The Zen in Online Learning

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

When the center monitor in my three-monitor setup failed to turn on this morning, I didn’t panic. It happened before, and reinserting the HDMI connector into the graphics card usually did the trick. So I turned the computer off, crawled under the desk, unplugged the connector, and plugged it back in.

I turned the computer on, but the monitor remained dark. No problem, I thought. Try the same maneuver again. I did, but it still didn’t work. I was beginning to panic a little. I turned it off and checked the back of the monitor to see if the power and HDMI connectors were tight. I unplugged and plugged them back in.

The three-monitor setup for my desktop computer.

I turned the computer on again, but the monitor was still dead. Panic was setting in. I tried the remote control to see if the settings were correct. (This monitor is also a TV set.) Nothing came up on the screen, not even the menu. 

I turned the computer off, crawled under the desk, and checked the power cord connection to the power strip. It was firmly in place. I went into pre-panic mode. I repeated the same steps over again, unplugging, plugging, futzing with the remote, turning the computer off and on. All for naught. The monitor showed no signs of life.

I tried swapping cables and adaptors to see if these were the problem. The monitor remained dead.

To see if the port on the graphics card was the problem, I plugged the left monitor into the center port. It worked. OK, I wouldn’t need to spend $200-$300 on a new card. But I’d probably need to spend about $200 for a new monitor. Would that solve the problem? Or would I still be at square one?

Was it the graphics card? The monitor? The motherboard? The power supply? The hard drive? Something else? I was on the verge of full-blown panic.

I decided to retreat. I unplugged the center monitor and took it off the desk. I then moved the left monitor into the center position. This two-monitor setup would have to do until I could get a replacement monitor.

Later in the day, I decided to test the old center monitor once more. I plugged it into a power source in a different room, and, voilà, it came alive. Bright and shiny. I tried the remote control, and the menu came up, allowing me to experiment with some changes.

I brought the monitor back into the desktop lineup. This time, I plugged it into a different socket in the power strip. It worked. The problem was with the power strip. Problem solved.

That night, I turned the computer on, but this time the right monitor didn’t come on. What was going on? Was this some kind of intermittent problem with a random twist to it? The worst kind of problem because it seems to defy systematic solutions? To hold off panic, I decided to apply what I had learned earlier in the day. I checked the power connection at both ends: at the monitor end and the power strip end. This monitor was plugged into a different strip. The connections were tight. I then checked the on-off rocker switch on the strip and, sure enough, it was leaning toward the off position. I switched it back on, and the tiny green led light came on. And so did the monitor.

I have no idea how the power strip got turned off. With all the fiddling that I was doing earlier with the center monitor problem, I probably pressed the switch partially off — just enough so it wouldn’t power up at a later time.

This ordeal reminded me of my Nighthawk 250. I’ve had this little bike for years and love riding it for relaxation. It’s mechanically very simple, like a WWII jeep. When it won’t start or runs rough, I know it’s the battery or, more than likely, the spark plugs. Over the years, I’ve changed the battery twice and cleaned or changed plugs countless times. I order the plugs online and have four backup sets. I’ve ordered parts online and replaced all the lights — head, tail, turn-signal — at least once at different times.

Computers are, ultimately, machines. And to work with them, we need to rely on the Zen in all of us. We need to get down on our knees and get our hands dirty. Since computers are the backbone of online learning, we, as students and teachers, need to be willing and able to troubleshoot, to crawl under our desks and futz with cables and connectors, with power strips and cards. We need to understand the basic logic of machines, mechanical and electrical, and we need to apply it to fix our own problems.

There’s really no other alternative. Getting a repair person to come to our home every time we run into problems would be expensive, and, worse, the service may not be helpful. Purchasing new equipment might not solve the problem. The point is that computers, like motorcycles, aren’t rocket science. A simple process of elimination is all that’s required for most problems. All we need to do is systematically work through the possibilities until the problem is identified. Once identified, the solution would be self-evident.

We don’t think of our web experience in online learning as Zen, but it is, perhaps even moreso. Just as we need to be able to deal with hardware issues, we need to be able to solve  application or procedural problems. There’s no getting around it. We all need to learn how to navigate and use web services and media. Relying on others simply won’t work. It’s either Zen or die. It’s like learning to breathe all over again in a new and alien environment. We can’t ask others to do our breathing for us when we’re online.

In the end, Zen is an attitude, an understanding that there’s an internal logic to things like motorcycles and online learning and confidence in our own ability to learn and apply that logic. All we need to do is not panic and actually dig into the here-and-now process that’s baffling us. Via this intimate hands-on approach, via Zen, we slowly master the art of learning.

8 Responses

  1. This is a real issue. In K-12 education, a great many teachers are unwilling to take this step without PD and then learn little from PD. They return to their classrooms and ignore what they were supposed to learn. Newer teachers do not have this problem for obvious reasons.

    However, the problem does not lie solely with teachers. Companies who make software for learning must strive to make the case that their systems reduce workload, cut costs, and improve learning both in speed and success.

    I am in the midst of more than one substantial enhancement to our software for just these purposes. For most people, our software is a model of ease of use. However, a very large minority still find it difficult. This situation is not acceptable to us. The cost of making these improvements is great, especially for a smaller company. Yet, we must make these investments and not just for the sake of profit (and continued existence) but also so that great learning tools can help our students succeed in school and, more importantly, in life.

    This is hardly the place to detail what these improvements are or how they will improve and even accelerate learning. We have known how to educate for centuries, but we rarely see it happen. Only the best instructors seem to have mastered this skill. It’s time for online learning to help more.

    • Harry: “In K-12 education, a great many teachers are unwilling to take this step without PD and then learn little from PD.”

      Good point, Harry. The vast majority of teachers are victims of the system they’ve embraced. In this system, learning is a classroom, teacher-led experience, and this model extends into college and grad school, too. They know of only one way to learn, and that’s the formal (teacher-led) way. Other forms of learning are labeled “informal” (student-centered) and not taken seriously.

      For example, they’ll limit their learning to the required readings and seldom explore other sources. As an undergrad, I was always in the library (this was in the ’60s) following up on ideas in the required readings that attracted me. These were often considered unimportant by the profs, but I found them fascinating. For me, it was like digging for gold, following tiny veins hidden deep underground.

      The problem is that, in online learning environments, teachers can’t lead in the traditional way. As you say, all they can do is construct (design) a learning environment that facilitates a student’s independent learning process. In the end, the student must be able to rely on her/his own ability to make sense of and use the information on the screens in front of her.

      If she runs into problems, she needs to be able to isolate and identify the problem and systematically explore possible solutions. For example, if a link to an article or document is broken, a simple solution is to google the title for an alternate site. As an online teacher, I’ve found that fewer than 1 in 100 students will take this initiative. The vast majority will skip the reading or inform me that they can’t access the article.

      In response, I google the title and invariably find an alternate URL. In the rare instances when I can’t find an alternate, I simply find a similar source and share the URL.

      A quick survey of how teachers are transitioning to online practices will more than likely spotlight professional development workshops. And, as you say, Harry, these one-size-fits-all, teacher-led classes are only marginally successful, leaving most participants in the dark.

      The irony is that the IT specialists leading these workshops have become experts largely on their own, via informal independent learning. They rarely take classes to keep up with the latest trends. In short, they’re expert self-taught learners. Much like you, Harry. They can learn more at a faster rate on their own.

      “Informal,” in this sense, translates to Zen-like independent learning guided by one’s interests, knowledge, and instincts. This learning is unimpeded by someone else’s notion of what and how to learn.

      • LImiting your reading to what’s required made sense to me as an undergrad because I literally had no time for additional readings or much of a social life either. When you have one week to read The Sound and the Fury or two weeks (special dispensation) to read The Magic Mountain along with history, math, physics, etc., it’s not easy.

        OTOH, sloughing off just because you’d rather not take a few seconds to find the material reeks of laziness. I am not a big fan of excuses. Students often don’t realize that life doesn’t work that way.

        But, let’s not dwell on student issues here. PD often has teachers sitting and grading papers instead of paying attention — in my experience.

        How can we have teachers being more “Zen”? I’m a more-or-less DIY sort of person, which leads to the attitude of figuring things out. This way I gain twice — once in the fixing and once in the learning.

        You have only one life. You can choose to make the most of it or not. For too many, it’s about doing the minimum to get by. Where’s the fun in that? Sometimes, that means putting effort into “gaming the system.” Frequently, that takes more effort than just doing things straight up.

        As you look at your life near its end, will you say, “I did a great job of gaming life” or “I made the most of my time on Earth.” Which will make you happier?

        Teachers have the unusual opportunity, every day, to change lives. I can imagine gaming the administration but not the students.

        • Harry: As you look at your life near its end, will you say, “I did a great job of gaming life” or “I made the most of my time on Earth.” Which will make you happier?

          This is the question we ought to be asking ourselves in the early years of our lives. In Nicholas Sparks’s “Message in a Bottle,” Jeb says to his son, Garrett, “Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy. Remember that.” I think most of us who live productive lives learned this early, probably from our parents when we were children: If it’s not hard, then it’s probably not worth doing.

          I think the happiest people are the ones who spend a lifetime trying to solve extremely complex and difficult problems. They’re passionate about these problems precisely because they’re hard to solve.

          Those who believe in gaming life and getting by with the least amount of effort will, at some point in their lives, wonder why they’re not happy.

          • “Those who believe in gaming life and getting by with the least amount of effort will, at some point in their lives, wonder why they’re not happy.”

            We see lots of this. It may contribute to the various addiction crises we have experienced (and are experiencing).

            Everyone should ask, “What gets me up in the morning?” The answer should not be, “Paying the bills.”

            My primary concern today is what I will do if and when I see my business. My mission has been and is to change the way people learn science so that they don’t merely learn it but understand it. Along the way, they will also pick up some great thinking skills. Yet, I feel that I should not worry because I have always found something to do. I could even start to learn art or music. Life is about joy. Find your joy, and immerse yourself in it.

  2. I guess I like the convenience of online. I am currently taking two courses but if it is boring I have a disaster..hard to listen interact and learn. A lot of online is terrible but what can you say. Maybe my sensory learning does not conform. Some people are so excited to be online as a teacher that they are not professional. Sad.

    Another thing is that there are endless meetings being posted that are not as effective because you can’t really interact with people in the way that you can in person. I dislike one size fits all with a passion. I do like being able to find the resources.

    I am currently enjoying one course with the National Geographic but it is well planned.

    • Bonnie, you’ve always been an independent learner with a thirst for learning that’s unmatched by anyone I know. Your passion and instincts are for the young (and elderly) who are in danger of being left behind in our headlong race to exploit the power of technology. You and Vic continue to push the envelope for universal accessibility to learning technology. You’re amazing.

  3. You’re welcome, Eva. I enjoyed writing this piece, and I hope it’s of some use to others. In my mind, learning is, by definition, Zen. It’s something that no one can do for us. We have to do it all by ourselves within our own resources. The up side is that the more we do it, the better we become as learners. We tend to think of learning in the abstract, but it is actually as tangible and physical as the person we are and the things we do. We can only do what we know. We can only be what we think. As we master ourselves, we master our world. -Jim

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