Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Matter of Balancing the Good with the Bad . . .

Personalization. Interconnectivity. Creative capabilities. Interactivity. Immersion.

These are the good things.

Distraction. Self-obsession. Irrational thought. Inability to focus. Feeling overwhelmed.

These are the bad things.

And, it turns out, that, just like every single thing in life that is wonderful and delicious and full of promise (fast cars, ice cream, having children, the entertainment industry, organized religion), there is a long list of pros and cons when bringing technology into educational settings.

This isn't to say we shouldn't do it. I'd be the LAST person (just look at my growing stomach) to say we should do away with ice-cream because people occassionally overeat and get tummy aches. But I also would be the last person to say we should avoid ever talking about or acknowledging the occassional indigestion that can result from misues of ice cream.

And so, I am here to proclaim bravely, in this last blog for a course on the Web 2.0: Technology can give me heart burn, in a variety of ways:

1. People turn first to their affinity groups. They read/respond to blogs that are like-minded to them; they choose news sources that affirm what they already believe; they watch youtubes that have been created by similar demographic groups. In essence, it is VERY human to use technology to simply pat ourselves on the back ("see, I WAS right after all") rather than probe into more painful democratic deliberations with various perspectives.

2. I don't care how many scholarly articles proclaim that students mostly use the web 2.0 for educative purposes. The truth is, I know that I don't. Not yet, anyway. I use Facebook to space out and take a BREAK from thinking. I look at a youtube video because it is supposed to be funny or entertaining. We need to spend LESS time trying to say that young people using technology are doing it WELL and MORE time equipping young people to use technology for purposes beyond texting and facebook.

3. In the K-12 setting, introducing Web 2.0 tools IS TRICKY. Students that are not academically motivated BEFORE getting a laptop, will not turn academically motivated AFTER getting a laptop. This means that, despite my best intentions to create relevant, authentic, interesting activities using Internet, my "low level" ninth graders would inevitably skirt around the firewall and get to facebook and "inappropriate" rap music the minute they opened the laptops. We need to train preservice teachers to deal with the COMPLEXITY of CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT ISSUES that WILL arise when using these technologies in the classroom. We need to teach them how to scaffold, how to support students to make GOOD decisions. We need, in essence, to be truthful rather than insisting that technology is a panacea that will make unmotivated students suddenly intensely focused on teacher-directed activities.

Listen, I love ice-cream. And I love technology. And I could have spent this entire blog taking about the sweet, creamy goodness that is the Web 2.0. But, frankly, I think a lot of the articles we have read in class already do this. And, I don't know about you, but I think being realistic will do a lot more for technology integration than just adding another cherry on top . . .

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Multi-Tasker's Dream Invention . . .

I have a problem.

I admit this to you all, because I know you will not judge me, and because I know that, of my millions of blog readers (okay, maybe all two of you), most of you have the same problem as me.

I can't just sit and watch a television show. Nor can I merely cook dinner. Or simply play with my two-year-old. I can't even go for a run in perfect silence.

I, like millions and millions of folks out there today, am an obsessive multi-tasker, the kind that feels nervous getting into a car without folders of articles or books to read. The kind that cannot IMAGINE a worse fate then (GASP) finding myself in a doctor's waiting room without anything PRODUCTIVE to do. The kind that loves taking online classes largely because I can fold laundry AND nurse my newborn while watching videostreamed lectures.

Which leads me to something that I REALLY REALLY REALLY love. My iPod shuffle.

The thing is like one inch long, hot pink, and I've lost it/washed it/scuffed it more times than you could imagine. But it carries, within it, hours and hours of knowledge. Mysteriously locked inside are podcasts about the history of kissing, reviews on movies/music, interviews with famous people, journalistic accounts of people's lives, discussions about faith in our modern world, dramatic readings of fictional stories. In short, my iPod is the only productive non-productive invention that makes me feel validated in going out on a run, washing the dishes, or waiting in a waiting room.

As a rule, my iPod is not for school. Not yet, anyway. I don't load podcast assignments from classes, because only twice in my PhD career have they been assigned. I load podcasts that interest me, podcasts about food and diverse people and places. They are quality podcasts; they are informative podcasts; they are entertaining podcasts. They are mine.

And don't believe for a moment that they don't impact my school career. Nearly every week, I have some comment in class or add some resource to a paper that has its origin in a podcast. So just because I'm not being assigned podcasting for school, doesn't mean I'm not using them for school. Not by a long-shot . . .

What implications do my ramblings have upon educational uses of podcasts, whether they be in recording lectures, providing supplemental materials, or having students make their own?

I have no idea, and no time to think about it since, after all, it's time for my hot-jogging-date with my little pink bundle of amazingness . . .

Friday, November 19, 2010

Technology Enthusiast's Missionary Zeal

Believe me, as I read about Paul Kim's inspiring goal to save the world, one mobile hand-held device at a time, I teared up a little. I mean, seriously, who can resist short videos with moving music and images of smiling, appreciative multi-cultural kids? Kim's Seeds of Empowerment project, in particular, impressed me, as it involves kids creating their own stories, communicating about their own lives (with the help of technology of course.) But there is always the tiny part of me that has to push back a little in the face of over-riding optimism: "this MUST be an AMAZING thing for these kids."

It's the same, part of me that took a class on Language Change a few semesters ago, the class that highlighted the importance of preserving indigenous cultures, of being careful about what we "bring" in the name of God, technology, or globalization. We had many conversations in this class, about how good intentions (I want people to go to heaven) could lead to less positive results (dissolution of families, languages, culture, indigenous religions.) I think this is complicated territory, and before we sweep in with our technology saviors of the world, we've got to think long and hard about the consequences of their entrance into these "poor children's" lives. Here are some issues I've got:

1. Kim, Miranda, & Olaciregui (2007) make a strong case for the opposition our illiterate "poorest of the poor" face in today's society. These children are described as attending the worst schools, with the worst teachers, with the least educated parents, with the worst living conditions (they may be hungry or sleep deprived). In essence, they are solidly described from a deficit model. There is no mention of the potential resourcefulness or funds of knowledge they might possess that our rich techno-savvy kids may lack.

2. I get the feeling that little thought has gone into how the home life might be affected by handing out this hand-held devices, although I could be wrong. For instance, how do this poor illiterate parents react when their child, who used to come home and help with chores, is now absorbed 24/7 in some educational game or other. This reminds me of an entire two years of my brother's life (from age 8-age 10) when we rarely had a social interaction. He either had his face in a Gameboy, in a video game magazine, or playing Super Ninetendo. Of course, the educational games featured in Kim's device have a lot more to offer than, say, Super Mario Brothers, but the take-away is the same. Electronic devices seduce us and draw our attention away from face to face interactions (or chores.)

3. How about the impact on culture at large? Although Kim et al. speak eloquently about knowing their audience in designing educational software, it is difficult to measure all of the cultural norms/assumptions that might mismatch this new culture.

My real feeling on the subject? This is a good thing. Students feel empowered. They gain access to resources. The intention is absolutely pure and good and noble. I just hope hope hope that the consequences measure up to the intended effects . . .

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Blog about Blogging a Blog

I have a confession to make.

I was a journaler.

As a kid, as a pre-teen, and even as a teenager, I found unbelievable solace for my never-ceasing angst in the blank pages of notebooks, diaries, post-its, whatever I could find to write in. In those pages of privacy and complete control, I could write about my mean teachers, my unfair parents, the boys that didn't notice me, my pitiful life, my love for God, my incredible life, the sunset, my homesickness, my self image issues, etc etc etc . . . My mom discovered piles of these journals a few years ago and called me, shocked: "You had this ENTIRE LIFE going on that I had NO idea about! I thought we were close!! Did I even know you?"

So I had no need for an authentic audience (and after I got one, I felt a bit violated.) But for those insecure beings (like me) that feel the need to express their life in writing to make sense of it, blogging can serve as a place to do so and gain an automatic virtual audience. As Downes (2004) points out: "writing a weblog isn't for everybody" . . . it perhaps is mainly for those who feel that "writers will write because they can't not write". (Pilgrim)

Maybe this is why assigning my "Culture of College" students last semester to create their own blog was a bad idea. These students, who are forced to take the class because of a failing grades, are typically freshmen or sophomores who thought college was about partying, not going to class. In my head, letting them express the struggles and joys of college life (without any parameters- just write a blog about your life every once in awhile) would help form community in the classroom and also be a welcome way to gain some points. Ummm . . . probably should have thought through this a bit more . . . .

Here are some challenges that emerged:
1. Technical difficulties: It probably took me until the last week of the semester to finally get everyone to provide me with their web URL. And I'm sure very few of the class members actually did the work to "follow" their fellow classmates (although I made it mandatory for them to comment on posts throughout teh semester.) The same reasons they were in the class to begin with made some basic organizational issues a nightmare to contain.
2. What do I write about?: The lack of constraints and topic assignments KILLED several of my students, who said they couldn't complete the assignment because they didn't know what to write about. I tried showing the class examples of successful classmate blogs, gave them suggestions of things to write about (how did midterms go? are you meeting any of your set goals? what do you love/hate about IU?), but the same students again and again lamented the lack of specifics I was giving them.
3. Conversation? What?: Mandating that my students comment on each other's posts was like pulling teeth. For 5 or so of my students, this came naturally, and they jumped on everyone's posts with insightful thought after funny thought. But most only responded to their best friend. Community, thus, was not enhanced through the medium.

Some of these issues are probably predicatable. Downes says it well here: "What happens when a free-flowing medium such as blogging interacts with the more restrictive domains of the educational system? What happens when the necessary rules and boundaries of the system are imposed on students who are writing blogs, when grades are assigned in order to get students to write and all, and when posts are monitored to ensure that they don't say the wrong things?"

Well, it appears that conversations via blogs need to have clear PURPOSE but REMAIN UNCONSTRAINED. How can I facilitate both of these things? How could I have helped blogging maintain authenticity and engagement for these unhappy learners? And how could I have helped them see that blogging is FIRST about reading your culture, your community, your ideas: "If a student has nothing to blog about, it is not because he or she has nothing to write about or has a boring life. It is because the student has not yet stretched out to the larger world, has not yet learned to meaningfully engage in a community."

That student sounds like my students, and it sounds like I was trying to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying problem. . .

Saturday, November 6, 2010

It takes a special kind of kid . . .

My mind wanders . . perhaps a bit too much . . whenever I read anything related to education/teaching/pedagogy. This is because, invariably, a particular situation, kid, context, parent, or assignment will come into my head that is at least tangentially related to the topic being eloquently ruminated about, and I feel driven to use the specific recollection to contextualize the idealized abstract.

So this week, while reading about the boundless educative potential of immersive, open-ended virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto, I had two faces in my head: Alex, my inscrutable sixth grade student, and my dear husband of six years.

Let's get the husband out of the way. This husband of mine is the most sensitive, compassionate man I know. (He happens to be a nurse for goodness sake.) He can't say "no" to anyone and avoids confrontation at all costs (unless sanctioned for some athletic sport.) This same man, loves games like Grand Theft Auto. One minute he'll be tossing his giggling two year old in the air, and the next minute, he'll be dropping "f-bombs" (through his video game self) as he's escaping from police sirens, stealing cars, and shooting people. We've been together for ten years, but still, everytime I see him so engaged in pursuit, I just stop and stare in disbelief: "Who is this man? Do I really know him? What is FUN about this?" This is one distinctive type of gamer.

Then there is Alex. For Alex, video games are not a fun escape every once in awhile. World of Warcraft WAS life. (The rest was just an annoying distraction from what really mattered.) Alex was a kid that got to me, because try as I might, try as I could, I never could get him hooked into what we were doing in class. (I came closest when I encouraged him to share his computer game funds of knowledge in some form, but never really succeeded.) Alex was silent, sullen, antisocial, "nerdy". He was so thin and white, I'm pretty sure he rarely ate and definitely rarely saw the sun. He spoke to just ONE other sixth grader, another super-tiny-for-his-age-kid who was also somewhat of an outcast, although much less silent. But everyday, at the end of school, Alex would come to room, face brightning, so that he could tell me the latest in his World of Warcraft game. I never figured out what the heck he was talking about, but from those conversations I realized he had definite passions and definite skill sets; unfortunately formal school stuff just wasn't one of them.

So what to make of my husband and Alex and virtual worlds mattering? This blog is getting too long, so I'll leave it up to you. I'm just saying that it seems to me, there are two people in these world: people who love video games, and people who don't. And I'm pretty sure there are some deep reasons for this. What I'm less sure about is how to create virtual worlds that are both immersive and educative, autonomous and directly beneficial . . .

But who I am talk? I hate video games . . .

Thursday, October 28, 2010

My love/hate relationship with COLLABORATION

For all the talk our articles had this week about our naturally collaborative, collective meaning-making young people, I sure have had a lot of students who hated group projects.

"Do we HAVE to work on this as a group?"
"I work better independently."
"Am I going to be counted off if _____ doesn't do his part?"
"How are we going to be graded on this?"
"You mean we have to find time to meet OUTSIDE of class?"
"These things always take twice as much time as projects I do on my own!"

And I could never forget the parent (who happened to be a brain surgeon, very short, and a very scary angry person) who publicly accosted me at a charity for the school I was helping work at: "My son got an A- in your class because of a GROUP PROJECT?? That is entirely ridiculous, and I will ensure that you lose your job! If MY son got an A-, I hope that the rest of the class got F's!"

I bring this up, in part, because I relate to these crazy traditionalists. Being the control freak that most of us teachers are, group projects represented, to me, a dangerous zone, with lots of unknowns. The only time they were fun or insight-creating was when I was allowed to choose my other nerd friends to work with in a group. (We then, would create incredible, strange, time-consuming video productions involving lots of props, background music, and laughter.)

So my take-aways here?

-Just because young people are naturally social beings doesn't mean this will directly lead them to LOVE all technology things that are collaborative.
-Teachers have to establish ways of facilitating group work that feel safe and quality to students, parents, and all of the stakeholders.
-As in all things, the less experienced with collaboration the student (due to age or past educational experiences), the more scaffolding that will be required for success in working together.

But the big tension I struggle with, one that is particularly relevant for the K-12 environment?
-How can we best group students? Homogenous? Heterogenous?
-How can we make students of mixed levels, mixed talents, mixed abilities collaborate successfully?
-How can we use technology to make this doable?

And MOST of all, how we can we empower pre-service teachers to navigate the tricky but oh-so-vital land of collaborative work with their students, and avoid passing along the inaccurate belief that "all students LOVE working in groups". . .

Thursday, October 21, 2010

You Do, I Do, We All Turn to You-Tube

It was my husband who first pointed it out, several years ago:

"Have you noticed that everytime our friends come over, at some point in the evening, we all end up crowded around the computer, watching a YouTube? What did we do before YouTube??"

He was right. Sure we have some deep friends, and we had some deep face to face convos as well, but it never failed: at some comic-relief-needing point in the night, someone suggested that we all check out this HILARIOUS You-tube video.

And, being the dutiful English teacher I was, I immediately had the brilliant idea to use a Youtube or two as a hook into a lesson. And, working at the conversative schools I worked, I was immediately shot down and told we didn't use inappropriate YouTube videos; the site was blocked.

Flash forward a few years, and I'm teaching some teacher candidate college kids, and we have this "materials and strategies" project, where they come up with several diverse texts around a theme of their choosing to use with a class. 92% chose a Youtube for one of the texts. Some were songs, some were "how to" videos, some were mini-documentaries about famous people. But NEARLY EVERYONE immediately turned to Youtube a text of great worth for their discipline (art, science, math, English, history, etc). Oh- and a suggestions from a midterm eval in that class: "Since it's a three hour class, I recommend you show a few more Youtubes to break up the time."

What to make of all of this? (Beyond the fact that I'm freaked out that these students will make a ton of lesson plans revolving around Youtube only to find that their school doesn't allow it . . . ) I kind of like what Alexandra Juhasz makes of all of this, during her great experiment of a class ON Youtube ABOUT YouTube. In the course intro video she is clearly skeptical. As Jenkins puts it, "does a participatory platform insure diverse, meaningful, or innovative content?" She asks questions about ownership, the value of popular culture, control, access, losing the value of expertise, and community. And, in the spirit of academic inquiry, she asks these questions on the very platform in question. The class defines four structural limitations to YouTube, including communication, community, research, and idea building, and THIS is the crux of critical education.

What if we thought about ALL meaning-making in this way? What if we looked at both the affordances, but also highlighted the limitations of each medium? And, even more exciting . . what if we empowered our students to do so?

And (gasp) what if we realized that stupid, humorous, short video snippets can also do a lot for our ability to make connections, provide a contect for learning, provide a common experience to discuss, provide an advance organizer for later discussion, and link to an emerging participatory culture (Bonk, 2008).

So is YouTube broccoli or twinkies in the land of nutrition for our brain? My guess . . . it all depends on your reflective/critical capabilities . . .