Media, Technology, and Education

The Vulnerability of Learning

I spent the last three days talking about learning and teaching at Plymouth State University’s January Jamboree and the University System of New Hampshire’s Academic Technology Institute meeting. Both events were full of so many thought-provoking presentations and conversations. Each event had a student panel in which students talked about their experiences with open educational practices. The students had great insights into open education and the benefits and challenges.

Listening to the students talk about feeling unsure and vulnerable when they first encountered open educational practices made me think about my own learning. As a mid-career academic who has changed jobs and even disciplines, I am a confident learner. I have received lots of praise and other kinds of positive reinforcement for my ability to learn new things. If you have read previous posts on my blog, you might know that I am really interested in developments in the IndieWeb movement and am trying to write about some of my experiences with using IndieWeb tools to build my own web site. I’ve been building my own sites for years and so I have a lot of confidence in my ability there as well. Working on the IndieWeb stuff has been challenging because there’s a lot of new language and new concepts as well as some aspects of web development that I have not engaged with before. I often feel vulnerable when I write my posts about the IndieWeb because my understanding of how everything works is emerging. In other words, I don’t get it all yet but I’m still writing publicly about my work.

In my last post about the IndieWeb, I wrote about trying to make the WordPress theme on this blog use Microformats. Microformats are a way of adding metadata to what you post on your web site to indicate what each item on the site is about so that other tools can read these items and do things with them. For example, when I write a post on this blog, I want my web site to automatically tag the post as an h-entryย so that reader tools can display the post properly. (Even writing this explanation makes me feel vulnerable since this is my current understanding and I think it’s right but I may be slightly incorrect or maybe even mostly incorrect.) Having done a bunch of reading and looking at other IndieWeb blogs, I thought I understood how to use the h-entry tag. So I wrote a kind of step by step guide about how to add Microformats to my site. To do so requires knowledge of how WordPress use functions and CSS files to display a web page as well as how the Microformats are used by other tools once the page is rendered. As I wrote my blog post, I knew that I didn’t completely understand all of the functions that WordPress uses. In fact, I wrote: “The setup function adds theme support for the microformats. Iโ€™m actually not sure whether this setup function is required or not but since it works, Iโ€™m not going to mess with it.” I thought I understood how the Microformats, the h-entry tag in particular, are used. It turns out that I didn’t understand either.

A lot of what I’ve learned about the IndieWeb has come from following Chris Aldrich. He replied on his own web site to my post and very gently suggested that my explanation was misleading. He then explained where my misunderstandings were (are). He explained the purpose of the setup function, which is different than what I explained. He also explained that my use of the h-entry tag was incorrect because I only put the tag around the header of my post rather than around the entire post. I didn’t realize that I didn’t understand the tag until he responded to my use of it. When I received Chris’s comment, my first response was that I should delete my post or at least the incorrect part of it. It’s embarrassing to have your incorrect understandings available for public view. But I decided to leave the post as is but put in a disclaimer so that others would not be misled by my misunderstandings.

This experience reminded me that learning makes us vulnerable. Admitting that you don’t know something is hard and being corrected is even harder. Chris was incredibly gentle in his correction. It makes me think about how I respond to my students’ work. Am I as gentle with their work as Chris was to mine? Could I be more gentle? How often have I graded my students’ work and only focused on what they did wrong? Or forgotten that feeling of vulnerability when you don’t know something, when you put your work out for others to judge? This experience has also reminded me that it’s important that we as teachers regularly put ourselves into situations in which we authentically grapple with not knowing something. We should regularly share our less than fully formed understandings with others for feedback. It helps us remember that even confident learners can struggle with being vulnerable. And we need to keep in mind that many of our students are not confident learners.


Image Credit: Taken by Anne Davis, shared on Flickr and licensed CC-BY-NC 2.0

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I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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