The Fourth and Last Set of Rules

In the past three posts, I have covered the first 39 “rules” from Alan Webber’s Rules of Thumb.: 52 Truths For Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self (2009).  I found this book to be relevant not only for entrepreneurs in business, but for those changing the paradigm of teaching by moving online.  This post will complete my review of his rules and their application to online teaching and learning.  Here are the last thirteen:

Rule #40 – Technology is about changing how we work.

Webber makes a great point that directly ties into our work in online teaching and learning – “It’s never about the technology – it’s always about what the technology makes possible.”  Technology is a moving target.  The online environment today is totally different than just five years ago due to the increased two-way interactivity now possible.  Rather than adopting “a” technology, we should be about adopting technological concepts that allow us to bring learning alive.  The question is never WordPress versus Blogger or Moveable Type, but rather whether blogging can improve dialogue and connections in your class.  This rule also suggests that it is okay to try new approaches to teaching and learning due to new affordances technology grants rather than trying to shoe-horn our old course into an online learning environment.

Rule #41 – If you want to be a real leader, first get real about leadership.

In business, leadership is not attached to a single job title.  It is also not attached to a specific gender or race.  In classes, the same can be said.  Leadership is a way of thinking and acting, and we do our students a disservice if we do not cultivate that.  Real leaders grow new leaders, and real teachers grow the next generation of leaders as well.  How is your class organized to recognize and cultivate thinking and acting as leaders?

Rule #42 – The survival of the fittest is the business case for diversity.

Webber noted that diversity is the key to adaptation and the way to tap new ideas.  It is a way of learning new ways of thinking and operating.  Much has been written about the anonymity of students online, but I would suggest that one can also create opportunities that expose the diversity of thought.  I will never forget an early online class I taught in which college leadership was being discussed.  A white American male posted a lengthy comment about authoritative leadership, and then one male student from Guam started his post with “I am a Chamorro and that is not how we think…”  Online classes open up wonderful opportunities for cross-cultural, gender, or racial discussions in a safe environment.  Exposing our students to diversity of thought equips them for success in the flat world.

Rule #43 – Don’t confuse credentials with talent.

In business today, particularly with the speed of change that is occurring, it makes sense to hire for attitude and then train for skills.  I wonder if we are guilty of the reverse in education.  We (and our students) place great value on degrees and grades.  The number one question we tend to get in class (online or F2F) is “Will this be on the test?”  If we were in the talent business rather than the credentialing business, we faculty and our students would be focused more on learning and less on grades.  Do our classes help or hurt our students’ future job prospects when it comes to attitude?

Rule #44 – When it comes to business, it helps if you actually know something about something.

The same can be said for teaching online.  Our role as faculty has definitely changed.  We now live in a world where Scantron tests are obsolete if students can enter the question into Wolfram Alpha or Google or Wikipedia and ascertain the correct answer.  But that is not learning.  Our role has evolved from knowledge giver into a knowledge guide, which does mean that we have to know something about something…so that we can guide those who only check the first five returns in Google.  We should want to move our students beyond information to knowledge.

Rule #45 – Failure isn’t failing.  Failure is failing to try.

Webber noted that the articles in FastCompany magazine that garnered the greatest reader responses were the ones where authors talked about their failures and what they learned.  One cannot take risks without having failures, but the question becomes what one does with the lessons learned.  That is true of online teachers and it is true of online students.  Regardless of the myth of the digital natives, the truth is that the online environment is still outside the comfort zone of many students (as it is for many faculty).  Yet, this new environment offers rich opportunities to try things that could never be tried face-to-face.  I recently required my graduate class of technology-frightened students to research a Web 2.0 tool and then post a multimedia presentation on that tool in a wiki to their fellow classmates in a two-week period…with no instruction on “how” to do that.  But I also told them that anyone who successfully posted a multimedia presentation passed the assignment.  They ended up amazing themselves, posting a combination of YouTube, Jing, and Camtasia videos on 25 separate tools.  They also learned that the lesson was not the presentation but the journey in preparing and posting the presentation.  After that two-week period, I no longer had a class of students scared of technology.  Almost all of them ended up applying their new skills in the K-12 classes they taught.  What excites me most is the spirit of experimentation that has suddenly erupted in these teachers.

Rule #46 – Tough leaders wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Webber noted that the kind of leaders the world needs are those who exercise tough leadership with warm hearts.  I believe that the worst mistake an online faculty can make is to be invisible.  It is okay to have a tough course but your students should “see” you as someone who is passionate about the subject matter and caring about their success in the class.  The social presence of the faculty impacts learning, retention, and ultimately student success.

Rule #47 – Everyone’s at the center of their map of the world.

I am currently in Boston visiting my daughter and grandkids.  One of the lesser known tourist attractions is the Mapparium, a three-story tall stained glass globe that you walk into and stand at the center of the world.  It certainly is a unique view of geography.  Yet, unique views are common.  I was talking with my good friend Bruce Robinson last night.  Bruce is Headmaster of the British School of Boston and was my roommate at University of Nebraska as we worked on our doctorates.  Bruce is also originally from Australia, and he had a world map that (to me) was upside down and showed Australia as center of the world.  Technology has given us all the ability to construct our own personal learning environments in which we are the center of the world, with linkages to information and knowledge being generated all around us.  This concept that not only are we at the center but also we are responsible for our own learning is a great literacy that we need to pass on to our students.  Webber makes a great point in Rule #47: ”

“It’s a big world-and getting smaller all the time. It’s not so much that the world is flat.  It’s that we are all connected…you’re in the middle, and so is everyone else.”

Rule #48 – If you want to make change, start with an iconic project.

Everyone talks about “change” yet few really believe in it of do it.  The concept of change is too nebulous for most people.  So Webber suggests that the road to change is to pick a doable project that provides proof of concept and makes change believable.  So if you would like to add online courses to your education delivery mix, don’t try to do all of them immediately.  Pick one course that has impact and do a proof of concept design and delivery.  When we started the online delivery at Gwinnett Technical College in Georgia, we started with three courses and 41 students.  Within five years, we were offering 200 courses a quarter with the largest online technical college enrollment in the state.

Rule #49 – If you want to grow as a leader, you have to disarm your border guards.

It is an unwritten law of business that the higher you rise, the more inaccessible you become.  Webber points our that business today is more than numbers and rationality; that emotional intelligence plays just as important a role.  In a similar view, faculty who teach online need to be accessible and real to their online students.  It is too easy to put up barriers to access – rigid office hours, unreturned email, no use of social media like Facebook or Twitter.  Think about how accessible you are and what barriers may be blocking students from getting to you.

Rule #50 – On the way up, pay attention to your strengths; they’ll be your weaknesses on your way down.

We are all fascinated by lists of the best…but when it comes to businesses, those in the Fortune 500 today probably will not remain there.  Take a look at the Fortune 500 from fifty years ago – the top company was General Motors!  Every strength also has the potential as a vulnerability.  There are lessons from GM that can be applied to higher education.  We need to examine our strengths today with new lens of digital connectiveness, ubiquitous access to information, and open publishing.

Rule #51 – Take your work seriously. Yourself, not so much.

Great advice…whether you run a company or a class.  I start all of my online classes with an icebreaker to get to know my students…and to let them get to know me.  There are a ton of interactive websites that can be used for ice breakers online. One I have used in the past with college-aged student is “Gone To the Dogs.” You click on GAMES (along the left side menu) and fill out the Dog Breed Calculator test to find out what breed of dog you are!  Turns out I am a “Azawakh” (or Tareg Sloughi)…a large but very skinny dog from the sub-Sahara. It is “rangy, leggy, lean, rugged, and elegant”…and my wife might suggest that I am three out of the five and leave it to me to figure out which!  My students love it – and we begin that first week making connections with each other.

Rule #52 – Stay alert!  There are teachers everywhere.

Wonderful way to end the book!  Webber suggests that we should all stay open to what we are hearing and be willing to listen and learn.  I note in my syllabus that I expect to learn as much from my students as they do from me, because I set my online classes up with the expectation that we are all co-creators of knowledge who learn from each other.

Webber ends his book by noting that the old rules no longer apply and that we need new rules of thumb.  That suggests a continuing evolution.  He asks that we all share our Rule #53, and has set up a website – – to facilitate that sharing.

So – four posts covering 52 rules.  What do you think?  What would be our Rule #53 for online teaching and learning?  Leave a comment here and let me know!

4 thoughts on “The Fourth and Last Set of Rules

  1. Kia ora Britt!

    My # 53 would definitely be to do with the future. But it would be conservative without being impractical. It would be something like:

    look to the future but don’t try to crystal-ball gaze“.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

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