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.

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