Probiotics for Composition-Health?
Building an Ecology of Memoir Writing and Blended LearningJulie Daoud, Ph.D., Thomas More College, Department of English
Having affirmed this resolve to identify memoir writing as the prevailing genre for the course, I began to rethink the how. My predicament was this: I needed to ascertain the optimum pedagogy for my student-learners. To become more conversant with potential applications of technology in the composition classroom, I gathered volumes of pedagogically-centered research—a category of texts, journal articles and web sites that I have been, ironically, somewhat unused to reading since I began full-time teaching eleven years ago.
As I bored into the research, I sorted the texts into two stacks: the neo-traditional pedagogical stack, (or, the stack that advocated a classical constructivist approach to rhetoric and composition) and the technologically-steeped stack (or, texts that incorporated multimodality in composition, or, an emphasis on using a digital pedagogy to improve student thinking and writing). Sorting the writings into pedagogical camps, it became apparent that the digital pedagogies stack was beginning to tower over the pile of neo-traditional pedagogical resources. Article after article, text after text, and site after site, my colleague’s voice resounded in my head: the future for teachers would indeed be a “tough row to hoe” without dexterity in classroom applications of digital media. (Among the most persuasive articles in the stack were the writings of Cynthia Selfe and Jonathan Alexander who demonstrate that first-year composition courses can be enhanced through computer and video gaming and related modalities. An unwitting advocate of digital technology, Hubert Dreyfus suggests that even while technology won’t suffice as a substitute for emotional, involved, embodied learning, that the dominance of technology in the classroom is—at least for the foreseeable future-- here to stay.)
Though the preponderance of contemporary research seems to deify emerging technologies, punked heuristics for learning do not warrant impunity. Neoluddite treatises that favor the traditional educational heuristics over the digital oligarchy give ample reason for pause: one must consider, for instance, Edward Tufte’s research—research that ascribes NASA engineering failures to what he describes as the “fatal” effects of Power Point’s simplistic ways of . The work of Nicholas Carr makes a more sweeping claim. In What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010), he purports that internet technology allows students to substitute “cursory reading, distracted thinking and superficial learning” for deep thinking. And in Alone Together (2011), Sherry Turkell decries the stultified intellectual and social growth among today’s youth and adolescents—an epidemic that she attributes to the generation’s dependence on digital technologies.
Though the preponderance of contemporary research seems to deify emerging technologies, punked heuristics for learning do not warrant impunity. Neoluddite treatises that favor the traditional educational heuristics over the digital oligarchy give ample reason for pause: one must consider, for instance, Edward Tufte’s research—research that ascribes NASA engineering failures to what he describes as the “fatal” effects of Power Point’s reductionist, bulleted information. The work of Nicholas Carr makes a more sweeping claim. In What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010), he purports that internet technology allows students to substitute “cursory reading, distracted thinking and superficial learning” for deep thinking. And in Alone Together (2011), Sherry Turkell decries the stultified intellectual and social growth among today’s youth and adolescents—an epidemic that she attributes to the generation’s dependence on digital technologies.
Immersed in the readings, I vacillated like a vessel tossed on the mercy of the open sea. Trying to identify my own position on digital technologies in higher education, I swung back and forth from technology “naysayer” to technology “evangelist.” Then, like a gale-force wind, I encountered Garrison and Vaughan’s book Blended Learning in Higher Education (2008) in which the authors contend that faculty need to “reject the dualistic thinking that seems to demand choosing between conventional face-to-face and online learning”—a dualism which they recognize as neither theoretically nor practically tenable (4-5). A more sensible way forward, according to their treatise, is for teachers to better understand the potential of these technologies and how they might be integrated alongside of the best of the face-to-face learning environment. Their research cautions against what may become an a la carte incorporation of technology. Effective blended learning, for Garrison and Vaughn, requires a framework that informs the integration of face-to-face and online learning; in other words, to sustain private reflection and critical thinking in learners, teachers must develop organic learning environments—learning environments in which the modes of teaching and learning are carefully integrated.
As an educator who believes in rupturing the proverbial “binary,” the blended learning model immediately resonated with me; blended learning is, in some ways, the extension of postmodernity in the ecology of the classroom. The practice of blending learning is consistent with the tenet that the “either/or” model fails to aptly reflect truth or reality. And beyond the epistemological arguments that support blended learning, there are practical reasons to blend learning. For instance, there are palpable administrative incentives to implement blended learning pedagogies: tenure and promotion applications offer large blank spaces for faculty to substantiate technological proficiency in the classroom. Allocation of grant money seems dependent upon the promise of research and practice connected to innovative technology.
But promotion and grant applications aside, a germane curiosity about how technological innovation may improve traditional teaching beckons educators to stay in the know: we read journals about contemporary trends, participate in conferences with keynote speakers who market themselves as “progressive” or as “pushing the envelope” and we stoke the coffee-talk dialogue in the faculty lounge by jargon-dropping about our widgits that repose in “symbaloo,” our files that float on “clouds,” and our latest epiphanies catalogued in “evernote.” Thus, there are indubitable benefits for embracing “blended” learning—some borne out of a professional pride and others borne out of the personal. Regardless of the incentive, the blended learning pedagogies offer teachers a spectrum of choice. One need not succumb to polarizing arguments about technology and its applications for teaching; in much the same way that I don’t believe in the demarcation between digital natives and digital immigrants, I realize that it isn’t necessary to brand oneself as a naysayers or evangelist.
Ready to recreate my composition course through an organic and blended educational paradigm, I resolved to acquire the requisite hands-on practice and informal training. As the start of the new term was only weeks away, I had neither the time nor the funding to participate in a formal technological training program. With the “make-or-break” pluck of a pioneer farmer without an almanac, I willed myself to surmount the learning curve ahead. There was, in my mind, no better way to get training and experience than by asking for help from students. So, in less than a day’s time, I scouted out the most Zuckerberg-like CSI majors on campus—students with both technical proficiency and passion. Tracking them down at the student center, I introduced myself and proffered a trade: pizza and subs, iced-coffee and Red-Bull in exchange for game-instruction and an overview of the fundamentals of emergent media. My proposal was quickly accepted and, in a baptism- by-fire series of demonstrations and tutorials, I was well on my way toward digital proficiency. Through their informal instruction, I began to negotiate my way through the realm of digital modalities: I recognized the value of replacing outlines for lectures and reading assignments with uploaded hypertext documents--documents supported by an infusion of links that delivered supplemental content as well as images or animations —to accommodate readers with a predilection for dialectic rather than linear reading and thinking; I discovered how avatars could support collaboration exercises; and I found ways to integrate role-playing games to foster student engagement and social responsibility. These technologies for processing and creating information promised to be a boon to the ecology of classroom learning. Like a probiotic in the digestive track, digital technology can support the classroom ecology: blending traditional heuristics with digital technologies can, I discovered, potentially improve and affirm literacy, and, more broadly, critical thinking, among students.
To be fair, my pedagogical research and the crash course in technologies were not so radically transformative that I yearned to unburden myself of my traditional heuristics and greet students at the portals of a virtual learning classroom. I wasn’t going to lurch forward in the campus stampede for online learning. Having already replaced canonical readings with memoir writing, I was merely primed to initiate the reformulation of my pedagogical vision. The corollary that followed the what, in my mind, was this: it was time to update the way I taught—the how. I’d researched the current literature, I’d found mentors to give me the requisite experience: I felt ready to begin to implement more technology to blend teaching and learning.
The initial changes that I made were more or less cosmetic pedagogical changes: I made myself more readily available to students through FB and texting in addition to the standard office hours and email. I incorporated virtual dialogue as a way to earn course credit by inviting students to participate in an ongoing blog. While I didn’t want a blog to serve as a substitute for face-to-face dialogue and debate between students, I recognized that marginalized students might use the blog as a safe space to participate in reflection and dialogue. It would also provide a venue for continuing dialogue about issues that didn’t get enough air-time during class. And I decided to upload the syllabus as a fluid work-in-progress document rather than a resolute artifact that bound students to my authoritative choices as a bona-fide contract. These were ways that I could adjust the parameters of my pedagogy through a handful of minor adjustments. I felt a bit more tentative about transforming my contact hours with students. I regularly tried to discern the potential consequences of my transformation: would the blended learning yield better student outcomes?
- 8 Kathryn Crowther’s blog “Putting Punk Into Technology” uses the infinitive verb “to punk” as a synonym for adding multimodality to teaching.
- 9 Tufte, Edward. “The Cognitive Style of Power Point.” November 2009.
- 10 I was, for instance, well-persuaded by Edward Tufte at Yale who problematizes the application of PowerPoint software as it has been utilized in environments as varied as classrooms, corporate headquarters and control centers for NASA engineering. In his essay "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, Tufte describes the potentially fatal effects of the softwares unhelpfully simplistic tables, charts and hierarchies. For more on this, see his essay “The Cognitive Style of Power Point” from November 2009.