What is connected learning? According to a report from the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, it is
Socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity. Connected learning is realized when a young person pursues a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is in turn able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career possibilities, or civic engagement. (Ito)
In a world which is increasingly digital and connected, educators need to prepare students for the methods of communication most widely used in the real world. In addition to preparation for the future, technology has changed the physical nature of writing, the tools available to writers and readers, and the instructional practices of writing teachers. Teachers need to be literate in technology to be effective in the writing classroom, and ideally they should gain fluency in the digital tools they will use in the classroom.
Connected learning is not just an alternative method for students who are learning to write. It is also a way for teachers to expand their own knowledge and practice. Technology gives educators the opportunity to connect with other educators to explore new pedagogical methods. Teachers have the “flexibility to adapt and change with the context of the classroom” (Peppler) as the classroom environment shifts and moves, but they need to know where to go to gain the skills to do so. Teachers can’t rely on the way things have been done in the past and teachers can’t create a lesson plan today that they can simply re-use year after year. Teachers need to adapt to changes in writing education, in the texts to be used and in the technological tools.
There are a myriad of places to go for ideas for integrating technology into the writing classroom. Fortunately or unfortunately, technology is continually changing and educators are forced to keep up. Technology that is cutting edge today will soon be out-dated so teachers will have to keep updating their knowledge and adapt to the changing technological climate. For example, the popular lesson plan from a few years ago modeled on facebook characterization may not be as effective with an audience of students who have moved on to instagram. Students may be motivated by the idea of using Instagram in the classroom but some students may prefer using snapchat instead.
Traditional professional development might no longer meet the unique needs of an individual teacher in a particular district or classroom setting. While learning to use and implement new technology in the classroom, teachers will need hands-on training, follow-up support and knowledge of the technological environment a teacher is working in (Beach 219). Teachers will continue to acquire digital literacies through on-line sources, and teachers can also connect to peers to learn about the latest tools for maximal student engagement.
But teachers don’t necessarily need to be the “technology expert” in the room — students are in a great position to master new technology and share it with both peers and teachers. This is an authentic opportunity for classroom learning.
This abbreviated discussion of some of the digital tools available to writing teachers is one place to start. There are too many relevant and useful technological educational sources to create an exhaustive, up-to-date list. Here are just a few resources and ideas that have been used in the secondary classroom:
Blogs are a popular method of taking classroom discussion outside of the time and space constraints of the classroom. Whenever a participant wants to join the discussion, they can create their own post or respond to a classmate. Teachers can model appropriate posts, but the discussion can easily move from responses to teacher-generated prompts to higher-level discussion among peers. The blog encourages fluency in writing, cooperative learning, critical thinking and encourages performance-based learning (Penrod 22).
One classroom used a blog to create an online role-play debate after reading Montana 1948. Students debated the use of mascots with derogatory names. Students who might have tuned out during a class discussion or merely repeated others’ ideas were responding thoughtfully. The exercise increased engagement because students responded to one another’s writing. “To be engaged in writing, students need to perceive some purpose and value in writing–that it can be used to influence and engage audiences…” (Beach 5) and blogging created that opportunity. The collaborative interaction between writers and readers as well as the mindful focus on audience (McGrail) makes blogging a learning opportunity greater than a traditional writing assignment. In addition, the hyperlinks used to connect texts within the blog posts allow for more focused discussion than often occurs in a classroom setting.
There are many different classroom and individual blog formats, but many teachers use edublog and step-by-step instructions for using blogs in the classroom from edublog can be found here
Ever since Shakespeare drew upon Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland and Milton used Biblical imagery, remix has been a part of English literature. Remix was specifically encouraged in ancient times and the Middle Ages as part of the art of rhetoric. Memoria, imitatio, and compilatio were the methods used to both preserve the cultural values of the Greeks and Romans and to create a new text by utilizing the pre-existing structure. Imitatio was a sign of respect of the original text, but the new version needed to be transformed into something new. (Porter)
The technological tools we have make remix even more accessible to students. Students are already familiar with the idea of remix and mashup in music. Sampling beats and appropriating lyrics in order to create something new are collaborative methods used by music artists every day (Reilly). Teachers may not be sure that remix will be useful in the classroom because students may end up just copying someone else’s ideas. But remix can be a great way to get students interested in taking a work that exists and re-making it to create new ideas.
One common way to employ remix in the classroom is to give students the opportunity to take a standard argumentative research paper and remix it to share with the class. Students can do anything except read their papers. The can create an iMovie, share a spoken-word poem, write a rap, organize a debate, act out a skit, or present a website. Some students will resort back to creating a power point presentation, but even a simple power point can be a starting point for inserting more sophisticated digital methods. Teachers can encourage students to think outside the box and use the method that best conveys their information. Giving students time to explore new methods of expression may take time away from traditional classroom content (Webb), but students are more motivated when they can choose how best to share their message.
While remix is certainly not new, its use in an urban public high school might be. There needs to be a mix of freedom for students to be creative, while still asking them to work up to their abilities. Rubrics to show expectations and peer evaluations are useful tools to provide feedback to students and assess their multimodal presentation. (Selfe)
Technology has created many new opportunities for connected learning. Students can reach outside the classroom walls while working on an investigation of police brutality in or outside of their community. They can access websites or videos of authors at work so that students can learn about the process of writing in the real world. Students can post their work on-line so that they can reach a wider audience. Students can write collaboratively on a GoogleDoc or other application that provides immediate opportunities for feedback and revision.
In describing a collaborative project between high school and university students focused on the Arkansas Delta, the authors note that high school students “are adept at texting and e-mail, they usually have not experienced academic work that involves online collaboration; they have had relatively few opportunities to design and develop their own projects; and their academic ‘performances’ are still predominantly tests and essays.” (Joliffe 174). However, when high school students were given the opportunity to pair with university students and work on a project focused on a familiar place, their literacy skills developed rapidly. The study reveals that rather than focus on generic skills that can be measured on a standardized test, educators should give students the opportunity to “actually experience and interrogate the places outside of school–as part of the school curriculum–that are the local context of shared politics.” (Joliffe 17?) Therefore, students’ interest will grow as the relevance to their own lives increases.
While a discussion of technological access and the digital divide is beyond the scope of this project, clearly it can be a barrier for students who don’t have as much experience with digital media as their more privileged peers. Not all students have internet access at home, One barrier to collaborative learning is when the district blocks websites such as Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and Google, preventing students from using them for learning activities. (Jacobs) Schools that have google docs have a great advantage when it comes to writing collaboratively. Whole classes can work together on one essay or instructors can comment as an individual student is composing in real time.
Using podcasts might not seem like a way to get students reading because students are listening rather than reading. However, students will generally follow along with closed captioning either on a screen or individual laptops. And as they follow along, they gain reading skills that aren’t taught or caught when students read on their own or when they are read to in the classroom. The story is narrated and students have to keep up with both the pace and the pronunciation of the podcast. Slower readers, English language learners and students who need help with vocabulary and pronunciation benefit from hearing and reading podcasts. (Godsey)
Two of the most attractive podcasts are the American Life episode “Is This Working?” which deals with slander, libel and defamation as Bill Simmons discusses his suspension from ESPN and the first season of Serial which deals with race, religion, and crime in a high school student’s life.
Research has shown that audiobooks don’t pay the same dividends in class time. Podcasts were created to be listened to and the creators take into account the amount of comprehension required to listen to a story, at the pace of the storyteller, as opposed to retelling a story.
Technology can offer an opportunity for revision and reflection beyond a collection of papers in a folder. Students who have immediate access to their writing, whether in process or finished products, have additional opportunities for revising and evaluating their work. Research shows that digital portfolios “provide a platform for students to communicate, express their ideas, share their understandings, and collaboratively construct meaning with an authentic audience” (Kissel 37) because they continue to consider the writing following the final assignment. Since the audience size will increase due to ease of sharing writing and the opportunity to reflect will increase due to the accessibility of the digital portfolio, writers will have greater opportunity for revision (Beach 212). Authors can generate many responses to a piece of writing, not just a teacher’s summative assessment.
In addition, state-mandated assessment requirements can easily be met if digital portfolios are maintained throughout a student’s years of school.
One hands-on idea that combines the maker movement with writing was a group of students of the Kean University Writing Project who hacked their notebooks using circuits and lights. Although the cost of materials might be a barrier for most high school classrooms, the idea could be adapted to show the connections that go on in our writing.
A collection of ideas is available on line in the Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom ebook. The book gives examples of interest-driven activities such as blogging and filmmaking, peer-supported activities, and academic-driven activities using digital tools. The book also provides descriptions of production-centered classrooms, openly networked classrooms, and shared purpose classrooms.
A huge number of links and resources are continually updated on the Wiki Resource page associated with the Teaching Writing, Using Blogs, Wikis and Other Digital Tools book. Each chapter links to numerous topics which all connect to additional sites and sources.
While new media and connected learning are definitely here to stay, we also need to examine how digital reading might be different than print reading. Are there skills that need to be developed and do we lose anything by not reading from paper? Researchers have noted that students need practice learning “how to question, locate, evaluate, synthesize, and communicate information with the Internet” (Leu 9) and that students have to develop the necessary skills and strategies for digital reading. Students and schools without access to digital media will only be put farther behind their more affluent peers if they are not given adequate opportunities to develop these skills. Unfortunately, new literacies of online reading comprehension is not included in high-stakes testing, so schools, particularly economically-challenged schools, have little incentive to support students in developing their online reading competency. Therefore, students who already suffer from a lack of digital access in their homes will continue to fall further behind in their schools (Leu 13) unless educators make a concerted effort to include connected learning in their lesson plans.
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