Thursday, September 27, 2007

Keep it simple

This post is especially directed to teachers who are wading into the online writing environment for the first time and are worried about the technology.

I think that one of the beautiful things about teaching writing online can be the simplicity of it. I know there is a lot of information out there about online tools. From screencasting to Second Life, the amount of tech options can seem overwhelming before you even boot up your machine. The feast of choices can make you feel like anything you try will be so inadequate that it will be almost, well, embarrassing.

Don't feel that way.

There are indeed many tech tools, tricks, and twists that can make your online course not just look good but be pedagogically innovative. However, as with any technology-related endeavor, don't let gadget distractions take you away from your core mission/goal.

When you get started, you don't need that much from your course management software/system. You need a way to

  1. post basic class files, such as the syllabus and assignments
  2. have written conversations in the class--and, if you've read my earlier posts, you know that message boards can do a lot of that
  3. have students post/upload documents viewable by the whole class
  4. deliver URLs (which can be not much different than posting files)
  5. provide students with access to their grades
  6. allow students to contact you for one-on-one conversations (the old telephone can work here...)
You might want a way to administer quizzes or present voiced-over Powerpoints. You might want a way to group students. You might... you get the point. As with all teaching, what you do in the online writing course environment is only bound by your imagination and energy. As a teacher using technology for the first time, you should establish the above and then have a modest goal of adding one (or maybe two) new things each term. One term perhaps you'll use online groups for peer review. The next term you'll try blogs as a journal. The next term you'll use a short video to introduce the class. Publisher course packs. Blended audio and textual learning modules--don't worry: You'll never run out of things to try.

But a very spare, clean Web space can still be the basis for a great online writing class.

I'm reaching for a term here that I'm sure someone has coined, but in many aspects of our lives, we've let the glitz of technology supersede quality content/substance (yes, I'm one of those people who loathes what I've seen of the new Star Wars trilogy when compared with the original: What happened to the story? What happened to the substance of the myth?).

Teachers who, as the chair of my department where I received my PhD once said, feel colonized by teaching technologies are often justified. We know the cart-before-the-horse cycle of selling people technologies to address problems they didn't know they had (Jason Ohler is good on this topic [1]). I obviously feel strongly that teaching technologies can strongly enhance the writing education of students, but I also feel that approaching this issue technology-first, teaching-second is the wrong way to go.

Keep it simple. Remember, in the online written environment, your teaching skills and personality (transmitted largely via your own writing) will still carry the day, and the students are provided with a unique opportunity to write, write, write. If you use the technology incrementally to help you get where you want to go, you're doing it just right.

1) Check out Ohler's Taming The Beast: Choice & Control in the Electronic Jungle.