“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
- John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
When I realized that I would be teaching a doctoral level class on digital tools for learning with fourteen experienced, engaged professional educators, I wanted to design a course experience that would both honor their expertise and serve as a group to develop a substantive, useful resource. I decided that over the course of five weeks we could devise, plan, and begin to build out a Web-based resource for teachers that would highlight particular digital tools to support different 21st century learning experiences (e.g., collaboration, communication). In this case, I’d planned to use a wiki site (Wikispaces) to allow for multiple authors to easily contribute content on the site.
We began by brainstorming characteristics of the digital tools we would review that would be helpful for other educators. We created a template that included the name and link to the tool, a basic overview of the features, possible educational advantages of the tool, and possible educational constraints or challenges with the tool. We then planned to use the remaining two hours of class time to begin reviewing a set of tools that would facilitate collaboration in the classroom. Over the remaining weeks we would develop a rich resource that would serve as a form of educational leadership. Such was the plan…
We reached quick consensus on the kinds of information we would include in our reviews and agreed to take another look at the categories at the end of class to see how well they worked. The students then began to examine some of the links and resources I’d provided. Within a few minutes, the students had identified the particular tools they wanted to review. The first challenge surfaced when the students needed to log in to the wiki to create a page for their tool review. Despite discussion and demonstration, this proved more difficult than I’d expected. One Web browser seemed to create difficulties, causing one student to lose her work to that point. After another 20 minutes or so, students had ironed out these issues and began to review the tools they selected to review.
Then, a new challenge arose. Some were able to jump right in and get a sense for the tool and begin their reviews. Others wanted to fully understand all the nuances of the tools. Some had selected very complex tools, while others selected tools they were already familiar with. This led to some students finishing quite quickly, others making slower progress, and some feeling completely overwhelmed to do the work in class. I hadn’t anticipated this wide variation of approach. Others had selected tools that weren’t really a good fit for educational settings, thereby wasting time that they invested in getting to know the tool. Consequently, we hadn’t made nearly the progress I’d hoped…at least so far.
Picking up the Pieces
So, how do you navigate these kinds of inevitable challenges that emerge in a collaborative, co-constructed learning experience? I don’t pretend to have all the answers (or even some good ones), but here’s how I approached the situation.
- Read the room and adjust
Early on, I could see the frustration – first with the wiki tool, and then with the time crunch of reviewing the tool in the allotted time. I could see I needed to release the pressure valve. So, I helped get the students on track with the tools as quickly as I could and then steered some of the students away from particularly complex tools that would be difficult to review quickly.
- Be honest
Rather than try to minimize the challenges the students were experiencing, I decided to be open and honest with them that this experience wasn’t going as smoothly as I’d anticipated. This opened up a dialogue wherein the students were able to both voice their concerns, but also suggest solutions.
- Make a decision and move forward
At a point, even with the helpful suggestions, I knew it was key for me to decide how we would move forward. I adjusted the expectations, gave the students more time, and agreed to screen the tools in advance and provide a think-aloud demonstration of reviewing tools at the beginning of next class.
Will this experience discourage me from structuring this kind of learning experience in the future? No. Will it encourage me to think through the process more clearly, try to anticipate challenges, and create a back-up plan in advance? Yep. Keep your fingers crossed for me next week.
How have you addressed these kinds of challenges in your courses?
Please post your comments below.