An Easy Way to Encourage, Track, Assess, and Regulate Class Discussions

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For me, one of the more difficult aspects of teaching a seminar-style class has been encouraging, monitoring, and assessing open-ended discussions. There are several things that make whole-class discussions difficult to pull off successfully. The most problematic is simply getting the students to talk to begin with. This is often due to lack of preparation, but it is as often due to the fact that students have not had proper training in how to participate in an open discussion, having spent much of their educational lives in drill-and-test, top-down “learning” environments, and many of them are simply afraid of saying something that is “wrong” (because in these kinds of environments there are only right and wrong answers) and/or of appearing “dumb” in front of their peers. If you are successful in getting students to open up and talk, a scenario usually develops in which a few students dominate the discussion, either because of lack of participation by others or because these students have dominant personalities and tend to “over share” their knowledge and opinions. And then there is the issue of tracking, recording, and assessing discussion participation. I have seen various methods suggested over the years, from putting names on popsicle sticks and cold-calling on students whose stick is selected to marking hashmarks for each contribution to giving students a plus, check, or minus for the number and quality of their contributions. But I have never found any of these systems to really work. So, when planning my seminar-style Graphic Novel Survey class this term, I had to figure out a way to address all of these issues. This is the method that I came up with and which is working quite effectively.

Encouraging Discussion

First, I needed to figure out a way to encourage students to not only participate in discussion but come properly prepared to do so. If the students were thoroughly prepared, I felt certain that they would be more comfortable talking. I also needed to ensure feelings of responsibility and accountability on every students’ part; they each needed to know that they could not just let someone else carry their load, so to speak. I tackled these two related issues in the following ways.

I addressed the aspect of preparation by having our discussion days at the end of each unit, so that students had already completed several virtual and in-class activities that ensured that they had read the novel we would be discussing and had had ample opportunities to work with it via interactive lectures, small-group activities, and individual analysis, and by requiring that every student bring a potential discussion question to class on the day of discussion. I also had students volunteer to be discussion leaders for each novel; this meant that students’ peers were responsible for previewing and selecting from their submitted questions, determining what order in which to ask the questions, ensuring an active discussion via prompting and encouragement, and moving on to the next question when discussion waned. I felt that students would feel more comfortable if their peers were facilitating the discussion and, since students tend to be more sympathetic to each other than to me, they would actively participate rather than watch their peers struggle to carry out their assignment. Lastly, on the day of discussion, I had students sit in a circle so that everyone was facing each other; this helped communicate mutual responsibility and accountability, since all students could see each other and make eye contact.

Tracking, Assessing, and Regulating Discussion

Next, I worked on determining an efficient method for keeping up with which students contributed, how often they did so, and the quality of their contributions. Since this class usually contains its fair share of fanboys and fangirls, groups that can quell other students’ enthusiasm with their encyclopedic knowledge and exuberance for sharing it, I also had to figure out a way to allow students to self-monitor their contributions, since I needed to focus on recording and assessing contributions and I knew that the student discussion leaders would not know how to diplomatically handle a domineering peer. I managed to kill all of these birds with one stone in the following way.

I adapted the popsicle stick method, using sticky notes instead and making the students responsible for selecting when they contributed. I gave each student four sticky notes and had them write their name on each.  Whenever they wanted to contribute to the discussion, they had to give me a sticky note; once they were out of sticky notes, they could not contribute until everyone else had used up all of their notes. This facilitated two aspects of the discussion: in terms of equalizing participation, it forced those who would normally over-contribute to self-monitor and be more selective about when they spoke up, and for those who normally would not have contributed, it forced them to speak up because they could no longer rely on the dominant students to do so and they had a visual reminder of how much they were expected to contribute. This method also allowed me to easily track who had spoken up and how often.

In terms of assessing contributions, after receiving a sticky note from a student, I would listen to their remarks and then quickly make note of their quality on the note (a plus for excellent quality, a check for good quality, and a minus for all other remarks). I stacked each student’s notes on top of each other on a page of my legal pad. After class, I could then very easily assign a grade to each student for the discussion: 4 stickies equalled an A, 3 equalled a B, 2 equalled a C, and 1 equalled a D. I used the plus/check/minus notations to determine whether they received an A+, A,  A-, etc.; if the majority of notations were pluses, then the student earned a plus, if the majority were minuses, the student earned a minus, etc. While it is not a perfect system (a student could potentially earn an A for making 4 remarks of poor quality), so far, for this class, it has been very accurate thanks to the preparation and responsibility components that I have combined it with.

The open discussions that my students have had so far this term have far exceeded my expectations. They have made connections between novels and with both their personal lives and society at large without my prompting them to. They have submitted thought-provoking questions and raised additional questions during their discussions. They have taken to the task of facilitating their own discussions with enthusiasm and finesse. And, without fail, on discussion days, we have consistently lost track of time and went over our 90 minute discussion period. I have no real way of knowing how much of this is attributable to the students themselves and their enthusiasm for the course materials and how much is attributable to the methods that I have used to encourage, track, and regulate their discussions. I plan to try these methods with my freshman in the fall and see if I have similar positive results. I’ll certainly blog about the results, whether positive or negative.

Hopefully, if you have struggled with encouraging and recording open student discussions as I have, you will give some or all of these methods a try or adapt them for your own needs. Please let me know if you do so and how it works so that we all can learn together!

Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: A Role-Playing Game for First-Year Compostion

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Murder. Madness. Mayhem. What new horrors lurk in the minds of men and women? Real life is scarier and stranger than any fiction. But an intrepid group of investigators are working to make the world a safer, saner place. No matter how old the crime, no matter how elusive the evidence, no matter how powerful those involved, they will leave no stone unturned in their search for the truth. They have no magical weapons with which to assault the dark things of the world. They simply have their wit, courage, and analytical skills to help them do battle with the horrors they face.

This past week I worked on summarizing the results of my attempt to integrate role-play writing into my second-semester FYC class in an article that I plan to submit for the Fall edition of Virtual Education Journal. For me, reflecting on past classes inevitably leads to a desire to begin planning a new (and hopefully better) iteration. Thankfully, I asked the students to provide me with both anonymous constructive feedback on the class and to talk openly with me about how they would redesign the class if they were taking it a second time. Their feedback had two major themes:

  • While they liked Second Life, many students felt it was too clunky and wasn’t integrated into the class in an effective way
  • Many students expressed a desire to have more f2f role-play

As I began to mull over how best to address the two issues, I decided to focus on finding an alternative to Second Life. I was looking for something with a less daunting learning curve that would allow for more challenge and exploration-based interaction. While nothing really presented itself, I did stumble upon a website that changed the direction of my thinking: Epic Words.

Epic Words functions as a portal for an RPG campaign (an ongoing storyline or set of adventures). A GM (game master) can create a campaign for any RPG and add any registered players to the campaign. The site offers several tools in one central location: character blogs, a campaign wiki, a discussion forum, quest logs, a calendar, a page for awarding and tracking XP, and the ability to create loot that can either be awarded by the GM or purchased by the players from merchants. Intrigued, I began to research the concept of campaigns and the various ways that players use tools and sites outside of the game to continue, reinvent, and hack the game.

As  I browsed through the various campaigns on the site, I began to see just how similar the RPG I had designed for my Spring 2013 FYC II class had been to one of the most popular tabletop RPG’s, Call of CthulhuTaking my cue from the game, I have started to sketch out what I hope will be an engaging and immersive RPG experience for next semester’s FYC II class, remixing and hacking the traditional tabletop RPG as needed.

Roles

In Call of Cthulhu, characters are called investigators. Players select the occupation of their character and establish their attributes via dice rolls. Like my class, the nature of the game naturally lends itself to selecting characters who would normally investigate unusual events, such as detectives, psychologists, scholars, etc. I’ll limit my students to occupations that will work with the texts we have in our literature anthology, but will allow them to suggest modifications if they wish. Students will spend some time developing their character’s backstory, creating an avatar for them, and creating a profile for them on Epic Words.

Guilds

While students really enjoyed working in role-based guilds last Spring, many suggested more inter-role interaction in order to consult with experts on other aspects of their “cases.” So, this time around students will have two guilds: a home guild that will be role-based and an expert guild that will be comprised of representatives from all of the roles who will consult with one another as needed.

Quests

The quests will remain the same: students will read assigned “cases” from the literature anthology, discuss and analyze them with their home guild, and select one case to focus on investigating for each quest. They will present their selected case via a blog post, determining what format their character might choose to write about the case in (case notes, interview transcripts, a newspaper/journal article, etc.), and also read and comment (in-character) on other characters’ blog posts.

Boss Level

Last Spring, students selected 1-2 partners to work with to create a penultimate project on one of the term’s cases. While the projects they created were creative, engaging, and demonstrated a deep level of analysis, next term I plan to push the envelope even further and ask students to work in a craft guild to develop and write a piece of interactive fiction about a selected case in which the player has to take on one of the roles from the class game.

Feedback

There will be no grades in the class. For some of my Spring students, this was frustrating and many of them expressed a need to be able to measure their progress and have an idea of just how successfully they were playing the game (aside from the formative feedback they received from me and their peers). Epic Words provides me with several tools that I can use to provide feedback and progress reports to students.

One form of feedback I’ll use to indicate successful completion of quest-related tasks and puzzles is XP (experience points). This has been very successful this term with my FYC I classes. While this term I’ve had to rely on Blackboard’s grade book  to record XP and provide students with a means of measuring their progress via a leader board (more on this in a subsequent post), next term I can use Epic Words, which will allow students to view their XP on the campaign’s XP page.

A second form of feedback Epic Words allows GM’s to create and award is loot, which has allowed a useful hack of Call of Cthulhu’s investigator attributes and skills. Rather than relying on dice roll to determine the attributes of an investigator, I can do so by awarding them loot for demonstrating mastery of various skills, such as research, analysis, creativity, etc. In addition to awarding them skills, I can also award them cash for participation and completing quests. The players can then use this cash to purchase investigative tools, such as flashlights, fingerprint kits, video recorders, and smartphones, from  a merchant (my merchant is called Doyle & Poe Investigative Merchants). Purchasing investigative tools will make their character more powerful. Again, all of a character’s loot can be tracked in Epic Words.

Endgame

How does completing quests and collecting XP and loot translate into a final grade in the course? In order to demonstrate the quality of their work and learning in the course, students will have to submit a portfolio of their game artifacts: their best blog posts; their XP; their skills, cash, and tools; and their forum and wiki contributions. They can then use this portfolio to advocate for the grade they feel they’ve earned in the course.

Design

Research has found that aesthetics can have a significant impact on motivation, immersion, and engagement among game players. I am planning to spend much more time on the visual design of the course than I did last term. Epic Words allows GM’s the add a background image and change the color scheme for campaign sites, as well as add images to pages. Being a fan of all (weird) things Victorian, including the neo-Victorian and steam punk movements, I think pulling design elements from these aesthetic styles will work well with the theme of the game.

Once I’ve finalized the components of the class and the campaign site, I’ll post updates here. I hope that this post inspires you to create your own RPG and/or try Epic Words as a tool for managing your games-based learning. I’d love to hear what you think of my ideas, how you’ve integrated RPG into your own classes, or how my post has inspired you to do so.

Using Power Cards to Encourage Power Reading: Gamifying Required Texts

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After a much needed summer hiatus and a rather hectic start to the Fall semester, I am finally carving out some blogging time. It’s been such a hectic start because, not only am I teaching an overload (for a total of 3 composition classes, one of which is 100% online), but I spent a good deal of my summer and start-of-term trying to gamify my FYC classes. As with all new methodologies, I am taking baby steps with this, but it was still a major undertaking. I’ll be writing a series of posts that deal with various aspects of how I gamified the course, including building a “game lore” and gamifying assessment. For this and the next post, I want to focus on one aspect of the class that I feel has been the most successful: gamifying the course readings.

The theme for my FYC classes this term is “How to Tell a True War Story.” The university’s freshman read this year is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, so I decided to use the book as a springboard to consider and explore the kinds of war stories we tell and how the lines between fact and fiction blur and often disintegrate in the process. In addition to the O’Brien book, we are also watching three war films: Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, and Restrepo. After watching each, students can select from a list of related texts (articles, videos, photo essays, etc.) to read. While the films are extremely high-interest and I knew I would not have difficulty with students not being engaged with them, I wasn’t so confident about the O’Brien book and our other assigned nonfiction book, the graphic memoir War Is Boring, or the companion texts for each film. So, I decided to try to gamify the class readings.

I found inspiration from John Hardison’s “22 Power Cards to Revolutionize a Class,” in which he describes how he gamified literary analysis by pitting teams of students against each other in a Q & A showdown that involved power cards similar to those in popular role-playing card games like Magic the Gathering and Pokemon. I liked the idea of turning close reading of O’Brien’s book into a competition, but I wanted to develop a more simplistic set of game rules and power cards, since students would only have half of a class meeting to prepare for the battle. I decided to divide the class into two teams and allow the two students with the most XP to be team commanders and select the members of their units. Each student came to the battle preparation meeting with an open-ended question about the book and the units worked to select, refine, and finalize ten questions to bring into battle with them. For the battle itself, each unit had 30 seconds to select a question and a defender from the other unit to answer it; the defender then had two minutes to consult with their unit on the answer before answering. As judge, I awarded the defender points based on the quality of their answer. The unit with the most points at the end of the battle won and all members of the unit received 40 XP.

For the power cards, I decided to allow each unit to go into battle with five defensive and four offensive tactical weapons. The defensive weapons included:

  • Walkthrough: allows the unit 2 minutes to refer to the novel and use it when answering the question
  • Cheat code: each unit member is allowed to prepare a one-page set of crib notes; the cheat code allows the unit 2 minutes to refer to any or all unit members’ crib notes and use them when answering the question
  • Glitch: allows the unit to re-use one of their discarded defensive weapons, pass on a question, OR recall one of their previous defenders
  • Pause: allows the unit an extra 1 minute to formulate their answer

The offensive weapons included:

  • Grenade: the unit may select up to three members of the defending unit to be removed from the answer formulation process
  • Seige: forces the defender to formulate their answer without help from their unit
  • Blitzkreig: reduces the defending unit’s answer formulation time to 1 minute
  • Raid: if the attacking unit has received a score of 4 on three or more answers, they may take away any of the defending unit’s remaining tactical weapons and add it to their own arsenal

These power cards forced the units to act strategically both before and during the battle, from preparing crib notes to sizing up members of the opposing unit to decide who were the weakest and strongest members.

The battle was exciting, fun, and frustrating for students all at the same time. Those who had not read as closely were obvious hindrances to their unit and those who were more competitive in nature had to learn to cope and recover when their ill-prepared peers failed to earn a lot of points or when the opposing team used a power card to out-manoeuvre them. On the flip side, very few students seemed ill-prepared and, out of 40 plus students, only one student could not provide at least a partial answer to a question. Both the highly competitive and quieter students could excel in the game, as their unit could use all members to help formulate the answer (unless the opposing unit used a power card that prevented them from doing so). I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of reading and analysis required to answer the questions that the students posed during the game, but the majority of students did not have difficulty answering them and providing examples from the book to support their answer. And even though they were  allowed to use the book or their notes once each during the game, one team declined to do so, and while they lost, it was only by a margin of 2 points. The takeaway from this is that by forcing the students to both collaborate and compete, I saw evidence of closer reading and deeper analysis of the assigned text from every single student who played the game (only four students total out of both classes did not show up on the day of battle). And they seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves and have fun, even when losing.

I have decided to use the Q & A battle again with our other book, War Is Boring, and will post about the results at the end of the term. In my next post, I’ll describe how I’m using collaboration to gamify the companion texts that students are selecting and reading in conjunction with each of the movies we are watching this term.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your own ideas for and/or experiences with gamifying assigned readings and making analysis and discussion of those readings more effective and fun.

 

I Give Up! I’m Finally Going to Gamify My FYC Class

And I’m kind of excited about it. Okay. I’m ecstatic. I’m like a hardcore gamer two minutes before the midnight release of the latest Call of Duty.

If you’re a regular reader, you know from one of my past posts that I’ve been avoiding the gamification bandwagon. So, what, you may ask, inspired the change of heart? The only way that I can describe it is as a perfect storm.

First, there is the phenomenal success of my current second-semester FYC course, which is utilizing immersive role play and Second Life as ways to engage in critical analysis of the texts in our literature reader. I plan to go into more detail in a future post about what exactly we’re doing, how, and how successful it has been in terms of engagement and improvement of critical thinking/writing skills. While immersive role play is a major aspect of many games, I’m using it more for its emphasis on taking on the viewpoint of a particular role than for the play component of doing so. The fun that students are having as they adopt their roles, though, cannot be ignored, especially now that the semester is coming to a close and students are finally comfortable with their personas and taking risks with their interpretations of our texts and how they choose to communicate those interpretations in material media.

Students roleplaying in Second Life.
Students roleplaying in Second Life.

Secondly, I’ve been playing more games myself lately. I’m not really a gamer (at least I wouldn’t describe myself as such, especially in comparison to some of my students and my son). I do occasionally play one of the Lego franchise games with my son and I’m game (pardon the pun) for anything that involves Harry Potter (we even have a wizard’s chess set). But I recently experienced a personal loss and I’ve found games to be a way to keep my mind occupied, relieve some of the stress, and escape from the real world for a little while. I personally prefer puzzles, and the hidden object games for the iPad are ideal for me because they combine puzzle solving with literary or historical settings (like my current favorite Blackwood and Bell, set in Victorian England). The more I play, the more I begin to personally experience the level of engagement, immersion, and motivation that I regularly observe in my son when he’s playing his favorite PS3 games. Blackwood and Bell keeps me engaged because I can earn “money” for solving puzzles and I use that money to purchase items to add to my little plot of Victorian London. I’ve found myself spending quite a bit of time rearranging my buildings, decorations, and exhibits and trying to work out strategies that will allow me to level up and expand my landholdings without compromising the design of my “yard” (I, personally, care more for authenticity in my design than leveling up and simply throwing everything on my yard, and some of the anachronistic designs of other players’ yards drives me nuts).

My yard in Blackwood and Bell. It's a work-in-progress.
My yard in Blackwood and Bell. It’s a work-in-progress.

Next, I’ve recently discovered and become intrigued by interactive fiction (IF). I always enjoyed reading “choose your own adventure” books as a child, but because I was not a gamer growing up, I had never heard of or played IF. I discovered it after reading several recent articles on some free tools that have recently been developed that make writing IF easier for those without coding experience (“Make Games in the Classroom with Inform 7,” “Choose Your Own Classroom Adventure with Inklewriter,” “Interactive Fiction Game Design,” “Creating Interactive Text with Twin,” and Kevin Hodgson’s series of blog posts on IF). The concept of IF caught my attention, not from a player’s perspective, but from a writer’s perspective and the potential that I immediately felt it held for teaching FYC students about viewpoint, authorial choice, and reader engagement. Because it makes the reader, or player, the central, active component of the text, it places direct focus on two writing concepts that I’ve always struggled with communicating to students effectively: the primacy of the audience and the need to have a purpose for everything you do as an author.

Lastly, all of these things solidified into a single idea when my university announced that next Fall’s freshman read would be Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I was familiar with a few of the stories from the book and especially liked “How to Tell a True War Story” because of the pressures it puts on viewpoint, the author as authority, the reader as passive/active agent, fiction/truth, space/time, and the linear nature of the traditional plot development. I immediately recognized that IF would be a perfect way for students to engage with the book, as it, too, places pressure on these same aspects of storytelling.

But IF is not an easy concept, either as a player or writer. I recognized that I could not just throw students in the deep end of IF and expect them to swim. Around the time I was considering how to couple O’Brien’s book with IF, I was reading Jane McGonigall’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World as a way to prepare for the second iteration of my immersive role play course this summer and, in the course of talking with a colleague in the computer science department about that class, was lent a copy of Lee Sheldon’s The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a GameThese books, along with some articles I had been reading on IF (which I’ll discuss and link to in my next post), helped the gears to slowly begin clicking into place. As I continued to sketch out ideas, I began to get more and more excited by the prospect of turning my FYC class into a game; but not just any game. An IF game.

I plan to post about the details and the steps I went through to develop them in subsequent posts, so this post will simply be a summary of my plans.

Where to start?

Since I plan to ask students to write a piece of IF as the capstone project for the class, it only seemed right that I try my hand at it first. In this sense, being unfamiliar with IF was an advantage, since my students are likely to be as well, so I am able to experience the process as they will and thus I will be taking detailed notes as I work my way through it. But I’m a busy person and don’t necessarily have time to write just for the fun of it (as much as I’d like to). So, I decided that the best way to make the time I spend writing my first piece of IF useful would be to make the IF my syllabus for the course, so that they will actually have to play the IF in order to navigate the course. This will kill two birds with one stone: not only will I be gaining experience with writing IF, but it will also immerse the students in IF as they play their way through the course, thus allowing them to see what IF can do and to experience it as a player, so they will be more mindful of the player’s needs as they write their own piece.

But turning the syllabus into IF that the students must “play” will only work if students buy into it. Again, immersion, engagement, and motivation are all vital to encouraging this buy-in. In The Multiplayer Classroom, Sheldon points out that the more we can incorporate the game into the course, the better our chances of encouraging students to become immersed in the game. So, I decided to make the entire course a game that students would navigate and play via IF.

Theme

One the central principles of game design is theme and theme consistency. Since our focus text is about the Vietnam War, the game’s theme became apparent early on. The hard work was deciding how to adapt that theme to the FYC class and the students’ IF project.

Scenario

With this in mind, I developed the following scenario:

It is the near-future. Instead of weapons, wars are fought with words. America is on the brink of a second Vietnam War. In order to prevent this, a small contingent of military leaders and diplomats have developed the idea of an elite new force of writers who will use IF to invoke empathy and, hopefully, avert the war. The students have been recruited into this elite special operatives force. As recruits, they will go through some basic training before embarking on a series of missions that are all part of Operation “War Story.”

The game

I’ll go into more detail about the game itself in a subsequent post. Basically, I’ve divided the term up into missions, with each mission containing several assignments culminating in a boss level, which will range from a diagnostic writing assignment (at the end of “basic training”) to an annotated bibliography (at the end of the research, or “gathering intel,” mission) to a review of a piece of IF (covert surveillance) to completing their own piece of IF (endgame). Players must complete the boss level before they can proceed to the next mission. As they complete assignments, they earn XP (experience points) and as they accumulate XP, they rank up from recruit to private to private first class, etc. Their rank at the end of the term will be converted into a special operative status, with those displaying distinctive service earning an A, veterans earning a B, rookies earning a C, and those who’ve gone MIA (equivalent to a D) or AWOL (equivalent to an F) earning an NC.

In developing the game via IF, I’ve been able to integrate puzzles (quizzes), if/then scenarios (if you score a certain percentage on the quiz, you unlock a useful object), and objects (such as keys, tactical upgrades, and supplies that will help them complete the missions). I’m using AXMA, a non-open source (but still free) version of Twine, and it also allows me to integrate images, hyperlinks, videos, music, and sound effects into the game. I’m trying to incorporate suspense (a security breach, a mysterious package left by a late-night stranger, a phone ringing insistently) at strategic moments, such as midterm, to keep the interest level up and change up the pace of the course.

A final (for now) word about IF

The aspect of IF that I did not really consider at first, but which is becoming more and more interesting to me, is the level of reading literacy it promotes and requires. Most FYC course objectives include reading skills, but there is often so much work to be done to get students’ writing skills up to par, that reading gets short shrift. I recognize that reading and writing skills go hand in hand, but rarely do I have enough time to address reading to the same depth and degree as I do writing. Integrating IF as the syllabus for the course and requiring that students read several examples of IF pieces and then write their own IF, and all of the emphasis that process places on the reader and the reading, will allow me to focus as much on the reading process as the writing.

As I mentioned, I’ll be posting more in-depth posts that will address my use of IF and how I’ve turned the course into a game. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from others who have integrated IF into classes or who have gamified their classes (or both).

And if you’d like to start reading some IF, I highly recommend Muggle Studies.

Some Thoughts on Open Access and MOOC-ifying an Online Course

photo credit: dsearls via photopin cc
photo credit: dsearls via photopin cc

I was deeply saddened to hear of the suicide of Aaron Swartz. He stood for something that I believe in very deeply–open access and a creative commons. As a tribute to Swartz, academics have been encouraged to publish their work openly and share it using the hashtag #pdftribute. Since all of my academic work is already open access–published either here or at other websites–as tribute, I wanted to post about some of the issues concerning open access that I’ve been contemplating lately. I did participate in #pdftribute by creating a page on this blog where I will be listing links to the other work that I do, all of which will always be openly accessible.

For the past few years I have completely boycotted Blackboard, my university’s LMS. Instead, I create websites or blogs for my classes, usually on WordPress or Weebly, and I pay out-of-pocket in order to have access to a Pro version of the latter (which also gives up to 40 of my students Pro accounts). I also have my students create blogs, where they publish almost all of their work for the class. In the case of my Oral Communication class, students create an entire website that features their work over the course of the term. My hybrid FYC students also use Google+ as a virtual classroom and, while our interactions on the class circle are not necessarily public, students can and often do share those interactions with other circles and/or publicly. My reasons for making as much of a class as possible openly available is twofold: 1) I think that an essential part of educating our students involves teaching them how to be responsible digital citizens; 2) I believe that education should truly be “public” in every sense of the word and I want as much as what happens in my  classes as possible to be accessible to anyone who wishes to take part in it or discover/return to it whenever and wherever they desire.

For the first time I am teaching a completely online course, Survey of English Literature II. I was given the course on the third day of Spring classes, half-way through the first week of the term. I suppose I should have panicked (and at first I did a little), but it just so happens that I was recently a vicarious observer and occasional participant in #MOOCMOOC, so I had a few tricks up my sleeve to help get an initial course–or anti-course–out there for students to start participating in. I also kept in mind the arguments made in Jesse Stommel’s recent Hybrid Pedagogy article “Online Learning: A User’s Guide to Forking Education.”  I especially wanted to avoid the kinds of structures that typically characterize and constrain online courses:

Draconian learning management systems, hierarchical discussion forum tools, and automated grading systems replace the playful work of teachers and students with overly simplified algorithms that interface with far too few of the dynamic variables that make learning so visceral and lively.

Rather than struggle to throw together such an instructor-driven, top-down experience, I did just enough to get an environment established which the students can take over and make their own, collaborating to do the “work” of teaching each other (and me) about the authors, texts, and time periods covered by the course description. There are no video lectures, no discussion boards (in the traditional sense), no rubrics, a syllabus and schedule that students have been invited to help create and revise, a final exam that will be created by the class, and an assessment format that is based on how much participation the student is willing to dedicate. There’s a list of suggested readings but I have neither tied those readings to any kind of points system nor instituted any punishments for not completing any particular reading. If a student wishes to read a text, they may; if they don’t want to read it, they are free to not do so without compromising their success in the course. You can view the syllabus and schedule on the course website, Survey of English Literature. We will be using a Google+ class circle for our discussion forum, but anyone is invited to join this circle; just let me know and I will be happy to share the circle with you.

I have written about my reservations regarding MOOC’s and those reservations are still at the forefront of my resistance to the idea of trying to scale a class. However, the idea of an open, online learning environment that allows for and encourages connections beyond a specific physical, or even virtual, space and invites students to map, create, and share their own learning path is, for me, the most promising and important one embedded within the MOOC concept. And I think it is an idea that correlates with and supports Swartz’s vision for an open culture. Below is Swartz’s Open Access Manifesto. May it be yours, too.

A Crazy Thing Happened on the Way to the Globe Theatre: Some Initial Thoughts on Using Immersive Role-Play in the Composition Classroom

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I sometimes get the opportunity (let’s call it) to teach the second-semester iteration of my department’s two semester First-Year Composition course. This part of the course serves as an extension of the first, as well as an introduction to three literary genres–poetry, short fiction, and drama–with practice in reading, interpreting, and analyzing selected works from those genres. The course’s goal is to teach both close critical reading and analytical writing. It is a difficult class to teach, mainly because students tend to still need intense writing instruction and they generally have little to no background in close, analytical reading, so one of those two issues must become the focus of the course at the expense of the other (especially if you also try to include instruction in locating and identifying the various literary elements of the three genres and/or library research, which are both also listed as learning objectives for the course).

I often wish that there were more opportunities to incorporate creative reading and writing exercises into the class, one because the course can get a little dry (even with careful selection of more contemporary and highly-engaging texts) and secondly, because I believe that students can develop a better understanding of and appreciation for a poem, let’s say, if they actually have to write a poem themselves. Unfortunately, I’ve only ever taught the course in the summer short-term, which means I have even less time to teach several complex skills, so creative writing activities are never really an option.

Until now.

I now have thirteen glorious weeks of FYC II with which to play. And play is exactly what we are going to do!

Having a kid who’s a gamer, I know that gaming is a big part of many of my students’ lives. What I did not realize, until recently, was the extent to which role-playing is a part of both their gaming and non-gaming activities. For example, this semester I have a student who plays Magic the Gathering. In addition to this game, he also participates in creative role-play writing online. Another student is a furry. Several other students regularly interact virtually via games such as first-person shooters like Halo and MMORPGs. Hearing and reading about these students’ intense participation in highly immersive role play piqued my curiosity and I began to explore the role-play writing genre. I found that it is a genre that, like literary criticism and other forms of academic writing, is governed by strict community-imposed guidelines and practices, but also places a high premium on creativity, improvisation, and play (practices that are thought by many to be antithetical to academic writing), as well as cooperation and collaboration.

So I began to wonder: What if I could marry the critical and analytical aspects of literary criticism with the creative license of role-play writing? And what if I could do it in a highly immersive role-play environment? And how can I do it in a way that will still meet the learning objectives of the course (in other words, still introduce students to the literary genres and their respective elements; guide them towards close, analytical reading within those genres; teach them how to conduct and integrate research into their writing; and help them to continue to develop their formal writing skills)?

I’m still working out many of the answers to these questions, but I have too many ideas swimming around in my head right now to keep them all contained. I’ve got to do something with them (in order to do something with them). So here’s my initial (sketchy) thinking. There is some backstory to how some of these ideas led to each other and some research that initiated some of them, and I plan to detail those aspects of my development of the course (if it reaches fruition) later. This post simply serves as a brief overview of my thinking at this point in time.

Roles
If I want students to role-play, what roles would be available to them that will work for the poems, stories, and plays in our reader?

This has been the hardest question so far and I’m still developing ideas. I looked to the various theories of literary criticism to help get me started and immediately came up with a psychologist and a historian. Brainstorming from there, so far I’ve added cold-case detective, journalist, and celebrity gossip columnist (these are just off-the-cuff ideas).

How will the literature fit into the role-play?
Students will need to select a role to take on for the semester and, as we read selected texts, choose those that can be analyzed from their role’s perspective. So a cold-case detective might select Albee’s A Zoo Story to analyze with an eye towards solving the crime that takes place in the play or determining the motive behind it.

How can I make the roles as immersive as possible?
Obviously, students are going to need some help determining and developing the behaviors and habits of mind of their selected roles. I plan to flip the term, so to speak, by having them begin with their research project, which will be to figure out how to think like their persona. In addition to secondary research, I’m considering requiring that the students also interview someone in their role’s field (they have plenty of interviewees to select from on campus).

Secondly, I’ll have the students maintain a blog over the course of the semester as their persona. This will be where they post their writings about the texts they choose to work with (so their blog may be in the form of case files or newspaper articles or reports, etc.). They’ll also have to create a backstory for their persona, which they’ll post to the About page. In reading and commenting on their peers’ posts, I’ll ask that they maintain their role, so that they are responding as a cold-case detective, for example, even if they’re reading a journalistic piece or a psychological analysis.

Thirdly, I hope to be able to use Second Life to help reinforce the immersive experience. Students can create a physical manifestation of their persona via their SL avatar and can truly role-play with their peers in SL (they may be too self-conscious to do so IRL). In addition to giving their persona life, SL will also provide opportunities for virtual field-trips. I can, for instance, take the cold-case detectives on a field trip to the catacombs of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” where we can virtually investigate the scene of the crime. Or I can take a group of psychologists for a walk though the forest where Young Goodman Brown strolled with the devil so that we can determine if his experience was a case of an over-wrought imagination under the influence of the sublime primitive New England landscape or if he did, indeed, face his demons. SL will also, I believe, afford us an opportunity to discuss writing issues without the fear and loathing that face-to-face in-class discussions of writing invariably engenders. I’m hoping that the virtual nature of SL will allow students to speak more openly about their struggles as writers (and readers).

This is a brief overview of how the course appears in my own over-wrought mind. It’s still fuzzy around the edges and details need to be refined and there’s still much research and planning to be done before it looks anything like a workable course. I plan to do a follow-up post soon that outlines the research behind my ideas with links to pertinent resources. Any ideas or resources that my readers can provide are much appreciated. And if you’ve integrated role-play writing (or participate in it yourself) or Second Life into your classes, I would love to hear about your experiences. And if I’m totally off my rocker, someone please let me know why and to what extent.

Avatars hanging out in Second Life
By John “Pathfinder” Lester

Invitation to Collaboration: Literature Instruction in the 21st Century Webinar

Paul Cadmus, Pocahontas saving Captain John Smith from death in 1607 while watched by her father, 1939

Invitation to Collaboration: Literature Instruction in the 21st Century 
Webinar 
August 14, 2012 
1:00 cst 

When several members of Jacksonville State University’s English department began to challenge traditionally held beliefs about undergraduate education, the anthology of Early American Literature, along with many other “norms,” came under close scrutiny for many reasons.

With the GLO Bible as an early model, a team of approximately 30 collaborators began to construct an electronic, media rich anthology combining primary texts of pre-Civil War American Literature from the traditional canon with art, criticism, scholarly commentary, and contemporary audio and video to enhance student centered and challenge based learning.

This ongoing project involves faculty from English and other humanities departments at JSU and other colleges and universities, computer science faculty and other IT experts, broad- based student involvement, and a K-20 consortium.

During this free webinar, the JSU team (Jennifer Foster, Rodney Bailey, and Gena Christopher) will share its vision for the E-thology, a glimpse into this work in progress, and an invitation to become an active participant in what has evolved into much more than an ebook. We will also welcome your questions and comments.

To register for this event, contact Gena Christopher at genac@jsu.edu.