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This post’s feature image source: Mike Gustie of Wired Wren Photography and Design.
While teaching at Penn State, I have used four different types of online course web spaces:
- Course blogging software, including Blogs at Penn State and a WordPress blog on my own domain.
Penn State iTunes U
Cloud storage services like Dropbox and SugarSync
Penn State’s iteration of Angel
Blogging Software for Course WebsiteI have used blogging software for five of my Penn State courses:
English 15: Rhetoric and Composition (Summer 2009)
English 30: Honors Rhetoric and Composition (Spring 2009)
Liberal Arts 101H: Rhetoric and Civic Life (Spring 2010)
English 202C: Technical Writing (Fall 2010)
English 245: Introduction to LGBTQ Studies (Spring 2011)
My goals with using these sites varied from course to course, but generally, by using a website instead of ANGEL, I hoped to:
1.Have a centralized location for course resources, including the syllabus, external links, assignment sheets, and class presentations. The benefit for selecting a course website rather than using ANGEL was that the site could be individualized more than ANGEL. As a content creator, I had more control over the organization, formatting, and presenting of information.
2. Be familiar with blogging software that I was asking my students to use for their assignments, including end of the term portfolios in Rhetoric and Civic Life and Technical Writing, and blogging in many of the courses.
3. Integrate students’ discussion into one site and allow for more content freedom for students. By using a website instead of ANGEL, students could build on the affordances of the Internet to allow embedded images and video in blog posts and comments that might not be possible in discussion forums on ANGEL.
4. To open my courses up to a wider, possibly public audience. This meant that students were not just writing for me the teacher when blogging, but for each other and for potential audiences. When they blogged on the Penn State blogging platform, their blog posts were tagged, which meant they were aggregated by tags so that others at Penn State interested in their topics could find their posts.
iTunes UI have used iTunes U in addition to for course management in two English 15 courses. In one section, I also used a course blog, and in the other I used Angel in conjunction with iTunes U. I used iTunes U so that students could upload podcasts of their critical literacy narratives and share them with each other (and whoever else might listen to them).
Because one of my goals as a rhetoric and writing teacher is to have students explore different modes of rhetorical expression and delivery, I assigned a podcast during my summer courses. Students adapted a written critical literacy narrative they had written, and had to take into consideration the various affordances of audio versus print for storytelling. Using iTunes U rather than simply having students send me an mp3 file allowed for students to listen to each other’s podcasts and share the course site with others.
The image to the left is from my Summer 2009 English 15 course. During this particular term, I also included a tab for course documents, where the syllabus was also located.
Cloud Storage Services
I have used online cloud storage services in three courses i have taught at Penn State.
Because I taught a section of English 202C with the iPad in Fall 2010, I had to re-imagine how document delivery and submission would work in the class. Angel, Penn State’s course management system, is not fully compatible with mobile web browsers like the iPad’s Safari, and the iPad works through an app metaphor that stores documents within applications, rather than in a desktop metaphor that stores documents in folders. Because of this, document submission was not possible if students were writing on the iPad.
Instead, for this course, I turned to SugarSync for document management and submission. The image on the left is the shared folder for the course, which included a folder for each of the major assignments, as well as powerpoint files and the course syllabus. Each folder contained assignment sheets and other resources related to the assignments.
Students had an individual folder that they shared with me, where they would submit their assignments and where I could uploaded graded copies. This made grading more efficient for me—I could access assignments from SugarSync, grade them on my iPad, and upload them quickly and easily.
I liked the system so much that the following term I turned to Dropbox for students in English 245 to access digital readings and to turn in assignments. Even though this course wasn’t using the iPad, Dropbox was more functional than Angel in a number of ways. For example, document delivery and submission are smoother than Angel’s clunky features, documents can be accessed from a variety of devices (so students could access them quickly and easily on their personal smart phones or tablet devices). In the Fall 2011, Stuart Selber and I are co-teaching English 202C with the iPad, and we are currently using Dropbox for content management and student assignment submission.
I’ve used Angel for seven courses at Penn State: English 15 (3 sections), English 30 (1 section), and English 202C. My general purpose with using Angel is to provide students with digital copies of class materials (syllabus, readings, assignment sheets), provide links to a variety of resources and materials, and to collect students’ papers, which are submitted into drop boxes. Using ANGEL also has the added benefit of students being able to easily email each other.
The image below, a screenshot of my Angel course site for English 15 (Summer 2010) is pretty typical of how I used to organize and use Angel. You’ll notice the following resources: syllabus, readings, assignment sheets, documents and style guides, resources, a folder for assignment submissions, journal prompts, and resources for using GarageBand (for podcasts).
I’ve since started organizing my Angel courses differently, by unit or assignment instead of by task or activity. In English 202C, for example, I have a folder for each unit, and inside each folder is the assignment sheet, some resources related to the unit, and drop boxes for rough drafts and final drafts.
Angel has many benefits, in that students are used to the interface from using it in a variety of other courses, but it also has many drawbacks, including locking users into certain ways of organizing information, and having a clunky interface (for example, it takes 8 mouse clicks to upload a graded document).
Throughout my experiences teaching at Penn State, I have incorporated a number of technological innovations into my courses. These innovations have been attempts to use new technologies in order to:
- enhance the possibilities for student engagement;
- encourage students to think about rhetoric and communication outside of the delivery of a paper to a teacher; and
- to experiment with new technological devices to see how they fit into student learning and writing habits and into writing courses.
Rather than give an account of all the innovations I have experimented with, I would like to describe and reflect on three example innovations: students’ blogs and electronic portfolios and students’ multimedia arguments.
Blogs and Electronic Portfolios
Most recently, I asked students to blog in English 245: Introduction to LGBTQ Studies. In this course, I required each student to blog once throughout the term in response to our readings for that week. Because of the size of the class, we had 3-4 students blogging each week, and I asked other students to respond to one blog post each week. Students responded to readings in a variety of thoughtful and interesting ways, including extending analyses, critiquing them, or making connections to other cultural artifacts or experiences using images or YouTube videos. Student discussion extended outside of the class, and students were able to draw upon a larger variety of texts and ideas than if they were just talking in class. Additionally, we were able to pull their posts up during class and share and discuss their ideas further.
In the fall of 2010, I asked students to blog throughout the course and to create an e-portfolio at the end of the term. I worked with Stuart Selber, the director of composition, to create an e-portfolio assignment sheet that would be standard for new teachers of English 202C. My assignment sheet asked students to post 13 blog posts throughout the term responding to prompts I gave on the course website and to create an e-portfolio that will present themselves as responsible, reflective, and professional candidates to potential employers.E-portfolios are becoming increasingly common in the work world as a way to present oneself to potential employers. They have the benefit of personalizing one’s presentation, offering samples of work, displaying skill-sets and competencies, and showing reflection and growth. During this project, we discussed a variety of aspects of self-presentation and rhetoric that are important to e-portfolios: tone, privacy, reflection, intellectual property and fair use, framing projects for employers, website navigation, chunking text, using headers.
While English 202C typically has a resume and cover letter component (which is pragmatically useful to students, because they leave the class with a resume and cover letter to adapt to job searches), the e-portfolio unit is increasingly useful to students because it helps them to develop a web-presence, something that not that many students consider as they are graduating. The blogging component of this e-portfolio assignment has the additional benefit of building class discussion outside of the typical class period, and of asking students to reflect on their writing practices, technical writing, and uses of technologies throughout the term.
Lara’s e-portfolio is a strong example of what students produced throughout the term. She used her webspace to blog and reflect about her use of an iPad throughout the term, to share her volunteer experiences, to reflect on the course, to express a personal side of herself, and to share and explain her projects from college. Here is a screenshot, should her website expire:
Traditionally, the first-year writing and composition requirements ask students to write five or six papers, usually three to five pages in length each. These assignments take a rhetorical approach, asking students to write with a specific purpose in mind to a specific and defined audience. I like the rhetorical approach, but also find them limiting in the use of media and delivery (use of print). In the spring of 2010, the College of Liberal Arts piloted a course, LA 101H: Rhetoric and Civic Life. This was a four-credit course that counted for two required courses: English 15 and Communication Arts and Sciences 100A. In this course, students explored rhetoric and civic life through a variety of media: print essays, oral presentations, blogs, audio, and visual. One of the assignments was was a multi-media presentation exploring the history of a controversy. This assignment asked students to use multiple mediums in order to present an argument about the history of a controversy. Using visual images, video footage, audio narration, and other media, students created eight-minute arguments in groups of three to five students about a variety of topics: increased tuition, the closing of a dining hall on campus, how the Iraq War has been represented in mainstream media, the representation of Italian Americans on Jersey Shore, and others.
I particularly liked this assignment because it fostered critical thinking and discussion about rhetorical choices beyond print, about how to frame debates and ideas, about how delivery of texts and ideas functions differently online than in print, and how public discourse is becoming increasing electronic and multimodal. Here is an example project, in which students explored reasons for and students’ reactions to the closing of Simmons Dining Hall on campus:
In the fall of 2010, my English 202C: Technical Writing students participated in a pilot project incorporating the iPad into the course. In conjunction with Educational Technology Services, the Composition program at Penn State developed a research study to explore how the iPad could be incorporated into a technical writing course.
In particular, we were interested in the following four questions:
- 1. How do people write and read technical documents on multipurpose mobile devices like the iPad, which converge and enable a wide spectrum of literacy activities?
- 2. What are the infrastructural requirements and constraints for devices that tie to individual systems like iTunes accounts rather than academic institutional systems like Blackboard?
- 3. What choices will teachers need to make when designing courses to incorporate the numerous and diverse applications available for multipurpose mobile devices like the iPad?
- 4. What do new types of distributed, networked support systems employed on devices like the iPad change about the function of technical communication itself?
In English 202C, we incorporated the iPad into a variety of activities: students read the course textbook (Mike Markel’s Technical Communication) on the iPad, used the iPad for research on the Internet, pre-wrote and brainstormed using Pages (a word-processing application), did some other drafting on the iPad, accessed course documents using SugarSync (a cloud-based document sharing program), wrote blog posts from the iPad, and peer reviewed using iAnnotate PDF (an application that allowed marking up and annotating PDF files).
Here is language I shared with students on the syllabus at the start of the term:
An important (and often under-studied) aspect of technical writing is the work environments we choose to (or sometimes have to) work in. This course is connected to a collaborative research initiative that involves the English Department and Educational Technology Services. The purpose of this project is to explore issues integrating new work environments, technologies, and platforms, such as the Apple iPad, into higher education and student writing processes.
Students in this course will be assigned an iPad (starting week 2) to use for course materials and procedures (including reading, note-taking, researching, and document production and delivery) throughout the term. In the spirit of this study, we ask that you try to perform as much of the coursework on your iPad as possible. Of course, technological and work environment impasses will occur, and we will individually and collaboratively work through these problems; but for the purposes of this course, we ask that the iPad serve as your primary work environment. Throughout the term, we will reflect on our experiences using the iPad for technical writing instruction and processes. You are responsible for bringing your iPad and keyboard, charged and ready to use, to class each day. Four times throughout the course, we will set aside course time for taped interviews about your experiences with the iPad.
Because this is a new work environment, we have arranged with the publisher to have Mike Markel’s e-book available to us from Apple’s iBook store (for no charge). Additionally, we have arranged with Apple to receive gift cards to buy apps through Apple’s App Store at no cost to you. We will be using the following apps for our document creation, management, and delivery throughout the term: Mail, Pages, SugarSync, iBooks, iAnnotate PDF, BlogPress, and Photos. Other apps may be necessary as we experiment throughout the term. An iTunes account will be necessary in order to download apps on your iPad and keep your software updated and backed up.
Students’ uses of and reactions to the iPad were mixed: trepidation and anxiety about a new device, excitement over a tool that could be both a toy and workspace, frustration at learning new work processes, and so forth. Some students incorporated the device fully into their workflow, mostly as a supplement to their desktop and laptop PC use. Others found the new device distracting, and it became largely a reading device for the textbook, with a few other occasional uses.
In order to integrate the iPad into the requirements and expectations of the course, we discussed how the iPad worked as a writing environment; asked students to use their experiences with the iPad as evidence in a report to Cole Camplese, Director of ETS, and Stuart Selber, Director of Composition; and explored how technical communication might be changing with the development of tablet devices. Students also blogged about their experiences throughout the term, and the research team kept a research blog about the progress of the research. Additionally, Stuart Selber, Patricia Gael, and I will be presenting on this research at the 2011 Association of Teachers of Technical Writing Conference and Penn State’s 2011 Symposium for Teaching and Learning with Technology.
For an example of how we incorporated the iPad into the class, here’s a screenshot of a paper I graded on the iPad using iAnnotate PDF:
Students used iAnnotate PDF to peer review, offering comments on each other’s files and then emailing them back to the owner. I also used iAnnotate to grade, which was a change from my normal procedure of grading printed papers. This term, my class didn’t use any paper, except for consent forms at the beginning of the term. Everything was done digitally. I would collect student assignments by having them submit them to shared SugarSync folders, and then I would open them on iAnnotate PDF, use comments and highlighting to give feedback and writing an overall comment, and then email them back to students. I found there were many benefits of grading this way: the mediation of the screen on the iPad narrows my focus so I get less distracted as I grade, I am more willing to type suggested rewording than I am to handwrite it, I am more likely to explain mechanical errors than just marking them, and I found I was more forced to be concise in my overall comments because of the limited screen space. I viewed all these as benefits that made grading more streamlined for me (in addition to not carrying so many papers around) and more beneficial for students. (I’ve discussed grading using iAnnotate on our team’s research blog as well.)
In Summer 2011 I taught an online section of English 202C: Technical Writing for World Campus and did a 1/4 revision of the course. This was my first time teaching online, and I found I had to shift my expectations of how I interacted as a teacher.
At the end of the term, student comments in the course evaluation showed they appreciated the attention I showed them through emails, feedback on assignments, and extra explanations that the course structure didn’t provide (the course is standardized across sections of 202C for World Campus).
One such extra explanation I gave was a screencast explaining a sample assignment for the Internet Resource Guide, the second assignment in the course. Because the assignment is meant to have student exemplify their ability to implement many aspects of technical communication—including explanations, organization of information, previewing information, table of contents, hierarchy of information, and layout features—it’s often a difficult assignment even for students who are in my face-to-face classes.
Because students were in various time zones, holding digital office hours wasn’t entirely feasible, though I would have delighted in holding video conference office hours. However, creating a screencast that walked through the assignment sheet was something that could help students understand the assignment and make sense of a sample assignment.
The screencast I created is below (I have permission from the student to share the assignment with students and in a portfolio). Unfortunately, this is a flash video, so it might not work on Apple iOS devices.
In my spring 2011 English 245: Intro to LGBTQ studies course, I often used Prezi for class presentations and to help facilitate class discussion. For example, early in the term students read Alexander Doty’s Making Things Perfectly Queer, an intervention into reception studies that argues that reading queerly is not a misinterpretation or reading into things, but is instead an interactive way of reading cultural texts that has cultural production power.
Doty’s text is “dated” to many students. Written in the 1990s, and about cultural texts from the 1930s to early 1990s, the book makes many references that students are unaware of, or have limited familiarity with. Additionally, Doty is making an intervention into an academic discourse on reception studies — a scholarly conversation that students may not fully understand the nuances of at first read.
In order to assist students both in following his intervention and in understanding a few of his examples, I used Prezi for a class presentation, which allowed me to embed images of Katharine Hepburn and YouTube videos from Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance staring Lucille Ball. For students to be able to see the images Doty discusses, and watch some of the videos he discusses, we were able to explain and work through some of Doty’s concepts as a class, leading to a rich discussion about what it means to read both from a queer position and in queer ways. Additionally, I was able to add other examples, such as a link to a 2009 blog post about an Out magazine article that reads Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin’s relationship queerly.
Prezi has other affordances, which I don’t fully draw upon in this presentation, including making new, different spatial relationships between ideas, concepts, images, and videos. What I particularly like about Prezi is the ability to navigate a presentation in a multitude of ways, instead of solely in a linear fashion, like other presentation software encourages.
Readers of this post can navigate through the Prezi below by clicking on arrows and using either the zoom buttons on the right or their mouse or trackpad to zoom in and out.
At first I was skeptical of using clickers in the classroom. “Quiz” style assessment came to mind. But after talking to Brian in ETS and watching the following video from Professor Sam Richards about his use in the classroom, I decided to give it a try.
Students in my Spring 2011 English 245 course were highly engaged, and classroom discussion was always lively. However, I often got the sense that I didn’t know if students who disagreed or thought differently about topics were talking. In a sense, when we were discussing a theory or idea, I wasn’t sure what all viewpoints were getting voiced and which ones were silenced.
For two class periods toward the end of the term, I tested the clickers in the class. Using PowerPoint slides with questions about student opinions, I polled students, and then we had the opportunity to discuss concepts and ideas related to those. I could then poll students again and see how ideas changed overall, and then students could discuss why they changed their minds.
We were reading a highly controversial book, Tim Dean’s Unlimited Intimacy, and then wrapping up the course, so the approach was useful in getting a sense of students opinions about some of Dean’s ideas and then discussing them. It was also useful in synthesizing the ideas from the course. After fourteen weeks, we had read and discussed a variety of work in sexuality studies, many of which were making political claims about the ways we do, can, could, and should relate to each other.
One of the last questions I asked was “Which humanistic value seems the most important, based on our readings this term?” My goal was to help students through synthesizing the readings throughout the last fourteen weeks, to see common ideas and threads, and to help get at some of the most salient ethical and political points.
An initial poll revealed the following results:
Nearly half of students thought community was the most important value, while a fair number valued liberty, and fewer valued rationality or autonomy. We then spent class time talking about these ideas, and I asked a few students to volunteer to explain their choice. This developed into a discussion, drawing on course readings from much of the term, about how certain authors viewed these values.
After a lively discussion, I polled the class again, asking the same questions. As the following graph shows, fewer students selected liberty or community, and more chose autonomy after the discussion.
By being able to show the before and after results of a poll in class, we were then able to talk about why students changed their minds: what sorts of things their classmates said about the concepts and about the readings from the term affected their decisions. Students were also able to go back and defend certain views, taking into account new concepts that students had brought up.
This activity had another benefit: I now had a clearer sense of how the overall class was synthesizing fourteen weeks of material. I had a sense about individual views on specific readings, but not so much on how the whole class was linking material in a variety of ways. This helped me prepare my lecture for the next class period because I had a better sense of how students understood the material from the course.
My students also reported really enjoying the clicker activity. Part of this enjoyment, I’m sure, was the novelty of playing with a new device and approach class discussion in a new and different way. But part of it was also being able to visualize class opinion and to speak up to explain a viewpoint or speak back to certain viewpoint. In many ways, it provided a structure to a discussion that would have been harder if I had relied on the board and chalk and a poll of raised hands.
I really enjoyed using the clickers in class too. I sense that the activity might get “old” or “tired” after a whole term, but it’s certainly an activity that helped facilitate discussion and allowed me another opportunity to assess my students’ understanding of material.
I asked students what they thought of using the clickers, and overwhelming, students selected A) It strongly helped class discussion (answers followed a Lickert scale):
Image Credit: Teaching with Clickers
In the spring of 2010, an archival librarian gave a presentation to instructors in the composition program here about using the university’s Special Collections in composition courses. My friend Sarah closed out her first year rhetoric and composition course with an archival research essay in the spring, and when I talked to her, I absolutely loved her ideas, so for the last assignment this summer (2010) in my FYC course, I assigned an archival research essay. I thought I’d write a post and share some ideas and the process.
I saw this project as accomplishing the following objectives:
- Students engage with research out of curiosity instead of thesis-chasing. With most research assignments, no matter how much I stress starting with curiosity, many students start out out with a thesis, or a vague idea of a thesis, and gear their research toward that thesis from fairly early in the research process. This can lead to selectively choosing counter-arguments (it’s easier to just ignore the ones that they can’t figure out how to rebut); finding “facts” to back up an argument, at the expense of focusing on the intellectual conversation and debate; and limiting invention to what one already believes and knows. Of course, I’m painting with a large brush here, and these problems don’t have to arise, but they’re pretty frequent. With this project, I asked students to enter historical and archival research with curiosity, and to develop an argument with what they find, rather than start with an argument. And students had to do this because they were dealing with material they were largely unfamiliar with.
- Students develop a larger sense of invention. Throughout the term, I try to stress that writers look at the world as writers, and when they see things, they think about how it fits into arguments, debates, and discussions and what they might have to say about it. I especially stress this with the rhetorical analysis assignment: that the rhetorical analysis is not just an analysis, but an analysis about something interesting used to make a claim or argument. I try to model this by modeling my own curiosity and engagement with artifacts I see. This assignment helps to model this more: find something you’re curious about, and develop various connections and ideas about it.
- Students develop a sense of history here, perhaps denaturalizing what they assume is “normal” and ahistorical Penn State student behavior; additionally, students see that the past is something that is important to the present and can be used for a variety of purposes. Our research in the archives was limited to student traditions at Penn State, which allowed students to see how students lived and experienced Penn State in the past. I ask them to make the history they are researching important to readers and to make an argument about it, or to use the past to make an argument about now.
- Students have fun. This was, of course, important. I mean, this stuff is interesting!
The archivist and I met two times before the project started (of course, we had met earlier about her presentation to composition instructors). During our first meeting, we discussed a possible time line for research, how we’d have students initially visit the archives, what resources were available, and what topics were possible for student papers. We decided to limit the research to student traditions, and have the archivist select materials to have on a special cart for the course that students could request to see when they came in. We set up a time line: I’d introduce the paper topic, then students would visit the archives as a class, where they were introduced to a special exhibit on student traditions, briefly shown an overview of the materials available to them, shown how to use the online archives for the student newspaper and yearbooks, and shown models of the types of research questions they might ask. Then students had to visit the archives on their own, develop a proposal, email it to me. I put some books on course reserves for secondary sources, and over the next week, students turned in two research logs as they researched and worked on their papers. I also conferenced with each student about their paper; some came with questions about their research or the paper, others with starts of drafts. What was amazing about these conferences was, for the first time ever, every student came with clear, prepared questions about their paper or topic.
How it went
These papers were highly successful, I think, in both student engagement with their topics and in paper quality. Students researched a variety of aspects of student traditions at Penn State:
- The history of the Nittany Lion mascot
- Gendered regulations for young women at Penn State
- Cross dressing at Penn State in the 1890s
- Competitions between classes in the early 20th century (called class scraps)
- Dances in the early 20th century
- Rules that freshmen were expected to follow in the early 20th century
Students struggled with figuring out how to make what they were researching matter to readers. I encouraged them to consider not just that this would be interesting, but why it would be interesting for students to read about today. Some came up with strong arguments about gender norms today, or about school spirit. Some waxed nostalgic, or made claims about the meaning of certain traditions. The struggle over how to make this matter was productive: students showed patience with themselves and the research, explored and discussed different approaches, and wrote successful papers.
We spent the last two days of class with brief, informal presentations about their research, requiring a visual (students could take pictures of what they saw in the archives). And these were a lot of fun: we all learned a lot about Penn State history and student life history, and students got a chance to share what they learned and what they thought about what they learned.
Overall, I think my students had a lot of fun with this topic, and so did I. I asked students for feedback on the assignment, and most of them praised some aspect of it: the helpfulness of visiting the archives, the interesting topics available, the fun it was exploring student history at Penn State.
The assignment sheet
Here’s a PDF of the assignment sheet as I developed it for summer term (I took off the librarian contacts in case they don’t want them up on the blog): Archival Researched Essay assignment sheet
NOTE: This content was originally posted on my blog
Featured Image for this Post (displayed on homepage): 1913 Flag Scrap, photo courtesy of Penn State Special Collections