Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Teaching 2.0, Initial Thoughts

In the last three years I have slowly introduced Web 2.0 technologies into the classroom with various levels of success. Because classrooms have so many other demands, I have to say that this portion has never really gained the kind of attention that it needs. Also, a lot of this has involved some significant stumbles. But that is to be expected. If you are teaching Wikis, Blogging and the like, you are teaching on terms that the students think they fully understand and so many teachers are convinced that they do not. Neither are completely true, but I do think they need to noted.

For example, Will Richardson claims that many teachers need to recognize that they have a "digital accent"
Marc Prensky says that students are Digital Natives while most educators are veritable Digital Immigrants who were not born in to technology and will always keep their accents. We print out our e-mail, prefer plain paper to digital paper, and still use phone books to look up numbers. This divide makes bringing technology to our students more difficult, and our accents many times get in the way of our use of technology. But accents are easier to lose than you might think, especially when all sorts of constructivist technologies are lowering the bar to entry.
To some extent I would buy that, but I do not think that students really understand Web 2.0 at all. My experience is that beyond e-mail and instant message, your average student is as "passive" a media consumer when it comes to the Web as they are with TV. The great majority of my students have never published a website until we make them do so. When it comes to Web 2.0, the environment of Blogs and Wikis mean something to students but Podcasts and RSS mean very little to a great majority. I teach mass media and when I ask students about podcasting very few of them partake in either end, consuming let alone producing. And if I was to ask a student to mkae their own Wiki they wouldn't know how to do it, despite the fact that PBWiki makes it very easy to do so.
Bryan Alexander notes in EDUCAUSE REVIEW | March/April 2006, Volume 41, Number 2 that
the concepts, projects, and practices of Web 2.0 as a whole, insofar as we have surveyed them, are fluid and emergent. They are also so accessible as to be launched and interconnected at a pace rapid even by Web standards. At the same time, many services are hosted externally to academia. They are the creations of enthusiasts or business enterprises and do not necessarily embrace the culture of higher education.
This is true of the entire culture: both educators and students. As a scholar who tries to teach Web 2.0 this is an area where so much is up in the air right now. Don't believe me? Download Firefox 2.0 and page through the "Add Ons" portion of the Firefox home and you will see a number 2.0 like extensions, each of which allow users to tag, comment and interact with and on the web. And these extensions, like Diigo will mean the creation of a World Wide Palimpsest. I am all for that and I think students and scholars should be too... however, so many of them have no clue how to utilize any of these resources. Right now we, student and scholar alike, are in a position to play collective catch up. True those students grew up with Web 1.0, but all of us new to 2.0, and we need to understand that.
So, how to teach it? Here are a few suggestions...

1) First and foremost, develop exercises that are low risk and allow for "maximum play" -- When you teach Blogging and Wikiing I firmly believe that the deepest, most profound lessons come from repeated, short term engagement that see the exercise as something that has low-level consequences. Much like a videogame, the proficiencies can only be developed over time, with repeated engagement and with a sense that this means very little in terms of grade. I often add a wiki or a blog to a course but do not "grade" it so much as I check to see that is done. This works well with small classrooms (I wouldn't even bother to do this with a 200 person classroom) where you can build groups and teams who you can hold accountable with a checkmark. The issue of the grade is counterintuitive to many, but has precedence in writing and oral competency: You give small assignments that have minimal impacts on the grade, but they all add up. What I have found is that by making web work as additional to a larger paper then you can a) avoid grading web work that feels punitive (and, I would argue, severely unjust) for most people unless they are in a Web Design class and b) you find that it actually benefits the organization and composition of the traditional paper.

2) Make students work in groups if possible -- The whole point of 2.0 is collective intelligence and students get a better sense of what this means if they can see how others can and do contribute. This includes the shy kid who never speaks up. When they work in these groups it teaches the students that the power of Web 2.0 is where you get intelligence from non-traditional sources and unexpected places.

3)Do one 2.0 thing at a time in a class unless that class is explicitly about the Web-- Teaching Web 2.0 should really be seen as an additive, not a main course. If you are a historian and you would like to have your class use Zotero simply to acquire bibliographic information, then you are not asking much other than you require them to use free and easy-to-use browsers and attachments. You may ask them to do little more than write Zotero and tell them what you like and what you would like to see their device do (or be better at doing). In my eyes, this allows students to understand how research is dependent on collective tools and standards. You can take time to discuss this in class, with other students as well as peers. This is a moment where you can begin to discuss many "inside baseball" issues that are pertinent to your work and the work of your colleagues.
So, I will continue my thoughts on this later, including some thoughts as to why I believe that this connects to a number of media issues that have, historically, operated with little academic or professional attention given to them.

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Jason Mittell said...

Tim - nice thoughts, but let me add one additional:

- You need to teach about the tool, not just with the tool.

For many faculty, adding the newest technology is a way to make a class seem fresh, new, hip, etc. - you feel like you're meeting students where they live, engaging them on their digital terrain. But I agree that most (certainly not all) students are fairly unreflective media consumers/producers - they may know how to use some software, but they haven't thought about what it means to use it.

We teach writing across the curriculum because students have had over a decade experience formally engaging with print as both consumer & producer - they may not have read Walter Ong, but they understand what print does & how it works. But to through digital storytelling, blogging, wikis, etc. at students and say "here, make something!" can be irresponsible - either they try to emulate old media in the new forms, or they embrace their creativity as transcending medium. But teaching media literacies involves getting users to think critically and reflexively about technologies - so my rule of thumb is that if you're going to use a technology in a course, you need to offer some critical engagement with it, not just roll it out as a fresh wrapper for yesterday's fish.

If anyone's interested, check out my Media Technology class, which tries to practice what I'm preaching.

Loganpoppy said...

I agree. I use these tools not to be hip. In fact, one of the things that I like about a lot of them is that a lot Web 2.0 is pretty mundane, i.e. it's doing things that we already do and giving you the chance to do it without having to learn copious amounts of code, etc. That said, Web 2.0 is back to basics and the basics are, and always will be, don't just read, produce something, anything.

That aspect, though, is tough. Just like writing across the curriculum, we need to take the attitude that Web 2.0 is discipline-specific and can only be learned in small chunks at a time.

And that is different than media literacy, which I wholly advocate but I think I am less ambitious in my aims. I just don't believe that most students and academics are going to want to know about the history and aesthetics of the web any more than your average reader wants to know the history of publishing. We may want those things, but I do believe that this is a tool and we can teach to those who want to know about it, but I am under no belief that the economist down the hall wants to know about the tool's history, conventional usages, etc. I could be wrong, but I think that we should think about the distance of our reach and the needs of our audience.

michael said...

This is a really interesting discussion. Thanks for the links.

Now maybe this is semantics, but you seem to have in mind only a couple of things that one might call Web 2.0. Asking students to contribute to blogs and wikis is probably asking them to do something they haven't done before (though now some of my students have blogged before for other classes). If the class were to have a social networking site, though (maybe using Ning?), then they would in theory be in their comfort zone. My students Facebook all the time. However, they might see social networking (or IM'ing the prof) as their thing and resent being asked to do it in a class context. Kids are often very much put off by the thought that "old" people like their teachers or parents might be violating what they see as their online space. This suggests that the issue of who has the accent isn't as simple as it might seem. I have an accent when it comes to social networking sites. They seem very foreign to me. I have no idea what to do with MySpace. It just confuses me. But they have the accent when it comes to blogs, wikis, tagging, RSS, even Flickr and YouTube. Indeed, most academics have little or no experience with these things--even young ones like us. An interest in the latest whizbang internet things is still really a niche pursuit. We should no more expect students to know about this stuff than we would expect them to have seen the same movies and TV shows as us. It's not their culture (yet).

As for Jason's point: to me it's a matter of what I am teaching. I have used blogs without much discussion of the form of the blog. I tell students that it's an online media consumption diary, and every so often we discuss people's entries. Eventually people get to talking about what they like and dislike about the class blog, but I prefer if that discussion waits for late in the semester. I want the blog to seem natural, unremarkable. I don't want to advertise its novelty or promote it as the cool new thing. It is what it is, a tool for people's expression. I would rather they not be self-conscious about how they use it.

Michael Newman

Loganpoppy said...

Michael, interesting point re social networking sites... look forward to hearing your thoughts at SCMS on them.

But the issue of that as Web 2.0 accents aside, I think things like Facebook and MySpace are perhaps a great place to start and point out that they are partaking in one aspect of 2.0 and that this is one of the earlier iterations of 2.0 and that if they were to think of Wikipedia as something of a Encyclopedia Brittanica meets FaceBook without all the pictures of yourself drinking with your firends, then you have opened a door for them.

That said, I like MySpace but have no use for Facebook. I have a profile and I never use it as I find it too exclusive. For the longest time I had a MySpace "friend" who was actually using the site as a place to plug his carpet cleaning business!

As for AIM, I use an account for school sometimes, but it is something that is "their terrain". My fiance's child just bought a book that is printed as if it was a long AIM chat at Target last night. I don't get it, to be sure. So, I have some kind of accent, I guess. But I guess I have never considered that Web 2.0 That said, I love the criticism portion of the Wikipedia entry on 2.0 where the entry notes, "when a web-site proclaims itself "Web 2.0" for the use of some trivial feature (such as blogs or gradient boxes) observers may generally consider it more an attempt at self-promotion than an actual endorsement of the ideas behind Web 2.0. "Web 2.0" in such circumstances has sometimes sunk simply to the status of a marketing buzzword, like "synergy", that can mean whatever a salesperson wants it to mean, with little connection to most of the worthy but (currently) unrelated ideas originally brought together under the "Web 2.0" banner. The argument also exists that "Web 2.0" does not represent a new version of World Wide Web at all, but merely continues to use "Web 1.0" technologies and concepts." So we are back to questions about standards!

Here's a question people: if you were to teach any set of Web 2.0 applications, what would you start with?

Bryan's workshop blog said...

Fine post, Tim.
I'd like to chime in with what other people have said, especially about the nuances of hipness.

A couple of things to add:
First, teaching about the technology students tend to already use is really a fine liberal arts college approach to technology. It begs interdisciplinarity, demands critical thinking, leaves open a wide gate for constructivist pedagogy. That kind of engagement should empower teachers, too, to get them away from a focus on mechanics (this is the genius behind the digital storytelling idea, I think).

Second, it's useful to think of the Web 2.0 landscape as a research area for students. Beyond production in that area and self-expression, there's a lot to be considered under the rubrics of "search" or "information fluency." Consider, for example, using Technorati or Google Blogsearch to sample opinions about an event or current object. Try searching Flickr to find photographic evidence of some topic. Yes yes yes, of course, this is where we contribute (or should contribute!) content... but it's a different angle, seeing these as areas for search.

To answer loganpoppy, it depends in part of what you're doing in which class. Blogs are terrific for journal-ish writing, for example, as well as for project recording. Wikis are grand for collaborative writing. Flickr et al, for image prompts.
I'm very fond of Gliffy, because a) I can't draw worth a damn, b) it's extremely easy, and c) lets you export stuff right away in universally usable formats.

Got to run... in order to give a talk about Web 2.0 and teaching. :)

Tim Anderson said...

The Gliffy example is interesting since it brings up a number of issues for me regarding interoperability. I signed up and hoped that it would be able to interfact with OmniGraffle, which I just started using three months ago. Alas, no such luck. It has a plug in that allows it to interface with another proprietary software, Confluence, but not others yet. Since Gliffy is flash-based and exports out jpegs it may not be as easy an interface as I would like. But I would like it nevertheless.

And this somehow leads me to that vexing issue of Web 2.0 and that is we have this historic opportunity but we have to teach the tool and in some cases about the tool, but what happens when my tools don't work well with each other? Well, I can tell you that the reaction of most people I know is to throw their hands up in frustration and walk away from the tool altogether *sigh*