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Student Companion
by Jim Lengel, Education and Technology Consultant, 11/18/2005

A news article this week describes "a rising backlash against classroom computer use from professors and schools," based on what's happening in some classrooms where "some students are using their laptops to message friends, shop online, peruse Web sites and pursue part-time jobs." The article mentions some schools that have "investigated the use of devices to block wireless access in the classroom after faculty complaints of out-of-control Web surfing." You can read the article about the wayward wireless at http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05287/588740.stm

As we have discussed in previous articles in this series (see Educational Messaging and Losing Control), new technologies tend to disturb the status quo in the academy. Teachers unaccustomed to the new technologies find them distracting and inscrutable, and their first reaction is to ban or restrict them. But we must realize that these technologies are here to stay, and look beyond the first blush to figure out how best to put them to good use. An interesting way to turn a potential distraction into a positive resource is to create an online student companion for each of your lectures, units, or lessons.

A student companion is a document that's designed for a student to view on her laptop as she listens to the lecture or works through the lesson. Its purpose is to guide the student to the resources she might need to take full advantage of the experience; it also serves to focus students on the topic at hand so as to avoid mindless activity. Carefully crafted, such a companion can transform the lecture or lesson into a richer, more interactive experience for both teacher and student. Here's a quick example.

By the Rivers of Babylon

The lesson concerns the history of the Middle East. It might take place in a course on world history or current events. Most of the students come to class with a laptop computer, and wireless Internet signals pervades the electromagnetic environment in the classroom so that all can connect. The teacher begins the lesson with a question, What happened this morning in Iraq?

A few students respond with their memories of the radio or television newscast they heard on the way top school -- another car bombing, or a vote on a new constitution. But their knowledge ends there -- they cannot explain where or why this happened, or its implications for the future. Those students who are using their online student companion, however, after a moment offer some interesting contributions: the local tribal leadership in Basra is meeting with British military officials to work out a transition plan, or oil exports from northern fields have exceeded pre-1991 levels for the first time, or American oppressors shamed religious leaders in Mosul. When asked, these students can explain the context of their reports, and provide further details - all very quickly, in real time, in the classroom.

They could do this because the student companion provided them with relevant resources.

After some discussion of the morning's events in Iraq, and of the differences in point of view of the various reporters and sources, the teacher turns the lesson toward the causes of the conflict: Why did this happen?

Even before the question is asked the students are at work through their online companions and have anticipated the direction of the lesson. Try it yourself. Here is a section of the student companion for this lesson. Use it to begin exploring some possible answers to the question concerning the sources of the conflict.

Student Companion for Lesson 5: Mideast History

For today's news, try The New York Times, the BBC, LeMonde, or Al-Jazeera.

Lyrics to the song, Rivers of Babylon.

Psalm #137 from the King James Bible.

Daily Bible Study of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, from the Church of God. From the same source, Why Babylon? , and Ancient Empires: Babylon.

About the Kingdom of Babylon, from a biblical point of view.

An overview of ancient Babylonia, from the Wikipedia.

The Last Babylonian Empire and the Empire of Darius I, from H.G. Wells' A Short History of the World.

The history of Iraq, from CountryReports.org.

The history of Iraq from Arab Net.

A profile of Iraq from the U.S. Department of State.

Assyrian art treasures at the Metropolitain Museum in New York. See the big statues.

(Many teachers will tell you that their students can explore this kind of information at three times the speed of their teachers -- they are better at searching and scrolling and skimming. What they lack is the ability to find the meaning in what they read or see. So the wise lecturer lets them search, but forces them to confront the concepts and see the connections.)

As the lesson proceeds, the teacher leads a discussion, informed by online resources, of the history and culture of the Babylonian empire, its decline, the colonial period, pan-Arabism in the 20th century, and the reign of Sadaam Hussein. All with maps, original sources, images of artworks, and photos of key players provided in the lecture slides and through the student companion.

Some students introduce information the teacher has never seen, concerning the drawing of the border between Syria and Iraq in the late 1920's, found online and seeming to dispute the lecturer's report. This provides an interesting opportunity for learning (on everyone's part), and becomes the topic of the student's research project for this course.

The Wayward Wireless

Few students were found in mindless web wandering or insipid instant messaging during this lesson. Most were engaged with the content of the lecture, by listening to the teacher, watching the slides, reading the sites, and analyzing the maps through the student companion. It was a multitasking masterpiece.

At first the teacher was disturbed and distracted by his students' online activity during the lecture. But since the development of student companions, and the realization that listening to a lecture consumes only about 10 percent of a student's brain bandwidth, the teacher has come to enjoy the exciting intellectual atmosphere and possibility of new insights offered by this approach. In this classroom, the teacher and the students have channeled the technology into solid educational application.

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