Thinking Twice about Computers in Classrooms, “Multi-subjectivity” and Balance

As usual, I find myself sifting through the past several days, finding connections between seemingly dissimilar experiences: a moment watching the slide show of a former student just returned from a Fulbright year in Syria, a lively conversation over the dinner table about journals vs. email vs. blogs when you’re traveling abroad, reading my students’ blogs (make sure you use Mozilla as your browser if you want to see their blogs listed on the right sidebar) and the article my friend and colleague, H�ctor Vila, threw my way as he urged me to look up from my blog and ask some essential questions about the impact of my technology use on my students’ lives and on my own. I’m interested in the correspondences arising from the very tensions produced by this dizzying range of experiences, and how they bring me back here to the blog.

Watching the slideshow and listening to the accompanying Syrian music transported me to a place I wouldn’t have access to without the stories, the images and the music. Every evening after dinner, the young poet/scholar has been telling us stories about her life in Damascus. This is what happens when people get together around a table and spend time with one another–the magic of stories. But two nights ago, she said that without the images–her photos–we couldn’t really feel it. She couldn’t tell us another story without first showing us the images. It was time to see the iPHOTO slide show. For a moment I was surprised: this young woman is one of the best storytellers I know. Her words create worlds. Her facial expressions and graceful, punctuating hands pull us in, make us listen as hard as we can. She teases me about blogs. And yet, we sat around her computer,listening not to her, but to the music she had selected to go with the images of young girls studying the Qu’ran, children playing in the squares, monks in the monastery, people going about their lives. Staring at that computer screen added something essential to the stories. They brought real people to me. People I will never meet.

My young friend doesn’t like how long it takes me to respond to email–for all my blogging, I am rather slow to commit words to the screen. She loves books and paintings and even email but dislikes blogs as though they were tainted, not real. I get that same response from colleagues sometimes–why blogs, why would you ever use blogs?–as though somehow having students talk to one another and the world about their subject matter through writing online is less valuable than to fill a notebook with notes during a lecture. But last night, she had to admit that to find out what’s going on in Syria and Iraq–what’s really going on–she reads blogs. (I think she does it with a flashlight beneath the covers…) These contradictions mark our age as we struggle to get our heads around what we’ve wrought with technology.

The article, Lowell Monke’s “Charlotte’s Webpage,” from Orion Magazine, would have us do more of this blog resisting, I believe. At least he would have us resist bringing computers into classrooms–at least elementary school classrooms–at least without thinking far more carefully about what we’re doing with computer technology in education than we have to this point–, making a compelling argument about “why children shouldn’t have the world at their fingertips.” He puts his own finger right on an enormous, vexing problem: how we are putting the tools in front of our thinking about the effects of these tools, and now we are seeing the results of our headlong rush into the arms of our technological innovations. We do NOT want to mediate the experience of elementary-school children through computers instead of or even alongside direct, real, lived experiences with the world, he contends, writing:

The medium is so compelling that it lures children away from the kind of activities through which they have always most effectively discovered themselves and their place in the world.

This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking article I urge everyone–in particular educators using computer technology–to read. His experience with students avoiding face-to-face discussion of important and difficult issues is particularly worrisome:

During the two decades that I taught young people with and about digital technology, I came to realize that the power of computers can lead children into deadened, alienated, and manipulative relationships with the world, that children’s increasingly pervasive use of computers jeopardizes their ability to belong fully to human and biological communities�ultimately jeopardizing the communities themselves.

He concludes:

At the heart of a child’s relationship with technology is a paradox–that the more external power children have at their disposal, the more difficult it will be for them to develop the inner capacities to use that power wisely. Once educators, parents, and policymakers understand this phenomenon, perhaps education will begin to emphasize the development of human beings living in community, and not just technical virtuosity. I am convinced that this will necessarily involve unplugging the learning environment long enough to encourage children to discover who they are and what kind of world they live in.

I agree that we must slow down to consider the impact of technology on our students’ ability to engage with the world around them, the direct experience with people and place. If our use of technology serves to distance our students from the physical world and their own responsibilities within the world, then we are missing the point of using technology in the classroom. And so, yes, we should pause–big time– before we send our elementary-age students to computers. And we should teach our high school students critical approaches to using media of all sorts. In our college and university classrooms, we need to find some kind of balance between sending our students to texts of any sort, and asking them to engage directly with the world and one another–integrating experiential learning into our classrooms. Indeed, the more I use computer technology in my courses, having students roam the Web, podcast, make digital stories and blog, the more I also find myself sending my students out into the world more than I ever did before, conducting interviews, observing, and then coming back to write, to record, to share these experiences via the Web. I also meet more often with them in class–without computers– and one-on-one than I ever have in the past, and students are ever more likely just to stop by my office to say hello. (I never did that with my professors, and no one else did as far as I knew.)

But it’s ridiculous to shun or to vilify the Web-mediated experience. The Web can (just as books and stories can) point students towards the real, have them dream about the world, prompt them to explore it and revise their sense of it. I wish Monke had gone further in his article to discuss ways in which computers in the classroom–coupled with the experiential learning he promotes– can lead to essential discussions about society and expectations and relationships. Why not take those moments in high school when students turn from f2f conversations with members of their own community in favor of the blog or email discussion with someone halfway across the world as opportunities to talk about the reasons, the repercussions, the differences between these experiences? Why not even have elementary school children examine the computer-generated spider next to the real thing?

Case in point–my own sixteen-year-old daughter, in an article she recently wrote for our local newspaper about her spring semester spent with The Traveling School in South America, provides an example of just these kind of conclusions our computer-dependent children are drawing and then what happens when they confront the real:

When I traveled to the Ecuadorian rainforest, I was initially expecting to see the Discovery Channel version of the Amazon jungle: monkeys swinging from tree-to-tree, toucans and parrots perched on every branch, and boa constrictors slithering through the brush ready to grab me at every turn.

The reality of the rainforest didn�t hit me until I went on my first hike. Jerson explained the different plants, flowers and trees we encountered, but we rarely saw even a bird flying overhead. The only time I actually saw any of the animals I had imagined would live in a rainforest was in an animal sanctuary, miles upriver from where we were staying. I wasn�t disappointed, just mainly shocked by the difference between what I had been expecting and the reality of the rainforest.

And she’s a well-traveled person who went to an elementary school without computers and which prided itself on an experiential, community-based curriculum. It was in the clash between the two experiences that a number of interesting discoveries took place.

The same day I read the Monke article, I saw that Will had linked to
a recent post by Dave Weinberger in which he writes:

It is the connectedness of the Net. We can see what the world is thinking. But that just leads to relativism, a form of disappointment. Instead, the Net is filled with joy. That is why almost a billion people are using it and are finding it transformative. In fact, we are escaping from the old, dissatisfying clash between objectivity (the world as it looks when we’re not looking at it) and subjectivity (the world as it matters to us). With the Internet, we get multi-subjectivity for the first time. Take blogs. They look like publications, but they’re overwhelmingly conversations. We’re linking to one another, disagreeing, amplifying, making fun, extending, sympathizing, laughing. We are talking with one another, thinking out loud across presumptions and continents. If you want to know about an idea, you could go to an encyclopedia and read what an expert says about it. Or you could find a blog that talks about it and start following the web of links. You’ll not just see multiple points of view, you’ll hear those points of view in conversation. That’s new in the world.

The old dream of finding a single knowledge for the entire world � having knowledge be like reality, in other words � is dying rapidly.

But we should not be left in despair because we now also know that for as long as we manage to not to destroy this blue pearl, we’re going to be engaged in endless conversation. Conversations iterate differences upon a common ground. Conversations are themselves paradoxes. But because they happen, they’re miracles.

And of course, leave it to my students blogging away out there in the world, and my young traveling and writing daughter, and my young scholar/poet friend to feel and examine these tensions– observing them interact with one another around a dinner table, reading their blog posts, and listening to them talk about their desire for the direct experience makes me smile again. They’ve got a good chance of fulfilling James Martin’s hope that this generation coming of age will put the world to rights, this world that we have come close to destroying. They immerse themselves in place, with people and with themselves while also connecting virtually to one another as well as to themselves and to anyone else (parents, family, friends, interested strangers) to collaborate in an intellectual commons, a collective intelligence. They’ll revel in both kinds of experience.

My abroad bloggers are talking about just these tensions between the lived moment and the virtual communication: take, for example, Piya’s blogging as she sat in the airport:

But a question emerges from jet exhaustion…must we physically plant our feet in its soil to have traveled to another place? Just two days ago I was back, ironically also for the third time, at Middlebury College for a pre-orientation program called Project for Integrated Expression (P.I.E.). Fifteen freshman from all edges of space were in attendance. Jamaica, Gaza, Idaho, Arkansas, Alaska, California, the list grows. And as I listened to their stories, felt around their selves, their souls, imagined their communities, their sense of home, while tentatively sharing my own, I had the overwhelming feeling that I had traveled to a new place. In knowledge, in understanding, in perspective,in space, in my very own being. But my feet stayed planted, the scenery around me unchanged.

It’s funny, in this age of globalization, of time and space compression, of mass communication and rapid progress, how far must we travel to be in a new place?

And a few posts later:

As an aside�someone posted a valuable comment on my blog. They asked if having to reflect on this experience has made it harder to actually involve myself in the experience. How do you all feel about this? About this pressure to blog, to write something worthwhile and meaningful about this frenzy we�ve thrown ourselves into. I know that I found it much easier to reflect and critique on my trip through India. On both my personal journey, and on the people and places around me. Maybe because I was only there for a month? Not enough time in a new place to formulate an actual exsistence. Or maybe because the place is part of me, flows through my blood� What about you, has this World Blogging Project, compliments of Mad Dog Ganley, added to or retracted from being abroad? Lizi, I know you had mentioned earlier that you are too caught up in your own sphere of reflection. Have you been able to step outside of this? What about you others? I would definitely be interested to hear some thoughts�

And a response from Megan:

I’ve only just started my third week on the reservation and I’m not at an actual university studying, nor am I technically “abroad” — BUT — what I like about blogging is 1)it provides me the liberty and routine for reflection on this experience with a new geographical setting, culture, and people while at the same time this reflection provokes action in both my thoughts and in my day-to-day living. I’ve been reflecting on the blog about how nervous I am about bringing blogging to Takini — calculating possible drawbacks, observing the already obvious lack of enthusiasm now and trying to predict the success or failure of something I honestly believe in, on top of learning and gauging culture and family and spirituality in the realm of the school — AHH!

Anyway, my point is that through my reflection, I in turn am asking more questions, becoming more excited about blogging, the students, and my overall experience, releasing fears — and really ALLOWING myself to LIVE WITH the people rather than just existing IN the school on the reservation.

So yes — I think blogging enriches my experience “abroad.”

….Oh, I totally forgot the other component I was meaning to mention.

COMMUNITY! I’m almost finished with this book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Paulo Friere, the author, talks about the student-teacher relationship where it is necessary for both student and teacher to be “actors” in their discussion, to be “Subjects” — not Subject and object. He also talks about dialogue and words, how every words breaks down into reflection AND action. Thus, our dialogue is, if it is authentic, is composed of reflection and action.
Blogging provides this opportunity for reflection and action at the individual level while simultaneously connecting the individuals to other individuals forming a community that responds to one another through the “reflection-action” process. And I think that’s such a beautiful way of existing with one another.

(I swear I didn’t put her up to that post!)

Ron Burnett on his blog <a href=””target=”_blank, Critical Approaches to Culture + Comunications + Hypermedia, on October 6, in his “Dilemmas of Learning and Teaching” post, writes:

For Freud, and for Socrates, knowledge is only gained through struggle and as a result of the recognition that ideas have an impact because of the dynamic interplay of words and spoken language, interpersonal communications and public discourse. It is their recognition of the importance of speech and of the balancing act between knowing and not knowing that opens up new possibilities for discussion and learning.

These students are actively engaged in this struggle, trying to find a balance between the lived and the virtual–and learning more about the world and themselves in the process than I certainly did at their age. So I don’t advocate removing computers from classrooms, but rather to wade right in and talk about the confusion, the dangers, the possibilities–the uneasy space we are in right now.

Last night at the dinner table (and our ranks are growing with each evening as our young traveling friend attracts my students and friends of my daughter to our home) the conversation among us turned to forms of capturing and reflecting on travels as the experience is being lived. My daughter had just received a letter of acceptance to a semester program in India for the spring and was trying to decide if she really could get her head around being in India at age sixteen. I laughed and said that this time, instead of emailing wonderful missives back home, she should blog it, the way Piya blogged her month in India last year. She looked at me and said, “I have to blog it–blogging is required on this program.” One student (who has blogged brilliantly in a couple of my classes but avoids it when she has the choice) said that she uses a journal, and hates the thought of blogging from abroad because she doesn’t want to share her private revelations. Blogging is too exposed. Another young friend asked my daughter if she had kept a journal in South America. She said that she could never get into journaling because she didn’t see why she needed to tell herself what she was feeling–just feel it, and be present in those feelings. Writing to others, though, having to explain to someone else what is going on and what it seems to mean, well that, she said, makes a lot more sense to her. Our young scholar/poet agreed. Our journal-keeper did not.

And I sat quiet, just listening, thinking about the article that had left me unsettled earlier in the day, and Dave Weinberger’s post, and the students’ blogging from abroad about blogging from abroad, and the eight of us sitting around a table talking about blogging and emailing and journaling from abroad, and I thought how lucky we are to have all these ways of connecting with ourselves and one another: face-to-face AND virtually. My sixteen-year-old daughter is able to think critically about both kinds of experiences, about how to be present within the moment, responsive to the people and environment around her, and to use computer technology to extend those experiences, to reach out to others within her community and beyond it, and to think about how both affect the other and her own perceptions. Her enormous spirit has room to range in and a means of connecting. She gets what Dave Weinberger says: “So knowledge has become the continuousness of conversation. It has become a miracle. Knowledge can no longer fix the meaning of a thing with a single pin of meaning. To understand now means to hear the multiplicity of meaning talked about across the world…The more of the world we get into the conversation, the more the world will mean.”

And so here I am, back to the blog, back to having my students blog–but also insisting that they get out in the world, and talk to one another face-to-face. There can be a balance, a lovely kind of tension between these two sides–the Web writer who wants to throw open the doors to discussion via the Web, and the experiental learner, who needs to throw open the doors of the classroom. Our students need both experiences.