Keith Hopper is a professor in the Information and Instructional Design master's degree program at Southern Polytechnic State University. His primary research interest is technology integration in higher education, with emphasis in the healthcare arena.
The Buddha's distance learning consult
Article first published online: 12 OCT 2011
© 2011 The Author. British Journal of Educational Technology © 2011 BERA
British Journal of Educational Technology
Volume 43, Issue 4, pages 534–539, July 2012
How to Cite
Hopper, K. B. (2012), The Buddha's distance learning consult. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43: 534–539. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01227.x
- Issue published online: 27 JUN 2012
- Article first published online: 12 OCT 2011
Dave was sweating. He looked first in the Arts and Sciences adjunct faculty common offices, then asked door-to-door, finally getting a tip from the Dean's office manager. After a twenty-minute trek through the geodesic greenhouse then randomly checking campus trees, Dave found the Buddha sitting quietly beneath a small fig tree, in meditative posture, eyes closed.
“Mr Gautama!” Dave repeated, louder. “I'm sorry to wake you.”
The Buddha did not stir, but his eyes opened to slits. Dave felt surprised to see that his eyes were blue. He noted that, although an elderly man, the Buddha was well muscled and handsome.
“I hope I didn't interrupt anything, Mr Gautama.”
“Nothing.” The slightest trace of a serene smile appeared at the corners of the Buddha's lips. “Nothing at all. I have awakened.”
Slowly, calmly, the Buddha opened his eyes wider and turned toward Dave. He regarded his visitor in a neutral manner, then smiled and his face registered focused attention. “How may I help?” he said pleasantly.
Dave paused, gulped, stammered, “I'm not sure what to call you. I guess it isn't doctor.”
“What name may I call you?” the Buddha gently asked.
“My name is David, but my friends call me Dave.”
“Fine. You may call me Sid. It would be a pleasure to address you as friend, Dave. Please sit.”
Dave joined the Buddha beneath the fig tree, where he experienced a distinct sense of welcome and serenity. He began, “Well, uh . . . Sid, I'm a distance learning instructional designer, and I'm here to get your online course flying. You're the subject matter expert, the expert, but I'll help with course design, technology, and housekeeping things.”
“A clean and ordered house. A clean and ordered mind,” mused the Buddha. Noting the white Apple ear buds dangling from Dave's neck, the Buddha asked, “What do you listen to, Dave?”
“Nirvana, I like the old stuff.”
“Me too,” grinned the Buddha.
Dave produced a plastic snap folder, reached inside, and withdrew a clear, plastic laminated page labeled PHIL 5001—Special Topic—Toward Nothing. “Sid, we usually start with the instructor's syllabus and work from there. But this is all they sent.”
Dave extended his hand to show the Buddha that it contained a single dry and very old lotus flower. The flower was faded white, eight petals still attached, and it included a long stem and remnants of the root. The Buddha smiled but said nothing.
Dave waited patiently, then asked, “Is this related to your course somehow?”
“It is the course.”
“OK,” Dave said at length, “I guess we can start with this. But I'm missing something. At least you get the idea of using images. How about a nice color graphic of a lotus flower? We can put it on the first page of your syllabus and on your home page. It won't print off in color for some students, but they will see it on screen. What do you think?”
“If you wish.”
“Have you taught online before, Sid?”
“No. Please enlighten me.”
With an expression of doubt, Dave asked, “Do you have access to any sort of technology for your course?”
The Buddha reached deftly behind his back, found a compact, flat wedge and held it for Dave to see. “Toshiba netbook! Marvelous.”
“That will do nicely,” said Dave. “And do you have an email address?”
“Clever,” said Dave. “And humor is a good strategy so learners will remember.”
“Just so,” replied the Buddha. “Humor is a pleasant fragrance on the learning path.”
“We require our distance learning (DL) instructors to use campus email for their primary. Yours is sgauta3@SomeU.edu. We need to put this on your syllabus and your course site, but you can add your personal email in your syllabus if you want.”
“Hey, I just noticed. Your ears are pierced! I have an extra stud in my desk.”
“Thank you, no. Yours is elegant, Dave.”
“It helps me design your online course if I have a sense of your instructional philosophy. How would you describe yourself as a teacher?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there's the old camp of behaviorists. My boss in information services, for one. He has a framed picture of Skinner on his desk. That's the old Harvard dude who liked to teach chickens to dance and said humans learn the same way. What a laugh. Now we're pretty much all constructivists. I am. We believe that people have their own realities and make their own knowledge. So we try to get learners to work together to find answers.”
“Ah, I appreciate that. Have you taught a chicken to dance, Dave?”
“Well, no, but . . . .”
“Skinner must have been a great teacher! I would like to see a dancing chicken. Kanthaka, my wonderful horse, could dance a little.”
“You know,” said Dave, “a lot of instructional design really is still on the Skinner side. Canned lectures, lots of quizzes, dish it out and parrot it back. We think constructivism but do behaviorism. We can't agree on a way to do constructivist courses so we do what works.”
“Ism, ism, ism . . . pragmatism! You have found a middle way and you are surely good at what you do. It is good that you follow your own experience.”
“Perhaps you were once a chicken. Maybe a dancing chicken.”
“Off the wall, Sid. You're kidding, right?”
The Buddha's face registered but a slight enigmatic smile.
“OK, let's start with the big picture for your course. Tell me in a few words what you want your learners to accomplish.”
“To move toward enlightenment.”
“Enlightenment? I'll need you to explain what you mean.”
“Tough one. How much time do you have?” asked the Buddha.
“You can't summarize your course content?”
“Does the lotus flower answer, Dave?”
“Well, OK. How about this . . . a big, revolving, multimedia lotus flower with something dramatic playing in the background? Fanfare for the Common Man might be good.”
“Perhaps something more subtle.”
“OK, let me work on it. Now, we need some high-level learning outcomes. Three to five work best. And some objectives for each one. I did an intermediate calculus course last semester and we had a dozen learning outcomes and dozens of objectives for each one.”
“Is that so? Perhaps we will use the four Noble Truths.”
“Sounds great. What are they?”
- 1There is suffering.
- 2Suffering comes from ignorance of its roots in attachment and desire.
- 3Suffering stops when ignorance of its cause stops.
- 4There is an eightfold path that leads to cessation of suffering.
Dave was writing furiously. “Wow, heavy. And you have an eight-step program? Is that like a twelve-step program?”
The Buddha smiled and said, “Not altogether different.”
“It sounds like I can do a sequential goal analysis for number four, and that's simple enough. But for the others, we really need things that are more explicit. As an instructional designer, we like course outcomes and objectives that are specific and measurable. One way to do this is to ask what an observer will see when the learner demonstrates mastery. Now, for learning outcomes one, two, and three, what will we see?”
“But how will you know they have achieved the objectives?”
“Learner will know. We will know.”
“Well, let's start with number one. How will you teach it and how will you evaluate student performance? How will you grade?”
“There is no need to teach that life involves suffering. But it may be a surprise to learn that it is so for everyone. Has there not been sorrow for you, Dave?”
Dave darkened and was quiet for a long moment.
“How might your suffering be assigned a grade? Is it greater than another's?”
“I see what you mean.”
“Students will grade themselves. They know best.”
“But what if they cheat?”
“They cheat themselves.”
“Dave, what the learner achieves will not be measured by an instrument, not even the human eye, unless you have a device to gauge a compassionate, serene heart.”
“OK, Sid, do you have any multimedia ideas for your course?”
“Multimedia is a combination of visuals, sound, text, and things to add impact.”
“Impact? That sounds violent. Might we prefer the sublime, as our experience under this fig tree? The sound of the breeze through the leaves, the flight of birds overhead, the softness of the damp ground, the smell of the cut grass. Can we transmit smells online, Dave?”
“Well, no. But I heard that somebody is working on it!”
“Then how about a nice big tree where the class can gather below? The leaves moving a little. Maybe the sound of a gentle waterfall.”
“Yeah, I think we can manage that.”
“And a special sound recording. Can you record the sound of one hand clapping?”
Dave looked blankly at the Buddha. The Buddha made no reply and no expression.
“Uh, let's talk about teaching strategy. How do you like to conduct your classes? Lecture and discussion?”
“Koans are helpful.”
Can you give me an example, Sid?
“See the flag flapping in front of the admin building? What moves?”
“The flag moves . . . no wait, I get it, the wind.”
The Buddha smiled. “Closer, Dave, but no closer. Mind moves.”
“You're going to have to explain that one.”
“Is anything important conveyed in words? Have you ever had a teacher other than yourself?”
“So, I guess you could put these koans in discussion threads. Have students comment, then respond.”
“Or not. My best teachers let my hasty comments hang above my head like odors. I found it best to mend my own errors.”
“Now here's an idea! I can make a discussion area with a Conehead icon—you know, those wacky skits from the 1970s on Saturday Night Live?” Yeah, the banner can say, “Welcome to Remulak, Koan-heads!”
The Buddha sighed but patiently, then asked softly, “Dave, what was your name before you were born?”
Dave opened his mouth to speak but no words came.
At length, Dave said, “I've got it. A Koan of My Own!”
The Buddha threw his head back and laughed. “That's promising! You are a quick and clever designer, Dave.”
Dave gathered his thoughts and said, “Sid, you want to make sure you have discussions every week. That's the main thing we look for when we evaluate your course at the end. You want to get a high evaluation in your first online course.” Dave fished through his plastic folder and produced a discussion rubric. “Here's what we look for. Pretty simple. Do you have regular discussions? Do you respond quickly and to every student? Are the students engaged in the discussions? You can use this rubric to score student postings so we get quantitative course data.”
“What if the student has nothing to say?” asked the Buddha.
“Well, every student needs to participate in every discussion.”
Quietly, the Buddha said, “Is this a plan for suffering fools? Will we drown in words? If we join the monkeys babbling in the trees, a crystal of truth may be lost in a blizzard. I once had a young teacher who heard all equally and the class seemed like a drunken elephant set loose. Ah, well—nothing wasted—all teach, all learn. I have learned to keep silent rather than spew ignorance. Beneath the trees, eloquence may be a raised eyebrow.”
“But the learning community is important, Sid. Students need to interact a lot with each other. Collaboration and teamwork are important in an online course.”
“Is insisting that students become friends a teacher's business? Perhaps it is best that students speak at the right time, in worthy words.”
“Your call, Sid. But your chair may not ask you back.”
“That will cause me no suffering.”
“OK, let's get your syllabus started. We need to set up weekly topics. What's your plan for the first week?”
“Yes, it will be new and extraordinary. Something they have not experienced. We may continue this through week two.”
“Wow. I get tuition reimbursement. I think I'll take this class.”
“You will be most welcome, Dave. You have a nimble mind and a kind heart.”
Now Dave was silent.
At length, Dave said, “OK, we've got an animated graphic or two. What other technology would you like? I can do you podcasts, tweets, Jings, instant messaging, blogs, text chats, videoconferencing, HTML with CSS web pages, listserves, smartphone apps, online crosswords, and word search . . . anything sound good?”
“We'll be using telepathy.”
Dave looked startled.
“Just a little Buddha joke, Dave. In your expert opinion what would be simplest and most useful to the course?”
“Well, I can find you a few YouTube videos on meditation. And you can use the webcam on your netbook to do quick Jing videos every week or so. You just have to talk. They can see your face too. And it's free.”
“That sounds like good advice. I know you aim to design a good course, and I expect that you will achieve this as you have in other courses. Courses so different! Learners so different! Would you say that it is your skill, your passion, or your courage that matters most?”
“I've never thought of myself like that.”
“These things are in you, Dave. Many benefit.”
Dave was thoughtful for a time, then said, “OK, we need to talk about copyright and course ownership. As an adjunct, you are paid to deliver the course, but you have the option to accept online course support money. If you do, copyright goes to the school and the course design and content belong to us. That's the way we like to work it.”
The Buddha smiled but sadly.
Dave looked puzzled so the Buddha said, “The mission statement on your university website—so noble in the service of mankind. The path of sophistry, even persuading oneself, is treacherous. I wonder if hoarding knowledge—the teacher's very thoughts—is taking ice and trying to store it in warm hands.”
“It just isn't my call, Sid.”
“Do what you will with the money. Share my course and my words.”
After a time, Dave said, “I think I have enough to get started. You should see the link to your new course soon. Just email me anything you want changed. Or call. Thanks very much, Sid. And I hope your course is a success.” He seemed reluctant to leave the Buddha and the shaded fig tree.
“Very well. Thank you.”
Rising to his feet, Dave said, “Live long and prosper, Sid.” He gave the Vulcan salute.
“I know you mean well by that, Dave. Our conversation was pleasant.”
It was lunchtime, and Dave walked quickly back to his office. But opening his door, he paused with his hand partway to the knob and froze in position. He slowly looked down and gazed at his left hand. He stood perfectly still for some minutes.
“You OK, Dave?” asked an officemate.
Dave did not answer.
“Let's head over to the SUB for a burger. I bet you need a break after that consult.”
Dave signaled no.
“Bring you something back? A hotdog? Make you one with everything?”
Making no response to the stale tease, Dave took an apple from the department welcome desk, entered his office, locked the door, and turned off the florescent lights. He sat down on the carpet and thoughtfully finished the apple, savoring each taste and texture, then drew himself into a meditative posture, and closed his eyelids. He sat patiently and long in silence.
The Buddha remained beneath the fig tree, smiled briefly for dancing chickens, and closed his eyes.