Digital Is. Or Isn’t. Or Always (Never?) Was. Or Not.

I spent today engaged in some work with the National Writing Project and several of their thinking partners at the Digital Is . . . Convening event, a day of structured thinking and looking and conversation about what it means to write and teach writing at a time of such profound technological change in the world and, perhaps, our schools.  It was a classic NWP event, in the sense that there was a good collection of really smart folks present as well as thoughtful processes and protocols to help us have productive conversation and inquiry time.

What follows are a collection of the thoughts and ideas that swirled around my head today as I moved from conversation to conversation. I’ll probably pick a few of these to expand on in future posts, but I wanted to get them down now before they drifted away into the nebulous space of “I’ve got some notes somewhere about something important.”  Here goes:

  • It seems like many (but certainly not all) of the projects I looked at today were created in semi-school environments.  By that, I mean that they were created in after-school programs or through work that students are engaged in outside of the traditional classroom.  I think that’s interesting for several reasons, one of which being that perhaps the role of schools and teachers is changing at the moment, or we’re stuck doing the “boring bits” that help students to be ready to engage in extracurricular projects like these.  More thinking needed here, as I know that many other pieces of work shared today happened within classrooms.
  • Lots of talk about the need to expand and fiddle with the definitions of “reading,” “writing,” and “text.”  Words, too, like writing might not be broad enough to encompass skills like making movies and extensive digital projects.  “Composition” continues to be my go to word for the common skills of making meaning that I see across genre, medium and mode.  I like the way that Pat Fox said it this afternoon in one conversation: “We need to renegotiate the terms that we use.”
  • Many of the tools that I use every day in my work and with students allow us to turn our processes into texts and to continually take apart and easily republish our final products.  Examples of “process as text” are recordings of classroom conversations, considered temporary and fleeting, that become something more than a passing conversation when they exist as video or audio recordings.  These types of texts stay fixed – we can’t really go back and change the flow of a conversation – but our finished products, when published digitally, are easily and perhaps even secretly editable and revisable after publication.  So we’re able to fix the temporary and fiddle with the permanent.  That seems interesting and worthy of further exploration.
  • Is “digital” a new skillset, or do we need to refocus on, as Chris Lehmann said this evening, “Teaching tool and teaching audience is nothing unless we teach thoughtfullness (sic) and wisdom?”  To say it differently – is there anything terribly different about what students can do today with the digital tools they have available to them?  If there is, what is it?  I think there are differences, but reaching for them is difficult.  (This is a question that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time.  It came up multiple times today, particularly in tweets I passed back and forth with Paul Allison.  I wrote a little bit more about it just before lunch:

This morning I was in a pretty fantastic session on the Youth Roots work in Oakland, California. What it reinforced for me was that so much of this work that we’re doing with digital texts and tools is sooooooo not about anything other than what we’ve been trying (often well, often not) to do in schools for a very long time – help people to be better people, preferably together.

What I mean by that is that we might’ve had a very good conversation fifty years ago about “Analog Is” – although we wouldn’t've known to call it that, because we didn’t have the other space of digital to compare it to. In that conversation, we would’ve talked about the tools that we had and how they helped us to better connect our students to the world and the world to our students. And we might’ve talked about the importance of honoring our students as people, and their passions as important. And we should’ve talked about what was happening in the world that wasn’t school, and what was worth bringing in to our classrooms, and what wasn’t. We would’ve had a great conversation about how the media of the day were reshaping the world, and what that meant, and how we could push back as we attempted to better understand that.

And now, we’re talking about what CAN happen in school, and what IS happening out of school, and how the two are or aren’t connected. And we’ll always be talking and writing and thinking about this, and I’m okay with it.

But as we sit here at the beginning of an explosion of writing and composing and making, I’m reminded of our humanness and our deep desires to connect and to be heard and to make a difference, to matter. And I’m excited because the tools have never been more accessible and never more powerful. Our work is as it was and as it will be, but still – there’s something new here, I think.

  • Media literacy continues to be vital.  But like so many things, we’ve never gotten that as right as we could at school.  Making media seems more and more to be the best way to help students see how media influences audience.  So, making media becomes the way to teach media awareness and literacy.  Yes?
  • A short movie, scripted and shot and edited and scored, takes much more time to make than an essay, it seems.  In fact, at least two texts are created – the script and the movie – so how do we assess all that “extra” work when we give students options for projects?
  • For that matter, what happens to assessment when we find ourselves in the middle of digital studios of made meaning?  How do classrooms that look like this get “measured” against schools that look more traditional in nature?
  • I heard again and again today that teachers must immerse themselves in the world of digital writing and media creation if they are to teach such things well.  I agree with that, and often say that I’d never do anything to a student that I wouldn’t do myself first.  But where does the time for such exploration fit into an already over-crowded school day?
  • Are digital texts necessarily more dynamic than analog texts?  (Espen Aarseth makes a good case in his book Cybertext that the answer to that question is often that the digital texts are more linear and less flexibly read and responded to than their analog cousins.  I think he’s right.)
  • How do questions of power and control get fiddled with in digital spaces?  Are there different relationships between those with power and those without online?  The same?  A little of both?
  • There are issues of technology here.  Many times today, I heard that “It’s not about the technology, it’s about the learning.”  And that’s true.  Sometimes.  Other times, it’s most definitely about the technology.  It’s hard to make movies without cameras.  And editing stations. Impossible to record music without recording equipment.  What sorts of purchasing decisions affect what kinds of literacies get taught?  What sorts of server connections and bandwidth considerations ensure that students leave school comfortable in networked environments?  How do those technical decisions influence the culture of schools and communities?  Culture, after all, follows structure.

Whew.  Going to stop there for now.  As always, more questions than answers.  I’m okay with that.  I’d be interested in your thoughts on any of these ideas.  If you’re interested in others’ thoughts from the day, you might want to check out the NWP Digital Is Ning.

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