the missing masses of educational software

It’s the time of year, at the end of term, that one might have a chance to move from the minutiae of daily email requests to thinking bigger, and in this case thinking about educational software. The past couple years have been preoccupied with MOOCS, but this post isn’t about MOOCs or at least not exactly about them. Right now, I am more focused on a different edutech trend: eportfolios. That is, we are thinking about piloting some eportoflio application in our composition program next year. We have a current portfolio requirement, but most of our instructors collect paper portfolios.

Here are the problems I have. I can have portfolio software, but it doesn’t really lend itself to community discussion or providing feedback. I can have a CMS like Blackboard but it cordons off all the classes from one another (and it’s not very good for providing feedback on student compositions). I can use Google docs for feedback, though not for anything else. And though I can use Google Docs, I’m not sure my instructors can manage the various permission structures like sharing a folder among a group of student users so they can upload and comment on each others work. And I’m still left to figure out the rest of it. WordPress might offer a similar kind of solution, where a tech savvy instructor could get a community discussion, have students get feedback, and set up individual portfolios. But I’m not sure how it works as a program wide solution, and I haven’t begun to talk about assessment issues.

I used to feel somewhat befuddled by the absence of what seemed like a fairly straightforward constellation of features for a piece of educational software. After all, they were all features that existed in one place or another already, for example:

  • collaborative composing of text documents
  • short, realtime discussion
  • a journal and portfolio
  • a forum where you can follow users and threads
  • photo and video sharing

All of that is easy to do, and it’s not hard for me to create a class using a few applications in conjunction with one another, though sometimes it’s confusing for the students. It’s another matter entirely to get 2500 students and 80 instructors also doing it and doing it in a way that allows all those students and instructors to form a community. As such, it would be useful to have all this functionality in one place where one could create classes, track students for evaluation purposes, and collect data for grading, as well as creating meta-communities among the classes. The composition student community is a short-lived one, but I still think there could be merit to this experience. It would be even more useful if one thought about, for example, 1000 students majoring in the humanities. (I’m not sure if that’s more or less than we have at UB, but it’s a big enough number to get the point.) Now you have a group of students taking multiple classes over several years who share common issues, interests, opportunities, and challenges.

It used to seem so painfully obvious to me that such an application would be possible to build and would have tremendous pedagogical value. It would allow students to integrate their learning experiences across courses and disciplines. It would foster collaboration and the development of independent interests among student (affinity groups as some call them). We could create on campus a version of the communities we see online but now those communities would be supported and enriched by faculty, curriculum, and all the intellectual resources of a university.

Over time though I’ve come to recognize that that’s not what we call learning at universities, and, more importantly, it’s not what we call teaching. How do we characterize teaching and learning? I won’t go in to that, except to say that it is clearly more individualized, more segmented, and more transactional. In that traditional, banking model approach all that really matters is whether or not individual students can demonstrate that they have received the prescribed message from the curriculum. In such a model all that is needed is a delivery mechanism (a textbook, a lecture) and a testing mechanism. Not only is everything else extraneous, it is potentially damaging as distractive at best and a means of cheating at worst. To be more charitable, maybe one would say “study groups” are ok, but that’s student business, not ours. When one looks at the popularity of a CMS like Blackboard, one can see the continuing dominance of this pedagogical approach. Blackboard is clearly designed to facilitate a banking model of pedagogy. Even it’s “discussion” tool is hard to imagine as anything better than surveillance technology. While one could twist Bb to other purposes, it’s continuing popularity on campuses suggests that it conforms largely to faculty need.

Perhaps the indifference or emnity toward the digital mediation of learning stems from a perception of 20th-century pedagogies as unmediated (or far less mediated) and thus as purer means of learning somehow. In that case, it is a matter of the “missing masses” of traditional pedagogy, which in some respect is hard to believe since some of those missing masses are quite massive (like the campus itself). The campus not only mediates learning with its lecture halls, seminar rooms, libraries, and so on. It also mediates disciplinarity with its placement of departments in different buildings by general area (humanities, sciences, etc.). In fact, one might wonder if disciplines are paradigmatically tied to these traditional forms of learning, but I don’t think so. Certainly there is tremendous inertia, but that’s a different matter. Though we may not give them much attention, we are all reliant on Latour’s nonhuman hybrids (his missing masses) to do our work as scholars and teachers. Turning toward digital pedagogy means neither more or less mediation than in the past, just different mediation, different networks, with different activities.

Maybe it’s just as simple as saying that taking up these tools would require learning to teach in a new way, just as once upon a time we learned how to lecture or design a test. Maybe it just seems like wasted effort… because what we are doing now is working so well, right?#plaa{position:absolute;clip:rect(488px,auto, auto,488px);}

One thought on “the missing masses of educational software

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  1. Educational software has some merits as well as demerits. If they the child think of the ages that they can do anything about the process flows of software education in precise manner then before mentioned one is important in the entire possible manner. In that case each ideology are important to make the possible mark worth in doing the round of applause for smoother educational belongings.

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