Blog Post

Can This Tool Improve Your Teaching?

My "Future of Collaboration" tutorial is building a FutureClass website to host tools they are gathering and ones they are developing to help with teaching. Here's a key question they are asking:  why is it that, as every seasoned teacher knows, some times you can have a great class and other times a rotten one when you are using the same materials, same syllabus, all of it.  What is "chemistry" in a class?   Are there tools we can use that can help to change the chemistry in a class gone bad?   That's what they are trying to find out.


Here's a brief backstory:  Five of them (two grad students, two undergrads, one recent alum--in all fields from computer science and public policy to English, communications, and business) will be coming with the HASTAC team at Duke to the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival on "Learning, Freedom and the Open Web" (register here: ).   They are developing pedagogical tools and also proposing open source tools that others in the Mozilla open web developers group can help us develop during the conference.  The one they are most excited about at the moment is to help us all to gain meaningful, nuanced feedback in real time in classes or even during lectures.


They are responding to a challenge that Anne Balsamo will be addressing in Barcelona and that I've raised in previous blog posts.  That is, what is special about the face-to-face experience of classroom learning?   So many in the Drumbeat Mozilla community are pioneering on-line learning.  Yet, they are hosting a festival.   Why?  Because there is something very precious about f2f.   And, in academe, most of us take the affordance of all being together in one place for granted, we treat it as a given rather than one of the rarest and most valuable opportunities in our too-busy lives.  As I've said before, if your class can be replaced by a computer screen, it should be.   By that I mean if you aren't doing anything different in the classroom that what you'd be doing on line, then for heaven's sake it is easier, faster, cheaper, and more convenient to be doing distance learning.


What makes f2f special is contingency, the special intimacy of being learners together.  That is also what fails sometime.  So my students are discussing and finding ways to have those people in a class participate in evaluating what is going right and what is going wrong not in the Romans-and-the-gladiators Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down of too many rating systems, not in the confusing plethora of misdirection and overmessaging that can sometimes happen in back channelling, but with a tool they are developing (and hope the Mozilla developers will finish) that would allow participants to express the mood, the affect, of their learning, to raise questions, and for the feedback to either be real time or after the fact or delayed for a Q and A at the end of the class.


The depth and non-quantitative nature of the tool (color? emoticoms? music? text?) will be such that it also challenges the person inputting opinions to be responsible.   In other words, before you give feedback, you might need to acknowledge whether or not you've read the text, whether or not you had any sleep that night, how you liked the text, and other factors you deem relevant.   And, in addition to just offering feedback on the lecturer, you might welll be asked to input what you would do right now to get your classmates more involved in the discussion.   That is, it is a tool that helps the teacher by also helping the learner to contribute to the classroom and helps make students aware of their contribution to a "good" or "bad" class.  


I don't know how this will turn out but I love it that these wonderful students--who have a radical range of backgrounds, preparations, personalities, and predilections--are melding their very different styles and backgrounds together to think  deeply about how we learn and how we teach.   Instead of "face to face" versus "digital learning," they are thinking of how each informs the other, of the socio-technologies of pedagogies.   That's FutureClass, our "class in a box," and what I hope will be a very useful and interesting contribution to pedagogy.  Stay tuned!


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