Revising the Resources List on My Syllabus

Stack O' Books by Kurtis Garbutt, on FlickrThis week’s post on Bedford Bits describes the work I have begun on revising my course documents to make them more visual. The ultimate goal is to make them more engaging and more useful to students.

I started with the required resources, which has been nothing but a glorified book list for as long as I can remember. My revised version still lists books, but I have tried to add some negative space and color to make it easier to read and a bit more friendly.

Read the full details in the blog post on the Macmillan Community site.

 
Image: Stack O' Books by Kurtis Garbutt, on Flickr

Audience, Peer Review, and the MOOC

More empty classroom stuff, UMBCI failed at #WEXMOOC this week. Though admittedly, I feel a little tricked by the nature of the MOOC (defined generally) as well. Our second assignment asked us to reflect on our identities as writers in relationship to three other writers. The assignment gave these instructions:

[W]rite 800-1000 words where you explore connections between your identity as a writer and other people’s identities as writers. Your audience is other writers in this class. 

The assignment seems like the usual stuff of the composition classroom. The audience is quite often other students enrolled in the course. I hadn’t thought through how literally this fact was true however nor how different my audience is in the context of this particular course.

Audience analysis is, of course, my job in a writing project, and I blew it this time. The assignment tells us that we are writing to the “other writers in this class.” Unfortunately, I didn’t think enough about the people who make up WEXMOOC. I imagined the group as somewhere between a typical first-year composition class and what we called a trailing section (that is, students who either took a remediation course or had failed FYC the first time through, so they were off sequence, taking a first semester course during second semester). Some of the students in WEXMOOC are that sort of typical first-year comp student, but there are a lot more international students focusing on Global Englishes than is the norm. Many of the students in WEXMOOC mention other languages that they use. Writing what I think is a good piece or what I believe a typical FYC student would think met expectations fails to connect with these readers. I needed to pitch everything to a global reader and to avoid any moves that did not follow clearly from the assignment. I didn’t think about my audience thoroughly enough to realize that my approach was completely off.

The MOOC is an empty classroom. I can’t see the audience. I do not know them, and because of the huge number of students involved, I probably never will know them. I have to guess at their demographics. I’m not sure where to do research to find out the composition of this particular MOOC. The success of WEXMOOC relies on understanding your readers, but that information is hard to find. I wish the course included more discussion of the audience itself. I would never give an assignment like this without spending time analyzing the audience as a class as well as analyzing several other audiences for comparison. Given that we have limited ability to learn about the members who make up this course, we could benefit from a deeper exploration of this particular audience.

Audience analysis is only part of the problem however. The members of this course need significantly more training in peer review, especially given the structure of this MOOC. Peer review is actually the part of this course that matters. My writing doesn’t need to be what I would call good. It needs to be something that this group of students will peer review as good. Completion in the course relies not just on completing the writing and doing peer reviews, but also on earning a specific average on a 5-point scale from peer readers.

From what I can tell from the two peer responses that I have gotten so far, my readers expected a clear, optimistic conclusion in this assignment. I compared my own background to three others, reflecting with some pessimism on the unfairness of literacy acquisition. It was not an especially brilliant conclusion, but it did follow from what I had discussed. My readers, however, weren’t prepared for anything but an obvious, optimistic conclusion. They wanted me to end with some plan to fix the unfairness that I discussed. They want me to be a better person, not a better writer. One even suggested that I should take some classes in a foreign language so I could relate to the writers I used for my comparison. That is life advice, not how peer review advice. My readers wanted a pretty fable, tied up with a life lesson.

Completion in the course relies entirely on successful peer review. The WEX Training Guide is a good document, but I don’t think it’s enough. It includes only one example review, and that paper was written by a graduate student. That sample isn’t close to the reality of the four papers I gave peer feedback on. Students need more example papers and feedback, including some examples that deal with issues that reflect those students in the course face. An FAQ might even help if it addressed questions like “What if the text doesn’t match the assignment?” , and “Should I mention grammar problems?” As a teacher, I know how to deal with those issues, but I’m not sure that the average student in this MOOC does. Leveling a group of readers for a fair assessment takes time, but when peer feedback matters as it does in this course, you have to take that time.

I opened by mentioning that I feel a little tricked by MOOCs. The pedagogical necessities of MOOCs have created a writing classroom unlike any I have encountered before. This week, WEXMOOC reminded me that the teachers in a MOOC only supervise what is going on. Work is not assessed from a teacher’s perspective, but from the students’ point of view. Writing to peer reviewers is quite different from writing for an objective teacher. Everything relies on those peer reviewers in this course. The size of the course and the range of student writing abilities mean that the staff of a MOOC can never respond adequately to all the writing that students do. If peer reviews matter to the success of a MOOC however, students need more scaffolding to do the work effectively and need a better understanding of one another if they are to meet the expectations of MOOC students as an audience.

 

[Photo: More empty classroom stuff, UMBC by sidewalk flying, on Flickr]

 

The Tiresome Insistence of the MOOC

Say "MOOC"... I covet beta site access. I download and install the newest tools. I try out and review apps before they catch on. I enjoy crash testing systems (even if their developers wish I wouldn’t). But MOOCs haven’t tempted me.

Every week, as I browse the higher ed news and the TechRhet Facebook group, I find at least one new article on MOOCs, but I rarely read more than the first paragraph. When my colleagues merrily enrolled in Duke MOOC and the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, I not only refused to play along but also questioned the worth of the entire endeavor.

MOOCs looked like nothing more than jazzy distance education to me. All I saw was oversized distance ed courses that employed as many digital bells and whistles as possible. Now to be clear, I have no problem with distance education. I don’t even have an issue with online distance ed. I taught Virginia Tech’s first online distance business writing course back in 1994. I have no complaints about using the digital tools to teach writing. I’ve been using digital tools for teaching for decades. I don’t see anything particularly revolutionary in the basic capabilities of a MOOC.

In fact, when I see the world of higher ed so titillated over something we’ve been doing in the computers and writing classroom for years, I’m mainly ticked off. What about a MOOC makes teaching with discussion forums, videos, and online peer review suddenly seem amazing? Seriously, world, I’m asking. Why is this approach exciting and revolutionary? As a writing teacher, I just don’t get it.

No matter how hard I try, what I see in MOOCs is pedagogy that just doesn’t fit with what I know about the best ways to teach composition and rhetoric. There’s a reliance on “sage on stage”-style video presentations. The courses are ridiculously oversized, with thousands of times more students than is recommended. From what I have seen, the students have widely differing levels of ability and need, making it difficult to make sure they get the support they need. It’s hard enough to reach every student when you only have a class of 20 or 25 students. How can you possibly reach every student when there are anywhere from 25,000 to 250,000?

When I teach, I try to reach individual students. Naturally, there is general advice that I share—show, rather than tell; meet the needs of your audience; and so forth. When I talk about these concepts however, I try to fit them to the students with specific examples that they will understand. Education is rarely a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Different students require different examples and approaches. As a teacher who prizes communication and values connecting with her audience, I struggle to understand how MOOCs can teach as well as the much less massive and less open writing instruction that I am used to.

It’s not the OC part of the MOOC that worries me. I champion online courses. It’s the MO I am trying to figure out. I want to understand how to make writing instruction work in a massive, open classroom. There are parts of my heart that really want this kind of global educational outreach to work. I would love being able to help anyone, anywhere increase their literacy skills. But are MOOCs the way to do it?

I see a tiresome insistence on pedagogy that doesn’t match with what I know about teaching reading and writing. Yet, a lot of teachers I respect see potential—and that’s why I’ve signed up for The Ohio State University’s Writing II: Rhetorical Composing (#WEXMOOC). If Susan Delagrange, Cynthia Selfe, Kay Halasek, Ben McCorkle, and Scott Lloyd DeWitt are devoting their time to this strategy, there has to be something there.

The more I have looked at what they are doing and the more I read about MOOCs this past week, the more questions I have:

  • Is my error comparing MOOCs to the classrooms I know? Are MOOCs a new kind of classrooms where the rules have changed?
  • How is the college campus norm of course credit confusing my understanding?
  • In what ways have the relatively even level of literacy skills on a college campus spoiled me? Has my experience with evenly matched students blocked my ability to imagine how to teach dramatically uneven classroom populations?
  • Why is the completion rate for MOOCs so low? If they are a revolutionary way to reach this population of learners, why aren’t they working? Do we need to change our definitions of success and completion?
  • What more do students need to succeed? Can we figure out why students who flourish in MOOCs do so, and then use that knowledge to identify students who needs additional support or preparation and give it to them? How can we provide personal guides to help students navigate this massively open landscape?
  • How do issues of digital access come into play in the success or failure of a student?
  • In what ways does successful participation in a MOOC relate to environmental and cultural parameters that have nothing to do with teaching and the MOOC?
  • How do my own questions of labor, workload, and job security color my understanding of the MOOC? How much of my dissatisfaction with this strategy relates to my fear that it is an attempt to balance the budget by computerizing instruction and removing the teachers?
  • How can a MOOC accommodate a range of student needs without exhausting those who design and teach in it?
  • How can we focus on the benefits of collaboration on such a large scale? How can we help students make personal connections? What do we need to do to ensure that there we build a community of learners that benefits everyone?
  • Are there ways to give credit for the informal or at least non-traditional learning of a MOOC in the more formal systems of higher ed?
  • How can the MOOC fit into the future of higher ed? Do they fit? Do they change the conversation about education and public outreach?
  • What do we need to do to ensure that the best pedagogy drives the future of the MOOC and other online education, rather than the budgetary needs of the university or the business decisions of companies like Coursera and Udacity? Where are we willing to make compromises, and what is non-negotiable?

That’s a lot of questions. Over the next few weeks, maybe I can find some of the answers.

[Photo: Say "MOOC"… by audreywatters, on Flickr]

A Definition Assignment from a Super Bowl Commercial

I wasn’t blown away by the Super Bowl commercials this year. There were a couple that seemed cute to me. The GoDaddy commercials, as usual, annoyed me. WWE fan that I am, I enjoyed The Rock’s Milk commercial, and like several of my friends, I teared up over the Clydesdale commercial.

The most immediately useful commercial however was this farmer commercial for Ram Trucks, which uses Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer” speech as its text:

Play this commercial in the classroom and talk about writing extended definitions. It’s a wonderful example and can inspire students to create their own video definitions.

My Connected Learning Round-up for 2012

NotesEarlier this year, I spent some time learning and posting about Connected Learning, in particular in the context of the college writing and literature classroom. Most of my posts focus on trying to define what Connected Learning is and thinking about how the strategy would work with college students in programs that often have strict guidelines about what courses must cover.

Here is a round-up of those posts, most of which appeared on the Bedford/St. Martin’s Bits blog:

I returned to my Connected Learning notes today to prepare for a discussion with Mimi Ito, Howard Rheingold, and Jon Barilone on the future of Connected Learning and how to grow and expand the movement. As I reflected, I kept returning to the same issues that made explaining and recommending Connected Learning so difficult for me:

  • I want to create a version of the definitions, the strategies, and the reasons that they are valuable in approachable language that meets the needs
    • of busy teachers who do not have the time to do extensive research,
    • of the families who see students engaged in non-traditional activities and wonder why this is an effective system,
    • of administrators who want to understand how these experiences will help students meet curriulum goals, and
    • of students who push back from these strategies and who need a better understanding of why teachers are choosing these ways to teach.
  • I want to better understand how various learning strategies relate to each other, where they overlap, and how to explain when and where Connected Learning is the most effective strategy. During the various webinars I attended in 2012 and in my reading elsewhere, I encountered a variety of terms: Connected Learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning, gamification of learning, participatory learning, participatory culture, and so forth. I need resources, even a simple glossary, to help me understand them all.
  • I would like to have a collection of position statements, rationales, and pathways to support teachers who are trying to get started. I would love to be able to provide some responses that teachers can use when they are asked questions at the strategy. Knowing in my heart that this is the right approach doesn’t help much when I’m trying to convince someone to adopt Connected Learning.
  • Finally, and most significantly, I wish I had the funding to pursue all these documents that I want to write. It’s so frustrating to have an idea of the kinds of documents and resources teachers need and not to be in a position where I can create them because I need to pursue work that will give me a paycheck.

[Photo: Notes by English106, on Flickr]

Aligning Composition with Student Interests

USMC Iwo Jima War Memorial at Night, World War II, Veteran Soldiers, American FlagI was lucky enough to teach a first-year composition course in the mid-80s that focused on the rhetoric of war. Admittedly, the topic was not one I had any deep ties to. It wasn’t one I would have chosen on my own. I took on two sections of the specially themed course as a favor.

I was not an authority on the topic. I hadn’t even reviewed all the texts for the course before I began teaching. I had to work to keep up with the readings and the films that the class watched. I designed the usual kinds of assignments and activities, which I have documented in a List of Ten and in my blog post Assignment: Naming and the Rhetoric of War. Frequently, the students in the classroom knew more than I did about historical battles and current military events.

Despite all the reasons the course could have gone wrong, I found myself with some of the most engaged students I have ever taught. Their personal interest in the topic made all the difference. Students had signed up for the course because they were interested in exploring the topic, so they came into the classroom ready to dig into the texts.

By contrast, the overwhelming majority of students signing up for first-year composition courses had no details on the courses they were choosing. It’s much harder in this more typical unthemed composition course to create contexts that will lead to personal connections for students. 

You can read the list of possible contexts for a generic composition course and my ideas on how to align composition with student interests in my post on the Bedford Bits site.

Gaming the Writing Process

The Art of Video Games 2012What would happen if we rethought the ways that we think and talk about writing and the writing process to use the kind of language and thinking that people use when they play games? That’s the question I’ve been pondering during the several weeks since Katie Salen’s webinar, Making Learning Irresistible: 6 Principles of Game-like Learning.

Last week I talked about how to make a curriculum relevant by thinking like a game designer when you structure your curriculum. This week I want to take that idea a little further by considering how a game designer might teach writing.

Read more about the 3 fundamental ways my teaching will change if I apply the strategies of game play to the writing process in my complete post on the Bedford Bits site.

 

[Photo: The Art of Video Games 2012 by blakespot, on Flickr]

Bits Week in Review for November 28

Catch up on your reading with this round-up of posts from last week on teaching composition and rhetoric from Bedford Bits, on teaching English language arts at the secondary level in High School Bits, and on teaching literature and creative writing from Bedford Lit Bits.

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Bits Week in Review for November 6

Here’s the round-up of posts from last week on teaching composition and rhetoric from Bedford Bits, on teaching English language arts at the secondary level in High School Bits, and on teaching literature and creative writing from Bedford Lit Bits. I hope you find something you can use in the classroom or your research!
 

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For regular updates from Bedford Bits, be sure to sign up for the Ink’d In newsletter (and other resources), like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.
 


Cross-posted as a Note on Bedford/St. Martin’s page on Facebook.

Get Rid of Old Writing Practices

Bathing Beauty in vintage VogueHere’s an interesting tip, related to exercise, but with a much wider application:

Throw away the bathing suit you wore in high school… and the memory too. It’s normal to have a mental image of yourself when you last exercised like a fiend. But if that image is from high school, you could be in big trouble. Even if it’s from last year, forget it. Remember as little as possible of what you used to look like. Starting today, make new memories. (from 14 Tips for Starting and Sticking with a Workout Routine)

What I’m wondering is how that tip applies to things other than exercise—like writing. Throw away those writing practices you used in high school (5 paragraph theme anyone?). Find new ways to write! What old things could you throw away to stop dwelling on the past and build new ways of working?

[Photo: Bathing Beauty in vintage Vogue by uppityrib, on Flickr