Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Collaborative Learning and Noisy Idiots

As I place the finishing touches on a workshop called Web 2.0 Tools for Teachers and Librarians to be held at the Taft Educational Center next week, I wonder whether educators are buying into the notion that kids will learn more by interacting with others than individually. The notion of individual learning, one that is held sacred by higher education, assumes that subject matter experts are the only respected and credentialed sources of information. I remember my third grade teacher telling me that if I learned enough about my birthplace, Brooklyn, NY, I would become an expert on the subject, and people would hold me in high esteem whenever the subject of Brooklyn emerged. Still, for most of us, I wonder if scholars provide the answers to the bulk of our questions. For most K-12 students and the rest of the world, knowledge exists everywhere, and is not simply the province of the academic ivory tower. Thus, it is our responsibility as teachers to provide as many conduits to the sharers of that knowledge as we can.

Alternatively, there are risks associated with learning in groups, particularly cyber groups, in which you may not know or trust the participating individuals. Jim Surowiecki talked about the potential foibles of such groups in his book, The Wisdom of CrowdsNow David Weinberger points to new research by Catherine White in his blog. Weinberger includes the key statement of White's first chapter: "we overestimate the value of diversity in conversations; conversations require vast amounts of homogeneity and can only tolerate a smidgeon of diversity."

What would Surowiecki say about homogeneity in groups? White calls those who create diversity Noisy Idiots. Conventional wisdom tells us that diversity is the key to learning in groups. Now we are hearing that diversity must be limited and closely monitored if a group is to be effective. What does this mean for collaborative learning in cyberspace, where we could hardly evaluate those in the group? I agree that not every group of people is well-suited to solve a problem (Surowiecki writes about this), but I wonder whether diversity is the key negative characteristic.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Power, Influence, and Collaboration

My faculty workshop on Collaborative Technology Tools is now behind me. Early in the workshop, while introducing the historical and philosophical background for collaborative decision making and knowledge, I quoted Lawrence Wright writing in his book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. In discussing the lack of communication between the CIA, NSA, and FBI, Wright talks about those individuals who had information that might have prevented the 9/11 attacks, but were unable to communicate in a coordinated manner through the bureaucratic maze of national intelligence. He says "...excellence was the enemy of any bureaucracy. (317)" If we believe collaborative knowledge to be most valuable, it is easy to see how bureaucracy might stand in the way of good decision making.

Twentieth century macro-sociology focused on bureaucracy in the works of Weber, Homans, and Durkheim. It was the scaffolding for power; how else could one wield authority with a group of people who had no kinship ties without a bureaucracy. While states have used this structure for five hundred years, other organizations such a corporations and educational institutions are much newer players. As David Weinberger's "new shape of knowledge" begins to evolve, the notion of power is slowly eroded. The stakeholders or "gatekeepers" as Weinberger calls them, feel threatened by the new collaborative tools that rely on influence more than power. Plato's famous line "knowledge is justified true belief" fits as well with our current collaborative tools as it did in the Classical Greek Agora. Slowly, but surely, the heavy weight of knowledge currently available to all of us will collapse the traditional compartmentalized scaffolding. Power will slowly bow to influence, and influence requires people skills, either face-to-face or using the new collaborative tools.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Wikis and Podcasts

Yesterday I collected information and educational examples of wikis. The pedagogical value of wikis seems to be a "no-brainer" to me. There are so many ways in which they can be used effectively to improve student learning and, more specifically, student writing. Podcasts also have almost limitless value as they can take any lesson, concept, or portion of a lesson and make it available to students on demand for a first look or review.

Creating and publishing podcasts are not as transparent as working with wikis. Subscribing to them using iTunes is easy, but teachers will want to make their own podcasts and screencasts. That process is a bit trickier. If you have a Mac with iLife 06 and GarageBand 3, you are all set. If you live in the Windows world, you need a program such as Audacity with the LAME plugin to export your audio recording as an MP3 file. It does not support the new richer audio/video formats such as AAC and MPEG4a so displaying slides or screencasts must be done differently. finding a place for your podcast is also not trivial. One will find the iTunes Store and several other public sites for storing media to be available, but the process of uploading a file seems a bit involved for most teachers. I'm still learning about how to work with podcasts and using RSS feeds to publish and receive them. I see the potential, but now must figure out how to make it easy for teachers to use.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Blogs and Pedagogy

As I prepare to present a faculty professional development workshop on Collaborative Teachnig and Learning Tools (March 19), I am struggling with the pedagocial value of blogs. I have read Will Richardson's book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, and appreciate his wisdom on the subject, but most of the classroom blogs I view are really substitutes for on-line course management systems to post assignments, readings, etc. What matters to me is whether kids will learn better using a blog. Will they read and write better? Will they find meaning in mathematical or scientific topics that were elusive previously? Will's Secret Life of Bees blog, in which students communicated with the author, shows a level of understanding beyond the normal class discussion of a book. Some of Will's points regarding blogs are very appropriate:

  • Potential audience - relevance of student work no longer ends with the teacher or the classroom door is a powerful motivator.
  • Archive learning that teachers and students do, facilitating all sorts of reflective and metacognitive analysis that was previously more cumbersome.
  • Supports different learning styles - for those students reticent in class.
  • Enhance the development of expertise in a particular subject - broader scope of learning.

If Will's hypotheses are a good explanation of the learning process, it would appear that we should be rethinking the writing process in schools. Let's see how my colleagues respond to these propositions.