Let’s talk about risk

This post has been half written for a while now but listening to @Jessifer’s keynote during the 2020 Digital Pedagogy Lab has prompted me into finally finishing it. Head to the discussion around 55 mins in.

“With a nod or an acknowledgement of the fact that professional risk is not distributed equally so not everyone gets the privilege of breaking the rules.” Jessie Stommel

Most equate a sense of the physical when hearing the word risk and with physical risk the implications of things going wrong are very acute. As a parent I saw this play out a few years ago when my daughter, then ten, took a tumble from the balance beam during a gymnastics squad training session. Learning to jump and flip yourself on a piece of wood, six feet high and the width of a smartphone, is a gradual thing. Starting with a spongy version, only inches off the ground, surrounded by layers of mats and only doing very conservative moves. Over years, the safety precautions are ever present but decrease at crunch points. Learning the increasingly difficult skills involves a lot of falling from the beam and falling during competition routines costs points. However, gymnasts continually get back on the beam so to speak. The minute my eldest dismounted and hit her head on the way down in that session changed the world yet we barely registered it at the time. The coach warned us to watch overnight for signs of concussion and skimmed over the detail of what happened. If life was a movie the following weeks would have involved soul searching, reflections, sharing and ultimately a solution. Life unfortunately is not a movie and whilst she eventually told us the impact, got back up and even nailed the move at competition level along with fighting against squad level demotion (and sitting the transfer test aka the 11+) the light had gone. What was once her life’s obsession and passion became a source of anxiety. Taking risk has had a wide impact on many parts of her life in the four years since, not at all confined to the gym.

So, what has all this got to do with risk in education? It can be perceived that those who have moved up the ladder or achieved a wide professional following have done so by taking large risks. Thinking of Jesse’s warning that what risk means to one person isn’t necessarily what it means to another. Few of us are in the position to have access to large pools of money and many who do, may not have the luxury of secure employment, financial stability or a guaranteed route to a new role to survive a failed project. Groups such as women, people of colour, ethnic minorities, disabled or financially disadvantaged may also find that they are not encouraged or supported to take risks which might be beneficial for their career, which can severely affect confidence. Failing for some after taking risks has potential for tangible professional harm, especially in the current times of burn out and exhaustion in the midst of a crisis. Of course, ‘failing’ also has a wide perception of definition, a failure defined by an institution might feel like a personal achievement.

Bringing all of this to the current situation, those of us who have spent years working in digital education can afford to be somewhat pioneering in our approaches, we experiment in the safety of having learned how to deal with different outcomes over a long time. However, when we are moving large scale to online learning, highly experienced teachers who have spent years in physical teaching spaces do not share our confidence or knowledge. Neither are our students prepared to move to higher education whilst potentially isolated at a distance. Risk therefore, can be defined as anything previously untried by an individual and has to be understood and perceived as such.

Whist unpicking the complexities and issues around taking risks I am not advocating that everyone should stay in their comfort zone. Rather those of us providing support for the upcoming new semester of online teaching, need to converse closely with everyone to discover each individual’s comfort zone and then work out from that point. Take small incremental steps to find solutions and approaches that work for them and their students in an online space. At the same time listen carefully to reservations and importantly the reasons for them. Reflect with them what, if any, actual harm is involved if things don’t go according to plan. If there is can this be navigated? If it can’t, is there an alternative solution? We also need to advocate for the disadvantaged and lobby upwards for stability and consistency in our institutional learning technologies.

Taking risk is rarely easy but it can be worth it. These are a few questions I ask myself when I come up with a new idea:

  • With whom does the risk affect most – you as the educator or your students? For example, for you if things go wrong the worst thing may be that no one shows up for your session. However, the worst thing for your students might be that it causes undue stress and worry.
  • What are the tangible benefits for you and your students (be honest here*)?
  • Have you sufficient safety nets in place? I think of the risks I take as ‘safe risks’ because of multiple back-up plans. These might include:
    • Using a familiar technology in a new way.
    • Using technologies that are new to you but are fully supported within the institution.
    • Having time and space to do a test or a pilot with colleagues or close allies.
    • Starting out in low-stakes settings – an optional no credit course, induction session or a first-year course is much less problematic than final year courses or modules which contribute to the graduating grade.
  • Have you buy-in from senior colleagues?
    • Getting external funding or recognition can be really helpful for this. There are other side benefits of this approach. Firstly, you will get peer reviews of your ideas, which will then help you further refine the approach. Secondly, running a workshop at a conference will allow you to get feedback from fellow educators, so you can make changes before embedding in your teaching. Albeit this is not an option if you are in time pressurised situations.
    • Collaborating with someone who has experience outside your department or institution.
  • Do you have someone within your communities of practice who has shared success with a similar ‘risk’? If so reach out to them, ask them what didn’t go well initially as well as finding out what the advantages or successes were.
  • Can you start small? If you can try your idea out at the start of the semester as an activity, perhaps only a ten-minute creativity task in a live session or a short formative quiz in a new tool. This will give students a chance to become familiar with your new approach and you can iron out any issues early on before introducing a longer version later on, perhaps as a summative assessment.

In the early days of my higher education career, I had the privilege of a permanent position that was newly created and therefore I had the autonomy to make choices as to the routes I took. I learned early on to be strategic in choosing the most supportive collaborators and how to seek internal and external funding. However, I held no power or budget for large scale work and fitting in extra projects or initiatives around working full time with three small children meant that whilst I continually push myself to extend my comfort zone it has resulted in a slow but steady career path, for better or for worse. Safety first!

Returning to the idea of what denotes a failure, we work in (higher) education, we need to maintain perspective and what harm can occur. In general, things can be fixed, alternatives can be found, help can be sought. But we do need a system that supports growth and development and provides appropriate training and space. Our current measurements of success need to be reconsidered to foster experimentation, safe spaces need to be offered and that includes time to try and fail initially. Systemic barriers also need to be acknowledged and broken down.

I began this post with reference to the Digital Pedagogy Lab and I end with it too. It was so exciting to be part of the lab this year (only a possibility because it moved online) and everyone must have had similar feelings as our initial surge of enthusiasm and excitement was enough to bring down the discussion board on day one. Situations such as this give us the chance to see things as our students would. We need to empathise and show patience with others as lessons are learned and solutions are found in these bumpy and unclear times, just exactly how we would hope others would afford us in the same situation.

I’d love to hear your stories of risk – what went well and what didn’t, what has held you back from perhaps taking more risk, what advice would you offer others?

I also wish you well with upcoming adventures, with safety nets in place of course

* the urban dictionary definition defines a vanity project as home improvements that incur high costs but yield little value and this can be applied to any project more generally.

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