As part of their cumulative project for US History, my eleventh grade students are responsible for teaching a lesson to the class based on a topic of their choice, including assigning and assessing preparation work for the class. Because it’s the first time most of them have been responsible for teaching, I ask that they submit a lesson plan for their class before they teach it. They post their lesson plans on the class blog, and I tweet and email teachers and pre-service teachers asking for feedback on the students’ lesson plans.
Last year, 13 students got two or three comments each on their lesson plans. The feedback was useful to students as they prepared to teach the class. This year, we got one comment total.
I’m not angry or even particularly frustrated. I’m mostly curious. I feel certain that others have written from a more academic perspective on the question of network participation, but I just wanted to record a few informal observations.
At the end of the day, my students aren’t any worse off than they would have been if I wasn’t digitally connected or if I hadn’t asked for comments. They still got feedback from on their lessons before they taught them. What I do feel a bit badly about is the fact that I mentioned to students that other teachers would be commenting on their work. (Be careful what you promise.)
The network* is a gift economy, not a market one. Sometimes the gifts come in different forms than what you’re hoping for or expecting. This year, one of Dean Shareski’s students, Stacey Chomey, was kind enough to record a video for my students describing the way she goes about planning lessons. I also got a number of responses when I asked for advice for students before they wrote their lesson plan. I think both contributed to the quality of the first drafts of my students’ lessons being of higher quality than last year.
The higher the barrier to the participation, the less likely you are to get participation, unless people have powerful motivation to get involved. For this project in particular, I suspect that the fact that the lesson plans were uploaded as Word docs to a blog likely kept some from commenting. It’s not a huge thing, but I think it likely made a difference because my query posted as a Google doc received a number of responses. Next year, I’ll ask students to post their lesson plans in a Google doc or as a blog post to make commenting easier.
It might have helped to formalize an arrangement further in advance with someone who teaches (pre-service) teachers, so if they were willing, they could have made commenting part of their students’ participation in class. The informality of participation is one of the great things about digital connections. Drop in when you can, give what you can. But there are some situations, especially where students are involved, that it might make sense to be more deliberate.
So what do we do when the network fails us or participation isn’t what we’d hoped? And what do we tell our students?
*That term still makes me cringe a bit because I feel like it risks mechanizing or impersonalizing the human beings I interact with, but that’s another issue for another post.