Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Long and Wordy Look Back

What follows is a reflective post looking back at the previous semester, focusing on the work I did in the course for which I started this blog. After this post, the blog will simply consist of my own thoughts and ideas.

It’s been a long, strange trip through Digital Civilization. This class was like no other class I have had before. As promised, it delivered experimental teaching methods, unprecedented levels of student-directed learning, and interesting methods of collaboration. I have thought more about the merits of educational styles than I ever thought I might. The class was certainly successful on this count; the discussions within class really got me thinking on my own time and of my own accord about the subject matter.

As others have done before me, I’ll go ahead and point out what is really the main purpose of this post: how I fulfilled the learning outcomes of the class.

I’m not sure I would claim that I learned about many new historical time periods or events in this class. Almost everything we discussed from history was something about which I had learned in the past. However, I nevertheless believe that I succeeded in learning a great deal in terms of connections between events that I would not have seen before. I have become more proficient in recognizing the relevance and connection between events from history and events today. The following blog posts reflect this ability to connect and observe themes (an ability that I may or may not have already had, but never really used).

If Everybody Blogs, Who Will Read?
Glasnost: Unpredictable Openness

Core Concepts
Information, Openness, Participation, and Control: the grand quartet. Let me summarize what I learned and currently think about these concepts. First, each is indeed a correct label for major elements of our digital society, the discussion of which delivers valid and important conclusions. Second, upon receiving such clear labels, a Digital Civilization class will immediately attempt to categorize everything as pertinent to one or another of them. In other words, the terms became cliché, buzzwords and platitudes and filler to replace more meaningful definitions and discussion. Why? Because it is easier; perhaps we as students in the class are a little too lazy in that respect and we assume that the core concepts are automatically understood in a manner sufficient to preclude the necessity of further explanation. Third, the concepts are not nearly so clear cut as to justify such usage. The core concepts are not a clear-cut partitioning of all of digital discussion; they neither cover everything, nor are they disjoint. Crowdsourcing is not only participation or only openness; it is both. It also involves control and information. In short, I feel that such a division of concepts is confusing; I say this not necessarily because the concepts are inaccurate or false, but because students like me naturally expect more separation between distinct categories.

Nevertheless, I have learned at least enough about these concepts to be able to develop the preceding conclusion. To further demonstrate my development of knowledge in connection with the core concepts, take a look at the following blog posts.

If Everybody Blogs, Who Will Read? 
Openness: Introduction

Digital Literacy
Consume: I think that the grand irony of my time spent in this course is that I expected to develop a more critical view of digital sources and information media. However, my naturally cynical mindset was more opened than closed through the course and I am now more willing to use nontraditional sources and means for information. That is not to say that I do not attempt to effectively filter information. In fact, you might say that before my filter was so strict that I missed out on potential opportunities for learning. Nevertheless, I remain for the most part a skeptic. If I seek information through online sources, I tend to err on the side of disbelief rather than the side of acceptance of false or severely biased information. I believe that this was reflected heavily in my information group’s presentation on responsible use of digital resources in gathering information.

Create: Without a doubt the most treasured outcome of this course to me was the initiation of this blog; I love to create and develop ideas. Certainly the class was helpful in encouraging me to try new things and take a more ambitious approach in doing so. As we discussed in the openness portion of the final event, I am now aware that our society now values collaboration very highly in the production of many works, but we have also seen significant failings in collaboration (e.g. fifty students cannot write an ebook in a month much better than nine women can conceive and give birth to a baby in a month). I think that, in relation to our discussions of intellectual property, collaboration, and openness, the key to overall innovation and creativity is to be willing to let go just a little bit to that rabid sense of propriety that we have.

Connect: I’m an attention junkie, so convincing me to share my work is not a difficult task. However, I have benefited from this course in understanding the more important reasons for connecting and sharing. Simply put, it is as I explained under “create”. Collaboration helps us to create. What I share may encourage someone to spread my or another idea or to develop it. It is unfortunate that the best example that comes to mind now is the meme, but in those it is clear that connecting allows an idea to spread and change almost on its own.

Self-Directed Learning
In my experience self-directed learning is a two-edged sword. I won’t tout its benefits, not because I don’t think they exist but because they have been amply discussed in class. I’ll simply say that to me the main reason one would encourage self-directed learning is because the student becomes invested in the learning process and the problem of desire and motivation solves itself. However, I have seen both second- and first-hand examples of the shortcomings of asking a student to self-direct. First, a student may self-direct to a topic of marginal importance. Second, and indeed more importantly, self-directed learning requires advance interest in something related to the course. Such interest is bound to exist in most students, but stress and excessive workload from other classes and from life in general tend to suppress that interest. I have often thought about the various pursuits of learning and information I would like to make in a self-directed way, only to lament “If only I had time for that!” Asking a student to learn in a self-directed fashion becomes a request to the student to go do just enough to satisfy an otherwise guilty conscience until the next required session of learning. The quality of information obtained may be minimal. Perhaps this is an artifact of the student’s dependence upon old learning styles, but it remains a real issue for me.

Nevertheless this class provided at least one tool to encourage me to ensure quality in my self-directed learning; that tool was the blog. Practically all of my blog posts reflect my self-directed efforts in learning, and I researched most of these extensively simply to ensure that I would produce a quality post. Hence you may see the quality of my self-direction by browsing my blog.

I’ve already discussed collaboration somewhat, but this could use some more attention. The learning outcome for the course says, “Students learn to work collaboratively to identify and complete projects that are meaningful to themselves and others.” I would say that I did get experience in working collaboratively. However, despite the purportedly democratic nature of the class, I never felt that the projects were meaningful or important to me. Thus I did not necessarily accomplish this learning outcome exactly as it is described, but this was not due to a failing of mine but due to the fact that the class simply thrust the projects upon me. I worked with what I got and I believe that I still delivered quality material despite a lack of personal interest.

In summary, Digital Civilization was an interesting experience and I do believe that the novel methods used in teaching the class were effective. However, I would use caution in saying that the whole “take back your education” self-directed learning concept is any better than other methods. I have had classes across a spectrum of student involvement and participation and from all of these I have learned and felt both challenged and enlightened. Maybe it’s just the nature of a physics/math major to be given problems more relevant to the advanced work of the field on a regular basis, but I seldom feel that the work I do in my classes is artificial or otherwise not beneficial in some way.

Ironically, despite the constant encouragement we receive to seek education for more than just a grade, I never got too far beyond that grade-seeking mindset in this class. I was aware that my thoughts were in opposition to the class goals, but I was never convinced that I stood to gain anything by trying harder than that. The one notable exception was when I was blogging. My work on my blog was and is my own and I am very proud of most of it.

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