Twitter. Facebook. Bad poetry. It’s easy to criticize superficial aspects of Web 2.0 and groups like the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. But critics who point to the lowest quality of online work fail to grasp the potential of networked learning and the reality that it’s here to stay. Worse, they enable those who seek to restrict student speech.
Around 1436, a German goldsmith with the multi-syllabic name of Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg came up with a crazy idea. That crazy idea – movable type – was responsible for a revolution.
Almost immediately, people in powerful positions started looking for ways to control the spread of information.
Five centuries later, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina developed Mosaic at the university of Illinois Urbana- Champaign. Mosaic made the World Wide Web accessible for the first time to a general audience.
Shortly after that, the United States Congress attempted to regulate content on the Internet by passing the Communications Decency Act.
Throughout the world, repressive regimes attempt to control the spread of information. North Korea, named by the group Reporters Without Borders as “the world’s worst Internet black hole,” does not permit any access whatsoever to the internet for its general population.
Yet even in North Korea, people find ways to get information. Cell phones are purchased in China and smuggled across the border, raising the possibility of increasing access to the web.
Advances in communication technology throughout history have been met by scorn, outright hostility, and attempts at censorship. In the end, they’ve all failed.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t growing pains in the process.
And that’s one of several reasons why Diana Senechal’s article “The Most Daring Education Reform of All” in the spring 2010 edition of American Educator is so problematic.
In a well-meaning attempt to encourage thoughtful use of technology in education, Senechal picks on the most superficial aspects of online communication and the worst examples of curriculum design. She then uses this stereotype to argue for a curriculum that “preserve(s) the best of traditional teaching [and] the best of traditional content.” And while she pays lip service to the possibilities of technology, it’s clear her view of an excellent school is one that is offline.
Senechal’s call for a focus on content is laudable. Her criticisms of the worst excesses of education reform is reasonable. Her argument that technology should “serve rather than hinder us” (5) is sound.
However, the conclusion many of her readers will draw from her article is that use of technology is somehow incompatible with a renewed focus on a meaningful core curriculum. Her overall argument rests on three flawed premises:
- a dated conception of teachers as gatekeepers of knowledge rather than guides;
- an assumption students will learn to effectively use technology without expert guidance;
- a failure to acknowledge the rich possibilities for using technology to pursue the very curricular ends she proposes.
Put together, Senechal’s argument gives credence to those people who do not believe in the free and open exchange of ideas; the people who do not believe that students either have anything significant to say nor should have any right to say it; the people who want to turn back the clock on everything we’ve been able to achieve in education since the first school was connected to the web.
And in the end, they’ll lose. But meanwhile, they can cause some serious damage.
A flawed concept: teachers as gatekeepers
Throughout her essay, Senechal calls several times for renewing focus on content knowledge in schools:
To pursue perfection, we must first establish the meaning and purposes of education… we should dare to specify what we will tech; the disciplines, works, ideas and historical periods; the things to be mastered, grasped, and pondered.
We should preserve the best of traditional content… expect(ing) students to memorize poems, monologues, and parts of speeches; to read classic novels and essays; to discuss and analyze what they have read; and to write with clarity and verve. (10)
Good stuff. But at various points in her essay, she also makes clear her belief that the best ways of pursuing such content is through traditional teacher-driven direct instruction:
Those calling for 21st-century skills often point to the need for greater student engagement. But true engagement is not entertainment; it is involvement, which may be invisible at times. The traditional classroom encourages such involvement when the teachers teach subjects they know and love, the school has a true curriculum, and the students live up to the demands of the course. In these cases, the teachers give stimulating lessons; students absorb the material, think about it on their own, bring their questions and observations to class discussion, and strive for precision and thoughtfulness in their work. (11)
Again, nothing wrong with this. I’ve seen lots of good direct instruction, and I hope that I practice it from time to time in my own classroom.
But taken together, Senechal’s statements reveal an underlying premise: that teachers are the “gatekeepers” of knowledge, controlling what their own educated minds know is best for their students.
In a networked world, nothing could be farther from the truth. From the moment when students first use a networked computer, they have access to a universe of knowledge their teachers couldn’t have imagined during their own time in school. Including everything from primary documents, first person narratives and today’s newspapers, students can access information simply not available to them fifteen years ago.
This sort of revolutionary change in the availability of information might obviously concern educators. How will kids make sense of it all?
There’s historical parallels here. In his book The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution, Christopher Hill points out how the availability of the Bible in English paralleled the explosion of commercial printing. This, Hill points out, created an environment where common people were able to access information previously available only to university-educated ministers who had mastered classical languages. Criticism of this was widespread in conservative circles. Hill quotes Andrew Marvell in 1672 imagining how a future bishop might (ironically) remember the time before the printing press:
‘Twas a happy time when all learning was in manuscript, and some little officer…did keep the keys of the library… but now…a man cannot write a book , but presently he is answered… no art could yet prevent these seditious meetings of letters. (14)
The growth of literacy and the availability of the Bible meant that people could analyze the contents of the Bible for themselves. And despite efforts to control Bible-reading and exposition through the establishment of an approved clergy, people did figure out things on their own.
The situation in the 21st-century is similar. The growth of networked information means that previously unavailable information is now accessible by most anyone, with the consequence that what it means to be literate itself has changed. In his book Redefining Literacy 2.0, David F. Warlick argues that literate readers must now be their “own librarians.” He continues:
As publishing becomes free and the filtering agents we once depended on become less relevant to today’s information landscape, we are left with a choice. Do we ignore the new, more engaged information landscape and keep teaching the way we always have, or do we pay attention and adapt to an information experience that will certainly be a part of the future for which we are preparing our children?
Sadly, there remain [those] who stand stalwartly at the gates guarding the information, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the walls and fences are gone. The information flows freely now, and we must come to understand that gatekeeping is a personal skill today — it is a basic literary skill. (50)
Senechal criticizes teacher preparation programs for “(emphasizing) process over subject matter” (11). But in the 21st century, the process of acquiring information can not be viewed as separate from content.
Students will acquire information whether we want them to or now. What remains to be seen is how they will do so.
And educators who persist in viewing themselves as gatekeepers rather than guides only risk having students who acquire bad information — and use it inappropriately.
How will students learn to effectively find and use information?
Throughout her essay, Senechal refers derisively to Web 2.0 tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and especially blogging, which she seems to regard with a particular disdain. At one point in her essay, Senechal relates a story of how she attended a professional development conference where a presenter raved about a student who had begun posting her poems on a school blog:
I took a look at the poems that evening, Googled a few lines, and saw that all but one were plagiarized — not from first-rate poets, but from websites that featured sentimental and inspirational verse. Why was this not caught earlier? Anyone paying close attention to the poems themselves would likely have suspected that they weren’t hers (the language was an adult’s, and hackneyed at that). The presenters were genuinely excited that the Internet had mituvated a student to write; perhaps they chose not to judge the poems lest they interfere with her creative process. This is the danger: when we value creativity (and technology) above the actual quality of things created, we lose sight of what we are doing and why. (14-15).
Senechal expects her readers to be as miffed as she. But she takes the wrong lesson from the story.
Granted both the student and the teachers should have been taken out to the woodshed — the former for plagiarizing the poems, the latter for ineffectively supervising the project and failing to catch the plagiarism.
But the story she tells says more about the failure of the school to effectively teach ethical online behavior and respond to its lapses than it does about the student. Students have been plagiarizing for generations. The Internet simply made it easier to do so — and it’s not going away.
How should I as a teacher deal with plagiarism? Should I require all my students to submit their work through a plagiarism detector like turnitin.com? I’m sure Senechal wouldn’t approve of that — and rightly so.
The way to deal with plagiarism is by giving unique, creative assignments, requiring solid documentation of sources, and working with the process of writing within the class. If I assign my students to write an essay about the symbolism of night in Romeo and Juliet, and accept a typed final copy with no documentation, then I’ve got only myself to blame. I’d be surprised if I didn’t receive multiple copies of the same paper.
However, if when teaching this concept, I
- do the initial concept mapping of the word night in class;
- assign the students to compare the use of the word night in Shakespeare’s plays with the symbolism of night in Elie Wiesel’s Night and Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”;
- require students to submit thesis statements and outlines for their papers;
- use class time to draft essays;
- require original drafts to be submitted along with a final copy;
- demand accurate documentation and citation of sources
Then I make it much more difficult to plagiarize the assignment than it would be to simply complete it as required. Additionally, I’ve put the emphasis of the assignment where it should be: on the process. Senechal notes that
the student’s poems the site from which the poems were plagiarized contained were “hackneyed,” “sentimental” and “inspirational” verse, (presumably negative terms), and sniffs that “mediocre creation abounds” (presumably online). I like quality too. But would she have Googled the poems if they had been good?
Senechal argues that P21’s “Four C’s” (creativity and problem solving, communication, collaboration and critical thinking make sense only in the context of specific studies (14). I agree. But there is nothing incompatible with using technology to achieve those ends. The concept mapping could be done using a brainstorming program like Inspiration. A study of Thomas’ poem could be enlivened by having students listen to a recording of Thomas reading the poem. Thesis statements, drafts, and final copies could all be submitted electronically, allowing the automatic creation of digital portfolios students and their teachers could use in evaluating their growth as writers. Finally, in a trick not possible without technology, students could use a videoconferencing tool like Skype to present and share their papers with an audience anywhere in the world, participating in a global seminar on the symbolism of night with students from different cultures. All of this keeps the focus on the content, using technology to facilitate and extend the learning.
But will students use technology like this on their own? Perhaps. Warlick tells a story in his book of a fifteen-year-old student from an alternative program who completed a self-taught course on ancient history largely by e-mailing professors from various universities and masquerading as a research assistant asking questions (174). I wish my students were like that. But I suspect many of them limit their use of online technologies to Facebook.
Senechal suggests that students will “likely pursue (blogging and texting) on their own” (14). She says nothing about how they will complete formal and informal research, which is the most glaring problem with most students. My students betray their lack of research skills every time they get on Google and type a question like
what is the symbolism of night in Romeo and Juliet
and end up with the first result being Suzy Q’s paper from Mrs. K’s English 9 class.
There’s two problems here. In addition to the bad search technique, we see a misconception of what the web can provide. Will students learn to search the deep web and access the rich content available? Or will they simply view the web as the most expedient way to complete tasks they really didn’t understand or appreciate in the first place?
A 2005 study on search engine users by the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that internet users in general are
unsophisticated about why and how they use search engines. They are also strikingly unaware of how search engines operate and how they present their results. …Internet users trust their favorite search engines, but few say they are aware of the financial incentives that affect how search engines perform and how they present their search results. Only 38% of users are aware of the distinction between paid or “sponsored” results and unpaid results. And only one in six say they can always tell which results are paid or sponsored and which are not.
In my own classroom, I assess the research skills students bring into class with a short constructed response survey. Among the questions I ask are two designed to reveal their beliefs about how they should use the Internet and their skill in doing so: “When is it okay to use the Internet for research?” and “How would you use a search engine to find the e-mail address of the President of Romania?”
The responses I get to these questions are striking. While many students answer the first question with phrases like “whenever I need to find something,” many students respond by saying “as long as my teacher tells me I’m allowed.” Almost none respond in a way that shows any concept of using the internet as part of a broader range of general research practices. Few suggest using it to find timely information not available in printed texts.
And while some students suggest that Google might be useful in finding the Romanian president’s e-mail address, it’s the rare student who shows any understanding of how to use a simple keyword search. Far too many simply write a question mark in the space.
I suspect that if continue to hold the use of technology as separate from literacy, things will not improve.
But does this mean search skills like this should be taught in a separate research course? I don’t believe so. As Senechal herself points out, it’s only in the context of strong content that these skills make sense. The people in the best position to teach these skills are the content-area teachers who have already mastered the field. Their content-area expertise allows them to determine when student research skills are producing poor results.
Again, the issue here is how technology should be approached within the context of academic subjects. It’s neither correct to hold technology as separate from the traditional academic curriculum nor to allow technology to blindly drive the lesson. What’s needed is to integrate technology into lesson planning, using it to facilitate and extend learning.
And the results, when done correctly, can be superb.
No one is playing “Farmville” in a Shakespeare class
But the biggest problem with Senechal’s argument is her dismissive attitude toward the use of technology in humanities education. “A Shakespeare course, for instance, need not be infused with 21st-century anything whatsoever,” she sniffs, then goes on to illustrate her attitude towards technology in learning:
Twitter, Facebook, and texting add nothing to Shakespeare: they are only distractions. On the other hand, technology as a subject is not a distraction; some high schools have developed terrific computer programming, robotics, and sound engineering courses and afterschool clubs. In such cases, students learn how to make technology do what they want, and they learn the science and logic behind it. They learn much more about technology this way than they would by blogging and texting – activities they likely pursue on their own. (14)
You can almost hear Senechal’s sneer as she types out the dirty words: Twitter. Facebook. Texting. Blogging. Of course, computer programming and robotics are fine. As long as students pursue them within the context of technology as a defined discipline on its own.
It’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps we should start with Shakespeare. He’s usually a good place to begin.
Let’s say I want my students to investigate how Shakespeare uses the word blood in the play Macbeth. Christopher Renino’s unit plan in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Set Free series suggests having students trace the use of a single word throughout the play: blood, hand, night, or sleep. Doing this allows students to analyze the patterns and shifting meaning of the word.
The traditional way of pursuing this activity would be by using a concordance. But my school’s library owns only one. Splitting a concordance between thirty students wouldn’t work too well. Plus I have 42 minutes before they move on to another course. None of these things are good. But they are my reality. I make do with what I have.
But by going to George Mason University’s opensourceshakespeare.org, each student can do a wildcard search for blood, and find out there are 36 uses of one form or another of the word blood. They could also view all 43 appearance of the word night, 24 uses of sleep, or any other word they chose to view. Each use of the word appears in its context, allowing them to analyze the uses of the word, looking for patterns.
But then what? Well, the bell’s just rung. But let’s say I want them to continue this for homework. I could have them write a paragraph on the most interesting use of the word blood. We could then discuss it in class.
But I’ve got an online learning platform like Moodle or Blackboard. So instead, I have them post their response to this question in a forum: What’s the most interesting use of the word blood in the play? Post at least two entries of at least 50 words in this forum, and rate two other entries.
6 a.m. the next day, I log into Moodle from my home computer, and see that students from three different classes engaged in a spirited debate last night between 9:31 and 11.
I was asleep.
Online platforms like Moodle, to use just one example, allow teachers to extend learning outside the traditional school day in ways that simply aren’t possible with traditional homework assignments. Senechal’s valid concern about how the Internet can “distract”(5) can be addressed quite a bit through structured assignments such as “WebQuests” that easily reside on these platforms.
But what about Twitter? Is there a valid purpose for Twitter in schools?
I’ve used Twitter in my personal life for some time. But last summer, it occurred to me Twitter might be useful for communicating with parents. In the early days of the web, I used to maintain a web site where I posted homework assignments. This became a somewhat onerous task, and I eventually stopped doing it. But Twitter, it seemed to me, was perfect for the sort of brief notices I wanted to send to parents and my students.
I set up a new Twitter account specifically for my school use. I decided I would only tweet homework assignments, reminders about tests and projects, and the occasional link to a news story of importance. To help allay concerns about crossing boundaries, I would not follow anyone from this account, and I would try to do my tweets from school computers, so that there would be digital “footprints” in the event I needed to document my appropriate use of the service. Finally, I embedded a widget with these tweets into my Moodle page, so students who logged into Moodle would see my tweets without needing to either create an account of their own or go to the Twitter site.
I thought — and still think — that this is a pretty neat idea. Any way we can improve communication between school and home is at least worth trying.
But are my students and their families getting my homework tweets?
No. My school blocks Twitter. Why?
It’s “social networking.”
How the stereotype enables censorship
The problem is not whether or not I can use Twitter to communicate with students. The problem is that Twitter and Facebook are lumped into a category of “social networking sites” that are considered off-limits. And Senechal uses these two sites as shorthand for the entire Internet, on which she admits to have “wasted many hours” (5).
The Internet (of which Twitter and Facebook are a part) is a content-neutral means of publishing information. Like a printing press, it’s possible to use it for any purpose you want. New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof has over 150,000 fans on his Facebook page. Neither he nor I suspect most of his fans are spending their time playing Farmville (which, by the way, I block). Yes, you can use Twitter for following @ForrestTheCat if you want. You can also follow @BarackObama.
I don’t believe Senechal approves of censorship. But the dismissive attitude she promotes about technology in education gives support to those who do.
As a Journalism teacher and newspaper adviser, I’m particularly disturbed at her statement that while students should be encouraged to think for themselves, “students should not be called experts before they are”(13). She then goes on to relate a story about a favorite college teacher who did not allow his class to become a “free-for-all workshop where we…commented on each others’ work.” One wonders: at what point in Senechal’s ideal school are students allowed to have a voice?
Scholastic journalism programs are one of the shining examples of what can be done when technology is harnessed as a way of disseminating high-quality content. If you’re not familiar with them, I urge you to take a look at award-winning sites like the Wayland Student Press Network, the Paly Voice or any of the finalists for the 2010 Online Pacemakers. What you find there will astound you.
But their future remains uncertain. Beginning with Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier in 1988, numerous court decisions have steadily chipped away at the First Amendment rights of scholastic journalists.
And we’re not just talking about the school newspaper. Just last month, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a middle school’s decision to suspend a student for 10 days for creating a fake MySpace profile mocking her principal. The case, Blue Mountain School District v. J.S., is yet another in a group of recent U.S. court decisions giving schools increased authority to discipline students for off-campus speech. As Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte said in a March 9 press release, the issue in this case is not about whether students can make fun of their principals, or even libel them. The big picture, according to LoMonte, is whether students will be allowed to have a voice online:
It is vital that we slam the door on the notion that is growing more prevalent in First Amendment caselaw that students have reduced First Amendment rights when they use the Internet. The Internet is, and will increasingly become, the medium of choice for young people to communicate, and if we say that students never have the full benefit of the First Amendment when they speak online, that effectively turns them into permanent second-class citizens.
If students aren’t allowed to create meaningful and responsible content in school, then they will create crude and irresponsible content outside of school. Students attending “unplugged” schools will become more and more disenfranchised with an academic world they already see as largely irrelevant to their lives.
In the 17th century, efforts to control the spread of information in print failed. So too will efforts to control the Internet.
But what sort of content will dominate online is less certain. The best way to ensure the proliferation of meaningful content online is to ensure that students learn how to participate in it while they are in school.
And that can only be done if technology is integrated in curriculum and allowed to flourish in schools.