The other week we had a PD on differentiated instruction. Before this long, undifferentiated lecture, I tried to get netbooks into as many interested teacher’s hands as possible. We set up a Google doc, opened up Twitter and began back channeling. It went well, most of the teachers trying it had never back channeled before. In a one way lecture with virtually no two way communication between the audience and the lecturer, we had ourselves a bracing and critical discussion about the material being covered.
That’s not how the vast majority of our colleagues saw it though. The cut-eye from people began the moment I opened my netbook; the assumption is that if you’re on a computer you’re wasting time, not paying attention, screwing around. Admittedly, the vast majority of the angry (embarrassed even) stares came from older teachers, but not exclusively. The passive, talked at audience thought we’d found a way out of the lecture using technology, rather than a way to make it engaging. The highlight came when the lecturer began standing next to one of the back channelers in an attempt to use proximity to get her back on task; even the instructor assumed technology use was time wasting.
One of the most powerful aspects of back channelling, even in the most non participatory lectures, is that it can create a responsive, audience involved activity that allows viewers to engage in learning actively. That many people in the room didn’t recognize what active learning looks like in a world of Twitter and shared documents tells you something about where they see their classes from.
The assumption I’m most interested in is that technology allows the user to screw around, not do what they are supposed to be doing. This makes me wonder what these teachers think their students are doing when they book them into a computer lab, is it a free period in their minds? Or does this have more to do with how people pay attention to a lesson or lecture? If that’s the case, do they assume students aren’t listening when they are taking notes? or not staring at the speaker?
There are some interesting questions around multi-tasking here, but I’ll leave them for another time. What I suspect is that this all comes back to a fear of technology in learning; it’s still assumed by many that internet access is a complete waste of time. They think that the web is Youtube, Farmville, Facebook and meaningless, puerile and unproductive navel gazing. For many students (and teachers I guess) it is, but then, isn’t it up to us as teachers to show students how to make productive use of what may be one of the pinnacles of human engineering?
As old fashioned as this sounds, this may all boil down to what we think about note taking, a skill that is all but ignored in education. Learning how to take notes is vital, and back channelling, shared documents and a plethora of online services (Google docs, Prezi, Twitter, Adobe Connect and other video sharing tools, wall wisher, Todaysmeet, Backnoise, and many others; this is constantly evolving) have created new opportunities for note taking and interactivity with learning interaction and recording that didn’t exist previously. These new skills need to be integrated into basic note taking. We need to stop ignoring technology competency in the learning process.
However you care to illustrate the process of learning, recording your learning in some way is a vital part of the process. It allows you to clarify ideas, isolate material, review it at a later date and summarize your knowledge. Note taking works as a fluid process that integrates the learner into what can be an alienating, passive situation, making them an active participant. I don’t think anyone would suggest that students shouldn’t take notes, but passive lectures (unless you’re at PD) have become a thing of the past. Differentiated instruction and student centered learning have tended to de-emphasize note taking (often replaced with handouts). This seems to cause students new to university a great deal of difficulty.
Perhaps the best thing technology can bring to this are new ways to collaborate, participate and communicate a learner’s response to new material, but not if we’re assuming that the tools used are really just toys.