Returning to the issue of public blogging in the classroom… This has been coming up again on the TechRhet listserv in the context of FERPA (that is whether or not a public course blog violates FERPA guidelines). I’m not going to go into that b/c, in my opinion, there’s no merit to that concern. What it does indicate however is the difficulty schools have with trying to get their institutional minds around the implications.
What is more important than understanding whether a public, networked pedagogy is permissible is understanding why it is necessary. Now, again with the caveats: of course not every classroom communication should be public; nor it is even necessary for every course/classroom to have a public dimension.
However, from my perspective, public, networked communication offers two advantages to learning and the future of higher education. The first is fairly easy to see and fits fairly well within our conventional thinking about teaching. The second is more abstract but offers to blow the doors off of institutional processes.
1. And I have discussed this before I think… Basically the idea here is that one of the goals of higher education (if not the primary goal, especially in the humanities) is to prepare students to be productive citizens within the public sphere. I assume the public sphere to include political-democratic discourses, cultural discourses, and marketplace-professional discourses. Even if we acknowledge that some of these discourses turn out to be less public than we might want or may even be distinctly private-proprietary in some way, they may still often include hundreds of participants in a global network. For my purposes this is still a public of a sort–there are few even plainly public sites that will include more participants than that in any discussion.
Anyway, the point is that if we want to teach students to participate in public discourse, then why not have them participate in public discourse? Now I could see, hypothetically, how certain courses with many sections (e.g. FYC) could have a campus-specific, protected “public” space. You would still have hundreds of participants. However, for my courses, the numbers don’t exist like that.
I’m imagining that if I could connect with a dozen or 50 or 100 instructors teaching a course roughly analogous to my Writing in Cyberspace course, we could have a common blog or wiki or a network of course blogs. Suddenly we have a significant public discourse of students. In short, the problem isn’t that pedagogy might go public; the problem is that it isn’t public enough.
2. The second advantage has to do with network effects. In discussions of Web 2.0 business opportunities, people often cite Metcalfe’s Law and Reed’s Law. Without getting into the math of it (on which I will not claim expertise), these are laws that predict the value of a network based upon different ways of measuring possible connections between users. The bottom line is that the more users a network has and the more ways those users have to connect with one another (e.g. to form various subsets of the overall network), the more valuable the network becomes to them and the more likely they are to use it.
Of course there’s more to it than that. Take the phone network as an example. For the most part, phones are limited to one-to-one communication. I could call anyone in the world but I don’t have much reason to unless I know them personally or have some specific need (e.g. like I want a pizza delivered). Part of this has to do with the fact that a name and a phone number don’t tell me much about a person; another part is that phone calls from strangers are generally instrusive.
On the other hand, the blogosphere, MySpace, YouTube, etc. offer ways to make new social connections in a non-intrusive fashion and create various subsets of the network (e.g. blogs that address new media, networks, writing, and higher education).
So let me return to my previous example. Let’s say we have 25 colleges and universities, each with some equivalent of my Writing in Cyberspace course: 25 professors and 500 students producing over 1000 posts and comments to course blogs each week. Already we have proliferation of content beyond the ability of any of us to deal with (i.e. no one is going to read all of this). But that’s not the point. No one reads all the comments on Amazon. The value lies in part in the various taxonomic and folksonomic mechanisms one can establish for forming subgroups within this collection of data and users. For example, in my class I may only have one student who is interested in geocaching or two or three who play mmorpgs. And those are things I don’t have much direct experience with. But they will likely find a community of like-minded students out there. They may even discover a professor who does geocaching herself, and so on.
Now take this example and extrapolate it for my entire professional writing curriculum: creative writing, technical writing, business writing, and so on. The problem right now is that each of these courses is blocked off from the others. Not only is technical writing blocked from business writing but it is blocked from all the other technical writing courses going on around it. So the courses sit online in many instances, but they sit in a vacuum.
It’s really a no-brainer here. Every college has thousands of users–students, faculty, and staff–who every day produce tremendous amounts of content: in classrooms, in assignments, on blogs, CMS’s, listervs, and so on. By connecting those users with one another in a learner-network, by sharing that content, you create something with tremendously greater value. It’s roughly analogous with the difference between having a warehouse filled with crumpled-up individual pieces of paper lying in random piles and having a library.
Of course I don’t mean to suggest this happens by magic. Current web 2.0 applications demonstrate that type of network that would be possible, but I couldn’t point to an application (or collection of applications) and say “use this.” You need the right applications (always evolving) and significant “buy-in” from faculty and students–maybe the real challenge. But this begins with recognizing the necessity of “going public.”