no such thing

In the detective novel I was reading last week, someone said ‘this might be a stupid question’ and the lead detective said ‘the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask’, and of course it turned out to be an investigation breakingly important question. I spend a lot of time encouraging people to ask questions in forums. People who are not used to working in this way in  forums often preface questions with apologies or with ‘this might be a stupid question’, but I don’t think I have ever read a question that made me think ‘yes, it is’.

Feedback from teachers who have done modules two and three in particular always mentions how useful it was reading things that came up in forum threads and often that feedback is from people who never actually posted in a forum. When I get direct mails with queries that could usefully have gone up as forum posts and I gently prompt and prod the sender as to why it came to me in a mail common answers are …
I didn’t think of it.
It isn’t an important enough question.
It’s too public.
And sometimes from those who have been posting but have suddenly resorted to mail I get
It’s only me. I feel I’m asking too many questions.
So over time I have learnt to tell any course cohort now and again that if they want the questions (and I guess more importantly the answers) to continue, they should occasionally cheer question askers on and say ‘thanks for asking that’. Some of them do and it works to a point.
The questions I like most are the ones that entail looking something up or working something out (wickedly tricky little grammar queries in Module One that no one else has responded to, whether something I’ve not seen done as a focus before can work for an LSA in Module Two) because by the time you have answered the question you feel you have learnt something and it is that constant state of learning that makes tutoring so interesting.
There are a lot of questions that are more procedural and that I already know the answer to though – how a system works, how to deal with an element of a course – but those questions are good too because they show someone is engaging with the things you have set out for them to do or to use. Often the answers to these questions can be found somewhere on the Moodle, but the question having been posted provides an excuse to outline basics once again to anyone on the course who is reading the forum messages (Moodle pushes all forum messages through to peoples mail), to provide links to things that could be useful and that you hope they have seen. And there is a lot to deal with at the beginning of any course. If you tell people lots of things at once (as you try and give an overview of a Module), they can only retain the ideas they can relate to at that point and on top of that some of the information is buried deep in a Cambridge syllabus document or report and really isn’t easy to find when you are first trying to process it all.
So all questions are good and there is no such thing as a stupid one. Apart from anything else, the person wouldn’t have asked if they knew the answer (though there are occasional hopeful askers who have half realised that something is not how they would have liked it to be and are trying a last ditch attempt at getting the answer they want, not the one that it is beginning to dawn on them they have to deal with).
And connected to that (‘but you answered questions about things that are clearly set out in the FAQs / guidelines / instructions’) is the mantra of it not being possible to say something too often or in too many ways. When I first started training and especially when I first started setting up courses in Moodles I wanted sessions and course outlines and information to be elegant and streamlined. The idea that something had been said somewhere once was enough as having the same information pop up in different places in different ways seemed untidy. But one of Tom’s mantras was ‘you can’t say a thing too often’ and eventually I realised he was right. So now on Module One for example we have a quick guide to getting started in the top corner of the site, the longer version set out as part of the FAQs, for most of those activities there is somewhere a visual guide and also a very short video version that can be clicked on to show how it works step by step and on day one of the first week of the course I send out a forum message that sets out this same information – what to do first, what you should do each week, and clickable links that take you to all those things for the first week. I have not yet had anyone complain that they are told the same thing three or more times (though I guess one or two might think it), but I do have a much much lower rate (often now zero) of people mailing to say they should not have signed up for an online course as they have not worked out what they should be doing or how at this point.
Why am I worrying about getting people to ask questions or stating the obvious ? Because I very often have queries from people about how to prepare when we have accepted them on a Module and the start date is still some way off and also queries about how to study for Modules (especially for Module One where the absence of specific course work leaves the choice of what to do more open). We have a pre course reading list that teachers are sent automatically when they apply for a Module and there is an element of direction built into it (questions on different areas that are designed to help you prioritise what you need to read rather than just an enormous list of possible books), but beyond that it still simply suggests reading,
This feels like a gap ripe for a an on-line solution where I can set out ideas, tricks and techniques and people can use as much of as little of it as they like. It has been going round in my head for months but now as I try and create pages that give ideas of what a person can do and how, I feel as though I am hitting the same stumbling block again. Should I include that idea ? Surely it has to be too obvious ? But why ? If there is no such thing as a stupid question and you can’t tell people things they need to know in too many different ways, perhaps what would be stupid would be to assume that people had the study skills and the perspective I am hesitating about writing down. If education systems have been changing in the way I get the impression they have (here is a nugget of information with explicit instructions about how to use it, another nugget, another step outlined), then many people have had less and less opportunity to develop independent study skills. The obvious is only obvious once you know how to do it.
The hesitation also comes partly from trying to create a structure (having toyed with Weebly, Google sites and WordPress and found that the advantages and disadvantages of each seem to stack up about the same). Why not build study skills pages into our existing courses and avoid that headache ? I will (on the you can’t say it too often basis), but the greatest demand at the moment comes from people signed up for the summer intensive Module Two, so for now it would be of more use outside our existing Moodles.
Why am I writing about it here ? Because I’m trying to persuade myself that it makes sense and that I should be including the ‘obvious’ techniques as well as the fancier end of the spectrum because if there is no such thing as a stupid question and you can’t say things too often, then there is also no such thing as a study approach that everyone definitely knows about … and writing things down does help with thinking them through.
When I have got three different pages into it, I’ll publish and put a link in here.

Well it is up to two and a half pages now


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