I have used web 2.0 tools for a couple of years now, maybe more, and my thinking on how I use them for pedagogical purposes has shifted from the emphasis on what students gain to an exploration on what the academic process as a whole gains. To elaborate:
The benefits for students were anecdotal but nonetheless strong from the very first time I connected a composition class with another composition class—I believe the very first was my ENG 101 with an ENG 099 Ximena was teaching. Students saw the process of offering feedback to another set of students, people who were not in the class, as an authentic, meaningful experience serving real needs. Peer review within the classroom could not compare to connecting with another person whose blog and personalization of it revealed a character yet unexplored. There was no mystery in looking at a classmate’s paper any more than there was in their looking at their own—they were all hoops to jump through set by the professor. For reasons I do not pretend to fully understand, the same text posted somewhere as a blog entry produces different reactions. Maybe we (or the students’ generation for certain) live in an era where such online identities are real identities—it is of little importance for my exploration. What did matter was that in that interaction students produced feedback far better, in quality and quantity, than they did in the confines of the single traditional classroom.
In following semesters I replicated these with both others’ sections and my own. I even have presented at a couple of conferences on the benefits of online peer review across sections using 2.0 tools. There is of course extra burden both with setting up this kind of class and coordinating such activities. If we also consider the possibilities for things to go awry, from technology problems to students being resistant to these kinds of innovation, there are almost as many reasons to not engage in such 2.0 techniques—at least there are many such reasons from the instructor’s side. One semester I taught a particularly unruly liberal arts cluster using blogger and these kinds of interactions. There were many moans and groans which frequently had me question whether the class was indeed benefitting in a way worth all the trouble; a couple of semesters later, I had two of the same students in my ENG 102 class. Because it was a Fall II class and I wanted the short session to be different anyway, I conducted that class with no 2.0 tools. At the end of the first week, one of the students from the previous semester came to my office and asked “what happened to the blogs.” I responded that given the complaints, I would have thought nobody missed them. His response pointed to an aspect I had never even considered. He told me that when he wrote in the blog and he knew that others would read it and respond to it, he never felt like it was a lonely homework endeavor in which he was engaged. Thus began my own shift in focus.
Academic institutions see knowledge as proprietary—they teach students so with their emphasis on intellectual property and plagiarism, which I joke with them is academia’s cardinal sin—one will be forgiven for all else, from sloppy argumentation to poor editing to lazy research, but there is no forgiveness for plagiarism. I am not against the emphasis on individual discovery, but there are side effects of that emphasis. Academic institutions end up seeing the production of knowledge as happens in the classroom to be proprietary as well. Even if classrooms have visitors and observers, even if faculty have an open classroom, the system still limits access to what happens in the class, and if there are observers, they certainly expect that they come to learn from the professor peers, not from the students. Having a class that is wholly accessible to the public through non-proprietary platforms like blackboard and eportfolio is radical in the simple way most truly radical ideas are, in that it eliminates the strictures of the institutional walls. The public nature of the class also conveys a different hidden curriculum than the traditional classroom, in which writing a paper or reading is a solitary activity and where even peer review is justified in the name of learning editing skills students will then transfer to their own writing. As my student pointed out, using interactive 2.0 platforms conditions them to thinking of learning as a shared, communal experience. Perhaps that is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those of us that we desire such change, the extra effort is more than worth it.