Monday, November 30, 2015

Breaking the ice in your online writing course

The first week of an OWC presents teachers with some big opportunities that they can capitalize on with a good icebreaker.

An icebreaker/introduction activity can help in any course, but it's particularly valuable in the writing-focused OWC.

For one, icebreakers can be integral to constructing the author-reader relationships that drive the course; I think students need to learn quickly who the audience members (including me) are who will read them over the next few months.

Icebreakers provide students with an early low-stakes opportunity to develop their voices. Who are they in this online course? Even simple things like how they sign off on this initial post can help create the personalities the rest of the class will "see" and interact with.

Icebreakers also give teachers opportunities to develop voice and to model message board behavior. More on that in a moment.

Of course, in a broader sense, an icebreaker can help establish course community. In our committee’s A Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction, Effective Practice 11.2 states: “OWC teachers should develop course community early by employing ‘icebreakers’ and other activities that make use of the LMS and that engage student writing.” Students can learn about each others' interests and make person-to-person connections while learning the course interface.

I use various icebreakers. Here is one that I think has provided good first-week results:
SUBJ: Who are you?
Dear members of English 102,
Make sure you read and follow the directions below carefully.
I'd like to get to know you a bit and, perhaps more importantly, for you to get to know each other. So, could you please let us know a few things about yourself?:
Tell us who you are and where you're from.
-What is your major? What are you interested in pursuing as a career?
-Describe one thing--and it can be anything--that you have that helps demonstrate an important aspect of you. Think of it this way: if we were in a face-to-face classroom and I asked you to bring something that demonstrates an important aspect of you, what would you bring and why?
-What are some topics that you like to debate or that you have strong feelings about? (Note: You don't even have to reveal which side you're on; just tell us what the topic/subject is.)

Please provide your email address, and sign this post the way you would like us to address you (i.e., do you go by a nickname?).
Looking forward to hearing about you,
Prof. Warnock

Some online teachers might resist the idea of going retro and asking students what they would bring to an onsite class, but this simple request has worked well. In their responses to each other, I’m struck by how many of them build connections that they sustain throughout the term. Once a student talked about loving elephants and attached a picture of an elephant figurine. Surprise, surprise, another student also expressed a love of elephants. Friends for life!

I require and grade the icebreaker post and a secondary response post (1), so they also get a sense of how the course grading works (it's all very low-stakes).

I do work hard during week 1, as I respond to every student’s icebreaker post. I think it’s important to establish connection from the go with them. I also, in this textual environment, want to establish myself as a real person and model how to engage on discussions.

So I write to them. You would bring your Philadelphia Eagles jersey? I share your pain. Live in Blackwood, South Jersey? I'm from near there. Bring in your Led Zeppelin IV vinyl? That's the first album I ever bought ($2 at the Berlin Auction). Are you an engineering major? That’s how I started out. Bring in pictures from your trip to India? I’d love to go there some day.

You no doubt could come up with cooler ideas (2), but any activity that gives students a chance to write about themselves helps them establish themselves in week one of an OWC – and allows you to do the same.

1) I discussed my grading approach a few years ago in "Rubric for evaluating message board posts."
2) A simple search for "icebreakers" will provide you with many good suggestions.

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