My student blog posts for ENG 704: Teaching Writing Online are rolling in and it warms that cockles of my bloggy heart. I think back to when I was a grad student taking Computer-Mediated Pedagogy from Dr. Kristine Blair in the early 2000s, then at Bowling Green State University and now Professor and Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Youngstown State University as well as editor-in-chief for both Computers and Composition: An International Journal and Computers and Composition Online. So much of my career started in that single class. It was so exciting–each class session brought new ideas and multiple pedagogies, some of which I try to model for my students to this day.
And now I teach a similar class, only fully online. There is no informal, face-to-face collaboration through roaming from desktop to desktop in order to see what everyone is doing, but I can still model practices and bring up the fine details the indicate major pedagogical approaches. For example, I still sign off on my emails to students the way Kris taught me–either “Hope this helps” or “Thanks. ” She also pointed out the passive-aggressive potential for the phrase “best wishes.” Here is why I still use those two phrases. My use of “Hope this helps” shows that I am invested in the student’s success. I want the course to have value for her/him/undefined pronoun. It also implies that I know email is an imperfect medium and if my reply does not help, it is fine to reply and state the query in another way. Simply saying “thanks” as a valediction says that I value the student’s contribution to the class and the conversation and that I see all my students as co-investigators in this learning process. I learn from my students even now after twenty years and predict that will never change. I need to thank them for their contribution, and I try to do that regularly. Both phrases then indicate my willingness to be a facilitator rather than a “sage on the stage.” Close to twenty years later, I have no regrets on that pedagogical choice, and small details like those email valedictions, shout out that stance more effectively than any declaration I could make.
This is just the fine detail. There are also the large questions that still remain for this huge topic that I am now teaching as the slightly pared-down subject of “teaching writing online” or OWI (online writing instruction). Of all the glorious large questions brought up in that long-ago Computer-Mediated Pedagogy class, one huge question is still central: What is technology? How does technology old and new interface with learning? What are the functions vs. the tools? I still try to concentrate on the functions rather than the tools, thinking of late 19th century teachers diligently taking workshops in blackboard use and murmuring about how it is so different from students with individual slates and perhaps, not as good. That blackboard and chalk and the handheld slated and nubbins of chalk were technologies.. Paper and ink are technologies.
Ironically, we now have students with individual slates again in the form of smartphones and tablets, proving that learning paradigms run in cycles, but the functions, we hope, remain. Today on her blog a secondary school classroom teacher and MSEd grad student raised a big question when she wrote, “I never truly sat down to ponder the pros and cons of incorporating technology on a regular basis, let alone whether I wanted to pursue this idea of having a class solely online.” That question is important, and I welcome it. Let’s spin it out a little further. Let’s frame it without the binary technology/ not technology stance. In truth, she uses technology every single day she teaches, but it is transparent to her through familiarity–the paper, Bic pens, books, whiteboard, and even the overhead projector if she is lucky enough to have one. A quick aside–I have a pile of techniques for using overheads and transparencies that no one needs anymore because overheads are gone–edged out by the Crestron units that were supposed to replace them. They didn’t, of course. The big screen brought its own pedagogies and its own strengths and now, classrooms are adding smart boards, which work–wait for it–much like overhead projectors, but with some digital advantages. What is technology and how do I make it less transparent for a while so I can think about it in productive ways? That is the question and I still love working our this day’s answers.