I have truly learned so much over the three semesters that I have participated in LaGuardia Community College’s Community 2.0 Seminar. It was certainly the most powerful professional development experience I’ve ever had and I’m confident that it will positively shape my teaching in an ongoing way. I was an immediate convert last spring, filled with zeal at the kinds of pedagogical possibilities these technologies could make possible. This was an expansive period in which I developed familiarity with a wide range of technologies – in particular, Blogger - and, through error and on-the-spot modifications, developed workable models for using 2.0 technologies to improve the teaching of writing. However, as the muse of cliché teaches, “what goes up must go down.” This has been a less exuberant year, but one of more experimentation, refinement and troubleshooting. I began to seek “tweaks” to my methodology to increase its effectiveness in teaching writing. I also experimented with a wider variety of platforms with mixed successes. Collaborations with other faculty gave mixed results in terms of smoothness or effectiveness, but they were worthwhile in that they taught me the greatest take-away lessons of this year’s seminar about what works.
Over the year, I have continued to rely heavily on Blogger as the “base” platform for my classes. I have only benefitted from maintaining a “class site” to connect the class and provide constant access for students to assignments, course documents, embedded media and links support. This blog also hosts the “blogroll” of all student blogs – past and present – so that students can browse the work of their peers. With this use, even the mildest efforts on my part generally have huge returns – students have everything they need to succeed and a lot of things that can help them have a more meaningful connection to the process. Here is a link to my ENG 101 course based around the theme of food and politics.
I have also continued having each student create and maintain a personal blog for the course. These have been effective in some ways. They make peer review more flexible and allow students to form social networks based on writing and course themes. There are also aspects of the way student blogging often works that I really would like to reform. For example, I use blogs frequently for “low-stakes” writing (a low-pressure and ungraded way to help resistant writers develop skill and confidence). However, because it isn’t qualitatively graded, I frequently get very low-effort writing. Students race to hit the word-count and post. While I like the concept of low-stakes, its use here seems to reinforce students’ bad compositional habits (texting-type carelessness, superficial regurgitation) and imply that digital writing somehow “doesn’t count” in the same way that paper writing does. On the other hand, because 1) I assign the same number of rigorous high-stakes, hard-copy essays as I did in my pre-technologic teaching life and 2) since I grade as I commute a long distance without wi-fi, it is impractical for me to commit to the hours of on-line grading qualitative assessments of their blogs would entail.
Several possibilities that might mitigate this effect occur to me, all of which involve making at least some of the blog writing of the “medium-stakes” variety. These include setting a baseline for credit (Writing must be of a certain reasonably middling quality or above to get credit); giving a total qualitative grade for all the blog posts twice over the semester; and keeping some blog posts casual, but mixing in several graded blogs (and perhaps cancelling a short formal paper in exchange). The advantage of the last idea is that, in addition to solving the problem of effort, it would allow me to satisfy another of my goals – to truly use the 21st century compositional possibilities of technology more rigorously in class. With a higher-stakes graded blog, students would be able to supplement their expositions with embedded images, video and links.
Acclimating to a new technology requires time and, for many students, significant assistance. This process has taught me that our confidence in our students’ technological fluency is overly facile. For every few stereotypical net gen freshmen, there are students with little familiarity or access to technology outside of classrooms. These students can get stuck and struggle needlessly. For this reason, I choose only to use 2.0 technology in courses that meet, at least half the time, in computer labs so that I can ensure that students have the skills they will need to work effectively outside of the classroom (even then, there may be issues with student success due to absences or technophobia). In addition, I have begun to limit the amount of platforms I expect students to navigate on an ongoing basis so that our course does not become a computer skills seminar instead of the composition class for which they registered. In the past, I’ve “overdone” it and regretted the fragmentation and confusion it caused.
I have had my students – in different sections – collaborating over several semesters. They may peer review one another’s work, develop projects together or simply serve as ‘virtual’ readers so that all work has an audience. Since my classes share technological skills and platforms, are easily accountable for doing work since I teach both sections, due to the ease with which I can modify classes to enable synchronous schedules to enable the smoothest interactions, I was surprised by the issues that arose with collaboration with other faculty. Scheduling shifts, platform mismatches, and complex (and unreliable) student accountability made the project frustrating for my students. I discuss the issue at length here (and my colleague’s experience can be found here). However, in an asynchronous collaboration where my students ‘piggybacked’ onto an existing archived three-way course discussion through a Google discussion board went very smoothly and was extremely effective.