Heading Home from ELI–Lessons and Leanings

atlanta from the hotel

This is what usually happens when I head home from a conference–a bundle of perhaps disconnected thoughts needing sorting out..so be forewarned that this is one of my slow-blogging kinds of posts.

Highlights of the conference included meeting Gardner Campbell again (and seeing his colleagues’ adventures with Web 2.0 tools in a new program of first-year seminars), catching up with Steve Warburton, Lanny Arvan, Leslie Madsen Brooks, Cyprien Lomas/a>; and meeting Bitch Ph.D. and Scrivener when we took a field trip to Emory to hear The B talk (which Leslie blogged and I captured on my camera). The star autographs the poster

Of course there was also the delightfully provocative and right-on-the-mark talk by Bryan Alexander, the excellent keynote by Chris Dede and a great intro to ambient mobile video as learning tool. But the best part was watching Barbara and our two student co-presenters deliver their powerful stories (In a few days I will post our talk). Lizi Rocks

For all the talk during the conference about the Net Gen’rs, who they are and what they need and want, and how the work world demands a new system of education, I heard little about how to help students apply critical approaches to their use of technology, or about how to set up effective learning communities that really help students engage in real-world-based learning without the professor looming front and center. I heard a lot of excitement around social software and Second Life and all kinds of tools, lots of ideas for how one might use them in the classroom, lots of reasons for WHY we need to use these tools and how to think about goals and objectives for the learning, but I really heard nothing about the absolutely critical piece in the puzzle–setting up the environment for learning –and I don’t mean physical space, I mean the contact zones, the places to engage in the cycles of disruption and repair of learning, the uneasy space of failure–effective, messy ways of working towards real collective intelligence, the ways in which the learning network will engage across class, culture and circumstance, how the syllabus itself and evaluation rubrics must come out of those first conversations.

Okay, this means that I’m still on the fringes. I get it. Someone called me the grandmother of classroom blogging (sheesh, and I’m not even yet 50), someone else likened me to the teacher to the rest, but I don’t feel much like either. I still stumble along in my practice, searching for how to make the learning experience in my classrooms really account for something worthwhile, scaleable, and lasting–something real. So, I come away from the conference with no answers at all, but once again due to some excellent conversations between and around the sessions, I am re-invigorated, re-radicalized and ready to write what I hope are a couple of good keynotes for European conferences this spring.

Although we had a small audience (interesting in itself that we were overlooked by so many when our students really contributed significantly to the greater conversation about 21st century learning…) , people were engaged and asked excellent questions at the end. One question, in particular, dogged me through the rest of the conference. And wouldn’t you know, it would be Lanny who asked the question (he has pushed me on blog and off to clarify, deepen and explain my thinking and pedagogy more than almost anyone over the past year or so). A concluding observation I made was that most students weren’t yet, at least in my experience, bringing the kind of deep, connected, reflective practice they experienced in the blogging classroom out with them beyond the class at semester’s end. Lizi had explained that she was no longer blogging, that there didn’t seem to be anything to blog about during her senior year in the way I had asked her to do in my class or she had discovered on her own in Siberia. In the Q & A and in a follow up email Lanny voiced his concern that students didn’t find their ordinary lives worthy of this kind of reflection.

He’s put his finger on something that has been bothering me, too, something I didn’t hear other speakers touch upon–that we are not yet really having a lasting impact on the relationship our students have with their learning, bridging formal and informal learning, taking the classroom out of the box and letting it stretch and find its new shape in the world. We aren’t paying enough attention to the participatory gap–to who really gets to talk in the classroom, who really feels ownership of an ongoing blogging experience and why. This is not new territory to be sure, but it is essential territory. Yeah, sure, all of my students take to this active engagement in certain kinds of classroom situations and do quite extraordinary things when given a good deal of responsibility for the course design, implementation and evaluation (alongside their prof who makes sure the opening weeks are devoted to questions of learning communities and what we need to learn in this discipline and why). But even so, they return with remarkable ease to the read-lecture-test scenario, snapping right back into their old student-as-recipient-of-knowledge-and-grades personae.

Sure, former students bemoan the fact that one of the only classes that really asked them to drive their own learning or created a lasting bond between learners as well as a sense of confidence and efficacy was this Motherblog-centered course. They belly-ache about lecture classes, about turgid textbooks, about professors who do all the talking in discussions. But they do so quietly or with their friends on their social network spaces. They’re resigned to the realities of our classrooms, and pretty darn docile about it. After all, it takes a lot of energy, commitment and passion to learn the way I’m asking my students to learn. Very few of them take the reins of their learning squarely in their own hands by finding ways to make it real, to make it their own on their own. And that’s not their fault. It is ours.

The students who do move the blogging out into their lives want to do independent studies (with credit) rather than using reflection-connection-observation as a way to connect to others with similar intellectual and artistic interests and to deepen their learning outside of a graded or a study-abroad experience. In other words, are students still just going through the motions of whatever a teacher puts on their plate whether it be lecture-test or blog-create? Are we blogging teachers really rather altogether too smug and self-congratulatory about our results?

I want to start exploring the reasons for this elastic-band behavior (students will return to the “old” ways once out of our “new” classrooms) and ways I can help students to keep pulling down the silos. Here’s my first take on why my students, once out of the classroom, continue to shoebox their classroom experiences –even those that are transparent, connected, out in the world blogging experiences, why they accept plodding through the traditional academic paper and test and report and project in the classroom in a never-the-twain-shall-meet kind of spirit after they have had a taste of something else.

The first and obvious reason is that thinking deeply about the connections between their courses, between their courses and the world and their own lives seems unnatural to them. Why should they do this? Why would they do this? We’ve only ever shown an interest as teachers in what we design and assign to them–that is the world in which we co-exist with our students. Do we ask our students about their other courses? Do we invite them to bring that learning and their learning from the world into our classes? Rarely. Few teachers seem to foreground active, connected, transparent reflection and written conversation across communities as valuable; when everything in a course is designed and assigned for them, of course that is how students view formal learning–of course that is how they view even this kind of wild experience of the open-walled blogging classroom: something to do as long as someone else is telling them it is what they should/need to be doing. The inner motivation isn’t there. They don’t really get it. They have only done classroom work for the grade. What I am asking here is too risky. They are vulnerable because they are building resumes, traditional accomplishment-based resumes.

Blogging the abroad experience makes sense as it is a “Letters Home” thing: the blog broadcasts their experience to friends and family while serving to expand their own thinking and understanding of their experience. It archives the experience and who they were going through it for themselves and whoever wishes to read it. The more personal pieces are reserved, as makes sense, for their social networking spaces. This kind of blogging feels serious, weighty, and needs something driving it that is BIG, INTERESTING, SCHOLARLY i.e. studying abroad.

But when they come home, slow-blogging outside the classroom feels unnatural to them, especially blogging-about-learning when they are doing it in a vacuum (no instant, motivated community)–apart from the one blogging course and the abroad blogging, they have no experience with this kind of writing or community-building, no place to root it in their lives just yet. It feels risky, too, for other reasons. Who will read it down the road and think poorly of them for their thoughts? They’ve been groomed to be correct, to be the best, to be “on.” I am very concerned by this need to occupy performative space, this disturbing trend of future employers being interested in what a college student wrote about the experience of learning (not to be misunderstood for the kinds of dangerous and/or harmful publishing to the Web that some young people insist on doing). It’s absurd. We are losing the ability to learn for the pleasure of it, for the wonder of it.

Also, my students know what it takes to do deep blogging well, or slow-blogging as I like to call it, and in school they just don’t have time for those kinds of extras. (I certainly know how it feels to be overwhelmed with work–trying to find a clear place in my head to think about my teaching and learning is tough during the semester, but it has been invaluable to my teaching, it is a part of my teaching.)

It also has something to do with blogging outside a community–they can’t imagine anyone wanting to read about or respond to what they think about their studies, and they don’t want to blog to themselves alone.

Teachers like us are working right now in ways that are really making no difference in a sense–students been so encultured, the lessons so engrained about doing what they’re told, that not only are they uneasy when enter our fluid classes, they often snap right back into the old mold when they depart…they only bring in their lives outside the classroom when we ask them to… and yet their lives leak into the classroom at every turn. This continued dichotomy between what can happen in such a classroom and what happens beyond and after is something I want to discuss with my students from the past six years as I start to plan new courses for next year. I need their help to make the classroom more relevant and worthwhile than before–much to learn.

And so as I head home to snowy, frigid Vermont, I’ve got much to keep me warmly engaged, and that means it was a useful conference.
Lake Champalin from the sky

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