Writing for Real Audiences on the Web

So, back to the problem of jibber-jabber. What is it that students are complaining about with the jibber-jabber? It is not the jibber-jabber itself, clearly: just take a look at ICQ and chat messaging abbreviations – talk about jibber-jabber! The problem is instead the students’ failure to understand the computer jargon or computer procedures, and the deep-seated fear of failure that haunts the school environment.

Many students still think their primary goal in school is to avoid failure. To never make a mistake. There are not many students who can regard their purpose in school as learning (including learning through their mistakes)… and you cannot blame them. You almost always get graded on what you know, which is not necessarily the same as being graded on what you have learned. And there are all kinds of things that students have to learn about in order to succeed when using online courseware – things that they did not need to know for school before.

Think about the typical classroom experience. You have to show up on time: that’s about the only thing you can fail at. You are not going to fail at getting into the building, opening the classroom door, sitting in your seat, and maintaining a more or less vertical posture for the next 50 or 75 minutes. If you can physically set yourself in motion (i.e., get out of bed), the odds of success are high! Admittedly, we do not offer a lot of overt praise for students’ success in arriving at the classroom, but it is at least a small kind of success. It is certainly not a failure. Imagine if at least four or five times a semester, you went to sit down in your chair in the classroom and the chair broke into pieces and you were left sitting on your ass in the middle of the classroom. Failure. In public. Awful!

Yet that public failure is just what happens with computer-based course management systems. At least that is what happens at my school, where we use Blackboard as our course management system. Several times a semester, the students go to take their seat in Blackboard and something horrible happens. Sometimes it is a result of their own technical error, sometimes it is a system error. In any case, there are technical difficulties, and you need some technical knowledge to sort out and respond to those difficulties when they arise.

But instead, the students often react to those problems with a sense of personal failure. “I can’t do anything on the computer.” “I did something wrong.” “I broke Blackboard.”

Instead of saying, “What is wrong here?”, they ask – sometimes explicitly – “What is wrong with me?”

Then, in a natural reaction to this sense of failure, they push the experience away. The computer is “jibber-jabber”, it is meaningless, it is dangerous, stay away, or you might fail. As the student said in the fairy tale he wrote for class yesterday: “If you can�t code the button, you fail.” (Interestingly, this student, who is clearly very hard on himself when it comes to computing, is also extremely hard on other students in the class, making the most harsh comments about the other students’ projects, chastising them very strongly for any technical difficulties they are having with their webpages.)

The threat of failure… or at least of the feeling of failure. It is a risk that comes with the use of any computer-based course management systems. By using a CMS to supplement, or even replace, the traditional classroom, we have to be aware that we are asking students to do more. And that means we are asking them to risk more: to risk failure. And that is a risk that many students have learned – through years of schooling – to avoid at all costs. Why take risks? The most important thing is to avoid failing…

So how can we justify asking students to do more, to risk more? Well, we have to offer them greater rewards! Unfortunately, the only kind of reward that we officially recognize in school is usually grades. For some students, a course management system might offer a way to get better grades: because it adapts to a wider range of cognitive learning styles and can offer different kinds of learning activities, students might embrace a computer-based course management system in the hopes of getting higher grades.

But I doubt it.

And that’s the wrong game to play, after all. Those of us who are committed to computer-based course management systems need to have loftier goals than higher grades: we need to challenge ourselves as teachers to use these new tools to offer our students much more than that. We need to offer them real learning opportunities, different and better than the learning opportunities that they had before… learning opportunities that will give students the same sense of intrinsic satisfaction and self-motivated pleasure that they feel when using cell phones and video games and online chat, which students clearly enjoy despite the jibber-jabber.

The next question: what kinds of things can students do online that will lead that sense of intrinsic satisfaction? how can we make online learning worth the risk?