Lewis and Clark and the Digital Age

Lewis and Clark and the Digital Age

William Clark's name carved in stone


The natives,” Clark wrote in his journal for July 25, 1806, “have engraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals &c. near which I marked my name and the day of the month & year.” He had done the same thing in the same sort of setting at least once before. Back on July 12, 1804, near the mouth of the Big Nemaha River, in Nebraska, he wrote, “observed some Indian marks, went to the rock which jutted over the water and marked my name & the day of the month & year.”

Joe Bailey's name carved in stone


Is the problem with social networking technology that it is inherently unsafe; that it is too dangerous for use in the classroom or, is this technology just a tool that is subject to the same potential for misuse as any other tool that is used in the classroom? I agree with Steve Burt that it is not the tool but how the tool is used that makes it “unsafe.” The images above are of “messages” left by folks making their way across the American frontier. I am sure William Clark when he walked across the American continent with his friend Meriwether Lewis used his hammer and chisel for more productive activities than “tagging” his name and the date of his visit on this rock overlooking the river down which he traveled. Joe Bailey of the 6th Infantry might have had more productive things to do as well back in 1875, but he left his tag on a bit Montana rock as well. Clark and Bailey, it could be argued, made improper use of the tools that were given them. Should we be surprised that some of our less mature students would use the tools given them in an equally irresponsible way?

I think there are concerns that teachers should have about the social networking tools, just as there are concerns teachers should have when they see pencils and pens used to leave messages on desktops. Monitoring student behavior is always difficult and becomes more difficult as classroom sizes increase. But as Burt points out we do not deny students pencils because they may not always use them properly. The more real concern is for how these new technologies change the landscape of the classroom. Jerome Monahan in an article on the new networking technology wrote:

But, in the end, one of the hardest aspects of social networking that schools will have to tackle is the fundamental shift in teachers’ working practices it requires. “In such an environment teachers become facilitators,” says Joanna Bryce, “guiding students into becoming more critical readers and more responsible in their peer-to-peer interactions. (Monahan)

I have never been a fan of teachers as “facilitators.” In fact I do not really like the word, perhaps because it has been so over used. But I think there is something to be said for expertise and training. I suppose at heart I am an elitist. I think some things are more worthy of study than others, that the teacher, due to training and experience has insights into their discipline that students are unlikely to have. I teach English where it is a commonplace occurrence for a student to see something I have not, and understand students often understand more than we give them credit for; still the teacher does more than just moderate. I once thought of the teacher as a kind of tour guide taking students down a path she or he has traveled before but the students have not. Just because teachers have been there before does not mean they have seen all there is to see; students often see things others have missed. Still, the teacher knows most of the most important things to watch out for.

The teacher’s ultimate job, I think is to provoke self-discovery. And I think the social software can be useful in this regard. When I first heard about Second Life for example, I thought of creating an assignment like “Did Shakespeare Buy His Own Groceries” and then have the students use the software to create an Elizabethan village where students would have to imagine how the day to day living was done in Shakespeare’s time. How were clothes purchased, what could you read in the newspaper (or the Elizabethan equivalent), what kind of speech was tolerated and not tolerated? I think the knowledge students got from constructing such a village would give them some insights into how the characters in Shakespeare’s plays experienced life adding depth of meaning to some of the things characters do or say. Then of course I discovered that adults cannot visit the villages teens create so there would be no way to access the finished product or at least the assessment would be very difficult.

I can see how platforms like YouTube or MySpace might be used by students to create videos that demonstrate their understanding of a poem or story, but I am not sure this is the most effective way to accomplish this goal, though I am open to it. I feel more comfortable with wikis and blogs I suppose. But this is probably just because they more closely resemble the way I have been teaching in the past and the classroom as I understand it. Though I do not like the word “facilitator” I basically agree with Monahan’s point that teachers have to change the way they look at the classroom and the way they present their material.

I believe the best way to reform education is to make teachers change the way they do things. The changes may not in themselves be productive or meaningful changes, but the process of rethinking the way we as teachers do what we do forces us to reengage with those elements of our discipline that first excited us, to, as Ezra Pound once said, “Make it new.” As teachers I think our students benefit if every few years we make our classrooms new, change them into something else. It helps to regenerate enthusiasm in the teacher and throws the students a little off guard because they can never be too certain what to expect and we always pay more careful attention when we cannot anticipate what is coming. But I digress.

I think that when we give students the opportunity to use their imaginations, to be creative, we provoke thought. That the process of putting an abstract idea, an inspiration, into a concrete form, like a video or a visual image, requires the same degree of clarity in the mind as to what you are trying to communicate as does writing an essay. If the creative venue enables the student to focus her or his thinking more concretely and deeply on the concept at hand than it is a good thing. Again it is not the tool that communicates these ideas it is the person using the tool to achieve a goal. As teachers we are not just trying to teach students the major concepts of our disciplines but also the proper use of the tools that communicate our students understanding of those concepts. And the tools we teach our students to use should resemble the tools they will have to use when they leave the high school campus to compete in the much larger worlds of work or the university.

Monahan, Jerome. Missed opportunity. 9 January 2007. 27 July 2008 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2007/jan/09/elearning.technology4>.

What’s Next

What’s The Next Computer Logo

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