The Read/Write Classroom

The Read/Write Classroom

There is so much going on in the blogosphere right now I barely know where to begin. The inspiration of the day comes from Ann Althouse, law school professor in Madison, Wisconsin.

We got going on the subject of how maybe we should outright encourage the students to IM, including sending tips and cues to a student who is engaged in Socratic dialogue with the lawprof. What’s wrong with students pooling their expertise on the fly? The student doing the speaking is not rendered passive. He or she will still have to read the messages quickly and integrate them with existing knowledge. It could be lively and energizing. The students who aren’t chosen to speak will have some way to express themselves, which might help them listen to the student who is speaking, and a spirit of community and collaboration might take hold. Am I wrong?

One of the elements of instructional technology that has intrigued and baffled me over the last two years is the fairly thoughtless inplementation of wifi into classrooms I’ve seen around me. I say thoughtless because in my experience wireless access is entering classrooms without discussion with instructors, and most instructors I’ve encountered have not considered how wireless internet access is impacting the walls of the classroom and their authority and autonomy as the experts in the room. We wanted to build a library without walls; did instructors and administrators consider what would happen when that library turned out to extend inside the walls of classroom?

It may sound as if I think this is a bad thing; that’s not true. I think it’s a wonderful thing, a revolutionary thing. Every student in class (since more and more of them are turning up with wireless-enabled laptops) will soon be sitting in a sea of information, even while listening to a well-planned lecture. They have the OED, in all it’s 60-odd volumes, at their fingertips. They can peruse the wikipedia to get a definition of a term you are bandying around in class. They can scan over electronic resources and look up journal articles as you cite them. You can ask the class a question and get back an answer constructed by a reference librarian on the other side of the country, accessed through a well-publicized virtual reference service. And finally, as Ann Althouse points out, you can grill one particular student and end up getting an answer that was collaboratively constructed by all the students in class, linked through a IM system. The world is no longer exactly as it appears, if it ever was.

I’m excited to read about instructors taking note that IM exists and that students are using it; I’m even more excited that instructors are thinking about finding ways to use it to educational advantage. Technology like this is changing the shape of the classroom. Where students have been largely restricted in their information-gathering and gossiping during class time, technology is breaking down all the barriers, there is virtually nothing students can’t do while sitting in class. This isn’t a bad thing.

With access to the internet in all its forms, students are no longer passive receptacles in class, completely at the mercy of the expert at the front of the room. They have the capcity to be participants. Whether they are going to be participants in a secret place of their own making or of one the instructor is trying to construct is going to depend on the how this reality has worked through the brain of the instructor.

The language around the internet has lately shifted from terms like “information highway” to titles like “the participation age” and “the read/write web”. The access students have when we put wifi into classrooms means that students have the power to contribute in ways that were impossible before. If the internet is in fact a library without walls, it’s not just the stacks, much as the library itself is not just stacks. It’s the reference staff, the subject librarians available to discuss your assignment. It’s your fellow students trying to accomplish the same thing you are. It’s the group work areas and big tables where you can sit down with your friends and hash out the project, the corridors where you can sit and chat on your cell phone. It’s the bathroom walls covered with graffiti and the scrap paper where you can jot down an idea. The internet is no longer a read-only space. It’s also a playground, a place for experimentation, a way to communicate. It’s noun, adjective, and verb.

And with the introduction of the internet to the classroom proper, students are no longer in a wholly passive position in the classroom either. This is the read/write classroom, too. With access to so much information, and to so many people, and to each other, students can now speak up with some authority. Instructors can be fact-checked on the fly. Information can come spilling out of the students in ways that would have relied on unlikely preparation in a non-wireless environment. Students can conduct mini-interviews with anyone in the world to report something interesting and new to their classmates. There are two ways to cope with this radical change; shut it down, or anticipate and use it. Force the laptops to close, or call on students to fact-check and report to the class. Put students back in a passive receptacle mode, or allow them to participate in the information delivery that occurs inside the classroom. Feel intimidated, or allow students to feel empowered.

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