Friday, June 17, 2005

Organization: Prepare for the information deluge

Thinking about our info culture, I’ve begun to wonder if the rewards go not to the smartest or even hardest working, but instead to those who are best organized. As William Pollard said, "Information is a source of learning. But unless it is organized, processed, and available to the right people in a format for decision making, it is a burden, not a benefit." You no doubt know how hard it is to keep your info in a form that you can make sense of as well as in a place you can easily access. Still, teaching writing online requires a level of organization you might be unaccustomed to.

Remember, when teaching writing online, many of your classroom interactions will be in writing through message boards, email, and chats. You’ll need to come up with smart, simple organizational processes to keep the class communications straight.

Email: Does your Inbox have thousands of messages in it? I’m surprised how many of my colleagues don’t have even a basic email folder system. If you dump all your emails from the class into one folder (or just let them languish in your Inbox), some advantages of teaching online will be lost, because you won’t be able to draw easily on students’ day-to-day writings to help them build their skills. Oh, and you’ll also go mad trying to find old messages. Create many sub-folders, broken down as specifically as possible. Creating a folder costs little, but the time and energy savings are huge. You’ll want a general folder for conversations—call it “chit chat” or something. Create a folder where you keep responses to assignment questions. Other folders include sent messages, peer reviews, grade issues (for student questions about grades), and woes (a catch-all place for problems, both tech-related and otherwise). You can also use your email program’s message rules to direct all class emails into a particular folder.

Message boards: Spend time learning how the message board you’ll use is organized, and take advantage of its organization functions: indenting, bolding of new messages, subject naming, and alternate views (by subject or by date, for instance). Also, you’ll want to have simple-to-remember naming conventions for threads. In week one, inform students how the threads work, because if they are aware of how the threads are organized, they’ll be better able to keep the conversation flowing.

Document files: Your course will probably generate many text files, and you’ll want a good folder system like you’ve created for email. Again, use a lot of detail, and let your subfolder system go pretty deep. While it’s a good idea to call a folder “drafts” and then to save all assignment drafts into it, you should probably further subdivide into folders for each specific assignment. Also, you should give students rules for naming files: If you don’t ask otherwise, when you receive your students’ first essays, 90% of them will be named Essay 1. On your syllabus (and reiterate this several times—more on redundancy soon), ask students to use a simple file naming convention like first name, last initial, and assignment: ScottWEssay1.doc, for instance.

The issue with organization in an online writing class is that unlike face-to-face classes, you don’t have as much control over when communication occurs, as students can contact you any time. While of course this is one of the advantages to online learning, you can find yourself quickly behind when you realize you’re receiving lots of messages but don’t know where to save them.

Without question, you’ll refine your organizational approach after the first few weeks and then each time you teach, so don’t lock yourself into a rigid system. Also, pick what works for you, realizing that organization is often very individualistic. As Roger Schank said, “Memory is highly idiosyncratic. One person’s organization is not another’s” (1). Regardless, spending a few minutes before the term thinking about the information flow will save you time and reduce your stress during the term, ultimately making you a better teacher.

1) From The Connoisseur's Guide to the Mind (1991).