“The Transition Generation,” the Time Issue and Dispersed Blog Communities

Anyone questioning the usefulness of social software in a liberal arts education (anyone who doesn’t believe that college students can engage in meaningful discussion via blog comments or blog-to-blog, the kind of discussion that should be at the heart of the liberal arts) or anyone conjuring up doom-and-gloom scenarios when they think of students and computers together, might want to take a gander at the four comments left by three students–all of whom are away from campus–to my October 21 posting. Even serious blog researchers wonder about how blogs are really working within classrooms, such as James Farmer in his and Anne Bartlett-Bragg’s excellent paper proposal from this summer for ASCILITE 2005, observing:

“In particular, educators have struggled with participation, getting learners to extend themselves in the environment, conducting collaborative tasks using blogs and the challenges of renegotiating ‘private’ reflective tasks into the public arena.”

Ah, have they looked at a student’s blogging over the course of a full four years, in and out of the classroom? The students I’m referring to here are no longer in the classroom with me–the physical, semester-delineated classroom, that is. Rather, they have taken the notion of their education as being continuous and fluid and emerging to heart–we are fully immersed in Pierre Lévy’s reciprocal apprenticeships. They are not fearful of talking about the challenges of their experiences, or what they are reading, or what they are learning. Indeed, they often make more interesting observations about education and the world than just about anyone I’m reading. Their own blogging exemplifies attentive writing, extended reflection that looks out beyond their own small experience as well as circling back to thoughts they and their peers have had in the past. Just this short second comment left by Lizi just this morning, from an internet cafe in Siberia–the fact that she was still thinking about the original post and the ensuing discussion and came back to add another thought shows the benefits of these slowly unfolding conversations blog-to-blog and within blogs:

I just want to add that after reading these comments I thought of one more blogging benefit. Last week I was on my blog, reading one of Megan’s comments about landscape. A few minutes later, I travelled over to Barbara’s blog to take a look, and Megan had commented below my comment, this time about the idea of blogging.
In a period of 10 minutes, I’d met Megan in two different contexts, and had “conversations” with her that, I doubt, we’d have had face to face. There’s links on the internet that don’t exist in real life. It’s natural on blogs to think. It’s not so natural in day to day life.

Now don’t get me wrong–it takes time to develop the voice, the confidence and the understanding to blog the way they do. Blogging gets a bad rap because it seems so glossy, so easy, so facile. But I’m convinced that you have to blog with students over time and in many different situations to show the real promise of the medium–not just in isolated contexts, and of course therein lies the problem when we continue to adhere to separate courses, semesters, years and dump the “learning” inside units to be consumed and digested and yet not necessarily implemented outside the classroom. Course blogs go dormant or die during semesters off. There can be a jarring disconnect between blogging experiences. But if we were to give all our students blogs to use to make connections between courses and peers and professors, what kinds of thinking might emerge then? If my gaggle of study abroad bloggers can accomplish what they are with their blogging in a month, what might they do in four years? And of course not all of them will suceed or will take to blogging. That’s to be expected. Not all of my students like to speak up in class discussion, or write papers, or play frisbee, after all. But those who will take to it will reap considerable rewards.
This brings me to the latest round of articles (in addition to Monke’s “Charlotte’s Webpage” in Orion to which I responded on the 23rd) raising the alarm about this generation and what computers are doing to them. Everyone is talking about the negative trends in our computer technology-driven world–the dangers of children spending too much time in front of computers (Yesterday’s New York Times article), the fracturing of our attention span in this hurry-up world propelled by computer use (last week’s NYT) that it’s no wonder that blogs, podcasting, wikis, RSS, etc remain at the threshold of our institutions but never really step into our classrooms in significant numbers. We read these articles; we watch the news; we see the disasters, and we know that the world is out of control. And so it is.

But we can either sit by and decry the convulsive changes–try to pull back (when the train is already way down the track), or insist on finding the promise, the potential, the truly remarkable about these tools and applications and put them in the hands of our able students. Who is listening to James Martin and his thinking about this “transition generation” or toJames Duderstadt, who asks:

Or is the true university something more intellectual: a community of masters and scholars (universitas magistorium et scholarium), a school of universal learning (Newman) embracing every branch of knowledge and all possible means for making new investigations and thus advancing knowledge (Tappan)?
… Certainly, both learning and scholarship will continue to depend heavily upon the existence of communities, since they are, after all, high social enterprises. Yet as these communities are increasingly global in extent, detached from the constraints of space and time, we should not assume that the scholarly communities of our times would necessarily dictate the future of our universities. For the longer term who can predict the impact of exponentiating technologies on social institutions such as universities, corporations, or governments, as they continue to multiply in power a thousand-, a million-, and a billion-fold?

Take the case of my own two daughters–you could read them as confused, lost, even, and scared. You might think they spend too much time at their computers IM-ing. Or you can see them as finding a new route through life, a new way to become educated: The oldest finds herself in her sophomore year of college at one of this country’s premiere institutions after having spent three years at one of our country’s top prep schools. She pushed to attend these schools. Now, recently, she announced that she wants to take time off–she doesn’t know who she is or why she’s on this speed-driven, elite train. She needs to take a look around, ask questions, test herself in the world. Her younger sister, our adventurer, has always insisted on doing things according to her own clock and her own map–she has always questioned everything and everyone and at sixteen is remarkably confident and put together. I marvel at their willingness to see the world in a new way. They are examples of a growing trend, again as reported in the NYT today–but about college graduates. Suddenly, the world is smaller and students want to travel and learn in ways that do not fit into the traditional academic structures. And what distinguishes this kind of learning is active engagement with the wider world–the world beyond their own home turf. This is POSITIVE! As I said in a recent post, students, perhaps because they have constant and direct and virtual connection with the world, want to get out in it. Virtual communities of practice help them to reflect and learn, and to hunger after immersive experiences in the physical world. Because they are in constant contact with one another and with their families and friends all over the globe, they can be in the world and back home at the same time. Do we have to separate these experiences? Do we have to leave our parents at home? Our friends? Our professors? Why?

Parents and grandparents, friends and peers, professors and strangers all write along with the student bloggers, creating a complex fabric of relationships, bringing together the various pieces of one life within a single conversation, or multiple conversations taking place on different screens, on a range of devices. Our notion of teachers expands to include everyone–

Blog sceptics and detractors (and those make up the majority in liberal arts institutions if we look at the numbers of classrooms making active and ongoing use of social software) worry about time. They worry that their time as teachers will be taken over by online discussions, to learning software applications, to attending to the glitches and crashes and disasters instead of attending to the learning. They worry that their students will spend even more time on search engines instead of in the library or together discussing around a table or listening to their professors. They worry about blogging watering down the curriculum and the level of erudition. Blogging has a bad name around the halls of higher ed. It’s not serious enough, or it’s a time guzzler.

What may seem like interruptions or intrusions along the lines of last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article by Clive Thompson might just be the painful moments within the transition to new forms of engagement:

When Mark crunched the data, a picture of 21st-century office work emerged that was, she says, “far worse than I could ever have imagined.” Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What’s more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task. To perform an office job today, it seems, your attention must skip like a stone across water all day long, touching down only periodically…

In the language of computer sociology, our jobs today are “interrupt driven.” Distractions are not just a plague on our work – sometimes they are our work. To be cut off from other workers is to be cut off from everything.

Information is no longer a scarce resource – attention is.

Add adolescence into the mix and you’ve got chaos. So how is it that blogging, wikis, podcasting, FLICKR, RSS, and multimedia writing can help our students concentrate rather than fracture what attention span they may have? Teaching students how to blog in the classroom and then handing them individual blogs and a Motherblog community (and perhaps a professor at home blogging) –having patience–makes sense to me. Look at how these students are extending their posts, returning instead of running through and discarding ideas brought up earlier. Linking, commenting, archiving, posting–it’s as though they are creating a language-map to the development of their thoughts over the course of this year–through and across disciplines, geographies, communities and cultures. Pretty darn good use of time in my book.

Now what happens when they come home???