Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Digital fluency as goal and objective

(the following is part of TESOL 2008 presentation called Teaching Writing in Online and Paper Worlds; it was originally at http://cesl.siuc.edu/teachers/pd/tw4.html. Some of the links may have been compromised by the restoration and are still being worked on)

My writing class has a number of standard outputs: summary, summary-response, cause-effect essay, argument essay, and quantitative survey report. We teach thesis statements, topic sentences, introduction, conclusion, in-text citation, reference, APA; we teach grammar such as making complex sentences and remembering to use periods. We expect students to know, use and respond to words like "margins," "font," "justify" and "italics." Putting our work online gives us more words and ideas to use, things to master: "upload," "delete," "logon," "highlight" and "cursor" to name a few.

As I look back on a term in which, like all, I had mixed success in teaching these, what strikes me is that there were many other, perhaps more important cultural and language-related lessons that I taught above and beyond the immediate ones. How to address a teacher; how to ask for help when one needs to make a link; how to apologize when one has missed class for days without an excuse are three that come to mind. Students face a dazzling array of cultural and perceptual hurdles, challenges to mastering a new culture which are much more difficult than mastering the language alone, yet many or most of them are not written into the goals and objectives of the course; we are aware of their problems, for example, not explaining why they missed class before asking to make up a quiz, yet we rarely put the teaching of these cultural rituals into a careful methodology that would ensure students' mastery. I'm a little embarrassed about teaching blatantly cultural things so systematically, since I consider myself a language teacher and am aware that many students consider themselves needing and wanting to learn the language, but are much more leery of the culture. Yet I'm also aware that mastering these cultural details and rituals is probably more crucial to their future than, say, mastering the art of capitalization.

Some of the skills we teach are directly observable; in other words, we can clearly see who has mastered them and who hasn't, every time. This term, for example, I gave as part of a final exam an article in the Crimson White, a college newspaper at the University of Alabama. Many of my students interpreted the article to be by a person of that name, and wrote as the first line of the reference, White, C. Veteran esl/efl teachers will be familiar with students' common trouble in interpreting authors' names, newspaper names, and other names; I realized how much the correct interpretation of Crimson White was cultural, and how I myself had used cultural knowledge to put two and two together and figure out what Crimson White represented. Needless to say, I couldn't demand that all my students have all of those cultural skills as a requirement for passing the exam. But I could see clearly, by giving the exam to all students, who had in fact mastered them, or perhaps who was just lucky in appearing to master them. In the same way, the weblogs on the last day showed who had mastered linking, formatting, editing, and my favorite, getting a single-post url in order to link to oneself. Quantifiability and observability make skills much more likely to be mastered, since students have visual clues; they can see how others have done it, and thus they know when they have done it the same way.

Most of our students are at least vaguely familiar with weblogs when they arrive, and so have little trouble understanding the nature and the value of the set of skills they are learning in the process of putting their work on weblogs. I am never sure exactly how much they have used weblogs in their own language and culture, before coming to us; nor do I know how the skill set would be different, in their culture, from what it is here. I do get the impression that being able to talk about the skills is probably more valuable to them than the skills themselves, as the weblog as an immediate medium is probably a temporary waystation in the evolution of online presentation. Skills involved in file transfer, formatting, linking, and browser manipulation are basic in nature, but pale in comparison to some that they are introduced to, by nature of contact with the medium. Dealing with a frozen computer and browser fluency are perhaps the most important of these, but there are more. Some, like putting links or titles in a template, establishing privacy settings, or setting up systems to monitor other weblogs are not necessary but can make life more convenient.

Routine use of web sources has required a set of skills that we are only now coming to terms with; it's only been in the last twenty years or so that we have gone from getting 99% of sources from books in a library, to getting 99% from the web. Students must now be able to use Google and know Google from a database, but also be able to know shallow Aboutinfo articles from more substantial ones. Other necessary skills include url-reading, url-hacking, finding the source and/or date of electronically published work, finding a familiar site through Google; following links from that site to a desired site; knowing when and how to use Wikipedia in an academic setting.

I feel confident in showing students the world of weblogs and getting them to make one, according to their own preferences, as well as use our class one respectfully, cooperatively and carefully. When they fail or go over the line, we remind them; we make teaching points out of it. But there are two other realms that we barely scrape that I feel will be absolutely necessary for them in their future. One is handling e-mail correspondence, and the other is managing chat systems, in other words, not only using language appropriately in e-mail and chat environments, but also mastering the mechanics of sending, receiving, storing, transferring, and deleting language in these environments.

Shrewd observers of modern life have noticed how much people tend to read into e-mail, and how quickly they overread email, to the point that a very conservative approach to its use would always be advisable to our students. The combination of apparent informality of a medium, and absolute permanence (combined with the ability to both send an e-mail anywhere at any time, or keep it indefinitely) makes it an extremely dangerous medium, much like chat and the social networks, in which you are lured to be completely honest, and at the same time have the constant possibility of having your words travel the world, or be stored forever and then travel the world- hanging over your head. It is actually the permanent features of weblogs and the electronic media, the fact that they are archived forever, or forever turning up in Google, or there to be translated, run through a computer translator, or read by one's enemies, years later, which are perhaps the scariest thing about electronic media as a communication tool, the very features which have made older generations leery of the medium, yet this is a dichotomy that the young are somehow quite comfortable with. We always hear, "it's so personal, so immediate, so engaging," referring to weblogs, or perhaps Twitter, or chat- yet what is really profound, and scary, is the feeling that, having burned words into cyberspace, there will forever be a burned spot somewhere, waiting to reveal us and our true thoughts. The sense of privacy, as we knew and once valued it- gone forever.

This is the teacher's dilemma, for, as I've said, young students don't generally have a problem with it.


Leverett, T. (2007). Student weblogging for fluency, integration, and skills, Writing IS, Demonstration, TESOL 2007, Seattle WA, Mar.

Leverett, T. (2006a, Aug.). This is your class on weblogs. Teaching English with Technology 6, 3. IATEFL Poland Computer SIG Publication. http://www.iatefl.org.pl/call/j_tech25.htm#cla. Accessed 3-07.

Leverett, T. (2006b, Aug.). Three ways to integrate weblogging into your writing classes. Teaching English with Technology 6, 3. IATEFL Poland Computer SIG Publication. http://www.iatefl.org.pl/call/j_tech25.htm#way.

Leverett, T. (2006c). This is your class: This is your class on weblogs, from Daring to enter the blogosphere. Prog. Admin. IS, Paper, TESOL Convention, Tampa, FL, Mar.

Leverett, T. (2005). One teacher's perspective on weblogs in a curriculum, from Leverett & Montgomerie, Teaching teachers to use and teach with weblogs, Internet Fair, CALL-IS, TESOL 2005, San Antonio, March.

Stevens, V. (2008, Feb. 4). All I know about blogging and microblogging. adVancEducation. http://advanceducation.blogspot.com/2008/02/all-i-know-about-blogging- and.html. Accessed 2-08.

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