From Social Networking to Serious Learning

[This is the second blog diary in a series sparked by a teacher professional-development class that I taught, along with Marie Squerciati, at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in June. The first can be found as an earlier entry here or here at Free Exchange on Campus, for whom I am writing this series, primarily.]

Some educators (among other people) have hardened their images of the Internet around twin images of the stalker/scammer and the trivial social site. They see not possibilities but threats on the Net, and position their schools accordingly. Though they generally recognize that the Web is something they now have to deal with, they try to bring it under their control, usually by blocking access to sites that may pose even the slightest danger or that might possibly offend. Admittedly, there are reasons for their fears, but their reaction may not be the best.

By setting up barriers, they limits the ability of teachers to effectively use the Internet, both to show students the nearly infinite possibilities for research and exploration that lie before them and to teach those students to protect themselves from the dangers that the Web certainly does present. What’s most frustrating is that the students are experiencing the fullness of the Web anyway but, in these situations, are forced to do so outside of school and without the guidance that can both improve their learning experience and teach them to protect themselves.

As the teachers taking our class will likely have to deal with a certain number of negative attitudes when they try to use blogs in their classes, we started the week with a discussion of just where today’s students “are” in regards to the Internet–and on how we can move them from their play to more considered (and safer) Web activities. We wanted to give them the ability to show what the students are doing (and are going to do) anyway, and how blogs and other Internet possibilities can be used to turn what is increasingly a social phenomenon in to an educational one. One the the basic rules of teaching is that one must start where the students are, creating a path to where you want them to go. When such a path on the Web can be shown–in detail–to administrators, it is more likely that the teacher will gain permission to use the Internet in a fruitful way in the classroom.

First, though, to give the teachers an idea of what some of the attitudes they will encounter will be, we talked some about Andrew Keen’s view that amateurism has taken the Web over–and taken it down. Keen has the gatekeeper’s attitude that junk wouldn’t appear on the Internet if everyone would let him decide what to allow in. Him and the “professionals.” He doesn’t understand the essential Web maxim (developed from John Dewey, among others) that it is more effective to teach people to be their own gatekeepers than to provide gatekeepers for them… if for no other reason than the fact that, while some are watching the gate, others are sneaking in and out through the holes in the fence.

After a little fun at Keen’s expense, we concentrated on how to use what all of us–Marie, me, and the students–saw as the tremendous possibilities of the Web for education, for moving students from unfocused discussion to directed exploration.

I’ve been struck, the past year or so, that we teachers of writing may find our task made easier, these next few years, if we pay attention to the ‘texting’ our students are doing on their Trios and Sidekicks, Blackberrys (not many of these among the students, however), and (now) iPhones. Not to mention their IMing. Whatever we think of their bits of shorthand and slang, today’s high-school students are writing on their own more than students have in generations. My task, then, is to take what they are doing and show them how to move it into a form that works for school. Oh, and to show how they can use the skills they are developing in their social-networking searches to gather the good information they need for their papers and projects.

To do this, I talk to my students about “code switching,” moving from one dialect to another in speech or writing. In their cases, moving from ‘texting’ to ‘texts’ of an academic sort. They get it right away, for they code-switch all the time, speaking differently to their parents and teachers than they do with their friends. All they need is to define the needs of the different situations for themselves. Once they have, they move back and forth with ease.

Students don’t need to learn new languages to code-switch. Even those who are growing up with a dialect (or even a language other than English) at home hear the “standard” dialect often enough to make switching into it relatively easy, once the students have learned to identify the differences. The same is true for writing–and often for the Web. Our students are rarely unfamiliar with the Internet these days and, if they are, they will learn its rudiments more quickly from their peers than they will from us teachers. We just need to point out the differences between what they are doing and what we want them to do.

It sounds simple: What we teachers need to concentrate on is moving students from their social networking to much more productive usages, teaching them to code-switch on the Web, too. In practice, of course, it becomes much more complicated. But, if that simple road is kept in mind, the task can be accomplished without undue pain.

What’s the difference between surfing MySpace pages and seeking information on, say, critical perspectives on Leaves of Grass? In many respects, it’s merely the goal. Yes, there are things one needs to understand in order to evaluate the plethora of websites that may contain something about Walt Whitman, but there are also things one needs to understand to successfully negotiate MySpace–and the two are not all that different. The teacher who understands this will be able to work with his or her students without as much resistance as might be otherwise expected, bringing the students relatively painlessly into an understanding of the requirements for using the Web as an effective and efficient part of their education. Students do need to be made aware of whatever proprietary databases are available to them, how to judge relative values of blogs and links, and a great deal more… but these things are best learned through a process of shepherding, of taking motion that is already there and channeling it in the direction appropriate to the class.

Because students are using the Web, there is no longer even the need for computers at each desk in a class that has a large Internet component. As long as students have access to the Web elsewhere, class time can be better used in discussing subject matter and what one has found on the Web–and all of the other problems and possibilities. The ubiquity of the Internet is freeing us up, making us less dependent on the machines in the classroom.

It’s an exciting time for those of us interested in using the Web to facilitate education, for the communications revolution we are in the middle of continues, and the assumptions of one year may prove quaint the next. The laptop, the tool of the future and center of learning of just a few years ago, may soon disappear, replaced by cell phones that do everything a laptop could, and more. Still, it is also a time of danger, for new items open up new avenues for exploitation, as camera phones have shown so clearly. Educators can’t pretend that they can control what is happening, any more than they can control the Internet itself.

What they can do, however, is teach their students the skills that will make them self-reliant on the Web, even as the students go about their social networking and (we hope) begin to use the skills they are developing for their education as well. And for the “free exchange of ideas” that is so important to that education.

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