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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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 
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

RTFS: Remix the F****ing Syllabus

photo credit: Barbara.K via photo pin cc

Now that my summer classes are over, I’m transitioning into what is, for me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching–planning my next set of classes. There’s something to be said for the clean slate. I love the opportunity that a new semester offers in terms of trying out new methodologies and introducing students to new texts and ideas to work through. Of course, not all aspects of planning courses are equally enjoyable.

Take, for example, the syllabus. I often put it off until the last minute because I dread the tediousness of copying and pasting departmental policies and procedures (“must be worded exactly as indicated,” warns the departmental email) and attempting to infuse at least some of the excitement that I feel–and want the students to feel–about the course (a difficult task considering the punitive, fear-inspiring language in which our policies and procedures are worded). And then there’s the reality that few of the students will actually read the syllabus and, since I refuse to spend time during the first class meeting reading it to them, may happily survive an entire semester without ever being aware of anything it contains–neither the Kafkaesque departmental code of conduct nor my inspired introduction to the grand ideals of collaborative learning networks, active learning, and authentic assessment. How many times have you politely answered a question that would not need to be asked if the student had simply read the syllabus (while silently thinking, “Why don’t you just RTFS?”)? Which has led me to wonder if the syllabus is yet another aspect of traditional schooling that needs to be hacked.

Some instructors are doing just that. There’s now syllabi that are comics and syllabi that look more like brochures for an adventure through ideas. One of my favorites is a syllabus for a biological anthropology class that incorporates some rather friendly-looking skeletons (study buddies?). As pointed out by Jason B. Jones, new software and web tools have given us the ability to make our syllabi more visually engaging. But these are just superficial changes to a vestige of factory-style education whose entire purpose and content may need to be completely re-imagined.

For me, what brings the traditional syllabus’ irrelevancy to the fore is, ironically, two current trends that are centered upon the syllabus itself. One is the practice of creating repositories of syllabi for open use by other educators via tools such as Git Hub (see “Forking Your Syllabus”). The second is the sharing of syllabi among members of social media forums, such as Twitter chats. It’s not that I think that either of these practices is bad; in fact, I think they are extremely important because they encourage the kinds of open exchange of ideas and exposure to diverse teaching methods that are vital to promoting lasting and meaningful change within our educational institutions. But I’m not sure how well the syllabus really contains the kinds of ideas and disruptive methods that we really need to be promoting. Maybe some of them contain a hint of the teacher’s pedagogical philosophies or some kernel that allows us to imagine the kinds of thinking and writing they encourage in their classrooms. But I don’t think that a syllabus really tells us much about what actually happens on the ground; it is, after all, a static (dead) thing, created before we have even met our students, much less attempted to enact and give meaning to its rhetoric.

My own syllabus doesn’t say much about me or what happens in my classroom at all. I used to keep a working copy of my syllabus for each class in a folder. After each class meeting, I would annotate it, making note of what worked and what didn’t and what I should have done/asked students to do that I didn’t. This working syllabus, marked up to the point of illegibility for anyone but me, said more about the class than the version posted on the class website. As I have moved farther and farther away from canned lessons and have allowed my students to help define our objectives and shape how we reach those objectives, I have had to take more and more out of my syllabi. For example, I no longer include a tentative schedule in my syllabus because a class’s schedule is often so fluid that it’s far easier to create a Google Doc that can be easily updated. Even the section in which I outline the assignments that students will complete is purposely vague, allowing for a kind of flexibility that I have found is necessary when your focus is student- and learning-centered. How can I even begin to put into words what I imagine will take place as students read, discuss, and write about the texts I assign them? And what if what actually happens is nothing like what I imagined? What if it’s better? What if it’s a total inspiration-sucking disaster? How can the syllabus reflect or communicate any of this?

Maybe it’s not supposed to, but, if not, then what can/should it do?

The syllabus, in it’s current form, has never worked for our students, despite our constant refrains to RTFS. And it is increasingly incapable of creating a snapshot of what goes on in the right kinds of classes (Ann Lemott’s analogy of writing as a slowly-developing polaroid comes to mind: “You can’t–and, in fact, you’re not supposed to–know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing”).

It’s time that we begin to remix the f***ing the syllabus. The question is how?

Hacking Literary Analysis: Mashup as the New Canon

Two Gentlemen of Lebowski image via The L Magazine

Debate about the place of literature within the First Year Composition course has been raging for years (Jill DeGraw provides an effective and concise overview of both sides of the debate in “Literature in the Freshman Composition Class”). For me, there are valid points made by both sides. But whether or not I agree that the literary analysis essay is an effective method for teaching students the kind of critical and analytical reading and writing skills that they will need throughout their studies is a moot point; I teach in a department that believes that it is, and I must adhere to the course objectives that those in charge of the FYC program have established. But that’s not to say that I can’t question and test their definition of literature.

In our program, FYC consists of a two-semester sequence: the first semester supplies an introduction to the basics of expository and persuasive writing, while the second semester is a combination introduction to literature and analytical writing course. The objectives for the second semester course are daunting: students are expected to come away with a knowledge of the formal qualities of poetry, drama, and short fiction; have read several examples from each genre; be able to apply their knowledge of the formal qualities of each genre to a critical reading of those examples; be able to articulate their findings in an analytical essay; and be able to conduct research to locate relevant and reliable sources, synthesize those sources, and use them to support a thesis-driven literary analysis of one of the texts studied during the term. Aside from the Herculean nature of accomplishing all of these objectives in fourteen weeks (or in my case eight, since I teach the summer short-term version), there’s the added difficulty of selecting texts that will be both understandable and challenging to students and that they will find relevant or interesting enough to not only read but spend considerable time re-reading, analyzing, perhaps even researching, and eventually writing about at length.

As Andrea Lunsford says of the old practice of having FYC students read and write about literature:

[C]ollege writing courses that asked all students—no matter their own interests or prospective majors—to write about “classic literature” for an entire term or two were almost guaranteed not to connect with the majority of the students in them.

In considering ways to remix my summer short-term second semester FYC class, I was most concerned with the issue of relevancy. I often incorporate pop culture into the course, asking students to apply what they learn about analyzing plays, poems, and short fiction to movies, songs, and music videos, but I wanted to make the literature itself more relevant to the kinds of media that students are exposed to outside of the classroom. The previous term, I had been surprised at how engaged my first semester students had been with creating their own memes as part of their work with DS 106. Personally, I had recently discovered mashups after reading Ryan Cordell’s “Mashups in the Literature Classroom” and had avidly been building a playlist of mashups on my YouTube channel, as well as researching mashup blogs and websites. This research had led me to discover Kirby Ferguson’s Everything Is a Remix film series. In a wonderful overlap with my discovery and exploration of the mashup genre and remix theory, I was also reading every graphic novel I could get my hands on in preparation for a course I will be teaching next summer, including Peter Kuper’s Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Neil Gaiman’s Dream Country from The Sandman series, which includes his take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What began to coalesce in my mind was a course that taught literature as remix/mashup and remix/mashup as literature.

In asking students to explore how works of literature are referenced by, sampled in, and combined with new texts, I hoped to teach them to discern how a knowledge of the literary canon can help them to better understand, appreciate, and critically analyze their own cultural milieu. For the final research project, students would either select a remix or mashup not studied in class to analyze or create their own remix or mashup, using a particular literary theory to inform their work. I knew the course would be very challenging for the students, but, in my opinion, it turned out to be just the right kind of challenge. In this post, I’ll briefly outline how I sequenced the course and share some examples of the students’ final projects.

Course Sequence

I began the term by introducing students to remixes and mashups by providing various examples and having them watch the Everything Is a Remix series. While most students were familiar with music sampling, the majority had never heard of mashups. In order to help ground their understanding of what remixes and mashups “do”, I asked them to use Ryan Cordell’s theory of mashup as a lens:

The best mashups juxtapose materials deliberately; they make the implicit explicit. They expose or highlight underlying features of the source materials-formal, thematic, or stylistic-that casual viewers, listeners, or readers might miss.

I also had students complete a diagnostic piece in which they were asked to apply a specific literary theory to a particular mashup (see the Diagnostic Essay guidelines). I used the results of this diagnostic to design the assignment sequence for the rest of the term. What became apparent from the diagnostic assignment was that students needed a scaffolded sequence that required them to analyze each text separately before tackling a comparative analysis within the context of a remix/mashup.

For the first unit, I asked students to select a poem and its companion illustration from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience to analyze. I thought it best to begin with texts that had been remixed purposely by the author and were meant to be read contemporaneously. For each subsequent unit, I first asked them to read, discuss, research, and analyze an original text from our literature reader (Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream respectively). Each student was free to select and apply a literary theory of their choosing to the text, but we worked as a community to understand the text and the conversations taking place around it amongst other readers. Students were then introduced to two current texts that either remix or mash the original in some way. Students selected which remix/mashup they wished to focus on and used their analysis of the original as a lens for analyzing the remix/mashup (for Kafka, they could choose between Carlos Atanes short film The Metamorphosis of Franz Kafka or Kuper’s graphic novel; for Shakespeare, they could choose between Gaiman’s comic version or the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-Told version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

What I’d do differently the next time

It’s not so much what I’d do differently as what I’d do if I had fourteen weeks as opposed to eight. For one, the students needed more time to become grounded in the theoretical underpinnings of remix and mashups. They needed more time to practice analyzing each genre together in class before they worked at doing so on their own. We also needed more time for students to develop, receive feedback on, and revise their analyses to help ensure that they were addressing both texts fully and effectively. Specifically, students would have benefited from more direct instruction in analyzing films and graphic novels. While I provided them with resources to help them do so, they still had difficulty with addressing the unique characteristics of these mediums, especially the visual components and how they highlighted or subsumed aspects of the original texts.

Secondly, I wish that we had had more time to discuss the original texts as remixes themselves (Blake of Barbauld’s Lessons for Children and Hymns in Prose for Children, Shakespeare and Kafka of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Shakespeare of English folk and fairy tales). And I wish that we could have discussed the implications of copyright, creative license, and fair use for remix and mashup practices (and how Blake, Shakespeare, and Kafka did not have to contend with these issues).

Final projects

For me, and I would hazard a guess that for the students as well, the most successful aspect of the course was the final project. Not only were the students’ choices of remixes and mashups both varied and interesting, but their analyses were insightful and engaging. Here’s a list of what the students chose to do with their final projects:

  • a feminist critique of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” (which samples but deftly revises Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman”)
  • a cultural studies critique of Baz Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet
  • a postcolonial critique of the “So You Think You Can Be President” mashup
  • a postcolonial critique of “I Have a Dream” by Common and
  • a cultural studies critique of Weird Al’s “Eat It”
  • a feminist critique of the “Disney Mean Girls” mashup

Only one student chose to create their own mashup. She chose to use a Marxist lens to mash Kuper’s graphic novel version of The Metamorphosis with Modest Mouse’s “Doing the Cockroach.” This is the amazing result:


If you’re interesting in exploring and incorporating remixes and mashups into your course, here are a few sources that I found helpful in getting started:

The Meta Mashup

Mashup: A Fair Use Defense

DS 106: Ranting about Remix

10 Things Every Creator Should Remember but We Often Forget 

Remix Theory

Political Remix Video

For resources that students can use to create their own remixes and/or mashups, see my post on the course’s blog.

Hip Hop Genius: Remixing Education

In this video, Sam Seidel defines hip hop genius as creative resourcefulness in the face of limited resources, or, as it’s known in hip hop, flipping something out of nothing. He argues for the need to transform schools using hip hop genius.



These are just a few of the ways Seidel proposes we can use hip hop genius in education that struck me as salient for hybrid pedagogy:

  • the role of sampling/remixing: teachers can borrow from diverse models and improvise innovative blends of educational practices; we don’t have to do the same old thing or follow one model
  • staying fresh: we must do something new and different to remain relevant; this is a continuous process
  • students have brilliant ideas and instincts: as teachers we should respect and build on their ideas and instincts and allow students to engage as creators, not consumers

The aspect of hip hop culture to which I am most drawn is graffiti. As Seidel points out, graffiti artists realized that they didn’t need a private art gallery for their work to be seen. By using the urban landscape as their art gallery, their work could reach a much wider public audience. But this was (and still is) seen as disruptive, so graffiti artists began to use the disruptive nature of their art as a way to voice political and cultural protests (in much the same way that skateboarders are forced to be disruptive because they have been denied spaces within which to practice their art).

Our students now have the public space in which to explore and create, but far too often they are denied these spaces by schools, teachers, and parents because the spaces and what they do within them are viewed as disruptive, when what we should be doing is encouraging and teaching them to use these spaces in ways that are relevant and meaningful to others and that allow them to engage in promoting change and innovation.

We need to empower them to make their hustle positive or they will (continue to) use it as a negative response to our irrelevancy.

photo credit: niznoz via photo pin cc

I’m Bringing Paper Back (‘Cause It’s Still Sexy)

Iphoto credit: vl8189 via photo pin cc

In a recent article in Digital Humanities Quarterly entitled “Hacking the Yacking,” Paul Fyfe describes examples of what he calls teaching naked, a method that uses decidedly traditional media to encourage students to engage in a tactile relationship with course content. Fyfe poses an intriguing question: “Can there be a digital pedagogy without computers?” The answer, according to Fyfe, is yes, and the result can be both refreshing and freeing for those who embrace it:

Technology, at least in its electrified forms, can be a limiting factor in imagining how humanities instruction can be “digital”: something to get your hands on, to deal with in dynamic units, to manipulate creatively.

But what Fyfe is advocating is not a Luddite response to computers; in fact, I see his idea of teaching naked in the digital humanities as being more radical and disruptive to traditional pedagogies than the advent of open courses, gamification, or any of the other “progressive” technology-based innovations circling the proverbial educational reform drain. As pointed out by Peter Rorabaugh and Jesse Stossel in “What Does Hybrid Pedagogy Do?”:

[A]s we allow two things to rub up against each other, two things that might not otherwise touch, we incite them to interact, allowing synthesis (and even perforation) along their boundaries. As the digital and analog–the physical and virtual–commingle, we must let go of the containers for learning to which we’ve grown accustomed.

Scary stuff if you’re intimidated by uncertainty or perforated boundaries. But also encouraging if you’re hesitant to completely abandon traditional media or if, like me, you feel that you’ve taken technological integration to its limits (at least for now) and are ready to step back and reassess how best to remix your learning environments with the most effective and engaging analog and digital tools.

For me, writing is a heavily tactile experience. Just as I prefer a physical book to an electronic one because the smell and feel of the pages and the visual aesthetic of the cover image and particular fonts add to and are part of my reading experience, I prefer writing by hand to writing electronically. As a child, I loved the smell of white notebook paper and first, freshly-sharpened lead pencils, and later, ball-point ink. Even the transition to an electric typewriter was still a physically-engaging experience–the lulling hum and radiant heat of the motor, the indented keys cradling my fingers, the decisive clack as the letters became permanently engraved on the white canvas of the paper, the inky scent of the ribbon. While I’m sure that very few of my students share these visceral responses to the media of writing, I’ve always tried to encourage them to enter into a physical relationship with their writing. I’ve asked them to cut it up and paste it back together. I’ve forced them to brutally mark through entire sentences with a Sharpie. And these acts of homicide on their written words almost always cause emotional reactions-of dismay, grief, fear, and, if I’m successful, elation and enlightenment. By asking students to acknowledge the physical mortality of their writing, I hoped to encourage them to divorce themselves from it emotionally so that they could begin to see it from their readers’ point of view.

As I have asked students to write more publicly using digital media, I have, ironically, abandoned many of the activities that require them to digitally play with their words. The play time had to be replaced with workshops on blogging and social media. I still require students to bring hard copies of rough drafts to peer review (and I continue to stress the need to proofread from hard copies rather than a screen), but otherwise, I have succeeded in creating an almost completely paperless classroom.

But I’m not so sure that that’s a good thing. So, I’m re-thinking how to bring paper back.

Here’s some ideas so far:

Mining the Students’ Digital Texts
Fyfe defines the goal of text mining as “keep[ing] students’ attention on the critical labor that digital resources seem to dissolve.” I often require students to collaborate on Google Docs outside of class, but these texts have always remained virtual, viewed and discussed by the class via the intermediary of the computer screen. What I would like to do is to give these texts corporality, to bring them into the classroom so that they can be mined and manipulated. For example, next term I plan to have my students use Google Docs to collaboratively annotate Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart and brainstorm ways that we can integrate his techniques into our class. I plan to print out hard copies of the Doc and have students work in groups to mine it, highlighting the most important, thought-provoking, and disruptive annotations and ideas (in effect, physically annotating the class’s virtual annotations). Each group will then post their annotated copies around the room for the other groups to read and annotate further before we decide, via class discussion, which ideas are most significant and useful for us to put into practice.

Paper Blogs
Karen McMillan has her students create practice blogs on paper before creating digital versions. While McMillan’s students are 7th graders, I think that this is actually a good idea to integrate into the college classroom. Because they are unfamiliar with blogs, my students often struggle with creating effective blog posts. Some never get the hang of hyperlinking, quoting from other web sources, or embedding media. My idea is to have them practice these and other blogging skills on paper first–underlining hyperlinked words and manually cutting and pasting in images and passages from sources. The act of physically composing their posts, collage-style, mimics the kind of graphic manipulation that I think makes blogging so aesthetically engaging and challenging.

Many books on writing advocate play. The best writers learn to play with language, to recognize its utility and disposability as well as its transcendency. This playfulness is often difficult for students to adopt. The same can be said of teachers and pedagogy: whether we’re afraid of being seen as too old-school or as too susceptible to the latest fad, we forget that pedagogy is as utilitarian and disposable as it is transcendent. Sometimes, a pencil and piece of paper can be as liberating and intellectually stimulating as a laptop if the student is encouraged to ask the right kinds of questions and to play with the possible answers. It’s equally important for us to teach them how to use the laptop to make the results of their play permanent and public if they choose. But the virtual product might well be more critically refined thanks to the analog media.

Perhaps the right questions for us to be asking are: How can we create more perforations and synthesis at the boundaries between the page and the screen? And how can we encourage our students to play more at these boundaries?

Remixing Learning Spaces: Two Resources and Some Thoughts

photo credit: horizontal.integration via photo pin cc

In making the classroom analogous to a skatepark, I’ve mainly focused on designing the learning opportunities that await students within the skatepark. This is because, at this point, this is the only aspect of the skatepark that I have control over. Just as important is the architecture of the skatepark itself, but, unfortunately, this isn’t something that can easily be controlled within the college classroom. Unlike K12 teachers, we aren’t assigned to a permanent room across multiple semesters nor are our assigned rooms only used by us (they’re likely to also be in active use by as many as 5-6 other instructors during a given day). We don’t have a way to create displays of student work nor are we able to create distinct spaces within our rooms, such as reading areas, group and quiet study, or technology stations. In fact, our existing spaces are distinctly adverse to anything other than factory-style instruction, with students lined up in rows of individual desks facing the instructor and their podium and whiteboard (and the only electrical outlet).

While I don’t bemoan having to come up with new bulletin board ideas every month, there are certain aspects of the K12 classroom that would be nice to have in the college classroom. This is especially true once we begin to transform our spaces into 21st century learning environments. Our existing environments are often 30 years old (if not older), in the case of my building, and even newer “smart” buildings were designed and equipped for the type of lecture-focused instruction that was still dominant in the late-20th century, with projectors and an instructor computer station to add the veneer of being grounded in pedagogically-relevant technological innovations. Since I’m a member of a committee whose goal is to identify the necessary characteristics, criteria, and components of a 21st century university, this disconnect between what needs to go on within our classrooms and what our classrooms are designed to allow to go on is an important one for me. But it’s also important to me because I struggle daily with the limitations that these spaces place on what goes on in my learning skatepark.

In looking at resources dealing with what kinds of spaces are needed for students’ current learning needs, I’ve found two that have been especially thought-provoking. The first is this infographic by Aimée Knight:

For me, what stands out about Knight’s argument is the focus on the students’ needs, rather than on the requirements of technology:

The focus of classroom design needs to be on people, not technology. When the focus is placed on active, social, experiential learning, technologies move into the background.

This seems to be a focus that is missing from many other studies of 21st century classroom design (see, for example, the 21st century classroom design guru David Jakes’s website). In addition to the infographic, Knight and Mark Sample have published a Google Doc from a brainstorming session on Hacking Campus Spaces that took place at THATCamp Piedmont 2012. Along with a summary of the brainstorming session, the Doc contains several links to various resources on how others are re-thinking and remixing university spaces.

What the infographic does for me is to solidify my own thinking about how best to re-design the physical space within which I create learning opportunities for my students. Much more vital than any accommodations made to my technology needs is the ability for my students to have access to the spaces and resources that they need, technological and otherwise. At various times during a class meeting, my students may need to work as a group, work as individuals, access the internet and word processing or presentation software, brainstorm, collaborate on various types of writing and media, conference with me, present, and instruct one another (and even me on occasion). For me, one product from the early days of factory education that still holds value for the 21st century classroom is the individual writing tablet (I’m a big fan of the method known as whiteboarding). Of course, we have the electronic equivalent, but right now the large majority of my students don’t have iPads and many don’t have laptops. Even once my university institutes its iPad initiative and gives all incoming freshman their own electronic slate, that will still not cover all of my students. But if all of the walls of my classrooms were equipped with a whiteboard (or chalkboard, which is more environmentally friendly), then all of my students would have the ability to write, brainstorm, and collaborate on a canvas that could be shared or reserved for personal use, immediately erased or recorded for posterity (I’ve considered creating the $2 interactive whiteboard, but haven’t figured out the logistics of adapting the technique to the college classroom).

Thoreau, the genius of simplicity, said, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” The transition to a 21st century learning environment is not quick, easy, or inexpensive and requires clear priorities. Obviously, re-designing classroom spaces is not at the top of the priority list and will entail a large financial expenditure at the same time that universities are facing a reduction in federal and state funding and a rise in operating costs. But there are simple and low-cost ways that we can make our existing spaces more user-friendly for our students. I would rather my students be able to view themselves as the focus of the classroom, with tools as simple as electrical outlets, whiteboards, and modular, multi-purpose seating (or even a few tables to supplement the existing seating) at their disposal than to have all of the technological bells and whistles out there at the front of the room for me to use.

So, how am I currently dealing with the limitations of my classroom spaces? As best I can. My students are often movers and shakers, rearranging desks into groups or semicircles, contorting their bodies in order to view various areas of the room and to look at their classmates as they talk, traveling en masse from our classroom to the computer lab or as individuals to a study carrel in the hallway. The front of the classroom is still the hot spot because it’s where the projector is aimed, the only whiteboard is located, and the electrical outlet offers the ability to plug in gadgets when batteries wane. My hybrid classes, which depend much more heavily on students’ ability to use mobile internet devices, collaborate, and have small group discussions, currently meet in the library because it affords class, group, and individual seating arrangements and access to raw materials, such as reliable wi-fi, plugs, laptops that can be checked out, and coffee (thanks to our newly-installed coffee bar).

So, before we begin advocating for a wholesale overhaul of our spaces and risk the failure that is inevitable when demanding a huge financial output for uncertain results and questionable reasons (after all, our administrators might well argue, haven’t the existing spaces functioned for hundreds of years?), lets take a step back and ask whose needs are we advocating for. It does make my job infinitely easier when I have the ability to switch my students’ attention to a website, slideshow, or YouTube video or to project a student’s blog so that the entire class can see it. But in my ideal learning environment, it’s the students who turn each others’ attention to a website, slideshow, or YouTube video and students are often working together to revise a peer’s blog post in situ. While my technological needs often overlap those of my students, it’s their learning needs that have been ignored for far longer and that are in more immediate need of attention.

Or am I totally off my pumpkin?