Blue and yellow fallout shelter sign against yellow bricks

Teaching with the Internet; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Google In My Classroom

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Reviewed by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris and Meg Worley
Fallout Shelter” by Steve Snodgrass; CC BY 2.0

This piece is being published to coincide in real time with Adeline Koh’s keynote at Illiads 2015

On a walk last week, my husband asked me what I was going to talk about for the keynote that I’m giving today. I responded that I wasn’t sure yet, but I was considering whether I could fit an activity or two in so that I wouldn’t be droning on at my audience for an hour. His response: “I wouldn’t do that. They are inviting you to show off your expertise. Doing activities would be a cop-out.”

In some ways, my husband was correct: keynotes have an expected format, and that format is to lecture to — or at — one’s audience, to showcase one’s supposed brilliance. Yet everyone who has given serious thought to the mechanics of traditional face-to-face pedagogy knows that the lecture format can be highly problematic. Lectures are non-interactive, meaning that there is little way for lecturers to know whether they are getting across what they intended. Indeed, lectures have sometimes been called the “spray and pray” method: you scatter the seeds of your own knowledge in the hopes that they will actually take root in the audience. Jared Stein notes that this is a “lossy” form of education, using computing terminology to call attention to the great loss of information that occurs during transmission from speaker to learner. Lectures, he says can implicitly “encourage students’ passive acceptance of concepts, or worse, fail to change pre-existing misunderstandings by not directly challenging biases or interpretations.” Indeed, according to a recent study published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, passive forms of instruction result in failure rates 55 percent higher than those of active forms of instruction. All this indicates that activities are not cop-outs but actually a good presentation strategy and good pedagogy.

My husband’s comments thus made me think: Why is it that although as educators we largely understand that there are valid criticisms of the lecture format, that we continue to reproduce that format whenever we meet professionally? Think about how every conference you go to has one keynote or more, or about the countless number of times you’ve listened to academic papers read out loud — sometimes without the speaker even looking up. Why is it that we teach our students in one way and teach each other differently? So in this talk, and in the activities that are part of it, I’m going to encourage you to think about this question. What does it say about how we think of ourselves, and of the various people that we transfer knowledge to?

This disconnect occurs because we haven’t come to the realization that the Internet is asking us to completely change the way that we teach. Most of us were trained under what Cathy Davidson has called the industrial system of education: a system derived from Horace Mann, credited as father of the American public school system, which was derived from the Prussian system, which was derived from Frederick the Great’s program of universal schooling. This Prussian-Industrial model focused on hierarchy and homogeneity, as the cheapest and easiest way to teach literacy on a large scale. Social efficiency theorists who helped build the American education system of the early twentieth century embraced this model, as represented in this line from Ellwood P. Cubberly, dean of the Stanford School of Education: “Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.” We use lecture as a default mechanism for teaching — our students, and each other — because we are steeped in what Paulo Freire called the banking system of education. “In this system,” he wrote, “we assume that knowledge works like money in a bank; it can be stored in the instructor’s head, and then doled out to be deposited into the waiting vessels of students’ minds.”

But the fact that the Internet is at our students’ fingertips in the classroom whenever we ask a question makes the banking system of education meaningless.  This new pedagogical landscape should make us ask different types of questions — but are we? To what extent has each one of us (and I include myself here) fully adapted to the fact that learning works differently in the 21st century? When we teach Jane Eyre, for example, do we ask questions whose answers can be easily found on Google, Sparknotes, and a dozen other similar websites? If so, we need to articulate our reasons — for ourselves, and hopefully for our students and colleagues.  I am not saying that there can’t be valid reasons, but it is imperative to know why we do what we do.

The Internet poses to us an active challenge to deeply reconsider what it means to be literate in the twenty-first century. Does literacy for us simply mean, the way it did in the 19th century, the memorization and regurgitation of factoids and arguments? 21st century literacies demand that we teach radically differently from before. They ask us to replace content in the classroom with action, centering what our students do, how we interact with them, and the community these dynamics form. I’m going to talk about my experience with experimenting with this: breaking down the walls of the traditional classroom, letting the world in via the digital, and changing our focus from what we teach to how we teach, why we teach and the community that we build through teaching. Near its end, I’m going to ask you to work together with me on restructuring a traditional literary studies exercise in a way that welcomes, rather than ignores, the advent of the Internet.

1. Incorporating social media in your classroom: Twitter and Facebook

Social media channels are commonly perceived as the most heinous source of classroom distraction, but there are ways to incorporate it in your classroom to supplement and add to, rather than detract from learning. Studies have shown that what is most attractive — and “distracting” — about social media is precisely that it offers a form of communication and feedback with other human beings. You’re not simply checking into Facebook because you want to hear what your friends are talking about; you want to have some connection with them (this can take place in the form of messages, likes, comments—all small forms of interaction that allow you to connect your everyday consciousness with others in the form of a conversation.)

Introducing social media breaks down the walls of the classroom, because it encourages students to imagine the issues in the classroom beyond the space of the institution, beyond actual class meeting time, and across a wider public who may work on similar things that are being covered in your class. One such method of doing this is to encourage live tweeting in your classroom.  Live tweeting is when you enable students to tweet in real-time about what is going on in class discussion on Twitter. All these tweets can be searched for under a common hashtag that you create for the class as a whole. Students often appreciate having this as an additional channel for class discussion — when live tweeting both in the class and out of it goes well, I have had several students continuing on discussions that were begun on class on Twitter, whether they were at home, at work or in bed. Students have also indicated to me that they appreciate being able to catch up on or be part of a class discussion via the hashtag if they are unable to attend class.

Implementing live-tweeting in the middle of, or as a replacement for, in-class screenings also allows the teacher to pedagogically intervene in ways that they may not be able to otherwise. I’ve done this in two ways — getting students in a computer lab and then showing a documentary and asking them to live-tweet it together (you can see an example of this approach here), and giving students the code to a film online, allowing them to watch it from anywhere they would like, but that they had to tweet and respond to the tweet stream during class hours. I’ve written up instructions for the latter assignment here.

Both scenarios have energized and engaged students in material in ways which the original material, passively viewed, was unable to achieve. There are several reasons for this. Firstly the medium allows students to speak at the same time as one another, something that is not possible in the classroom for understanding to still be coherent. I also see many of the more introverted students actively participating when asked to contribute on social media rather than in person, which increases the overall energy in the classroom. Thirdly — and this is the most salient pedagogical part — this method allows me to actively intervene in my students’ learning. By reporting what they are seeing in the film through tweets, I can get a good sense as to whether the information or technique I want to teach them is sinking in or not. I can then redirect their attention to things they may have missed by asking them questions directly, and support the work of students that are learning the important points of the lesson by retweeting their work.

2. Making Wikipedia part of your teaching

Wikipedia is usually portrayed by many as the worst possible resource one could possibly include in anything vaguely scholarly. Yet, these objections sidestep the real, present, and growing impact of Wikipedia on just about everyone in the world today. Since its inception, Wikipedia has grown to become the twelfth most often visited website on the Internet, ahead of Twitter (#17), LinkedIn (#14), Time Inc. (#16) and the New York Times (#43). As of January 2015, it is the only encyclopedia resource in the top fifty websites (the Encyclopedia Brittanica did not make the cut). In addition, a number of studies have argued that Wikipedia’s accuracy is very similar to the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s. You can pretty much expect that Wikipedia is one of the first resources our students will be turning to, whether or not they may admit to it.

But the very open structure of Wikipedia is just asking to be turned into a digital pedagogy project: turning your classroom into a site where your students actively contribute and add content to Wikipedia according to their research and what they have learned in your course. I was inspired to do this by the late Adrianne Wadewitz, an 18th century British literature scholar who was one of the most ardent champions of getting academics involved in improving the quality of Wikipedia. Despite Wikipedia’s impact and popularity, the resource suffers from a gender gap — the overwhelming majority of Wikipedia editors are men — and many of the rules and procedures within Wikipedia perpetuate the racial and sexual inequality of representation that already exist in print sources. The most productive way to combat this is through turning Wikipedia into a class project, which, if done well, hopefully inspires more students to contribute to the diversity of information on Wikipedia.

There are many resources out there for instructors who want to begin working with Wikipedia in the classroom, and the excellent Wiki Edu Foundation is available to provide free support for instructors in the form of dedicated Wikipedians who will help to check student drafts of entries and offer advice and support. If this interests you, it is advisable to spread out a solid foundation for learning Wikipedia editing over an entire semester, so that students can learn the resource’s conventions and policies systematically, peer review each others’ drafts, and get feedback on each others’ drafts from the Wikipedia community at large. For example, I turned the capstone project for this class from a traditional research essay into creating content for Wikipedia, and scaffolded student learning about the resource throughout the semester. This is by far one of the exercises students report the most engagement in, because it shifts their focus from producing work for one set of eyes—their instructor—to learning to understand what it means to take part in a research community.

3. Turn Your Class Into A Network Node

Instead of treating your classroom as a self-contained silo, open up your class to be a node in a network of other classes in different institutions. There are two exemplary networks that are very open to new members, teachers and students: FemTechNet and HASTAC. FemTechNet is “an activated network of scholars, artists and students working on, with, and at the borders of science and technology, science and feminism, in a variety of fields including Science & Technology Studies (STS), Media and Visual Studies, Art, Gender, Queer and Ethnic Studies.” It’s centrally responsible for producing one of the first instances of a “DOCC” — a Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC), which positions itself as an anti-MOOC (Massively Open Online Course).

Diagram illustrating that MOOCs are teacher-directed, but that DOCCs are built from participant networks

Unlike the MOOC’s top-down approach, which has one or two instructors beaming out the same content shared by all students, with little feedback from the instructors themselves, DOCCs prioritize connection and feedback. DOCCs may use different learning content, but they “collaborate in designing curricula around a shared theme,” which can mean having students in multiple classes in different geographic regions contribute, reflect and elaborate on the DOCC “Key Learning Projects.” These key learning projects include Feminist Wikistorming (which includes feminism-oriented exercises similar to what I outline in point number #2); Keyword Videos, which are short DIY video production projects exploring and defining key feminist terms, ideas, practices and theories; Feminist Mapping, a powerful process where participants are encouraged to visually map objects, codes, lived experience etc. and how associations are formed through this map, effectively making invisible ideology visible; Community Participation, which teaches negotiation around respectful dialogue within a learning community; and Object Making/Exchange, whereby participants produce an object or craft “that materializes your response to, critique or understanding of a feminist interpretation.”

Another great alternative for turning your classroom into a network node is for your students to join HASTAC. HASTAC is a huge, free-to-join social network that champions work and projects developed by students, particularly in relation to science, technology and social justice. Some of its most exciting initiatives include FutureEd, an “open, worldwide and user-inspired initiative” to discuss new ways of teaching and learning in the digital age, and the HASTAC Scholars program, a student community that is made up of people from over 75 universities.

4. Turning Your Classroom Into a Self-Defining Community

The Internet challenges instructors to radically rethink hierarchy in the classroom. By this, I don’t simply mean to suggest the model of the flipped classroom, a classroom whereby content delivery is assigned as homework, and students spend in-class time on discussion, hands-on learning activities and troubleshooting. I’m referring to a type of teaching whereby the reins are handed over from teacher to students, who then negotiate the terms of what they want to learn, how they are going to learn it, and to develop the criteria they are going to use to assess themselves. I first learned about this from Cathy Davidson, who has experimented with having students write their own community manifesto for learning, decide on “grading contracts,” whereby all students will agree that a particular standard of work will merit a certain grade, and having the class set their own agenda for learning.

I’ve tried versions of this in two classes: the first, a graduate level digital humanities seminar in the Master’s Program of American Studies, and the second in an undergraduate general studies course on digital writing. In the first instance, I gave my students the task of remixing their own syllabus, grading scheme and schedule, settled them down with some models they could use, and left the classroom while they made decisions and finally proposed to me what they were going to study. In the second instance, where part of the course learning objectives was to create a successful blog following, I had my students work together on 1) establishing a rubric for what made up a good blog post, and 2) creating a rubric for peer reviewing that blog post.

In both of these instances, the Internet was a huge asset to my students — they were able to scour the web for existing models to use, look up what resulted when these models were implemented, and write collaboratively using Google documents. I must admit though that I had mixed success with both approaches. My undergraduate students found themselves overwhelmed by what seemed to be a massive task — having to set standards for themselves. They also realized that applying democracy to the classroom wasn’t easy, especially when disputes arose about what criteria should be used and how it should be ranked. In my graduate seminar, however, my students took extremely well to this project. I have never taught a group of students that worked together with each other better than in that group, and much of this, they reported, was due to the personal stake they had in determining how the course went.

You can watch a video on this sort of learning that one of my graduate students put together here.

An Activity: Discuss Three Ways to Turn This Traditional Assignment into One Which Actively Encourages Use of the Internet.

I’m going to ask us all to take part in a hands-on activity now. I’m going to put on a screen a very traditional assignment for a literature course — an extract from a text to teach close reading, along with some questions. I’m going to ask all of you to write some notes to yourself — write down three ways you could encourage students to use the Internet in this activity, and how this might change the structure, scope or even wording of the assignment. Then we’re going to split off into groups where you’ll vote on the three best suggestions, and the rationale behind the selection. Finally we’re going to try and write it all down in a Google document (please feel free to attribute names to the people who’ve come up with the ideas), and share it with other people who might be interested in doing something similar.

Reading: Jane Eyre, Chapters 11-16

Read the following extract carefully. Refer to your book to reread what happens just before, and just after this extract (From Chapter 12).

It was very near, but not yet in sight; when, in addition to the tramp, tramp, I heard a rush under the hedge, and close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog, whose black and white color made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one mask of Bessie’s Gytrash—a  lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head: it passed me, however, quietly enough; not staying to look up, with strange pretercanine eyes, in my face, as I half expected it would. The horse followed—a tall steed, and on its back a rider. The man, the human being, broke the spell at once. Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone; and goblins, to my notions, though they might tenant the dumb carcases of beasts, could scarce cover shelter in the commonplace human form. No Gytrash was this—only a traveler taking the short cut to to Millcote. He passed, and I turned; a sliding sound and an exclamation of ‘What the deuce is to do now?’ and a clattering tumble, arrested my attention. Man and horse were down; they had slipped on the sheet of ice which had glazed the causeway. The dog came bounding back, and, seeing his master in a predicament, and hearing the horse groan, barked till the evening hills echoed the sound, which was deep in proportion to his magnitude. He snuffed round the prostrate group, and then he ran up to me; it was all he could do—there was no other help at hand to summand. I obeyed him, and walked down to the traveler, by this time struggling himself free of his steed. His efforts were so vigorous, I thought he could not be much hurt; but I asked him the question;

“Are you injured, sir?”

I think he was swearing, but am not certain; however, he was pronouncing some formula which prevented him from replying to me directly.

“Can I do anything? I asked again.

“You must just stand on one side,” he answered as he rose, first to his knees, and then to his feet.” (pg 133)

Discussion Questions

  1. What is being described in this extract? What happens before, and what happens after it?
  2. If Jane Eyre is about a love story, what is typical, and what is unusual about the entrance of the hero of this love story?
  3. How does the typical, yet unusual entrance of the love story connect to some of the other themes we have discussed in Jane Eyre so far?
  4. What do you think is the symbolism behind the name Thornfield?

Possible Issues

This is not to say that incorporating many of these changes is easy, or that they go without hiccups. There are several issues with using social media in the classroom, for example. Some students find using a tool like Twitter difficult because of their unfamiliarity with it. Some instructors might also have issues with using a proprietary, corporate tool like Facebook or Twitter for the purpose of education. Some might also raise the issue of FERPA, which these public-facing exercises might violate, given how they demand that students make their learning public.

There are several ways to address these concerns. First of all, despite many students in the beginning complaining about having to learn a new tool, they often later report how familiarity with that tool helped them later on in their search for employment. A former student of mine, Sara Klemowitz, has written a post on how she used Twitter to get a job after graduation. The issue of the proprietary tools, however, is more complicated. FemTechNet is attempting to develop a tool of its own, but many of these tools will take a long time to become complete and will not achieve the level of adoption of the tools most people already use. An alternative one could use is HASTAC, which is set up explicitly for educational purposes, and is open. Next, the issue of FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), set up to protect the privacy of student education records. Kevin Smith, Director of the Office of Copyright and Scholarly Communication at Duke University, has written on this issue, suggesting three important steps to respect FERPA: 1) Allow students to know about the requirement to contribute publicly from the outset while they still have an option not to take the class (for example, putting this in your syllabus), 2) making provisions to participate pseudonymously, which solves any FERPA problem that might exist, and 3) offering students an alternative for those who really do not want their work to be made public.

The final possible issue that I want to discuss is the fear that these techniques open up in us instructors. I have to admit that I am often scared myself by the intrusion of the Internet, and the bringing down of my classroom walls. When I open up my classroom to the Internet, I’m not simply opening up my students to potential film directors and authors on Twitter (which has happened), I’m also showing them the potential of what happens when one gets trolled, or when indeed an entire classroom community gets trolled. Often times as well this decentralization of the classroom makes the class go in a different direction than you had originally had planned. My take regarding trolling is that it gives us a good object lesson on openness, democracy and forms of community discussion — and its many limitations and flaws. And regarding the lack of control one may feel results from opening up the classroom to the Internet — this is something which I’m still trying to work out and respond to, and I’d appreciate your thoughts and suggestions here.

Conclusion: The Digital and Accessibility

In conclusion, I’d like to circle back to the anecdote I related at the beginning. Why is it indeed that we try to teach our students one way, but once someone goes into graduate-level training and above, that we revert to assuming the banking model of education, in which professors are authorities who dole out knowledge to the waiting vessels — or should I say vassals? — that are our students? Why do we continue to use the lectures as the central mode of academic conversation? Margaret Price has pointed out that “some of the most common topoi of academe intersect problematically with mental disability.” These tropes, she argues, make academia deeply ableist.  We do not have ways, for example, to accommodate a student undergoing a deep depression and cannot get out of bed; to use alternative modes other than “collegiality” to assess the contributions of a colleague who is on the autism spectrum, who has difficulty apprehending the subtle social cues that we use to assess one’s contribution to the community.

All of this says to us that the traditional model for education has deep flaws. The entrance of the digital does not simply insist that we adapt how we teach, but also to recognize how ableist and limiting our existing system is, and the pressure to conform it puts on people who cannot fit into the Prussian Industrial model of education. By not fundamentally changing the way we educate, not only ourselves but each other, we perpetuate a great deal of the ableism present within the ideology of the education system. By not allowing devices in our classroom we make it more difficult for students who may need those devices to take notes. By insisting on face to face attendance and participation requirements we penalize students with debilitating depression and anxiety. By structuring academic conferences the way we do — with multiple sessions running from the early morning into the late evening, the majority of the sessions being lecture-driven, we penalize colleagues who may not be able to handle the demands of this constant, all-day pressure.

So ultimately by deeply reconsidering how we teach and learn, we are not simply engaging in rethinking what literacy means for the twenty first century, but also the inclusiveness of education. Restructuring the way we teach is imperative, not simply to meet the challenges of the twenty first century, but also to increase the accessibility of our classrooms.

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4 Responses

  1. fabulous talk (but please tell your husband that I include at least two or three interactive group exercises in all keynotes— even In keynote with 6000 in the 76ers auditorium and in another where I shared billing with Bill Clinton! Think Pair Share even works for CEOs. Your point is totally correct). Beautiful talk. I will add to our mentoring essentials

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