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Engaging Students: Conversations that Matter

The Internet is out there. It’s not going away anytime soon. So how do educators adapt their teaching methods to address this reality? And what are the consequences for those who ignore it?

At the Digital Natives project, we’re constantly confronting these questions. Technology, it’s clear, is a tool—not an impediment, necessarily, but likewise not a cure-all. Just as paper and pencil are handy for writing but not as handy for 3-D modeling, chat rooms, blogs, and Wikipedia are useful for some aspects of education and not for others. This much we know. But the rest, the good answers and best practices, are still somewhat up in the air. Since we’re always seeking good examples to follow, I was delighted today to read teacher Ben Chun’s post on engaging his students in a group discussion through an innovative classroom technology, Moodle.

Mr. Chun’s greatest insight, in my opinion, was to use the right tool for the right topic. The classroom discussion he facilitated revolved around PBS’s Frontline Documentary, Growing Up Online, and was therefore immediately relevant both to his students’ lives and to the medium used for the discussion. The medium, Moodle, is a sort of group commenting tool designed for educational interaction. Although I have not used it myself, I imagine that Moodle is especially suited for educational interaction because it provides a structured, facilitated environment that still engages students without being as free-form as something like Facebook or MySpace.

The students’ reactions to the documentary are fascinating for their own sake, and worth a close read. But in terms of the teaching method itself, Mr. Chun’s strategy reminded me of an indelible quotation from Mark Prensky’s article on wired students and education, “Engage Me or Enrage Me”:

All the students we teach have something in their lives that’s really engaging—something that they do and that they are good at, something that has an engaging, creative component to it. Some may download songs; some may rap, lipsync, or sing karaoke; some may play video games; some may mix songs; some may make movies; and some may do the extreme sports that are possible with twenty-first-century equipment and materials. But they all do something engaging.

As Prensky rightly points out, this is a reality not to be shunned, but to be celebrated. And while students’ external engagement provides a challenge for twenty-first century teachers, Mr. Chun’s classroom experience shows that it also provides an opportunity. Every student can contribute to a conversation that matters. Mr. Chun’s closing words sum this up especially well:

So, beyond all the endless talk about technology and schools and new forms of literacy, here we have a case where digital video, downloaded from the web, discussed on a blog, shown on an in-class LCD projector, and followed by an online classroom discussion all conspired to arrive in the place we should have started and known the whole time (apologies to Eliot): Asking students to write about their lives and their experiences and issues that affect them directly.

For young students today, the Internet isn’t an occasional matter. It’s the place where they’re living out large fractions of their lives. The experiences they have there are just as real as those they have on the playground or in the lunchroom. When educators access students’ reactions to those experiences, they tap into and legitimize a channel that already captures the bulk of students’ attention.

So no, the Internet and other disruptive technologies aren’t going away anytime soon. But fortunately, neither are smart, creative educators like Ben Chun. And that is a reality worth celebrating.

with thanks to danah boyd for the link