Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Learners as doers: the importance of acknowledging and supporting learners's agency

I must say I enjoyed the focus on agency and identity of this week's readings. Although agency and identity development were somehow already mentioned when we discussed Virtual Worlds, the perspective was completely different from this week's readings. The main focus then was on how virtual world can aid students develop scientific thinking. In Whyville, for example, students were able to act as agents in a safe environment (e.g. interacting with others and possibly transmitting a virus), develop a virtual identity of themselves through the creation of avatars, and experience the agency of others (e.g. by catching a disease from others after interacting with them) (Neulight et al., 2006, p. 48, 49) . This week's readings, on the other hand, focus more on social and real-world issues: encouraging agency and self-identity development to help learners go through what Bruner (1994) call "turning points"(Hull and Katz, 2007, p. 45) in their real world lives, both at a social and a personal level.

Black(2006) and Hull et al. (2007) explain how online sites (anime-based Fanfiction) and multimedia technology (digital storytelling) can support writing as a form of expression, sharing as a form of saying here I am, this is who I am. In both cases the use of highly participatory and agentive literate spaces resulted on powerful forms of self-representation for the learners, helping them to get by in the world, cope with changes and things they did not like.

As Black (2006) explains while referencing Jenkins(1992), Fanfiction writing allows fans to "construct their cultural and social identity through borrowing and inflecting mass culture images"(p. 172) ... "by infusing them with social and cultural themes, multiple literacies, various forms of expertise, and concerns from their daily lives."(p. 173). By writing, reading and peer-reviewing, fans engage in a dialogic process and start taking on "identities, not as immigrants, struggling writers or readers of English, or native or non-native speakers of one language or another, but rather as learners and users of multiple social languages and Discourses."(p. 173)

The cases described by Hull and et. al (2007), on the other hand, explore "how multimedia literacy helped participants to articulate pivotal moments in their lives and to assume agentive stances toward their present identities, circumstances, and futures" (p. 44). The tool chosen as a multimedia literacy tool is digital storytelling. Digital stories are a compositional form of art, where authors take other forms of arts (pictures, text, audio, video), either of their ownership or not, and create videos with them. The DUSTY initiative attempted to provide a social context for learning digital storytelling as a form of narrative. (p. 44)

These cases show several points of agreements with the Fanfiction example:
  1. The focus on the appropiation and repositioning of others' expression of arts (words, images, music, voices) as agentive and constructive performative moments. (p. 70)
  2. The conception of identity as "inherently multiple and dialogical" , susceptible to be adapted to our cultural, historical and institutional contexts. (p. 47)
  3. The emphasis on how context affects the narrated self : "how we represent ourselves in storied worlds depends on who we are trying to be in relation to others in the present" (p. 45)
  4. Social context helps the shaping of our identity: "We enact the selves we want to become in relation to others—sometimes in concert with them, sometimes in opposition to them, but always in relation to them." (p.47)
Nevertheless, it shows some important differences:
  1. The digital storytelling project was not an online project, therefore it did not focused on global sharing and language barriers (p. 45)
  2. The paper focus is more on "individuals and groups can learn to fashion identities as competent actors in the world able to influence the direction and course of their lives." (p. 47)
Although these cases are mainly based on literacy as a way of expression, it is as a Programming teacher that I can see the advantages of this approach. I feel that many of the principles discussed in the papers are not exclusive to literacy. As Hull et al.(2007) explain "the opportunity to be successful as a learner and doer can foster a view of self as agent, able to influence present circumstances and future possibilities, and to situate self in relation to others in socially responsible ways"(p. 71). In that sense, programming could also be seen as a form of expression. It is probably not as rich as literacy, but it can encompass most of the advantages mentioned above. Open Source software communities are a perfect example of this: programmers participate in forums asking for advice, publish their code, comment on other's people's code, and modify existing programs adapting them to their needs. These can all be seen as ways to foster a view of self as agent and situate the self in relation to others in socially responsible ways.

During my years as a programming teacher I always tried to make the class a "place" where students were empowered to decide what they want to learn, how they want to learn it and share their experiences and critiques with their peers. That does not mean that I believe teachers should disappear from the equation at all. They are just not supposed to run the whole "show" and they don't possess the absolute truth or knowledge about everything. The teacher's role is to be more of a facilitator, better yet, a mentor for the students (as called in the DUTY example, Hull et al., 2007, p. 66): always encouraging students to improve and "enacting their agentive selves" (Hull et al., 2007, p. 73). I am a firm believer that encouraging students to interact in such an environment with a more planar structure, where the teacher is not the ruler of everything, could do what the Fancfiction site described by Black(2006), did for Nanako : provide a "safe, supportive, and meaningful venue, not only for language learning and literacy development, but also for affiliating and commiserating with other youth around social and cultural issues that are central to their lives."(p. 183).

There are so many positive outcomes of encouraging agency and self-identity development, that it is hard to see a drawback. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware that, aside from the content in which these interactions focus, the most relevant part that seems to drive these interactions to a successful learning experience, is its informal nature. In the first case, Nanako got involved in fanfiction because she already liked anime. She probably did not have a specific expectation when she started participating, she just wanted to express herself: "Writing was not constrained by an ascribed ELL role or specific expectations and requirements for her texts. She was not expected to adhere to the identity of an immigrant, a Canadian, or a native Mandarin Chinese speaker, nor was she forced to choose between the languages in her linguistic repertoire."(Black, 2006, p. 182). In addition to that, the absence of imposed or ascribed social roles in Fanfiction sites, is what enables adolescents from a range of different backgrounds to act both as teachers and as learners(Black, 2006, p. 182). In the second case, bot Randy and Dara were participating in this informal out of school project, that had the goal to "explore how to create learning spaces where individuals and groups can define and redefine themselves, voicing agentive selves through the creation of multimodal text"(Hull and Katz, 2007, p. 71) . Reproducing voluntary participation and giving the students the feeling of "doing it just for fun" in an formal learning environment, such a school, could be a huge challenge.

In my case, I tried to overcome this challenge by incentivizing students with extra points if they participated in the class' forum. As a way to create a more planar structure in the forum and to encourage them to participate, I started posting questions, pretending to be another student. The questions increased in level of difficulty so that everybody could try to answer them. I also tried to answered their questions in the forum either with other questions or with examples that were obviously wrong. The idea was to encourage other students to help me answer the questions. My idea was to support their participation at the beginning and stop my intervention once they started participating more. Even though this strategy seemed to work pretty well in encouraging students, I faced more or less the same problems described by Dohn(2008) in her article: evaluating them in that sense was hard, not all of them participated equally and since their contributions where not part of a real-life initiative, not all of them seemed to appreciate the impact of collaborating(p. 356). On the other hand, I must say that the use of the forum somehow helped strengthen the bonds within the students who participated. After the course was over, these students gathered and formed an Open Source Learning community on their own account.

Going back to my model, I realized that it is lacking a representation for both the students' individuality and their agency, as important members of the information ecology. Even though I believe that teachers are essential to a formal learning environment, the current model gives the wrong impression that the students' knowledge depends entirely on the teacher. As the cases showed us, students can participate in the construction of knowledge both as learners and as teachers. Just as the teacher, they are also gardeners, proposing activities and fostering the growth of knowledge and identity. Students can foster and be part of the ecology also by taking other forms: they can be birds, butterflies, apples, etc. This would represent how can students develop multiple identities, depending on their surroundings.


The Untwitterable said...

Really enjoyed reading your thoughtful reflection on this week's readings and your own approach to teaching. i think that you are absolutely right, even though both week's readings covered the self, this week's was framed entirely different. last week was about authentic practices (or simulations of) in virtual worlds, while this week's is about self-formation and agency through multimedia self-expressions. And when I read your post I cannot help imagine you as this agentive being, a sort of socratic gardener always pushing your students forward with ever-deepening questions and responses. good stuff.

woolball said...


I add my voice to the Untwitterable to say that I enjoyed reading your seamless narration around your reflection. Also, your thorough style definitely helps me put concepts in context (I'm now "dejavuing" about being in one of Nanko's reviews).

The interesting alignment of topics from last week and this week
makes me revise the notion of a "virtual" world again.. The recent readings considered technology as providing spaces for community activities. Would that mean that a virtual world is "virtual" due to the intent of the designer?.. Or because it simulates physical spaces that are not possible in reality?.. I guess the category comes in the first place from the distinctions that people make until emergent practices and mundane presence around new technologies becomes natural -when these new technologies are not anymore new- and we shift the focus to people in their spaces and contexts.

When you mentioned if there are possible drawbacks of the development of agency and identity I remembered a report on the future of the Internet by [Fox, Anderson, & Rainie]. There, disagreements were noted among experts "about whether internet use would foment a rise in religious and political extremist groups".. I guess these disagreements tie back to our discussions that the use of Internet approaches the complexity of asking "what do people do"?.. The Internet provides spaces and forms of representation that are open for human dilemmas, joys, conflicts (meaning or the lack of it) to prosper and diminish.

Finally, again, I love your visual representation of your ideas.. and this week's depiction of the diversity of learners brings me happiness :)

[Fox, Anderson, & Rainie] Rainie, Harrison. & Anderson, Janna Quitney, & Fox, Susannah. 2008 The future of the Internet / Lee Rainie, Janna Quitney Anderson, and Susannah Fox Cambria Press, Amherst, N.Y. http://www.elon.edu/docs/e-web/predictions/2004_experts_survey.pdf