Lead article: How did a couple of veteran classroom teachers end up in a space like this? Extraordinary intersections between learning, social software and teaching.
Barbara Ganley (at left), lecturer in Writing and English at Middlebury College, Vermont and Barbara Sawhill (below left), Director of the Cooper International Learning Center at Oberlin College, Ohio, are teaching practitioners at the peak of their craft, using new media and social software tools to build their learners’ digital and language literacies.
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As teachers in the twenty-first century, we are witnessing and embracing a period of transition and transformation, a period of chaos and order, which has given us an opportunity to examine what it is we do with our learners, why we do what we do, and to question how we might be able to do it better.
We ask what it means to teach in a world where everyone and everything is interconnected, or as Nelson (1974) calls it, ‘intertwingled’. What tensions present themselves in the classroom when we invite into our teaching spaces the user-centric, social software tools our learners are already using to communicate, collaborate, and play with their peers? What possibilities and what impediments are created in this highly participatory, creative, ‘mashed-up’, hyper-networked world that parallels, encircles and interconnects with our face-to-face teaching space? How is our teaching transformed when we engage with each other and the world without boundaries, borders or hierarchies?
This article will explore the classroom blogging adventures of two teachers participating in the metamorphosis of the learning experience; a shedding of the cocoon of antiquated, teacher-centric models of teaching and learning. We will demonstrate how an emergent learner-centric, community-focused teaching and learning model provides a boundary-less series of places where the teacher and the learner, the class and the community outside of the classroom, create and transform knowledge together.
Daring to transform our teaching - passions and tensions
[M]any teachers who do not have difficulty releasing old ideas, embracing new ways of thinking, may still be as resolutely attached to old ways of practicing teaching as their more conservative colleagues. That’s a crucial issue. Even those of us who are experimenting with progressive pedagogical practices are afraid to change. (hooks 1994:142)
With social networking and media-sharing practices rapidly assuming a central role in our professional and personal lives, teachers have a responsibility to bring these practices into the classroom. Indeed, connection is perhaps the key word in our early 21st-century lexicon. Kids are connecting. Families are connecting. Businesses are connecting. Much of the world seems to be connecting. To combat illegal logging, the government of Brasil has announced a plan to provide free Internet access to remote villages along the Amazon so as to enable them to network and share local knowledge and information (Welsh 2007). Community wikis and blogs are cropping up around the world to strengthen communal ties (Global Voices Online). Museums are addressing ’semantic divides’ between curators and the public by inviting museum goers to help tag their digital collections (O’Connell 2007:para. 10). Increasingly ‘…our sense of continuity and belonging derives from being electronically networked to the widely scattered people and places [we] care about’ (Mitchell 2003:17).
But change, real change, is disruptive. In the classroom we stumble on our fear of the new, of disequilibrium, of technology. We stumble on the fear that our youth already squanders time online, in sometimes questionable, even unsafe or unethical, practices. In one ear, technology opponents amongst our colleagues whisper that our communities are breaking apart as we sit in front of computer screens instead of each other, that children are becoming disconnected from the natural world as they immerse themselves in the virtual (Monke 2005). In the other ear, technology uber-fans gush over their embrace of every new gadget, technology and practice, affixing computer-driven activities onto factory-model teaching practices as shiny appendages, resulting in a ‘technology façade’ (Tomei 1999), or privileging ‘the cult of the amateur’ (Keen 2007). These educators, in not transforming their teaching practices, actually stoke the Luddite fires (Ganley 2006).
Yes we have felt the seductive tug that beckons us to fall back upon the known, the tried-and-true, the safe way of teaching our classes. How easy it would be to teach to the test or the textbook. There is a palpable tension emerging between what we have taught in the classroom in the past and what the world outside requires our learners to know in order to grow and be productive contributors in this new ‘intertwingled’ world. This does not mean that traditional literacies of critical reading, thinking and communication must make way for emerging literacies of collaboration, online communication and multimedia navigation. It does mean that we have to transform our teaching to accommodate them all effectively. If, in the language classroom, for example, there is a disconnect between the language taught and the language spoken in the outside world, we have, indeed, failed our learners. Social software allows us to fling open the doors and the windows of our isolated classroom environments and forces us to connect with the real world, building on traditional literacies (Jenkins 2007).
There is also a new form of tension in today’s classroom: between the students we once were and the students we now find ourselves teaching, a tension between what we have to teach and what our students want to learn, and a tension between their passions and interests and the Academy’s curricular obligations. When woven into the fabric of the classroom, blogs allow the participants to articulate their feelings as a way of addressing these tensions. As well, blogs provide a space where the participants’ interests and passions can bubble forth for the enrichment of the group.
Figure 1: Sean
We could offer many examples, but let us share this one for now. Sean is an English-speaking American using blogs in his upper level conversational Spanish class. Sean is also a passionate student of music composition and theory. He also expressed a growing interest in the art of teaching and in the process of learning. Sean was able to mesh all of his worlds and his passions - Pedagogy and Spanish and Music - into his class blog. Thinking of the hours he had spent self-teaching himself in anticipation of his Conservatory studies, Sean wanted to create a blog that was a guide, a syllabus, and a tool to help others learn as well. As a result his Spanish 305 blog was a passionate and creative and artistically captivating multimedia study tool, openly available for critique and collaboration. Later in this article we will chronicle how his blog ended up benefitting others in another land, but for the moment here are Sean’s words in an email after the class was completed on the importance of the blog in the classroom.
I quickly found that blogging was a good way for me to show -myself- that I knew what I was talking about. It demanded that I understood my material and actively thought about it and the clarity with which I was teaching. I also had to weigh countless movements, works, and names from over a century of music literature against one another, and then I quickly found that while I could avoid bias, I still tended to write most clearly about what I understood best- AND what I was more passionate about. (S. Hanson, 2007, pers. comm., 24 September)
Blogging to bridge literacies
Where more traditional models of literacy prepare children for a somewhat distant future at which time they will participate in meaningful ways in the ‘real’ world, a model of literacy matching the needs of contemporary children must take as a first principle that children are already active participants and risk takers. (Carrington 2004:23)
Integrating open social software practices, in our case blogs, into the heart of formal learning contexts helps us weave together essential pedagogical strands to create - even and perhaps especially within the confines of traditionally siloed education institutions - real opportunities for learners to practise critical thinking and expression skills, to collaborate and connect, to be creative, and to integrate personal formal and informal learning spaces. By blogging effectively within classroom settings, we can mentor learner forays into public spaces.
Many educational institutions adopt learning management systems (LMS) to organise and password-protect their constituents’ work, and many LMS have blogging tools. It is important to note that both of us have made a conscious decision to use blogs that exist outside of our schools’ learning management systems. When we talk about blogging in the classroom, we are actually talking about blogging with our learners both within the classroom and well beyond, pulling in images and video and sound as appropriate, as we invite the outside world to come in and comment alongside our learners, our colleagues, and ourselves. This is not to say that teachers confined within the walls of LMS are denied all of blogging’s benefits; indeed, we will show how even individual, closed blogging can improve learning outcomes.
We wish to emphasise the importance of distinguishing between using blogs as holders of factory-model teaching practices, and taking advantage of their connectivity and transparency to deepen and liberate learning from the confines of stagnant, teacher-centric models. Ignoring the transformative capabilities of connectivity, some teachers using blogs merely reproduce offline practices online. Limiting classroom blogging to one-way transactions of information and directives from teacher to learners may add convenience and efficiency to the classroom, but does nothing for learning itself. Nor does assigning and directing wooden, forced, framed discussions online, which result in little more than mind-numbing ‘busy work’. We belittle and infantalise our students, further rewarding docility and disengagement if we over-direct posts by giving minute instructions as to their content, number and direction. Learners in our classes who have blogged in their secondary-school classrooms often enter our courses unimpressed by, or even dreading, blogging. They are suspicious of adults ‘co-opting’ their social practices, and they are disengaged by poor teaching practices. They have also learned to distrust blogs as vehicles for self-absorbed navel-gazing or for fonts of misinformation. They demonstrate our contention that using blogs poorly is worse, perhaps, than not using them at all.
What follows, then, is a detailed journey into the heart of effective classroom blogging, focusing on emerging pedagogy rather than tools. We will examine hyperlinked slow-blogging as reflective learning; multimedia, interactive blogging as action-based learning; and connected, transparent blogging as social learning.
A new kind of portfolio: slow-bogging as a richly woven reflective learning practice - public, hyperlinked, archived letters to the self
Reflective writing as a learning tool
Since the 1980s’ popularising of process-based learning, particularly in the writing classroom (Elbow 1981; Murray 1985; Graves 1994; Calkins 1994; Emig 1977; Bishop 1990 and others), teachers from across the disciplines have incorporated reflective writing into their classroom practices as powerful conduits of sustained learning. Reflection-through-writing is a powerful aid to information retention, which is poor unless the lesson is repeated in a variety of contexts (Bharucha 2007). The learner, in the act of writing down what s/he has learned, solidifies understanding and reveals areas of confusion.
As the writing-process movement also tells us, informal, exploratory writing, by allowing thoughts to roam about associatively, over time, and by means other than words alone (webbing, drawing and mapping, for instance) can lead learners to new and deeper ideas and to connections between those ideas. Thinking expands, critical skills sharpen, and creativity is enhanced by practising writing in sustained informal spaces (Elbow 1981).
Traditionally this kind of reflective narrative, found in journals and portfolios, has helped learners gain skill at meta-discourse and take responsibility for learning in liberal arts contexts. Teachers follow progress and detect comprehension gaps while coming to know learners’ styles, contexts and preferences. Learner-teacher interactions through reflective writing can deepen important bonds, an important indicator of effective learning (Raider Roth 2005).
The very best such uses of reflective journals also bridge informal and formal learning spaces, and different kinds of learning contexts including vocational by inviting learners to contextualise the learning in their own way within personal experience, thereby making the learning their own (Greene 1978). Authentic learning i.e. learning that is not merely an abstract exercise that might one day lead to a real-world application, but learning that has real meaning for learners now, is served when learners have the time to connect the classroom lessons with their own life and work experiences (hooks 1994:148). Such awareness often deepens learner engagement with learning and, as a result, improves learning outcomes (Ganley 2004).
Blogging and reflective writing: old and new
The commingling of traditional culture and its digital descendants should be seen as a cause for celebration and not outrage. (Johnson 1997:8)
Blogs’ unique combination of connectivity and transparency can enhance the outcomes of a reflective learning practice in all kinds of learning contexts. At the very least, a blog provides a convenient, easily accessible, effective space for such ongoing, age-old, and effective letter-writing to the self and/or to the teacher. But if limited to the kinds of practices achieved offline, while efficient and convenient, and affording keyboarding practice, this use ignores new literacies of connectivity, collaboration, communication and multimedia expression. It also leaves out learners for whom written reflection is not always optimal or possible.
The flexibility of blogging - through archiving, tagging and hyperlinking - introduces opportunities for new-literacy practice AND deeper learning unattainable through print-based journalling. Although a blog organises itself, ordinarily and on first view, in reverse chronological order, the latest post being most prominent, tagging and hyperlinking allow for more associative, lateral ways of organising and connecting thoughts. Even the novice learner can transcend the limits of time and linearity in linking nascent ideas, discoveries and meta-discourse on the learning, replacing ‘…the essentially linear, fixed methods that had produced the triumphs of capitalism and industrialism with what are essentially poetic machines that capture and create the anarchic brilliance of human imagination’ (Landow 2006:13).
Hyperlinking connects reflective learners to earlier or to different modes of thinking, revising, extending, and remembering, allowing associative thought to flourish not only because all pieces are held together within the same blog, but because they are directly linked to one another actively within the text. Learners can link to practices other than written as they struggle to articulate and thus retain and apply what they have learned. For example, some learners will naturally link to audio rather than to text files of their reflections; others will link to images they have taken that are reflective of the learning process and outcomes.
In other words, blogging helps the learner to spiral back as s/he moves forward, ‘…[e]lectronic linking shift[ing] the boundaries between one text and another as well as between the author and the reader and between the teacher and the learner. It also has radical effects on our experience of author, text, and work, redefining each’ (Landow 2006:52, our additions in brackets).
Figure 2: Letters
This blog post shows how the teacher-blogger links back to previous posts and comments left by other writers as she reflects on her teaching and learning.
Reflective writers can also, of course, link directly to posts of other learners in the class, to sources referred to in their posts, to other thinkers on the subject, and to media other than written text, thereby extending the reflective practice into synthesis and analysis and invention. While the blogging voice may be emphatically their own, reflective bloggers announce their understanding that no thinker writes in a vacuum, that no artist creates alone (Levi-Strauss 1988:148).
Indeed, slow-bloggers, a term borrowed from the Slow-food movement (Ganley 2007), can link directly to texts to which they are responding and excerpting, mashing up the old, bridging tradition and present, other and self. Through a linked reflective practice, they, in essence, converse with the discipline as well as their own developing relationships to that discipline. They take a stand and their place. And when the blogposts are open to the world (or at least to the class), there is a healthy self-consciousness about the communication, an implicit understanding that the bloggers are engaging in a conversation with the discipline itself, not just with a private reading of the discipline, or a private experience with the learning shared by no one else. If we know we are being read, that our explorations have value out in the world, we tend to take more care with our expression and our thinking as communiqués to the Other as well as to the self. (See Blogging as social learning practice to follow.)
Figure 3: Blogpost
Looking at a single blogpost as conversation, not only with the blogger’s own thoughts, but with the thinkers within her discipline and beyond.
The teacher, in turn, can scan the writing, the audio files and image links before class to assess learning progress and prepare to teach to the moment, to the level of learner understanding and engagement. From learner posts, the teacher can point to models and questions, to moments of creative and critical success. Learning deepens, writing strengthens: these successes in turn pull the writer back to the blog again and again, to reflect and to improve thinking and expression skills.
Figure 4: Podcasting
The teacher can point to examples of student podcasts recently recorded or archived, as models.
That these messages to the self (and by extension, to the class and the world) are archived by date and category (or tag) allows them to take their place in an ongoing narrative of the learning. This reflective, reflexive practice, then, solidifies learning, by engaging the learner, giving him/her back his/her own voice, while contextualising and developing it. As Landow (2006) explains, ‘…[c]omplete read-write hypertext …does not permit a tyrannical, univocal voice. Rather the voice is always that distilled from the combined experience of the momentary focus, the lexia one presently reads, and the continually forming narrative of one’s reading path’ (2006:56). Amerika (2007) describes the phenomenon of hyperlinked, open blogging ‘…as inventive remix machine placing value on what it sees, what it links to, how it appropriates the other and strips it of its isolation’ (2007:418). Linking out connects us to more than ourselves. So, in this time of crumbling communities and the cult of the individual, our learners can, through active hyperlinking within a reflective learning practice, become more self-aware rather than more self-absorbed.
Blogging as action-centred learning practice
[A]n approach to democratic education that is not child-centered but action-centered, one that focuses both on opportunities for students to begin, and on plurality as the condition under which action is only possible. It thus entails a double educational responsibility: …for each individual and…for the ‘world,’ the space of plurality and difference as the condition for democratic subjectivity. (Biesta, 2007:1 speaking of Hannah Arendt)
Some readers might find blogging’s roominess for a richly connected and varied reflective practice reason enough to explore classroom blogs. But there’s more: much more. The blog’s visual qualities and malleability - digital learning objects can be embedded into or linked from the blog - open up opportunities to create new kinds of texts, such as podcasts, digital stories and interactive timelines, and thus for our learners to practise emerging literacies while they deepen their learning. Even novices, with access to the Internet and their own blog, can work from a smorgasbørd of media types and media practices - both their own and those made available through Creative Commons licensing and a growing list of Web 2.0 tools (see Alan Levine’s wiki resource), choosing image and/or spoken word, sound and/or video, for instance, in building richly textured, inventive multimedia work and in linking out to media and relevant digital texts, critical or creative, housed elsewhere. Learning objects of all sorts, suited to learner goals, skills, needs and preferences can easily be integrated into the blogging class.
Figure 5: Multimedia essay
Learners collaborated on a group research project, mixing video clips, images, sound files and text to create a new kind of essay that goes well beyond what students handing in text-only papers could accomplish. The students found themselves engaged and excited by both research and the struggle to express their learning clearly and richly.
This new range of choices allows novices to exert their own voices while attending to the constraints of academic discourse, rather than merely parroting what they have heard and seen elsewhere. In selecting media, learners gain critical awareness of the grammar of image and sound as well as language. They learn to evaluate the impact of visual media on their discipline, on their society and on their lives as they develop skill at understanding structure, the arc of an argument, the use of transitions. They learn to balance the critical and the creative eye in creating and assessing their own work (Ganley forthcoming). Through linking out to other texts, learners essentially add them to their own in a collective mash-up. (See Blogging as a social learning practice to follow.)
In exploring recording their voices and sending these files out to the world via the blog, students experience what Hendrik and Ornberg have asserted, that ‘…audio is more effective than text for creating a sense of co-presence’ (2002:221) and what filmmaker Lucas has pointed out, that ‘…learning to communicate with graphics, with music, with cinema, is just as important as communicating with words’ (Daly 2004:17).
Figure 6: Donovan
This student, instead of writing a personal narrative essay, created a digital story about his passion for kayaking, taking into consideration visual argument, the use of soundtrack and narrative voiceover to amplify the video footage. Embedding the digital story onto his blog allowed him to receive feedback and to share his work with his learning community, his social community and the world.
Students learn the discipline by doing the discipline (Ganley & Vila 2004). As one student has commented, ‘Cameras and computers have become the tools that have enabled me to blend my life, academics, and adventures together… They have granted me access to an innovative education that is all my own…I am using cameras and computers to relate my own experiences to the books I read and the lectures I listen to’ (R. Mansfield, 2006, 19 February).
Figure 7: Remy
Remy balances playful expression with his skill with cameras and his urge to capture his learning through audio, video, image and text blogging. Informal and formal learning landscapes merge on his blog, pulling his kayaking, his travel and his course-related reflections together in a new kind of learning document, a fluid portfolio.
Figure 8: Piya
On her blog, Piya explores expressive uses of audio, video, and text to present her experiences during study abroad, not feeling constrained by text.
Creation of learning objects in an action-centered classroom also allows learners to become agents of change in the world, albeit perhaps unintentionally. While working and writing and communicating in the wide open blogosphere, meaningful connections are made thanks to these tools and the passions the learners put into using them. The following are just some examples from the classroom.
Figure 9: Evie
Evie, writing about the femicides on the Texas/Mexican border, also included in her blog a recorded conversation (conducted via Skype) with the director of Casa Amiga, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Casa Amiga endeavours to both protect young women from the danger that surrounds them, but also seeks to keep the news of the murders of (now) hundreds of women visible in the media and on the minds of the local politicians. Evie had volunteered in Casa Amiga the year before and wrote passionately about her experiences there, in Spanish.
Quite unexpectedly, Evie received comments via her blog from families in Mexico who were desperate for help in finding their recently disappeared daughters. They begged Evie to help them make contact with the authorities on their behalf. Suddenly and dramatically, what started as a class project for yet another college course became a virtual lifeline for these Mexican citizens who found Evie’s work on the web, and in turn catapulted one of our learners into the role of activist and advocate for a cause about which she cared deeply. Later in the same semester, Evie was contacted by a publishing house in New York that was writing a book about the femicides and asked her if she would allow them to publish some of her photos of the femicide memorials in Ciudad Juarez in their book. By the end of the semester, Evie was not only a committed and involved activist for women’s rights, but a published photographer.
Figure 10: Sean
We opened this article with a description of Sean and his blog that reflected his passions for Music, Teaching and Spanish. After completing the course, he received this comment to his blog:
Hola!!!!! buscando datos sobre impresionismo llegué a tu información. La verdad que esta muy bueno como explicas los movimientos, me intereso sobre todo el Impresionismo porque tengo que dar unas clases prácticas en secundario y estoy buscando información para que a los chicos les resulte didáctico, entretenido y puedan aprenderlo… (M-I. Troiano, 2007, pers.comm., n.d.)
Hi!!!! While looking for information about Impressionism [on the web] I arrived here. You do a fine job explaining the musical periods/movements, and I am particularly interested in the subject of Impressionism because I have to teach practicum classes at the high school level and I’m looking for information for my students that will be useful to them, entertain them but also be at a level that they can understand… (M-I. Troiano, 2007, pers.comm., n.d.)
The correspondent then went on to ask Sean for his guidance as to what he would recommend that she share with her class. And so, the apprentice became the master, the student became the teacher, and Sean’s blog is fulfilling by becoming a valued resource for a teacher in Argentina and for her students as well.
Sean’s comment on the use of blogs in the Spanish language classroom was this.
Short and sweet, the blogging system to me demonstrated that I am not the ignorant Spanish student I thought I was, and helped instill the first thoughts of pedagogy into my mind - I have been thinking about education differently ever since. (S. Hanson, 2007, pers.comm., 24 September)
Figure 11: Claire
Claire was fascinated by graffiti, and by the political and social issues surrounding the world of graffiti not only in the United States, but also in the Spanish speaking world. Claire’s blog took form initially as a body of research - images, facts, names of artists. Her blogging world and her real world became forever ‘intertwingled’ when she started leaving comments on the blogs of some of the graffiti artists she was following, and they, in turn, left comments on her blog. What followed was a flurry of comments, Instant Messaging (IM) conversations, Skype (r) chats and blogposts each taking Claire ever closer to the very people she has studied and admired and analysed…from afar. After the class ended (and after Claire graduated) Claire’s interest in graffiti continued. Her most recent post on the blog shows her own graffiti and her self-realisation that indeed this is much harder than it looks. But just as in the case of Sean, Claire went from being the observer to participant and now to a creator of graffiti, thanks in part to the connections made via social software tools.
Each of these learners have chosen to continue blogging well after the courses ended, and continue to receive feedback not only from their classmates but from the world as well. As a result it is not difficult to see how a tool such as a blog can keep learners immersed in course content in a way that traditional, teacher and textbook-centric teaching simply cannot.
Blogging as social learning practice
I cannot do without the other; I cannot become myself without the other; I must find myself within the other, finding the other in me. (Bahktin n.d.,cited in Danyow 2001:59)
The brain is the social organ, the organ of culture (Bharucha 2007, lecture, n.d.)
The desire to achieve complexity will have limited value as long as it is held by separate individuals, each nursing it in the privacy of his or her own consciousness. It must be shared to become effective.(Csikszentmihalyi 1993, cited in Moran & John-Steiner 2003:42)
A third, and perhaps most significant, role for classroom blogs to play, then, is in social learning, in the forming of close bonds within the learning community itself and with the outside world. Blogs afford learners a strong sense of belonging to a dynamic learning collaborative, following the apprenticeship model of learning, in which everyone is expert and apprentice to one another (Lévy 1997:10).
The job of the teacher using social software is to create an understanding in and amongst the participants that they need to work together as a social entity, as a collaborative group, that is linked to and communicating among themselves as well as with the world. That said, this transformation from a traditional teacher-centric model to a collaborative learning environment can be difficult and requires a great deal of patience and perseverance to accomplish.
Student bloggers learn by collaborating with one another through online group projects and through discussions, both formal and informal, that spring up on a central course blog, what we call the ‘Motherblog’, and by linking to one another within their own blogs, and creating feedback loops through the commenting function. Students also learn from one another through the blog archives, which grow year by year. Although we still teach in a departmentalised, semesterised system, the archiving subverts the notion of isolated learning segments by carrying the blog’s accumulated wisdom from group to group, informing the new learners’ experiences by adding context, models and inspiration (Ganley 2006).
Figure 12: The Motherblog
One example of a course Motherblog with three columns for a mix of expressive and communicative uses: the left sidebar serves as the course management tool, the central section as discussion space, and right sidebar as the link to individual learner blogs.
Figure 13: The course ‘Motherblog’/ ‘El blog central’
A course Motherblog, which serves as a course management tool in that it contains, or links to, all course materials including the learners’ work, draws the community in to this asynchronous meeting place, the course locus. In this particular model, the static material of the course including online resources, syllabi, announcements, overviews are housed on the left hand sidebar menu. Learners thus have access to the course content anytime, anywhere. The right hand sidebar contains dynamic feeds to the individual learner blogs, the titles of each learner’s most recent posts, thereby making available, on the same website as the static information, the unfolding collective conversation of the learning community. By seeing their own posts fed onto the homepage of the Motherblog, learners become aware of audience and the urge to communicate authentically and to develop their skills of expression. Suddenly, contributing media has value, real value. In turn, when we become the audience, we are also transformed by being linked, connected, collaborators. In this way, blogs can also work as a means of foreshadowing what might happen in an upcoming classroom face to face conversation, helping writers anticipate their readers’/ listeners’/ community’s reactions. And unlike a discussion board that might be hosted on a course management tool such as Blackboard, these multimedia posts and comments are archived, hyperlinked and are open and available to all and not just the class.
Figure 14: Informal sharing
Here students pop onto the blog to share findings and to discuss issues of mutual interest.
The central column of the blog invites informal sharing of discoveries made within the class experience and outside. Learners and teachers bring into the community discussion their own expertise, prior learning, cultural perspectives. They can converse here about what interests them about what they are studying. This kind of informal discussion weaves the threads of collective intelligence, and it helps learners to think beyond the strict confines of the syllabus, seeing connections to themselves and the world. They are also practising a direct means of expression, including image and sound, that is far more informal in nature than the kinds of discussions that unfold about the course material. The teacher gathers these pieces of text, image and sound into teaching moments; for example, pulling up a blog discussion in class to examine levels of discourse, content, experience, and community (Ganley 2006) or turning to offshoots from the blog such as an image-sharing experience, where students explore tagging and putting together visual arguments and explanations.
Figure 15: Flickr sharing
The class uses Flickr to collect and share images to be used in image-only essays and reflections, and in multimedia texts.
The kinds of discussions and media sharing that emerge on the course Motherblog and on individual learner blogs, through comments, inevitably lead learners into ‘contact zones’ (Pratt 1999: para. 28), the spaces in which we confront perspectives, experiences and values different from our own. Learners learn to negotiate within these zones authentically, respectfully and deeply, as a way to participate actively and ethically within our global society. Minds open and perspective expands as the bonds within the learning community strengthen. As Garrison and Anderson (2003) point out, ‘…a community of learners is an essential, core element of an educational experience when higher-order learning is the desired outcome’ (2003:22).
Teachers struggle with the tensions that exist between the limited amount of contact time afforded a particular class, the number of learners needing authentic contact with the course material, and, in second language (L2) classrooms, the lack of meaningful, current, appropriate cultural context in which the language can be spoken. Research suggests that adult learners and others traditionally disenfranchised by our educational systems depend on informal learning networks (Sawchuk 2003), what Gee (2004) terms ‘affinity spaces’. Using blogs as a complement to the face-to-face classroom environment not only provides more time on task for the learners, but if left open to world (as opposed to behind a firewall or a password or contained within the shell of a Learning Management System) these tools allow the real world - those crucial informal learning networks - into our classrooms…and the remarkable connections that happen as a result.
We can invite the outside world into the course intentionally, by asking experts in our field to participate in time-limited blog-based discussions with our learners. In these ‘blogging invitationals’ our learners can interact with professionals, joining the conversation of the real-world discipline in a meaningful way. The give-and-take with experts gives the course content heightened value, and pushes learners to develop their critical and creative thinking and communication skills as they engage with the discipline. Other powerful connections with the world outside the classroom can occur through inter-classroom or inter-school blogging exchanges, or in service-learning initiatives, in which university learners, for example, mentor younger learners via connected blogging and feedback through comments, classroom to classroom, as writing buddies. Opening course blogs to these kinds of connections leads to efficacy in action, and thus to powerful learning outcomes in both traditional and emerging literacies.
Connected, multimodal learning in the 21st century classroom provides our classes with a sense of cohesiveness by welcoming and celebrating a multiplicity of perspectives, a cacophony of voices, different and differing worlds, cultures, media and languages. The answer, then, is neither to shy away from nor race to computers, but to be mindful that ‘…no two of us lives in the same information age’ (Bruce 2003:333) as we balance between past and future.
The shifting nature of cultural identity and society (Wellman 2002) means that our learners need us to work with them online and off, in informal as well as formal learning spaces, to help them to navigate online and natural worlds, to use their knowledge and experience in one to enhance the other, to form bridges between communities and cultures, and bonds within those communities (Norris 2003).
We have perhaps an uneasy balance to achieve right now between fear and zealousness, between closed systems and unattended ones, between old literacies and new. We understand that our learners must learn to produce and participate ethically, actively and effectively as well as to consume and manipulate information. It is our responsibility, our charge, to ensure that all of our learners, whether they have access to computers or the Internet at home or not, have access to the new as well as old literacies, and can participate in the kinds of collaborations and networks rapidly defining the communication of our time. Bringing these 21st century educational practices into the heart of what we do announces our commitment to teaching and learning for our time.
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