Monday, January 31, 2011

Course content and "lessons" in the comp course

I think about the idea of "course content" in the context of composition teaching a lot; these thoughts have become more acute since the emergence of the "writing about writing" (WaW) (or writing studies) approaches to composition that we've been taking at Drexel (1); I'm oversimplifying, but for us WaW has helped encourage a set of content learning for first-year courses (which takes many forms among our faculty). I think we have used this approach, where students study writing as the content of the curriculum, to improve significantly our three-course first-year sequence at Drexel.

Anyway, I realized last month that I haven't specifically written about content delivery in this space. That isn't just complete oversight. In fact, the impetus for my book was the realization that few resources dealt directly with the specifics of the writing interactivity of the online writing course, while methods of delivering content have been handled well in many books and resources about online/distance instruction (2).

Of course, so much student learning in our courses is indeed through the complex, multi-audience writing they are doing. But you still have content: You want them to understand logical fallacies or you want to teach them the rhetorical appeals or you want them to understand not just the logistics but the rationale behind citation. You have plenty of options to communicate such lessons:
  • Slide show-based presentation, no multi-media. A clean, clear self-paced PowerPoint can be great, especially if you use even minimal animations to create additional interactivity.
  • Slide show-based presentation with audio and video. Many tools now enable you to provide a slide-based video lesson with sound. Impatica allows you to package PowerPoint slides easily with accompanying audio. Camtasia and other screen capture programs allow you to create easily videos of your slides with your voice-over.
  • Synchronous classroom. Since I've been keeping this blog (nearly five years!), the possibilities here have increased significantly in sophistication. I use feature-rich Wimba regularly to introduce my online class, and I am struck by how easy it is to use for me and students. You may have issues getting students all in the same place at the same time, but Wimba and other software like Elluminate (now part of Wimba) allow you to archive the session, so students who couldn't attend my intro session were able to watch it, including the chat and voice comments and questions. These tools allow you to show documents, share your desktop, and interact with chat or voice.
  • Structure a message board conversation in a lesson-like way. I'm a big fan of message boards for conversation, as previous posts here indicate. Using them in a lesson format may require you to be a different kind of moderator than you normally are, actually taking more of the conversational reins and being more directive.
  • Use word processor or PDF documents. I have colleagues who have created all kinds of readable, user-friendly documents (e.g., Word, PDF) for students. You can package many simple course lessons around these types of materials. Sometimes, though, we can get too slick for our own good, especially if we don't have good design skills.
I'm just touching on the options here. To take a broader look for a moment, I see us moving toward new models of content delivery. With several institutions offering free online course content, educators are recognizing the Web as a way of matching the interested learner with the desired content. Web 2.0 technologies continue to proliferate. Presentation tools continue to improve, with multi-media thresholds dropping consistently. Apps for smart phones and other devices will only expand content offerings.

I might add that as these things change, my optimism about online writing instruction just grows. Composition instruction means that our courses are always unique, based, as they are, in our professional, and largely non-reproducible, expertise in interacting with the specific students in our courses. Good content delivery just helps us do the things we already do best, and those practices are only magnified in the online environment.

1) As I've mentioned, the text that lead me to this approach is Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle's "Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning 'First-Year Composition' as 'Introduction to Writing Studies'" in CCC. Derek Owens does a good job of describing how "writing studies" has evolved in an article on the St. John's Website.

2) Some books to help you get started include Ashburn and Floden's Meaningful Learning Using Technology, Conceicao's Teaching Strategies in the Online Environment, Henderson and Nash's Excellence in College Teaching and Learning, and Ko and Rossen's Teaching Online: A Practical Guide. Also check out MERLOT.