At the UK’s First Edublogging Conference: My Talk

Here at blog.ac.uk I’ve run into many of my blogging heros–Peter Ford, Josie Fraser, Terry Freedman, Stephen Downes, Ewan McIntosh…and some fifty dedicated, creative, bold implementers of social software across the curriculum across the schooling years.

I gave a different kind of talk than I have — without visuals (no digital story!) and it’s a good thing because it was an unusually sunny morning and no one could have seen anything I put on a screen.

Finding Our Way through the Edublogging Labyrinth: Losing Hope in Order to Effect Change

When Josie first contacted me about this conference, I thought I’d give you one of my impassioned talks with a digital story playing behind me, showcasing the inspiring work my students have done with blogs, digital stories, podcasting, wikis, RSS– progressive learning pedagogy in action. But the past couple of months have propelled me into a different sort of talk today, a more challenging one, one without the snazzy visuals.

First off, as this is an unconference, I’d like you all to write for a few minutes:
I ask you to think back to your own school years—jot down a memorable learning moment from your primary, your secondary, your university school years, and the past five years. As you write, I’d like you to think about the following– Were these private moments or shared? Did they involve the teacher? Your peers? Did they take place in a classroom? Were these pleasant moments or not? Why do these moments stand out for you? What do these moments have to do with your experiences in education now? What do they have to do with you joining this edublogging community gathering here?

We’ll come back to these in a bit. First I want to shift out of our personal pasts to the shared educational present.

Victoria Carrington in an essay entitled, “New Textual Landscapes, Information and Early Literacy” writes:

“The next generation of instruction and theoretical models for early literacy education must take account of the pivotal nature of information. Each child’s role as analyst of information from multiple sources must be focal, as well as serious attention paid to ensuring that s/he is scaffolded towards effective and ethical production and dissemination of information. . .Where more traditional models of literacy prepare children for a somewhat distant future at which time they will participate in meaningful ways in the ‘real’ world, a model of literacy matching the needs of contemporary children must take as a first principle that children are already active participants and risk takers.”

(in Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood, ed. by Jackie Marsh, pp. 23-25)

We in this room surely applaud such a clear articulation of what we understand to be true. And yet, we also feel, what a couple of days ago Will Richardson of Weblogg-ed.com pointed to as the deepening divide between what students need and what schools allow.
He writes,

“We are still about control, not sharing. We are still about distribution, not aggregation. We are still about closed content rather than open. We are static, not fluid. The idea that each of our students can play a relevant, meaningful, important role in the context of these networks is still so foreign to the people who run schools.”

Up until a few months ago, I had hope that people would come around to see how it was not only possible and desirable but absolutely necessary to dismantle our factory-model of education as soon as possible. The assembly-line system of marching out knowledge in tidy boxes to be delivered at defined times in specified places produced generations of docile factory-workers and obedient, avid consumers. But our children, in spite of what they’re told and the obstacles placed in their path, have moved out of the boxes and into a fluid world where what’s evolving online is as vital as anything off. In a recent interview, researcher danah boyd said,

“MySpace is a cultural requirement for American high school students. Or as one teenager said, “If you’re not on MySpace, you don’t exist.”

Or as Henry Jenkins points out in the same interview,

“In some cases, teens and adults have developed different notions of privacy: young people feel more comfortable sharing aspects of their lives (for example, their sexual identities) that previous generation would have kept secret.”

As James Duderstadt explains:

“They expect—indeed demand—interaction, approaching learning as a ‘plug-and-play’ experience; they are unaccustomed and unwilling to learn sequentially—to read the manual—and instead are inclined to plunge in and learn through participation and experimentation…In a very real sense, they build their own learning environments that enable interactive, collaborative learning, whether we recognize or accommodate this or not.” (2003, 43)

Five years ago, as I first looked at the wonders of Peter Ford’s early work with blogs in primary schools and pulled my first classroom blog up, I was heartened by the thought that we had a chance to put into practice much of what John Dewey had advocated a century ago, and more recently Maxine Greene, Janet Murray, George Landow, and Jay Bolter and others. At last we teachers could approach learning as a social act involving the imagination and distributed intelligence as much as the individual intellect, the single-strand transaction between teacher and student. Artist and theorist Roy Ascott writes about how “the networks of cyberspace [underpin] our desire to amplify human cooperation and interaction in the constructive process.” Anthropologist Pierre Levy explains how knowledge spaces are now “based on reciprocal apprenticeship, shared skills, imagination, and collective intelligence.” Researcher Yagelski contends that technology and writing lead to “a connected and interdependent sense of self that undermines separateness, hierarchy, and anthropocentrism.” Student-centered, integrated, authentic learning would be the norm. For several years, I was sure that people would soon come to their senses. It was so obvious.

I was hopeful because I knew firsthand the transformative power of social software in the hands of students. I have watched my students find themselves as community-minded learners, students who heretofore had been self-absorbed performers, having understood all too well that really what schools asked from them was to perform well on tests, according to carefully detailed instructions—in fact, the students at Middlebury College are among the best in the United States at acing exams across the curriculum.

Before blogs, I was nearly at wit’s end with them and myself—their work was fine, more than fine, but it was predictable, safe, and dull—it would not prepare them for a rapidly changing world. And yet I knew that outside the classroom they were experimenting with multimedia, new dynamic languages of discourse on the computer, connecting connecting connecting. And yet they didn’t even know each other’s names in many of their classes. I thus turned to blogs for two reasons: to inject some of that excitement into the classroom, and to bring the wide world to these bright students, and to bring them to the world—I wanted them to connect to more than themselves, their families and friends and to examine critically their use of the Internet as a means of research, of creation and of communication. Even that first bumpy, stressful semester of blogging in the fall of 2001 (our school year opened on September 11) these students started taking charge of their own educations, bonding in a vibrant learning collective which led to efficacy-in-action and a heightened sense of perspective on what it means to be a responsible citizen. They conversed in cyberspace with experts in the field, received responses to their essays-in-progress, discussed and reflected on the ideas raised in class whenever it suited them. They watched their thinking, reading, reasoning, writing, and research skills develop. They were being taken seriously. They became learners.

Five years of blogging with my students, and the emergent practices of digital storytelling and podcasting have led to consistently exciting learning outcomes in the most traditional of academic environments. No one in the administration can complain about the accomplishments of my students. Things I measured: classroom dynamics, intensity and boldness of student engagement; things the school measured: level of student accomplishment all improved—grades went up due not to grade inflation but to significantly better work—according to rigorous and traditional rubrics. Even those students who didn’t like to blog, and didn’t do it particularly well found themselves pulled along by the group, absorbing the learning. Indeed, my students are winning college-wide research and writing awards for this new multimedia hypertext work; their blog posts have been published in magazines online and off; they have gone on to do exemplary independent blogging work for credit and not, engaging in community action, travel and creative expression. And I have left the teaching stage for the learning circle, blogging away about my own learning alongside my students. We have all been profoundly changed by this experience.

And because I’m not a digital native or even a techie for that matter, I thought my embrace of these technologies meant surely that many other teachers would be adopting blogs with similar success. And indeed many, such as yourselves, have. I thought I really had my head around this work. Innovative and caring teachers and students would use the connectivity and transparency of social software to pull the walls down between learners, classes, departments, disciplines, spaces and places. Positive change would come—it would have to come, all in good time. I had patience. I had hope.

But now things feel more urgent suddenly, as though we’ve reached a crossroads. Much is in flux. Much is under threat. My students have changed, for one thing,—these young ones are now true digital natives and what that means has collided with our present model of education, exploding into an alarming reality. Even when we try to keep up, we cannot, as Bill Sharpe has observed in “The Ambient Web”. He says,

“…just as education is beginning to reach the second-wave goal of providing a 1:1 PC–pupil ratio, this paradigm shift is rendering the PC out of date. Increasingly what is offered in the classroom bears little resemblance to the flexible, mobile and to a certain extent more ‘friendly’ technologies afforded by the digital lifestyle outside the school gates (Leadbeater, 2005).”

Some teachers, overwhelmed by the options and pressured by their institutions to produce immediate results in their classrooms measurable according to old systems, are turning away from social software out of misunderstanding, out of discouragement or out of fear. What is worse, I think, is then some use blogs, but to do old things—recreating an online version of everything already wrong with our educational systems—limiting online work to plugging rote learning, dispensing information, collecting assignments, maintaining control and power within the classroom, even when the students aren’t in class. This is scary stuff. Poor uses of technology are much worse than no use at all—students complain about too much time doing stupid stuff on computers, going through the motions. Our teachers even when eager and well-meaning are often ill-equipped to bring social software into the learning dynamic. This is an example of what Lawrence Tomei calls the “technology façade” which masks inertia or docile consumerism, a willingness to remain shackled to systems promoting inequality while pretending to move in new directions.

When you bring blogs into your courses—at least the way I am talking about—you have to move in new directions. There’s no choice but to embrace a connected, collaborative learning model, one that puts the students and the subject matter in direct contact with one another within a real-world context. We blogging teachers give up a whole lot of control. Authority shifts from the teacher in the center to the entire group in a noded network. You cannot always predict outcomes—what kids will write on the blogs, what they will learn, how the chemistry of the learning group and the interaction with the outside world will contribute to the experience. How terrifying, how risky—how like life.

We are facing a reactionary wave while we spiral towards a digital divide between generations, between cultures and nations, between haves and have-nots across the planet. The trouble isn’t that kids are surfing the Web; it’s that we don’t talk about the Web well. We don’t help kids become skilled, conscious, ethical users, creators and communicators on the Web. And then bad things can (if rarely) happen—take yesterday’s front-page headlines in the International Herald Tribune: “Mob Rule on China’s Internet: The keyboard as weapon.” Panicky, we get hung up on the sensational reports of predators, spammers, pornographic websites, shoot ‘em up games. We talk about kids being too plugged-in, that they’d rather take a walk in nature online than for real. We read the reports of increased cheating with mobile devices and Internet access—we are trying desperately to save our kids from something—but from what? Do they want to be saved?

Hmmm…it sounds a bit like what I wrote about for my primary-school memory. My English year. The school year 1968-9 I was 11, turning 12. I attended The Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, England that year while my father was a visiting fellow at Cambridge University. In school I took twice the number of subjects I had in the States: 13, ranging from religion to physics to geography to needlework. I was fascinated by the ancient, lidded desks lined in perfect rows in dim room after room; the long corridors with floors that creaked underfoot, the perfect uniforms; to an American girl, the place reeked of history and tradition. I learned all about the importance of neatness, of rules, of silence. I learned to detest Brussels sprouts and treacle pudding, prefects and snotty girls. I was terrified, bored, mystified and apparently learned so much that when I returned to the U.S., my school promptly accelerated me an extra year. And I did learn a tremendous amount. But not in the classrooms what the teachers hoped I would—it was out in the cloakroom where Belinda jarred me out of my American complacency by calling me a dirty Yank, and to go home. It was on the streets where teens were slinking around in psychedelic clothing. It was on television—where we saw the horrors of Vietnam, Russia invading Czechoslovakia, the student riots, American inner cities erupting. In our school with its shady courtyard reserved for games of rounders, it was as though none of this at all was happening. We copied from our roughs books into our copy books while the jagged glass high up on the surrounding walls kept all that out. In those days, you pretty much could. And we accepted that things were different in the two worlds, inside and outside of school. The two had nothing to do with one another.

We’re still trying to make it work like that. And the result, I think, of this insistence of keeping school apart from the world, is damaging that students are not, as Will Richardson pointed out, learning critical network literacy; they’re using technology lazily, impulsively rather than mindfully—a quick means to entertainment and communication and social spaces and identity formation—often with little skill, perspective and grounding. Recent research points to the skill level of those you know as predicting your ability to use the internet effectively to conduct research. (Hargitta p.270 in Howard and Jones) Kids are depending on one another, in other words, not upon anything going on in school to learn about the Internet. Research on the ability of people to cope in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina shows that those who had access to email and to people to contact online—and therefore access to information about resources and help fared much better than those who did not. Knowing how to use the Internet effectively played a role in coping with this tragedy.

There’s another significant reason why we cannot keep the two worlds separate: the digital natives cannot keep their digital selves out of the classroom. No stone walls and jagged glass, no uniforms can keep the world out—rumbling beneath my students’ now-cracking academic façade is another person altogether, a person who demands constant access to whoever he wants access to, and time and space are increasingly irrelevant. Studies show that kids make social plans fluidly, up to the last minute, touching bases by cellphone, sometimes never actually meeting up but staying in close contact. At my institution, a recent study concluded that students and parents are in touch by cellphone an average of 30 times per week—when I was in university, some three hours from my home, I called my parents once a week (if they were lucky). Now they text and call on the path between classes; they fire up a few messages as the professor gets going with the day’s lecture. And even when we think we are using communications technology in ways that work with this generation—leaving them phonemail messages, sending email, we find out that they do not check their email accounts; they do not use ordinary telephones. These are means of communication to use with older generations and figures of power as Lankshear and Knobel, and Thorne have pointed out in discussing these tensions between learning pedagogy and cultural practices and values integral to young people’s identities.

And when they do communicate with us on email, we get upset by the lack of appropriate etiquette, of respect and distance, students opening emails with “Hey, Barb—“ The email flap reached U.S. national press this year with professors across the country decrying the manners of this generation. Of course this response is preposterous. First off, it reminds me of fathers ineffectually demanding that our brothers cut their waist-length hair back in the late sixties. One generation giving way to the next. We are in the midst of absolutely new, convulsive change and the use of communications technologies affects the very fabric of what we do in the classroom and yet we wear garlic about our necks, and try to bolt the doors. As Henry Jenkins puts it,

“ Our responsibilities as educators should be to bring reason to bear on situations which are wrought with ignorance and fear, not to hide our eyes from troubling aspects of teen culture.”

But of course it is more troubling than a simple generation gap. A veritable avalanche of recent articles and blogposts has left me reeling: stories from edubloggers about the rift between what they know is possible and necessary for their students’ learning experiences and the system’s and parents’ resistance to change; stories of schools banning blogs and MySpace outright and monitoring all in-school internet use without consulting teachers and students; posts of experienced edubloggers backing off a bit, contending we need more evidence of which application best suits what educational goal; articles detailing fear that access to mobile devices and the Internet leads to appalling plagiarism and a lack of respect for intellectual property. Stirrings from governments and corporations of legislation and regulation looming, ownership of the Internet just around the corner. Fearmongering. More divisions, hierarchies, inequities– when positive change is within reach—or so I thought. A rising mess.

I have felt myself losing hope these past months that we can effect essential change in education. I have wanted to burrow down into my own practice with blogs and shut out the cacaphony. I have faltered even in my own blogging practice during the past month for fear of having nothing positive to say.

And then, a couple of days ago, the latest issue of the provocative American environmental magazine, Orion, helped me see a way out of this mess.

Writing about the state of the environment and environmentalism, Derrick Jensen writes in the lead article, “Beyond Hope” :

“Frankly, I don’t have much hope. But I think that’s a good thing. Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth. To start, there is the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Or technology will save us. Or the Great Mother…All these false hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and blind us to real possibilities… When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to ‘hope’ at all. We simply do the work.”

He’s right, of course. I have to stop hoping that anything can change; instead I must go about getting the work done. Inside. Where it counts. We edubloggers have to get our acts together, as you are doing here by gathering at this conference, forming communities amongst ourselves to lay out the direction. We’ve got to get the word out, show models, examples, proof—that means everyone of us needs to blog, to participate in such groups as teachersteachingteachers.org communicating about what we are doing in our classrooms and why—when things work and when they don’t; we must pull our colleagues aside and talk about the complex of new literacies and how they intersect with the old, about connected learning ecologies, about creating bridges and bonds within and between our communities. We must listen as much as we talk. We must reach out to one another. We must risk failure.
Every one of us in this room is deeply involved in the unfolding future of this next generation, and as James Martin of Oxford’s Twenty-first Century Institute has observed, it will be up to this transition generation to save this world or to lose it entirely. (Talk at Middlebury College)

Let’s face it. It’s hopeless for us to think we can change a behemoth like our educational system—it reflects, after all, the fine fix we find ourselves in, and because it very elegantly keeps those with power in power. And so what we do for the time being will continue to be tense, strained even—except with our students in the classroom and on the blogs. They can practice for citizenship at the very least in a learning culture that fosters empathy on the part of the powerful and privileged, and a voice and a say as well as important skills and connections for those clumped into the faceless middle or the marginalized reaches. As M. Scott Peck tells us, “It is our task–our essential, central, crucial task– to transform ourselves from mere social creatures into community creatures. It is the only way that human evolution will be able to proceed.” (The Different Drum) We can take a page from civil rights and women’s rights movements.

No, hope’s got nothing to do with it. And no, technology will not save us. Only we can do that. And to that end, I want offer some practical recommendations for anyone thinking about using class blogs:

First, it is essential to think about how blogging can amplify and strengthen the learning experience, to structure it in such a way that it is resilient to the disasters that can befall it; that it is of flexible and strong fabric that can receive the imprint of the group.
Because learning is both a social and solitary activity, it is important to have both collaborative and personal blogging spaces.

The MotherblogPicture 1.png
I set up what I call a Motherblog which serves as an aggregator (collecting and connecting the individual blogs of students, tutors and teacher, as well as resources from the outside world including the archived blogs from previous semesters) and as a place to converse informally about things related to our experience in the course. Although I still teach in a departmentalized, semesterized system, the archiving subverts the notion of isolated learning segments by carrying the blog’s accumulated wisdom from group to group, informing the new students’ experience by adding context, models, and inspiration.

In Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, he writes that
“communities instigate and restrain the things that can be said” (56) We can use the transparency and connectedness of the Motherblog to show just how and why that works. By participating in a larger online world, our students can work along the borders of communities of practices where Etienne Wenger contends often the most interesting work gets done.

As one of my students recently reflected on her blog:

“I love the mother blog. I love having a space to swap ideas – to suggest summer reads, to rant or rave about personal universe decks. If individual blogs are a bit impersonal, the mother blog builds community. Adding my line to the list poem, I felt like part of something larger. And I love being linked to a range of works – writing by English 170 alums, students at other schools. These stories, essays, and poems are just as inspiring as anything in our handouts, anthologies.”

They become active observers of themselves not within a vacuum but within the close bonds of our learning community and as they make bridges to the world (linking to local and global communities through comments, discussion with invited experts, with collaborations with other schools).

Individual BlogsPicture 2.png

The use of individual student blogs linked from the Motherblog invites an examination into the blurring of public and private spaces, of transparency in research and writing. Learning to connect to and communicate online with individuals and groups effectively is essential, yes, but so is the opportunity for quiet messing around with one’s own ideas in one’s own space, connecting back to old work, reflecting upon the journey, making the learning personally relevant. On our individual blogs we can see the voices, the levels of diction, the depth of research as it emerges; we can note the germination and development of ideas, the informal thinking and the formal arguments—we can gain skills by seeing our own linked processes, and by looking at the processes of our fellow bloggers. Students engage the opinions of others in blog conversation and observe its evolution through a reflective blogging practice—two different sorts of blogging.

Teacher Input
To resist the notion of the teacher as authority and therefore the only voice that matters, I do not respond very much at all to their blogposts. They are responsible for one another. I read what they write and respond in one-on-one conferences, in conversation with them. I keep carefully to the side of the blog with announcements and with a link to my own blog, where they can read what I write about the learning experience from my perspective as teacher. And some of them come on my blog and leave comments, taking me on, even.

Visual Medium Exercises
I emphasize visual literacy through critical and creative assignments, some using only visuals—stories without words; and assignments balancing visuals with audio and linking–hypertext assignments and digital stories.

Auditory Medium Exercises
I also take advantage of the audio capabilities of the blog, working in assignments incorporating their speaking voice, reading and talking, so that they can hear the impact of voice on the written word, and take responsibility for their arguments.

Knowledge Trees
But the first thing we do in my courses is set up Pierre Levy’s knowledge trees: personal narratives which grounds students in the learning situation by asking them to write about their own perspective as based in time, place, family, culture as they relate to this course; they have to write about what they bring to the learning table in terms of skill and interest, and what they hope to apprentice to the group in—what they want to learn. From the get-go, they are to see themselves as individuals with a particular point of view within an evolving group experience. We focus on connected and collaborative techniques of learning—we talk about why we need various modes of communication discourse, and then we talk about how blogs will help us do that.

And that’s what I asked you to do, in part, at the beginning of this talk, to create the roots of your own knowledge tree, your own sense of connection between where you have come from as an individual and what you will contribute to this group. Let’s now open the discussion to you, to how you see this community serving you and vice versa. That can take the form of questions, of conversation. And I hope someone will blog this, so we can build from here.

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One Response

  1. Hi Barbara, thanks for your great presentation last night – it is great to hear and (via videoconference) see you after reading this blog for a while now. I have commented here in the past and so I was pretty confident about my comment on teachers being bloggers first being received positively. So thanks also for dropping a comment in on my blog. I take your point that you didn’t blog for yourself before introducing it to your students and James was the same but I would suggest that as you guys were pioneering the potential of blogs, then “doing as I say” might be an OK position to take. I think that the other reason I think that teachers should blog before getting into it with their students (and there doesn’t have to be a big time difference between the two) is that by tapping into the collective wisdom of so many other great bloggers out there in the education sphere exposes teachers to so many other viewpoints, ideas and experiences that you just can’t get within your own worksite. I would hate for blogs to be misused within schools (although they are subversive tools and can be used however the creator wants) and become only online diaries or online exercise books without the connection or reflection power being harnessed. I’m probably rambling and not making much sense but I suppose I’m trying to mentally justify why I value blogging for myself but am hesitant to start an indiviual student blogging program at my school (primary aged kids) – I would want to get it right but maybe I’m still a bit scared of the “glorious failures”! Thanks again, Barbara, like all good speakers, you raise more questions than answers and that is a good thing. Next time you are down under, I’ll try to get to the venue/conference/workshop/seminar and see you f2f. Cheers!

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