The fear of learning

Since my dissertation directly addresses teaching and learning with technology, I’m constantly thinking about what the implications are of teaching in news ways.  Will Richardson’s post earlier this weekend got me thinking more about what I’m doing and what I think teaching and learning should be.  Will expressed some disgruntlement about the fact that people just don’t get it, that the Internet–and specially tools like blogs and wikis and podcasts–are changing the way people learn.  Teachers, he thinks, should model what they’re teaching. They should, in essence, learn right along with their students: blog with them, collaborate with them, etc. And I agree with that.  I expect my students to contribute as much as I do. I never go into a class with all the answers. I expect, as a class, for us to discover them together. I expect that we’ll explore, together, other issues on our class blog. But I find it hard to convince students that this is an acceptable way to approach teaching. I sometimes think that they expect me to have the answers and while it’s true that I am older and have more years of schooling than they do, they are extremely intelligent people with different points of view, different ways of seeing things, and much that they can bring to the table.

When I’m feeling that students aren’t living up to my expectations, aren’t contributing, aren’t bringing new ideas to the table, I start to get fearful instead of frustrated. And then I often lapse into old methods of teaching, of just talking at them or something.  And this has definitely happened over the years and I think that it happens to a lot of people who have good intentions. I think at the college level, when we use new technologies that bring with them new methods of teaching and learning, we’re learning along with our students and we’re often having to convince our students that this is okay, that there is value to this, that, in fact, in may be more valuable.

Alex Reid, puts this a bit more succinctly, suggesting that most people see the point of education as determining who has authority, of imbuing our students with that authority, so that when they go home with their B.A’s, they will be seen as having been filled with knowledge that grants that authority.  But, he says, new media and networks disrupt that sense of authority:

The ongoing development of media and networks requires us to keep moving. It doesn’t mean that what we’ve learned has no value; it means that it cannot establish us as authorities. . . . I know public school teachers often cite the limitations of testing requirements as a roadblock to innovation. However I think the limitation is more fundamental than that, closer to their own sense of professional identity. As much as the tests may limit teachers, they also secure them within a defined space of authority.

digital digs: the threat of the network

Teachers and professors are seen as “experts,” as people who have a certain kind of knowledge. If we take that away, if we say that that particular kind of authority no longer qualifies one as an expert, then what do you call yourself. What was all that education for? I would argue, however, that someone with a Ph.D. didn’t just absorb a bunch of facts; they learned how to find facts and analyze them, to question them, to present their questions to others, to find and create new knowledge. It’s not about the content; it’s about the process. And that’s what I try to focus on in most of my classes; it’s what I try to convey when I talk to people about using new technology, about using blogs, wikis, Flickr,, etc. to make the process more visible, to help students learn how to learn, how to participate in a broader conversation instead of spitting out information on a test.

If K-12 environments are resistant to change, Alex points out that higher ed might be even worse. At least with public education, there could be a new administration that might enact some kind of sweeping change, but that rarely happens in higher education. However, in both cases, changes from the outside might force people to change. There’s already, as Alex points out, a tension between higher ed and the “outside” world:

I mean the tension between academia and the mainstream culture is heavy enough as it is based strictly on ideological differences. What happens when academics continue to insist on providing an increasingly irrelevant education and charging more and more for the privilege?

digital digs: the threat of the network

I think Will and Alex are both right. There are shifts happening outside of educational institutions that those insitutions seem to be stubbornly ignoring.  I think that they ignore them because they’re afraid to learn; they’re afraid to model learning, as Will says, and they teach instead. I understand that feeling. It does feel a little scary to look vulnerable in front of your students, but imagine how much more vulnerable they feel in front of you. I think this is a difficult time to be a teacher. But it’s also an exciting time, if one can embrace some new ways of doing things and have a willingness to learn. Isn’t that why most of us got into this in the first place? Because we enjoy learning?

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Public shool debate continues

I’d like to point everyone to the discussion going on in the comments to my recent post on public education. I think my reactions to public education are complicated and probably can’t be summed up in a blog post or a comment. In reality, we have pretty good schools here. They’re not perfect obviously, but they’ll probably be fine for our kids. The schools I went through probably weren’t as good and I turned out fine. It’s what you make of it, I suppose. I’m just not sure that every kid is equipped to make the best of it. And then what? – Comments

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Lack of curiosity

When I think about what it means to be involved in education, I think primarily about curiosity. I think one should continually be curious about the world around you. One should always want to ask, “What’s new?” and then go find out. Coupled with this curiosity is imagination. I think of education as coming up with new ways of looking at old things, of coming up with entirely new things, of rethinking the way we do things. That all requires imagination.

What I sometimes find, however, is a lack of these two things, especially when it comes to technology. There are lots of reasons for this, most of them institutional. I don’t know of any field, aside from Computer Science perhaps, where technology is integrated in a way where faculty just simply naturally think about it as they are planning their classes. It’s always an afterthought. This, then, leads to a lack of imagination in implementation. How can you possibly come up with something truly interesting and innovative at the last minute? I’ll give you an example. I suggested to a professor, someone who is technically savvy and pretty imaginative, that he use Flickr for a class that was image-heavy. He wanted a way for students to comment on photos they had taken and posted to a web site. Now I give him credit for asking, but this was the second week of class before we were having this conversation. And although I explained that Flickr allowed you to comment, even put sticky notes right on the image and if you want, you can close off your collection just to your students, you can do that too. But there wasn’t time to demonstrate or come to the class and show how it worked or any of that.

I think I can partly blame myself for this. I don’t always reach out before the semester and suggest such things and I think I’ll do more of that. I’m currently writing the “Alphabet Soup” of technology for educators on my other blog. That has actually generated some response so far.

Another problem is that faculty, I realize, do not have time to do some of these things. It takes time to set up a Flickr account, perhaps set up a pool for students to work with, write documentation for that. It takes time to make video clips, to think about blogging, to make your Blackboard site more than just a document repository. I know, because I do these things for my own single class and it takes time. And there’s no reward, no guarantee of success, and the chance that one will be humilated in front of the class and fail miserably.

Many of the faculty at my institution come from places overflowing with staff and resources. Harvard, for example, has about 12 people on its instructional technology team alone. Yale has 16. Stanford has about 30 (too many for me to count quickly). Most of those places, too, have liaisons for each department and separate out work on classroom/research activities from basic technology needs like email, word processing, etc. For basic support, there’s another team of 15 or 20. At these places, a faculty member comes in the semester before and says, “I want an interactive site for anthropology 101” and the site magically appears. Or I want these 100 images scanned and put into a nice powerpoint presentation and voila, it’s done. So, naturally, many of them expect the same kind of service when they arrive at our institution. But alas, with one person as a full-time instructional technologist and who also handles general web and technology issues from both faculty and staff, that service is simply not possible.

Would I like to provide that kind of service? Not really. I personally think there’s value in doing some of these things yourself. First, you know the material and the best way to present it. Reimagining it in digital form often makes you rethink the way you present the material. I’ve heard from colleagues who work at these larger institutions that sometimes the projects they create are never used or are used once and discarded. I’m guessing that if you create or help create a project yourself, you will use it. Often, too, if you’re just producing digital material from analog versions that have been dropped off, there’s never an opportunity to have a conversation about the best way to use the digital material or ways to make it flexible and fit different situations and classes. And there’s just that lack of curiosity and imagination again; there’s no desire to learn how these things work, how they could transform teaching.

I think most people associate technology with a kind of dystopia where curiosity and imagination have been stripped away. And maybe in the 80s and early 90s when the focus was automation and “making life easier.” And maybe that vision of technology still exists now. And it’s hard to get beyond that when much of what I and my department end up doing involves the nuts and bolts end of things instead of the fun, imaginative end of things. For me, technology, especially web technologies is all about creativity and imagination, of connecting and “talking” to people, of seeing things in new ways, of words converted to image, of image converted to words, of infinite possibility. Maybe people are afraid of that infinite possibility or maybe, conversely, they feel constrained and hemmed in by technology instead of feeling free to pursue a different path. I wish that more people would be more curious about technology instead of fearful of it. Unfortunately, I may be able to teach them how to use something, suggest possibilities, but I think it’s beyond my job duties to instill a sense of curiosity. But I’ll keep trying anyway.

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Stop this crazy thing!

Yesterday began at 6:00 a.m. and ended at 9:00 p.m. It was crazy. It still feels like the rush of the beginning of school. It’s not supposed to be this way. I managed to slow down enough to enjoy my class, which was really fun yesterday. I think we’re finally getting to know each other.

But I can’t think. I can barely string together a complete sentence and that’s so not fun. Words are my thing. Losing them. Not good.

I have to ask, those of you who are profs and parents, how painful is it for you to listen to curriculum discussions at the elementary or middle school level? After parent night last night, I was seriously considering home schooling. Listening to the way writing was taught pained me. And social studies? Oh. My. FSM. The teacher has an “inside track” on Iraq because she’s got three family members stationed there. Hellooo. Can we say one sided? Ugh. I guess I’ll just have to encourage Geeky Boy to think outside the box and to argue back. Sigh.

And the other thing that just freaks me out. The structure of it all. So rigid. And I’m sitting there thinking, “This is what I have to get students to unlearn when they get to college.” Oh, and the “Info Tech” class. OS 9 people! OS 9. And they’re just learning to type. That’s it. No how to use wikipedia. No other software tools. I know it costs money to buy new computers and all, but OS 9? AppleWorks? Holy crap. The woman teaching the class used to teach shorthand.

The only good thing was math and science. I liked math and science. The teacher’s a younger guy, about my age, and approaches learning very differently and uses technology in the classroom. They’re doing an online web thing with hurricanes. He puts the responsibility for learning on the students and provides an appropriate enviornment and the tools they need. So yay for that.

But man, the state of the public school system sucks. Such old methods. No wonder we’re lagging.

In other news, I sent chapter 4 off–hooray, hurrah. I am taking it a little bit easy this week. Did a little bit of work yesterday, but today, I have an early start to my work day, so I’m just hanging out. I lived with that chapter for so long, it feels weird to be moving on. But I’m glad I am. I can *really* see the light at the end of the tunnel now. So weird.

I have some more to say about faculty, teaching and technology. When my brain functions, I’ve been thinking about this, so more on that later. Oh, and I should go visit Wednesday Whining (is it Wednesday already?)

Teaching is hard

We’re three weeks into the semester and I’m not sure I feel we’re totally in the swing of things. My students may find this, so I will paint this in broad strokes. In fact, I hope they do find this. It would mean they’re doing what I expect.Last semester, when I taught this course, we really focused on blogging. We didn’t have a heavy-duty reading assignment until 2-3 weeks into the course. This semester, I decided to do both–have the blog and do some reading and leave it up to the students as to whether they blogged about the reading or something else related. The thing is, most students are averaging about 1 post a week, though I’ve assigned 4 posts (two over each long weekend). I know this blogging thing works. The hard part is motivating the students to get going on it. Most are motivated (from my recent study results) by receiving comments either from other students or from other bloggers. I had given them the assignment to find something to comment on and to comment and leave our url so that we might get some traffic to our site. I even showed them how to do this in class on Thursday.

I did my own assignment over the weekend and indeed, we did get a link and a comment. So I modeled what I wanted, and I guess I’ll discuss what I did in class. I’m also planning to do a brainstormin exercise a la jo(e). I feel like I need to mix it up in class a little. The students were kind of dragging on Thursday. Partly, I think the weather was a factor and it was beginning to sink in that college is going to be a lot of work and I think we’re kind of tired of the book. We should have gone through that faster.

The thing that’s hard is that my philosophy about teaching is that the students should take responsibility for their learning. Creating the environment for that is much harder than lecturing, just giving paper assignments and then grading them. I come to class with more questions than answers and I think some students find that unnerving. And if the students don’t wrestle with my questions, there’s a lot of dead air and I find that unnerving.

The kind of teacher I want to be is one who inspires in her students the desire to learn more. I’ve always had a few students like that. Whether I’ve had anything to do with it or not, I don’t know. But I recognize that I’m not always that inspiring. But I want to be, and so I keep working at it.

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