Collaborating, Cooperating, and Co-opting

So, I have finally caught up on my RSS reading. Sort of. I keep getting side tracked and have been looking at two collaborative tools — Zoho Writer and ThinkFree — that I’ve known about for awhile, but came up in my reading tonight. (To digress for a moment, my goal this next week is to read my feeds in Google Reader every day. We’ll see how that goes…).

That said, I am interested in thinking more about the entire notion of collaboration that the discussions of the read/write web and school 2.0 have generated in the past year, and especially in the last month or so. It seems that every podcast that I listen to or blog that I read points to “collaboration” as one of the “new literacies” and that social networking (as a proxy for collaboration) holds such great promise in schools for rethinking the teacher student relationship, curriculum and instruction, and just about everything else.

What I find lacking in most of these conversations is a discussion of what would happen if schools do/are already co-opting some of the collaborative and social tools that students are using outside of school for classroom use. Now, this is not to say that I don’t think that we should try (or else I wouldn’t blog about these topics on a regular basis). However, I do think that we need to carefully consider what it means to “collaborate” as compared to just “cooperate” and what happens when we try to use tools in school that students gladly use on their own, but may (or may not) like to see in schools.

My concern stems partially from the many, many curricular documents that seem to be touting 21st century literacies and, inherent in those literacies, the idea that students collaborate. To the extent that we see collaboration happening, all the better. Yet, I don’t know that schools encourage collaboration (where the sum is, indeed, more than the total of the individual parts) so much as it promotes cooperation (hey, let’s get along so we can finish this project). There are many power structures in schools — from the community to the school board to the administration to the teachers to the students to cliques and types of students — that may say they want collaboration, when in fact what they want is cooperation.

This becomes problematic. When we teach under the guise of collaboration, yet all students are not expected to contribute meaningfully to the project, then we shortchange all the students working on it. We have all been a part of a group or taught a group of students who foist the work upon one or two students (or, contrarily, choose to take it upon themselves as martyrs). Moreover, there are times when group work is meant to be busywork and cooperation, not collaboration is the goal.

I don’t know that I have a strong thesis for this argument so much as I just want to express some thoughts and concerns about the current discourse surrounding the word “collaboration.” I would be curious to hear how others are interpreting that term in different contexts and to know whether or not I am thinking clearly about it. That, I feel, would be a powerful, collaborative discussion.

End of Year “Reflection”

Well, I’ve held off on using the “R” word for any tagging on this blog, but I guess that it is the end of the calendar year that causes me to think about reflection, even though it is a term that is fraught with problems, as my adviser, Lynn Fendler, points out.

At any rate, a few things have happened this year that give me thought to pause, one being this blog, so I figured that I would do that here. Besides, I collapsed from post-holiday exhaustion and pre-sinus infection sickness earlier tonight, and now I have insomnia. What else to do but write, right?

So, I want to start with something recent. Wes Fryer talked about digital storytelling and, as I recall, how he has his daughter, a pre-schooler, creating them. When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, my supervisor had mentioned how I might be able to use some of my digital literacies to capture some family memories for posterity. Well, though I have yet to make my own digital story, my daughter (age 4) and I collaborated to make a story as a gift to mom this holiday season. Everyone asked, “How much of this did you do, Troy?” and I tell them that I really did very little. I showed her some basic controls in iMovie, helped her look through our family pictures, and then set up the mic. She did the rest. It was amazing, and made for many conversations over the past week. It also cemented the feeling for me that digital storytelling is something worth academic and personal pursuit, a feeling that I had long pushed to the side. At any rate, it is on You Tube, but I have it marked as private (I still feel weird sharing my kids’ images and voices online to the general public), so if you want to see it, send me an email and I will invite you.

Another recent thing to think about has been the “Top 100 Education Blogs” list that came out about a week ago. This has inspired much controversy, and the conversation on Bud’s blog captures some of the other bloggers’ feelings about it. Personally, I am not much of one for lists, just like I am not one for how-to guides, but the recognition was nice. Along with a nod on MSU’s “Blogs for Learning” site earlier this fall, I feel that I must be doing something right with this blog. However, there are many others doing blogs right, too. Maria, for instance, is quite modest about her work and I think that Paul got overlooked, too. But, when it is all said and done, edublogs are official now, and I rememeber that they weren’t when we looked them up at Tech Matters in July.

The other main thing on my mind right now, besides my wife’s health, is that I am on the job market and will be soon giving a job talk based on the following prompt: “Situate your research in terms of the current state of the field of English education and talk about how that research informs your teaching.” If ever there was a time when I am asking what English education is, that time is now. Given the general state of education (which I won’t belabor here), and the palpable sense that some edubloggers like David and Will among others, seem to be expressing, I wonder if this is the year that digital writing becomes a legitimate topic for writing teachers and not just an add-on to an already rubric-packed curriculum of pre-formed essay prompts. There are so many possibilities that I am trying to pursue right now (not the least of which is my dissertation focusing on digital portfolios, although that seems to fall to the back burner every day) that I think are engaging and worth scholarly pursuit at the K-12 level: collaborative writing projects with wikis and Google docs, student blogging (ala Paul’s model), free and open source applications for digital writing, digital storytelling, and podcasting. If the Time cover story about You being person of the year is right, then the time is now to push for these literacies as a part of our English teaching. And, oh yes, the state standards call for them, too, says Time. Given all the attention that these literacies now command, I don’t think that we can ignore, or filter, them in school anymore.

So, what will I say about my research and the field of English education? Well, I think that I will acknowledge that being an English teacher has always been and will continue to be complicated. The interesting new twist to the complicated lives of English teachers — the one that I think encompasses all the other issues of linguistic diversity, challenging the canon, cultural literacy, encouraging citizenship, and other main tenets that came from the 2005 summit — concerns new literacies and the ways that ICTs are changing what it means to be literate. I think that the notions of purpose and audience that teachers using a writing workshop model for the past 30 years have been good, but to be perfectly honest, beyond the school newsletter, the letter to an author or editor, or something else fairly local, they were never fully realized. Now they are. Blogs, podcasts, and wikis enable global conversation. English education needs to prepare teachers and students to be a part of that conversations, and new literacies play a pivotal role in doing so. This requires a major change in the way we think about teaching and learning writing. I will elaborate on this idea more in the next few weeks as the job talk nears, but I felt that I need to get some first draft thinking in this reflective post. I would be interested to hear what you have to say about it.

Well, I think that I have reflected enough for now (and, I hope, cured the insomnia). Thanks to everyone — friends and colleagues — who inspired me to start this blog and contribute to the ongoing conversation around it. I look forward to continuing the conversations in 2007 and beginning a variety of new projects, many of them in collaboration with all of you. Take care and happy new year.

Google as Literacy

Whether or not you agree with the politics of ETS, this is an interesting commentary on our times and the ways in which we access information.

Inside Higher Ed :: Are College Students Techno Idiots?

More interesting are the many comments below the main article, in which one responder takes up the issue that using Google is gauche, and others take him up on that. It raises questions about what literacy means and whether, for better or worse, search engines are a part of literacy today.

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Quick thoughts on the Flickering Mind

I had barely checked this book out from the library, based on a recommendation from Leigh, and it got recalled. Similar in argument to Cuban’s Oversold and Underused, Oppenheimer paints a pretty grim picture of technology use in schools. I agree with many of his points, however, and this one in particular:

And obviously, the World Wide Web–the uber-program of the modern age–is a useful in not invaluable research source for all of us. But we all must realize that opening the Internet’s door to youngsters requires teachers to accept additional responsibilities. This does not just involve watching out for pornographic of violent material; that’s the easy part. It also concerns watching what values and beliefs students develop about what knowledge is; how it’s built; how it’s used; and what it demands of them as students and as citizens. Downloading a captivating live software applet from a NASA website, which some Web designers has loaded with a few earnest questions to satisfy somebody’s grant requirements, does no a satisfactory lesson make. Nor does simply writing a paper about this material, based on some extra Internet “research.” p. 395

Todd Oppenheimer The Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology

This perspective is one that I find valuable as we prepare to head to the NWP Annual Meeting and will be blogging, wikiing, and podcasting along the way. Questions I am asking myself…

  • What literacy goals do I have in mind by asking teachers to engage in these activities?
  • In what ways might the technology help them become better students (of English teaching) and citizens?
  • How will they create their own content that is meanginful to them as well as insightful for those not able to attend the meeting?

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