sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘Jim Gee’ Category

omg I just talked to Howard Rheingold

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 16, 2010

You can keep your Robert Pattinsons and Miley Cyruses and whichever other beautiful prepubescent sexy people you young people idolize these days. My idols are people like these folks:

That guy in the lower lefthand corner is Howard Rheingold, who is by just about all accounts one of the kindest, happiest, most curious, most fascinating, most colorful, and most thought-provoking media theorists around. (If you want proof, take a look at this little gem of his writing.)

Because Howard is kind and supportive of other aspiring intellectuals, I’ve had email conversations and twitter conversations and blog conversations with Howard. There’s this interesting feature of the new technologies that swell around us, see: They efface the distance–perceived and real–between our idols and our selves. If you’re patient enough and quick enough, you can use these new technologies to climb right up on the pedestals your heroes are standing on and tap them on the shoulder.

And today in a webchat I got to talk to Howard–with my voice–about crap detection, participatory culture, and pedagogy. It. Was. Awesome.

It may soon enough be the case that the structures and norms that allowed us to toss up celebrities and intellectuals as cultural heroes–well, it may soon enough be the case that those structures crumble, leaving our heroes in the rubble at our feet. I’m young enough to hope it’ll happen in my lifetime but old enough that I may not be able to fully shake the notion of the celebrity as icon. After all, I grew up alongside this:

And yes, I know that a huge chunk of Americans have never even heard of Howard Rheingold (or Lisa Delpit or Paulo Freire or Jim Gee or Henry Jenkins or Yasmin Kafai) and that these people don’t count as ‘celebrities,’ as least not in the “zomg the paparazzi are everywhere” sense. I don’t care. As Intel explains, our rock stars aren’t like your rock stars.

Posted in academia, academics, awesome, blogging, fannish, Henry Jenkins, Howard Rheingold, Jim Gee, joy | 2 Comments »

how Jim Gee and I soothe our guilty consciences

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 8, 2010

In the video below of a presentation to the Education Writers Association 2010 Annual Conference, Jim Gee says this about how to introduce innovative ideas into education:

There’s a choice of strategies here…. One strategy is: Let’s take our innovations to the center of the school system and spread them as fast and quickly as we can. People believe that this current school system as it is will just co-opt those innovations and make them … just better ways to do the old thing. Another strategy is: Let’s make these innovative learning and assessment tools and put them at the margins, in places that will tolerate innovation, and then show it works. Now if you think about it, in technology outside of schools, going to the margins first and then to the center–that’s always been the way innovation happens. The only place we’ve ever tried to keep putting the new thing right in the center at once is in schooling, and it’s never worked. What i would love to see is that we hive of some of the (Race to the Top) money for a national center that would trial these new assessments, show they work in places that tolerate innovation, and then spread them there, just the way you would want if we have to keep coal and oil–let’s at least have something trying out new forms of energy, so that we’re ready for these markets but also we can prove they work. if we don’t do that, we’re just gonna get a better mousetrap.

I absolutely agree with the sentiments in the quote above, except for the BP oil spill. Let’s say there’s some innovative energy research going on in the margins, ready to prove it works and to take over where coal and oil left off. That’s fantastic, and it doesn’t do a single goddamned thing to help the birds, the fish, the sea mammals, the tourist industry, the ecosystem, the fisheries, and the human residents of the Gulf Coast. Those are simply casualties, not a single thing we can do to help them now no matter what awesome innovative fuel source we finally embrace, no matter how much more quickly we may embrace a cleaner fuel source as a result. Even if tomorrow’s birds are safe from Big Oil, today’s birds are drowning right in front of us.

Working at the margins of education is a fantastic way to innovate and offer useful evidence that innovations work. I fully support this approach–but not at the expense of the kids who exist at the center of our education system today. Yes, the school system can and does and maybe always will co-opt any innovation we try to introduce. But that doesn’t excuse us from trying anyway. That doesn’t give us license to give up on today’s children, even if it keeps tomorrow’s children safe.

And of course this isn’t what Jim Gee wants to do, anyway. But the Jim Gees of the world who urge us to work at the margin live in symbiosis with the Jenna McWilliamses of the world who believe we must also work from the center, where–ironically–the most marginalized kids in education commonly reside. I can’t innovate as much as I’d like from the center, maybe I can’t help tomorrow’s marginalized kids as much as I’d like either.  And Jim Gee can’t help today’s marginalized kids as much as he’d probably like from the edges. So we need each other, if for nothing else than to assuage our guilty consciences for being unable to do more of what we know must be done.

I should probably also note that Jim Gee is one of my absolute all-time heroes, so I hope he’s not mad at me for this post.

This video also stars Daniel Schwartz, who I believe is one of the smartest guys thinking about assessment and learning these days. I had the great luck to attend an assessment working group with him and a big crew of assessment-focused researchers, and I was amazed and blown away by just about everything he said.

In a recent publication, Choice-Based Assessments in a Digital Age (.pdf), Schwartz and his co-author Dylan Arena make this argument:

Educational assessment is a normative endeavor: The ideal assessment both reflects and reinforces educational goals that society deems valuable. A fundamental goal of education is to prepare students to act independently in the world—which is to say, to make good choices. It follows that an ideal assessment would measure how well we are preparing students to do so.

I can’t remember when I’ve agreed more emphatically with the introductory sentence of a scholarly article about education.

Here’s the video, which is well worth a watch.

Posted in academia, assessment, education, Jim Gee, journalism, learning sciences, public schools, schools, teaching, technologies, video games | Leave a Comment »

principles for ethical educational research

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 15, 2010

I’ve been thinking lately about the burden of speaking for others.

Because I’m an educational researcher, and speaking for others is the heart of what we do. We walk into a classroom, watch some things happen for a little while, then make decisions about which stories are worth telling, and how, and why, and to whom. And this is precisely what we’re supposed to do. This is precisely why we head into the classroom in the first place: to tell stories about what learning looks like.

But it can be such a heavy burden, this speaking for others. You know the burden is heavy when the simplest challenge is finding a way to represent what happened in a way that everybody would agree is reasonable and accurate. But that’s not where our responsibility ends, because no research findings are politically or socially neutral. Every representation of research is an articulation of a belief system; it’s an expression of a worldview; it’s a document that leads people to act in ways that can help or hurt the populations we hope to represent.

And the burden gets heavier for researchers working with marginalized, oppressed, or disenfranchised populations, since speaking for these groups can so easily fall into a reproduction of the oppression that rains down on them from all around. Paulo Freire warns us against the “false charity” that so often comes from members of dominant groups who wish to help the oppressed:

False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands–whether of individuals or entire peoples–need to be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.

It seems to me that false charity emerges when a person becomes too confident that she knows and understands the needs and interests of the oppressed groups she hopes to represent. False charity can therefore look like an awful lot of things: Research focusing on vocational education for poor kids. (Why would we dare to assume working class kids wouldn’t want to go to college?) Research showing working class kids are capable of doing college-level work. (Using college readiness as our measure of ‘success’ allows policymakers to continue to make decisions that assume that college readiness is the most important goal, thereby continuing to marginalize kids for whom college is neither desired nor possible.) Research documenting the learning trajectories of immigrant students. (We’re at a cultural point at which nearly anything that’s said about immigrants, especially in America, can be twisted to hurt the very populations it’s intended to help.)

I’ve been working in a small alternative high school populated primarily by lower class and working-class kids. I’ve seen miracles happen in this school for many of its students, and I’ve met graduates of the school who talk about their time in the school as the most powerful and important educational experience of their lives. Sitting in a classroom in this school, or walking down its halls, or talking to its students, reminds me of how powerfully transformative an education can be. I wish you could all spend a day at this school. You would walk out joyful, hopeful and optimistic about the future of our children. You would walk out with a renewed faith in human beings.

But you won’t get the chance to visit this school, because the school board decided to shut it down. I probably don’t need to tell you that I think this is a mistake. I further believe that the decision to close this school was motivated by a deep cultural prejudice against poor kids. We don’t often say it out loud, but we hold a cultural belief that a child’s value is largely determined by the likelihood that she will go to college; our culture is embarrassed by its children who are poor, who live in rented houses or youth shelters or foster care, who are not college-bound. Our society is built on the backs of these kids; we need their labor to keep our society running–and this need only embarrasses us all the more.

It’s the job of researchers who work with marginalized populations to represent their research in a way that not only serves the best interests of those populations but also helps to rewrite the cultural narrative that keeps these populations oppressed. It’s not easy work, simple work, or quick work, but it’s necessary work.

With these things in mind, I want to offer a set of principles for educational research that I hope can help guide researchers in our work with marginalized populations–and maybe our work with all sorts of learning populations.

1. We exist in the service of the communities we work for. I have to believe that when we forget this, it’s on accident. But we must never, ever forget that our work should first of all support the needs and interests of both the learners and the educators working inside of our chosen learning communities. This means that we have to actually talk to the learners and educators to find out what they want, and we have to take them at their word and not, for example, guess that if they knew more about the world they’d want something different.

2. We exist to serve the needs and interests of the communities we work for. It is not our job to decide whether a community’s interests are good or right; it’s only our job to work in service of those interests. If a researcher can’t get behind the stated needs and interests of the members of her chosen research community, then she needs to find another community to research.

3. It’s our job to represent our work in ways that support ethical decisions by policymakers and external stakeholders. Educational researchers serve as an important bridge between learning communities and policymakers who make decisions about the futures of those communities. One of our most essential roles is to represent research findings in a way that is clear and useful to policymakers while also representing to those policymakers findings that support the needs and interests of the communities we serve. I’m not saying this is easy. I’m just saying it’s essential.

4. All educational research is social activism, and all educational researchers are social activists. There is no such thing as politically neutral educational research. Let me say that again: There is no such thing as politically neutral educational research. All statements of research findings are statements of a belief system about the role of education, and all researchers must therefore do research that both aligns with and serves to articulate that belief system. Further, all researchers must make their belief system clear, to themselves, to the communities they work for, and to policymakers who make decisions about those communities. They must always ensure that their belief system aligns with the needs and interests of the communities they work for, and if there is a conflict then the community’s interests always trump the belief system of its researchers. If the ethical conflict is irreconcilable, then the researcher must find another community to represent.

Here I want to crib a quote from Jim Gee, who laid out his own set of principles for ethical human behavior in his book Social Linguistics and Literacies. After describing these principles, he made this declaration:

I would claim that all human beings would, provided they understood them, accept these conceptual principles. Thus, failing to live up to them, they would, for consistency’s sake, have to morally condemn their own behavior. However, I readily admit that, should you produce people who, understanding these principles, denied them, or acted as though they did, I would not give up the principles. Rather, I would withhold the term ‘human’, in its honorific, not biological, sense, from such people.

This declaration was made in the second edition of Gee’s book; if you own the third edition, don’t bother looking for the quote–for reasons that are unclear to me, he removed it and instead simply asserts that we really shouldn’t bother trying to change the minds of people who disagree with these ethical principles. I want to call for a return to the stronger language. Given the incredibly high stakes of public education in America, we don’t have time for politeness. We’re in a fight for the very lives of the students we serve, and it may be that too much politeness is what got us here in the first place.

Posted in bigotry, education, human rights, Jim Gee, politics, public schools, schools, social justice, teaching | 4 Comments »

notes on being the chainsaw you wish to see in the world: Closing remarks for the AERA 2010 annual meeting

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 6, 2010

I just got back from my first trip to the annual meeting of AERA, the American Educational Research Association. AERA is apparently the biggest educational research conference in America. I had a fantastic time (highlight: I got to have dinner with Jim Gee!) and my presentation went well (highlight: I argued with the panel’s discussant over why thinking about gender inequity isn’t enough if you’re not also thinking about class inequity!), and I don’t think I made too much of a fool out of myself.

I really enjoyed my first trip to this conference, though when I got home I learned from others that there are significant challenges to be made about the structure, format, and ethos of AERA. I am coming around to that way of thinking and will post my thoughts on this soon.
For now, though, I want to share with you the paper I had to writereallyfast when I got back from the conference. It’s a final paper for a course on computational technologies, and because I was thinking about AERA, social justice, and why the conference’s biggest events mostly featured staid, mainstream thinkers, I decided to write the paper as closing remarks for the conference. I am sure that once the AERA organizers read my closing remarks, they will invite me to deliver next year’s closing remarks in person. I am also available to deliver opening remarks and keynote addresses.

Notes on being the chainsaw you wish to see in the world: On a critical computational literacy agenda for a time of great urgency
Closing Remarks for the AERA Annual Meeting
Jenna McWilliams, Indiana University
May 4, 2010

I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak this evening, at the close of this year’s annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

I want to talk to you tonight about the nature of urgency.

Because urgency characterizes the work we do, doesn’t it? The education of our children—our efforts to prepare them to join in on this beautiful and necessary project of naming and claiming the world—it is certainly a matter of the deepest urgency. Even more so because of the war being waged over the bodies and minds of our children.

It’s a war whose contours are deeply familiar to many of us—more so the longer we have been a part of this struggle over education. Certainly the issues we’re fighting over have limned the edges of our educational imagination for generations: How do we know what kids know? How can we prepare them for success in their academic, vocational, and life pursuits? What should schools look like, and how can we fill our schools up with qualified teachers who can do their jobs well? No matter what else, then, at least we’re continuing to ask at least some of the right questions.

Yet a deeper than normal sense of urgency has characterized this year’s annual meeting. It was a “hark ye yet again” sort of urgency: We stood, once again, on a knife’s edge, waiting for word of legislative decisions to be passed down from the policymakers—among whom there are very few educational researchers—to the researchers—among whom there are very few policymakers.

And what sorts of decisions were we waiting to hear on? The same sorts we’ve been wringing our hands over for a decade or more: Decisions over the standardization of education. Development of a proposed set of Common Core Standards whose content seemed painfully anemic to many of us. We’re waiting to learn whether teacher pay will be linked to student performance on standardized tests. Massive budget cuts leading to termination of teachers and programs—these certainly feel familiar to us, though the scope of these cuts and the potential consequences of these decisions seem to loom larger than ever before. The decision by the Texas Department of Education to pervert and politicize its K-12 curriculum by removing references to historical events and even terminology that might offend members of the political Right-—the specifics are new, but the story feels familiar.

A call to action was paired with the clanging of the alarm bells. Ernest Morrell told us that he had counseled his kids to prepare presentations that not only described their work and achievements but that also included a call to action. “I told them, ’Don’t let them leave this room without marching orders’,” he said. “We need to do better. AERA needs to do better.”

He’s right, of course. And I plan to heed Ernest’s advice and not let you leave this room without your marching orders. But first I want to explore the edges of this new urgency, explain why critical computational literacy is part and parcel of the urgency of this moment, and explain exactly what I mean by the term.

There are at least two reasons for the acuteness of the urgency that has characterized this year’s AERA conference. The first is that many of us had hoped for something more, something better, something more honorable from the Obama administration. After eight years living in a political wasteland, many of us felt a glee all out of proportion with reality upon hearing Barack Obama’s position on educational issues. We felt hope. Even a warm half cup of water can feel like a long, tall drink when you’ve just walked out of a desert.

It’s a long revolution, you know. And if Obama authorizes something that looks very much like No Child Left Behind, and if he mandates merit pay based on student performance on standardized tests, and if the recent changes made by the religious right to the Texas state history curriculum stand, and if school board nationwide continue to make terrible, terrible decisions about how to cut costs, and if we see the largest teacher layoff in our history and class sizes creep up to 40 students per room and if computers get taken over by test prep programs and remedial tutoring systems, well, we’ll do our best to live to fight another day. The other day, I listened to Jim Gee talking about his deep anger at the people who run our education system. But he also said something we should all take to heart: “I’ll fight them until I’m dead,” he said. Let’s embrace this position. If they want to claim the hearts and minds of our children, let’s make it so they do it over our cold, dead bodies.

Let’s not let ourselves begin to believe that the stakes are any lower than they actually are. This is the second reason for the urgency this year: There is the very real prospect that the decisions we make within our educational system will get taken up by education departments across the globe. Around 30 of us attended an early-morning session called “Perspectives From the Margins: Globalization, Decolonization, and Liberation.” The discussants, Michael Apple and Dave Stovall, spoke with great eloquence about the nature of this urgency. You’ll forgive me for secretly recording and then transcribing a piece of each of their talks here.

Michael Apple, responding to a powerful presentation on rural science education by researcher Jeong-Hee Kim and teacher-researcher Deb Abernathy, spoke of the far-reaching implications of the local decisions we make:

As we sit here, I have people visiting me from China. They are here to study No Child Left Behind, and they are here to study performance pay. All of the decisions we make that that principal and Deb and you are struggling against are not just struggles in the United States, they are truly global—so that the decisions we make impact not just the kids in the rural areas of the United State, but the rural areas of the people who are invisible, the same people who deconstruct our computers.

Dave Stovall, from the University of Illinois in Chicago, underscored the need to think of the global implications of the policy decisions that intersect within the realm of education:

Arizona is Texas is Greece is Palestine is where we are. This day and time is serious. When a person in Texas cannot say the world capitalism in a public school, we live in serious times. When a person in Arizona can be taken out of a classroom at five years old, to never return, we live in serious times. When we can rationalize in the state of Illinois and city of Chicago that having 5 grams of heroin on a person accounts for attempted murder, we’re living in different times. When we can talk about in Palestine that young folks have now been deemed the most violent threat to the Israeli state, we’re living in different times. And now, how do we engage and interrupt those narratives based again on the work we do?

These times are different and serious, and talking about critical computational literacy may make me look a little like Nero with his fiddle. But critical computational literacy, or indeed its paucity in our education system, is the dry kindling that keeps Rome burning.

I’ll explain why. Let’s talk for a minute about another Apple, the electronics company Apple Corp. The year 2010 marked the release of Apple’s iPad, a tablet computer designed as a multipurpose information and communication tool. Despite mixed reviews of its usability and features, records show an estimated 500,000 units sold between pre-orders and purchases in the first week after the iPad’s release.

This has been accompanied by a push for consideration of the iPad’s utility for education, especially higher education, with schools working to develop technical support for iPad use on campus and at least one university, Seton Hall, promising to provide all incoming freshmen with iPads along with Macbooks. One question—-how might the iPad transform education?-—has been the topic of conversation for months.

“The iPad,” crowed Neil Offen in the Herald-Sune (2010), “could be more than just another way to check your e-mail or play video games. It has the potential to change the way teachers teach and students learn.”

Certainly, these conversations reflect a positive shift in attitudes about what comprises literacy in the 21st Century. If you attended the fantastic symposium on Sunday called “Leveraging What We Know: A Literacy Agenda for the 21st Century,” you heard from the panelists a powerfully persuasive argument that “literacy” is no longer simple facility with print media. Indeed, facility with print media may still be necessary, but it’s no longer sufficient. As the emergence of the iPad, the Kindle, and similar literacy tools make evident, the notion of “text” has become more aligned with Jay Lemke’s (2006) description of “multimedia constellations”—loose groupings of hypermediated, multimodal texts that exist “not just in the imagination of literary theorists, but in simple everyday fact” (pg. 4). Add to this the ongoing contestation of the tools we use to access and navigate those constellations of social information, and the urgency of a need to shift how we approach literacy becomes increasingly obvious.

As anyone who works in the literacy classroom knows, this is by no means a simple task. This task is complicated even further by the dark side of this new rhetoric about literacy: There’s a technological determinism hiding in there, an attitude that suggests an educational edition of Brave New Worldism. Offen’s celebration of the iPad aligns with the approach of Jeremy Roschelle and his colleagues (2000), who a decade ago trumpeted the transformative potential of a range of new technologies. In explaining that “certain computer-based applications can enhance learning for students at various achievement levels,” they offer descriptions of
promising applications for improving how and what children learn. The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ are separated because not only can technology help children learn things better, it also can help them learn better things” (pg. 78, emphasis mine).

More recently, the media scholar Henry Jenkins (2006) described the increasingly multimodal nature of narratives and texts as “convergence culture.” As corporate and private interests, beliefs, and values increasingly interact through cheaper, more powerful and more ubiquitous new technologies, Jenkins argues, our culture is increasingly defined by the collision of media platforms, political ideologies, and personal affinities. Jenkins celebrates the emergence of this media convergence, arguing that “(i)n the world of media convergence, every important story gets told, every brand gets sold, and every consumer gets courted across multiple media platforms” (pg. 3).

Brave new world, indeed. But there is reason to wear a raincoat to this pool party, as a cursory examination of the developing “Apple culture” of electronics confirms. The iPad, celebrated as a revolution in personal computing, communication, and productivity—and marketed as an essential educational tool—is a tool with an agenda. The agenda is evident in Apple’s decision to block the educational visual programming software Scratch: Though Apple executives have claimed that applications like Scratch may cause the iPad to crash, others argue that the true motivation behind this decision is to block a tool that supports media production. The Scratch application allows users to build new applications for the iPad, which Bruckman (2010) suggests goes far beyond Apple’s unstated interest in designing its products primarily for media consumption.

There is no closest competitor to the iPad, so users who want to leverage the convenience, coolness, and computing power of this product must resign themselves to the tool Apple provides. Similarly, as Apple develops its growing monopoly in entertainment (iPods), communications (iPhone), and portable computing (Macbook), Apple increasingly has the power to decide what stories to tell, and why, and how.

Now let’s go back to the other Apple, Michael Apple, who argues quite convincingly about the colonization of the space of the media by the political right wing (2006). We have, he argues, politicians deciding what we pay attention to, and we have corporations deciding how we pay attention to it. This makes the need for critical computational literacy even more important than ever before. Perhaps it’s more important than anything else, though I’ll leave that to the historians to decide.

What is this thing I’m calling “critical computational literacy”? Since I’m almost the only person using this term, I want to start by defining it. It has its roots in computational literacy, which in itself bears defining. Andy diSessa (2001) cautions us against confusing computational literacy with “computer literacy,” which he describes as being able to do things like turning on your computer and operating many of its programs. His definition of computational literacy, he explains, makes computer literacy look “microscopic” in comparison (p. 5). For him, computational literacy is a “material intelligence” that is “achieved cooperatively with external materials” (p. 6).

This is a good start in defining computational literacy but probably still not enough. And please do remember that I will not let you leave this room without marching orders; and if I want you to know what to do, I have to finish up the definition. Let’s add to diSessa’s definition a bit of the abstraction angle given to us by Jeanette Wing (2008), who shifts the focus slightly to what she labels “computational thinking.” She describes this as

a kind of analytical thinking. It shares with mathematical thinking in the general ways in which we might approach solving a problem. It shares with engineering thinking in the general ways in which we might approach designing and evaluating a large, complex system that operates within the constraints of the real world. It shares with scientific thinking in the general ways in which we might approach understanding computability, intelligence, the mind and human behaviour. (pg. 3716)

For Wing, the essential component of computational thinking is working with abstraction, and she argues that an education in computational thinking integrates the “mental tool” (capacity for working with multiple layers of abstraction) with the “metal tool” (the technologies that support engagement with complex, abstract systems).

So. We have diSessa’s “material intelligence” paired with Wing’s “computational thinking”—a fair enough definition for my purposes. But what does it look like? That is, how do we know computational literacy when we see it?

The answer is: it depends. Though we have some nice examples that can help make visible what this version of computational literacy might look like. Kylie Peppler and Yasmin Kafai (2007), who by the way have a new book out on their work with the Computer Clubhouse project (you can buy a copy up at the book fair), offer instructive examples of children working with Scratch. Jorge and Kaylee, their two case studies, are learners who make creative use of a range of tools to build projects that extend, as far as their energy and time will allow, the boundaries of what is possible to make through a simple visual programming language. Bruce Sherin, Andy diSessa, and David Hammer (1993) give an example of their work with Dynaturtle to advance a theory of “design as a learning activity”; in their example, learners work with the Boxer programming language to concretize abstract thought.

Certainly, these are excellent examples of computational literacy in action. But I would like to humbly suggest that we broaden our understanding of this term far beyond the edges of programming. Computational literacy might also be a form of textual or visual literacy, as learners develop facility with basic html code and web design. It might be the ability to tinker—to actually, physically tinker, with the hardware of their electronics equipment. This is something that’s typically frowned upon, you know. Open up your Macbook or your iPhone and your warranty is automatically null and void. This is not an accident; this is part of the black box approach of electronics design that I described earlier.

Which leads me to the “critical” component of computational literacy. This is no time for mindless tinkering; we are faced with a war whose terms have been defined for us by members of the political Right, and whose battles take place through tools and technologies whose uses have been defined for us by corporate interests. Resistance is essential. In the past, those who resisted the agendas of software designers and developers were considered geeks and freaks; they were labeled “hackers” and relegated to the cultural fringes (Kelty 2008). Since then, we have seen an explosion in access to and affordability of new technologies, and the migration to digitally mediated communication is near-absolute. The penetration of these technologies among young people is most striking: (include statistics). Suddenly, the principles that make up the “hacker ethos” (Levy, 1984) take on new significance for all. Suddenly, principles that drove a small subset of our culture seem more like universal principles that might guide cultural takeup of new technologies:

  • Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total.
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not criteria such as degrees, age, race, sex, or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better. (Levy 1984)

If these principles seem overtly ideological, overtly libertarian, that’s because they are. And I’m aware that in embracing these principles I run the risk of alienating a fairly significant swath of my audience. But there’s no time for gentleness. This is no time to hedge. I believe, as Michael Apple and Dave Stovall and Rich Ayers and others have argued persuasively and enthusiastically, that we are fighting to retrieve the rhetoric of education from the very brink. It’s impossible to fight a political agenda with an apolitical approach. We must fight now for our very future.

That’s the why. Now I’d like to tackle the how. If we want our kids to emerge from their schooling experience with the mindset of critical computational literacy, we need to first focus on supporting development of critical computational literacy in our teachers. They, too, are subject to all of the pressures I listed earlier, and add to the mix at least one more: They are subject to the kind of rhetoric that Larry Cuban (1986) reminds us has characterized talk of bringing new technologies into the classroom since at least the middle of the 20th century. As he researched the role of technologies like radio, film, and television in schools, he described the challenges of even parsing textual evidence of technologies’ role:

Television was hurled at teachers. The technology and its initial applications to the classroom were conceived, planned, and adopted by nonteachers, just as radio and film had captured the imaginations of an earlier generation of reformers interested in improving instructional productivity…. Reformers had an itch and they got teachers to scratch it for them. (p. 36)

This certainly hearkens, does it not, of the exhortation of Jeremy Roschelle and his colleagues? I repeat:

promising applications for improving how and what children learn. The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ are separated because not only can technology help children learn things better, it also can help them learn better things.

Teachers are also faced with administrators who say things like these quotes, taken from various online conversations about the possible role of the iPad in education.

I absolutely feel the iPad will revolutionize education. I am speaking as an educator here. All it needs are a few good apps to accomplish this feat.

Tablets will change education this year and in the future because they align neatly with the goals and purposes of education in a digital age.

And finally, the incredibly problematic:

As an educational administrator for the last eleven years, and principal of an elementary school for the past seven…after spending three clock hours on the iPad, it is clearly a game changer for education.

Three hours. Three hours, and this administrator is certain that this, more than any previous technology, will transform learning as we know it. Pity the teachers working at his school, and let’s hope that when the iPad gets hurled at them they know how to duck.

We must prepare teachers to resist. We must prepare them to make smart, sound decisions about how to use technologies in the classroom and stand tall in the face of outside pressures not only from political and corporate interests but from well-meaning administrators and policymakers as well. There is a growing body of evidence that familiarity with new tools is—just like print literacy—necessary but not sufficient for teachers in this respect.

There is evidence, however, that experience with new technologies when paired with work in pedagogical applications of those technologies can lead to better decision-making in the classroom. I recommend the following three-part battle plan:

First, we need to start building a background course in new media theory and computational thinking into our teacher education programs. My home institution, Indiana University, requires exactly one technology course, and you can see from the description that it does its best to train pre-service teachers in the use of PowerPoint in the classroom:

W 200 Using Computers in Education (1-3 cr.)Develops proficiency in computer applications and classroom software; teaches principles and specific ideas about appropriate, responsible, and ethical use to make teaching and learning more effective; promotes critical abilities, skills, and self-confidence for ongoing professional development.

Fortunately, we can easily swap this course out for one that focuses on critical computational literacy, since the course as designed has little practical use for new teachers.

Second, we need to construct pedagogy workshops that stretch from pre-service to early in-service teachers. These would be designed to support lesson development within a specific domain, so that all English teachers would work together, all Math teachers, all Science teachers, and so on. This could stretch into the early years of a teacher’s service and support the development of a robust working theory of learning and instruction.

Finally, we might consider instituting ongoing collaborative lesson study so that newer teachers can collaborate with veteran teachers across disciplines. I offer this suggestion based on my experience working in exactly this environment over the last year. In this project, teachers meet monthly to discuss their curricula and to share ideas and plan for future collaborative projects. They find it intensely powerful and incredibly useful as they work to integrate computational technologies into their classrooms.

I’m near the end of my talk and would like to finish with a final set of marching orders. If we want to see true transformation, we need first to tend our own gardens. Too often—far, far too far too often—we educational researchers treat teachers as incidental to our interventions. At the risk of seeming like an Apple fanboy, I return once again to the words of Michael Apple, who argued brilliantly this week that it’s time to rethink how we position teachers in our work. We say we want theory to filter down to the “level” of practice; the language of levels, Apple says, is both disingenuous and dangerous. Let’s tip that ladder sideways, he urges us, and he is absolutely correct. We live and work in the service of students first, and teachers second. We should not forget this. We should take care to speak accordingly.

These are your marching orders: To bring the message of critical computational literacy and collaboration during this time of great urgency back to your home institutions, to the sites where you work, to the place where you work shoulder to shoulder with other researchers, practitioners, and students. I urge you to stand and to speak, loudly, and with as much eloquence as you can muster, about the issues of greatest urgency to you. This is no time to speak softly. This is no time to avoid offense. In times of great urgency, it’s not enough to be the change we wish to see in the world; we need to be the chainsaws that we wish to see in the world. That is what I hope you will do when you leave this convention center. Thank you.

References
Apple, M.W. (2006). Educating the “right” way: Markets, standards, God, and inequality. New York: Routledge.
Bruckman, A (2010, April 15). iPhone application censorship (blog post). The next bison: Social computing and culture. Retrieved at http://nextbison.wordpress.com/2010/04/15/iphone-application-censorship/.
Carnoy, M. (2008, August 1). McCain and Obama’s educational policies: Nine things you need to know. The Huffington Post. Retrieved at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/martin-carnoy/mccain-and-obamas-educati_b_116246.html.
Carter, D. (2010, April 5). Developers seek to link iPad with education. eSchool News. Retrieved from http://www.eschoolnews.com/2010/04/05/ipad-app-store-has-wide-selection-of-education-options/.
Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines. New York: Teachers College Press.
diSessa, A. A. (2000). Changing minds : Computers, learning, and literacy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kelty, C. (2008). Two bits: The cultural significance of free software. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Kolakowski, N. (2010). Apple iPad, iPhone Expected to Boost Quarterly Numbers. eWeek, April 18, 2010. Retrieved at http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Desktops-and-Notebooks/Apple-iPad-iPhone-Expected-to-Boost-Quarterly-Numbers-825932/.
Korn, M. (2010). iPad Struggles at Some Colleges. Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2010. Retrieved at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703594404575192330930646778.html?mod=WSJ_Tech_LEFTTopNews.
Lemke, J. (2006). Toward Critical Multimedia Literacy: Technology, research, and politics. In M.C. McKenna et al. (Eds.), International handbook of literacy and technology: Volume II. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc. (3-14).
Levy, S 1984. Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
McCrae, B. (2010, Jan. 27). Measuring the iPad’s potential for education. T|H|E Journal. Retrieved from http://thejournal.com/articles/2010/01/27/measuring-the-ipads-potential-for-education.aspx.
New York Times (2010, March 17). Editorial: Mr. Obama and No Child Left Behind. New York Times Editorial Page. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/18/opinion/18thu1.html.
Offen, N. (2010, Jan. 28). The iPad and education. The Herald-Sun. Retrieved from http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/5680899/article-The-iPad—education?instance=main_article.
PBS (2010, Jan. 7). How will the iPad change education? PBS TeacherLine Blog. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/teacherline/blog/2010/01/how-will-the-ipad-change-education/.
Peppler, K. A., & Kafai, Y. B. (2007). From SuperGoo to Scratch: exploring creative digital media production in informal learning. Learning, Media and Technology, 32(2), 149-166.
Roschelle, J. M., Pea, R. D., Hoadley, C. M., Gordin, D. N., & Means, B. M. (2000). Changing how and what children learn in school with computer-based technologies. The future of children, 10(2), 76–101.
Sherin, B., DiSessa, A. A., & Hammer, D. M. (1993). Dynaturtle revisited: Learning physics through collaborative design of a computer model. Interactive Learning Environments, 3(2), 91-118.
Smith, E. (2010, April 16). The Texas Curriculum Massacre. Newsweek. Retrieved at http://www.newsweek.com/id/236585.
Wing, J. M. (2008). Computational thinking and thinking about computing. Philosophical Transactions A, 366(1881), 3717-3717.

 

**Update, 5/6/10, 1:09 p.m.: I have changed this post slightly to remove an unfair attack against a presenter at this year’s AERA Annual Meeting. He points out in the comments section below that my attack was unfair, and I agree and have adjusted the post accordingly.

Posted in academia, computational literacy, conferences, convergence culture, education, graduate school, Henry Jenkins, Jim Gee, Joshua Danish, President Obama, public schools, schools, teaching, Twitter | 7 Comments »

how to think like a good {fill in the blank}

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on August 21, 2009

“The message of Wikipedia,” writes Michael Wesch, “is not ‘trust authority’ but ‘explore authority.’ Authorized information is not beyond discussion on Wikipedia, information is authorized through discussion, and this discussion is available for the world to see and even participate in.”

This comes from Wesch’s January 2009 Academic Commons article, “From Knowledgable to Knowledge-able: Learning in New Media Environments.” The piece is part of an issue dedicated to exactly this problem: How do we teach and learn in a cultural moment where even the very definition of “knowledge,” “teaching,” and “learning,” and even of “information” is being called into question?

Wesch focuses in on the brick-and-mortar university, arguing that despite growing recognition among higher-ed faculty and administration that university teaching and learning desperately needs to shift away from its authoritarian roots, a series of physical, social, and cognitive structures stymie this effort at nearly every turn. The physical deterrents are, Wesch argues, the easiest to recognize, and they

are on prominent display in any large “state of the art” classroom. Rows of fixed chairs often face a stage or podium housing a computer from which the professor controls at least 786,432 points of light on a massive screen. Stadium seating, sound-absorbing panels and other acoustic technologies are designed to draw maximum attention to the professor at the front of the room. The “message” of this environment is that to learn is to acquire information, that information is scarce and hard to find (that’s why you have to come to this room to get it), that you should trust authority for good information, and that good information is beyond discussion (that’s why the chairs don’t move or turn toward one another). In short, it tells students to trust authority and follow along.

This is a message that very few faculty could agree with, and in fact some may use the room to launch spirited attacks against it. But the content of such talks are overshadowed by the ongoing hour-to-hour and day-to-day practice of sitting and listening to authority for information and then regurgitating that information on exams.

These are a key feature of the social structures that work against change in higher education: The ongoing pressure to standardize curriculum and use (easily quantified) standardized assessments for accountability purposes. Wesch writes:

When I speak frankly with professors all over the world, I find that, like me, they often find themselves jury-rigging old assessment tools to serve the new needs brought into focus by a world of infinite information. Content is no longer king, but many of our tools have been habitually used to measure content recall. For example, I have often found myself writing content-based multiple-choice questions in a way that I hope will indicate that the student has mastered a new subjectivity or perspective. Of course, the results are not satisfactory. More importantly, these questions ask students to waste great amounts of mental energy memorizing content instead of exercising a new perspective in the pursuit of real and relevant questions.

This is, perhaps, one of the most significant dangers inherent in re-mediating assessment: The risk of re-mediating the wrong aspects of current assessment strategies. Rewriting a multiple-choice test is surely not the answer, but it’s often, and understandably, what innovative and new media-friendly educators do. The results of this effort may not be satisfactory, after all, but they’re better than nothing. And short of overhauling an entire course, it’s often a useful stopgap measure.

And what of overhauling an entire course? Wesch, recognizing that “our courses have to be about something,” argues for a shift away from “subjects” (English, History, Science) and toward “subjectivities”–ways of approaching and thinking about content. One simple way of thinking about this shift is by thinking about the difference between learning the steps of the scientific method and developing the mindsets embraced by a profession that embraces the scientific method as a useful approach to experimentation.

The “subjectivities” approach is, in fact, the favored approach of many graduate programs. My sister, who is beginning law school this fall, is immersed in a cognitive apprenticeship designed to make her think, act, and speak like a lawyer. As a new doctoral student in Indiana University’s Learning Sciences program, I’m undertaking the same apprenticeship. A series of courses, including IU’s Professional Seminar in the Learning Sciences and Theory and Method in the Learning Sciences, are intended to equip new grad students with the Learning Sciences mindset.

This approaches, however, gives rise to a key question: If the “subjectivities” approach is intended to is intended to help learners think, act, and speak like a {fill in the blank}, then who decides how a {fill in the blank} is supposed to think, act, and speak?

Jim Gee offers a fascinating critique of “learning to think like a lawyer” in his book Social Linguistics and Literacies. He argues that success in law school is slanted toward people who think, act, and speak like white, middle-class men, explaining that:

[t]o write a competent brief the student has to be able to read the text being briefed in much the same way as the professor does…. Students are not taught these reading skills—the ones necessary to be able to write briefs—directly. Briefs are not, for instance, turned in to the professor; they are written for the students’ own use in class…. One of the basic assumptions of law school is that if students are not told overtly what to do and how to proceed, this will spur them on essentially to teach themselves. Minnis argues that this assumption does not, however, work equally well for everyone. Many students from minority or otherwise non-mainstream backgrounds fail in law school.

(A female friend who recently completed law school agrees with this argument, and struggled mightily with the inequities inherent in her program and inside the field of law in general. I’ve written about her experience here.)

This issue is certainly not limited to law school; it’s a thorny problem in every program designed to help students think like a {fill in the blank.} I understand that this is an issue that IU’s Learning Sciences program has grappled with recently, and I imagine this is the reason that the Professional Seminar in the Learning Sciences, previously a required course, has now been made optional.

What do I know, right? I haven’t even started my first semester in the program yet. But it seems to me that if this issue is worth grappling with (and I believe it is), it’s worth grappling with alongside of the program’s apprentices. I’m for making the course mandatory and then using it to expose, discuss, and clarify the very issues that led to the faculty’s decision.

Here we can take a page out of the Wikipedia lesson book. There’s no point in simply trusting authority when the social revolution supports not just questioning, not just opposing, but actually exploring authority. After all, thinking like a good {Learning Scientist} is about much more than embracing a set of approaches to teaching, learning, and knowledge; it’s also about questioning, contesting and exploring the very foundation of the field itself.

Posted in academia, assessment, conspiracy theories, graduate school, Jim Gee, pedagogy, Ph.D., social revolution | 1 Comment »

just because I’m frothing at the mouth doesn’t mean I’m rabid

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 27, 2009

My friend Clement recently gave me an amazing book by Patrick J. Finn called Literacy with an Attitude: Educating Working-Class Children in their Own Self-Interest. The description on the back cover explains that this book “dares to define literacy as a powerful right of citizenship…. Our job, (Finn) argues, is not to help students to become middle class and live middle-class lives–most don’t want it. Education rather should focus on a powerful literacy–a literacy with an attitude that enables working-class and poor students to better understand, demand, and protect their civil, political, and social rights.”

Finn picks up on the foundational work by social-justice educational theorists like Jim Gee, Lisa Delpit, Jonathan Kozol, and–most importantly for his approach–Paolo Freire. Freire is best known for his work with the poor, illiterate, and undereducated population of Brazil, out of which work emerged his key text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire argued for an approach to literacy that Finn calls “dangerous literacy”–the kind that is acquired for the purpose of struggle, for personal and social justice.

Finn asks what might happen if we approach literacy from a “Freirean motivation”–a motivation to identify and fight against the features of a culture that serve to oppress you and other members of your community (including overcrowded schools, unemployment and underemployment, substandard housing, and substandard health care). What if, he asks,

your teachers addressed these issues while teaching history, English, art, music, and even math and science? What if your parents and teachers were involved in grassroots organizations that demanded better schools, a living wage, or universal health care? What if they were active in their unions and supported other union campaigns such as Justice for Janitors or organizing housecleaners, nannies, and car wash workers? What if your teachers taught the history of democratic movements such as abolition, suffrage, and labor and helped you to see that you and your fellow students could become more powerful if you appropriated the discourse of power and prepared to become union members or community activists or organizers or teachers or lawyers or elected officials with a passion for social justice so you can fight to get a better deal for yourself and families like yours?

As Finn makes clear, schools as they are currently structured are not designed to support learning experiences that answer the above question. It’s not, he explains, the fault of teachers, many of whom are doing the best they can. But the education system is designed for “empowering education for some and domesticating education for others” and, Finn writes,

about as savage as any I can think of, but it’s much harder to pin down…. The easy (but I believe incorrect and ultimately self-defeating) answer is to shout conspiracy. But subtle mechanisms (that) deny working-class children access to higher levels of literacy work so well–even when there are competent teachers and reasonable resources–that there is no need for conspiracy. Savage inequalities persiste because a lot of well-meaning people are doing the best they can, but they simply do not understand the mechanisms that stack the cards against so many children.

Teaching for Freirean motivation, according to Finn, is teaching kids to want what the teacher wants and being willing to cooperate in order to get it. It’s teaching kids to understand what Jim Gee calls the “master myths”–the belief systems on which our society is built–and to understand the extent to which these myths serve or fail to serve their own best interests.

This book is blowing my mind, and I’ll offer up a more thorough review soon. Right now, I want to just highlight something interesting that I’m learning about being mad enough to fight with people about how effed America’s public education system is: While it’s easy to talk about the subtle mechanisms that support current social structures with people who already agree that school is effed, it’s unbelievably hard to talk about these things with people who aren’t yet convinced. Consider the following sample conversations:

Me: Here’s why I think school is effed (reasons A, B, C, D).
Katie Clinton: I agree with reasons B and C, but I think reason A is actually an effort to make schools more fair.
Me: Well but A requires administration buy-in, which is hard to get.
Katie Clinton: Actually, a good teacher can overcome administration hostility because….

Me: Here’s why I think school is effed (reasons A, B, C, D).
Benighted conservative: School isn’t effed.
Me: Wha–
Benighted conservative: I mean, look at me–I was born into the working class and overcame my roots through education.
Me: But that’s not–
Benighted conservative: What we need is a more rigorous, standardized curriculum, including more focus on the classics, a better testing system, and greater accountability.
Me: No no no, the problem isn’t that curricula aren’t rigorous enough, it’s that curricula are designed to serve the interest of the dominant Discourse.
Benighted conservative: There’s a reason Shakespeare is still taught–it’s because he’s universally valued and valuable. We need to teach poor people to understand that.
Me: This isn’t about Shakespeare, it’s about an education system that’s–
Benighted conservative: I succeeded through hard work and dedication, and anybody who works hard enough can do what I did.
Me: *sputter*

I’ve had many versions of both of the above conversations, and what I’ve learned is that while there’s no need to convince the Katie Clintons of the world that our school system is inherently slanted in favor of dominant groups who participate in the dominant Discourse, it’s almost impossible to convince the benighted conservative of the world that this conversation is even worth having. Once somebody has experienced success in a screamingly unjust educational system, that person is far less likely to be willing to engage in a conversation about whether that system is unjust. There’s just too much to lose.

Which is why the approach of Finn and others–teaching a healthy sense of outrage both within and toward the education system–seems like the best approach for real, systemic change.

I’m also learning an important lesson about the rhetoric of social justice. It may not, for example, be the smartest thing to begin a conversation by offering the four reasons I think schools are effed, at least with people who don’t already embrace the assumption that schools are seriously broken. It’s just that my hackles are already up and I’ve gotten a good growl going, deep down in my throat.

I hope graduate school isn’t like a kennel for angry dogs. I hope it’s not a place to keep people caged until they forget what they were mad about in the first place. I hope it’s more like a place where they offer you things to chew on so the anger gets channeled into something productive.

Posted in graduate school, human rights, Jim Gee, public schools, schools, social justice, teaching | 1 Comment »

sometimes i forget that i’m a gay lady.

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 8, 2009

Most of the time, it really doesn’t come up. Every once in a while, I get a lecherous/evil look when I hold my girlfriend’s hand in public; every once in a while, when I’m deep in argument with a male friend or colleague, I or my ideas are brushed off with such a patronizing, cruelly dismissive tone that all bets are officially off. (I like to keep friends for as long as possible, but when I lose one, this is usually why.)

But most of the time, it doesn’t come up. This is mostly because I’m wicked smart, hardworking, and ambitious–and I exhibit all of these traits in ways that enable me to play on the winning team.

By “the winning team,” I mean members of what Jim Gee calls the “dominant Discourse.” Gee differentiates “little ‘d’ discourses” from “big ‘D’ Discourses,” which, he explains,

are ways of behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking, and often reading and writing, that are accepted as instantiations of particular identities (or “types of people”_ by specific groups, whether families of a certain sort, lawyers of a certain sort, bikers of a certain sort, African-Americans of a certain soft, and so on and so forth through a very long list. Discourses are ways of being “people like us.”

A dominant Discourse, for Gee, is the one that aligns most closely to a culture’s dominant groups. In America, we might say broadly that the dominant group is white, middle- to upper-class straight men, and that they adhere with the least amount of trouble to our culture’s dominant Discourse (because it aligns with the least amount of trouble with them). It’s hard, but not impossible, for outsiders to learn (or fake) this Discourse, which is why it’s mainly but not always rich white straight men at the top.

I may be gay, I may be female, and I may have blue-collar roots, but I learned the dominant Discourse early and well. It helps that I’m white, college-educated, and proficient in the finer details of language acquisition and communication. I may have to work extra hard to break into the first string, but I’m doing well enough to get to play–and being second or third string on the winning team is better than being even the star player on the team that (almost) always loses.

I spend so much time thinking and writing about how unfair it is that my team always wins that I forget sometimes that the dominant Discourse of which I am a part does not always work in my best interests either. It’s why I’ve spent so much time worrying about whether my work at Project New Media Literacies exhibits a latent racism without giving a thought for how it may exclude the voices of non-mainstream women and queers. After all, the Teachers’ Strategy Guide I’ve discussed here and here may or may not fail in offering authentic avenues for the voices of ethnic minorities, but we should be just as concerned about how our work marginalizes the voices of women and, even more problematically, in this case, the voices of gay, lesbian, and transgendered scholars, writers, and artists.

I suppose I don’t particularly enjoy thinking of myself as marginalized in any way. I suppose I don’t particularly enjoy the thought that some of the actions that have led to my “success” have worked against my own best interests. I like the American narrative that we can all, every one of us, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps–though interestingly, that idiom was originally intended to suggest an undertaking that’s literally impossible to accomplish.

And part of me wants to step away from what’s good for me and work toward what’s good for all. Here, I rely on what Jim Gee identifies as two conceptual principles governing human discourse. (I’m citing the language from the second edition, instead of the more recent version, of Social Linguistics and Literacies, for reasons I’ll identify below). Here are the principles:

First Principle
That something would harm someone else (deprive them of what they or the society they are in view as ‘goods’) is always a good reason (though perhaps not a sufficient reason) not to do it.

Second Principle
One always has the (ethical) obligation to (try to) explicate (render overt and primary) any theory that is (largely) tacit and either removed or deferred when there is reason to believe that the theory advantages oneself or one’s group over other people or other groups.

Gee believes that these two principles are so fundamental to ethical discourse that all human beings would, assuming they understood them, accept them both. I agree, and I believe that my work, and the work of anybody working in any aspect of learning or education, is to use these principles to govern all discourse, all research, all engagement with learners and institutions. This is, to sum up an argument I’ve made more than once on this blog, the social justice work of the media literacy movement. Researchers engaging with elements of participatory culture are especially well-poised to break down and reshape the valued practices of new social spaces, to rework the hierarchy that keeps landing rich white straight men at the top.

Though Gee reworks the language, if not the basic sense, of these key principles in his most recent edition of Social Linguistics and Literacies, I greatly prefer the earlier edition. It’s fiery, it’s angry, and the chapter outlining these key principles ends with flagrant courage. After contending that any human being would have to accept the above principles as true, he writes that

failing to live up to them, they would, for consistency’s sake, have to morally condemn their own behavior. However, I readily admit that, should you produce people who, understanding these principles, denied them, or acted as though they did, I would not give up the principles. Rather, I would withhold the term ‘human,’ in its honorific, not biological, sense, from such people.

In the third edition, Gee continues to assert that if someone refuses to accept these key principles, the argument “runs out,” but he ends the section with this limp handshake:

An unexamined life isn’t moral because it has the potential to hurt other people needlessly.

I kinda want the old Jim Gee back–the one who wasn’t afraid to withhold the title of “human” from someone who refused to accept his ethical principles. Backing off from a fight, if that’s what Gee’s doing here, isn’t doing anybody any favors.

Posted in bigotry, education, gay rights, Henry Jenkins, human rights, Jim Gee, participatory culture, politics, President Obama, Project New Media Literacies, public schools, racism, schools, social justice | 3 Comments »

on social networking guidelines for teachers

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 2, 2009

I was recently directed to a recent post on a blog called “Blogg-ed Indetermination” offering a first pass at a set of guidelines for using social networking tools in the K-12 classroom.

The blog’s author, Steve Taffee, points out that while young people are taking to social networking “like ducks to water,” adults are more conflicted about the appropriate uses for social networks in schools. He offers up a set of nine guidelines, not intended to be the final word but intended to start a conversation “in the best of social networking tradition.” With this impulse in mind, I’ll repeat the proposed set of guidelines and offer my suggestions for refinement.

Proposed Guidelines for Use of Social Networks by School Faculty and Staff*

New technologies, such as social networking tools, provide exciting new ways to collaborate and communicate. Nevertheless we must exercise care to be sure we use such tools with students in ways that are both age-appropriate and consistent with the mission of the school.

School faculty and staff are expected to behave honorably in both real and virtual (online) spaces. Activities which are improper, unethical, illegal, or which cause undue discomfort for students, employees, parents, or other members of the school community should be judiciously avoided in both physical space and cyberspace.

To that end, we offer the following guidelines for school employees who use online social networking applications which may be frequented by current or former students.

1. COURSE USE OF SOCIAL NETWORKING: In order to provide equal, age-appropriate access for students to course materials, faculty should limit class activities to school-sanctioned online tools. New social networking tools and features are being continually introduced which may or may not be appropriate for course use. The same care must be taken in choosing such tools as other tools and support materials.

2. MODEL APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR: Exercise appropriate discretion when using social networks for personal communications (friends, colleagues, parents, former students, etc.) with the knowledge that adult behavior on social networks may be used as a model by our students.

3. FRIENDING ALUMNI: Accept social network friend requests only with alumni over the age of 18. Do not initiate friend contacts with alumni.

4. UNEQUAL RELATIONSHIPS: Understand that the uneven power dynamics of the school, in which adults have authority over former students, continues to shape those relationships.

5. OTHER FRIENDS: Remind all other members of your network of your position as an educator whose profile may be accessed by current or former students, and to monitor their posts to your network accordingly. Conversely, be judicious in your postings to all friends sites, and act immediately to remove any material that may be inappropriate from your site whether posted by you or someone else.

6. GROUPS IN YOUR SOCIAL NETWORK: Associate with social networking groups consistent with healthy, pro-social activities and the mission and reputation of the school, acting with sensitivity within context of a diverse educational environment in which both students and adults practice tolerance and accept competing views.

7. PRIVACY SETTINGS AND CONTENT: Exercise care with privacy settings and profile content. Content should be placed thoughtfully and periodically reviewed to maintain this standard.

8. MISREPRESENTATION: Faculty who use social networks should do so using their own name, not a pseudonym or nickname.

9. PUBLIC INFORMATION: Recognize that many former students have online connections with current students, and that information shared between school adults and former students is likely to be seen by current students as well.

===

*Some of the ideas for this list come from a Facebook group I belong to, Faculty Ethics on Facebook. It is geared towards higher education, and so if you stumbled upon this post and really want to read about colleges and universities, head on over to Facebook. I also appreciate colleague Matt Montagne’s feedback via Google Docs on an earlier draft of these ideas.

In general, these guidelines offer a strong starting point for discussing the ethical dimensions of participation in social networking sites, both in the classroom and outside of it. The drive toward modeling honest, responsible networking activities makes good sense, especially in a world where faculty can lose their jobs and their careers for the material they post online. But these guidelines present strategies that have the potential to limit teacher and student access to authentic participation in online social spaces. Specifically, the slant against “misrepresentation” and toward using only approved social networking sites in schools present significant participation concerns. For teachers, the issue is about their right to engage meaningfully in a public sphere that may offer the potential for inappropriate or damaging material. For students, the issue is more drastic: It’s a matter of social justice. Students who don’t have access to new media technologies and can’t experience the authentic online social spaces in the classroom will be ill equipped to experience those spaces when they leave school.

On “Misrepresentation”
The push toward “honesty” goes perhaps a few steps too far, overlooking the fact that engagement with media platforms that are increasingly persistent, searchable, and replicatable call for new approaches to disclosure. I’m pointing here to guideline 8, which Taffee labels “misrepresentation.”

Anonymity and its close cousin, pseudonymity, have a long and storied relationship with the politics of identity performance. We’ve come a long way (we have, haven’t we?) from the time when speaking up against a tyrant could lead to personal, financial, or social ruin. (We have, haven’t we?)

But until recently, “misrepresentation” was generally viewed as the domain of the whistleblower, and members of everyday culture were expected to act in their own names. In a participatory culture, however, where people can increasingly engage with identity play in a wide range of online spaces, psuedonyms, nicknames, and even complete anonymity serve as a buffer against repercussion. Indeed, it may be the case that a teacher wants to use Facebook or a similar site to engage in NSFW conversations, photo sharing, and precisely the kind of social networking that these sites afford. In that case, the teacher might choose to design a “fake” profile in order to prevent students or students’ parents from encountering this material. It’s not “misrepresentation” so much as it’s a version of protected self-presentation.

As our social lives increasingly occupy online spaces in addition to offline, in-person relationships, we need to offer new strategies for engagement with these sites–strategies that afford full participation in addition to protecting people from the risk of having material intended for one audience dragged into the public light of a different, unintended audience.

On Course Use of Social Networking

The impulse driving guideline #1 is a valid one. It is, as Lynn Sykes, a teacher and friend, pointed out to me, a great big social networking world out there, and the minute we introduce social media into the classroom we also introduce the risk that learners will stumble upon material that is inappropriate for the classroom setting.

But ignoring this risk doesn’t make it go away; indeed, it leaves many students ill-equipped to make intelligent decisions about what to do when they encounter this kind of material in real life, as they are certain to do. Learners who have access to social media and adult support for reflecting on their engagement with it in their homes will be prepared, of course. It’s the learners with less access and less extracurricular support–in other words, the poor, the disadvantaged, the learners who have historically been left behind in school, in work, in life–who can most benefit from the experience of engaging with social media in the classroom.

This isn’t to say that the concerns about inappropriate material aren’t valid concerns. This is why we need to work in two distinct directions:

  • Working at the policy level to develop regulations that allow for safe and guided access to the authentic social media experiences that will prepare learners for engagement with the participatory media, practices, and cultures that are becoming increasingly essential to success outside of school;
  • Working in the classroom to establish norms that can govern students’ ethical participation in social media, such that they can immediately identify, and know how to respond to, material that’s inappropriate for the school context.

Steve, I would recommend including the above guidelines into a revised version of these guidelines. I’m looking forward to continuing this important conversation.

Posted in blogging, education, Jim Gee, new media, participatory culture, politics, public schools, schools, social justice, social media, social revolution, teaching | 3 Comments »