Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Leveraging digital materials

As this new fall term starts off, I'm immersed in my latest hybrid English 101 course. This is the fifth straight year I am teaching 101 at Drexel, and it's also fifth straight year I am doing so with a new syllabus.

We are using a new syllabus this year in our freshman writing program (FWP), a combination of an approach we call "English Alive" (here is Inside Higher Ed's coverage of a 2007 NCTE presentation two colleagues and I gave about English Alive: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/11/19/alive) and the "writing studies" approach described in CCC by Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle (1), all grounded in technologically-mediated learning strategies. As the director of our FWP, I can tell you that it was quite a summer putting all of this together.

I don't mind the constant shift in syllabi at all, because I enjoy innovations in my classroom, and I think switching the curriculum keeps me fresh as a teacher. However, I am finding even more so this year than in the past that I am able to streamline aspects of my teaching by leveraging digital technology. With a little bit of decent archiving and record keeping, I have access to materials like:
  • Message board prompts
  • Writing, learning, and studying message board tips for students
  • Homepage announcements
  • Videos of workshops and presentations
  • Files--PowerPoint, Word, etc.--of teaching materials
I am finding it remarkable how much time I can save. Just yesterday, I wanted to post to my students some guidance on improving their message board conversations. Because I have developed the practice of saving posts like that from older classes, I browsed the Word file I have used to keep guidance and advice tips. I found a similar message, tailored it for this particular class, and then quickly posted it. I also posted in my homepage announcements (I use the header space in Bb Vista for this) a few class reminders. Since I save my homepage announcements from past classes (again simply in a Word file), I was able to cut and paste a familiar old announcement and update it.

As the term develops, I will have access to course lessons in PowerPoint, Word, and/or video that help communicate ideas to help students workshop their drafts, write with clarity, develop topics, etc.

In short, I have developed a textual and multimedia library of important teaching materials. There is nothing fancy here; I simply save things to my hard drive so they are accessible in any medium I choose to use. Also, as I hope I've made clear by pointing out that I'm teaching my fifth syllabus in five years, I don't reproduce materials blindly, falling into teaching autopilot, but I certainly save keystrokes and writing invention time so I can focus on other aspects of the class.

This is not about saving time at the expense of teaching creativity or originality. This is about leveraging digital reproducibility to save time on repetitive tasks so your teaching time is focused on higher-level concerns.

In addition, all of the materials I have described above are available to my colleagues, so I can easily distribute components of my class to fellow faculty, no matter what teaching modality they are using.

Focusing on higher-level teaching matters, sharing materials--these are the things we should be doing as teachers, and the digital environment can help us do that.


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