End of Year “Reflection”

Well, I’ve held off on using the “R” word for any tagging on this blog, but I guess that it is the end of the calendar year that causes me to think about reflection, even though it is a term that is fraught with problems, as my adviser, Lynn Fendler, points out.

At any rate, a few things have happened this year that give me thought to pause, one being this blog, so I figured that I would do that here. Besides, I collapsed from post-holiday exhaustion and pre-sinus infection sickness earlier tonight, and now I have insomnia. What else to do but write, right?

So, I want to start with something recent. Wes Fryer talked about digital storytelling and, as I recall, how he has his daughter, a pre-schooler, creating them. When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, my supervisor had mentioned how I might be able to use some of my digital literacies to capture some family memories for posterity. Well, though I have yet to make my own digital story, my daughter (age 4) and I collaborated to make a story as a gift to mom this holiday season. Everyone asked, “How much of this did you do, Troy?” and I tell them that I really did very little. I showed her some basic controls in iMovie, helped her look through our family pictures, and then set up the mic. She did the rest. It was amazing, and made for many conversations over the past week. It also cemented the feeling for me that digital storytelling is something worth academic and personal pursuit, a feeling that I had long pushed to the side. At any rate, it is on You Tube, but I have it marked as private (I still feel weird sharing my kids’ images and voices online to the general public), so if you want to see it, send me an email and I will invite you.

Another recent thing to think about has been the “Top 100 Education Blogs” list that came out about a week ago. This has inspired much controversy, and the conversation on Bud’s blog captures some of the other bloggers’ feelings about it. Personally, I am not much of one for lists, just like I am not one for how-to guides, but the recognition was nice. Along with a nod on MSU’s “Blogs for Learning” site earlier this fall, I feel that I must be doing something right with this blog. However, there are many others doing blogs right, too. Maria, for instance, is quite modest about her work and I think that Paul got overlooked, too. But, when it is all said and done, edublogs are official now, and I rememeber that they weren’t when we looked them up at Tech Matters in July.

The other main thing on my mind right now, besides my wife’s health, is that I am on the job market and will be soon giving a job talk based on the following prompt: “Situate your research in terms of the current state of the field of English education and talk about how that research informs your teaching.” If ever there was a time when I am asking what English education is, that time is now. Given the general state of education (which I won’t belabor here), and the palpable sense that some edubloggers like David and Will among others, seem to be expressing, I wonder if this is the year that digital writing becomes a legitimate topic for writing teachers and not just an add-on to an already rubric-packed curriculum of pre-formed essay prompts. There are so many possibilities that I am trying to pursue right now (not the least of which is my dissertation focusing on digital portfolios, although that seems to fall to the back burner every day) that I think are engaging and worth scholarly pursuit at the K-12 level: collaborative writing projects with wikis and Google docs, student blogging (ala Paul’s model), free and open source applications for digital writing, digital storytelling, and podcasting. If the Time cover story about You being person of the year is right, then the time is now to push for these literacies as a part of our English teaching. And, oh yes, the state standards call for them, too, says Time. Given all the attention that these literacies now command, I don’t think that we can ignore, or filter, them in school anymore.

So, what will I say about my research and the field of English education? Well, I think that I will acknowledge that being an English teacher has always been and will continue to be complicated. The interesting new twist to the complicated lives of English teachers — the one that I think encompasses all the other issues of linguistic diversity, challenging the canon, cultural literacy, encouraging citizenship, and other main tenets that came from the 2005 summit — concerns new literacies and the ways that ICTs are changing what it means to be literate. I think that the notions of purpose and audience that teachers using a writing workshop model for the past 30 years have been good, but to be perfectly honest, beyond the school newsletter, the letter to an author or editor, or something else fairly local, they were never fully realized. Now they are. Blogs, podcasts, and wikis enable global conversation. English education needs to prepare teachers and students to be a part of that conversations, and new literacies play a pivotal role in doing so. This requires a major change in the way we think about teaching and learning writing. I will elaborate on this idea more in the next few weeks as the job talk nears, but I felt that I need to get some first draft thinking in this reflective post. I would be interested to hear what you have to say about it.

Well, I think that I have reflected enough for now (and, I hope, cured the insomnia). Thanks to everyone — friends and colleagues — who inspired me to start this blog and contribute to the ongoing conversation around it. I look forward to continuing the conversations in 2007 and beginning a variety of new projects, many of them in collaboration with all of you. Take care and happy new year.

And Time’s Person of the Year is…

OK, if we didn’t have enough of a reason to teach our students that they are, indeed, producers of digital writing — and that this matters as a skill they need to have — this story might be the final straw that convinces educators that we need to take it seriously:

But look at 2006 through a different lens and you’ll see another story,one that isn’t about conflict or great men. It’s a story aboutcommunity and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s aboutthe cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s aboutthe many wresting power from the few and helping one another fornothing and how that will not only change the world, but also changethe way the world changes.

The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web. Not the Web that Tim Berners-Lee hacked together (15 years ago, according to Wikipedia) as a way for scientists to share research. It’s not even the overhyped dotcom Web of the late 1990s. The new Web is a very different thing. It’s a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it’s really a revolution.

And we are so ready for it. We’re ready to balance our diet of predigested news with raw feeds from Baghdad and Boston and Beijing. You can learn more about how Americans live just by looking at the backgrounds of YouTube videos—those rumpled bedrooms and toy-strewn basement rec rooms—than you could from 1,000 hours of network television.

TIME.com: You — Yes, You — Are TIME’s Person of the Year — Dec. 25, 2006 — Page 1

With that in mind, it might be a bit early for New Year’s Resolutions, but when YOU are the person of the year, you might want to begin thinking about this early (isn’t it weird to talk about yourself in the second person?). So, here are some of my thoughts about what (digital) writing teachers might consider doing in the next year (if you haven’t already):

Well, I am sure there are more, but ten seems like the magic number for these types of lists, so I will stop.

But, I would like to hear from you — what else you might add to a list of digital New Year’s Resolutions? Thanks in advance for your ideas.

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Podcasting with Bonnie, Thinking about Critical Aspects of Digital Literacy

Bonnie asks a good (and loaded) question here:

How could I bring the podcasts onto the team blog?

Well, a few of you noticed that I tried to test a podcast through my blog/feed the other day. I did that to help Bonnie from HVWP to do a podcast for her tech team. Then, Karen challenged her to write up what she did here. Hooray, Bonnie!

I think that what her experience shows is that there are multiple (sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicting) ways in which we can post podcasts. And, the technical fact of the matter is that you will get a podcast up doing any one of them.

However, the aspect of this that I am interested in is the critical/rhetorical one. Does it matter where we post our podcasts? What service we use? Whether it is on Archive.org or through a site like Odeo? How does that change the “instructions,” especially if you hit a snag? How does it change our understandings of what a podcast is and what it does?

We have struggled with this issue of creating tech guides at RCWP for a long time. I have often been asked to write “how to” guides, and I have only done one. Why? Because the set of instructions that I wrote was out-of-date by the time I did the workshop that night due to a technical change in the site we were using. Sigh… My “how to” guides are usually very fluid and, as of lately, always on a wiki so people in the workshop can help me co-construct the guide as we go along. Here is the pre-NWP trip guide.

To me, learning to be digitally literate is not only about the technical aspects, but about knowing enough to troubleshoot along the way (perhaps choosing a different hosting site because the one you want isn’t working at the time you want to post the podcast) and think about the critical/rhetorical aspects of that choice. Does it matter, for instance, that I post something on Archive.org or Odeo? In a technical sense, no, because the podcast will be delivered if you create the enclosure in your blog post.

However, I think that there is more to it and would answer, yes, it does matter, because the type of license that you can choose for copyright on these sites is different. How the file gets saved (and perhaps streamed) is different, and you need to know where to get the permanent URL if you really want it to be a podcast that is downloadable. Whether and how you “own” your podcast is based on where it is stored, from a critical and rhetorical sense, an important issue. Thus, any “how to” guide that we create has to be tempered with these discussions.

This is not to say that what Bonnie has produced isn’t valuable, because it is for her, her tech team, the TL network, and other readers of her blog. Like the RCWP TCs who created some podcasting instructions a few months ago, these guides are important for our own learning about the technical aspects of posting a podcast. And, despite the many, many help guides that are out there, figuring it out with one-to-one help is always useful. Moreover, we know that these guides will change over time, and it is important that we understand what little changes in the overall process will do to that process.

I just want us to remember that there are a number of choices that we make in any act of digital writing, and many of them have ethical considerations that we should keep in mind as we do it. Thanks again to Bonnie for helping me think through some of these issues this week.

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Peer Review Publishing

Yesterday, I attended “Peer Review Publishing as a Tool for Teaching Biotechnology: The MMG 445 eJournal Experiment Using Production-Level Freeware” by George Garrity, MSU Microbiology and Molecular Genetics.

George will describe a teaching experiment, now in its second year, that he and his colleagues, Terry Marsh, and Scott Harrison, began in MMG 445: Basic Biotechnology. They are producing a peer-reviewed electronic journal of student review articles covering a wide range of topics within the field of biotech. To accomplish this, they are using the Open Journal System that was created at Simon Fraser University.

Given my current interests in exploring collaborative writing software like wikis and Google Docs, I am now trying to think more about the pedagogical aspects of teaching writing in this way. So, I wanted to hear about the ways in which students are able to do online peer review. Garrity began the presentation by giving some context about the course and discussed how the students in this course are a heterogenous group and they need to consider that as they think about writing in the course. He gave some context for biotechnology as a field as well, and discussed how the changing field has also forced him and his colleagues to ask what “basic skills” that have lasting values that they should be covering in the course. He cited the lack of a teaching text for the field as a problem, too.

He shared some insights from his experience in industry, thinking about what types of skills the setting demands from scientists. Multidisciplinary teams, adaptability, and the ability to acquire new skills topped the list, and being a curious, open-minded, problem solving, effectively communicative worker were also there as essential skills. He then looked at the course, and asked, “What is the most effective way to teacher these skills in the context of a course on biotechnology?” and “How do we keep this real?” He shared the evolution of the course from a traditional lecture-based one, to one that was very student-centered. An interesting example that he brought up was how one student group in an earlier semester turned in a paper that had parts plagiarized, and how that experience helped him rethink the way that the course was taught. Also, he discussed how the students moved to a model of leading mini-seminars based on peer-reviewed papers that they had produced. He held them accountable by switching from a pre-set list of three reviews that students would do to randomly collecting their reviews three times throughout the semester (this helped with attendance). They wanted students to read primary literature, write original seminar papers on that literature, and then review one another’s papers and presentations.

Looking at an overview of the course, he shared the background skills (library resources, writing and editing, as well as presentation skills), the enabling technologies and products/processes in microbiology, the student contributions from outside biotechnology, and the intellectual property laws. Resources that they have created for the class include a static web page, an online journal produced by the class with a real publishing system used by publishers’ websites, and electronic journals with “smart reviews.” Garrity also asks the students to read three books by Alley about scientific writing as well as exercises to follow.

Four principals from Alley’s books about scientific writing:

  • Understand your audience and what they know in terms of background knowledge and expectations.
  • Follow the right format directions in terms of structure, language, style, and illustrations.
  • Be sure to use appropriate grammar and punctuation for the format and audience.
  • Politically, the writer needs to understand how to remain honest while still satisfying the legal and organizational constraints for the message, audience, and format.

The students complete three assignments throughout the semester.

  • Review article covering an area of current research.
  • Give a 25 minute presentation (if they only present for 10 minutes, we will question them, intensely, for 15 minutes)
  • Scientific and editorial review that must be concise (2000 words), and summarize 10-15 review papers that we and their peers review. The scope of the paper has to be new material, within the last five years.
  • They have to agree to the instructions to authors statement on the website.They need to look at multiple sources in the secondary peer-reviewed literature, news articles, trade publications, newspapers, web sites, on-campus seminars. Once they find something to dive into in the primary literature, they then have to look at patent literature, too. They find 10-15 references from primary and secondary literature.

Garrity then described the editorial process from the author, to the editor, to the production of the journal. The students turn in their paper the night before the presentation, and then he makes the editorial assignments about ten minutes before class (randomly). The whole review process takes about a month, from initial submission to the final draft being submitted for the course.

Pedagogical rationale:

  • Reading and editing is informative for students as they learn from each other
  • With others critically evaluating the scientific quality of the manuscript forces authors to revise
  • The reviewers remain anonymous throughout the process, allowing them to experience the peer review process without worrying about the affective responses (positive and negative) that happen in face-to-face reviews.

At this point, Garrity shared the Open Journal System, a free and open-source progam for manuscript trafficking. He then shared their MMG 445 Journal and took us behind the scenes to see how students submit articles and reviews, and how he as an editor can control the work flow.

As I reflect on this presentation, I am amazed at the ways that Garrity and his colleagues have combined active student-centered pedagogy, quality writing instruction with instructor and peer review, and technology as a means to facilitate the process of review.

This seems like a process that many secondary teachers could adopt in their classrooms, and I like the idea of holding students accountable for paying attention to all the presentations and then, at random, three reviews throughout the semester. Overall, I was very impressed with the pedagogical and technical aspects of Garrity’s peer review process.