Expanding Upon It!

[Cross-posted from Free Exchange on Campus]

Last week, I co-taught a professional-development course for high-school teachers, “Classroom Blogs and Citizen Journalism,” at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. My colleague and I introduced the teachers to blogging software, but little of what we did, really, had much to do with technology.

Why?

As a culture, we’ve reached the point in our communications revolution where it’s no longer the hardware or even the programs that need our concentrated attention. For the moment, the technological changes occurring (the iPhone concept antiquating the laptop, for example) are almost predictable. Even developments such as YouTube startled only those who had not been paying attention. Most everyone else simply said “cool” and started watching and linking.

The cultural changes resulting from this revolution, however, continue to blindside us. In educational situations, they come close to causing paralysis.

Which was the subtext of the week.

To many within our academic institutions, the scariest part of all this is the destruction of the protective barriers we’ve build around our schools and colleges, barriers designed to define and limit responsibility, but whose effect has also been to cut educational institutions from the broader world. What Brad DeLong extols as “an invisible college, of more people to talk to, pointing me to more interesting things” frightens the pants off of many of our educators (particularly education administrators) for it reduces control but does nothing about responsibility.

As a result, even more schools are turning to proprietary systems for dealing with the Web. Unfortunately, all of these, including the nearly ubiquitous Blackboard, miss DeLong’s point. Rather than expanding, they limit, narrowing the lessons it is possible to teach today about utilizing the Web in relative safety.

What we were trying to teach our students were alternatives to the blocking of websites and other means of keeping students from a Web they are going to encounter anyway. We wanted to encourage the teachers to find ways of making their students “neterate,” able to negotiate the Web productively and in safety. Doing so, of course, would also require teaching parents, colleagues, and administrators—at least to the point where they were confident the students (or the schools) weren’t being led into danger. Ethics, for example, was a major subject for the week, as were ownership, responsibility, and much more.

As the week progressed, it became clear that we were advising our teacher-students to follow DeLong and fight to expand their universes of instruction, a problem when many educational institutions are operating in a climate of fear generated by, among other things, the likes of David Horowitz—people who want to see our schools curtailed and who can succeed through simply posing their threats. Among other things, Horowitz wants to force teachers to stick to the subject matter defined for their courses, no more and no less. Never having been a teacher, he doesn’t understand that the learning mind doesn’t work that way, that compartmentalization hobbles learning.

Our teacher-students didn’t mind: We started with technology, showing them a little about html and walking them through Blogger’s possibilities. But they proved more interested in exploring just what the Web can offer and how they could utilize it, given the restrictions that would surely be imposed upon them, no matter how eloquently they argued for their projects. As that’s where we wanted to go, the week worked out well.

Occasionally, over the next weeks, I will review some of the discussions we had last week. Perhaps others who have begun to use the Web in their classrooms will chime in, making this another instance of the “invisible college,” providing learning for all of us.

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