Learning to Live With Technology

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On last Friday and Saturday, I taught a couple of classes at the Marlboro College MBA for Managing Sustainability in Brattelboro, VT. I’m teaching a course called, “Exploring Sustainability,” to both the entering class and the second-year group, but in separate sessions. I am using my book for the reader. It’s a chance to observe how the book works as a text. This weekend is the first of three “intensives” that will take place during this trimester. Except for these more traditional classes, the course is taught via the internet, using a pedagogical web program called Moodle.

Moodle is a Course Management System (CMS), also known as a Learning Management System (LMS) or a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). It is a Free web application that educators can use to create effective online learning sites.

This is the second time I have used a system like this to teach. The first experience was not all that positive. I have honed my teaching skills primarily through small seminar-style classes where much of the learning was serendipitous, coming from the places that the bends and trills of the conversation took us. Moodle and other similar systems require a relatively fixed format. I have already posted all the assignments and questions I have asked to be answered. I can change them as I go, but not without some upset and difficulty. I have yet to see the first response from the class; that will come this week. The main difference between the two systems is the absence of context and presence.

Facility for give and take among the teacher and the students is provided, but is also limited by the lack of context. It’s possible to add smileys or emoticons to enrich the plain words, but this is a poor substitute for context, and the interpretation of all the clues and messages accompanying the words. It’s pretty hard to tell whether I am confused.gif, sad.gif, or angry.gif. I expect some learning to take place, but not the kind of learning that I would prefer. I’ve added a running assignment to keep a journal to record the reflections arising during the readings and the responses to my questions. I expect this will add some of the missing context. If the course were focused on practical skills, I would be less concerned, but this particular course is designed to teach critical thinking regarding sustainability and to provide a base for embedding the learning from the more traditional courses.

The second place that technology enters the scene is in the basic communication means available to students scattered over the Northeast corridor and meeting face-to-face about every 6-7 weeks. The new class has already set up a couple of social media networking groups and seem very excited about what they have already gained from participation. I am, as my readers know, generally a critic of such software technology, because I believe it tends to diminish the meaning of relationships of all kinds. I don’t see this happening here, however. This group is not counting the success of the systems by the numbers of connections or participants, but by the ability to find common ground and to build a network for support and assistance to one another.

It’s sort of an anti-twitter system. What matters is not the instantaneous content that comes and goes, but the permanent foundation that will build over time to coalesce this group. The process is made easier here than in many cases since the small group of students already share a strong interest in the central subject—sustainability. I’ll try to be a bit kinder to Facebook and the rest of the network builders.laughing.gif

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