Taking the Digital Test Drive

In the last few weeks I’ve had the experience of “test driving” several online learning & social environments: Tapped in, Vyew, Ning, Second Life, to name a few. I have to admit my initial reactions were not very positive. Too many hands on the wheel, too many voices talking at the same time, no road map, and no known destination. But, having reflected on the situation, I now see that my early dissatisfaction was not really with the site but with the circumstances.

With over a dozen other “test drivers” participating, it was pretty chaotic–much like having a van-load of back-seat drivers, each with something to say and somewhere they wanted to go. But, upon separating the initial experience from the environment in which it took place. I have come to appreciate these types of sites and what they represent.

They are forms (forums?) of communication. And anything that facilitates dialog between two or more people cannot be all bad. And studies have shown that even in purely social environments that classmates belong to, the conversation often centers on school-related topics. Reflection, collaboration, meaning-making, and more come together in a form of back-door constructivism that the developers didn’t plan on and the students may not even notice.

So, if we can see that social environments are being used for learning, can we design for that without ruining the experience or the environment? Of course we can! But how?

Test-driving these environments allowed me to enter worlds where the “student drivers” were more familiar with the routes and roadways. I was the old man wanting to drive 35 MPH in the fast lane-I wanted to get where I wanted to go without getting lost or crashing. But, in coming to appreciate the ins-and-outs of the environments, I also started thinking about why today’s learners are attracted to them.

First of all is the connection. Not only can a student contact their friends; they can make new friends. The shyness, awkwardness, bad breath, etc. of F2F interaction is easily overcome. The user can carefully craft her or his words before sending them forth.

Next is the trappings. Whether using social sites like Facebook or MySpace, collaborative sites like Ning or Vyew, or virtual worlds like Second Life, today’s learners gravitate towards sites that meet their needs. Sure, there is an element of trendiness. But sites that catch on do so because they offer something beyond mere communication: areas for posting pictures, “walls” for leaving comments, room for favorite songs or links to favorite sites. Students choose an online “home” where they can feel comfortable and where they can be themselves… or be a representation of what they want themselves to be seen as.

Finally, there is hanging out. Just being there. And not having to “be there” constantly, offering your undivided attention to the other(s) in the conversation. Users can engage in other activities, carry on in several sites simultaneously, talk on the phone, go make a sandwich, without appearing rude. In F2F conversations, we wouldn’t tolerate someone just standing there mute, waiting for several minutes to respond to our comment or question. But online this happens routinely. Everyone understands that the other person(s) may have multiple things going on. And, users readily switch from delayed interaction to synchronous chatting.

So, how do we make use of this? It all boils down to pedagogy/andragogy, i.e. designing instruction to incorporate what these sites can provide. Generally speaking, this means less emphasis on formal assessment and high-stakes testing; more emphasis on public reflection and sharing of views. Fewer worksheets, more discussions. Less drilling and more modeling/simulating/experiencing. Less memorization and more application and personal meaning making. Looser schedules and more hanging out.

Admittedly, this can be like trying to shape Jello without using a mold. But, if we focus on the strengths of these sites and develop teaching strategies that parallel how students use them, we can make them our own without ruining the student experience.

Hey, we might even become the “cool” teacher.

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