Seeking: Classroom dialogue

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.…Read More

When the only certainty is change

I drafted the following review of Google Classroom in early August:

In this day and age, one must declare allegiance to one of a handful of corporations for their technology needs.  We have all faced this choice in the last few years as our emails, calendars, phones, TVs, and homes have become more synchronized than ever.  Individuals must go all in and not look back.  I may have been later than some to embrace this tech integration, but that tardiness allowed me to consciously considered three factors as I aligned my tech life:  who is doing things broadly, who is doing things well, and who is doing things that are open to adaptation.  After assessing the marketplace, I aligned myself with Google.  The choice has not failed me as Gmail, Google Maps, Google Calendar, Google Drive have become a seamless addition to my world that I am unsure I would be able to divorce from. 

This was the root of my confidence as I began to develop a course on Google Classroom.  I have worked in Moodle and Blackboard before and enjoyed each in their own right.    One of my employers has recently aligned with Google so access to the Classroom came free for myself and all enrolled students.  While I knew learning a new platform would be challenging, I entered the course development expecting an outstanding experience.  …Read More

Can technology recreate the studying abroad experience?

I recently led a study abroad trip to England.  My students and I watched live accounts of the historic Brexit take place as well as the only slightly less historic football upset of England.  We toured sites that defined the British Empire, watched accounts declaring its metaphorical demise on the world stage, and had conversations on what that meant and why it actually meant anything.  I saw students captivated by lectures from guides with an innate understanding of the places and topics they were discussing.  At one point, students were riveted while they learned about the subtleties of architectural design of upper class housing in London.  That’s just not normal.  Certainly, my group was made up of students that are both curious and attentive; but it wasn’t just about them.  It was the experience as a whole.  The question I face as we return: how do more students access that experience?  Can technology actually re-create that?

Much to my pleasure, I read Ronald Bethke’s New tech to revolutionize studying abroad education on eCampus News soon after my arrival home.  The piece offered an illuminating profile of the efforts of CAPA The Global Education Network in providing the study abroad experience.  CAPA defines their mission as: “to provide meaningful experiences that challenge and inspire students to analyze and explore complex political, cultural and social landscapes within urban environments” (CAPA, The Global Education Network).  I was happy to see an organization taking on this daunting and ambitious goal.

Bethke’s article discusses the facets of CAPA’s program and it seems to address many of my observations from my own trip.  I loved seeing students observing manifestations of their subject-focused study.  As we toured various places, our guides provided information about how the history, politics, and economics shaped the locations we were seeing.  Our students were prompted to think of books and films that presented these locations.  Furthermore, they were able to see how the places themselves played a role in those texts that they read and the contemporary world.  The guides were providing a cross-curricular study.  Because our group could see these places and the information was presented to them seamlessly, they absorbed it.  They also were able to consider what citizens of those places feel and what esteem they hold those locations.  CAPA’s programming seeks to “ incorporate face-to-face and experiential learning, but also use advanced video technology to encourage team-teaching and cross-program student projects across the globe, bring in guest lecturers, and focus on a wider set of world issues in the hopes of creating the most well-rounded global students possible” (Bethke).  I saw that experience take place on bus rides and walking tours, and I hope CAPA is able to recreate it.…Read More

Technology’s Promise

The thing I look forward to most about summer is not a lack of work.  As a full time teacher, part-time faculty member, and a new father, work never seems to stop.  It’s not the weather, although that’s nice, or the clothing, although putting socks away for a few months is certainly a perk of the season.  It’s a sense of time.  Summer brings longer days, but it also brings a sense of time.  Days go by slower and allow more opportunity to process what I actually want to do.  I am able to think, and then think about thinking, rather than just reacting each and every minute.  My friends in education often refer to summer as the time when we are “our true selves.”  The reason I can be myself is because I actually have time to think about who I am.

Ezra Klein’s recent article, Technology is changing how we live, but it needs to change how we work, prompted me to ask: with all the technology that pervades education, why don’t I feel this sense of time more often?  Klein takes a broad look about how technology is pervasive in our lives, yet its economic impact is hard to measure.  In other words: we have lots of new technology pieces, but how much better off are we?  His thesis spoke to me as I finish another year in teaching.  Each year brings another layer of technology into the industry.  I learn a new platform, engage my students in a new medium, and adapt assignments and expectations for a new space.  Sometimes I feel like I am an IT student rather than a classroom teacher.  Behind all of these decisions is my assumption that, at some point, life will get easier.  At some point, we will reach the end of adaptation.  Those results will be evident in the work we get from students, but also in how I feel as I work.  I should feel more productive with these tools.  Yet, Klein’s article responds to this assumption by saying: maybe I won’t.

His piece ends with the idea that we have all the technology, but we need to learn how to use it.  He quotes a venture capitalist in the technology industry who states, “It turns out the hardest things at companies isn’t building the technology but getting people to use it properly.”  The same is true in education.  Institutional buy-in, student adoption, accommodation of resources, and technical support all play a part in properly using ed-tech.  All of these things are immense challenges at institutions that are adapting in their own way, with students coming from diverse backgrounds, and societal forces demanding a myriad of solutions.…Read More

What does it mean to “improve” with technology?

The generally agreed upon role of technology is to improve society. What’s not agreed upon is the definition of improve.

Often, this debate is divided by age as various generations struggle to imagine parts of their life experiences being altered or discarded. As a relatively young individual, I have typically been a new adopter. Technology has always made sense to me because I have been immersed in it since birth. Yet, I may have crossed a threshold. A recent development in educational technology has me feeling like a curmudgeon who wants students to “do it like I did” because “that’s the way it is done.”

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Meg Bernhard outlines a new web platform called zyBooks which presents itself as an alternative to textbooks. One of the platform’s creators, Frank Vahid, wants to combat the phenomenon of the “wall of text” that students face. The platform is interactive with its reader and seeks to change the student experience.…Read More

The value of a liberal arts aggravation

The classes I teach are paperless. All of our work is done on Blackboard, from the weekly blog posts to the major essays.

I ask my students if this presents any problems. “Rate it on a scale of one to ten,” I ask them. “A ‘ten is ‘it’s such a pain that I should change back to doing everything on paper,’ and one is ‘it’s as easy as falling out of a tree.’ What is your experience of this Blackboard-based, paperless English class?”

Most students say “one.” They have no trouble at all, which makes it clear to me that there’s no need to go back to paper. Some students, however, answer “three” or “four.” “I easily get lost,” a student once said. “I’ll remember that I have to go somewhere to turn something in, but I’ll forget how to get there.”…Read More

Crowdsourcing to focus on literature and almost everything else

Crowd sourcing is poised to affect education in significant ways, potentially revolutionizing how our students interpret and contextualize literature and most every other subject. No longer the domain for programmers (Linux), technical enthusiasts, fundraising campaigns and entrepreneurs (Kickstarter and Indiegogo), crowd sourcing received a big push last July when Rap Genius (now simply Genius) received a whopping $40 million from venture capitalists to expand its focus and grow its business to “annotate the world.”

Started by recent Yale grads, Rap Genius’s initial mission was to make sense of rap music lyrics. The company created an innovative annotation engine that can be repurposed for many other subjects: poetry, literature, movies, anatomy, you name it. Today, Genius is annotating about a dozen fields, including lit, history, law, sports and news—expect many more to follow and exponential growth. Genius’s literature section notes: “Lit Genius is a community of scholars—and a crew of heroic hearts—devoted to annotating great literature.”

One can imagine a time when many of our students and colleagues contribute annotations to an online service—indeed classroom discussions could easily occur in a virtual annotation forum, aggregating diverse opinions and perceptions—expert and naive. It can and could open up a whole new window into meaning that would be impossible to find in any single textbook or source—and it offers the promise of a deepening evolution, growing wiser as more contributors add their voices. An annotation service is not limited to humanistic subjects, either; the sciences, health care, mathematics, finance and engineering could benefit.…Read More

Differentiating technology instruction in the community college classroom

Approaching new semesters, community college’s teachers are confronted with a variety of levels of technology skills and fluency of their students. At first it can be difficult to ascertain what level the students are across the spectrum.  It may not be until you assign a writing assignment or one which requires internet research that you can identify large gaps of skills in using web applications, software or current operating systems effectively. I would like to recommend a few of the tools and strategies that I use to better understand my students and differentiate my instruction to meet their needs. Addressing student skills early can help find common ground with the use of technology and enable them to feel connected and part of a team.

Start group work with technology sooner than later in the semester

Engage students in group projects so that they can share skills while working together and engage more quickly with the technology needed in your course for projects. This is the perfect opportunity to help them learn a new tech skill together such as an online presentation with Google Presentations or even just develop a PowerPoint together. Some of the essential fluency skills such as creating, saving and uploading files is part of the collaboration of the group.…Read More

The Essay—an endangered species?

Technology is at the gate! A recent opinion piece in the New York Times describes advances in computer-generated articles and what’s called “automated narrative generation.” Soon, computers will generate “human-sounding stories in whatever voice—from staid to sassy—befits the intended audience.” Indeed, many of the news services we read on the Web today are synthesized from databases, news feeds, and underlying advertising requirements. Behind the scenes, keywords and clicks are tracked, counted and eventually “monetized” as the advertising you see is tailored to your interests.

Imagine this: Some crafty education entrepreneur develops a suite of tools, distributed by a leading edu publisher or MOOC as add-on services for courseware. It’s not too far off; in fact, it’s already happening in rudimentary form. Several companies sell products and services today, and Phoenix University has been offering a primitive thesis generator for a few years.

I sometimes ask my students to test drive the Phoenix service as they develop their argumentative essays. Varying results. Most students find it clumsy but useful in helping to zero in on their theses. Although this generator is not quite ready for prime time, it offers a view into the future.…Read More

On classroom tech policy

On the first day of a face-to-face class, I read my syllabus aloud, which includes my policy regarding technology in the classroom. As if it were some kind of old-fashioned essay, the policy is titled “On Technology,” but it should be titled “Anti-Technology.” “During class time,” the policy begins, “every electronic device must be turned off.” We use the computer and projector at the front of the room, but the technology my students are allowed to use at their desks is pens and paper (fitting with the old-fashioned theme). Quills and inkwells would be more readily acceptable than anything invented in our lifetime.

After I read each section of the syllabus aloud to the class, I usually put it down and talk “off the record” about why the policy is written. After “On Technology,” I say something like this: “If computers are on in the classroom, you’re on Facebook. If your phones are on your desks, you’re texting. I don’t blame you for it; it’s just the way we live now. If technology is at our fingertips, we’re living our new-media lives, and whatever we do together as a class is compromised.”

In the syllabus for my online classes, there is no “On Technology” essay, and of course I have no idea what my students are doing in front of their computer screens. They could be texting, Tweeting, and Facebooking all at once. Perhaps they’re at work, or watching TV, or eating dinner, or all three. Their attention could be divided between all the windows open in their browser—or the windows in their house for that matter, as distraction doesn’t only come in the form of electronics. Perhaps they’re distracted by something terribly old-fashioned, like nesting birds on a budding branch in unseasonably warm sunshine.…Read More

Oops! We could not locate your form.