Digital Assignments

I’m one of those people who believes that technology enhances the strategies we know work in a classroom setting. Just because you can use tech doesn’t mean you should use tech, especially if it doesn’t help to promote your overall pedagogical goals.

In “12 Steps for Creating a Digital Assignment or Hybrid Class,” Jesse Stommel does a wonderful job of posing some questions to ascertain whether or not you really need to use tech for an assignment and how to determine what those assignments might like. He starts with pedagogical issues rather than the practicalities of the tech itself.   The first two are indispensable: What is my primary goal for students with this course/assignment? What is my digital pedagogy?/How does my goal for this assignment intersect with my broader teaching philosophy?

For me, the answers to these questions sometimes relate to the materials to which I want to expose my students. For writing courses, where students are in a constant process of drafting, peer review and revising, I like students to see how this works (or, doesn’t work) in the real world. Showing my students how comments function as commentary on digital writing reveals what they might want to do and avoid in their own work. But students have to learn to navigate the Web, find comments and determine the difference between moderated and unmoderated comments. As a result, I not only have to consider my primary goal (honing their feedback skills) but also how technology intersects with that goal (information seeking on the Internet and information literacy).

In doing so, I have to allow time and space in the syllabus to do both. It is that dual-purpose that makes incorporating digital assignments different from using analog tools to do the same. But I find it rewarding, as I have developed new skills that help me in my own research, skills that I also pass on to students. At the same time, it takes different thinking, and definitely more time, especially in terms of the assessment of digital assignments.  In the future, I’ll talk about what’s being said about accessing digital assignments, and how I meet some of those challenges.

Jesse Stommel. “12 Steps for Creating a Digital Assignment or Hybrid Class.” Jesse Stommel. 18 Aug 2014. Web. 25 Aug 2014.

Prezi Essays

This past semester, I experimented with having my students write essays in Prezi, the web-based presentation software, in my Science Fiction class, a 200-level literature course for non-majors. I sought to improve the organization of the essays and improve the strategic use of evidence to support claims. I’ve tried more traditional ways of getting students to pay more attention to the structure of their papers, like outlines. I’ve also modeled citation in class from primary and secondary textual sources in an effort to get students to take only what they need, instead of unnecessarily long or unrelated passages.

I opted to experiment with Prezi to see if students would produce more structured and well-supported arguments if they could visualize them.  I scaffolded assignments as I normally would leading up to the final project for the class:  summaries of primary texts, drafts of thesis paragraphs and annotated bibliography entries.  I had students work out the “map” of their Prezi essays using a sentence outline or just grouping ideas together and using peer review to determine how they would move from one idea to the other.  As the rubric for the deconstructed essay shows, students had word count limits on slides. These limits were designed to make students more conscious of how they used text as evidence and how they explained the significance of video or visual evidence.

Overall, I was pleased with the way the essays turned out. Some students still had trouble with the idea of an essay, which they see only as text-based in a Word document, in a Prezi. Next semester, I plan to have students complete their major projects in Prezi.  This time, students will create an academic poster, an assignment often given in science and social science courses, for their analysis of literature and film in my Detective Fiction course. Students are familiar with academic posters, and the use of Prezi will allow them the ability to embed images and video, something they cannot do with traditional poster board posters.

My goals remain the same: to use Prezi to help students improve the organization of their writing and use evidence effectively.

Using Technology for Attendance

Can technology help instructors with attendance?

Recently, two faculty members shared their approaches to attendance for their classes in “A 21st-Century Attendance Policy”at The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Michelle LaFrance does not take roll, but seeks to reward students for attendance:

I start each class with a five-minute “freewrite”—students respond in writing to a prompt that I provide on the board. (Because these prompts come at the start of class, they also help me account for tardiness.) The prompts are related to course activities, asking students to reflect on course concepts, to discuss material they did or did not understand, or to refresh their memories about what they read or did the night before class. Students post their responses online in a select area of Blackboard and receive 0.5 points toward their final grade for each completed freewrite.

Conversely, Steven J. Corbett opts for what he calls a “professional” approach:

So in my classroom, students are allowed one week of absences (usually the equivalent of two to three days). After that, each absence takes a mark off their overall grade. For example, if the class meets twice a week and a student hits his third absence, I immediately start his overall assessment at an A rather than an A-plus. If students reach six absences, they fail the course. The only “excuse” I accept is religious holidays.

I tend to favor Corbett’s approach, but when I have used it in the past, it brings with it its own set of administrative nightmares: manually keeping up with absences, figuring out the grade demotion, etc.  For the past few semesters, I have combined Moodle’s attendance function with a rubric of sorts in my classes:

Moodle automatically calculates attendance. It assigns 5 points for being present/excused absences, 2 points for being tardy and 0 points for being absent. Students are ‘tardy’ if they are not present by the time the instructor completes taking the roll. Students who arrive to class after the roll is taken are responsible for alerting the instructor at the end of class on that day. The instructor will not make changes to attendance records after the day in question.Excused absences require official documentation (email/note from doctor, dean, university official, etc.), or must fall under the University’s guidelines for absences.

I like grading attendance because it puts attendance on the same level as  their work. Like LeFrance and Corbett, I feel students need to be in class to get the most out of the course. Using Moodle’s attendance function allow students to see their attendance grade at any given time.  I also tie excused absences to documentation, so that students can make informed decisions. When students can see how their actions impact their grade, it also cuts down on negotiating and giving exceptions. In fact, I’m really thinking about increasing the points for attendance as well as the percentage of a student’s overall grade. While I understand my colleague who will fail student based on excessive attendance, I’m not quite there…….……..yet.

“A 21st-Century Attendance Policy.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 14 Jul 2014. Web. 22 Jul 2014.

Teaching Technology to the ‘Digital Native’

While I often opt to allow students to learn technology using available tutorials (for example, Prezi offers an array of video tutorials), for my WordPress assignments, I created a tutorial video using Screencast-o-matic as well as a document containing guidelines.

I did this for a few reasons. The first time I had students complete assignments in WordPress, I discovered that they had different levels of ability: some were well-versed in blogging while others had no experience writing online, and others were a little afraid of the technology.  The screencast introduces students to the basics of working with the text editor, which is common to a lot of online tools, as well as some of the unique features of WordPress blogs. Students can see how WordPress should work, and are better equipped to formulate questions when they encounter problems. I created a written set of guidelines with the same information so that students can use it as a quick guide.

Because the screencast is housed on my YouTube channel, I can also see how many students access the tutorial, giving me an idea of how prepared they are to put to use the information. Usually, I have students view the tutorial outside of class, and begin creating their drafts in computer lab.