Making the Most of Digital Spaces in the Classroom

Our second book study discussion was on Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. We started by considering how Richardson’s work challenged or changed our thinking, and our discussion ranged from Wikipedia to teachers as users of digital media to the challenges of publishing print versions of books about digital media to the use of blogs in the classroom.

Several of us admitted that our thinking on student use of Wikipedia had changed, either because of Richardson’s book or because of other illuminating experiences with the site. We discussed the possibility of allowing students to use the sources cited on Wikipedia pages but not the page itself, but we also acknowledged that doing so deprives students of the opportunity to actually conduct their own searches for sources. Some of us are beginning to see Wikipedia through the lens of “shared knowledge” and are developing a belief that the teacher’s job is not to tell students which resources they can and can’t use but rather to teach them how to make informed decisions for themselves. Given our own use of Wikipedia to answer all sorts of questions for ourselves, barring Wikipedia in the classroom seems less tenable. Instead, we agreed that the ubiquity and undeniable usefulness of Wikipedia mean higher expectations for teachers in creating research tasks. We should not be assigning our students tasks where they are simply answering questions that others have already addressed on Wikipedia or elsewhere. Instead, we need to design student tasks that require the analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of what students find on Wikipedia.

One of our members has long advocated that writing teachers should also be writers, and we saw this theme in Richardson’s insistence that teachers seeking to incorporate digital media in the classroom should be using those tools in their own lives, too. Furthermore, teachers should be open to collaborating with and learning from their students, who frequently have more familiarity with digital media than we do. We were especially taken with Richardson’s statement that ”We can’t pretend to know everything anymore” (155). It’s humbling but also liberating to know that it’s okay to tell students that we don’t know something and to ask them to show us how it works!

We noticed several places where Richardson’s book seemed out-of-date (his beloved Google Reader no longer exists!), and this led us to a discussion of the challenges faced by authors writing about digital media in print forms. We learned about the Digital Humanities Movement and how it is challenging the field to reconsider what it means to publish, how we incorporate feedback and revision in digital spaces, and why we should trust the wisdom of the crowd.

As far as how we might incorporate these tools in our own classrooms, we talked mostly about our past and aspirational uses of student blogs. During our first meeting we talked about the reality that public writing is scary for a lot of students (and teachers!), and this theme reemerged during this discussion. We identified commenting as the first step to blogging and as a way to develop comfort with public writing. We also emphasized the need to really use blogging to its full capacity as a collaborative tool; rather than simply posting teacher questions and having students respond individually to those questions, students should be engaging in conversation with one another, while the teacher plays the role of facilitator, observer, and feedback provider.

As we move forward, we might consider:

  1. How can we develop authentic research tasks for students that require analysis, evaluation, and synthesis?
  2. What can teachers do to ensure that students are using blogs as collaborative spaces?
  3. How do we address the complex issue of audience in students’ digital writing?

One more note: At least one member of our group thought that this book did not really do Will Richardson justice. We were lucky enough to meet him at Fordham’s Summer Literacy Institute (#fordhamlit13) and to hear him speak about teachers’ ethical and pedagogical responsibility to incorporate digital media in the classroom. While Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms is an informative how-to manual for teachers, we missed his passionate voice here.

Next up: Crafting Digital Writing


Author: Rebekah Shoaf

educator, natural foods chef, rebel bookseller

4 thoughts on “Making the Most of Digital Spaces in the Classroom”

  1. I’m really interested in this wikipedia debate. Is it a valid, reliable source for my students to use when doing research? Is it a valid, reliable source for me to use when I’m doing research?

    In my head, I hear “We can’t use wikipedia! We can’t use wikipedia!” But when I want to look up (aka google) something – I inevitably go straight to wikipedia for my answer.

    Where does the phrase “rule of thumb” come from? Wikipedia will tell me!
    What is a Boston Marriage? Wikipedia will tell me!
    What is dazzle camouflage? Wikipedia will tell me!

    (These are all real pieces of knowledge that I’ve learned from wikipedia in the past few days.)

    So, why do I tense up when I think of my 8th graders sitting down and using wikipedia to do their research? I think I have the sense that because anyone can post anything to wikipedia then it must be unreliable. If you don’t have a degree in WWI history then I can’t really trust that you can tell me what dazzle camouflage is? That’s why I loved taking about trusting “…the wisdom of the crowd” with the DLC. I believe it was Will Richardson (correct me if I’m wrong) who said as he pulled out his cell phone at the conference, “The sum of human knowledge is right here.” What an incredible thought! What the internet, smartphones and sites like Google and Wikipedia have done is they have given everyone the capability of having a greater pool of knowledge – virtually at their fingertips. I think a lot of people – when they need to find an answer, a piece of knowledge, a fact, an explanation – pull out their smartphones and go straight to wikipedia.

    And so, it is interesting. After reading, Richardson’s book, discussing it with the DLC and reading Rebekah’s blog post, I googled “Should students use wikipedia to do research?” And not to my surprise, what was the first article I read concerning this question: a wikipedia page.

  2. For me, the sticking point here is that we the teachers are using Wikipedia, too. If we consider it a useful, reliable source, why shouldn’t our students?

    1. That’s what ultimately challenged me most about my Wikipedia policy for students. But still not sure that I would use it for formal research myself. Thinking back to grad school, and I don’t remember ever using it for a paper.

  3. Maybe it’s about critical evaluation. We should be evaluating all information, regardless of the source (including printed books), looking for counterarguments, and developing opinions based on the evidence we uncover. Teaching these skills may be more important than teaching “this source is valid, and this source is not.”

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