Recently I spoke at a faculty development luncheon, trying to convey the pedagogical value of student blogging as well as other openly networked student activity on the web. Things I’ve been practicing and thinking about for about twenty years now, depending on how and what you count. This time I deliberately did not go to websites or demonstrate information architectures or cite examples with screenshots or anything of the kind for at least the first half of my talk. Instead, I put up several quotations from various pedagogical thinkers, with the aim of discussing principles and values first, and at length, before I said a word about any kind of specific implementation. I wanted to share the conceptual frameworks within which I do my work and within which my students do their work in my classes. I hoped that by doing so I could put the inevitable and worthy operational questions–how do you grade this? how does it scale? what about FERPA? etc.–into a larger perspective that might keep the operational questions from being conversation stoppers, as alas they often are. In other words, if we can agree on our values and principles, and articulate what we believe to be important aspects of the learning experience as demonstrated by our own experience as well as by careful research into the complexities of learning, then we might not get stuck when it becomes obvious that the systems we’ve devised don’t support, and often actually block, the values and principles we profess. If we know what we value and why, then we can always reimagine the operational details, difficult and jarring though that will be.
I know I seem quite naive in this hope. I’m not, really. I can show you all the broken places inside me that ache very badly in certain kinds of institutional weather. I can show you places where the brokenness has limited my range of motion, metaphorically speaking. For some odd reason(s), though, I keep trying. Actually, the reasons aren’t odd at all, though I say that ruefully as I think about the next time I’ll hear that sound somewhere inside me, the sound that says that once again something has snapped or at least been chipped.
So there I was, and the moment came. I could hear it arrive. “I need to ask a cynical question,” the voice said. You need to announce that need, too, I thought. I understand. This is pretty standard for this kind of discussion, and if anything, I was surprised it had taken so long to come out. But yes, here it comes, and I’ll do my best to respect the real concerns within the cynicism while at the same time I’ll attempt to move us back toward aspiration and imagination. For of course sometimes the cynical question helps to refine the hopes and dreams, and to make them more resilient so they can actually make their way toward reality.
As the cynical question emerged, however, there was a stinger at the end that I hadn’t anticipated. Although I can’t remember the exact words, the statement was along the lines of “I don’t want to find new ways for my students to humiliate themselves.”
Obviously there’s a lot to unpack in that statement, including a concern about student vulnerability that I take very seriously. I would rather cut my own throat than to set my students up for failure. But of course that’s not what I think I’m doing when I advocate openly networked kinds of learning experiences. Quite the contrary. Along with all the usual and valuable aspects of teaching and evaluation, I add openly networked learning experiences as places where students can succeed in new and potentially liberating ways. Succeeding at what David Wiley calls, with much justice, “disposable assignments” can have real but limited value, no doubt. But succeeding at interest-driven opportunities to move in creative, unpredictable ways to connect one’s learning with classmates’ learning and with larger experiences of life? That seems valuable to me, and a worthy, even essential addition to the experience of a course of study.
But then I do not look at these things as opportunities for students to humiliate themselves. I look at them as opportunities for students to distinguish themselves by telling the story of their learning.
At the outset, my students are often surprised and even confused by the very idea that their learning is a story, one they should consider and share. This leads me to believe that the opportunity to consider and share the story of their learning is sadly absent from much of their educational experience. But there is a story there, and it is their story, and by considering and sharing that story, learners will perhaps begin to value and own their learning with more depth and intensity rather than seek the next set of credit hours that will fit their schedule, though I know that matters, too. They can see themselves, in the company of their fellow learners, writing themselves into ampler being.
And as they write, my students distinguish themselves. Paradoxically, as they become more fully individuated, they also become more communally aware, too. At its best, the openly networked activity gives them the opportunity to be fans, even connoisseurs, of each other’s voices and insights. They can come to know that a classroom, like a brain or a heart, can be much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Ironically, that realization can take hold more readily and more effectively through the openly networked activity, for here at last they see what John Dewey observed long ago: education is not preparation for life but the very process of life itself. The openly networked aspects of learning are like a lucky coin in one’s pocket, an amulet almost, reminding us that a stuffy room with bad fluorescent lighting and uncomfortable chairs is also, potentially, a portal or a threshold or a liminal space. It’s also quizzes and syllabi and exams and papers, all of which matter too. But it cannot only be those things.
This extra space, this singularity we carry in our pockets and backpacks and find like a bookmark or a marginal note among all the things we read and write, is not a space for humiliation, but a space for wonder and curiosity. To share those spaces with each other, in our distinctive voices, is to distinguish ourselves in a way that can, at its best, reveal to us the distinctiveness that is the birthright of each of us.