What does the use of digital teaching tools look like in the classroom?

  • Writing to New Depths – Tech Tools To Magnify Process and Ignite Character

    Gina Sipley's picture
    by Gina Sipley — Buckley Country Day School view

    For both teachers and students, the shift from independent departments of history and English toward a successful 3.0 Digital Humanities program began through collegial dialogue and active collaboration both during school hours and through virtual interactions on Twitter, Tumblr, and Blogger. Reconceptualizing essential skills through the lens of the Digital Humanities has strengthened the technical literacies of our students; deepened their understanding of historical and socio-political context; and augmented the overall quality of their expression. Technology tools have proven especially effective in redirecting the learning lens away from a teacher-centered classroom and blurring the distinction between “requirement” and “enrichment.”

    I began my teaching career at Syracuse University where I taught undergraduate composition while pursuing my graduate degree. This experience has been fundamental in my understanding of how students learn and the challenges they face when too often they arrive at college underprepared for the rigors of academic writing. I was fortunate that Syracuse had extensive technological resources for the time, but students did not yet have access to personal mobile devices. Thus, my use of technology was limited and mostly didactic as I modeled on an overhead screen how to search library databases and how to use advanced functions on MS Word. After completing my graduate degree, I began a career teaching middle/secondary school in a classroom with one-to-one computing technologies. I incorporated the composition heuristics I learned at the university to focus on writing as a discursive process. Although much has been written about the ways that tech tools provide opportunities for unique forms of publication that deviate from the traditional paper, Web 2.0 technologies invite us to reimagine the entire writing process by creating a more dynamic approach to the development of thoughtful and well-informed expository prose. Revision is constant and this humble approach to argumentation inspires a growth in both intellectualism and character- the hallmarks of a humanities education.

    Tech tools are an essential part of the modern classroom because in their independent lives, young learners use mobile devices to compose blogs, tweets, texts, Tumblr pages, and other media. Although the quality of this prose varies tremendously, the desire to write, to publish, and to share is an inherent part of life for our students.

    The modes of production may have changed, but the skills to write masterfully have remained the same. Students need to understand: how to identify the audience and purpose for the texts they develop; how to develop an argument; and how to sustain an argument through sophisticated claims grounded in specific textual evidence. When used effectively, tech tools can teach these skills and as practitioners it is our responsibility to model their use for process-pedagogy.

    Since our students already know how to publish, the best use of our time together is in a workshop format. Tech tools enable the writing process to become public as students collaborate on Google docs or post comments, threads, and blogs in real time. The public nature of the writing process demystifies the act of writing, highlighting to all students the messiness of the writing process. Everyone makes mistakes, gets frustrated, and experiences writer’s block. To write publicly is to expose one’s vulnerability, but it is also a catharsis that empowers all students to see themselves as writers and to negotiate the fears that often prevent them from putting pen to page in an academic setting.  

    This emphasis on process encourages students to slow down and to think deeply about the words they compose both in the classroom and in their private lives. As a community of digital humanists, our faculty team is invested in helping students to prepare for future academic challenges, but also to assist students in discovering the person they will become. Words matter. The words we compose shape our identities in both the virtual and real world. Using tech tools to teach process augments the overall quality of student prose.


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  • The Third Space – Digital Tools Disrupt Learning Hierarchies

    Patricia Russac's picture
    by Patricia Russac — Buckley Country Day School 2 Comments view

    For both teachers and students, the shift from independent departments of history and English toward a successful 3.0 Digital Humanities program began through collegial dialogue and active collaboration both during school hours and through virtual interactions on Twitter, Tumblr, and Blogger. Reconceptualizing essential skills through the lens of the Digital Humanities has strengthened the technical literacies of our students; deepened their understanding of historical and socio-political context; and augmented the overall quality of their expression. Technology tools have proven especially effective in redirecting the learning lens away from a teacher-centered classroom and blurring the distinction between “requirement” and “enrichment.”

    In 2005, I presented on media literacy at the NYSAIS Conference For Managers of Information Technology. We were given the assignment to read The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman for the keynote addresses by Alan November, founder of November Learning, and John Palfrey, who at that time served as executive director of Harvard’s Berkman Center For Internet and Society. It was transformative, and changed the way I approached teaching and learning. Back then Web 2.0 was in its infancy centered on wikis, blogs, podcasts, and RSS feeds. Now we are moving full throttle toward Web 3.0, redefining literacy, and reinventing our curricula for a 24/7 world. As subjects blend through the power of digital tools, the segregation that occurs when we operate in distinct silos of learning diminishes. Ideas are no longer fixed by time and space. From visualizations to social media, technology transforms the humanities into a layered discipline. The learning becomes relational, removing the boundaries between individuals, whether teacher or student, and the sharing of content becomes fluid, social, and organic.

    Using tech tools is no longer an option in the classroom. The connectivity of today’s students is light-years from that of 2005. The power of digital technologies has changed drastically since then. Embracing this fast paced growth can at times seem overwhelming for some teachers putting them at a disadvantage in terms of skill. Our students use these electronic devices with ease, and continually share in ways that we sometimes do not understand. Harnessing that ability and using their tech savvy can change the dynamic of learning. We can learn from each other. This sharing blurs the boundaries between teacher and student.

    It is no surprise to us anymore, when our students go off on their own to research in anticipation of the next topic, or to extend their understanding on what they learned in class. Students today take it upon themselves to learn more. Subjects no longer seem isolated bringing real time into a digital space on smart phones, tablets, and more. The digital humanities provide the perfect place for a fluid sharing of content and skill. It is not only social, but also mobile. The organic growth of ideas that reaches across predefined roles is empowering for teachers and students alike.

    My students love the sense of choice in developing content, or in which tech tool to use. Likewise, I constantly remind them of “content first, pretty second.” We want a “so what,” and guide them in ways to help them develop their ideas. It doesn’t matter if they are writing stories using Storybird, creating talking avatars with Voki, commenting on each other’s work in Voicethread, or designing tagged images on Thinglink. This year we started a Humanities Enrichment Tumblr and the response from our students has been amazing. So much so, that they will send us things that they find such as visualizations, maps, and infographics to possibly include. While I know Alfe Kohn is a controversial and an outspoken critic of education, his one mantra that I stand by is to get kids “juiced” about learning.

    For my students, that sense of shared public content provides that subtle push to do their best work, and the freedom to self-select to make their own decisions disrupts the traditional learning hierarchy. Building in digital tools in the humanities blurs the boundaries; it is no longer inside the classroom and homework, but learning in a third space. It reaches across disciplines, extending beyond just being virtual.

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  • The Curiosity Prerogative – Technology As Empowerment For Self-Expression

    Mercer Hall's picture
    by Mercer Hall — Buckley Country Day School view

    Digital Humanities – Creating A Virtual Vicinity Of Like-Minded Learners

    For both teachers and students, the shift from independent departments of history and English toward a successful 3.0 Digital Humanities program began through collegial dialogue and active collaboration both during school hours and through virtual interactions on Twitter, Tumblr, and Blogger. Reconceptualizing essential skills through the lens of the Digital Humanities has strengthened the technical literacies of our students; deepened their understanding of historical and socio-political context; and augmented the overall quality of their expression. Technology tools have proven especially effective in redirecting the learning lens away from a teacher-centered classroom and blurring the distinction between “requirement” and “enrichment.”


    Twelve years ago, when I began teaching at my current school, the infrastructure allowed computer access only through a traditional, hardwired desktop lab. Today, my students participate in a seamless one-to-one laptop and iPad program, with interactive SMARTboards and an open wireless network. The learning pedagogy, especially in the humanities sphere, has evolved dramatically as a consequence of this union of digital tools.

    In trying to pinpoint the optimal role for technology in the classroom, I find myself grappling with seemingly polar dilemmas. For example:

    ·       Is creativity consistent with rigor?

    ·       Is choice anathema to instruction?

    ·       Is student-inspired motivation equal to teacher-directed motivation?

    The promise of web 3.0 technology is its focus on the experience of the learner. By separating the digital flash from the scholarly substance, an adept mentor can enkindle the curiosity of a student who then feels empowered to master any desired content. The early orthodoxy of one-way information delivery, from expert to pupil, has now become multi-dimensional as digital devices are incorporated into the daily habits of learners. Each mind can branch in a unique direction, separate but supportive to the parallel inquiry of the student at the next terminal or tablet. As the teacher provides context, the technology provides extension. Students can push their understandings both laterally and vertically, delving more deeply into areas of interest or widening their scope to include unanticipated offshoots.

    In a humanities classroom such as mine, digital tools invite this customizable workspace. Flexible online resources yield benefits in inspiring students’ self-directed dexterity and imaginations. Additionally, outside of instructor-prescribed courses and times, the efficiency of social networks and the immediacy of communal blogs allow learners to stretch their senses of discovery and sharing.

    For example, in asking students to select a history topic from the decades of the Cold War, I invited them to build interactive web pages to educate others. The project goals centered on analytical interpretation, curated graphics, and visual customization. I established a detailed rubric and a basic framework of expectations. From there, however, a daily menu of possible tools – such as DvolverVokiBig Huge LabsOne True MediaToonDooPosterMyWallTimetoastDipitySmoreSpell With FlickrAnimotoCartoonize, or Supalogo – allowed each learner to devise his or her own path to interpretation and creative output.

    In this vein, “enrichment” ceased to be a constantly moving goalpost. Once upon a time, “extra credit reports” were the go-to prescriptions for intellectually capable (but occasionally bored) learners. Students at the other end of the spectrum, however, were stuck with “extra help,” forced to “drill and kill” their free time with rote exercises.

    Now, one unexpected advantage of digital learning is the universality of enrichment. Using free, open-access sites, teachers can generate a constantly updated trove of links that any learner can enjoy. My colleagues and I, for example, established a humanities enrichment tumblelog, where each day we post an intriguing video, graphic, or website that branches off of the daily conversations in English or history class. The posts invite students to peruse content at their leisure, in their own space and time. They can investigate resources that pique their curiosity and spark them to explore further.

    As a result, the most common (and gratifying) refrain I hear about students’ self-motivation is that they go home in the evening and watch YouTube videos about the stalemate in the trenches or the negative ads of political candidates. The underlying framework of the in-class discussion becomes enhanced by students who evolve into real-time experts and home scholars.

    Via social networks such as Twitter, learners can share these personal discoveries. Classes can set up communal Tumblr pages to which any student can submit. This invitation to publish creates a compelling, scavenger-hunt mentality. A thrill exists in the immediacy of self-broadcasting. Students develop a reciprocal fascination with generating buzz among their peers, and the new classroom model becomes a mutually enriching choreography of teacher-provoked, student-extended learning.

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  • Google Docs as Classroom Meeting Place and Workspace

    Sarah Spangler's picture
    by Sarah Spangler — Old Dominion University 4 Comments view

    Recently, I designed and facilitated my first blended learning course after spending a summer reading related scholarship (see Garrison and Vaughan). Google Docs evolved as the choice destination for collaborative, asynchronous meetings. Retrospectively, I think of Google Docs as having served the dual function of classroom meeting and working space as well composing and discussion tool or platform. Using Google Docs, I was able to facilitate reasonably successful discussions, peer reviews, and collaborative compositions and projects.

    One primary way I used Google Docs in this course was to facilitate online, small group discussion (usually 3-4 students). I created the docs for each group and ensured the doc was shared amongst group members. When students accessed the doc, they saw questions I had posted about the reading along with instructions for responding to the questions as well as to one another using the comment feature. I also engaged in the dialogue by posting responses to the discussion that were geared either toward individuals or the entire group. In addition to linguistic-based responses, students also included images, videos, and/or audio to help them engage in a multimodal meaning-making experience.

    At this point, I anticipate the question, “Why not just use Blackboard?” and will, at the very least, offer some thoughtful reflection regarding why my students and I gravitated toward Google Docs instead. Initially, I did use Blackboard as a classroom workplace/space because of its affordances such as threaded conversations, nested comments, and student access. However, I want to explore the possibility that using a digital tool like Google Docs for discussion fosters a more dynamic and engaging (also user-friendly) experience and view of the discussion.

    Although the organizational structure of the Blackboard discussion board presents as an affordance, responses are compartmentalized, and users must move between nested comment threads when participating in a discussion. Arguably such a structure is necessary for large group or whole class discussions online where without this sort of compartmentalization the discussion potentially become unwieldy and difficult to navigate. However, for smaller group discussions, using Google Docs gives users a more “immediate” sort of communicative experience by presenting the discussion in its entirety at first glance. “Bob’s” initial post directly follows “Jane’s” initial post, which is immediately preceded by “Kara’s” initial post. Then, Bob, Jane, and Kara (and the instructor) can all easily dialogue with one another by commenting directly on each other’s posts, highlighting and responding to specific ideas. The group can then read the discussion as an interactive whole where comments sprinkled throughout reflect, I think, the organic nature of a classroom discussion.

    I have not collected data to measure students’ perceptions of using Google Docs as a collaborative class meeting space and as a tool for facilitating discussion and learning, but I think it might be worthwhile to do so. Anecdotally, several students conveyed that they enjoyed meeting in and using Google Docs and that they transferred the skills they acquired using this digital tool to other academic and work-related projects outside of our classroom.

    Overall, Google Docs proved to be a useful digital tool for collaborating, dialoguing, chatting, and commenting as well as inventing, writing, and revising, but I do plan to change some of the logistics. Going forward, in an effort to make my own workload more manageable, I plan to keep groups consistent rather than rotate group members, create a course file for each group, and make group members responsible for creating their own group docs for the discussions and other various assignments. I hypothesize that doing so will also support my ancillary goal of using digital tools to facilitate a sense of community amongst students.

    I hope to hear from others who have used Google Docs for similar and different purposes and who can help me think further about how to refine my use of this digital tool for discussion.


    Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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  • Step Right Up, Join the BYOE Circus

    Rochelle (Shelley) Rodrigo's picture
    by Rochelle (Shelley... — University of Arizona 2 Comments view


    Q: What does the use of digital teaching tools look like in the classroom?

    A: A multi-ring circus

    Most educational institutions continually have to do more with less. This will affect Information Technology (IT) budgets. That being the case, and as already foreshadowed by EDUCAUSE, students will not only start to bring their own hardware, but bring software as well. In short, we’ll continue to move into the BYOE (Bring Your Own Everything) technology movement. 



    As Julia Romberger mentioned in her “Should We Teach All the Things?” post, context matters. What I’m following up with in more detail is…not only does institutional context matter, but individual access and experience matters as well, maybe even more so. Instructors cannot assume that students have access to the same hardware or software. One of my favorite ways to consider BYOE is in context of the growing number of individuals using smartphones as their primary, sometimes sole, device to access the Internet.  Many of us might consider it “impossible” to write multiple page essays or access and complete assignments in a Learning Management System (e.g. Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, etc.) on a small screen, with our thumbs; however, there are a growing number of students who do a lot, even a majority, of their academic work on their mobile devices. EDUCAUSE’s 2012 Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology  identifies the need for BYOE students to still have access to institutionally maintained computer labs for access to specific software (like Microsoft Word to do final page break, header, and hanging indent formatting on a paper) or printing (p. 14). 

    The BYOE movement does not solely refer to hardware; it also refers to software, and, this also includes, the prior experiences each individual has with specific types of hardware and software. At first, every student bringing any device and software application may seem overwhelming for instructors, thus the image of the multi-ring circus; I think it also provides an opportunity to showcase diversity. Students can share the different applications they use to get work done, demonstrating that most academic challenges can be met in a variety of ways. This does mean, however, that instructors must design assignments in a manner that allows students to complete them differently.  Instructors might also worry about supporting each and every technology brought to class; allowing students to support one another as well as teaching them to build their own support networks (both people and other resources like LifeHacker and YouTube) is the equivalent of teaching students to fish! 

    As Julia Romberger and I argue in our recently drafted Hacker Pedagogy piece, these types of assignments provide students the opportunity to meta-reflect on their learning practices. Allowing for diversity in technology usage, and therefore assignment completion and submission, also helps keep classes interesting for instructors as well…step right up, buy your technological circus ticket now!   


    Creative Commons licensed images posted at Flickr:

    ·       Circus, Circus, Circus by Les Chatfield 

    ·       Planet Circus UK 2011 by DirkJan Ranzijn

    ·       Step Right Up by smoochiedeluxe

  • Should We Teach All the Things? And to Whom? - A Critical Non-Response Response

    Julia Romberger's picture
    by Julia Romberger — Old Dominion University 1 Comment view
    Should we teach all the things? And to whom?
    I wrote at least 2 other versions of this response during the Computers and Writing 2013 conference last week.  Each time I thought I had it finished, I went to another session that shifted my thinking (and many thanks to the fascinating scholars who did so) and so, after returning yesterday, I finally struck upon what will have to be the last draft of this post. And my answer is: 
    It depends.  It depends upon context, upon students, upon technology, upon infrastructure, upon administrative support, upon programmatic goals. It just depends. 
    Initially, after an extremely well run WordPress workshop, I wrote about my own personal struggle with whether or not I wanted to adopt WordPress into my classroom. I went back and forth on the value of templates, encouraging students to look under the hood, the economic constraints and what that means to a student population that is as mixed in its economic background as it is in its level of technology literacy.
    I then thought about Karl Stolley and James Paul Gee’s keynotes - about the importance of coding, difficulty, and knowing how to build from ground up (Stolley) and the critical role the ability to make plays in motivation and the belief that resiliency is an end goal for a responsible education (Gee). These of course are very reductive descriptors of their arguments, but they are what factored into my thinking on this particular topic. I then wrote another piece that was a more critical reflection upon the thinking in the first.
    Then on the conference’s last day, I went to a panel lead by Kathleen Turner  from University of Mississippi Tupelo and Cortney Barko from West Virginia Institute of Technology. My head was left swimming with the descriptions these presenters gave of uphill struggle and roadblocks to fundamental computer literacy that their students faced. Needless to say, these women are impressive in the work that they do.
    Again, I found my response inadequate.  And so I came to the conclusion that what I really wanted to talk about was the “it depends” factors regarding the choice to use and implement digital technologies into the classroom curriculum. 
    So this brings me back around to my on-the-fence personal dialog about WordPress. The largest question truly is, does it work in my context? My students want to learn web design. Learning to write and design in digital environments is a programmatic goal. However, these students vary greatly in their access to technology and their experience with various technologies. So as an entry technology that allows them to do website design work, WordPress rather nicely allows for a hacker pedagogy (something I’ve recently completed a book chapter about with Shelley Rodrigo) where students can shape the parameters of their learning and can choose among quite a number of things to learn with the tools they have on hand.  However, this does change the end game of teaching web design because students don’t necessarily control the process from beginning to end. So where does that level of control fit into the curriculum? Into student needs? My conclusion at this point is that what becomes most important is what students’ personal technology goals are and the preparation we give them to adapt to rapidly changing technology landscape. It is this last word - adapt or as Gee might suggest resiliency - that I think is most critical. It isn’t the tools taught that matters; it is the flexibility, adaptability, and confidence learned that probably matters more than the chosen technologies.
    What are the possibilities and constraints in your context? What are the goals of your programs and your students? What technologies have you critically inquired into for your pedagogical use?  Do you have a personal teaching philosophy regarding your choices about using digital technology?
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  • Perspectives from a Former Luddite-

    Laura Buchholz's picture
    by Laura Buchholz — Old Dominion Univeristy 2 Comments view


    If I could describe my attitude towards teaching with technology over the past few years in one word it would be “resistant.”  It’s not that I didn’t understand times were changing, or even that I didn’t appreciate how digital technology was becoming more and more a part of day to day communication –these issues were clear. Rather, what gave me pause was the haphazard nature of how I saw its implementation. As I looked to my colleagues using Twitter, WordPress, Google docs, Soundcloud, YouTube, and even Facebook I failed to see continuity. The last thing I wanted was to ask my students to tweet for the sake of tweeting or blog for the sake of blogging. Like many (I know you are still out there) I just wasn’t convinced using these formats would improve student writing and comprehension and saw digital technology as a distraction.

    What changed? Last year I decided to take the plunge.  Though still skeptical, I felt I couldn’t continue to be critical of something I so intentionally avoided. I wanted a better way for my 100 level Introduction to Literature students to respond to the reading and decided to have them create a blog through Google Sites for that purpose. I picked Google Sites over other blogging platforms because I found it more user friendly and accessible to beginning students (not to mention myself), though admittedly it lacks a bit in sleekness.  I honestly didn’t know what to expect, but I figured it was time to give it a try—and if it failed I’d be justified. 

    What happened surprised me.  I dreaded dealing with e-mails from a class of 35 students asking about technical difficulties, but the percentage of students in the class that required personalized help was fairly small and easily managed. As the semester went on, some of the students in the class started to experiment with importing images and playing with design of their site and adding sound and video links in responses. Because the students had access to each other’s blogs they shared ideas, helped each other figure out “how you make it do that” etc.  In short, what I feared would be a distraction from the subject matter actually became a point of engagement with the subject matter. At the end of the semester, one student who struggled early on with the reading assignments thanked me for incorporating the blogs in the course, stating it helped her relate to the literature.

    With this positive experience under my belt, I branched out the next semester and experimented with digital portfolios and a student authored course wiki.  Though some students were frustrated in the beginning, many students indicated that the communal experience of contributing to the wiki and bringing in links and supplementary materials was one of the most useful assignments in the class.

    The biggest lesson I learned through this process was that the very concern that immobilized me for so long—figuring out which technology or digital platform was best to use—was really not that important. I realized the point in both classes was not to help my students become proficient with Google Sites but to help them learn that they can teach themselves to use most any platform for their own rhetorical purposes—a skill I learned as well. Still, I know my initial trepidation is by no means unique.  So what is it that holds us back from experimenting with new technologies in our pedagogy and how can we continue to overcome it?

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  • Using iPads and Google Forms to Introduce Students to Media Research Methods

    Susan Currie Sivek's picture
    by Susan Currie Sivek — Linfield College 1 Comment view

    Like most instructors of introductory media studies courses, I include a brief overview of scholarly research methods in my class. The mostly lower-division students in this class find the concept of research daunting.

    Using Google Documents and my department’s set of iPads, I created an activity that offers a quick, accessible, and relevant introduction to research methods. This activity could also work with students’ own smartphones or other devices. Students have found it useful and fun, and so have I.

    Mechanics of the Exercise

    The topic for this exercise can change each time it’s used. This semester, I designed a multimethod study of issues of gender representation in sports media for students to execute. Though our results are far from publishable, students gained some great insights into research.

    I divided the class of 40 students into nine teams: three teams of content analysts, three of survey researchers, and three of interviewers. Content analysts used a classroom set of laptops, a few iPads, and their own devices to examine an online archive of Sports Illustrated covers; each team studied specific years. For each cover, the students completed a Google Form. The form asked about the gender, clothing, physical surroundings, facial expression, and pose of people on each cover.

    Survey teams left the classroom with iPads and used a different Google Form -- accessed on the iPads through campus wifi -- to conduct intercept surveys. The survey asked about respondents’ opinions about gender representation in sports media.

    When the data-gathering time ended, content analysis and survey teams viewed their results in charts generated by Google Forms and identified intriguing findings to describe to the class.

    Interview teams also left the classroom with iPads and recorded brief video interviews based on open-ended questions similar to the survey questions. When they returned to the classroom, they discussed the interviews, identified repeated themes in responses, and compared notes with other interview teams. They then selected a few short video clips to project onscreen for the class. These clips demonstrated major themes of the results, just as quotes from interviews would in a written research report.

    With the entire class reassembled, each research method group described their findings, and we watched the selected interview clips. We discussed how each method brought unique insights to the study, and how triangulation revealed more about the relationship between media content and public opinion than any single method used alone.

    Assessment and Consequences

    After using this activity the first time, I asked students to write down anonymously on index cards one major thing they learned, and also to say whether I should repeat the activity with future classes.

    Students’ insightful and accurate responses demonstrated they had learned about the mechanics and purpose of scholarly research methods. Their feedback about the activity was also quite positive:

    ·“I liked this project because we got to get out of class and use technology to really help us and learn in a practical way.”

    ·“I thought this exercise was awesome. As well as getting us to walk around and actively engage with the material, it was also just fun.”

    ·“I loved going outside the classroom and experiencing it! It would be a great longitudinal project over more time? I would love to do more activities like this!”

    Not a single student said he/she disliked the activity.

    When students primarily experience research through library databases and fussing with citations, it’s hard for them to feel the thrill of scholarly inquiry. If we construct opportunities for even beginner-level students to build knowledge themselves, we might ignite a passion for discovery earlier in their studies. I hope even this brief activity could also generate interest in more advanced media studies courses and in our student-faculty collaborative research opportunities. 

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  • Bridging the Digital Divide in the Classroom

    Lee Skallerup Bessette's picture
    by Lee Skallerup Bes... — Morehead State University view


    I teach Freshman Writing at a rural, regional state institution. Our service region is one of the poorest in the country. Many of our students come from rural, Title I schools (heck, even the school here in town is a Title I school). Our service area is also a place where high-speed has not yet reached, and data plans on mobile phones remain too expensive for many families. A majority of my students come to me having only experienced educational technology as films projected on SmartBoards or Drill-and-Kill style test-preparation software.

    But as we recruit students from outside our service area and outside our state (for their out-of-state tuition revenue and to keep our enrollment numbers up), we are getting more and more middle-class, suburban students who are more technologically savvy. This can cause a great deal of tension within the classroom community; there can be a lot of shame around admitting you’ve never owned a computer or don’t know what Tumblr is. As an instructor it is also a challenged to try and design assignments that are both challenging and doable for the majority of the students; many of my students who go home on weekends can’t complete assignments, or they are overwhelmed by everything they don’t know.

    One strategy that I have employed is to hold all of my classes in a computer lab on campus and allow time in class for students to complete their assignments. This way, I am also on hand (along with a tech person) to help them with any problems they have, be it technical or more related to the topic at hand (in my case, writing). This past fall, I incorporated a “how-to” assignment for the students. They have to choose a tech tool (it could be hardware or software) to introduce, explain how to use, and then also explain how it could be used to help them in their education (study aid, networking tool, publishing, etc). Their audience is their fellow classmates.

    They are free to choose whatever means they want to create this how-to guide: video, podcast, website, PowerPoint or other presentation software, or even just a plain old Word document. We discuss what makes a good “how to” document, how to best incorporate visuals, and, once they have chosen a tool, figure out how it can be used to assist in their education and learning. We then share our documents with the class in mini-presentations, allowing the students to receive feedback and go back to refine their final document.

    But it also allows for me to see who is more comfortable using technology, who uses technology well, and who is pushing themselves in these areas. It allows for students to learn from one another, as well as break down barriers between various class (and skills) divisions. I am pushed, too, to learn about potential new tools that I can incorporate into my own pedagogy, taking into account how the students view these tools, so I can introduce them more effectively. For example, they don’t like Twitter, but Pinterest is a big hit for the moment; the great thing about this assignment is that I can also stay current as to “what kids are into these days,” specifically the kids that matter the most to me: my students.  

    It is one small step, but one that the majority of my students seem to enjoy, and it opens up a conversation about how they approach and use technology in their lives and breaks down the barrier between using technology “for fun” and using technology “for school.” New tools and methodologies are introduced, but it doesn’t come form the top-down (me dictating what tools they must use) but organically from their peers. I am still there to push them, asking the hard questions to get them to think about issues of privacy, security, utility, accessibility, etc, but these discussions are initiated by their own interests, skill-level, and creativity.

    How do you deal with the issues of unequal access and experiences with technology in your classroom? 

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  • Making a Game of Self-Regulated Learning

    Megan McKittrick's picture
    by Megan McKittrick — Old Dominion University 2 Comments view

    The use of digital teaching tools in the classroom looks like fun!

    Learning is inherently fun and inspiring, but each experience is highly personalized. In other words, I’m stating the obvious: people naturally want to learn about stuff they like at their own pace, and the clearest example is the beloved hobby. If I enjoy a hobby enough, I’ll spend countless hours collecting and examining artifacts, developing a deep, articulate knowledge of it, while inviting others to learn alongside me.

    Scholars from different fields call this hobby phenomenon “intuitive,” “self-guided” or “self-regulated learning (SRL),” noting its powerful effect on motivation and knowledge acquisition. People are more motivated and develop a deeper understanding of material when they have the ability to control the content and pace of their learning experience.

    Of course, the tricky part is giving students this level of control in the classroom. On the one hand, educators must balance course goals and curriculum objectives with students’ individualized interests and needs; on the other hand, students themselves may not possess the skills needed to assume control of their own education.

    No matter their level, remedial and honors students alike may lack certain learning skills, such as time management and project planning, community building through tactful interactions with faculty and productive collaboration with classmates, note-taking, studying, technical trouble-shooting, even maintaining mental and physical health. There are many skills that contribute to academic success that are, ironically, missing from the academic curriculum.  

    Dr. Shelley Rodrigo, Matthew Beale, and I hope to invite students to treat their college experience as a hobby by developing an online game that will promote effective learning skills at any post-secondary level. The working title of our game, which is currently under construction, is the Learning to Learn Game (L2L Game). 

    The overall structure of this game is intended to serve two audiences: faculty and students. In one respect, the L2L Game serves as a series of game-based learning modules that can be utilized by faculty in their course designs. Faculty who wish to supplement their current course content with learning skills training can implement any number of our fully prepared modules into their assignments and lesson plans. For example, instructors teaching an online course may recognize the benefit of developing a collaborative digital community and request that students complete the related online community-building module. 

    Students who take a personal interest in honing their skills beyond the modules assigned to them can get more deeply involved in the L2L Game on their own, obtaining points and badges as they progress through the levels we design. As students advance through our game, selecting the modules they’re interested in, they will not only learn how to survive college; they’ll learn to thrive, both in college and beyond. The L2L Game will invite students to play with their academic community while developing the skills they need to take control of it.

    The development of our L2L Game is currently supported by the 2013 Faculty Innovator Grant from the Old Dominion University Center for Learning and Teaching. During the Spring of 2013, we completed an IRB-approved, mixed methods pilot test to collect data on the efficacy and functionality of a small sample of our learning modules. Students and faculty responded positively overall, and we gathered ideas for revision and enhancement. We will design the game narrative, architecture and reward structure in the Summer of 2013, construct the digital game environment in the Summer and Fall of 2013, and collect further assessment data in the Spring of 2014. 

    Front Page Photo Credit: Image by Ponoory33 and available on Flickr

  • Cooperative video games in the English as a foreign language classroom

    Matthew Beale's picture
    by Matthew Beale — Old Dominion University 7 Comments view

    I’m most interested in thinking about how cooperative video games can be used in the English as a foreign language (EFL) classroom. Cooperative games, as I’m defining them, are games in which two or more players are working together against an artificial intelligence-controlled computer opponent. This definition is meant to differentiate from competitive-cooperative games, or games in which players work together against teams of other human players. I’m drawn more to the use of human vs. AI cooperative games for a number of reasons, but two which are particularly relevant here. One, these game foster a sense of camaraderie between the players in relation to a computer opponent rather than towards other players (who might also be students in the same class). Secondly, cooperative games (the best ones, at least) delineate specific tasks and/or skills that are unique to each player while also setting up challenges, puzzles, and obstacles that require the coordination of these individualized skills in order to overcome. Gameplay of this form necessitates that the player/learners work together to coordinate their efforts in order to progress through the game, rather than relying on perhaps the more experienced player’s knowledge of the game to move through the levels.

    These cooperative video games, with their numerous options for communication (player voice, chat text, avatar dialogue, etc.), offer a wide variety of communication options through which language learners may engage with the target language. Unlike simply practicing the new language using a dialogue from a textbook or trying to imagine a role-playing scenario along with a classroom partner while at a desk, cooperative video games give the players a specific purpose for which the use of clear communication becomes necessary in order to strategize their efforts with each other. This communication could be focused on discussing strategy on how to defend against an incoming horde of orcs or how to open a locked door to escape a particular room. Games have been shown to lower the affective filter, or “language block,” that some students suffer from when trying to practice a new language (Reinders, 2012). The hope is that, in seeing verifiable results of clear communication (e.g. the orcs are stopped, the door is unlocked), the students will come to see the language as a useful tool rather than simply a class subject.

    Of course, this implementation of cooperative games in the EFL classroom is frivolous without a sound pedagogy on which it is founded. While I will not delve into the specifics of that here due to space constraints, I will offer a note of caution as I and other scholars consider how digital games can be implemented in the classrooms of any number of subjects. I would argue that, on some level, there is a tension between “good” game design and reflective learning. Video games that are well-designed usually foreground content and expectations for the player, eliminating the need to reflect on why certain elements of a game are designed the way in which they are. While this makes for compelling gameplay, it may work against the thoughtful learning that teachers hope to encourage in their students. Additionally, as students play the game more and more and their understanding of the game’s mechanics develops, they might find that the need for communication diminishes. With this in mind, I would argue that the majority of contemporary video games probably would not serve effectively alongside of sound pedagogy, but those that do have the potential to be powerful tools of education.


    Reinders, H. & Wattana, S. (2012). Talk to me! Games and students’ willingness to communicate. In H. Reinders (Ed.), Digital Games in Language Learning and Teaching (156 – 188). United Kingdom: Palgrave MacMillan.

    Front Page 

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  • What Can My Field Contribute to Digital Pedagogy?

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    by Roger Whitson — Washington State University view

    More than many people, I can get pretty excited when introducing new digital tools in the classroom. Like William Moner, I'm a big fan of Twitter backchannels. I've also experimented with iPad applications, for example, the one published by the New York Public Library on Frankenstein and the enhanced iBook version of William Blake's notebook provided by the British Library. I've also  (If you haven't guessed yet, I am a British Romanticist by trade). Yet I am increasingly becoming convinced that tools are only half of the equation when it comes to digital pedagogy. It's easy to let the tools dictate the teaching or to think that tools can solve all of our problems.

    I'm more interested in reflecting on how tools impact the core values of our teaching. What are we trying to teach as an institution and how might that mission change in a world where archives, people, databases, programs, skills — so much - is becoming more accessible? As the tempest of technological and institutional change churns, it's important to think carefully about the core values of different disciplines: what, in other words, we hold as the central thing we do. People may argue about what that core value is, of course, but it's an important conversation to have. This is espeically true in an age when humanities departments are being asked to communicate their value to administrators, students, and the public. I'm currently co-writing an article on "Digital Literary Pedagogy" with Kimon Kermandas and Amanda Licastro that calls for more pedagogical scholarship in English and literary studies around digital tools and the digital humanities. As I started working as a literary scholar at Washington State University's English Department — a department that has a strong emphasis on computers, rhetoric, and composition — I had to seriously think about my work in relation to a field that is similar yet very different from mine. Were my courses in 19th century literature just glorified composition courses? How could I imagine my pedagogy so my own field, literary studies, offered something different from the multimodal composition and rhetoric of information courses offered by my colleagues? I'm searching for something unique that literature does to help pedagogically contextualize what is happening in the digital humanities.

    Question: How would you, as a teacher housed within a particular field, imagine your unique approach to digital tools? If we are to move beyond an instrumentalist approach to technology (where we are essentially teaching how to use technology) how does your discipline imagine other ways to incorporate technology in its curriculum? Please post your responses here. Thanks!

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  • Annotate and Analyze Online Video with OTTO

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    by Richard Edwards — Ball State University 4 Comments view

    This post will briefly trace the evolution and application of a powerful new video annotation platform that enables collaborative viewing and encourages cooperative, crowd-sourced criticism. This new tool, called OTTO (Open Text Tool for Online video), was first used in conjunction with a video annotation assignment in a Film Noir MOOC that generated close readings of key moments in film noir, but its potential uses extend much further: the tool could change how films and videos are taught with its capacity to simply and powerfully join critical analyses to film moments, and relate discreet analyses by source and by runtime across films that share stylistic or generic traits.  While other online video annotation tools can support participatory and collaborative viewing and reading exercises in the classroom, there are particular functions unique to, or uniquely powerful in the context of, OTTO. To present a fuller picture of this tool and its potential, I would like to step back and trace OTTO's evolution from an idea to its current form and function.

    Winter 2011: Shannon Clute and I co-authored The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism (Dartmouth College Press). The book explored exemplary moments in film noir (which we dubbed 'noiremes') through the lens of Oulipian constraint and recombinatorics. The final section of The Maltese Touch of Evil (MTOE) suggested the idea of developing a "participatory, procedural (and ultimately, perhaps, encyclopedic) database dedicated to film noir" (262). The MTOE project "would allow readers to add their own investigative notes, to tag or annotate the filmic material with further information and metadata, to author new noiremes, and to suggest or create constraints for resequencing existing noiremes (percent of a frame in shadow, number of times 'Baby' is uttered in one scene of a screenplay, etc.)…" (263). At the time the book was published, we weren't sure how or evenif the MTOE project would develop, but we were hopeful that such a project was possible. In terms of its potential uses, the MTOE project could help students pursue close readings, share viewing notes online, and curate annotated entries in an ever-growing digital archive.  Moreover, in keeping with the Oulipian roots of the project, such a tool would be able to generate surprising insights leading to new critical observations or new avenues of investigation through mathematical constraints and algorithmic processes.

    Summer 2012: OTTO moves from an idea into an active development phase through the confluence of two events. First, I am appointed as the Executive Director of iLearn Research at Ball State. Second, I am asked to teach a MOOC on the topic of film noir. As a researcher and an instructor, I begin to think about the learning outcomes and design of the MOOC, and return to the MTOE Project idea. Over the next few months, Shannon and I have in-depth discussions about designing and developing a tool in the spirit of the MTOE Project. Such a tool will need to enable student-generated annotations on specific shots in film noir, support detailed student commentary and analysis, and exist as part of a database structure with algorithmic capabilities. Based on these initial design considerations, an iLearn Research team, led by developer Chris Turvey, starts prototyping OTTO in late 2012. As the development process begins, Chris proposes that OTTO supports the annotation of YouTube videos, opening up many new possibilities and uses.

    Spring to Summer 2013: OTTO is available in an early beta version and was deployed in a student assignment in Ball State University's Investigating Film Noir MOOC. As we developed OTTO, my team explored other video annotation tools including Indiana University's Film Annotators' Workbench, Vertov (an annotation plug-in for Zotero), and Videonot.es. But these tools didn’t provide all of the functions we wanted in OTTO. For example, OTTO contains two timelines for annotation purposes. One timeline tracks the remaining runtime of the film. But a second timeline correlates any filmic moment to the film's running time percentage. An algorithm in OTTO automatically and mathematically generates this second "segment timeline" by dividing any YouTube video into 100 evenly spaced time increments. As part of the recombinatory and constrained spirit behind OTTO, the segment timeline facilitates comparative analyses of annotated entries across multiple films in a collection through mathematical constraint. 

    In the Classroom: My MOOC students used OTTO to annotate key film moments from the weekly film noir screenings. To avoid copyright issues, OTTO's film noir collection contains only public domain films such as Detour, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and D.O.A. All these public domain films are available on YouTube.

    Each annotated entry in OTTO is connected to a specific time stamp on the streaming video. Therefore as students annotate a film, they automatically share their clips and their analyses with other students. You can click on any annotation in OTTO to jump directly to that moment in the video. Moreover, OTTO annotations function like mini-essays: they reveal how students are making sense of these films and how these moments can contribute to an overall understanding of film noir. Click here to visit OTTO (or go to the following URL: http://ilearn.bsu.edu/otto) and explore how students annotated a film like Edgar Ulmer's 1945 noir masterpiece Detour. FYI, you need a Google account (such as a Gmail address) to log into OTTO.

    As a teaching aid, OTTO provides a template for students on how to write concise and close analyses of film moments. First, students have to select an annotation category. There are ten categories in OTTO such as dialogue and screenplay, performance/acting, photographing, staging, etc., to help students limit their focus to a particular aspect of a shot or scene. Second, there is a description text box for students to provide a context or a simple overview of a particular filmic moment. Third, there is an analysis text box that enables students to reflect on how the moment they are tagging and annotating contributes to their understanding of film noir and connects to larger theoretical, cultural, or thematic issues.

    OTTO becomes a living archive that exists both inside and outside of the classroom. It is an act of open scholarship and knowledge sharing. It can begin in a classroom setting but easily opens itself up to other scholars and fans via the Internet. In fact, OTTO is an open text tool, as its name indicates, so anyone can leave an annotation in the archive. We are currently in the process of launching our second annotation project, "The Dude Meets OTTO: Annotating The Big Lebowski Mashups."

    Students in my MOOC suggested other uses for OTTO including annotating video lectures. It could be a very useful tool to assess student understanding of a lecture, or to leave questions and comments for instructors based on specific moments. There are likely many other uses for OTTO since it can annotate any YouTube video.

    OTTO is in active development, so we welcome any feedback or suggestions. Also, what are your thoughts about video annotation projects and the types of assignments that can be built using these kinds of tools?

  • Sounds Good: Using SoundCloud as a Tool for Feedback in the First-Year Composition Classroom

    Catrina Mitchum's picture
    by Catrina Mitchum — Old Dominion University 3 Comments view

    In the fall of 2012, Sarah Spangler, Megan McKittrick and I began introducing the use of SoundCloud (an audio based social media network) in instructor-student and student-student feedback in English studies classrooms. We were hoping to build on the research that’s already been done on audio feedback by focusing on a technology that might help to create dialogue about student writing instead of just static feedback.

    In my own classroom, I used the technology to provide formative feedback (in addition to written feedback) on 2 major projects: a research essay and a visual argument. I also required students to complete 2 peer reviews of each of these projects: one written and one in SoundCloud. One of features of SoundCloud that was really exciting for us in our quest for creating dialogue was the ability to comment (in writing) on specific areas of a sound file.

    In order to better utilize the technology, in the Spring of 2013, I implemented requiring each student to respond to one of the peer responses in SoundCloud by answering a specific question that the classmate asked or responding about a specific area the classmate suggested working on. Overall, students across all classes have had a pretty positive response to the use of this technology and it was a positive experience for me and my colleagues as well. However, this project has had its issues. I'll only go over the two that are most relevant our intent and purpose here.

    First, the only thing that I changed about the second semester was requiring the additional comment within SoundCloud (I used the same instructional handouts and videos for the “how-to” of SoundCloud); however, I was inundated with frustrated emails from students who were having trouble using the technology at all stages. I’m baffled by this and am wondering if others have had similar experiences in using new technology in the classroom and what was done to solve the problem (I ended up doing a screen capture video that took the students from the class page in Blackboard all the way through).

    Second, the dialogue did not happen the way I was hoping (even with the inclusion of the required response in the Spring semester). I was hoping that students would use the technology to continue the conversation about their work; however, they stopped when the requirements stopped. That is, in the Fall of 2012, they only provided the recording, and in the Spring of 2013 they had the recording and one text comment back to a classmate’s review. Despite this, the feedback given in SoundCloud, in my classes at least, tended to give the classmate more guidance and more feedback. They didn’t stop at just answering the questions as they often do in written feedback.

    How else might this technology be used in the classroom? How might I improve my own use?

    Front Page Photo Credit: Peter Fuchs via Compfight cc
  • Twitter use in the classroom; OR "You are what you tweet"

    William Moner's picture
    by William Moner — University of Texas at Austin 1 Comment view

    In several recent courses, I've asked students to be engaged with the course material through the use of Twitter. In one course last semester their Twitter use factored into their assignment grade. Many courses are utilizing this public conversation platform as a teaching tool and a way to extend engagement beyond the temporal and spatial limits of the classroom, and this interaction tends to be positive and adds to the discourse in the class. As an added bonus, a Twitter account provides a timeline and a repository of past posts. So, what happens when a student uses his own personal account on his own time to make offensive racist comments that others in the class can see in their feed? And what recourse should an instructor or professor take to address the issue in class? 

    These questions stem from an incident emerging from a course I taught this past year. In class, I asked that each student sign up for a Twitter account on the first day. Several already used the platform; some had never before tweeted. To facilitate communication, I compiled a public list of students through Twitter's list tool and asked students to subscribe to that list. I was generally pleased with the amount and type of engagement within this class in the first few weeks of the course during the required time for interaction via the platform, and, by midterm, required use of Twitter for assignments had ended. 

    As was anticipated, the students continued to use Twitter for their own uses. I did ask students to stay engaged with the platform but in an informal way throughout the course and to check up on the list periodically (maybe once a week). Approximately one month after the last Twitter assignment, I noticed that a student was using the platform to make racist comments about certain racial and ethnic groups.

    What did I do? I turned to the "Teaching Media" Facebook group for advice! Some of my colleagues made fantastic suggestions on how to address this problem. The best options were either to confront the student individually during office hours or to address the class in general without naming names or getting into specifics. I opted for the latter. In this anecdotal case, the student tamed his racist language, but I cannot say for certain whether the student stopped because of what I had said to the class. I did make mention that comments on Twitter can be seen by future employers, and in a state as diverse as Texas his Twitter feed may make the difference in employment prospects. He began using Twitter because of my course; maybe the in-class netiquette lesson was what he needed. 

    When using social networking sites, we must remember that the balance of power rests on the student and his or her use of the technology. Social media are not classroom tools; they are social tools that blur distinctions between public and private, friends and family, professional lives and jokes among friends. Furthermore, social networking site are a place of students' experimentation with identity and personas. Twitter can "extend the classroom," but the bulk of interaction is in expressing feelings and desires unique to their age demographic (along with the colorful language and lyric-quoting out of context, which can be troubling). Hopefully students can learn to strike the proper balance between professional use of social networking sites and the language and style of discourse best left to conversation between close friends in private and not online.

    After all, as I reminded the students, anything posted on Twitter now exists in an archive in the Library of Congress. His racist comments are now on his permanent national record. If I had to go back and do this assignment again, I would start the students off with a primer on the public and private aspects of social networking platforms to make certain that they understand the reach of their message. Their future may depend on it.

    To my colleagues, how have you handled situations where the lines between private and public online communication have introduced problems in the classroom?


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  • What Do Students Learn about Writing from YouTube?

    Jack Dougherty's picture
    by Jack Dougherty — Trinity College (CT) view

    Let's be clear about one thing: I'm NOT proposing to replace in-person writing instruction with automated YouTube videos. Don't put me in that MOOC camp. But I do wonder about better ways to educate our students. How do they learn about the writing process from resources outside of our classrooms? When searching for guidance with drafting and revising college-level essays, do they turn to YouTube videos? I occasionally Google my way to this enormously popular site when I need help with tasks such as installing a car stereo or following a sequence of steps for new software. YouTube has successfully taught me on many several occasions when textual instructions failed. As an educator, I'm curious to know what students discover about the writing process from web-based multimedia. Furthermore, what can readers of MediaCommons teach me, a non-specialist in this field, about how to interpret these intriguing examples of video culture?

    Taking on the role of an undergraduate who's pressed for time, I gave myself only twenty minutes to search for YouTube videos with keywords such as "college writing" and "revising essay." Since popularity mattered more than quality for this exercise, I tended to gravitate toward results with higher numbers of views. Not surprisingly, much of the pedagogy on YouTube did not impress me. One-way video instruction lends itself to "talking heads" doing voice overs with PowerPoint cue cards that superficially advise us to "read the pages slowly" when revising and ask yourself, "does it flow well?", as suggested in "How to Write a College Paper" by ExpertVillage (2008). I quickly moved on to find something more engaging.

    A small handful of YouTube instructors drew my attention by sharing more substantive ideas and visually illustrating their writing process. In "How to Write an Effective Essay," JamesESL (2011) sketched out different ways to craft an introduction on a whiteboard. The low-tech production had some advantages: the "big picture" was always in view, and we watched him construct his ideas and build the process in front of us, rather than relying on pre-fabricated presentation slides.  I could have watched more of his 20-minute video (as did many of his 265,320 other viewers, I suspect) but in the interest of exploration, I moved on. 

    One of the more pedagogically innovative examples I saw was "Essay Rough Draft - Highlighter Activity" by ChristalaLaFay (2012). Her video displayed a screencast of a sample essay in her word processor, as she walked the viewer through a "reverse outline" exercise to identify the underlying structure within the text, and offer recommendations for how it could be improved. (Check it out. Even if it's not a perfect, she definitely deserves more than 339 views.)

    While YouTube should not replace in-person writing instruction, there are valuable ways it could supplement it. The writing process baffles many of my students, and it certainly baffled me during my first two undergraduate years, because this form of social communication typically was created in extreme isolation. That's what it felt like to me as a lonely writer, who only occasionally saw the prose of my classmates, and never witnessed how it was constructed. As a college instructor who spends considerable time teaching my students to improve their writing (but am not an official writing instructor), I'm looking for ways to pull back the curtain too often hides the writing process from my students. Perhaps web-based video is one way to do that. I'm intrigued by faculty in the STEM fields who create supplementary videos for their students on how to work through problems, often filmed in front of a whiteboard or as a computer screencast, as my Trinity colleague Mary Sandoval does for her Calculus II course. While I'm skeptical of MOOCs, sometimes I see glimpses of multimedia resources that could help students learn, especially if they can play them over again as needed. Perhaps those of us in the humanities have something to learn here. Might our students who need additional support on writing skills benefit from carefully crafted, hands-on visualizations that illustrate how we think about the authoring and revising process?

    How do MediaCommons readers interpret these and other instructional videos on the web? And do you encourage your students to learn about writing from YouTube? Share your thoughts here and also on our book-in-progress, Web Writing: Why & How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning.

  • Peer Review on the Web: Show me the evidence

    Dina Anselmi's picture
    by Dina Anselmi — Trinity College (CT) 1 Comment view

    In the old days, circa the 1980’s, with the birth of Writing Across the Curriculum, peer review was seen as a mechanism to ratchet up the stakes for students, as they were working on their writing assignments. In this approach, faculty members could be assured that at the very least, they were not the first and only person to ever have read a student’s paper.  Even though Jason Jones thinks that may be optimistic, I am still holding firm to that hope.  Moreover, there was the belief, or at least the hope that by providing students with a different audience — their peers — they would see their work differently and take the process of writing and rewriting more seriously.  No longer would writing be seen as a purely independent process “owned” by the student to be “given” to the professor. When I would discuss the peer review process with some of my colleagues, they often expressed skepticism about whether this process could really improve student writing or whether it was a waste of time. My intuitions told me that student final drafts were better and my students often told me that the process helped them reformulate their ideas. Chris Hager’s students seemed to believe that.  But the question still loomed — is there “real” evidence of improvement? The good news for my doubting colleagues and also for myself is that there is now a significant body of research on the positive effects of the peer review process. And even better, many of these studies involve “real” experiments, where a researcher actually compares papers from one group, for example those having received peer reviews with a second group whose papers did not receive peer review.  Results from these types of studies provide solid evidence of student learning that move the discussion beyond the interesting but basically impressionistic accounts of individual teachers.

    Fast forward to 2013. We are now taking the concept of peer review to a new level. With the advent of new technologies such as wikis and Google Docs, students can not only comment on each other's writing, but can easily provide feedback, review comments of others, and even collaborate with each other in writing drafts of assignments.  All of this has at once changed the landscape for our work as teachers but we have to again ask ourselves if these new technologies are leading to improvements in student writing and thinking.  Luckily, researchers are now providing us with some answers, using the same scientific method of comparison and control groups. One study by Ina Blau and Avmer Caspi (2009) illustrates this trend. They compared student writing in several different conditions to see if sharing work versus collaborating on work (by suggesting improvements or editing) would lead to more psychological ownership, responsibility and perceived quality of writing outcomes.  While they did find support for some of their hypotheses, most importantly that students in the collaborating groups had the highest perception of quality writing outcomes, the key point to emphasize is that their work demonstrates how one can begin to systematically research questions to help us know which technologies are most effective for different learning outcomes.  Clearly more research will be needed. We need to know, for example, if all students (e.g., novice vs. seasoned writers) will benefit equally from the same teaching technologies or how certain types of online writing might help or hinder different aspects of writing (e.g., grammar, organization, argumentation).  Knowing the answers to these types of questions might help us encourage even our most resistant colleagues into reimagining how they might teach with some of these new technologies. If we pay more attention to evidence-based research, it would make us better teachers and also help to enrich our students' learning.

    What kind of evidence would persuade you to consider web-based peer review in your teaching? Share your comments here and also on our book-in-progress, Web Writing: Why & How for Liberal Arts Teaching & Learning.

    Work cited:
    Blau, I., & Caspi, A. (2009). Sharing and collaborating with Google Docs: The influence of psychological ownership, responsibility, and student's attitudes on outcome quality. In Proceedings of the E-Learn 2009 World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, & Higher Education (pp. 3329-3335). Vancouver, Canada. Chesapeake: AACE. http://www.openu.ac.il/research_center/download/Sharing_collaborating_Google_Docs.pdf

    Image on front page by Nedral and available on Flickr. 

  • Using Web Writing To Banish The Greys

    Jason B. Jones's picture
    by Jason B. Jones — Trinity College 1 Comment view

    I thought it was sweet on Monday when Jack asserted that "most college essays still were written for exactly one reader: the professor." Such optimism, and on a Monday, too! Some days, I think this overstates the intended readership of much formal college writing by at least one. In yesterday's post, Chris Hager's students obliquely acknowledged this point, as their relationship to their own writing brightened when confronted with the certainty of peer readership. (See also Ryan Cordell on "Writing in Public (in the Classroom).") One of the things that web writing can do for the liberal arts is to revitalize the relationship between academic writing and its various potential audiences. And by helping us think differently about audiences, web writing can help academic writing be more than just a performance for a grade: it can be a way of connecting with people beyond the classroom, a way to translate academic practices more readily into other contexts, and a way to dramatize the best parts of a liberal education. That web writing in all its multimodal glory can connect students with different audiences is virtually axiomatic. This can happen in individual assignments, such as blogging, or using Facebook or Tumblr (another look at Facebook), wikis, or Twitter.

    Entire courses can be designed around the idea of actively engaging multiple audiences, whether on campus, around campus, or farther afield. Some fault the liberal arts for not providing directly transferable skills—that is, for not being reducible to job training. And while that complaint is obviously shortsighted, I also think that web writing offers a way to bridge academic writing practices and writing in other contexts. Consider the humble blog: Tim Carmody once described the "three-step dance" of great blogging: link, pull, response. A good blog post links to (cites) another source, quotes selectively to show why it's interesting, and then glosses it in some way. This move is so characteristic of academic prose that Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein turned it into the title of their book They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Instead of slavishly training people in one specific way of writing—whether it's an MLA-formatted research paper or a business letter—web writing can help students think about the core elements of all effective writing. One of the most popular ways to think about web writing as providing a transferable skill is via the e-portfolio. But the way portfolios so quickly become assimilated to the rhetoric of assessment and the job search always makes me a little sad. There are other reasons to keep a portfolio: Gardner Campbell has argued that the three core verbs of blogging—"narrate, curate, share"—are fundamental to education. By telling, editing, and sharing the story of your education, Campbell argues, you deepen your own learning while also facilitating others'. Whether in portfolio form or blog, web writingis an excellent way to achieve these different goals. How might you use web writing, and the different kinds of audiences it implicitly imagines, to challenge students? Post your response here and/or at Web Writing: Why & How for Liberal Arts Teaching & Learning, our book-in-progress.

  • The Secondary Source Sitting Next to You

    Christopher Hager's picture
    by Christopher Hager — Trinity College view

    Like a lot of people who teach in the humanities, I’ve spent years complaining about the ways my students use secondary sources in their papers. Most often, a choice quotation gets dropped into a paragraph with only quotation marks separating it from the surrounding prose. Slightly better, a student may call out the author of the source—”Smith writes, ‘The Great Gatsby is a scathing critique of the American Dream’”—without showing any awareness of what Smith has to say beyond the single quoted sentence. Students come to my office hours and tell me, “I’m in good shape with this paper—I have a lot of sources that support my point.” When I explain why a writer shouldn’t be citing only those sources which support his or her point, students generally look at me as if I am extolling the virtues of driving on the wrong side of the road. Why cite a source, they seem to think, if not to borrow its authority for my argument?

    I had been interested for awhile in moving more of my students’ writing on to the web, but I didn’t have a precise pedagogical rationale until last year, when something clicked: if I could “publish” my students’ writing on the web—and I very easily could, using WordPress—my students could begin to see their peers’ essays as secondary sources. And if I asked them to cite sources written by the very people sitting next to them in the classroom—to see secondary literature as the work of actual peers, rather than of invisible “authorities”—they would see those sources not just as reservoirs of ready-to-use quotations but as the reflections of particular thinkers with particular points of view.

    In a first-year seminar devoted to the history and literature of a single year, 1862, I first asked students to conduct primary-source research on the events of a single day in that year. Their reports of that research were posted to a WordPress site, which then became required reading for the class. For a subsequent assignment, the students had to construct an argument about continuity or change over time in 1862. They needed to cite at least three essays written by their peers (about three different days), supplementing that with additional secondary research. These final essays were published online, too, to form a student-authored anthology on America in 1862.

    Not every problem with student use of secondary sources was instantly solved. But some of my students did do a notably better job at situating their arguments in the context of a scholarly conversation. Some showed a refreshing sensitivity to nuance when they expressed respect for a peer’s research while disagreeing with the peer’s analysis. And there were some unforeseen ancillary benefits of this web-based assignment, too, in addition to modest progress on the issue I set out to address. One student reported feeling “very motivated to do great work since I knew all my classmates were going to see my work.” Another found that seeing—and reading carefully—other students’ essays “allowed me to get a better grasp for what I was and was not doing right in my own writing.” And several students appreciated the way in which online publication dignified their writing; as one student put it, turning student writing into assigned reading was a way of “giving our hard work the credit it deserves.”

    Have you found ways of your own to use web-based assignments to address challenges with student writing? Share your ideas here and at Web Writing: Why & How for Liberal Arts Teaching & Learning.

    Image on front page my mhmarketing and available on Flickr

  • Web Writing: An invitation to a book-in-progress for teaching & learning

    Jack Dougherty's picture
    by Jack Dougherty — Trinity College (CT) 2 Comments view

    Note: MediaCommons launches a month-long "Teaching with Technology" discussion with this one-week special cluster by the editorial team of Web Writing.

    When I began teaching my undergraduates how to enhance their expository writing at my liberal arts college, I was surprised by how little had changed since I was in their seats several years ago. Despite the potential to reach broader audiences with the Internet, most college essays still were written for exactly one reader: the professor. But the recent growth of freely accessible web-based authoring, annotating, and publishing tools inspired me to redesign some writing assignments to connect with broader audiences, both inside and outside of our classroom. My students and I learned how to manage a "crowd-writing" exercise, and also how to organize simultaneous peer review with Google Documents. We published student web-essays on WordPress and wondered: if you build it, will they come … and comment? Posting work on the web can be a powerful, authentic motivator for student authors, but in my role as the instructor, it also introduces legal issues on balancing the competing interests of public writing and student privacy.

    Sitting down with my faculty colleagues to discuss the teaching of writing on the web generated far more questions than answers. Why should (or shouldn't) we integrate the Internet into our college-level essay assignments? How does student learning and faculty pedagogy shift when we share drafts of our ideas and comments on the public web? To what extent does the content of the writing change? What types of digital tools deepen — or distract from — thoughtful reading, authoring, and editing? What are the potential rewards and hidden risks of web-based writing for liberal arts education?

    Since no book satisfactorily addressed all of these questions, we decided to write one, and invite you to join us as co-creators. Our work-in-progress, Web Writing: Why & How for Liberal Arts Teaching & Learning, is a born-digital edited volume, where readers and contributors actively shape its direction during its developmental stages. Participate in our open call for "Essay Ideas & Proposals" (through June 15th, 2013) by posting and responding to comments on our discussion page. The Center for Teaching and Learning at Trinity College will award five $300 subventions to support the authorship of outstanding essay proposals (with preference based on financial need). All contributors are welcome to submit full essays by August 15th, in preparation for the open peer review by designated experts and general audiences in Fall 2013. We are particularly interested in works that blend the “why and how” by making effective use of the open web platform to blend thoughtful insights with illustrative examples (including links, screenshots, images, etc.). Essays selected by the editorial team to advance to the final round will be revised by authors and copyedited for an open-access digital publication, sponsored by the Center, possibly in partnership with an academic press, in 2014. Web Writing builds on innovative models in scholarly authorship and publishing, including Kathleen Fitzpatrick's Planned Obsolescence and other works by MediaCommons Press, and my experience as co-editor (with Kristen Nawrotzki) of Writing History in the Digital Age (forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press). Learn more about our editorial process and timeline. Share your response here, and/or post a comment directly on http://WebWriting.trincoll.edu.

    Image on front page by ted_major and available on Flickr. 

  • Intro: Teaching with Technology

    Jamie Henthorn's picture
    by Jamie Henthorn — Catawba College view


    Teaching with technology is a style many scholars are familiarizing themselves with. What is meant by teaching with technology was kept purposefully broad for this survey and includes teaching tablet based projects, web writing and social media projects that continue outside of the classroom, developing new software for a class, synchronous/asynchronous online learning, and teaching a MOOC.

    We have invited teachers to share either meta-reflections on technology in the classroom, or reflections on the outcomes of specific projects. The goal of this survey is to see and share exactly how technology is used in the classroom and what we gain from its use. Specifically, we want to consider any unexpected outcomes of the use of technology.

    If you find yourself reading the responses and feel as though you would also like to contribute as well, MediaCommons allows for additional contributors after the survey has begun. You are free to email the editors a short proposal at mediacommons.odu@gmail.com and we have left space for additional responses in our schedule.

    Below is a list of contributors to our survey on teaching with technology:

    Week 1 (May 20-24)

    We have a special cluster of responses from editors WebWriting:Why & How for Liberal Arts Teaching & Learning.

    Jack Dougherty, Trinity College

    Jason B. Jones, Trinity College

    Dina Anselmi, Trinity College

    Christopher Hager, Trinity College


    Week 2 (May 27-31)

    William Moner, University of Texas-Austin

    Catrina Mitchum, Old Dominion University

    Sarah Spangler, Old Dominion University

    Richard Edwards, Ball State University

    Roger Todd Whitson, Washington State University



    Week 3 (June 3-7)

    Matt Beale, Old Dominion University

    Megan McKittrick, Old Dominion University

    Lee Skallerup Bessette, Morehead State University

    Susan Currie Sivek, Linfield College

    Laura Buchholz, Old Dominion University


    Week 4 (June 10-14)

    Krystopher Purzycki, Old Dominion University

    Julia Romberger, Old Dominion University


    Special cluster in digital tools and technical literacy

    Mercer Hall, Buckley Country Day School

    Patricia Russac, Buckley Country Day School

    Gina Sipley, Buckley Country Day School


    Week 5

    Dr. Rodrigo, Old Dominion University