Tuesday, February 11, 2014

In the Association We Trust

'Your Association Needs You' by Aaron Davis (Flickr)

While attending the recent Teachmeet at Lt Markov, +Roland Gesthuizen posed the question, what do you expect from +Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria? It is a part of a bigger question that I don't believe we ask very often, what we actually expect from an educational association? It got me thinking about how these expectations have changed in the last few years. I remember when I started teaching over ten years ago, the association was the first place you went to for information and resources. However, in the last few years this pride of place has gradually been dissolved with the development of various sites and spaces. So here then are my thoughts about the place of associations today.

I remember as a graduate being inundated by my subject association with an array of sessions for this and that, I thought that every event was worth going to, probably because that was all that was on offer. The problem with this though was that schools never allow you to go to ever event due to the disruption to class and the cost to the school, this was exacerbated when I moved to the country, which also added the issue of travel to the equation.

Since then, I rarely look at those sheets and links, while the ones that I do wish to go to are often cancelled due to lack of interest. For me, much of this professional learning has been replaced by what could be deemed as 'personal learning', that is, learning that is driven by the learner, rather than the presenter. This can come in many shapes and not always in the physical form. This can include sharing ideas through social media or engaging with different resources through various social bookmarking. I think then that the place of associations in this environment is to not only to add to, but help manage and curate the dearth of information out there.

One of the interesting innovations of late in regards to professional development has been the rise of webinars and other such platforms as an alternative to tradition professional learning. Although I have not actually been a part of one of these sessions, I have watched many at a later date. What is great about this is that you can dip in when you want, taking away as much as you want. The problem is that traditionally the success of professional development is measured by numbers through the door. I think though that it can be a misnomer to simply measure such mediums by their take-up. For in the digital age, this take up can be spread over weeks, month and years. In some respect it is important to provide such ideas and information and let it have its own existence.

The biggest challenge to associations is that many of those tried and trusted methods and mediums are continuing to come under scrutiny in the world of open learning. I've read two interesting posts in the last few months in regards to the continuing currency. One from +Chris Betcher and the other from +Tom Whitby. What was interesting about both pieces was that they both highlighted sharing and networking as one of the essential elements to conferences. For Betcher, conferences need to be offer an experience, not just the same old stand and deliver, rather "moments that could not have happened any other way." While for Whitby, his concern is about the currency of ideas and information presented at conferences. When sessions often need to be submitted 8 to 12 months in advance, how can what is presented be the 'latest and greatest'? He gives reference to the move to the more informal style of conference perpetuated by the Edcamp movement and questions what value formal conferences have over such mediums. What is interesting is the move of some conferences now to offer elements of the more informal, running there Teachmeet events at the end of the day when the space which is often hired for the whole day is left dormant. The question then remains, what is the future of conferences? Will they continue to be the staple of the association? How will they change in order to offer experiences rather than content? To these questions, I am not really sure.

Associated with conferences is another stalwart, the journal. I remember cleaning out resource cupboard at my old school and finding hundreds to journals stashed away in the corner.  Often a collection of academic papers, detailed case studies and literature, I am sure they will always be a place for journals, because, for some, they provide the legitimacy to move ahead with an initiative or to try something new. However, with the rise of blogging, podcasts and new aggregation applications, the primacy of the old-fashioned journal as the place to find out about ideas and initiatives has seemingly been displaced for some. I think that the challenge that associations now have is how to manage both formal and informal mediums. Just as it is the job of associations to facilitate a wide range of professional learning, so to is it the job of the association to publish across a variety of forms. Coupled with the traditional, there is a place for associations to also promote what is out there. Whether this be a group blog or aggregated zine like Flipboard. However, the issue that exists is what should exist behind a paywall and what should be made public for the greater good of all? Again, like the conference, I am stumped on this one.

This then links to the biggest question that many have in regards to associations, what do you pay for? In some respect I think that this question would be better put as what should you pay for? Clearly associations do not run by themselves and aspects such as books and resources only bring in so much. However, not many people are going to pay as a part of some sort of moral obligation, well not enough to keep the association running. What is worse is that with the tightening of budgets, often it is the school association subscription that is often the first thing to be questioned, especially when there are so many. What then should be included? Traditionally, subscriptions have included discounts to events, various subscriptions, newsletters and access to support. With much of this becoming available elsewhere, is it enough now? On top of that, +Jenny Ashby raised an interesting point during the Teachmeet about whether country educators should get a subsidised rate as the tyranny of distance often prevents them from being able to get the same benefit. Clearly, associations have to charge a subscription. However, at the end of the day, what this cost should include is unknown. At the very least, it means you are supporting a professional group and for some that is all that matters.

The reality is, associations are there for their members. Just as social media would be nothing without people sharing and interacting, so to with an association. For without members to support and represent, an association is nothing. Really, the association is there to be whatever you want it to be. Whether it be solving a problem or answering a difficult question, there are often people working there with a wealth of knowledge and experience who can help out with. In addition to this, associations offer a united voice to curriculum submissions and other such educational initiatives. 

In the end, I am not sure what the future of the association is. I asked a few colleagues about what they thought. Some spoke about the opportunity to network, while others questioned whether there was a need at all. What I found interesting was that many of the perceived 'benefits' of an association are now things that we can find elsewhere. After reflecting on everything, I think that the future of the association is somewhat linked with the future of the teacher. Although there will always be a need and a place for the role of the 'teacher' in the future to support the human side of learning. This role is becoming more and more that of a supporter and facilitator, rather than the old-fashioned instigator of learning.

So then, what do you think? Do you see a place for associations in the future? What is that place? Is it the same as now or are there things that you think will change? Have I simply missed a large chuck of what an association is? Leave your thoughts below. Would love to know.