Before I began two courses about internet-based teaching this semester, I felt that blended and digital instruction was a trendy concept that worked best in theory, not practice. As I read the first half of Neil Selwyn’s (2014) article tootled “The Internet and Education,” I could see the possibilities the internet afforded: it reduces constraints on where and with whom learners can communicate, allows for a culture of learning based in constructivist and social learning activities, helps learners access a greater breadth and depth of information, and offers opportunity for personalization. As an educator determined to create culturally and linguistically relevant and sustaining pedagogy, I understood the internet—as described in research—should be an important tool in my pedagogy toolbox. Larson-Billings (1995) conceived that a pedagogy that challenges the idea some cultures are a deficit to academic advancement would “produce students who can achieve academically, produce students who demonstrate cultural competence, and develop students who can both understand and critique the existing social order” (102). Because the internet affords learners to the ability to construct content for authentic audiences outside the classroom, it allows them to practice a skill like analysis while deconstructing the notion that literacy is a concrete and unchanging set of reading and writing skills (Stornaiuolo, Hull, & Nelson, 2009). When the teacher is no longer the only reader of the writing, it no longer makes sense to produce writing in traditionally formal forms. Rather, the internet gives learners the opportunity to shift their content and presentation for their purpose and audience. However, when I attempted to create these authentic, digital learning communities for exploration, I always needed up feeling like I was doing more harm than good. I was tasking learners to build knowledge around important essential questions, such as how do our identities shape the way we experience School? But, learners were not devoting the time and attention necessary to respectfully engage in discussions about these topics. I would send learners on an exploratory webquest about racist dress-code policies, and they would skim through the content and questions. I felt defeated.
What I appreciate about this course is that the content did not shy away from discussing the challenges of internet-based instruction. It was through reading about the challenges of blended instruction during week three and the methods for evaluating instruction during week two that my perspective shifted: maybe internet-based seemed only to work in theory because I had not yet built the knowledge to practice it. Olson and Maurath’s (2020) article about evaluating the learning experience helped me see that I was not providing learners with the appropriate scaffolding for internet-based constructionist and constructivist learning tasks. I entered teaching with this idea that asking learners to remember and recall information inherently sapped their intrinsic motivation and positioned them as passive subjects. Olson and Maurath (2020) helped me understand there is a place for direct instruction, so long as it helps learners access those higher-order thinking tasks of application, analysis, evaluation, and creation.
Honestly, after gaining this knowledge, I felt a little bad about the ways I put learners in the position of being ill-equipped for tasks. Those feelings, however, dissipated in Week 4. Reading Philipsen et. al (2019) helped me understand that I was not equipped to be an online or blended-course educator simply because I was equipped to educate students in a face-to-face environment. I needed specific instruction about how to design blended or digital lessons in my specific context. The process of conducting a needs analysis of my students for my professional development project and of reflecting on one of my old face-to-face lessons, redesigning it for blended instruction, helped me identify some of the specific challenges of teaching with the internet in my context. From there, I was able to look for ways to change to better adapt to the needs of that context. I found the article Bond (2019) wrote about the intersections between feminist pedagogy and virtual teaching helpful because she actively blurred the boundaries between what I had structured as “good” (higher-order) and “bad” (lower-order) thinking tasks. She gave me the freedom to use a quiz that provided immediate feedback as a way to encourage participation. I began to see these tasks as forms of apprenticeship and necessary for my middle-school context. Now, I no longer feel that what I need to do to support learners in blended learning directly clashes with my philosophy of encouraging knowledge building through performance tasks and play.
I believe, specifically, that the internet can add value to literacy tasks because it allows learners to define writing and reading as acts of consumption, curation, and creation of a variety of “texts.” For example, I created a blended-instruction unit for my eighth-grades students that contains a summative digital writing performance task. Throughout the unit, learners practice critical literacy on a variety of internet-based texts. For example, they use a visual literacy protocol to decode the messages in advertisements and a definition of coded language to structure a comparison of how different media stations frame—through texts, visuals, and sounds—different protest and activist movements. Their task allows them to construct a piece that challenges a definition of what it means to be “All American” that the media communicated. The possibilities of choice that the internet affords learners for this assignment help them gain critical authorship and dissemination skills. They must think about the presentation form that best supports their argument and consider how their arguments might become remixed, annotated, or decontextualized in other creations based on the ways they chose to publish it. The multimodality of the assignment also helps learners grapple with their own understanding of ethical authorship: for example, when it is okay to use someone’s tweets or images as evidence to support my argument? What does it mean for me to re-contextualize their labor and messages?
I recognize that the skills of criticality and strategy are important for designing blended instruction. Just because digital teaching comes with accordances, it does not mean that it lacks challenges. Darvasi (2020) points out that disparities of access are reproduced in digital spaces. A teacher must be able to assess their lessons and materials in light of their context and consider how they can provide multiple pathways for representing content, engaging learners, and allowing learners to act with and express their knowledge. Because the internet puts learners in the position of being active, authentic authors, it also means that designing accessible content is not enough. Educators must strategically scaffold learners into these constructionist tasks by providing them with the tools to be critical, conscious, and compassionate consumers and creators. It is not simply enough to tell learners to create a blog post. I have to help learners understand the implications of creating something that is widely accessible, and I have to give them the tools to ethically incorporate internet-based communications (videos, pictures, and more) into their work. Moving foreword, I know that I must do more work to help my students see and frame themselves as authors so that the ethical questions of authorial power are relevant to their work.
Over the course of this class, I have come to understand the importance of relevant, context-specific, and reflective professional development to better prepare teachers to instruct in digital spaces. I am interested to learn more about how the companies that create digital platforms are involved in shaping both professional development and the process of teaching and learning with their tools. For instance, I know that my school pays large fees to use our LMS system, but that the LMS system does not necessarily support the best practices of teaching with the internet. The fact that our messaging system only supports text-based communications is one example of the ways it limits my ability to design for universality. I wonder who is or who should be putting pressure on designers to serve the best interests of teachers and students.
Darvasi, P. (2020, July 21). How Designing Accessible Curriculum For All Can Help Make Online Learning More Equitable – MindShift. MindShift. https://www.kqed.org/
Dede, C. (2008). Theoretical perspectives influencing the use of information technology in teaching and learning. In J. Voogt & G. Knezek (Eds.) International handbook of information technology in primary and secondary education (pp. 43-62). Berlin: Springer Science and Business Media.
Olson, M. & Maurath, K. (2020). Evaluating the Learning Experience . In T. Trust, Teaching with Digital Tools and Apps. EdTech Books. Retrieved from https://edtechbooks.org/
Selwyn, Neil. “The Internet and Education.” In Ch@nge: 19 Key Essays on How the Internet Is Changing Our Lives. Madrid: BBVA, 2013.