I feel comfortable being a connected educator. I understand how connection benefits and grows me as a teacher and person, and I understand the logistics behind building new and lasting connections. Because I have been building connections for so long, I feel like it is just something I was born able to do, so when I made my first conscious effort to connect my classroom, I was in for a nice surprise: connecting is not as natural as it looks. In addition, I later realized that what I asked my students to do is fundamentally different than what I do when seeking connection.
During the past quarter, the primary project for teams of students in my Game Design class was to (surprise!) build a game. It could be a video game, card game, board game, anything -- as long as it was (1) awesome and (2) a game, it counted. Students loved the challenge, and despite a lack of formal instruction on the tools used to construct digital games, many teams took that path and learned the logistics together.
One of my requirements for the design process is that teams capture their progress in two week segments, post a blog update, share out their learning to a wider audience, and use the incoming feedback to direct their next cycle. I was not surprised when students resisted, so I kept pushing them forward to capturing their work in videos or writing and spread it across the web. I showed students the game design subreddit, talked about Twitter users that would be good to connect to, and encouraged them to search for niche communities in forums and elsewhere that would take an interest in their project. I even helped them take the reader's perspective when phrasing things, since nobody on the internet wants to do your homework. However, they may gladly jump into a creation that you are passionate about and willing to open up.
After students got their posts online, [[crickets]]. Nothing. A few teams got an unhelpful "good luck" or "sounds cool". Nobody was willing to engage. We talked about it as a class, and the consensus was that they were not far enough into their projects yet to really communicate the idea. I agreed, but two weeks later we ran into the same issue. Student motivation for the capturing and sharing was very low due to the lack of interest and response, opting to just focus on building their game instead.
When looking back on the failed project, I thought a lot about who I go to for feedback on my own ideas. 95% of the time, it is to people who I know, who I trust, and who care about me. My poor wife signed up for a lifetime of reading tons of things I put together. Some of my close friends, family, and co-workers get all of my long emails, blog posts, and Google Docs with a variety of things that get me excited. Occasionally, I go to the wider Twitter community for feedback on ideas, but even in this case, I engage with someone via referrals of people I have existing relationships with. In all situations, relationship precedes meaningful feedback. If I want my students to seek feedback from the outside world, I need to help them build relationships in those communities first.
Taking a step further back, I realized that feedback and connection depend on audience. My students were not asked to design games for a given market segment -- they were told to make something awesome that they would be passionate about. As a result, they put little thought into their target audience, leaving them with no clear group to validate their ideas. Feedback didn't even matter that much to the students -- they were focused on their main customers -- themselves! When designing passion-based projects that have external connection as a key goal, I will make sure that students define their external audience and engage with that group to test and improve their work.
Finally, I realized how narrowly I was defining and thinking about connection in my classroom. Shortly after Game Design ended, @jenhegna shared out a powerful video with one teacher sharing his class's varied connected experiences. His class had activities that build community amongst the students and teacher, interactions across the school, connections with parents and community members during their projects, and purposeful outreach to authors and subject experts globally. It made so much sense -- connection is not only an online thing -- it is all over, at all levels, in all places. Online connection is one important component of a larger space. This ah-ha moment has been the key to all of my planning for future courses as I look to make connection something that is deeply embedded at many levels.