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.
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?
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.