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Crowd-Sourcing in the Classroom

By Paul Morsink
 | Apr 03, 2015

I pride myself on being a pretty good problem solver, and if you’re a teacher and you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re the same. As teachers, we’re constantly solving problems, big and small, as we plan and orchestrate daily learning activities.

Recently, though, I’ve realized that when it comes to integrating technology to foster literacy development, I should pull back a bit. I’ve noticed my penchant for quick and efficient problem solving is actually depriving my students of valuable learning opportunities.

Specifically—and not just in my classroom, but in classrooms I’ve visited—I’ve noticed that, when there are choices to be made and some uncertainty about which app or web tool to use, or how exactly to use a particular tool to solve a problem, the level of engagement and the quality of the intellectual work I see often shoots way up.

Why does this happen?

What I observe is that when students become partners in the work of weighing the affordances and constraints of using web tool A or tool B—or using web tool A or paper and pencil instead—they tend to have strong opinions.

What’s really interesting is I suddenly hear students spontaneously saying specific things about their literacy work habits and preferences (“I’ll start reading this on my phone and then read more later at home on my laptop”) and connecting those to particular affordances of the tool they prefer and to specific features of the texts they’re reading or are about to compose (“With the split screen feature you can read both texts side by side—if your screen is wide enough”; “With the search tool it takes two seconds to find all the places where the author used the word treachery”).

This kind of talk is music to my ears—students are metacognitive, stepping back from a task and thinking about what they’re doing and how they can do it best (or slightly better). Eliciting this kind of talk certainly does not require making technology the focus; there are excellent paper-and-pencil ways to grow your students’ metacognitive muscles. Still, with technology in the mix, I have observed greater interest in engaging in metacognitive reflection.

I also observe that when there is discussion about the pros and cons of tool A and tool B, it’s not always the same students who do the talking. Students who are less-frequent contributors during traditional ELA discussions about things like author’s craft or intertextual allusions may suddenly have a lot to say about a particular web tool—and how it helps them read or write in a specific way. This observation aligns with what we’re learning from research by Julie Coiro, Don Leu, and others about how online and offline literacies overlap but also have distinct knowledge and skillsets. You will likely find the same—some students demonstrate equal proficiency in both areas, and others may demonstrate proficiency in online literacies that eclipses their proficiency in traditional print literacies.

A bonus benefit is even when the discussion is fairly short, I invariably come away with specific new information and insights about my students.

The big pay-off, though, is that these conversations launch students into precisely the kind of thinking and learning we want to be doing in a literacy-focused classroom—thinking and learning about how, in our reading and writing, we can make choices that help us achieve greater clarity, comprehension, intertextual connection, aesthetic appeal, and so on.

However, even if class discussion about alternative web tools is incredibly rich and interesting, you probably don’t want a debate about the relative merits of CiteLighter versus Diigo to completely dominate the class period you set aside for your students to research sources for the essay—or blog post—they’re writing.

Give it a shot—try from time to time to involve your students in reflecting on, investigating, and debating the merits of alternative literacy tools or alternative uses of tools—even when you’re feeling pressed for time and part of your teacher brain is telling you to just make the decision on your own before class.

I predict you will find that when you involve your students in reflective discussion around problems of technology integration, it will stimulate deep thinking and learning that may surprise you. Some of this may focus on technology in a narrow sense, but much of it—the really valuable part—will be about the materials and strategies and challenges of doing things with words and ideas, about reading and note taking and finding contrasting perspectives in texts, about the constraints of a particular genre, and more.

What is gained by writing a text message rather than an email, composing a video essay instead of a traditional prose essay with embedded images, or using one note-taking tool instead of another? Let’s face it: Looking to the future, it’s these conversations—about the affordances and constraints of new apps and tools for enhancing reading, writing, and other literacy practices—that will be increasingly central to our students’ professional, personal, and civic lives.

Paul Morsink is a doctoral candidate in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology at Michigan State University. This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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