Friday, September 26, 2014

Blogging about blogs

I’ve been writing this kind-of blog for nearly 10 years (it’s astonishing; I was a young man once), covering many topics, but I’ve never written about, uh, blogs.
Time to fix that. A recent conversation on our first-year writing (FYW) listserv at Drexel got me thinking about how I’ve used blogs in teaching, and I contributed a message that included a version of some of the stuff below.
First, I realize I probably haven’t covered this topic because blogs have become almost transparent to me as a teaching practice/approach. I use them for many assignments. As Wikipedia points out, blogs are really just Websites, and you can have students do a lot through the simple platform/genre of the blog. Advantages to me are straightforward; blogs

  • Encourage students to write.
  • Help students heighten audience awareness, especially in terms of multiple audiences, which I think is important.
  • Allow students to explore multimedia.
  • Are easy to share. Having a list of URLs on a simple discussion thread in our CMS makes it easy for me and others in the class to access and share these blogs.
  • Are easy to keep track of as an instructor.
  • Are easy for students to update.
  • Are difficult (maybe impossible) to lose.
  • Encourage post-class continuation of writing work. Many of my students have continued their blogs after our term had ended.
  • Require no paper (they are quite easy to lift).

You won’t need to do much to “teach” students how to create their blogs. They can set up a blog using any blogging application/software quickly. (I once timed a student who was complaining he couldn’t set up his blog. I put him on the clock and it took about a minute; he left with an “Okay, Warnock, you win – this time” attitude.)

I’ve used blogs as a form of journal in first-year writing (FWY) courses for about 15 years. (Lots of people are doing this, even in middle schools.) Mainly, the kind of journals I’m talking about are focused, often prompt-driven. The prompts tend to tie in with writing-about-writing approaches I’m using in the class: Students writing about their own process during a particular project, compiling quotes a la a commonplace book, or even writing down words they learned from our readings. The point is there are not overly personal.

Blogs have been the platform/genre for many other types of projects in my courses. In some courses, I ask them to pursue a focused topic of interest to them throughout the term, blogging several times a week. My students' work -- what can I say? Some of it is now part of the blogosphere. Some of these things are amazing.

I also use blogs a lot for teams. I assign Website projects in both FYW and courses such as Writing in Cyberspace, and students have packaged projects ranging from advocacy sites to class-wide "e-zine" publication through blogs. This appears, among other advantages, as an easy way for them to work together.

During the term, I usually ask students to peer review each other’s blogs for an informal grade. Some teachers worry about privacy, but I don’t do any grading or even commenting in the public space of the blog, although other students use the blog comment functions at times. There is no requirement that students use their names publicly, and I don’t require any personal disclosure as part of their school work.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Online peer review writing groups

In talking with teachers about online writing courses (OWCs), I find myself circling back to some core teaching ideas, and one is that OWI appeals so strongly to me because the OWC becomes, especially when asynchronous forums are at its center, an ongoing peer review. And I sure do believe in peer review.

In OWCs, students are consistently reading, thinking about, and responding to each other’s writing. They are working with each other as writers. It’s serious work, non-surface work. In fact, an oft-encountered problem with “regular” peer review is that students who are not confident or are unsure how to respond turn into grammar guards/editors. You rarely see message board conversations that devolve into that, and when you do, it often looks like flaming.

Some of what makes peer review work so well online is simple: It’s easy to bring students together and share documents digitally. But using easy-to-facilitate groups can become an even more powerful part of the OWC experience. I often conduct my group online peer reviews similarly to how I would other peer reviews in terms of review instructions, but there are two major logistical differences: 1) reviewers are responsible for all drafts in their group, and 2) comments are not just additive; they must be cumulative. In other words, say Ariana posts her document and Alexa reviews it. Drew cannot just come along and review Ariana’s draft without also accounting for Alexa’s comments. The reviewer's writing challenge becomes more complex, and the reviewee must read and account for multiple, perhaps contradictory, comments. They can synthesize such comments and consult me – or the writing center or someone else.

Technology-wise, groups are easy. (I use Blackboard Learn in my courses and find, despite the vitriol often directed at Blackboard, that it mostly does everything I need it to do. That being said, I do think its Group function is not very good, but my understanding, based on a Bb Learn “listening session” I attended recently, is that Bb will soon improve this functionality.) In terms of group creation and maintenance, you can simply let the CMS randomly create the groups for you, or you can purposefully build groups based on various criteria, distributing students in ways you think make sense. Four is a good number of students in a group.

Exchanging documents is easy on message boards. They can simply use attachments. Or they could use Google Docs or something similar. They can respond back to drafts in a post within the group and/or make comments using Track Changes or other annotation software. 

You can also choose whether students remain in the same group all term or whether you reshuffle when a new assignment arises. There are good arguments for both.

The online peer review group is basically a writer's circle, and perhaps students who have a good experience in class will find ways to set up similar circles for their own writing projects.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Social bookmarking with Diigo

I'm continually struck by the intellectual communities that develop in my online courses. I stress intellectual communities, because so much of their relationships end up being framed around their work in the course, around their writing and conversations. (To the online instruction naysayers: I wonder perhaps if these relationships are even more intellectually robust than onsite communities, based as they are around reading and writing.)

I think a major component of my role as Online Writing Teacher (it's been a while, so I figure I'm due for an eponymous shout-out) is to provide my students with digital tools to help facilitate these types of connections. Social bookmarking applications are great for this. There are a numerous options and they are all straightforward, but I particularly like Diigo.

What is Diigo? Diigo is Web-based tool that helps you organize, categorize, and share Websites and other content. The Diigo About page lays it out nicely:

Much of our information consumption and research, whether at home or at work, has shifted online. We are now spending a big part of our day working with online information - reading and researching related to travel, health, shopping, career, hobbies, news, online learning, smart investing, school papers, work projects, you name it.

Yet the workflow with information, from browsing, reading, researching, annotating, storing, . organizing, remembering, collaborating, sharing, to connecting dots into knowledge, is still largely ad-hoc and inefficient. Diigo is here to streamline the information workflow and dramatically improve your productivity....

Like most of us, every day I get tons of emails with links to stuff that I want to remember or save, but I don’t always have a good, efficient way to file/store that information.With Diigo, you can save content and then mark it with tags and commentary and easily store sites by category. And you can readily share everything with others.

All of this functionality makes Diigo excellent for your classes. Using the free teacher console, you can create a Diigo group for your class and invite students to it in a non-intrusive way. From there, you and your students can easily share materials, annotate them, and tag them. Group members receive a once-a-day email update so you don’t have to remember to go and seek out the info. Of course, while students are working with Diigo, they are also learning about the possibilities for sharing such material in digital environments, thinking through rationales for identifying, tagging, and categorizing content as well as being introduced to other communities of learners.
I think it's a valuable, powerful tool. On this site, a teacher-blogger describes "13 reasons teachers should use Diigo," including that Diigo "has tools that encourage students to collaborate with others to analyze, critique, and evaluate websites" and that "by joining groups of like-minded users... Diigo allows you to gain access to the ‘collective intelligence’ of the internet." Teaching online leads us, inevitably, I think, into issues of how to manage digital content, and the goals of our instruction need to includ facilitating conversations about how to talk about that information. Social bookmarking tools like Diigo help us accomplish those goals more effectively.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

“Running Themes” on course message boards

This winter, I taught a graduate course for Drexel’s School of Ed: Using and Integrating Learning Technologies. The students were smart and hard-working, and they cranked on our message boards (through Bb Learn) all term. Through their efforts, I realized that I could easily and productively change my usual time-bound discussion thread approach, using the simple "walllessness" of online learning to build conversation spaces that ran all term.

This was a great aha moment for me. As I’ve described on this blog in some detail (e.g., see, I assign message boards in weekly “frames.” While I feel I do provide students with excellent thinking and writing opportunities, the conversations are organized and thus tend to exist within the constraints of week 1, week 2, etc.

That's pretty limiting. As onsite classrooms are bound by walls, my discussions were bound by weeks. When a week ended, normally the conversation would fade too. Sometimes I’ve extended conversations into a second and maybe third week, and I also use “general” threads – such as “Tips Advice Resources” – for other conversations, but our message boards are mainly controlled by time markers.

In the winter course, we had a couple of topics that kept re-emerging, so I did something simple: I opened up threads in a course forum called “Running Themes.” Students, in fulfilling their weekly requirements, were welcome to post in a Running Theme thread instead for some of their posts. And they did. They continued, in our case, to want to talk more about MOOCs or "What makes a good online/hybrid (blended) teacher?" Often, by the way, they would reframe our ongoing conversations about these topics based on current readings, building from dialogue in the weekly posts.

In retrospect, this was obvious. As I said, why was I constricting students? It didn’t make sense in online learning, which has the great advantage over onsite learning that it can naturally and easily extend dialogue. Conversations can happen in parallel, and they don't need to end when the bell rings at 2:00. Different students can dig into areas of high interest particular to them and enjoy the luxury of extending conversations after they've had time to percolate. Even if you have a tight, required-post type pedagogy, like I do, your messages boards can still be fluid and organic. (If you're worried that students will use Running Themes to excess and won't stay up with current material, it's easy to still require some posts in the weekly forums.)

Running Themes. I’m really happy with this idea and will create ongoing asynchronous conversation spaces in all of my courses.

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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Addressing MOOCs with the CCCC OWI Position Statement

Last time, I posted about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), suggesting some good ideas/practices that might emanate from massive courses. Now, I'm looking briefly at how writing MOOCs can be viewed in the context of A Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction (OWI), published last year by our CCCC Committee for Effective Practices in Online Writing Instruction (again, I'm co-chair of this hard-working group).
Many people in higher ed, of course, are up in arms over MOOCs. Many good reasons exist not to like these courses, but I think fear and helplessness driving many criticisms: People rightly feel helpless in the face of this tide of depersonalized instruction. Teachers and whole institutions are scrambling. However, as I’ve said, some of education’s resistance to MOOCs is hypocritical because we’re complaining about depersonalized learning experiences even though for decades we've herded students into 500-seat lecture halls and allowed our writing courses to be taught by people without offices who make about $150/week per course (if that).

The principles and practices in the OWI Position Statement can help writing teachers and WPAs by providing evidence and conversational scaffolding. The Position Statement, by design, can help potential writing MOOC teachers think through these courses; it might help some argue against MOOCs. Briefly, here are a few specific principles and how they might operate in this context:
OWI Principle 2: "An online writing course should focus on writing and not on technology orientation or teaching students how to use learning and other technologies." This means that for MOOC students, who are, by the definition of "open," not necessarily part of an institution, the learning platform has to be really easy to use. Students can’t spend their term figuring out how to manage the technology – there will be little teacher or IT support for them.
OWI Principle 5: "Online writing teachers should retain reasonable control over their own content and/or techniques for conveying, teaching, and assessing their students’ writing in their OWCs." Principle 5 addresses MOOCs in several ways, but especially with this: With 80,000 (or even 800) students, teachers have no control over assessing their students’ writing.
OWI Principle 6: "Alternative, self-paced, or experimental OWI models should be subject to the same principles of pedagogical soundness, teacher/designer preparation, and oversight detailed in this document." A MOOC can't result in the cutting of pedagogical corners (for those feeling institutional pressure...).
OWI Principle 13: "OWI students should be provided support components through online/digital media as a primary resource; they should have access to onsite support components as a secondary set of resources." A MOOC problem is that if you like MOOCs and work from that paradigm, you end up with support services that might replicate the same lack of institutional contact. If a 40,000 to 1 ratio is good enough for instruction, why not counseling, advising, and registrar ratios? Since the C stands for "course," institutions will have to make sure students understand what they get with "Open."
OWI Principle 9: "OWCs should be capped responsibly at 20 students per course with 15 being a preferable number." Those seeking a line-in-the-sand principle could find it here. Remember, C in MOOC is for "course." According to Principle 9, with 40,000 students, it can't be a "course." But maybe it can be a MOOE, with E for “experience.”
We designed these principles to help educators with OWI, including new approaches to teaching writing online. MOOCs are only one example. Massive courses aren’t good or bad, but teachers have to believe in a certain type of teaching to make them work. The Position Statement can help support or at least think through the kind of teaching that Massive Open Online Course represents.

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Writing MOOCs -- what are they good for?

If you follow higher education even a little, you know about MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses. These courses – a look at early MOOCs is here – have been promoted for all sorts of reasons. I’m not against MOOCs, but, like others who are wondering if this trend will run its course, I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.

First off, these courses represent, by and large, technologically-facilitated ways to deliver lots of content to lots of people. And why not? Schools have been looking for ways to streamline content delivery for a long time, including the well-entrenched giant lecture hall experience. Shifts to distribution-of-knowledge have always been viewed with skepticism. I mean, the book, writing itself, was once seen as a threat to traditional oral knowledge distribution systems, yet we now live in a time when sitting alone reading a book is a mark of erudition. Things change.

But a MOOC to learn statistics or history or poetry or game theory is one thing. Bring on that slick, video content! Learning the skill of writing in such an environment is different. Several institutions are offering writing MOOCs for thousands of students. Some are being run by quality, experienced writing faculty. I had personal experience with one of these courses, and while I remain underwhelmed by these efforts, I believe MOOC-like thinking might yet drive some ideas for writing instruction:

1) Improving the online writing group. If I'm working on a high-stakes writing project and you are working on a high-stakes writing project, we could get together, even by email, and work together quite productively to help one another, yes? MOOCs might help us develop new tech platforms and logistics for facilitating such interactions. Maybe, even better, we will break through with new approaches, pedagogies, and philosophies about peer review.

2) Parallel/"piggyback" writing experiences. I'm putting "experiences" in Italics for a reason -- I'm not thinking of courses. MOOCs are helping us think deeply about how students are educated. Many disciplines lament their students' writing, yet how to fix it within a curriculum? Adding courses is not an option in many cases. Students at Drexel, for instance, are already faced with a tight curriculum. But what if you created an online writing experience -- again, not a course -- that students could encounter in parallel with their other courses? Students could "unlock" progressive components while working on documents and writing skills integral to their success in their particular program. This wouldn't be Massive. It wouldn't be Open. But it could provide students with a structured way to help students write. I have been working with Drexel's School of Ed on exploring something like this for graduate education programs.

3) Rethinking gateways and competencies. Drexel's College of Nursing and Health Professions has been using what some have been calling, somewhat unfortunately, "mini-MOOCs." (Forget the mini-massive contradiction; the idea is good.) Students can enroll in a small cohort for a kind of free gateway course. I'm oversimplifying, but if students succeed in the course and then enroll in the program, they can then be awarded credit for the experience. Lots of students want equivalency credits for writing, and I think this is a potential way to address this problem, which I found nettlesome during my time as Drexel's Director of First-Year Writing. If students can enroll in an open course, they can demonstrate proficiency in ways that could later be counted/certified.

4) Providing highly focused writing instructional experiences. I don't think much of a composition course let alone an entire writing curriculum as a MOOC, but what about running an ongoing four-week course in creating job documents (e.g., cover letter, resume, thank you letter -- very focused)? This course could use the power of peer review productively (and perhaps its development could even be backed/supported by an online resume company). You could design similar courses for highly focused writing contexts.

5) Assessment of student learning. We still have a lot to learn about how teaching is connected with student improvement in writing. Some folks in composition are looking at this very question, based on the early writing MOOCs. The MOOC delivery model may open new avenues of inquiry for us.

Many ideas and technologies are fueling "massification." We, writing teachers, should be working to develop ways of using these concepts and tools, because, if we don't, without a doubt, ideas not of our own will be imposed upon us.

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