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Online life in graduate school

I’ve spent several years in the software and Internet sector, as well as taken online classes. Nevertheless, I’ll still have a lot to learn both technically and socially when it comes to taking graduate school courses online.

Actually, a more appropriate phrase would be attending graduate school online, because attending emphasizes how this will be an interactive process — not merely a collection of essays or exam forms to submit.

The Technical

Web browsers, RSS feeds and readers, social networking sites: easy peasy. Customizing and maintaining server software, keeping my computer up to date and running smoothly: sometimes a bit more challenging, but still quite doable.

Getting back to regularly using office software which I’ve barely touched for nearly a decade? Yowch! “But, it should be easy for you, you’ve worked on computers often enough.” Yes, but different kinds of tools can appear…formidable. They have changed so much that I might get dizzy.

Wait, there’s my comfort zone, the Internet. Out there (out here, really) are tutorials with screenshots and, even better, videos showing how to use new or nearly-forgotten applications. Suddenly, these tools are no longer quite as daunting. Soon, I’m both practicing and producing assignments. A hitch comes up? Ask on in my course forum, or send the instructor or a fellow student an email. Repeat the process: Look for help or information, practice, create, ask, keep learning, doing, and breathing.

The Social (and Psychological)

I’m lucky to have worked with many brilliant people — people who I look forward to working with in the future, people who I continue to remain in contact with, because I value not just their skills, but also their opinions and input. Sadly, there have been the bad experiences: The project that would never die, or never have a proper birth; managers or colleagues who refused to listen, or were all but absent.

Such experiences, bad or good (or in between), are possibilities in graduate school, especially where interaction is both highly regarded and necessary. As in face-to-face life, so in virtual life: It is still a reality to deal with. But how effectively, not just to pass that class, or get that degree, but also how to be worthwhile?

It’s easy for me to maintain a calendar and stick to deadlines. I’m a fiendish list-maker. I tend to make an early start on educational or work-oriented tasks. I’m rarely late for meetings or appointments. I’m unafraid to ask questions or look things up.

Listening to Enid Irwin and Dr. Ken Haycock’s talks on teamwork made me look at the mirror: What comes easy to me? Where do I need improvement, and what am I averse to? Again, how in the world can I effectively participate in (not to mention enjoy, at least sometimes) a group project?

I can be quite the chatterbox in small groups. But what do I avoid? Having to lead; I’m inclined towards working independently, so I shudder at having to herd cats. I loathe being micromanaged, so I cringe at expressing micromanaging behavior. Not really pertaining to groups directly, but related to returning to school: I find the creation process intimidating. Sure, I can become very productive when I notice something to add, remove, or in some way modify. But the concept of starting from scratch always gives me the heebie-jeebies. Suddenly I feel my early-starting, prone-to-organizing self begin to waver in the face of imminent writer’s(*) block. ([*]Substitute artist, cook, or engineer here — or, even manager or teacher.)

Then I remind myself that modification and amending can themselves be acts of creativity. Then the idea of working on a team, where each person has different abilities, strengths and, yes, weaknesses, suddenly fills me with a bit more hope and eagerness. The “hide behind others” habit is not what I mean, even though a group can indeed buffer the stress. But when I don’t verbalize, I lurk. To lurk is to listen, to read, to learn from others, and to reflect, then contribute and refine a project.

So I oscillate, back and forth, between activity and quiescence. On the surface this might appear as meandering and hovering, but really it’s my pattern for how I often tackle complex projects. On a team, would this drive you (or me) crazy? Not necessarily. We would ask each other: “What do you think?” or “How would you approach this-and-that?” So the dialog begins, and continues, until things are addressed, dissected, assembled, and created.

Haycock described of the four phases of teamwork: forming, storming, norming, and performing. They are great observations on the evolution of team behavior. Though I’d like to add that in reality some of those phases might necessitate repetition. Perhaps that’s a projection of my aforementioned oscillation — as a process of cyclical refinement.

Moreover, as Irwin’s talk reminded me, mistakes will happen. But that’s okay: Graduate school includes education, which includes stumbles and bumbles, remember? Mistakes, like typos, are almost never indelible — to paraphrase our instructor, Cindy Runnels. It’s often easier to avoid or correct errors when working together, as an integrated team of individuals.

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