Thursday, March 27, 2014


Today concluded 25 years of working with TAFE SA. Some reflections on that (mostly) wonderful part of my life...

My first teaching appointment in TAFE was as a part time English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher of night classes in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. From the outset, coming from the school sector, I was struck by the amount of trust I was given. Just twice in several  months in those early days in TAFE was I contacted by my manager to check if everything was going OK, and on both occasions it was clear that it was assumed that I was a professional who knew their job and would do the right thing by my students and the organisation. There was a curriculum (no Training Packages back then) and it was up to me how I taught it, what resources I used, and how I assessed students, but support was there if I needed it. Being the kind of person I am I responded favourably to this approach - I felt trusted and respected.
After some months I applied for a contract position on the Education Program for Migrants (EPM) at the now defunct Kilkenny campus. I won the position at interview (at which some people were smoking!) EPM was a ground breaking program. It entailed English language instruction, vocational electives held at various TAFE campuses, and a work experience program. And we had a budget to hold a graduation ceremony that showcased students'  skills and progress that to this day I remember as landmark events . It was common for students to say "I will never forget this day" because they had been afforded for the first time in their new country the opportunity to display their talents in public, and be proud of who they were.
Twenty five years in an organisation is a long time and it's sobering to reflect on the fact that several colleagues who had a significant role in your professional life as friends and mentors are now dead. One of these people was Bron Davis. Anyone who knew Bron knows that she was not always easy to work with but she taught me a lot about how to be an effective ESL teacher and I am forever in her debt. I hope you're resting in peace Bron.
Of course the wheel turned and funding for this very successful program was cut. The ESL program of Western Adelaide Institute, as it was known at the time, was moved to Croydon and the Kilkenny campus was demolished. I became the coordinator of the ESL program at Croydon and held that position for several years. Throughout this time my program manager (of Vocational Preparation) was Brian Jackson. Brian was a delightful man who cared for his staff, stood up for us and the program when necessary, and just quietly went about his business. He didn't check up on you or want to know everything that was going on. But he too was there to offer support when needed. From the bottom of my heart, thank you Brian. I never met your style of manager again in ensuing years in TAFE.
It was during this time at Croydon that I discovered the Internet.  I think it was 1997. I came back to work and turned on my computer. I noticed a new icon on the desktop - a capital N. I clicked on it and I knew instantly what it was. It was the Internet! The N was for Netscape - one of the earliest browsers. I'd heard about this 'information superhighway' and just started clicking. I was smitten instantly. I have often wondered why others at that same point were not immediately smitten. I was used to technology. I had at this stage spent several years navigating the intricacies of Word Perfect, the precursor to Microsoft Word, and had enjoyed learning how to exploit its more advanced functions so it was a natural transition for me to graduate to another layer of technology.
Within weeks I was drawing on the Internet to create materials for my ESL classes. I discovered very quickly that there were significant numbers of ESL/EFL teachers around the globe who were putting their lesson materials online and I happily made use of them. The next step was to organise for my ESL classes to be held once a week in a computer room. I would direct my students to ESL specific sites - the pioneer of them all was Dave's ESL Cafe. There I would set students to work on the many exercises that Dave's ESL Cafe provided. And they loved it. Even students with zero or rudimentary computer skills would work diligently to complete the comprehension and fill in the gap exercises. This was the first occasion when I saw students who wanted to continue the exercises after the lesson was over and I would have to reluctantly insist that students shut down the computer and vacate the room!
The next step was to contact actual students who were online from various places around the world and initiate live chat. I remember the first time a student, disbelievingly, typed some introductory text into the little chat box. We waited and watched and some seconds later some student somewhere in the world replied! My student looked at me speechless and I had to tell them that there was someone online at that very moment willing to talk with them. A magic moment.
Another part of the site allowed for students to leave their details as part of a basic profile that included an email address.  After introducing my students to email via basic conversations with me, some felt brave enough to compose an email to an unknown stranger.  Annie from China was one who was keen to try this out. I set her up with an email address and she sat at the computer ready to type to someone. Before she had typed a word she looked up at me and said, "Is this typing or talking?" Another magic moment! She had realised instinctively that she was about to embark on a new form of communication for which there were no rules - a new genre if you will. I told her it was a combination of both. Something else I have often wondered about is why some people instinctively 'get' this Internet thing - Annie knew she was on the precipice of something brand new and exciting.
Some students of course struggled with the writing requirements of this kind of Internet contact, and the next magic moment in my early days of Internet exploration with low-level ESL students was with an Iranian student. She was from Tehran and I guided her through the process of using a search engine (it was Lycos!) to search for pictures of Tehran. Happily we found some - we found a site that even provided full  screen images so we clicked on a full screen image of a street scene in Tehran. What happened next was nothing less than profound. She was suddenly silent as she gazed at the scene on the screen in front of her and then managed to utter "that's my city." With tears in her eyes she just sat there gazing at images of home. This was the first time I realised the incredible power of this new medium.
So began my love affair with the Internet that completely changed the direction of my career from ESL teacher to Internet and Education specialist. It was around the year 2000 that I was 'tapped on the shoulder' by Deb Bennett and asked if I would like take up a position as a Professional Development Officer in Online Education for the newly formed Online Education Services (OES) unit. I accepted the challenge and reluctantly relocated to a new office in Adelaide TAFE. It was a hard decision to leave the safety and camaraderie of ESL teaching but it was one of the best I ever made.
At that time TAFE SA led the nation in online learning, due largely to the vision and foresight of the manager of the OES unit - Neil Strong.  Neil had quite deliberately assembled a group of people who could take TAFE SA forward in this new and exciting area.  Before long my working life in TAFE became one of a gypsy. Whereas at Kilkenny and Croydon I was located on one campus year after year,  my life became one where I, together with Doug Purcell, would visit and run training sessions in WebCT on several different campuses a week. This included country campuses. Quite frequently Doug and I would set off on road trips and visit campuses in the Riverland, the mid north, and as far as Port Augusta. Further afield we took planes to Lincoln, Whyalla, and Mt Gambier. On all these occasions we would arrive at a regional campus and announce, "We're from the government and we're here to help you." It became our standing joke, but we loved every minute of travelling far and wide across the state to assist lecturers in the new world of online and elearning.


Such was our profile in the Australian VET sector WebCT entrusted us with the planning, coordination and hosting of national WebCT conferences for our part of the world. So the next stage of my TAFE life was to work closely with Deb Bennett to coordinate a program for these conferences. These were incredibly successful events that drew people from around the country and the whole Asia-Pacific region. The work was challenging, incredibly complex,  and immensely rewarding.
The next steps in my journey took me overseas. It's hard to imagine in these cash strapped times how this was ever possible but in those times TAFE was a visionary forward-looking organisation that saw value in promoting our brand overseas, and sending staff overseas to see what others were doing and bring back that first hand experience for the benefit of TAFE SA. Consequently I went on trips to Georgia and Vancouver to attend WebCT conferences and visit other educational organisations.

MIND MEDIA (Douglas  Mawson Institute)
Somewhere in amongst all this giddy activity of organising international conferences and travelling the state training staff in elearning I became part of MindMedia. MindMedia was a mystery to many. What does it do people would ask? Principally its job was to foster innovative practice - remarkable now to consider that that was the brief! But we had to cover as much of our salaries as possible. And led by the inimitable Marie Jasinski, we more or less did. For several years we were the home of Learnscope, a national elearning professional development program hosted by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework (the 'Framework'). We hosted the national website (designed and administered by Tim Cavanagh), and saw a succession of national and international guests come through our doors due to Marie's indefatigable entrepreneurial spirit - among them Stephen  Downes, Tom Reeves, and Thiagi . It felt like we were at the centre of the elearning universe in Australia, and I think for a while we were. We hosted international WebCT conferences and the national VET elearning PD program. Everything elearning came through TAFE SA.
I've had the pleasure of working with several great workgroups, but MindMedia was the most stimulating. As I said, our brief was innovation. Marie J was a wonderfully creative thinker and was always coming up with new ideas on teaching and learning. Tim ran the website,  Jeff Catchlove and I facilitated Learnscope projects and ran PD sessions, and it was all held together by the admin skills of Jenni Chappel. (Thanks Jenni!) It was an extraordinary place to work There were other people who were an important  part of MindMedia (eg Lawrence James, Janet McMillan (the most fun manager I ever had!) and a cast of others who came through in the course of the week. And then tragedy struck. Marie suddenly got very ill and had to take time off. It's a long sad story. Marie died and the unit was eventually closed as part of a new TAFE strategy to centralise all media services into one. The rot had begun.
Unfortunately serious illness also played a part in the demise of OES. Neil Strong got sick and had to retire, and the powers that be began to frown on units that were going outside of TAFE to earn money and it was discouraged. Again ironic when you consider the current climate where we are all now encouraged to go out and create business. So the wheel turns!

Leftist activists of the late 1960s in America used to refer to 'Amerika with a K' to highlight the fact that the Anerican ideal of peace and equality was a just a dream for many. They argued that many Americans lived in poverty and hardship, experienced daily racism and other forms of prejudice, and that the system perpetuated these inequalities. Whenever they spelt Amerika with a K it was to remind people of these injustices.
Let me be clear - the AQTF and the AQF are in themselves a good idea. What is not such a good idea in my opinion, and where we have lost the plot, is the over emphasis on assessment, auditing and accountability. In TAFESA these processes have been regularly and stoutly defended as required by a department we now called 'Quality.' I am sure that Quality achieved some things of worth, but I also know that under this guise of Quality I saw:
·         an increasing lack of trust in dedicated professionals
·         a growing obsession with assessment and auditing
·         the amount of time people had to prepare for teaching drastically reduced
·         the amount of time needed for assessment and reporting drastically increase
·         sometimes appalling treatment of staff
·         bullying of staff by managers
·         a noticeable drop-off in attendance at PD sessions (because staff had no time for such things)
- all in the name of quality! I had been annoyed for some time that TAFE had hijacked the word quality and I started silently referring to it as Kwality, because what our 'quality system' had instituted in the name of kwality had nothing to do with quality. In fact I could easily argue that with the ever increasing influence of 'Quality' in our system TAFE life has had less and less to do with quality. What I am absolutely sure of is the regard that the organisation has for its employees is a far cry from the way people were treated when I first came into TAFE. It is very, very sad to see. Accountability, satisfying budgets, and passing audits is about Kwality. Looking after your staff is about quality. As in quality of life. Kwality has more to do with covering your butt at every turn so you can't be sued.


Around this time someone(s) decreed that  the River Torrens would divide metro TAFE into south and north. I fell out on the northern side although I had worked across TAFE for the last 10 years. it was very strange to have to separate from friends and colleagues across the river. I was fortunate though to be able to continue in an elearning PD role. A little while later and the Teaching and Learning Units for each of the three new institutes were born, and I found myself in a workgroup of three. I found this really difficult. For about 15 years I had been part of larger workgroups that had been dynamic, progressive and full of energy, but it's hard to generate that same dynamism between three people. The three were Mark Hunwicks (manager), Cheryl Cox, and me. Over time we became quite close and really felt that we were doing a good job servicing the PD needs of TAFE Adelaide North. And then another door closed. Teaching and Learning units were not part of the new structure that was unleashed mid 2013. Further it was decreed that there would be no TAFE  Act staff doing any PD. Mark decided to leave in September and now I follow 6 months later. I find it difficult to see how I fit into an organisation that appears to have sidelined the education part of Vocational Education and Training.
When I was a novice in my early days in TAFE I sometimes came across veterans who had been in TAFE a long time and were dissatisfied with the way things were changing. (I guess it is ever thus!) But I thought at the time that these disgruntled oldies would be better off leaving. They just seemed to whinge constantly. I had become well aware over the last few years that I had reached a similar stage in my TAFE life. I disapproved of many of the changes and tried hard not to appear as a disgruntled type who just pined for the old days. Only others can judge whether I was successful on that score! I do find it hard to accept the changes. To me the only logical explanation is that the government has embarked on a deliberate policy to dismantle as much of TAFE as they can. All done under the guise of Skills for All. (Sorry - I don't believe in it!)
As it happens, for the first time in my life last week before the recent election I received a door knock from my local member. I asked them why they were ripping TAFE apart and suggested it would be preferable if they were open and upfront about what they were doing. Interestingly, they didn't offer any counter argument.
Obviously I am disenchanted about what is happening in TAFE, and I can be very critical of these changes. But I also want to say that I was very proud for at least 23 of my 25 years here to say that I worked for TAFE SA. I have had an amazing ride. TAFE has afforded me opportunities to develop personally and professionally in ways I could never have imagined. It sent me overseas several  times, enabled me to travel the state and attend conferences all over the country, and gave me the priceless gift of meeting hundreds, if not thousands, of wonderful students and colleagues who have enriched my life and helped me grow. It gave me enormous freedom. I have often told people that I have the best job of anyone I know. But times changed, and I no longer share the same values that the current organisation espouses. In fact, I don't know what TAFE stands for anymore. Every decision made in TAFE these days is made for just one reason - to save money. And when that is the case you have arrived in a race to the bottom. I sincerely hope that it survives and that people coming into TAFE now get as much pleasure and pride out of it  as I have done.
Thank you all for your friendship and support. I loved being your colleague, and helping out where I could. But they say on reality TV's time to go....Michael!



pete said...

**Truer words ne'er were spake.**

I think the "Code of Conduct for Public Servants" prevents me from elaborating further!

Anonymous said...

well said! A.

seah0rse said...

Wow the end of an era.. Enjoy the new life and I am sure it will be as fruitful or more so than the one you leave. Those were the glory days back in MindMedia, always being challenged and always learning... Fun times.

Unknown said...

Hi Michael!
I do not like the word" farewell", honestly!
It only happens when we move high up beyond the heavenly clouds...:) So " byes" are much friendlier and true to life. I know you are not going to be idle in anything you will do after leaving the position, it is just not your nature to retire...:) Thank you for the knowledge and skills I got at the e-learning workshops and I am sure I will have more questions to you in this field in the future! :) Mila Hughes, HPI at SEE and ESL in TAFE SA.

Michael said...

@pete I think that's probably wise :)

Leigh Blackall said...

Welcome to precarity in every sense of the word. I think you are right to feel indignant. The injustice has been taking place at least since the time when those oldies you mentioned started to complain. So much of our culture is based on injustice! A race to the bottom indeed!

Michael said...

Precarity - a new word for me. Thanks Leigh. "Precarity is a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare.(Wikipedia.

Might be a good business name for someone...

Alexander Hayes said...

You spoke well Michael. Australia is in a perilous position, caught between conservative protectist rednecks and a bunch of floundering idealists...yet we live in one of the most privileged countries in the world. What is evident is that TAFE is trapped in an insipid, savage nepotistic cycle where the reformist agenda rather than proactively growing working conditions successively erodes them, in shorter iterations every time. Technology plays a big part in the robotisation of occupations and change is always hard to fathom but one thing is certain, you made a difference, you achieved massive things and you can hold your head high that you treated others with respect and fostered their dignity. For those of you reading this from the other camp may your actions judge you harshly for your successive self-centered mindless cost cutting bullshit. Better fields beckon Michael and your moving onto better things.

Alexander Hayes said...

...and that is definitely you're :)

Robyn said...

I read your post with much sadness Michael. I haven't been in post-school ed quite as long, just a meagre 22 yrs but like you don't like what has become of the system. I also have never been a FT TAFE employee but did have lots of ELLN TAFE colleagues. I'm not sure how to turn things around but I do know I'm tired of fighting and on our return will be looking for a new path to ensure my remaining working yrs are satisfying ones.
Best wishes for the wonderful path I know you will take from here. Your TAFE years will be remembered by those who count.

stoneTeacher said...

Best wishes for your next adventure, Mike! Thank you for your friendship which reached across states and added to my professional practice. I'm hanging in there, trying to push the swinging pendulum back the other way!

Robby and Paul said...

Hi Michael, such a heartfelt blog that is written so eloquently as always. Oh yes, I remember those Learnscope days so well. How forward thinking, how progressive and oh how so much fun. Best wishes Robby

Nancy White said...

So my friend, what is the next adventure?

Unknown said...

Hi Michael, if travelling is part of your next adventure,I hope that Tassie is on the list! You will always be welcome (and valued) here. :) cheers, Frankie

Unknown said...

All the very best Michael and thanks for your support with Centra and during Learnscope - I would not be anywhere near as interested in eLearning had it not been for you and Marlene :-)

Michael said...

@nancywhite Initially Nancy, much the same.Just less of it maybe. Would like to get part time/casual work in the elearning space. But I suspect music might get more of a look in than it has in the last long while... said...

Go where the rest and renewed energy take you Michael.... the music? ....there's definitely joy to be had there. :o) Congratulations on a stellar career.

Michael said...

@Robyn - yes there was an element of sadness watching a system dismantle itself from within. I don't think there's much we can do now. Wait for the lumbering ship to turn itself around before it sinks.

Michael said...

@Mila Hughes Interesting Mila that you see 'farewell' having that connotation. Perhaps there's a cultural meaning that is slightly different to the Anglo idea of 'farewell'? For me farewell does imply a more significant goodbye - perhaps a longer or even permanent separation - but not death! I'm still here to answer your questions :)

blog-efl said...

Thanks for sharing this with us Mike, and best of luck for what's to come - I'm sure there are lots of exciting new projects out there and teachers that will benefit from your wealth of experience and wisdom.

Unknown said...

Well said Michael. Afraid I too am trying not to be one of those oldies my Cert IV in Frontline management students complain about. Anyway you have always had everyone's respect and I wish you well for the future. Maybe we shall cross paths at a strange music gig, I hope so anyway. Cheers!

Barbara Dieu said...

Hat tip!
I have been at the lycee for 31 years...more than half of my life. It's hard to change but necessary. Best of luck and keep in touch. Hugs

Robert Squires said...

I caught these lines by Dylan after reading your post/thread...Not sure it quire captures it, but it's a belter of a song :-):

"So long honey, baby
Where I'm bound, I can't tell
Goodbye's too good a word, babe
So I'll just say fare thee well

I ain't a-saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don't mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don't think twice, it's all right."

All the best in your future work, Mike.

Hala said...

Wow..I really enjoyed reading your words.:-) Thanks for sharing the past period, and the coming ones, with us. Wherever I will set foot on, I will send you an invitation. My hats off to you!

Vance Stevens said...

Just now absorbing this version of your career saga. I think you'll enjoy your freedom, and you have some great resources to draw on, not only in your back yard down under but through webheads and your many contacts worldwide. Hope this will increase chances for satisfying professional endeavor.

Vance Stevens said...

Just now absorbing this version of your career saga. I think you'll enjoy your freedom, and you have some great resources to draw on, not only in your back yard down under but through webheads and your many contacts worldwide. Hope this will increase chances for satisfying professional endeavor.

Michael said...

@Robert Squires Very apt words indeed Robert! It neatly sums up my feelings about it all. Thank you.

The Real English® Blog said...

An enjoyable read, Michael. What a life! Have fun in China.

pete said...

and people may think my earlier comment was paranoid....

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this insight. Always valued your insight and expertise in teaching us new things. Discovered joys of Internet and Netscape, as you library officer in a Northern Public library, of all things project fundede by the old DSS!!


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