Second-Wave Bloggers Asking for a Different Kind of Classroom

Thanks to Chris Boese, I was pointed to Inside Higher Ed–Mind the Gap where

Diana Rhoten writes:

Today, however, there are signs that Jacoby’s “age of academe” may be winding down and a new era emerging. While universities continue to play an important role in intellectual culture, increasingly they are no longer the only game in town. With the rise of the knowledge economy and the spread of decentralizing technology, the academy is ceding authority and attention to businesses, nonprofits, foundations, media outlets, and Internet communities.

Even more significant, in my mind, the academy may be losing something else: its hold over many of its most promising young academics, who appear more and more willing to take their services elsewhere — and who may comprise an embryonic cohort of new “postacademic intellectuals” in the making.

And David White responds:

As Tomas Ybarra Frausto of the Rockefeller Foundation said some years back, “Practitioners are the new theoreticians.” From the vantage point of the arts, anyway, fundamental intellectual discovery has long passed into the hands of working artists and the four decades of not-for-profit, non-academic organizational evolution that has supported, if not sustained them.

I see the glimmers of this shifting away from the focus on the traditional positioning of the Academy coming from yet another place– from way back inside the undergraduate classroom itself: my students. More and more I see them want something more, something other, than the traditional classroom experience alone. Perhaps I see it because that is precisely what I try to offer within the confines of a pretty traditional environment. (But I also see it in my fifteen-year-old daughter who has propelled herself through her high school curriculum so fast–not because she has lapped up the learning doled out but because it has been excruciatingly mind-numbing. Right now she’s on a semester program via The Traveling School learning her way through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia with nine other girls and three teachers, and loving it.)

Certainly, at Middlebury, as elsewhere, there is the whole movement towards incorporating internships and service-learning into the curriculum. But something else is happening, too: students are more–is it restless, fearless, demanding–Diana Oblinger’s new Educause article and presentations on “Educating the Net Generation” point to the realities of the learning styles and preference of students born after 1982, as captured on the Horizon Project VCOP blog:

Net generation (Millenials, GenY) – born in or after 82. Cool to be smart, like tech, gravitate toward group activity (Howard & Strauss, 2003). 5 key characteristics – Digitally literate (not nec experts though), Mobile, Always on (to social network), Experiential (poss coz grew up with games), Social (relate to people and stay connected to people).

Hypertext minds – qualities and concerns (Prensky 2001); crave interactivity read visual images, visual-spatial skills, parallel processing BUT concerns short attention spans choose not to pay attention, reflection (lack), practice, text literacy, source quality.

Learning preferences – teams, P2P, like structure, engagement & experience, visual & kinesthetic (Studies into taking same course content in diff ways), things that matter (socially responsible, believe sci&tech can improve society)

Informal learning (Sheppard 2000, Dede 2004) – can be self-taught, learning in free time, learners construct their own courses.

I’m seeing how these learners will eventually affect the entire structure of the college. They already are, in fact, in my little world. Four years ago my first group of bloggers found the experience of connecting to the Irish world via our course blog so powerful that they wanted to continue our study of contemporary Irish literature and film beyond the semester. Four of them wrote a grant to travel to Ireland that summer after their first year to shoot contextual webfilms based on the themes of the course. They blogged (though marginally) from their homes across the country as they planned the trip. That project was considered a big deal–in the summer and then an independent study during the following semester? Not many were doing that sort of thing. Now students seem to want that kind of experience more and more, as well as other kinds of in-the-class experiences linked to their lives outside. They want what goes on in the classroom to have some bearing on their lives as well as enabling them to develop skills of critical inquiry.

As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, the students in my creative writing classes, since I’ve started blogging with them two years ago, have become friends outside the class, coming together socially (this current group threw its second-in-a row Friday night writing party last night), and have repeastedly asked whether the blog will keep going once the semester is over. The blog helps them form social groups.

And I’ve had groups of students as well as individuals approach me about a whole range of independent project ideas–from a digital storytelling project on the traditional Vermont hard-cider making community (they were turned down by the college) to making movies about kayaking to studying Syrian pilgrimage sites to blogging the Antarctic. Héctor, too, has been working with students engaging in service-learning and travel-based blogging and multi-media projects.

In the past, students usually waited until after college, for a Watson fellowship opportunity, or for junior year and experiential off-campus progams such as S.I.T. offers. What is interesting about the new wave (the Second-Wave bloggers as I’ve been calling them), is that some of them are asking for yet another kind of experience–they don’t necessarily want to leave campus for an entire semester, or they want to combine their courses or parts of them in interesting ways. They want to jump in and out of the classroom, threading together several courses in tandem, having them lead to or involve the same project. These students are pushing against the traditions of the college calendar and classroom, even asking to travel more as part of their education, leaving campus for a month or so in the middle of the semester for an intensive project as one student did in Chile around spring break and another is doing now on a geology expedition to Antarctica.

And they want a community.

Many are choosing to blog their findings and experiences back to both school and family and to whatever community emerges out of their blog. This is what particularly interests me about blogging right now and something I’m beginning to pull together for a couple of conference proposals: how students seek to blog their education (as defined as loosely as possible to include what goes on outside the classroom as well as in) as a way to deepen the learning, connect to fellow learners within the academy, but also to converse with those outside and to chronicle their out-of-school adventures. Most of the respondants to Donovan’s Antarctic blog thus far, for example, have been his family members. At the same time as his family and friends are leaving affectionate and encouraging, even one-word “Awesome!” type comments, I as his teacher get on to ask him questions about the writing to help him develop his skills of observation and clear expression. The same thing happened on Piya’s blog this winter during her journey through India. I’d like to take a look at this new kind of intermingling of conversations and voices through the comments from a range of respondants, and how it affects the learning.