Connected Learning–From the POV of a skeptic

I come from a small town with limited technological resources, particularly regarding education. Every course, every lecture, was done on PowerPoint or paper handouts which the instructor elaborated on throughout the class period. PowerPoint is a good tool for a lecture–it serves as a way for the lecturer to emphasize certain points throughout the lecture and serves to improve and cater to the audience’s visual literacy, in addition to traditional one-way communication methods (e.g. teacher to classroom of 20+ students). One of the biggest takeaways from this kind of lecture, however, was that, if unfettered or left in the hands of an unenthusiastic professor, these methods fall flat, leaving students frustrated.

In this course, keeping a consistent blog is the primary assignment for each student. And at first I was a skeptic. What do I have to say that is more important than an academic–a so-called-expert in the field of contemporary pedagogy? How are we going to learn if we aren’t given the information we need? Aren’t we all just going to be lost in the wilderness for the next four months? I have no credibility. But here’s the thing: This type of thinking is a byproduct of old-school pedagogy and traditional academic models. People have been learning from the instructor to body of students dynamic for generations. But this is the 21st Century, perhaps it is time to open up our classrooms a little bit, to explore what we each have to contribute to a body of knowledge that is constantly changing, evolving, and expanding.

So, my goal at the end of these 15 weeks is to broaden my horizons, to overcome my biases and move past the following misconceptions:

1.  Technology is scary. I’m not what one would term a techno-wiz. I’m not the person you call to fix your computer (my advice is limited to “Did you turn it off and on again?” “Is it plugged in?” “Um…Control/Alt/Delete, maybe?” and “Throw it out the window and buy another”). This may stem from an overall lack of exposure to technology, and also a discomfort at the association of the technology field’s relationship to mathematics, which has consistently given me nightmares: “OH NO!! Not differential equations!! GAHHHH!!!!” (clutches heart, dies dramatically). But the fact of the matter is that technology, namely the Internet, is a powerful tool that allows for greater inter-connectivity for individuals that is unprecedented.

Scott Rosenberg explains in his Salon article “How Blogs Changed Everything” that the Internet has changed our lives in a fundamental way, more like the telephone than the television. For Rosenberg, the agency of a technology and its ability to permeate our lives in a fundamental way, are the result of how we use it. “Like the telephone before it,” Rosenberg writes, “the Web will be defined by the choices people make as they use it, constrained by — but not determined by — the nature of the technology.” The Internet has integrity when we use it that way and not just as a dispensary for cat photos, pornography, and obnoxious commenters.

2.  Blogs are just online diaries. When blogs first burst on the scene, they had a certain stigma attached to them. It seemed that some people viewed them as personal forums where they could post all of the frivolous details of their lives, like snail photography, or internet stamp collecting. And while these are perfectly fine uses of cyberspace, they may not be the most credible or ambitious. The impetus of the blogosphere is to share a piece of your world with others who have similar interests. The thing is, the same goes for much of academia; it’s all about finding your niche.

Tim Hitchcock talks about this in a post from his academic blog, The Impact Blog at The London School of Economics and Political Science: “The best (and most successful) academics  are the ones who are so caught up in the importance of their work, so caught up with their simple passion for a subject, that they publicize it with every breadth. Twitter and blogs, and embarrassingly enthusiastic drunken conversations at parties, are not add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion that underpins it.” Who is a better expert on your research than you? And it seems against the ethics and principles of the academic community to monopolize your ideas and work for your own personal gain. Why not promote, share, and add to your existing research with the community who can benefit the most from it? This academic sharing contributes to what Rosenberg calls “a new kind of public sphere, at once ephemeral and timeless, sharing the characteristics of conversation and deliberation.”

3.  Technology is killing discourse. Actually, if anything, it is making it grow. When in human history was it as easy to communicate with people, down the street, in the next town over, out of the state, across the country, around the globe? Technology is just the incubator that fosters our fecund impulse to share and consume new information faster and more efficiently than ever before. To dive into the “global academic community” discussion, what is a classroom, but the most basic academic community? It is literally a place designated to make learning happen. We live in a world where the classroom doesn’t have to exist in the traditional brick-and-mortar sense, but through a forum where students and instructors are connected 24/7. Using blogs in an academic setting is a good way to encourage discourse and improve interactive learning.

W. Gardner Campbell contextualizes the use of blogging in the classroom through the framework, “Narrate, Curate, Share.” “Blogs are stories,” Campbell writes, and when put into that context it makes sense that creating a running narrative to not only the content learned in the classroom, but also as a gateway into the learning process in general, suddenly we begin to see the benefits of blogging as an academic tool. Students would then have to “curate” their blogs, meaning they would have to arrange them in a way that is accessible to an audience (much like a museum curator arranges displays for public consumption). This is particularly important because a blog is a public forum. Anyone can see it. If students are told from the beginning that whatever they post will be seen by a public audience, including academics and specialists in the field, suddenly they have to rethink the way they write. They have to take into consideration their audience, how what they write will look like in the eyes of experts and amateurs alike. In the words of Seth Godin “Blogging is free. It doesn’t matter who reads it. What matters is the humility that comes from writing it. What matters is the meta-cognition of thinking about what you are going to say. How do you explain yourself to the few employees or your cat or whoever is going to look at it?” Taken in this context blogging is more than an exercise in frivolity; it becomes a legitimate voice in a field or discourse. Campbell also emphasizes sharing as a crucial part of the process: “Sharing means finding and creating connections. It means creating a ‘serendipity field’ that brings new opportunities for learning and creativity. Don’t just wait for the world to come to you. Look for creative ways to get the word out about your blog, about the blogs in your Colloquium, or your other courses, or your residence hall. Network thyself!” If we look at blogs as a unique personalized space on the web designated for the purpose of learning as a community, then it opens up a new means of conveying and consuming information created exclusively for the Internet Age.

Ok, so I won’t say that I’m a complete convert just yet, but I am keeping an opening mind and being more and more convinced as my exposure to the idea of incorporating a blog into the classroom is increased. Let’s all take this opportunity and dive in. Who knows what we can do together?

Works Cited

Campbell, W. Gardner. “Narrate, Curate, Share: How Blogging Can Catalyze Learning” Public Sector Media Group, 10 August 2011. Web.  25 January 2016.

Hitchcock, Tim. “Twitter and blogs are not just add-ons to academic research…” LSE Impact of Social Sciences, 2015. Web. 25 January 2016.

Innerpreneur. “Seth Godin and Tom Peters on blogging.” Online Video Clip. Youtube. Youtube, 18 April 2009. Web. 25 January 2016.

Rosenberg, Scott. “How Blogs Changed Everything.” Salon Media Group Inc., 6 July 2009. Web. 25 January 2016.