During the Fall of 2016 I also began experimenting with what could generally be classified as open digital pedagogy. I supported my class mostly on Queens College’s open WordPress platform, Qwriting – though I needed Blackboard for some copyrighted material. Through this course site, students participated in focused online discussions related to the readings (first initiated by me through Crowdsource, then initiated by them through blog posting), contributed to a class dictionary, began a library of social justice organizations combatting some of the issues we discuss in class, and writing reflections on the development of their ideas and understandings about urban inequality. The assignments are arranged in a way that aims to scaffold their thinking and use of the digital technology for course assignments.
There is a description of the assignments here on the Requirements page, and you can find a course schedule here, on the course site. Though it has been rearranged to better accommodate external viewers, the site contains all of the original content of the course. Thus, to a large extent some one could retake the course by following this schedule.
Through this schedule you can see the progression of assignments. In the beginning students are expected to familiarize themselves with the course site. I refer to in class since it contains nearly all of the information they’ll need to be successful, and I think this helps. Then they begin commenting on a post that I make. This crowdsource assignment also aims to scaffold online class discussion because it asks students to engage one another and share their opinions about the readings. The step is that they are doing this in the comments section, for now.
During the first half of the assignment I also introduce them to the Dashboard, the practical aspects of posting to the blog and the larger realities and complexities of the public writing they’ll be doing and the underlying ethics). Following that class they were asked to post a reflection to the blog – on that had been due 3 days prior. Thus, their first blog posting assignment was merely about the mechanics of this activity. They has to add a new title, insert their content, add and image or video or both, categorize their post according to guidelines I prescribed and add at least three unique identifiers as tags.
That class we also talked about blogging and what blogging was, but students didn’t start blogging until the 2nd half of the semester. While I mimicked this scaffolding in the Spring of 2017, in the Fall of 2017 I had students blogging from the beginning. This was for two reasons. First, as I’ll discuss, students in Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 were able to pick up technology relatively quickly (despite in one instance reporting that they didn’t feel that confident in their abilities). How necessary was all the scaffolding I was doing then? Second, though students generally seem to engage in the course, the majority of student feedback was it was too many assignments for a 101 course. In prepping a new iteration of the course for Fall 2017, I wanted to heed this advice; not only because students were pushing back, but also because I felt the ‘bombardment’ of assignments might actually impede more than facilitate the learning process. Balance was needed.
In the Spring of 2017, and likely related to my reviews though some students really enjoyed this assignment, I also had students create digital public education tools for their final assignments. They had the option of working in groups or individually, and were charged with doing a 6-week, scaffolded digital research project. The outcome would be a digital public education tool that could be accessed by outside readers to learn more about a topic related to urban inequality. I did not give in-depth overviews of the different tools I recommended to students, but I gave them a list, and a couple weeks to explore them and think about which one(s) they might use. These included JSTimeline, StoryMaps and Qwriting/WordPress. You can read more about this assignment in the next post, but in sum, all students were able to make the project work for them.
In the Fall of 2017 I ultimately cut this assignment too, and the reasoning points to the larger challenge of integrating technology into one’s course. In their reviews, the students were right – this was a 101 course. There is certain material (in this case, a baseline understanding of urban inequality and skills (critical thinking, academic writing, class discussion, synthesis of reading, etc) one needs to get from a 101 course. The integration of digital tech needs to be considered in relation to the course more generally, and the overall goals of the course; in most cases, learning digital tech will not be the ultimate aim, it will just be a tool and/or a classroom space.
With this in mind, I also made the ‘Course Blog Contributions’ (at 25% of their grade) a more pronounced part of the class. This included the 4 blogs they needed to sign-up for and post throughout the semester, and the weekly commenting, even on weeks they were blogging. To scaffold their learning of blog posting, I kept the initial reflection assignment that required them to submit the assignment before we discuss WordPress, and then to go through the mechanics of posting that same assignment to the blog. In addition, I pointed students to other student blogs including QC Voices and The Buzz, City Tech OpenLab’s student blogging team. After the first week of blogging, I also pointed out some blogs and comments that I think were done particularly well. I am currently eagerly waiting to read the 2nd week of post.
To be continued Spring 2017.
A major impetus for going down the rabbit hole of ODP was to understand how it could support my aims of agentive, cooperative learning. In my classrooms, I strive to blur the binary between teacher and learner in the endeavor of creating a diverse community of learners (and teachers) who contribute to (others might say ‘take responsibility for’ but this rephrasing is intentional) the group’s learning by sharing their own experiences and interpretations, and growing their understandings of course material through understanding their relations to others.
Online writing, as I’m doing here, offers another space for discussing and dialogue that can complement our in-class conversations and other coverage of course material. The challenge I have found is reaching a populace, and a populace that has extreme pressures on their time and thus have to be selective of what they choose to read no less.
Moreover, online writing in public spaces – like Qwriting – can publicize the conversations in my public-university classroom. In some ways, this feels like a form of ‘giving back’ – which feels particularly pertinent given the time we’re in. Relatedly, I feel that students need to learn to find and/or have opportunities to use their voice to engage in public and peer-to-peer discussions about issues they’re learning about daily. And they need to know how to talk about these issues with a diverse community of people who may hold different views from themselves, or be at different points in the process of understanding an issue. I like the idea that students in my class are getting exposure. Even if no one outside our class ever reads these writings (and even if they do we will likely not know) I think it gives students an opportunity to practice putting their voice out there in an informed way.
In addition, I like the idea of having students write for a public audience, rather than – for me, or ‘the professor’. We talk about writing for a public audience when we talk about blogging as a writing practice – and the importance of being able to communicate your thoughts. I like to think this emphasis on writing as a form of communication rather than as an assignment improves their writing, though at the time, I have no hard evidence to that effect.