Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More on Connectivism

NOTE: Just some more babble, this time in response to one of my teaching group colleagues on connectivism.

I’m glad you brought up student autonomy and the fact that we have to want to make connections to become better learners. Both of these aspects have caused the most difficulty for me this semester.

Though some students say they’re pleased that I’ve shared my expertise in the classroom, there are others who are shocked at my presence there. “We’re supposed to be teaching each other,” I’ve had more than just a few say, “and you’re making that difficult by domineering the conversation.” These are also the same students who weight their peers’ input on their papers far more heavily than any input I might offer, and are, in fact, surprised that I’m offering them any input at all aside from the thunderbolt of the final grade from Olympus. They want to make connections, but connections that meet their own expectations and fit within their own comfort zones. I can see through this that next semester, I need to give my students more of a reason to want to form a connection with me as an instructor and as a writer, so they’re more willing to drop the shield of autonomy and maybe learn something. This semester, I tried completing the assignments alongside the students as a way to forge that connection. That effort met with mixed results, as some appreciated my participation and others resented it. Finding ways to form that student/teacher connection is easier to do in a face-to-face situation, as you’ve already noticed, but I know through taking 2 ½ years of masters courses online that it is indeed possible to form those kinds of connections via computer as well. (I’m not saying I’m the best writer in the world; I learn a lot in the craft every day and know there’s still much more to learn, but I still think I’ve got something to offer my students. There’s got to be a reason why BYU-Idaho hired me to teach this course because they could have student interns do the grading, following the provided rubrics.) Ironically, it’s the better writers in the group who are more open to feedback, who are less prone to autonomous behavior, and who are more willing, at least to my perceptions, to want to form connections to better understand their world and to become better writers. This holds true in my FDENG 101 course and with individuals I work with in a writing context outside of any classroom.

A lot of the trouble I see with autonomy and making connections has more to do with maturity than writing ability. A few weeks ago, I served as a guest editor for a group of high school students participating in a week-long workshop at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s summer workshops. It has a setup similar to your La Verne University course, where in the students had physical classroom experiences mixed with some online elements. These students are supposed to be the cream of the crop of eastern high schools, sent to Columbia University by their advisors to become even better writers. I have to say that, for the most part, I was shocked at the overall poor quality of their writing. I need to qualify that, however. There were some in the group who are good writers, there were a few who are excellent writers. The better and best writers in the group turned in written pieces in which they demonstrate that they’re willing to talk to other people, listen to them, and try to form a connection with them. Throughout the group, however, lay evidence that, as writers and individuals, they’ve still got some maturing to do. Some students barely scratched the surface as they worked to turn their connection with, say a caretaker in a church near campus, into a story about the church and its connection to the university’s students, while one student turned in an awkward bit of prose about a security guard who praised the diversity of the Columbia campus without really offering any evidence of that diversity, or an explanation as to why diversity is a good thing. Comparatively, my FDENG 101 students performed better than these Columbia students, not because as a group they’re better writers (again, there’s a similar mix of mediocre writers in with the good and best writers) but because they’ve had time to mature a bit longer. In both groups, I saw students willing to forego autonomy and be open to learning from others and, as a result, turned in better papers, while those who were less open to forging connections turned in more mediocre papers.

So how can we encourage/teach our students to make connections that are trustworthy and worthwhile, as you ask? I’m still trying to figure that out myself. As a shy person, I’ve had to work hard to get around my own internal obstacles to build what connections I have both inside and outside of the work I do. I envy my father who is the kind of person who easily forms connections with other people. As I mention earlier, I’ve tried participation in class as a way to invite and encourage students to make a connection with me, to mixed results. I am considering a few other options:

• More appeals to the scriptures/appeals to authority. As we started our discussion on outlines a few weeks ago, I mentioned in class that Nephi offers us several outlines and summations of the allegory of the olive tree before we get to Jacob Chapter 7. This piqued the interest of one students in particular, who said he’d never made that connection.
• More examples. When we discussed logos, pathos, and ethos, I invited the class to watch a news report on YouTube by John Stossel and to discuss, for a few bonus points, what kinds of arguments he made in his piece. Again, one student in particular (but a different student than in the first example) responded favorably.
• More ventures outside my comfort zone. This semester I only did one podcast – at the introduction of the course. I’m going to commit to do more podcasts this coming semester. A work colleague of mine who also teaches an online BYU-Idaho course said he’s gotten a good response this semester through producing more podcasts for his students to listen to.
• More one-on-one visits with students through Adobe Connect. At midterms, I used the midterm conference opportunity more to discuss the paper they were working on currently. The majority of my students responded favorably to getting input and suggestions in a more face-to-face situation.

I like that in your La Verne class you’re able to participate in a research session with your students. I’d love to try to do that in FDENG 101, without doing the work for them. I love researching stuff, ferreting out the good from the bad, and analyzing how research and data could support – or undermine – the opinions I have on any given subject. I’m going to have to figure out how to do that with my students as well.

No comments: