Do we always keep our end purpose in mind when using technology tools in the classroom? It’s easy to get pulled in by the lure of the bells and whistles and perhaps lose sight of our learning goals for students.
Our teacher Bill Martin made an interesting comment during a recent workshop that we (along with Kris Phelps) did for teachers on using wikis in the classroom.
Bill had been using his wiki as a place for students to post their writing, and then for other students to comment on or discuss the student’s piece in the discussion tab of the wiki. The writing they are posting are personal essays that he calls Occasional Papers, and his students are also accustomed to discussing them in the classroom.
During our workshop he remarked that it seemed difficult for students to interact with one another. What he was looking for was students not just posting a comment in isolation to meet some requisite number of comments, but to interact with both the original essay and one another in their responses. He commented that it seemed most students simply responded to the original paper, and not to the comments that others were making, making it less of a conversation and more just a string of comments, (though there were some exceptions.)
I considered what Konrad Glogowski had commented on during his Educon 2.0 presentation on blogging with students, and how it took time to develop both the teacher methodology of using the tool, and to develop students as bloggers.
So I posited to Bill that it takes time for students to learn to react not only to the prompt, but to one another in their responses. Bill spends a lot of time in his class using the Socratic method and eliciting student discussion and does it very well. But it takes time at the beginning of the year, I presume, for students to become comfortable and trusting with that format. So, similarly, I think having students use online discussion tools is just another venue at which students may need practice, particularly in an educational environment.
Bill also surveyed his students about how he used these tools in class(he used Nicenet, and then Pbwiki), and one of the things that was clear that not surprisingly, his students had varying comfort levels with using online tools.
A couple of sample comments:
“Everytime I log onto Pbwiki.com, I feel like I’m trying to decode a nuclear bomb. I clearly am incompetent. . . .If I could even post them, I would like it. I like telling people what I think.”
“After you make a posting it is always interesting to go back and see what replies you got to your first comment.”
“They let you write thoughts that you might not want to say in class during the discussion.”
“I was afraid to talk to someone because I didn’t think that we had anything in common but I read a posting of theirs and it opened up the doors to talk. There was a time when I couldn’t get out a word in class and wanted to say it so when I got home I posted it to get it out.”
and alternately, (my favorite):
“I’m not comfortable on all these sites. I can’t seem to figure them out. The internet just confuses the **** out of me.”
Clearly, for some it was liberating, and for some it was a big obstacle. Our assumptions that all students enjoy posting things online are clearly just that, assumptions. So one obstacle that obviously would need to be addressed is the actual use of the technology. As we talked, we were in agreement that more access to computers where students could get some regular practice with it during class initially would be an important key.
We do need to provide some scaffolding to the tool for those more reluctant users, and we also need to provide other alternatives at times, like class discussions, etc., so that we aren’t wrapped around one method, and can tease out the skills of different students.
Also, I’m making a generalization here, but we have asked students for so long to simply turn in their work, with the teacher as the primary audience, that the idea of not only sharing it with a group audience, but then interacting with that audience, is a different school experience for them initially. And for those in the “audience,” the idea that they can interact not only with the author of the piece, but with one another, may also be a little foreign.
Do students innately understand what a conversation about ideas is? Or do they need us to model for them what that looks like and create the kind of environment where they feel at ease doing that?
The live blogging efforts of students at Arapahoe High School demonstrated that through classroom practice, they have become adept at this sort of responsive, conversational blogging or online discussion. I’m curious to know how Anne Smith and Maura Moritz have fostered that in their own classrooms?
The value in all of this for me was this–as a teacher, Bill knew what he was looking for from the tool, (as did the other teacher presenting with us, Kris Phelps). Maybe this wasn’t the right tool, and maybe students needed more time with it, but he knew what he wanted from it, and so as students used it, he was analyzing it with that in mind. He also asked students to reflect on their experience using the tools, which then has become a tool to improve his own use of them. And because of that reflective teaching, his use of the tools will deepen (and that will be shared with other educators as well.)
I think the best thing those of us who support classroom teachers can do is help teachers articulate the goals they have for a particular assignment and then truly try to match those tools to their goals, and to also help them assess and reflect on its usefulness along the way. Bill’s applying that thoughtful habit of mind to his use of the tools really modeled that for me.
Bill has recently shared a phrase he heard at a workshop–that the only true learning students do (or any of us?) is through conversation. How can we help our students become better at that?
And as a postscript that is semi-related:
I’ve been thinking recently about my own blog, and reading some posts from Christian Long particularly reminded me that blogs that really deepen are those where the writer and audience are having a conversation with one another, with back and forth involved.
Christian Long points to this on his own blog as he recently has decided to comment on people’s comments on his blog. (Which leads me to wonder if on his wiki project, Bill should also ask the author of each piece to go back and respond to the comments that others are leaving on their essays, rather than just read through the collection of comments on their essay. That way the interaction is truly two-way, and more of a dialogue is created.)
Turning back to my own blog, it also leads me to believe that I need to be more responsive to commenters, and circle back around to respond to them in order to create more of a dialogue space instead of a “display” space. So I plan to do much more of that so my own blogging is more interactive and conversational. (so…come back and visit again after your initial comment!)