Friday, June 8, 2012

Dear Future Comm 2.0 Seminar Participants...

I’ve been working with Web 2.0 platforms (mostly blogs!) for a couple of years now. I was interested for a couple of reasons including engaging multilingual writers and promoting student writers’ self-efficacy. But when I introduced these blogs into my classes, it felt as though we were this self-contained blog network. Despite having students create and post on their own blogs and respond to others’, it didn’t “take off.” (Sure there was always the occasional student or two who made their blogs their own, adding unassigned related posts that interested them, but that was because (a) they loved the content of the course and (b) they were Web 2.0 literate/comfortable.) (I reflect more on that here. And here).

Having said that, there were a number of positives. Writing on blogs (at least from my preliminary data) did improve both writing self-efficacy and fluency in multilingual writers; it also positively decentered the classroom away from me as the hub: students read each others’ writing and drew from each other as models. (That is, in observing each other’s writing, they generated their own descriptors of “good” writing.) Yet, compared to the potential Web 2.0 platforms hold, my classroom (virtual and otherwise) still felt two-dimensional. As I approached the Community 2.0 seminar, I was asking myself, “How might I get students to sustain engagement more meaningfully?” Looking back now, I think an additional, implicit question was, “How might I sustain my own engagement with Web 2.0 platforms more meaningfully?”

My participation in Community 2.0 had to do with immersing myself in writing and teaching through the lens of Web 2.0. I think to begin with, as a writing teacher and writing textbook author, I couldn’t help but notice and be intrigued by the potential of Web 2.0 platforms to transform society the way writing did way back.... well, that’s a different story. Fast forward past the cave walls and stone tablets, the first papyrus scrolls, the pens, the ink, the monks doing their illuminated manuscripts and on to the Gutenberg Press—not only do you have evolving technologies, but transformed minds because of those technologies. Transformed minds because of the increasing availability of literacy--the availability to receive texts—but also transformed minds because of the ability to create a range of texts: to express one’s meaning with an ever-evolving sense of one’s audience and one’s purpose in writing. It went slowly enough that one could begin to think writing was all about putting language on the page (or some other flat surface!). But it’s always been about language in some code (writing) and design. If you fast forward to today, you see that everything is still going fast forward. When did this permanent fast-forward happen?

Look at all this stuff!

[This weekend I just read an amazing, compelling, couldn’t-wait-to-get-back-into-it, sci-fi short story composed entirely in tweets. Look at how Jennifer Egan composed them—on paper! I love it.]

As a writer, I feel compelled to jump in, try this out, and make it my own. But what is “this?” What does it feel like learning these (so, so, so, many) different platforms? What control do I have over my “message?” My “aesthetic?” How does my message and aesthetic change with the platform? How does the platform change with the audience? How does my audience change how I use a platform?

These are some of the questions I want my students to grapple with too. (They are not very different from Classical Rhetoric’s concern with the relationship among audience, form, and purpose.) Technology has been one of the elephants in the classroom for a long time. This explosion of technologies, though, has, I think, made visible the elephant. We can’t get through the classroom without knocking up against it. As a teacher, how do I address this? When should I ask students to hand things in hard-copied and typed? When should they email me? Should they use their smartphones in our smart classroom? What kind of degradation of attention span have I unleashed in the computer lab when students have twenty million windows open checking FB, the weather, and the cheapest flight to spring break? Some reflections on that hereMore thoughts on that here.

Community 2.0 has given me the opportunity--and community--to think more deeply, and more reflectively about my own role in making visible this elephant and, in doing so, developing a dynamic (as in ever-changing, rather than super-energetic) relationship to Web 2.0 activities and the kinds of meaning-based, knowledge-building, reflective interactions I’d like to stimulate and model in my classes, with my students.
Having said that, my immersion into Web 2.0 has been modest at best. Over the year, I’ve linked Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets to my blog with varying degrees of success. While I was satisfied to have everything there—blog, course calendar, assignments, links to uploaded PowerPoints, etc. it became a bit of an unexpected commitment keeping it updated. Students too became overwhelmed, particularly this semester when I asked them to post all their assignments on Google Docs and create a list of links on their individual blog’s page. I was platforming for three classes (i.e., getting a lot of practice); most students were only doing it for one. The students who weren’t as facile with Blogger and Google-World struggled a bit. But isn’t that the dynamic of a semester? We’re all keeping more and more balls in the air as we juggle towards the final weeks.

In terms of connecting to another class, that was challenging this semester with my linguistics class. Rebekah Johnson (teaching first level ESL) and I had our students correspond to each other while my students were studying second language acquisition. It was late in the semester, however, and based on how much my students enjoyed it, I regret not working it in sooner. This brings up a big challenge with Community 2.0: you want to try out different platforms and certainly to CONNECT with other classes, but you also have a curriculum to get through and students who need basic support—often in the very basics of how to be a student: how to study, how to read, how to write, how to research, how to not only tolerate confusion, but to use it as a springboard to inquiry. Did incorporating platforms complicate that? Maybe, but not necessarily in a negative way.

I found myself flailing in depths beyond my comfort zone, but in the end, the platforms did come together into a cohesive whole. Students did learn how to use them and connect to each other—with varying degrees of proficiency, but all improved. But this was not a class in Web 2.0 platforms. My success can only be measured in how the platforms served the higher purposes of student engagement in the content of the course and student engagement in learning. The last couple of days of class, we had presentations of research papers. It was rewarding (okay, amazing!) not so much how they cited from each other’s blog posts and linked writing assignments—I told them to go ahead and do that—but to see how they connected their own learning trajectories with others’ observations and stories. I suspect the writing and posting and reading and commenting had a cumulative and sustaining effect. And certainly I am much more proficient at integrating for my purposes of teaching and writing the limited platforms I use and feel like I could take on a few more next semester. I hope my students do too.

One of the best moments was when one of them asked at the end of the presentations, “Can we create one central place to post all of our papers, so we can all read them?” The class erupted with, “Yes! Can we?” The class papers had transformed from a dreaded, or at least disembodied, required assignment into a trove of treasured, connected artifacts containing remnants of what we had learned together and from each other about language and learning. [Posting t/k!]


  1. I love the tweeted novel! I have only read so much, but will go back to it later today...

    1. It's just a short story! I know you'll love it!

  2. The correspondence between y'alls classes is amazing. You can almost feel the warmth and interest in their responses. I am glad you could do what Jason is now calling a "single contact mode" activity. :-)

    1. Ack! Missed the possessive. Oh, well...

  3. This is music to my ears. I do feel the warmth and the erupting "YES!" coming out from your class! Great job Maria!

  4. I identify with your desire to help students to engage in more meaningful ways. That was my goal too and I am still struggling with it. I love that your students wanted to read each other's papers- a sign of success.

  5. A great work, Maria! I like the links you used to explain the details. Very informative.

    It is true that students need to be comfortable with the blogging technology in order to be able to "take off." However, I believe for most of our students, as well as for myself, simply keeping up with the act of writing may be important.