As I look around the classroom I see heads bowed, hear hushed voices and the clacking of keys. I am teaching two hybrid (half online – half face-to-face) sections of Composition I this semester. In their wisdom, the powers that be decided that our face-to-face meeting should take place in a computer lab. One of my colleagues balked at this, stating that the face-to-face time should not be about computers. It should be when they come together, do group work, discuss. As I look around at my students who are all collaborating, working so diligently, and discussing today’s readings, I marshal an objection to my colleague’s view of the face-to-face meeting space. This time is where they should be doing work, building things, exploring new spaces – and collaborating, discussing, etc. We do it all here and the computers help us bridge the online and face-to-face class components.
After I attended the NEH Summer Institute for Implementing Digital Humanities in Community Colleges, I was brimming with optimism and ideas for translating what I learned to my introductory courses. I was also skeptical. In addition to generating ideas, the conference also explored potential obstacles unique to the community college environment. As much as I wanted to have my students create their own webpages, I had significant doubts. Would I be able to manage it all? What about my students who don’t have reliable access to home computers or internet? Would it be too much to cover the course content (writing instruction) and the technology? I have over 100 students this semester, 50 of whom are creating webpages – that is a lot of digital content to keep track of. On top of that, any composition instructor at the community college level can tell you that sacrificing precious instructional time for anything is more than difficult in a class where educational backgrounds vary widely and learner types are as diverse as they come. As I prepared, I discovered additional problems to integrating our class digital content into the course management system my college uses (Why can’t I set up an assignment in Blackboard that allows students to submit web links!?). Currently, very little information exists on integrating digital platforms or tools into the instruction of college-level composition (especially for community college settings), but I had to remind myself that part of our project after attending the NEH Summer Institute was to start that conversation, to produce that kind of knowledge, and of course to write about our experiences implementing it in our classrooms.
The one piece of advice I did receive from several colleagues was to “anticipate problems” – with tech, with access and understanding, and potential opposition from students tired of being labeled “digital natives” and defined as “generation selfie.” This in and of itself was not encouraging. Not because of the tech hurdle, but because I feared my students wouldn’t understand the value of using tech in this way and that they would mock me out of the classroom as an old-hat instructor trying to cram yet another unsuccessful EdTech experiment down their throats.
Perhaps all of this trepidation paid off because what I have created amazes even me (forgive me, please, for this not-so-humble-brag).
I began the course with a series of readings designed to get students thinking about their virtual selves including The Curated Self by Jeremy Garner, Your Digital Career Identity: Blogging by C. J. Trayser, and How My Personal Website Helped Me Land My Dream Job by Erin Greenawald. I initially posed this question: how many of you googled me before you signed up for my class? They all raised their hands. What ensued was an interesting discussion of our online, digital “selves” and what that does/can reveal about a person. I invited them to reflect on their own digital identities and how they might utilize our first assignment – to create a personal website – as a way to control and expand that digital identity. I discovered later, after they had written responses to the various articles on their blogs, that many students were unaware of the way in which a personal website could help one find a job or establish career credibility.
The next two readings – “How Those Spoiled Millennials Will Make the Workplace Better for Everyone” by Emily Matchar and “What Millennials Don’t Know About the Job Market” by Kelley Holland – were designed to get them thinking about their digital career identities in the context of what people are expecting (good and bad) from their generation. In combination with thinking critically about these topics, students are also learning how to create “pages” on their sites, hyperlink article titles, and insert media into their blog posts. Oh and they are also learning how to do active reading, academic summary, and critical responses. While there is a certain element of “I’m-writing-but-not-really” that web-writing invites, I have found that more than being some kind of writing “trickery” platform, the websites are enabling them to write in context. By the end of the semester the goal is to produce a full-fledged site with original content and useful resources among other digital content. It will become a showcase of their work, of their marketability as potential employees, of their digital identities. What this expectation does, more than some terminal paper assignment, is generate early and vigorous investment, promote independent work, and inspire critical/creative thinking. At least, this is my current hypothesis (well-supported by our class sessions thus far). My intention is to write additional posts on our coursework as the semester progresses. To share our triumphs and, yes, our tribulations.
A few preliminary take-aways I’d like to share:
- Do anticipate problems – never assume your students know more about the technology than you do. I provided class time to set up blogger/wordpress accounts, to create tabs, and to discuss the practical and philosophical reasoning behind hyperlinking. I also created posting instructions, an example of which you can see here.
- Encourage Peer Review – at the end of every face-to-face session we have peer-review time (sometimes structured and sometimes not) where they can share what they’ve done and get feedback while I walk around answering questions. This has been immensely helpful in distributing the work load of making this digital work happen and happen successfully.
- Avoid Over-instruction – While my posting guides are rather detailed, I avoid going through too many step-by-step instructions in class because I find that they rarely retain them anyway and learn more easily by doing than just watching or listening.
- Provide Space – I encourage students to view one another’s sites, leave comments, find inspiration for their own work, etc. To do this I collect all of the student sites into a folder on Blackboard (far easier than making them follow one another’s blogs and use a blog reader – at least at this point – more to come on this later).
- Encourage Play – Jessee Stommel encouraged us at the NEH Summer Institute to consider the role that “play” can have in our teaching and in our classrooms. I have found this to be integral to my students’ success. In every email, post, and lecture I remind them that a true website is never “done,” and that they should keep tinkering, keep exploring, and keep playing around with it – that is the only way to make it work for them.
I also found Jesse’s 12 Steps for Creating a Digital Assignment or Hybrid Class immensely helpful. I will produce a long list of helpful resources in a future post.
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