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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m a big fan of Mike Rose because I think that what he says makes a lot of sense. I just don’t understand why more university administrators and those in charge of remedial writing courses aren’t listening to him.
If you don’t know who Mike Rose is, you should get to know him by reading his blog or a few of his books, especially Lives on the Boundary, which is the first book of his I ever read. I read it after discovering his seminal article “Remedial Writing Courses: A Critique and a Proposal.” As the title of the article suggests, Rose first critiques the praxis of remedial composition and its theoretical underpinnings and then offers an alternative method for teaching students who require remediation in writing in a way that better eases their transition into the first-year composition course. Rose’s critique, then and now, questions the idea that students who arrive at university with substandard writing preparation need to be taught the very basics of writing, i.e., grammar and mechanics and sentence construction, as though they were primary school students, rather than the adults that they are, and the assumption that the mastery of these basics will somehow allow them to go on to succeed in the typical FYC course and their other college classes. As Rose points out, the entire construction of remedial composition courses dooms them, and by association the students who must take them, to failure:
Many of our attempts to help college remedial writers, attempts that are often well- intentioned and seemingly commonsensical, may, in fact, be ineffective, even counterproductive, for these attempts reduce, fragment, and possibly misrepresent the composing process. I believe we may be limiting growth in writing in five not unrelated ways. (1) Our remedial courses are self-contained; that is, they have little conceptual or practical connection to the larger academic writing environment in which our students find themselves. (2) The writing topics assigned in these courses—while meant to be personally relevant and motivating and, in their simplicity, to assist in the removal of error—in fact might not motivate and might not contribute to the production of a correct academic prose. (3) The writing teacher’s vigilance for error most likely conveys to students a very restricted model of the composing process. (4) Our notion of “basic skills” has become so narrow that we attempt to separate the intimately related processes of reading and thinking from writing. (5) In some of our attempts to reform staid curricula we have inadvertently undercut the expressive and exploratory possibilities of academic writing and have perceived fundamental discourse strategies and structures as restricting rather than enhancing the production and comprehension of prose.
Rose goes on to propose that remedial writing courses do just the opposite of what they (typically) do now. He envisions, and in fact has helped to design and administer, remedial writing courses that don’t assume students can’t meet the challenges of academic reading, thinking, and writing, but actually ask them to dive headlong into the proverbial intellectual deep-end, with the instructor guiding and coaching them as they struggle to navigate academic discourse and add their voice to the academic conversation. This is not much different from how many of us approach traditional FYC courses. The main difference in remedial courses, at least in my experience, is the crucial need to not allow remediation to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.
In remedial writing courses the challenge is not so much overcoming students’ unfamiliarity with the praxis of academic discourse as it is overcoming the label that students who are placed in remedial classes are given and the expectations (or lack thereof) that are associated with that label. In general, I have found that three types of students end up in remedial writing classes. The first group are those students who know that they have been placed in a remedial class and either resent it (because it does not count towards their degree hours and forms a barrier between them and the “real” classes that their peers are taking) or see it as a judgement on their writing ability and perhaps even on their merits and prospects as a student (I suspect that many of these students hypothesize that remedial is synonymous with “not meant to be here”). The second group of students do not even realize that they are in a remedial class or what that means. These students are often shocked to learn that the class signifies a deficiency on their part and will only count as institutional credit. The third group of students overlap with the other two, but I identify them as unique from their peers because they don’t actually belong in a remedial class but, because of poor testing skills or some other fluke, have been placed there. These students could do very well in my traditional FYC classes and therefore excel in my remedial classes, providing models for their peers to emulate. (On the reverse side of this is the fact that I always end up with a handful of students in my FYC classes who would greatly benefit from a remedial writing class and rarely are able to pass the traditional class).
Because of the precarious emotional and intellectual states of many of these students, the main function of a remedial writing class often becomes one of constant and intense encouragement as you arm your students to go out and meet the forces that they believe have been arrayed against them. If they feel like David going out to meet Goliath, then writing is the rock you must convince them they can sling. They have to believe that becoming a better writer is achievable or you have lost the battle before it has even begun (and it is an ongoing battle that you must fight all semester long). But forcing them to write self-contained paragraphs for a semester is not going to prepare them for FYC. Mollycoddling them with simplistic writing prompts is not going to help them face their next college writing assignment. And knowing a verb from a gerund is not going to help them compare and contrast two psychological theories or analyze a political cartoon or classify and analyze the medical symptoms of a hypothetical patient.
So, I’m doing things a little differently in my remedial writing class this term (the first that I’ve taught in a while) and following Rose’s four-tiered plan, which is founded on real writing challenges (the kind that students will be faced with as college students, not primary school students) that are situated within highly relevant contexts.
I have designed the class much like a journalism course in that the students will work together to design and publish a blog. The theme of the blog will be completely up to the class. At the moment, students are writing their first blog post, which is their proposal for the blog’s theme. Once students have identified potential themes, I’ll allow the class to vote on which theme they think will be the most interesting to write about this term. Once the theme is selected, the blog will function much like an digital newspaper, with students working together in groups to identify relevant stories, compose the stories, design the post layouts, and publish the stories by a deadline.
Students will write in small groups of three to four, rotating the role of lead editor each week. The week’s lead editor will be in charge of identifying sources for a story and sharing those sources with the other members of the writing team. The team will work together in class to brainstorm and outline the story and the lead editor will draft the story before the next class meeting. At the next meeting, the team will use Google Docs to collaboratively revise, edit, proofread, and design the blog post before the editor publishes the story to the class blog. The writing team will then have to create a VoiceThread that contains both the Google Doc in which they collaborated on the post and the final post itself. I will use the VoiceThread to provide feedback both on how effectively they collaborated as writers/designers and on the strengths and weaknesses of the final post, and the team will respond to my feedback and establish goals for their next post.
My hope is that by having students publish their writing on a blog and select the topic of the blog, they will be more invested in the act of writing and what they are writing about. Also, by asking students to work in writing teams, I hope to take the onus off of the individual student and provide them with a support group of peers. Because we will be using Google Docs, I will be able to monitor each team’s writing process and function as a member of each team myself. Since the class meets in a computer lab, I can be present both physically and virtually (a veritable hybrid teacher!), depending on where I am needed most by any given group.
The Technology Sticking-Point
I hesitated about using technology so heavily in a remedial course. My first instinct was to teach the course naked (figuratively speaking), going bare bones in an effort to achieve a type of Zen simplicity that I hoped would funnel over into the students’ thinking about writing. I did not want anything to complicate the already complicated relationship that many of these students are likely to have with writing. But in the end I could not get past the power that asking students to “publish it” rather than “hand it in” holds for my traditional FYC classes. I am sure that there will be some students who struggle with the technical aspects of the class and this may stifle their writing progress or even lead them to resent me and/or give up on the class. But I am hopeful that the risk of losing a few students will be trumped by the empowerment that the rest of the students will feel as they make a tangible footprint on the digital landscape.
I may be completely off my head in how I’ve planned the course. It may be that too many of my students will allow the remedial label to narrow their vision and foreshorten their potential. Too many may go into technology panic mode or feel that their writing skills are too inferior to be publicly evaluated and commented on. I may lose my nerve and ask them to abandon the field in mid-battle if I begin to see too much fear or hesitation on their part.
But, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’ll let you know how we fare.
In the meantime, if you’d like to read about another instructor who is taking a radical approach to remedial composition, read “A Model for Teaching College Writing,” which describes how Barbara Vance helped a group of struggling writers become a team of documentary filmmakers.
In my last post, I addressed the idea of disrupting the First-Year Composition course. One of those disruptive pedagogies that I’ve been monitoring for some time is gamification. I don’t like jumping on any pedagogical bandwagon until I’ve had some time to observe it from afar for a while and reflect on how it fits within my own teaching philosophy and practices. I’ve been doing so with the concept of gamification for almost two years now and up until recently was still uncertain about how I felt about it and how it would benefit my FYC students, if at all. This post is my attempt to clarify some of my initial conclusions on how game theory might be used to help make the FYC experience more engaging for students.
[Disclaimer: This post will not seek to debate gamification’s merits and/or deficiencies. I have mixed feelings about the application of gaming to teaching, some of which I will address in this post. It’s also important to differentiate gamification from game-based learning–the direct use of games and game creation within the classroom. I’m more concerned with how we can use the philosophy of game design to guide our pedagogical practices.]
For me, my own ideas about how gaming philosophy can be integrated into the FYC course were solidified as I watched this TEDx Talk by Paul Anderson, in which he outlines why and how he gamified his science classes:
Recently, this same video was the focus of a post by Adam Renfro on the Getting Smart blog. The post does an excellent job of breaking down and explaining the elements of gamification and how they can be applied to any class. As I read the post, I became increasingly aware of how much I am already applying the principles of gamification to my FYC classes. But the post and video inspired me to consider other aspects of my course that could be gamified to create a more immersive and disruptive experience, so I sat down with pen and paper and, using the outline Renfro provides in his post, did some brainstorming. Here’s what I came up with:
For me, the story is always supplied by a course theme. One semester it was how education is used as political currency and the lengths that people will go to to get an education; another semester it was the freshman year experience; next semester it will be the purposes, strengths, and shortcomings of universities in the 21st century. I use the course theme to help me select the nonfiction books that we read together as a class and to provide a focus for the students’ self-selected reading, but the students write the “story” themselves, choosing which of the infinite plot lines within our theme they wish to pick up and develop in their writing (in much the same way that “choose your own adventure” books work).
As Renfro points out, in gaming, goals are concise, specific, and clear (no behavioral objective jargon or Bloom’s taxonomy verbs to muddy up what needs to be done or why). While I’ll still have to use the course objectives provided by my department as written (for some esoteric and, more than likely, bureaucratic reason), I’ll spend some time explaining those goals in plainer language on the course website and I’ll certainly begin to utilize the kinds of clear goals used in gaming when designing the assignments and tasks for the course. [As a rather disturbing anecdote, one semester I asked my students to re-write the course objectives from the syllabus in their own words and explain what the objectives meant in terms of what they needed to learn to do; not a single student could do so, even after looking up all of the unfamiliar words in a dictionary.]
The most obvious challenges to establish in an FYC course are the writing assignments. For my students that means creating and maintaining a blog where they publish all of their writing for the class (the “story” they choose to tell about our theme) and reading and commenting on their peers’ blog posts. It will also mean using the skills they develop over the course of the term to solve a relevant problem for our university and its goal to become a 21st century learning environment (I’ve addressed this in a previous post).
Reading, as Anderson acknowledges in his TEDx Talk, is also a challenge for many students. Next term, my students will crowdsource the reading of our class book by collectively annotating it using Google Docs. This challenge works in tandem with two other challenges that I will establish: improving their digital literacy skills (they’ll be annotating Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart) and building a Collaborative Learning Network. Part of the students’ objective in annotating the book is to create their own challenges for integrating the skills discussed in the book into the class. This type of self-authored challenge opportunity is one aspect of gaming that is becoming more popular (my 9 year-old son, who is an avid Lego architect and gamer, revels in games that require him to build his own gaming environments).
For me, this is one of more problematic aspects of game theory in terms of its pedagogical applications. I recognize that competition can be healthy, I’m just not convinced that the classroom is a context within which that is the case. If students decide, on their own, to compete with their peers to achieve a certain number of “likes,” “+1’s,” or shares, then that is fine, but I’m not comfortable creating forced competition.
Defining the Roles
Since my FYC classes are hybrid, I require that students create an avatar to use in all of our virtual learning environments. I’ve streamlined this as much as possible by using all Google apps for our virtual class work. Students create a Google account during the first week of class and complete a Google profile page with an image of their choosing. They use Blogger for their blogs, Google+ for virtual interaction, and Google Docs for collaborative writing, so their interactions are automatically associated with their avatar. For their first blog post they select a skill or passion to share with their peers as way of introduction. This assignment usually reveals some gurus and go-to’s for various aspects of the course (this term, for instance, I had a tech geek, a journalism major, and a cheerleader, all skills highly valued in an FYC course for various reasons). I encourage students to seek out peers who posses the domain skills that they are in need of if I’m not available or skilled enough to help them, and I encourage students to use their individual skills and personality traits to build and support a collaborative community in both the physical and virtual learning environments.
Rather than relying solely on a writing handbook, I’ve begun compiling videos, handouts, and web pages that I can direct students to when they need additional guidance. Last term I experimented with not using a handbook at all and, instead, created a wiki of writing resources. For each writing concept, I tried to provide as many different varieties of resources as possible: at least one video; a concise overview or outline of the concept; a longer, more detailed web page; at least one source that provided examples; and a PDF handout or graphic that they could print out and keep handy. Many students responded enthusiastically to this method and the resources themselves and I received overwhelmingly positive feedback regarding the wiki when I polled students on the most effective aspects of the course. This term, I plan to organize these materials into different lessons on Mentor Mob and invite students to add to them (as Renfro points out, the challenge is increased for the students when you allow them to create and use their own equipment).
Renfro warns that giving all course materials out at once is confusing for some students. This, of course, runs counter to what many consider “best practice” in hybrid and online teaching, which holds that everything should be front-loaded so that your expectations and the course requirements are clear and students have access to the materials so that they can work ahead if they wish. In my experience this has had two results: for weaker students, it is overwhelming and they tend to take an “if I ignore it, it will go away” approach to accessing and reading materials; for stronger students with type-A personalities, this creates anxiety as they constantly try to stay ahead of the game and often miss out on what’s happening in the moment. Next term, rather than uploading all of the writing assignments to a static page on the class’s WordPress site, I plan to post assignments to the blog as I feel they need to be on students’ radars; this has the added advantage of providing a central location for students to post questions and comments on the assignment and for me to answer them.
Right now, I’m still observing and reflecting on the badge system. Students are already familiar with social media’s voting systems, so I will encourage them to use the existing systems to promote and reward each others’ work.
I already provide a kind of leveling up system via students’ self-assessments of their work and the formative feedback that I provide on these assessments (see my post on deliberate practice). I ask students to identify the weaknesses in a piece of writing and to work on improving those areas in their subsequent pieces. Once the student feels that they have developed those areas sufficiently, then they must identify new areas to address, essentially leveling up to a new set of criteria. At this point I haven’t established a hierarchy of levels because I am mainly concerned with getting students engaged with the act of writing and I don’t want to discourage their own assessment of their writing by imposing my own rules about which weaknesses to tackle first. While I might value sentence construction more than paragraph organization, for example, the student might find it less daunting to better their paragraph organization than their sentence constructions. (I’ve found that students generally know their weaknesses and have a good sense of which ones can easily be corrected with some resources and a little more effort and which ones will require intensive, and likely frustratingly difficult, work). I’m not sure if I want to enforce a hierarchy of levels or continue allowing the student to determine at what level they wish to work at any given time. The ability to select different levels of difficulty may be a more important gaming principle to apply to the FYC course than scaffolding of skills.
Because this aspect of gaming is directly tied to competition, it’s problematic for me and I’m not willing to advocate it.
Flipping for Individualization
Like gamification, flipping the classroom is a hotly debated pedagogical disruption right now. I’m not so much interested in debating it here as thinking about what aspects of it make sense and can be used effectively. English teachers have basically been flipping our classes since time began, so it’s a moot point for FYC, as far as I’m concerned. The aspects of the flipped class that I think teachers of writing need to pay attention to is how it allows students to work at their own pace and how it allows us to individualize their instructional needs. I’ve already discussed how I encourage students to work at self-selected levels by assessing their writing, setting goals for improvement, then monitoring their progress with the help of my formative feedback. When this type of self-paced goal-setting is combined with access to a variety of resources that you have gathered or created and made available using a wiki or a tool like Mentor Mob, this gives the student the power to shape the course to meet their individual learning needs. Students don’t waste time on skills they already posses, they don’t have to spend a week on a skill if they only need a day, and they can spend two weeks (or three or four) on a skill that they couldn’t master in one.
I’ve already addressed failure in a previous post. I truly believe that one of the most effective ways to eliminate students’ fear of failure is by doing away with grades. Until then, the portfolio system is the next best thing in terms of removing both anxieties surrounding individual assignments and the overarching stigma of failure. For each piece of formal writing, my students receive formative feedback from me but no grade. I encourage them to view each piece of writing as deliberate writing practice, the same kind of practice that gamers are free to enjoy without anxiety or stigma if they fail to level up. At the end of the term, the students select which pieces of writing they want me to use to determine their grade for the course and provide me with detailed input on why they selected each piece and what they think it demonstrates about their writing abilities. If at any point a student is uncertain of where they stand in terms of their progress in the course, I will discuss their concerns, but try to steer clear of situating the discussion within the context of grades or points.
Walkthroughs and Cheat Codes
Two aspects of gaming not mentioned by Renfro are walkthroughs and cheat codes. Walkthroughs demonstrate step-by-step instructions for navigating a game environment, while cheat codes are glitches that allow players to cheat the game by accessing hidden objects, shortcuts, or locked characters. Both are deployed to make the game easier or to give the player an advantage over the game. One way that I’ve been experimenting with walkthroughs this term is by using one of the students’ pieces as a model for effective writing, then conducting a paragraph-by-paragraph walkthrough of the piece with me recording our discussion and marking up the text using the Show Me iPad app; once I post the link to the video of our walkthrough, students can revisit and watch it if they feel the need to do so. Another possible way of encouraging the use of walkthroughs and cheat codes in the FYC course is the use of peer instruction. As outlined in the Harvard Magazine article “Twilight of the Lecture” and demonstrated in this video, peer instruction harnesses the collective brainpower of small groups:
By identifying muddy points and misconceptions, then allowing students to discuss and work them out in small groups, peer instruction applies the same methods used by gamers as they crowdsource to share tactics and problem-solve how to game the game.
These are some ways that I think gamification can be applied to the FYC course. Below are a few resources that have helped me to better understand gamification and the pedagogical implications it holds. I’ve tried to provide a balance between the pros and cons of gamification; however, this is by no means an exhaustive list and I welcome any additions you can make to it or any thoughts/experiences that you wish to share about how the principles of game design should or should not be applied to the FYC classroom.
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.
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?