Videoconferencing with James Farmer and The Technology School of the Future in Adelaide, Australia

What a remarkable week–going from the UK’s edublogging conference where I met some of the great eduboggers from that island to this morning traveling to Australia via videoconference for the Technology School of the Future’s Masterclass. Tomorrow will feel quiet when I’m talking about using audio in teaching to colleagues here at Middlebury.

It was great to hear James Farmer talk about how school blogging fits into a continuum of online education–I particularly liked his distinction between the merits of discussion boards and blogs, and will borrow from him to explain to people why I don’t use discussion boards in my classes. His primary objection to them is that they do not involve a personal presence, which is exactly what blogs do–real people are all over their blogs through the choices they make in terms of design and content. Blogs, he said, are about centered communication, centered, that is, around the individual. He drew upon Garrison & Anderson’s elearning in the 21st century, the diagram of effective communtities of inquiry with its intersecting circles of social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence. He was persuasive in arguing that we have to stop thinking about people going out into online environemntts to interact with others; we have to think about individuals interacting with one another, about who we are as people and how we really communicate.

Here’s my talk:

Centering, Connecting and Creating: Transformations in Blogging Classrooms
The Technology School of the Future Adelaide, Australia June 8, 2006
Videoconference Presentation

The Presentation Abstract:
We’ve all heard stories about the remarkable outcomes teachers claim by bringing social software into the classroom. But enhancing the learning experience for our students is not simply a matter of “handing out blogs” like notebooks and then standing by to watch the miracle; nor is it a matter of setting up series of strict rules and parameters and methods. By thinking first about the nature of our learning community and our pedagogical framework, and how connecting students to themselves, one another, and the world makes sense in our classrooms, we can take powerful advantage of the connectivity and the transparency of the medium. And once we’ve seen the effects of blogging on our students, we’ll find ourselves blogging alongside them, and adding podcasting, skype, RSS, and digital storytelling into the blogging as ways to make learning exciting and effective for every student.

I’m delighted to be here today (even if it is a bit early my time), for a chance to listen to James Farmer, one of the real leaders in this work, and a chance to hear from all of you in a few minutes. I’ve found my own blogging practice greatly informed by Australian bloggers, teachers, researchers and theorists, and so it’s a real pleasure to join you.

At the UK’s first edublogging conference I attended last week in London, a conference for experienced edubloggers, I was struck by the interest in hearing practical advice about classroom blogging. So instead of focusing on research on social software and learning theory, I’m going to return to my roots—my teacherly roots and give you a tour through the blogging landscape that has evolved in my classrooms over the past five years. First off, you need to know that I am actually not very interested in talking about technology. Or at least technology in and of itself. I’m not a technologist; I am a classroom teacher trained in literature and writing, and before I brought blogs into my classes five years ago, email was about as high-tech as it went in my teaching. I am, though, passionate about learning and about helping my students prepare for the challenges of citizenship in this rapidly changing, complex world. And I have found that this goal demands that I focus on a set of new literacies as well as old, which in today’s world means a whole spectrum of visual, auditory, textual, quantitative, cultural, and network literacies. It means that students need opportunities to connect and to collaborate, to explore their roles in a community of practice as well as to understand themselves as learners, as humans. And that’s where technology—in particular blogs, in my case, and digital multimedia—come in.

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At the UK’s First Edublogging Conference: My Talk

Here at 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 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 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.

Influences on a Vermont College Classroom: An Australian Conference, a Virtual Arts Collaborative coming out of Barcelona, and a Student Blogging from Cambodia

On the long long journey from Australia to Vermont a couple of weeks ago, I pitched my creative writing syllabus on its head (the course, Introduction to Creative Writing, covers nonfiction, fiction and poetry, and is required for anyone wanting to do a creative writing project senior year). Now to be sure, my sections of this course are a bit different from most. I have an extra workshop evening every week built into the schedule because the online work makes the students crave even more together time to talk over the talk on the blogs. I am also the kind of teacher who is always switching texts, playing with assignments, alert to the needs of a specific learning collaborative. Although I let the students know right from the get-go the general parameters of the course–the individual units we’ll cover, the books they need to purchase–I never post more than three weeks of assignments at a time. How do I know before I meet them, see what they know and how they write, and–most importantly–how they interact as a strong, open learning community, how I might best guide them? I believe wholeheartedly in having a huge stockpile of exercises and assignments in my pocket, and then ditching them all for something that evolves, that emerges from the learning community and the learning moment. We did just that in Thursday’s class during a lively discussion of what Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” has to teach us about writing–we launched into a five-minute story writing exercise I made up on the spot to try out some of the devices she used. I believe that if we teachers listen hard enough to our students, and we teach them how to listen to themselves, they will guide the teaching and learning process themselves, both on their own as individual learners with differing needs and styles, and peer-to-peer (something they MUST be able to do in the workplace). So I am comfortable viewing the course as a living organism that will often take us places unanticipated at the beginning of the semester or even at the beginning of the class hour. This is an essential characteristic, I believe, of a successful blogging teacher. That being said, I have typically opened the semester with creative nonfiction, moved to fiction and ended with poetry. It made sense. For many many years.

But after being inspired and moved by presentation after presentation at First Person: The International Digital Storytelling Conference by the work people are doing bringing digital storytelling to communities often without voices in the world, I knew I had to move digital stories and real blogging (versus posting your assignments to the blog) right to the opening days of the semester. The process of creating digital stories fosters a powerful sense of belonging to a community as well as giving participants a sense of their own voices–take a look at the stories from the project Amy Hill from The Center of Digital Storytelling presented out of Silence Speaks; or look at the extraordinary work coming out of the Museum of the Person. What I love about these projects is their focus on the story and the person rather than on the art or the achievement–the urge to share, to communicate, to remember publicly, and the lack of self-consciousness. We need to inject a bit of that urgency of expression into higher ed, a world framed by the need to master material and skills, each ultimately alone in this endeavor to succeed.

College students are told repeatedly to aspire to greatness, to achieve, to excel, to “get it right.” They do not pause very often to examine themselves and their own stories and thier imaginations and how they affect those around them. And yet, when they do, they often connect even more deeply with their learning and their life goals–they keep the parts of themselves balanced, in perspective. And so, to place experimentation, imagination, and community right up front in the course, I have plunged us into digital storytelling and blogging from the opening day. I have resisted setting up many guidelines for the stories–I want them to feel their way to their stories from this moment here in time. And right now, many of them are surely thinking that I have lost my mind–they look for the due dates; the detailed, clear instructions for success; and they really wonder why we aren’t just sticking to notebooks and keeping their creative writing, for the mostpart, private, between covers where for many of them it has lived since they were children, or slipped to the professor only when absolutely necessary. Ha! I am most fortunate to be able to distribute cameras and iPODS to my students for the semester, which I have done, and they are now drafting 100-200 word scripts–voiceovers–and taking photos and recording sounds. They are moving into image worlds and sound worlds with an alertness and a playfulness, and then we will press image and sound and text up against one another to see what happens. Through this process, they will find themselves growing close to one another, develop their media literacy skills, crack open the imagination and dare not to achieve greatness, but understanding. It’s about the process, baby.

And we will blog–sharing the bumps, the pleasures, the questions, the discoveries. Already they feel self-conscious about posting, but that they are writing about that self-consciousness in their opening posts shows a willingness to speak honestly. Even i this opening week, the comments they leave one another illustrate already what the connectedness of social software can do for our students–they do not feel isolated in their learning, and if they feel a connection with others, well then, they will engage with the learning opportunities the group offers. We are trying to guide these students towards active citizenship, yes? Already students are asking one another to look at photos snapped and first inklings of stories–they crave feedback and connection–in person and virtually (more on that another time).

At the same time, we will look at another artist collaborative–this one purely virtual, undertaking group projects that will unfold in plain sight, drafts and ideas posted to blogs where the world may venture to question, comment and suggest. These are professional artists–writers, visual artists, musicians–and we will learn from their journey, daring to leave comments even from our more tender position of the novice-apprentice. My students will learn by looking at the work of experts–the process of creating. I’m interested to see how dispatx’s new project–the first they’ve done with the blogging component–turns out, how we might help them and they us.

And finally, the new course blog looks to me quite different from the old ones–I have linked bgblogging to the Motherblog, and started a new bgnotes side blog (more on this in an upcoming post) as well as helping the students dive right into the very very public pool. It has been watching my students valiantly blogging from abroad with insight, thoughtful reflection, and honesty, that has helped me in large part develop my thinking on classsroom blogging. I have a couple of posts steeping about them, but today I bring in Remy’s postings about how this trip and blogging and the responses he’s received (most responders have, interestingly enough, chosen to write him emails rather than post their comments) have made him look at truth, fact, point of view and story with new eyes. The feedback he receives follows so quickly on the heels of his posting that he can see right away how his writing is received, how his ideas hold up, and how he may need to retract, revise, reconsider. And there’s no teacher, no authority telling him he’s right or wrong. These are discoveries he’s making on his own through the traveling and the blogging. He articulates quite forcefully the role blogging is playing in this remarkable journey here and here and here.

And so here I am, a veteran teacher who could pull out the same old syllabus year after year, instead discovering, discovering, pushing my teaching through learning from my students, from the online world and from my own travels… and if we don’t grow in and through our teaching practice, why do we teach at all?

Back from Australia…

I’m suffering a bit from the effects of winging to Melbourne and back for a weekend, but was it ever worth it. I met people doing truly inspiring work with digital stories and communities, and had the pleasure of presenting on digital stories the first day, and then on a blogging panel with Adrian Miles and Jean Burgess, both of whom have done significant research and presenting in the field. Reflections about their presentations, my own and the conference in general will find their way here over the next few days, but right now I am busy pulling up spring course blogs and catching up on the million things I missed in a week.
(I mean, leave the country for a second and all kinds of things happen in the edublogosphere, such as Will Richardson quitting his job!).

For now, I am posting the text version of my first talk, “Digital Storytelling and HIgher Education: Context, Community and Imagination.” I’ll post the audio version soon, too, and then the vodcast.

First Person: International Digital Storytelling Conference Melbourne, Australia, Feb 3-5, 2006

Saturday, February 4 Panel—Storytelling and the Digital Generation

(My presentation consisted of a twenty-minute digital story running behind me–at least the images and soundtrack, did. I was the voiceover, in real-time, in person.)

Introduction (Before the digital story kicks in):

I’m about to experiment here with a digital story of sorts as presentation—some of the examples you will see are excerpts from longer works. I’d like to thank my students for sharing their work. (If you are reading this text without watching the visuals, know that there are stretches of silent voiceover when the visuals and soundtrack tell the story without my voice. I place in bold font where significant slides and excerpts from my students’ digital stories fall. –I hope this makes some sense!)

I teach in a well-known liberal arts college (a small university) in the U.S., a school known for its writing, languages and international programs. Its students go on to hold prominent positions in government and the professions, though many graduates go on in nonprofit work. This is not the first place people think of in terms of digital storytelling as social activism, or groundbreaking work with communities. And yet it is precisely the kind of place where we also need digital storytelling—to open this generation to the relationship between personal context, imagination and civic responsibility in order to combat the racism, social and economic injustice that John O’Neal and Joe Lambert spoke of earlier. It is not enough to work with the communities long without a voice. We must also shift the power dynamic by opening the hearts and minds of those who traditionally have walked into positions of power.

Continue reading

Blogging from the Southern Hemisphere

Today is the final day of the remarkable First Person: The International Digital Storytelling Conference co-sponsored by The Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley and by the conference host, The Australian Museum of the Moving Image in Melbourne. First off, I have to say that a blast of Aussie mid-summer has done this Vermont girl a world of good. Add to that this splendid, beautiful city (ah, the parks, the parks!) and the fabulous museum itself–well, this conference has a whole lot going for it without even attending a single session.

But of course the conference itself is wonderful on many, many levels, and as usual, I am learning far more than I am teaching. Leaving my own realm is always inspiring and invigorating–meeting people (most of the conference attendees and speakers come from the Southern Hemisphere) who share the same outlook and hope for the world, who think about education and community very much as I do, and yet bring to the conversation quite a different set of experiences and realities reassures me that this work really is evolving in significant ways. We’ve seen digital storytelling projects in indigenous communities, across the African diaspora, in schools, hospitals–you name it. What connects us all is the sense of the transformative process that digital stories gives us in our work with individuals and communities.

I will post reflections over the next days, as well as my real-time digital story (a twenty-minute digital story played behind me as I narrated it live–yes, I’m crazy, but fortunately it went without a hitch) for my talk yesterday on digital storytelling in higher education (I will post it as a vodcast, I hope), and the notes and slides for my talk today on blogging as community storytelling, but for now, I do want to note a couple of interesting sites and projects people have shared over the past day:

UsMob–a Choose-Your-Own Adventure series meant to honor the voices of Aborigine children as well as to educate all of us.

Youth Internet Radio which connects youth from all over Queensland through radio production.


More to come…

Reflections from the Week’s Social Software Adventures, Part I: Juniata


The Presentation Slides

I’ve arrived back from an intense, stimulating four days immersed in social software at Juniata College and Wooster to find a sloggy January-thaw reality in Vermont (sheeting rain, 50 degrees–ugly skies with a deep freeze forecast) and a blog with a futzy template (for anyone looking for my usual flickr, list of papers and courses, and categories, right now they are all the way at the end of the entries —scroll, scroll, scroll–until I can get the IT guys to realign whatever went out of whack–I tried to figure it out to no avail…)

I had a great time meeting some remarkable faculty members at Juniata College, learning about the concerns and questions surrounding the introduction of social software into their undergraduate classrooms. Getting out of my own institution puts important pressure on my thinking on the place of new technologies in the liberal arts — it was invaluable to gain that kind of fresh perspective both as classroom social software user and edublogger. Many thanks to the great folks at Juniata.

Being the fine teachers they are, the 28 faculty members pushed me hard about the real vs. hyped value of blogs, wikis, RSS and tagging in courses across the curriculum; about time issues–both in terms of the time it would add to their already pressed schedules to put social software into play in effective ways and the time using software in the classroom would take away from the focus on course content; and about other kinds of potential compromises and losses (such as the magic of a class community coming together in a room to explore ideas for the first time, the deep pleasures of sustained engagement with a text) that might result from moving away from strictly traditional modes of expression and communication. Would learning be compromised? What actually happens to a classroom–to the time spent together–if so much time outside of class is engaged in discussing online the themes of the class? How can a teacher read all the discussion, and make sure students aren’t heading down roads of shallow or misguided thinking? Ah, the whole issue of control, of responsibility, of the role of the teacher surfaced.

We spent 8:30 – 2:30 engaged in such talk on Wednesday before I zoomed off to Ohio in my wee rental car. When I left them, they were still at it with their skilled IT staff. I look forward to following the developments in Juniata classrooms over the next few semesters–I have the feeling that many will find social software not to be the add-on they feared; social software is not interior decoration if woven into the content and filling pedagogical needs; rather it becomes the architecture of a course.

Indeed, after six hours of discussion, peppered with as many concrete examples as I could come up with on my feet, I think they opened up to ways a well-planned and creative use of social software creates opportunities to make learning in our disciplines transparent, connected, and electrifying. As the blog(s) and/or the wiki(s) (with RSS and tagging and a welcoming of audio and image) become the course–as we give students more responsibility for their learning and each other, instead of becoming watered down, lightweight “fun-only” courses, our classes deepen, and the students engage with the subject matter inside the class and outside of their own accord. Students connect the often abstract learning in the course to their experience of the world–and that’s when the aha! moments really kick in. So, yes, I was energized by that day, so much so that the four-plus hours of hurtling down Pennsylvania & Ohio highways to make it to NITLE’s Social Software Users’ Group Meeting at Wooster passed far more quickly than I would have guessed.

Over the next few days, I will post a reflection on my adventures in Wooster, including my delight in seeing so many FACULTY and so many WOMEN among the twenty-seven of us! (Indeed, I’m working a post on that very subject–how few the female voices and how few the undergraduate liberal arts faculty voices are in the most attended-to corners of the edublogging world.) For now, here’s the link to the wiki–feel free to cruise around the notes jotted and the pictures snapped during the open-space meeting. I had hoped to blog, but my role of co-facilitator kept me on my feet or tapping wiki notes. And truth be known, I’m still working on my blogging-in-the-moment skills–I prefer to use my blog to reflect and synthesize rather than to report.

Much as I dislike PowerPoint presentations (giving and sitting through them), I did prepare and show slides–I’ve had too many experiences when network connections have crashed mid-presentation to trust going live-only with the blogs; I will upload the presentation slides on Monday when I can put them on a server (THEY’RE AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS POST), but for now, here’s a summary of the slides, plus links. Note the last-minute tweaking of the talk title (opening the talk to a wider audience than I had first anticipated).


Slide 2: Writing Prompt: (doubled as a chance to try out posting to a freshly set-up blog):
What are your pedagogical goals?
How does technology intersect with those goals?
What are your questions and concerns about using Web technologies (blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS, tags, etc.) in this course?

SLIDE 3:slide3.jpg
Bob Sprankle’s Third-Graders Podcasting

Will Richardson’s High School Journalism Blog
High Schoolers on a wiki
Underground High School Newspaper
California Digital Storytelling Contest for High School Students

Canterbury Tales High School Project
Oral history Project (High School)

SLIDE 4: The Writing Divide–The personal vs. the academic realms (no links)

SLIDE 5:slide5.jpg
The Chronicle of Higher Education 11/05

SLIDE 6: Overwhelming Realities–speed of change, classroom pressures, the baffling array of tools (no links)

SLIDE 7: First Year of College–Setting the tone, providing a transition, engaging the passion for learning vs. pressures of content loading (no links)

SLIDE 8:slide8.jpg
Introduction to Creative Writing
Writing Across the Arts

Contemporary Ireland through Fiction and Film

SLIDE 9: slide9.jpg

SLIDE 10: slide10.jpgIrish blog–Front page
Summer Assignment Page

SLIDE 11: Extending the Teaching Moment
Link to Responses to “Thee jazzmen”–two student responses and the professor’s

SLIDE 12: The Students Shape the Blog as the Blog Shapes Them–Links to an award-winning multimedia essay, students conversing with an expert; students referencing one another; meta-reflections

SLIDE 13: Blogging to Engage Students Actively in their Learning Process–How taking advantage of the medium’s connectivity, visual nature, and archiving leads to student understanding of their own process, an awareness of their progress, and improvement in critical thinking and writing

SLIDE 14: Real-World Classroom Connections–Experts invited to the classroom can continue the discussion on the blog–link to Liza Sacheli discussion

SLIDE 15: Blogging to Ground the Learning within the Wider Discipline and the World–Experts on the blog; public nature of the blog & publication lead to enhanced authentic & extended learning; a range of discourse modes, levels and audiences understood; efficacy in action

SLIDE 16: Blogging to Initiate a Portfolio of Student Work–How students, by having their own blogs/pages linked to the Motherblog, linking to earlier semesters, joining future iterations of the course via the blog, and reflecting in an ongoing way lead to a unified education/integrated self, learning as process, a rich and ongoing record for student and teacher, and effective revisions & growth in deep critical thinking.

SLIDE 17: Taking the Blog Outside–Multiple Layers of Meaning (a Bloggers’ Field trip)

SLIDE 18: Blogging to Create Rich Archives and a Course Portal–How keeping a blog as CMT; options for a rich range of research, group, oral, creative, multimedia and traditional assignments, student models, lead to nothing being lost from the original course; emergent outcomes are made possible; enlivened and enriched collaborative projects; service-learning and dispersed-community collaborations possible.

SLIDE 19: Student Responses to First-year Blogging
“I feel this class is like that game where everyone tries to sit down on each other at the same time, in a circle, and if they do it correctly no one falls because the weight is evenly spread around.”
“…we are all experts, and we are all apprentices…”

SLIDE 20: slide24.jpg Links to Posts on Time, Blogtalk Paper, and Modeling

SLIDE 21: Blogging Exercises— Links to in-class writing prompt and follow-up

SLIDE 22: slide26.jpg

SLIDE 23: Blogs Invite Multimedia : Images prompting language, stories without words

SLIDE 24: Podcasting/Audio Filespost on using audio to teach writing

SLIDE 25: slide26.jpg
Bowdoin College English class wiki
Digital Storytelling
Independent Student Projects
Inter-institutional Projects

SLIDE 26: slide26.jpg

SLIDE 27: slide30.jpg

Off to Juniata College and The College of Wooster

Tomorrow I head to Juniata College in Pennsylvania to give a workshop-length version of the presentation I made at Antioch College last summer:

I’ll post the talk notes and slides, responses and reflections in a couple of days.

And then it’s over to Ohio’s The College of Wooster for the two-day-plus NITLE Social Software Users Group Meeting. We’ll be using a wiki (which I’ll link to here once we get it going if we decide to make it open) and I hope to blog the Open Space meeting. I’m eager to hear what other liberal arts faculty and instructional technologists are making of the rapid changes in the Web 2.0 technologies landscape, the clarion call for an overhauling of the educational system, and the opportunities for ever more interesting collaborations between classrooms, colleges, and grade-levels. Looking forward to seeing some examples of classroom practices.

More soon…

Social Software in the Academy Workshop: first Thoughts

ssawsign.jpg (MBertolini photo)
Back from SSAW in Los Angeles and I’m just beginning to sift through the many thought-provoking threads of conversations and demonstrations and presentations that filled every minute of those two-plus days. Talk about coming away from a conference with ideas, renewed energy and conviction….

These BLOGTALK-type conferences (small, one-panel-at-a-time, drawing from many spheres, and aimed at those who have been working with and thinking about social software for some time) are by far the most useful conferences I attend. I learn far more than I contribute, and I leave with a renewed sense that we’re on the right track AND that we have a long way to go before we sort out exactly what it is we are doing and where we need to go from here. The energy and brilliance of the graduate students presenting were matched only by the energy and brilliance of the designers and theorists and professors listening and questioning and presenting in their own right. Many conference moments worth mentioning–but I’ll save those for a future posting.

Whereas a year ago in Vienna I was one of a handful of classroom users of blogs in attendance, at the Annenberg Center there was a real range of teachers blogging or using wikis in their classrooms. With the numbers came a new, and healthy, degree of skepticism about the embrace of blogs in the undergraduate classroom. There were those who wanted hard numbers to substantiate the claims that blogs were effective vehicles for expression in classrooms, and those who wanted to know how they were evaluated, and those who wanted to know how edublogging was blogging at all. It was great to be pushed, to be asked some excellent and tough questions at the end of both my presentations.

piyaeugene.jpg(Photo by MBertolini)My students and colleague did a wonderful job explaining their experiences with blogs–so much so, in fact, that the crowd suspected that they weren’t real students at all but extraordinary exceptions! The group also half-suspected that the outcomes I have with social software in my classroom have more to do with me as a teacher than with the software or the act of blogging. Should blogging be left to the world outside the classroom altogether, a few wondered.

Excellent questions. Yes, we need Sarah and others to continue with their empirical research. Of course the success of any tool or any pedagocical approach has much to do with the teacher and with the way the learning collaborative is set up. Of course of course. What was interesting to me was that the whole notion of the learning community and how we set it up was NOT entertained by most of the presenters or the audience as crucial in the entire equation. For me, this is the lynchpin. And what separates the “good” teacher from the “bad” in a lot of cases: the ability to cultivate a creative, collaborative learning community. You gotta read Pierre L�vy’s Collective Intelligence. You have to read Rheingold and <a href=””target=”_blank”Jenkins, Bolter and Landow and Greene and Johnson , Manovich and Ascott for starters. Then read L�vy again. And think about the classroom culture–where you position yourself as teacher. Then you’re ready to pull blogs and whatever other kind of social software you like into the classroom if they will help you reach the learning outcomes you have in mind. Yes, I exaggerate… And yes, I know that my success with classroom blogs, multimedia authoring and podcasting has a lot to do with the way I teach, my personality, and my students. But it also has to do with the careful way I set up a learning collaborative–and this is something I repeat ad nauseum here on the blog and whenever I present at conferences or give talks–do our teachers read outside their disciplines and consider pedagogy? Communities of practice? For the mostpart, they repeat what they know, and since they have been motivated and successful in their educational endeavors, they figure the old models are the best models. And I’d say, yup, the oldest (i.e. Socratic) models are indeed what we need to remember, not the medieval ones.

For those who want to try out the collaborative learning model: At the opening of every course, the students create knowledge trees in which they explore their reasons for taking this course, the relevance of the material and the processes to their lives, and what they need to learn from and have to offer to the rest of the learning community. We spend the first week engaged in this writing and sharing and forming this community before we move onto anything else. If this preparation, and the preparation of the space that the blogging will occupy in the course are done well, then, just get out of the way of the students and let them do their work!

Many of us are coming to similar conclusions at this point in the evolution of classroom blogging–just today I see Aaron Campbell referring to a panel at Canadian Innovation in eLearning Symposium, and listing the notable points brought out in the final discussion between Jay Cross, Stephen Downes et al:

Some of the ideas tossed around that struck me as worth thinking about more were:

* The command-and-control model of education vs that of the ‘free range learner’
* ‘Process objects’ in addition to ‘learning objects’
* Critical Thinking + How to Learn = the two big goals of education
* Learning as technology-enabled but not technology-driven
* Schools as the most virtual, most artificial learning environments that exist
* Learning = Doing
* Weblogs are ‘transitional technologies’
* Learning as a ‘whole-body’ experience.
* Active virtual life increases f2f interactions

There is so much pressure placed on measurable results (and we all know why that is…) that we are losing the deep pleasure of messing around–serious messing around–of learning as a social activity, of learning as exploration, experimentation and a whole bunch of glorious failures. On the backchannel, someone at SSAW actually raised the question of “whether blogs lead to a kind of play school.” You’ve got to be kidding–blogs themselves don’t; bad teachers could. But put a blog into a good teacher’s hands, and see what she can do with it to promote all kinds of deep learning.

Blogs, because of their informality, their flexible, chameleon form, and the fact that they create an ongoing, individual and collaborative, learning narrative invite my students to explore the pleasures and real advantages of fooling around, together, seriously, with the materials of our subject matter. And the outcomes–however you wish to measure them–are pretty astounding.

MIT4 Talk Summary–Socrates Meets Borges: Digital Storytelling around the Liberal Arts Campfire

Hctor and I raced down to Boston Saturday to present at MIT4 (he wrote a brilliant paper, by the way, with very little help from me at all), met up briefly with the inimitable Joe Lambert and met some other interesting folks working away at bringing digital storytelling to the academic universe. Of course the two of us trying to say anything particularly useful about digital storytelling in the 20 minutes allotted, and in a space equipped only with an overhead projector was a bit much (M.I.T.??), but Hctor managed to articulate the context and a bit of the outcomes–pretty remarkable feat!

Here’s more on what I touched upon (or would have with more time):

One student’s journey through storytelling in the Fall 2004 Artswriting class: Writing in New Media Facilitates A Student’s Exploration of the Artist-Critic’s Role

In Writing Across the Arts, I am trying to get students to think about what it means to experience the arts and then to write about them authentically, not necessarily from the position of scholarship, but from the position of being a lover of the arts who has something to communicate to the world about that experience. I encourage my students to crawl around inside the tools of the writer–in our case all the tools of the computer that will help them to understand the relationship between artist, artform, critic and audience.

Because we live in an era that privileges images over text, (see Susan Sontag’s NYT article about the images of Iraqi prisoner abuse; George Lucas in Edutopia; Douglas Kellner on New Media and New Literacies: Reconstructing Education for the New Millennium), we must train them in the grammar of image, the tension between image and text, equipping them with the critical apparatus necessary to read New Media. In one assignment, I ask students to take text out of the telling of story or the writing of an essay. What happens to their understanding of how an image conveys its meaning? What do they learn about structure, argument, narrative, voice? After reading excerpts from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the students played around with Stories without Words and hypertext essays. Both kinds of writing run counter to their training in their other classes where they are still writing traditional text-only analytical essays.

In Julina’s hypertext experiment, she puts pressure on final words, on journeys out beyond the small screen as she reviews a performance of a visiting dance troupe that moved in much the same way upon the walls of the new library.

In her Story without Words, Julina examines the dialogic relationships between word and image,storyteller and reader, playing with our notions of story, setting, structure, chronology. She comments simultaneously on art, museums, and stories while producing art. Even the title “Story without Words” directs us only into reading the images as a story, and underscores the lack of text, the significance of that lack. We are not told what story or what it means. She is asking the reader to participate in the writing of the story through the reading of it–and through the commenting on it.

Indeed, publishing this story on the blog has a significant impact on the work and on the writer. As she receives feedback from her peers–some show interest in her story, some in her use of images, others in what she might do next–she can read their telling of the story; they in turn become part of the story and the writing of it. One reader suggests a possible next exercise based on work she has done in a dance class (yes–finally–we see here the integration of the student’s full education, bringing lessons from one class into another, the apprentice becomes the expert becomes the apprentice). Julina becomes Walter Benjamin’s stage rather than screen actor–adjusting her work in response to the audience. She then writes a poem. And more feedback floods in, leading her past this project, finally, and into her final project of the semester, “An Ekphrasis Cycle,” in which she pushes images against poem directly, and vice versa, in a spiralling cycle, but more on that later. Here we can see Lvy’s collective intelligence as well as efficacy at work, both for her–her ideas matter and touch her peers–and for her peers, who see her revise her work in response to their suggestions. And we, participants or lurkers, witness the entire process much as she witnesses herself watching fans watching rock stars in her next, digital storytelling, project.

The blog reduces the threat of what Christine Rosen terms “Ego-casting”, the narrowing of what one takes in according to taste and perspective, since on a blog, anyone can comment–all possible perspectives are invited in. Her own perspective remains open to divergent responses, and the teacher’s hope is that she will continue to seek many points of view, many readings of a text and the world as she moves through her life.

In her digital story, “Watching Rock Fans Watching Rock Stars,” Julina jumps into the boundaries of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalusand Mann’s, Tonio Kroger,participating while watching herself participate, commenting while enjoying, wandering about the boundaries between communities where “radically new insights often arise” (Wenger) . She becomes the subject-artist-critic as she tries on the roles of poet, dj, rock star, groupie (Vila–see his MIT paper for a fuller reading of this digital story). Posting the story within the class cluster of digital stories extends the commentary and the interactive experience. These stories butt up against one another, talking with each other on the virtual canvas of the blog post. The students use digital stories to read culture and to read the artistic process. They become careful yet bold critical readers of and writers about New Media while creating art with it. Julina enters the Borgesian labyrinth while commenting on her journey.

In her final project, “Ekphrasis Cycle,” coupling word and image without sound or movement, Julina moves into entirely new territory, daring to exploit the lessons learned from the previous exercises, exploring Roy Ascott’s “dispersed authorship,” this time not only by inviting the viewer in to witness and comment, but by bringing together photographs of different artists, convening them as story, through the links made by her poems. The whole creates a cycle, a kind of story she has not before written. She collaborates with the artists she brings into the project, and her writing moves in response to their influence. “Welcome to Julina’s Ekphrasis Cycle” she writes on the opening screen, “The preface is at the end.” She turns the narrative structure around, but by announcing it, alleviates some of the anxiety produced for the viewer. She writes, “I am writing in response to visual images, yes, but also using them as tools.” Her project is a creative disruption of the traditional academic essay as it examines ekphrasis by engaging in its practice.

A response left by a student (the class tutor) illustrates the way a blog through its return to a more reflective, letter-writing mode, allows her peers to react thoughtfully and then to comment:

I had a really tough time responding to you while we were conferencing because your poem hit home with me. I knew it was very difficult to discuss the poem without bringing in my personal feelings, which is why I kept asking you to direct me in the way you wanted me to respond to it. But through the beauty of weblogs, that’s exactly what I can do… I can edit out what I don’t want to convey. Brilliant, isn’t it?”

She, too, is commenting on the writing act as she writes.

Julina leaves us at the end of her “Ekphrasis Cycle,” with these words:

“I invite you to look for the silence behind and within the language, to find the syntax between the positive and negative spaces of image, and to find what is human in all of it, for this was, from the outset, my intention. To show you a different picture of yourself.”

Her work exemplifies Lev Manovich’s asking “how can New Media allow us to experience the ambiguity, the otherness, the multi-dimensionality of our expereince in new ways, thus enriching our lives.”

Our SSAW Proposal Has Been Accepted

I’ve embarked on a collaborative adventure with my colleague, Mary Ellen Bertolini and two intrepid, bold student bloggers, Piya Kashyap and Eugene Lee: a panel discussion at The Social Software in the Acadmey Workshop, May 14-15 at USC’s Annenberg Center
. Here’s our proposal:

Pandoras Blog? What Happens When College Students Take to Social Software in the Classroom

After four years of integrating weblogs into our writing and literature courses, two Middlebury College professors find ourselves at a crossroads. Our success has spawned unforeseen pressures for our courses, ourselves, our students and our institutions. The more we understand the benefits of implementing social software the more we must stay abreast of the rapid developments in the field, finding time in already overly busy schedules to develop sound ways to evaluate and to grow our practices. If we ask our students to blog, must we, too, blog? Should we use a wiki or a blog, add podcasting or folksonomies and RSS? How much is too much technology?

And then there are the students. When we hand the course blog over to our increasingly technology-savvy charges, positioning them at the center of the classroom, we open all kinds of boxes. In a semester already crowded with content demands, the building of a strong blogging community takes time and effort, and leads to frustrations with technology and blogging group dynamics. For some students the public nature and open dialogue of the blog are unsettling, and come close to undoing the very community they nurture. And even after crises pass, and important lessons about communication and collaboration are learned, invariably, abruptly, after twelve intense weeks, the semester ends and our blogging students are set adrift in a largely blogless college. Increasingly, students want to blog between and beyond classes, and they want to use social software for serious academic discourse across the curriculum, but they dont know how and where to start. What have we unleashed?

In this panel, two Middlebury professors and two students will discuss what happens when blogging enters the heart of a classroom community and what the implications are for the development of effective college blogging practices. Although we will touch upon the already well-documented learning outcomes of blogging: the emergence of strong learning collaboratives , the acceleration of inquiry and mastery of critical thinking and writing skills, and the expansion of the parameters of a college classroom, our talk will focus on what really happens to teachers and their students who blog as they blog and after they blog. Prof. Mary Ellen Bertolini will speak about how blogging, in allowing discussion of controversial topics outside of class, has affected the classroom experience and the course outcomes; Sophomore Piya Kashyap will discuss the effects of bringing the blog out into the world through an independent blogging project in the field; Junior Eugene Lee will explore how blogging the controversial has been valuable to his education and how when a course blog dies, something essential goes missing; and Prof. Barbara Ganley will talk about what happens when the teacher who uses blogs in her courses blogs the journey under the eye of her students and colleagues, and she will consider the implications on course and semester design in liberal arts colleges.

It looks as though I’ll also be sitting on Joseph Hall’s Panel on Blogs and Pedagogy.

I’m very much looking forward to this conference as a time to reconnect with others in the field and to collaborate on a conference presentation with my colleague, Mary Ellen Bertolini, for the first time. I also think the students will add an important perspective to the weekend’s discussion which in turn will give the two of them a fabulous opportunity to present to an audience of graduate students and professors!