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What to learn? Where to study? Which Conference? How to choose?

March 31, 2017

This is a regular question when mixing with the trainers and professionals of tomorrow. There are more folk wanting to move into the business and fullfil life goals to be able to work with dogs and their people. Unfortunately the “make money whilst I sleep” crowd are also aware of this and seeding the market for the less discriminatory, or just plain innocent, who can be parted from their time and money.

I have spent some fruitful hours accompanied by sharp teeth sucking when browsing around the offers in front of us today. Although a course, conference, seminar, workshop could not be reviewed without personal attendance, there are some surface symptoms in the marketing that I would like to hi-light for the unaware.

I run a variety of courses:

  • face to face at my barn, covering 5 days, monthly and others on a weekly class basis
  • online courses for nine years, single webinar events, 8 weeks and 2 years.
  • seminars presenting international speakers from evenings to 3 day events.
  • cruises, (oh yeah) for deep immersion and a great holiday combo

I have been doing this for forty years in one form or another. I first attended a dog training course in the seventies, qualified in the college teaching system and worked as a college inspector. I have presented around the world at conferences, seminars and workshops. I currently enjoy being an online student in self-directed learning format.

Mid-nineties saw the introduction of specific canine courses into the college environment and the next decade a maturing of the online options to study. The conferences and seminars are breeding with great fertility offering lush options to change your life.

I thought it might be quite useful to share my views from all sides on the availability and potential pitfalls when investing money, and sometimes serious, hard earned, sweat inducing money, into an unknown future.

I should give a warning that my scepticism may surface.

We don’t know what we don’t know!

I watch the TV dog shows less and less. I can recognise the quick and dirty fixes, the not-seen-on-camera moments that are displayed in the dog’s body language. The pseudo experts loved by the camera but coached by the off-stage trainers. These shows are not aiming to educate but to provide controversy, conflict and “good TV”.

Try to become consciously aware of the hidden agendas behind the shop windows. Marketing will tell you what you need to know to get you to part with your money, after that their job is done. The marketing may not match the reality.

My experienced view has also led me to distrust other topics about which I have an innocent level of knowledge. We don’t know what we don’t know.

The quantity of time and money you invest, and the value of that investment to you, should be reflected in the research you can do before signing up. Having a go for forty quid for an afternoon is not the same as investing twelve hundred pounds, three weekends and five hours a week study for five months.

Be a nuisance, check it out, research the providers, course designers, teachers. Ask questions, ask around, ask friends.

Reviews and endorsements

These are not always what they appear to be.
Are they to be trusted?

A publishing company requires their under-contract authors to provide reviews on other products in their stable. This is no more than selling a name and reputation for the benefits of the company. Reviews should be unbiased. But if they are printed permanently on the cover of a book then you can be sure they are specially selected.

Endorsements are usually some sort of association that benefits both parties. A product will endorse an event or person because it is of benefit to them by association. The endorsers may not have the expertise to know if the person is the expert they profess to be.

Peers’, friends’, colleagues’ reviews and recommendations are likely to be more of value. You should know something about the reviewer to know that they share the same values, interests and ethics for the recommendation to be valid. Experience is also a key element, if they have little experience of subject knowledge, courses or classes the first one they attend may seem revolutionary.

Organisers

Software management. These are the techies behind the hosting, functionality of the courses, study format etc. There is often serious long term investment to get the product to market and this money needs to be recouped. They are probably not informed in the topics of their courses to know what is good quality learning and what is a cash machine. They will often out source for their  course material.

Curriculum course designers. This should not be hidden. If there was a degree in dogs (from training to genetics and everything between), and I am investing thirty thousand pounds and three years of my life, I want to know who is writing the individual units, what their experience is and their view points on many related topics. I want a CV of that curriculum author. Their experience, views and preferences will be threaded through the course curriculum.
This is important at every level from classes to seminars.

I made the mistake of presenting for 3 days at a facility that the previous month had hosted a trainer whose beliefs were the polar opposite of mine. Although folk travelled a serious distance to attend because they had researched my background, they were side by side with local folk were also faced with a complete turnaround in their understanding and expectation. The owners of the facility did not have the experience or expertise to recognise there was going to be conflict, there was no long term curriculum generated by the various speakers. This can also happen at conferences with mixed speakers. The host should have good subject knowledge to recognise where they may be conflict between speakers that is simply unhealthy for the event and promotes a toxic atmosphere.

Personally I am very careful when accepting conference invitations until I know who the other speakers are going to be.

Course teachers, tutors and assessors. This should NEVER be hidden. Part of my college work was participating in the team of higher education inspectors. One of the critical points we assessed was “does the teacher have confidence and depth of knowledge in the subject?”.

It is common practice in college to use a teaching qualified teacher in as many courses as possible, often stepping in to cover. The courses are often written by the teacher with the subject knowledge, and then the material is just delivered by another teacher, who may have no more knowledge of the subject than the cleaning staff. A lack of subject knowledge is a weak point that any self-respecting student can reveal with a little pointed questioning.

Your investment should have teacher qualified teachers AND subject experienced (I hesitate to use the terms subject qualified as at present it does not exist).

A teaching style often reflects that teacher’s learning style. Don’t expect a highly practical course from someone who is academically orientated and vice versa.

Is this going to benefit you as a person?

Are you going to feel that you are developing as a learner? Online or remote learning is not for everyone. It takes discipline to prioritise the time to study alone and complete the training and/or assignments.

Have you got the time to contribute to the learning and experience of the whole group? Everyone in the classroom has shared responsibility by proactively engaging in the course, getting the work done, training the dog, completing assignments. This takes time. (read here )

Is the course a pre-set recipe format

… or could the bones be fleshed out in different directions?

Online courses often have an international flavour which requires different understanding of dog cultures, different environments where dogs are kept and quite different laws and beliefs. This can enrich the learning process where the topic is examined at depth allowing for many different view-points and angles of approach.

Unfortunately when looking through some of the available courses their curriculum is very specific and narrow, limited to one lifestyle with dogs. Even within the UK a dog with a country lifestyle and expectations can be quite different from an urban cousin.

Who is going to benefit from this seminar / course?

Dogs in general or the providers?
What are they teaching?

Very often the course is about delivery of the subject to a specific student model. We want to be able to learn as individuals as we the learn the subject.

Often courses share how this person does whatever they do. This promotes the copy-culture, the recipes for success. Rarely does it allow you to learn the necessary skills to develop in your own right. Recipes do have their place as a structure, but equally they can inhibit learning. Courses can have the same effect. Multi-choice assessment are the reverse of recipe teaching in that the answers must fit the specific expectations. It may not explore your abilities to assess situations, evaluate the learning gap, identify the activities that can teach the skills, what knowledge is sound and what may be superstitious – for either a dog or a person.

What is the agenda of the providers?

Off the shelf “modules”.

Having been at the sharp end of marking assignments my eye is well trained to see familiarity and pings into “this is someone else’s work” red zone. Courses are sold and traded as much as any other commodity between online providers.

I appreciate that events need to pay for themselves, cover all costs and hopefully leave something in the bank to “pay it forward” to organising the next event. But often the casualty of a cash based motive is the learning quality. Success is measured by number of attendees or certificates awarded, not the quality of learning. (One of my reasons for abandoning college based teaching was the system that rewarded quantity of students over quality of learning).
A symptom of the cash-over-learning agenda will be a poor ratio of students to teachers.

The other aspect of this is the well intentioned providers not putting sufficient planning into the business model and begging for folk to come along, sign up now, early bird offers, special discounts, bring a friend, buy 2 get 1 free. Most of the single events such as seminars will not be making their break-even until close to the date of the event. A nail biting time.

Organisers have to commit to a contract with well-known speakers and the penalties for cancellation wipe out any “pay it forward” savings. The closer to the event for a cancellation the greater the penalty.

As a speaker that does travel and book events 18 months to 2 years ahead these “oh, we cannot fill the event” cancellations are a major disruption. Speakers often ration themselves travel wise or arrange a cluster of events on the same trip.
As a provider, organiser, speaker and attendee – play fair, get your booking early, be sure to support the learning over cash opportunities. As we know, reinforcement works. If you want to have access to these events in the future support them.

Planning an event may begin 2 years before the event. This may clash with other events in the same area, at the same time, or in close proximity. There is only so much to spend on education, learning and jolly weekends.

Check list

All courses should clearly state:

  •             Eligibility for refunds, cut-off dates, percentages, costs of “administration”
  •             Complaints system, re-assessment opportunities and conditions
  •             Quality assurance in providers that have multi courses and tutors.
  •             Equal opportunities to learn, be assessed

Watch out!

redflagHeavily discounted courses. I found one offered at a 92% discount. This may indicate some desperation, last chance, or simply nothing to lose. I cannot think they are paying a course tutor anything reasonable at that price.

Out of date websites. Particularly those that use past students or certified attendees as advertising. On one site the listing was 5 years out of date, which does not give confidence to the content of the course material.

Go for it

If you read the outline of a seminar or a course and have a visceral response – butterflies, heart beats fast, then sign up!

Very unscientific, but you are more likely to grow as a person when learning from an inner spark than a logical “qualification”.

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