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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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Publishing in OLOR: Sharing strategies for teaching writing and reading online

On July 1st I became President of the Global Society of Online Literacy Educators (GSOLE), succeeding my good friend Beth Hewett. GSOLE is a hard-working group of scholars and practitioners, and since our launch in spring 2016 we have accomplished a lot to support teaching and research in online literacy instruction.

Many people who would or do teach writing and reading online are looking for practical strategies to help them. GSOLE has a tremendous resource for this purpose: OLOR: Online Literacies Open Resource. This online, peer-reviewed journal, created and edited by another good friend, Jason Snart, is a place that online teachers share their practices and strategies. From the site: "The goal of the OLOR is to publish relatively brief and practical pedagogical strategies. Busy online literacy teachers can read an OLOR publication and, within a few days, try out a strategy out for themselves."

OLOR submissions are designed to be a from-reading-to-course type experience, and not only is the content created with this goal in mind, but so is the way that content is presented: Short, user-friendly, multi-media articles.

The published pieces are organized around the Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction from the NCTE/CCCC 2013 Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction.

We are encouraging online literacy teachers to submit materials to OLOR. Already published have been pieces on asynchronous conversations and community, screencast feedback, and using blogs in an OWC. 

Check out OLOR, and consider publishing. In addition to sharing your practices, it can help you join a community of like-minded educators who care about helping students learn more effectively online.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Accessibility in your OWC -- and a tool for Blackboard users

Recently, a good friend and colleague visited my office to discuss a problem she was having with an upcoming online writing course she was to teach. Our institution's Disability Office was asking her to verify that her course was accessible.

While course accessibility is not only a key function of that office but an obligation of institutions and teachers, the problem was a disjunction between the way Disability wanted to examine/confirm accessibility and the way her teaching materials were designed.

The disjunction had several causes, and primary was the expectations of course "evaluators" and the course design/pedagogy of an online writing course.

Disability asked my friend, repeatedly, to deliver "documents" to them so those "documents" could be reviewed for accessibility.

But in an OWC, class artifacts often don't exist as discrete, file-like content to be delivered to students or others, especially if the course is well designed in conjunction with the LMS, in our case Blackboard Learn. That's just not the way many of us work. We don't lecture through slides. We don't provide canned modules. Courses are built dynamically around student written dialogues.

So, in my friend's class, many of her materials were embedded in or incorporated into the course interface, making it impossible to package and "send" them to someone to review. In looking at these materials, I found they were indeed well woven into the LMS.

So what was she to do?

Well, aside from our conversations, she went to our IT department. As I've mentioned to anyone I can, we have great IT support. They introduced her to Blackboard Ally, which, according to Blackboard's site, "is a revolutionary product that integrates seamlessly into the Learning Management System and focuses on making digital course content more accessible."

Ally is indeed an interesting accessibility product. It provides an "accessibility percentage" next to the artifacts and components of a course, and in many cases it includes helpful detail when items are not 100% accessible as to why, from uncaptioned images to tables without headers to the absence of ALT-text.

Some will especially love Ally's interface, as the use of percentages kind of gamifies the process: You can continue to "up" your percentage by uncovering and then addressing the accessibility obstacles in your course.

With Ally, my friend was able to verify the accessibility of her course. There was still a bit of a frustration, though, as Disability wasn't in clear contact with IT: This made me realize that Disability offices need to understand the kinds of on-campus tools that can help create accessible courses.

In the end it worked out well: She was able to help Disability understand there was a new tool to help with accessibility. Most importantly, she was able to offer an accessible OWC for her students -- while learning about a new tool that she can use proactively in the future.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

How well do we know them?

How well will we know the students in our online and hybrid courses?

Teachers often express this concern to me. Will they be able to achieve the same level of community, perceived or real, as they do with students in onsite courses? Will students' interactions with them feel the same? How about students' interactions with each other? In the future, will they recognize and remember these students? What replaces the experience of knowing that takes shape when students sit in front of them day after day?

At the end of my hybrid FYW course last term, one of the course's solid students, Gabriella, made this provocative comment on the course discussion boards: "After this term I feel like I know people's names, values & viewpoints but I truly do not know them because of our 'cyber-interactions.'"

As I mentioned in a subsequent exchange on the boards, this fascinating comment prompted some serious thinking and reflection on my part.

On the one hand, the trifecta of "names, values & viewpoints" seemed to represent a very successful construction of a learning community in the course.

After all, in most onsite classes, students only know a few of their classmates' names -- in fact, I'm struck by how many students come to our writing center and can't even provide their professor's name! Add to this the knowing of "values & viewpoints," and it would seem that our course developed a level of intellectual familiarity that surpasses onsite learning, except perhaps in small, advanced seminars.

However, Gabriella's comment demonstrates that despite how well she felt she became acquainted with her classmates, she still did not "know them because of our 'cyber-interactions.'"

So, at the end of the term, she was torn: She had, in a hybrid modality, interacted with students both in class and in tiered, rich discussion boards. She knew important things about their thinking. She knew what they stood for. But, for her, "cyber-interactions" still got in the way.
I mean, how well do I know them? I feel I do know my OWC students well. I even glanced at the folder containing the scores of recommendation letters I've written, and I notice that I have written many letters for students I encountered only in hybrid and fully online settings.

Yet, this brief, provocative comment by this smart student makes me realize we must continue to overcome the barriers that digital learning poses for our students. Part of that, perhaps, is that we must find ways to help students and teachers recognize that they are in fact already seeing around those barriers.

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Friday, March 30, 2018

In a hybrid, which conversations should happen in which modality?

Drexel's winter term has just concluded, and I finished up teaching my hybrid first-year writing course. Conversation has always been a cornerstone of my teaching, and I am constantly thinking about the best ways to help students have the conversations that drive my courses.

For hybrids, that thinking often revolves around which conversations work best onsite and which work best online.

This term, for some reason, my thinking about this topic crystallized. Influenced by my heavily writing-about-writing/writing studies-influenced pedagogy (1), I was really able to look at which conversations should happen in which modality.

For instance, the many meta conversations we had, conversations in which students analyzed and talked about their own writing and their own writing processes, worked especially well in online, asynchronous message board conversations. I have long seen that students can have stimulating conversations online about topics that might not seem so scintillating in a f2f room, and this term showed that well, as students had great message board dialogues about topics such as organization in writing and citing and documentation practices. These topics might even seem mundane to discuss f2f, but students again pounced on them on our discussions!

Of course, having students converse in writing means they can draw on these conversations in writing instructional ways that don't happen in spoken dialogue: They can go back and revise posts, choose "favorite" posts of other students, etc.

Synchronous, onsite conversations work better for conversations that I might describe loosely as learning about new material, such as when we learned a bit about genre this term in preparation for one of our major projects. Also, onsite works well for kind of free-flowing conversations about assignments and general course matters.

For some types of posts, of course, it all depends. For example, conversations about major writing project topic proposals can be successful in either modality for different reasons. There's a good energy in the room when students call out topics and respond to each other. But asynchronously online, they first have to think closely about their topic to write it out and then respond to each other. Online, I can also leverage my responses to the whole group, and, of course, the conversation is preserved for the rest of the term.

Conversations about readings? It depends on the topic. I think those kinds of conversations can often serve as good "bridge" conversations, perhaps starting online and then moving into the onsite part of the course. Students can be asked to help make explicit connections to facilitate this movement.

In some ways, for a hybrid writing course, especially a first-year course, finding the ideal articulation between online and onsite is the golden ring. Thinking that through in terms of student dialogue and interaction is a key component of that quest.

1) Drawn from Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle's “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies.’” College Composition and Communication 58.4 (2007): 552–84.

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Writing Together book coming out soon

The new book that I co-authored with former Drexel student Diana Gasiewski is coming out soon. Writing Together: Ten Weeks Teaching and Studenting in an Online Writing Course will -- fingers crossed! -- be ready by CCCC in Kansas City.

Diana and I are excited -- to say the least -- about the book. It's a narrative of a teacher and student's experience in a first-year OWC. It's written somewhat as a "call and response": I describe in great detail how I approached and taught the course that term, and Diana describes her experience as a student -- we draw from Mary Louise Pratt in calling her experience "studenting" -- that same term.

NCTE, especially Kurt Austin and Bonny Graham, has been a great partner, from concept to cover art.

We hope that our narrative approach to composition scholarship is informative as well as engaging, and that it helps open up new channels of inquiry about the student experience in OWI.

We also would like this book to help refine and enhance not just how we see OWCs and teach them, but how we see our students as collaborators in knowledge-making about our field. We write in our intro, citing many other voices in composition, about how absent student voices can be in our conversations, but we're not picking on comp/rhet: This issue is widespread in education.

Our book aims to be a story of teaching and studenting, of how writers came together in a virtual educational community to work and learn together. Above all, we hope you enjoy it.

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