Keeping It Real. Popular Technology in the Classroom.
by Christian Perticone - Monday, April 15th, 2013 In The News

A previous post, “Who Should Take Online Classes? (They’re Free)”, didn’t exactly gush over the limitless possibilities of online learning. I didn’t mean to obscure the fact that technological innovation should excite students and teachers. (I’m no Luddite – I even encourage students to use Wikipedia as first resource.) Technology can clearly enhance classroom, study, and research experiences. Newfangled teachers, myself included, have even created Facebook pages for each of their classes. It makes sense: students are already familiar with the interface; news stories, TED talks, and other trending information seamlessly enter the classroom through the page; and, students learn to write and argue better in contexts where they are already writing and arguing.  As political activist and philosopher Angela Davis said at Pitzer College’s 2012 Commencement, “Not all knowledge emanates from the classroom.”

As far as technology breaks down the perceived barrier between “the classroom and the real world”, it’s critical to utilize it. Consider some of the subjects that entered our classroom discussion as a result of students posting on Facebook: KONY 2012, and the subsequent investigations; “Ghetto-Themed Parties”, and a Facebook poll on the validity of the moral arguments put forward by the article; and, personal photo-narratives in response to the great TED talk Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story. Each of these posts generated threads and related posts. The topicality of this content during the spring 2012 semester undoubtedly raised student interest and participation. Class conversations continued onto the Facebook page. They also began as extensions of the previous night’s posts. Yet, allow me to point out, I was teaching class on English Rhetoric and Composition (Freshman English/English 101), not “Current Events”.

All the core subjects, Rhetoric and Composition included, should ostensibly have “current event” relevance. It’s by this reasoning that Latin and Ancient Greek have been stricken from the university core curriculum, while we still require all students to take a few Math, English, Science, Social Science, and Second Language Classes. Rhetoric and Composition, like the rest of the core, serves to prepare students for the job market, and also to orient students to the complexities of the modern world. College should help students better understand and interact in a world run by college graduates. Nevertheless, many college students say, ‘When am I going to have to write an essay about a novel after I graduate’, or as I heard just yesterday, ‘how many of us are going to use calculus on the job?’ Hopefully, someone will answer these questions by saying something to the effect of, ‘novels teach us how emotion, environment, and motive come to create the stories we live by’, or ‘calculus familiarizes us with relationship between numbers and reality, shows us how numbers can predict and explain change.’ If these answers are not discernable to teachers and students, it’s possible that some in the classroom feel as though they are studying Ancient Greek in order to ace their first job interviews.

Technology can help teachers more easily bring the modern world, as students encounter it, into a classroom where everyone can interpret and analyze it. When the next KONY 2012 goes viral, Rhetoric and Composition students might be able to apply the Elements and Standards of Critical Thinking to the meme. They might ask themselves, as they swipe their finger over their smart phones, does this video appeal to ethos, pathos, or logos? Why?

What might a Rhetoric and Composition student make of the TED talk about online courses mentioned in the previous blog, “Who Should Take Online Classes? (They’re Free)? The idea that technology will allow us to do away with teachers and classrooms sounds, perhaps, a little like arguments for outsourcing customer service phone banks to developing nations. Companies forced the new customer service model on consumers; consumers didn’t ask for it. Maybe virtual classrooms should be reserved for those who want them. However, that’s beside the point. Classes that utilize academic software like Blackboard, but fail to incorporate popular technology (Facebook, Twitter, Smart Phone resources and apps), are failing in some way to keep their subjects relevant. The core curriculum’s greatest value is not the knowledge it imparts; rather the core should be applicable to the way students mediate the world. Students who understand this, and want their education to be relevant, can take action into their own hands: Not all knowledge emanates from the classroom. If your teacher didn’t make a Facebook page for your class, you can make and moderate one where class conversations continue, study groups are formed, and topical issues are commented on through the lens of the class. And why stop at the end of the semester? Why not keep contributing to the academic community/social network you created?

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