Teaching the Blog, Blogging the Teaching

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Last week’s NITLE-sponsored Social Software Users Meeting at The College of Wooster brought together educational technologists and faculty from liberal arts colleges (a 50-50 split between the roles) to talk through the successes, failures, opportunities and future of social software in the liberal arts. I came away with many ideas, seeds for collaborations, and a community of fellow educators thinking about the relationship between uses of social software and undergraduate learning.

Mulling those two days over and meeting up with the remarkable Sarah Lohnes for coffee yesterday reaffirmed my growing inclination to spend less time looking through crystal balls at what the future might have in store, and more in examining our actual classroom practices with technology–what works, what doesn’t, and why. I plan to talk here even more than I do about teaching, giving examples from my classes and pointing to theory and practice out in the world. It isn’t enough to say to people that they need to have the use of technology spring from the classroom goals–we who are doing this need to show how it’s done while keeping an eye on the big picture. At Wooster we didn’t talk all that much about the next five years, about the transformations that will certainly occur on our campuses–we talked a lot about teaching and literacies across disciplines, and how social software can contribute to our missions of preparing our students to be active, thoughtful citizens. We talked Pierre Levy and Stephen Johnson and Paolo Friere and Maxine Greene among others. Those kinds of conversations will help us to pull down artificial walls of the classroom as Web technologies provide us with ways to ground the learning in the world, to focus on collective intelligence, and to mentor learners.

The next conference/meeting (that is, after the International Digital Storytelling Conference) that I attend will, I hope, focus on teaching and learning with technology in the liberal arts–the hows and whys and what we can learn from social activists, artists and others about teaching and learning in the world. Why are people having so much trouble moving from lecture to what Sarah calls, subject-centered teaching? Instead of seeing the teacher as holder and dispenser of knowledge, or student as central maker of knowledge, why aren’t we concentrating on the conversation itself–on how Web technologies can help with the process of exploring a subject matter–its vocabulary, its parameters, its demands, and its constraints?

I realize how lucky I am when I think back to high school, to Exeter’s Harkness Table, around which we were given primary source documents, novels and problems to puzzle over together in search of the hows and whys of world events, literature and mathematics. The teacher was there to ask, not answer questions, and the best instructors were nearly invisible and yet always there, helping move us towards understanding how we engage with the discipline at hand. I think, too, of the two courses my daughter goes on and on about at Barnard CollegeReacting to the Past I and II, courses in which the students study pivotal moments of change in human history–the partition of India and Pakistan, for example–by assuming the roles of the constituent parties and conducting research into their point of view. Each unit culminates with a debate, a trial, a reenactment of sorts. My daughter (who also went to Exeter) has a firm grasp over the events studied, but more significantly, I think, about the processes. Computers had nothing to do with any of this–inspired teaching did; an understanding of learning did.

Let’s face it. Students come to the liberal arts not really wanting technology in the classroom–at least not initially, not to the degree that I shower them with. They want the convenience of it, sure, but the rest of it? Do they really want to blog to the class and beyond, putting their flawed work on display, discussing discussing discussing in public? Do they want to hear their own voices on the audio files embedded onto the blogs? Play around with Photoshop in a literature class? Create tag clouds in political science? Such exercises initially seem like add-ons or smack of high school to them–this isn’t what a liberal arts college is all about, what they had imagined even when we make the pedagogy transparent, as my colleague Mary Ellen Bertolini is committed to doing. I have a reputation as the blogging teacher around here, so students know they’re in for something different when they step into my class for the first time, but still they’re skeptical, resistant even. They have romantic notions about the liberal-arts college life conjured through the stories of their parents, the movies, their high school teachers. Blogs and wikis; skypecasting, podcasting and digital storytelling might be fine in high school, but in college? Many students think not. Many think the magic of learning means to come under the spell of a charismatic, “brilliant” teacher whose lectures entertain and inform. Even in discussion classes, the students expect the teacher to do most of the talking–and indeed, if there were a study conducted, I bet most discussions classes are really call-and-answer sessions dominated by the teacher’s questions and commentary.

This kind of classroom takes some getting used to–and teachers have to be okay with students feeling a bit off-kilter to begin with in the course (my students often liken their experience during the first couple of weeks to free-falling). But just wait until a student gets a chance to learn within a class using this technology effectively. I don’t think my students will ever look at learning or their role in their education quite the same way again.

Why am I going on and on about this? Well, I found myself at Juniata and Wooster being asked quite a bit about what it is I actually do in the classroom during class time if my students are blogging away together so much outside of class. How do I remain a part of the community if I am not reading and commenting on everything they write–if I’m off somewhere to the side? What happens when I don’t post more than a couple of weeks of a syllabus at a time when students need to plan their semester? Do I really just let the students take over everything? Is there no balance? And I was also asked about the particulars of assignments–how I actually teach with social software–the nitty gritty. I realized how little we teach our scholars, our teachers in the liberal arts about teaching and learning.

I feel lucky to have had that taste of collaborative, subject-based learning at Exeter and even more, to trained as a public high school teacher in an exceptional teacher-training program that immersed us in educational theory as well as having us teach under a master teacher for a year. These experiences have given me a solid background in pedagogy and practice, in understanding the journey of an adolescent through the high school classroom before I turned to undergraduate teaching.

And so I plan to do more talking teaching here. Pulling examples out, pointing to the experiences of such inspiring, inspired educators as Barbara Sawhill and Ted Permutter and Peter Havholm and the many others who shared their insights and experiences with technology in the liberal arts.


One Response

  1. I am honored to have been mentioned so favorably in your blog, and even more honored to be mentioned in the same posting The Upper Valley Teacher Institute that is directed by Barbara Barnes.

    Barbara Barnes is not only is one of my personal heros in academia but– brace yourself– she also introduced me to the world of high school teaching many years ago.

    But she is more than that…she is also the woman for whom I was named by my parents.

    ‘Tis a very small world made up of many quite formidable Barbaras!

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