Before the semester began and during the first couple weeks of classes, our sites were where students went to find out what the course was about, to submit work, to access the course calendar, etc. The goal, though, was to get students up and running on their own sites with pretty much all of the same information about the class, so that those individual sites became their primary point of access into the course, the–to use Paige’s term from her work as a Montessori teacher–“prepared environment” in which students would work.
Once students had their own workspaces, the course sites would then become portals into the collaborative digital archive of information about Atlanta’s built environment to which all four classes were contributing. To that end, we used Feed WordPress to syndicate the feeds from the individual blogs, pulling them into both of our course sites. The syndicated content is what you can access from the home pages and under the “Home” menu tab on both sites.
In addition to drawing on Montessori’s ideas about prepared learning environments, this networked multi-site set up is modeled on strategies used in the Domain of One’s Own project and the infamous DS106 class that Jim Groom started at the University of Mary Washington, and is informed by Steve Ramsay’s 2010 “All Courseware Sucks” blog post from THATCamp CHNM 2010.
Networked Digital Workspaces
Visit Paige’s site.
Visit Robin’s site.
Visit this site.
The Orthos Project involves designing and refining a first-year composition course that can be taught in both a hybrid and traditional format. While Paige and Robin taught the new course during the Spring of 2016, all three of us worked to develop it. To satisfy programmatic requirements, the course had to be designed around the standard learning outcomes for ENGL1102 at Georgia State:
- Analyze, evaluate, document, and draw inferences from various sources;
Identify, select, and analyze appropriate research methods, research questions, and evidence for a specific rhetorical situation;
- Use argumentative strategies and genres in order to engage various audiences; integrate others’ ideas with their own;
- Use grammatical, stylistic, and mechanical formats and conventions appropriate for a variety of audiences;
- Critique their own and others’ work in written and oral formats;
- Produce well-reasoned, argumentative essays demonstrating rhetorical engagement; and
- Reflect on what contributed to their writing process and evaluate their own work.
To these core learning outcomes, we added three additional outcomes related to multimodal and digital literacy:
- Compose in and combine all five representational modes – linguistic, visual, aural, gestural, and spatial;
- Articulate how multimodal compositions (either their own work, or work authored by others) respond to the rhetorical situations in which they are embedded, and in doing so, demonstrate an understanding of key concepts and vocabulary associated with each of the five representational modes (linguistic, visual, aural, gestural, and spatial); and
- Demonstrate an understanding of how technologies influence rhetorical situations in a variety of ways, and use technologies intentionally to craft more effective academic arguments.
These outcomes are based on a set of goals that we first drafted and articulated as part of a digital pedagogy workshop series in the Spring of 2015.
Our selection of the course theme — rhetoric of the built environment — and choice of primary composition platform — individual WordPress blogs — were primarily motivated by these additional learning outcomes. In particular, because we knew we would have less time in the hybrid classes for direct technological instruction, and because Paige’s section didn’t have use of a computer lab, we wanted students efforts to be focused to the greatest extent possible on (or perhaps through) a single digital composition tool. WordPress has a relatively gentle learning curve, it helps to build transferrable technical competencies, and it has an export feature so that students can take their work with them when the course and their undergraduate programs are complete if they choose.
Iterative Project Sequence
The project sequence that evolved from our discussions attempts to provide students with space to pursue their own interests within the broad theme of the course, and with time to develop some expertise regarding their chosen topic. As we know, student writing tends to be better when students are authentically invested in the argument they’re making and when they actually know something about the subject area. Roughly two thirds of the semester focused on genres and kinds of writing associated with the research process–reading summaries, annotated bibliography entries, and field reports–the built environment descriptions–of primary research. The built environment analysis is modeled in part on a project that Cydney Alexis shared with me. The top points earners were given the option to collaborate on a project to curate the best work from their peers.
We plan to refine this sequence for next time, but in general it accomplished the goal of involving students in an iterative process that didn’t leave those students who may have gotten a late start, or didn’t understand something the first time around, a chance to catch up. Many students were able to build up an archive of work that could then be reused and revised in the final project, so they didn’t feel like they were starting out with a blank slate.
The learning curve in the first month of the semester was pretty steep, putting those three projects in motion. But once students had iterated through the cycle of reading summaries, annotated bibliography entries, and built environment description once, they knew what to do and what to expect for the next two rounds, and they also had peer-generated models they could use for guidance.
We wanted a grading policy that would be flexible, that would emphasize process and formative assessment. We wanted to be able to provide students with honest, critical feedback on final drafts, without dashing their hopes of getting a good grade. The grading system needed to reward what we might think of as “excellence,” as well as hard work and achievement within a student’s zone of proximal development. For the hybrid students, especially, we wanted a system that would encourage engagement beyond the once a week class meeting and major project deadlines, so that we could keep them connected to the course, the instructors, the resources available to them on campus, and to their peers. In this class, students have agency to design their own path to an A, or–for some of them–a C. Our system draws upon work with contract grading, as well as gamification of learning in other disciplinary contexts.
As with any game, students had to meet certain requirements in order to win. As Robin explained it to her students, no matter how many points you earn playing Super Mario Brothers, you can’t win without rescuing the princess. Those minimum requirements were the major projects, and students could not pass the course without achieving at least a passable score on those. Students whose first drafts weren’t at least basically competent were provided with unlimited opportunity to revise (or submit new efforts) until they had the minimum required number of passable drafts. Students who were satisfied with passable scores on first drafts could move on. Students who wanted more points on a project could revise one or more submissions in response to instructor feedback or complete additional summaries, annotated bibliography entries, built environment descriptions, and even an extra built environment analysis.
The overview each week provided general guidance about what kinds of extra activities might be useful that week. We used mid-term conferences, and group and individual office hours sessions to provide guidance to individual students about what kinds of extra activities might be most beneficial for them in particular. For example, as the semester progressed and the final research project approached, Robin encouraged those students who were looking for points and who were struggling to find a topical focus to complete additional research in the form of reading summaries, annotated bibliography entries, and built environment descriptions directed to a part of the city or an issue that interested them. She also tried, with admittedly less success, to steer students who needed extra help with grammar, conventions, and proofreading to complete early drafts and make a visit to the Writing Studio, come in for an office hours visit, or arrange a peer review session to go over it, so they could revise based on that feedback before submitting a final draft. In our next iteration of the course, we will have a better idea of how to give students the information they need to choose among extra activities.
See the detailed project descriptions.
Read the full grading policy.
Raw Numbers Regarding Participation
How important do you think it is to learn about writing in online spaces?
How strong do consider your computer skills to be?
How comfortable are you with using digital technologies?
We did ultimately get IRB approval in time to get consent and exit surveys from a good sample of students this semester, but the expedited review process took three months and two rounds of revision and response to get through. We’ve only just begun to look at the data, but here are some raw numbers that begin to give us a picture of activity and participation in the class.
A student who came to every class and completed every required project, earning 100% of the available points for each would have earned approximately 2,800 points (with some minor variability across classes because of the number of times each class met). One thing that comes through in our initial look at what students actually earned is that, Robin is an easier grader than Paige.
The 87% average attendance rate in Robin’s classes obscures the pretty wide variability among students with perfect attendance at one end and less than 50% at the other.
Robin’s non-required student/teacher conferences were in addition to a required one-to-one mid-term conference. There were 63 students total enrolled across her three sections.
In addition to a preliminary look at points, attendance, and student-teacher interaction outside of scheduled class time, we’ve also pulled some of the responses to the exit survey questions related to digital and technological literacy outcomes.
Generally, student responses show a trend to increased confidence with technology and a greater emphasis on the importance of digital writing in the new course. Without entrance surveys and context provided by reflections and student work, though, it’s impossible to know at this point if the variability between the new courses and the control courses is due to self-selection among students who enrolled in the hybrid sections, and opted to remain in the digitally saturated sections because they were already more comfortable with technology.
Of course data and surveys only give us part of the picture. A lot of our work will involve reviewing student compositions and reflections. From left to right in this row are images of and links to a site from one of Robin’s students, a site from one of Paige’s students, and the collaborative site built by the top points earners across all three sections.
Fewer required assignments will allow us to build in more opportunities for collaborative feedback and revision, particularly in terms of the “Best of…” final curated site. This last semester editors really wanted to contact writers and work with them to produce a final product they both “liked” for the “Best of…” site. So perhaps it’s a midterm “reward”–the top points-earners, by midterm, will be invited to become designers/editors for the “Best of” site.
We plan to visit the library archives, with a librarian, to see some curated exhibits and hear about what goes into collecting, organizing, and writing about artifacts. We hope this experience very early in the semester will help orient students to the collective nature of their work.
One of the most successful moments during the course last semester happened at the midterm when we assigned the “Using the site as an archive” project. Students were given thesis statements and invited to use the course website–featuring all of our syndicated work–and only the course website to find evidence in the way of images, sounds, sources, and descriptions that could be used to support those theses. What students found was that it was nearly impossible to do. This because they hadn’t used tags and categories effectively, thinking about purpose and audience, and they hadn’t crafted useful titles. This prompted many, many students to go back into their sites and make constructive changes–adding tags, categories, and more detailed titles. Next time we will do this as soon as we have accumulated some initial artifacts. This will, I think, inspire the act of revision early on and drive home the collective nature of the writing–other people will be reading and using your work.
Now that we have a better idea of what students can and will do when given choices as to how they pursue their grades–what kind of work they want to engage in and how much of it–we feel more comfortable affixing static points-levels for grades. Last semester, “C” was established at 1475, given allotments for minimum quality on required projects and attendance, but “A” and “B” was determined by the 2nd or 3rd highest points earners. This gave us room to account for students who had fewer time, energy and media resources than others; We wanted to be sure that students could earn an “A” even if they didn’t have the time to do a lot of “extra” work. Students expressed a greater sense of security (and solidarity) at the notion of fixed levels for “B” and “A”.
Disrupting the perception that the only reader of student work is the (one) teacher proved challenging in spite of an extremely constructive beginning to the semester, in terms of students understanding, deeply, and expressing the understanding that other people will be reading their work. It will require more norming, but opening the teaching and grading to more collaboration will help us capitalize on this sense emerging in students of a greater audience than one.
One of the essential aspects of the course–engagement in asynchronous conversation with peers and instructors–wasn’t realized much this last semester. In spite of explicit lessons on how to and why to take advantage of built-in opportunities for such conversation (blog “comments” and Google Docs “comments”) students never fully engaged. We have discussed incentivizing this engagement by perhaps making it a more formal aspect of the class with greater points potential.
Because the course is so recursive–we have students making the same or similar moves over and over again during the semester–rubrics proved particularly useful in terms of illustrating to students where the quality of their work stood, how it was developing (or where it was stuck). Of course they also existed to justify scores. We would like to create more nuanced rubrics in the future that give us as instructors more flexibility for rewarding particularly creative and risk-taking moves in student work, and for providing more individualized feedback in the rubric itself, help us give more feedback on more work.