Today Leigh and I met again to talk about the progress so far on the flexible learning project that we have underway for the Bachelor of Occupational Therapy offered by our school at Otago Polytechnic. For some time we have been aware that we’re not meeting the needs of potential students who won’t travel either to Auckland or Dunedin to complete a three year full-time programme. Therefore we need to create a more flexible programme that can be completed by people in their home place. The school applied for and successfully received a grant from the senior management team to ‘rejig’ the first year to be able enable flexible learning. This raises many challenges for the staff – how do I take what I do now and change it so it can be completed by students elsewhere? What do I need to be in front of a group for and why? This transition challenges all our ‘taken for agreed’ assumptions, and also what we value in our roles as educators.

In addition, Leigh asks should we aim to develop all our learning resources to fit within a proprietary learning system, or should we from the start consider how our learning resources can be designed to be portable in lots of different ways? He was suggesting (I think I got this right)… that if the future in elearning is opensource, where learning is portable, where students will be empowered to seek their learning, rather than wait for it to be ‘delivered’ to then where will our school be positioned?

This is a big mind leap for our profession in that we know what we do is very much context specific. If you look at occupational therapy practice between the countries then what an OT does in India, will look different to what an OT does in Sweden, or in America or in Slovakia – the underlying principles are the same, the way we do it shaped by our cultural and political and social contexts. So we have developed our curriculums to ensure our graduates are ‘safe and competent’ to work in our own country. We know the knowledge is in some way portable (especially if we graduate from a WFOT accredited programme) but even then many countries where registation is mandated by law set up ways of ensuring that occupational therapists are ‘safe and competent’ to work in their country – this might be a review by a panel, or an examination or working under the supervision of a local clinician.

We have also planned the learning for students according to the social and cultural mores of our countries – so some countries such as India have a high degree of rote learning of material delivered by the professors who are acknowledged as being the experts. Students demonstrate their understanding through the ‘writing’ of many examinations. In New Zealand, we have a mixture of lectures, tutorials, workshops, laboratories where students are led through a prescribed way of learning – again where the expert distills the important information that a new graduate must know in order to practice competently. We know that students need to try things in school, before ‘trying’ with clients so we include the tutes, workshops etc. This way of learning in New Zealand anyway has been in place since about the 1970’s when we moved from an apprenticeship model (students in a class setting in the morning and working with clients in OT services in the afternoon)… to that of an educational model – blocks of teaching interspersed with blocks of fieldwork to apply what has been learnt in class.

So where am I heading – Leigh suggests that rather than create our learning resources in a Learning Management System that we create in Wikieducator and then link from there into anywhere we need the resource to be. This way we can collaborate easily with each other (ie the staff of the school) plus others who are interested can draw from our resources, as well as add to them for our use. This is quite a shift in thinking for staff who have been used to creating their learning experiences mostly independently, and then delivering the learning within a classroom environment, often alone. Working in wikieducator exposes our thinking and work immediately to the world, open to comment and review. Hmm… it sure is a different process. Anyway, having spent a good hour chewing over the issues, we identified one staff member who we think might try it…. so watch this space! Will we be the first occupational therapy school to place our learning resources online for others to access? Will we lead the way or will we wait to see what others do first?

I don’t yet know the answer to this but I as a part of me says “we can’t do this, its too big a step, no-one else will be interested, it’s too risky”, I am reminded of a very valuable lesson a third year student imparted to me (without realising) when she was on placement with me many moons ago. I asked her to plan an activity for a group of elderly people who were on a slow stream rehab ward waiting to move to rest homes. Any OT will immediately recognise how this group would have looked. A number of people in wheelchairs, or on walking frames, either disoriented and distressed, or partly snoozing, or who had difficulty following anything too challenging cognitively, with just a couple people interested and able to participate.

The student in her enthusiasm suggested that we try the using sheets and balloons (the precursor to the successful balloons and parachute type activity) as an activity that would provide stimulation and fun. In my wisdom and total experience of probably about 2.5 years of working as an occupational therapist I was almost adamant in stating that this wouldn’t work and it would not be a good activity! Well somewhere in my brain a little voice said – why not – give her a try, there is probably little harm and if anything when the activity flops, there will be learning in that experience for the student. I even decided that to ensure that she wasn’t embarrassed when it flopped, I would not be in the room (of course I didn’t tell her that!). The time for the group came around – the student went off with the OT Assistant ready and eager to try her activity – and I… went to the other end of the ward to work with an individual client. Well about 15 minutes later I became aware of a lot of noise coming from the group room. It sounded like lots of laughter and noise – how could this be – many of this group would often snooze through my groups! So I went down, peeked through the window and learnt one of the most valuable lessons of my professional life. This activity was working – the group were alert, some were laughing, those who usually were asleep were looking, and even smiling! What did I learn – that I wasn’t always the most knowledgable about what might work or not work, and how others might react!

So I need to translate that lesson to this group of staff – I need to be careful not to block something that could work very effectively because I think the staff may find it too stressful! So… lets see if we can encourage one staff to try wikieducator – model to others and then see what happens from there! If it works – we’ll have a link to wikieducator to share with others – so please come back and check out this blog!