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Published January 11, 2017 | Multidisciplinary

Empowering Students with Liberal Education and Technology

Enabling student empowerment by offering students access to a personalized and inquiry-based education is a hallmark of the liberal education model. When students are invited to share their academic work with the local and global community, it helps them to devote the requisite energy, passion and creativity to their efforts, which promotes accelerated learning. Technology can be used to support the liberal education model and, further, can provide tools to teach more effectively and enhance curricula. Using Web 2.0 tools has allowed my students to bridge academic and non-academic interests, to connect to global partners and collaborators and to engage with online media in real-time.

During my 10 years teaching in the Humanities Department at Champlain College, Saint-Lambert, I have found that enabling a student’s personal and individual passions as part of their schoolwork leads to an increase in the quality of their assignments and fosters a mastery of the material that I am teaching them. Of course, this is not a novel claim, as similar statements have been made by generations of educational reformers such as Paolo Freire (1) and by pragmatic philosophers who defend an education model that allows for student exploration, inquiry, and “real-world” contexts to enter the classroom, including John Dewey and Henry Giroux. This position finds further recent explanatory confirmation in studies from affective neuroscience, for example.

Outdated industrial models of education bely student individuality and deny the educator and student the ability to build general competencies which are less easily quantified, such as critical thinking and communication skills, cultural awareness and understanding, and the ability to work within multidisciplinary contexts. While past industrial models sought more quantifiable and uniform results, I think most modern educators would agree that the outputs in this model are far less valuable, and I would argue that they inadequately prepare learners for the adaptability, creativity and mobility required to meet the demands of the modern knowledge-based economy and the media literacy required for global citizenship.

Opening Up the Curriculum with NewsActivist.com

I use technology to increase the open framework of my course assignments and structures, and, to some extent, my curriculum. By allowing disparate and timely subject matter chosen by the students to enter into assignments and the classroom, my courses unfold in different, individualized and student-initiated directions. Despite this, the assignments and curricula remain well-organized and I maintain my management role as teacher. None of this significantly increases my workload. I remain in control of student work, in certain ways, but students are empowered to co-design their assignments and share their own perspectives without over-fracturing the course. Further, with the support of the right technology, I can invite students to collaborate with other students in co-taught courses, removing barriers between courses and institutions, and in this way liberating my students while helping build critical thinking and communication skills.

In 2012, I developed NewsActivist.com as a means of enabling students to work in a flexible manner. I have shared a couple of stories about the technology on Profweb over the last couple of years (Profweb articles from 2009 and 2012). In a nutshell, the technology enables students to communicate and collaborate with a local and global audience as publishers of their own writing. The site was originally developed to allow my own Humanities classes to collaborate with a Sociology class in New York.

The site allowed our students to engage in creative and collaborative work, in a way that my teaching partner, Dr. Eric Kaldor, and I were unable to manage in prior years.

The experience led to the publication of an article in the Journal of Educational Technology Systems in 2015, “Creating Interactive Audiences for Student Writers in Large Classes: Blogging on the NewsActivist Learning Network”. As of today, dozens of teachers from multiple disciplines around the world have taken advantage of the platform, using the site in ways that I couldn’t have predicted.

Some Strategies for Integrating Individualized Curriculum Using Technology

NewsActivist.com invites students to submit completed work to a community of students from all over the world. So, rather than asking each of my students to apply course content to material I supply to the student, using the site enables the student to submit, search and reply to other material submitted by peers across the globe, so that they can situate their work within personally meaningful contexts. Students can publish completed works to an audience of peers, or even a global audience if the student chooses to make her work fully available to the public. Some student pieces have been viewed over 30,000 times!

Students are given the opportunity to publish work on the platform with aliases, but this is provided with a hovering group of teachers who monitor the site and act as guarantors of the quality of the content and feedback. Each student is protected and given a safe opportunity to speak about what are sometimes sensitive issues, all the while honing their online writing style and learning from peers.

Much of my use of the site is based on asking my students to submit original material to the site, as content to be consumed and responded to by other users of the website. This takes place in my Ethics courses, where article abstracts and opinion pieces are posted online, and also in my complementary Contemporary Issues course, a curriculum built in part to take advantage of the site’s possibilities. In this class, students are invited to see themselves as publishers of material that can impact the local and global community while considering the impacts of academic work and socially conscious business and NGOs on the world.

Another approach that I use in my Humanities Knowledge course involves teaching my students 20 specific vocabulary words related to critical thinking. I then ask my students to use at least 5 of these concepts and words in a series of comments that they will make in response to material that other students have submitted across the NewsActivist network. Not only does this give students a deeper connection with the vocabulary, they also are engaging with students who have been submitting research material for other courses. My students will choose whom to interact with based on search terms and filters, discovering a sense of community and finding connections across academic disciplines. The site then organizes the work students have submitted so teachers can keep track of the work students are doing, whether original or commentary.

You can find a broad set of assignments and activity examples here, but each teacher will likely create their own subject and course-specific assignments.

Teacher Response to NewsActivist

With the support of Profweb from 2012-2015 and in 2015-2016 with the support of la Vitrine technologie-éducation (VTE) as of October, 2016, I have been able to share the site with other teachers. The site has now been used to support over 7800 students in the last 4 years. Testimonials from teachers across the globe speak to the myriad of ways the site has been appropriated for courses in a variety of disciplines. I have received reports from many professors on how the site is providing students access to a more individualized, liberal education model, while also allowing courses to meet ministerial, institutional, and departmental requirements, without suffering an unmanageable increase in workload.

Teachers from Quebec have related their success with integrating NewsActivist into disparate courses. Centennial College Psychology instructor and McGill Education Professor Dave Hoida reports:

I have used NewsActivist for 2 college courses; Abnormal Psychology and Contemporary Issues. I enjoy how students attach to current events and gain perspective on said events by collaborating with other NewsActivist community members through viewing and composing posts and comment replies.

In my own college, Champlain Saint-Lambert, Geography teacher Genevieve Aboud has used the site for several years and reports:

A student came to speak with me at the end of last semester. He had loved the class, and when I asked him what he felt was interesting to him about it, he pointed at our use of the NewsActivist platform. When I asked him why, he said that it gave him the sense that he was allowed to express his own ideas and opinions on the subjects we were learning about.

In the end, it is the students who best illustrate the value of this pedagogical approach, which uses technology to support a liberal educational model. While around 10,000 articles are available at NewsActivist.com that are worth exploring, below are a few anecdotes from my own students’ experiences.

Stories of Student Empowerment

The reason the site is valuable to teachers is because it is valuable to students. Students are pleased to be asked to take initiative in their courses, to be themselves as they learn, and to be involved and engaged in a community of learning that matters. As my own student Nathalie Geukers reports:

I was much more motivated to write my blog posts than my regular essays because I knew some people would actually read it and my opinion could have a voice. We could also see what other students thought of what we were doing or give our opinion on other people’s posts whether we agreed or disagreed, which motivated me to write better posts. I got to work on a subject that really matters to me and it made me care about it even more.

My complementary courses give students the option of either writing a multidisciplinary term paper or organizing and writing about a volunteer project that relates to the academic work they’ve done over the semester. The quality of term papers created is uniformly impressive. Through providing students the room to maneuver, I find more creativity and a more consistent development of deep ideas than in courses without this flexibility. The personalities of students shine as they write about the news that they find personally meaningful and turn to academic journals to deepen their arguments regarding how to respond to these issues in the news, as well as finding online support from peer collaborators from courses I’ve partnered with or from their own exploration of the site. While abstracts of papers are publicly shared on NewsActivist.com, I do not recommend that students post their completed term papers, due to plagiarism concerns.

The work of student volunteers illustrates how writing online can lead to civic engagement, moving academic work from the classroom and into the world, not at the expense of academic rigor, but to its benefit. The following examples show how 2 students took their assignments to the next level.

Katherine Darby: Activism for the Environment

By the time that Katherine arrived in my complementary course, she was already an active volunteer and an enthusiastic writer. Using the NewsActivist platform enabled her to explore different writing styles and share her writing and work with her class and the entire world. This gave her a new sense of just how impactful her work could be, as can be seen at her page at NewsActivist.

In her final post of the semester, she related how her work throughout the semester inspired her to contact the mayor of her city regarding an issue that is close to her heart - the loss of breeding areas in Canada for Monarch butterflies. She also decided to work with Greenpeace on a petition drive, in part taking advantage of her bilingualism to translate their online petitions. In this same post she informs us that her mayor responded to her contact by suggesting that Katherine had, in fact, sensitized him to an issue of which he was previously unaware and that he would work to resolve. During the process of gathering signatures for the petition, she found nothing but support from her peers, allowing her to feel more positive about her chances of having an impact on issues as she tries to make the world a better place. Further, the platform enabled her to communicate to others the importance of being involved, closing her multimedia piece with the following lines:

I encourage you all to take up your own environmental projects whether they be big or small. You can start a petition, organize a river clean-up, use re-usable grocery bags, clean up your street or even plant a few seeds. Don’t be afraid to stand up to the problems you see in your community. If enough people speak up, change will happen. It just takes one voice to start the conversation.

Gretta-Olivia Ineza: Blogging About Burundi in Her Second Language

Another student did not let the fact that she was studying in English for the first time at CEGEP deter her from posting to the NewsActivist site. By inviting her to write about her own passions in a secure environment where she controlled the level of visibility of her writing, she was able to improve her abilities by leaps and bounds over the course of a semester. She was encouraged to focus on her own talents and her unique experience and knowledge of Burundi, the country from which she emigrated as a child, and which is currently struggling with a period of great unrest. She chose to spend the semester learning and writing about those working to improve the situation. This enabled her to educate others through her writing and to learn about those in her local Montreal community working on the issue. By the end of the semester, she had learned a great deal, shared her unique perspectives with the class, the NewsActivist network, and the globe. She even contacted one of her country’s heroes who is working to reduce the conflict in Burundi - humanitarian Marguerite Barankitse. Finally, Gretta-Olivia researched, discovered and volunteered with a Quebec Burundian support group.

Her writing, when she felt confident, was shared with the world. By allowing her to tap into her passions and experiences, the class all learned something new from and about her, and she was able to develop her academic writing in a more effective manner, as she truly cared about getting the message out. As she wrote:

Blogging about the crisis in Burundi during the semester helped me to learn a lot of new things I did not know about my country. I have discovered and met amazing people, learned about myself, the politic (sic) of Burundi, and Africa in general. I can sincerely say that I am proud to be Burundian despite its actual poverty. This experience helped me to keep faith for a better future; it made me realize that small actions can make big differences, and that unity is needed if we need to impact… In the future, I think of continuing volunteering for the [Quebec Burundian support group] and probably help for the activities this summer.

Conclusion

Integrating technology and the potential of Web 2.0 communities to support the liberal education model can encourage meaningful dialogue among students, help students understand and articulate values, foster critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, and cultural sensitivity, and bolster the confidence to the next generation of Canadian citizens and scholars.

The CEGEP system was built around a core of General Education disciplines, and so a key part of my job as a Humanities teacher is to help students develop these skills. This provides an opportunity for me to have the students associate their own backgrounds and experiences within their coursework. I believe that the liberal education model is the only one that allows students to develop intellectual independence, discovering the potential impacts that they can have on the world. The CEGEP system remains, to its great credit, an exemplary provider of such an educational model.

In closing, while it has been liberating for my students to embrace technology in ways that provide each person a voice, an audience, and access to a wealth of information, I should note that it has been equally liberating for me as a teacher to find that technology can allow my classes to unfold differently each and every semester. The content evolves as the world changes, making each semester exciting, rewarding, and impactful.

For anyone who wishes to learn more about my curriculum or my students, please visit newsactivist.com or email me at gflacks@crcmail.net or gabeflacks@newsactivist.com.

(1) Freire, P. Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach (Colorado: Westview Press, 1997).

About the Author

Gabriel Flacks has been teaching in the Humanities at Champlain College, Saint-Lambert since 2006. With an MA in Philosophy (Cognitive Science) he is currently a PhD candidate in Cognitive Science at Concordia University, researching the development of perception and language.

Since 2000, Gabriel Flacks has been considering the impacts of the Internet on journalism and civic activism. In 2007, he developed a Complementary Contemporary Issues course, intended to offer students an opportunity to engage with these issues via blogging, cross-border collaboration, and community outreach. This course has been offered at Champlain since 2011. The development of the NewsActivist.com platform and community has been a professional and personal passion over the last 5 years; working with institutions, Profweb and VTE has offered him the opportunity to keep learning and supporting other teachers and students as pedagogy continues to evolve in this exciting time. He welcomes your feedback at gflacks@crcmail.net or gabeflacks@newsactivist.com

2 comment(s)

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    Sarah Waurechen wrote January 13, 2017 at 9:12 AM

    I have been using Newsactivist for several years now and my students love it too. One other added bonus is that they can see the work produced by other students in their class. When I first started using the platform, it never occurred to me that students would find this important - but I've come to understand that it's one of the primary reasons my students like it. Basically, being able to see other students' homework assignments appeals to people's innate human curiosity; it also helps combat imposter syndrome by allowing students to situate their own skill level vis-a-vis their peers.

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    Gabe Flacks wrote January 16, 2017 at 8:52 PM

    Thanks for commenting, Sarah! Apart from the specific angle it addresses, your comment illustrates one of the general benefits of using the site: it offers profs the opportunity to find out, from students, exactly what they want out of such an experience. This is another reason that it is valuable to have the site (and ideally, the curriculum) give some independent control to students. I remember discovering that, while I assumed students would gravitate to collaborative partners from across the globe when given the chance, they often truly appreciated just having peer collaborators to communicate with from another CEGEP, so they could get into some dialogues with a little bit of distance. If you plan to use the site this semester, I hope and expect our students will be chatting from a not-too-great distance in just a few weeks!

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