Wednesday, November 27, 2019

VEXT: An application for idea generation and academic integrity

VEXT is an application designed for use by administrators, teachers, and students (and others) to change approaches to academic integrity as well as to help see source and idea relationships in documents. According to its website, "VEXT offers an ethical approach to idea generation, data visualization, and plagiarism checking."

On the student side, VEXT provides a visually attractive way of approaching source usage and idea relationships. From the faculty/admin site, it offers ways to manage information from a cohort and deal with academic integrity.

At its "heart" is what VEXT calls a "paper fingerprint" (see the site), a rectangular, strip-like image consisting of thin, vertical bars that helps students visualize data so they can recognize "themes, patterns, and sentiment" in their writing: This "code bar" provides, essentially, a map of their ideas and how they are using sources in their writing.

VEXT, in some ways, was born of frustration with contemporary plagiarism software paradigms, which can place faculty and students in adversarial roles. VEXT's site urges users to "Evolve from Plagiarism Detection to Data Driven Insights," and one of the blog posts on the VEXT site declares that "The old paradigm of plagiarism detection is dead."

The app promises to offer a different approach. Using machine learning algorithms, it instead helps users visualize "the DNA' of your papers and pedagogy."

For faculty, the app has a dashboard (1) to help spot data trends in assignments while also allowing for "crowdsourced plagiarism detection"--seeing those trends in certain contexts. For administration, there is a broader dashboard that helps administrators make decisions and see analytics to determine the effectiveness of curriculum across a swath of instructors; this includes an open, searchable database so administrators can access knowledge being created across an institution.

1) I have been interacting with the company since the summer, and they are fast at work improving the back-end dashboard tools.

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Friday, September 27, 2019

Annotate PRO for responding to student message board posts

Annotate PRO is a tool, developed by 11trees, that helps teachers streamline response to student writing by providing a library of common comments that they can easily insert into writing projects.

The Annotate PRO site asks teachers, "Do you ever feel like you say the same thing over and over again to students?" While acknowledging that of course teaching often involves repetition, the site asks what would happen if teachers could streamline that process when responding to student writing, thus putting more energy into deeper feedback and teaching. A series of screenshots show how to use Annotate PRO:
  • Once downloaded as a Chrome Extension, Annotate PRO appears as a sidebar.
  • Users simply click anywhere that feedback can be provided within a browser: "Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Dropbox, Box, Blackboard, Canvas, Google Classroom, Schoology, Gmail – just about anywhere you can type feedback into a webpage."
  • From there, users add a comment.
  • Groups of comments can be saved to create personal, program, or even institutional libraries.
Annotate PRO allows for "smart automation." Teachers can use it to reduce repetitive keystrokes, but they can customize it using a "Free Form Comment" function that pops up in sidebar when using the tool.

Annotate PRO has great functionality for helping teachers respond to digital papers, and, I suppose, such is still the traditional framework of teacher writing feedback: A teacher giving feedback to a student essay/report/paper. 11trees provides a video description of this core use here.

However, I want to focus on another aspect of Annotate PRO: Its use in developing a library of responses for electronic forums like discussion boards.

As I have written about numerous times, a large component of student writing, and not just in OWCs, involves short, informal writing on electronic platforms. In many courses, students compose most of their words in these environments.

Teachers want to encourage this, but how do they respond/moderate in ways that are helpful for student learning? I've come across and written about a number of strategies--a favorite source is the book Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators by George Collison, Bonnie Elbaum, Sarah Haavind, and Robert Tinker--and I think Annotate PRO is a smart tool that offers another possibility.

With Annotate PRO, after installation, I simply opened a Discussion in Blackboard Learn (my LMS) and clicked in a message. Voila! I could instantly drop in a comment that had been stored in a library.

It was impressive and powerful in its simplicity, and I saw immediately how Annotate PRO reduces the literal keystrokes and would free up time for for more substantive teaching. Library comments could help me with the frequent encouragement and questioning posts while I used "Free Form Comments" for more specific moderating and commenting posts.

A common--and, at times, legitimate--complaint from students is that they feel no presence from their teachers on discussions. Teachers are seeking strategies and pedagogies to work more fully and carefully with students in discussion environments. (The Community of Inquiry framework [1] offers a way to think about teacher presence.) Annotate PRO provides them with a technology to help them do that.

1) As described by Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher educationmodel. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Ed tech to help writers and readers: PowerNotes

I've always been interested in how teachers can use the many available apps and digital tools to help teach writing more effectively, and in my roles both as the Director of Drexel's University Writing Program as well as President of the Global Society of Online Literacy Educators, I've been exploring several particular tools in depth lately.

This time, I'll talk about PowerNotes. I've had multiple conversations with PowerNotes representatives, and through those conversations and my explorations, I have seen how this platform can help writers, as PowerNotes says in a YouTube video, "gather, track, and organize your research."

Like many apps, PowerNotes operates from inside a browser, in this case specifically via a Chrome Extension. Once installed, PowerNotes helps writers organize notes and develop annotations from digital sources. Working directly within Chrome, the writer
  • Opens up a webpage or article (PowerNotes works on html text and PDFs, as long as the PDFs are opened in Chrome)
  • Highlights text as they read
  • Creates "topics"--a process built into PowerNotes--through which to organize those highlights
  • Writes annotations (of any length)
  • Edits and organizes these topics and highlights
  • Develops an outline through a fjunction somewhat like "digital notecards"
  • Creates citations based on these texts
    The writer can also track their progress and download the material they've saved.

    You can see graphics and screencaptures on the PowerNotes pages linked above, but I'll say here that the functionality is pretty slick, with shortcut features to allow writers to streamline their annotating and note-taking--all the while possibly changing the way writers go about such activities.

    As you work, you end up building a kind of outline. Even for those who aren't outliners, as I'm not, I could immediately see how the organizational structure enabled by the app could help with writing structure. For instance, I'm working on a big project right now: A book. I'm reading a series of different articles about mobile technologies, and instead of creating clunky headings and entries in a Word or Google doc--a long-standing approach that I've used--I have the organization created basically as I clip quotes and annotate.

    Aside from the specific advantages of this platform, I want to say that generally I believe those of us not just in OWI but comp/rhet should cultivate our relationships with technology innovators more fully. Smart people are developing tools that can help our students read and write as well as assist our many colleagues who teach writing in WID and WAC environments. We have things to learn from these tools, and technological determinism aside, these students and colleagues could be big beneficiaries from our informed explorations.

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    Thursday, May 30, 2019

    Propose a GSOLE Webinar for next year!

    The Global Society of Online Literacy Educators (GSOLE) has released the call for proposals for its 2019-20 webinar series.

    GSOLE webinars have covered numerous topics (see the cfp below) of interest to those invested in online writing and literacy instruction. Each webinar has featured expert presenters, and the webinars bring together a robust community of professionals to learn about and discuss these topics.

    These professional development offerings are coordinated by our two excellent GSOLE Webinar Co-Chairs, Jenae Druckman Cohn and Mary Stewart. You can see more here: The text of the call is below as well:

    2019-2020 Webinars:
    Call for Presenters

    Do you want to present your research and pedagogical innovations to a wide-reaching live virtual audience of online literacy educators? Consider submitting a proposal to the 2019-2020 webinar series for The Global Society of Online Literacy Educators, an organization dedicated to supporting hybrid and online teacher-scholars. GSOLE's webinars are designed to spark conversation, provide professional development, share ideas, and build community. Typically, these webinars reach an audience of 30-35 attendees, and webinar recordings are made available to GSOLE members in an online archive. Webinar leaders are also encouraged to transform their webinar topics into ROLE or OLOR publications. We welcome proposals that include a single weinbar leader, or a group of 2-3 leaders.

    Submit your proposal via email to by Friday, August 2, 2019.

    These hour-long webinars are designed to bring literacy educators together for conversations about a range of issues, including, but not limited to:
    • Accessibility in online literacy instruction (related to teaching, learning, and/or researching)
    • Collaborative learning & writing in technology-mediated spaces
    • Ethical practices for online literacy instruction (related to teaching, learning, and/or researching)
    • Embodiment in the online literacy classes
    • Globalization of online learning;
    • Hybrid course design
    • Innovative technologies for online literacy learning (e.g., virtual reality, building OERs, using AI chatbots, adaptive learning)
    • Issues of labor related to hybrid and online literacy instruction
    • Programmatic integration of online or hybrid learning (e.g., curriculumdevelopment, program assessment of these types of courses, faculty development processes)
    • Methods & methodologies for hybrid and online literacy research
    The 2019-2020 series will include four webinars, held in September, November, February, and April.

    In your proposal, please include the following:
    - Webinar Title
    - Webinar Leader(s) name, institutional affiliation, contact information, and brief bio
    - The preferred month(s) in which you would like to hold your webinar (e.g. offer a ranked list or indicate if one month(s) is not possible)
    - A 500-word description that includes:
    - What topics the webinar will cover
    - Ways in which the webinar will be interactive
    - How this webinar will benefit online literacy educators

    To review past webinar topics, please visit the GSOLE website.

    Upon acceptance, you will work with the co-chairs to schedule your webinar. You will meet (virtually) with the co-chairs one month in advance of your webinar, and then again a few days prior to the webinar, to coordinate logistics. The co-chairs also provide technical support and are happy to help you prepare for the webinar.

    If you have questions about the proposal process, please contact us at
    The GSOLE Webinar Co-Chairs, Jenae Cohn & Mary Stewart


    Friday, March 29, 2019

    Things both great and small in synchronous online writing courses

    I teach my online writing courses (OWCs) asynchronously, with only touches of synchronous elements, such as a first-week meeting (that I also record for those who can't attend). I have long discussed the reasons why I teach this way, including because in an asynchronous writing course, everything students do is in writing.

    Our field, however, is giving increasing attention to the possibilities of synchronous courses. I recently had the pleasure of serving as a member of the dissertation committee of Kimberly Fahle of Old Dominion University, whose dissertation, "Collaboration and Community in Undergraduate Writing Synchronous Video Courses (SVCs)" explored a number of fascinating elements about learner experiences in asynchronous courses.

    Fahle, who successfully defended earlier this year and is now the writing center director at York College of Pennsylvania, raises several major considerations and observations about SVCs, including some underlying reasons for students’ general reticence for verbal participation when compared with textual communication, the need for modality-specific training, and the general impact of interfaces on learning and teaching.

    These major conclusions aside, one of the many strengths of her excellent dissertation was her exploration, through discourse analysis, of detailed aspects of learning in synchronous, online meeting-based environments.

    I'll give you a great example. With regard to interface, Fahle wrote that students were sometimes reluctant to speak in class because in the web meeting app for their courses, the face of the last person who spoke would stay prominently on screen until someone else spoke. One of her students said, "I think also the fact that the last person to speak [...] the camera stays on them until someone else speaks [...] makes people maybe not want to speak."

    Think about this in terms of an onsite class. It would be like when someone speaks, everyone turns to look at that person, staring zombie-like, until someone else takes the initiative to speak. You could see how that would stifle class dialogue and likely course community.

    Through her students, Fahle highlighted such an interesting, and easy-to-overlook, observation. When you consider such a dynamic, you can see how for many students this would be challenging and for shy students possibly withering and debilitating. It also demonstrates how a web platform suitable for business-type meetings might operate in totally different way for education, particularly in courses aiming for discussion--such as an OWC.

    Addressing concerns similar to this would take some serious user-centric consideration. As we further explore SVCs and any technologically-faciliated environments, these are exactly the kind of details, from the student eyes, that we need to consider.

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    Thursday, January 31, 2019

    How much should you keep in the course?

    So many apps can help us do our work as online writing and literacy instructors, and I do think it's important and valuable that you play with new tools, as such ongoing experimentation will inevitably refresh and perhaps improve your pedagogy.

    But I was struck by a recent conversation with a friend of mine. His bright high school student was struggling a bit, and one of the issues was that the student had many different web sites/stops for reading, resources, and other materials for his classes. He had trouble keeping track of it all.

    That made me think and reflect on my own practice. While I believe paragraph one above--after all, I wrote it!--and I am always introducing new tools outside of the LMS to students, I think sometimes we can get too fancy for our own good--perhaps to the detriment of our students' learning.

    For instance, there are great meeting and appointment apps: think Doodle. But when I want to set up conferences with my students, I usually set them up right on the discussions; I list times and then have students respond, asking them to change the subject line to include their last name and time choice. It's a little clunky, but that conference conversation is right there when they do their other work in the course.

    In fact, in my asynchronous course, I continue to have much of the "action" right there on those discussions. Teaching approaches that might perhaps be conducted via blogs, wikis, or even more advanced versions of discussion boards themselves (such as that solid communications app, Slack), I still often conduct on the LMS discussion board, warts and all.

    I supposed this thinking drives my ongoing use of a Weekly Plan in my OWCs: I'm trying to reduce the amount of virtual "traveling" students will do so they can focus on developing their writing and literacy.

    I think we have to consider critically how much we ask students to venture outside the LMS and to what ends. Hey, try cool tools, but be mindful of the student experience.

    Now of course, students are whisking and cycling through social media all the time, so it might seem kind of dumb to worry about their use of a meeting app, but I continue to think that an important part of my job is to make students comfortable with the interface--and then I'll push them, often outside their comfort zone, when it comes to the writing work in the course.

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    Tuesday, December 18, 2018

    Updated Guidelines for Participating in Discussions

    Periodically I update a document in my courses that I call Guidelines for Participating in Discussions. I'm sharing with you the latest:

    Guidelines for Participating in Discussions
    Conversations that we have via Discussions will make up a major part of the work in this course. Whether you are responding to a question or issue I’ve raised or you are collaborating virtually, we will be working on your thinking – and writing. A few general rules:
    • Read all posts. Part of your responsibility in this class is to read every Discussion. All of them. “No boldface posts by Friday!” should be your mantra.
    • Check the Discussion boards regularly. Start good habits in Week 1.
    • Sign your name at the end of your post. We want to know how to respond back to you.
    • Build a conversation. You will write primary, secondary, and peep posts. After reading them, I will post specific questions, especially on Wednesdays, throughout the term, as will your colleagues. Make sure you read my questions and respond to them. You’ll soon see how this works, but do not simply reply over and over again to my initial prompt.
    Each week, I will let you know how many posts are due.
    1)       Description of posts. Your posts should be
    -Detailed. Each post must represent a substantive piece of writing; see below for word counts, although I’m not as interested in precise word count as I am in the depth and development of your ideas. Obviously, a post like "Me too!!" doesn’t count—although it can be a peep!
    - Semiformal. Your posts should contain some degree of formality: spell-checked, organized, etc. However, they will be part of a dialogue, so they will differ from major writing projects. It takes a few days for us to reach a mutual understanding of the appropriate level of formality.
    -Referenced. You won't always need citations in your posts, but you should seek opportunities to reference our readings, other sources, or your colleagues' comments.
    -Courteous. We don't always have to agree, but no one should resort to flaming attacks.
    2)       Primary posts vs. secondary posts.
    - Length. Primary posts should be at least 150 words. Secondary posts need only be 75 words. (“Argument Statements” are slightly more elaborate primary posts.)
    -Organization and structure. Primary posts should not be one paragraph, and I expect them to reflect reasoned thought on your part, beyond what you might put into a normal email or chat message. My students and I have found that these mini-essays present excellent opportunities to refine the ability to make a clear, focused point when writing. In other words, these posts are great practice. Secondary posts can be one paragraph.
    -Replying. Either kind of post can be used to reply to another student.
    3)       Peeps. Peeps are very short posts between you and other students. They serve as conversational “glue” in the course. If you post 10 of them during the term, you get 10 points, but you cannot make up all peeps at the end of the term. Write one or two each week.
    4)       Grading. Discussion work will be worth 20 to 40 points each week. To evaluate your posts, I will use the rubric below, considering these factors:
    -If you complete the posts in an adequate manner, you will receive Bs.
    -If you go above and beyond the basic assignment requirements, you will receive As.
    - Very good posts—completed with a great deal of effort and thought—will receive full credit (e.g., 10 out of 10). You can also get full credit for posting with great passion or imagination.
    Your Discussion posts will receive a C or below if they
    - are too short.
    - show little thought (especially if they respond in the same way others have responded).
    -are excessively sloppy in grammar, spelling, and mechanics, especially to the point that they are difficult to understand.
    -engage in personal attacks or other breaches of common online etiquette.
    - are late.
    5)       Staying current. In the Weekly Plan, you will see what is due and the deadlines for primary and secondary" posts. A major responsibility for you is to check the Discussions frequently and stay current on the conversations taking place there.
    6)       Reading. Again, you are also responsible for reading all posts in the class.
    -Don’t post and run. Once you post, you’re obligated to see what people say. In some cases, it seems weary students abandon their ideas after they post. More specifically, if someone responds to you, you should follow up with a response, however brief. I must admit that I feel miffed (and sometimes a little lonely) when I post and am ignored.
    -Don’t post ignorant. Be original. Read before you post. Don’t repeat other writers. Part of your job is to build dialogue with each post.
    7)       Shorter posts. Remember rules for primary and secondary posts, but in the spirit of keeping the conversation flowing, feel free to post shorter, informal comments on the Discussions; for instance, writing a quick sentence to clarify a point or to state your agreement with another author’s point of view. When you’re reached the limit for peeps, you will receive…
    8)       …Extra credit. Diligent, active Discussion writers will earn a high grade for this part of the course. Excellent posts or posting several on-time, extra posts in a week can earn flair points for extra credit (some of you may naturally find that you have more to say on some of our topics--you'll be rewarded!).

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