Learning Life History
As part of my graduate work at George Washington University – Summer 2016….
I was not always the best learner or even liked learning at an early age. I can summarize my entire learning journey in two words – accidental exploration. My learning life history has three major eras which have led me to my current desire to step into my final formal education chapter. Since the format can be written in our own style, I think I’ll try to make it humorous. My first era I will call it “The Keyboard” period. From here, I will move into the second era, the “College Discovery Era.” And finally, I’ll end up with the “Era of the Tie – also known as the Big Boy Years.”
Interestingly, I grew up an only child on a small farm where I was raised by my grandparents, no father until I was 10, and a hard-working mom who unloaded coal cars at a factory. My grandmother was my first role model for learning. I was constantly having my grammar corrected, told to say “excuse me and thank you,” and to not “sass” – whatever that meant. She was a stay-at-home lady who raised six kids, four who became teachers. She valued learning and knew that it would open many doors for her children and grandson.
I call this early era “The Keyboard” period because much of my time was spent learning using some keyboard. I was fascinated with computers. I was a very shy kid who didn’t have a lot of friends due to living far out in a rural area, so I played a lot by myself. As I reflect back during that time, it was probably a perfect environment to be raised. Though I got my first computer at the age of 6 (a TRS-80 computer and a floppy disc drive), I still enjoyed playing in the fields, exploring the woods and community on my bicycle, and creating “stuff” with my hands. I learned how to play football and the piano. By the age of 6 years old I spent hours and hours learning how to enter in programming data that made a 1/2 inch pixel bounce from one side of the screen to the next. Over the next twelve years, I developed my social skills as well as my ability to value hard work.
Before I took the leap to the next Era, I suffered through an “identity vs. inferiority crisis” stage. I had two strong supporters (two aunts) who constantly encouraged me to “go to college” and get a high-paying job but in my mind; that wasn’t what my friends did. I worked in hay and tobacco fields almost all of my life, but at some point, the opportunity to work in a call center came open. It was a sit-down job, and I was able to use a computer. As I got more proficient using a computer for work, I started stepping outside my comfort zone and did volunteer work as a computer teacher for people with disabilities. I also started taking classes at a community college since my grades were low in high school and weren’t ready for a large university. This was the start of the “College Discovery Era.”
After graduating from a community college with a computer science degree, I was ready to move out on my own and transfer to a larger school. I started attending The University of Tennessee (UT) immediately after finishing up the Associate Degree. This was a super boost to my ego, confidence, and self-esteem which was lacking during my youth. A significant learning experience occurred my second semester of college at UT when I was taking a course called Educational Technology in the College of Education. In this class, the instructor was teaching technology that he learned in the 1970’s. I challenged myself to go beyond what I considered “old school technology” and respectfully integrate applications that I had learned during my community college days.
Ironically, the entire class started asking for my help with their projects. I became the “cool geeky guy” who could create video and audio for slides, make animations, and build interactive assessments right in Powerpoint. This dose of ego-driven dopamine satisfied my uncertainty of what Simon Sinek explains is important, the big “Why” I was in college. It wasn’t about the degree at the end of all those courses – it was the journey! This major turning point during this Era became a catalyst for unlimited opportunities in a learning community who had a similar passion. I had never actually found my “passion, ” but I always enjoyed being on the bleeding edge of technology. I merged my computer technical skills with business and learning theory to create a unique niche which many students and faculty were getting into – TBT (Technology Based Training / Teaching).
It wasn’t long after my educational technology class; I started getting bills for my student loans. Unlike a lot of my friends and students, my family didn’t have the money to pay for my school, so I had to work and borrow money. I heard that several students in my situation who needed financial aid worked as “interns.” That was a new concept for me, but I thought I would give it a try. Being naive and not very “worldly,” I applied for every internship I ran across. I got a call from a government agency called the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) which was a few blocks from where I lived in low-income housing near downtown. I was so excited and interviewed for a position in their computer support department, was hired, but was accidentally placed into a newly formed organization called TVA University.
This accident was one of the greatest things in my life that pushed me from academia and into a professional career. TVA University (TVAU) was the corporate learning organization for TVA, a 14,000 employee corporation responsible for power production in seven states in and around Tennessee. This department was the equivalent of an MIT Computing Lab for computer geeks or NASA for astronauts. It was a Petrie dish for training professionals. The TVAU was being recognized all over the world for being one of the newest and leading corporate learning organizations due to the financial resources and human talent dedicated to it. I had no fancy role or title other than “the intern” but what I gained from my years working there was the chance to see how learning translated into business results. I gained a deep appreciation for the importance of collaboration and appreciative inquiry with individuals who loved learning. Balancing college classes, starting my internal computer consulting business helping students and faculty, and working as an intern was time-consuming. I had no “typical” college experience when it came to social activities. However, I didn’t care because I – had – a – purpose.
As I was wrapping up my bachelor’s degree (which took me three years to complete beyond my associate’s degree), I was ready to go to work and make some serious money. I liked school, but I was willing to start “applying” all this theoretical “stuff” that I had learned. Unfortunately, my time to say “goodbye” to college didn’t happen when I thought it would. The day before I graduated and the day that my grandmother (my original learning role model) passed away at the age of 86, I was called into the office of my primary faculty advisor. She said that she had an “opportunity” for me. She said that she “needed my help.” I listened to her explain the details of a grant that the college I attended had received and that our department, Human Resource Development, would be implementing the 2-3 year grant. I was offered a full scholarship for my master’s degree PLUS books PLUS a yearly salary stipend for payment. I accepted on the spot and started working two weeks after graduating.
Having a good support system of family, recognized experts and professionals, academic faculty role models, and peers must be part of the equation for a successful learning environment.
As I transitioned from being a student to faculty support, I advanced to a different level in my personal and professional life (scholarly-practitioner transition). My confidence in my ability to learn new things, solve problems, communicate with people, and step outside my comfort zone were all directly related to this surge of daily learning that I was now being paid to do. It was the first job that I got paid to have FUN and be on the cutting edge of “newness” when it came to the outcomes that I was part of helping accomplish. My role was to help implement the first online HR degree program in TN at UTK. In the context of that, I taught professors how to use technology, coached and supported students, helped with campus-wide strategic decisions of LMS/CMS technologies (which we used on of the early versions of Blackboard). My position took me into opportunities outside of campus such as presenting at conferences on eLearning, Video Conferencing, Knowledge Management Support Portals, and Universal Instructional Design.
Those three years of graduate work, intense research, and scholarly practice provided the self-efficacy I needed to enter the final stage, the Era of the Tie. I started wearing neckties during my internship when I worked for the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), a quasi-government power utility. The necktie represented my learning transition into the business world where I began to apply the previous seven years of formal college education intensely. A few weeks before I graduated, I started applying for jobs. I was lucky to land a position with another large corporate learning organization inside Eastman Chemical Company. I was hired for a new position that was created to drive their global eLearning program. This 7-year learning journey allowed me to work on large-scale education projects, culture change initiatives, and assessment projects.
As the Tie era continued, I stepped into the world of adjunct instructing at a few colleges at night. I found a passion sharing stories with students and finding ways for them to create goals to learn about themselves within the context of their learning journey. 2008 was the year my position as an HR Performance Consultant ended along with 350 other HR, Training, and I/T professionals, I went into full-time teaching at a small college in Southwest Virginia. This was my calling. It was a perfect fit for my scholarly-practitioner craving. I could teach classes, consult with local businesses, get invited to speak at professional conferences and collaborate with other professionals. But in 2014, the college I worked for closed after 120 years. It was a blow to my career, but my paradigm changed during this crisis. It planted a seed for further education that could enable me to return to this environment where I felt the highest level of job satisfaction, engagement, and most important – purpose.
When I reflect back to these three era’s, I realize that I was a dependent and passive learner that lacked confidence in the learning process and also myself. I didn’t value learning as much as I made application of knowledge and “just doing.” Starting with a technical education program set the learning domino effect into motion. Through time, exploration, and application, I learned about myself, the world, people, and options toward a profession where I felt somewhat actualized. My learning history timeline was like climbing the learning taxonomy that Bloom theorized starting with knowledge (keyboard era), comprehension, application (college era), evaluation (tie era), and synthesis (present day). It’s time to get on this new trail and begin hiking.