Sunday, February 1, 2009

Incorporating New Media in the Classroom

In my now 4+ years as a writing teacher and through my own experiences as a student, I've come to realize that one of the most valuable ways to improve as a writer is to get a great deal of feedback. (And recent neurological and educational research would seem to corroborate that.) Unfortunately, with class sizes as large as they are due to budget constraints, there is a limit to how much one-on-one feedback and personalized mentorship I'm able to provide to each of my students. (There is only so much that one person can do, after all!)

Not that I'm advocating this for any of you, but I tend to go a little above and beyond the call of duty and meet with each student via the phone for at least 20 minutes to discuss their rough drafts for every major paper. This is a tremendous sacrifice of my personal time and energy, but I keep doing it since my students say it's often the #1 most helpful thing about my class. Plus, I tend to find a big improvement in most of my student's writing as a result of these conferences. While part of me is always concerned that I may not be able to sustain this level of commitment in the future, another part of me wishes there was some way I could give them more feedback and guidance even earlier in the writing process.

That's why I'm starting to see some of the appeals of using new media (e.g. Web 2.0 applications) in the college writing classroom. I've been enjoying a blog and podcast called Academic Evolution recently. It was launched by Gideon Burton, a former mentor of mine and a professor of English at Brigham Young University. Academic Evolution is devoted to exploring the ways new media is changing (or should change) the way academic discourse is carried out---in both the college classroom and in scholarly research.

Episode 3 of the podcast was about Blogging in College Writing Instruction. I recommend downloading it and listening to it yourself, but for those of you who don't have the time (it's about 35 minutes long), I'll summarize it here. The episode is basically a discussion between Burton and Kathy Cowley, a graduate writing instructor who is trying an experiment using blogging as an integral part of her instruction this semester. In the podcast, Cowley argues that real-world writing involves a 3-way rhetorical interaction between the writer, the content, and the audience. The problem is that the classroom is an artificial rhetorical context because it lacks a real audience. Students spend 30+ hours on a writing assignment that is only read by their professor (and maybe a disgruntled peer or two). But it doesn't have to be that way. Using a term coined by Rosa Eberly, she argues that classrooms can become a "proto-public" space by fostering greater collaboration between peers.

Cowley is trying to foster greater peer collaboration through blogging. She requires her students to write three weekly blog entries on their class blog (one before each session of class). The entries must be at least a paragraph long and need to be semi-polished prose. The students also need to post 10 comments on posts written by their fellow students by the end of the week. Cowley posts weekly blog prompts and blog assignment directions for the students on a separate blog. For example, Cowley frequently requires students to post portions of the papers they are working on so that they can get feedback from their peers. Cowley reports that many students have revised their arguments and ideas based on the initial responses from their fellow students. She feels the experiment has been successful so far.

I can see how Cowley's blogging idea could have some good applications for assignments such as the Summary/Strong Response paper in 1010 and the Analysis/Synthesis paper in 2010. Since those assignments involve having students respond to a common text, I see value in having students exchange and debate the ideas in these texts in a more proto-public forum such as a blog. I try to get students to engage in these kinds of discussions during my class, but these good discussions often get cut off when class time ends. Plus, I think an online forum could entice some of my more shy or introverted students to participate in discussions a little more.

As a side note, I also recommend checking out Episode 2 of the podcast, The Facebook Experiment. In this episode, Burton discusses his own experiment using a Facebook group to foster better class discussions about literature. Burton's use of Facebook is another possibly good use of new media in the classroom that is in a similar vein as Cowley's. If you have a Facebook account, you can check out his class's Facebook group: BYU English 251 Sect 4 (Winter 2009).

Hopefully you'll find some of these ideas helpful and provocative!


Erik Kerby said...

I'm very interested in technologically enhanced approaches to teaching and have spent some time thinking and researching about ways to improve student learning. I especially like the idea of having students involved in extended discussions of texts gone over in class. I tend to use texts to discuss context--as examples of what to do and what not to do. But my students really seem to enjoy discussing/debating the content. I wish I could have more time to allow them to do that while still teaching them the critical thinking skills they need in order to contribute to a dynamic discussion. Maybe a class blog could help.

I have two main concerns, however, and maybe you can offer your experience/suggestions. First, how difficult it is to secure a class blog. By which I mean, do I have to require my students (and myself) to sign up for yet another email/online account that extracts personal information and subjects them to advertising? And, are there legal concerns about posting 'intellectual property'?

Second, although the goal of such discussion is to stimulate critical thinking and encourage students to find better ways to support their arguments/positions; do students actually use online discussion that way? Does the extra exposure to different perspectives increase the originality, individuality, and complexity of their papers, or do you see them turning in rather homogenized responses?

Alyssa Rock said...

Those are two very valid concerns, in my opinion. Cowley uses blogspot, which supports Open ID accounts, so you would just use your favorite ID to log in, which is nice. I'm not a big fan of blogspot myself, so I'm currently shopping around for a better platform. I'll let you know if I find anything I like.

I'm seriously considering Facebook as a platform, especially in light of this recent Slate article. I did an informal poll of my students and only about 5 out of 45 weren't on Facebook yet. My main misgivings about using Facebook is I don't like the blurring of the lines between personal and professional relationships. (Don't really want them to "friend" me, you know?)

As for your second concern, that's one of my worries too. However, my latest batch of Analysis/Synthesis papers seem to be pretty homogenous anyway, so I don't know that using technology would really change that too much. :P In either case, an online platform might get them to tease out their ideas more. Plus, you could easily see if they were "borrowing" ideas from a fellow student by just reading through the online record.

Steph said...

I'll be using a blog in 1010 this semester. I'm starting out with the requirement of a weekly discussion question that students respond to (at least six sentences) and then two additional posts on topics of their choice and/or respond to a peer's post. I think I will add the requirement of posting essay drafts. Let you know how it goes.