Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Teaching, Technology and Las Vegas

I am excited about technology – about what it can do – about its inherent creative possibilities. It has a caché not dissimilar to that of Las Vegas. It is glitzy and glamorous, promises infinite rewards that, most of the time, refuse to pan out. This sounds negative, but it’s not meant to be. If Las Vegas were bad, people would stop going back. Right?

That said, melding technology with good teaching, at times feels a little bit like winning at craps. (Of course, if you don’t win, you can always drink.)

Just recently, I decided to experiment with Etherpad and This experiment was facilitated by a kind teacher who was willing to have me in his classroom messing up lesson plans that potentially would have run more smoothly without my interference. The benefit for this teacher was that, as teacher-librarian, I had time to find and create resources (and web sites) that, hopefully, would make the students’ experience of the novel richer. Our goal was to provide students with some background to the Russian Revolution (before reading Animal Farm) through the various links provided in the web site. The students, then, would have the opportunity to collect their learnings on a group Etherpad. Their writings on the Etherpad would serve as preliminary notes/background for the novel.

I congratulated myself on my brilliance and off we went to the library to learn.

After an inspiring explanation of how Etherpad works, the students responded with blank, unimpressed looks akin to what you might find on someone who has just been hit in the head with a large pumpkin.

The conversations went something like this . . .

“So basically you want me to use this Etherpad thing to communicate with the person who is sitting right beside me?”

“Well, yes, but they could be anywhere. Think of the possibilities . . .”

“But they’re right beside me. I could just talk to them.”

“Well, yes, but you can also pose questions that your teachers can answer at some point . . .”

“But you’re standing right there . . .”

It was a bit like “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It didn’t matter how much I tried to convince the students that this technology had potential. They knew that I was standing in the library naked.

But my learning was not complete. There was more to learn (and clearly it was I who learned the most on this particular occasion). This is what I learned . . .

• Students need to be told to use their real names when doing school activities using technology. As unbelievable as it may seem, it is not that easy to identify “Brown-Ice,” “Tasmanian Devil,” “SexyMiss16.”

• Students also need to be told that using the chat function on Etherpad to tell other students to “F-Off” is probably not appropriate for school.

• New technologies are a little bit like Las Vegas showgirls – it’s easy to be distracted by the glitter and forget that it’s, like, really hard to be a Las Vegas showgirl.

• While students may be “Digital Natives,” in some ways they are just as illiterate, primitive and barbaric as we “Digital Immigrants” (not to mention the lesser known “Digital WTF Are You Talking About?”)

The experience, overall, was a bit like getting married by an Elvis Impersonator after drinking a fifth of gin – not great, but not that bad either. And definitely worth trying again, once you get the first marriage annulled.

The experience with the students, Etherpad, Animal Farm and, not to mention a generous and patient collaborating teacher, simply underlined that learning is messy (leaves bits of feathers and sequins everywhere), and often things do not go as planned. That said, we’re not done. Next time the lesson will be better. I think it’s what keeps people coming back to Vegas – sometimes you win.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are right about the messy, and that the good teachers learn from it and come back. I also think you have a talent for imagery - I see writing professionally in your future. . .