I Know What I Know

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For good or ill, the paper I’m presenting on Thursday is finished. That is, until I get into my hotel room and start looking at it again.

In some ways, I’m uncomfortable with the shape my argument had to take. I’m sort of the oddball on the panel, and I wanted to make my topic connect a little better to the other papers. So I wound up talking about the difference/benefits of public versus anonymous online communities.

(Nabokovian moment here: I’m terribly sorry, but there’s a woman in my living room who keeps screaming “Oh shit! Oh my god! Oh shit!” If you’ve read Pale Fire, you’ll get the reference)

You see, for about 10 years now, compositionists have been writing about the empowerment that comes from involving online communities in our classrooms–chat rooms, discussion fora, that sort of thing. The idea is that the anonymity of these virtual spaces will “empower” students, that they will be more free to express their thoughts and opinions than they might feel they are in the classroom, and that, hopefully, such virtual spaces will allow us to realize our vision of the paperless classroom. The image is highly idealized: students sitting in virtual pastures, peer-editing their work, and discussing the finer points of their arguments.

This is, of course, a fantasy. Online communities of students are often incredibly difficult to construct, and even more difficult to maintain.

I’ve been using technology in my classes, in various forms, since somewhere around 1996 or 97. But for about the same length of time, I’ve been writing and speaking (this is my 4th or 5th talk on the subject) about the dangers of rushing into this too quickly. Yes, I believe the internet can be useful to teachers. I know that email and the web have made my life much easier. But I’ve also seen some of my “online communities” erupt into anarchy. There are simply too many variables for it not to happen every now and then.

It’s important, I think, for us to remember that “just because we can doesn’t mean we ought to.” When we use technology in our classes, it must be with a clear goal in mind. Merely thinking it’s cool, or believing that it’s cutting-edge, isn’t good enough.

What I’m speaking about on Thursday is the need for us to re-assess the audience for these online technologies. All of the trackers I’ve put on our Composition Program’s web site(s) have revealed that our students use almost none of the material we’ve made available to them. Certainly, this is an indication that we need to rethink what our students want, but then we get into another set of problems: making it too easy.

I’m interested in whether or online technologies might not be better used as a means of pedagogical support for instructors. When you look through the literature, what you find are pages and pages of discussion about the problems inherent in and benefits of using technology in the classroom, but you find nearly nothing about the value of using online technologies to assist teachers. Why not construct online databases? Why not put in place departmental listservs? Why not centralize all of the support these programs provide and make it available online?

Curiously, despite all our discussion of the uses of technology in the classroom, this idea rarely comes up.

So that’s what I’m talking about.

I should admit, that as I’ve been writing this, I’ve been getting ready to go to Chicago. And so this has taken something like 3 hours to write. I’m sure it’s nothing like what I’d envisioned in my head.

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Written by srogers

July 2, 2011 at 2:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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