Presentation Abstract

Virtual Contact Zones: When Teachers Create Technologies

The characterization of the contact zone as a "contestatory space" populated by "loosely federated, heterogeneous group" (Miller 1994) could as easily be a description of the internet community with its myriad of listservs and newsgroups in which divergent groups meet and often clash in electronic discussion spaces. It echoes, too, Cooper and Selfe's early description of computer networks as electronic spaces which encourage "collaboration and dialogue ... encourage students to resist, dissent, and explore the role that controversy and intellectual divergence can play in learning and thinking" (1990). Although early accounts envisioned electronic networks as spaces of collaboration and dialogue-social constructionist utopias-that view has since been tempered with the realization that computer networks can foster very real conflicts and struggles for power which must be negotiated. Selfe and Selfe (1994) have since argued that technology is not innocent and that as a part of our culture it is imbued with ideology even as those who create it. Images, icons, language, format-technology-reflect the culture and the culture reflects the prevailing ideology. They encourage both instructor and student to become critics of the technology and examine what it reveals about existing power structures. With these thoughts in mind I have attempted to become not only critic but shaper of the technologies with which my students engage, and to encourage them to critique and shape the technologies they use as well. To that end I have developed a web-based chat site for my students (written in PERL script and linked to the university's computer-aided instruction lab) in which they can meet to discuss the various online communities in which they interact and the ways the discourses in those communities shift with the changing needs and identities of the conversants. The program allows students to create public and private chat rooms and includes a searchable archive so that they can retrieve discussions for discourse analysis. This presentation will include a tour of the chat site and demonstrations of its features as well as a brief synchronous chat with members of the audience. As my students are aware of the public nature of the chat space, audience members will also be able to access the search function to view archived class discussions. As these archived discussions should demonstrate, whether our students are online with members of their own class or they correspond via the internet with countless other individuals, they enter a potential space of conflict. Although acknowledging that conflict and struggle can be painful, Min-Zhan Lu argues that often "a new consciousness emerges from the creative motion of breaking down the rigid boundaries of social and linguistic paradigms" (1992). Other have responded to the call to incorporate conflict in positive ways to stimulate interactive learning (Allen, Harris, Lu, Savicki). This presentation will attempt both to theorize a pedagogy which utilizes technology's strengths to foster positive conflict and to critically examine a particular technology created for such a pedagogy to see if that is indeed how it is being used.

Author: Cecilia Hartley


Target Audience: Intermediate

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