If Context Shapes Content, What Does It Mean for Hybrid Pedagogy?

This TEDx talk by skateboarder Rodney Mullen fascinates and inspires me, not as skateboarder (which I am most definitely not) but as a teacher and advocate of hybrid pedagogy:

Here are some of the points that I took away from Mullen’s talk that I think impact pedagogy and hybrid pedagogy in particular:

  • the joy is in creating
  • everything is built upon a basic infrastructure
  • what drives us is doing something new
  • context shapes content
  • different environments change the nature of what you’re doing & lead to innovation
  • skateboarding is both disruptive and humbling
  • being in the moment and trusting your intuition leads to new cognitive connections
  • the beauty of skateboarding is that no guy is the best
  • members of the community use skateboarding to individuate themselves
  • they do this by taking others’ tricks, making them their own, and contributing back to the community in a way that edifies the community itself
  • summation gives us something we could never achieve individually
  • hack=knowing a technology so well you can manipulate it and steer it to do things it was never intended to do
  • hacking involves thinking about and doing things in ways that aren’t authorized
  • hacking involves connecting disparate information in unexpected ways
  • open source operates on the premise of taking what others do, making it better, and giving it back
  • there is an intrinsic value in the act of creating for the sake of creating [and teaching/learning for the sake of teaching/learning]

I have not yet begun to process these ideas and figure out exactly how they apply to the 21st century classroom. I’d love for others to begin to discuss, debate, and evaluate these ideas in terms of pedagogy.

How do the practices and rules of skateboarding relate to (or should be incorporated into) our classrooms (both physical and virtual)?

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?

Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh My!

photo credit: ЯL via photo pin cc

My last post really got me thinking about what kind of learning environment I’d like to design for my next hybrid First-Year Composition course, especially after one of my former students responded to the question that I posed at the end of the post:

…do we want to challenge our students or do we want them to challenge themselves?

The answer to this question, according to my student, is that what we should try to achieve is a balance between the two. Sometimes you need someone else pushing and challenging you to challenge yourself and to meet those challenges. I think it’s a valid point. But how do we find that balance? And how do we know at what level we can safely challenge students without overwhelming, frustrating, and alienating them?

These are the questions that I’m grappling with as I begin designing my upcoming Hybrid FYC class.

Yesterday, I happened to read the article “Why Flip the Classroom When We Can Make It Do Cartwheels?” by Cathy Davidson. The article focuses on Duke’s Haiti Lab, an interdisciplinary experience that places students in a global research and learning laboratory in which their work has an impact beyond the classroom. This is exactly the type of challenge that I would like to present to my students. But how do I do so with very limited resources, just myself to make it happen, and a group of freshly-minted high school students, many of whom haven’t decided on a major and have no clue what they are good at or passionate about?

The central focus of the Haiti Lab is a problem. All of the students focus on this problem, just in different ways, using different methods, and while viewing the problem through different disciplinary lenses. So, the Haiti Lab presents the same kind of immersion and autonomy that I managed to establish in my first hybrid FYC class, just on a grander scale and in a way that flattens the classroom walls and makes the world the classroom. I’m not sure that I want to tackle the world just yet, especially on my own. So, I’ve decided to settle for making the university my students’ classroom for now.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a member of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative committee. We meet once a month and, in between meetings, individual members and specialized groups research issues related to the 21st century classroom and visit other campuses to look at models of 21st century classrooms. We post our research findings to a database and discuss the results and our own university’s progress each month during our face-to-face meetings. It’s an exciting committee to be on and it really has become an interdisciplinary effort. There are representatives from each college, various departments, and administrators and staff who are all focused on turning our university into a 21st century learning environment. The only group not represented on the committee is the students themselves. So, I’ve decided that maybe I should change that.

What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university? What if I allowed them to decide, with no financial restrictions, what their ideal university would look and sound like? How would classrooms look? How would classes be taught? What would be going on in the classrooms? What would be going on in other spaces? What other spaces would there be? What would they look like?

What if I asked my students to use their own passions and interests to research and create solutions for an outdated mode of education? Solutions that would impact their own education? What if I asked them to present their findings to the committee that is in charge of deciding which solutions to consider and adopt?

Would my freshman be ready to meet such a challenge? Would they be willing to do it?

At this point, I don’t have any answers to these questions. But I wonder how many questions the designers of the Haiti Lab had when they first began to think about creating an immersive, interdisciplinary, real-world learning experience? And I wonder if they waited until they had answers to all of those questions before they decided to go ahead with their vision?

When We Build Obstacles Instead of Opportunities

photo credit: Swamibu via photo pin cc

I’m lucky. I work at a university that both supports and encourages innovative instruction. Right now, I represent my department on the 21st Century Classroom Initiative, a committee whose goal is to encourage faculty to integrate more progressive and cutting-edge pedagogical strategies into their courses. My department, thankfully, is embracing this push. Well, I don’t know if the majority of the faculty are embracing it so much as admitting defeat in the face of the unavoidable encroachment of the 21st century. But there are a handful of us who see this not so much as inevitable, as transformative–for us as teachers, for our discipline (which is not exactly the most appealing for today’s students), and for our students (who are forced to take our classes, which are their least favorite and most dreaded, i.e., writing, speech, and literature). One way in which we are transforming these classes is to offer hybrid versions and I was selected to create the hybrid version of the first-semester First-Year Composition course (the first half of a year-long course, which focuses on the basics of academic writing).

I’ve taught this course for two semesters and I will be teaching it again this Fall. And I’ll admit that my initial excitement at the chance to pilot an innovative (for my department) course has turned to trepidation.

This has much to do with the less-than-successful version of the class that I led this past term (and a little to do with the trepidation that I always experience at the thought of the unlimited possibilities of what to read and what kinds of writing I can ask my students to do). By the end of the term, the majority of the students in both sections had either dropped the class or stopped coming. Admittedly, those students who were left were saying it had transformed them as students and writers and many of them signed up for my summer short-term, second-semester (non-hybrid) FYC course. But they were a very small handful of the students who started the course, and I had struggled desperately with the large majority of the students (including a few of those who finished and embraced the class at the end). These struggles centered around several aspects of my design and vision for the class. I was trying out some ideas that I thought the students would see as relevant and real-world (I don’t really like these terms now because I have changed my beliefs about the validity of such terms as applied to higher ed. for reasons that are not related to my experiences in this class). For example, one assignment required first revising a Wikipedia article on the book we were reading and then authoring their own Wikipedia article on a blog of their choice (as part of the Blogs WikiProject). (If you’re interested in the rationale behind my decision to have my students write for Wikipedia, see “The Hows and Whys of Wikipedia in the Classroom,” “Are We Ready to Use Wikipedia to Teach Writing?”, “Writing for the World: Wikipedia as an Introduction to Academic Writing,” and “The Tenets of Composition Go Public”). As preparation for these assignments, I required them to work and write collaboratively to create a wiki on how to write for Wikipedia (as a way for them to both learn how to do so and to practice writing within a wiki).

At midterm, I was forced to abandon my design for the course because the resistance from students was overwhelming. I tried to clear the tension and find a new direction by asking the students to complete a midterm course assessment via a Google spreadsheet. I monitored the feedback in real-time and used it to establish a master list of the most common issues cited by students, which we then discussed in class. It became obvious that my vision for the class was not shared by the majority of the students. Left with no back-up plan and exhausted from the resistance I had been fighting for seven weeks, I contacted Jim Groom and asked permission for my class to participate in his DS106 MOOC. He invited us into the course with open arms, piping my students’ blogs into the DS106 site that week. I then turned them lose in DS106 with only two requirements: they had to complete at least one DS106 assignment each week and they had to read and comment on each others’ work. The rest of the term was smooth sailing, every student met my two requirements, and there were no more complaints or resistance (by this point, though, I only had a handful of students left in both sections). While the classes ended on a high note, this had much to do with Jim’s DS106 course.

The class was not a total disaster. Midterm feedback revealed that blogging and the self-assessments that I required students to complete for each blog post had positively impacted the students (even those who hated the class) in several ways, from changing their feelings about writing to inspiring them to keep blogging after the class ended. What makes my experiences so disappointing is the contrast with those I had with my first hybrid FYC class the previous Fall, which had been, in my opinion, fairly successful. Almost all of the students who began that class finished it, the majority who finished had made significant gains in their writing skills, and the students had embraced everything that I asked them to do (or at least they didn’t actively resist). The course had the same basic outline–blogging and working together in personal learning networks–but different reading assignments and writing topics (and no Wikipedia assignments). So, in preparing to design my Fall 2012 sections of the class, I’m considering why one worked and the other so miserably failed (because I don’t think Wikipedia has that much to do with it).

I’ve been thinking about these contrasting experiences for a couple of weeks now and the two main differences that keep coming into view are the different levels of immersion and student autonomy.

In my Fall course, I asked students to immerse themselves in our topic (the first-year experience). Everything that they read, discussed, and wrote focused on some aspect of this topic. We began the term by reading My Freshman Year by Rebecca Nathan, which gave us a good set of issues to begin exploring, everything from dorm living to freshman attrition to student apathy/isolation. Throughout the semester, the students researched and blogged about these issues and, as a capstone project, synthesized their research in a multimedia class presentation. The presentation took the place of the big research paper that my department’s syllabus for the course requires. This is an assignment that I have a lot of issues with for various reasons and students traditionally struggle with it for all of the reasons that I don’t like it (it often feels like an add-on tacked to the end of the course and asks students to deal with some complex skills, such as learning how to locate and effectively integrate scholarly sources and cite them using MLA, when many of them are still struggling with sentence construction, paragraph organization, and thesis statements). But my hybrid students’ presentations were quite well done and some could have easily been developed and presented at our university’s annual student research symposium (I encouraged some to do so, but freshman are rarely confident enough to submit and present their work); it was obvious that they really cared about their topics and had invested a good deal of effort into teaching their peers about them. I think the quality was directly correlated with the fact that the students had been immersed in researching, thinking, and writing about their topic for several months, rather than the 2-3 weeks normally allocated to the research paper, much as academics and researchers immerse themselves in their topics for months or years.

But these are teenagers, not professional academics and researchers. When planning the course, I was concerned that the students would become bored with reading and writing about the same topic for fourteen weeks, so I built a large amount of autonomy into the assignments. Students were free to address any issues related or relevant to college freshman, including those not addressed in Nathan’s book, and they could deal with as many of the issues as they wished, so that if they lost interest in one topic, they could explore another, and they could also develop a broad knowledge of the issues surrounding the freshman experience and, hopefully, identify the connections between some of them. The students focused on a wide range of phenomena, including the freshman fifteen; the lack of preparation that many freshman feel, in terms of both academic and life skills; social and communal life; the benefits of campus organizations and services; the clash of home values with those encountered in college; the benefits of diversity on college campuses; and why freshman don’t participate in class, just to name a few. Some of the students even voluntarily performed primary research, creating Facebook and Twitter polls and conducting the kinds of interviews and observations that Nathan had during her ethnographic study.

So, the key elements of the Fall course that I failed to carry over into the Spring course were the intense immersion in a topic and student autonomy in directing their own learning about the topic. Instead, I set up a series of loosely-related learning tasks with the idea that I was scaffolding the skills I wanted students to master. I thought that I was doing the pedagogically responsible thing–challenging, scaffolding, making relevant, working my way up Bloom’s pyramid. But in spending so much time planning and micro-managing the class and what the students would be doing in it, I was turning their skatepark into an obstacle course.

Learning isn’t a pyramid. And we shouldn’t be making our students build it or climb it or whatever else we try to make them do to it in the name of teaching. This is why my students enjoyed the DS106 class so much more than the class I had designed for them; there are no pyramids in DS106, just options between learning opportunities and even, if none of the existing opportunities are appealing enough, the option to design your own learning opportunity.

After reflecting on the mistakes that I made this past Spring, I have a better idea of how to avoid those mistakes again this Fall. I’m terribly bummed that my Spring students had to suffer through those mistakes. And I’m bummed that those who gave up on me missed out on experiencing DS106. And I’m thankful to Jim Groom for allowing us to visit with his learning community for a while. It reminded me about the magic of learning for learning’s sake. And I hope that someday I will build the kind of learning skatepark that he has. I’m trying.

The point that I hope others take away from my mistakes with my hybrid FYC class and my self-assessment is that sometimes being innovative can get in the way of learning, both your students’ and your own. My first hybrid FYC students taught me a lot about what students are capable of if we give them the space and the freedom to play. My Spring students also taught me a lot about the difference between challenging students and forcing them to jump through hoops. We need common goals for a course; but there is more than one way to meet them. Obstacle courses may make getting there more challenging, but do we want to challenge our students or do we want them to challenge themselves?