Mum, I’m going to the Olympics: Educational Technology As An Enabler

Author: Shelley Kinash
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By Professor Shelley Kinash
Director, Advancement of Learning & Teaching
University of Southern Queensland

People seldom forget where they were and what they were doing, when receiving momentous news – good or bad. For me, this permanent emotive memory was when my daughter (and husband) called me to say that she was successful in Olympic selections and was going to be a part of Tokyo 2020. They had to try me repeatedly to get me to answer, as I had my phone on silent, being in my first regular meeting with my new direct supervisor, our University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic (DVCA). Neither my boss, nor I, could ignore mobile vibration after vibration, as my family just kept calling and texting. I apologized, stepped out into the hallway, and upon answering, could not initially tell whether my daughter was laughing or crying, and loudly cheered when I determined it was the former. Thus, our DVCA, and all of the staff in her wing, became the next to know our incredible news, after our family (including my daughter’s boyfriend).

The irony of me being in our DVCA’s office, discussing our University’s new Employability Strategy and the start of a new Online Learning Strategy, when I received that call, did not escape me. This article is about the triad of sport, study and health that epitomizes my daughter’s young adult life, and educational technology as enabler.

The triad will make more sense after a short biography of my daughter, Kirsten. In addition, the key propositions of the triad should begin to reveal themselves through this narrative.

Kirsten will be 23 years-old when she competes as part of the Australian Olympic Team in Tokyo 2021. Her sport was called Synchronised Swimming, with the nomenclature recently changed to Artistic Swimming. She started competing, as part of the Calgary Aquabelles, in Canada, at 7 years-of-age. Kirsten loved the water, from her very first Moms & Tots infant swimming experience, and quickly progressed through the swimming badges, almost always the youngest in the group lessons. Growing easily bored of swimming lengths, she would say, “Watch my dance” and the dance was always in the water. We therefore enrolled her in recreational synchronized swimming, as the closest activity we could find to water-dancing.

One of the coaches recruited her to a competitive squad and her first sporting achievements were on a team, performed to Willy Wonka music, and a solo to a Johnny Cash medley. To this day, I cannot hear either music, without bringing tears to my eyes and memories of my little athlete putting her heart-and-soul into her sport. My husband and I spent countless hours driving to and from the pool, being a strong poolside cheer-squad and volunteering for fund-raising. Our son (two years younger than his sister) grew-up playing cars, building lego, and later doing homework, on the pool deck. The grandparents, too, chipped-in hours and support, driving, cheering, funding and volunteering. Both grandmothers went through periods of wanting Kirsten withdrawn, as it was hard to take their precious first-born grandchild being publicly criticized, sometimes by very frustrated and vocal coaches, and sure that those little lungs could not keep her submerged that long. This was heightened when 7 year-old Kirsten explained to her anxious grandmothers, “It’s okay. The coach explained that once I get those little black spots dancing in-front of my eyes, I’m allowed to come up for a breath.” Kirsten was learning early lessons of perseverance, resilience and team contribution that are key elements of the sport, study and health triad described below.

We moved to Australia (for my work) when she turned 9, and Kirsten cried to leave her close-knit Elvis team. At first we could only find Kirsten a speed swim squad (and her brother joined too). At first, the squad was excited to welcome this very practiced swimmer, but over time, her times went down rather than up, as Kirsten became more and more bored with swimming laps. She longed once again to dance-in-water. Readers might forgive me for forming a super-natural interpretation when both our family and the (then) Australian national-team coach moved interstate to the Gold Coast at around the same time. At 11, Kirsten was a synchronized swimmer once again, as part of the Gold Coast Mermaids.

It became obvious that if our family was going to support our daughter’s dreams, and provide equal opportunities to our son, that either my husband or I would need to become a stay-at-home parent. I am eternally grateful to, and proud of, my husband for volunteering for this role, despite the gender-biased judgements which remain in our society. Kirsten, too, has had to make many sacrifices, such as never once having a lazy Saturday morning of cartoon-watching, giving-up every school holiday, which was spent in training camp (camps which were far from fireside sing-alongs) and living at home for university, rather than having an in-residence experience (like her brother), because we could only afford either her sport fees or residence.

Fast-forward to the year 2021 – the year that we will always remember as – Tokyo 2021. Starting from team selection, we will have 5 weeks total, together with Kirsten at home (and even during this time, she will spend most of it at the pool), over a 6-month period. The rest of the time will be spent in training camps and inter/national competitions. Kirsten just received the results of her latest blood and other health-checks and it was affirming to hear that all levels are positive. This is further testament to her commitment to veganism, for both health and ethical reasons. Kirsten is half-way through a degree in Public Health and Public Health Nutrition through Griffith University. Even this year, while preparing for the Olympics, Kirsten is enrolled in one subject (otherwise known as a unit or course) a semester. She can probably still count the number of times she has been able to attend classes on-campus on her fingers and toes, without running-out.

There are two essential enablers to her status of student-athlete. One is the Griffith Sports College, who are exemplars in the higher education sector. The amazing College staff provide bespoke advising, encouraging and mediation with teaching academics.

The other enabler is educational technology. Kirsten feels lucky to be a university-student in an era where the internet, learning management systems and multi-media teaching resources exist and afford learning opportunities. Griffith has consistently lived-up-to its promise of 100% lecture capture. Kirsten does not miss out on any of her course examiners’ lectures, able to watch them recorded and played-back at a time and place that suit Kirsten, on her own laptop. If she is tired after grueling training sessions and her mind wanders, she can watch the lectures again and again until the content sticks. The many interaction and communication tools allow her to feel engaged and to participate in teacher-to-student and peer-to-peer intellectual exchanges. She submits her assignments online and receives her feedback electronically. Advancements are being made in eAssessment, whereby Kirsten can gauge her learning through optional formative assessment, and spend less times in on-campus rooms writing exams on alternative dates that fit her training and competition schedule, and more time, completing exams purely online.

Universities and many academics worry about increasingly empty classrooms, as more and more students stop coming on-campus. Some universities are resorting to taking attendance, and assigning participation marks, in an effort to protect the on-campus student experience. This sport/study narrative is a reminder that for many learners, coming on-campus is not an option. For many learners, online engagement is their only student option. Today’s educational technologies mean that learners with complex lives can pursue academic/career goals. Not being able to come on-campus is no longer a degree barrier.

The framework presented in this article’s introduction was a sport/study/health triad. For Kirsten, as for many student athletes, this triad can be represented as a Venn-diagram, or equally as a metaphorical ball-of-wool. Picture three balls of wool, each of a different colour, after a litter of kittens has had a long play. It would be nearly impossible to untangle them and sort them back into separate balls.

Kirsten’s athlete identity – her sport – is core to her selfhood. She is compelled to take care of her body. She is used to pushing herself beyond the point of pain and exhaustion. She knows how to work as a team-member, buoying others up when they are on the brink of quitting, and allowing others to do the same for her. She used to marvel at primary school children who would burst into tears upon a gentle scolding from a teacher. She would ask what would happen to them if they were subjected to feedback (which was far from politically correct) from frustrated coaches (who never held back) in front of a team of on-lookers. Research is mounting that athletes develop advantageous employability skills. Employers are happy to recruit athletes because of their resilience, team playing ability, confidence, communication skills, ambition and problem-solving ability (literally able to think on-their-feet).

Given that the modal age of Olympic athletes is early twenties, it is common to find that these youth are also university students. Olympic commissions (worldwide) encourage this sport/study partnership, referring to Dual Careers. Sports Psychologists encourage youth to avoid putting-their-eggs-all-in-one-basket, promoting both a sport and a profession to keep their lives meaningful. It is no surprise that the sport/study connection is often intertwined. Athletes commonly pursue degrees in kinesiology, sports management and physiotherapy, for example. In Kirsten’s case, her degree is in Public Health and Public Health Nutrition. She wants to support others to find the quality of life she enjoys, through a combined passion for sport, physical health, nutrition and intellectual engagement.

This therefore leads to the third element of the triad – health. Health, or quality of life, involves body, mind and relationship (to others, to the world and spiritual connection). Sport and health are interconnected, as both can be conditional upon the other. Poor health makes playing sport difficult, and sport is a strong catalyst of physical health. Likewise, study and health are relational. Intellectual engagement feeds the mind, and is a key part of the journey of becoming. Poor health can pose sometimes insurmountable challenges to study, impinging upon attention, alertness and memory. Just like the connection between sport and employability (described above), there is also research evidence that exercise stimulates the brain. Endorphins are one of many elements. While my husband enjoyed the extra time and sleep when Kirsten got her driver’s license (and was therefore able to drive herself to the pool), he missed the after-training conversations, when she  was on such a positive exercise-high and willing to readily share her thoughts and dreams.

Thank you, readers, for indulging me in my contemplations about my soon-to-be Olympian daughter, and to my daughter for giving me permission to openly share her story. My goal is to give educators a glimpse into the triad of sport, study and health, and of the vitality of human supports and educational technology as enablers.

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Mum, I’m going to the Olympics: Educational Technology As An Enabler
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