Connected Homework & the shock of getting a reply to a “study” tweet

I am really excited for Monday’s Connected Courses webinar on “Social Capital” and the value of a “personal learning network.” The resources are already helpful, but I am looking forward to hearing how other faculty members have actually mentored students through this process.

I set up the course I’m connecting with Connected Courses as my first giant leap into this kind of teaching. The course, as I’ve said elsewhere, is an interdisciplinary seminar designed to launch students into designing their own educational path (ie: self-designed major). As I conceptualized the course last summer, its key purpose became clear to me:

provide a semester-length structure through which students with widely various–and often quite undefined–interests can define their interests for themselves by discovering role models and mentors both on campus and off.

We began the semester by reading essays on how people learn NOW, in the age of Google voice searches on every smartphone and Wikipedia and Yelp and Youtube. Alongside those theoretical readings, students discussed where they personally learn, from whom, and how they learn best. We also spent a week becoming aware of our own digital practices, and whether we were satisfied by our own individual attention management. Many of these ideas came from Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart, and from Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It. I also borrowed liberally from Jade Davis’s work about teaching students about privacy on social media.

All this has been going well. Very well. Students seem engaged in the class. They arrive having done the reading (!) They hotly debate questions about social media use, privacy, online identity (real name or pseudonym), whether devices should be allowed during seminar classes, whether colleges should continue to require “breadth” courses or allow immediate specialization, etc. They are invested in the class discussions. Members of the class keep commenting that “this is the first time I’ve been allowed to think about ______ in school.”  That is heart warming. Seriously exciting.

I’ve also been asking them to be full co-teachers. We just spent a class period coming up with the criteria for their blog posts. Students post blog assignments about once a week on Medium. We decided on the criteria for “excellent” posts, which will be added into the class collection. Additionally, after reading an essay on networked learning (the basis for the syllabus structure), I asked them to spend a class period discussing WHETHER this approach can really work for us as a class, and how or what to do instead.

Whew. That was scary! What if they said “No?” And, in fact, the discussions were pretty significant. They talked in small groups; I bit my nails and tried not to eavesdrop. Students have some serious reservations, often deriving from their mistrust of social media in general, their concern that publishing their undergraduate musings on the Web could cause them difficulty in the future (one is an aspiring politician), their worry about politeness from other students, their feeling that social media should be fun and uncorrupted by serious or scholarly work. They had many many many reservations.

But they were also interested in trying something new. In the end, we reached consensus that networked learning could work for us this semester–but they are wary. Very wary. And they decided that their blog posts and tweets should not be evaluated based on their “social life”, on audience response or retweets or any such indicators.

In fact, they are not all sure they like connecting with scholars via Twitter. A couple of the writers of articles we’ve been reading responded to student tweets about their reading; students were surprised and a bit scarred. One student said that he didn’t feel he could engage in meaningful conversation in 140 characters. Another, that she wasn’t sure it was the “real” writer. And, in general, they are not sure they want their homework to be so interactive, so public, so…important.


I had assumed–what is the saying?, “assumptions are premeditated disappointments”–I had assumed that connecting homework, reading, thinking, ideas to the outside world would be invigorating for students. These are real living people we are reading, and they take their ideas so seriously that they respond (and very graciously indeed) to tweets from strangers!

Now, I realize in retrospect that I need to help students adjust to this whole new way of learning. Their “homework” is to actually share thoughts–and therefore potentially engage in discussions–with real people about real things that matter to others in the world. That requires a new vision of oneself as a student and a scholar.

Homework isn’t just some throw-away exercise anymore, an empty ritual performed to get a grade. Instead, it’s an opportunity to participate in debates and discussions. But I am also requiring them to participate in discussions on topics of my selection, and those topics may not be the ones closest to their hearts and minds. (Later in the semester they will be working on their own topics, but we haven’t reached that point yet.) All this is so enormously different from what they are used to that it’s disorienting.

So next week, we will talk about trust in class. Stay tuned. One thing I’m sure of: I will discover some (probably unarticulated) expectation of my own that will be overturned by the process.

Jonathan Worth on the “Why?” of connected learning:

“[T]here is this thing called transitive trust where you can ‘borrow’ from other people’s trust. Trust by proxy. I looked at the Heith Ledger moment [sic], the fourteen-year-old girl who pointed her trust at me and I borrowed from it. So I said right, who are the cultural influences here? Who are the people within these communities that we should draw into this; but draw into the process of building it, not sell the product but draw into the process of building it. Who knew that it was graffiti artists in Egypt and poets in Algeria, and its street artists in Tunisia?” –Jonathan Worth

One thought on “Connected Homework & the shock of getting a reply to a “study” tweet”

  1. So glad to hear about this adventure with your class! (Found the post via the connected courses feed)… With my students, I focus on building a sense of the class as network (fully online class, we SO NEED to be networked, and not just a bunch of multiple choice quizzes in the LMS, ha ha)… and the big move this semester was blogging on the open Internet (used to use Ning, but no more mini-Ning… so I took the plunge). Anyway, it’s gone great. The students are blogging, commenting, sharing, helping, and it’s gone even better than I expected. Looking forward to hearing more of you adventures in the weeks to come! 🙂

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