The Reality Check

Will Richardson writes, in a recent blog entry titled “Reality Check“:

[A school administrator] said that a group of parents had requested a meeting to discuss the methods of a particular teacher and his use of technology. It seemed this teacher had decided to forgo the textbook and have students write their own on a wiki […] and that he shared all of his lectures and classwork online for anyone, not just the students in his class, could access them and use them under a Creative Commons license.

When the administrator got the phone call from the parent who wanted to set up the meeting, she asked for some sense of what the problem was. The reply?

“Our students don’t need to be a part of a classroom experiment with all this technology stuff. They need to have a real teacher with real textbooks and real tests.”

Will, I have this sort of doubt all the time.  I’m one of those teachers who’s experimenting with wikis and creative commons licensing, and with posting all my lecture materials and classwork online.  And so far, the parents are not the ones complaining. The students and the administrators are.

The students aren’t all sure that they want their work to be on a wiki.  The ones who get it, GET IT. They’re enthusiastic contributors, all the time, and I love having them as students.  The ones who don’t get it, really don’t get it.   They find reasons to not have access to the wiki, or to excuse their lack of contribution with  “the school’s internet service is broken”  or “my password doesn’t work” or just plain, “why do we have to do this?” And I kind of see their point.  A lot of my students in this second category have reading difficulties, or writing difficulties. Moving online sometimes helps, but it also produces anxiety for some of them: they have to show off their poor writing skills to the world, in a format that doesn’t go away at all. Ever.  Others don’t speak English very well, and their writing is worse (why is it that Chinese and Korean students have such trouble mastering definite and indefinite articles in English?).

Administrators don’t really like it, either.  It’s hard to grade this work precisely.  It’s public, but in a way that many of them find inaccessible.  Some of the administrators at my school feel that middle schoolers learn certain kinds of material better by hand-writing that material rather than typing.  They may be right.  I certainly learned more by making this timeline than my students will get out of simply reviewing it. So there are trade-offs.

The question is, do students learn more about a given subject by using tools that bypass their weaknesses, and give them access to semi-instant global feedback?  Will they be held back from future advancement by the global feedback they ask for today? I think the answer to the first question is yes, and the second question is no.  Asking students to use online, globally available tools — and asking friends and colleagues and communities around the globe to evaluate their work — will ultimately make students more confident, more successful, and more capable.  They will be linked up with learners everywhere, as I have been, by keeping this blog (and making these slide shows, and speaking at these conferences, and … and…)

It’s deeply counter-intuitive in some ways. Maybe my students aren’t ready for primetime, no.  But my students are ready to reach out to people learning the same material, and say, “Hey! You! On the other side of the planet!? What do you think about this?”

4 comments

  1. You raise a good point about students who are uncomfortable with their writing abilities. It’s possible to set up blogs and wikis so that they are not visible to the whole world. Students can also work to improve their writing before posting it.

    Your Asian students may be struggling with articles because their language does not have articles.

    • Our blog is actually a wiki, so that students can correct their spelling and grammar errors LONG after the work is turned in. It’s proved useful for the students who have bought in.

      The difficulty is really more like the 90-9-1% rule of contributions, though. When you’re talking about a class of 17, that rule really hits home. It’s 15 students contributing in desultory fashion, one contributing daily, and one contributing frequently.

      Now, my class is not that bad. Because it’s homework, and it affects their grade. So it’s really more like 9 reluctant contributors, 5 regular contributors and 3 frequent contributors. And this is what has to be fixed.

  2. Just a quick piece of insight: Chinese and Korean students have difficulties with definite and indefinite articles because they do not exist in their native language. Ever notice that they also have difficulty with verb tenses? There is one tense in Mandarin; context clues within sentences imply the tense.

    If there is an ELL teacher in your building, I highly suggest you speak with him or her. They can be invaluable resources that can help subtly tweak your instruction to better serve your non-native English speakers.

    • It’s a good idea to approach our ELL teachers, and see what I can do to change things. I’ve tried in the past and not had much success… maybe it’s time to try again.

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