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.

Note:
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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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Inside the node

Researchers in many fields have been studying and mapping networked interactions among groups and individuals, particularly in social media spaces. But I believe no one is better equipped than those of us in OWI in general and composition specifically to study what happens in the nodes themselves. Yes, there is so much in the node for us.
My co-author Diana Gasiewski and I have just submitted to NCTE the final manuscript of our book "Writing Together: Ten Weeks Teaching and Studenting in an Online Writing Course" (more about that very soon). For some of the weeks in the OWC we describe in the book, we provide simple maps of course discussion threads to give readers a glimpse of those interactions -- and how they became more involved as the course progressed. Here is a blown-up piece of one thread:
node image
Many fields, e.g., computer science or sociology or communications, have provided fascinating insights into the black squiggly lines -- how (and sometimes why) entities interact and connect in webs of networks. Software tools have been developed to do this mapping, even do-it-yourself apps like NodeXL (1). Through these analyses, we can see how individuals behave in networked settings, whether it is dozens of students in a class or hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter.
But while comp/rhet folks are also interested in these webs of interaction, we are also uniquely equipped to look within the nodes, as, for us, each contains the artifact we study best: writing (or multimedia).

We can complement and augment the work in other fields that investigates these network maps by describing what happens within these nodes in the context of the overall environment, essentially using our field's tools of inquiry.
I think this gives us a tremendous niche from which to work. Analyzing the links and spaces between nodes is valuable for sure; it shows us in new ways how human beings interact. But in the node, in the node we may find out what we’re thinking, and how specifically that thinking inspired the response -- or the leap to the next node.

Note:

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

What's in a name?

So what's in a name?

Well, in an OWC, potentially a lot.

Your students' representations of themselves in many LMSs still, especially early in the term, will be that simple sequence of two (or three) words: First name, (middle name), last name. While in some cases they can associate a photo or icon with their identity, names are often how others in the class will initially know who they are.

As a teacher, you should encourage students to use names in constructive ways. This may sound obvious and straightforward, and indeed it is not complex, but you should have strategies to help them do this.

For one, you should encourage them, in any communications they write to you or others, to sign off with the name they would like to be known by in the class. Often, the LMS name is not the name the student goes by. This is easy to address onsite, and students take care of it in first-day introductions. However, students report to me that their LMS names are linked to a school's registrar software, so students' LSM presence is locked in to that identifier. They also tell me that it can be quite an ordeal if they want to change the way their names appear.

They should thus be clear, by signing off, what name they want to be called every time. Because of texting interfaces, they may not be in the habit of signing their names, but you can make it clear that signing off is part of their communications, especially when coupled with a complementary close.

In any dialogic class exchange, you should also encourage/require students to address directly by name whoever they are talking to, be it you or other students.

In fact, I strongly encourage that all posts and communications be identified by sender and recipient. These brief moments of identity reflection also can help them think rhetorically. The communicative narcissism that electronic communication might breed -- the nameless text that implicitly says, "Don't you KNOW who I am?" -- can be disrupted by a teaching-learning environment in which you have to think for a moment not just who you are but with whom you are talking.

They can reinforce their identity in an early term icebreaker, a brief exercise/assignment that might include identifying what they want to be called, and perhaps why. 

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Digital tools for WPA work

I returned last week from the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA) conference in Knoxville. During that typically friendly gathering, Colleagues Traci Gardner and Patti Poblete and I (we're all members of the Digital WPA Committee) facilitated a session about digital tools for WPAs.
Based on the number of attendees and their conversational energy, we have a lot of interesting paths to explore in thinking about how WPAs might use educational technology in their work.
Indeed, much of the dialogue about technologies for writing instructional work, even in this blog, is focused on classroom teaching. Of course, that’s appropriate: We do want to focus on how digital tools can help us in our core classroom mission of working with students.
But during our session, when I asked the assembled group about tools for administering programs, they had a lot to say: How might we, the WPAs, the writing experts on campus, use tools to manage our programs and to help in our work, writing across the curriculum (WAC) style, with other faculty?
It strikes me that writing centers are one way of thinking about this, and centers do have a range of tools they use to 1) manage the workflow of writing center work and 2) facilitate online tutoring sessions. The ongoing conversations on the Wcenter listerv show this.
But in other kinds of WPA work, such as our management of programs and, particularly, WAC-type work we do, we might investigate and talk more about tools and the approaches that accompany them.
In Knoxville, one topic we discussed was that similar to how we use the many, many available tools in our teaching (the list that was generated in our session was somewhat staggering [we're still processing the notes]), could we generate more practice and scholarship with tools that come to the forefront in our work with other faculty?
Sure, there are always-present concerns that accompany such cross-campus work. For instance, we could position ourselves well as tech experts in a WAC/WID sense, but then we could see our roles as WPAs morph into instructional designers or tech support people. 
I think if you get into faculty development, it's not a negative to have some instructional design flavor to your work (much like the best instructional designers I've encountered have teacher "blood" in them).
But how many of us have a good mastery of digital tools that we can recommend specific ones to colleagues to help them improve their use of writing in their courses? How many of us even have enough fluency in our own local LMS systems to the degree that we can help faculty use these sometimes-cantankerous-writing-wise systems to teach writing more effectively?
These are all good questions about how WPAs might work, as my colleague Jessie Borgman puts it, as OWPAs, or Online WPAs (1). It appears there is a thread of conversation here that many people are eager to take part in, and we might do more to cultivate it.
Note:
1) See "The Online Writing Program Administrator (OWPA): Maintaining a Brand in the Age of MOOCs." Writing and Composing in the Age of MOOCs. Edited by Elizabeth Monske and Kris Blair, 2017.

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