Ewan McIntosh and David Warlick have me thinking…

Just when I think that I’ve blogged myself, presented myself, taught myself out for the month–yes, it’s that insane time of the semester–something pulls me back onto this space. Today it’s a couple of things: Ewan McIntosh’s question following my recent podcasting post and David Warlick’s posts yesterday and today, and Will’s follow-up on Connective Writing .

Ewan’s question: “I wish examination boards would accept electronic essays so that students can make their work more media rich. But does this take away from the skills involved in conveying emotion and sentiment in writing?”

This is one of the questions I am frequently asked in my own college as well as during presentations. And it’s a good question reflecting the widespread concern that if we encourage students to move between various media in their heretofore strictly text-based essays, then, well, we also–perhaps inadvertently–allow them to avoid the necessary apprenticeship involved in using written language to convey “emotion and sentiment.” Parents, school boards, government officials, boards of trustees, students themselves, fellow faculty might wonder if these multimedia modes of expression take time away from lessons in writing and perhaps even damage the writing by making it more about the shiny surfaces offered by image and sound than about clear and convincing written expression. And we should ask that question.

My sense is, after years and years of teaching writing and some four plus years of having students write with text, sound and image, that sure, absolutely–if we do not teach the grammar of image, sound and word, and their relationships to one another, then we will not guide our students towards a sense of how to use each separately and in combination with any power or substance. But if we have our poets use cameras and iPODS, say–and then examine the repercussions of a photo inserted within or in stead of a poem; or our filmmakers use poems and dance; or our composers use stories and video–and we do so with intention as well as a willingness to let them run free with their experiments, following up with close reflection throughout the process–well, then. then we will grow more powerful writers, musicians, choreographers, painters, and filmmakers–not because they will necessarily take to the variety of media, but because they will then understand more about their own ways of communicating and the world beyond their own individual expression. In my classrooms, my students have become more aware of language precisely when I take it away from them and make it strange. It’s what happens when you read one of John Berger’s image-laden essays–the words become charged beyond their ordinary meaning.

After all, I am a teacher of writing, and so all of the podcasting, stories-without-words and multimedia work I have my writers do is to get them to understand what happens when we push words up against one another. We can then talk about words being the writer’s paint or clay –and that collaborations between word, image and sound should, if done well, intensify the experience of each medium for the creator and the viewer. The new, interactive virtual means of expression–with links, pop-ups, discussions, mixed media–can lead to deep learning and effective writing off-screen as well as developing skill with Web-writing.

But I am also a realist. People worry about watering down the curriculum, about getting lost in the flash of the new. People also worry about a world in which everything and everyone is “clickable.” As both teacher of college students and mother of a nineteen-year-old and a sixteen-year-old, I was sucked right into David’s post, Insights from a Techie, in which he explores the implications of Vinod Khosla’s contention that for our children, “Everything is clickable.”

David posits that if indeed, teachers are clickable:

The task of the teacher then becomes a layered affair (as if there aren’t enough layers already). First of all, the teacher has to create and persuasively describe the place that the students will want to go, a student-centered outcome that is compelling to young learners. Then the teacher must construct a context within which the students will work with relevant/authentic limitations, and appropriate tools to accomplish the goal. Finally, the teacher becomes a consultant, or strategy guide. Students need information and/or skills to accomplish the goal. The teacher provides them on demand and within the authentic context, or becomes a compass, helping students to discover on their own the information that they need, or the skills they must gain. It isn’t a pretty classroom, but students are learning by working the curriculum, not simply absorbing it.

I agree with him that we are moving in the direction of instruction-on-demand, which James Duderstadt has been getting at, the kind of free-range learners we’re finding in our midst who want hybrid courses they design on their own (I see it in the way students show up at my office fully expecting me to be prepared to deliver whatever it is they need–I am indeed clickable in their minds). But I have to say that yesterday when I read the post, I was worried about the implications of the teacher-as-clickable if we do not include the learning community in our discussions of the changing face of education, if we for one moment get carried away with the tool and not the connection. The promise of the Internet, of Web-based teaching is on the potential to work beyond ourselves as individuals, as Howard Rheingold contends in SmartMobs: “The most profoundly transformative potential of connecting human social proclivities to the efficiency of information technologies ia the chance to do new things together, the potential for cooperating on scales and in ways never before possible.” And so of course, David gets at this in“target=”_blank”>his post today about education as CONVERSATION.

Indeed, what helps my students in their learning more than anything else is the sense that they are in this with others, others who care about their well-being, their ideas, and their contributions. This is efficacy in action. A teacher who can establish an open, trusting learning collaborative, encouraging students to develop a social imagination (a la Maxine Greene) will necessarily replace the hierarchical model of education with the Socratic and emergent model, with the teacher as question asker, model and guide, and the student-seeker as fellow explorer within a community. And so in my teaching, I am constantly throwing my students into groups online and off, into considering the impact of audience and connection and reciprocity, which David gets to at the end of his post yesterday:

What is the power of the audience? What is the power of the class? How might we turn the class audience into an engine for learning? What does it look like? Is this where we need to be thinking, in order to drive a bottom-up revolution in education?

If we nurture the group as well as the individual through learning collaboratives, connecting the learning with human relationships and with the world beyond our own tiny sphere, then we’ll help our charges move into adulthood and its attendant responsibilities. That’s what education has always been about. As educators, we must consider carefully how we engage with technology in our classrooms and how we help our students become critical and creative thinkers about their world. Social software and the Web can enhance and facilitate the growth of our students into educated citizens of the world and skilled communicators or they can nurture the selfish competitive instincts of the self-absorbed individual. It takes a mindful teacher to put the collaborative up front, to get students to think about learning as a social activity, and then to let students explore emerging technologies as expressive tools and examine the resulting relationships and outcomes. This is why I’m enthusiastic about the potential of such tools as using Suprglu and 43Places, and Skypecasting–these are opportunities to connect to and to learn from the world–but I won’t actually pull them into my teaching until I have thought carefully about how and why. It is a balancing act.

Our focus as teachers has always been effective communication and thinking. Now that we have the Web and social software and multimedia tools, our students can be a part of the larger conversation right now, even as novices. In such an open, “clickable” classroom with a teacher who is eager to learn and is self-reflective alongside the students, the students will learn the pleasures of commitment and collaboration, and the learning will be profound and dynamic, and the writing–well–the writing will surprise you.