That Extra Little Push: Providing Technology That Does What It’s Supposed To

“Hey can I ask you a question?” I ask the unsuspecting student working behind the counter at the USF library.

She gives me an unsuspecting stare.

“Do you know if the new iPads that everyone seems to be checking out have a library app?”

“You mean an app for our library? No. Not that I know of. You just have to get on the website.”

“Aha. Thanks.” I walk away with my books, confused as to why, exactly, so much money was spent on a whole slew of touch-screen, mobile devices that serve no different purpose than the laptops you’ve always been able to check out.

Using an iPad without an app is, in a lot of ways, like making toast on a stove-top. Sure, it’ll work, but it takes longer and you might get burnt.

This is a typical problem, not just at USF, but one that’s observable most anytime new technology is introduced somewhere. The logic is simple: New technology may be all great and powerful – much like the Wizard of Oz – but if it’s not used for it’s potential, it’s introduction is undermined immediately. Like the man behind the curtain, the user finds that the smoke, fire, and other aesthetic wonders are just a gimmick.

Others, like Steve Wheeler, have said this better than me:

“The technology in any given school can be as high quality, shiny and compatible as you like. Technical support can be second to none, and all the support in the world on offer, but if the teacher is not convinced of its usefulness, forget it.”

If I had a dollar for every time he was right about technology and education, I wouldn’t have the immense amount of debt that I do today.

What he’s suggesting doesn’t just apply to teachers – it goes for University systems, administrators, and students commissioned to put technology in the hands of people who may need simple guidance on how to use it efficiently and advantageously.

Why not commission someone to design a USFLibrary app for the new fancy armory of touchscreen, easy-access tablets that countless tuition dollars were spent on? How about something that helps people navigate the stacks of (often) scrambled collections? Something that lets people collaborate with others in the library quickly? Place an order at Starbuck’s? Track the RFID’s that are already in all of the books, so they can be found when they’re lost in the oblivion of the sorting area? How about a real time map for the Bull Runner bus service? Or a weather tracker for the folks locked away in the upstairs dungeons studying hard for exams? How about a badge system that would encourage people to be better students, go to the writing center, or find other students in the library working on a similar topic so they could work together? Certainly USF has the financial and human resources to put something like this together without much effort. Certainly they have programming-savvy grad students who will kindly offer their indentured servitude for a deadline extension or a vitea line.

If you want to be a technology leader among Universities, that little extra push to make something work like it ought to work is what it takes.

iPads and phones – and other types of mobile technology – are not just about the “bells and whistles” or keeping up with the appearances; they actually do offer extended capabilities to students, staff, faculty that could so easily (and cheaply) enhance learner capacities, save time and energy, and disseminate information – which, lets be honest, would cut back on everyone’s stress level. Why take advantage of automation id we use it against ourselves?

All it takes is a little direction, a little know how, and a little digital literacy. Before you know it, the entire enterprise of going to a library, which is already disorienting and intimidating to many students, will change.

This much I know: Show anyone how to use an iPad once, and they won’t forget; provide them iPads that can be used the way they were intended to be used and you’ll start to leverage social media to an educational advantage.

How do I know? It’s already being done. Elsewhere.

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That Extra Little Push: Providing Technology That Does What It’s Supposed To by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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Digital Pedagogy: 2 Fears of Teaching Naked

I never realized that I was teaching naked. In fact, I’ve been doing it all summer.

Though there are all sorts of ways to construct a digital pedagogy, one powerful approach begins with pulling the plug. (Fyfe, 2012, para 20)

Paul Fyfe’s recent article in Digital Humanities Quarterly addresses some significant issues related to digital pedagogy. For him, teaching is “digital” not because computers are present in the classroom, but because it is hands-on, creative, dynamically emergent, and, for all intents and purposes, analogous to a place students and teachers want to be. Fyfe explores teaching strategies that utilize technologies beyond the walls of campus buildings, digitizing the whole experience of being a student. On their own, outside the classroom, students use technology to work on projects and collaborate. They blog, podcast, perhaps collaborate by annotating a shared document. This frees up time (and space) inside the classroom for learning in the “non-electronic senses” (para 8) where conversation carries the lesson, which emerges as students engage with each other about course content. Even with the use of minimal technology in the classroom – say, a screen projection of a text for collective reading – digital pedagogy is about peeling off the layers of institutional authority that normally conceal students’ desire to learn faithfully and teachers’ ability to really teach.

Hence the “naked” in teaching naked – being “exposed” together. Keep your shirt on, though – it’s not about skin and underwear.

It’s about finding ways to leverage technology for what it’s worth, freeing up the time people spend together, in the flesh, to expose the limitations and possibilities of learning. What results is a vulnerable situation where those involved – students and teachers – negotiate the tensions of learning together. This, of course, takes students who are willing to show up for more than just a grade – those who find value in the relationships they have with their own learning experience and their classmates – and teachers who don’t just show up to train students – those who abandon the “it has always worked” lesson plan and discover the lesson in the conversation with students, asking questions that guide group thinking and encourage participation.

As a teacher it’s scary to be in that sort of situation – where the plans are loose and the conversation can go wherever students take it. It takes a lot of trust and humilty. It also insists that they take it somewhere. The last things students want in a classroom is to be bored, and in this ideation, if they’re bored they share the burden. Excitiment from improvisational course content that emerges from student and teacher interest does, however, get a little scary because everyone has to tolerate a certain level of ambiguity. It’s sort of like white-water rafting – you have to trust the people in your boat to work together, paddling, steering and staying on board.

There are two primary fears that I’ve experienced this semester as I’ve (unwittingly) implemented Fyfe’s suggestions:

Fear of Participation

First, teachers have to be comfortable relinquishing some of their authority over the course, authorizing students to learn on their own and trust that they’ll remain engaged beyond the classroom. I’ve learned that a good way to guarantee student participation is to use blogs, vlogs, and wikis to explore course content. Asking my students to produce a 200 word blog each night (or to contribute minimally to a 20 sentence wiki) is the equivalent of a math teacher asking students to show their work. 200 words ain’t that much, really. Students know that both I and others can see they’re contribution and are waiting to respond – which is also part of the assignment. This leads to a rich conversation online the night before class, which usually builds on the conversation from the day before. There is a collaboration-driven ethos established among a small group of people working in this way – not unlike that discussed by Jono Bacon (regarding Open Source) and David Bohm (regarding Dialogue in small groups). The result is an ongoing conversation about course content that doesn’t feel like a class conversation; in fact, it feels like something that would happen on Facebook, but with better links to helpful sources and less inflammatory language. What zaps the fear of participation in this scenario is that digital tools expose whether a student does or doesn’t engage with the class. Of course, it won’t ensure that each student does every assignment, but it does mean that they learn at their own discretion, visible to everyone, which encourages others to follow suit.

Authorizing Student Expertise

The second fear stems from opening up class time for interaction, conversation, and constructive activities. There is, above all other things, a fear of engagement in any intimate group. Attend a high school dance or pep rally – you’ll see. Guiding a conversation among students, who are both excited and knowledgeable, takes a lot of energy and a substantial amount of risk. Sometimes I actually know less about the conversation at hand than the students do. It’s uncomfortable, certainly, to let loose the reigns and allow students educate each other, mainly because the expectations in a traditional learning environment involve the teacher  dictating course content and  authorizing the right answers. In fact, digital pedagogy necessarily rearranges these expectations so that each person decides what counts as “right” and “wrong” during conversation. Enter critical thinking skills. In nearly every instance, the validity of less-than-insightful claims made by less-than-involved students are regulated by others in the conversation. This often leads to rich debates – productive as long as people are respectful and prudent. Teachers have to trust their own abilities to intellectualize and mediate discussion as they roll with the conversation, nudging it toward important issues that  ought to be discussed. They are not, however, in control. Avoiding conversation-placebo – where conversation is promised, people sit in a circle, and the teacher still lectures, usually from a chair with more pronounced gestures – is the hard part. In my experience as both a teacher and a student, when teachers feel exposed and their authority is brought into question, they tend to work very hard legitimating themselves and the lesson. Nothing could be more counterproductive in a collaborative situation.What derails the assumptions that may lead a teacher to dominate a conversation is simple – sit back, let the students carry the conversation forward, and arrive at the silent realization that being a teacher doesn’t negate your being a student, ever.

In the very least, being able to identify these fears (more like strategic obstacles) can help a teacher approach a class in a digital way, encouraging students to take ownership over their learning, utilizing technology in ways that make the whole experience more engaging.  Now, teaching naked might not work for everyone or for all courses. I can’t imagine any way that science or math could be taught in this way; I also don’t see tenured lecturers dropping their drawers of PowerPoint slides and popping a squat in the crowd.  Then again, maybe I’m mistaken. What I do know is that courses in the humanities and social sciences can be more collaborative, engaging, and…well, digital.

Just don’t take off your clothes.
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Digital Pedagogy: 2 Fears of Teaching Naked by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

3 Reasons Students Should Blog

I took a risk this summer by integrating a lot of technology into my classroom and it paid off.

Steve Wheeler has been a big influence on me because he talks about the ways new technology can change how students learn and teachers teach.

I wanted to take his advice and get my students to use more technology. I was worried they wouldn’t be as tech-savvy as my colleagues and friends think. I was worried about the digital divide – that the stereotypes weren’t true. It’s no secret that social media is something for “young people” – because age somehow determines a persons’ ability to be social, or understand how to push buttons and navigate LCD screens. Right? Because cell phones are like video games. Right?

“Show of hands – how many people in here have a cell phone that connects to the Internet and has some sort of audio or video recording device?” I ask.

All hands go up.

“Whoa…”

They all laugh.

Guess there is some truth the “age = social media likelihood” equation.

My biggest fear this summer was introducing elements to my course that were contingent upon social media. See, I have this “crazy theory” that students writing papers – essays, to be exact – is not necessarily productive. It doesn’t foster learning.

A student writes a paper, they turn it in to me, I read it, make comments, and give it back whenever I find time to get through all of them. A few weeks go by. My comments reflect the untenable demands of reading hundreds of pages of poor grammar, bad sentence structure, re-typed arguments from Wikipedia, and undeveloped thoughts that have nothing to do with the matter at hand. About half of the class reads what I write. I know this because half of the class usually leaves their marked-up papers behind when they leave the room.

No one really learns much of anything in this situation, no matter how much effort we all put into the papers. It’s a crazy theory, I know, but I have good reason to believe it – beyond a desire to save some trees.

“Hogwash!” You say. “Now you’re just being hyperbolic, Nick! Essay writing is a traditional staple of a good education. I did it! You did it! Who are you to change it?”

I’m a person who takes risks. A person who cares about my students actually getting something out of the hours we spend together, and a person who wants to keep myself excited about teaching and reading student work.

I decided to have my students write blogs instead of papers. There were a few things I discovered that made the risk worthwhile and makes my theory seem not-so-crazy after all:

1. Students can critique each other’s work. In a traditional write-a-paper-and-the-teacher-hands-it-back format, students only get one person to read their work. Me. My sole perspective – though informed by a few years of teaching – is not the only one that has value in the classroom. Also, with my workload as a graduate student there is just no way that I can hope to give solid feedback to all of my students and remain deeply invested to doing my own work. Sadly, a few student papers usually fall through the cracks with blanket responses like “Great!” or “Rework this section” or “unclear” as I transition back to my own reading and writing in the wee hours of the morning. In my humble opinion, this type of alienating language (and practice) should be left out of any learning environment and educational experience. Reading my student’s blogs, I’ve found that they give each other both positive and critical feedback that go into deeper detail than I could ever imagine doing alone. This type of dialogic process, I’ve found, contributes to the ethos of the course and everyone’s enthusiasm for having an opinion and learning something new.

2. Students get to write less, I get to read less. Any educator who is being honest will tell you how much they dislike having to read so many student papers. It isn’t that they dislike reading or dislike their students – it’s that reading so many papers so incredibly similar is tough to stay enthusiastic about. A 100 word blog is big enough to articulate a single idea with a bit of rigor and some hyperlinked sources (like this one). My students are writing 100 words at least 3 times a week, usually in response to some video I’ve posted for them to watch. I make them find other sources on the web to back up their argument. I also make some suggestions when I assign the video (via email) about what they should consider, in both form and content, when they respond. They’re also required to read and comment on at least one classmate’s blog for every one they write. This ensures that everyone gets feedback. Of course, I read and comment on all of them. All of this takes me (and them) less than an hour, and we do it 3-4 times a week. After a 6 week course, that’s 1800 words written per student in about 18 precise, nuanced arguments. You can’t really shake a stick at that! I have to admit that the shorter reads and the salient points are addicting to go through and comment on as a teacher. It’s a lot more fun than doing my own work!

3. Covering uncharted territory. The worst thing for teachers and students to cope with is boredom. By the time students are college Freshman, most have taught themselves how to sniff out a reused lesson plan and give a teacher what they think is  “good work”. Most of the time, it means regurgitating someone else’s point of view about a given subject. Many teachers trust their time-tested activities and lessons, falling back on the same examples and lectures they’ve used for years in a row. To be blunt about it, nothing could be less productive and worse for the education system, overall. No one learns unless they get somewhere new in their thinking. Production is not reproduction. I started the semester assigning a video about changing education paradigms by Sir Ken Robinson and had no other plans. After reading their responses, I realized that the vast majority had something to say about Robinson’s claims on ADD/ADHD diagnoses. It’s a compelling argument that tapped the core of class interest. Recognizing their interests, I assigned a video from Thomas Szasz about the dangers of calling mental illnesses a disease. The responses were enticing, thoughtful, and provocative. This led to even more uncharted ideas for out-of-the-classroom thinking, learning, and writing. The course content emerged through the blogs themselves.

For people who aren’t educators or care less about teaching, maybe none of this means much. But we were all students once. We should all take a moment to think back to our youth – to our education – and try to remember what we disliked about it. What if we’d had new social media technology? Could using it in our classrooms have changed our minds about school, or learning, or those things we thought we were interested in but decided to leave behind because they were boring?

Perhaps.

The thing I suspect most students really dislike about education is this: that their teachers are afraid to take risks, to engage them, to look for new, exciting ways to understand what they want to learn. Call me ridiculous, but I think that students want their teachers to enjoy teaching as much as they want to enjoy learning. Most new technology is already in our pockets because we enjoy using it for work and play. It’s fun. Why shouldn’t we figure out a way to use it in the classroom? Learning can be fun. It can be productive, too.

Maybe we can all learn how to learn with each other as we learn to use social media, together.Creative Commons License

3 Reasons Students Should Blog by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.