Scholar Errant

On words and things

Instant messaging in the classroom

Twitter and more traditional news outlets such as the BBC have today reported on a paper on the effects of instant messaging through phone use in the classroom on student learning. The whole paper is available here. To very briefly summarise, the study found that those who did not engage in messaging during student learning, as well as those who engaged in messaging that was relevant to the topic (an important aspect that goes easily uncommented in the discussion) performed considerably better than those who swapped messages on topics irrelevant to the topic at hand.

I am of the generation that saw the influx of new technology, portable and otherwise, but my school days in the 1980s and 1990s and my BA days in the turn of the 21st century were still marked by the lack of information and communication on demand. Texting existed during my final years of school, but not many had their own mobile phones even in Finland, the once-promised land of Nokia. (That said, I remember being shocked when I arrived in Ireland in 1997 and discovered that hardly anyone outside my immediate circle of nerd friends had mobiles). In Trinity in the last years of the 1990s and the first years of the 2000s those Arts lecturers who were interested in incorporating technology in teaching and learning in any way had to fight to get students contribute to message boards or have anything to do with computers. And the students most likely still didn’t do it. I did, because I thought it was fun that way.

To an extent, I think that it’s an over-simplification to point an accusatory finger at mobile technology to say that it is to blame for poorer performance. Daydreaming and communication on irrelevant topics has always existed in class. Are you old enough to remember passing paper (!) notes in class? Did you ever get in trouble if your teacher found out and read them in front of the whole class? Maybe one “advantage” of mobile tech is that it contributes to quieter atmosphere in class, as those who would otherwise have whispered conversations end up having them by instant messaging instead. Of course, that presupposes that the conversationalists don’t end up involuntarily giggling or squealing over the message contents.

Here is the thing though: there are always going to be those students who do not care about the class topic, do not think that it’s relevant to their studies/career/etc and will not pay attention. They will think about other things, chat off- or online, doodle, or play games, or read/write social media. Our job as educators is to motivate these people, to draw them out of their ennui as much as we can by challenging and engaging them. To put it bluntly, the students only have so much attention and we need to compete with the entire rest of the(ir) world for it during class. Those who come in interested in the topic or see the relevance of it are primed to give us more of their attention straight away – the rest we need to convince, for want of a better word. Because I believe strongly that learning comes from the student, who uses the teacher and teaching as tools to facilitate her/his/their own learning, I also believe that it is ultimately up to the student whether they choose to stare at their phone or to pay attention in class. By appearing interesting and, crucially, interested, we can push them towards choosing attention to our teaching. Let me tell you from my own experience: I’ve always been the teacher’s pet, but lecturers who monotonously read from their notes made – and make! – me rather read Facebook for the period of supposed learning.

If we take the road of banning mobiles, we may end up distracting the students further. As anyone with experience of any kind of addiction knows, you don’t go cold turkey without giving a moment’s thought to the object of addiction. Take away the phones, and the students end up preoccupied with wondering about what is happening on and in their various social networks, and/or engaging in some other displacement activity, never mind resentment against your petty rules, which may lead to resistance towards the learning process as directed by you.

So, besides remembering that teaching, too, is a performance art of sorts, what could we do about mobile devices in the classroom? Going from my own experience, if the students have things to actively do, they are less likely to be distracted by social media. Small in-class projects, whether it is in pairs, groups or singly (not everyone is suited to working in groups!), could be useful, as long as the students have enough motivation to complete the project (discussion afterwards and/or brief presentations). Encouraging discussion in class usually works in engaging most of the students, as their peers’ voices seem to stimulate them in a manner different from that of their lecturer. Equally, if the students have an opportunity to make their opinion known in class, they may be less likely to do so by message, so that the potential “omg so bored lol cinema l8r??” can instead morph into “So I really don’t like Keats because he’s a whiny git” and at that point it’s the lecturer’s job to coax out why the student thinks Keats is a whiny git, how that shows up in the poetry, and so on. Learning doesn’t have to be an avalanche of positive experiences, but negative experiences can also be turned into learning. I feel that this kind of thing – mutual engagement, mutual interest, the feeling of the student that you are paying attention to them, as much as you as teacher, ideally, feel that the student is paying attention to you – is the ultimate strength of face-to-face teaching, rather than watching videos online, for instance.

We could also actively employ social media and internet in general in our teaching and learning. When I was taking my MA classes, I liked to be able to pull up more information on the phone. For instance, during the classes on WWI literature, I often checked spellings of names, or the context of some concepts that came up, and I felt that my learning experience was enhanced by that, because I had a fuller idea of what was being talked about. Perhaps we could offer keywords, or URLs on “further information” during class as well as afterwards. In the first class of a module, we could present a hashtag for the class. #CompLit101 #WarLit #LitSpace. Similarly, we could create a Facebook, or whatever-social-medium discussion group for the students, on the assumption that since they’re going to talk anyway, they might as well do so under controlled circumstances. (Now, they may create a separate group that doesn’t involve you, but you can’t help that.) If we’re teaching visual culture of any sort, we could do things with Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest, hell, I’m sure I can think of a way do relevant things with SnapChat. We could ask the students to conduct polls on relevant topics on their social media and then discuss the results.

As noted above, the study referenced here found that relevant messaging had a positive impact, and no negative impact, on the learning process. Using social media and instant messaging as part of the teaching and learning methods would, ideally, teach the students responsible use of social media as well as the primary topic at hand – a bit like learning to drink alcohol at home at dinner so that you’re less likely to do so in secret somewhere outdoors, with brown paper bags.


Teaching history through Twitter narrative

The Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE have been working on a dramatised Twitter project to re-enact the events of the so-called “Winter War” (1939-40) the first part of the Finnish participation in World War II. The hashtag for the project was/is #sota39 but a bulk of the project is only available in Finnish. The project consisted of a main “narrative” account, @sota1939, which mostly focused on the historical developments and retweeting the various other involved accounts, as well as a number of in-character accounts of a number of contemporary politicians. As the purpose of the project was education, YLE also provided a dedicated website for information on the project as well as associated articles, photographs and a number of video clips.

As an online project, audience participation seems to have been a natural part of the project, but it ended up taking interesting forms. While the main website allowed for comments and discussion, the events on Twitter evolved through unexpected crowd-narrativization (I just made that up). Readers created their own accounts of ordinary people, fictional and historical (although, interestingly, mostly in terms of local or family history, although, likely inevitably, further major historical figures such as Stalin also appeared), who then proceeded to actively participate in the events using the hashtag. Participation took the form of text tweets and images – including images of a soldier’s diary. One school created their own parallel project during the relevant history module by assuming a number of characters on Twitter (through dedicated accounts) and using their own hashtag (#siihis4) alongside the main one.

The project was very interesting to follow. It did not quite seem to hit the full real-time immersiveness that you might have expected, but this may have been partly intentional considering the crucial role of the war in the Finnish national narrative (and mythology!) It was translated in English and Swedish by originally uninvolved volunteers, but at least the English account avoids the immersiveness entirely by simply acting as a “reporter” of sorts from the events. That is a pity because this kind of a project might have plenty of interest in it even outside the immediate cultural area. I’m myself particularly interested in the “official” educational aspect, because while there have been plenty of twitterized real-time historical events, I’m not sure how many others have had the same kind of overall function, or have attracted the same kind of audience participation.

Memories of pTerry

I wrote this elsewhere on 12 March, the day Terry Pratchett died. A cluster of hasty thoughts, which were going to force their way out in some format. I chose quick words, instead of tears.

I first read Good Omens on a sunny early autumn day during the last couple of years of school – I forget which, exactly. The grass was soft and the sun was still warm and school was quite interesting and fun, and the book was about to open a whole new direction for me. It wasn’t just about deep themes or interesting fantastic plots, but it was also about how to use language cleverly – how it could be funny, poignant, epic, scary and touching all in one work.

I went on to read everything by Neil Gaiman, and pretty much everything by Terry, and arrived at me. I thought Terry was at his strongest when he went for the more serious books, even if they were still amusing, and the humour to me was always secondary to his handling of the themes of each book.

I loved his female protagonists: Susan, of course, and Tiffany, and also Polly. Monstrous Regiment is one of my favourites, even if it’s not usually counted among his best.

It’s hitting me pretty hard, although of course I knew – we all knew – that it was coming. I raged when I heard about his diagnosis, it was not, in any way, fair. But life isn’t. And the only way to get through life as far as you can, I think, is to treat it like one of Terry’s books: that even when it is scary, or impossible, or painful or, indeed, epic, as it can be, the funny bits are still there. Somewhere.

I’d have a whisky if I wasn’t driving tonight, but as it is, it’ll have to wait.

I see his final Discworld novel is going to be of Tiffany. I am wary of touching it, because, understandably, his quality of writing seemed to suffer a little in the last few years. But I most likely will read it, because of the significance the Tiffany books have for me.

A Conversion, of sorts

As I finished my PhD at the end of last year, I am converting this blog from an under-used record of the PhD process to a more general reflection of my thoughts, hopefully to be updated more often. Please note the changed URL, too.

End in sight

The past few months have been very busy. I have written a paper for publication, based on a conference presentation two years ago, attended an intensive spring school in Germany, got involved in a summer school organisation at DCU, and even managed to write Chapter 6 to the point that I’m very much nearing its end now. The paper I had to write four times because I kept being unhappy with it – it’s amazing how difficult it is to go back to material you have last dealt with years ago, particularly when your research has moved on far in the meantime. You want to keep annotating your own arguments, but if you do that, then the whole paper unravels and you end up writing something completely different from what you promised in the abstract. 

The spring school in Germany in February/March was organised in Goettingen, at the Georg-August University, as part of the European Campus of Excellence initiative. I see that a very brief report of it the spring school has been written here. I left with somewhat conflicting views of it. On the one hand, it was very well organised, most of our expenses were covered (apart from wifi at the accommodation, which was a huge oversight – we absolutely needed internet for our work, and I ended up paying €30 for the two weeks to have wifi in my room) and we had a wide variety of people from all over Europe, together with world class lecturers. I had two big problems with it: one, we had practically no freetime, which led to all of us being excessively tired and less motivated than we could have been towards the end of the second week. Secondly, while the principle of having students from all levels of their university careers was on the first sight stimulating, it was also problematic. At 35, I and one other student were the oldest in the group. I had expected a professional gathering of peers or near-peers, but we were constantly treated as undergraduates who needed telling what to do. The fact that many of the students were, or at least behaved, like undergraduates, certainly didn’t help, but it often led to a certain feeling of being in an American high school sitcom. I could feel myself regressing at times, irritatingly.

Incidentally: there is nothing as annoying, ill-mannered and thoughtless than constant chattering during a presentation. My presentation, someone else’s presentation, I don’t care. It is the height of rudeness, and I’ve been known to rip my own students a new one for it. Unfortunately I was not in the position to do so in Germany.

Our summer school will be held together with Mater Dei Institute, and it is called Word and Image: Imagining Japan. We will start with days of more general discussion, and finish off with two days specifally focusing on Japan. I’m looking forward to it greatly, as, besides the spring school in Germany, I have not been professionally travelling this spring. This is a deliberate choice: I already have quite a few presentations and publications under my name, and this year I want to fully focus on finishing my PhD as well as I can. And that is not very far away now, at all.    

State of the PhD – or, ‘How’s the thesis going, Nina?’

I finished the draft of Chapter 5 just before the holidays. The end of it, in particular, is probably somewhat rushed; I’ll have a look at it and do any necessary edits soon before handing it over to my supervisor to read. After that, I have one more chapter to write, followed by the Conclusion, edits and rewrites as necessary, and the compilation of bibliography (to which I am really not looking forward). I am intent on submitting the thesis during 2014. My hope is that I will get it done in the summer, as per the original plan, but as I’m aware that delays can happen, I am also prepared to wait until the end of the year.

I have one paper to write for publication fairly soon, and a couple of others that I would like to find publication avenues for. I recently became acutely aware of the importance of published papers, since I started to view postdoc opportunities in any kind of seriousness. I feel that I could certainly do better than my current state of such things. It has been, and is being, difficult to juggle the thesis, teaching, other duties such as those pertaining to my position in the Comparative Literature Association of Ireland committee, and publications. I suppose that learning to handle that labyrinth is an essential part of the researcher training and I keep assuring myself that I don’t need to be perfect at it.  

The end of the autumn semester also marked the end of the first full module I have taught. I had approximately 20 first years from different programmes, including several exchange students. As a first timer, I don’t think I can really judge how well it went. Attendance varied, but for the final class the vast majority of the students were present, although assessment materials had already been handed out. It was very gratifying to get to know the students during the 12 weeks, and, in particular, to see most of them step out of their shells and become more comfortable about voicing their opinions and suggestions. I think that the best thing about the module was the number of occasions when the students came up with excellent interpretations of the materials under examination that I had not thought of myself. It was exhausting – I had heard of friends and colleagues remark on their tiredness by the end of each semester in the past, but I hadn’t experienced it myself before. I have no doubt that I could have done things better in a lot of ways, but all of those things are the kind that can be adjusted and improved in the future.  

What will you read next?

The British bookstore chain Waterstones does social media very well, including its highly popular Twitter account @wstonesoxfordst. Thanks to them I have just discovered an excellent blog post by the same chain, which is very relevant to my own interests: novels written in the second person.

Ever, Jane?

My university is having its reading week, which means no classes to teach. So, theoretically, more time for writing the thesis. However, I am finding that it also means more time for rest, and more time for boggling at things that surface from the depths of the internet, such as this one.

A Jane Austen massively multiplayer roleplaying game called Ever, Jane is a project on Kickstarter hoping to attract enough money for development. The concept is very interesting, and I love the notion that virtual worlds should derive inspiration from more mainstream works, but I fear that the target audience is probably not large enough. Best of luck to them, though.

Games for Glass?

New Scientist reports some initial attempts at AR games on Google Glass. Inevitable, of course. I won’t lie – I would be interested. In literature, we have already seen this in Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End and Charles Stross’s Halting State, among others…

Myth of the War of the Worlds hysteria

The War of the Worlds radio play by Orson Welles could be called the first truly immersive fictional experience brought about by means of technology – but Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow argue that the ‘mass hysteria’ it supposedly caused never took place.  If that’s the case, this is a fascinating case of a myth of the power of media, as the writers suggest.