Can I Hear a Third Option, Please? Diane Rasmussen Neal on Change in the Classroom

Last week’s edition of The Western News (for September 20, 2012) featured a story that, while not specifically “about” the digital humanities at Western, is certainly relevant to it and its concerns. Diane Rasmussen Neal’s “Evolve or die: Modern Classrooms Need to Change with Times” addresses the changing technological landscape inhabited by our students, and implies (more explicitly in the title, in fact, than in the text of the article itself) that we run the risk of losing connection with our classes if we fail to take up the challenges posed by new modes of communication and learning:

So, with all these online modalities present in their lives, how can professors increase student engagement and learning success? Is it unrealistic to expect them to listen to our linear lectures twice a week when Facebook photos are beckoning?

Social Media for Academics: A Practical GuideRasmussen Neal’s response, and that of Robert Foster, co-author with her of an article on the subject in her new edited collection, Social Media for Academics: A Practical Guide (Woodhead Publishing), is to turn to the very social media that threatens to usurp student attention, and to employ it in our own arsenal of pedagogical tools.  This,  she suggests, means using “today’s technological tools such as Facebook, Twitter and smartphones” in teaching, to the exclusion even of the Learning Management Systems (LMS) supplied by our institutions (in the case of Western, Sakai), which she characterizes as “technologically dated, cumbersome, expensive, time-consuming and generally frustrating.”

In the place of this latter, she specifically recommends Edmodo (edmodo.com) a tool used widely in online teaching:

The site appears similar in design and function to Facebook, but also includes many of the traditional online classroom tools that we have grown to expect from WebCT-like applications. It’s free, secure, does not require ITS administration and students find it easier – and more fun – to use than traditional, university-sanctioned tools.

The implied focus of much of this article is upon online courses, but not to the exclusion of on-site teaching. As Foster, in the book article he co-wrote with Rasmussen Neal, puts it: “a strong argument can be made that professors delivering programmes in a regular classroom setting would benefit themselves and their students by making use of several of the social media tools that are already available.”

I would tend to agree. I’ve been using Facebook for one of my classes, a large first year course, since 2007, and have found that it is not merely a good way to engage and communicate with students, but that it also helps build a sense of “community” in a course that was otherwise too large to really allow for that sort of connection between students. This year, in the same course (which is now, by design, much smaller), I will additionally be using student blogs for the first time: my hope is that this will enable another kind of student “conversation” online, as students follow each other’s blogs.

Rasmussen Neal teaches in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western: it is perhaps unsurprising that she is such a strong advocate of pedagogical technologies. And given a student body that is probably, by virtue of the nature of that faculty, more open to technology and social media than many, it seems likely that such approaches would succeed admirably.

Are they translatable, or adaptable, to the setting of a more traditional “humanities” classroom? Experience at other institutions would seem to suggest that they can be: the related notions of “hybrid pedagogy” (mixing traditional and digital teaching methodologies) and the “flipped classroom” (in which much lecture material is delivered online, and “lecture” hours devoted instead to in-class group work) have become very popular in humanities courses elsewhere in recent years.

As Rasmussen Neal’s title intimates, however, there is still resistance to such ideas. I have colleagues who refuse to allow laptops into their classrooms at all, so strong is their faith in, and adherence to, a more traditional lecture, or lecture-discussion format. Are they wrong? It seems to me that the real key lies not in a stubborn advocacy of one approach over another, be it traditional or digital, but rather in an ability to adapt to particular courses, kinds of students, and classroom contexts.

There should, perhaps, be a third way, the way of using whatever modality — traditional or new — seems best suited to the very particular circumstances within which we, as teachers, will continue to find ourselves. One size, as we have all surely discovered over our time as pedagogues, seldom fits all.

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