Participation versus Compulsion

In Sleeping Alone and Starting Out Early, Jenna McWilliams offers up a concise summary of the value of blogging for schools. Her post got me reflecting on the complex intersection of participation (in public persistent discourse as you have described) and compulsion (as in the inevitable way that compulsory attendance compels students to attend but not necessarily participate). I am thinking today context of the graduate-level education course we are teaching. We are trying to coax some busy teachers who are getting graduate degrees in educational leadership to participate in meaningful semi-public discourse around improving their classroom assessment practices. We have students building and sharing wikifolios where they apply what they are learning about assessment to their own classroom practice, and using forums to discuss the big ideas in the text. The resistance to the participatory aspects from some students is remarkably strong. We have agonized over the various design features that will compel all students to participate more than they would otherwise. While we are finding success, we are in part doing so by linking their participation to a grade. It seems effective but bizarre, for example, to motivate students to engage consequentially and critically in a discussion forum by pointing out that doing so will prepare them to engage conceptually on an exam at the end of the semester.

When I say we are finding success, it is because I see a strong level of engagement emerging across the class, and that the most reluctant participants are indeed engaging in ways that for me meet the level of accountability associated with this required course. If somebody is going to have a graduate degree in educational leadership, then they need to be able to engage in meaningful discussions around that aspect of practice. And in case I drop the ball, there are faculty members in charge of the graduate programs looking over my shoulder (and to some extent watching my back); if we drop the ball there is an accreditation agency out there looking over our collective shoulders (but probably not watching our backs).

So in this regard I do believe we are finding success. But I worry that we are not supporting the handful of students who are disposed (as in have the disposition, a carefully chosen term) to becoming 21st century educational leaders. For example, am I sacrificing the chance to help a couple of these students who might end up keeping a blog that critiques and unpacks local and state accountability practices that are buffeting teachers and administrators in their district in exchange for passing exam scores and adequate teaching evaluations? [Anybody who teaches required courses knows that the way to get great evaluations is go really easy on students and emphasize what they already know and make them think they have learned a lot.]

So this is what it boils down to: Compulsory attendance versus scaffolded participation. For me, this is the major issue facing education today. I do think that blogging is a bridge too far for many novices. But I do think that well structured discussion forums can give beginners the opportunity to try on the identities and try out the discourses of participatory culture. I also want to second Jenna’s shoutout for the collection of participatory media activities that Sam Rose and Howard Rheingold have provided at sociamediaclassroom. It is the best collection out there, and a great starting place for anybody looking to refine a more specific set for particular educational contexts. We are putting some together for our teachers in our project with teachers in Monroe and Eastern Green Counties, and they should be available on a site at soon.

And finally, what I would not give to be able to put everything else aside to blog. I have four of five posts that wake me up every morning. But then I remember I still have an overdue annual report for the National Science Foundation that I have been working on for a week. I will be lucky if my project officer reads it. But I have to crank it out to keep the grant money coming in so my graduate students can eat and have a place to sleep.


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