Sandra Switzer teaches a course in Ethics and another in Introduction to the New Testament at The Lovett School in Atlanta, GA. As Sandra looked for options to deepen the engagement, sense of community, and core competencies such as collaboration, critical thinking, and communication skills in her classroom, I suggested she consider integrating a network like Ning into her learning environment. Sandra explored and piloted the use of the platform boldly and powerfully. The following post is her reflection on the experience. This will be cross-posted to the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education website.
What does it mean to use technology as a pedagogical method? This is a challenging question for teachers who are bombarded with new technologies for our classrooms. It is one thing to use technology occasionally and another to integrate it into the pedagogical process. This year, all that changed. For the first time, technology has become integral to my classroom, directing, enlivening, and strengthening the educational process.When I learned about the Ning, an online community designed specifically for classroom use, I decided to reconstruct my homework assessments. I knew my students disliked the study guides, and I was disappointed with the quality of their writing on journals and papers. My goals were to make homework enjoyable, meaningful, and constructive. I especially wanted them to have multiple opportunities to practice their written communication skills. A related goal was to create a collaborative learning experience.
While the Ning has a variety of features, I found the discussion forums to be the most productive. My students and I could initiate and respond to discussions. I had very few rules. Discussions had to be demonstrably related to class and students, utilizing their best writing skills, had to contribute twice a week. At the beginning, I was unclear about my exact expectations, but I was very clear with my students that this was replacing their traditional homework and would count for a significant portion of their overall grade.
Preparing my students was a critical ingredient. I used my uncertainty as an opportunity to explain my reasoning and teaching philosophy. I wanted to educate my students about the classroom process and help them become aware of their role in creating and contributing to the learning environment. It is my sense that once students become aware of the distinct qualities that empower their learning, they refuse to accept anything less, choosing instead to recreate them in other classes. Engendering personal investment is difficult under our culture’s current pedagogical paradigm where numbers rule. Learning is goal oriented. Many teachers feel confined to material likely to be found on standardized tests. These numbers matter to the teacher, the school, and the students in terms of funding and admissions. Unfortunately this emphasis leads to what I call the “anorexic-bulimic” model of teaching. Students “binge” on facts the night before a test and “purge” it out the next day. Little is retained and even less is understood. Perhaps most importantly, students see learning as a tedious, if necessary, chore.
I prefer the metaphor of a pot-luck dinner in which everyone brings something nutritious to the table and eating is leisurely and enjoyable. This model lends itself to a focus on the process, rather than the goal. As a result, students retain and understand content and concepts. They are able to apply what they learn to “real life,” so it makes sense to them why they are learning. It promotes analysis, investigation, problem solving, and evaluative thinking. Just as food is integrated gradually but thoroughly into our bodies, I want knowledge to be integrated into my student’s bodies.
I was stunned by the results. The quality and content of written work was significantly higher than papers written with only me as the conceptualized audience. Students were motivated (positively and negatively) to impress their peers. That basic anxiety we all have of appearing stupid compels a higher degree of engagement. Initially, responses were impersonal and formal. However, several courageous students took the risks to share from personal experience and belief. I intentionally and specifically affirmed these contributions, establishing personal engagement as an expectation for everyone. I also thanked such students through an email or brief comment in the hallways.
Very quickly, my students developed a trust that enabled them to share far more than they could have in the classroom. The risks that are necessary to create this kind of context are easier on line. Students can write at their own pace, revise their comments, consider what others had already said, they were ‘safe’ behind a screen where they couldn’t be interrupted or ridiculed. Many of them commented about this in their evaluations, thankful for the way it helped them contribute in class more comfortably. As a result, the classroom dynamic was radically affected. Students were relaxed, prepared, and eager to share. Conversation was on going, flowing from classroom to Ning to classroom very organically. Students shared more, listened more attentively, and cooperated with the learning environment. Perhaps most significantly, I did not have a single disciplinary issue in any of my classes for the entire semester. I have never had my classes develop such a sense of community, camaraderie, and kindness.
Because students were contributing so well, I was quickly able to identify specific criteria that differentiated the quality of their posts. I developed and shared a rubric identifying these criteria: clarity, grammatical precision, specificity, references to outside resources, kindness and respect, affirmation of others, and connection making (with personal experience, current events, Biblical texts, other classes, related concepts). Students used these rubrics to evaluate themselves and one-another at each grading period. As long as their self-evaluation was consistent with mine, I generally took them at their word giving them a grade out of 100 points.
As the semester progressed, it was clear my students were learning far more than my rubric allowed them to identify. How do you assess increased curiosity, motivation, independence, courage, responsibility, and engagement? There were so many intangibles in this method—it was clear that this method was successful and yet, it was very difficult to qualify. I expanded my rubric and asked my students to respond to the way the Ning was facilitating these qualities.
I was pleasantly surprised by their responses. Across the board, students preferred the Ning to traditional homework. Their reasons included flexible deadlines in their overscheduled lives, conversational and relational qualities, flexibility and freedom to direct their own learning, and increased feelings of confidence and competency as contributors to their peer’s education. Most said the Ning helped them understand, expanded their comprehension, and reinforced class material more effectively than traditional homework. Students particularly appreciated the experience of diverse perspectives. Compared to classroom discussions that were often disconnected and underdeveloped because of time constraints and apprehension, the Ning was on going. Some discussions didn’t take off, while others continued for weeks. Diverse explanations allowed students to understand concepts more fully and connect material to their lives, other classes, and current events. The Ning provided my students with a forum of self-discovery, mutual support, collaborative analysis, and peer instruction.
The Ning has provided a mechanism for student-directed, inquiry-based teaching. It afforded me insights about each student’s knowledge base, critical thinking abilities, self-awareness, communication skills, character, missing and mis-information. I gained a more accurate sense of their interests, which helped me conform my teaching to their academic, social, and emotional needs. This deepened the overall sense of trust, community, and self-directed learning.
Even more, the Ning liberated me as a teacher. I could never completely predict the questions or direction of student discussions; I was not “in control” in the traditional sense. My syllabus and core content provided the point of reference to which class was connected, but I found myself focusing less on detailed lesson plans and more on how to most effectively respond to the underlying needs and questions of my students. I was given the gift of letting go of structure and embracing my creativity as an intellectual. I was challenged to read more widely and more deeply to encounter them where they needed answers. Thus, the Ning restructured the power dynamic of the classroom, drawing me in as a co-learner and co-teacher. My students and I literally learned from and taught one another. And since most teachers love learning, this method proved to be one of the most deeply fulfilling and personally enlivening. I can’t believe I ever taught without it.