Monday, October 16, 2006

Students as Producers of Information - An Example from the College Level

I’ve posted about several examples (1, 2, 3) of student work lately, and we have others that I haven’t posted about yet (4, 5, 6). And we’ve talked a lot in our staff development about “students as producers” of information or, as Alan November refers to it, students “leaving a legacy” that outlasts the assignment. Well, last night I ran across this post from Barbara Ganley that I think should be of interest to all of us, but particularly our social studies teachers:
In "Time, Space and History" prominent historians Edward Ayers of The University of Virginia and Will Thomas of The University of Nebraska showcased their Aurora Project (watch their presentation here). Daring to consider historical scholarship in four dimensions through digital means (GIS, xml, coding, visual patterning, etc.), and inspired by the work of weather visualization and analysis, these two noted scholars are portraying the individual and community stories of Reconstruction and the expansion of the railroads against the larger sweeps of history, showing time as well as space as they "weave together the patterns of a multidimensional history" instead of continuing solely with monograph-based historical scholarship.

Students in Ed Ayers' classes contribute to the project in real ways, including examining historical primary source documents, county by county, and writing brief historical narratives from the documents.
The entire presentation is about 50 minutes long and I’m not sure I understood everything they said, but nonetheless I think it’s an excellent example of the changes that are taking place at the college level. While the use of technology in the humanities is worth noting, it’s really the changes in what they are asking students to do that stood out to me. These professors are leveraging the “temporary community that is a classroom” to “harness the energy” of their students to create a product that is not just turned in, but published. A product that is not just an assignment, but that results in something that others can use to help understand the world. These students are learning, but they are also truly leaving a legacy with their work.

A couple of other quotes (not exact, but I’m paraphrasing) that leapt out at me:
[Eventually] we’ll be able to look at all of American History built by students doing collaborative work – not just turning in papers.
The students all say “Show me an example,” and I say, “I can’t – we’re making this up as we go along.”
They talk about the tension that creates for students but how important it is for students to understand that they can’t just do what they’ve always done, that they must become adept at doing what no one has done before. One of the professors jokes that he:
Creates a deep resentment that is at the heart of all good teaching.
While he was joking somewhat, I think what he’s really referring to is the “cognitive dissonance” that we’ve talked about in our discussions of constructivism. But in this case the dissonance is in the form of students’ pre-conceived notions of what school and learning is “supposed” to be like, and what these scholars believe it truly is. One of the professors then talks about the final paper that students do where they have to use all of each others’ work – and how they are all therefore forced to depend on each others’ work - another example of collaboration.

I think we’re seeing a real shift (yes, I’ve mentioned that word somewhere before) in what students are being asked to do. And it’s not just techies that are pushing this, but history professors at the University of Virginia and University of Nebraska. If all we ask students to do is find answers that we already know, then what’s the point? Instead, maybe we should be asking them to find new questions – and then go about attempting to answer those questions in a collaborative fashion and publish their results for others to learn from.

One other interesting tidbit – they mention that next fall a new major will begin at UVA – Masters in Digital Humanities.

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree with your idea of collaboration being essential in the classroom. I don't think teachers and professors stress the importance of the student's mind enough. One student's perspective is alone its own entity; yet, by including a different perspective from a peer adds another mass of ideas into the equation. Talking about this brings to mind the importance of diversity in the classroom.

    I am currently volunteering in a junior high English class and the class is reading Lord of the Flies. I find myself disagreeing with the teacher about how she wants to teach this book. She is all for segregation and I am obviously for integration. She wants to separate her class into groups based on their abilities: two pre-AP groups, a middle-level group, and of course a low-level group (all of which were categorized by the standardized tests). She believes that mixing students with differing abilities will hinder their understanding of the book. She believes that groups will move to slow if they are integrated, and groups will move at their own pace if they are grouped according to their level. I can’t disagree more!

    If you have students in your class that are extremely high achievers and students who aren’t the best test-takers, why would you not integrate them? I think they have something to learn from each other. If the pre-AP kids are separated they have the ability to help their peers understand what they understand, and visa versa. You are talking about collaboration in the classroom and this is clearly not being addressed when I think it should be.