Book Blogging: Chapters 5 and 6 of Teaching Naked

Bowen begins Chapter 5 of Teaching Naked summarizing what has come before (which I am skipping for now, but may return to as time allows):
We have established that knowledge is abundant on the Web (Chapter One), that students are comfortable and even crave constant e-communication (Chapter Two), and that customization and control can improve learning (Chapter Three). We also know that research on significant learning demonstrates that good course design needs to integrate content with student contexts, motivation for change, and the confrontation of discrepancies (Chapter Four). So how can we get students to learn content as a basis for discovery rather than being satisfied with receipt of knowledge?
Bowen, José Antonio (2012-06-28). Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning (p. 103). Wiley. Kindle Edition. 
The goal of Chapters 5 and 6 is to survey some technologies (situated outside of the classroom) that help motivate student learning. Bowen focuses primarily on email and podcasts as ways to communicate with students (both introducing content and conveying the content itself). In the next chapter, he focuses on increasing student engagement with technology, focusing on Twitter, Facebook, and the use of search engines for information literacy.

Before describing and evaluating a few particular strategies, I raise some worries that arose for me in reading the chapters.

A prefatory note: I love technology. I have a blog, a Tumblr, a Twitter feed, I use Google Groups to read Sanskrit with scholars around the world, I subscribe to plenty of podcasts, my life is organized with Evernote, I have blogged about using a Kindle for reading (though sadly mine is AWOL at the moment!), I enjoy writing in LaTeX, I have a GPS watch for get the idea. So my response to the book is not coming from someone who is tech-averse.

However, as an ardent user of technology, I worry about starting with the "constant craving" for e-communication as a need to be met, rather than simply a data point. Studies are increasingly pointing to concerns about the way in which technology impacts our attention span. Further, there are plenty of cravings that our students may have which we prefer that they reflect upon, and hopefully reject! For instance, many students crave a definitive answer to any given question. Yet as educators, we want them to move beyond black-and-white thinking. Sometimes being uncomfortable can be a learning experience.

While I believe Bowen recognizes this (he devotes a lot of time to getting students to reflect on their use of Google for research, for instance), he seems unreflective in other places:
Technology can deliver content in better and more varied ways than we can do live. Most students are already much more comfortable watching online video or extracting information from online sources than from reading books. Some faculty might find the live delivery of information more compelling, but the Millennial generation, for the most part, does not share that view. They are used to finding content online. Students might not enjoy long, written texts in any format, but they are not bothered by reading on a screen. They will search for information online before they even consider heading to a library.  (p. 104). Wiley. Kindle Edition. (Italics mine).
The first claim is unsubstantiated. In what way is reading online better than having an expert talk to students in a classroom? I can think of immediate counterexamples to this. The last claim is true--I had students this term who didn't have the book in time for the first day of class and e-mailed me in a panic. A quick search in our library database showed that the book was available as an e-book! Looking in the library hadn't crossed any of their minds. However, rather than deciding that our students will never step foot in a library and start strategizing for their inevitable uses of Yahoo! Answers, perhaps we ought to have them talk to a librarian and reflect on whether the personal contact is useful, and in what ways it compares.

Emails, podcasts, and "content consumption"

This worry aside, let's look at Bowen's tips for using technology to communicate with students. I'll bullet-point a few of them below, with some remarks after each:

  • Email. 
    • Use e-mail as a teaching technique to introduce readings.
    • Use e-mail as a follow-up to discussions in class.
  • Podcasts and videos.
    • Use online video lectures to present an introduction.
    • Create podcasts instead of recording lectures, which allows more examples and longer time devoted to a topic. This is low-stress and stakes-raising (since it can be more detailed than in class).

These tips are going to require sensitivity to one's campus context. Do your students read their email? Do they have access to email off-campus? (Despite the increasing ubiquity of smartphones, remember that economic disparities can be invisible to you, and that data plans still cost money!) 

Personally, I tend to use (professional) email as a way to communicate actions, and I prefer not to write long ones. I use bullet points/numbers, and try not to pack too much into one email (it should be related to the subject). I would rather send a link to a blog post or an attachment uploaded to Canvas or a classroom Dropbox in an email, with instructions to read it. Likewise, for follow-ups to discussions, I prefer to ask students to do something in response, like write a reflection or reply. Otherwise, they quickly learn to ignore my emails.

As far as podcasts, contrary to Bowen's claim that "podcasts are easy to make," they are not. Good ones are not, at least. I listen to quite a few podcasts and put up with a wide variety of sound-mixing quality, inane banter, verbal tics, and poorly-planned digressions because I value hearing from philosophers and scholars in my field. However, students will not be so kind. Creating a good podcast (think Radiolab or Night Vale) will involve, at minimum excellent planning and adequate audio equipment. To make a 20-minute podcast will require upwards of an hour, more as you are beginning.

The better alternative is to find good resources already available, but as Bowen notes, student ratings go down with too many videos (see the tweets above, and follow @myphilprof if you want to get a sense of what student chatter about philosophy professors is like--I have set up my own searches to augment what that account tweets, and its very illuminating).

Next, I'll look at Chapter 6, which I found much more useful.


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