My Nomadic Class
I’m one of those too-much-externally-focused people who instantly notices when people I’m talking to stop paying attention. Not really suited to be a teacher in a classroom set up for lecture – I learned by lecture but it seemed few of my students did.
That may say more about me than them, of course. But this hyper-sensitivity drove me to try innovative ways to connect with my students.
One semester long ago, on the spur of the moment during the very first class session of the semester, I announced that we would not be meeting in the assigned classroom but instead would meet at various places around the campus. I had only about 20 students in my composition class, so the plan to become nomadic was actually feasible.
So, we did start meeting at a place determined at the end of each class. I found I had broken the spell of “the classroom” where discourse is so highly rule-bound. We had transformed into a social group – that weird class that would show up in odd places on the campus three times a week. (I did not realize I was creating the formula for perfect attendance – no one wanted to completely lose the class).
The class was among the very best I ever had. We all loved our adventure; many in the class continued friendship after that class.
I had discovered the power of space. I read a book by a family therapist who arranged his family therapy room very purposefully – putting the obvious “daddy chair” on one wall and the obvious “mommy chair” on another wall. He wanted to unsettle the usual hierarchy in the family.
When I heard rumors of a new technology called a “local area network” or LAN (this was in 1984), I was ready to try it out as a way to teach writing IN writing – a kind of writing studio approach. Again, I was teaching in a new space, not a literal physical space, but in the imagined space of the network: I found that as we all typed to communicate, even those sitting next to each other and engaged in a one-on-one conversation did not talk but kept typing to each other. They were in the imagined space and wanted to stay there.
This was the Network-Based Classroom, a way to teach writing that appealed to many, was proven to work far better than the traditional writing classroom approach, received large grants to promote and got me on my way to the crazy life I lead now.
My students then were deaf. I worked at Gallaudet University in Washington DC. Because my students were deaf, I had not only stumbled on a good way to teach writing to anyone, but had been part of an historic moment: never before in all of human history had deaf people been able to be part of a group conversation in English (not sign) with a native speaker. English was suddenly no longer a dead language but a living, breathing, fantastic way to connect with other people.
Because I saw how technology could add a dramatic and profound new dimension for deaf people, I realized how this new information technology could provide – at its best – new aspects of humanity not achievable otherwise. I saw the human face of technology.
We are now in the midst of a human transition as important as the invention of moveable type. All of human society now is largely based on print (and, now, on other media) and its magical ability to distribute vital knowledge and preserve it over time so it can be added to continually. Behind all the great inventions of the past 200 years is print. Behind great new inventions occurring now and for centuries to come is digital knowledge.
As a cultural historian, I am constantly excited to be living in this time because of the knowledge transition we are going through. And, as a teacher, I continue to feel the excitement of the first time I taught in that network-based classroom no one had ever heard of and my deaf students started doing what one student called “ping-pong English.”
I have deep personal reasons for my interest in eportfolios. I see the human value that can accrue through good use of eportfolios. Digital knowledge in all its forms, based in knowledge-creation processes unimaginable a few years ago, is re-shaping humanity. We can do our part to influence how this culturally disruptive technology affects us. Ironically, our part may be to return human interaction back to forms closer to what they were centuries ago; ironically, it may take information technology to support learning designed in ways that people actually learn best.