Still More Rules of Thumb

Earlier this week, I posted the first two posts reviewing Alan Webber’s Rules of Thumb.: 52 Truths For Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self (2009).  I got a nice note from Alan at his website:

“I just read your blog on Rules and I can’t thank you enough! Taking Rules and applying it to the concept of achieving excellence in teaching is a terrific way to migrate my (mostly) general rules to a very specific (and very important) context. As you say at the end of your blog post: do they hit the target, or are they off the mark? It’s good learning for me, by the way, to watch you port the rules into your own work/life and test them to see if they actually offer practical, useful, helpful guidance. Thanks for the posting here and the serious application on your own site!”

I agree that it is useful to take books like Alan’s and reflect on their merit in the context of one’s own work.  So with that in mind, here are the next thirteen rules:

Rule #27 – If you want to be like Google, learn Megan Smith’s three rules.

Megan Smith is Google’s VP of new business development and strategy.  Her three rules that got Alan’s attention:

  • The customer participates.
  • The customer drives,
  • Open systems beat closed systems.

These relate directly to online teaching.  Even more so than in the classroom, the role of faculty shifts online to facilitation of a learning journey in which the students are participants and co-developers of knowledge.  As Michael Wesch has pointed out, no one knows as much as all of us, so let your students drive and see where it takes you!  And of course, to let them drive, you need to leave the walled gardens of course management systems and venture out into the open web, taking advantage of open systems like Twitter, Ning, and even Wikipedia.

Rule #28 – Good design is table stakes.  Great design wins.

Webber noted that today design is what differentiates companies.  The same can be said for online courses.  Good design should be the norm.  Great design differentiates courses.  To me, design means a lot more than just loading content.  It means you have thought through your course objectives and designed the content, interactions, formative feedback, and assessments to clearly deliver the learning objectives.

Rule #29 – Words matter.

Webber quoted Mark Twain who said “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.”  When faculty move their courses online, they have created an environment for online learning, but have they created an environment where learning occurs online?  Look at how you communicate to your online students.  How are your expectations communicated?  How are the students’ voices communicated?

Rule #30 – The likeliest sources of great ideas are in the most unlikely places.

In business, great ideas do not necessarily emerge from R&D centers, but rather from the trenches or the fringes.  Tom Peters quoted Jack Welsch on this, who said, “You can’t behave in a calm, rational manner.  You’ve got to be out there on the lunatic fringe.” In teaching online, do you see yourself as the only source of ideas, or do you set your students free to seek new ideas from unlikely sources?

Rule #31 – Everything communicates.

Your online design, your “Faculty Information”, your syllabus, your communications in discussion boards, blog comments, and wikis…they all send messages about you, your passion for teaching and the subject matter, and your openness to connecting with your students.  Equally important, what you decide not to use or do also communicates.  How do you brand yourself?

Rule #32 – Content isn’t king. Context is king.

I love the quote by Walter Wriston that every day “I’m presented with three types of information.  Facts, wrong facts, and damned lies.  My job is to know which is which.”  That same rule can apply to online teaching.  The internet is awash in facts, wrong facts and damned lies.  Teaching our students how to navigate and analyze this massive pool of data is a key literacy for this age.  As Webber noted, context is how we add value.

Rule #33 – Everything is a performance.

We faculty know this from teaching in the classroom, but have you considered your “performance” in an online class?  How do you come across to your students?  Do you have an authentic voice and social presence online?  Great teachers are known for their delivery, and that is as true online as in the classroom.

Rule #34 – Simplicity is the new currency.

In the Center for Teaching Excellence, we spend a lot of time examining new Web 2.0 applications.  Some are just cool, but at the end of the day, we always need to ask ourselves – Do they make our life easier or more complicated?  Would it solve problems for me or make problems for me?  The same can be said for your online course design?  Do you make it simple for students to figure out the flow, or is finding assignments a problem?  Is your course flow consistent week to week?

Rule #35 – The Red Auerbach management principle: loyalty is a two-way street.

Arnold “Red” Auerbach was the coach of the Boston Celtics who won 938 games.    When talking about why the Celtics were successful, he stated that you should not reward players on statistics but on contributions to the team; don’t con the players and they will not con you; and remember that loyalty is a two-way street.  Trust and loyalty go hand in hand.  In business, Webber talks about how many managers demand loyalty from employees but do not give loyalty back, preferring instead to use fear and intimidation over leadership.  It makes me wonder about how we as faculty come across to our students?  Do our online policies make it clear that we mistrust our students, or do our policies show respect and trust as their foundation?  To me, this goes hand in hand with high expectations.  Expect much of your students, trust them, and they will rise above your expectations.

Rule #36 – Message to entrepreneurs: managing your emotional flow is more critical than managing your cash flow.

Webber’s message to entrepreneurs is that one should not get so focused on making money that one loses one’s mind.  His solution – great partners, lots of laughs, loud music, and comfort food.  This is a tough one to map to online learning….and yet, it resonates with me on several levels.  I work hard to make my courses meaningful…but fun nonetheless.  I tend to have Pandora playing when I am working online.  In other words, if I continue to have fun teaching online, my students will enjoy the experience more as well.

Rule #37 – All money is not created equal.

Webber is focused in this rule on not just raising capital to start a new business, but in also creating relationships as part of that process.  While we do not necessarily raise money in our online teaching, we do need to raise social capital.  Our students will relate to us and our content much more if they have connected with us.  This relationship stuff is very important – it underlies any community of learners.

Rule #38 – If you want to think big, start small.

Webber interviewed Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus about his work with microcredit.  In answer to the question on how to pick problems to work on, given so many problems in the world, he said, “Start with what ever is right in front of you.”  Many faculty are intimidated about moving their courses online, as the issues seem too numerous.  This advice works equally well for them.  Start small.  Create simple interactions to connect with your students initially, and then build on the experience over time.  I am currently thoroughly enjoying the graduate course I teach in School Leadership, but this course evolved over the four semesters in which I have taught.

Rule #39 – “Serious fun” isn’t an oxymoron; it’s how you win.

Webber quoted Dan Pink, who said that “People rarely succeed at anything unless they are having fun doing it.”  Yet we tend to load our courses down with the rules on what students cannot do, as opposed to the freedom to learn and learn well.  I take it as a real complement when my students tell me in course evaluations that my course was “fun.”  That meant that I got it and they got it – the subject matter is serious but the learning journey around that serious subject matter can be darn fun!

And I have to admit, it has been fun mapping Webber’s rules to the context of online teaching and learning.  I will finish up his Rules of Thumb in the next post.

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