Monday, May 05, 2008

Opening up the classroom to learning

I think I can safely say that most, if not all, faculty go into a classroom with the idea that their students will learn something. Many spend a lot of trying to guarantee that learning will happen. They think long and hard about what students should learn and the process by which they should learn the material. There's no guarantee, of course, that students will learn, and I know that when confronted with students who haven't gotten as much out of a class as professors might have hoped, they are often deeply disappointed. Year after year of this might lead to resignation and bitterness. You see this, sometimes, in the cranky comments on IHE articles or Chronicle forums. You know the ones that complain how the students can't read or write or tie their shoes. (Dr. Crazy has an excellent post debunking many of these complaints--highly recommended reading.)

What I've experienced over the last few days, however, is the exact opposite of the complaints the cranks make. It's the idea that sometimes, maybe lots of times, students learn more than we expect they will and learn things we didn't expect them to. And they do so because the focus is on learning, not teaching. In the examples I saw today in a panel I organized on teaching with technology, that learning was made visible through technology and was facilitated to some extent through technology, but I don't think technology is really the point. The point was that shift in focus that the technology allowed, but perhaps could have been accomplished another way.

Anne Dalke, for example, has been teaching online for years and said some things today that really resonated with me. She talked about treating students as budding public intellectuals who are learning how to present their work in a public forum which just happens to be online. She talked about not just encouraging interactions between her students but also bringing in alums and others so that the community of learners is broader than just the classroom. She also talked about not grading them, but having a conversation with them about their ideas, something another teacher I know does also. To me, Anne was treating her students like colleagues, perhaps in an apprentice phase, but still more than children who need to be spoonfed content.

Before that, Wil Franklin and Neal Williams from the biology department showed off their students' plant blogs. Although these were behind a password in Blackboard, the students really got into them. They set very few guidelines for the blogs except that they needed to use appropriate scientific language. For example, they couldn't just say that their plants were sprouting little hair thingies, they had to find the scientific terms for these, terms that Wil and Neal did not provide. They made the students look them up--which they did, mostly through Wikipedia according to Wil. I thought this was a great way to teach not just the scientific concepts, but also the process of finding information. They wondered as we segued into Anne's discussion, whether they might have opened the blogs up to the public. They ended up inviting people in from another school to comment on the blogs and thought that might have been a valuable learning experience to formalize that relationship.

In both of these cases, I think that the faculty had thought a great deal about what might work, but they also had a lot of surprises about what the students did and they were flexible enough to go with the flow and allow the students to do what they needed and wanted in order to get the most out of the class. I also think there was a real recognition of the value of working in public in some way, that real learning can take place by connecting with others, be they alums interested in the topic or experts working in the field, they saw a value in opening up the classroom, not for those outside the classroom, but for their own students. Also, there was a real connection between what the students and faculty were doing online and what happened in the class. Blog and forum posts became jumping off points for discussion in class and discussion continued online sometimes after class.

I've also had several conversations with students that have been inspiring, where they are thinking about this cyberworld they find themselves immersed in and they're starting to wonder what it means and how their education is or isn't engaging this world. As I told one student, these are the things that keep me up at night.