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Navigating Connected Learning: Taking Stock on Digital Learning Day

Written by Tom McKenna
February 04, 2014

As 2014’s Digital Learning Day approaches, I write this post to take stock—maybe do a little dead reckoning. Like many of you reading this, I’m constantly trying to locate myself on the seas of digital literacies, pedagogies, and technologies. As a Connected Learning Ambassador for the National Writing Project, I’m empowered by a framework that acknowledges many pathways of interconnection when learning for students is networked, social, and, ideally, equitable.

As 2014’s Digital Learning Day approaches, I write this post to take stock—maybe do a little dead reckoning. Like many of you reading this, I’m constantly trying to locate myself on the seas of digital literacies, pedagogies, and technologies. As a Connected Learning Ambassador for the National Writing Project, I’m empowered by a framework that acknowledges many pathways of interconnection when learning for students is networked, social, and, ideally, equitable. But just as technologies meld into to one another—word processors and web pages become Google Docs, discussion boards become blogs, which become Tweets and Snapchats and feeds—so my learning networks converge, expand, interact.  I try to locate myself by asking which innovations and which technologies my students really need, how I can involve them in productive collaborative arrangements where they can practice traditional literacies while learning, connecting, experiencing, and creating with emerging ones.

One of the keys to dead reckoning is working off a really good “fix” – ideally a time in the recent past where you knew exactly where you were. A good fix, too, should come from multiple “bearings” or lines of position.

In October 2013, an event at the Oregon Academic Technology Society (OAtS) annual meeting in Portland, OR, gave me a great fix. The conference—a gathering of pre-K to university teachers from across Oregon—developed the theme “Teachers Without Borders: Navigating Digital Pedagogy.”

A few months before the conference, Scott Christian, my longtime friend and colleague through the Bread Loaf Teacher Network, the Alaska State Writing Consortium, and the University of Alaska, reminded me of one of the most important things we’ve each learned from one of our influential teachers  Dixie Goswami reminds teachers that when we’re encountering unfamiliar waters, the right thing to do is to intentionally and continuously ask our students about the qualities of their learning experiences.  How can they weigh in, and become resources?

No stranger to my musings, Scott proposed that we gather an online student panel to discuss pedagogies required for productive digital literacies for the third annual OAtS conference. And so, on October 18, I joined a group of about 20 Oregon educators in a classroom at Oregon Health Sciences University, to listen to what students ranging in age from 8 years old to middle age, had to say (via Adobe Connect) to teachers about navigating digital literacy. All part of Bread Loaf teacher classrooms, the students interspersed descriptions of the work they were undertaking with reflections on what their teachers were doing to make the experience meaningful, and with responses to one another’s comments. We had a pair of students from each of the following sites: Brendan McGrath’s third graders from Boston, my fourth graders from Juneau, Alaska, Paul Barnwell’s high school students from Fern Creek Traditional High School in Louisville; Renee Moore’s students from the Mississippi Delta Community College; and Ceci Lewis’ students from Cochise College in Sierra Vista, Arizona.

Self-Knowledge

 What did we learn from this eclectic mix of students? My fix came from several strong lines of position. First, I was struck by a bright and unexpected line: the theme of discovering self-knowledge through opportunities to get out of the classroom (both literally and “virtually”). Barnwell’s “Unleashing Digital Storytelling” students spoke about how the process of creating digital stories around real conflicts at school put students in touch with one another and led to new interpersonal understandings. Lewis’ students spoke about how documenting local farmers’ markets through video work helped them learn collaborative skills that would certainly enable them in the workplace as they leave college. My own students, and Brendan McGrath’s students discussed the pleasures, “mystery” and challenge of representing self and other through the right choices of words. Together they reminded me – and I think the wider audience at the conference—to stay vigilant for opportunities for using digital tools to enable students to interact, reflect, and build both “hard” and “soft skills” – technological know-how, and reflection.

I know that whatever company that we work for, they’re going to want to have a group of … workers working together. And what this does, it gives us the skills that prepare us in order to do that for the future, to give us that sort of familiarity because we’ll already have those skill sets. So when we go off into our own lives, doing our own thing,…if our employer ever asks us to do such a project like this, we will understand the concepts of how to do it.”
—Joseph, Community college student in Sierra Vista, AZ on the “Vegecators” project led by Ceci Lewis

We’ve chosen some sort of conflict we go through in everyday life. We were to elaborate on it and how we deal with it or how it impacts us. You get the chance to show your peers… what life is really like for you while you get to notice that everybody, even the more happy or simple students are going through conflicts in their life, just like you. And it brings this sort of understanding between students. And this is one of the many projects in the class that encourage us to speak our mind and have a voice for once. This class gives us a chance to let out our creativity and express our opinions, which isn’t that common for students who normally don’t have a chance to speak up about anything.
—Geneva, high school student from Louisville on her experience in the Unleashing Digital Storytelling” class taught by Paul Barnwell

Access

 Another line of position in my Digital Learning Day fix comes from the issue of access. Moore’s students, in the Mississippi Delta, spoke about the challenges and opportunities when schools are the only places students can get online. They titled their contribution, “Connections and Disconnections of Technology.” Both speakers—Tito and Linda—spoke passionately about the imperative for teachers to provide these experiences (rather than shy away from them) in regions where connectivity is still limited. Darrell from Sierra Vista, too, reflected upon his k-12 education in rural Arizona, where “reading and writing was only on paper” and libraries and community centers were critical for online access. Collectively they remind me that we need to continue to advocate for equity of infrastructure, just as we need to advocate for equity in learning opportunities within classrooms.The rural students were not alone in their access quandaries; a teacher education professor from Portland State University inquired of the students how she might advise her teaching interns about technology integration when so many of their students had only slight access at school and none at home. An interesting conversation about smart phone use and blended learning possibilities ensued.

Advice for Teachers

[T]here’s a barrier that I’m not able to get on the Internet unless I’m in a school setting. And it’s very vital that teachers prepare … themselves properly so that some of the
instruments that we don’t have — some of the instruments that I’m not familiar
with–I will be more comfortable with actually using these particular tools to
my advantage.”
—Tito, community college student in Moorhead, MS on the value of using a learning management system in a class taught by Renee Moore. Renee has written about the student presentation on her blog at the center for Teaching Quality.

The students spoke directly about what teachers need to know to provide effective technology integration. The Fern Creek students, Emma and Geneva, spoke about encouraging teachers to afford students the opportunities to get out of enclosed environments, and to make good judgments about when to let students explore new tools, but they also reminded us that clear guidelines for how digital tools can be used can give students their first experiences about linking social media tools to academic work. Also, in an interesting “flipped” moment, the high schoolers reflected upon how they have to differentiate—making on-the-fly judgments about which teachers they have to teach how to use the tools and which they do not. Whether they were adults using course management systems or 8 – and 9-year olds striving to understand one another, the student teams gave a clear bearing in advising us to help them “to understand the tools of literacy.”

“In the previous years have been reading and writing in books and stuff. And, but now we’re typing… on the computer and reading other people’s work. But they’re in a different place, so we can’t just talk to them at school or anywhere around town. We have to talk through typing and writing and blogging.”
—Celia, fourth grade student from Juneau, AK about her experience in the “Taste of Place” collaboration coordinated by Brendan McGrath and Tom McKenna.

When we grow up, we might know how to write, because some kids … when they were in school, they never knew how to write and didn’t. So when they grew up, they did not know how toread and write.”
—Lamarre, third grade student from Boston about his experience in the “Taste of Place” collaboration coordinated by Brendan McGrath and Tom McKenna

On that one day in October, at one session in a rich day-long gathering, I had my fix. Now, months later, I reckon from the simple commitment to ask my students about their learning, to choose tools and projects to build self-knowledge and interaction, and to provide clear guidelines when I may be giving my students their first tastes of using digital tools to constructively and collaboratively make meaning in school. On Digital Learning Day, I pause to notice how my own affiliations with teacher networks (Connected Learning Ambassadors, OAtS, Bread Loaf Teacher Network, National Writing Project and many others) impel me to think critically and reflectively with my students, and to continue to advocate for connectivity for all students.