Friday, June 8, 2012

An Unruly Pedagogy

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.


  1. You made a great point on how solitary work continues to be less influential in student engagement when we use online platforms. Yes, students need alone time to thinking and do their own work, but we have to be open students who need to engage in more academic and social activities that stream out of the classroom and not necessarily out of Student Activities. It can be that switch in how students appreciate and take on a paper, a specific course and a whole degree into their personal lives.

  2. Luke, I've enjoyed reading your reflections across the year. This one is no different. You have a tone that invites the reader to consider very carefully several sides of each issue.

    One of things you mention is how students become attracted to anonymous online student, the person NOT from their class. You rightly question why this is; I don't know, either. But maybe people sometimes feel more responsibility to a stranger, rather than less. A classmate or a class friend might shrug off a mediocre job - something can be won back with flirtation, with ego, or with charisma. Online, none of those shortcuts are possible.People have to rely on talent and skill, not personality. In that sense, the "distance" becomes a more accurate vetting process than traditional peer review.

    Your experience with the liberal arts cluster actually sounds more typical of clusters than it does of technologically mediated classrooms. I think, in part, those groans would have come from anything "new" that the students hadn't tried in high school and or during previous educational experiences. They want to complain as a cover for their own academic and professional insecurity. When they do this in my classes (and clusters), I mention my experience in the 'real' professional world and how much of it was mediated by the very tools we're learning. I tell them that if they think they can arrive post-education into a professional world without these new communication skills, they're mistaken. If they're serious about finding information jobs and not retail jobs, they need to understand how business - among everything else - now works. This kind of classroom, I add, is more like your future job than a classroom without it. I've found this rationale to be mostly effective, in part because it's mostly true.

    Of course, you point to the main reason students actually work harder online: they know they have an audience. It's amazing how much harder we work when we know we have one. I have a blog myself I just started (shameless plug here),, and one of the reasons I've found I can devote hours to it is because a couple dozen people read it (on a good day). That motivates me. I write more than I otherwise would - I'm more productive. Because of a blog. For the same reason as your student.

    As for the intellectual property issues you raise, I'm a little confused about whether or not you think the open classroom is worth the tradeoff. I've certainly put in more labor, not just different kinds of labor, by placing my courses online. I find this labor enjoyable, but I do realize that in a larger sense our institution is probably happy at my higher "efficiency."

    Moreover, as you mention, there is a question of ownership. Who benefits from all this work? I'm eager to try and convert at least some of my classroom experiences in 2.0 into a publication. You mention this, and it seems like that's how you're 'capitalizing' on this experience for yourself. Those are real material benefits, and putting these ideas into academic journals would give us more control over our intellectual property than currently exists in these open networks. But achieving that level of control takes more work -- there are clear advantages, but it's going to 'cost' us more time.

    As for the nature of the relationship between these activities and the power of institutions, I'm not completely persuaded that by using these technologies we're going around institutional strictures. But you're right that more people benefit from these activities, and I certainly fall on your side of the equation: "the extra effort is more than worth it." With that in mind, I'm fairly convinced that building these networks into more classrooms should happen regardless of whether or not it's everyone's "cup of tea." The tea needs to be drank. If it ain't, students are going to drink somewhere else.

  3. These are very profound reflections. I too am surprised at how much our students gravitate towards an online writing environment. It is almost as if they think that something published online is more real and more legitimate. Socrates thought that books were less real than conversations, and that art was barely real at all. How surprised he would have been to see something virtual bring out a deeper level of intellectual engagement.

  4. If we can change the way students think about their learning experiences and take responsibilities of what and how they learn, that is a big success for us.