Instructional Technology: Public, private, personal, or institutional?

I’m a bit behind on my blog reading I’ll admit (it’s amazing how easy it is to take on way too much at once, isn’t it?), but I ran into a blog post this morning that threw me. It’s from George Siemens’ Connectivism blog. He says:

I’ve decided that we are taking the wrong approach to technology adoption in schools and universities. We shouldn’t own the space of learning. The students should. We shouldn’t ask them to create a new account, or learn a new tool every time they switch to a different institution or a different job. They should have their own tools…and we should “expose” our content so they can bring it into their space (pick any tool – drupal, blogger, myspace, facebook, elgg). And the conversation that ensues should be controlled (from a public internet or private ownership stance) by the learner. When the learner graduates, the content and conversations remain his/hers.

I agree with him in principle; just not in practice. Yes, students should feel some ownership over their own learning space, or at least some part of the learning space. I think we see this in the most traditional classrooms in the form of personal notebooks; the student doesn’t own the classroom, but they own their own way of making sense of what happens there, what words they note on a page, etc. I’ve always felt a particularly strong attachment to my own notes, which I was loath to lend. I would tend to write done things like whether or not I was tired, what the instructor was wearing that day, and shopping lists in the margins. Because it’s my space, I felt I should be able to write down whatever I wanted to. Some bit of ownership is, I think, critical to the process, and granting students more ownership is not, I would say, a bad thing.


I really don’t like the idea of bowing down to the habits of our students to such a degree that their platforms become our platforms. I have always resisted this. When we have discussions about things like facebook or myspace and people say, hey, that’s where the students are, that’s where we should be! my general reaction is, yeah? Well, the kids are down at the pub, maybe we should move our offices down there too, eh? Come on. There are places where students are, and they don’t want us there with them. There is a danger there of becoming telemarketers of the academic world, the spam of the institution. It’s good to be accessible, but we don’t really want to be sitting on the students’ laps on a Friday night when they’re out to see a movie, right? Give them their space. We don’t need to be in the faces all the time. So part of my objection to George’s suggestion above is that we need to let students have some communities and technologies that they use for fun.

But my primary objection is actually grounded in the basic presumption here. The presumption I see glaring out at me from that pargraph is that students know best. I mean, when it was Father knows best or Librarian knows best we weren’t really better off either, lest it be said that I have a bias against students, but why on earth are we looking to students to work out the best platform for learning? There’s a bit of noble savage about this. Just because today’s undergradate students are supposedly “digital natives” doesn’t mean that they know which platform and which interactive software is best for a classroom, or best for learning (best for learning linguistics, or best for learning microbiology, because there isn’t one be-all-end-all piece of instructional technology either). I drives me batty when I see professionals with lots of offer twisting themselves into pretzels because the mode of the moment is myspace or facebook or cellphones. We can learn lessons from how people interact with social software and mobile technology, definitely, but we don’t need to migrate everything we do into the web 2.0 fad du jour. Students are not technology savants. We need a mixture of experimentation with software, research on trends and what kinds of interactions fit best into which platforms, not a wild free-for-all. Have we nothing to teach here? Don’t we have anything to offer as an institution? Do we not have a responsibility to choose our tools based on the learning outcomes we’ve developed?

Additionally, there are a whole host of problems that come along with allowing students to syndicate institutional content into, say, myspace. If we just provide the feeds, does this mean the instructor is giving up their intellectual property rights? Are instructors meant to just trust facebook’s internal privacy controls to keep their ideas to a limited group? Library content is never going to sit on livejournal, not as long as we sign off on licenses and pay our regular fee to Access Copyright. George’s suggestion above would require all faculty to distribute their work across any platform students feel like using. This is remarkably unwieldy and would be wildly unpopular among certain sectors. (Though, I know many faculty who would be more than happy to have entirely public course documents, but I can’t imagine they would particularly love having it distributed far and wide across the internet.)

This taps into another argument I seem to get into on a regular basis; should student work be public? Should students be required to put their coursework on the wild open internet while they’re still forming their ideas? Or should we be providing a sheltered space for them to grow and change their minds and reconsider? There’s definitely benefits to being wide open, but there are downsides as well. The wayback machine can be an unforgiving mistress if you’ve ever done/said/posted something you regretted years later. Whose responsibility is it to understand that, the students’, or ours?

One final problem; how do you build community if you have a class of 30, and 9 of them are synidcating course content to myspace, 12 to livejournal, and the rest to facebook, except for one student on Vox? If your teaching method consists of merely distributing course content digitally and never getting feedback or collaborating in any way, this method might have no drawbacks (barring the ones I mentioned above). But what if you’re trying to get students to respond and react to each other’s work? What if you’re trying to have students co-construct knowledge? Haven’t you just effectively split the course into 4 parts? Are students going to now have to learn four different interfaces just to connect with the whole class? How is the instructor supposed to manage that? How does this help build community? Haven’t we just isolated the students who chose a less popular system? I know George hates insitutional course management systems, but I don’t think this syndication system is in anyone’s best interests. It would be easier on the student if we introduced them to a centrally-supported system and let them all learn one interface. The key thing with any course management system is to constantly update it, rethink it, build new tools for it, revise and revisit. It can’t be a static thing. It needs to grow and change based on the needs of faculty and students.

And don’t we owe it to students (and faculty) to provide them with the tools of the trade?

3 thoughts on “Instructional Technology: Public, private, personal, or institutional?”

  1. I guess my problem is with the whole idea of ownership. Why does the learning space have to be 0wnz0red or pwned like a n00b in WoW? Why the hell can’t we just admit that like every *other* space around, it’s shared?

    As for your final problem, RSS covers many sins. As long as whatever site the student prefers to work on offers feeds that can be syndicated into a page the instructor tracks, where’s problem with letting students use the interfaces they’re most comfortable with?

    Groupwork particularly can let a thousand flowers bloom. If this group likes Zotero and that group likes Endnote, who cares as long as the bibliography is good?

    In the Real World ™, people are going to have to make serious decisions about software, social and otherwise. I don’t see how forcing them into our systems (especially when our systems, you know, SUCK GREAT HUGE BOULDERS) helps them.

  2. Groupwork particularly can let a thousand flowers bloom. If this group likes Zotero and that group likes Endnote, who cares as long as the bibliography is good?

    Yeah, I do agree there, Dorothea, but I’m not sure the same goes for courseware, particularly not where groupwork is involved. You can important feeds into livejournal, but I’m not sure facebook or myspace is quite as flexible, nor would I expect anyone to take on the work of making sure each and every student blog was properly syndicated into each and every possible system. It just sounds like a heck of a lot of work, and in that selfsame Real World, students are going to need to get used to working with the software someone NOT them chose. I think we have a role in showing students a variety of options and possibilities, rather than let them stick with the ones their friends basically chose for them (most people I know jumped into a system because it’s the one their friends were using, after all).

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