Academic 2.0: Moving Web Skills into the Classroom

The following is the draft [updated 11/13/07, with thanks to Sherman Dorn and Time Barrow] for a talk I’ll be giving at 1:30 this Thursday, November 15, 2007, for a session at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English at the Javits Center here in New York City. The session, which I created and will chair, is entitled “Up from the Streets: Melding Diversity Through Technology in the Writing Classroom.” Four of my colleagues, Julian Williams, Annie Seaton, Mark Noonan, and Charles Hirsch, will also be presenting papers:

That student looking down at her hands in her lap? Texting her sister in Sheboygan. That other one, so diligent behind his notebook computer? Emailing mom in Mumbai.

So, what do we do? We get angry. “Turn off all electronic devices in the classroom!”

But what have we done? Focused the class, perhaps. But what else?
Two things: first, we’ve reinforced that the classroom is a special zone cut off from the rest of the world in the way a movie theater or a playhouse is. Second, we’ve reinforced the idea that communication is a distraction in a writing classroom dedicated to… ah… communication.

Let me tell you a little story, related to #1: on 9/11/2001 I was teaching just off the Brooklyn side of that stone-towered bridge they make such a fuss about. Cell phones were off.

Sirens started. From the classroom window (which looks northeast), I could see emergency vehicles congregating over by the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge; I though maybe something had happened at the McDonald’s there. Sirens not being particularly unusual, I kept class going.

It wasn’t until our break that phones went on and the beeping started.
So, we’d been there talking about, I don’t know, topic sentences or elaboration or something else that supposedly had to do with communication when people had been desperately trying to communicate with us. So focused was I on teaching communication skills that I had cut off communication—on the day when human contact mattered most.

Ah, the irony!

Last year, the Educause Center for Applied Research published a Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology. Among the finds was that:

Today’s students spend a lot of time using a raft of gadgets and a lot of time online. While the average respondent reports spending 23 hours per week using various technologies, more than one-quarter of male respondents report using electronics more than 30 hours per week….

Undergraduates are communicators. Nearly all (99.9 percent) create, read, and send e-mail and more than 80 percent send instant messages, most of them doing it daily. They use their arsenals of electronics to write documents for coursework (98.8 percent), search the Web and institutional library (94.0 percent), and create presentations (90.8 percent). (ECAR)

They are using these things… and their devices have become an integral part of our world. Cut the devices off from our classrooms, and we cut our classrooms off from the world—not good, as I found in that classroom on 9/11, a mile from Ground Zero but with no idea what was happening.

Now, to be fair, I am simply trying to make a point about technology and the classroom, not to argue for cell phone use there. My point has more to do with babies and bathwater than with the need for a certain amount of decorum in classroom behavior. We tend to see the negative side of the use of technology by our students, forgetting that there’s a positive in there somewhere—if we’re willing to reach in, pull it out, and dry it off.

Strangely enough, when we’re not looking at technology as disruptive, we often lean the other way, working to make technology the centerpiece of the classroom. Even in our “smart” classrooms the apparati loom, their presence dominating any event in the room. Computer classrooms are worse: the existence of row after row of desktops presents what amounts to a moral imperative to use them, and use them often. Yet our new technological devices are not supposed to be our classrooms any more than their smaller should be allowed to disrupt them.

Our students, who increasingly have grown up with the technologies that we teachers find so new and fascinating (who are already, as I like to say, “neterate”), understand this, perhaps better than their elders:

As a whole, younger respondents and female respondents to the ECAR survey prefer less technology in their courses than others. This finding suggests that while younger students arrive on campus with a lot of IT tools and self-described skills in IT-mediated communication and recreation, they are comparatively unskilled in IT to support academic purposes. (ECAR)

I would word that somewhat differently: This finding suggests that the students are recognizing that their instructors have a different, and much less sophisticated, view of technology—and are bored by the way old fogey teachers use it in the classroom.

Our students are onto something that we’ve only now started to recognize, and that is that we are in the midst of a new technological leap, one shown in their current attitude towards that staple for older students and, now, practically everyone else, the notebook computer:

While respondents appear to resoundingly prefer laptop computers and some are loading up on PDAs and smart phones, they are largely not bringing computers to class. Most respondents (70.3 percent) never bring their laptop computers to class, and only 14.5 percept do so weekly or more often. Even 16.2 percent of responding students who are enrolled in courses that require a laptop fail to bring these devices to class. The weight of laptop computers and the risk of their theft are cited frequently as reasons students do not bring laptops to class. (ECAR)

Plus, there’s little status in the laptop or notebook anymore. Once it was a sign of the technically savvy. Now, its the albatross of the passé technie bore.
Consider that, in many respects, the laptop is being left in the dust—right now.

Just look at what is happening to Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child project: it is now slated to become a techno-cultural curiosity, superseded by the embrasure of the cell phone by developing cultures or by whatever develops out of Asus’s Eee PC, the commercial version of the OLPC computer. Though I think the future will arrive through today’s hand-held devices and not through the laptop, it could easily come the other way. In either case, the computers we use now may be antiques faster than my old Osborne portable, twenty-five years ago.

Yes, the cell phone. Even here in the United States, it will soon replace the laptop. Just hear this, from The New York Times ten days ago:

Google Makes Its Entry Into the Wireless World
Google took its long-awaited plunge into the wireless world today, announcing that it is leading a broad industry alliance to transform mobile phones into powerful mobile computers that could accelerate the convergence of computing and communications….
The technology is expected to provide cellular handset manufacturers and wireless operators with capabilities that match and potentially surpass those using smartphone software…. In contrast to the existing competitors, Google’s software will be offered freely under “open source” licensing terms, meaning that handset manufacturers will be able to use it at no cost and be free to add new features to differentiate their products….
[A spokesperson] said the [Google] open-source strategy would encourage rapid innovation and lower the bar to entry in the highly competitive handset market, where software accounts for an increasing share of the cost of making a phone….
[The spokesperson] also said that in the future, the Google technology could be used in other portable devices, including small hand-held computers and car navigation systems.
Google’s phone software is named Android.

Hear that? “Including small hand-held computers.” The cell phone is going to become those computers. An Associated Press article from November 4th says the process has already begun, in Japan, at least:

The PC’s role in Japanese homes is diminishing, as its once-awesome monopoly on processing power is encroached by gadgets such as smart phones that act like pocket-size computers, advanced Internet-connected game consoles, digital video recorders with terabytes of memory.

Our students and the hundred-million people with cell phones in Africa (just to pick another place) understand what is happening, even if they aren’t already verbalizing it.

In a November 7 editorial, The New York Times states that:

What Google seems to be envisioning — apart from a greatly expanded market for ad sales, of course — is software for mobile devices that will be more flexible and innovative than most of us are used to seeing on our cellphones.
The impact on the phone market could be enormous. The mobile world is currently shaped mainly by the carriers — the networks that provide the connections. Google aims to turn this around, to put the software first, and to open the development of the software and the phones themselves to third parties. The end result could well be a more richly and fully integrated universe of mobile devices — “smartphones” that in many ways resemble hand-held computers — and greater choice for consumers….
Another winner is likely to be innovation. Google’s new model is betting that more minds are better than fewer, and that the future of the cellphone lies less in the phone itself than in its role as a tiny computer capable of connecting in any number of ways to the world — real and virtual — around it.

Innovation. While we’re still thinking in terms of smart classrooms and computer labs, and envisioning new ways of keeping personal devices out of the classroom, we are being passed by. The innovations that marked the last 25 years were the PC and the Internet. Even those of us who embraced these dynamic changes early on have now slacked off, seeing them as the immutable center. We are stuck inside of Academic 1.0 while a whole new Academic 2.0 rises around us.

The conductors of the ECAR survey:

speculate that communicating—socially, recreationally, professionally, and academically—via a wide variety of communication technologies may be so interlaced with the student experience as to be increasingly inseparable by [survey] respondents as an educational outcome. (ECAR, 85)

To them, the Web 2.0 experience encompasses even their academic experiences. Yet, we in the academy still cling to the idea that our usages of technology are somehow removed from the rest of the world—witness the popularity of Blackboard, a stand-alone application resolutely going against the philosophical grain of Web 2.0. The reasons for this are simple: we want to control the academic experience (and, for a number of legal reasons, have to control some of it) and have grown comfortable in an ivory-tower existence that keeps us remote from the “real” world.

Institutionally, Brad DeLong’s idea of the Internet “invisible college” extending well beyond ivied walls scares us.

However, as developmental focus turns more and more to hand-held devices, we are going to have to relinquish control (to some degree, at least) over technology in our classrooms, entering into a Web 2.0 experience for our Academic 2.0 purposes, making use of what the students are doing and finding instead of finding things for them to do ourselves. This is going to force us to enter into our students’ worlds in a manner never before necessary.

The title of this panel, “Up from the Streets: Melding Diversity through Technology in the Writing Classroom,” refers, in part, to the fact that what we should now be looking to make use of increasingly comes from the students—both in terms of technology and experience. If we don’t recognize this, we are going to lose the attention of the students. They, for example, are already involved in new kinds of code-switching, using different “voices” for texting, for email, and for academic writing. Even texting itself, which many of us teachers see as debasement of written English, is developing its own codes, markers that indicate the writer’s position vis-a-vis a particular group, ethnic, racial, religious or otherwise. Our students may be quickly becoming more “neterate” than we!

We need to see that and use it.

3 thoughts on “Academic 2.0: Moving Web Skills into the Classroom

  1. I suspect that devices larger than cell phones will become more widespread, and that (not cell phones) will become ubiquitous. Asus’s Eee PC is the consumer version of OLPC, and other manufacturers will start to figure out the compromise between keyboard size and portability.


  2. I hope you are right, Sherman! I am too old and my thumbs are not nimble enough for the tiny pda and phone keyboards. However, I don’t see whatever does come developing from the laptop, but from the pda/cell-phone. Internationally, the dynamic rests with hand-held devices, and it is from these, I suspect, that whatever future technology we all will carry around will arise.


  3. The classroom “without walls” affords tremendous opportunities, not just distractions. This Fall, after the tasering of the student at the Kerry speech, a student retrieved an email in class (I’ve taught in a computer classroom for years and we’re constantly online in one way or another) from a friend who had been at the event. We happened to be discussing Han Fei on the art of persuasion that day, and the email, read aloud to the class and posted to our wiki, served as a fantastic text to look at in light of Han Fei, as well as a demonstration of larger rhetorical considerations. Much better lesson than anything I could come up with.


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