first #thoughtvectors

I’m glad that Gardner Campbell has plowed the field a bit and encouraged the design team of our summer cMOOC to start blogging our thoughts. I always find design meetings invigorating, not least because it gives us all a chance to see a bit more into the (often surprising and complementary) ways we each have of conceptualizing the work ahead of us.

As for me, I’ve found myself blogging a lot this term about other classes, and so I love the idea of keeping that momentum going. I’ve been teaching a face-to-face modernism class this spring 2014 that had a twitter hashtag called #VCUBritMod, in part because I wanted to see how my students’ thoughts were coalescing around the reading before class started. Even if twitter offered only an illusory chance to parse their thoughts as if in real time, I could still compare their initial assessments of course concepts to what emerges during our F2F discussions. For the record, I still strongly believe twitter offers a useful and ephemeral way of contributing ideas into an emerging consensus, and I will use it again starting in May 2014 for an online visual poetry course I’m teaching. But there’s also a lot to be said for a sustained format for developing deeper and lengthier ideas to be exchanged after a point has been arrived at, rather than as it is happening.

So, to model the sort of deep engagement I expected from my students in their papers, I started blogging too; and yes, it takes some time I could be spending on other things, and yes, I can’t guarantee my students (or anyone else!) is reading the supplemental blog posts on top of everything else I’ve assigned them. But as I’ve noticed about other bloggers’ rationales for blogging regularly, the expense of time is itself rewarding: I can point to written records of new thoughts I’ve had during class periods (this happens every time a new set of students encounters ideas, which is to say constantly) rather than have them slip back into the ether, and I have a record of how my own ideas have been shaped over time by those interactions. Plus I think my thinking is better for writing more often and more consistently, rather than in short bursts when I schedule myself time around my teaching workload.

My goal for the summer cMOOC is to find a different and better way of reaching our students. What we teach isn’t content, or even precisely a set of skills: it’s an attitude or a predisposition, a sustainable psychology of tenacious curiosity. We can do that in a variety of ways that online technology can help us realize: if what I was after was an independent scavenger hunt, I could set my students going on independent inquiry projects and see what they brought back. The web could then curate personal exhibitions of each learner’s work. It wouldn’t precisely be an isolated or solipsistic project, because each student would still be interacting with scholarship that does represent a certain type of prescribed communication (usually with the student on the receiving end, or at the very least a heavily attenuated and punctuated time-lapse response to the published scholar’s work).

But from everything I’ve learned about the sharing and curating capacities of Web 2.0 apps, we would be missing out on almost everything that makes the current form of the internet the internet if we didn’t try to take full advantage of how readily we can connect learners to each other, and have them benefit from the unique strengths they each bring to the collective endeavor. This involves collaboration, which is not a skill many of the students I have taught to this point have already acquired before UNIV200, nor is it an especially sanctioned attitude toward work in a culture like ours that tends to favor competition and self-promotion over the job-well-done-by-many.

Personally, I think this is a welcome opportunity to see how we can encourage our students to collaborate more deeply with one another within the workflow of the course. Or in other words, to reconceive of the workflow of the course in order to best nurture an attitude of curiosity and conscientious collaboration.

When I last taught online, I had my students writing in blogs and then I had them collaborate in wikis, assuming that the wiki concept space would be more conducive to group work. What actually seemed to happen, (and perhaps this is mostly because it was a general education course whose students had a variety of experiences with, and anxieties surrounding group work) is that students would worry most that they would not be assessed harshly because another person whom they disliked said something they would not have said. Or, somebody would go through and edit out the parts other students had (in good faith) contributed, and then complain that the project called for too much work to fall on individual group members. Wikis did, in fact, allow some students to shirk the group work, despite warnings that the wiki tool would allow me to see who had contributed. Blogs that publish in punctuated bursts, and allow for authors to respond to other posts while documenting the chain of transmission and the evolution of collective knowledge, seem like a much less unwieldy instrument to arrive at the goal. Even though I still think the idea of wikis seems more conducive to the collaboration of a high functioning group in the abstract. [UPDATE: Jessica really likes wikis, possibly better than blogs for die Werke der Gruppe. Wikiphile!]

I’ll say more later about depth and shared content. Both are important. But I want to read a post by Bonnie Boaz, whom I will link to right here as soon as she creates her blog.


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