Yesterday the New York Times published an article entitled, “Speaking Up in Class Silently, Using Social Media.” In this article, Erin Olson, an English teacher in Iowa, stated that “social media, once kept outside the school door, can entice students who rarely raise a hand to express themselves via a medium they find as natural as breathing.”
My reaction to the article is so what, why is this new? At our school, we first demonstrated in 1996, through a pilot 1:1 project that we ran in our AP United States History course (with Mac Powerbook 160’s and 56k modems) the shift in power that can occur using a electronic communication.
Before this pilot project which I collaborated with our history teacher, Kevin Randolph, classroom discussion were dominated by students who were assertive, the loudest, and those who were able to make decisions quickly, show conviction and “shoot” from the hip. More often than not, it was the young men in the class who dominated these discussions. Yes, there were young women who could, but they were not in the majority. During this pilot, we saw a shift and a leveling of the playing field via the electronic communication. This mode of communication favored the thoughtful, reflective thinkers, those who would let ideas peculate and make new and different connections. Having a medium where the loudest voice was silenced allowed those with longer, more complex arguments, begin to share.
This shifting lead to different in-class discussions. Ones which the reflective thinkers ideas were being brought up and honored and valued. It allowed them to gain credibility and a more powerful voice. For me, it allowed us to teach in the best of ways, allowing each voice, either oral or electronically communicated, both times when they were working in the area of their strength. Kevin and my goal was to allow those who dominate classroom discussion the opportunity to slow down, think deep, and construct more complex arguments while allowing those who thrived in the electronic area the ability to grow their voice and confidence so that they were more willing to step up and voice their opinions.
This is why our blended learning strategy and solutions for the last 14 years have included the ability for both types of discussions to occur, whether using Moodle discussion forums or Google Docs. The ability to facilitate both synchronous and asynchronous discussions has been an integral part of our instructional design strategy. Not that we couldn’t do more and incorporate new tools, but it is the foundation from which we have been growing our learning environments.
So what did the Times article add to this discussion? Well that the tools for creating this type of learning environment, both the physical tools for connection (the growth of mobile phones, and the prevalence of computers, netbooks and tablets) and communication (wireless and cellular access) have matured so that this environment is more accessible and available to all who are willing to incorporate this into their pedagogy.
I have always believed in the power of these communication. At conferences, you will find me in the back channel sharing and helping make new connections from the very beginning (NECC 2007 – New Tools, New Schools) and tweeting thoughts and reflections, like I have done this morning while watching some of the TEDxBloomington (#tedxbtown) stream. I know that I thrive in the electronically mediated spaces instead of faculty meetings. I have difficulty reading and then reflecting quickly in a 20-30 minute time frame. I need time, almost up to a day, in order for my thoughts to come together in such a way that they are whole. I need to bounce my ideas off of others, as Steven Johnson believes that is the birthplace for great new ideas.
So new, no. But awareness to the masses as to the power of this environment, thank you New York Times.