one point it felt like we’d shifted to the 20k walk - the one where everyone looks really awkward and it’s really, really hard work! Now maybe we’re going into a pentathlon, or even a decathlon - there’s a bit of everything and you’ve got to draw on all the events you’ve done before to deliver this new model.

There are lots of ways to train for a long-distance event. You can follow the plan suggested by the event organisers or download one from someone who looks like they know what they’re talking about. Maybe you’ll stumble on a methodology that sounds counter-intuitive or asks you to follow processes you’ve never tried before. Never underestimate the power of a solid framework or approach which you can communicate, test and evaluate to see how it works for you.

CD: There was never one framework or methodology that was going to meet all needs here because it was very much a patch-up/repair on-the-fly approach. The exhaustion of teachers and students led us to flipped learning with reduced face-time, but our caring ELICOS teachers were reticent to step back from the teaching space. At the Direct Entry level, we worked a week or two ahead of the course to adapt paper-based material into Team-Based Learning activities. We made excellent use of discussion forums by incorporating communicative language input and asking students to demonstrate examples of their collaborative language use in a written reflection. 
KB: I guess runners need to be agile and so did we, so we looked to agile values to run the projects. For example, we collaborated with our ‘customers’ (learners and teachers) through pulse surveys at the end of each week. These surveys provided essential, timely feedback from learners and teachers and allowed the project teams to constantly tweak our online learning and teaching in line with emerging industry practice.
PB: Our approach worked better when we reframed it with staff; we didn’t need them to be the most amazing online teachers, but to deliver a good student experience in the online space. It was like asking them to run a race tomorrow that they hadn’t had a chance to train for, so expectations were different. They didn’t have to win the race - just finish!  
KH: We’ve combined elements from flipped learning and other methodologies to develop a flexible model. Looking around to see what has gone before and adapting it to your current context and learner needs is obviously not new, but the scale and pace is definitely a new record!  We have an opportunity to scale changes in methodology and share learning to help us all get to the finish line faster. 

Don’t spend so much time and effort on the plan that you run out of steam before you’ve even started – but do document something. Draw it, write it, schedule it, trust it, stick to it, stray from it and come back to it. Three runs a week and two cross-training sessions? Fine. Now get on with it!

KB: Yes! Again, in line with agile values, our focus was very much on working outcomes over comprehensive documentation at the outset. The project teams worked and shared ‘live’ Google docs. The process seemed messy at the start, like all learning I guess, but was very effective in ensuring that nothing was delayed in waiting for the (impossible?) perfect plan.
CD: Establishing the guiding principles for the event was really key. As a centre, we agreed on principles for remote delivery that covered community, empowerment and accessibility. What we did at the curriculum level was driven by this. Yes, it involved lots of trial and error, but we made some very good inroads. We still have a long way to go in the accessibility area, however, as this involves the creation of more asynchronous material. We used student and teacher surveys to inform this part of the journey. 
KH: Definitely plan, but do it quickly and be ready to tear it up and start again. You need to know the route - to know where you are thinking of going, even if there are diversions and road blocks along the way. Everyone needs to know where the finish line is even if you let them go their own way to get there. 
PB: I totally agree. In this environment, our usual planning would be too restrictive -  we literally had to tear up the plan four weeks in and go down a different path!

That new lycra might look shiny, but the difference it makes to your performance is probably minimal. Same goes for your ‘kit’ for work; you need a decent minimum technical standard to get the job done, but even more important is the ‘toolkit’ of resources you can draw on as you train. What are the tips, techniques and methodologies that will make a difference to the outcome this time?

CD: Toolkits can be methodologies, frameworks, apps and people. The key lies in linking these together with a platform for sharing. We set up a Teams page for the sharing of ideas, successes and awesome articles or webinars. This was also a way to keep our much loved casual staff, who had lost work with us, a part of our learning community. Our ‘techie’ type teachers came to the forefront in this time to support the less tech-savvy.  We set up drop in ‘tech talks’ to help facilitate these important exchanges, but it would have been good to start this earlier than we did.  
KB: Moving online was a real leveller. There was no one perfect toolkit. We were all learning together. The ‘kit’ really developed out of the incredible willingness of teachers to experiment and share across courses and campuses. Sharing was facilitated by drop in clinics and peer training but also through organic peer networks.
KH: We are currently working on locking down the ‘essential toolkit’ for our model. We have tools which can support us along the way. Thinking about how we can tweak or ‘hack’ the tools to suit our purpose and circumstances has helped us be more efficient with what we already have and know how to use. 
PB: Sometimes you need to run the race in whatever clothes you’ve got (especially if you didn’t know you were signed up to it!). They might not be super comfortable, with each semester you can add new pieces of ‘kit’, one or two at a time. With all the training you’ve done, those new shoes will feel amazing when you get them!

Here’s where you bring it all together. Change is painful, and if you’re trying something new, it won’t be comfortable and you probably won’t want to do it at all some days. Once the endorphin rush has worn off, that ‘fitness’ we’re pushing for only comes with showing up for training and being consistent. 

PB: There’s a real difference between last session and this session. The expectation was to try and improve just one or two things - maybe skills in facilitating group work and collaboration online or using a new tool like Miro. Just don’t keep doing what you’ve always done, or get too comfortable. Now we can look to the longer term and see these professional development opportunities as ‘training’ which will benefit teachers down the track, when they’re back in the classroom too.
KH: Show up even if you can’t remember where you are or what day it is (some days it’s fine not to show up). No one has all the answers now or even the clear questions. We have to find our way through the grey areas together. Inviting teachers into development projects is helping us prototype, develop quickly and at scale with some elements of change management thrown in. 
KB: A lot of stamina was required to show up and face the challenges every day. But it does feel as though as a team we are getting ‘fitter at learning’, if that makes sense. As if there is a real shift towards a collective growth mindset, if that exists as a concept. 
CD: We’re still posting great links to webinars and articles onto the Teams page and teachers are sharing new discoveries and shortcuts they find to undertake tasks. Those who are not teaching full time find a bit more time to experiment and they are happy to share their journey for others to benefit. Communication is important here because we have teachers who are doing awesome things and they are not aware how awesome they are. They don’t realise how grateful others would be to see some of their innovative work. Facilitating regular discussions on “hey, what have you discovered or tried out lately” is a good way forward. 

When you’re tired, sweaty, and don’t want to set your alarm for another 5am start, having a ‘squad’ makes all the difference. Your squad might include your mentors and managers or the training partner who makes you laugh when you’re out in the grey drizzle again. Your squad can also tell you when it’s time to take a break, and when to push harder. Honestly, it’s okay to walk for a bit.

KB: Absolutely! I think we have become stronger as a team and compassion is really taking centre stage now. We definitely talk more openly about wellbeing. Working hard but trying to keep some balance. We are also checking in with each other and encouraging each other to take that break - without judgement. 
KH: Yes! We dealt with Zoom fatigue - now we have ‘Everything fatigue’. 
PB: Early on, we started scheduling a virtual coffee break every day and regular Friday Zoom drinks, just to break away from work and have the social connection. As one colleague said, ‘work becomes ‘work’ without the people!’. Until we did this we were hitting a wall and it felt like there was no one to pick us up. Taking a break definitely gives you more endurance in the long term.
CD: Teachers take numerous small breaks throughout the teaching period as it’s important for them and the students to step away from the screen. We haven’t set regular social drinks, because the Zoom exhaustion is real and teachers report the need for much more class preparation time. We had a few staff departures and hosted some farewells, which was lovely. We are still teaching off campus, and the teachers themselves have taken the lead to organise group outings.

Your milestone might be getting to the end of the week, trying one new thing or actually completing the massive event you trained for. Milestones are important (especially in a long-distance event!), and if you don’t stop to celebrate them, you’re missing the point.

KB: 100%. We had a lot of celebrations from top down, but also within peer groups, often totally unprompted by management. We noticed a real shift in the openness of giving praise too. Online has opened up a world of amazing ways to celebrate our colleagues through things like using emojis and praise or kudos badges.
CD: We used student surveys at the outset to measure how our response was being received by students and allowed for great positive feedback. The end of each course is an absolute milestone and the opportunity to understand the student experience. I feel that we can do more to help teachers recognise and celebrate their own personal milestones… and I’ve got a good framework in sight for this!
PB: We made sure there was public acknowledgement of people who’d been amazing, in all-staff meetings or emails. People who went above and beyond were recognised, but we also wanted to recognise those who were surviving and doing okay - they’re doing an amazing job too! 
KH: Part of the issue with the nature and pace of the change was not always having those clear milestones especially at the height of the crisis. Are we there yet? ‘Honestly - I have no idea! Let’s keep going…’ Celebrating your team, yourself and students by showing appreciation and gratitude for small wins along the way helped keep us moving. 
KB: I think that despite the obvious massive challenge and pressure that this ‘marathon’ is placing on everyone, there are still real benefits from this training. We are getting fitter at responding to change and to learning. It will be really interesting to explore how the successes we have achieved impact teacher self-efficacy and motivation, and how this learning continues. We just need to work together to ensure we all make it to the end of the marathon in one piece.
KH: There is a huge opportunity to lean into the challenges we are facing right now - the collective change. The ‘gaps’ between our face to face and online learners provide us with a natural ‘information gap’. We don’t need to fake it with jigsaw readings and backs to the board. We have genuine gaps between our learners which we can use to create authentic meaningful and collaborative learning experiences if we lean to our new learning world. 
PB: Even though we were forced into the change and it was hard and uncomfortable, at the end of the day the training we’ve done will benefit almost every aspect of learning and teaching going forward. It’s given some people the kind of confidence you get when someone pushes you in the pool, and you realise you can swim! We’d never want to do it again because it was such a steep learning curve and pushed us outside our comfort zone every day. All things considered, though, we’ll be better off because of the experience. 
CD: I’m excited about the scope for change and simultaneously anxious about our sector and some of the business decisions being made. It is clear that we need to reshape in order to be viable and retain currency in such a swiftly changing space. Last year I undertook a course on digital learning design and assessment, and I experienced first-hand what engagement feels like in the asynchronous space. Tasks were short, achievable, thought-provoking and scaffolded. No surprises there! We know how to do this, we just need to keep trying out different tools and refining our performances. It takes focus, commitment and an open-hearted approach to collaboration. 

A massive, massive thank you to the four legends who generously found time in their already stuffed schedules to contribute to the reflections above. If you’d like to know more about them, they are:

  • Karen Benson, Centre Manager, RMIT University Vietnam
  • Peta Bollen, Program Convenor, Sydney Institute of Business & Technology (SIBT)
  • Cara Dinneen, Associate Director, Learning and Teaching at Macquarie University International College & ELC
  • Katrina Hennigan, Education Designer