Author Bio

Keep It Simple, Stupid

posted: 2.25.11 by archived

That was the message from my class when I tried to implement my grand scheme of turning the “simple” personal essay assignment into a collaborative Anthology project. We had already visited a computer lab where students set up individual blogs in order to post rough drafts and journal-type reflections, and we had figured out (haltingly) how to get students access to a Google docs space for sharing anthology ideas, but when I tried to introduce MS Word’s commenting feature as a way for them to share drafts to help each other proofread, their eyes started to roll back in their heads. One brave soul voiced her objections, and others soon chimed in. It took me about thirty seconds to acknowledge that they were right.

I believe there are several potential causative factors for this technology revolt:  my attempts this semester to introduce more collaboration to my composition classes; my teaching schedule, which includes both f2f and online classes; and my own excitement about exploring different technology tools (an interest not necessarily shared by my students).

This whole experience has once again raised a host of questions about how I can best use technology with my particular community college students. (For now, I won’t try to define how “community college” impacts the technology issue except to say that the very diversity of the CC student population is the most significant complicating factor.) Here are some of my questions:

How much? Several of my students expressed nostalgia for the system they were accustomed to from their high school English classes: papers passed back and forth between student and teacher in a private way, teachers marking mistakes, students correcting them. I’m not going to do that in my classes. Just as I insist that my students turn in word-processed essays, I require blogs as a way to make student writing public. Is that my electronic line in the sand? Is it a reasonable one? Can I ask that much? Should I require more?

Timing? Was the problem that I tried to introduce too much too soon? Could I have managed things better so that students felt the need for a particular type of interaction before I offered a possible technological solution? (Okay, we’re going to proofread each other’s essays. Should we do it face-to-face? Can we meet in person? If not, is there some way to exchange papers? Can we give each other paper copies and drop them off somewhere? Can we do anything through e-mail? How?)

Which technologies? What are the different things I want students to be able to do? To communicate privately with me and with other students, to offer general comments, to share ideas, to line edit? What is the simplest technology (or the fewest technologies) I can use to do what I want to do? What’s the most flexible option? (I’ve used Commentpress, which was available as a template in edublogs—I’m not sure of current status—amd does allow line edits as well as global commenting, but my students had more difficulty with it than with blogger.)

Effect of classroom “mode”? How should I adjust technological expectations and my own use of technology depending on whether the class is f2f or online? My general assumption was that my online students would be more accepting and more experienced with technology; however, I had a significant number of online students this semester who, for a variety of reasons, had difficulty sending me URLs of blogs they’d set up.

Student input? How can I create a climate (both f2f and online) in which students feel free to express difficulties or misgivings (or rejection) of technology use (or of assignment design generally)? Will too much of this freedom create an unstable, chaotic atmosphere that could be more damaging than beneficial? I asked students for some anonymous written feedback about their “revolt,” their response to that discussion, and their general attitude toward use of blogs in the class. (The results were about 75 percent in favor or accepting of blogs, with several legitimate concerns voiced by the minority.) I am considering using surveymonkey or some other such feedback tool, but perhaps I am again reaching for technology when a low-tech option would work as well or better?

If anyone has any answers to the above questions (or questions of your own about technology use in the classroom), I’d welcome your comments!

Tags: , , ,


Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas, Writing Process
You might also like: Talking in Class
Read All archived

3 Responses to “Keep It Simple, Stupid”

  1. Jack Solomon, CSUN Says:

    I’d like to begin with your “How Much” section, to wit:

    “Several of my students expressed nostalgia for the system they were accustomed to from their high school English classes: papers passed back and forth between student and teacher in a private way, teachers marking mistakes, students correcting them. I’m not going to do that in my classes. Just as I insist that my students turn in word-processed essays, I require blogs as a way to make student writing public. Is that my electronic line in the sand? Is it a reasonable one? Can I ask that much? Should I require more?”

    Note your response to student privacy concerns: “I’m not going to do that” and “I require blogs as a way to make student writing public.” Now consider a student’s genuine concern about privacy; as Michel Foucault noted many years ago, language is dangerous. It is quite a rational thing to be worried about the consequences of going public with one’s thoughts. Just consider the trouble more and more people are getting into because of tweets and Facebook comments that they would have been better off not posting.

    We are in the business of teaching students how to write and think critically. Since our students are still learning (as apprentice writers of sorts), they must feel safe to experiment, to make mistakes, to say things that they might not want everyone to see. Clearly for some of your students the mandate for public exposure feels threatening; it is threatening for everyone, actually. That is why tenure was created: to ensure that educators would not be afraid to express their ideas publicly. Students (and, of course, a growing percentage of faculty) don’t have that protection. It is not unreasonable to feel threatened by a requirement to have one’s thoughts made public. While this reluctance may only be a “minority” feeling, it is best to respect it and be flexible about it, because fear is one of the most powerful emotions around.

  2. Holly Pappas. Bristol Comm. College Says:

    Thanks, Jack, for the pointed reminder. I should mention that I have been more careful in the last few semesters to ask students to speak with me if they have privacy concerns and explain that there are ways to password-protect blogs. (Only one student has opted to use password-protection.) And I certainly tell them not to use full names in either display name or URL.

    I wonder how much the “exposure-threat” is at the level of “someone besides my teacher is going to see this” vs “potentially anyone with an internet connection could see this.” Is it more or less threatening to share/reveal one’s thoughts to someone with whom you have a f2f connection? What are the implications for peer review? And then, stepping back, how do or should these concerns affect the type of assignments we give? (These are not rhetorical questions, but real and open ones, in my mind anyway.)

    It does strike me as curious the reluctance (and fear) for people, students, faculty, whomever to reveal their thoughts when most are so willing to reveal so many other intimate details via FB, etc.

  3. Jack Solomon, CSUN Says:

    Ultimately such questions would have to be taken up individually with any student who expresses a concern. It is certainly puzzling just how much people are willing to reveal about themselves on Facebook, but there are always those who do not have anything to do with Facebook and who may also be uncomfortable with peer review. Peer review has been a staple of composition instruction for so long that it may be difficult to realize that it may not really work for certain students; using blogs is an even newer development in composition instruction and will inevitably raise at least some concerns. An interesting experiment might be to see what would happen if you gave an assignment that left the blog part optional in order to see how many students chose to opt out. Of course you’d then have to ask why they opted out. You could make that explanation a requirement of being allowed to opt out.