Putting on a Show

Earlier this summer I had a chance to visit some former colleagues (and new additions) at the University of Montana. For two years, I was director of Web development at that school while my husband was getting his masters degree in geology. It was a great two years — among other things, it was my first introduction to the administrative side to what we do, and I guess my current role is testimony to the fact that there was something about that administration that I liked.

As part of my visit, I gave a presentation on future directions for teaching and learning technologies. This was fun, in part, because my old role at Montana didn’t much involve the teaching and learning culture. I’ve come a long way since then (in some ways back to my roots), and it was exciting to be able to share some of what I’ve learned and thought about with former colleagues and new friends.

I spoke, not surprisingly, a bit about the work we’ve been doing with faculty and students and blogging over the last few years at UMW, and I pointed to a few examples of some pretty cool synthesis that had been generated on student blogs. When I was done, one person in the audience pointed out that really, this kind of synthesis could happen in a non-networked, off-line, “unblog” environment as well. What was the point, really, of the blog?

It’s not a stupid question, and I’m sure many of us have answered it in one form or another over the years. There are lots of responses, including the notion that when a student is tapped into a networked publication culture, a culture that fosters sharing and deep connections, he or she may start to think differently about the actual ideas being explored in that space.

Yesterday, I confronted this question again, and I had, for me, a kind of revelation.

For two weeks now, umwblogs.org has been going full-steam ahead. The activity being generated in that space is really pretty breath-taking in its depth, breadth, and frequency. I subscribe to the feed of all the posts coming out of the system, and it is a true “river of content” — one that it is easy to get swept away in.

I’ve remarked to a few people that witnessing the products of umwblogs is like standing at the doorways to a couple dozen classrooms around UMW. For the first time, an outsider could witness the mind of the university unfurling.

As I was making my way through the feed yesterday, I came across this post.

This post represents something very special for me. To me, it is a wonderful moment (now captured online) of a student making a cool connection between two seemingly disparate courses. These are the kinds of connections that I think we should all be working to not only foster but expose.

Now, arguably, blogging isn’t what made this particular connection happen. Arguably, this student might have made this connection in a non-blogging world, say, 10 years ago — and maybe even journaled about it in a lovely marbled notebook.

But, I think there’s something else going on. Here’s the connection that occurred to me this morning.

Have you ever seen a child on a stage? Have you ever seen a child make a stage out of something else, simply because being on stage was so enticing? I have this nephew who is a complete ham. When he was younger, at my in-laws house he regularly would pretend that the hearth to the fireplace was his stage. He was always lively and energetic, but when he got on this “stage” he began to perform. And I think funny things happen when we’re performing. In a performance, we can try on different costumes, we can explore different stories, and we do all of this with an awareness that an audience is watching. In fact, it’s that audience that makes the performance, well, a performance. Put another way, a performance isn’t a recitation. It’s a show.

A few weeks ago, DTLT hosted a 45-minute presentation extravaganza for the incoming freshman about social networking. I blogged about our preparations earlier. One of the themes we explored as part of that presentation was the idea of social networking site as stages, and how, upon arriving at UMW, the stage for these students just got bigger.

In part, this framework allowed us to have a real, non-fear-mongering conversation about the consequences of engaging in these spaces. But, now, I realize there was another layer to this metaphor. (Maybe everyone else got it. I might be slow.)

I hadn’t thought through, at least not completely, how a blog might feel like a fireplace hearth. For me, my blog feels like a stage in that way. I dress it up in sets and costumes. I add widget props to the sidebar. And (every so often) I perform something in it. Whether I get comments or not, I recognize that what I’m doing is not writing in a marbled notebook; I am performing on a stage.

So, can students reflect and synthesize and make connections off-line? Of course they can. They’ve been doing it for centuries. But, given a stage, they may suddenly commit themselves to putting on a show.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/EsrpCDz5s3g" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

(This is the final version of the video that started off our show, made 1000 times better by Joe and Shannon’s addition of music.)