Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Helping Students Create a "Digital Identity"

I recently returned from the Annual Conference of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition held Feb. 6-10 in Orlando, Florida.  I was struck by the frequency with which web 2.0 technologies (blogs, wikis, social networking sites, etc.) are being used as pedagogical and community-building tools in first-year initiatives across the country.

In one of the very first sessions I attended Kevin Prentiss, CEO of Swift Kick (an education company specializing in open and collaborative learning, particularly using technology in meaningful ways to support learning and engagement) said something that has had me thinking ever since.  He talked about the importance of helping students create a "digital identity" that can serve as an educational footprint, documenting what they have learned, what conversations they have been participants in, what they have produced, etc.  Those working in higher ed might describe this as an e-portfolio (something that we have been discussing on my campus).  
Basically, the idea is that as educators we should be inviting and encouraging students to be active participants in the blogosphere by creating and maintaining blogs, commenting on the blogs of others, posting material to their blogs that demonstrates meaningful learning, etc.  

This was a completely new idea to me.  I had heard lots of negative things about students involvement with blogs & social networking sites, but never have I heard an argument for using these technologies as well articulated and clear as the one Kevin presented.  I can see a number of reasons why we as educators should promote blogging and e-portfolios among students

1.  Students like technology and know how to use it well.  Students live in a fast-paced and dynamic world.  They are accustomed to being engaged by technology that employs a variety of media and are becoming increasingly uninterested in static forms of learning (e.g. sitting in large lecture halls, searching the stacks for periodicals, etc.).  While arguments for "traditional" aspects of education can be made and definitely have value in some cases, the reality is that if education does not adapt to present itself in a way that is engaging for students, they will go somewhere else to learn (on a side note, open learning is making that easier and more viable as we speak).  Good teaching involves finding ways to engage the unique learners that present themselves to us.  By refusing to use technology in meaningful ways we are limiting the learning that might occur, and as a result, guilty of educational malpractice.

2.  E-Portfolios can simpflify and improve assessment.  Imagine what it would be like for a university to have electronic collections of students writing, research, poetry, film creations, etc?  Even more, using blogs and other open electronic tools means that we spend less on paper, filing, human resources, etc.  Obviously, institutions would need to be thoughtful about how to organize e-portfolios so that they were searchable, findable, etc., but if we are as insightful and bright as we all think we are in higher ed, we should be able to figure something out.  The point is that if institutions made campus-wide efforts to employ web 2.0 technologies the educational record of their students would grow rapidly and provide meaningful assessment artifacts.

3.  Learning should be a knowledge-building enterprise.  Students who are engaged in creating knowledge are better learners.  This is not a new idea, however, at times we fence ourselves in by thinking that all knowledge construction consists of written papers and exams.  Blogs, wikis, etc. provide additional opportunities for students to share, refine, and construct new knowledge in ways not always possible through traditional assessment instruments.  Electronic forums not only allow students to write, but they can also create and share images, engage with video content, reference web-based materials, etc.  While reading and writing do form the backbone of education, there are a whole host of other ways to learn, many of which are neglected in higher education.

4.  Learning should be a social and open process.  The best learning occurs as individuals engage in dialogue with each other.  While this dialogue may make cameos in our undergraduate experience, the reality is that most undergraduate students pack themselves into large or small rooms and listen to monologues.  Occasional class discussions may ensue but they are all too often directed by an authority figure (the instructor), limited to a pre-determined set of topics or questions, and limited by physical space and time (e.g. when the 90 minute class session is over, so is the conversation).  Electronic media provide opportunities for students to engage in discussions long after the session ends, about whatever they want, and in whatever manner or sequence they see fit.  While this may scare some people ("what will the prisoners do if we let them out into the yard for free time?"), the potential benefits cannot be ignored.  The challenge for educators is to help students see the value in these dialogues and to generate enough motivation for them to engage in the process.  I'm convinced that after one or two meaningful learning experiences in this setting, students will be "converted" and participate of their own accord thereafter.  Additionally, these conversations can occur across courses and student cohorts (e.g. poly sci students may talk with biology students about environmental issues, athletes may read and comment on the blogs of dietetics students, etc.) leading to the development of a true community of scholars where learning knows no disciplinary or classroom bounds.

In short, using collaborative, conversational technologies in meaningful ways will not only create this digital identity for students, which as an aside makes them much more attractive to employers who are in the habit of "googling" applicants to see what kind of contribution they have made in the blogosphere, but has the potential to provide a much more meaningful and engaging learning experience while they are on our campuses.

For a much more thoughtful and articulate discussion of this and other ideas, visit Swift Kick's blog at http://blog.swiftkickonline.com/.

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