The Odd Duck

The Odd Duck

I am the odd duck in our group: I am not designing an online composition course; I am designing an online introduction to literature course. I have taught advanced composition online, and I can see how it “works” in an asynchronous learning environment.

But teaching literature online…

The very act seems at odds with all that I know about how to teach literature. Literature should be debated  “live” so that comments can ricochet around the room, triggering insights that help students uncover the meaning of a text. I can act on a comment immediately; students can react to and respond to it immediately. It is the tradition I was trained in, and it’s one that I value.

I will have to surrender that tradition, and this worries me. As you can see from previous posts here, my colleagues share a similar concern. The immediacy of dynamic dialogue will be nearly impossible to attain in an online course. Even if I held a virtual class meeting, the technology of it would drag down the spontaneity by flattening it to a screen that both communicates and distracts. I am not certain there is a true digital equivalent, so instead of searching in vain for a substitute, I have decided to look for an alternative.

Still, finding examples of such alternatives has proved more difficult than I anticipated. While there is ample research about teaching composition online, there is very little about teaching literature online, especially general education introduction courses.

In 2009, however, the Modern Language Association dipped its toe in the online teaching of literature and language when it published Teaching Language and Literature Online, a collection of essays edited by Ian Lancashire. While some of the essays feel a bit dated (WebCT is no more), several authors present inventive strategies to overcome the unavoidable drag caused by the asynchronous delivery of instruction.

One in particular spoke to my concern about the loss of dynamic conversation: Laura L. Bush’s “Solitary Confinement: Managing Relational Angst in an Online Classroom.” Early in Bush’s essay she emphasizes how Emojisher online literature course must “facilitate[s] real human interaction” (291). Even better–she describes some ideas for creating it.

Bush’s decision to synthesize the journal entries of her students and use that synthesis as the prompt for a discussion topic marries two problematic tools in Blackboard: the journal and the discussion board. Used independently of one another, these tools often suppress student engagement. They often elicit wooden responses from students who either post drive-by comments or write like robots programmed to perform. As a result, grading them often feels like a chore for the instructor.

Bush’s tactic injects an element of suspense in that students write journal entries wondering whether their ideas will get a “shout out” in the prompt; students get glimpses of what their peers are saying in journals not visible to them. The instructor gets to shape the discussion based on what students have observed and analyzed, which brings, albeit asynchronously, their ideas back to the center of the discussion.

At the end of her essay, Bush includes the “Guidelines and Evaluation Criteria” she uses to assess student work in online discussions. It’s worth a look.

Bush, Laura L. “Solitary Confinement: Managing Relational Angst in an Online Classroom.” Teaching Language and Literature Online, edited by Ian Lancashire. Modern Language Association, 2009, pp. 290-309.



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Maintaining Student Buy-In in Online Collaborative Writing Tasks

thumbs-upThe power of collaborative learning has long been established, in particular for language development tasks. I used to teach middle school ESL, and, one of the principles of my pedagogy was the use of data-built Kagan structures and other methods for encouraging collaboration. I’ve always found that grouping and pairing students heterogeneously by previous skill-levels creates the opportunity for students to reach their Zones of Proximal Development—the seminal basis for most justification of collaborative learning theorized and researched by Lev Vygotsky. Later research, though I can’t find the scholar to whom I should attribute this idea, found simply that language learning students learn better from each other than they do from a teacher. I think most of our audience will recognize that our functionally fluent college students might still be considered language learners when it comes to learning the registers of academia and the professional worlds for which First Year Composition is designed to prepare them.

In the past two semesters in which I taught FYC, I used mini-lessons and computer-supported collaborative writing tasks as scaffolds for students’ independent writing. I would teach a discrete writing skill in a mini-lesson, and then have students apply it to some practice activity—filling in a graphic organizer or highlighting a sample article, for example. Then, I would ask them to abstract what they’d practiced with partners and apply it to their own writing. However, by the end of last semester, I could tell that these tasks often felt fabricated, coerced, disconnected and ephemeral to my students. After a while, when I wasn’t getting strong student buy-in, and I was faced with pushing students to complete tasks the way I might encourage a four year old to eat vegetables, I began to dread them myself.

I’ve taken my fair share of education classes with online wikis, blogs and “discussion” boards, and I’m currently matriculating through my second 100% online class. From my perspective as a student, these computer-supported components of my grad school classes have often been the elements of class that feel the least authentic. Even with my awareness of the importance of collaboration and cooperation for learning, I know from experience that, as a student, it still feels frustrating to be railroaded into “interacting” with your peers in asynchronous online environments.

So, this semester in my f2f composition class, I’m trying something different from what I’d done the past two semesters, while still pushing to make use of tools like Blackboard and Google Drive. Instead of “busy work” that is merely meant to teach some discrete writing skill disembodied from the context of its application in a final, graded product, I teach a mini-lesson on a discrete writing skill, but have students work directly towards a mid-to-long-term group project in class. The process steps and outputs of these in-class group projects are meant to mirror, on a nearly class-by-class basis, what students do outside of class on their individual projects. The group projects that they write in class are simply counted as participation points. These are low-stakes, collaborative, process writing activities. But, because students see the direct connection to what they do in class with what they do outside of class, I’ve gotten really strong student buy-in.

To be honest, I’ve left most classes this semestercollaboration feeling pretty good, and I’ve built strong
relationships with my students. It’s also October 17th, and I’ve only had one absence, thus far. Students trust that showing up and doing the work is going to be worth their time. Of course, I’ve explained to them my mantra about how students learn better from other students. But I’ve done that in past semesters, too. Without the direct connection of writing a group project during an f2f class that mirrors an individual project done independently, I’m worried that moving collaboration to the online sphere is going to result in a lot less student commitment to the deeply important process and collaborative aspects of the writing-learning process. As you can see from previous posts on Digital Didact, it seems pretty common to feel anxious about losing the rich teacher-student and student-student relationships that we work so hard to build in our face-to-face classes as we migrate to online and hybrid settings.

I’m not totally sure how I’m going to maintain the level of student commitment that I’m seeing this semester, but posts by Billy, Brian and Kerry, as well as some of the research that I’ve started, have me feeling hopeful that there’s a way to make it happen.

Recently, I’ve picked up Learning and Teaching Writing Online: Strategies for Success, edited by Mary Deane and Teresa Guasch. A couple articles in that book have given me some food for thought. One, in particular, by Carola Strobl, has brought up two concepts for improving student collaboration—observational learning and scripts. Observational learning is when students view models. Strobl and her partners had students watch a thirteen-minute video of a dummy group modeling how to write collaboratively using Google Docs and its comment and chat functions. They compared students’ efficacy in groups after watching this video—what the research terms “observational learning”—with the work of those same students after they’d received a “script”—which sounds, essentially, like a detailed set of directions. Although the overall results were encouraging, there were several factors that limited the authors’ ability to determine which intervention was the most effective. For one, they taught this same activity in three consecutive classes to the same sample groups of students, first with no scaffold, then with a video, and finally, with a script for group interactions. The authors rightly note that, although their findings suggest that both the video and the script were effective scaffolds, the sequencing of the lesson may suggest that there was a “learning by doing” effect—part of students’ improvement may be attributable to their previous experience with the tasks. They conclude, along with Teresa Mauri and Javier Onrubia’s article also published in Learning and Teaching Writing Online, that the best choice might be to offer both interventions and let student groups choose whether to use one, neither, or both.

I’m interested in work like this that explores interventions that teach students to interact effectively in an online setting. It seems like Pierre Dillenbourg has authored and co-authored a lot of work on scripts, and I think it’ll be useful to continue figuring out how best to guide students through online environments. However, I’m even more interested to check out work by scholars like Cunningham and Melkun, mentioned in Billy’s and Brian’s posts who can help me understand more about how to motivate DE students and make participation in process and collaborative tasks feel worthwhile to them.

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Student-to-Student Relationships in Asynchronous DE Classes

A few weeks ago, students in both my online and face-to-face sections of English 302 submitted early drafts of their first essays of the semester. After receiving my feedback, a few students emailed me to personally thank me for my comments, one even reciting details of what I had said about his draft. Although we had devoted course time to discussing the draft review process and the role feedback (both from myself and from their peers) could play in how they revised and how they conceived of the audience for their writing, these students treated my feedback as if it were some special dispensation. Most intriguingly, these emails came only from students in my DE sections.

I quickly realized that this reaction was one I regularly received from my online students and only my online students. But why?

First, the providing feedback on an essay draft is the first one-on-one interaction I have with DE students that is specifically focused on their writing. It is more personal than my responses to their discussion posts or my group announcements or video lectures. They are of course vulnerable at that stage, sharing their academic writing in order to hear suggestions for improvement, more vulnerable than they are in their introduction videos or their first brief homework assignments.

But second, and more importantly, the nature of the online interface reinforces the sense that only my input on their work matters. As emerging learners, they often come from educational backgrounds that, to some degree, operate on a traditional banking model of knowledge—each lesson a deposit, each evaluation a withdrawal—that is echoed in many ways by the online delivery system. Any LMS, unless thoroughly customized, operates on a banking model by default: stream videos, download worksheets, upload completed drafts.

I suspect that, especially for those students who see composition as product-focused and don’t visualize writing as a communal activity, this student-to-LMS interface reminds them of their physical and temporal isolation from their classmates and reinforces their understanding of the class’s hierarchy. As Cheryl Hawkinson Melkun notes, an instructor in an online discussion can often stifle conversation because of the students assumption of the instructor’s authority. Students may not see their peers’ feedback and interactions as important to their own learning—say, approaching discussion boards as quick bullet-pointed tasks—and consequently overvalue my feedback, as if the instructor’s approval is the ultimate goal of the writing course. In their survey-based study “Toward a Complexity of Online Learning: Learners in Online First-Year Writing,” Merry Rendahl and Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch found that students in online writing classes “did not seem to value interaction with their peers as highly as they valued interactions with the instructors” (309). They did not, on the whole, consider collaboration with their peers a productive part of improving their writing.

Yet, we know that collaboration and community are vital components of the F2F writing classroom. Students gain both a sense of audience and an understanding of how to communicate meaning only in the negotiation with others. In response to the CCCC Committee’s “Report on the State of the Art of OWI,” which echoes the Rendahl & Breuch’s concerns that students do not feel as if they progress through peer interaction in an online environment, Ken Gillam and Shannon R. Wooden insist that the ideal classroom environment remains one “rich with interpersonal communication, rewarding collaboration, and the formation of productive learning communities.” The question then becomes how we can adapt collaborative lesson plans to an online environment that will allow students to participate in the negotiation of meaning.

Both Kerry and Brian have outlined some of the elements we must take into consideration. As Brian points out, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra may indeed provide a viable option for synchronous course meetings. From the little I have used it, Ultra offers a flexible virtual environment that could mimic the F2F classroom in many ways.

At the same time, in the past two semesters, I have had DE students attending class from Asia and Australia, as well as students nearby with inflexible schedules, making synchronous coursework nearly impossible. So, at this point, I am most interested in how we can build asynchronous collaboration into the design of our online courses. I hope that some of the thoughts that follow might complement alternatives regarding synchronous lesson planning.

  1. Ask Students to Build Social Profiles. Gillam & Wooden point out that the Wiki tool on Blackboard could allow students to build profiles like those they are already familiar with from social media. Asking students to construct a profile that is not limited to their participation in the course but also displays other facets of their lives might lead them to feel more invested in the writing community as a network. This project and the resulting wiki pages could also serve as a text for discussion and analysis, particularly via direct discussions of how narrative and literacy are involved in defining the public self.
  1. Model Real-World Telecommuting Projects. Any number of collaborative projects in the real world that require communication via email and a web interface could serve as a model for a long-term project. Handouts and templates could guide students through project management basics and the roles that team members need to play. This could work well as a self-timed project with certain boundaries, like a schedule of deliverables.
  1. Make Invisible Activities Visible. Assign students to groups at the outset of the course to investigate a variety of central topics. Ask them to collaborate frequently on small tasks designed to walk them through the process of composing a piece of writing. For instance, have a group brainstorming assignment that they can conduct collaboratively on their own time that asks them to explore full range of perspectives on the central topic. Then for the next step, each student could pursue one perspective in writing at greater length. The goal at that stage would not be to produce a single essay but to explore the range of possible essays that could be written about the central topic.
  1. Focus Peer Reviews on Summary, Not Critique. To avoid having the blind lead the blind, peer reviews could be reimagined as detailed reader summaries. Students would avoid the trap of being overly complimentary or overly critical and would simply present the author with a full sense of what had been successfully communicated.

Some of these ideas are just coming together for me after the readings I have encountered in the past two weeks. I plan to flesh these out as I read more.

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Making Up for Lost Face-Time

The first thing I noticed when I started teaching DE sections of 302 (concurrently with some traditional face-to-face sections) is what I think of as the “communication lag.”

Teaching writing and research F2F has its own set of drawbacks — pedagogy can be limited by the physical writing space of the classroom, the technology or lack thereof, attendance can dwindle at the most inopportune times, and it somehow feels simultaneously both too short (so much to cover) and too long (after a while, you run out of “teaching” topics and just have to get down to writing), but the big advantage of F2F writing instruction is the instant feedback.

In the classroom, you can give a lecture, answer a question, explain an example, and generally get a sense of the room immediately — who gets it, who is still unsure, who is avoiding eye-contact in hopes that you’ll just move on. I can liken it to performing on stage, live for an audience — they cheer or they boo, but you know right away that they heard you.  Teaching online, if I’m to stick to my lazy metaphor, is like recording your performance in a studio, sending it to the printer, shipping it to stores, and hoping everyone buys the album. You’ll hear from some of them, but not all of them and it takes much longer to hear back.

We experience this communication lag in a lot of ways teaching digitally — not knowing if students are “getting” it and having less/no opportunity to read their faces, losing days in email/discussion board back-and-forth with an issue that would have taken minutes in-person, or just losing students to attrition with what feels like little or no warning. I’ve learned to deal with some of this teaching 302 students ( typically older students, either upperclassmen or even non-traditional or returning students) who, for the most part, “get” the whole “college thing” and CAN navigate the slightly more difficult channels of communication, but sometimes choose not to. That is, I’ve tried to do what I can — “meeting” students early on in the semester via Skype or conferences, being active on our Bb page, reaching out to students via email or comments on work when I notice some slipping; but I also have come to accept that part of the reason some (many?) of these students are taking my class in a DE/DL format is because they don’t care as much about the kind of fluid communication and connection that one gets in a F2F classroom. They value flexibility over “access” (to me, to their peers) and some may even want the distance — I’ve certainly had some “desert island” students who just turn in the work and I never really hear from them all term.

Here is my concern: While it’s almost certain there will be a contingent of freshmen (or transfers) who WANT the freedom/distance of online education in 101, there will also be a large (larger?) group who take 101 as hybrid or DE out lack of other options. The social element of all classes, even, maybe especially, DE is an integral part of student (and teacher) success. There’s a nice rundown/lit review in Jennifer Cunningham’s “Mechanizing People and Pedagogy: Social Presence in the Online Classroom” which details the methods and benefits — enhanced engagement, lower attrition, achieved learning outcomes, etc. With 101 though, especially in the typical freshmen-heavy class, it feels different. There is the same need for a sort of academic-social connection — collaboration, sharing of methods and sources, etc, but it also feels like there is something else. Something less quantifiable.

When we teach 101 (and to a lesser extent, 302, mostly due to transfers/returning students who are perhaps new to Mason) we sort of teach 2 classes — a Writing/Research class and a “Welcome to College” class. Our classrooms are one of, if not the only in which the instructor knows their name, will notice if they are absent, will expect them to make mistakes, etc, etc. What happens when we lose this valuable purely social element from decreased (hybrid) or absent (DE/DL) seat time?

I’ve been inspired by Kerry’s post and our group talks so far and instead of looking at this as a pitfall, I’m trying to instead view this blank canvas of ours as an opportunity. So, how can we take advantage of the opportunity we have to re-imagine seat-time with our students?

After doing a bit of preliminary research, there are some options which point to some positive outcomes, but may be difficult/strenuous to pull-off with a large course load. Hopefully Dr. Kuo and the DL office can help us put these into action, but some possible options:

Synchronous Writing Groups Using Chat Functionality, VOIP and/or Web Conferencing (the new Bb Collaborate?) — “Nontraditional Students Online: Composition, Collaboration, and Community” by Cheryl Hawkinson Melkun (2012) showed that the dialogic nature of these programs allows for higher student engagement, better metacognition, and even had the added benefit of students focusing on more higher order concerns rather than text/sentence specific issues, because both critic and critiqued could seek elaboration/explanation.

The challenge to the above is 1) getting students to collaborate on any kind of schedule. We would have to build in a fairly loose schedule to allow students to work this into their calendars. Perhaps, (and this is maybe a big compromise) instead of arranging groups by content/major, we allow them to sign up by times on a google doc. Then we know who is available when. Secondly, technology — having all students’ tech capabilities (their brains and computers) working at the same level throughout the term can be a challenge. Third, would be oversight/accountability. An “off-sight” meeting like Google Hangout, or Skype would either require instructors to view/participate live (which would be incredibly time-consuming if not impossible, depending on schedule and total students) or just trust that students are all participating. While I’m competant at a lot of Bb tech, I’m admittedly clueless about Bb Collaborate Ultra (mega? super?). The old Collaborate always crashed on me so I gave up, but maybe we could get a thorough tutorial.
I suppose a solution to off-site “hangouts” could be a sort of “debriefing” document, where each group member peer-reviews the meeting itself for our eyes. Melkun (2012) also recommends chat programs that allow users to save/print a transcript, which would not only be helpful for instructors but also for students to return to for their feedback.

More Frequent (but smaller) Meetings — This is something I think we discussed in our last meeting, but it’s possible to help students feel more connected to the communal classroom and perhaps one another if we were to have frequent small/low-stakes class modules — 20 min freewrite here, 5 min video there, 10 min quiz the next day, etc. I worry about doing this with any kind of irregularity (part of me feels strongly about 101 students needing firm structure and it makes me feel like an old man) but perhaps the time/dates that work would “drop” stay consistent, but time needed to dedicate to the work could (mildly) fluctuate? I’d love to hear more from folks on this.

Using “Seat” Days (F2F) in a Hybrid class as 1-2 small group meetings, which rotate weekly —At GW, we had Hybrid classes (we had a 3 day schedule — MWF or TRF where Friday was 50 mins compared to 90 for the other days), but they weren’t explicitly a F2F/DE hybrid. Some met each week at a historical site, a museum, a food bank, wherever, but many instructors used  their Hybrid day (often Fridays) to hold long/50min conferences with 4-5 person groups who had prepared writing/comments/discussions beforehand. We could potentially have a MWF or MW hybrid course where after the first few weeks of orientating, Monday is “Online” and Wednesday is 35 mins with Group 1 and 35 with Group 2. Next week is 35 with Groups 3 and 4, etc. Meetings need not even be in the classroom, if space is an issue, but maybe in the JC or Starbucks, or wherever would be appropriate. These could potentially be even more intimate learning/workshop sessions than we’d get with 20+ person F2F sessions, though less frequent.

Other things that (no surprises here) have been shown to help in DE/DL success (Mostly from Cunningham, 2015):

Direct communication with students and teacher, social presence of instructor, collaboration with students.

I feel like I’ve gone on too long already and have lots more to say about some of this research and all, but I’ll save it for next time.

Anyway, ideas for getting the benefits of F2F social-interaction (less attrition, more engagement, more student satisfaction, etc) through Digital/Distance means?


References I’m checking out:

Cunningham, J. M. (2015). Mechanizing People and Pedagogy: Establishing Social Presence in the Online Classroom. Online Learning, 19(3), 34-47.

Hsu, S., & Sammons, M. (1998). The Invisible Barriers in Teaching at a Distance.

Melkun, C. H. (2012). Nontraditional Students Online: Composition, Collaboration, and Community. Journal Of Continuing Higher Education, 60(1), 33-39.

Montagne, L. (2012, January 1). Student Learning Outcomes and Pedagogy in Online and Face-to-Face College English Composition: A Mixed Methods Study. ProQuest LLC.

Ross, J. (2000). My ENG 102 Class Has Gone to HEC: Creating the Hybrid Electronic Course.

(Here’s a link to the full-text of the Ross Conference Paper — it’s 16 years old, so the tech issues are pretty different, but worth a look for trial/error purposes. It’s available on ERIC.



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Glass Half Full: 6 Potential Pros of Redesigning Comp 101 Online


The first thing I did when I sat down to brainstorm about designing an online/hybrid comp course was to revisit my Comp 101 teaching journal. I was curious to see what kind of challenges I had experienced in my face-to-face teaching, and I wondered if the opportunity to re-design the course from scratch and offer it on a new platform might be a good chance to address some of those problems in new ways. Here’s a list of some of the recurring issues I wrote about when I was teaching comp F2F:

1. Planning and Pacing—having too little or too much content for the class period

2. Participation in discussion—encouraging the wallflowers to engage; also preventing the outspoken students from dominating

3. Making the best use of the classroom space—I had crappy rooms in the basement of Robinson B that made arranging desks for group-work somewhat difficult

4. Transparency of learning goals—I wasn’t always sure my students understood the connection between my in-class activities and the class learning goals

5. Students not reading—Quizzes on the reading material revealed that students either didn’t read, or didn’t understand, the assignments.

6. Workload (my own)—I constantly felt like there weren’t enough hours in the day to plan my classes and give excellent feedback to my students

I wrote about other challenges, too, but I mention these six here because it seems that the online  environment might be a great place to address these particular issues in new ways:

1. Planning and Pacing—because the online space is unconstrained by the time limits of a traditional classroom, there’s an opportunity to design lessons in modular chunks (say, a 10-minute activity on audience for example) that can be consumed on a flexible schedule and without the awkward transitions that suck precious minutes out of a F2F class period. Ben and I saw a few really interesting presentations at ITL last Friday that have interesting implications for the pedagogy, as well: One study reported students are more engaged in online lectures than they are in traditional F2F lectures; another reported that students are more successful in self-paced learning than traditionally paced semesters. And in general, hybrid courses seem well-positioned for successful flipping. An online or hybrid comp class could potentially use these findings to advantage.

2. Participation in discussion—giving up F2F class discussions feels like a blow, but the upside is that online conversations could end up being *more* democratic than in-class discussions. For one thing, participation can be required and monitored in a way that it can’t be in F2F classrooms. For another, the social dynamics—including personality and gender—that influence F2F group discussions wield less power in a virtual forum.

3. Making the best use of classroom space—Online group discussions have their issues, but this ain’t one of them.

4. Transparency of learning goals—This is something I’m especially excited about. When we design and package content for online consumption, we name it and tag each content bundle with a bunch of keywords. Could we use this to our pedagogical advantage? The step of identifying and repeating (in writing) the name of the skill associated with a particular lesson could help students draw crucial connections between activities and learning goals.

5. Reading—If we want students to “do the reading” more consistently, the searchable, skimmable nature of online reading might actually be an advantage to students in a comp course—particularly if we’re willing to adjust our expectations that they read every single word all the way through. (More on that in Janine Morris’s article “A Genre-Based Approach to Digital Reading” for Pedagogy.)

6. Workload—This one could go either way. Designing an online class will be demanding on the front end, and monitoring is, by all accounts, more time consuming online. But there are some time-saving advantages to digital—replication, content sharing, and data collection among them. There may be ways to save time online that we haven’t yet thought of.

I’m sure there are more elements of teaching comp F2F that might actually be improved online—perhaps they’re different for each of us. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what might work better online than in your F2F classes in the comments.-KF

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New Beginnings

Time for Change

This blog represents the musings of five talented Ts—two TAs and three term faculty from George Mason University—who will spend the next year developing and teaching online and hybrid versions of our first-year writing course, ENGH 101, and our general education literature course, ENGH 201.

In an ideal world, we would be doing this for the pedagogical benefit we are certain it will bring, but the truth is that we are beginning this journey because the building in which we teach these courses face-to-face (f2f) is coming to an end. It will be torn down and rebuilt over a two-year period, and during that time, we will have a shortage of classroom space and will need alternatives to the traditional f2f model we have used all along. So the end of our building lies the beginning of our project.

All of us, however, did not need a building’s end to inspire us. We are intrigued by the pedagogy of teaching writing in an online and hybrid format. Convinced that there is sound pedagogy for doing so, we now have the intellectual challenge of figuring out how to do it.

That intellectual challenge also includes learning how to teach our diverse Mason students when we are not standing right in front of them. As I ponder what the next two years will bring in terms of our research and course development, I cannot help but think about the students who will be in those future courses. I remind myself that whatever we develop, it will have to be inclusive in its design and in its pedagogy. Continue reading

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Welcome to Digital Didact!

Coming soon: a blog about developing online and hybrid versions of first-year and advanced composition at George Mason University.

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