Water rushing down a drain

Teaching in the Digital Tornado

 Published on June 7, 2012 /  Written by /  0

In preparing for the Teaching Naked #digped Twitter discussion on Friday, June 8, I reviewed what felt like a massive number of possible topics, discussable literature, and the broad face of educational technology. Out there on the Internet, something is happening that feels a lot like evolution, but which can also feel like survival of the fittest. One idea gives rise unto uncounted more ideas; one tool for organizing spawns a dozen new ways to communicate, and simultaneously a need for new organizational tools. It’s positively autocatalytic.

And I have to admit — to you, today — that I find it overwhelming. The deluge of language around digital humanities, online learning, and collaborative communities alone is overpowering. Here are just a few of the words and phrases I encountered during my search for a suitable topic of discussion:

Now, I am not a newcomer to online instruction. Granted, when I first began teaching, having an online syllabus for an on-ground course was considered innovative. Few were doing it. My colleague and friend, Jesse Stommel, for both environmental and theoretical reasons, brainstormed and developed “paperless” classes, where students turned in all assignments by e-mail, all class materials (save text books) were online, and classroom discussion began and expanded on a course blog. In the years that followed, I taught in fully-online classrooms, and chaired an English Department, which I worked hard to make both relevant and cutting-edge… As cutting-edge as WebCT could take us.

LMSs and CMSs dot the landscape of educational technology now; and classrooms are expanding beyond these into multimodal delivery techniques, collaborative technologies, and MOOCs. It is possible not only to drop education anywhere on the Internet, but it’s become imperative to create new ways to educate that keep up with these innovations. We’re not just teaching, we’re inventing learning in all new ways, piecing it together from the variety of “solutions” available.

As Matthew Gold observed in his article, “Against Learning Management Systems”, there’s value in “open, loosely managed pedagogical space.” In my own classrooms, more learning occurs when students are allowed to assemble that learning, to piece together from small parts a larger picture. This is learning through dialogue, discovery, and invention. And because those larger pictures invariably vary from learner to learner, those pictures too become part of a dialogue; one that broadens the landscape. In the context of a class, the landscape can safely broaden as wide as is appropriate because I am present as a guide, manager, or “chief learner”. There’s little danger of rummaging through irrelevancies because students can rely on me – and I can rely on them – to synthesize the ideas that arise.

On the Internet, it’s a different story. At this moment, I can look on my Tweetdeck and see any number of new articles to link to, snippets about uses of tech in class, and a variety of conversations about the place of “digital” in digital humanities. Search Storify for stories of educational technology, and you’ll be swimming in even more information. We have found plenty of ways to spread the word that learning and teaching are changing, and dozens of tools to help facilitate that change, but not much in terms of ways to filter what is helpful, what isn’t quite ready, and what fails.

In his Profhacker article of June 6 – “Reading Intentionally Online” – Jason B. Jones reveals that even some of our filters don’t help us. In reflecting on the RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feed as a tool for sorting through all the news that’s fit to print, he offers this quote from Brett Kelly:

I realized that, for some reason I couldn’t quite recall, I felt obligated to stay abreast of new developments in technology and such. That fabricated obligation led me to routinely scan big lists of headlines and, more often than not, mark the whole mess as “read” and go on to something else. Imagine this happening 2–4 times per day and I was spending between 10–30 minutes per day skimming or ignoring stuff that, for the most part, wasn’t what I wanted to read.

This isn’t just information overload, it’s information catatonia – a state we reach when we’ve tried to make our brains as spacious and encompassing as the Internet itself, but instead only numbness and apathy set in.

Howard Rheingold, in his book Net Smart, encourages us to be reflective and discerning, mindful. Stommel asks us to reflexively engage with technology. It’s almost as if we need a Storify about storifying, an LMS-based class about using LMSs, a MOOC about MOOCs. Because while we continue to modify our understanding about our subject matters – the humanities, English, mathematics, science – we’re pulling double-duty working to comprehend and be creative with new technologies, to reorient ourselves in our digitally-enhanced, evolving roles as instructors, and to reach our students through methods of collaboration and communication that are reproducing like bunnies.

It’s a lot to ask, and without any sort of filtering mechanism, we are asked to do it every day. If we want to stay relevant, if we want to do our best with all that’s come available, we have to let the machine keep producing. The rowers must keep rowing.

Invention begets invention, but invention can also beget confusion. How do we avoid catatonia, and strive instead for autocatalysis? How do we both relax enough, and remain vigilant enough, to utilize the tools available to us in ways that make information not only accessible, but useful? How do you discern what information and tools you can use, what new ideas to pursue, what to shelve for the moment, and what to leave behind entirely?

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