Metaphors, Teaching and Social Software: More Thoughts on Post-Course Blogging

Over on Will’s blog, in a post pulling together an excerpt from Ken Smith and one from me, Will likens this new beyond-the-classroom thinking many of us are engaging in these days to Edblogging 3.0. I used a term “second-wave blogging” the other day on a post referring to students who come to our classes as experienced bloggers. And then there’s the incisive comment Terry Elliot left for Will:

Re: Blogs in Education 3.0?
If there is one insight to come out of cognitive linguistics over the past twenty-five years, it is Lakoff and Johnson’s theory that the core of thought is metaphoric. We don’t just use metaphor as a critical and analytic term and tool. We are metaphoric in our brains. “Classroom” implies an enclosure, a bottle of sorts, a boundary that encloses. What happens when technology breaks the bottle? You have a blogwikiflickrfurlicious open space full of connections. Edblogging 3.0 is the birth of new metaphors for new experience. I oversimplify, but I think we edbloggers hold both metaphors (classroom and connected-open space) in our hearts simultaneously. We live in both worlds, yet we know one of them is a dead man walking.

This weekend at MIT4, someone in the audience at our presentation, asked if we could come up with an accurate term for the way we were using and thinking about New Media. We’re searching about for terms, Terry’s metaphors, to help us understand what it is we are doing; as Terry points out, the old term “classroom” will no longer do especially as we push this work outside the boundaries of semester and building and discipline, as we ask our students to think way out beyond the small community of learners to the world and time beyond our campuses and semesters. This thinking is very much on my mind as I prepare for this weekend’s Social Software in the Academy Workshop.

Of course,as my good buddy Héctor likes to point out, we must also ask ourselves whether we have actually set up the same old classroom walls with our classroom blogs, and just call them something different. We have to guard, I know, against smugness, against thinking we’re actually doing anything but what we have always done, just faster and perhaps better. In theory, if we really blog with our students (Will’s blogging-the-verb-rather-than-blog-the-noun, not just using them as a “cooler” version of a standard CMT), we have already constructed an entirely new kind of educational space. But if the course ends, the community disbands, then what do we expect our students to do? Just blog? Blog what? Are we fooling them? Ourselves? In other words, aren’t we by blogging within the traditional rubrics of a semeter system ensuring that course blogs are only that, finite, discrete, course blogs?

No, I don’t think so–though I’m the first to admit that it ain’t always pretty sitting here having to argue for something that isn’t completely together yet–that what I imagine and want to be true isn’t quite possible yet, not with our campus infrastructure and design, our calendar and positioning within disciplines. But there are glimmers–and those are what I see and try to keep in mind–and the students are beginning to make connections on their own, and to want to reach out beyond themselves and the school and the school calendar, making connections, learning to engage actively within communities through this practice. And there are the shifts I see within my colleagues. We’re asked repeatedly, “But doesn’t introducing blogs and multimedia authoring into the classroom take much more time than your old ways of teaching?” Today I heard my colleague, Mary Ellen Bertolini, respond, “Well, yes, it does, but it doesn’t feel like more work. It feels like fun. We have to ask whether our endeavors take away from the spirit or feed it. Blogging in my classes feeds my teaching spirit.”

And so it’s a start. A darn good one. If we engage our students in mobile, fluidly reconfiguring communities of practice–even in short bursts– and through the blogging transcend the notion of semesters and courses and our own self-serving readings of the world–at least for a moment–couldn’t we then expect the blogs to live on–at least for a while, as long as the bloggers have something they want to say to one another and the world? And isn’t it perfectly fine for a blog to live out its purpose and be left for a long spell or to close when the subject matter is exhausted or the members toodle off to new pursuits?

So we’ll see what the students do when left to their own devices. We’ll see if their desire to keep together blogging about writing or their experiences abroad or their ideas about generating social capital through blogs will come to anything over the next few months. My guess is that it will be tough going for this first small group of students in the face of a world compartmentalizing the learning into tidy classrooms and syllabi. So, I’m not sure we’re quite ready for new metaphors in a traditional liberal arts institution–but we sure can give them a shot.

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