ELI 2007 Presentation: The World Is Flat: Using Blogs and Skype to Create Communities of Learners and Cultural Literacy

Here is the text/slide/podcast version of our January 22 talk. ( I’ll also post my recent Tufts talk within the next few days.)

Update (Saturday the 10th): The blog is back up and running with commenting reinstated!

To View Larger Versions of the Slides, click on them–you’ll be sent to their home at Flickr.com.

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Welcome. We’re delighted to share our experiences at two small liberal arts colleges with blogs and Skype in writing, literature and language classrooms. I’m pleased to introduce you to these two remarkable students whose work exemplifies the very best of liberal education in the 21st century within quite traditional institutions. I’m Barbara Ganley, a lecturer in the Writing Program and English Department at Middlebury College, and since the fall of 2001 I have been using blogs and more recently digital storytelling, multimedia essays, podcasting, wikis etc, in my classes. But I’m not a techie. I still don’t know how to use the remote correctly at my house.

But I’ve had to get over myself. My fears. (My loathing.) The shifts occurring so dramatically in the world outside our institutions and the changes in the realities of our students’ lives — what Julie Evans earlier today pointed to as student attitudes and use of technology– pulled me from the complacent slumber of a Rip Van Winkle in a 19th-century classroom (something even Time Magazine gets, pointing to school as the only place a time traveler from a hundred years ago would find virtually unchanged).


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I was sensing what Ken Robinson tell us: “Graduates can’t communicate well, they can’t work in teams, and they can’t think creatively.” And these are among the the most essential skills the work world requires of them, especially now when, as Barry Wellman states, “work, community and domesticity have moved from hierarchically arranged, densely knit, bounded groups to social networks” (in Little Boxes, Glocalization, and Networked Individualism). And yet, inside our institutions of higher learning we cling to romantic traditions of teaching and learning that never necessarily served the greater good. Our students enter our institutions expecting us to be fonts of wisdom at the front as they absorb (by osmosis) what they need for the test, all while they text their friends, or zone out from the back of the room. In Situated Language and Learning, James Gee argues that learning is going on in affinity spaces, in informal learning cultures without us–both for the good and the bad. Meanwhile we continue to teach the same material in the same way, in a one-to-many broadcast model as though we are the last bastions of saneness, of critical thinking and scholarship. But of course in spite of knowing from the likes of Dewey and Greene and Vygotsky and Bahktin about learning as a social activity, we’ve too often let that translate as putting many students together in a classrooms, staring at the professor or engaged in group projects with little instruction on how to work together or why.

But even if we do try to engage our students in reciprocal apprenticeships, we don’t necessarily take into account Henry Jenkins’ observation that, “the social production of meaning is more than individual interpretation multiplied; it represents a qualitative difference in the ways we make sense of cultural experience and in that sense, it represents a profound change in how we understand literacy” (In Convergence Culture and excerpted on Jenkins’ blog). We have to think about the relationship between needed time and solitude for cogitation, and effective encounters with others as part of the learning dynamic. And that means that we must abandon our

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“little boxes view” of communities, which Barry Wellman describes as “connoting people socially and cognitively encapsulated by homogenous, broadly-based groups.” (Little Boxes, Glocalization, and Networked Individualism)

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We know that a student’s world is much more fluid, messier, and highly networked.

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Learning from the dynamic systems theorists (as found in Dawn Skorczewski), we think about our classrooms in terms of the notion of failure, of experimentation (of what Henry Jenkins calls play)–we pull back our hands from the controls of the learning dynamic, moving away from lecture and discussion to conversation and collaboration, to creation and communication.
We’ve learned to be okay with the fact that disruption is essential to learning, that “glorious failres” are not only welcome but necessary for deep, sustained learning to take place.

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We take into consideration Vera John-Steiner’s contention that “Each participant’s individual capacities are deepened at the same time that participants discover the benefits of reciprocity.” ( in Creative Collaborations) We then turn to ways of learning, of communicating, of being that are real for our students, and necessary for active, ethical participation in society. Our students become active producers and co-learners.

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And so we turn away, really turn away from the teacher-centric model to

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to one of Pierre Levy’s dynamically networked knowledge spaces where we’re all apprentices and experts. Students no longer learn from the teacher alone they learn from one another as they teach each other and as the teacher helps them to contextualize, question, and evaluate

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As soon as the students take prominent, shared roles, they must necessarily bring their own worlds to the classroom and push the classroom out into the world. As Pippa Norris explains, we experience bonding within our classroom community and bridging to the outside (pdf: “The bridging or bonding role of online communities” 2002). We look for vehicles that foster the development of new literacies leading to skilled, ethical, open interaction in these networked affinity spaces while continuing to develop the old print literacies of critical reading and writing.

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Which brings us to blogs. Opening up my sense of class meeting time to include the informal moments of connection and reflection possible outside of class, and my sense of who is doing the teaching brought me to blogs. Their transparency and connectivity, their suitability as ongoing narrative and dialogue carriers make them an ideal tool for the college classroom. By making the course locus the Motherblog, off of which everything we do is linked, helps us to bond to the course and its subject matter through archives and syllabus; to our group through evolving conversation about ourselves and our subject matter; and to ourselves as individuals through the keeping of individual blogs. Old literacies are protected because the blog’s public nature and its focused purpose demands excellence in reading, thinking and writing. Blogging, by allowing students to read each other’s work, by giving me models to throw their way, develops skilled reflection on the discipline, the learning and the self (for you as well as your students), putting into practice E. M. Forster’s contention, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

Hypertext writing linking and looping back seamlessly to past drafts and learning experiences while reaching forward and outward with the thinking and imagination deepens the learning, makes it exciting and relevant. Students feel the cycles of disruption and repair, moving to what is unfamiliar together, sometimes in opposition, into Mary Louise Pratt’s contact zones, learning to argue forcefully and respectfully. As Stuart Selber contends, “Communities instigate and constrain the things that can be said.” The asynchronous, online feedback loops create a sense of responsibility and respect–they are indeed Levy’s experts and apprentices to one another.

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Students learn to negotiate with one another, and in so doing bond with fellow students they otherwise would never have known. Students come to class delighted to be there, fully engaged, eager to extend the conversation in person. At the end of the hour, they are reluctant to leave.

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Contacts with the outside world–accidental and intentional–serve to expand our range of audience, of peers, of experts to learn from and to teach. As guide I point them to sites of interest to us, and sometimes other bloggers find us, or the writers we are studying–students point us to sites, and our learningscape grows.

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Then the semester ends. And that’s the hard part. But those who move into equally intense experiences–namely, in our case, studying abroad–often take a blog with them as a tether to home and to school in feedback loops that mix informal and formal learning in ways that feel real to a generation that connects instantly to one another with voice, text and game environments. They experiment more with image and sound, with multimodal means of expression than before… but you don’t want to hear me talk about this–here’s one of those students who did just that: Lizi Geballe.

PART TWO: Elizabeth Geballe

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I began blogging sophomore year in Professor Barbara Ganley’s creative writing class at Middlebury. I’d heard about blogs from my friends: the forced posting, the commenting, the occasional technological catastrophes. As a freshman, I took a class which required similar internet postings and comments on one main blog, both of which neither furthered discussions nor enhanced collaboration. In short, the logistics of keeping a blog left me wary, and technology was simply busy-work.

Blogs were, however, barely mentioned in class. They were used nights and in-between times, within our workshop groups, to post, comment, re-post, and reflect. They lost their officiality…especially since Barbara left us to our own devices, not intimidating us out of our own discussions. When, at the end of each section of the class, we would turn in our final work, it would not only be our project pieces, but also comments we’d written to our classmates and postings we’d made in the ongoing discussion of our mother-blog. The result being, we saw our own compiled work, but also the product of our working with others, an assessment of our collaboration.

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I surprised myself when I readily agreed to participate in the first year of Blogging the World.
I figured that blogging Siberia for a year might be my one chance not only to connect with other students abroad, but also stay connected to my own thoughts, and in my own language. In my Blogging statement of purpose, which introduces my blog, I wrote:
“There is some mystery about abroad, as a concept. And, like any obsessive journal keeper, I’ve found that a blog is one more way to RECORD. It enhances that philosophic pride that comes when you identify a change as it’s happening. Then you can scroll down to an entry, point to it, and say, “Ah ha! That’s the day I became (insert positive attribute here).”
No, of course it won’t be simple and it won’t be philosophy and I will be changing. But I’ll be without a home, language, or familiar culture… and I’m thinking of this blog as a place to put myself in order.”
And it was. I shouldn’t have been surprised at how eager I was to blog from Russia: I’d been given the freedom, even in class, to use the blog for myself. I didn’t do anything fancy (other than proudly design my background) and I made it my own despite my technological fears (from time to time I’d send my pictures to Barbara for her to post them for me, either because I’d forgotten how to do it myself, or because I was too scared to ask the Russians at the internet café to download my pictures!)

I began the blog almost as a journal, but quickly realized that wasn’t quite the direction I cared to take. (The realization came when my family started posting descriptions of the weather at home and their daily meals, which didn’t further the discussions I’d hoped to start.) I learned that the combination of objective descriptions with personal reflections left me with an outlet of expressions and my readers with room to respond. That combination, of experience and reflection, seems itself to be the point of studying abroad. I quickly abandoned writing in my journal, for everything became a blog entry. I wanted my blog to be as sincere as a diary, but as informative as a publication. It was touching and almost unreal when I returned back to Middlebury to have Barbara tell me that University of Texas students who were planning to go abroad to Russia had been assigned my blog as reading. The blog gave me an authority for the impressions that might otherwise have faded into memories of the year.

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I could only post on my blog in the internet café, which was a good forty minute bus ride from where I lived. I would, therefore, write my entries on paper, and a week or two later post them online. The process was beneficial, in that my thoughts could marinate. However, by the time I would type my posts, many of my opinions and/or reactions had changed dramatically.

morningTypically, I would have to add a few introductory sentences, justifying my anger in the paragraphs that followed. In this way, the blog allowed for the combination of both spontaneous and reflective writing.

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In Barbara’s writing class, the blog was a space that I learned to appreciate, but not yet a form that I valued. Only from Russia did I see the potential for conversations that would not have happened by phone, email, or even in person. One of the students who most frequently responded to my posts was a good, but not close, friend from creative writing. My first semester in Russia, she spent on a Native American reservation teaching. The blog was the one and only medium by which we felt comfortable communicating.

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I’ll be asked, and have been asked, whether I have continued my Cyberia blog, or started a new one. It is tempting, but only until I remember that now, back home, I have very little to say. I associate my Russia blog, and my creative writing blog too, with discovery. I can’t force myself to write and, at Middlebury, I don’t live with wide eyes; I don’t react to people or events in the same way, and I’ll only blog when the life I’m reacting to seems worth sharing again, and that may be, from now on, only during travel.

I never worked to make my content fit my blog. It just did. A blog is a space that is big enough for the individual plus some (plus some discussion, plus some reactions, plus some contradictions) but it is also small enough that it never eclipses the personality/person behind it.

Further reflections and lessons:

Blogging in an academic atmosphere contributed to my education at Middlebury in many ways. Although Middlebury professes to invite intimacy between students and professors, most of my classes have been lecture based. In Barbara’s class, however, not only did we have creative writing parties on our own (in which we continued our class exercises) but, after the class ended, the students I met in that class are the only ones I still greet as I see them around campus.
Blogging in an academic atmosphere also gave our work a creative outlet. For instance, the weeks that we were studying poetry, we would listen to recordings of Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, Jack Kerouac. Those same weeks, are assignment was to record ourselves reading our own poetry and post it on the blog. Only the technology, in this case, could have enhanced the class as that experience did.

The transition from an academic setting to a non-academic one might have potentially been difficult. However, the very freedom Barbara gave us in our class left me comfortable flailing from the beginning. I never had any doubts that I would know how to use the blog for myself, because I’d been given a very clear sense of my own authority.

As for other’s comments informing my experience in Russia, I previously mentioned the friend from creative writing whose blog and comments urged me to synthesize my own thoughts about Siberia in communicable form. However, the most memorable comment that I recall was written by my cousin after I had posted a somewhat ranting entry about globalization in Russia. I had expected to find the country inaccessible to me as an American, and was quite disheartened to find that westernization had reached as far as Siberia. My cousin, who had spent the previous year abroad in Chile, commented that, yes, it was disheartening to witness this cultural decay, but that I shouldn’t be blind to the traditions that had survived within globalization. Her example was that, although Chileans would frequent the new fast food restaurants, they would never think to take their food to go. Instead, they would sit in long conversation of coffee, as they might have years ago. Immediately, I realized that the western-type cafes in Siberia were still catering to Russians, not Americans. They were selling vodka by the bottle, not Odwalla. The blog commenting, in this case, helped me to read my surroundings entirely differently.

Another unexpected benefit of the blogging was that, when I returned home, I immediately felt comfortable reading Barbara’s blog and commenting on her posts. Though I’ll say (and she might disagree) that I never argued with her on her blog, it is true that I had a new-found sense of authority that allowed me to communicate with her in blog-form. I am rarely so courageous with former professors as I am with Barbara, long after her class has ended.

I do not claim to be a technology expert now that I have returned, for my blog remained mostly text-based. However, I did return from Russia with a sense that technology can be used as a reflection tool in ways that writing cannot. I began to play around with iMovie, something I would never have done without the blogging experience, I think. The idea of using computers, or digital stories, as a means of communication is much less foreign and much more tempting.

PART THREE: Barbara Sawhill

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Barbara’s talk can be heard at: LanguageLab Unleashed

PART FOUR: Evelyn Levine

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Outline I. Brief Introduction
A. What drew me to taking Spanish Oral Communications and what my expectations were:
i. Having lived in Ciudad Juarez, the semester prior to taking the course—keeping up on Spanish skills, especially as I returned to Ohio from the US-Mexico border region.
ii. Expected the course to be formal, like any other language course I had taken at Oberlin—textbook, rigid grammar.
iii. First day of class—introduced to new technology
iv. My fear of having to not only learn a new curriculum, but learn new methods of learning the curriculum—technology that I’m not great with—stereotype of my generation with technology doesn’t hold for everyone, especially me!

B. Surprises
i. Unpleasant—becoming frustrated with learning new technology
and not having it function 100% on a timely basis, having to dedicate more time completing assignments than normal, and having to spend time learning technology when I really just wanted to work on my Spanish.
ii. Yet the pleasant surprises vastly outweighed the frustrating aspects of learning new technology—Instructor willing to work with students who had little prior exposure to technology, adapted content and speed of course to the learning curve with technology, and learning from one another through the process.

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II. Learning Opportunities that I wouldn’t have had without the use of such Technology
A. The course content varied a great deal. We read and discussed poems by Frederico García Lorca, listened to and wrote about songs from Central and South America, and even learned about and discussed various current events, such as the current political reign of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

B. Exploration of subject matters to a new level–An especially good example of this is where we, as a class, were able to skype a Venezuelan citizen, which consists of talking instantaneously through microphones via computer, who was eager to talk about Chavez’s rule. I learned that such direct communication with a person inside of Venezuela regarding such covert political matters is rare. Yet we were afforded this the opportunity to have the discussion due to the lack of monitors on skype calls that a government that control, and the flow of information is more free to enable global dialogue regarding such important matters. Other students even had the chance to talk to a Venezuelan citizen who is very pro Chavez for another viewpoint.

C. We were also able to skype students in Spain who were eager to talk to American students. We engaged in weekly conversations—half in English and then half in Spanish to offer help with language skills—where we connected with the real world, with real people, and engaged in conversations that took me outside of the classroom walls where there was no set guide of conversation and no learning rubric.

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III. As a student of this course, I also was able to tailor the curriculum to personal interests of study in carrying out a final project which ultimately furthered my development of cultural literacy.
A. Final, individual projects in this course ranged from students studying terrorist bombings in Spain, to understanding the history of Argentina, to evaluating the best practices of teaching English as a Second Language. My final project was exploring in greater depth the Femicides of Mexico

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B. My interest in this topic came from having lived and worked in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico where I studied the femicides and worked in Casa Amiga, the only NGO dedicated to stopping them. The issue of the femicides is complex, and would be an entire lecture on its own. However, very briefly, there have been over 400 women murdered in northern Mexico in the past decade. There has been little, if any, action taken by the Mexican government to figure out why this has been able to happen and to bring the murderers to justice. The femicides gained some international attention in the early 2000s, but any increased government action in Mexico has largely been a façade to ease international attention. Femicide victims are generally poor, young women whose families often lack resources to demand and obtain justice.

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C. Through my investigations for this final project, I helped foster dialogue between classmates and also between people around the world who had left comments and questions of their own on my blog regarding the femicides.

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D. This is actually an entry my blog which contains a recorded interview that I had with my former boss at Casa Amiga regarding the complex issues of the causes and possible remedies of the femicides. Conducting this conversation was actually one of the most grueling tasks of the course. I had to learn how to communicate via Skype to someone in Mexico on a regular phone (this took a few hours in and of itself to establish a good connection). But this conversation also became one of the most rewarding parts of the course as this blog posting and conversation actually drew the attention of a femicide victim’s mother. Months after the course had even ended, a Mexican mother whose 17 year old daughter had been murdered in October 2005 had read my blog, listened to the conversation I had posted, and wrote a personal note to my former boss at the NGO, describing her situation and asking for assistance. The mother had also drafted a letter that she is sending out to government officials describing the facts of the situation and asking for any help in finding justice for her family and on behalf of the other families in Mexico seeking answers. Because of this, I was able to forward my former boss at Casa Amiga this information and I wrote back to the mother thanking her for her trust and interest and that I had contacted the appropriate people at Casa Amiga.

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E. On a side note, just recently, I have been contacted by the editors of a Human Rights publication out of American University’s Law School in Washington for my permission to allow them to publish these photos that I took while in Mexico, and that are on my blog, for an article this Human Rights organization is writing regarding the femicides.

IV. Conclusions
So, to this day, my blog remains active and I engage with people from around the world regarding an area of study that is dear to me, and that would have otherwise just remained a part of my experience of having lived in Mexico. Now, however, with the utilization of such technology, I can build upon my experiences in Mexico, keep my Spanish up to date, continue engaging with people world-wide about the femicides, and further enrich my pool of cultural literacy. Overall, I think it is going to be hard going back to learning a language and learning about other cultures through traditional means of a traditional classroom. Of course texts and articles are important when learning, but utilizing the wealth of technology that is out there can greatly add to the learning process like never before.

CONCLUSION: Barbara Ganley

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Our students come out of these classes deeply engaged by the subject, immersed in a community– some of my students are winning campus-wide prizes for their blogging, write blogs that are required reading for students in other universities, feel prepared for the fluid, connected work world.

But they leave our classrooms and then what? Is it enough for each student to have a taste of this kind of learning? Why don’t they feel as engaged when they leave our classrooms or study-abroad experiences? What would they be capable of doing if they were connecting all their courses, pulling in threads from one course into another, teaching and learning from their classmates along the way? We have to get over our fear of losing control over the course content, over the discussion. We have to let students take charge of their educations, sometimes by using the new ways of communicating within our classrooms. These young women are evidence of the potential of this kind of teaching and learning. And so now let’s throw open this discussion to you.. Your questions, feedback, concerns…

You might also find the ensuing discussion interesting…

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One Response

  1. I liked your piece, and it helped me think about my own work in new ways. Barry Wellman

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