What Are Your Best Practices in Digital Literacy?

What are your best practices in digital literacy? If you — or a K-12 classroom ELA educator that you know — are doing exceptional work and might be interested in being interviewed during the month of October or November 2021, please fill out the form linked in this post.

Students at Sutton Middle School use online research to answer questions during a lesson in history class. Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages. As we transition from “emergency remote teaching” and into a new era of hybrid learning that embraces technology more fully, I am working on a chapter for an edited collection that will share classroom case studies of best practices in digital literacy.

Beyond lessons that are just digitally delivered because they must be, I am looking for exceptional examples of K-12 ELA teachers inviting their students to engage in digital literacy practices that NCTE describes as “interconnected, dynamic, and malleable.” I wonder: how are you encouraging students to engage in active inquiry, connected reading, media literacy, and digital writing in ways that support authentic literacy learning?

If you — or a K-12 classroom educator that you know — are doing exceptional work and might be interested in being interviewed during the month of October or November via WebEx (video call or phone call-in), please take a moment to complete this brief Google form between now and October 15, 2021. I will get back to you about a possible interview after mid-October.

Thanks for spreading the word and sharing your work.

Thanks,
Troy Hicks
Central Michigan University


Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Marshall Memo Summary: Helping Elementary Students As They Use Digital Writing Prompts

In this article in Language Arts, Holly Marich (a Nevada professional development coordinator) and Troy Hicks (Central Michigan University) suggest ways that elementary teachers can help students make the best use of word processing tools like spell check, autocorrect, predictive text, automatic grammar feedback, and voice dictation.

NOTE: With permission of thanks to Kim Marshall of “The Marshall Memo,” a summary of my recent article with Holly Marich is shared here.

Helping Elementary Students As They Use Digital Writing Prompts

In this article in Language Arts, Holly Marich (a Nevada professional development coordinator) and Troy Hicks (Central Michigan University) suggest ways that elementary teachers can help students make the best use of word processing tools like spell check, autocorrect, predictive text, automatic grammar feedback, and voice dictation. “Many educators bemoan digital technology as an unnecessary distraction or even a sophisticated form of cheating,” say Marich and Hicks. “But it’s important to recognize that the choices these tools force writers to face matter, both for writers and for writing instructors.”

Marich spent time in a second-grade class in which the teacher regularly gave students the opportunity to write two sentences in the class’s Twitter account on what they were learning, why they were learning it, how they would use the information, and questions they wanted to ask. The teacher checked students’ tweets before they were posted and conducted individual mini-lessons on usage and content as she circulated. Marich observed a number of “micro-moments” when students got digital feedback on their tweets. Four examples:

  • A student started to write This and the predictive feature inserted The. The boy deleted the whole word and took a few moments correctly typing This and completing his sentence. He needed help dealing more quickly with the predictive text suggestion.
  • A student decided to use the iPad’s speech recognition feature (he’d learned about it on his grandmother’s computer) and quickly found the correct spelling of the word giraffe. Some students may bring sophisticated knowledge to the classroom and teachers need to teach when it’s allowed and appropriate.
  • A student misspelled a word in her tweet, got the correct spelling from Marich, then chose to ignore at least one incorrect predictive-text prompt – peas for piece. This student needed more teacher guidance on spotting words incorrectly suggested by the predictive feature.
  • A student spelled lizard incorrectly – first listed, then liserd – and spent several minutes brainstorming about possible words, ultimately finding the correct one. In the process she thought creatively about her reptile project.

Marich and Hicks acknowledge that it’s impossible for a teacher to be looking over every student’s shoulder and providing everyone with just-in-time suggestions. But teachers can give some general words of wisdom for students as digital tools pop up during their writing, encouraging them to ask themselves:

  • What do I know about the sound or letter that’s being suggested?
  • Do I like this word choice?
  • Do I agree with this suggestion?
  • What do I as a writer plan to do with this information?

“These are genuine dialogues with students that help them think deeply about their work as digital writers and the relationships they have with their devices,” say Marich and Hicks. “Before simply clicking without a thought on automated suggestions or corrections, we need to help our students pause to question the algorithms that are influencing them. In this way, we teach them to be critical, creative, and persistent writers and problem solvers, one micro-moment at a time.”

“Writerly Decisions in Micro-Moments of Composition: Digital Tools and Instructional Opportunities for Elementary Writers” by Holly Marich and Troy Hicks in Language Arts, July 2021 (Vol. 98, #6, pp. 330-339); the authors can be reached at holmarich@gmail.com and hickstro@gmail.com.


Permission to share this summary was granted by Kim Marshall. Please seek further permissions by emailing him at<kim.marshall48@gmail.com>.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages. CC BY-NC 4.0

CCIRA Podcast (July 22, 2021)

Troy Hicks, professor of English and Education at Central Michigan University, former middle school language arts teacher, and Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project shares about New Literacies in the classroom.

Have you listened to CCIRA Literacy Conversations yet?

Thanks to Molly Rauh and Jessica Rickert for the opportunity to talk about teaching, writing, and technology with the @ColoradoReading podcast!

(Link to episode and show notes.)

The “Roumy Cheese Analogy” for Teaching Writing

As part of her keynote, Dr. Maha Bali invited us to build on Ian M. MacKay’s “Swiss cheese model applied to COVID19 prevention” to think about application to writing pedagogy and the use of these tools, as well as systematic and individual challenges that might inhibit our work.

As an inquiry group of about two dozen educators, teacher consultants from four National Writing Project Sites have gathered together in monthly meetings over the 2020-21 school year to explore what we have broadly named “writing assistance technologies” and their impacts on our teaching, our students’ writing, and the field of teaching writing more broadly. This project has been named “Ahead of the Code” and, yesterday, we met for an open conference, inviting colleagues to join in our inquiry, making our practice public, and sharing some ideas from our exploration of tools ranging from grammar and spelling checkers to automated essay scoring. 

What I found most compelling about our conversations from the day is that many of the questions that teachers have explored this year have moved beyond our initial queries such as “what are these tools” and “how might I use them” into deeper, more substantive questions about what these tools really are, algorithmically, how they work with assumptions about academic language, and what purposes they ultimately serve. There were a number of creative ways that these educators have been pushing on the edges of writing assistance technologies that would previously have been seen as confining (e.g., inviting students to choose the writing assistance tool that they feel will best help them rather than being assigned a particular tool) as well as rethinking the use of these tools to make them better fit in a process-oriented pedagogy (e.g., using peer review tools at the sentence-level to offer feedback on compound and complex construction, rather than essay-level feedback, which can feel overwhelming). My hope is that more of their reflections (and resources from the sessions) will appear on our group’s blog soon. 

As part of our day, we were welcomed in a keynote with Dr. Maha Bali (@bali_maha), an Associate Professor of Practice at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching, whose work includes posts in Hybrid Pedagogy and as a founder of Equity Unbound. As part of her keynote, our conference planning team had worked with her to think through the keynote session, and she wanted to build on Ian M. MacKay’s “Swiss cheese model applied to COVID19 prevention” to think about application to writing pedagogy and the use of these tools, as well as systematic and individual challenges that might inhibit our work. Though we didn’t quite have enough time to think through the version I created during the keynote talk (as she had us engaged in a great breakout room discussions with one of the Liberating Structures protocols), I did want to share some brief thoughts here, as well as my image. 

Roumy Cheese Analogy for Teaching Writing - Hicks
Roumy Cheese Analogy for Teaching Writing (Created by Troy Hicks with a template from Maha Bali)

As I constructed my version of the Roumy Cheese model, I tried to think systemically about where we find ourselves with writing instruction, broadly, and with the use of writing assistance tools. That said, I didn’t make notation of the tools in my model. Instead, I focused on the context in which we find ourselves teaching writing, which includes diverse causes of inequity in the teaching of English that include the need for Linguistic Justice (Baker-Bell) and a long-held recognition of Students’ Rights to their Own Language (NCTE/CCCC); these both not the ways that teachers must balance the tension between students’ home languages and dialects, some of which can be seen as conflicting with more commonly-held conceptions of “academic” or “proper” English. With that, I took the “larger” to “smaller” approach as I moved left-to-right, beginning with school culture and the prevalence of the workshop structure in ELA classrooms, broadly, on the far left, and then to some of the ideas from Graham et al.’s work on the use of “model-practice-reflect” and explicit strategy instruction, heading toward the middle. 

Continuing to the right, I thought that we should look at moves that individual teachers make during workshop instruction including an analysis of mentor texts, effective design of transparent assignments, and generative (as compared to punitive) grading policies and practices. Then, we move further into individual teacher decision-making, we think about the ways that students build in intentional time for conferring and scaffolding intentional peer feedback. These moves inside the classroom are then supported by timely and effective feedback outside the classroom, too, the final slice on the right, and the best way to support student writers as they continue to learn and grow. 

Of note, I don’t talk too much about any particular writing assistance technology in my model. If there are moments where these technologies could be used (at a system-wide, school-wide, grade-level, or individual teacher level), my argument is that a skilled teacher can probably figure out a way to do so (even if the use of the tool, such as a grammar checker or plagiarism detection service might be used in a way that is slightly at odds with the way that it was originally intended to be used). For instance, we talked during the conference about how we might take a gamified grammar experience and invite students to think not only about correcting errors (like fixing commas in a series), yet also taking those model sentences and adapt them to one’s own writing. Or, another colleague talked about how she had students choose a writing assistance technology to focus on one element (concision, for instance, with the Hemingway editor), and then would be encouraged to pick a different technology and focus the next time, such as a grammar checker. 

There is probably a place to think about the writing assistance technologies in a more explicit manner by layering them into the Roumy Cheese Analogy. That will need to wait, for now. Again, I thank Maha Bali for introducing it to us as a way to stretch our thinking about systematic challenges we face in education. And, as we move from the questions about what the tools are to more substantive questions about how to use them (and repurpose them from their original use), I am encouraged to see the ways that we can continue to stay “ahead of the code.”


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CFP: Better Practices: Experts and Emerging Instructors Explore How to Better Teach Writing in Online and Hybrid Spaces

those that teach high school students preparing for college, as well as those at two- and four-year institutions — continue to extend and adapt their teaching practices in a post-pandemic world, we know that there are still no “best” practices, yet we continue to get better. We want to learn from you! http://bit.ly/better-practices

Better Practices FlyerAs online literacy instructors — including those that teach high school students preparing for college, as well as those at two- and four-year institutions — continue to extend and adapt their teaching practices in a post-pandemic world, we know that there are still no “best” practices, yet we continue to get better. We want to learn from you!

In this edited collection, we invite co-authors to propose chapters that explore on-the-ground practices anchored in research and expertise in online writing instruction, delivered in formats that are easy to read and immediately applicable by new-and-aspiring online teachers. We ask that all contributors draw from the OLI principles as outlined by either GSOLE or CCCCs and are informed by at least one other guiding document of your choice that fits the theme of your chapter and your teaching context (e.g., CCCC Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing, NCTE Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing, WPA/NCTE/NWP Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, etc.). 

Each chapter within this digital publication will include course materials, accompanying text where authors narrate their experience and reflect on course content, and video interviews. Each chapter will be co-authored by an expert in online writing instruction specializing in the particular theoretical approach alongside a colleague teaching the approach for the first time. This parallel view offers readers expert knowledge of research-based practices as well as insights into the questions and challenges new instructors will encounter as they apply this approach for the first time.

Topics/themes to be explored could include: 

  • Ungrading/Contract grading
  • International/Global Contexts
  • Support for Multilingual Writers
  • Design and Accessibility 
  • Social Justice and Anti-Racism
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Reading/Literacy Support
  • WAC/WID Initiatives
  • Multimodal/Digital Composition
  • Bridge or Accelerated Learning
  • Or, other writing-related topics

Proposals, submitted via Google Form, should include the following:

  • Contact information for both co-authors (name, institutional affiliation, position, email)
  • The broad topic(s) or theme(s) of online literacy instruction better practice(s) that will be addressed in the chapter
  • Brief overview of theories/scholarship that inform your teaching and this practice (apx 250 words)
  • A description of your online teaching context and students (apx 250 words)
  • A description of the “better practice” and how you implement it (apx 250 words)

Proposals due May 31st with editors notifying authors by July 15, 2021.

Authors of accepted proposals will be invited to participate in an iterative, inquiry-driven process of chapter development throughout the fall of 2021. Instead of drafting chapters in isolation, the community of contributors will regularly meet to discuss practices, draft chapters, and give feedback. Attendance is, of course, voluntary, though highly encouraged. At the end of this process, authors should have a complete initial draft of their chapter. 

Please submit by entering the necessary information into this Google form.  

Please contact editors Amy Cicchino (atc0057@auburn.edu) and Troy Hicks (troy.hicks@cmich.edu) with any additional questions. PDF Version of Flyer

Two Views of the Fall Semester, New Hopes for the Spring

This week and next, many students head back to college here in Michigan (though, for at least the first week, those classes will be virtual due to an order from the state department of health). Even without a consistent, real time video class session, inviting students to connect at least a few times in the semester can be powerful.

This week and next, many students head back to college here in Michigan (though, for at least the first week, those classes will be virtual due to an order from the state department of health).

So, as I am posting my syllabi for my (long-planned and prepared) online courses this spring, and with some encouragement from Bryan Alexander, I share a few insights from two students I know well — my daughters — and their experiences last fall.

From what I understand about the ways that many colleges and universities operated last semester, I think that their experiences offer us some insights into how we might better prepare for spring.

Student 1: Sophomore at a Residential University

Our eldest daughter was, in the fall of her sophomore year, able to live on a residential campus that offered a “concurrent” or “hy flex” model for all regularly-scheduled face-to-face classes (allowing students to attend in the socially distanced classroom or join via live video stream). For the early part of the semester she (and, from what she described) most students (which I would imagine is about 50-75%) were making a regular effort to attend class face-to-face. This concurs with what I learned from one colleague at that same university who was teaching face-to-face, as she watched attendance in face-to-face sections dwindle, moving more and more online (though all of this is anecdotal). Still, it did suggest that the option for being in person was working well for some time, for some students, yet their enthusiasm to go to a physical classroom faded, even when they were living on campus.

In particular, as my daughter described it, from mid-October until the end of the term (at Thanksgiving) things began to change. She (and from what she said, her friends) would play the trick of “attending” class (with their camera off, of course, paying partial attention or working on other tasks entirely), and would then watch the recording later, at 1.5 or 2x speed to go over notes. Having the slides ahead of time was, in many ways, a disincentive for being fully attentive during the real time class sessions.

The colleague that I talked to who were teaching on campus expressed similar drop-offs in attendance. This colleague talked about teaching to a webcam, and at least a few times, standing in front of an empty classroom (she finally chose to move the class entirely online, after confirming with students that it would be OK with that). Since she had a classroom structure that was very much discussion-centered, this was challenging for her, but she adapted and was able to use virtual breakout rooms effectively.

My eldest daughter’s single class that was scheduled to be all online anyway, a second semester composition corse, was not a very good experience… but would have been without the pandemic. It was a series of highly scripted assignments, with little room for exploration or inquiry. The class was supposed to have opportunities for peer review, yet the entire class was asynchronous and comments from peers were perfunctory. Feedback from the instructor, too, was less than desirable. So, this was a case of a poorly designed and taught online class, and not just an effect of pandemic pedagogy.

A few other elements of campus life were strange, too. Grab and go food, socially distanced public spaces, and other accommodations did become more normal by the end of the semester. There was a quarantine dorm, and a strange system of notifications that students and instructors would get if they had potentially been in contact with someone.The university’s regular “rah rah” types of emails and daily health checks felt a bit repetitive to her by the end of the semester. Still, somehow the campus stayed open as long as it had planned, and even with the Michigan health order to close and go virtual right before Thanksgiving, the semester that had been pushed up by a few weeks came to a close as planned.

She was glad to have been on campus, even if not “in person” for most of the time she was there.

Student 2: First Year Student at a Residential University that Went Fully Online

Our second daughter — having gone through the strangeness of the graduating in the spring of 2020 — was beginning her first year with hopes of moving into the dorm, and all that campus life would offer. Yet, that was not to be, as the university made the decision to be fully online. Even with a full summer of “prep” time for faculty to know that they would all be online, there was not a very robust set of remote teaching practices enacted for her.

Only a few live class sessions happened for her four classes, and one course was completely asynchronous. One instructor kept sending out announcements over and over about how difficult it was for him to teach at home, and only did two live Zoom sessions (where it was really about having students find their new group mates for a “collaborative” project, that was not very well scaffolded). On a bright note, her math class (which had regular Zoom sessions each week) was one of her favorites, and she took advantage of office hours, too. She felt connected to that instructor, which was key.

Considering the entirety of her semester, she felt OK about it though — as has been noted in more scholarly and research-based ways — she felt the clear lines that were drawn around an online experience as compared to being on campus. She is a kid that was primed to go to campus and begin her life at college. The emotional let down of an online fall, and the lack of opportunities to socialize with new classmates, was palpable.

She, too, will be back online for the winter/spring. She is hopeful that she will get to have a first-year kind of experience this fall when (and if) campus reopens and, in the mean time, did look for classes this semester that will have regular Zoom meetings scheduled (which she found two out of four). While the campus has opened up a few courses for face-to-face instruction — and she was hoping to drive from our home to campus a few days a week to attend them — she found nothing available for students in their early years, as most are upper division courses. My hope is that she can get some of those connections through these Zoom classes, and encourage all higher ed faculty to keep this in mind as they consider when, how, and why they will offer (at least a few) real time class meetings.

Moving Forward in 2021

As I consider the design of my own online courses this semester, I am again made aware of how important instructor presence is to students. Both my daughters reiterated this, in slightly different ways. The takeaway for me is that the sense of presence that an instructor projects is crucial. If you set reasonable expectations, communicate with regularity, provide opportunities to connect with you via email, phone, chat, and/or video calls, and get feedback to them in a timely manner, those practices provide a kind of consistency that makes the entire online learning experience better.

Even without a consistent, real time video class session, inviting students to connect at least a few times in the semester can be powerful. For instance, in one of my eight week courses, I will offer an opening “welcome webinar,” and then have students work with “accountability partners” throughout the abbreviated semester. They are not working on the same project as collaborators; rather, they are planning at least two phone/video calls to provide one another feedback. They will also plan one phone/video call with me to discuss their project. Finally, in the last week, students will have the option to present their work in a “closing webinar,” or record a screencast to share. These are small moves — in addition to participation in a discussion forum — that I think helps us build community.

In sum, as we all head into this semester, I know that the challenges remain constant (as summarized recently by PBS NewsHour, among others). Instructors who are working to make their teaching timely, relevant, and engaging are also still figuring out the nuances of fully online, concurrent/hy flex, and socially-distanced, in-person practices. Students are still figuring things out, too, working to maintain their academic, professional, and personal lives.

Let’s continue to think strategically about our teaching through continued conversation, such as through this webinar next week that I am co-hosting with my colleague Kristen Turner, “Cameras on… or off? Engaging Students through Conversation, Writing-to- Learn, and Relationship-Building in Remote Learning.” Also, I encourage readers to review my post from last August, “Designing Breakout Rooms for Maximum Engagement.” I encourage us all to think about how we can work effectively to build connections with our students.

All the best for a strong start to the new semester.

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Cameras On… or Off? Engaging Students through Conversation, Writing-to- Learn, and Relationship-Building in Remote Learning

What does it mean to engage students in real time, video class sessions? During the hour-long webinar, we will model active learning strategies that can be implemented in middle school, high school, and higher ed remote learning contexts.

What does it mean to engage students in real time, video class sessions? Some people think that simply having “cameras on” is the answer to student engagement. However, engagement comes when students are cognitively involved, emotionally connected, and participating actively.

Join Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks as they model strategies for building relationships with learners, implementing writing-to-learn strategies, and prompting breakout room activities with effective protocols for discussion, collaboration, and accountability.

During the hour-long webinar, we will model active learning strategies that can be implemented in middle school, high school, and higher ed remote learning contexts.

Register here: https://tinyurl.com/cameraonoroff

Examining Instructional Models for Online Instruction

Depending on the course that I was teaching, I was flexing the kinds of time I was spending (and asking students to spend) in Zoom rooms, with online discussion forums, and in various forms of partner and group projects. How many hours of video class sessions are you hosting, each week, for a typical three-credit course and what, in addition, are you asking your students to do as part of their on-going participation?

Image by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

As has been said, many times and many ways, this was a semester like no other.

With many campuses facing what Bryan Alexander called “toggle terms,” and many more being fully online, it has been a unique moment in the history of higher education. As we close 2020, I am finally at a point with all other projects where I can pause and reflect on some of the comments that my students provided me from the spring, summer, and fall semesters.

Given that all of my classes in spring and summer were scheduled to be online to begin with — and with the one class I was scheduled to teach face-to-face in the fall I was granted permission to move online — the experience of online teaching is not new for me. And, as Larry Cuban reminded us all earlier this fall, “pandemic-driven remote instruction” is something different from what has been variously called “online” or “virtual” instruction. In fact, that is part of what I wanted to capture in writing this post. Depending on the course that I was teaching, I was flexing the kinds of time I was spending (and asking students to spend) in Zoom rooms, with online discussion forums, and in various forms of partner and group projects.

So, let me begin by offering a few models of what my courses look like, in either 8- or 16-week terms, and then share some of the student comments that are guiding me as I look to the semester ahead. To keep it simple, I am following a simple “5Ws and H” format, though I may want to do some more thinking about how to accurately represent these ideas in a graphic of some kind or another.

Model 1: Full Semester, Undergraduate First-Year Seminar

  • Who: 19 first-year honors undergraduate students
  • What: 3-credit course, “Our Digital Selves: Living and Learning in a Multimodal World”
  • When: In lieu of a weekly 2 hour 45 minute course meeting in-person, we moved to a 1 hour 45 minute session and ~1 hour of participation in discussion forums and peer reviews.
  • Where: Synchronous meetings in Zoom each week; discussions in Packback; peer review in Writable.
  • Why: Because the goal of the first-year seminar is for students to develop the habits of mind toward scholarly inquiry and build community with one another, I felt that the weekly class meetings were an essential component of the overall experience. Also, I had at least two 30-minute meetings with each student during the semester to help guide them on two separate projects.
  • How: Class sessions generally moved in three to four chunks of 20 to 30 minutes each, including mini-lectures, collaborative tasks in breakout rooms, and time for writing-to-learn activities; guest speakers presented during three separate weeks of class sessions.
  • Comments from students: While I haven’t received formal end-of-class reports yet, anecdotal comments from students suggest that they appreciated the interactive nature of our video-class sessions (even though most kept their cameras off in the main room). Because the writing-to-learn activities led to more in-depth assignments, some students noted that they appreciated the time and space to talk with classmates during our class sessions, too.

Model 2.1: Abbreviated Semester, Masters Ed Tech Class

  • Who: 15-25 masters students, most of whom are K-12 educators
  • What: 3-credit courses in our ed tech program, each condensed into 8 weeks
  • When: No expectation of synchronous meetings, though I would offer at least one “welcome webinar” and would have open office hours as well as optional appointments.
  • Where: Across various platforms, mostly Blackboard (for announcements and grades) and Google Docs/Sites (to share content and invite collaboration). Also, we used Voxer for an on-going, informal backchannel conversation.
  • Why: Because these educators are preparing to infuse ed tech into their own classrooms, I wanted to provide them with a very UDL-like experience that integrated the ISTE standards in thoughtful ways.
  • How: Each week, students would explore a series of “pathway tasks” that they could then select from. In any given week, students would choose three shorter activities, or one short activity and one longer one, resulting in products that they could use in their own classrooms.
  • Comments from students: “I liked being able to explore and play with new learning materials each week. As a learner, I felt like actually practicing working with materials I could use in the classroom was a lot more beneficial than just reading and doing a reflection every week.”
  • “I appreciated how you structured the course shell. It was organized by weeks. Teachers in the past made the course shell more like a scavenger hunt, which is super irritating when you have to spend so much time and energy just trying to locate an assignment. Also, I really like using Voxer. It was nice being able to ask questions and receive immediate feedback.”
  • “I really enjoyed that I could chose each week which pathway I wanted to complete. I liked that the work could be tailored to what I needed.”

Model 2.2: Abbreviated Semester, Masters Ed Tech Class, Cohort-Based

  • Who: 15-25 masters students affiliated with community colleges as instructors or support staff
  • What: 3-credit course as an introduction to ed tech within a general education masters program
  • When: 1.5 hour meeting in Zoom, once per week for eight weeks; additional material to be explored in an asynchronous manner.
  • Where: F2F class shifted to online, across various platforms, mostly Blackboard (for announcements and grades) and Google Docs/Sites (to share content and invite collaboration); Slack for backchannel.
  • Why: With an audience of both community college instructors (from various disciplines) as well as staff (in admissions, financial aid, and other departments), the course needed to be flexible enough to focus on classroom integration of ed tech as well as how to use ed tech for delivering online training to other faculty and students.
  • How: Each week, students would listen to a podcast or webinar (not mine, from outside source) about the topic at hand, as well as read materials from the course text book. During the class sessions, we would engage in “quick fire” style challenges to explore the topics under discussion for the week by using different ed tech tools (Google Sites, Canva, H5P, etc).
  • Comments from students: “Troy provided time for engaging learning activities during class time. The learning activities were well connected to the learning objectives and assigned reading. It helped make the connections from theory to practice. Troy used the breakout method to help us connect in smaller groups and learn together. This was great for building community and encouraging collaboration… Troy’s weekly emails with reminders on readings and what to expect in the upcoming class was also really great for preparing for class.”
  • “The opportunity to learn, apply knowledge and have a hands-on experience was evident in this course. Troy introduced various concepts and tools, explicitly applied them throughout the semester and regularly encouraged students to use various techniques and relevant online tools, including screencast, etc.”

Model 3: Full Semester, Doctoral Ed Tech Class

  • Who: 12-15 doctoral students in an ed tech program, most of whom are educational professionals though some are from other industries
  • What: 3-credit course as an overview of ed tech tools and critical theories of ed tech
  • When: 1 hour Zoom meetings, every other week (8 meetings over 16 week semester); individual appointments to support student projects; meeting with collaborative groups for their projects, too.
  • Where: Across various platforms, mostly Blackboard (for announcements and grades) and Google Docs/Sites (to share content and invite collaboration); use of WhatsApp for on-going, informal “backchannel” dialogue with entire class.
  • Why: To help these doctoral students become more critical consumers of ed tech and to also help them prepare to lead professional learning for others, the course was designed to help them question their (mostly positive) assumptions about ed tech and how it could and should be used in school and training settings.
  • How: In addition to readings and on-going discussions, students went through three cycles of creating a brief review, a full review, and an instructional screencast; they also worked with partners to write a research paper and present a one-hour webinar on an ed tech tool.
  • Comments from students: “I feel that I became stronger at presenting a critical review over various tech tools due to the “workshop” style review process that Dr. Hicks brought us through.”
  • “We had group sessions every two weeks; group assignments via collaboration tools such as Kami, OneNote, NowComment, and others; ongoing discussions held via Whatsapp; additional reading materials for further discussions; and Dr. Hicks was at our disposal via email, individual appointments, and phone.”

Looking Toward 2021

Figuring out how many “hours” should go into a three-credit hour course seems to be a constant challenge for me (and all of higher education, according to the US DOE and this piece from IHE).

So, what I continue to ask what I should do as I look at the “What was the total number of hours you spent on activities related to this course?” stats that my students have filled out in their end-of-course surveys. Most of my students in the past year seem to hit the “sweet spot” (45-64 hours), with some leaning slightly more (65-84 hours). There are a few outliers, of course, on both the high and low end, yet I feel like the idea that most are “in the zone” seems appropriate, given the overall feedback that I get on course design, assignment complexity, and expectations for interaction.

Still, as I consider what I might do for the courses I will be teaching here in a few weeks (two doctoral, two masters), I am again rethinking what it is that I want to do with expectations for video class sessions (as compared to other “seat time” tasks such as discussion forums, partner or group projects, individual meetings with me as the instructor, or similar tasks). I need to puzzle through this a bit more, considering how often I feel students would be interested in/willing to participate in class sessions, as well as the types of activities I would plan for us to participate in during our limited times.

And, perhaps it should go without saying, but I will anyway. I do not record video lectures. I will, on occasion, create a video announcement in the form of a screencast, especially as a tour of the Blackboard shell at the beginning of the semester. Beyond that, any “content” that I deliver comes in the form of other content that has been found online, or in feedback to students (written, recorded, or through conferences). For the classes that do meet on Zoom, I record them and ask that students who were absent watch the main segments and write a brief reflection (this expectation is built into the syllabus).

As I keep telling my colleagues, when we say that “I don’t have time to do X” in my classes, what that really means is that “I don’t choose to use time to do X.” In fact, as educators, it is not a lack of time that should drive our motivations. Instead, I argue that time is, indeed, all that we have. How we choose to use that time is of the utmost importance.

So, as I begin revising my syllabi for the spring semester, I will be considering some new patterns for my courses and would be curious to hear from others: how many hours of video class sessions are you hosting, each week, for a typical three-credit course and what, in addition, are you asking your students to do as part of their on-going participation?

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Designing Breakout Rooms for Maximum Engagement

Despite (or perhaps because of) the pandemic summer, I was provided with numerous opportunities to facilitate online courses and professional development, as well as one chance to work with a digital writing summer camp for middle school students. There were many models for these sessions, from a one-day event where we hosted about 60 participants to a two-week institute in which we worked with nearly 30 educators for just over three hours each morning to a one-week institute with a facilitation team of over a dozen and nearly 150 participants.

For the most part — both because I am a bit of a control freak when it comes to managing webinars and (at least I would like to think) because my main goal for working with other educators is to smooth out the roadblocks and provide space for others to lead — I was in charge of making many, many breakout rooms via Zoom. And, for many participants, being whisked away to (and back from) a Zoom breakout room still feels a bit like techno-magic (mostly, I would assume, because they are usually in the “attendee” role in a meeting, not the “host” role). Throughout the summer I made rooms of 2 or 3 based on Zoom’s random assignment all the way to rooms of 20+ where participants “renamed” themselves with room numbers and chose the session they wanted.

And, with nearly every session, as I collaborated with numerous colleagues this summer, the question was repeated many times: “Troy, how did you do that?”

Preparing to Move to Breakout Rooms: Technical and Teaching Considerations

There are, as with most inquiries about teaching with technology, two answers to that question. The technical answer, once one has had some experience in the “host” role of the Zoom meeting, is relatively straight-forward, and their help desk article (with video) is actually quite instructive. There are also many, many videos on YouTube that show you the logistics of how to set up and control the rooms, from an educator’s perspective, including this one from Simpletivity that shows some of the additional features for hosts as they set up and move from room-to-room (from about 6:00 to the end). For the technical answers, I would encourage you to look to these resources from others who have answered the questions in a much clearer manner than I could do so again here.

These technical steps, however, are not what I think most teachers are asking about. Instead, they are likely asking about how we prepare for, move to, facilitate, and return from the rooms, setting up a brief instructional arc that relies on collaborative learning and protocols to guide group activity and discussion. Many other talented educators are puzzling through this same set of questions, including the Stanford Teaching Commons, Elizabeth Stone, Catlin Tucker, and Tricia Ebarvia. Also, early in the pandemic, I was directed to Mural’s “Definitive Guide To Facilitating Remote Workshops,” which has some good tips. From all these educators, I add to the common theme: before even considering small group work, especially in virtual settings, we need to have clear structures in place, both for the entire class session and for what happens in breakout rooms.

Sometimes these rooms are assigned randomly, especially for low-stakes tasks where I want participants to talk with someone they likely would not choose to work with otherwise. Sometimes these rooms are assigned, strategically, by me, without much input from them at all (and, perhaps, I might even tell them that the assignments were random!). Finally, there are times where I want participants to make a choice and let me know where they would prefer to go, offering them a voice in their learning.

Two quick tips for having participants choose rooms (or, suggest where they want to go). First, you can have a shared Google Doc for notetaking and, when it is time for them to choose rooms, insert a table for the number of rooms you plan to assign, and have participants write their name in the preferred cell of the table. Second, if you have enabled the capability in your host settings, participants can “rename” themselves to put a room number or name in front of their own name. In fact, I would make the case that having participants rename themselves with their preferred number makes the assigning of breakout rooms much easier for the host, and this is quickly becoming my preferred method.

With these logistics for moving them to rooms in mind, we now consider the tasks in which we would want them to engage.

Tasks for Successful Breakout Room Contributions

All of these options require successful teaching strategies to be in place, and two of my go-to resources for finding protocols for getting students to wrestle with ideas include the National School Reform Faculty’s Protocols and Harvard Project Zero’s Visible Thinking Routines. Being familiar with a number of these strategies — and being able to adapt them quickly in virtual settings — is helpful. They can be adapted in many ways, and groups can work in shared GDocs or GSlides, or Padlet walls, or through other collaborative tools, sometimes with some pre-session setup, yet often on-the-fly, depending on student needs.

There are a few considerations that I keep in mind as a prepare to engage learners in breakout sessions. First, please note that  my audience of learners typically includes college undergraduates, graduate students, and educators. So, these strategies would need to be adjusted for younger students, especially elementary and middle school students, who may need fewer, more direct instructions as well as shorter time frames in the breakout rooms.

With all that in mind, here are a few activities that I use as it relates to setting up breakout rooms for different kinds of groups and for different durations. I think that they are flexible, and useful for learners at various age levels with appropriate scaffolding. To keep it simple, I separate them into quadrants, though there certainly can be some flexibility and overlap.

Structuring Real Time Activities in Video Conference Sessions

Structuring Real Time Activities in Video Conference Sessions (August 2020)

Activities for Any Group, with a Shorter Duration (5-8 Minutes)

To get conversations started, you might try:

Activities for Established Groups, with a Shorter Duration (5-8 minutes)

For groups that have some rapport and community established, you can jump right in with:

Activities for New Groups, with a Shorter Duration (5-8 minutes)

For groups that you are trying to build community, you can have them watch a brief video or read a short text, and then engage in:

Activities for Established Groups, with a Longer Duration (10-15 Minutes)

For groups that have worked together and are moving into deeper conversation or inquiry, they can use protocols like:

Activities for New Groups, with a Longer Duration (10-15 Minutes)

And, to continue building community and to engage participants in activities that will help them move into more substantive conversations:

Of course, protocols by their very nature are all designed to be flexible, and could be used for a variety of purposes with both new and established groups, in durations short and long. Still, with the list above, my hope is that these resources are helpful for many educators, especially those working with high school and college students, in real time video chat sessions.

Closing Thoughts

Given the many reasons why it is challenging to simply get us all in the same virtual space at the same time, we need to make the precious minutes that we spend together in these sessions valuable. As Stone notes in her post for Inside Higher Ed,

[O]ur students have made it clear they want to learn, and they want connections with one another and with us as we continue to live through these uncertain and disruptive times. And I’ve found that in classes like mine, Zoom, far from fatiguing, can be both an energizer and a bridge.

Indeed, if we use our time in Zoom (or WebEx, or Google Meets, or Microsoft Teams, or BlueJeans, or BigBlueButton, or even in a face-to-face classroom), to engage students in meaningful dialogue and collaboration, we are in many ways just following the advice of all those who have been promoting active learning strategies for many years.

More than just providing a standard lecture in a convenient, online format, we have opportunities to be more dialogic, collaborative, and engaging this fall than, perhaps, we have ever had before.


Troy Hicks PortraitDr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has earned CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award, is an ISTE Certified Educator, and has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

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Appreciating Writing Assistance Technologies… Finally?

This post originally appeared on the National Writing Project’s “Ahead of the Code” blog on Medium on August 22, 2020.


Appreciating Writing Assistance Technologies… Finally?

You would think that, as English teachers, we would have been more appreciative.

Even from the founding of our major professional organization, the National Council of Teachers of English, we have been concerned with (or simply complaining about) the overwhelming amount of writing that we need to grade and provide feedback upon.

As Edwin M. Hopkins, an English professor and one of the founding members of NCTE asked on the first page in the first issue of English Journal way back in 1912, “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done under Present Conditions?

His concise answer: “No.”

Screenshot of Edwin H. Hopkins’ article, “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done Under Present Conditions” from 1912.
Screenshot of Hopkins’ article, “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done Under Present Conditions?” with his response highlighted in yellow.

And, this just about sums it up.

Even then, we knew that the work for English teachers was immense. And, 100+ years later, it remains so. Reading and responding to dozens, if not hundreds, of student compositions on any given week remains a consistent challenge for educators at all levels, from kindergarten through college.

Fast forward from Hopkins’ blunt assessment of how well any one English teacher could actually keep up with the volume of writing he or she must manage, and we land in 1966. It is at this moment when Ellis B. Page proposed in the pages of The Phi Delta Kappan that “We will soon be grading essays by computer, and this development will have astonishing impact on the educational world” (emphasis in original).

There is more history to unpack here, which I hope to do in future blog posts, yet the mid-century pivot in which one former English teacher turned educational psychologist, Page, set the stage for a debate that would still be under discussion fifty years later is clear. English people started taking sides in the computer scoring game. And, to be fair, it seems as though this was mission-driven work for Page, as he concluded that “[a]s for the classroom teacher, the computer grading of essays might considerably humanize his [sic] job.”

Tracing My Own History with Automated Essay Scoring

Over the decades, as Wikipedia describes it, “automated essay scoring” has moved in many directions, with both proponents and critics. These are a few angles I hope to explore in my posts this year for the “Ahead of the Code” project. As a middle school language arts educator, I never had opportunity to use systems for automated feedback in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a college composition teacher in the mid-2000s, I eschewed plagiarism detection services and scoffed at the grammar-checkers built into word processing programs. This carries me to my more recent history, and I want to touch on the two ways in which I have, recently, been critiquing and connecting with automated essay scoring, with hopes that this year’s project will continue to move my thinking in new directions.

With that, there are two stories to tell.

Story 1: It was in early 2013 that I was approached to be part of the committee that ultimately produced NCTE’s “Position Statement on Machine Scoring.” Released on April 20, 2013, and followed by a press release from NCTE itself and an article in Inside Higher Ed, the statement was more of an outright critique than a deep analysis of the research literature. Perhaps we could have done better work. And, to be honest, I am not quite clear on what the additional response to this statement was (as its Google Scholar page here in 2020 shows only four citations). Still, it planted NCTE’s flag in the battle on computer scoring (and, in addition to outright scoring, much of this stemmed from an NCTE constituent group’s major concern about plagiarism detection and retention of student writing).

Still, I know that I felt strongly at the time that our conclusion: “[f]or a fraction of the cost in time and money of building a new generation of machine assessments, we can invest in rigorous assessment and teaching processes that enrich, rather than interrupt, high-quality instruction.” And, in many ways, I still do. My experience with NWP’s Analytic Writing Continuum (and the professional learning that surrounds it), as well as the work that I do with dozens of writers each year (from middle schoolers in a virtual summer camp last July to my undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students I am teaching right now) suggests to me that talking with writers and engaging my colleagues in substantive dialogue about student writing still matters. Computers still cannot replace a thoughtful teacher.

Story 2: It was later in 2013, and I had recently met Heidi Perry through her work with Subtext (now part of Renaissance Learning). This was an annotation tool, and I was curious about it in the context of working on my research related to Connected Reading. She and I talked a bit here and there over the years. The conversation rekindled in 2016, when Heidi and her team had moved on from Subtext and were founding a new company, Writable. Soon after, I became their academic advisor and wrote a white paper about the power of peer feedback. While Heidi, the Writable team, and I have had robust conversations about if and how there should be automated feedback and other writing assistance technologies into their product, I ultimately do not make the decisions; I only advise. (For full disclosure: I do earn consulting fees from Writable, though I am not directly employed by the company, and Writable has been a sponsor of NWP-related events.)

One of my main contributions to the early development of Writable was the addition of “comment stems” for peer reviewers. While not automated feedback?—?in fact, somewhat the opposite of it?—?the goal for asking students to provide peer review responses with the scaffolded support of sentence stems was so they would, indeed, engage more intently with their classmates’ writing… with a little help. In the early stages of Writable, we actually focused quite intently on self-, peer-, and teacher-review.

To do so, I worked with them to build out comment stems, which still play a major role in the product. As shown in the screenshot below, when a student clicks on a “star rating” to offer his or her peer a rubric score, an additional link appears, offering the responder the opportunity to “Add Comment.” Once they there, as the Writable help desk article notes, “Students should click on a comment stem (or “No thanks, I’ll write my own”) and complete the comment.” This is where the instructional magic happens.

Instead of simply offering the star rating (the online equivalent of a face-to-face “good job,” or “I like it”), the responder needs to elaborate on his or her thoughts about the piece of writing. For instance, in the screenshot below, we see stems that prompt the responder to be more specific, with suggestions for adding comments about, in this case, the writer’s conclusion such as “You could reflect the content event more clearly if you say something about…” as well as “Your conclusion was insightful because you…” These stems prompt the kind of peer feedback as ethical practice, that I have described with my colleagues Derek Miller and Susan Golab.

A screenshot of the “comment stem” interface in Writable. (Image from Writable)
Screenshot of the “comment stems” that appear in Writable’s peer response interface (Image courtesy of Writable)

And, though in the past few years the Writable team has (for market-based reasons) moved in the direction of adding Revision Aid (and other writing assistance technologies), I can’t argue with them. It does make good business sense and?—?as they have convinced me more and more?—?writing assistance technologies can help teachers and students. My thoughts on all of this continue to evolve, as my recent podcast interview with the founder of Ecree, Jamey Heit, demonstrates. In short, looking at how I have changed since 2013, I am beginning to think that there is room for these technologies in writing instruction.

Back to the Future of Automated Essay Scoring

So, as I try to capture my thoughts related to writing assistance technologies, here at the beginning of the 2020–21 academic year, I use the oft-cited relationship status from our (least?) favorite social media company: “It’s complicated.”

Do I agree with Hopkins, who believes that teaching English and responding to writing is still unsustainable. Yes, and…

Do I agree with Page, who suggests that automated scoring can be humanizing (for the teacher, and perhaps the student)? Yes, and…

Do I still feel that writing assistance technologies can interrupt instruction and cause a rift in the teacher/student relationship? Yes, and…

Do I think that integrating peer response stems and automated revision aid into Writable are both valuable? Yes, and…

Do I think that all of this is problematic? Yes, and…

I am still learning. And, yes, you would think that, as English teachers, we would have been more appreciative of having tools that would alleviate the workload. So, why the resistance? I want to understand more about why, both by exploring the history of writing assistance technologies as well as what it looks like, what it feels like, for teachers and students.

As part of the work this year, I will be using Writable with my Chippewa River Writing Project colleagues and, later this semester, my own students at Central Michigan University. In that process, I hope to have more substantive answers to these questions, and to push myself to better articulate when, why, and how I will employ writing assistance technologies?—?and when I will not. Like any writer making an authorial decision, I want to make the best choice possible, given my audience, purpose, and context.

And, in the process, perhaps, I will give up on some of the previous concerns about writing assistance technologies. In doing so, I will learn to be just a little bit more appreciative as I keep moving forward, hoping to remain ahead of the code.


Troy Hicks PortraitDr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has earned CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award, is an ISTE Certified Educator, and has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

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