Why I Love Working (& Teaching & Learning) Here

As I’ve been working on my big summer project (the revised book manuscript), I’ve been eagerly following Gardner’s summer course entitled From Memex to YouTube: An Introduction to New Media Studies. Then this afternoon (just a few hours before class started), Shannon twittered that she wished she could see the class’s final presentations. I echoed her with a plea for Gardner to setup a webcam and soon suggestions for places to host it came in from our local twittersphere. By the time class started a ustream account had been set up and the event was being streamed, live. It spent most of the evening on ustream’s front page. Anyone could drop in and see the projects of the people in the class.

I wasn’t able to get to the stream until it was more than half over, but when I did I remembered why I like working where I am so much. Why?

  1. The students were amazing. They had great projects and they were incredibly enthusiastic about the class and their own work (and, dare I say, their learning). [See an Alaskan summary of a few of them here and the full video stream from here.] These kind of students are why MW is such a great place to work.
  2. Not a small part of this excitement, interest, skill, and creativity was due to the class environment set by Gardner. Play, interdisciplinarity, technology-enabled creativity, intellectual rigor (the good kind), and real engagement all were at work here, in a Real School class. Cool colleagues are why MW is such a great place to work.
  3. While I watched the students present, I was engaged in a chat with people from all over the continent (Alaska, Arizona, Texas, Canada) many of whom had heard about it from the invite Gardner and Martha put on their Twitter networks. As I chatted with DTLT friends (Jim, Jerry, Andy (on vacation!), and Martha), faculty colleagues (Sue, Gardner), people I’d met at conferences (CogDog) or people I knew largely from the blogosphere (D’Arcy, Chris, Vidya), and students in (and out of) the classroom, I thought to myself: “These are really bright, really engaged, really interesting people, and I can’t believe how much fun this is….”
  4. As I was watching the student presentations, I also found myself engaged in three or four chat conversation threads at once. It was chaotic, it was crazy, and it was probably not for everyone. That kind of multi-threaded conversation drives some people mad, but in this environment it just worked for me. Discussions of projects, of software, of Doug Engelbart, of Carl Jung, of the impact of the process of authorship on the author’s view of other work, of films and film theory, of numerous bad jokes, inside jokes, sarcastic jokes, and ROTFL jokes, of the wonder and awe of the final presentation of the night–an amazing movie by Serena that brought many of us watching online to the brink of tears.
  5. I want to take this class; and if that isn’t possible, then I want to team-teach it with Gardner; and if that isn’t possible, then look for the history version, coming soon to a seminar room near you. [Adventures in Digital History!] I love that I teach at a school where there is room in the curriculum and the minds of the people I work with for these kinds of explorations.

Now, admittedly, this post has a little of the fanboy aspect to it. The reality check is that not every day feels like this in this job. There are days when I would love to have 1/10 of the energy I felt tonight. There are conversations with colleagues or students that leave me drained, not inspired. There are days I plod along, rather than lead and innovate. I know that.
In fact, in the middle of this amazing few hours, I found myself in a brief chat with a colleague where we both acknowledged how special this extended moment was and how we wished it could always be like this. So, where do we go from here? Well, we need to hold on to (and brag about) these moments until they are more common. [Hence this post.] I want to harness this energy, bottle it up somehow and feed it to everyone I see: students, faculty, administrators, learners all. This is what learning can be. This is what Real School is all about.

How can you measure or quantify the feeling of excitement, engagement and learning that took place tonight? [Yes, I use those terms deliberately.] We need to figure out how to replicate these moments, not in a cold, cloning kind of way, but in setting the stage for creativity, learning and innovation in and out of classrooms, and then taking advantage of those moments of opportunity to share them.

But for tonight, I’m just going to keep smiling.

Slicing and Dicing for Education: My Thoughts on a Real School Tool

[Let me start by apologizing for the title. I’m working to finish a book manuscript and I’m tending to see everything in history book title form at the moment…..]

Martha has called out those of us who have been participating in some really exciting conversations about the future connections between education and technology. So, this is my response to Martha’s vision and an attempt to begin to explain my own. [I’m writing this assuming you’ve read hers….]

One of the early complicating issues in those initial, wide-ranging conversations, as I remember it, was between those who saw the need for a specific tool for capturing one’s own digital trail and those who seemed more interested in the ability to manipulate and view information through a variety of filters (hence the “slice-and-dice” metaphor). Here’s Martha’s summary:

Originally, I was focussed on one specific tool that I felt would meet a particular need — a Zotero-like device (Firefox plugin?) that a user could use to “capture” any kind of online resource and generate a sort of RSS/XML-feed on steroids. Sick of wondering how to get all the various Web authoring tools and social networking spaces to play nicely together, I wondered what would happen if we just scrapped that approach altogether and built some intelligent, lightweight, browser-based “appliance” that would allow me to cobble together a feed from any spot along my digital trail. (Others have asked if this isn’t del.icio.us. I still don’t *think* so, but I can’t really explain it. At least, not right now, I can’t.)

I have to start by noting that I’ve never seen the set of tools as needing to be a single Zotero-like record of intellectual online travels, in part because of a larger concern with the ability of such a tool to capture off-line material too and in part because I haven’t wrapped my head around the best ways to use Zotero itself. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to have such a tool, especially as Martha describes it, but I’m not sure it’s the end goal. [It could be one of a set of tools, but I may be one of those who thinks that del.icio.us with its rss feeds is good enough, at least for now.]

I also think that Martha did a great job of summarizing a great deal of what I hope this set of tools will be. Still, she asked for our vision of what umwronco could be, and here’s mine:

1) A snapshot of our intellectual life — I’ve used this phrase a number of times to suggest a key use for umwronco to me. The life and mission of a university is ostensibly public, yet much of its interactions, discussions, and ideas remain bottled up in silos that range from the individual, to between teacher-student, to within the classroom, to the campus itself. Why stop there, especially at a public institution?

  • Example 1 — I can imagine talking to a group of potential students and their parents at an admissions function with a screen behind me showing a tag cloud of categories being discussed on campus in the last 24 hours or an intellectual map with student-created connections between and amongst various classes and extra-class sources and ideas. I’m geeked by how powerful it would be for me to tell those parents and potential students, “This is the intellectual life of this institution right now. Don’t you want to join us?”
  • Example 2 — Such a snapshot could (and should) be taken with a broader lens. e.g., what are Virginia college students talking/writing/thinking about right now?
  • Example 3 — Using such a snapshot, teachers and students, learners all, could see the larger intellectual world of the campus and build off that. [Admittedly the snapshot might be scary — does anyone want to see that the intellectual life of the campus includes a certain hotel heiress’s latest problems? But in that case maybe students and faculty could work to change the intellectual life and soon.]
  • Example 4 — Using such a snapshot, administrators, including student life personnel, could respond more precisely to student needs and interests, those prosaic (laundry complaints) and profound (responses to tragedies). In other words, it might be a way to measure the pulse of the student body.

I would add that I want to be able to take various snapshots over time (a stop-motion movie of the intellectual life of the institution would be very cool) and to be able to change the scope of the snapshot (capturing the intellectual life of a class, of a department, of a single student, of a dorm–let’s not forget that even in the online world that physical, off-line space still matters a great deal). Do you see where the “slicing and dicing” comes in?

2) A way for students to make connections between their various sources of learning and create a self-aware, reflective course of study — And no, I’m not so self-important to think that this only includes connections between their classes or a reflection on the courses required for their major. It is widely acknowledged that students learn a great deal outside of the classroom and their course assignments and this suite needs to allow students to make such connections. Still, I see this suite of tools as making it possible for students to more explicitly engage in the connections (and perhaps as importantly in the conflicts) between their various classes, even when those courses were created in isolation from each other. [This view is heavily inspired by a recent conversation with Gardner and Steve Greenlaw.]

  • Example 1 — A student learns overlapping material in my 19th Century American Families class and an English class on Women Writers. What current incentive does that student have to make such connections explicit? [I encourage students to bring up materials learned in other classes and I have some colleagues that do as well. But that process could be expanded and encouraged, allowing self-reflection for students and a view of that connections for others.]
  • Example 1.5 — A student looking for a class to take for next semester reviews those reflections/connections posted by students who have taken similar classes. Amazon’s site has a feature that is effectively: “readers who liked this book also liked this one”. Why couldn’t that work for students and classes as well?
  • Example 2 — E-portfolios — ’nuff said.

3) A way to begin to dip into and process the larger flow (torrent?) of information online. [In other words, learning to deal with information overload.] — Recently there have been a number of discussions of the disconnect between students’ lives online and their abilities to navigate that online world in an academically sophisticated (or perhaps just critical) way. I’d want this suite of tools to train students in the art of information consumption and production.

  • Example — Digital literacy, as I see it, is fundamentally about the ability to navigate the online world in a reliable, thoughtful, critical way. [My lengthier versions of that definition…. ] So, a student might come to see the umwronco set of tools as a way to help them look at the online world in a new way, especially if it involved tagging/categorization, annotation, and a unified place to keep one’s own learning centered.

4) A conscious, explicit reinforcement of the need to keep citation, authority and reliability at the forefront of sliced and diced material and an awareness of the role of bias and perspective. — Obviously related to the last point, I’m still close enough to my disciplinary origins to insist that any sliced/diced/created/preserved information be linked in a prominent way to its origins. To do otherwise risks exacerbating a sentiment I’ve noticed among students, namely that the web seems a seamless information source to them, not a series of collections of information with different authors (and therefore different authority and different levels of reliability). I expect that umwronco would help students (and faculty) to be more aware of their own assumptions and biases (in what information they can get, in what filters are being used, and therefore what material is left out) and those of others.

  • Example — Students could create an extensive, cross-course annotated bibliography through both linking and formal citations that could ground part or all of their online work.

5) These tools will be perpetual betas, yet available in various “packages” depending on the expertise and interest of the user. — The phrase “perpetual beta”, which I picked up from Gardner and Jeremy Boggs at Clioweb, took me a while to embrace, but embrace it I have. Faculty and students will need to come to terms with a fast-changing, always-in-revision world of tools. [We need to remember that academia is constantly in revision; it’s just typically been on a (much) longer cycle.] Still, we need to be conscious of the need to attract people to the umwronco and I think a series of ronco-packages might be one way to go (even if never formally expressed this way).

  • Level 1 — alpha testers — they’ll try anything, as long as it has the potential to improve student and teacher learning.
  • Level 2 — beta testers — rough edges are fine, they revise their classes almost every semester anyway.
  • Level 3 — gamma testers — Fewer rough edges, numerous examples/models for implementation.
  • Level 4 — Everybody else — Sneak in a tool or two when they’re not looking….

I’m aware that I haven’t been especially specific or practical about implementation at this point. I don’t think wedding ourselves to one technology or software or tool is the right approach here, especially given the rapid rate of change. I also am aware that I don’t know the specifics of how all these technologies work or even more important, the difficulties of implementation. With those two caveats, my view of the suite of tools would include some combination of the following: blogs, multi-user blogs, wikis, electronic forums, RSS feeds, del.icio.us, maybe Zotero, tag clouds, e-portfolios, GIS software, Bluehost, Fantastico, PhpSurveyor, YouTube, Drupal, IM, Twitter and BackTwitter, even (gasp) email. [Just to be clear, I don’t see myself using all of these, but the idea of a suite of tools is the point here.]

Let me finish by reminding the reader (congratulations on making it this far!) that this post is part of a much larger conversation about this topic and many others that I have been privileged to be a part of over the last couple of years. Two points about that: First, many of these idea are not my own, or at least not in their original form. Most of them came from the other people in these conversations and so they should get that credit (in addition to those mentioned already: Jerry, Angela, Patrick, Jim, Andy, Chip, Cathy, Charlotte, Sue, and most recently, Laura, Alan, and Barbara). Second, I’ve been able to be incredibly honest with the people that have been part of that conversation and this post may reflect that directness at times. None of that directness or contrariness should be taken as anything more than respectful disagreement about parts of our shared mission. I mention this not for the core people involved in that conversation, because I know they understand that, but in awareness of the potentially larger audience. If you don’t have such a group of people you can be honest and frank and inspired with, well, join ours!

Wikis, Wikis, Everywhere: Or, the Wiki as Discussion Starter, Assignment Environment, and Class Project Binder

Faculty Academy 2007 Presentation — [This includes updated material from an earlier post.]

Note–Relevant links are posted on the Faculty Academy wiki page for this session and note that only the registered users in the class wikis can edit them or see all the functions.

This semester I used wikis (an installation of MediaWiki to be precise) in two of my classes, though in different ways. I did so at Jerry Slezak’s suggestion, despite my greatest previous interaction with wikis being arguing with students about why they can’t use Wikipedia as the scholarly source for their research papers. I’ll describe the two classes, the way the wiki was used in each class, and my evaluation of the experiment.

In one course, my 15-person senior seminar (426), the wiki was used as an improved forum to prepare students for class discussion. In the other, a 25-person upper-level lecture class (325), the wiki became not only an improved tool for focusing class discussion, but much of the online presence of the course, including the location of students’ wiki-based research projects.

First, the use of the wiki as a discussion starter
All of my classes involve reading discussions, often of primary source materials. In previous semesters, I used to have students email me comments and questions about the reading for a particular day a couple of hours before class starts. I would then take those comments and questions and create a document that categorized those comments along certain common themes. This document, displayed in front of the class, would then shape the class discussion for the day, based on the particular areas of need or interest expressed by the students.

This semester, however, the students in both these classes posted their comments and questions to a wiki page at least two hours before each discussion class. I set up one page for each day’s discussion for the semester.I would then go in, just before class started, and bold the questions/comments I saw as most interesting, most relevant, or most commonly expressed. [Bolding became a source of great pride to some students….]

Of course, a large change under this new system is that they now see each others’ postings. [I’ve resisted this before, fearing repetitiveness, copying, and an unfair burden on those who posted first to carry the class.]

I’ve found that I was completely wrong.

The quality of the questions and comments went up from previous semesters. What’s more, they began to respond to each others’ questions, answering the factual queries and starting to engage the open-ended ones. In other words, the discussion began before class did.

Of course, I could have just used a forum on Blackboard or some other open-source software (and I’ve used such forums with varying degrees of success in other classes with other assignments). They’d still be able to see what the other students had written and respond to those comments. The advantage of the wiki is that students can more easily edit and/or comment on each others’ work than in a forum, which is either hierarchical or linear (or both). The wiki is neither.

Using the “history” version function of the wiki I can actually trace the evolution of the conversation as students add material to the ongoing discussion, often inserting themselves in between other people’s comments.

They haven’t taken to truly editing each others’ work, a common issue from what I’ve heard from those who have used wikis in teaching. [There was a comment deleted by someone else, but that was an accident, for which there was much apologizing.] And actually, I don’t see this lack of editing each others’ work as a problem since I never explicitly asked them to do that and it’s not what I’m looking for them to do.

This wiki-as-discussion-starter worked in both an upper-level lecture class with once-a-week discussions and in a senior seminar that was all discussion, and required them to post comments/questions on a wiki page before every class period. In 325 – Class discussion started at a deeper level, and the wiki brought out broader discussions than we had time for in class. Plus they were engaged with each others’ ideas before class started. In 426 – Here too the discussions had already begun before class started. Plus it was easy for student discussion leaders to facilitate their own discussion of the readings using the wikis. (Bolding and editing the wiki for their own purposes became common and there was often humor involved, though never at my expense, of course….). 🙂

So, overall, other than that, that use of the wikis was a success in both classes. However, in the lecture class, I used the wiki for more than just a discussion starter

HISTORY 325 WIKI Projects
The lecture class is a course about the History of American Technology & Culture. It’s a class that’s typically 2/3 lecture and 1/3 discussion. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a course that in previous iterations has required students to create their own websites about the history of an artifact of American Technology.

Why not continue the old system?

1) Immense amount of work for Jerry and I, as well as for the students, to deal with HTML, page linking, software.
2) Although I began the web project years ago thinking that students should learn HTML or at least web coding as a life skill, it’s not clear that such as skill would actually be useful to these students at the level they’d be gaining.
3) Finally, students’ sites disappeared as they graduated.

The wiki in this class served three purposes:

1) A place for students to post questions and comments about the readings (as I discussed)

2) A site within which each student could create their own research proposal and then their own research project.

3) A class project binder, by which I mean a place where all of the class projects can be gathered together in the same place, a place where students can find the syllabus and all the assignments, and a place where their work has a long-term home, one that can be pointed to as part of portfolio of accomplishments at some point in the future. [One might describe this as a form of CMS or LMS.]

Process

  • Jerry came in for a workshop session where everyone in the class had a laptop and we did a crash course in the basics of wiki creation.
  • They had a couple of assignments early in the semester, culminating in a proposal site with a bibliography.
  • Then they had to build their site structure (laying out all the pages, but without any content).
  • Two weeks after that, the full site was due.
  • Then a week of peer reviews, using the Discussion tab (and my guidelines) to evaluate each other’s work. [See the guidelines students were given.]
  • Then a week of revision before the final project was due.

Advantages for me:

  • See student work in progress
  • See timing of their works in progress through the history function
  • Recent changes RSS feed allows me to watch from afar (through Google Reader or Bloglines).

Disadvantages for me:

  • See student work in progress
  • See timing of their works in progress through the history function
  • Recent changes RSS feed allows me to watch from afar (through Google Reader or Bloglines).

Why? Because I could see that many of the updates, edits, and wiki site building happened the night before, the morning of, the minutes before the assignments were due. [A longheld suspicion proven….]

Presentations
At the end of the semester, I asked each of the students to present their projects in five minutes.

  • They could discuss the content they covered;
  • they could discuss cool things they had done or discovered;
  • they could discuss the process they used;
  • they could analyze the evolution of their site using the previous version (history) function;
  • or they could talk about what they wish they had known.

Their presentations varied, though most said they wished they had started earlier. I even set up a page on the wiki for them to post their suggestions. [Many of which revolved around wishing they’d looked at each others’ projects for ideas earlier.]

But one of the most reflective student presentations included a PowerPoint slide entitled “What Impacted Me The Most” with the following points:

  • The Responsibility/Permanence
    • [Many of the students were extremely cognizant that this was something that would be around after they were finished school and felt that responsibility weigh on them.]
  • Everyone Viewing My Progress
    • As this student pointed out, it was not just me watching them create their sites, it was their classmates (or anyone else who happened to find the site).
  • Citations
    • I made them cite everything (as any research project in history would be) and that process took time and energy (both in getting the citations accurate and in dealing with the wiki formatting to get them to look right).
  • Connections Between Projects
    • This student and others noted how much they enjoyed being able to see how their projects overlapped with each others and with the course themes as a whole.

The Big Finish

One day, late in this semester, a fellow faculty member came to me and told me that one of my students had paid me the ultimate compliment in regards to my wiki site project. She told him, “I’ve never had a project that has been more frustrating, or one in which I’ve learned more.”

Exactly!

Let’s be clear, the goal of the assignment was not to frustrate students, but the process of working through new ways of presenting one’s ideas is not inherently easy.

If students are struggling with the process, but get it done, that means that they are finding ways of adapting to the new requirements, to the new format, to the new expectations. In that way, I hope that they will be better prepared to produce and present information in multiple ways when they graduate.

Despite the increasing use of wikis in business environments, my goal, in other words, was not for them to learn specific MediaWiki skills.

No, I’m much more ambitious.

I want them to be able to think broadly about the presentation of information, about the structure of ideas, about the multiplicity of ways to pass on their perspectives and researched content. I want them to be adaptable producers in a larger world that rarely will ask them to write a 7-10 page formal research paper, but will often ask them to learn new skills, new tools, and to work in new environments (digital and otherwise) and then to apply those new skills sets in reliable/productive ways. [I don’t want much, do I?]

Now, it wasn’t all serious; some of them began to call me Dr. Wiki, eventually to my face…. But, the reaction of the student who made that comment to my colleague suggests that in addition to the research and analytical skills being developed there was more going on for her and, given the student presentations and conversations I had with others in the class, I believe she wasn’t alone.

Thoughts? Reactions?

Ode to a Faculty Academy; Or, My Brain is Full

The process of processing Faculty Academy is always difficult. Sifting through the inspiration and ideas of another amazing two days is going to take a while.

Highlights that stick out at this juncture:

— Barbara Ganley’s two presentations — one an impassioned “call to arms” for the role of slow blogging (writing with reflection and purpose) in 21st-century learning, the other an inspiring yet practical workshop on the way to frame a technology-intensive course around both the content and the individual students in a given class. [The last deserves a blog post of its own, and probably from someone more articulate than me.]

— Claudia Emerson’s online technology coming-out party — three presentations on three different projects, and each of them about a site/blog/work that I wish my students and I had created.

Alan Levine‘s reminder that play and experimentation with non-obviously educational technologies like Second Life and Twitter can provide us with new ways to address educational questions.

— The Teaching and Learning Technology Fellows demonstrating that a little money (a course release), a fair amount of talking, and a lot of support can aid both technology evangelists and technophobes in creating thoughtful, creative projects from which our students will benefit. [And that not knowing at first exactly what you want to do can be a really good thing.]

— Karen Stephenson’s talk about networks of social interaction, of knowledge capital, and the resulting twittering and Twittering about who the hubs, mavericks and heretics of Mary Washington are (and whether or not we need to give them a hug). [Lots more to think about here….] [Thanks to Gardner for his role in bringing Barbara, Alan, and Karen to campus.]

— The success of Martha Burtis and the DTLT ITSs (Jerry, Jim, Andy, and Patrick) in not only putting on a terrific conference (including several of their own sessions), but also providing the moral and technical support that enabled almost every one of the projects we saw presented.

[What? What do you mean you missed it?! Well, there’s always next year. Or you can talk to your friendly neighborhood ITS today. They’re happy to help you implement your ideas, or even to help you figure out what you might want to do. Don’t have an ITS at your school? Ask for one. (But you can’t have ours.) Their presence here is one of the best things about UMW.]

Jim Groom & Claudia Emerson Redux

Jim and Claudia presented (neither for the first time at Faculty Academy) on an online literary journal created by one of her classes. Calling Nonce impressive does not do it justice. Check it out for yourself.

[Nearly 40 people crammed into the room to hear them–Standing Room Only….]

One particular point raised by Claudia that intrigued me was the notion of applying to change that particular class from 3 credits to 4, allowing for a “lab” component (or perhaps recognizing the increased time that developing and implementing some of these skills may take). [I’m aware that there are some complications related to campus expectations for what constitutes a four-credit course. Let’s set those aside for a second.] What do people think about the idea of a “digital lab” component for more credit?

Gardner, Steve, Jerry, and Jim Rock Room B122

Jeff McClurken

I’m sitting here in the panel discussion on “Small Pieces Loosely Joined”. I can’t decide whether I’m more overwhelmed by the lost opportunity in not using the tools they talked about in my classes this semester, or by my excitement in being able to use them in my classes this fall….

Count me in as the newest fanboy of WordPress Multi-User….

The Checklist Phenomenon

Shannon has been blogging about her first-year experiences over at Loaded Learning. In her most recent post she describes her frustration with some of her fellow students who seemed to just be in college to check off a bunch of boxes.*

The checklist phenomenon is one that has always bugged me, though I think I understand where it comes from. It’s easier to go about one’s daily life without having to question everything, without having to constantly reexamine one’s direction, path, education. There is a reassuring certainty to having a checklist, to knowing exactly what one needs to do that is less draining than having to think too much constantly about one’s future or present.

I say this not to rag on college students in particular; I see it in my own life and among my colleagues and our attitudes toward the curriculum. If we know that students will take X set of classes from Y set of categories, then we can be reasonably certain that they have been exposed to a set of ideas that we call “liberal arts” and a major with a particular set of skills and fluencies, and therefore we can rest easy about it.

I’ve been thinking about this assumption lately, however, as our institution reexamines its general education curriculum. I’m not resting as easy as I have been with our Gen Ed course structure. Why? Because what we don’t know with as much certainty is what the students actually get out of these classes, or if checking all those boxes off truly makes them better students or better employees or better human beings. We also don’t know if those students make any connections between the various checked boxes or their learning. [With a few exceptions, we don’t encourage such connections in structural or specific ways.] I’m beginning to wonder if what we need is fewer requirements for specific content areas and more requirements for self and guided reflection by students on their work, their goals, on their education itself.

Of course, that might still create a checklist of courses and/or requirements that students (and faculty) could check off without the kind of buy-in that real learning and teaching would need. Still, it seems like it would be a start in the right direction, an acknowledgement that we as an institution valued the connections between their various classes, between their classes and their learning, between their learning and their lives, and between their education and their participation as members of larger physical and intellectual communities.

Thoughts? How might we implement such an approach beyond individual classrooms or particular instructors or interested students (because I think that kind of breadth is essential the kind of reflected learning)? [Given the audience for this blog, I suspect I’m preaching to the choir here, and, if so, help me figure out what the counter argument(s) is/are. Why wouldn’t this work (and why are they wrong)? :-]

*I think many of us at MW would agree that Steve’s Freshman Seminar should be seen as a success if its only contribution (which this is not) was to encourage this depth of reflective public writing by students.

Students, grades, and creativity–A Thought from Student Academy

I’m at UMW’s Student Academy, an annual presentation of information technologies created by students in and out of their courses, and I wanted to comment on a statement a student presenter just made:*

“I don’t want to experiment too much if it’s for a grade….”

What are the implications of this statement for teaching and learning? The student was referring to the differences between his approach to class digital projects, versus his own digital projects that he’s done outside of the classroom. Is this a problem for us as teachers? Is the need for grading something inherently squelching of creativity? I don’t think so, but I’ll be more conscious of the need to create at least some assignments that balance requirements with the flexibility to exercise creativity.

*I hope to blog on some of the specific presentations later. Check out Ben’s Astounding Essays, Amanda’s great blog about Sylvia Plath or research paper for sale for places to start.

One More Stab at Digital Fluencies

In a previous post I responded to failingbetter’s query about my definitions of “digital fluencies” as it related to students. I was rereading the first of his/her questions and it occurs to me that the query has another layer I missed at first glance.

I would like to hear a little more about what fluency means and what it entails that is different from skills. Is it just the combination of one’s writing skills with one’s technical knowledge of how to construct/write a blog? Or does it also entail knowledge of the norms of blogging? Is there another category of things that differentiate skills from fluency?

I’ve been articulating a notion of digital fluency that incorporates technical skills and the ability to deploy those skills as part of a skillful consumption and production of information that I think is critical to students and faculty alike. But failingbetter suggests that there are also rules to online social tools (and the societies they create) that students might need to know. Might digital fluency also include an awareness of the norms of online culture(s)? I’m going to have to think about this some. Any thoughts?

Wikis, Wikis, Everywhere–Part I

This semester I’m using wikis (MediaWiki to be precise) in two of my classes, though in different ways. I’m doing so at Jerry‘s suggestion, despite my greatest previous interaction with wikis being arguing with students about why they can’t use Wikipedia as the scholarly source for their research papers. In two separate posts, I’ll describe the two classes, the plans for the wiki use in each class, and the progress so far.

In my senior readings seminar, I used to have students email me comments and questions about the reading for a particular day a couple of hours before class starts. I would then take those comments and questions and shape the class discussion for the day based on the particular areas of need or interest expressed by the students. This semester, the students post their comments and questions to a wiki page. [I set up one page for each day’s discussion for the semester.] Of course, a large change under this new system is that they now see each others’ postings. [I’ve resisted this before, fearing repetitiveness, copying, and an unfair burden on those who posted first to carry the class.] I’ve found that so far, I was completely wrong. The quality of the questions and comments have gone up from previous semesters. What’s more, they’ve begun to respond to each others’ questions, answering the factual queries and starting to engage the open-ended ones. In other words, the discussion begins before class does.

Of course, I could have just used a forum on Blackboard or some other open-source software (and I’ve used such forums with varying degrees of success in other classes with other assignments). They’d still be able to see what the other students had written and respond to those comments. The advantage of the wiki is that students can more easily edit and/or comment on each others’ work than in a forum, which is either hierarchical or linear (or both). Using the past version function of the wiki I can actually trace the evolution of the conversation as students add material to the ongoing discussion, sometimes inserting themselves in between other people’s comments, sometimes using bold to emphasize particular points that others have made. They haven’t taken to truly editing each others’ work, a common issue from what I’ve heard from those who have used wikis in teaching. [There was a comment deleted by someone else, but that was an accident, for which there was much apologizing. 🙂 ] And I don’t see this lack of editing each others’ work as a problem since I haven’t explicitly asked them to do that.

I hope the quality of posting and interaction remains at the level that it’s at for the rest of the semester. If so, I’ll see it as a great success.

Next time, I’ll discuss the wiki as used in an upper-level lecture & discussion class.