Saturday, March 3, 2012

Technology for community sake #Change11

Right before I show YouTube videos by Michael Wesch in professional development workshops, I always take a quick poll of the audience, asking who has heard of the Kansas State professor. In the last four weeks, I have had the opportunity to lead three variations of the same professional development workshop, with audiences ranging in size from 13 to 35. I average about one raised hand each time I ask. This comes as both good and bad news; good because I can keep showing the videos and asking participants, most of whom are inspired by 4 minutes of hearing Wesch speak, about the implications of his work for K-12 public education; bad because it indicates to me that K-12 educators, confronted by the same issues of scale and relevance that Wesch tries to optimize in his courses at Kansas State, have not heard of his cutting-edge work.

In this video, A Vision of Students Today, Wesch’s students famously publish the statistical results of a class survey they did on a Google Doc. In other talks Wesch has done, among them this address to the University of Manitoba in 2008, he details how he uses web portals to aggregate class resources and student work.  

The tech integration in these videos in not about portals, wikis and RSS feeds. I see Wesch gathering student data in new ways, employing a strategy not unlike a very low-tech system like “Fist to Five Feedback,” where the teacher asks students to quickly assess the success of her lesson.

When I read a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Jeffrey Young, I realized that the importance of Wesch’s could elude the higher ed community. The article dismisses Wesch’s use of technology as a strategy that other professors are unable to apply, and then concludes that he is just talented, so his methods don’t matter. A talented lecturer might be just as effective using less interactive methods, according to Young.

Participants in technology workshops I lead readily agree that the purpose behind integration matters more than the tools. This is especially true in Wesch’s case. When a colleague of his remarks that they tried his methods and had them result in “chaos,” I worry that institutions cannot see past tools to instructional purposes. 

My biggest worry is that we might watch powerful practices enhanced by technology and see only the technology. We might not notice that Wesch asked his students, his paying customers, what it is like to be a student in his class and then used technology to maximize their experiences as learners.We might forget that when his students report that their professors don’t know their names, he uses technology to create social connections for them in a class of 200. We have to see past his web platform to think critically about his purpose.

When technology gives us the ability to hear from all students all the time, what questions will we ask them? Wesch asks his students about relevance and significance. If we don’t know what questions to ask, it doesn’t matter how well the technology helps us aggregate the answers.

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