The bulk of this post is from Sol Gaitan, a teacher of Spanish language and literature at the Dalton School in New York and an occasional writer on this blog. Over the past couple of months Sol has been using CommentPress in an assignment for one of her classes and recently took the time to reflect on how the experiment has gone. The result is a fascinating report from the front lines on the complexities and ambiguities of employing digital technologies in the classroom. From this one trial it becomes obvious that the digital divide can run through almost any place – ?even a hyper-privileged school like Dalton in the Upper East Side of Manhattan – ?and that maintaining a communal Web environment as an annex to the classroom presents tremendous benefits as well as tremendous burdens.
I am using CommentPress in my Hispanic Literature class to study Gabriel García Márquez. Instead of putting his work in to CommentPress, I decided to put in my introduction and the goals for this part of the course, what at Dalton we call “the Assignment” -? one of our pedagogical pillars. I instructed my students to comment on the assignment based on what they learned after reading his collection of short stories, Los funerales de la Mamá Grande. I also added a section of guiding questions, a section with excerpts from one of the short stories, and a few other texts. My expectation was that the students would comment on my text, but they went to the specific questions and commented there. I believe they felt more comfortable with a familiar format. We still need to read his novel El coronel no tiene quien le escriba so I have asked the class to enter comments to my introductory text as the culmination of this assignment. My rationale behind all of this is that students fully grasp what I tell them when I present an author only after they have read his/her works and not the other way around. Furthermore, CommentPress allows me to evaluate their work within the context of their whole experience as they gain knowledge and understanding along the way, something that a final paper doesn’t necessarily do. I also value enormously the fact that the classroom extends beyond its physical confines.
After about one month of using CommentPress, I decided to have my students assess their experience with this medium for communication outside the classroom. All students appreciated the advantages of sharing their literary thoughts in a forum that provides the immediacy of classroom discussions, but also allows them the time to elaborate their thoughts before expressing them. This is especially important in a class conducted entirely in a foreign language.
At an institution like Dalton where computers are an integral part of daily communications, it took me by surprise to realize that there is still a digital divide. One half of my class is comprised of affluent Manhattan kids and the other half of less privileged ones. Interestingly, the latter expressed some level of discomfort in dealing with technology. The rest, who also happen to be younger, were absolutely excited about it. For the less privileged ones, lack of fast Internet connections at home or older, slower computers are major obstacles to the use of a networked assignment. Also some complained that they cannot read/work on this assignment on the subway. This has to do with the fact that these students have long commutes while the more well to do students often live “around the corner” from the school. One student claimed that he doesn’t have four computers at home as some of his classmates do. This presents a logistical problem since some students may use this as an excuse for not posting as often as they should. Regardless, inequality is definitely an issue.
I realized that the need to post comments regularly helps students to know where they stand regarding grades because I use their posts in lieu of in-class essays and papers. This opens up the evaluation process as students are in intimate contact not only with their individual progress and production, but also with that of the whole class.
Group discussion is central to Dalton’s philosophy thanks to our small classes. Thus, students do not necessarily value conversation beyond the classroom as much as students in schools with larger classes might do. One student argued that she had already shared her thoughts in class and preferred working after school on papers in the privacy of her home. Others argued the opposite, that it’s a very useful thing to be reading at home and right then and there have the chance to share their ideas with their classmates and with me.
A frequent complaint from students who expressed uneasiness with networked assignments was that we are using their favorite tool for communication, the computer, for a school assignment. All agreed that e-mail, social networking and text messaging are their preferred ways to connect. Why is it then that they object to having this applied to their learning experience? They say they feel an academic blog demands a more “serious” approach and a certain degree of formality, and also seem annoyed at the fact that they MUST comment. We agreed that they could feel free to be less formal in their postings (though when I read them, I notice that they cannot avoid showing their intelligence and articulacy) and that they should enter a minimum of two comments per week. Also, because they are writing in Spanish, they must also enter grammatical corrections.
CommentPress has added work to my daily life because I must check student work more often, I must send them grammatical tidbits, and I must add my own comments when things need clarification. However, I can feel the pulse of the class more closely and accurately, and I don’t have a ton of papers or exams to grade all at once.