Remediating Remedial Composition

Osmar Schindler (1869-1927): David und Goliath, 1888 via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a big fan of Mike Rose because I think that what he says makes a lot of sense. I just don’t understand why more university administrators and those in charge of remedial writing courses aren’t listening to him.

If you don’t know who Mike Rose is, you should get to know him by reading his blog or a few of his books, especially Lives on the Boundary, which is the first book of his I ever read. I read it after discovering his seminal article “Remedial Writing Courses: A Critique and a Proposal.” As the title of the article suggests, Rose first critiques the praxis of remedial composition and its theoretical underpinnings and then offers an alternative method for teaching students who require remediation in writing in a way that better eases their transition into the first-year composition course. Rose’s critique, then and now, questions the idea that students who arrive at university with substandard writing preparation need to be taught the very basics of writing, i.e., grammar and mechanics and sentence construction, as though they were primary school students, rather than the adults that they are, and the assumption that the mastery of these basics will somehow allow them to go on to succeed in the typical FYC course and their other college classes. As Rose points out, the entire construction of remedial composition courses dooms them, and by association the students who must take them, to failure:

Many of our attempts to help college remedial writers, attempts that are often well- intentioned and seemingly commonsensical, may, in fact, be ineffective, even counterproductive, for these attempts reduce, fragment, and possibly misrepresent the composing process. I believe we may be limiting growth in writing in five not unrelated ways. (1) Our remedial courses are self-contained; that is, they have little conceptual or practical connection to the larger academic writing environment in which our students find themselves. (2) The writing topics assigned in these courses—while meant to be personally relevant and motivating and, in their simplicity, to assist in the removal of error—in fact might not motivate and might not contribute to the production of a correct academic prose. (3) The writing teacher’s vigilance for error most likely conveys to students a very restricted model of the composing process. (4) Our notion of “basic skills” has become so narrow that we attempt to separate the intimately related processes of reading and thinking from writing. (5) In some of our attempts to reform staid curricula we have inadvertently undercut the expressive and exploratory possibilities of academic writing and have perceived fundamental discourse strategies and structures as restricting rather than enhancing the production and comprehension of prose.

Rose goes on to propose that remedial writing courses do just the opposite of what they (typically) do now. He envisions, and in fact has helped to design and administer, remedial writing courses that don’t assume students can’t meet the challenges of academic reading, thinking, and writing, but actually ask them to dive headlong into the proverbial intellectual deep-end, with the instructor guiding and coaching them as they struggle to navigate  academic discourse and add their voice to the academic conversation. This is not much different from how many of us approach traditional FYC courses. The main difference in remedial courses, at least in my experience, is the crucial need to not allow remediation to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In remedial writing courses the challenge is not so much overcoming students’ unfamiliarity with the praxis of academic discourse as it is overcoming the label that students who are placed in remedial classes are given and the expectations (or lack thereof) that are associated with that label. In general, I have found that three types of students end up in remedial writing classes. The first group are those students who know that they have been placed in a remedial class and either resent it (because it does not count towards their degree hours and forms a barrier between them and the “real” classes that their peers are taking) or see it as a judgement on their writing ability and perhaps even on their merits and prospects as a student (I suspect that many of these students hypothesize that remedial is synonymous with “not meant to be here”). The second group of students do not even realize that they are in a remedial class or what that means. These students are often shocked to learn that the class signifies a deficiency on their part and will only count as institutional credit. The third group of students overlap with the other two, but I identify them as unique from their peers because they don’t actually belong in a remedial class but, because of poor testing skills or some other fluke, have been placed there. These students could do very well in my traditional FYC classes and therefore excel in my remedial classes, providing models for their peers to emulate. (On the reverse side of this is the fact that I always end up with a handful of students in my FYC classes who would greatly benefit from a remedial writing class and rarely are able to pass the traditional class).

Because of the precarious emotional and intellectual states of many of these students, the main function of a remedial writing class often becomes one of constant and intense encouragement as you arm your students to go out and meet the forces that they believe have been arrayed against them. If they feel like David going out to meet Goliath, then writing is the rock you must convince them they can sling. They have to believe that becoming a better writer is achievable or you have lost the battle before it has even begun (and it is an ongoing battle that you must fight all semester long). But forcing them to write self-contained paragraphs for a semester is not going to prepare them for FYC. Mollycoddling them with simplistic writing prompts is not going to help them face their next college writing assignment. And knowing a verb from a gerund is not going to help them compare and contrast two psychological theories or analyze a political cartoon or classify and analyze the medical symptoms of a hypothetical patient.

So, I’m doing things a little differently in my remedial writing class this term (the first that I’ve taught in a while) and following Rose’s four-tiered plan, which is founded on real writing challenges (the kind that students will be faced with as college students, not primary school students) that are situated within highly relevant contexts.

The Context

I have designed the class much like a journalism course in that the students will work together to design and publish a blog. The theme of the blog will be completely up to the class. At the moment, students are writing their first blog post, which is their proposal for the blog’s theme. Once students have identified potential themes, I’ll allow the class to vote on which theme they think will be the most interesting to write about this term. Once the theme is selected, the blog will function much like an digital newspaper, with students working together in groups to identify relevant stories, compose the stories, design the post layouts, and publish the stories by a deadline.

The Challenge

Students will write in small groups of three to four, rotating the role of lead editor each week. The week’s lead editor will be in charge of identifying sources for a story and sharing those sources with the other members of the writing team. The team will work together in class to brainstorm and outline the story and the lead editor will draft the story before the next class meeting. At the next meeting, the team will use Google Docs to collaboratively revise, edit, proofread, and design the blog post before the editor publishes the story to the class blog. The writing team will then have to create a VoiceThread that contains both the Google Doc in which they collaborated on the post and the final post itself. I will use the VoiceThread to provide feedback both on how effectively they collaborated as writers/designers and on the strengths and weaknesses of the final post, and the team will respond to my feedback and establish goals for their next post.

Rationale

My hope is that by having students publish their writing on a blog and select the topic of the blog, they will be more invested in the  act of writing and what they are writing about. Also, by asking students to work in writing teams, I hope to take the onus off of the individual student and provide them with a support group of peers. Because we will be using Google Docs, I will be able to monitor each team’s writing process and function as a member of each team myself. Since the class meets in a computer lab, I can be present both physically and virtually (a veritable hybrid teacher!), depending on where I am needed most by any given group.

The Technology Sticking-Point

I hesitated about using technology so heavily in a remedial course. My first instinct was to teach the course naked (figuratively speaking), going bare bones in an effort to achieve a type of Zen simplicity that I hoped would funnel over into the students’ thinking about writing. I did not want anything to complicate the already complicated relationship that many of these students are likely to have with writing. But in the end I could not get past the power that asking students to “publish it” rather than “hand it in” holds for my traditional FYC classes. I am sure that there will be some students who struggle with the technical aspects of the class and this may stifle their writing progress or even lead them to resent me and/or give up on the class. But I am hopeful that the risk of losing a few students will be trumped by the empowerment that the rest of the students will feel as they make a tangible footprint on the digital landscape.

I may be completely off my head in how I’ve planned the course. It may be that too many of my students will allow the remedial label to narrow their vision and foreshorten their potential. Too many may go into technology panic mode or feel that their writing skills are too inferior to be publicly evaluated and commented on. I may lose my nerve and ask them to abandon the field in mid-battle if I begin to see too much fear or hesitation on their part.

But, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’ll let you know how we fare.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read about another instructor who is taking a radical approach to remedial composition, read “A Model for Teaching College Writing,” which describes how Barbara Vance helped a group of struggling writers become a team of documentary filmmakers.

Invitation to Collaboration: Literature Instruction in the 21st Century Webinar

Paul Cadmus, Pocahontas saving Captain John Smith from death in 1607 while watched by her father, 1939

Invitation to Collaboration: Literature Instruction in the 21st Century 
Webinar 
August 14, 2012 
1:00 cst 

When several members of Jacksonville State University’s English department began to challenge traditionally held beliefs about undergraduate education, the anthology of Early American Literature, along with many other “norms,” came under close scrutiny for many reasons.

With the GLO Bible as an early model, a team of approximately 30 collaborators began to construct an electronic, media rich anthology combining primary texts of pre-Civil War American Literature from the traditional canon with art, criticism, scholarly commentary, and contemporary audio and video to enhance student centered and challenge based learning.

This ongoing project involves faculty from English and other humanities departments at JSU and other colleges and universities, computer science faculty and other IT experts, broad- based student involvement, and a K-20 consortium.

During this free webinar, the JSU team (Jennifer Foster, Rodney Bailey, and Gena Christopher) will share its vision for the E-thology, a glimpse into this work in progress, and an invitation to become an active participant in what has evolved into much more than an ebook. We will also welcome your questions and comments.

To register for this event, contact Gena Christopher at genac@jsu.edu.

Loitering in the Witch’s House: My MOOC Experience

photo credit: perpetualplum via photo pin cc

Whether you love Google or hate it, there’s no denying the fact that the company is at the leading edge of open source apps and educational resources. And whether we like it or not, the majority of students are using Google as their primary research tool (and, according to a study summarized by Sarah Kessler, they’re not using it very effectively). I use Google apps extensively in my hybrid courses and, recognizing a need on my students’ part to learn how to use the internet more effectively and critically, I’ve begun to integrate the Google search engine into my research workshops. So when Google recently offered a MOOC entitled “Power Searching with Google,” I immediately signed up, hoping in the process to kill two birds with one stone: 1) to learn some Google search strategies that I could pass along to my students, and 2) to get a taste for the MOOC experience. It was a mixed bag.

Set-up
In terms of set-up, the course was very straightforward. Lessons consisted of video demonstrations followed by activities designed to test your ability to apply the skills addressed in each video. Assessment consisted of a pre-course assessment (meant to gauge existing knowledge of Google search features), a mid-course assessment, and a final assessment. The scores for the mid-course and final assessments were averaged together to determine your “grade” for the course and a passing grade resulted in a certificate of completion. There was also a discussion forum that you could voluntarily participate in.

Pros
1) Individualized pace: While there were deadlines for the mid-course and final assessments, you could work through the course materials at your own pace as long as you were ready to meet those deadlines. This worked great for me because I could complete individual lessons or entire units as it suited me. Considering the hectic schedule I have this summer, this was by far the most effective aspect of the course for me.

2) Paced release of materials: While I could work at my own pace on the materials available to me, I was limited by the fact that the units were released at a graduated rate. This actually turned out to be a positive for me because, since I couldn’t see the entirety of the course materials at the beginning, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the amount of material I would need to cover and I remained focused on each set of materials I had access to.

3) Do-overs: Both practice activities and assessments were set up to allow multiple attempts at answering questions correctly. You could check your answers before submitting your assessments and wrong answers to practice activities usually triggered some feedback in terms of what to review in order to better understand the skill addressed in the activity. I found this to be a very effective method for learning because I didn’t have a fear of failure hanging over me that a single-attempt set-up would have created.

4) Leveling up or down: While I didn’t actually make use of it, there was the option to change the difficulty level of practice activities to either an easier activity or a harder activity. Again, I see this as being an effective method for individualizing assessment. There was also an option to skip activities and see the correct answers. This was effective for those search functions that I was already familiar with and didn’t necessarily want to waste my time trying out; being able to see the answers allowed me to self-assess my prior knowledge and move forward quickly if I wanted to.

Cons
1) Boring videos: I don’t expect lecture and demonstrations to be entertaining, but I do expect them to be somewhat engaging on an intellectual level. The videos were not long (the longest was a little over eight minutes), and this brevity was their only saving grace. It wasn’t just the fact that the instructor sat on a couch the whole time (I suppose in an effort to make the instruction feel more personal), but the content itself dragged in several lessons. Some lessons were far too simplistic and some were overly repetitive. A boring presenter is boring, whether IRL or on video.

2) Google Chrome required: All demonstrations were done in Chrome, so I could not replicate some of the tasks, such as the Search by Image function, as demonstrated. There was no discussion by the instructor of the different ways to complete these tasks in other browsers, though I did eventually receive help via the forum (after I had completed the final assessment). This often led to frustration on my part. If I had taken this course IRL, I would have been able to ask for clarification from the instructor.

3) Difficult tasks given short shrift: There were a few lessons that contained difficult concepts, such as using and interpreting results on WHOIS databases. There was little time spent discussing and demonstrating how to use these databases (although the instructor acknowledged the difficulties of using them), yet being able to do so was part of the final assessment. As a student, this was extremely frustrating and I quickly gave up trying to figure it out by myself (my frustration is demonstrated with some rather derogatory doodles next to my notes on this lesson and a final assessment of the lesson as “useless”). Again, IRL instruction would have afforded me the opportunity to seek clarification on these muddy points and perhaps encourage the instructor to extend the time spent on the databases.

4) Chug and plug assessment: While the practice activities required direct application of skills, the assessments were multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank problems that, for the most part, simply required regurgitating information from the instructor’s demonstrations. At this point, I’m not really certain of how much of the course I have really learned and internalized and how much I’ve simply managed to maintain in my short-term memory.

5) Forum confusingly organized and asynchronous: The few times that I did try to use the forum, I had difficulty navigating it. It was supposedly organized by lesson, but I could never find a direct link to the discussion threads for a specific lesson and it seems that most people just posted wherever they felt like it. When I posed questions, I did not receive immediate (or even proximal) feedback; the earliest I received an answer was a little over 24 hours after posting the question. Of course, one aspect of open online learning that MOOCs bank on is student participation; they count on the fact that other students are probably online when questions and comments are posted and are likely to respond faster than forum moderators. However, in this particular MOOC students did not seem particularly eager to help each other out or respond to each others’ posts, and all of my questions were answered by forum moderators.

What does this mean for MOOCs?
My initial response to the idea of MOOCs was hesitantly hopeful. Having completed one, I’m pretty much stuck with the same reservations about them that I have for tuition-based online courses. They are inherently more suited to certain types of students, i.e., those who are highly motivated, self-aware learners with good time management skills and a high tolerance for working alone and not having immediate access to and feedback from their instructor and classmates.

In terms of instruction, it requires as much, if not more, effort to make online instruction engaging because it’s far easier for students to become disengaged with an online course, especially one that’s free and has no extrinsic motivations to stay connected and finish. The one thing that’s possible in online course design that MOOCs cannot capitalize on, due to their massive size, is individualizing instruction. I’m not completely sure of the purpose of the pre-course assessment for Google’s MOOC (unless it’s simply for their own data collection purposes) because the rest of the course was not structured based on my answers to the initial assessment questions. IRL and in small online courses, diagnostic assessments allow for individualization because you can use the information garnered to help direct students towards those materials that will be of most use to them in terms of the gaps in their prior knowledge.

My first MOOC was like the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. It seemed to offer an educational paradise: no-cost, developed and delivered by domain experts (whose “certificate of completion” holds cache), flexible in terms of when and how I completed it, open in terms of whom I would be sharing the experience with. Unfortunately, the reality did not live up to the fantasy. Of course, unlike Hansel and Gretel, I could have left whenever I wished. Instead, I stuck it out to the bitter end, hoping to find some redeeming quality in something that held such promise.

What does this mean for hybrid and fully f2f courses?
We need to continue to figure out how to capitalize on the best aspects of f2f learning and online learning. Some variables remain the same, no matter what the medium of instruction. Boring is boring. Materials and activities need to be intellectually engaging and individualized to the greatest extent possible. Community is essential; students need access to their teacher and their classmates, whether it’s physically or virtually, and some of that contact needs to be synchronous (which is one reason that I think hybrid courses are so effective). Assessment needs to be formative, immediate, and authentic. And no type of assessment can measure engagement. I earned a pretty high score in the Google MOOC, a score that does not reflect the boredom and frustration that I experienced. While I certainly came away from the course with an extended set of Google search skills that I did not posses prior to the course, I’m not sure that I would have  completed the course had I been less motivated (the certificate of completion will help to pad my annual faculty review packet).

How many of our own students have walked away from our courses with A’s or B’s, despite boredom or frustration? If we base the success of our courses on the grades that students come away with, we’re ignoring the aspects of learning that MOOCs make obvious: the hardest working and most motivated students will succeed, no matter how poorly designed the learning experience. So, it’s important for students to have opportunities to share anecdotal feedback, not just at the end of the course, but from the very beginning and throughout the course. And it’s important that we be willing to act on that feedback.

In hindsight, I now recognize that it will be very difficult for designers of MOOCs to do this. In fact, it is difficult for MOOCs to enact most of the learning practices that I value: learning-centered instructional design; a skatepark-like learning environment; immediacy; flexibility; authenticity; hybridity; intimacy with the materials, ideas, and people who make up the body of the course. Instead of heralding MOOCs as the salvation of education, we need to recognize them for what they are: an alternative that works for some learners on some levels. However, it’s also an alternative that is still in its infancy and still has room to grow; in fact, I think that DS106 demonstrates what MOOCs are capable of with the right kind of instructors and objectives. Whether or not they can, as a general rule, get there is up for grabs. What makes DS106 work is that it is, like the best IRL course, a truly student-centered community, in that students develop and help assess the assignments. It’s a course completely devoid of sticks and carrots and completely built on the desire to be a part of a unique learning community.

This ideal of a free and open learning community built upon choice and intrinsic motivation is the real promise of MOOCs. But if we continue, as some institutions and companies do, to look to MOOCs as a vehicle for the mass-production and broad dissemination of canned content, we’ll never get there.

Occupying the Digital Divide

photo credit: Chris Devers via photo pin cc

This morning, a convo developed on my Twitter stream about helping primary school-age kids learn basic computer skills.

  1. Ryan__Hunt
    Planning a summer camp to teach students ages 7-12 basic computer skills. This should be an interesting challenge.
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 02:42:56
  2. allistelling
    @Ryan__Hunt would love to have my 6 and 13 year old follow along. Will it be open, in any virtual sense? Maybe good penal opps too?
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 05:50:08
  3. Ryan__Hunt
    @allistelling I hadn’t thought of that. The time difference might make it hard to follow in real time, but I’ll post all my material online
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 06:12:58
  4. TanyaSasser
    @Ryan__Hunt @allistelling please do; want 2 teach my 9 yo some basics this summer but not sure where/how 2 start; wld ❤ 2 see what UR doing
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 06:54:02
  5. TanyaSasser
    @Ryan__Hunt @allistelling it’s sad they’re not being taught this at school; mine gets 1 hour of computer lab time each week #smh
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 07:01:40
  6. allistelling
    @TanyaSasser @Ryan__Hunt Right, and that time is usually things like: make a PowerPoint, write an essay, and learn how social media is bad.
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 07:42:15
  7. TanyaSasser
    @allistelling @ryan__hunt yes-kiddo did PP this yr.-basically told exactly what 2 put on ea. slide & saved on school server-not like IRL
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 07:49:15
  8. allistelling
    @TanyaSasser @ryan__hunt my daughter went nuts this year teaching herself #Prezi. Now the school promotes it!
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 08:20:21

This convo highlights some issues that have been addressed among educational bloggers quite a bit lately and that became especially pertinent to me this summer as I realized just how digitally illiterate my 9 year old is compared to (some) others his age.

In her post, “Is There a Digital Divide or an Intellectual-Pedagogical One?”, Jackie Gerstein ponders just how much of the “digital divide” is located within and perpetuated by schools, both the trenches of the socioeconomic divide and the supposed source of the intellectual currency needed to bridge that divide:

  • But I wonder if the digital divide is really an intellectual or pedagogical one.
  • I wonder that if a comparison was done of higher and lower income schools, what would be the ratio of 1:1 (one mobile device per student during school time) initiatives?
  • I wonder, for those lower income schools, how many students have computer devices at home that match those they are using in school.
  • I wonder if technology integration strategies are similar for higher income schools in comparison to lower income schools.

While there may be differences in which schools have more access to technology, I’m not sure that there is much difference in how those schools use that access. As recently pointed out by Lee Skallerup Bessette in her article “It’s about Class: Interrogating the Digital Divide”, low-income families and schools place a premium on protecting their valuable resources:

There is little time or mental energy for an individual or family trying to make ends meet to just sit and play with their technology. Failure, as well, is more expensive, because if something breaks, there is no time or money to fix it. There are also few resources in the schools to help foster this sense of play and experimentation. In this era of high-stakes testing, suggesting to schools that are “failing” that perhaps what they need is less structured time and more time to play and experiment (particularly with technology) is unthinkable. Once again, the fear of failure, of breaking something, is too great. Firewalls are erected; computers and software are used for drill and kill exercises, if at all; strict rules and guidelines developed and enforced, and tech just becomes one more tool that imposes the banking concept of education on students.

While Bessette provides a bleak but not so surprising overview of how technology is viewed and used in her poverty-stricken area of the country, this fear of giving students the license to drive technology is evident in my own son’s school, which, by most standards, would fall within the middle-class socioeconomic bracket. The median household income for our county is $42,000 to $52,999 (this is in Alabama, where the cost of living and housing is relatively low). The suburban city school system in which my son is enrolled recently constructed two new school buildings, added an addition onto one, and remodeled another, plus built a community arts center. There are four elementary schools, one intermediate school, two junior high schools, and one high school. But, as reflected in my tweets, this economic capital has not resulted in increased access to technology for the students. My son’s school, one of the newly-constructed, has a single computer lab. Students use the lab during one 50-minute class each week. Most of the work done during the computer class involves extremely basic skills focused on completing worksheet-type lessons. In 3rd grade, students are taught to create a PowerPoint. Each student completed a PowerPoint on an assigned state and, as mentioned in my tweet, were given guidelines regarding what to place on each slide, and their slideshows were saved on the school’s server, so that students’ access to them was limited to the lab. My son’s 3rd grade classroom also had three desktop computers that were used to take Accelerated Reading tests.

This example provides an insightful view into one school’s philosophy regarding technology. What is most disconcerting for me is how technology is isolated into a distinct domain. Technology has it’s own space geographically–a lab or distinct computer area in the classroom–and temporally–lab time or testing time. This has an intellectual ripple effect for students: technology is to be used for distinct, domain-specific practices. Bessette has experienced the pushback that results from such schooling in her English classes:

I have been trying to get my students in Freshman Writing to blog, use Twitter, and to play with the technology that is available to them. I have always been met with great resistance. For them, Twitter is a waste of time, blogging is just an essay in another form, tech is a tool they have been taught to fear. This is not to say that they don’t know how to play, to create, to experiment. One of the reasons they disdain the technology is because many of them don’t see how it will help them get a job in their low-tech worlds.

Interestingly, this same kind of resistance exists in my area, where technology-heavy jobs are the norm (the major employment sectors are health care, the government, and education). I often come face-to-face with this philosophy in my classes as many students question having to use digital media in my writing and literature classes. One student in my summer FYC course blatantly expressed the belief that, since he had signed up for an English class, he did not think that he should be required to use technology. On the other hand, I have had two students who have used technology learned in my English classes to get (non-technology related) jobs. The aspect of technology that needs to be emphasized for today’s students is its flexibility and applicability beyond any one domain or discipline or even utility. Yet, this is not how technology is taught in many K12 schools, nor in many colleges. I share Gerstein’s fear that “the digital divide is really an intellectual and pedagogical one and that it is being perpetuated in our educational system by the use or lack thereof of the technologies that are influencing and driving our society-at-large.” While my son’s school has a computer lab, it’s as useful to him as the family car–it’s a vehicle that someone else gets to drive while he fulfills the role of passive passenger. Access alone is not enough, it’s how schools use the tools that they have.

Jean Anyon argues that the digital divide is not so much one of resources as one of “teaching methods and philosophies of education.” Colleges, as the educators of educators, must do more to encourage not only the integrating of technology, but a new philosophy of digital literacy. It’s important that this happen not just within schools of education, but throughout the disciplines. Secondary education majors spend just as much time in their specialty classrooms as they do education classrooms and, whether we realize it or not, look to those professors as models of teaching in action. Complicating the issue even further, the intellectual divide is a two-way street in the university environment. In my own department, many of the tenured professors view the use of technology and social media as dumbing-down the curriculum because it takes the focus away from both the human mind as an intellectual technology and the resulting analog (read: canonical) humanities. Those who favor the integration of technology and the digital humanities face both disdain from an entrenched conservatism and logistical hurdles in an environment in which our building (which houses English, drama, history, and foreign languages) is the last to receive any technological upgrades, if we receive any at all. In an ironic twist of fate, my department mirrors my son’s school with our one computer lab and our isolated, specially designated “computer-assissted” writing classes.

The good news, for my son, is that I have the economic capital and the access to and knowledge of technology and social networks to close the gap for him outside of school. Many of his classmates are not so lucky, either because of their parents’ a) socioeconomic status, b) lack of technology skills, c) belief that it’s the school’s job to teach digital literacy, d) faith that the school is doing so, or e) all of the above. Perhaps many of their parents share the school’s philosophy that technology has a place and time and that play and creation are not as important as school-sanctioned uses. Either way, there is no real pressure on the school system to change either their methods or philosophy regarding digital literacy because those parents who do value digital technology provide the economic and intellectual environments within which their children can attain digital literacies outside of school-sanctioned domains. And students are certainly not lined up at my Dean’s office to protest the lack of digital media in their college classes; they either don’t see a place for it in the humanities or would rather have the freedom to digitally play and create for themselves without school-sanctioned rules and regulations.

This philosophy of technology as something to be isolated into a controlled pedagogical environment devoid of context, connections, relevancy, or wider applicability is the real root of the digital divide. And until parents, students, and educators begin to take the initiative of other reform movements and demand a change in philosophy–not just more money and more computers–the divide will continue to widen.

Remixing Learning Spaces: Two Resources and Some Thoughts

photo credit: horizontal.integration via photo pin cc

In making the classroom analogous to a skatepark, I’ve mainly focused on designing the learning opportunities that await students within the skatepark. This is because, at this point, this is the only aspect of the skatepark that I have control over. Just as important is the architecture of the skatepark itself, but, unfortunately, this isn’t something that can easily be controlled within the college classroom. Unlike K12 teachers, we aren’t assigned to a permanent room across multiple semesters nor are our assigned rooms only used by us (they’re likely to also be in active use by as many as 5-6 other instructors during a given day). We don’t have a way to create displays of student work nor are we able to create distinct spaces within our rooms, such as reading areas, group and quiet study, or technology stations. In fact, our existing spaces are distinctly adverse to anything other than factory-style instruction, with students lined up in rows of individual desks facing the instructor and their podium and whiteboard (and the only electrical outlet).

While I don’t bemoan having to come up with new bulletin board ideas every month, there are certain aspects of the K12 classroom that would be nice to have in the college classroom. This is especially true once we begin to transform our spaces into 21st century learning environments. Our existing environments are often 30 years old (if not older), in the case of my building, and even newer “smart” buildings were designed and equipped for the type of lecture-focused instruction that was still dominant in the late-20th century, with projectors and an instructor computer station to add the veneer of being grounded in pedagogically-relevant technological innovations. Since I’m a member of a committee whose goal is to identify the necessary characteristics, criteria, and components of a 21st century university, this disconnect between what needs to go on within our classrooms and what our classrooms are designed to allow to go on is an important one for me. But it’s also important to me because I struggle daily with the limitations that these spaces place on what goes on in my learning skatepark.

In looking at resources dealing with what kinds of spaces are needed for students’ current learning needs, I’ve found two that have been especially thought-provoking. The first is this infographic by Aimée Knight:

For me, what stands out about Knight’s argument is the focus on the students’ needs, rather than on the requirements of technology:

The focus of classroom design needs to be on people, not technology. When the focus is placed on active, social, experiential learning, technologies move into the background.

This seems to be a focus that is missing from many other studies of 21st century classroom design (see, for example, the 21st century classroom design guru David Jakes’s website). In addition to the infographic, Knight and Mark Sample have published a Google Doc from a brainstorming session on Hacking Campus Spaces that took place at THATCamp Piedmont 2012. Along with a summary of the brainstorming session, the Doc contains several links to various resources on how others are re-thinking and remixing university spaces.

What the infographic does for me is to solidify my own thinking about how best to re-design the physical space within which I create learning opportunities for my students. Much more vital than any accommodations made to my technology needs is the ability for my students to have access to the spaces and resources that they need, technological and otherwise. At various times during a class meeting, my students may need to work as a group, work as individuals, access the internet and word processing or presentation software, brainstorm, collaborate on various types of writing and media, conference with me, present, and instruct one another (and even me on occasion). For me, one product from the early days of factory education that still holds value for the 21st century classroom is the individual writing tablet (I’m a big fan of the method known as whiteboarding). Of course, we have the electronic equivalent, but right now the large majority of my students don’t have iPads and many don’t have laptops. Even once my university institutes its iPad initiative and gives all incoming freshman their own electronic slate, that will still not cover all of my students. But if all of the walls of my classrooms were equipped with a whiteboard (or chalkboard, which is more environmentally friendly), then all of my students would have the ability to write, brainstorm, and collaborate on a canvas that could be shared or reserved for personal use, immediately erased or recorded for posterity (I’ve considered creating the $2 interactive whiteboard, but haven’t figured out the logistics of adapting the technique to the college classroom).

Thoreau, the genius of simplicity, said, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” The transition to a 21st century learning environment is not quick, easy, or inexpensive and requires clear priorities. Obviously, re-designing classroom spaces is not at the top of the priority list and will entail a large financial expenditure at the same time that universities are facing a reduction in federal and state funding and a rise in operating costs. But there are simple and low-cost ways that we can make our existing spaces more user-friendly for our students. I would rather my students be able to view themselves as the focus of the classroom, with tools as simple as electrical outlets, whiteboards, and modular, multi-purpose seating (or even a few tables to supplement the existing seating) at their disposal than to have all of the technological bells and whistles out there at the front of the room for me to use.

So, how am I currently dealing with the limitations of my classroom spaces? As best I can. My students are often movers and shakers, rearranging desks into groups or semicircles, contorting their bodies in order to view various areas of the room and to look at their classmates as they talk, traveling en masse from our classroom to the computer lab or as individuals to a study carrel in the hallway. The front of the classroom is still the hot spot because it’s where the projector is aimed, the only whiteboard is located, and the electrical outlet offers the ability to plug in gadgets when batteries wane. My hybrid classes, which depend much more heavily on students’ ability to use mobile internet devices, collaborate, and have small group discussions, currently meet in the library because it affords class, group, and individual seating arrangements and access to raw materials, such as reliable wi-fi, plugs, laptops that can be checked out, and coffee (thanks to our newly-installed coffee bar).

So, before we begin advocating for a wholesale overhaul of our spaces and risk the failure that is inevitable when demanding a huge financial output for uncertain results and questionable reasons (after all, our administrators might well argue, haven’t the existing spaces functioned for hundreds of years?), lets take a step back and ask whose needs are we advocating for. It does make my job infinitely easier when I have the ability to switch my students’ attention to a website, slideshow, or YouTube video or to project a student’s blog so that the entire class can see it. But in my ideal learning environment, it’s the students who turn each others’ attention to a website, slideshow, or YouTube video and students are often working together to revise a peer’s blog post in situ. While my technological needs often overlap those of my students, it’s their learning needs that have been ignored for far longer and that are in more immediate need of attention.

Or am I totally off my pumpkin?