All Together Now, Part 2: Crowdsourced Annotations with Google Docs

image by adesigna, on Flickr

In my last post, I outlined some ways that I am using Google Docs in my Basic English Skills course this semester. So far, I am very happy with the results. On Tuesdays, when students take part in a Silent Dialogue about the Lead Editor’s focus question and sources, I am able to work within each group’s Google Doc, providing feedback and guidance and monitoring the groups’ dialogues. On Thursdays, when each group works to collaboratively revise, edit, and design the Lead Editor’s blog post, the computer lab is buzzing as groups discuss and debate the changes that need to be made and the various possibilities for layouts, media, and the best way to cite and hyperlink sources. I am able to review each group’s work later that day, noting which members actively participated in the collaborative session and how effectively each group worked to improve the Lead Editor’s draft.

Aside from the word processing app, I’ve also found a good use for the Google Docs’ spreadsheet app in my First-Year Composition classes. Right now we’re reading and discussing Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Since the course is designed around digital writing, specifically blogging, and students are learning how to conduct research on the internet to locate sources to integrate into their blog posts, we’re using the book both as a way to learn how to locate reliable content and curate what we find, and as an entrée into discussions about the students’ use of social media and other digital content outside of the class and how it applies to and impacts their education, future careers, and their place as global (digital) citizens. I have tried to integrate as many of the digital literacies and skills addressed by Rheingold in the text as possible into the course. One such skill/literacy is digital collaboration and the crowdsourcing of information and resources. Since the book is rather dense, especially for freshman who have little to no experience reading informative texts other than grade-level textbooks, I decided to ask students to practice the skill (and art) of crowdsourcing by having them collaboratively annotate the book as they read it.

There are several tools that can be used to create and share crowdsourced annotations of texts. In the second semester iteration of the FYC course, which focuses on literary analysis, I’ve had students work in groups to collaboratively annotate poems using the social bookmarking tool Diigo. Diigo allows groups to highlight and add sticky notes to digital texts and share and comment on each other’s annotations. But the problem that I faced with crowdsourcing annotations for Net Smart is that Diigo is limited to open-access digital texts. Since students were working with a print version of the text, I decided to experiment with using Google Docs’ spreadsheet app as a tool for collating and sharing students’ annotations.

Setting Up the Spreadsheet

I created a spreadsheet for the annotations and then subdivided it into sheets for each set of assigned chapters. I created four columns on each sheet: one for the student’s name (I didn’t want to risk a student contributing but not getting credit because they forgot to sign into their Google account before working in the spreadsheet), one for the passage the student found especially important/thought-provoking/problematic (I asked students to directly quote the passage and note the page number), one for the reason why the student selected the passage, and one for the student to share ideas for how the passage could be applied to the class. I reminded students that they should read their peers’ annotations before adding their own so that the annotations do not become repetitious. While I don’t grade or assign points to the students’ annotations, completing the annotations in a satisfactory manner is part of the criteria for an A or B in the course and completing at least 80% of the annotations is a requirement for a C.

Using the Spreadsheet in Class

Since my FYC classes are hybrid and students complete their annotations as part of their online work, I did not want to make the mistake of disassociating the annotations from our face-to-face time together and risk having students see the annotations as “busy work” or an add-on assignment. So, for each class meeting, I print hard copies of the spreadsheet for each student to have as a reference. I ask students to work in small groups to discuss the annotations and select 1-2 that they think are the most important or problematic. We then use the group’s selected annotations to focus our discussion of the book. In using this method, I have found that students are better able to make connections between the text and their own experiences, both in- and out-of-class. Also, as specific issues come up, I am able to integrate spontaneous mini-lectures that address skills or methodologies that students have not received instruction or practice in.

Some Results

I have been impressed with how effectively students have been able to both understand and interpret Rheingold’s text and to think of ways to use the information from it in and out of class. Here’s a snapshot of a few of the annotations that one group of students have contributed:

 

So far, the students’ annotations have provoked some very interesting discussions and class activities. After a debate regarding the effectiveness of meditation (triggered by one of the annotations above), students agreed that they would like to try starting our next class meeting off with a few moments of quiet in order to give everyone the opportunity to deal with physical and psychological noise that might prevent them from focusing on class; they can quickly deal with any emails, text messages, or other social media tasks or take a few minutes to try to clear their minds of anything that has them mentally distracted. The other class pointed out some comments that Rheingold makes about the link between breathing and attention, so I challenged them to learn how to do diaphragmatic breathing and we began our next class session with the lights dimmed, taking a minute to empty our minds and put away our digital gadgets, and then took a few deep breaths together.

On a more practical note, the annotations have also led to discussions about the students’ past digital behavior. One student revealed that she had googled herself and had been mortified at what she found. This led to a lively discussion about appropriate and inappropriate digital behavior and I challenged the rest of the class to google themselves so they can see themselves from other’s (including future potential employers’) perspective. My other class wanted to focus more on how to search effectively and how to perform deeper and more thorough searches, so I was able to share some internet search secrets; talk to them about what research was like when I was in college and how it really hasn’t changed that much because it’s still like an archaeological dig through multiple layers and sometimes in multiple locations (they just have more topsoil through which to dig); and diagram the source reliability pyramid to help them visualize the continuum of sources they have to choose from and where the internet and various types of domains fit in along that continuum.

 

Would these types of discussions have taken place had students not worked to collaboratively annotate the text? Perhaps. But I think that what the process of annotating the text together accomplishes is twofold. For one thing, it begins the process of teaching my freshman how to actively read for learning and retention. During the process of explaining what annotations were, I asked students how many of them highlighted parts of a text when they read (as a way of contrasting the passive nature of simply highlighting with the active nature of annotating) and, shockingly, no one raised their hand. It turns out that many of my freshman never really had to read their textbooks in high school and, even if they did, were not encouraged or, in some instances, allowed to highlight or take notes on what they were reading. So, by requiring students to publicly annotate our text, I can encourage more active reading and teach students how to engage with it critically. And because the students are working together to annotate the text, they can see examples of how their peers are actively engaging with it and learn from their examples. I am also hoping that the collaborative aspect of the annotations will reduce feelings of isolation that many students experience during the reading process. Secondly, by using the annotations as a springboard for the class discussions of the text, it encourages students to share their thoughts and responses and it helps me to focus on the ideas within the text that students find most relevant or problematic. This is an especially important result since the text is so dense and covers more issues and ideas than we could possibly address in our limited time together.

Other Potential Applications

Another obvious application of crowdsourced annotations is to have students in a literature course work to annotate literary texts (or even critical analyses of those texts), especially if you utilize literature circles, as it would allow members of a circle to collect their work in a central location. Crowdsourced annotations can also be used as study guides for the class if they are going to be tested on the texts they read. Additionally, students can be invited to use the annotations as a springboard for a piece of writing. Since I teach my FYC students Graff and Birkenstein’s “They say/I say/So what?” approach to academic writing, I could easily have students engage in a formal or informal written conversation with their peers based on their annotations.

As Rheingold points out regarding collaborative knowledge-building: “Those that know how it’s done, as always, gain an edge.” It’s time we stop isolating students in their learning and branding co-operation and collaboration as cheating. I’m not sure at what point teachers began to believe that in order to help students learn, we had to force them to learn alone and demonstrate their learning in isolation from others (the “do your own work” theory of learning). The 21st century, as Rheingold argues, will be increasingly focused on participation, collaboration, crowdsourcing, and social production. In asking my FYC students to participate in creating a resource that everyone can benefit from, I hope that I am helping them take one small step towards being more net smart and, by extension, more net powerful.

Advertisements

All Together Now: Some Further Uses for Google Docs in the Composition Classroom

photo credit: KatieTT via photo pin cc

It took me a long time to become a Google Docs convert. I played around with the app as a tool for collaboration in an upper-level course one term and it was a total disaster, mainly because students didn’t know how to use it (and neither did I, really) and we often ran into issues when students attempted to access documents that I had shared with them (I think this had much to do with Google Docs’ bugginess at the time). I subsequently used Docs only when needing to access a document that had been shared publicly, and in doing so, began to see the utility in creating certain documents in the app so that I could hyperlink to and even embed them on a class website or whatever social media tool the class happened to be using.

The collaborative magic of Google Docs did not really appeal to me until I was forced to use the app to collaboratively edit an article that I had submitted to Hybrid Pedagogy. After submitting the draft of the article, the editors, Jesse Stommel and Pete Rorabaugh, provided me with feedback via the commenting feature and then Pete and I used the in-document chat feature to discuss how best to integrate their ideas with mine. As I worked to revise the document, Pete (virtually) worked alongside me, serving as both sounding-board and devil’s advocate and providing me with synchronous feedback on my revisions. It was an eye-opening experience, not just because I was unaware of many of the tools available in Google Docs (such as the revision history feature and the chat tool), but because of how powerfully the act of collaboratively revising a piece of writing affected me. I had always wrote alone, in isolation, never with someone looking over my shoulder and certainly never engaging in a dialogue about my rhetorical choices (and possible alternatives) as I was making them.

If writing collaboratively had such an impact on my writing, I began to wonder what kind of impact it could have on my students’ writing. So I began to consider how I could use this powerful tool that I had been poo-pooing for years as a weapon against the isolation, anxiety, and despair that I so often see plaguing my First-Year Composition students.

I know that there’s been a lot written about the value and utility of Google Docs in the classroom, so I won’t bore you with a rehashing of what others have already so effectively said. ProfHacker has written quite a bit about the app and their post “GoogleDocs and Collaboration in the Classroom” is chock-full of links to various tips and useful ideas. Getting Smart’s “6 Powerful Google Docs Features to Support the Collaborative Writing Process” provides an excellent step-by-step guide to using Google Docs especially for collaborative writing. And for a basic overview of Google Docs’ features and potential uses, you can browse through this slideshow:

 

By no means have I explored the full potential of Google Docs. But I would like to share a few strategies that I’m trying out in my Basic English Skills class this term that seem to be having an especially powerful impact on  my students’ writing.

Daily Journals

I’ve always used journals in my literature and writing classes, whether they were reading journals, learning journals, or writers’ journals, because I believe that the most powerful thing we can teach our students is how to be more “meta.” But there are several problems with student journals. The main problem is accessibility because I honestly never enjoyed lugging around armfuls of composition books, 3-ring binders, and plastic folders (or whatever else students had handy to stuff their hastily-thrown-together-at-the-last-minute “daily” journal into). Which brings me to the other problem. Since it was logistically impossible to check journals every day, I would usually take them up three or four times a semester, which meant that students could very well wait until the last minute to write all of their journal entries (but ingeniously writing each entry in a different color ink to disguise their act of subterfuge). This also meant that students were without their journals for the few days in which it took me to read and record their entries.

These are the reasons why I became an early adopter of student blogging. By having students blog instead of keeping analog journals, I could monitor their entries (and when they were doing them) without inconvenience to the students or myself. But students are sometimes hesitant about or resistant to making such informal, and often intimately personal, writing public. So, this term I have asked my Basic English Skills students to keep a daily journal (which can be on anything they wish to write about and functions to help them build their writing muscles) in Google Docs, which they’ve only shared with me. Besides alleviating any anxiety students might have felt about making their journals public, Google Docs allows me to easily monitor new entries (whenever a Doc is edited, the title turns bold) and to verify when students are completing their entries (by using the revision history feature). Aside from how much easier it now is to ask students to keep journals, I’m also enjoying reading their journals and learning more about their lives outside of the classroom (many of which are filled with challenges and struggles that often leave me in tears and/or feeling extremely blessed).

Writing in Teams

The sources that I referenced above have already pointed out the benefits of using Google Docs during the brainstorming and peer review processes. But I wanted to attempt to channel some of the power of those collaborative writing sessions that I shared with Pete Rorabaugh to help alleviate some of the angst that many of the students in a remedial writing class experience as they work their way through the entire writing process. So, I decided to have the students write in teams of three, with one team member serving as lead editor each week. The lead editor is in charge of each week’s blog post, which includes coming up with a focus question and locating 2-3 sources to help them answer their question, which they share with their team before the week’s first class meeting (I have had the teams indicate each week’s lead editor in a spreadsheet in Google Docs so that I am aware of which students are in charge each week).

But it gets really interesting when the teams come together in the week’s first class meeting. The lead editor creates a Google Doc, which they share with their team and me, and type in their focus question and a brief summary of how they plan to answer it. What follows is a 30-40 minute session in which the team discusses the question, the lead editor’s sources, and their plan for answering the question completely in writing in the Google Doc, observing a strict rule of silence (I adapted this activity from Lawrence Weinstein’s “Silent Dialogue” activity in Writing Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely). The purpose of this activity is to force the team to flesh out the lead editor’s ideas and to communicate all of their ideas in written form. This is beneficial for the lead editor because it provides them with sounding-boards and devil’s advocates and by the time they leave class, they have a much better grasp on what it is they want to say and how best to say it. It also benefits the other team members because it gives them more practice in expressing their ideas in writing. And it allows me to monitor the team’s work and provide my own feedback early in the writing process before the lead editor begins writing a draft that might be too ambitious in scope.

Aside from the pedagogical functions of the collaborate brainstorming session, the human factor becomes more obvious and explicit (a factor that, unfortunately, we as teachers often forget about). The docs lay bare the students’ hesitancies, their false starts, their doubts, their over-shootings, their assumptions, their candor, their egos, their camaraderie, and their humor. Here’s an example of one team’s silent dialogue session:

The next step in the process is for the lead editor to come to the next class meeting with a rough draft that they share with their team and me. The team then begins the process of revising, proofreading and editing, and designing the blog post. Again, I can use the revision history feature to monitor the transformation of the draft, verify that all team members are contributing, and provide feedback on the effectiveness of their work. All in all, this aspect of the collaborative writing model has been successful because of the synchronous access that Google Docs allows me to have to the students’ writing process, and I’m not sure that it would be as successful without it.

What I think I see as I read through the teams’ weekly brainstorming and collaborative writing sessions is a sense that they are not alone, that they have peers who are capable of helping them and who are invested in their writing as much as they are their own.

What a powerful thing for students to feel.

And while I can’t say with 100% certainty that the writing that is being produced would not have been as good if the students were not using Google Docs, I’m so confident that it is that I’ll be putting it to the test in my regular FYC classes next term.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loitering in the Witch’s House: My MOOC Experience

photo credit: perpetualplum via photo pin cc

Whether you love Google or hate it, there’s no denying the fact that the company is at the leading edge of open source apps and educational resources. And whether we like it or not, the majority of students are using Google as their primary research tool (and, according to a study summarized by Sarah Kessler, they’re not using it very effectively). I use Google apps extensively in my hybrid courses and, recognizing a need on my students’ part to learn how to use the internet more effectively and critically, I’ve begun to integrate the Google search engine into my research workshops. So when Google recently offered a MOOC entitled “Power Searching with Google,” I immediately signed up, hoping in the process to kill two birds with one stone: 1) to learn some Google search strategies that I could pass along to my students, and 2) to get a taste for the MOOC experience. It was a mixed bag.

Set-up
In terms of set-up, the course was very straightforward. Lessons consisted of video demonstrations followed by activities designed to test your ability to apply the skills addressed in each video. Assessment consisted of a pre-course assessment (meant to gauge existing knowledge of Google search features), a mid-course assessment, and a final assessment. The scores for the mid-course and final assessments were averaged together to determine your “grade” for the course and a passing grade resulted in a certificate of completion. There was also a discussion forum that you could voluntarily participate in.

Pros
1) Individualized pace: While there were deadlines for the mid-course and final assessments, you could work through the course materials at your own pace as long as you were ready to meet those deadlines. This worked great for me because I could complete individual lessons or entire units as it suited me. Considering the hectic schedule I have this summer, this was by far the most effective aspect of the course for me.

2) Paced release of materials: While I could work at my own pace on the materials available to me, I was limited by the fact that the units were released at a graduated rate. This actually turned out to be a positive for me because, since I couldn’t see the entirety of the course materials at the beginning, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the amount of material I would need to cover and I remained focused on each set of materials I had access to.

3) Do-overs: Both practice activities and assessments were set up to allow multiple attempts at answering questions correctly. You could check your answers before submitting your assessments and wrong answers to practice activities usually triggered some feedback in terms of what to review in order to better understand the skill addressed in the activity. I found this to be a very effective method for learning because I didn’t have a fear of failure hanging over me that a single-attempt set-up would have created.

4) Leveling up or down: While I didn’t actually make use of it, there was the option to change the difficulty level of practice activities to either an easier activity or a harder activity. Again, I see this as being an effective method for individualizing assessment. There was also an option to skip activities and see the correct answers. This was effective for those search functions that I was already familiar with and didn’t necessarily want to waste my time trying out; being able to see the answers allowed me to self-assess my prior knowledge and move forward quickly if I wanted to.

Cons
1) Boring videos: I don’t expect lecture and demonstrations to be entertaining, but I do expect them to be somewhat engaging on an intellectual level. The videos were not long (the longest was a little over eight minutes), and this brevity was their only saving grace. It wasn’t just the fact that the instructor sat on a couch the whole time (I suppose in an effort to make the instruction feel more personal), but the content itself dragged in several lessons. Some lessons were far too simplistic and some were overly repetitive. A boring presenter is boring, whether IRL or on video.

2) Google Chrome required: All demonstrations were done in Chrome, so I could not replicate some of the tasks, such as the Search by Image function, as demonstrated. There was no discussion by the instructor of the different ways to complete these tasks in other browsers, though I did eventually receive help via the forum (after I had completed the final assessment). This often led to frustration on my part. If I had taken this course IRL, I would have been able to ask for clarification from the instructor.

3) Difficult tasks given short shrift: There were a few lessons that contained difficult concepts, such as using and interpreting results on WHOIS databases. There was little time spent discussing and demonstrating how to use these databases (although the instructor acknowledged the difficulties of using them), yet being able to do so was part of the final assessment. As a student, this was extremely frustrating and I quickly gave up trying to figure it out by myself (my frustration is demonstrated with some rather derogatory doodles next to my notes on this lesson and a final assessment of the lesson as “useless”). Again, IRL instruction would have afforded me the opportunity to seek clarification on these muddy points and perhaps encourage the instructor to extend the time spent on the databases.

4) Chug and plug assessment: While the practice activities required direct application of skills, the assessments were multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank problems that, for the most part, simply required regurgitating information from the instructor’s demonstrations. At this point, I’m not really certain of how much of the course I have really learned and internalized and how much I’ve simply managed to maintain in my short-term memory.

5) Forum confusingly organized and asynchronous: The few times that I did try to use the forum, I had difficulty navigating it. It was supposedly organized by lesson, but I could never find a direct link to the discussion threads for a specific lesson and it seems that most people just posted wherever they felt like it. When I posed questions, I did not receive immediate (or even proximal) feedback; the earliest I received an answer was a little over 24 hours after posting the question. Of course, one aspect of open online learning that MOOCs bank on is student participation; they count on the fact that other students are probably online when questions and comments are posted and are likely to respond faster than forum moderators. However, in this particular MOOC students did not seem particularly eager to help each other out or respond to each others’ posts, and all of my questions were answered by forum moderators.

What does this mean for MOOCs?
My initial response to the idea of MOOCs was hesitantly hopeful. Having completed one, I’m pretty much stuck with the same reservations about them that I have for tuition-based online courses. They are inherently more suited to certain types of students, i.e., those who are highly motivated, self-aware learners with good time management skills and a high tolerance for working alone and not having immediate access to and feedback from their instructor and classmates.

In terms of instruction, it requires as much, if not more, effort to make online instruction engaging because it’s far easier for students to become disengaged with an online course, especially one that’s free and has no extrinsic motivations to stay connected and finish. The one thing that’s possible in online course design that MOOCs cannot capitalize on, due to their massive size, is individualizing instruction. I’m not completely sure of the purpose of the pre-course assessment for Google’s MOOC (unless it’s simply for their own data collection purposes) because the rest of the course was not structured based on my answers to the initial assessment questions. IRL and in small online courses, diagnostic assessments allow for individualization because you can use the information garnered to help direct students towards those materials that will be of most use to them in terms of the gaps in their prior knowledge.

My first MOOC was like the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. It seemed to offer an educational paradise: no-cost, developed and delivered by domain experts (whose “certificate of completion” holds cache), flexible in terms of when and how I completed it, open in terms of whom I would be sharing the experience with. Unfortunately, the reality did not live up to the fantasy. Of course, unlike Hansel and Gretel, I could have left whenever I wished. Instead, I stuck it out to the bitter end, hoping to find some redeeming quality in something that held such promise.

What does this mean for hybrid and fully f2f courses?
We need to continue to figure out how to capitalize on the best aspects of f2f learning and online learning. Some variables remain the same, no matter what the medium of instruction. Boring is boring. Materials and activities need to be intellectually engaging and individualized to the greatest extent possible. Community is essential; students need access to their teacher and their classmates, whether it’s physically or virtually, and some of that contact needs to be synchronous (which is one reason that I think hybrid courses are so effective). Assessment needs to be formative, immediate, and authentic. And no type of assessment can measure engagement. I earned a pretty high score in the Google MOOC, a score that does not reflect the boredom and frustration that I experienced. While I certainly came away from the course with an extended set of Google search skills that I did not posses prior to the course, I’m not sure that I would have  completed the course had I been less motivated (the certificate of completion will help to pad my annual faculty review packet).

How many of our own students have walked away from our courses with A’s or B’s, despite boredom or frustration? If we base the success of our courses on the grades that students come away with, we’re ignoring the aspects of learning that MOOCs make obvious: the hardest working and most motivated students will succeed, no matter how poorly designed the learning experience. So, it’s important for students to have opportunities to share anecdotal feedback, not just at the end of the course, but from the very beginning and throughout the course. And it’s important that we be willing to act on that feedback.

In hindsight, I now recognize that it will be very difficult for designers of MOOCs to do this. In fact, it is difficult for MOOCs to enact most of the learning practices that I value: learning-centered instructional design; a skatepark-like learning environment; immediacy; flexibility; authenticity; hybridity; intimacy with the materials, ideas, and people who make up the body of the course. Instead of heralding MOOCs as the salvation of education, we need to recognize them for what they are: an alternative that works for some learners on some levels. However, it’s also an alternative that is still in its infancy and still has room to grow; in fact, I think that DS106 demonstrates what MOOCs are capable of with the right kind of instructors and objectives. Whether or not they can, as a general rule, get there is up for grabs. What makes DS106 work is that it is, like the best IRL course, a truly student-centered community, in that students develop and help assess the assignments. It’s a course completely devoid of sticks and carrots and completely built on the desire to be a part of a unique learning community.

This ideal of a free and open learning community built upon choice and intrinsic motivation is the real promise of MOOCs. But if we continue, as some institutions and companies do, to look to MOOCs as a vehicle for the mass-production and broad dissemination of canned content, we’ll never get there.

Occupying the Digital Divide

photo credit: Chris Devers via photo pin cc

This morning, a convo developed on my Twitter stream about helping primary school-age kids learn basic computer skills.

  1. Ryan__Hunt
    Planning a summer camp to teach students ages 7-12 basic computer skills. This should be an interesting challenge.
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 02:42:56
  2. allistelling
    @Ryan__Hunt would love to have my 6 and 13 year old follow along. Will it be open, in any virtual sense? Maybe good penal opps too?
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 05:50:08
  3. Ryan__Hunt
    @allistelling I hadn’t thought of that. The time difference might make it hard to follow in real time, but I’ll post all my material online
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 06:12:58
  4. TanyaSasser
    @Ryan__Hunt @allistelling please do; want 2 teach my 9 yo some basics this summer but not sure where/how 2 start; wld ❤ 2 see what UR doing
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 06:54:02
  5. TanyaSasser
    @Ryan__Hunt @allistelling it’s sad they’re not being taught this at school; mine gets 1 hour of computer lab time each week #smh
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 07:01:40
  6. allistelling
    @TanyaSasser @Ryan__Hunt Right, and that time is usually things like: make a PowerPoint, write an essay, and learn how social media is bad.
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 07:42:15
  7. TanyaSasser
    @allistelling @ryan__hunt yes-kiddo did PP this yr.-basically told exactly what 2 put on ea. slide & saved on school server-not like IRL
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 07:49:15
  8. allistelling
    @TanyaSasser @ryan__hunt my daughter went nuts this year teaching herself #Prezi. Now the school promotes it!
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 08:20:21

This convo highlights some issues that have been addressed among educational bloggers quite a bit lately and that became especially pertinent to me this summer as I realized just how digitally illiterate my 9 year old is compared to (some) others his age.

In her post, “Is There a Digital Divide or an Intellectual-Pedagogical One?”, Jackie Gerstein ponders just how much of the “digital divide” is located within and perpetuated by schools, both the trenches of the socioeconomic divide and the supposed source of the intellectual currency needed to bridge that divide:

  • But I wonder if the digital divide is really an intellectual or pedagogical one.
  • I wonder that if a comparison was done of higher and lower income schools, what would be the ratio of 1:1 (one mobile device per student during school time) initiatives?
  • I wonder, for those lower income schools, how many students have computer devices at home that match those they are using in school.
  • I wonder if technology integration strategies are similar for higher income schools in comparison to lower income schools.

While there may be differences in which schools have more access to technology, I’m not sure that there is much difference in how those schools use that access. As recently pointed out by Lee Skallerup Bessette in her article “It’s about Class: Interrogating the Digital Divide”, low-income families and schools place a premium on protecting their valuable resources:

There is little time or mental energy for an individual or family trying to make ends meet to just sit and play with their technology. Failure, as well, is more expensive, because if something breaks, there is no time or money to fix it. There are also few resources in the schools to help foster this sense of play and experimentation. In this era of high-stakes testing, suggesting to schools that are “failing” that perhaps what they need is less structured time and more time to play and experiment (particularly with technology) is unthinkable. Once again, the fear of failure, of breaking something, is too great. Firewalls are erected; computers and software are used for drill and kill exercises, if at all; strict rules and guidelines developed and enforced, and tech just becomes one more tool that imposes the banking concept of education on students.

While Bessette provides a bleak but not so surprising overview of how technology is viewed and used in her poverty-stricken area of the country, this fear of giving students the license to drive technology is evident in my own son’s school, which, by most standards, would fall within the middle-class socioeconomic bracket. The median household income for our county is $42,000 to $52,999 (this is in Alabama, where the cost of living and housing is relatively low). The suburban city school system in which my son is enrolled recently constructed two new school buildings, added an addition onto one, and remodeled another, plus built a community arts center. There are four elementary schools, one intermediate school, two junior high schools, and one high school. But, as reflected in my tweets, this economic capital has not resulted in increased access to technology for the students. My son’s school, one of the newly-constructed, has a single computer lab. Students use the lab during one 50-minute class each week. Most of the work done during the computer class involves extremely basic skills focused on completing worksheet-type lessons. In 3rd grade, students are taught to create a PowerPoint. Each student completed a PowerPoint on an assigned state and, as mentioned in my tweet, were given guidelines regarding what to place on each slide, and their slideshows were saved on the school’s server, so that students’ access to them was limited to the lab. My son’s 3rd grade classroom also had three desktop computers that were used to take Accelerated Reading tests.

This example provides an insightful view into one school’s philosophy regarding technology. What is most disconcerting for me is how technology is isolated into a distinct domain. Technology has it’s own space geographically–a lab or distinct computer area in the classroom–and temporally–lab time or testing time. This has an intellectual ripple effect for students: technology is to be used for distinct, domain-specific practices. Bessette has experienced the pushback that results from such schooling in her English classes:

I have been trying to get my students in Freshman Writing to blog, use Twitter, and to play with the technology that is available to them. I have always been met with great resistance. For them, Twitter is a waste of time, blogging is just an essay in another form, tech is a tool they have been taught to fear. This is not to say that they don’t know how to play, to create, to experiment. One of the reasons they disdain the technology is because many of them don’t see how it will help them get a job in their low-tech worlds.

Interestingly, this same kind of resistance exists in my area, where technology-heavy jobs are the norm (the major employment sectors are health care, the government, and education). I often come face-to-face with this philosophy in my classes as many students question having to use digital media in my writing and literature classes. One student in my summer FYC course blatantly expressed the belief that, since he had signed up for an English class, he did not think that he should be required to use technology. On the other hand, I have had two students who have used technology learned in my English classes to get (non-technology related) jobs. The aspect of technology that needs to be emphasized for today’s students is its flexibility and applicability beyond any one domain or discipline or even utility. Yet, this is not how technology is taught in many K12 schools, nor in many colleges. I share Gerstein’s fear that “the digital divide is really an intellectual and pedagogical one and that it is being perpetuated in our educational system by the use or lack thereof of the technologies that are influencing and driving our society-at-large.” While my son’s school has a computer lab, it’s as useful to him as the family car–it’s a vehicle that someone else gets to drive while he fulfills the role of passive passenger. Access alone is not enough, it’s how schools use the tools that they have.

Jean Anyon argues that the digital divide is not so much one of resources as one of “teaching methods and philosophies of education.” Colleges, as the educators of educators, must do more to encourage not only the integrating of technology, but a new philosophy of digital literacy. It’s important that this happen not just within schools of education, but throughout the disciplines. Secondary education majors spend just as much time in their specialty classrooms as they do education classrooms and, whether we realize it or not, look to those professors as models of teaching in action. Complicating the issue even further, the intellectual divide is a two-way street in the university environment. In my own department, many of the tenured professors view the use of technology and social media as dumbing-down the curriculum because it takes the focus away from both the human mind as an intellectual technology and the resulting analog (read: canonical) humanities. Those who favor the integration of technology and the digital humanities face both disdain from an entrenched conservatism and logistical hurdles in an environment in which our building (which houses English, drama, history, and foreign languages) is the last to receive any technological upgrades, if we receive any at all. In an ironic twist of fate, my department mirrors my son’s school with our one computer lab and our isolated, specially designated “computer-assissted” writing classes.

The good news, for my son, is that I have the economic capital and the access to and knowledge of technology and social networks to close the gap for him outside of school. Many of his classmates are not so lucky, either because of their parents’ a) socioeconomic status, b) lack of technology skills, c) belief that it’s the school’s job to teach digital literacy, d) faith that the school is doing so, or e) all of the above. Perhaps many of their parents share the school’s philosophy that technology has a place and time and that play and creation are not as important as school-sanctioned uses. Either way, there is no real pressure on the school system to change either their methods or philosophy regarding digital literacy because those parents who do value digital technology provide the economic and intellectual environments within which their children can attain digital literacies outside of school-sanctioned domains. And students are certainly not lined up at my Dean’s office to protest the lack of digital media in their college classes; they either don’t see a place for it in the humanities or would rather have the freedom to digitally play and create for themselves without school-sanctioned rules and regulations.

This philosophy of technology as something to be isolated into a controlled pedagogical environment devoid of context, connections, relevancy, or wider applicability is the real root of the digital divide. And until parents, students, and educators begin to take the initiative of other reform movements and demand a change in philosophy–not just more money and more computers–the divide will continue to widen.

Disrupting the First-Year Composition Course

Image courtesy of ClipPix ETC

At last week’s THATCamp, one of the stand-out sessions, at least as reflected by the responses of those live tweeting the event, was Mills Kelly’s session on disruptive pedagogy. You can see my Storify of the session here.

As the tweets began populating my timeline, I was immediately excited about the idea of disrupting pedagogy and disciplinary values because Kelly’s ideas both validated practices that I am already using and offered encouragement for seeing just how far I can push the boundaries.

The Google Doc for the session has some excellent practical ideas for disruptive assignments, but this one struck me as most relevant for the First-Year Composition course:

Remove the tools traditionally used in a discipline, thereby refocusing attention on underlying assumptions of processes.

This is an especially salient method for disrupting the teaching of writing as more and more writing, including academic writing (the kind of writing that I think FYC courses should teach), becomes digital in nature and, as a result, more openly accessible. As writing becomes digital, many of the assumptions about the rhetorical context and the process that is used to negotiate that context are laid bare (and, sometimes, come up short). Peter Rorabaugh recently wrote about the organic nature of writing, a nature that he argues becomes more pronounced in digital environments:

Organic writing develops in non-linear clusters, like the way organisms develop. Calling writing “organic” is not solely poetic; it’s a concept that permits a clearer view into the pulpy, fleshy process of giving linguistic, visual, and electronic architecture to our ideas.

Traditional approaches to teaching writing at best ignore and, at worst, seek to repress this organicity. The trappings of compositional pedagogy–outlines, thesis statements, length requirements, mandates regarding number and types of sources, bibliographies–seek to exert control and order over the chaotic disorder that characterizes what is essentially a subjective, creative endeavor–a disorder that grows exponentially within the digital environment. It is naive to believe that, at the same time that many of us are requiring our students to write within digital domains, we can continue to teach writing in the same ways that we did for non-digital domains. When a plant becomes root-bound, it has two choices: burst through its container or wither and die. To help prevent either of these scenarios, good gardeners transplant it from its constrictive environment to a new one that will accommodate its growth; but this alone is not enough–the plant will not thrive in its new environment unless its roots are disturbed so that they can probe and connect with their new environment. It is no longer enough to attempt to transplant students’ writing into the new digital domain; if we want them to thrive as digital authors, then we must disturb the roots of compositional pedagogy.

One of the traditional practices that I abandoned quite some time ago is that of “the teaching of writing.” I think that we spend far too much time talking to (or more precisely, at) students about how to write. We require them to read chapters from a writer’s handbook or a textbook on writing; we lecture about the parts of an essay, thesis statements, the writing process (a discreet linear process that moves from pre-writing to proofreading/editing), how to cite sources, etc.; and sometimes we even quiz them on all of this information. There are several reasons why I abandoned this methodology, one being that it fails to recognize the various skills levels of the students. I found it much more effective to direct students to specific resources depending on their individual needs as writers. A student who is capable of articulating an argument and organizing their writing but who has issues with sentence mechanics benefits more from consulting resources and engaging in deliberate practice on sentence construction from the very beginning of the course (rather than having to wait for the class to get around to the mechanics of sentence construction). I have also found that students tend to experience a deeper change in knowledge about writing methods (what we’re trying to teach when we “teach writing”) when they are asked to access resources and receive instruction on skills as they are needed (one method for doing so that takes advantage of hybrid pedagogy is “just in time teaching”). A student who, in the midst of research, cannot find the information they need in the sources in which they are used to looking, will respond more actively to resources and instruction that helps them locate and explore other research options than a student who has not even started the research process.

Rather than spending time “teaching” how to write (and all of the complex, interrelated actions and assumptions that the writer must negotiate in situ) or how to research (and all of the context-based exceptions and muddy points that researchers often run into), I ask students to begin the messy work of writing and conducting research. In the process, I place them in contexts that encourage cognitive disfluency: they are intellectually uncomfortable–out of their depths–but also primed for deep and lasting learning.

This is just one example of how I am disrupting the teaching of writing (of course disruption, like writing, is all about context; what’s disruptive within my particular context may be the status quo within another context). But the discussion that took place around Kelly’s THATCamp session has encouraged me to think of more assumptions about writing and how it can/should be taught that may need to be disrupted as I become less an instructor of academic writing and more an instructor of digital writing. Here’s just a few thoughts that have been itching to be scratched since I read the tweets and the Google Doc that were born out of the session:

Thesis statements: Do we still need them? Do we need to change what a thesis statement is/does? I’ve always taught thesis statements as an answer to a question. Oftentimes, students will persist in using their question as their thesis and I will dutifully remind them that a thesis must be a statement, not a question. Do I need to stop doing that? Could the students be right when they claim that a question can be a thesis and vice versa? Does the openly discursive nature of blogs, for example, place more value on questions rather than answers? Should we be encouraging students to avoid prematurely reaching conclusions before they’ve had the opportunity to engage in the kinds of debates that social media both allows and thrives on? Does it really matter if they ever reach some kind of final conclusion, especially in their freshman year?

Research: What would happen if I told my students that they had to use Wikipedia in their research? Do we need to teach students how to mine social media as a source of research information (as I often do)? I often encourage my students to grapple with issues in ways that others have not or to select topics/texts that others have not analyzed; how do I reconcile this with my program’s requirement for a researched essay? Should we even be teaching research in FYC?

Sources: Do we need to re-think reliability? Can a blog be as reliable a source as an academic journal? I know and read several blogs that I would not hesitate to qualify as reliable, so what does that mean for the kinds of blogs that my students are interested in? Are they less reliable because they’re not written by academics? And, if so, when I qualify those people’s arguments/ideas as unreliable, what implicit message am I sending to my students about their own value as bloggers? Are we being hypocritical when we tell students that their ideas matter enough that they should be published on the Internet but then de-value “Internet sources”?

Citations: Do we still need to teach them? Do we need to change the way we teach them? How do we accommodate both hyperlinks and traditional citations (for non-open access sources)?

I welcome your questions and thoughts on how much we should and/or should not disrupt the FYC classroom. How much longer can we legitimately sustain a methodology that is root-bound? How far can/should we push against the boundaries that we’ve built in an attempt to contain the uncontainable? At what point does the chaos of the rhizome that is digital writing prevent the connections that our students need to make in order for them to be able to exert their own influence on its growth and direction? Or should we encourage them to accept and revel in the rhizomatic nature of writing (and researching and learning) within the digital environment, trusting that the cognitive disfluency will ultimately lead them to become master gardeners of new paradigms?

Rhizome of sedge carex image courtesy of Commercial Gardening, vol. 1 by John Weathers

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?