"The World is Flat: Using Blogs and Skype to Create Communities of Learners and Cultural Literacy" with Barbara Ganley (Middlebury faculty), Elizabeth Geballe (Middlebury student), Evelyn Levine (Oberlin student), and Barbara Sawhill (Oberlin faculty)
(As before, all dialogue is summarized, not a direct transcription. The speakers were far more articulate than I convey. Apologies to them!)
BG: Since fall 2001, I've been using blogs in all my courses. I also use digital storytelling, Flickr, podcasts, and other technologies. But I'm not a techy. But the shifts occurring so dramatically in the world outside our institutions pulled me and my teaching from a complacent slumber. Ken Robinson says our students don't communicate or collaborate well.
Livingston has observed that kids roam the Internet for communication and entertainment, while we in the adult world associate the Internet with the WWW and information searching. New communication tools and devices, yet inside our institutions we cling to romantic notions of teaching and learning that have never really served our students well.
James Gee says learning is going on in "infinity spaces." Yet we continue to teach the same material in the same ways. Yet we've known for a long time now from Dewey and Bahktin that learning is social.
We need to get away from our "little boxes" view of student learning in higher ed. A student's world is messier, more highly networked. We need to take into account notions of failure and experimentation. When is the last time any of us invited, nay demanded, our students to fail? We need to move away from lecture and what we've called "discussion" to conversation, collaboration, communication.
Disruption is essential to learning.
Bahktin: "I cannot do without the other." Can't learn without the other.
We have to make our students producers and co-learners. What if our classrooms turned away, really turned away from the teacher-centric model, where we're truly co-learners? Students help teacher to question, contextualize, and evaluate. The outside world is moving into our classroom. This demands new literacies from students.
But we don't need to jettison the old literacies. We still need to teach our students how to read and to write. This is where blogs come in.
Three columns to her class blogs:
1) Archives & links to outside world
2) Group story
3) Links to individual blogs, w/student photos
Blogging lets students read each other's work, develop skilled reflection on learning and the self. Looping abck seamlessly to drafts and past learning experiences while looking forward to future learning.
Communities instigate and curtail the things that can be said. A good community will create its own set of rules. These feedback loops create a sense of responsibility and respect I have never before experienced in my classroom. Students must negotiate with one another. In the past, my students might not have known each other names. Now my students are not only delighted to be there, but they socialize with each other and they don't want to leave. At the end of the hour, I have to kick them out.
My blogs are open to the world. Our learningscape grows exponentially. Then the semester ends, and it's hard. But sometimes students take the blogs with them to home, to travel abroad, etc. Students begin to experiment with image, sound, multimodal means of writing.
Lizzie Geballe: I had heard about blogging from my friends before the class. There were technological things that I was very wary of. I had some experience with blogging in my freshman year where there was one mother blog and we were forced to comment. It didn't work out well at all.
But in BG's class, blogging was integrated well. Blogs lost their officiality because BG took herself off the blog and left us to our own devices. We turned in our creative pieces as well as comments we made to our classmates. So we saw our own compiled work as well as the result of our collaborating with others.
I joined in the pilot project of Blogging the World. I blogged from Siberia. It was my place to put myself in order when I was separated from my home, language, and culture.
I was given freedom in BG's class to make the blog my own. I began the blog almost as a journal, but I quickly realized that wasn't the direction I wanted it to take. My family was using the comments to share their daily meals and activities, and that wasn't the conversation I wanted to foster. I wanted my blog to be sincere as a journal but also serious communication. I was surprised to hear that University of Texas students were assigned to read my blog as part of preparing to study abroad.
I communicated with other students keeping blogs as they studied away from Middlebury.
For the present, I've stopped blogging because I'm not as wide-eyed as I should be. I'll blog again when I travel.
Assignments in class: We listened to Dylan Thomas and other poets reading their own work, and then we were required to record ourselves reading our own poetry. BG told us the class was about "glorious failures"--I took that to mean both in our writing and with the technology.
Even though BG provided feedback on the blog, I felt the freedom to write without worrying about what BG would think.
I'm now less fearful of technology. I still don't love it, but I came back from Siberia thinking about new ways technology could be used to reflect on learning experiences. I made an iMovie incorporating video and photography.
Barbara Sawhill: I'm a lecturer in the Hispanic Studies department and director of the Cooper International Learning Center. It takes a learner 720 hours of contact time to become proficient (not fluent) in a language that mirrors their own (e.g. English-Spanish). It's three times that in a more foreign language (e.g., English-Russian). Compare that with the amount of time students actually get in the language classroom. In a class of 18-20 students, that boils down to about 2 minutes of contact time per student (trillwing: per day?).
Conversation is less valued in academia than writing and reading courses. Conversation courses aren't seen as rigorous and language majors aren't encouraged to take them. But in emphasizing something other than conversation, we lose the ability to promote cultural literacy.
What's more, we have a very teacher-centric way of teaching language: "I've got to get to chapter 9 by November. We've got to keep moving."
I've been looking at how social software and mobile technology can provide rich, rigorous directed learning in a second language.
Far too often, we rely on the last section of the textbook that's a photo of a rodeo or mariachi band. We rely on stereotypes or on the experience of faculty who haven't been in the country whose language they're teaching for 15 years. I wanted to provide students with a more authentic experience.
On borrowed iPods: Latin American music and more. Also microphones on the iPods so students can record themselves anywhere they wished. We also used Skype to connect with classes (often ESL) in other countries. We'd have 15 minutes of conversation in English and 15 minutes in Spanish.
Class blog entirely in Spanish, down to tool names and headers. Each student had his or her own blog, and there was a mother blog. Students could post to the mother blog, but mostly I did.
We were visited by more people outside of Oberlin than from Oberlin by the end of the academic year.
What it means for me as a teacher using these tools: Amazing, amazing things happen when you throw open the doors and windows of the classroom and let the outside world in and the inside world out. Ask students what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and what works for them. Have them comment on one another's--and the teacher's--work, all in the target language.
The more you write in a foreign language, the better you will speak. On the blogs, I had students who wrote the equivalent of 50 pages of research paper.
I wanted to embody, and I continue to try to embody, the thoughts of Paolo Freire, who emphasized that students teach as well as learn.
I cannot imagine going back to teaching in a traditional classroom or from a textbook. My students' experiences were so much more vibrant than anything I could have found in a textbook.
Having a porous classroom is terrifying and intimidating to many people. But I found it incredibly enriching.
Evie Levine: Student in oral communications course two semesters ago. I had lived in Ciudad Juarez prior to taking Barbara S's class. I was worried about returning to Ohio. I realized I needed to keep speaking Spanish. I was a bit intimidated by the technology. There's a stereotype that I'm young, I'm 21, I'm of a generation that knows computers and knows them well. Well, I don't.
In addition to learning a new curriculum, I had to learn new ways to learn the curriculum. I had to spend extra hours learning the technology. But the benefits of learning the new technology outweighed the setbacks. Barbara S. was ready and willing to adapt the pace of the course to student needs.
The course content varied a great deal: poetry from Garcia Lorca, current events (e.g. Hugo Chavez), etc. We were able to take the exploration of these subjects to a new level with the technology. We talked with students by Skype in Spain and Argentina. I didn't open up a textbook and learn about flamenco. Instead, I talked to a student in Spain who shared my interests. We talked with a citizen of Venezuela about living under Hugo Chavez. We couldn't have had that communication via phone or traceable e-mail.
I carried out a final project that furthered my devellopment of cultural literacy. I carried my final project out on the femicides currently happening in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua in northern Mexico. More than 400 young women, most of them poor and many working in borderlands factories, have been killed or are missing there. I worked with Casa Amiga, an organization trying to solve the mystery.
One part of my final project was to foster a dialogue among the members of my classroom. (Her blog name: el blog de Evie.) Not only were my professor and classmates commenting on the blog, but people from around the world. I also interviewed my boss from the NGO about it and posted the interview.
A mother of a murdered girl drafted an open letter on Evie's blog, seeking help. I forwarded the letter to Casa Amiga.
I can't imagine that happening if the classroom doors were closed.
People also requested to use her photos of monuments and memorials to femicide victims.
To this day, my blog remains open, and I engage with people around the world on an area of study that's dear to me and that I think would have been lost to me had I not taken the course. I don't think I could have learned what I learned without these tools. I can't imagine developing my language skills without the use of these tools.
BG: I now have six years of students who have come through my classes and had those experiences. My students say they can't find this kind of learning anywhere else. They tell me "I'm not as engaged as I was."
Not everybody's going to teach this way. But how can we get our students to go to their professors and ask them to try out these technologies, or ask if they may turn in multimedia work instead of traditional work. Students from my classes are regularly winning the college's writing awards, turning in multimedia theses.
How are we going to prepare for students who are digital natives? How can we support a rigorous education driven by them?
Q from audience member: Let's look at the practical side for a minute. How do you manage the inordinate amount of reading faculty and students must do? And how do you assess student work?
BG: If you teach student-centered classrooms, you should not be reading and commenting on everything they write. You train them to be mentors and experts to one another. And they turn in their portfolios to me, which I then comment upon. And students hate that at first because they feel I've abdicated my responsibility. I read the same amount as I always have, and the work I'm looking at is better than ever. Students cycle through small groups that never have to read more than four other people's work. I evaluate them on the quality of their work. And they evaluate themselves. I've always had my students evaluate themselves, in concert with me.
BS: We set deadlines for blog posts so that students would have time to read others' posts before class. We used RSS feeds. You could leave written comments or comment in class. I had one student who didn't like to write--she posted podcasts. She'd walk along the bike trails in Oberlin and talk in Spanish for 45 minutes. That warmed my heart as a teacher. In the end, I had students identify five of their best pieces of work and had students comment on those. And then I commented on the piece and on the comments. Grades were based not only on quality of posts but on the ways they engaged with their commenters. Blogs became container for e-portfolios. The course ended with a 1.5-hour-long oral exam with BS and a native speaker.
Q from audience member: I teach entirely online, via WebCT. Students tend to exceed the minimum requirements for posting. Is it the public nature of a blog that makes it more potent? Through WebCT, the blogs are password-protected. Should these blogs be made public?
BG: That's part of it. Research is about efficacy. When students as learners feel their actions have authentic effects on their environment, that's going to engage them more deeply with the assignments. We had a course zine, and the authors students were commenting on Googled their own names and found us and responded to student writing. So students realized they had to really think about what they were writing.
The archive is also significant. Students seem to view classes as semester-long chunks. I ask students to read earlier students' work, to stand on their shoulders.
Q from audience member: Did people find your blog through Google?
Evie: Yes. That mother was looking for resources, for help, for ways to express her loss. And she found my blog through keyword searches.
BS: A woman from Venezuela took the time to come in and comment on every single student's post about Hugo Chavez.
Q: How to set up Skype conversations?
BS: There's a database of people who want to set up such conversations. I began there and it snowballed. Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, Spain. . . I still have people from abroad asking when I'm teaching again because they have classes ready to go.
Q: I have the impression from the presentations that students needed to be away from the campus to make the blogging rich. If the students offered a blogging service, you wouldn't have used it unless you'd had those experiences abroad.
Evie: I started blogging once I returned to campus. The experiences drove it. I wouldn't have started a personal blog. I'm not that technologically savvy.
Lizzie: I thought of mine as very thematic. It seemed unnatural when I returned from Russia that I would keep writing it.
BG: I think it's a really interesting question. What is it about your education, your senior year, all the things you're learning are not interesting enough for you to continue a commentary and to have people come in and converse with you? There's something different about an experience abroad or for class.
Very few kids blog on their own out of class if they don't have a good reason to do that. They have their own My Space and Live Journal and social spaces, but they don't blog.
Q: Lizzie, do you still journal offline?
Lizzie: Yes. I feel propelled to write.
Q: What about the public nature of blogging? Were students aware they were going to be engaged in public blogging, or did it surprise them?
BG: I have a reputation now, so the kids know coming in about the culture of the class. My students always have the option not to publish their work. They can keep things in draft mode.
Q: How do you see it, then?
BG: I have administrative access to get into all the blogs. They didn't want the world to see a particular post, but they know I may read it.
Q: Do you give them guidelines on how to protect their privacy?
BG: We always talk about it. We talk about things that may go wrong on the blog. You guys are going out into the world, and imagine how you'll be perceived. I've had a few students a couple years out from graduation ask me to take down their blog because they felt like juvenalia to them. And that saddened me, but they were the writings of a college sophomore, and people were uncomfortable having that out there.
BS: My students only used their first names. Comments required providing a valid e-mail. And we dealt with issues as they arose.
Evie: It was empowering. I wasn't just writing for myself or within the confines of Oberlin. Anyone could read it, and I was glad to get that experience in college rather than in my first job.
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