Observational Course Journal #3

Part 1: Worksite: Several things happened this week in the libraries that relate to my problem of practice in one way or another. One was that I got confirmation that students who transfer in from partner community colleges with their AA degree are exempted from the MREST, which means that the students who struggle with and/or never pass are coming from other transfer sources. This is good news in that it means my population is smaller (though, as a colleague noted and I completely agree, even one student failing to graduate because of this test is too many), but bad news because there’s little I can do before they come to JMU that can be an intervention. I’m very glad that I’m looking not at the “attempts to pass” metric for the MREST, which could be affected by an overhaul of test questions, but at the basic pass rate – a number that I’m theorizing is largely based on student and advisor awareness of the graduation requirement, and not as much on success on the test itself.


Part 2: Observation: Craftsy.com

I did this review on 11/06/16. Craftsy is an online craft portal with three main parts: video “classes” (think Julia Child, but on the internet, and with participants able to ask questions via an internal system), low-end crafting supplies (think Michael’s, JoAnn, Hobby Lobby, etc.), and digital patterns to download (including, for full disclosure, my own knitting pattern “store”). The crafts covered including the fiberarts (knitting, crochet, quilting, sewing), cooking (general, baking, cake decorating), and a growing number of additional crafts including photography. Craftsy was founded in 2011 with only the video classes, and added supplies and patterns since. I found a really interesting article in Inc in which the founder talks about how they handled their hugely rapid growth, which I think is appropriate for this week’s readings.

Craftsy currently lists over 1100 individual classes available for streaming, in 18 categories. The top four categories represent half of these classes (cake decorating, quilting, sewing, and knitting); all of these have more than 130 classes each. Other filters for choosing a class include the type of project created (ex: Home Decor, with 64 classes), new classes, and price. The price range is very interesting; the vast majority of classes are between $10 and $100 classes, but it looks like that’s based on a “sale” price rather than a base. In looking through the available classes, it’s hard to find one that’s not  on sale.

It can also be hard to find a class that is active. Because these classes have been created over the last five years, the bulk of them are available but with fewer perks than the new ones have. Specifically, for active classes the instructor is expected to be available to participants via an internal discussion forum specific to the course. After an undisclosed period of time, the instructor is released from this requirement. The forum is still available, but it’s now entirely participant-driven. It may be that at that point courses go on sale – after all, the value add of the instructor’s availability is now missing.

Several years ago someone gave me the class “Shoot it! A product photography primer” by Caro Sheridan, a well-known fiberarts photographer. It’s currently listed at $29.99, on sale from $39.99. I decided to go into the course again (having not taken it since probably 2014) to observe. First, the course is broken up into ten classes, each of which have several subsections. Each class takes from 9-27 minutes, with most of them in the 16-17 minute range. Navigation is through a menu that flies in from the left, the center of the screen is the video, and on the right is a scrolling commentary/notes window that reminds me a little of VoiceThread. Like VT, you can add a note on the video and it will get included in the scroll – this is also the commentary forum mentioned before. Production values are very high, as the video was clearly filmed in a professional studio. There are a variety of accessibility options, including closed captioning and links to mobile versions. I can even slow down or speed Caro up! In the end, though, it feels a lot like public TV painting or cooking shows – minus the happy trees – insofar as the format clearly follows a standard format pioneered by people like Julia Child decades ago.

The class listing page for this course has a lot of really nice information on it, so that the participant has some idea of what she’s getting into before ordering. There’s some logistics about taking the class, an overview of content, a “lesson breakdown” that lists the individual classes with a precis for each, a rating and link to evaluations, and the typical upsell space for more of Caro’s classes. I’m not sure what I would add to this page that isn’t already there; it’s reasonably well laid out and covers all of the things I would want to know before purchasing. It’s interesting that comparing this page with other courses there are definitely templates for instructors to use; but the content seems to be completely in their control.

The Craftsy site in general is very professionally done, with a very young and hipster/retro vibe. It’s clear from some of the other classes that the target audience for these classes are internet-savvy crafters who want something a little more funky than they might get at their local big box craft store class listing. For instance, garment sewing classes include “Sewing corsets: Essential techniques” (along with a surprising number of other corsetry and foundation garment patterns my mother would never make) and “The Sassy Librarian Blouse” (tempting!). While the sewing classes seem to be largely project driven, the knitting ones seem to be dominated by technique topics like brioche and finishing.

Part 3: Readings

Sutton, R. I., & Rao, H. (2014). Scaling up excellence: Getting to more without settling for less. New York: Crown Business.

There’s a lot to digest in this book (290 pages!). My main takeaway is a set of techniques for managing change in the organization, particularly change that grows new programs or increases the size of existing ones. I particularly found value in the Buddhism vs. Catholicism discussion, and am looking at the library’s efforts to create a shared information literacy “curriculum” across our instructional faculty, and my work to create a framework for shared core expectations of liaison work, as attempts to Catholicize a heavily Buddhist environment.

Part 4: Integrations: In reading Sutton & Rao I kept reflecting on the reorganization work that I’ve been steeped in over the last year. There are some things that I would have done differently, had I read this book earlier, but others that I’m pretty proud of handling well. This was through a combination of prior training/reading and instinct – the former being a solid foundation and the latter a bit more shaky. On Wednesday I’m planning to use the premortem technique for getting feedback about a pilot program. I’m thinking about other ways to incorporate nuggets of Sutton & Rao into my management practice. One area that I’ll need to keep a pin in for later times is the question of how to scale up what I try with my problem of practice so that it’s applicable to the other three groups of concern (athletes, international students, and students of color), if that’s appropriate. I’m also excited to be starting to see other connections between our systems readings and the work that we’re doing, such as the Fullan example above.


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