Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

My blogging persona

I am writing my 100th blog post at the same time that many elementary school students are marking their 100th day of school. For many of those students the 100th day brings with it an assignment to collect/display/share 100 items of some sort (buttons, paper clips, etc). I can still remember my son agonizing over what he should collect. He wanted it to be something unique, but it also needed to be readily available and portable. Now I can’t even remember what he chose, but I suspect it was something we found in the kitchen. However, my recent consternation about what to do with my 100th blog post combined with recent Facebook posts by parents and teachers of primary students celebrating the 100th day of school reminded me of that dilemma and helped me put my own struggle into perspective. Yes, this is an exciting milestone, but there will be many more blog posts to come.

But what can I, or should I, use this occasion to discuss? I started two different posts (about alternate academic career tracks and my annual review) and considered a host of teaching-related posts (my recent experiments with badges and Google+ communities, for example) but in the end decided that these posts can wait for a less momentous occasion.

Then I contemplated whether this might be the best time to wrap up this blog – as a Blogger blog that is. I have a professional web site and have been considering for months the advantages and disadvantages of maintaining a separate blog and web site as well as the issue of Blogger vs. Wordpress. But I’m pretty sure I’m making the switch to a Wordpress blog on my own web site (the control and aesthetic issues I’m having with Blogger are simply beginning to outweigh the advantages of Blogger) so there goes that topic which many others have ably discussed such as this post on The Painted Hive and Build Your Own Blog.

Then I mulled over the idea of discussing my history and development as a blogger. This blog is three years old so I have been able to maintain a fairly consistent presence, but the fact that it took that long to arrive at the magical “100” is a clear indication of my inability to post weekly and doesn’t tell us much about me as a blogger. My tags are a little more telling, but also somewhat problematic as I haven’t always been consistent (or smart) about their use. I’m kind of interested in my Top 5 Posts (as indicated by readership) but that also says more about my readers than about me. In the end, I concluded that a picture was worth more than words and simply plugged my blog into a Wordle. This simple graphic summarizes what my blog is all about.

My description of my blog is:

This blog reflects my interest in writing pedagogy, agency and efficacy, and teaching with technology -- as a rhetorician and researcher as well as writer, teacher of writers, and teacher of writing teachers.

The Wordle clearly highlights the topics that I write about although some trends were a little surprise to me. Obviously as a teacher and National Writing Project site director issues surrounding students, classes, and education are of keen interest and I clearly write about them a lot. However, I tend to write from a more personal place about my own experiences and experiments in my classroom. As a social media proponent and online teacher/learner it is also not surprising to see that idea highlighted.  Similarly, as I am interested in the idea of community as a teacher, administrator, and researcher I was not surprised to see that featured prominently. But I was rather surprised to see that writing was not among the most prominent topics I write about. Perhaps I need to consider that as I plan future blog posts. I think using Wordle as a reflective and analytical tool can help a blogger consider the past and plan for the future. It was certainly a worthwhile exercise for me.

Finally, after reading Pat Thomson’s post about blogging identity I decided that this might be the perfect time to explore my own blogging identity. Like Thomson (and most other humans), I have multiple private and professional identities and have written about this identity problem before. However, I tend to keep this blog focused on my various professional identities (although I have upon occasion discussed more personal topics that connected with these professional interests). I do not do a good job separating the personal from the private when it comes to social media, but that is another post for another day. Unlike Thomson, I did not delete my rant about education, but then as someone who works (and writes and researches about that work) with teachers I think my concerns about my son’s education touch on (at least peripherally) what I write about in the normal course of blogging.

I really like two ideas that Thomson shares in her post. I, too, blog in an effort to “de-privatize” my own thoughts and struggles with teaching, learning, and researching. Yes, I sometimes worry that I overshare, but as someone who advocates reflection for her own students how can I not practice what I preach? I truly believe in the importance of reflection to learning and growth and this blog plays a tremendous role in my own growth and learning. Interconnected with this is the simple fact that I am a teacher and a National Writing Project site director. As such it is my job, my duty, my calling to make visible my struggles, failures, and successes in hopes that these experiences will provide lessons for others as well as my entrĂ©e into conversations about these issues. That is the power of blogging and social media – that I can connect/communicate and learn/share with someone like PatThomson who is not even on my continent.

Also, blogging is a powerful tool for creating that sense of “there” that Thomson discusses in her post. Face-to-face and real-time connections can be powerful and have a long-term impact, but they are also transitory. I have a terrible memory, especially when it comes to verbal interactions, but blogging can live on and remains accessible. It can provide a “just in time” spark or response -- at least I hope mine does.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

NOT The Trouble With Online Education

My Ph.D program recently shared a link to a New York Time’s Op-Ed piece about online education that still has my blood boiling. “The Trouble With Online Education” certainly does not present any new ideas or arguments about (against?) online education (nor did it when the piece came out in July), but I suppose the timing of reading the piece during the first week of our semester – a semester when I am teaching two online classes – sparked a need to respond. Whatever the reason, there are several points the author makes that are really bothering me as an educator in general and online teacher (as well as former/ongoing online student) in specific.

As an educator it really bothers me that Mark Edmundson is offended by the notion that professors might learn from their students. Yes, I am the content specialist in my classroom and as such usually know a lot more about my subject than my students, but I would argue that if you are not learning from your students then you are doing it wrong. Education is not just about transferring chunks of information from one head (yours) to another (your students). That is an outmoded and ineffective model and one of the things wrong with education today. Education is about exploring ideas and if you are not giving students the opportunity to explore, understand, apply, and share in your class then you are missing out and, worse, you are cheating your students.

Edmundson then goes on to ask the question: Can online education ever be education of the very best sort? This is a valid question and one we should continue to ask, but what irks me is the assumption that a lecture class is the gold standard by which education should be measured. Just this week Cathy Davidson argued that “If we profs can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.” She makes many excellent points about the need for education reform and how/why online education will be a major player in that reform but she also points out that lectures are an economic expedient but not good pedagogy. Davidson points out lectures may (if done well by the expert performers Edmundson lauds) be entertaining, but research shows students do not retain information presented in this format or understand how to apply it. Just yesterday Matt Reed agreed with Davidson and noted that lecture has never been “a particularly effective way to teach.” Online classes can be and are designed and taught in similarly ineffective ways all around the world, but as Davidson and Reed point out there is also great potential for innovation in both the traditional classroom and the online classroom if we adapt to new circumstances and knowledge and employ new strategies and new tools. Whether we like it or not, times are changing and we profs need to reform and “turn into the skid” or the university will indeed be torn apart as Edmundson so fears. The fault will not be with online education but will instead be with profs (and institutions) that refuse to evolve and grow.

The idea that Edmundson presented which really made my blood boil is that an online class cannot be a genuine intellectual community because it is a monologue rather than a dialogue (ironic much?). He goes on to describe online education as anonymous, sterile, abstract, and lonely. I thought my head my spin off my shoulders after reading this opinion which was apparently formed after watching a pre-filmed online class. Well, of course that model of online education is not as rich as the live lecture (which is already pretty ineffective) but apparently Edmundson is not aware of the tremendously rich and varied pedagogy taking place around the world that harnesses the power of technology to make online and blended classes exciting and challenging places to learn. It makes me wonder how Edmundson would respond if his students present such a poorly supported argument.

I would urge anyone who questions the exciting class design possible in online and blended classes to visit such collectives as HASTAC and Hybrid Pedagogy to find overwhelming support to counter the idea that online education is anonymous, sterile, abstract, and lonely. I strive to make my classes an interactive community with dynamic, collaborative projects and my class activities and assignments are constantly evolving inspired by the amazing work being done by my friends, peers, and colleagues around the world. This is an exciting time to be an educator and I believe our students are enriched by the experience. Sometimes my class activities and assignments don’t work out as planned (or hoped) but then that was true when I taught face-to-face. Often my online space is messy but then so was my traditional class space – we were often loud too. But this week, our first week of classes at my institution, we have begun building a community. I shared personal tidbits about my hobbies, family, and dog and invited students to share as well. As we interact as a group, we have talked about favorite books, movies, TV shows, and video games as well as tattoos, crafts, and pets. We are finding out who is creative, who is nervous about technology, and who is incredibly busy. After only three days, 22 students have posted more than 150 messages to each other in our Community forum. Sure I have included some prerecorded videos to explain assignments but there are no lectures. Instead we will continue to share, discuss, challenge, and question – and I know that I will learn from my students just as they learn from me and from each other. I don’t know how Edmundson defines a “genuine intellectual community” but I’m pretty sure we’ve got one going on and I know we are not alone.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A letter to my students

I am excited to begin the semester with you because I have big (and fun, I hope) plans in store for our class, but before we embark on this adventure together I want to ask you some very important questions. Your answers to these questions will determine your success for the semester. I want you to succeed, but, ultimately, your success and failure is up to you and your fit with online instruction, this class, and this instructor, so please consider these issues carefully.

Is an online class right for you?

If you have never taken an online class then you really need to consider your technology and ability to use it. You will need consistent and reliable internet access and a backup plan if you lose it. Lack of internet access is not a get-out-of-jail-free-card and is, in fact, a one-way ticket to failure. You need internet access to participate in class activities and submit your work. It is that simple. Similarly, you will need a reliable computer and a backup plan if yours dies or is attacked by mutant viruses from outer space. Just like internet access you will still need to participate in class and complete your assignments. Finally, and most important, is your ability to negotiate the internet and use your computer (and its programs). Do you know how to use Word (saving files in various formats, add page numbers, etc.? Do you know how to attach documents? Do you understand email and discussion board etiquette? Do you know how to search databases (not just Google)? Do you know how to use advanced search functions?

Even if you have successfully completed another online class you may need to think not only about the issues above, but your willingness and ability to use more Blackboard tools than the discussion board and, in fact, to venture outside Blackboard to use other communication tools and social media. Don’t assume that all online classes are taught the same and that past success will predict future success.

It is also important for you to consider your self-discipline and learning style. Many students still sign up for online classes because they believe they will be easier and less work. The only thing that is easier about an online class is the flexibility. You still need to do the work and complete it on time, but you have the option to complete the work at 10 p.m. after the kids are in bed or at 10 a.m. before you report for your afternoon shift at work. However, this flexibility or freedom can be a real problem for students who need regular tasks and reminders. If you are the kind of person that finds things that are out of sight are then out of mind then you could have a real problem staying on task and up-to-date with your assignments. I do employ pictures and audio, but ultimately an online class tends to be rather text heavy. If you find it difficult to plow through lots of reading and writing then you might want to reconsider taking an online class. Remember, in an asynchronous online class your participation will mean typing and reading your classmates’ contributions to the class because we aren’t physically together to discuss our work verbally.

Is this class right for you?

This is a writing class and so there will be a lot of writing. This shouldn’t be a shock, but I assign an above average amount of writing because I also believe strongly in the importance of reflection. This means that not only will you write the assignments you might expect, but you will also write weekly reflections. Plus, as this is an online class your class participation activities will also involve a lot of writing. So, that all adds up to lots and lots of writing! For many students the problem isn’t so much the amount of writing, but the fact that I also ask you to think about your writing, sometimes weeks before the due date, and then write about that. This is going to be a challenge for many of you as you haven’t done this type of activity before.

This is a project-focused class. This means we will have several smaller assignments that support one major assignment due at the end of the class. This will give you a great deal of freedom to interpret these assignments as you wish, but not everyone finds this amount of freedom comfortable. In addition, this can often make these assignments more challenging and time-consuming than more traditional assignments. They can be more fun and more fulfilling as a result, but there are always trade-offs in life and the time-energy trade might not work for you this semester (or ever).

This class will be technology-heavy. I am a technology addict. Ask anyone. I love learning new tools and experimenting with them in my classes. If you do not feel comfortable exploring and using new technology (using a variety of Blackboard tools as well as social media, presentation tools, research tools, and more) then this is definitely not the class for you.

Is this instructor right for you?

The first and most challenging thing you need to know about me (well after the reflection and technology points I’ve already made) is that I believe learning is rhizomatic (read more about rhizomatic learning) which means essentially that I see learning more like a root-tree system than something that is linear or systematic. I also believe it is highly personal and individual. This means that while I have created a series of experiences for you that what you take away from this class will be up to you and what you bring to and invest in those experiences.  Some students, after a period of adjustment, find this attitude invigorating and an exciting change from traditional classes, but others do not feel comfortable in this type of environment. I understand. It is not for everyone. Some chaos is guaranteed to result.

You should also be warned that laziness makes me snarly and snarky. I know life happens. Work, family, school sometimes collide in a perfect storm and heaven forbid if you (or anyone close to you) has health problems and then there are the wonderful weather complications we get in winter and spring in Eastern Kentucky. When things get rough let me know. If you are up front about your issues and propose a plan to deal with those and still address your course work then I am happy to work with you. I am less happy when you disappear for weeks and are too lazy to contact me then expect me to devise a make-up plan. What really  makes me crazy though are people who ask questions because they are too lazy to do some thinking and/or research on their own. I will happily confirm or check your answers if you take some initiative, but I will not be happy if the answer to your question was easily available and you did not even check. Don’t be that person!

I am not a robot. I am online and available a lot. I am also on campus a couple of days a week. I check Blackboard and my email daily (usually) but that does not mean I always have time to respond to you immediately. Sometimes I have limited time and have to make a judgment call about which email to respond to and yours is not the most urgent. Sometimes I cannot work in a face-to-face meeting as quickly as you would like. This is because you are not my only class and, in fact, teaching is only about 1/3 of my professional responsibilities. And, as I already mentioned, I am not a robot. I am also a wife, mother, homeowner, dog mother, friend, church member, youth leader, and PTO officer. I have a life and responsibilities outside of MSU and Murphy’s Law happens to me, too. So, while I will do my best to provide all the support you need in a timely fashion don’t expect instant response or speedy grading all the time. I strive to be faster than molasses in January and usually, but don’t always, succeed.

Thanks for sticking this out, it ended up much longer than I expected, sorry about that. I hope you will carefully consider the questions of whether or not this online class taught in this way by this instructor is really a good fit for you this semester. If so then I will see you in Blackboard!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Community Building With Badges

I've been thinking about community a lot lately - specifically class community or rather creating a learning community in my online classes. I know from both my experience and research that learning communities have many benefits for students (my recent reading includes Dawson, Kearns and Frey, Sadera et al). They foster learning and lead to high-impact educational experiences. Just a quick review of my blog shows that I have written about community a lot (too much? you be the judge) so I won’t get into all the reasons why I consider it important in this post and will instead focus on my current pedagogical thinking regarding community building.

While I consider community important, I also know from personal experience that creating a learning community in your class - especially an online required general education class - is no easy task. I've created successful online learning communities at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, but those successes have been in classes of willing, motivated students. So the real question is: how do you create a successful learning community with students who aren't so much?

I have been thinking about this question for weeks - before the fall semester was even over. I knew that the community in my online general education class was not as strong as I wanted and it seemed to weaken as the semester progressed. I've been struggling to find a way to do better this semester.

My solution is to put my money where my mouth is - or rather to give class credit for community building. I usually give credit for participation activities such as class discussion (in the form of blogs and journals etc), but now I am going to try breaking these out so it is clear that I value community building and participating on the blog posts of others.

I am only adding one new class activity to my usual introductory activities. I traditionally open the class with ice breaker activities such as six-word memoirs and me museums (oops, is that my writing project showing?) and I expect to do the same this semester. I have also used social media to give us a more informal space to connect and share. This spring I will again use Google+ for that purpose. However, I hope that by making “community building” an actual assignment with points assigned that students will get the message that this is important (I tell them but I think the fact that the points will underscore the idea). 

I am also going to steal/borrow/adapt Cathy Davidson’s draft badging system to support the community building assignment. This is a new activity that I’m adding to the first few class sessions. My idea is to have students create badges for their community building work (frequent flier, cheerleader, class clown, social butterfly etc.) and then strive to earn as many badges as possible. I think it could be fun and spark a lot more activity and involvement. If it works I’ve already got plans to use a similar system for discussion feedback and writing workshop. Stay tuned!

How do you use badges in your classes? What community building activities do you use? Do you think my idea of community-building badges is a good idea or a disaster-in-the-making?