Tools for Building Alternate Reality Narratives

This week in the Games-Based Learning MOOC we’ve been discussing Alternate Reality Games (ARG’s) and how to design them, especially in terms of building a narrative that will engage the players and help them become immersed in the game. For me, the most challenging aspect of designing and building an ARG is how to establish the “this is not a game” mentality (TINAG). In discussing both narrative and TINAG, I couldn’t help but think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory of the willing suspension of disbelief. In describing his contributions to his and Wordsworth’s seminal collection of poetry, Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge wrote:

It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

The result of Coleridge’s efforts is the greatest piece of supernatural poetry ever written: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There are two essential components to Coleridge’s method: human interest and a semblance of truth; we see these two aspects of Coleridge’s theory at work in The Rime and it is, I believe, an excellent text for game designers to study in order to better understand both. So, the two questions that I’ve been considering this week as I continue to work on designing my Interactive Fiction syllabus and how I might integrate AR into some of my other classes is how to ensure that my narratives integrate both human interest and a semblance of truth. A great source of inspiration for me has been a TED Talk that was part of our GBL course work this week; it is the story of teacher John Hunter and the  World Peace Game that he has his 4th graders play.

Hunter’s World Peace Game is the perfect example of an ARG that addresses both of Coleridge’s requirements for a willing suspension of disbelief.  You can tell from watching and listening to Hunter’s students that they have willingly accepted the TINAG premise because they both value the importance of  the humanistic issues embedded within the game and they are, through immersive role-play, creating a semblance of truth.

In my own game design, the human interest component is not as much a challenge as how to create a semblance of truth. For this, my own FYC II students have provided some very good examples. As mentioned in my last post, this class is using immersive role-play to analyze and write about the short stories and plays they’re reading, which they have, as part of their role-play, treated as real events. Students have been working in role-based guilds all term, but for the final project, I asked them to partner with someone from a different guild and work together to create a multimodal piece that demonstrates their characters’ combined analysis of one of the texts we have covered. In doing so, the students have utilized various methods to imbue their work with a sense of realism.

Social Media

One group decided to address Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, which involves an encounter between two strangers during which one, Jerry, seems to force the other, Peter, into helping him commit assisted suicide. Because Jerry is dead, the students recognized that they would need a way to investigate his motives. They decided to create a Facebook page for Jerry; using clues from the text, they created a page that included a profile pic, status updates, and quotations that indicated that Jerry was becoming increasingly depressed due to feelings of social inadequacy and  isolation.

The group had to use clues from the text to create Jerry's Facebook page.
The group had to use clues from the text to create Jerry’s Facebook page.

Because social media use is so ubiquitous, the students knew that, however isolated and disconnected Jerry might be in real life, he would more than likely use social media as a way to try to connect to people and as a venue for expressing his feelings.

When creating an ARG, social media is an excellent way to add a veneer of reality. Almost everyone has either a Facebook or Twitter account (or both) and most businesses and organizations also use one or both of these forms of social media for networking with other companies/groups and advertising to and connecting with potential and existing customers/clients. Social media embodies verisimilitude not only because of its popularity, but because it offers the ability to release content in real time, thus providing a sense of immediacy; social media sites are, by nature, frequently updated and content is organized in reverse chronological order. Because of this, social media is also a way to add ambiguity to your narrative (ambiguity being one of the seven ways that games reward the brain); by not having all information available immediately but releasing it gradually over the life of the game, players are more likely to become invested in remaining in the game in order to access the missing information and are more likely to experience the feeling of TINAG (because real life is ambiguous and full of unknown variables).

Blogs 

Another group, also addressing The Zoo Story, integrated one of the character’s blog into their project, using it as evidence in their analysis (the premise they created is quite complex and involves a Dr. Who-like time-traveling blogger who uses virtual reality to experience events from the past from whatever point of view he wishes; during the events of The Zoo Story, he chooses to inhabit Jerry and, in the process, becomes entangled with his identity, bringing it back with him and recreating Jerry’s actions in his own  time so that the other students’ investigation must solve both murders). Again, the students recognized that many people are now living their lives virtually via the internet and blogs are one of the most popular ways in which they are doing so (at the beginning of 2011, there were over 156 million public blogs and an untold number of private ones).

When creating an ARG, blogs are a good way to bring in the perspective of various characters. One example ARG that we looked at this week in the MOOC, Exocog, uses a blog in order to provide insights from the main character, Sarah. Like social media, blogs are frequently updated, affording a chance to release information over the life of the game and create a feeling of immediacy.

Websites

One student who ended up having to work independently decided to build on a previous project she had completed during the term for Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” which involves a teenage girl who is kidnapped by an older man. For her original project, the student, who had taken on the role of a criminal defense investigator, had filled in a real missing person’s report for the kidnapped girl, Connie. For her final project, the student created a premise in which Connie eventually escapes her abductor 13 years later, writes a best-selling book about her experiences, and starts a non-profit called Safe Zone, for which the student created a website. Again, websites are a common method for organizations and companies to provide information about their work to the public. Exocog also makes use of websites for providing clues and information to players. There are several tools for building a free website, two of my favorites being Google Sites and Weebly. While websites typically are more static than blogs, they are sometimes updated, so you can choose either option.

Web 2.o Tools

There are several other web 2.0 tools that can be used to add realistic elements to an ARG, several of which were mentioned in my last post on DIY mystery games. My students this term have utilized two of these tools in interesting ways. As part of her final project on the escaped kidnap victim, Connie, the criminal defense investigator used Fodey to create a newspaper clipping in order to introduce the premise behind Connie’s re-appearance.

The student created a newspaper clipping to create the context for her final project
The student created a newspaper clipping to create the context for her final project

A second tool that students made use of to bring a sense of truth to their projects is Glogster. One team, a cold-case detective and a forensic psychologist, used Glogster to create an evidence board for the play Trifles by Susan Glaspell.

One group created the kind of evidence board you might find in a squad room.
One group created the kind of evidence board you might find in a squad room.

These are just two examples of how web 2.o tools can be used to create the kinds of media you might find in real-life contexts within the game narrative. While you can’t have players discover a real newspaper article (or maybe you can?) or stumble upon a real evidence board in a real squad room, you can create virtual versions to embed within the game. Just remember that in order to maintain the TINAG-ness you’ll need to have players discover them under realistic circumstances (perhaps one of the detectives takes a photo of the evidence board and posts it to his blog or a character “pins” the newspaper clipping to their Pinterest board).

While the tools that I have focused on are all internet-based, don’t forget that you can integrate real-world media into your ARG, as well. If you can do so, integrating some location-based experiences into your narrative will increase player engagement, especially for students who are kinesthetic learners. Cemeteries and libraries are just two places that are chock-full of real-world media that lend themselves to ARG’s. The goal is to integrate as many different kinds of experiences and media as you can, always keeping Coleridge’s two narrative ideals of human interest and verisimilitude in mind.

DIY Mystery Game

This week in the Games Based Learning MOOC, we’ve been covering tools for creating your own serious games. In addition to scavenger hunts and ARGs (alternate reality games), we’ve been discussing mystery games. As I’ve mentioned before, I particularly enjoy mystery games and our discussions this week have made me consider how I might integrate a mystery game into one or more of my classes. I think that mysteries are particularly suitable to the classroom because of the evidence-based, critical thinking they require. In my FYC II class this term, one of the roles that students have been able to adopt is that of a detective. These students have treated those short stories and plays that involve murders as cold cases that have been re-opened; they’ve had to closely examine the texts for evidence, consider  what other kinds of evidence might be available to them, and analyze this evidence to determine the means, motive, and opportunity in order to both identify the perpetrator and determine why, when, where, and how they did it. They’ve worked on cases as diverse as “A Rose for Emily,” Hamlet, and Trifles. In framing the texts as a mystery that needs to be solved and in asking students to take on the viewpoint of a criminal investigator (who has a specific purpose and set of skills), the importance of locating, analyzing, making connections between, and drawing conclusions from the textual evidence has become clear to students in a way that I have never been able to achieve by teaching literary analysis using traditional methods. This aspect of the course has been so successful with students and effective in terms of teaching them how to analyze and think critically about a text (and both what is and is not explicitly contained within it), that I have begun to consider how I might expand the mystery element of the course and add aspects of mystery games to some of my other classes.

My favorite mystery game, Special Enquiry Detail,
My favorite mystery game, Special Enquiry Detail combines an engaging storyline, well-developed characters, challenging puzzles, misdirection, and evidence analysis.

As pointed out by  Vasili Giannoutsos, when creating a mystery game, there are several genres to choose from: traditional (which include locked room and puzzle mysteries), legal mysteries, medical mysteries, cozy mysteries (Agatha Christie-style), police procedural, and hard-boiled private eye mysteries. So no matter what subject you teach, there’s a type of mystery that will fit. Also, the mystery game creator must keep the 5 questions of mystery in mind: Who?, What?, Where?, When?, and Why? Players have to determine the answers to three questions early on: What are you solving?, What is your purpose?, and How do you come to your conclusion?

For a good overview of the basic elements of an engaging mystery game from a game designer’s perspective, I highly recommend  “Creating Mystery Games,” which also includes an example mystery game.

I have collated a set of tools that I think would be helpful in creating a mystery game. These are tools that are easy enough to use that students could use them to create their own mystery games.

Voki

Voki is a tool that allows you to create a talking animated avatar that you can embed into almost any application. Voki could be used to create characters within the mystery or to create a gamemaster who guides players through the game.

Glogster

Glogster is a tool for creating electronic posters that contain text, images, audio, and video. One group of detectives in my FYC II class is using Glogster to create an evidence board like the kind you would find in a squad room. A mystery game creator could either do the same or require the players to create their own evidence board where they store and analyze the evidence they collect.

Google Maps

Google Maps could be used to create location-based puzzles within the mystery game. For example, you could have players use the street view feature to locate clues within the real world.

ThingLink

ThingLink is a tool that allows you to tag images with embedded text, audio, videos, and hyperlinks. In addition to using tags to leave clues within an image, ThingLink could also be used to create your own hidden object puzzle. If you’re an educator, you can upgrade your account, allowing you to use hidden tags so that you could “hide” the tags on specific objects in the image and provide players a list of objects to locate in order to “unlock” the clues.

Fodey

Fodey  is a tool that allows you to create realistic-looking newspaper clippings. A game designer could use this tool to create snippets of news articles that reveal details about the mystery.

Dipity

Dipity is an interactive timeline generator. A mystery game designer could use this tool to create a timeline of events and embed clues and puzzles within the timeline or, again, you could require players to create their own timeline and embed the evidence they locate at the appropriate points.

Twine

Interactive Fiction games lend themselves well to mystery. Twine is an easy-to-use IF creation tool that allows you to create text-based mystery adventures similar to the Agatha Christie-style IF game  An Act of Murder (this and other mystery IF can be played via the free iOS app Frotz).

Dio

A new tool from Linden Labs (creators of Second Life) called Dio allows you to create interactive locations and/or events.

I found a great example of a mystery game created using Dio called “Sherlock Holmes: The Murdered Magnate.”

These are just a few of the tools that I’ve been able to imagine using to create a mystery game for the classroom and I can imagine several of them being used in tandem, since most include embed options. If you have a tool that you can think of, I’d love for you to share it.

Goodbye, Hello: In Which I Look Backwards Before Going Forwards

photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc
photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc

The Fall semester has come to an end and the Spring term is about to begin. Each new term brings with it heightened anticipation as we feverishly map journeys of discovery for our students and blueprint what we hope will be engaging and challenging learning environments. It is a strange season of flux as we look forward with one eye and backward with the other, reflecting on what worked and what failed before so that we know what to recycle, repurpose, and reconsider and what to chalk up to experience. We share much with gardeners, who spend the fallow season plotting and planning, first allowing space for the necessary and the reliable, then squeezing in some untried novelties, deciding what needs to be rotated to revitalize the soil, prepping the ground, sowing the seeds, then waiting patiently for the fruits to flower, tending, weeding, brooding, second-guessing, nurturing, assessing.

Before finalizing my Spring classes, I wanted to reflect, in writing, on some of my more experimental practices from the Fall, especially those about which I promised to post follow-ups.

In “Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh my?” I posed the question: “What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university?” I wondered if they would be willing or able to accept my challenge. I’m happy to report that they accepted it wholeheartedly and did not disappoint me or the 21st Century Classroom Initiative Committee members who attended their presentations (more on those in a bit). I handed the class a real and intensely relevant problem to solve with no conditions or requirements attached (other than the fact that they had to be able to explain their work in 15 minutes or less). Some of the solutions that students developed were phenomenally outstanding. You can see a sampling of what they came up with at Storify.

In a subsequent post, “This Is What a Final Exam Should Look Like,” I shared my discovery of the research slam–part poster session, part poetry slam–and pondered the questions: “What if final exams looked more like [research slams]? What if students shared their learning with one another in the kind of interactive, experiential, small-group method encouraged by the research slam? . . . How powerful would that be?” Pretty powerful, I thought. And it was. Students arrived early and set up their presentations: a collage of tri-folds, laptops, brochures, and scale models. Small groups of students moved from display to display, as the presenters gave a 15 minutes or less overview of their project and answered questions from the audience. Members of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative were also in attendance, asking questions, jotting down student email addresses, asking for links to presentation materials. I wandered from station to station, filming snippets of presentations and conversations. The room was saturated with voices–discussing, questioning, responding, laughing, debating, critiquing. After such a heady experience, I don’t know that I could ever go back to the traditional final exam–those bent heads; those cramped fingers; those flat, stale pieces of paper; that deathly silence.

In “I’m Bringing Paper Back (‘Cause It’s Still Sexy),” I discussed my plans to strike a balance between the digital and the physical in my classes. I had students digitally and collaboratively annotate one of the texts we read, but I provided hardcopies of their annotations in class and had students use them to develop discussion questions. We also practiced blogging on paper first and students responded so favorably that I plan to have next semester’s classes perform peer review on paper versions of every blog post. I’m slowly falling back in love with paper, especially after reading Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (which I’ve blogged about a lot recently), and I think it will be making an even bigger comeback next term.

In “Hacking Assessment: Redesigning the Numbers Game,” I continued reflecting on my ongoing battle with assessment. I considered two kinds of assessment, in particular, this past term: peer assessment and contract grading. As I reported in a subsequent post, I ended up giving peer assessment a try in my Basic English Skills class with great success, so much so that it is the primary form of formative assessment in both of my FYC courses next term. Contract grading was less of a success, though that had more to do with my lack of clear communication than anything else. Despite providing exhaustive guidelines, on the end-of-term course assessments several students expressed discomfort with not knowing whether or not each criteria was being met as the semester progressed. On the plus side, I’ve only had two grade complaints so far. I plan to improve my communication with students regarding their progress on grade-level criteria and will provide them with assignment checklists so they can have a visual representation of what they have and have not completed.

In “Remediating Remedial Composition,” I expressed trepidation with some of the radical ideas I had for my Basic English Skills class. Overall, I think the class was a success. Quite a few students disappeared (as is unfortunately typical of remedial classes), but only 4 of the 18 students who finished the class did not receive credit for it. I had to drop the VoiceThread assignment (it was technically too overwhelming in an already tech-heavy class), but the blogs turned out to be very interesting (though not mechanically superior) and I discovered another awesomely invigorating collaborative writing method in the silent dialogues I had students complete in Google Docs (another novelty that will be added to my tried-and-true writing practices).

Overall, I would rate the Fall 2012 semester a success for me, but more so for my students. There were those stellar presentations in my FYC classes giving voice to college students facing a radically revolutionized socioeconomic future and needing a radically revolutionized learning environment to prepare them for it. My Basic English Skills students made great strides in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones and relying on one another for writing support and nurturance. And my Oral Communication students went above and beyond my expectations as they created public service campaigns that not only raised awareness of important issues but provided a means to act on those issues in positive and impactful ways. I think I’m a little closer to a system of assessment that I believe to be both meaningful and fair. I’ve discovered some awesome techniques to integrate into my composition classes and am especially excited by those that foster collaborative writing practices. And from now on I’ll actually look forward to my final exams rather than dreading and rueing them.

And so it’s time to begin a new semester and a new adventure with a whole new set of experiments and discoveries to anticipate.

“Hoe while it is spring, and enjoy the best anticipations.” ~Charles Dudley Warner

Extreme Makeover: First-Year Composition Edition

 Some rights reserved by Pimthida
Some rights reserved by Pimthida

I have decided to do an extreme makeover of my First-Year Composition course. Some things are working quite well for the students–especially blogging as the main writing forum and the portfolio system for assessment–and I’ll keep those, though I’ll be tweaking them. But there are several things that I’ve been doing that are either failing to engage or substantively help the students or that I think I could be doing better–and that may even (gasp) be doing more harm than good.

There are three texts that have recently gotten under my skin and have influenced some of the changes I am thinking of making: “Roland Barthes, Reading, and Roleplay: Composition’s Misguided Rejection of Fragmentary Texts” by James Seitz, “Against Formulaic Writing” by Gabriele Lusser Rico, and Toward a Composition Made Whole by Jody Shipka. I really recommend that you read each them yourself, so I’m not going to spend time summarizing them here. Suffice it to say that each has inspired various aspects of what I plan/hope to do next term in FYC.

Here is an overview of how I’m thinking of structuring the course. Though I’ve outlined my ideas for the course in some detail, my main vision is one akin to free jazz–both in terms of what I do as a teacher and what I invite students to do as writers.

Students Be(com)ing Writers

Rather than having all students blog about a course theme, next term I plan to give students almost complete autonomy when it comes to their blogs. They’ll still have to have a theme for their blog, but that theme will be up to them. I will encourage them to select a theme directly related to their major or, alternatively, to a hobby/passion. They will still need to blog in a purposeful way, but what that purpose is and how they go about achieving that purpose will be something they will need to learn how to decide. Because experience has taught me that getting started is often the most difficult aspect of writing for students, I will encourage them to use their peers and myself as sounding-boards and we will spend quite a bit of class time discussing and practicing various invention techniques, as well as using the silent dialogue activity.

Rather than focusing primarily on formal, academic-style, strictly text-based expository and/or argumentative writing, I also plan to allow/encourage students to experiment with various mediums and genres, including alternative genres, such as comics, fiction, remixes/mashups, images, and videos, and multimodal pieces. I have found that, even when given the option of such non-traditional compositions, students are often reticent to try something so far outside their comfort zones or, in the case of a genre/medium they are familiar with and may already practice outside of the classroom, are uncertain of the appropriateness of such texts within the context of FYC. So next term, I plan to require students to select at least one alternative genre to use and to produce at least one multimodal composition. I plan to work closely with students to make sure these alternative texts are as purposeful as their more traditional compositions, maintaining a focus on exposition and/or persuasion.

Rather than the five reflective questions that I normally ask students to complete for each formal blog post, next term I plan to ask them to keep a writing journal, which will be more open-ended. I am hoping that the open-ended journal format will allow students to be more organically probative about their compositional practices.

Students Be(com)ing Readers

“Blogging is best learned by blogging…and by reading other bloggers.” –George Siemens

As part of the blogging workshop that I’ve started integrating during the first two weeks of class in order to orient students to what blogs are and what can be done with them, I have students locate several blogs on a topic of choice, subscribe to them, and add them to their blog’s blogroll. While I encourage students to read these and as many other blogs as they can/wish, I’m not sure that they ever take me up on the offer. Since next term they will be challenged to build and maintain a blog on a topic that they are either already an expert on or wish to become an expert on, they will need to locate and curate a network of topic experts that they can draw inspiration from and use as resources for their blog posts. So, next term I’ll have students read the blogs related to their own topics listed on the Academic Blogs wiki, subscribe to those they like, and regularly read posts from these and other blogs on their topic that they locate throughout the term. But they’ll also need to do something after they’ve read the posts. What they do will mostly be up to the student–post a response on their blog, add a comment to the post, share it with their social networks with an explanation of why they’re sharing it, etc.–but the point is that they are both frequently reading texts related to their own area of academic or personal interest and using them in some way beyond checking them off of a to-read list.

I usually require students to read and comment on their peers’ blog posts. This has been problematic with some groups because their commenting tends toward the formulaic and superficial, even after I have them study comments on blogs and create a list of good commenting criteria. I am trying to seriously re-think how I integrate comments on peers’ posts, but this has honestly got me stymied, so I may ask the students themselves for guidance on this aspect of the course.

Writing Work/Shop

I’ve never really integrated the workshop method, but this is something I plan to do next term. In addition to peer reviews for each formal blog post, every student will have at least one draft workshopped by the whole class. I want to shift the course’s focus away from outside texts (the reader and two nonfiction books my department requires me to assign) and towards the students’ own texts. Almost every interaction will be focused on what the students are composing and how they are composing/have composed it. We’ll tackle the risks, challenges, and exigencies of both traditionally academic and alternative texts head-on in both a supportive and critical mode.

I’ll also use the workshop to introduce various compositional techniques and tools, but only those that feel relevant and significant at the moment. Since they are the focus and facilitators of the workshops, the students will be encouraged to introduce issues, questions, and techniques to be addressed during the workshops, rather than passively relying on me to decide on what needs to be addressed. My hopes for the workshop method is that it will both aid students in developing and embracing a writing identity (situated within a community of other writers, both within and without their classroom) and help them to experience first-hand the multi-stranded, multi-directional, recursive nature of writing.

Collaborative Assessment

The assessment aspect of the course has been the most difficult to re-consider. While I think that the portfolio system is the best one available at the moment, I have been unhappy with the various methods that I have tried in terms of outlining my expectations and how the final grade will be determined.

I have been very happy with the results of the anonymous peer assessment that I piloted this term and plan to make that an integral part of the assessment process in FYC next term. Taking a cue from Alex Halavais, I’ve also decided to set some very abstract standards for an A in the course: the student must inspire, surprise, teach, or wow us. This reinforces the open-ended, organic nature of the course. And notice the language here: us. Since students will be responsible for assessing each others’ compositions, they will also be responsible for helping me identify those writers who meet this standard. Students can “nominate” a composition for this honor in several ways: sharing the post, commenting on the post, or liking the post via Facebook or Google+ (since the class will be using Google+ as our LMS, a +1 will be required in order to indicate a nomination). A composition will need to receive multiple nominations in order to “make the grade” and a writer will need to have at least two compositions that meet the standard in order to earn an A in the course.

This kind of abstract, open-ended assessment necessitates a new way of having students complete their writing portfolio reflections at the end of the term. Rather than self-selecting pieces for inclusion in the final portfolio, they will need to look to their peers’ responses to their pieces (their assessment form feedback, comments, shares, and likes) in order to select those compositions that made the most impact on their readers and reflect on what aspects of each piece elicited and merited their readers’ attention.

 

I’m not sure how close this comes to capturing the essence of my vision of the course–one that involves an organicity and improvisational openness that pushes against the expectations of FYC. My hope is that I can encourage my students to embrace this openness and use it as a steppingstone (for the reticent) or springboard (for the more adventurous) into a new identity as a writer and thinker.

These things rarely turn out exactly as you see/plan them, but that is part of the beauty of teaching.

I welcome your thoughts on my ideas and I’ll keep you posted . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Together Now, Part 3: Crowdsourced Assessment Using Google Forms

By matt_leclair

In past posts, I’ve written about various ways that I use Google Docs (now Google Drive) in my courses, including collaborative writing and crowdsourcing annotations for the texts we are reading. Recently, I’ve experimented with a third use for another tool in the Google Docs collection: using Google Forms to crowdsource assessments of the students’ blog posts.

I’ve regularly discussed my struggles with assessment. This semester, this struggle has intensified as I have found it increasingly difficult to manage  assessing and providing feedback on students’ work. This has some to do with the fact that I am teaching five classes, three of which are composition classes. But it also has a lot to do with the fact that all of my classes are now using the challenge-based learning model, so the work that students are doing is both more challenging and complex. This is especially true now that we are near the end of the term because this is where the most creative and cognitively dissonant work is done. I have found it difficult to adequately divide my attention between their regular writing assignments and the work they are doing behind-the-scenes. In trying to figure out how to take some of the onus off of myself without sacrificing timely feedback, I immediately thought of Cathy Davidson’s method of crowdsourcing grading. But as I’ve mentioned in my previous posts on assessment, I’ve met with some resistance from students who don’t want the burden or responsibility of providing negative assessments of their peers:

As a result, they tend to assess their peers over-generously and resist critiquing one another (one class even admitted to giving each other positive assessments across the board because they didn’t want to “hurt someone’s grade”).

One method that I have found to be relatively successful for overcoming these feelings is by making all assessments anonymous, especially in low-stakes, informal situations such as peer review. In considering how I could formalize anonymous peer assessment, I immediately thought of Google Forms. This Google app allows you to create a form that includes various types of questions, such as multiple choice, checklists, and open-ended. Once the form is completed by a respondent, the answers are automatically transferred to a spreadsheet. The creator of the form can then manipulate and share the results however they wish, including an option to view the results as a graphic summary.  The sharing options are useful for sharing the assessment results with students and the summary option is a quick way to get an idea of overarching issues within the students’ work (as well as what the students’ strengths are).

Since it’s so late in the term, I decided to pilot peer assessment rather than integrate it as a formal course assignment (students are required to complete at least 2 assessments, but I am not assigning which peers they must assess). I created a form that is based on the list of criteria for a good blog post that the class worked together to create at the beginning of the term. In addition to these items, I added two open-ended questions that require students to offer some anecdotal feedback on their peers’ posts. Here is the form I created and an excerpt from the results summary:

 

 

 

Once I received the results, it was easy to share them with the students. I simply filtered the column for the title of post alphabetically so that all entries for a particular post were together. I then hid the column for the assessor’s name. Next, I selected the cells that applied to a specific post and downloaded the selection as a PDF that I emailed to the student (I wanted to include the column titles in the selection, so I simply moved down the spreadsheet, hiding the rows for each student’s post after downloading them and before selecting the next set of cells for the next post).

What I have found so far is that using Google Forms is an effective method for crowdsourcing assessment of students’ writing. Firstly, it’s quick and convenient for students to complete the assessment. Secondly, it allows for anonymity, eliminating students’ fears about offering negative feedback that may hurt their peers’ feelings or impact their interpersonal relationships with them in and out of class. Lastly, it provides authors with multiple pieces of feedback on their writing that is simply organized. The fact that some of these pieces of feedback may focus on different aspects of their work and/or may compete with one another is actually a positive, as it helps authors see how different readers focus on different aspects of a piece of writing and have different expectations and needs. I think this kind of assessment is also especially effective because as I tell students, when they write a blog post, I am not their primary audience; rather, their peers and anyone else who might be interested in their topic are their target audiences. By receiving feedback from their peers/audience, this reality is made tangible to them.

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

Practicing What I Preach: Digital Writing Month

Some rights reserved by Pink Sherbet Photography

For a while now I’ve been preaching to my students about the importance of learning how to create and develop a digital presence and the essential role that writing plays in doing so. I was one of the first in my department to adopt blogs as the main form of writing in my classes. Once my First-Year Composition classes became hybrid, I also began to require students to use Google+ to create digital profiles and communicate, network, curate, and share information. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly practicing what I was preaching. Oh, I was building my digital presence on Twitter, but that was about it. I didn’t blog (didn’t have time, I argued) and I didn’t actively and consistently participate in other kinds of digital writing (didn’t want to juggle too many social networks, I demurred). This past summer, I saw the error of my ways and began this blog. It has been a life- and career- altering experience in several ways that I won’t go into here and now. Suffice it to say that it has been the single best professional decision I have ever made and it has also provided me with much first-hand experience that I can now pass along to my students without feelings of hypocrisy.

But I’m a firm believer that complacency leads to stagnation. As teachers, as soon as we become too comfortable with what we’re doing, we’re in danger of becoming irrelevant. Just as we encourage our students to do more than the minimum requirements and to push themselves beyond what’s easily attainable, we should resist feelings of confidence and certainty. It’s only when we’re pushing the envelope and testing the waters that we’re resisting the temptations of “good enough.”

When I was first invited to participate in Digital Writing Month, my immediate instinct was to pass. I’m in the middle of a hectic semester: I’m teaching five classes (three of which are composition classes and all of which are in the throes of Challenge-Based Learning projects), maintaining my blog, serving on a very active committee (under whose auspices I am spearheading a summer technology camp for local K12 students), keeping ten hours of office hours each week, and helping my nine year-old to adjust to fourth grade. The last thing I need is one more thing to do. Yes, the project sounded exciting. But 50,000 words in one month? Bananas!

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized what an important project Digital Writing Month is. Many of the reasons why I think it is so important will become evident in the article that I’ve submitted as a featured contributor to the project. My reasoning has much to do with the political and artistic power that I see digital writing embodying. But some of my reasoning is more personal. Right now, I’m feeling a little too digitally complacent for my own good. I’m happy with a blog post every other week or so and an occasional smattering of tweets. I’m comfortable with what I can do digitally. I haven’t tried anything new in a while and I’m not sure that I’m feeding my networks as well as I should be in terms of promoting pedagogical disruption. It’s time I made myself a little uncomfortable.

Some of the things that I’m planning to do as part of the project are:

  • Blog at least once each week (potential post topics include: designing a blogging workshop for students, unplugging the classroom, teaching bento-style, hashtags as exquisite corpse, using Google+ as an LMS, using Stephen King’s On Writing to teach FYC, Challenge-Based learning in the introductory speech class, screen casting feedback on students’ blog writing)
  • Live-tweet my notes/thoughts on pedagogically-relevant books and articles that I read during the month
  • Create a webcomic (I’ll be giving students in my upcoming graphic novel class the option of doing this, so in the spirit of never asking students to do something that I haven’t tried to do myself, I’ll be giving it a go; however, I don’t expect a contract offer to come my way as a result of my efforts)
  • Comment on all of my students’ blog posts (normally, I only provide feedback to students privately via Word or screencast, but for the month of November I’ve decided to switch to only providing comments publicly on each of the students’ blog posts, shifting my focus from teacher-centered comments on organization, style, and grammar to reader-centered comments on content and ideas; I already require students to read and publicly respond to each others’ posts, so again, I’ll be walking the walk)

Since project participants are encouraged to curate their digital writing for the month in one place, I’ll be publishing, Storifying, and linking to my work here.

I’m hoping that if there are others who are feeling that the project is just not easily attainable for them right now, you’ll reconsider. If you’re not sure why you should, then I hope that you’ll at least follow the project on Twitter (@digiwrimo) and consider adding your voice when and as you can. You may end up inspired to push yourself beyond what’s comfortable.

It’s going to be a wild, unpredictable, organic, collaboratively-driven ride!