We have the “need for speed,” but will we get it?

man-in-black-suit-covering-his-face-with-right-hand-3777554Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Surveying your students about the technology they have to take an online course is a good step to take prior to designing course content. Students without a computer at home and decent Internet bandwidth will have difficulty engaging with the course materials, especially virtual conferencing platforms.

Those students, however, may not be the only ones with “speed” and connectivity issues Internet Service Providers (ISPs) may strain to provide decent connection speeds given the scale of people across the nation who are now taking their courses online and, in many cases, teleworking. Will Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and Charter, all of whom argued so strenuously that the Internet is not a utility, be able to meet this demand?

Maybe not, reports The New York Times today. Students and employees working from home may no longer have access to those “big pipes” that schools and businesses have to deliver a speedy internet connection. Those of us a home are at the end of the line, and rather than drink from a pipe, we are drinking from a “garden hose” by the time we connect. The diminishment of connection speed is looming out there, threatening to make our online interaction sluggish and problematic.

The big ISPs say they are prepared for this increase in use. By next week, we will know for certain if they are.

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A great experiment in higher ed is about to unfold

jacqueline-kelly-PeUJyoylfe4-unsplashPhoto by Jacqueline Kelly on Unsplash

As I look back at my most recent post from a year ago, I couldn’t help but notice the “best of times” and “worst of times” in the title and reflect upon the presentation I made at CCCC with my George Mason composition colleagues Ariel Goldenthal and Jen Messier. Our entire presentation, based on data collected from faculty and students, argues that faculty should not be tossed in to online and hybrid teaching without sufficient preparation. 

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, that argument is about to get tested again, but on a scale Ariel, Jen, nor I ever imagined.

When colleges and universities across the United States begin teaching nearly all of their courses online this week or next, they will, by default, create a mountain of evidence about the essentials of faculty professional development for online course design and pedagogy that researchers should try to capture both during and after the semester. Just as important is to collect the enormous amount of data about how students learn online.

As Jonathan Zimmerman noted in his recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, students take online courses for “convenience” rather than their ability to learn more effectively: “Indeed, when students are surveyed, they point to convenience as the most positive attribute of online instruction: You can tune in at any time, sandwiching courses around work and family duties.” Studies continue to show that students tend to have lower passing rates in online courses. Shouldn’t we be studying what happens when they take online courses that are inconvenient for them?

Admittedly, this is a crisis situation and not the typical approach higher education takes to online pedagogy. The results will have significant validity issues.

But the scale of this transition is bound to yield important insights. Researchers need to plan now how to collect qualitative and quantitative data from faculty and students.

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Faculty Professional Development for OWI: “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times”

CCCC 2019 Banner

Looking back over the posts written by faculty who received enhanced instructional designer support to develop online writing courses, I can see the energy we had at the outset.

Now, nearly two-and-a-half years later, we have learned a great deal from designing, teaching, and revising our courses. Additionally, we compiled a new set of resources from our CCCC 2019 presentation that we can share with those about to undertake a similar course design/course redesign.

View the individual CCCC presentations here.

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And so it begins…

Seedlings sproutingAfter nearly a year of drafting, planning, and creating our online and hybrid courses, we are ready to take the next step: teach them.

We began last year with a group of five intrepid faculty who worked together to design online and hybrid versions of English 101, Composition, and an online version of English 201, Reading and Writing About Texts. This “first generation” was to have piloted their courses this fall and share the lessons learned with a “second generation” of faculty who were to teach these courses in the spring of 2018.

Our best laid plans went awry, however, due to unprecedented enrollment demands at our university. Far more students than we anticipated needed online and hybrid writing courses this fall, so we had to hire the second generation of faculty (five new instructors) over the summer and have them work alongside the first generation to teach these courses for the first time.

The second generation of faculty did not have the luxury of a year to design and build their courses, nor did they collaborate with an instructional designer. This places an entirely different pressure on these new five faculty, so we will be using a learning community model centered on virtual and f2f meetings to support one another as we implement online writing instruction at a scale beyond what we initially prepared for.

Our semester began on Monday, August 28th, so we are three days into it as I write this. Even after all the work I did last year, I felt anxious when I made my course “available” to students. It reminded me of sending my children off to school for the first time and wondering whether I had prepared them well enough for the “real world.” I felt relieved when they came home to tell me they had a “nice” teacher and had made some friends.

Now I am the teacher, and the perspective is quite different. I need to know if my students can learn from me and their peers in this new way of teaching. My colleagues and I still have questions and doubts about how to effectively teach online, but we are also invigorated by the talents all of us bring to this venture and the enthusiasm to get it right. Our goal is to share what we learn from this experience here on this blog.

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Synchronous-ity, Too.


After finally shaking off the jet-lag from my red-eye return from Portland CCCC 2017, I’ve found myself able to sit down really wrap my head around all the great panels and talks I was able to attend. I heard more about transfer and library collaboration and kaltura than I ever thought I could in one week, but a lot of great ideas from a lot of talented educators have started to sink-in for me.

For the last several months, my colleagues and I have been talking our way through what for us is uncharted territory — how do we make an online FYC that doesn’t lose in translation all the wonderful things that make GMU’s FYC program so special? After CCCC, I’m both surprised and relieved to see that we are not entirely alone in this venture. Future blog posts may discuss some specific C’s panels in detail, but today I wanted to write about one concept that kept popping up in each and every conversation about online FYC — a concept that my colleagues and I had been lead to believe we needed to abandon (or at least shy away from), or had little place in digital learning, but thankfully, that seems not to be the case: synchronous online learning.

When our cohort first got together early this Fall, we asked a lot of questions — questions about technology, content delivery, structure, Blackboard, and everything else imaginable one might consider when building a course from the ground up. But we asked most of these questions, I think, largely under the assumption that our classes would or should be asynchronous. For many digital/distance/online/whatever instructors, “flexibility” is king and flexibility = asynchronous instruction.  The typical digital learning module: a pre-recorded lecture, a reading or two, instructions, activities, and time. Lots and lots of time — sometimes days, sometimes weeks between instruction and deadline, because students need (want) the flexibility to work at their own pace. With group work, it takes even longer, as students post, then read, then respond, sometimes all at distinct deadlines. You post your class, a bunch of time passes, let’s say a week, then you read and comment on your students’ posts/activities (this takes time as well, so more time passes). It’s now 5 days, 7 days, or more from the lesson to the feedback — the time that you the instructor “know” whether or not your students “got it.” And if they didnt get it? More time.

In a face-to-face class, the lesson, the feedback and the reinforcement can, if you want, happen all in a single session. With a written activity, maybe a class or two passes, but still, less time than in the online analogue. There are clear problems with this time-gap: more time when students feel lost, difficulty in building momentum moving from concept to concept, and much, much more difficulty in “reading” your students’ comprehension (you sometimes have to just hope they “got it”).

I can understand the push for 100% asynchronous digital learning — the automation is easy and transfers smoothly from term to term, the routine of it is easy to grasp for learners, and as previously noted, students can work entirely at their own pace. My concern particularly when discussing FYC (read: traditional freshmen) comes largely from losing the social and collaborative aspects that we’ve all seen drive success in FYC classes. The community, wherein students learn not just from us, but from one another (strong writers model discussion and inquiry for less-experienced writers, shy students are exposed to the work of their peers they otherwise wouldn’t have seen, etc). Some of this is possible asynchronously — discussion boards, for example, but again — time and engagement  (and comprehension) are all big question marks.

At CCCC, I was lucky to be able to talk to Casey McArdle from Michigan State (who was super generous with his time!) and the really wonderful and new OWICommunity.org and I expressed my concerns about student engagement, the loss of social interaction and communal learning. Both he and Colin Bjork* from Indiana University (and also from OWICommunity.org) expressed many of the same ideas — mainly how essential contact is (And not just with us, but with each other). It’s more than being active on discussion boards and recording slick Kaltura videos — it’s vital that students feel and are a part of a class, not just a series of  “modules” of learning. Whether this means regular Bb Collaborate sessions, required small group teleconferences, ZOOM ( a tech IU uses) sessions, or something else, I feel really strongly that synchronous meetings need to have some formal place in the online classroom.

*Colin Bjork and his IU colleagues, by the way, have been building their online curriculum for 4 years now — so I think they can be really valuable resources for us.

I know the push-back — “it isn’t what students want.” Students want to be able to do work at 3am on a wednesday or at 4 pm on the bus. I get that and maybe there are other sections for those students to take (just like there are face-to-face sections that don’t meet at 8am on Friday) — but I’m having a really hard time believing in work and instruction (and structure) that only considers what some students want and ignores what research and the majority of our teaching careers tell us that students need to be successful. When I was a student, I “wanted” a lot of things that were probably not best for my learning, but my institution demanded better of me. I also know that this requires more work for us the instructors, short-term, but I think in the long-run, with at least SOME synchronous learning built into our courses, we’d spend less time steering lost students back to the path and more time moving them forward.

Now, I know, to simply reduce the synchronous/asynchronous debate to bitter medicine vs sweet candy is cheap and unfair — we already have (and will continue to have) students who work, who are in Korea or China or maybe even New Jersey, but I also think that “flexibility = asynchronous” is equally reductive. We present our classes at Mason as digital learning, as online or distance learning, not as asynchronous learning, so I think as long as we make it clear what the expectations and requirements are, we can do this in a way that benefits our students while still allowing them the flexibility of an online education. We want our students to be good students and be strong writers and we need to do anything we can to prioritize that over treating them just as consumers. We can be flexible and our students can be flexible. We can have routine, we can have clear, smart and cleanly designed and structured course designs, but we can have synchronous learning in our classes, too. The technology allows it, other universities require it, and I think our students deserve it.

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The “F” Word


No. Not that word. I would like to talk about the “F” word that haunts all conscientious faculty: Failure. When our cohort last met for a brainstorming session three weeks ago, Kerry asked a question that has stayed with me ever since: “What if we fail?”

We are designing something new, so the fear of failure is likely to haunt us. I also worry that I am designing a course without any student input, and while I know what students need to learn, I wish I knew more about how they will learn online.

Many studies have demonstrated, not unsurprisingly, that feeling isolated, struggling with course technology, and wrestling with illogical course navigation negatively impact how students learn in an online course. Yet in my own experience teaching composition online, I have reservations about how students value peer-interaction to avoid feeling isolated, a perspective shared by some of my colleagues. If the studies are right, students would seem more engaged by discussion forums and group projects, yet I do not see that in the courses I teach. If this type of social presence is critical to student engagement, where is the evidence from students to prove it?

I looked for recent studies that collected data from students about what they value in an online course. Two studies, both published in 2010, included student surveys. Yi Yang and Vance Durrington in “Investigations of Students’ Perceptions of Online Course Quality,” surveyed 176 students and found that they valued peer-to-peer interaction, instructor feedback, and clear course structure, but of these three, they rated course structure as more important than anything else.

My take: My students value peer-interaction to some extent, but they value instructor feedback far more, even though they don’t often read it. They do, however, contact me immediately if they cannot find something, whereas they are unlikely to contact me if they have questions about my feedback.

Marcia D. Dixson, in “Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging?”surveyed 186 students enrolled in 36 courses at six campuses. She found students identified specific activities that increased their engagement in the course: application activities (applying concepts they learned to case studies or problem solving tasks), debating concepts in a discussion forum, group projects, and research papers. Students reported less engagement with more passive activities: watching PowerPoint presentations and video lectures, and taking quizzes. These students also listed doing the reading as a passive activity.

My take: In general education courses, students are wary of group projects, though learning to research and write collaboratively is a learning objective in our composition courses. Students do need to interact with each other, but getting students to engage meaningfully in discussion forums continues to elude me. (I need to learn how to write better prompts). I also know that the hours I put into creating videos often goes to waste when data show how few students actually watch them. Yet a video that shows a student how to do an assignment is usually a hit. No thinking, just mimicry. Not. Good. Teaching.

The findings in a more recent study were more in line with my own experience. Penny Ralston-Berg, Janet Buckmeyer, Casimir Barcyzk, and Emily Hixon studied students’ experiences in online courses. In their spring 2015 article, “Students’ Perceptions of Online Course Quality: How Do They Measure Up to the Research?”they found that students did not rate peer-interaction more highly than elements such as course design and relevance of course activities/materials to assignments. Their study, larger in scope (3,160 students surveyed at 31 colleges and universities located in 22 states), asked students enrolled in online courses to rate the course criteria according to the Quality Matters rubric, and they placed great value in the orientation (having “clear instructions for how to get started in the course”) and navigation (how to “find various course components”) more than activities designed to encourage a social presence. They also ranked having a “clear grading policy” and “criteria for evaluating student work” in the top five most highly rated criteria.

These students placed far less importance on the role of interactive learning activities, in part, Ralston-Berg concludes, from having poor experiences with group work. The lowest rated item was having students introducing themselves to the class, though they did want to see an introduction from the instructor.

My take: These findings reinforce what I see in my online composition courses. Students value interacting with the instructor far more than interacting with their peers. The online platform individualizes the learning no matter how much peer-interaction I provide because students are not together physically. Too often, they feel like that are taking a course with me alone rather than with a class.

In my online teaching, I have not yet been able to counter that attitude in my students. Instructors only have so much time to spend with students individually, and we know they can and do learn from each other. Finding a way to do this successfully in an online course is a challenge, and I like that we have time to experiment with strategies that might work better than what I use now.

And as for failing–I think it’s better to situate what we are doing in terms of what it really is: a beta test course, designed by faculty who value student engagement and student learning. We will learn a great deal from teaching our course the first time, and that feedback mechanism will let us know what worked and what needs to be improved.

Works Cited

Dixson, Marcia D. “Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging?” Journal of The Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, vol. 10. no. 2, June 2010. https://www.iupui.edu/~josotl/archive/vol_10/no_2/v10n2dixson.pdf

Ralston-Berg, Penny; Janet Buckenmeyer, Casimir Barczyk, and Emily Hixon. “Students’ Perceptions of Online Course Quality: How Do ey Measure Up to the Research?,” Internet Learning, vol. 4, no. 1, 2016. http://digitalcommons.apus.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1047&context=internetlearning.

Yang, Yi and Vance Durrington. “Investigation of Students’ Perceptions of Online Course Quality.” International Journal on E-Learning, vol. 9, no. 3, July 2010.  https://www.learntechlib.org/p/29460.


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Is there a false dichotomy between “social presence” and self-paced learning?

The past week has been quite a productive one for me, in terms of developing my understanding of online and blended writing instruction. Virtually attending the 2016 OLC Accelerate Conference (Thanks, GMU!) right after our last brainstorming session raised some great questions for me. Our collective interests, mentioned by Billy below, led me to view recorded sessions on project-based learning, and social presence. This blog post will focus mostly on social presence and what seems to be its theoretical inverse, self-paced learning. I wanted to see if there was any current research that re-affirmed earlier research trends demonstrating the important role of collaborative learning processes, both generally, as well as in online, writing, and online / blended writing settings. This conference, as well as the time I’ve had to do some follow-up research, due to a minor lull in my current Composition class’ schedule, have really helped me to contextualize the field for myself. I think.

I was hoping also to find some sessions on self-paced learning, which, from a student-centered responsive pedagogy, seems to make a lot of intuitive sense. However, there were only a couple conference sessions on self-paced learning, but they weren’t streaming or recorded. Through my follow-up research, though, I did learn a new word for “self-paced learning”! As defined in a seminal 2000 article, Hase and Kenyon (as quoted on the Heutagogy Community of Practice), “[h]eutagogy is the study of self-determined learning.”

I felt a bit like a noob, when the term “Community of Inquiry” kept getting tossed around.

I’m actually a big fan of “inquiry-based learning” and assumed that the two were one and the same. However, an expert panel on “social presence”—a huge topic that our cohort has discussed—pointed me to Garrison, Anderson and Archer’s 1999 conceptualization of the Community of Inquiry, whose figure appears beside this paragraph. I hadn’t realized that the concept of “social presence” that we had been tossing around, at least on my end, has a lot more specific of a theoretical background.


One member of the OLC panel, Multiple Perspectives On Social Presence In Online Learning: A Book Panel, defined social presence in an online setting in terms that seem to resonate with our thinking: “being able to perceive others as real, and project yourself as real.” If we decide that this is a goal of our course, I wonder if we could create a framework by which to grade our students on their interactions with each other that would ask them to take each others’ ideas seriously. At the same time, I think it’s probably also our responsibility to create an environment, and a design a course to put students in a wide range of rhetorical situations that require them to take each other seriously, simply to complete the task. It’s also probably our responsibility to find ways, like video lectures, to use technology to project ourselves and our own presence as “real” and human for our students.

I think that a responsive course design that modifies lessons based on formative assessments, whether formal or informal, is one way to do this. The kinds of examples that Brian mentions, like stopping for quick grammar lessons, are one way to do this in a face to face classroom. I think that, as course designers, we’re in a little bit of a tight spot, because we’re designing a course meant to be taught by anyone assigned to teach it. But, if we intentionally leave a module, or half a module blank, with the knowledge that, as instructors, we’ll know what to do with that learning time once we have more assessment of our students’ abilities, we can’t guarantee that other instructors will understand our pedagogical intentions.


I spent some time digesting some of the research around Communities of Inquiry, and more recent scholarship and research studying the efficacy of the heuristic, and proposing modifications that have been adopted to various extents. My awareness of this corner of the field was also expanded by OLC sessions like, Online Discussion: When Enough is Enough and Conceptualizing Learner Engagement in Blended Contexts. The first panel by Ashford University found tentative results that showed decreasing discussion opportunities had negative consequences for students’ learning and persistence, while the second was a study by Brigham Young University scholars that built a new theoretical framework for analyzing engagement indicators, and used it to find that engagement indicators correlate to student success differently in online and face to face settings.

I still wanted to know what self-paced learning might look like in an online writing course. It seems as though most of the research in this direction is focused around MOOCs. The one implementation study that did offer university-enrolled students a formal institutional reward for completing a self-paced writing course focuses on SPOT, or Self-Paced Online Tutorials at Fresno State University. SPOTs at Fresno State are designed to be open, like MOOCs, as an opportunity for students, at any level, to improve their writing with guidance from a faculty member. They begin with the student completing a writing inventory, and, in partnership with their faculty tutor, develop two writing goals for the SPOT. The course as described sounds rigorous to me, and follow-up surveys found that students felt similarly. However, no university credit is offered for completion, only a check-mark stating that the student has completed their university writing requirement.

I’m pretty enamored with the idea of self-pacing right now, and I’ve been toying with some ideas about how to pull it off in a way that would meet both student and institutional needs. The SPOT is an intriguing option, but, still, after my research, I’m left with a couple questions: Why does it seem like all the research on self-paced online writing instruction revolves around the non-credit framework of MOOCs, and Deleuzian theories of rhizomatic education? If there’s instructor involvement, and the student demonstrates that they have achieved the goals of the course, is there a reason that universities appear to be unwilling to give them course credit for their work and demonstration of achievement? What could we do to design a student-centered learning experience with university needs to make money, scholarly needs to protect the knowledge of the field, and faculty needs for a live-able and manageable work arrangement?

I think most of us learn best by experience, and that especially goes for the metacognition of our learning tendencies. In an ideal, student-centered world, students would be able to self-select what type of pedagogy best suited their learning—a self-paced online tutorial, or a course that required a more collaborative learner presence, whether it be online-only, blended, or face to face. If students fail their first time, they would lose the privilege of choosing and be required to take the other course, under the presumption that perhaps they don’t understand their learning as well as they thought (a phenomenon that I’ve experienced both as subject and as observer of others). Perhaps they’d be required, also, to complete a reflection on their learning experiences in the course and their tendencies as a learner. At our institution, where “Composition 101” is often “First Year Composition,” I feel like this opportunity could go a long way towards contributing to students’ ability “to college,” to paraphrase Brian.

This post may have been a bit rambling, but I feel like I’ve just learned a whole heckuva lot about Communities of Inquiry, social presence, in particular, and self-paced learning, or heutagogy. I find the tension between these two apparent opposites to be exciting and, hopefully, a source of creative (re)solutions.

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The Fantastical Designs of the Robinson Five

When the five of us met this Monday, we shared some of our wildest ideas for the design of a writing course—from asking students to produce a collaborative anthology to modeling the course’s structure upon the leveling-up system of a video game. Many of the questions this brainstorming session raised were both troubling and exciting.

How do we deliver a skills-based course via an online system constructed with content-based courses in mind? How can we see and evaluate a student’s writing process beyond grading their finished written products? How do we motivate students when we know, as writers and teachers, that the most successful students are self-motivated, are those who would complete the assigned tasks without our insistent prodding?

The problem of student motivation has occupied much of my thinking about my 101 course’s design over the past couple of weeks. Conventional OWI wisdom holds, quite rightly, that students will not complete assignments unless their grade is at stake, or that grades alone can serve as sufficient motivation for completing activities online. This seems functionally true to me. But, I also want students to understand the real-life need for writing, to think of writing not simply as a skill they can must learn competently enough to cobble together a report for a professor but as a tool for critical thinking, introspection, and giving voice to personal agency.

My initial impulse in this direction is to in some way incorporate personal writing, an approach that will no doubt elicit groans from many an experienced rhet/comp pro. (For many instructors, the phrase “personal writing” raises the specter of meandering and self-indulgent prose, nostalgic essays about the meaning of getting your first puppy or, worse, last weekend’s kegger.) Still, in Personally Speaking: Experience as Evidence in Academic Discourse, Candace Spigelman argues that narratives (e.g., literacy narratives), which are often assigned at the beginning of a Comp I course because they are an easy way to get students writing without their having to conduct research, actually do involve research because of the need to select, evaluate, and incorporate experience into their writing as evidence. I haven’t yet finished Spigelman’s book and have my own questions and skepticism toward some of her points so far, but one takeaway I have garnered is that reflection or introspection or memory, i.e., the processes involved in drawing on the personal, involves a guarantee that online students must spend actual time in critical thought. An assignment that asks them about themselves, especially if it also asks for outside research to contextualize their experience, ensures that students are not simply choosing a side in some debate and Google-Scholaring a few quotes from supporting or opposing voices.

I think of this also as a means of connecting the act of writing to some real-world importance. This sort of discovery writing is the process of inquiry we emphasize among our outcomes in all writing courses. Statements like “I write to find out what I think” appear in essays on the writing craft from Joan Didion to the Norton guides. Many of my students don’t understand at first that, when they write, they interrogate their own presuppositions. Until they are writing, they do not understand that they gather research not to affirm their views but to inform themselves of other views.

This brings up a second odd idea we discussed in our meeting—namely, is collaboration necessary in the online writing classroom?

I find myself considering two contradictory impulses. One is to maximize collaboration; the other, to allow self-directed flexibility. A self-directed course could incorporate gateways (or levels, in that aforementioned video-game model) that students would pass through as they developed certain skills, giving more experienced writers the chance to demonstrate their understanding quickly—“Independent” and “reflective” students tend to be most successful in the online classroom according to a couple studies I’ve run across recently—and leaving instructors more time to devote their attention to students with the most need.

Social-constructivist pedagogy, though, from Vygotsky onward, tells us that this approach is wrong. The social-constructivist model is built entirely on collaboration, discussion boards, group work, peer reviews, and debate. I have been thinking through the benefits of this model and collaboration in general. Here’s what I’ve got (please suggest more if any occur to you):

  1. Student writing has a tangible audience, actual peers who can respond so that a written assignment doesn’t seem to disappear into the void of the internet.
  2. Group work and debates force students to confront divergent views and to negotiate tea dynamics.
  3. Transitioning to an online learning environment, much of the complexity of the individual student’s identity can remain hidden. But writing activities can benefit from exploring precisely those issues regarding the way online communications reduce or hide personal traits that would be evident in a f2f classroom.
  4. Zones of proximal development can be planned, monitored, and evaluated more evenly, and activities can be designed or adjusted in response. (Ben, you may have more to say about this, given that you’ve mentioned Vygotsky in your last post.)
  5. Engagement with others fights against the sense that online activity is unreal.

This last point may be one for further consideration. Online activities often seem unreal. Twitter posts and their replies do not force us to negotiate difference, and most social media relies on argumentation via “likes” or trolling. If this past election cycle has shown us anything, it is that the nature of our online activities and communications resides in the option to construct a personal echo chamber. Our students are familiar with this as a form of sharing viewpoints and information. How, then, do we use writing and this familiar online interface to force students to that uncomfortable place where they must question their own thinking and learn to negotiate with opposing views?

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Supporting/Supportive Roles

I’ve been thinking my way through Kerry’s post — particularly the challenge of “What do I want to do and why do I want to do that?”

So there are two things I’m struggling with and they both relate to transitioning from 302 to 101. I’ve spoken about some of these issues before, but the closer I examine my teaching methods, which I’m finding is the #1 consequence of building a class like this from scratch, the more I’m questioning how to best support my students. The two related issues: How do I fulfill my role in the 101 digital classroom? And how do best I deliver my course within that role?

Teaching F2F 302 for the past few years, for better or worse,  is typically populated by graduating seniors and the far-too-occasional ambitious/daring junior has ingrained in me a certain trust of my students in a lot of ways. Because of their experience as upper-classmen, I can trust that they largely know their way around campus, around Blackboard, and even to an extent, how to manage their academic, social, and budding professional lives. As a teacher, this trust has translated to a bit of a “looseness” in my pedagogy (something I’m actually very comfortable with and I think my students appreciate about me)  — I can and do expect a lot from them. They are expected to look at the schedule independently, get notes from classmates when they miss class, navigate our readings even if I don’t always “check-in” with a quiz or some other formal evaluation every time, etc. I can even change a reading or lesson somewhat on the fly if need-be, and they can keep up because they’ve largely become adept at college-ing, so to speak. They know the deal re: college and within a week or so, my class, and so for the most part, they respond accordingly and are successful at the practical, logistical, and “administrative” aspects of taking a university writing course. I’m a different teacher though when I teach 101 and I blame my very first class for this.

Back when I first received an MA TA-ship, and had “graduated” from the Writing Center and into the Classroom (teaching a 7:30 am MWF course), I was newly 23 years-old, teaching 18-19 year olds and not only did I have no real idea what I was doing, I was terrified my students would “find me out” as a fraud. So, I did the only logical thing (I thought) and presented myself as a no-nonsense kinda guy. “Here’s the schedule, do this, read that, come prepared, you’re adults, no excuses.” That lasted about 3 weeks, until our first major assignment was due. I asked the class how the paper had gone (a little debriefing to blow off steam) and then carried on with a new lesson. Later I wrapped up class and bid them goodbye  when I noticed a student had stayed behind in their seat to talk to me. I approached them and as they lifted their head I could see the hint of tears in their eyes — “I think I did the wrong assignment and I know how important it is and now I’m going to do bad and I don’t know what to do…” Seeing this terrified student, my wanna-be-business-man affect was gone as I went from “College Instructor” to similarly terrified recent graduate, watching a young student just be scared about school — something very familiar to me.

Since then, I’ve always sort of seen my job when teaching 101 as two-fold: I teach writing and I teach “college-arts.” They both require certain kinds of support.

In my time at Mason, I’ve mostly taught upperclassmen, but before coming here full time, I had a handful of 101s at GMU and exclusively taught 100-level FYC at George Washington. I talked about this a bit in my last post, about losing F2F seat time. Mentors from both schools consistently reminded me that with our course caps — even when they feel too big — in writing classrooms (20-ish at Mason; 15 at GW), we may very well be the only professor that student has that 1) knows their name 2) knows when they aren’t present 3) knows when they are struggling. So, to take a bit of pressure off, at the beginning of the term, I let my freshmen know “You’re going to screw up. College is hard. This is a class where it’s okay to practice.” They get “get-out-of-jail-free” cards, a little more leniency when it’s warranted, and a lot more guidance (cynically, I think, called hand-holding, or worse, policing). Not every student needs or wants it. It’s not a regular occurrence to have to calm down a hyperventilating student, or grant an 11th-hour extension, or explain three or four times how to access a reading or handout, but it is an occasional occurrence, and I’m pretty okay with that. I’m not prepping them for the harshness of the “Real World” — I’m teaching them writing in a relatively-cozy, if poorly-lit, college classroom.

So, here’s where I’m struggling now, as I attempt to build a 101 DE course from the ground up — how much “support” is enough/too much and how do I enact it remotely?
My “looseness” — the trust that my students can pretty easily navigate 302 has translated well enough from F2F to DE — I create a learning module on Bb, drop in a reading, a handout, a lecture video, and a writing activity, or some combination therein, and send them on their way. It’s never been a problem for the vast majority of my 302 students to “Attend” my course and do what needs to be done to succeed (as long as they are interested in succeeding). Now though, the kind of educational and organizational support, repetition, “checking-in” etc that I can do in a F2F 101, feels a little daunting in its translation to DE courses.

The last 101 I taught was (horrendously) 3 hours long, once per week. It was rough. It had been a while (4+ years?) since I’d taught the course — I tried too many new things, I was rusty, I was expecting, unconsciously, 302-level students and it was rough. Seeing them only once per week required a different approach to logistics that I didn’t totally possess or understand. And I’m not just talking a clear and organized schedule. I mostly had that, but what I didn’t have was, at least starting out, the ability to recognize that I was asking a lot (too much?) of brand new students, moving too fast, and expecting each of my 20 students to keep up without issue. It’s a lot easier to help your students stay “on the path” when you see them 3 times a week. Once was tough and zero frightens me a bit.

After a few weeks, in my once a week section, I noticed that while attendance was mostly steady, engagement was down. The class, save a few overachievers, was lost, and it was clearly my fault. I made a few changes — started saying the same things in different ways, repeating instructions as I made my way around the room, trying to reinforce things visually and verbally, started making “how-to” models on Bb, started structuring the physical classes to match previous ones, and opened up an Open QandA forum that we could use between our too-few F2F meetings that, unlike email, everyone could see. Things got better, mostly, and when students struggled, it wasn’t because they were lost, at least not administratively.

Part of what I’ve been talking with my ID about is leaving “Breadcrumbs” in my DE sections.

How can the design allow easy steps-tracing, back to important moments, comments, files, etc without going through the main path I create in a lesson or unit. Some of it means re-learning Bb (or learning it for real for the first time) but the rest is thinking like a new student. Not assuming every module is completed start to finish in one sitting, or that every step is done in the order I set up, or that every (or any) student thinks or learns like I do. I’ll likely be spending more energy on “teaching” Bb itself and “teaching” college-arts, as well as teaching “taking an online class in the university.” So our task becomes 3 or 4 fold. The “stuff” I can recognize in F2F sessions, when my schedule or scaffolding or lesson-plan doesn’t logistically click (or they ignore me or forget or just have a tough week) doesn’t show up the same ways in DE, so I have to be proactive and maybe even assume that that “stuff” is just there for some.

Which brings me to my second issue — part of how I can address the “orienteering” is good, solid, consistent design. Clear expectations. Clear instruction. A routine and scaffolding as seamless as one can reasonably expect. The problem is: we teach two occasionally conceptually incongruent (or at least not-seamless) courses, whatever you wanna call them– Rhetorical reading/writing and Technical Writing.

The conceptual and the practical, can sometimes, in my best and sharpest teaching moments, come together nicely– using the rhetorical and conceptual, Visual Analysis, as an entry point into the technical, Citation or Cohesion or Paragraphing, works and everything links together smoothly — but only sometimes. There are moments where I need to deviate from the conceptual and step out into “Now we just talk about syntax” or “Stop! Grammar-time” (sorry). So how do I reconcile these competing impulses to have a seamless unit-to-unit, lesson-to-lesson scaffold (so that my students can navigate what I want them to do and where I want them to go with minimal effort), with the need to fully teach 101 and have lessons and skills integrated that just don’t want to fit uniformly into the puzzle? I worry about sending students outside the nice and neat module to something that, perhaps to them, feels distinct, unrelated.

I’m still spit-balling design and trying, when possible, to have my technical lessons “fit” with the thematic goals of any given assignment, and, loosely, they probably will. Yet, I’ve also started building a “Writer’s Workshop” — a set of mini-lessons, or a mini-unit that will punctuate the other more conceptual lessons/units and act as a stand-alone Bb space of its own. I think this requires a heavy reliance on routine — for example, to minimize the “roughness around the edges” and maximize consistency, these non-conceptual lessons need to be employed at regular intervals. Say, every Friday, for instance, we do a lesson and a “workshop” so even though it’s less streamlined than would be ideal, they still get the skills and hopefully still feel supported by the design. I’d love to talk to folks more about this spectrum (what should I be aiming for?) of neatness and completeness when we meet next. How do you envision fitting lessons and skills in the course which seem to fall outside neat categorizations?

Anyway, this all brings up a ton re: workload, but I’ve already gone on far too long, so I’ll save that for next time.

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Brainstorming, Problem Solving, and Design Thinking

d.school bootcamp: the student experience from Stanford d.school on Vimeo.

We’re about to graduate from the OCDI curriculum, which has focused mainly on the technology and tools of online classroom planning, and move into what we could think of as a “conceptual” design phase, where we will be brainstorming and discussing some of the bigger conceptual concepts of the courses we’re designing. Many of these larger concepts have been written about in this blog:

As we begin to try to tackle these complicated pedagogy problems, I thought it might be useful to take a step back from the course design work we’ve been immersed in and do a little research on general problem-solving strategies that we can apply to our project. I have been aware of Stanford’s d.school and their “design thinking” method for about a year now, and I think their approach to out-of-the-box problem solving might be useful to us.

Design thinking is defined as a “structured approach to generating and developing ideas.” The problem-solving steps they recommend can be summarized as follows:

  1.  DISCOVERY. I have a challenge—how do I approach it?
  2. INTERPRETATION. I learned something—how do I interpret it?
  3. IDEATION. I see an opportunity—what do I create?
  4. EXPERIMENTATION. I have an idea—how do I build it?
  5. EVOLUTION. I tried something—how do I evolve it?

I discovered while researching this post that the d.school has developed a free toolkit for educators that’s specifically intended to help teachers design innovative solutions to educational problems. Though technically it seems to be aimed at K-12 educators, I’ve read through the toolkit and think it might be useful for our group as we move into the brainstorming phase of our work. It offers a lot of very specific guidance, including how to break up the problem-solving process into appropriate phases; specific activities for brainstorming and research; and useful modes of organization for an otherwise amorphous task.

For example, one of the early phases of the process involves defining the challenge you want to solve. They give the following example:

‘How might we create a teachers’ lounge with large couches?’ implies the solution is a room with large couches. ‘Why do we want to do that?’ surfaces the actual need of a space for teachers to be able to wind down in between classes. The brainstorm question would then be: ‘How might we create a space for teachers to unwind between classes?’ This expands possible solutions beyond the idea of a room with couches.”

If we apply that strategy to some of the questions we’ve been discussing in our group—’How might we develop meaningful online discussions,’ for example—the exercise might help us articulate the goal behind our teaching practices in a way that allows us to see them with new eyes, opening up the door to innovative solutions. (At least, that’s the idea :).

There might be some good reasons not to approach our project this way, but I wanted to see what you all think of the suggestion to download the toolkit and discuss whether it might be helpful to our work as we begin to plan for our next group meeting next week. Please feel free to comment with your thoughts!


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