Come Together, Write Now, (A)Synchronously!

Collaboration is something I never thought about when I was a student taking online courses—the classes I took over Blackboard were always very cut-and-dry: watch a PowerPoint, take some notes, respond to several posts, write a paper. While I understand that Blackboard ITSELF was very cut-and-dry—and admittedly, this was back in olden times—I wonder at the lack of collaboration within those courses. After reading Warnock’s chapter 14 and watching Janette’s video, I now think group work would have been very doable in those primitive e-classes of yore.

So, without further ado, I present my sample collaboration sequence. As I’ve yet to teach online/hybrid courses, this is all pure speculation and ideas; it’s a series I HOPE would work, but would need to be trialed and tested. My goal is to create a multi-modal, multiple-learning-pathways unit that fosters process work and scaffolding.

This would be a collaboration model I’d use in the later part of the semester for my standard English 100 course, which of course would have been translated into an OWcourse. The sequence would probably start in Week 11 or 12. This model doesn’t include PowerPoints and other lessons from me, entire-class posts, or individual work—it’s purely focused on the collaborative aspects. Here I go:

Multi-Modal Collaboration Overview

♦ The two texts they’d be working with are transcripts of Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” and Shafak’s “The Politics of Fiction,” two pieces I adore and highly recommend. I think Warnock’s (149) and Janette’s shared idea to sort students into smaller groups is both logical and brilliant, and therefore I’m unashamedly copying it: the students in this assignment would be sorted into groups of five.

♦ The assignment will ask students to work together in their groups of five to fully analyze the rhetorical devices, arguments, and strategies in both pieces. The final paper for this unit (which is not collaborative but is worth mentioning) would ask for each student to individually compose a comparative analysis of both pieces. They would do this in order to assess which rhetorical devices work best (and perhaps also which are weakest) in supporting similar arguments. That aside, the group would be working on a group assignment associated with the same readings where they give a presentation (yep, an OWcourse presentation!) on how ten rhetorical devices are functioning within the two pieces. The ideal is each student would be responsible for tracing two devices: one in Adichie’s and one in Shafak’s. They’d be collaborating, sharing their ideas, and working together to build a strong final presentation. All the process work is low-stakes: all the posts, discussion, etc. they do leading up to the creation of their presentation is worth points, which rewards them for being team players. These low-stakes steps are probably worth 10 points each, rewarding and enticing, but not akin to the heavy grade value (100 points out of a 1000-point class) the final group assignment itself is worth.

Series of Activities in This Sequence

1) Discussion Board Sounding Ground Pt. 1: After the students read the two pieces and have had a good deal of class-wide instruction and primary discussion, they’d be sorted into groups of five and asked to begin by creating one 7-9 sentence post discussion the various devices they’ve found in the two pieces. They would then briefly respond to the four others’ thoughts as well. In responding to each other, my hope is they’d see which devices are more prevalent than others within each piece.

2) Google Form: From here, they’d all visit a Google form and vote on a time to synchronously (Warnock 150) meet in a (designed by me) Chatstep Chat Room meeting. There is only one synchronous meeting they’d be required to hold. (Btw: Chatstep is a really nice website used to create private and safe chatrooms. If I need to step in and moderate, I have that option). The students are free to synchronously or asynchronously talk with each other in whichever ways they like best outside of this requirement.

3) Group Chat: In their synchronous chat, they’d select which devices they’ll each be tracing and how they’ll divide up the work. They’d also vote on how to approach the final product: they can use Camtasia or any other screen-recording software to either record their individual portions all meshed together, or record or upload them all individually to their group assignment folder on Canvas. Their final presentations can be PowerPoints, Google Slides, Youtube videos, or anything else they can dream up to meet the criteria. (Nota bene: I’d like to have an actual list of media for them to select from by that point, but I’m still currently working on broadening that list ☺).

4) Group Google Docs: Each group would have two Google docs, one of Adichie’s transcript, and the other Shafak’s. These two docs would be limited to the group of five. They’d each asynchronously highlight and comment on their devices. This assignment would also require them to respond—at least one per fellow student—to each other’s comments on the same doc. This allows them to provide feedback to each other’s ideas on the actual pieces themselves. This way, they can all—as a team—see the actual examples of the devices and read each other’s thoughts on how those devices and examples are functioning.

5) Discussion Board Sounding Ground Pt. 2: They’d each post on an additional discussion board their finalized analyses of their selected devices. This assignment would, once again, ask for each student to additionally respond to at least one other peer’s ideas. This is one more chance for joint effort and group cooperation.

6) Presentation: They’d each record/upload the presentation of their devices. Again, the type of presentation is up to them: PowerPoints, Prezis, Youtube Videos, actual recordings of themselves, whatever works best for them is fine with me.*

7) Google Doc Credit Sesh: After posting their presentations, they would go onto a group Google Doc and do the following: reflect on how the assignment went, *justify their choice of media, and explain which parts of the collaboration they were responsible for. I know this might be an unpopular strategy, but as someone who was the student who always ended up with all the work, I feel this portion is vital towards a fair distribution of points.

8) AV Feedback: I’d provide the group with feedback. This step needs more thought, of course, as I’m not sure how I want to approach it. I might decide on one master recording of me going through their presentations accompanied with my audio commentary. Whatever I chose, I’d be sure to also provide them with a document listing their group grade and plenty of explanation.

So, of course, there are a few disclaimers to this sequence: first, these aren’t the only activities they’d be working on, just the collaborative ones. There would be other whole-class activities, individual assignments, lectures, and readings they’d be working on simultaneously. Second, this would take place over the course of four or five weeks. Third, I have no idea how successful this activity would be, although I have high hopes—I’d love a chance to try it out, of course!

After this unit, I now have a lot more hope and faith in the possibility of collaboration outside of just doing peer reviews—which, like Warnock, I didn’t want to belabor (149). I am in constant awe of the digital possibilities open to us nowadays and would like to incorporate other newfangled techs into this design. Please let me know if you have any suggestions!

Never Just Another Brick in the Wall: Genuine Online Response and Feedback

As Warnock humbly admits (137), so shall I, too: I give a lot of feedback, probably much more than is necessary. In my f2f classes the vast majority of my feedback is handwritten—I collect hard copies of my students’ assignments and write comments on the margins and spaces throughout. Additionally, I like to compose an end-of-reading reflection paragraph encompassing my major points for consideration. I also provide students with a rubric showing them where their paper falls on the argument, development, organization, language/mechanics, and various other assignment-specific criteria. I like giving my students this variety—if one student is very cerebral and prefers the exact numbers, they can focus on the rubric, which is also useful towards showcasing the course standards. The comments and reflection paragraph are more specific and detailed to the students’ strengths and areas that could use some focus.

However, all this handwriting is exhausting. My typing speed is around 80 wpm—my writing speed, on the other hand, is probably something horribly slow like 11 wpm. With writing taking over seven times longer than it takes to type the same comment, I’m long-overdue moving towards these newfangled grading programs.

I still think there is virtue in handwriting, specifically because it takes longer for me to write than to type. Handwriting makes me think carefully over how to comment, which means I usually write a bit more considerately than I would were I to type out the response instead. I never want to compromise the integrity of my feedback, especially when my students genuinely read and care about my observations. However, maintaining this care becomes a challenge when my hand starts cramping. And my head gets achy. And my wrist becomes sore. And oh, let’s not forget the stiff neck! We’ve all been down that road—I know many of us practically have timeshares on that street! Alright, the metaphor is running away from me, but my point is that grader’s fatigue is a very real thing that we all deal with. I’m hoping that electronic response can help to alleviate some (if not most) of it.

Since I still provide mostly handwritten feedback, I’m still new to these tools. However, here are a few I’m interested in:

  1. SpeedGrader: This is the one tool that really seems to rule them all. I haven’t used it yet, but I’m excited to start and have grandiose plans. I especially love SpeedGrader’s comment feature, view rubric feature, and media file attachment feature—this last in particular is the tool of my dreams, because it translates directly into AV comments! More on that later.
    1. The rubric is lovely because students are able to specifically see how many points they achieved for each criteria. I like how dynamic the rubric is—you can give comments as well as show where each rubric score falls on a spectrum.
    2. The comments are of course extremely useful, and probably the most helpful tool available for English instructors. If some evil magician robbed me of all my methods of responding to student writing save one, I’d hope he’d leave me with my commentary. I truly feel students need to see exactly where their papers do well and where they fall short—otherwise, they’re left just guessing, which isn’t conducive to the learning-growing writing process. Besides, who of us in the past hasn’t had a teacher or professor who gave notoriously confusing feedback? I had several myself, and would never want to be considered as such! Comments are so important, and the one feature that seems to pop up in most tech teaching tools.
    3. I also really like SpeedGrader’s draw and highlight tools—I see these as being particularly useful for syntax, spelling, and other language mechanics. I imagine I’d start off trying to note everything via the comment feature, but I would probably eventually use color coding for sentence craft. For example: yellow highlighting = run-on, purple highlighting = fragment, etc. The combination of typing my comments and using coding will help to greatly reduce the time I spend on feedback while simultaneously increasing the amount itself.
    4. Finally, there’s SpeedGrader’s record/upload media feature: AV feedback!!!! I’m ridiculously excited to use AV feedback, and am already considering it for my f2f classes. I absolutely love that you can use both audio and video recordings in SpeedGrader.

I think my tools use would be a combination of all of these: comments and draw/highlight for specific response throughout my students’ papers, rubric for explaining how they did criteria and standard-wise, and record/upload media for the end-of-paper reflection paragraph I compose.

… also, this last tool (the AV feature) is the answer to the biggest concern I’ve had regarding writing response: how can we encourage our students to actually read our electronic feedback?

The one reason it’s taken me so long to move to electronic evaluation is my belief in the genuine feelings handwriting transmits. Something that continues to surprise and embolden me is how much my students seem to actually read and consider my commentary. When I’ve briefly attempted electronic feedback in the past (mostly through the comment feature in Microsoft Word), students would at times ignore or fail to read my responses. This, wonderfully enough, hasn’t been much of a problem with handwritten critiques. I really do think there is something personal in each of our handwriting styles; a handwritten note, then, seems to reach my students a bit more directly.

I think providing students with even one minute of AV commentary can make a big difference between cold, almost robotic-sounding response and sincere, personal assessment. If they hear my voice, see my face, or watch a video of me going through their paper, I think they’ll be encouraged to pay more attention to my feedback. Warnock says he has a lot of success with AV feedback (131), and from a sociological standpoint, it makes complete sense. Therefore, when considering his success, I focused on two more tools I’m thinking of using when it comes to assessing student writing: Dragon and Skype.

2. Dragon NaturallySpeaking: I know very little about this program barring what I’ve heard from various colleagues at MiraCosta. It looks promising in that it allows a user to voice-to-text their comments. That’s all I know about it so far, other than I’d personally have to go through a serious learning curve to use it efficiently. Still, I definitely talk faster than I type, so it seems like a useful program.

3. Skype: I’m old-fashioned. I know there are spiffy new ways of conducting video-chats, but Skype—despite the occasional glitching—is fairly reliable. I’d like to use it to video conference students while reviewing their papers and going over revision reports. Again, anything to make the writing response process as personal as possible is my goal. In doing so, my hope is they’ll truly consider my feedback and advice.

Circling back, one last comment I want to mention is on Warnock’s advice to change our system of grading when teaching OWcourses. I think this absolutely makes sense and completely agree; there is going to be a lot more informal writing in an OWcourse, and I’d like to encourage my students to write as much as they can. Giving more weight to these informal responses seems like a very natural shift.

A risk in moving over to an OWcourse means students might feel like a brick in the wall or part of a machine (yep—I’ve had Pink Floyd stuck in my head throughout all of these chapter thanks to Warnock’s comments on robotic voices and inauthentic feedback!). Honestly though, I think this is a real risk. When taking online courses as a student, I never felt like my professors viewed or cared about me as an individual. As Warnock advises, by commenting on my students’ informal responses and weighing such posts, they will see that I am listening: I’m actually reading their posts, and my comments show I’m paying them attention.

A random idea I had during Chapter 10 was to create “icebreaker” posts for each lesson—I already take roll in my f2f classes by asking fun warm-up questions (like “where is the best place to get Italian food in north county?”). This proves, semester after semester, to be a lovely way to build classroom community. It’s also my sneaky way of getting them to relax and start talking. I think such an exercise would translate well into warm-up posts for each online session, and it wouldn’t take me very long to comment on them.

It is my hope that by implementing these practices paired with using AV that I’ll be able to develop just as much rapport with my OW students as I do in f2f classes.

Reflections in the Data Stream

Rereading my posts highlights one key objective: to migrate my pedagogy, teaching, and assignments into accessible, easy-to-understand online courses. I seem to have focused primarily on creating a dynamic space which appeals to all seven learning styles. To that end, I’ve tried to visualize how I can variate my activities as much as possible while also maintaining strong scaffolding and plenty of interaction (both peer and instructor). But, an undercurrent to this desire is my goal to make lessons graspable for students of all backgrounds. It is important that I find the balance between a fun, interactive, and progressive class and one that minimizes confusion and frustration. It was a bit of a jest, but as I mentioned in my first post, “I have grandiose daydreams of humble farmers in Nebraska, metropolitan business people in Chicago, lobster fishers in Maine, and tech-savvy entrepreneurs all taking an online English course of mine, commenting on each other’s posts, and coming to new and enlightening revelations about the world we all inhabit!” Perhaps this is a bit eclectic, but the theme is there: a compelling class people of all walks can enjoy and learn from. Striking the balance between dynamic and accessible is going to be a fun challenge, but I’m game!

My deepest gratitude to all of you for your thoughts, support, advice, and encouragement. This was a great experience, and I’m excited to put some of these many ideas into action!

My posts: 1. Principles for OWCourses  2. LMS and The Perplexed Instructor 3. Content Creation for the Online Class 4. Online Lesson Plan for English 100 5. The Wonderful World of Reading and Discussion

Lego Ergo Sum: I Read, Therefore I Am

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” ― Dr. Seuss

To Dr. Seuss I offer this rejoinder: in the digital age (think eBooks and audiobooks), the more places we go, the more we can read. The more we can read, the more we know. The more we travel, the more we learn. The more we learn, the more grow!

Seriously though, every time I board an airplane and witness the sea of readers perusing paperbacks, kindles, newspapers, and magazines, my heart brims with joy. Clearly, travel—even if it’s just for the purpose of commuting—is conducive to learning. After all, what better way to fill those spaces in-between than with thought exploration?

On the note of reading in the online realm, I would like to humbly bring forth two excellent resources I use: Project Gutenberg and Librivox.

Project Gutenberg

Warnock advises we use books students can easily procure or access; at MiraCosta I do not consider this an issue, but I agree distance learners may have more trouble acquiring needed texts. Still, while half of my confused mind responded with “well what about Amazon? Ebay?”—those places deliver everywhere, it seems!—the other half tuned in to what he said about publishers and quality e-learning materials (Warnock 60).

Project Gutenberg is in their own words, “the first provider of free electronic books, or eBooks,” and the name suggests an homage to Johannes Gutenberg of the original printing press. What Project Gutenberg contains more specifically is a fantastic database of over 56,000 free eBooks, most or all with an expired copyright. Very exciting is this tidbit: ” On January 1, 2019, items published in 1923 will enter the public domain in the US.”

Anyway, there are a lot of wonderful books anyone can access or download for free. My students enjoy browsing the site, and I certainly frequented it many times as a student myself. I’m still a proponent of the traditional paperback, but our online students might really appreciate Gutenberg’s accessibility.

Here’s the link to Project Gutenberg.


As someone who spends a lot of time driving, I’m always looking for interesting podcasts, music, and audiobooks to listen to. Librivox in this sense is a commuter’s oasis: It is an organization that offers free public domain audiobooks. And let me say, there are lot of offerings! Have you ever wanted to listen to all the Sherlock Holmes tales? Or perhaps you’d rather brush up on the classics? No matter your taste in literature, I can promise Librivox has something for you! (/endcommercial) The best part is they have a spiffy app which makes listening on-the-go a breeze. Alternately, you can download their audiobooks onto your computer and transfer them to a flash drive or smartphone that way.

I love Librivox. Students who find reading a challenge can read along with the speaker or use Librivox as an auditory comprehension aid. One last thing I wanted to mention on Librivox’s behalf is the books are all read by volunteers; for popular texts, there are often several different recordings. This means that if you don’t fancy one reader’s voice, sometimes there are other uploads read by different volunteers.

Here’s the link to Librivox.

Chapter 7 Notes and Responses

Warnock advises bundling readings and materials together. I think this is only natural, and paired with keeping some units hidden, is something I do for all my CMS pages. One of the trickiest parts of an online class is minimizing student confusion. But, bundling units and modules together and limiting which ones are visible can control and neutralize a lot of that chaos.

I am constantly trying to think of new ways to include the seven major learning styles. To that end, multimodal materials are great ways of bringing the readings to life. I often try to build units that include a dynamic array of “texts”: including not just articles but short-readings, videos, documentaries, prezis, art, comics, film clips, and/or recordings to offer a diversity of texts encourages student interest in class lessons (Warnock 63). Students who find one type of media dry will often meet one of the others with a bit more excitement and attendance. (Warnock also suggests checking out our school library. MiraCosta’s library has so. many. resources! I schedule an orientation for all my classes at the beginning of each semester in hopes my students take advantage of our vast subscriptions.)

As far as how we make sure our students do the readings, I hate to admit it, but quizzes are effective. I’ve tried out several scenarios for my f2f courses: last semester, I didn’t assign reading quizzes, but rather asked my students to journal and write informal responses (65). Discussion fell flat, and participation was low. So now I assign reading quizzes, and the result is lots of great discussion and surprisingly high participation. However, as with low-stakes writing, I do like my quizzes to be low-stakes as well. I set mine up the same way Warnock does: in short, they are easy-A obvious quizzes that take very little time to complete. They are basically rewards for students who do the reading, and “doh! I should have read!” moments for students who don’t. They are very easy, and I usually like to add in a silly “don’t mark this one!” answers occasionally to negate some of the possible test-taking anxiety. (Btw, here’s a good study on humor and test-taking). I still have my students journal—I love journaling—but the quizzes ensure students actually read.

Chapter 8 Notes and Responses

The most “of course” chapter of them all! If we teach online, effective communication is absolutely vital. Warnock gives us quite an overview.

Message Boards: Discussion boards are critical ways students share their thoughts, but also present methods for us to assign (not so) secret process work. In both formal and informal responses, they explore their ideas. By sharing feedback and responding to one another—and establishing clear parameters defining how they should be replying—students become renewable unending fountains of knowledge by which they enhance their critical thinking and broaden their world views! Conceivably, at least, with some degree of optimism and encouragement. 🙂

I agree that being involved means not just as the professor giving directions, but also as a participant who asks the students questions and moderates the responses. Warnock gives a lovely overview on the plethora of response-types we use and the hats we wear. But, as the professor giving directions, being as detailed as possible and providing a model (77) is much appreciated by students. As a kinesthetic learner myself, there is very real value in learning through emulation. (Exploratory learning is equally important!) As previously mentioned, asking my students not just to post primary responses but to respond to each other as well—I usually ask them to do this a minimum of twice—encourages in-depth conversation which in turn can work well towards unpacking the assigned readings (81).

Grading: As far as grading posts go, I like to use a check, check minus, and check plus system: If the student’s post met all the requirements but was not overly-elaborate or outstanding, it receives a check. This is good! Checks, plain and simple, are good! They are equivalent to a score of 90/100.  If the post needed some work or was missing requirements, it receives a check minus. This is not bad! Check minuses are basically, I use the same scale, the same as 80/100. Finally, if the post went above and beyond, it is given a check plus—the laurel leaves of online response. If there was no post at all, then the work is marked as a zero. These checks are eventually graded cumulatively for an overall Discussions Grade.

Accessibility: As far as this goes, I am still a fan of offering a multitude of ways students can reach me. I think this process becomes challenging in the online realm but is still very workable. Using e-mail is the norm, but also having assigned “virtual office hours” is a nice way to be present synchronously. My idea would be to be available on chat at certain hours—that would give students the chance every week to ask questions real time. I like fireside chats, so perhaps I could have two types of virtual office hours: formal (for Q&A sessions) and informal. However, if students would rather talk with me individually, I’d set up a private chat session instead. Zoom and Skype are also, of course, promising ways of establishing f2f sessions for my online students. The possibilities really are endless.

Teaching the Writing Process Online: Imagined English 100 Lesson

I do not currently teach any fully-online or hybrid courses yet, so this was my imagined lesson for an online English 100 course. I’ve done my best to translate my onsite pedagogy into the online realm (à la Warnock, of course!).

…and I just realized I was a little out of order near the end there. My apologies! Thanks for watching!

By the way, this sample lesson only leads up to the rough draft. After this, there would be guided and mentored peer views in groups of 4-5 students via a chat session, individual conferences with me (zoom, or skype, or chat), and two or three more activities before submitting the final draft. To keep my lesson plan “low stakes” (Warnock 165), just as I allow in my onsite courses, I’d give students the opportunity to revise for a higher score after receiving their final paper back. The benefit of low-stakes writing is students have the chance to work with their writing to create as polished a product as they want. Nobody catches every single error the first, second, or even third time around. If we teach the writing process as recursive, then why would our demands be linear? The only stipulation I make is they meet with me during an office hour appointment–online this would be in a synchronous chat session–to discuss a “revision plan”. This plan is a collaborative effort between the two of us outlining what they’ll be focusing on and why, thus reducing the temptation to merely fix up commas and sentence run-ons :-).

Some of the links I refer to in my video:
The Prezi on using SOAPSTone within the Rhetorical Situation
King George VI’s Radio Address Google Doc with Comments Enabled

Concerning the Case of Content Creation

A lot of Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 had me thinking “well, of course”. I think, in general, my favorite aspect of Warnock’s text is his common-sense approach; his recommendations are well-explained, and he comes from a surprisingly conservative position in explaining why he sets up his courses the way he does. He has the feel of an old-school writing professor who has moved to the online realm in order to keep proficient, efficient, and up-to-date. I like it. On those notes:

Socratic Seminars: Warnock makes an excellent point when he mentions we often see more success in online Socratic-style discussions than onsite. I’m willing to wager a good majority of English professors use Socratic Seminar discussion; I certainly do, as it is an effective and fun way to have students interact with course material. (There are, of course, always ground rules laid down beforehand.) One of the possible dangers during onsite Socratic-seminars is students “waiting for their turn to speak”—in other words, the inclination to forgo active listening, especially in regard to their peers’ comments and ideas.

For an OWcourse, students could be required to read and actually respond to their colleagues’ posts. Many of my experiences with online classes asked that I use my classmates’ actual words in my response-posts which made for better interaction and learning. This would lead to a better dialogue and actual conversation. Socratic Seminars are definitely activities I would use in my OWcourses.

Literature Circles
: The discussion of Socratic seminar made me think of literature circles, an assignment I use in several classes. Online, students can be broken up into groups of five. Each person would be assigned a specific role to complete alongside the reading for the week. Then, on the designated discussion board, each student would post their role and be asked to respond to the other four posts in turn. After the task has been completed, their roles would then switch, and the process repeat for the next week.

Peer-Review Groups
: One of Warnock’s suggestions for synchronous conversation that made me go “oh, duh!” was his recommendation to keep synchronous chat groups at five or fewer students. (As a quick side note, his exasperation with student lingo made me laugh; I had a class where I asked my students to each list and explain one colloquial slang-term they use nowadays, which made for a fun class. It led to fascinating dialogue on globalization’s effect on how we communicate and why.)

All of my onsite peer review sessions are conducted by breaking students up into groups of four; OWcourses take this method and improve upon it. My idea would be to have students spend several hours reading the other three student papers beforehand and write up responses via previously assigned guided questions. Then, with myself as a moderator, each group would meet up synchronously for one to two hours at a specific time. Each student’s paper would take a turn being the focus piece as the other three students give their feedback and comments. At the end, students would send or link their responses to each other.

I like this idea a little more than PeerMark due to the interactive nature and the ability for students to chat with each other real time. They could still copy and paste a lot of their comments—and I’d still certainly be asking them to look for and respond to specific concepts—but it gives them the space to ask questions and collaborate, reducing confusion and leaving each with a strong set of revision suggestions.

Chunking: Warnock paraphrases Smith and explains “online course content should include several components: it should be chunked into short learning segments; allow students to review the material; let students pause at any point without going back to the beginning and provide clear instructions” (30-31). Smith’s idea of chunking is invaluable. I think a lot of us already use it, but I can see OWcourses as needing a greater degree of space between ideas. Onsite, we have the advantage of witnessing confusion, answering questions right away, and slowing down the presentation of information when needed. Online, it’s very difficult if not impossible to know when students aren’t “getting it”. Therefore, breaking up a lesson into chunks is vital.

Syllabi: At the end of our certification process, I’ll probably realize I agree with around 98% of everything Warnock has to say. Yet another point of solidarity was his advice a syllabus be detailed and elaborate (38). For years and for every syllabus I’ve ever seen, the divide between the two mindsets seems to solidify: there are professors who like their syllabi to be as short and to the point as possible, and then there are professors who treat their syllabi as the keys to class success. I fall in the second camp, and strongly advocate having syllabi that are both easy to understand and thorough. In my experience, having a detailed syllabus has really helped my students greatly; I receive very few e-mails asking “obvious” questions, and students save time recalling basic class policies, assignments, and other information.

A few points Warnock makes that are invaluable to OWcourse syllabi are accessibility, message rules, and chat/IM/synchronous contact, accountability, and the schedule:

1) Accessibility (and on that note, chat/IM/synchronous contact): Letting students know—nay, ensuring students know exactly how to reach me will prevent many, many headaches. Aside from specifying how long it will take me to respond to e-mails, having a designated time each day or week in which I’ll be online in the chatroom will allow students to ask questions real time. I will aim to do this twice a week, but that’s just my as of yet inexperienced prediction. It could be that it’s only viable to conduct such Q&A sessions once a week. (Udemy does this, by the way, and it’s a fun and interactive way to learn about new subjects. I’m currently casually partaking of their free astronomy course.)

2) Message rules: This was a cool concept! Asking students to label their e-mails is a great way to organize the avalanche of messages I already receive. I’m going to try this out for my onsite classes, too.

3) Accountability: I have a clause in each of my syllabi detailing to students the workload and expectations for each class. (To be completely honest, this is yet another idea I’ve borrowed [with permission!] from Kelly Hagen.) I’ve copied and pasted it below:

Committing to being a college student is just like committing to a job: you have responsibilities and obligations as a student to be present, do your work to the best of your ability, and develop academically. For every unit you are taking, you should expect to spend approximately 2-3 hours outside of class per week working on assignments, projects, readings, etc. If you are a full-time student (a student taking 12 units in one semester), you have taken on the equivalent of a full-time job. Therefore, English 50 is comparable to a semester-long part-time job.

As severe as it sounds—and I do “lighten up” the tone while explaining it to them—having this clause really helps. Sometimes it seems that students treat their classes like clubs: they can participate when they want to, and they can ignore the work if it interferes with their jobs, hobbies, etc. Not only does this thought perplex me, it’s something I have a hard time not taking to heart. Letting them know these expectations helps mitigate the aforementioned potential issues.

4) Schedule: Of course, students need to know what they need to complete and when to complete it. Having as detailed a schedule as possible for my onsite classes has been indispensable; even when students miss several classes in a row, they can keep up with the work and stay on-track to pass. OWcourses need to have as much information as possible for the very same reasons. As there isn’t an in-person onsite class, guiding students with specific details on what to accomplish each day is essential.

Games!!!!!!!!: Finally, Warnock barely touches on the concept, but I immediately zeroed in on his idea to use video games and simulations. It reminds me of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline—a fascinating novel I highly recommend everyone read. I won’t spoil anything, but in the book, all students go to school via virtual reality. They literally put on a headset and tactile gloves to enter an online classroom and learn by being plugged into these simulations. While this possibility seems closer to reality than it did even three years ago, it’s still a bit of a jump from what I’ve been considering. I would love to somehow conduct a class session or two (or even an entire course) via an MMORPG. To be honest, I don’t know how I would do that, it’s just a desire at the edge of my mind. I think video games are vastly overlooked in the academic realm which is a real shame. There’s some excellent potential to teach a whole slew of subjects. Just think about games with co-op modes (Portal, for example) and problem-solving puzzles (any game with quests). These aside, there are lots of action-adventure games that contain well thought-out stories. All of these could serve as the basis for a whole bunch of assignment types and activities. …All I need is a grant to do some research, and I can provide both results and hard proof! 😉

As a side note, thank you for sharing Warnock’s blog with us, Curry—it made me chuckle to see our esteemed orator of online orientation has a BlogSpot. I had a BlogSpot back in the day. It’s lovely scholars such as Warnock are so free and open with their knowledge and resources; the generosity and teamwork expressed by so many of our notable instructors truly makes me proud of the teaching profession. There are so many wonderful people in our vocational sphere!

Random Thoughts on Tony’s Video
I loved the quip on Nixon discussing blogs and wikis. I’ve used Charlie Chaplin as a “guest-lecturer” to illustrate rhetorical devices and effective argumentation. 🙂

Two lovely comments from Tony: “I haven’t lectured at them…I’ve let them explore.” Yes. Exploratory learning has been proven time and again as highly successful and engages all seven learning styles.
“Individual students making individual decisions for themselves about sophisticated writing.” I think in OWcourses it will always come down to this point, which highlights the importance of students reaching conclusions themselves, rather than “banking” the info into them.

You know, I always thought that Coca-Cola commercial was pretty effective. And now that song will be stuck in my head for the rest of the week…

A Treatise on Why Moodle Is the Best LMS

Once again, I am probably going to come across as something of a Luddite: to be honest, I like appreciate an LMS that is simple to use and easy to navigate. On that note, I strongly appreciated Warlock’s ninth guideline: don’t be any more complicated technologically than you have to be (19). When I heard MiraCosta was switching from Blackboard and Moodle over to Canvas, I felt a decent amount of apprehension and had quite a few misgivings. Canvas seemed (and honestly in many ways still seems) so difficult to use, at least in comparison to what I was using before, Moodle.

My LMS journey:
It started, of course (as many of ours have), with Blackboard. I used Blackboard as a student during my undergraduate and master’s studies, and thus creating my own course shells on Bb Learn as a teacher was fairly simple. However, Blackboard loves folders (and subfolders, and sub-sub folders), which often confused my students. After several years, I started to put all my resources for a class directly on the homepage. This surprisingly worked well: students accessed online dropboxes with greater ease, and more of them printed the readings out ahead of time.

My favorite LMS:
Eventually, Kelly Hagen introduced me to what would become my absolute favorite LMS, Moodle. I freakin love Moodle. It has everything I ever wanted in an LMS, but chiefly, a blog-style setup with the ability to put everything on one page, easy-to-create Turnitin dropboxes, and quick ways to incorporate any sort of media you can imagine within a matter of seconds.

What works well regarding Moodle:
The usability. As aforementioned, it takes a few minutes tops to create anything you want. When you create a new assignment, video, hyperlink, or other tool, simply clicking “add an activity or resource” opens up a quick-create option. (To see what this looks like, take a look at my attached video at the bottom). I’m an instructor who likes to constantly adjust my resources depending on what my students need; therefore, any computer-based class activities were uploaded to our Moodle page immediately and easily. On the other hand, Canvas always takes a minute or two (if not longer). Everything is very easy to find on Moodle because everything is right there on one page. If you disliked that aspect, it is equally effortless to create new folders or sub-modules. My students never had problems accessing any of the resources I uploaded on Moodle.

Which aspects of Moodle were problematic:
I noticed Curry’s inclusion of Prezi both in the video and in the annotated bibliography for this week’s discussion topic. When I reached that point in his video, I jumped up and shouted some inarticulate happy noise. I absolutely adore Prezi. How many of us have had students immediately ask, upon slide one of a PowerPoint, “is this also online?” With Prezi the answer is always yes. Prezi is basically a prettier, fancier, more creative and more interactive version of PowerPoint that gives the user the option to either keep your presentations private or allow them to stay public and accessible for anyone on the internet. (As a side note, a lot of teachers dislike that facet—some are a bit protective over their lesson plans, and that’s totally fine. I’m not; I like the idea of sharing what works for me, hearing what works for others, and working together with other instructors to create the best possible lessons. I do respect both sides of the argument though).

Prezi is fun. I love it, and so do my students. But, this is where Moodle can be somewhat of a problem: because Moodle streamlines resources, creating a dynamic space where you include notes, a video, and something else all in the same area can be particularly challenging if not impossible. Canvas answers this problem so much better than Moodle, and vastly better than Blackboard.

I really like Curry’s use of providing instructions via a video and a Prezi as well as an actual handout. As he mentions, it allows students to “pace the flow of information” and “linger on examples” which are concepts I’m finding increasingly essential in my courses. (Man Curry, I wish I had a professor like you when I was a student!) Anyway, having various systems students can use to understand a lesson, instructions, or course material is wonderful, and aligns perfectly with my “key-est of key principles” which is to respect diverse talents and ways of learning. By giving students options, they can learn BEST from what they feel most comfortable learning FROM. Therefore, having those resources all there on the same page gives students the freedom to interact with the teaching method they find most natural.

If I could invent my own LMS:
I do have a golden rule with new tools. It is equivalent to my method of evaluating a tool, as well: simply put, does the device seem to be helping my students, or is it superfluous and a waste of space? Or, even worse, does it detract from their actual learning? If an online LMS tool isn’t helping our students, why would we keep it?

I once upon a time used to know how to use simple html to build websites. As a preteen, I played around with website builders such as tripod to create fan sites for books I enjoyed reading as well as my own art and original fiction. Therefore, I like learning management systems that allow for the utmost creativity in the simplest fashion. What I’m imagining is Canvas with the usability of Moodle—a virtual space where I could drag and drop any sort of resource onto any area of the page with every facility.

I’ve now taken two different Canvas classes. The first was a webinar, and the second was the six-week program our amazing and wonderful online educators Jim Julius and Billy Gunn offer. (I even earned the certificate!) Regardless, I still find Canvas tricky in many ways. I’m sure if I were more tech-savvy, it could easily be the sort of LMS I dream of using.

Warlock Notes:
Warlock mentions our goal should be “to get past the technology and start thinking about teaching” and that “the technology should be relatively transparent and unobtrusive” (22). Yes. Yes to the ends of time. The danger in an OWcourse is my students failing to learn what I’m trying to teach because my technology is too complicated. I want to avoid that danger at all costs.

On the other hand, one point in which I disagree with Warlock is on the topic of e-mail. He suggests that “e-mail can do much of the work for [us] in an online class” (23). I welcome and even encourage my students to e-mail me with what I call the one q and four c’s: questions, comments, concerns, confusion, or need for clarification. They seem to feel very comfortable e-mailing me for the most part.

However, I also ask my students to refrain from e-mailing me and asking what the homework is or what we did in class that day. Although this may seem austere, I have that policy in place to do two things: one, it encourages my students to interact with each other. One of the keys to college success is networking and making friends and colleagues who share common goals. I have my students exchange names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses with several other students at the beginning of each semester; it helps them establish class contacts. The other reason I keep my e-mail policy in place is to encourage students to look at the syllabus. By this, I do not mean solely at the beginning of the semester; rather, I advise them to keep it on-hand as a resource they refer back to. I include a detailed schedule of what we do in class as well as what the homework is for every lesson. By looking at what we do each day, they stay mentally organized and on task.

Warlock jests “the new version of ‘the dog ate my homework’ is ‘my computer crashed’” (27). I also advise my students to make sure they have access to internet, printers, etc. A common e-mailed concern follows along the lines of “my computer crashed and therefore I couldn’t turn the assignment in.” I’m sure many of us are familiar with that old chestnut. I would like to think that most of these e-mails are met with a patient (though at times strained) compassion from me, but I also have started to include a disclaimer recommending they don’t wait until the last minute. I also suggest to my students that they be aware of their local libraries and other options for submitting online work.

My Principles (…which I dearly hope I reflect in my online courses!)

Something funny and perhaps a bit counter-productive about me is, while I’m completely comfortable presenting and speaking in front of groups f2f (see, I’m already using Warnock’s lingo!), I become quite anxious at the thought of POSTING my thoughts where people can read them. (Perhaps a little old-school social media PTSD? Fear of appearing the “fool” (Warnock 5)? Who knows.) Well, regardless of that, here I go!

Before discussing the key principles of teaching composition I hope to organize my online teaching around, I did want to comment briefly on our reading. (Sorry, I can’t resist! It’s the literature student in me!) I both agree with and deeply appreciate Warnock’s approach stating effective online teaching happens through a natural transition of moving “teaching talent zones”—from f2f to OWcourses. However, and perhaps this will be brought up later, although I agree teaching online can be effective—even more effective than f2f meetings in some circumstances—as an English instructor, part of my natural transition means holding onto a few effective f2f activities. At risk of seeming a Luddite, the one I’m currently primarily fixated on is having students use hard copies of texts rather than eBooks. I say this in response to annotating my own copy of Warnock’s text and considering the learning that happens through the act of annotation. There are several studies illustrating how important annotation is to reading comprehension; one such study done by Carol Porter-O’Donnell (no relation!) titled “Beyond the Yellow Highlighter: Teaching Annotation Skills to Improve Reading Comprehension” is a fine exploration of the skills students pick up during this process. While I concede there are ways to annotate eBooks as well, I personally feel there is something more organic and natural when students use a combination of highlighters, post-it notes, and their own handwriting. They can see where they’ve marked important moments, read what they thought in response to significant passages, and flip through the book with their own hands. Perhaps I’m just a little old-fashioned in this sense. Ah well! And, again, this is not me saying anything against online teaching itself; in fact, I think online teaching combined with students using hard-copies of texts can quite successful. Here’s a link to the aforementioned article in case you’re interested, by the by: cool article on annotation 😀

Alright, and with that small and humble note of dissent, my principles.

Right away, my impulse is to jump to my key-est of key principles of teaching composition, which also happens to be Chickering’s and Gamson’s seventh principle: respect diverse talents and ways of learning. Rephrased, to make what I teach accessible to everyone, from any social, economic, political, or cultural background. Of course, I know this is a challenge that we as teachers are called to meet again and again, and along with my various attempts there have been quite a few failures. Still, when designing my courses, considering their content, and actually teaching those lessons, I try to consider if and how the content will be effectively understood by my students. To that point, I really enjoyed what Warnock acknowledges: OWcourses “provide a needed method of delivering courses to people whose lives have undergone significant disruption” (xix). He calls this the “humanistic potential of [the OWcourse] environment” (xix). This is a lovely thought. Just as my content needs to be relatable for all my students, I need to also present it in a way for all students to easily understand and consider. I admire the ability for online courses to reach out to all students, regardless of who they are and where they live. I have grandiose daydreams of humble farmers in Nebraska, metropolitan business people in Chicago, lobster fishers in Maine, and tech-savvy entrepreneurs all taking an online English course of mine, commenting on each other’s posts, and coming to new and enlightening revelations about the world we all inhabit! Anyway. Daydreams aside, I feel having a strong consideration of the multiple learning styles when designing a course is absolutely essential. Face to face teaching allows us to make up for any short-comings in a lesson plan on the fly; if I’m teaching an article and notice several students look stumped, I can switch up my activities in hopes they’ll comprehend the material in a different format. Online classes don’t have that advantage. A wall of text might do for a few students, but by also incorporating videos, links, discussion forums, and (as Jim does) a blog for hands-on work and reflection can all lead to a higher level of success.

Another principle I have is to make the online platform as easy-to-use as I can. I appreciate what Warnock—I’m so tempted to continually type “Warlock”—has to say about the importance of using a writing context in which students are comfortable (xxii). Frankly, I somehow never considered this. I think who I usually end up noticing more are the students who are UNcomfortable with technology, those who I believe Warlock—that’s what I’m calling him now—references as “traditionally aged students” (xxv). Even with my very limited grasp of teaching-based technologies and simplified Canvas course shells, I’ve noticed there are almost always a handful of students who have trouble finding readings I put online—even when I post them directly on our course shell’s front page. This usually translates into me spending quite a lot of time with each of my more traditional students on a one-on-one basis as I attempt to slowly and carefully guide them through the mechanics of Canvas, Blackboard, or in the past, Moodle. However, for every student who struggles to find various readings and essay dropboxes, I have seven or eight who would appreciate more material being available online. So, finding a middle ground between my students who practically live on the internet and my students who begrudgingly open a web browser will be a bit of a challenge for me. This concept does, for me at least, directly tie into my first principle of reaching students from every background.

Yet another of Chickering and Gamson’s principles that I share is their first tenet: good practice in undergraduate education encourages contact between students and faculty. This seems to transition into Warlock’s (that’s his name now.) discussion of teachers as audience. He quotes Tisha Bender in contemplation of our “voice” and the necessity of having confidence, enjoyment, and enthusiasm (2). He also thoughtfully regards how teachers can appear as “unapproachable sages” (3-4) which of courses can scare students away from candid interaction and comfortable participation. He also points out we should not be the “chum,” but to be honest, if this were a scale, I would much rather tip towards the chum side. It’s crucial to me that I stay the “teacher with a capital T” (5), but I simultaneously deeply value my students feeling comfortable and safe. For that reason, I try to incorporate humor, jokes, small stories, and silly metaphors to add some spice to my lessons. This usually invites students to make their own jokes, and more importantly, often leads to a relaxed environment. Again, in my experience thus far, my students seem to learn better when they are happy, relaxed, and—at least to some small degree—enjoying themselves. Therefore, in my online teaching, I will make sure to incorporate gifs, images, and videos that while on the topic of whatever we are currently talking about, are also a bit silly. I try and will continue to try maintaining a “voice” that is both confident and guiding while also warm and, at times, entertaining. One concept Warlock briefly touches on is the “level of formality in your greetings and complimentary closings” (9). My salutation of choice is “Kindest regards,” something I admittedly stole from a previous professor of mine in grad school. Once in a while if I feel the need to be more formal I’ll state “Best” instead, but I often worry that I send out the wrong impression with it. Anyway, I am constantly metacognitively considering my voice, and the balance between warm and authoritative is one I strive to maintain. That balance will hopefully lead to students feeling comfortable with sharing their thoughts and responses.

Frankly, I share all seven of Chickering and Gamson’s principles. I want my students to learn from each other through cooperation, feedback, and comments. I’ll probably steal in cold blood several of Jim’s and Curry’s ideas. I also, as Jim does, feel both rubrics and models are essential for my students, many of whom have often never written an analysis before. I think rubrics are great ways to communicate the expectations I have for them, while my feedback (oh so essential in a composition course) helps to (hopefully) build, nourish, and foster their skills. In my classes, active learning happens most often through student response, participation, and discussion. Doing that also builds reciprocity and cooperation: when the answer can be found by students working and thinking together, it invites them all to join in.

So, in short, while I have an endless array of principles I hope to always reflect, the key three are to make my online teaching accessible to every type of student, to incorporate a variety of media in teaching assorted lessons, and to make sure students feel comfortable communicating with me and with each other.

I really hope this was an accurate response to the assignment!

I have yet to teach a fully online or hybrid course, and my course shells are auxiliary places for my students to discuss and post work more than anything. Therefore, I wanted to share a model course I’ve seen. This one is a wiki from when I was a TA during grad school. (Does a wiki count? I can find something else if it doesn’t!) I’m pretty rusty on my video skills, but here it is: