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Stefani Relles

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Thursday is TechDay: “It’s just a .jpg”

Today’s Thursday is Techday is anecdotal, an extract (from my classroom observation field notes) about how teenagers in one urban high school are using mobile technology for academic purposes. I’ve posted before about the iPhone as teenage fashion statement, and I’ve also shared stories about students passing a cell phone like a relay baton in some sort of tech-meets-green note passing ritual. According to the student cell phone passers—it saves paper.

Last week I observed something new: something I hadn’t seen before. Something so simple, so perfectly 2013 that it’s haunted me in that way only a new spin on an old idea can.

I was observing an 11th grade AP English classroom at a nearby high school. For context, formal technology is present in the classroom: five computers and a printer border the back wall. The teacher has rigged his own classroom theater with an overhead laptop projector and speakers, but the equipment sits precariously on a desk in the middle of the room. An extension cord is pulled more than 20 feet across the floor to make the thing work. Every now and then a student or teacher (or doctoral candidate) trips over the cord and multiple electronic components crash to the floor. It’s a perfectly imperfect system in a school not hardwired for the 21st century.

Just before the bell rang, as students packed up their backpacks and rose from their desks, the teacher called out, “Oh wait! I forgot something!” He proceeded with a blue dry erase pen to print an addition to the homework on the whiteboard. The text was four lines long: a prompt asking for an analysis of the gender roles in the novel, Speak. The teacher reminded everyone to write the prompt down because “this homework will be graded!”

And yet not one student seemed to care. No more than three of the classroom’s 28 students made the effort to take out a pen. The rest of them walked away as if they could care less. I was boggled.

Later, in a focus group session with group of the students, I probed about why they would blow off writing down the homework. They explained that Jonathan took a picture of the whiteboard and TWEETED it. Melissa clarified, “So no one has to write it down, not even Jonathan. It’s just a .jpg.” It turns out this is a homework tweeting ritual in most classes and students informally rotate the role of photographer. How about that?

My dissertation is on how students experience college writing preparation, so I’m struggling with this writing as picture-taking, not because I don’t support multimodal literacies (I do), and not because I don’t think tweeting a picture of a teacher’s handwriting isn’t a genius use of technology (it is, hence this post!).

I suppose I wonder what—if anything—tweeting homework changes in terms of learning print-based college-level alphabetic writing. I adore technology, but college placement exams still only test traditional essay writing. What’s the impact of not writing down the homework? Anything? Nothing? What are the direct academic benefits of tweeting: we don’t know that either. At least not yet.

Maybe I am just getting old? Why should 28 students take out 28 sheets of paper and 28 pencils or pens when one student with a cellphone camera can save the other 27 from grunt work? For that matter, why shouldn’t the teacher just tweet the homework and save all 28 students the hassle?

Personally, I think it’s pretty exciting—the possibilities that open up when classroom inefficiencies (if that’s what they indeed are) go by the wayside, and are replaced by digitally networked protocols. So this blog concludes in a musing—one that I believe we need to ask ourselves as educators more often—and that is not only what our students might lose academically in this brave new world of digital literacy behaviors, but also what we as educators can do with the accumulation of moments that are freed up because technology eliminates time wasted on trivial tasks. Does copying text off a whiteboard educate a student or not?

This blog is meant to provoke your thoughts. I may be a technology enthusiast, but I am an educator first and foremost. On the one hand, it seems we may need to keep pace with our students and rethink how to handle basic classroom managerial tasks. On the other hand, we also need to understand which tasks are academically prudent to do “the old fashioned way,” not because we are nostalgic or close-minded, but because we are curious and forward thinking. Welcome to 2013! Let the games begin!

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