Before Steve Jobs made a few changes in the making of animated cartoons with Pixar he developed the next generation of computers with his new “Next” line of computers. Though I have heard of a computer aficionado here and there who still holds on to their Next computer, I do not think you can buy one off the shelf any longer. Sometimes the next big thing catches on like Pixar’s animation technology and redefines an industry. At other times the next big thing, like the Next computer, silently fades away. I remember when the Next computer was released and thought “what a cool looking computer.” I heard of an engineer at Aerospace Corporation, through a friend, who used one and loved it and then I heard nothing more.
Education, it seems, is always on the lookout for the next big thing that will revolutionize the classroom and redefine education in America (and the rest of the world as well I suppose). Often the next big thing silently fades away to be replaced by another big thing and other times it has a more lasting presence. We are, for example, still following John Dewey’s model of project-based learning (though I do not think he called it that). Blogging, and other Web 2.0 technologies are being portrayed as the new revolution in the classroom; technology that will change the way our students learn and communicate with one another.
Nancy A. McKeand in her blog asked readers to submit reasons they liked blogs so that she could incorporate their thoughts in a presentation she was going to give. A number of folks responded with exciting things they do with their students in the “blogosphere”. All the comments were positive, as you would expect. That is, I suppose, an element of the blogosphere, many coins have a single side, the side the blogger wants to see. Either McKeand’s request provoked no cautionary tales or they were edited out by the blogmeister. Enthusiasm is a good thing, as Emerson said “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” However, enthusiasm can hinder peripheral vision. It is important I think to be aware of the problems that come with these new technologies. As an educator I am concerned about the dangers of responding quickly while in the grips of an untested idea and the consequences of this for good scholarship. I am also concerned with the loss of the formal voice. To my students, for example, Shakespeare is William. They talk about him as though he were a regular dinner guest. Not that there is anything wrong with informality, just that there is a place for both the formal and the informal and I think it is good thing to hang on to a formal space.
But these concerns are not insurmountable and are certainly not that great, especially when compared with the dangers of making our private selves public. But than these concerns are as real out of the classroom as in and in the classroom perhaps a concern for safety can be modeled. I am also concerned though, with the loss of privacy that comes with these new technologies. I read recently of a young man who nearly escaped serious consequences for drunk driving until the prosecutor showed a video from a party posted on the web. In the video the young man was behaving in a manner that suggested he felt little or no remorse for his actions (we of course know that pictures and videos never lie). Now one’s initial response may be “well, good, he got what he deserved.” But this was a private moment in a private space that was made public without the accused consent. What does this suggest about constitutional guarantees against self-incrimination? Why be concerned with the government spying on us if we are going to spy on ourselves and make the results of our espionage public? Again, though, this is happening whether we blog or not and our classroom space is still a “fine and private place” isn’t it?
Ferdig and Trammell in their article “Content Delivery in the Blogosphere” point out many of the advantages to incorporating blogs in the classroom. They too accentuate the positive, but they also present many compelling reasons why the blog can help transform the classroom. They use the language of educational theorists (I don’t think I will ever be able to convince myself that the blog my student wrote this morning is an “artifact”) that runs a bit counter to the informal structure of the technology they are championing. But that said they point out how research shows students that write blogs improve as writers and thinkers.
They offer some suggestions on how to go about implementing blogs. The first suggestion is “Consider blogging yourself.” They point out that:
“Many institutions encourage their faculty and staff to take an online class before teaching one. The obvious benefit is that the instructor sees what it is like to use the technology prior to being on the other side of the virtual desk. The same rule applies for blogging: Take the time to understand blogging and the different possibilities of blogs before using them in the classroom.” (Ferdig)
This probably states the obvious, but good advice nonetheless. It also underscores what the investment ought to be for individual teachers and school districts that decide to make blogging a part of their curriculum. For the teacher, experiment first; for the school district, provide teachers the time and training to experiment effectively. Because there is so much “free” blogging software available blogging may seem another quick and cheap fix to an educational problem. The truth is that like most things for blogging to work there needs to be groundwork and there needs to be investment.
Their other suggestions are: “Spend time visiting other classroom blogs”, “Model blogging for your students”, “Make the blogs more public”, and “Explain the ‘reach’ of blogs to students”. (Ferdig) This is all sound advice, though some require careful thought and planning before they are implemented. As suggested earlier, what are the potential consequences and liabilities for a school district making public the blogs their students and teachers produce?
They also offer four benefits of blogging. The first benefit they identify is “The use of blogs increases student interest and ownership in learning.” I wonder about the truth of this. The writers assert that because the students’ blog on what interests them, they will become more attuned learners as a result. This seems to assume that because we ask students to blog on a subject they are, because they are blogging on it, going to become interested in the topic. I question this conclusion. I find it easier to accept that the public nature of the blog will motivate a student to take the shaping of the content more seriously, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this greater seriousness equals greater interest. Some student will, I imagine, fight writing a blog on some book they find boring as they fought writing an essay on some book they found boring.
The other three benefits, though, (“The use of blogs helps students become subject-matter experts”, “The use of blogs gives students legitimate chances to participate”, “and “The use of blogs provides opportunities for diverse perspectives, both within and outside of the classroom”) do have validity. Students can become more expert in something, for example, without necessarily developing a greater interest in that topic. In fact it might be argued that students might (and I emphasize the might) learn there is a value to knowing something about things that do not interest them because those things have importance, or just because there is a pleasure to be gotten from being able to talk intelligently to others about these things. I think students like “feeling smart” about things, even if the subject of that knowledge does not hold particular interest to them.
So to get back to the original question, are blogs and the rest of the Web 2.0 technologies the new Pixar or the new Next computer. Are these new technologies the fast lane to the 22nd century or a roundabout that might put us into that fast lane? Michael Chabon in his recent book of essays Maps and Legends talks about his love of science fiction. He says he doesn’t like the speculative variety because these books in his view are more often wrong about the future than they are right. I suppose the same is true when it comes to technology and the future of education. I certainly do not know what the 22nd century classroom is going to look like. But I do believe the road to this classroom runs through blogs, the online classroom, wikis, and whatever they discovered this morning. The Next computer may not have become an icon for a moment in computer history, but it did push the ball a little farther down the road. The new technology is scary, it changes faster than I can learn it; but it is also the context of progress for our moment in time. As Elaine May once said “The only safe thing is to take a chance.”
Ferdig, PhD., Richard E. and Kaye D. Trammell. “Content Delivery in the “Blogosphere”.” February 2004. T.H.E. Journal. 20 July 2008 <http://thejournal.com/articles/16626_3>.
McKeand, Nancy A. And yet another favor to ask… 16 March 2006. 20 July 2008 <http://namckeand.blogspot.com/2006/03/and-yet-another-favor-to-ask.html>.
The NeXT logo designed by Paul Rand taken from Wikipedia