Crossposted to Teaching Thursday.
This week the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s technology blog featured a short article on two faculty members who offered a course to the public for free and attracted over 2,000 non-credit earning students. The article argues that, for some classes, opening the course to the public created a more diverse and dynamic classroom environment only really possible through online teaching. In Profs. Downes’ and Siemen’s class, non-credit students and paying, for-credit students mingled in discussion forums, witnesses the same lectures, and engaged the same readings, but unlike efforts pioneered by places like MIT where the lectures and syllabi are made public, these non-credit students were invited to participate fully in the educational process as well by engaging with their fellow students and, presumably, the faculty member. In short, their class emphasizes the interactive potential of online teaching over and above the internet’s well-known ability to disseminate prepared content.
I couldn’t help but also see this as an opportunity to democratize the university experience in a fairly radical way. Not only would students have to consider how a particular class or material or problem solving exercise helps them to navigate the unpredictable shoals of a distant, abstract “real world”, but they will be forced to confront the “real world”, right there, in the classroom. In other words, such a public course might help students overcome the separation between what happens in the classroom where students sometimes regard skills, methods, and knowledge as simply “course objectives” or tools to get an “A”, and what happens in the real world where these skills, methods, and knowledge function in a far more ambiguous way and the rules followed to get an “A” rarely apply neatly. Expanding the conversation by bringing the real world into the foyer of the Ivory Tower could have a revolutionary effect on how students understand the application of classroom skills.
I’ve just begun to discuss the possibility of running some classes like this at the University of North Dakota. As part of my sounding out processes, I talked to my good buddy, online teacher extraordinaire, and frequent Teaching Thursday contributor, Mick Beltz, and he and I came up with some issues that will have to be considered before developing and deploying a class to the general public. Both of us bring the perspective of teachers in the humanities with some online teaching experience.
So, five observations.
1. Technology. The first thing I thought of is how do we run a course like this. It seems that the classes described in the Chronicle article ran through Moodle which is open source and, presumably, more flexible (or at least developable) than Blackboard in some ways. The course will also have to be able to function with almost no live technical support. I can’t imagine any university who would want to commit large scale technical support to a class full of non-credit, non-paying students. So every aspect of online delivery would have to be iron-clad to work and very straight forward to access.
2. Scaleable content and exercises. Once one had assurances of a solid platform, then the content would have to be scaled in some way. For example, a course that relied on a $400 textbook would not be a very appealing class to open to the public because few public, non-credit students will be interested (it seems to me) in purchasing a $400 textbook. Open source content and public domain texts would work better. Multiple-guess type questions are more easily scaleable than essay tests and papers. Currently I teach my online History 101 class as asynchronous – meaning all the content is available from the first day. This may not scale well for a massive online course where a less-engaged public might not be inclined to complete weekly assignments in order and prefer to skip around defeating any pedagogical goals dependent upon the sequential engagement with content.
3. Access and Control. One key to managing the relationship between paying, for-credit students, and non-credit students is creating levels of access that, for example, prevent open discussion boards from turning into the worst kind of comment sections on a blog. I initially thought that limiting the length of time a discussion board was accessible would limit the opportunities for crazy comments or spam. Mick offered a better solution. He suggested that discussion boards be controlled through “adaptive release” exercises. In other words, to get access to a discussion, you have to score above a particular grade on a quiz based on the readings. Of course, a clever instructor could develop a whole series of adaptive release access points; with achievement would come ever more intimate levels of access much in the same way that video games release bonus features at certain levels. This adaptive release model would not only limit access to people with malicious intent (to some extent), but also create incentives to non-credit students to engage the material in the class.
4. Goals and Objectives. A public course – like any course – will need a clear sets of goals and objectives. There is no escaping that any course like this would have to be experimental at first. And like any experiment, we would have to establish certain metrics to determine whether the class was successful or not. The simple statistics, like number of students and length of time on-site (as a metric for engagement) would be useful, but we would also want to see if we could gather data on student engagement more broadly. The goal, to my mind, would be to draw people into the subject matter. Following the model of many video game creators, we’d want our course to create an immersive space, and we would have to monitor certain clear criteria to determine whether this was successful. We might also borrow from are colleagues in marketing to understand better the various metrics used to determine the success or failure of a website or a viral or web-based marketing campaign.
5. Resources. The biggest hurdle to implementing a class like this would be to determine whether the benefits of the course are worth the commitment of resources. A public access course has the potential to break down barriers between “the academy” and the public, engage types of learners who might not be inclined to enroll for credit at a university, and expose students to ways of thinking, priorities, and experiences rare or impossible in the classroom. On the other hand, how many hours per week does managing a potentially massive online class take, how robust of a cyber-infrastructure, and, even, what is necessarily to publicize the course and actually get non-credit students to “enroll”. As much as we’d like to say that we’re teaching the world “for free” there is always some cost in time and resources.
Those are just my preliminary thoughts on the potential issues and rewards of teaching the world for free.
It’s the first week of class and I already feel like I am behind! Since some of my students have discovered this blog (it’s inevitable, right?), I thought I was post up my five tips for success in my classes. I think that these things are generalizable:
1. Come to class. I seem to inspire students to skip class. This used to frustrate me, but now I view this as a kind of formal resistance, which I admire enough to take on the role of “the man”. I’ve blogged on this before here and here.
2. Take notes. I have had students tell me that they don’t need to take notes because they can remember everything. This is impossible and a cover for laziness. Note taking is the first step in learning because it forces us to interpret and condense what we are hearing in class.
3. Do the readings. My classes depend on the careful reading of primary sources. These form the basis for in-class discussions, writing assignments, and exams. If you don’t do the reading, you won’t get it.
4. Work with your fellow students. If you can’t figure out how to work together in the classroom, the library, or the quad, then do it online; social media applications provide a great platform for collaboration between students. For all its faults, Blackboard has baked in an increasingly robust set of collaborative tools that I am more than willing to deploy to allow the students to work together.
5. Talk to me. If you are struggling or if you feel like you are beginning to struggle, talk to me. Despite recent reviews which rank University of North Dakota faculty among the least accessible in the country, my door is almost always open. So come and talk about how you can do better in class.
I leave off this list obvious things like doing assignments, turning them on time, and taking test seriously, because most of our students understand this kind of thing. It’s the more mundane and unstructured expectations (attendance, note taking, reading) that students struggle to prioritize.
Good luck in the new semester!
Missing out on your Archaeology of the Mediterranean World? Well, I defer to a far more articulate commentator than I am today. Check out Jack Russell Weinstein (from the Department of Philosophy and Religion at University of North Dakota) as he blogs on Leaving the Classroom Behind:Teaching and the Public Humanities. He captures many of my own sentiments on the role that the public humanities should play in our society.
And while you’re at it, sign on to follow the new Twitter feed for the Office of Instructional Development: http://twitter.com/OIDatUND
This past week, I read T. Huston’s Teaching What You Don’t Know, largely on the recommendation of Anne Kelsch and her fantastic summer reading list. I spend a good bit of my career teaching courses that are at the absolute fringes of what I know. In fact, I am far more drawn to class that touches on at least some material outside my main field of study. It may sound perverse, but I spend plenty of time pondering the wonders of the ancient world; so I never feel particularly slighted if I don’t have to talk about antiquity in each and every class that I teach. In an ordinary semester, I teach Western Civilization I, which begins and ends beyond the chronological limitation of my knowledge, The Historians Craft, which is part historical method and part historiography neither of which constitute a particular specialty of mine, and once a year I teach Graduate Historiography, which only touches briefly on any scholar who I have studied intensively. In short, most of my time is spent teaching what I don’t know, if content is the main criteria by which teaching knowledge is evaluated.
As Huston points out, most of us end up teaching outside our area of specialty sometime during our academic careers. This is as much a reflection of the narrow scope of most graduate expertise as the nature of undergraduate curricula that tends to be equal parts conservative in the division of knowledge and cutting edge in the move to cross/trans/inter disciplinary research. For example, my Western Civilization class is a very traditional way of introducing students to European history which probably fits awkwardly with the methods, approaches, and concentrations most new history faculty experience in Graduate School. At the same time, the expanding influence of digital methods in history and the influence of social science and other disciplines with the humanities ensures a constantly revised body of post-structural/modern/colonial critique.
In some ways, we are always teaching what we don’t know and, as a result, this book provides numerous helpful observations to manage the experience of teaching at the edge of understanding. While many of these are almost self-evident (e.g. read what you have assigned before the class begins… does this really count as advice?), some deal with how to manage student expectations. In history, it is always amazing to meet a student who is under the impression that we have taken the liberty of memorizing all of the primary sources. Managing student expectations is central to moving from the solid ground of content mastery (after all, I can list all the Roman Emperor and their dates of rule, can you?) to the far more marshy ground of teaching method or encouraging students to explore new approaches, analyze new texts, and imagine new problems.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of these techniques in a field like history where teaching content is giving way to teaching method, the ability to teach what you don’t know is all the more important. After all the real test of understanding comes only when a student confronts a foreign body of information and deploys successfully the techniques, methods, and approaches necessary to master it. While it remains easy enough to create “laboratory” type experiments for students where the instructor knows the possible outcomes and the students do not, these kind of teaching models almost always fall short of the risks inherent in real world research. As I tell my undergraduate historical methods class, when you pick a research topic in the real world, you are, to a very real extent, on your own to make sense of the material at your disposal. As an instructor, I can bring whatever knowledge of method and content to bear on the topic and material at hand, but there is no guarantee that I know the best way to approach a historical problem. As the infamous “banking” system of teaching where students master a set body of content gives way toward approaches that emphasize learning by doing (or other active learning type approaches) the possibility for teaching what you don’t know increases massively. In fact, one could even argue that if you’re not teaching what you don’t know, then you’re not doing it right.
I was invited this morning to check out the work of the Online Teaching with Technology Seminar here at the University of North Dakota. (The seminars have a somewhat underwhelming web site.) I was asked to say a few words on communicating with students using technology. I probably have some idiosyncratic attitudes toward these practices, so I thought I might work through some of them on my trusty blog here.
The first observation that I’ll offer is that I use technology most extensively in my online and large lecture format classes. For my mid-level courses and grad classes, I generally have an open door policy. One other idiosyncratic aspect of my communication strategy is that I no longer have an office phone. When we moved buildings a year ago, my phone was never hooked up. After a few weeks of not having a phone, I found it really liberating and decided just to go with it. So, the two most basic ways for a student to contact me is to either drop me an email or stop by my office.
I find that these one-on-one meetings with students tend toward the inefficient. I often end up repeating to each student who comes by the same things. In a small class, the impact of this repetition is relatively small; for a bigger class, however, one could end up repeating the same clarifications, explanations, or helpful insights numerous times. As a result, I try to find ways to communicate consistently with students as a class.
The most obvious technique to do this is to maintain an updated syllabus that attempts to address the most common student issues. While this generally works, the syllabus is typically a stable medium for communicating with students. The greater challenge comes when I have to make changes to the course or address spontaneous issues arising during the semester. In these cases, I’ve taken to using Twitter to send out messages addressing specific problems as they arise. This allows me to “talk” to the class as group while still being timely. The nice thing about Twitter is that it privileges a certain economy of communication and this forces me (and I suspect my students) to be clear and focused.
Twitter as a primary means of “classroom” communication has several downsides (as I have documented here). One is that it functions in real time. If a students it not paying attention to Twitter when I address a particular issue, they have to sort their their Tweets or my Twitter feed to find the relevant Tweet. I’ve attempted to deal with this through two techniques. First, I’ve experimented with using Twaiter to release scheduled Tweets. This frees me to compose a Tweet on a particular classroom issue whenever I want and then to release it when it will have maximum visibility. For example, I can schedule a Tweet reminding the students that they have 6 hours to complete an assignment exactly 6 hours before it is due. I can also schedule Tweets to repeat or post weekly updates on time.
Some students, however, find it more difficult to follow a Twitter feed than to monitor the classes Blackboard page. I’ve experimented, more or less successfully, with embedding a Twitter feed into the weekly announcements section in Blackboard. I typically post an aggregated feed of those Tweets marked with that week’s hashtag (e.g. #H101Week1, #H101Week2). A student who might not check his or her Twitter account can nevertheless check out all the action from that week right inside Blackboard. The only downside is that the Twitter feed only remains active for a relatively short length of time (typically less than a semester) and will usually only include a fixed number of Tweets.
Another frustration with using Twitter so heavily is that it remains difficult to link to pages within Blackboard. Perhaps this will change with Blackboard 9. I am not a huge fan of Blackboard, but each new iteration becomes easier to use and more dynamic and powerful.
I’ve also found discussion boards are a great way to make communication and assessment more transparent. Each week students are required to post a response to a question on a class discussion board. I have long ago abandoned any hope for a real, dynamic discussion on a class discussion board, but I have discovered that students do read each others’ posts. In many cases, the answers to the discussion question become better (if less original) with later posts. While I continue to grade each student’s work separately, the tendency for students to repeat or (better still) base their answers on earlier discussion posts makes it easier for me to address common problems. Each week, I will make a post to the discussion board highlighting the good and the bad in the week’s posts. The lack of originality in the posts and the tendency for students parrot ideas present in earlier posts makes it easier to use this kind of public, collective comments to address problems and reinforce good behavior. Moreover, as long as the earliest posters in each discussion board are conscientious (and they are most frequently a self-selecting group of conscientious students), then week-to-week the entire class will follow the early posting students and begin to internalize my comments. I understand that this kind of “passive learning” is not in vogue, but I will contend that it is a way to condition students to certain practices of argument by creating an environment that successfully leverages both peer pressure and what we can charitably call “a tendency toward lowest effort approaches to learning”.
Twitter and discussion boards are just two ways that I have used collective communication to replace personalized emails, long, unfocused office visits, and redundant comments on student papers. For longer assignments, I continue to use personalized comments (supplemented with a “common comments” sheet that I circulate to all students). And I do not discourage students from contacting me directly over email for personal problems or problems that are not resolved in more public forums.
Just a quick repost from over on Teaching Thursday:
If you read this blog, chances are that you read other blogs like it. So I thought it would be a useful exercise to crowd-source some of the more useful teaching related blogs on the web.
The three blogs that I check most regularly are:
Tomorrow’s Professor Blog aggregates a great selection of online teaching articles each day. It’s a great daily review of what’s new across the web.
Prof Hacker has recently moved to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s webpage. It deals with much more than just the “hacking” or technology aspects of teaching to include professional advice, productivity tips, and even recipes!
Not to be left out, Inside Higher Ed, offers the daily Technology and Learning Blog which covers ground similar to Prof Hacker with maybe a slightly greater emphasis on technology.
Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Mark Grabe’s Learning Aloud blog which provides a nice array of personal technology tips with an eye toward their use in the classroom.
This is just a small sample of the vast teaching related blogosphere. What blogs do you read to keep up with recent developments in teaching? Let’s work to create a list of teaching blogs that you find useful as a resource.
Post your favorite blogs in the comments section over at Teaching Thursday!
As I work to get my final grades together for the Spring semester, I leafed back through my teaching notebook and began to think a bit about how to change my classes next semester. (I’ve already blogged at some length about my Twitter experiment this semester). I have to good fortune of teaching the same classes almost every semester, so I have a nicely iterative environment to experiment. This also allows me to chart trends over multiple semesters and make observations about the kind of variation present in my classes.
So for this semester, I have five observations:
1. Three years ago, I started a multiple-guess option for my History 101: Western Civilization class. I allowed the students to opt into a full multiple guess test, a half-multiple guess and half essay, or an all essay exam. At this time, I created a fairly robust test bank and revised my lectures to ensure that I hit on the answer for each question. Eventually, I recorded these lectures and podcasts (more on this later). Each semester, I add a few questions to the test and cycle a few questions out basically at random. Over the past three years, most students answer each question correctly. That is to say, that over 50% of the students answer the questions right and the average grade on the multiple guess sections hovered around 60%. I haven’t done more sophisticated statistical analyses on these questions, but it never ceases to amaze me that students’ responses do not pattern more clearly.
2. Attendance woes. Students do not come to my classes. I probably average less than 60% attendance in my larger 100 level night class and less than 70% in my midlevel, majors class. I’ve tried all sorts of tricks to get students to attend. In other words, I’ve incentivized student attendance, but I need to do it better. This is absurd on some level: I use incentives to make students want to do something that they have paid to do. Generally, these incentives have a pedagogical goal. In my large lecture class we do a series of in-class writing assignments focusing on the use of primary source readings. Some of these are individual writing assignments (which tend to put pressure on individuals to do the reading and come to class prepared), some are small group assignments (which force students to pool their preparation and resources), and some are large group assignments (which encourage students to hash out the best answers from a group of with similar levels of preparation). These in-class writing assignments are facilitated by myself and my teaching assistant, focused on building the skills required in the short paper and on the essay sections in the exam, and contribute to a discussion grade that is worth 30% of their final grade. Despite the grade and pedagogical incentive to come to class students still skip in remarkable numbers. The reasons are similar: the class is too long (it’s a 2:20 minute night class), they work, they can listen to versions of the lectures as podcasts, they are busy with other classes, and my class competes with Lost. The defeatist in me sees the reasons for cutting class as being deeply embedded in student culture (here?), but part of me thinks that I can find the right combination of incentives and penalties to break student resistance to attending class.
3. Podcasts are the new textbook. Two years ago, I transitioned from using textbooks to using my own podcasts to provide basic narrative for my class. I did this for three reasons. First, podcasts could serve both my in-class and my online class . Second, textbooks are really expensive and even though most of my 101 students sold their textbooks back at the end of the semester, I was skeptical that the use of the book was worth the money that the students paid. Finally, I had this strange idea that students would find it easier to listen to podcasts than to read a textbook. While there is no disputing that podcasts serve my online teaching well and that they are free, students — according to my very informal poll — did not find my podcasts any more appealing than a textbook. In fact, many of the students admitted to not listening to them at all. This surprised me as I had tried to use the podcasts to turn class time in a more dynamic space where I could talk about big, conceptual issues in the history of the West and spend time focusing on class writing. The result, however, seems to have been that many students felt that the podcasts were as good as my lectures and opted to neither attend my lecture nor listen to the podcasts. Yikes.
4. Drafts. I used to be a big advocate of students writing multiple drafts of papers. In fact, I structured an entire class midlevel history class around this practice. In the best case scenarios, students would diligently work to improve a manuscript focusing on various different skills in each version and eventually produce a sophisticated and polished final draft. In the most-case scenario, students would work hard on one draft of the paper – either the first or more often the last – and temporize with the rest making insignificant edits, cosmetic fixes, or (most annoyingly) only those changes that I recommended explicitly. So, this year I did away with multiple drafts and instead assigned multiple, different, unrelated, short papers each of which focused on developing a particular skill set: focused thesis, citation formats, good prose, et c. The final paper of the semester required the students to bring together these skills into a single paper. The result: well, as a group, these papers were no way worse than the results from papers for which I required multiple drafts.
This got me wondering if the formal process of producing drafts – particularly completed, substantial, and relatively polished drafts – was an artifact of older technologies and practices which focused on the production of relatively complete texts which were then subjected to editing. This made sense in a world where handwritten texts had to have a degree of polish to be legible and type-written texts involved a significant commitment of time and energy. As a result, drafting involved the creating of relatively work-intensive texts, which were then only re-produced after receiving substantial editing. Today, producing a text is relatively easy (as this blog undoubtedly shows!). Editing can be performed on the fly, printing is a separate and fairly easy process, and as a result we focus less on creating distinct versions of a paper and more on the malleability of the text-always-in-revision. In this environment submitting a copy of a text for critique marks the end of the editing processes, during which time the text exists on screen or on scrap papers, rather than in a polished format suitable for circulation.
5. Process versus Product. Along similar lines, I have included components of my classes that focus on process. A colleague here uses journaling as a way to capture parts of the intellectual process. I’ve been using an old-school threaded discussion board where I post weekly discussion questions. The students do not discuss the questions as much as write short reflections on the discussions questions supported with evidence from the primary source readings for that week. Mostly these short reflections are poorly considered, historically problematic, or logically flawed. Despite that, the students nevertheless write around 3000 words a semester and strive over 15 weeks to write using historical sources as evidence. I’ve defended these short assignment, which I evaluate on a 5 point scale, as ways to get the students write and useful contributions to my goal of having students write 5000 words a semester in an introductory level class. What I need to do now is set up a way to evaluate whether these short assignments are successful in making the students better writers or whether they merely reinforce poor writing practices.
By noon today, I will have submitted my grades and dust will largely have settled from another semester. Hopefully, I’ll have some new ideas by the time the fall semester rolls around.
I’ve just completed my first large scale experiments with integrating Twitter into my classroom. For those who don’t regularly follow this blog, I used Twitter in my 100 level Western Civilization at the University of North Dakota. The class met once a week, at night, for two hours and twenty minutes. Most of the students are freshmen and sophomores, with a spattering of juniors and seniors typically in the hard sciences or engineering. The two biggest problems in the class are poor attendance (I am competing with Lost and, to be blunt, the class has a vigorous in-class writing component and perhaps not the most interesting lectures) and a tendency among students to disengage sometime over the course of the semester. Because the class meets only once a week and attendance is a struggle, students tend to disengage from the class and vanish into the night until the midterm or final forces them to re-engage, but at that point it is sometimes too late to get back into the swing of things, make up myriad missed assignment, and get a decent grade in what is otherwise a fairly easy class.
Twitter seemed one way to try to engage the students on the days when my one-day-a-week, 100 level class is probably the furthest thing from their minds. So, I created a Twitter page and began to Tweet regularly. Over the course of the semester, this account acquired 111 followers, all students in my class, or over 75% of all the students in the class. Signing up for Twitter was voluntary, although I motivated the students with a vague promise to make it work the 3 minutes necessary to sign up. Over the course of the semester, I posted 152 Tweets (approximately 10 per week) which represent both public tweets and responses to student tweets. I posted several scheduled tweets each week. Generally, I’d post a quick recap to the class on Wednesday, I’d post weekly announcements on Thursday, and on Friday I would post some kind of trivia questions on my world famous “Trivia Friday”. 90% of the Tweets were directly concerning the class. The other 10% of the Tweets concerned campus activities or current events (e.g. the death of Guru, et c.) that touched loosely on classroom conversations.
I also experimented with using Twitter to provide a back channel in class. Using weekly hashtags (#H101W3 = History 101 Week 3), I encouraged students in the lecture style class to post questions or comments during class. I then had an active version of Tweetdeck on the classroom computer on which I could check students tweets or project them on the screen during my lecture. Most, if not all, of the students in the class have cell phones and many (perhaps 30%) had laptops in class.
While I was not disappointed with the Twitter experiment — after all it involved only a modest time commitment on my part (in general, a tweet took me less than 2 minutes to write so less than 20 minutes per week on average) — only a tiny fraction of my students embraced it and it did not appear to have any positive (or negative!) impact on the class. Here are some observations:
1. UND Students are not on Twitter. While I did not sample the entire class, my random sample of 25 students show that only 5 of this group use Twitter in a regular way and I suspect that the number of regular Twitter users in my class is even lower. So, Twitter is not built into these students’ information ecosystem. My morning routine involves starting Tweetdeck and scrolling quickly through my Tweets, but this seems unlikely to be the case for our students. As a result, Twitter appeared to the students as “something extra” and, as a result, an inconvenience rather than a helpful supplement to their already existing information network. As I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, students resist anything that they see as a work increase, even if we make clear how these additional “burdens” advance learning objectives.
2. Shared Commitment. Twitter works best within a community of people with a shared commitment to engaging one another and the topics at hand. In other words, Twitter is not a particularly efficient tool for one-to-one communication between faculty and a student or it is at least no better than email. Twitter facilitates community interaction in which students can respond to one another or interact with each other in a public way. Because my class only met once a week in a lecture hall setting, had an prevalent lecture component, was rather large (100+), and encompassed a wide range of students of different academic years and standings, there was little existing community for Twitter to facilitate. As a result, students did not, in general, respond to each other, but penned tweets generally directed toward me and usually in response to a specific query. A parallel trend appears in my efforts to encourage the use of Blackboard’s wiki tool to produce study guides and class notes. A few students work hard to create a nice set of notes, and the rest of the class become passive consumers. Despite the bribe of points, there is no shared commitment to the class that would support the collective effort to create a body of notes. Neither Twitter nor the Wiki is enough to create community.
3. Techniques. Despite my efforts to give the students plenty of instruction on how to use Twitter, my students still struggled with things like hashtags (used to mark posts as belonging to a particular week or lecture), and we never used retweets or replies. This contributed to the one-way nature of the Twitter conversations especially as I was the only one responding to anyone in the class.
4. Technology. Finally, students compartmentalize technology. Most of the tweets in my class come from “the web” which I assume means through either their desktop or laptop computer as opposed to a mobile device like a phone or smartphone. In other words, despite the recent concerted interest to integrate social media with mobile devices, very few tweets and almost none from first time Twitter users came from phones (either as text message or Android/WinMo based apps — we do not have iPhones here in North Dakota). This was disappointing because I thought Twitter would be widely accessible from mobile phones and, as a result, sufficient democratized not to leave less technophilic students at a disadvantage. Another technological issue that arose was the slow speed of Twitter searches made it hard to capture Tweets on specific lectures during class time. As a result, students were not able to create a realtime back channel, but only one delayed by 10 to 15 minutes which over the course of a 2 hour class is significant.
So, while my first experiments with Twitter in the class did not produce the social media plus education utopia that I had hoped, it did highlight certain weaknesses in the class as I now teach it. I need to work to create more of a community in the large lecture class if I want to tap into this community with tools like Twitter or wikis. These tools do not create the sense of community, but only serve to manage it. At the same time, I need to find ways to communicate the technical aspects of Twitter more effectively so that students can maximize the effectiveness of the medium.
I am excited about the prospect of integrating Twitter into the online version of my Western Civilization I courses this fall and spring. Since the students already expect to interact with me and their fellow students through an online medium, there might be a greater sense of value assigned to the simple Twitter interface (as compared to the more cumbersome blackboard interface).
I’m going to shift the attention from my blog to Teaching Thursday where we will begin a series of posts by first year faculty at the University of North Dakota. These posts capture both the energy of first year faculty, but also (and more importantly) the new perspectives on how to teach on our campus.
The last few weeks have been really productive for the Teaching Thursday “team” (which is basically me). We’ve come up with some great ideas for the blog new year that will see it expand from one day a week to a new goal of 10 posts a month. But for that Teaching Thursday excitement, stay tuned.
Last week I juxtaposed reading D. Georgakas’ and M. Surkin’s Detroit: I do mind dying (New York 1975) and grading a stack of lower division undergraduate papers. This got me thinking back to some posts from a couple months ago where I speculated that students disregard particular sets of instructions as a form of resistance. Georgakas and Surkin’s work looks at the organization of resistance particularly among minority (mostly African-American) auto workers in Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They explore the rhetorical of the day and demonstrate the pervasive overlap between developing radical ideologies and the institutions and realities which promoted these positions. In their hands, grass-roots resistance to the dangerous, unrewarding, and soul-crushing work on the Detroit assembly line became the foundations for a genuine radical consciousness.
I am not going to argue that our students are on a course to a radical consciousness through their resistance to what they perceive to be an oppressive educational regime, but I will suggest that some of the patterns of student behaviors are sufficiently consistent to be regarded – from the perspective of behavior alone – as resistance. I’ll admit that my sample is small, but to my mind this has the benefit of capturing the “situatedness” of the acts of resistance. Moreover, I’ll contend that the forms of resistance are not merely the gap between teaching and learning that is typical of educational environments.
Over the last three weeks, I’ve encountered three forms of resistance.
1. The contraction. I insist that students do not use contractions in their writing. As a result, contractions have proliferated. They are particularly common in the opening paragraphs of papers.
2. Capitalization. I have begged students to observe the rules of capitalization and even conceded the “obscure” rules like whether to capitalize proper terms like “the crusades”. As a result, students have stopped capitalizing proper names, names of cities, and in some cases, even the first person pronoun.
3. Attendance. Over the last three weeks, I asked the students in my lower division, major’s course, to make it appoint to attend the final month of the semester where we will workshop writing and focus on preparing the final paper. The next class, my attendance dropped by over 60% and the following three weeks attendance was at its lowest point ever. Despite having taught for close to a decade, I can’t help feeling that asking students to attend constituted a kind of rookie mistake.
All three of these issues are not earthshaking forms of resistance. My students do not (as a rule) plagiarize, are polite and (generally) conscientious, do not complain in class about workload or teaching philosophy, and are as engaged in the learning process as you might expect students to be at the 100 and 200 level. In other words, their reluctance to follow seemingly simple guidelines are not symptomatic of an adversarial relationship between “management” and “labor”. Instead, I am regarding these measures as lines in the sand gestures marking off the limits of my authority and the students’ willingness to embrace my expectations. I suspect that I could get students to follow these guidelines with draconian measures (by definition out of the proportion to the significance of the rule being enforced), but I suspect that this would just displace student resistance elsewhere (which in the case of class attendance would probably be a good thing).
In short, I’ve come to expect resistance to certain policies, and have noted that they tend to coalesce around more marginal educational goals rather than core concepts of the course. This distinguishes it from the various large-scale union actions documented by Georgakas and Surkin, and places student resistance in another category of resistance in which various kinds of work-slowdowns and almost bureaucratized obstructions establish the limits of engagement in shared goals.
Of course identifying places and types of resistance places faculty in the potentially awkward position of seeing themselves as negotiators in the learning process between the content (and expectations of whatever groups manage the measurable learning outcome) and the student who ultimately the the final arbiter in whether any learning expectation is reasonable. While we have seen over the past few months the worse case scenario, when entire faculties (at the secondary level) are let go after failing to negotiate the divergent expectations successfully. At the university level, where students are adults, student resistance must be taken serious and articulated as active behavior with the potential to disrupt both the expectations of management and, ultimately, if not resolved, the functioning of society and the economy.