Musing on Boot Camp

On my way to work this morning, I found myself thinking about the concept of “boot camp.” It’s everywhere: get fit bootcamps; software training bootcamps – at UBC, we even have a Vista Bootcamp for Faculty new to the CMS. Boot camps are wildly popular – despite their decidedly militaristic roots. Why? What’s at the root of this phenomenon? Do we really want to be told what to do – whipped into shape – stripped of our choices? Yes – maybe – sometimes – at least I did – when choice and free will starting to become a little too taxing… here’s the story…

I spent the entire fall trying to figure out the best way to get fit. I wanted something that would work for me – and most everyone who knows me will tell you that I’m not particularly good at following rules. I regularly throw away instructions in the (often mistaken) belief that I can figure it out myself. So, I spent alot of time thinking about what exercise I could do to improve my stamina, my energy level, my strength. I never made it past the park to the gym – despite the elaborate fitness plan that I set up in my mind. Then it occurred to me – I have waaaay too much to think about to be doing this! I need someone to tell me what to do. Someone to keep me on track -jump start me into action. All I need to do is show up. So I joined the Gladiator Bootcamp at my local community centre.

What a relief! Sure, I rest when the lead gladiator guy isn’t watching – cheat my way through sit ups (occasionally) and choose the lightest bar bells (consistently) but I don’t have to make decisions about what to do next – gladiator man will tell me!

What does this have to do with learning and technology? We have more choice today than we’ve ever had – in terms of how a course is delivered, the tools we use to support learning, even how and when we learn. Back to my reflection…is the Bootcamp appeal a reaction against too many choices – information/ choice overload? I would imagine that bootcamp is a phenomenon only in “free” societies – I doubt that this is all the rage in Beijing or even Bhutan. I’m reminded of Eric Fromm’s Escape From Freedom in which he argues that freedom can produce anxiety. In turn, we react to the anxiety associated with our perception of freedom by employing a variety of strategies and mechanisms to make ourselves less anxious. One of these mechanisms (authoritarianism) is about giving up our power (and decision making) by following someone else.

This may be a stretch, but I’ve certainly observed that (in general) there has been a steady rise in the general level of anxiety among the Faculty and professional staff I work with and, when this happens, people generally don’t want to talk about process and principles – they want the prescription (the fix). So we (in our supporting roles) do our best to balance the need to alleviate anxiety with the quick fixes, while being attentive to the “windows for learning” that naturally open up a crack when people are less anxious.

And does this trend toward anxiety have something to do with (what seems like) a resurgent desire among some faculty for templates, checklists and basic prescriptive instructions for managing their online teaching activities? Students don’t seem to want this (at least to the same extent) but maybe this because many of them (the younger ones) are still in the stage of experimenting with their new found sense of freedom – and they are enjoying it too much to give any of it up.

In Bhutan, decisions are made by the monarchy in order to keep the happiness quotient up among the people. In bootcamp – decisions are made by the leader in order to indoctrinate or train. I still prefer freedom and feel very lucky to have it (or at least the illusion of it)- but a little bootcamp went a long way to improve my happiness quotient!

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