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]


Writing Effective Titles for Your Blog Entries

Women of WiFi, after CaillebotteHow do you write a title that makes people want to read your text? That was one of the major lessons of Chris Pirillo University (CPU): Writing for Google, an online seminar I attended last month. The on-demand version of the webinar is now available for rental on YouTube.

The session, led by Jake Ludington, covered writing titles, choosing keywords, using links, naming files, and including rich media—all the things that Google and other search engines pay attention to when they rank web pages. It’s what social media experts and marketing folks call Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

My blogs have a very specific audience of teachers and educators, so I’ve never thought much about SEO. I don’t write entries that the general person using Google or Bing is going to look for. Jake’s explanations of SEO made me realize, however, that I’ve been making a mistake by not paying more attention to my titles and the details in my posts.

I quickly realized was that I hadn’t been thinking about audience and purpose in the right ways when I was writing titles for my blog entries. I had fallen into the habit of using either titles that would fit a scholarly article or titles that relied on a pun or clever thinking to reveal their topic. Let me show you some examples, and point out what’s wrong with them:

  • Trying Out Some Tasty Blackbird Pie relies on an analogy related to the WordPress plug-in name. If you didn’t know Blackbird Pie was a plug-in, you’d have no idea what that post was about. I should have included keywords like WordPress and Twitter in that title.
  • Warning: Your Usage May Vary takes its title from an image in the blog post. The post is about usage and style, in particular as it relates to dialects and regional variation. Even though the title includes the word usage, I bet no one realizes what the entry is about. I should have been more descriptive instead of hoping the play on words would draw in readers.
  • No Yelling in the Food Court summarizes the underlying lesson of the classroom activity described in the post. Readers have no way of knowing, though, that the activity is a way to talk about audience and voice. Heck, they have no way of knowing the entry is about a classroom activity at all, and no teacher in the world who is looking for a fresh way to talk about audience is going to search for the phrase “no yelling in the food court.” I should have used a title that included the keywords and described the post better.
  • 100 Sticky Notes, or The Simple Way to Move from Observations to Composing is more like a title for a conference presentation than a blog entry. It’s far too long and the first part (“100 Sticky Notes”) doesn’t give a reader any idea what the entry is about. Even if you read all the way to the end of the title, it’s not going to be obvious that the entry is about a reader-response strategy. Using the words “Move from Observations to Composing” was a good start, but I needed to drop the cute stuff up front and be more specific about the point of the piece.

I liked all those titles when I wrote them, but I wonder now if I would have brought in more readers if I had used better titles. The webinar made me realize that good titles applied to far more than SEO. Certainly I want people to find my posts when they search for writing activities using Google, but writing effective titles for my blog entries also matters to RSS feeds, the Tweets I send out, and other ways that I spread the word about my work.

A well-written title makes a difference everywhere. How much of a difference? How about roughly 33% more visits? In the week before I attended the session on Writing for Google, my highest days in Google Analytics showed 86 and 96 visits.

After I attended the session and applied what I heard, my two highest days were 122 and 132 visits—and that’s all in the days before Thanksgiving. Having more teachers visit my site in the days before Thanksgiving is fairly unheard of. Most people are turning their computers off and forgetting about teaching at that point.

With that response to the change I made, I’m sold. Attending Chris Pirillo University (CPU): Writing for Google helped me write more effective titles (and posts), and I learned important information that I can pass along to students I work with. Who knew that a couple of hours could make such a difference?

If you want to learn more about writing effective titles for your blog posts, take a look at How to Make Money With Google on Chris Pirillo’s blog.


[Image: Women of WiFi, after Caillebotte by Mike Licht,, on Flickr]

My Top 3 Tips for Teaching with Twitter

Blue Cartoon Bird by Lisa YarostSo you’re ready to dive in and try Twitter in the classroom. Let me share these tips that can make sure your classroom experience is a smooth and effective.

  1. Create separate logins. Audience and purpose shift from message to message. Set up different Twitter accounts to keep classroom updates separate from updates for family, friends, and others. There are tips to make managing multiple accounts easier. Encourage students to create a separate account for official class work as well. I actually post on four accounts:
  2. Use hashtags. Choose a specific and unique hashtag (# plus a keyword) to group updates from your different classes (e.g., #VTEngl10). See “How To Create Successful Chats on Twitter with Hashtags” for more suggestions. Lists can work too, but you have to set up a list. You can just search for hashtags.
  3. Use search creatively. Obviously you can search for those hashtags you’re using, but there are some more sophisticated search tools you can use to narrow down exactly what you’re looking for. Pair a search for your hashtag with filter:links to get just the Tweets that have URLS. That’s an easy way to find those links to an assignment students posted. The until: and since: operators can narrow down Tweets by date.

And one extra tip: you can always Make your own Twitter bird if you need to relieve some stress.


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Lisa Yarost]


Is Twitter Classroom Worthy?

Sending Twitter Message by Cell Phone Image by rockinfreeI have a confession to make. I spend more time sending out Twitter updates (commonly called tweets) than I do on email these days.

Why is it a confession? Twitter has gotten a bad reputation in some circles. The College Humor video Twitter in Real Life demonstrates the way many people perceive the world of Twitter—it’s all a bunch of random, mediocre comments about whatever the writer happens to be doing at the moment in time.

Just because you can use Twitter for random reports on your day, however, doesn’t meant that you have to use it that way. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the updates on Twitter are anything but random and mediocre when they are read by the intended audience in the appropriate context.

Yep, it’s all about the rhetorical situation. There are lots of people using Twitter to publish status updates about projects, news, and their lives in ways that are anything but random. Take @BreakingNews for instance. All day long, every day, the editors post the latest news stories in 140 characters or less, often with a link to a page with more information.

Looking for a more local example? The town where I live posts regular updates about road construction, town planning, town council meetings, and special events as @Blacksburg_Gov. Virginia Tech, my local university, posts similar updates as @vt_edu and @vtnews.

But is Twitter classroom worthy? Obviously, you can send similar class information and news to students using Twitter, but is the social networking tool capable of more than simply class announcements? Absolutely.

If you’re unsure, think about Twitter as another of the many ways that students can publish their writing. Make it one of the tools in your arsenal, placing it alongside blog posts, Wikipedia updates, email messages, and web forum posts.

Now any one of those tools for publishing writing can be used in mediocre ways that are not worthy of classroom exploration. That’s where the teacher comes in. The teacher has to talk about the audience and purpose for the messages and help students find the most effective ways to communicate—whether students are using blogs, email messages or Twitter.

Now just how do you go about it? Come back later this week for tips on how to introduce Twitter and ways to use Twitter in the classroom.


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by rockinfree]

Résumés That Stand Out the Right Way

Catwoman being interviewed photo by Alaskan DudeThere are right ways to dress for a job interview. Sure, you want to stand out to an extent. You don’t want to blend into the sea of suits that march before the hiring committee. But, um, you don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons. Probably shouldn’t wear a catwoman costume to an interview for at an engineering firm.

The same advice applies to résumés. When I talk about résumés with students, I do encourage them to do things that will make themselves stand out a little.

Traditional résumés can get very boring when you’re reading through a stack of 20 or 30 of them. If students can make themselves stand out, they have a better chance of being noticed–and we all know that being noticed can lead to getting that job.

It’s just as important, though, to talk about how audience comes into play in preparing résumés. You can teach this lesson quickly and clearly with the Dzine blog collection of “27 Examples of Impressive Resume(CV) Designs,” which my friend @Alliegator8u found and shared.

  • Go over résumés as you normally would, exploring more traditional examples in your text or online.
  • Share the DZine collection of résumés with students and encourage general feedback and discussion. You can click on the résumés to see larger versions.
  • Once general discussion dies down, ask students to think about the jobs that they would apply for themselves. You might group students with like career goals for this project. Have students brainstorm some details about the positions and companies they will send resumes to. Emphasize that students are effectively completing an audience analysis for these companies.
  • Return to the DZine collection of résumés. With their audience analysis in mind, ask students to identify which of the résumés might stand out and still fit with the needs and expectations of the audience companies. Encourage students to read through the comments on the page for some interesting discussion as well.

It’s likely that some of the more intriguing DZine résumés will be inappropriate. While they are clever and eye-catching, most of the résumés are suited only for edgier graphic design positions and companies.

I don’t think I’d encourage MrSunnyBlack or Sofiane42 to send those résumés to a conservative company. But Kenji2030 and Kamilmytnik might have a reasonable mix of traditional elements and “wow” design that would let their résumés stand out without ending up in the decline pile. As the résumés should make clear to students, it’s all a matter of the audience the résumés are presented to.


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Alaskan Dude]

Bits Post: Warning: No Yelling in the Food Court

Try this incredibly simple but quite useful analogy to reach students who are struggling with issues of audience and style. Soon they’ll be speaking to, and not at, their audience.