A varied and sometimes erratic record of what I'm learning inside and outside of the classroom

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Digital Civilization Journey

A post in preparation for the National Collegiate Honors Council Conference 2011

Creative Commons Creativity Poster

As I reflect on my experience in my Digital Civilization course a year ago, I believe that out of all the  courses I've taken, this one has had the most profound impact on me as a student in general and as a learner in the digital age.

Dr. Zappala, one of my Digital Civilization professors, remarked in his reflective post that students found this class "disorienting" at first. Why yes--yes we did. I walked out of class the first day wondering, What in the world I have I gotten myself into?! Finding our own readings? Blogging about our learning process? Seeking out connections via the Internet with other people who were interested in our topics? This was...unconventional, to say the least. Not like your traditional go-to-class, do-the-reading, do-the-homework, turn-it-in type of learning process. The class required a radical shift in thinking; I felt like I had to re-learn how to learn, and sometimes that was downright hard.

It is quite interesting to go over some of my posts in this Digital Civilization journey and remember what I was thinking and feeling as I learned (slowly and somewhat painfully at first) to adjust to and embrace this new mode of learning. I feel like a post I wrote near the beginning describes my state of mind quite well:

This digital civilization class I'm taking challenges me every single day to break free from my perceptions of how I think about learning. . . . I feel like I'm standing on the shore of this vast ocean of information that I possibly could use, whereas before, in other classes, I only had a little glass of water from the fountain of knowledge to absorb. And it has been a bit difficult for me not to think in terms of the little glass even as I'm confronted with the ocean.   
Time for a paradigm shift, Ariel.  
I'm learning a new language in my quest to become digitally literate, and I'm sure that doing so will bring immeasurable benefit in the technological world we live in now. I just need the courage to let go of my old perceptions and dive in.

I distinctly remember the day, about a month after I wrote that last post, that I finally had my breakthrough moment. I had read Dr. Burton's post on social discovery, and I walked around campus and my apartment in a daze as the wheels turned, the lightbulb went on, and it all began to come together. Forgetting about my dinner in the microwave and my laundry in the washer, throwing sleep to the winds, I stayed up and wrote a post detailing my exciting and enlightening shift in perception:

I'm sure everyone has heard a student in one of their classes ask the professor, "So what? Why does this matter? When will I ever use this in real life?" Well, let me tell you something. Our learning gains significance and becomes important through meaningful connections with other people. Because even if we can't directly apply our knowledge, through social discovery we may be able to share it with someone who can. We become a part of the massive discourse of human knowledge by sharing with others the things we know and learning things from them as well. Our own understanding and that of others is expanded, making us more resourceful at solving problems, and enabling us to better serve others.

Once that lightbulb moment happened, the question became not "How can I get an A in this class?" but "How can I make my learning more meaningful? How can I apply what I'm learning to other areas of my education and of my life? Who is or would be interested in this topic that I could talk to? How might I connect with people who are interested in the same things that I am?" Learning became an exciting process of discovering and making connections between people and ideas.

Of course, our Digital Civilization course couldn't last forever. After such a challenging, dynamic, and unconventional learning experience, being stuck back into traditional modes of learning felt somewhat stifling, and I found it difficult at first to bring the concepts we learned in this very unconventional class into very-much-conventional classroom settings. However, I have tried to implement some of the guiding principles of Digital Civilization even in the stuffiest of classroom subjects (such as *cough, cough*--grammar).

  1. Consume, Create, Connect: Consume information intelligently; create an idea, a way of synthesizing the information worth sharing; connect with others, either through virtual means or in person. I find as I constantly look for connections between people and ideas my learning is enriched and expanded. 
  2. Care: I learned that if you really want to make your learning authentic and meaningful, you really have to care. You have to take a sincere interest in what you're doing. If you care about something, if you take a sincere interest in it, you have a desire to share it and talk about it with others. If you care, all the other C's--Consume, Create, and Connect--come naturally.

The concepts are empowering. After my first year of college I thought I knew what taking responsibility for your own learning meant. Perhaps I did, to some extent. But in this Digital Civilization course I learned what it means to really take control of your own learning and make it what you want it to be. I felt like I learned how to learn in our increasingly digitized world. I learned methods for connecting with other people and tools and ways of thinking to help me navigate and harness the huge sea of information that is out there on the Internet to my own use.

Learning, and knowledge itself, is all about the connection between people and ideas, and now more than ever before students can become active participants in the great Human Conversation. We have the power to effect change and to make our education and our lives whatever we want them to be. I think the final statement I wrote in the latter post sums it all up nicely:
You know the most scary thing about this whole social discovery [and digital literacy] process? Wanting to make a difference in the world, and through social discovery, being faced with the very real possibility that you actually might.

Photo credit: maven on flickr


  1. Ariel, this is a great post. I love the focus you have on connecting, and I think that is your strongest point. What are you thinking you'll discuss on Saturday? I wonder if it would be a good idea to illustrate your connected-ness by showing some posts from other students' blogs and discussing how connecting with them affected your learning.

    I loved reading this, though. It helped me realize how much the digital paradigm has changed the way I learn, too, since I haven't noticed it as much as you have. Way to go, connecting. Isn't that what life is all about, connecting with other people?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Kristen! I think it would be a good idea to show some posts from other blogs, like you said. I would like to talk about how I've developed a mindset for connecting--not just connecting with people, but connecting ideas from the past and the present. Because of the analogies we drew between the historical content and the technological age, I now reflexively look for those connections in all my classes. For example, I was watching "The Italian Job" this weekend, and when they open the safe and see the gold, the one of the first lines of Ben Jonson's play "Volpone" popped into my head: "Open the shrine, that I may see my saint!" as Volpone, the main character, bids good morning to his gold. So that's kind of a silly example, but I think it's part of the whole "connected" mindset that we cultivated in Digital Civilization. Gah. It seems like there are so many other things I want to discuss about the class too! I hope we can do this justice so our audience will grasp the vision of this rather extraordinary class. What are you discussing?