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Seeking: Classroom dialogue

By Jeremy Cunningham
October 4th, 2016

Is technology truly hindering insightful classroom conversations?

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I have come to realize that what I seek most in a classroom is dialogue.  Even if discussions take us off topic, I can always rest knowing that students learned lessons about communicating and relating ideas.  When students are sharing, they are learning.  It is a simple equation, yet incredibly hard to develop in a writing classroom.

There are several barriers to dialogue.  Naturally, things like social awkwardness and a lack of confidence hold some people back.  In addition, not being prepared for class on a given night prevents full participation.  Furthermore, some students have the engrained habit of sitting in the back and not speaking.  Late in their scholastic career, It may never even occur to them that they can benefit and help others by engaging.  The old solution would be to hold people accountable through written dialogue.  Yet, that practice reveals a more subtle barrier to dialogue: me.

There is a limit to how much writing I can read and respond to in a given space of time.  I would love to journal extensively every class.  I would love demand that students speak or write out full answers and then hold them accountable to that work.  But, I’ve learned that the amount of time it takes me to sift through those assignments and give meaningful feedback is overwhelming.  Most weeks, I am forced to make a choice between dialogue through writing and formal writing assignments.  The formals win every time.

The online classroom space helps relieve this burden.  The time it takes me to read and comment on online dialogue writing is dramatically less than when those entries are on paper.  The medium somehow allows me to respond very quickly.  Maybe it helps that I can type faster than I write.  Maybe it helps I grew up in the computer age and feel comfortable reading and responding to digital writing.  The online space also tackles some of the traditional barriers I mentioned earlier.  Social anxiety is not an issue because you are not making your comments in a public setting.  Preparation is not an excuse because you have a larger window to complete the work.  Whatever the reason, the online classroom streamlines the process of dialogue.  Students have no excuse for not completing the work, and I have no excuse for not assigning it.

Concerns about technology limiting real communication are certainly legitimate.  But, we may be overstating how much real communication actually takes place in a classroom.  When I consider my teaching history, I can remember a few classes that truly had full participation; I can also think of a few that had a small group of leaders and a pack of followers.  Ultimately, I can picture more than a few that had only followers.  Online dialogue can change this.  By valuing what the new medium brings, we may be able to overcome barriers in the traditional classroom.

About the Author:

Jeremy Cunningham

Jeremy Cunningham is a part-time instructor at Washtenaw Community College and Cleary University where he teaches composition and communication coursework. He also teaches English at Mason High School. He holds degrees in literature and education from Miami University, Eastern Michigan University, and Michigan State University. Outside of work, Jeremy dedicates his time to his wife, Darcie, and daughter, Ruby.


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