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A bit of an editorial on at a distance learning …

The need for design thinking in small “at a distance” programs …

Lezlie Kinyon  (also published in  Pagans in HDSCN1672igher Education [Files]) ·

Over the past two years, I have been asked to teach basic psychology and systems design courses at four different “start-up” at-a-distance graduate programs. I have been asked to do this through professional contacts either through my graduate school, Saybrook, or through other organizations that I have affiliations for. Each time, the referral came through a trusted colleague, and that trust became the final portion of the agreement to accept the offer.  Save one, which I turned down flat out, and has no bearing on this conversation as it was/is a for-profit program.   The other three programs are the reason why I am writing this brief editorial in this blog.  (Please share your experiences in the comment area.)  In the spiritual “higher-ed” world, particularly as it attempts to cater to the needs of minority faith and indigenous peoples for training in pastoral needs, this issue is most relevant.  In the past decade various independent, small graduate programs have appeared at the Master’s level  looking to fill a perceived need within this population of scholars to staff, and to enroll as students, in programs offering “Goddess-oriented” and “Earth-centered” spirituality programs. Often attached to liberal seminaries and the smaller private, nonprofit, graduate programs that specialize in transpersonal psychology, these programs are also – very often – under funded and understaffed.  It will reward the potential student or faculty seeking these programs to undertake – first and foremost – a program of research about both the program in question, and the current models of successful at-a-distance learning in higher ed, before approaching these programs as anything like serious attempts at collegiate learning.

All of these programs suffered – categorically – from a model of distance learning that is both incomplete, and, in the long, run self-defeating.  While many of these conditions also exist for campus-based “brick & mortar” programs, they seem particularly relevant to discuss as the popularity of distance-learning models are adopted by small start-up programs and smaller departments in large universities as a means to cut costs. In brief, each program:

  • … offered payment to faculty that is so far below the accepted standard (even for adjunct teaching) that it is under the category of “volunteer work” for most qualified faculty
  • … so few students are enrolled in the program that no guarantee of enrollment in the course is offered, nor is the payment equal to the hours of prep work or actual student-faculty interactions.  Save for a tiny portion of professionals, this is neither cost nor time-effective.
  • … non-accreditation.  This may be problematical for start-up programs attached to a larger research oriented institution or for those who have developed a good reputation, for others it becomes a “minus” on the CV regarding future positions and research granting bodies. (It is certainly trouble for students enrolled who hope to continue on in higher ed as a career or in doctoral and post-doc programs.)
  • … little or no faculty support (no development or “in suit” training offered, no clerical support, no coverage of copyrighted material usage fees)
  • … the program offered no ombudsman nor any other method of resolving conflicts or disputes
  • … a non-collegial – and, in one instance hostile – working environment
  • …and, finally, (and most importantly) an incomplete model of distance learning that is – increasingly – reliant on unproven or cumbersome technological solutions as a substitution for face-to-face class time.

This last item, coupled with technical personnel who display that certain “techie arrogance” which creates failure within programs in all sectors of business and education in both visible and invisible ways. In one psych program I agreed to teach a course in (reluctantly, it must be admitted here: a “once burned twice shy” situation) the model had very little visible basis in design thinking, and resulting in a mid-term resignation because the “classroom time” solution provided by the institute did little more than get in the way of the actual teaching and left myself as well as at least one student nearly to tears in frustration in attempting to find “work a rounds” with no actual assistance from the program’s developers or technical staff.  When I found myself asked to find and pay for a solution on my own -and, did so, out of pocket –  the final decision was to cancel the course without further discussion.  This situation became so badly  addressed on every level, that seeing no recourse, and no alternatives with positive outcomes on any level, I immediately resigned.

This was not the worst of the programs, the first I had agreed to “fill in”  with a needed psychology class sent a syllabus that had no freedom for interpretation whatever, did not provide any prep time, and when the contract was sent finally, (after months of waiting) assigned no students to the course: faculty are, apparently, part of the “recruiting” mechanism for obtaining student enrollment in the program!  This method of recruitment is – although questionable at best – not unheard of and one that all potential faculty should thoroughly research before agreeing to anything. (Needless to say, I did not sign the contract.)

From a Human Systems perspective, all of these issues can (and, should) be addressed from a design perspective.  The people creating these programs are, very often, well-meaning, educated, and – to a fault – passionately working, even sacrificing personal life and professional goals, to create programs that are both academically interesting and meeting a perceived need.  The failure point, in each case, has been in the distance-learning model used by the program.  Until that is addressed, each of these programs will continue to struggle for acceptance, an adequate financial foundation to work from (faculty research grants, endowments, etc. etc.) qualified faculty, and student success in the world-beyond-graduate-school.


Personal Statement: How I Got Here…

On a chilly afternoon …

The Path Forward…
6/21/12 – L. Kinyon – all rights reserved.

How did an artist and poet, and a leader in my spiritual community, a former “back to the land” advocate and environmental activist become a scholar in the systems sciences? It’s not an easy knot to unravel, but, herein, I will try. The genesis may have been an abiding interest in a broadly based and integrative understanding of inquiry in the social sciences as well as work experience in the arts and humanities.
When I entered graduate studies, I had a few “burning questions” (born of grassroots environmental activism) concerning the nature of society and how we will – collectively – go from here. As I researched graduate programs and encountered the “systems world”, it was because of – or, perhaps, despite – the prospect of finding a wholistic means to broaden and deepen the tools of gaining understanding (in the sense of Weber) that led me into this strange – and, perilous – county of systems thinking. The methods implied were both exciting and more than a little bit challenging. One important thread in my academic orientation has been in humanistic studies. Since the 1970s at Johnston College (now center) located on the University of Redlands campus in Southern California, I have had the unique opportunity to study with some the founding members of the “third force” in psychology: Rogers, Kubler-Ross, May, Z. Moreno, at the height of the movement and, more recently, Stanley Krippner at Saybrook Graduate School in California. As years went by, I continued within this intellectual tradition into professional work and, later, both in my dissertation research and into the “real world” designing programs in education and working in the arts.
I was ready to study the traditional determinist approach taught in most social science research methods courses, but kept seeking something more systemic in nature. After completing my MA thesis I found that I needed to back up a bit and rethink. This meant leaving graduate studies for a time to recoup and to focus on creative work and the work of social transformation. Meant to be a temporary leave of absence, this “recouping” became three years that included joining AmeriCorps, developing an inner-city literacy program in Oakland, CA, while also continuing to write and create new art. This led, in turn, to reviewing experiential learning paradigms. Because I had participated in experiential learning (on the model of A. S. Neill’s Summerhill) in a high school honors program and as an undergraduate at (then) Johnston College in Southern California, I had some practical knowledge with which to begin this inquiry.
All of this led to profoundly rethinking my graduate research goals.
While sitting on a beach in Western Sonoma county, at a particularly low moment in my quest, I cam back to this: I am an artist. As van Manen (1990) suggested, a research must, at times, discover or invent a methodological approach sufficient to the subject under research in order to create an energetic response. By happy circumstance, Stan Krippner, my thesis advisor at Saybrook, had sent a paper to me that explored the idea of “art-informed inquiry”. As I read through this paper, I became excited and, importantly, ready to begin again! Arts-informed inquiry is interdisciplinary and integrative and coupled with a systems approach, arts-informed inquiry has the potential to create a rich corollary to the Aristotelian episteme in the humanities and in human science research. It incorporates the questions of validity, legitimacy, and significance of traditional approaches as well as the questions of meaning and function that an artist asks in approaching work.
During I time as an AmeriCorps member working with students in the inner city schools I was confronted by the startling poverty of spirit experienced not only by my young charges, but also by fellow Corps members. Through this experience, I began to look at master’s work along with the dominant American educational bias, and the uses of arts-informed inquiry with different eyes. The AmeriCorps team “tried out” a quilt making project at a public middle school. The results were involved students engaged in inquiry! Arts-informed inquiry allows researchers to tackle elusive subjects such as the search for wisdom, our roles as thinking and aware beings within nature’s complex web or, as the students discovered, examining basic belief system underlying an educational program. It allows for the disciplined process of inquiry to be foremost in subjects of a personal nature such as gender identity or dreams and consciousness.
A second “thread” that is reflected both within academic and in creative work is spirituality in the form of an abiding interest in mystical literature. Specifically, the idea of amor as it has progressed through the centuries – from the works of the troubadour era and Mechtild von Magdeburg, through W. B Yeats and into modern lyric poetry – this led to my master’s work, Conversations with the Beloved: Art, Poetry, Spirituality and Systems Thinking. Within context of this thesis, I discovered that this research would benefit from a deeper and richer model of inquiry. Calling upon my background in the arts and in humanistic scholarship, I began developing methods using the tools of the arts research called “arts-informed inquiry” (Richardson, Cole, Knowles, Neilson, Luciani) in action research and experiential learning (e.g.: Rogers, A.S. Neill, Pangaro). This line of reasoning led to considering what such an approach might mean for disciplined inquiries into elusive and complex areas of human experience. I had found both my reason to return to graduate work and my dissertation topic. This work incorporates both academic interests and creative life as a writer, poet, and sculptor; the result is entitled The Elegant Solution: Toward Formulation of a Theory of Aesthetic Inquiry for the Human Sciences.

As I have continue in the arts throughout all these changes and intellectual questing, I will close with a short wrap-up of what I am doing currently. The use of arts-informed inquiry seemed to have “real world” potential beyond the traditional academic classroom and in using systems thinking in the development of projects and collaborations. I currently work within a collaboration of artists exploring experimental forms of theatre in Berkeley, California, publish a journal, Coreopsis, A Journal of Myth and Theatre, and edit Saybrook’s alumi newsletter. In my research interests, I am exploring an extended project concerning the challenges facing the emerging idea of the “independent scholar” who works outside the traditional university department or governmental agency.

Cole, A. L., Neilsen, L., Knowles, J.G, & Luciani, L. (2005). Provoked by art: Theorizing arts-informed research. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada: Backalong Books.
Neill, A. S. (1960). Summerhill school: A new view of childhood. Great Britian: Penguin Books.
Neilson, L., Cole, A. L., Knowles, G. J. (2001). The art of writing inquiry. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada: Backalong Books.
Magdeburg von, M. (1991). Mechthild von Magdeburg: Flowing light of the divinity. (C. M. Galvani, Trans.) S. Clark, (Ed.). (Vol. 72, series B, Garland library of medieval literature). New York: Garland. (original work published c. 1250)
Manen van, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. London: Althouse Press.
Pangaro, P. (2002). Cybernetics and conversation. Patterns, ASCD Systems Thinking and Chaos Theory Network Newsletter. January, 2002
Richardson, L. (1994). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 516-517). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.