Badging and Blending, Writing and Learning

HON 206 Member Badge
Badges. Writing-intensive. Active learning. Blended learning.

Oh, my.

These have been the buzzwords that have permeated professional conversations over the past few years, and have guided my path in developing the seminar course for Honors students that I am currently teaching, “Our Digital Selves.”

Offered as a course for a group of 22 freshmen while they are concurrently enrolled in a larger course that orients over 100 students to life in CMU’s Honors Program, my course meets twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, for an hour and fifteen minutes.

In describing the course, I begin with the following:

Without question, we live, work, and play in a digital world.

Though a divide still exists in terms of skills and access across demographics, it is reasonable to argue that the increasing ubiquity of mobile devices connected to the Internet as well as broadband in our homes, schools, libraries, and workplaces means that all of us – especially young people coming of age in the present moment – are now blending our personal, professional, and practical digital identities across multiple networks and with a variety of tools.

However, the ability to upload a picture or post on one’s timeline does not, in and of itself, assure us each a place in digital segments of academia, the workplace, or civic life. In fact, a recent Rasmussen College survey showed that 37% of millennial students see the internet as “scary” and are not confident in their digital literacy skills.

This first year seminar will challenge students to critically examine what it means to lead a digital life – personally and academically – and to rethink our understanding of what it means to be mindful, productive, and responsible users of technology.

And, as I have shared with students, those are a precious few minutes together each week in which we are trying to accomplish many goals.

As part of their undergraduate program, the course is helping them think about the social structures that undergird the Internet. What does it mean for us to lead a digital life? What spaces do we interact in, what tools do we use, and how do we represent ourselves with a variety of identities? How can we interrogate our own digital living and learning practices, discover new strategies and tools, and emerge with a better sense of our personal and professional goals as they relate to using technology? In conjunction with their Honors orientation course, my course, too, is aimed at helping them become better readers, writers, and thinkers. We are looking closely at the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy as part of this process.

As a writing intensive course, our goal is to use writing in a variety of ways, for different purposes, and to expand to new audiences. This includes writing-to-learn activities in class (polls, quick writes, guided writing in lessons, exit slips) and they are writing about their research in many informal ways (“writing to explore” essay, “immerse yourself in research” essay). It also includes some atypical forms of academic writing. Rather that producing “typical” final essays for their projects, I am asking them to engage in digital writing or — as Renee Hobbs, author of the textbook we are using, Create to Learn, would say — digital authorship. Engaged in a recursive process of reading, writing, researching, revising, and collaboration, students are producing videos, podcasts, interactive maps, and other forms of multimedia in an effort to think about the affordances and constraints of text, images, video, and other forms of media. I am asking them to move beyond words on the page, and they generally seem to be enjoying that process, though it has not been without some technical frustrations.

We are also exploring the use of microcredentialling in lieu of traditional grading practices. have adapted a “badging pathway” system from a Dr. Stephanie West-Puckett at the University of Rhode Island. We completed our first pathway, the Digital ID Narrative, together in the month of September. In October, they have been working in small groups on their own choice of pathways. I provide them feedback on their writing and work at each “level” of learning, and finally decided on using Badgr (the new for issuing badges using Mozilla’s Open Badge framework). That, too, has been a learning process for the students and for me. As we close in on our first “Teach In,” scheduled to happen next week, and I am looking forward to seeing what they produce and, subsequently, issuing the next round of badges to them.

Lastly, our class meets in one of CMU’s active learning classrooms. Each day, I aim to do something that gets them moving and talking with others outside of their “normal” groups (there is no seating chart). This has been a mix of things as simple as “stand up and find someone from another table to discuss X” to using playing cards to randomize the groups. I’ve been trying to encourage them to use the active learning stations and display their own computer screens while working on projects, but not too many of them are doing that on a regular, non-prompted basis. It is a large space, suited for about 80 students. I am fortunate to teach a small group of 22, but that presents some challenges, too, as the space seems quite spread out and distant for a group that size. Having smaller, more intimate conversations, then, sometimes feels awkward, though having plenty of room to move around and interact is certainly a blessing (compared to other classrooms I have been in on campus).

All of this has led, as with most teaching innovations and changes, to some success and some frustration. On the positive side of the ledger, I have been impressed with the ways that most students oriented their mindset to the pathways and the non-graded aspects of the course. Though I have tried, over the years, a number of different forms of contract grading and self-evaluation, I have not ever thrown grades out completely. And, yes, at the end of the semester will require some accountability, as their work from the many pathways and class activities will accumulate and (through reflection and dialogue with each student), a final grade will emerge. That said, many of them seem interested in the idea of microcredentialling and having the badge as a way to document their learning.

Also, on the positive side, most groups and individual students seem highly engaged with their work right now. Two groups are on the “Maker” pathway and are exploring the relatively inexpensive craft of making tie blankets. This has led them, however, into a much deeper exploration of the textile industry and the ways in which that global marketplace has significant consequences on the lives of millions, especially in third world countries. Another group is exploring their “writing lives,” and have been engaged in a conversations with other faculty about what it means to be a college-level writer. Another Adventurer group is exploring the role of campus myths and legends, creating an interactive story map of CMU’s campus. Other groups are still puzzling through their topics, and we are working to narrow their focus, which (of course) is all part of the process I hope that they would go through.

The blended learning piece will come soon, as the month of November will bring at least one, if not two or maybe even three virtual course sessions. I will have them meet using Zoom video conferencing software, which I imagine will be a new experience for most. During those sessions, I will ask them to engage in small group conversation and use tools for synchronous collaboration, probably starting with something straight-forward like Google Docs. I’m still thinking through exactly what that might look like in the weeks to come.

So, at this midpoint of the semester, how would I evaluate my own performance as a teacher? Probably an A for effort, but a B for execution. I’ve put in the time before and after class to create engaging activities, online and off, and I feel that I have established pretty good relationships with individual students. Also, the activities in class — and the individual learning pathways — have been moving forward in a progressive, scaffolded manner… for most students. And, that’s where the B comes in. I need to figure out a way to make things more focused. Obviously, my approach here is not working for everyone and while I can’t expect that any teaching method will be perfect for every student, I don’t want three or four students to leave the course with a very negative experience, even if the rest of it is positive.

To that end, I am trying to think through what I might do in the month of November to be more focused, as an instructor, and to help my students be more focused, too. Next week, I will have teaching and learning consultants from CMU’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning come to observe me teach and, at the end of class, talk with my students and provide a survey for feedback (without me in the room). I am very curious to hear what they are thinking, objectively, about the course and to make appropriate adjustments in the month of November.


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Reflections on Participating in KQED’s “Finding and Evaluating Information”

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Over the holiday break, I’ve participated in an open course for educators, “Finding & Evaluating Information,” sponsored by KQED. Though the course ended last week, many of the materials are still available online, including this GDoc that contains a list “greatest hits” (and resources) from all the participants.

Among the many lessons posted by other participants, I created my own, Ethical Photo Editing (Personal, Professional, and Journalistic) that is designed to help students understand the decision making they would need to make when representing images through digital media, depending on the context. Also, one of the participants pointed me to an article by Poynter, “Three ways to spot if an image has been manipulated,” which I found quite useful.

Another one of the activities, adapted from the New York Times Learning Network’s “Media Literacy Student Challenge | Explore Your Relationship With News,” asks you to

Do a personal 24- to 48-hour news audit in which you record all the news you get now, where it comes from, and how well it meets your needs and interests.

This short course reminded me of the power of experiential, inquiry-based learning. As I am redesigning a media literacy course for teacher candidates, I am thinking that one of these types of brief activities each week could be incredibly useful, so I will return to them again in the future.


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Rethinking a Wiki vs LMS for Course Design

CC0 Public Domain image by kaboompics on Pixabay.
CC0 Public Domain image by kaboompics on Pixabay.

Last year, when I first taught EDU 807, “Learning Tools in Education Technology,” one of my goals was to employ a wiki as a learning management system (LMS) so the doctoral students involved in the course could participate in a more open, collaborative form of social scholarship. I have long been an advocate of using wikis as an organizational space for my face-to-face classes and in professional development workshops, and it made sense to me that students involved in a doctoral program about educational technology tools would be able to adapt the wiki for their own uses as individuals and in small groups, and to collaborate in innovative ways.

One of the other elements of this course was that I asked students – both individually and in small groups – to regularly move across a variety of educational technology tools. For instance, we used at least a dozen different technologies including the wiki, Google Docs, VoiceThread, Vialogues, and (the now defunct) Zaption. There was also an attempt to integrate Twitter as a back channel conversation throughout the semester.

The ideal, however, met the reality of teaching an online course to busy professionals, and the struggle to move between spaces began to cause confusion and frustration. For all of us, the management of so many different tools was a challenge: Where are we discussing the readings this week? What is due next? Where is the link for that article?

My end-of-semester course evaluations reflected the types of concerns that students felt as they moved across so many tools in such quick succession. While they generally enjoyed and appreciated the course, it was clear that using the wiki in the way that I envisioned was one step too many, even for students in a doctoral program exploring ed tech. Sadly, our attempts to make use of the wiki on a regular basis quickly fell to the wayside. Also, as an instructor, I struggled to keep a balance with students turning in their work, providing feedback, updating the online gradebook in our normal LMS, Blackboard, and – on top of that – managing revisions and late assignments.

In short, my best efforts at using the wiki as an open, collaborative space for students to generate their own shared understandings of the course material and to create social scholarship became an unnecessary burden. In rethinking the course for this spring, then, I struggled to figure out how I would push back against the practices and discourses of the standard course management system while, at the same time, updating my course for this spring so as to avoid massive confusion on behalf of my students.

Hence, I am returning to our university’s LMS as the “hub” of our course activities. I struggle with this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I’m trying to teach doctoral students how to employ a variety of educational technology tools – building on collaborative, open source ethos – and yet I must return to an LMS that has a decidedly centered to the tool. I also struggle because I want students to know that social scholarship (openness, collaboration, messiness) does not always work on distinct the context of “taking” a course (modules, assignments, grades).

However, I will keep the idea of being “open” moving forward by asking students to blog on a regular basis, as well as to post additional course assignments as artifacts on their own digital portfolios. Also, we will use Twitter as a way to comment upon one another’s work, as well as to share ideas from other scholars.

I am not particularly pleased about having to give up on using a wiki, and yet at the same time I think by centralizing and streamlining many of the more mundane class activities in the LMS, I will be better able to help my students focus on broader goals of social scholarship and critically evaluating educational technologies. So, wish me luck as I reboot EDU 807 this semester!


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Imagining a New Course: Our Digital Selves

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Public Domain Image from FirmBee on Pixabay

One of my relaxing and still intellectually engaging tasks for this holiday break is to write a proposal for an honors course at CMU. Designed as a first-year seminar for freshman honors students to get them engaged in critical thinking, inquiry, and sustained writing practices, each seminar must tackle a major issue relevant to students’ lives. I am proposing a class entitled “Our Digital Selves: Building and Blending Our Personal, Professional, and Practical Digital Identities.” Here are the details, and I would definitely be interested in getting feedback from other educators about what topics, terminology, and technology I might explore with my students. If the proposal is accepted, I would teach the course in the fall of 2017.


Our Digital Selves: Building and Blending Our Personal, Professional, and Practical Digital Identities

Without question, we live, work, and play in a digital world. Though a divide still exists in terms of skills and access across demographics, it is reasonable to argue that the increasing ubiquity of mobile devices connected to the Internet as well as broadband in our homes, schools, libraries, and workplaces means that all of us – especially young people coming of age in the present moment – are now blending our personal, professional, and practical digital identities across multiple networks and with a variety of tools. However, the ability to upload a picture or post on one’s timeline does not, in and of itself, assure us each a place in digital segments of academia, the workplace, or civic life. In fact, a recent Rasmussen College survey showed that 37% of millennial students see the internet as “scary” and are not confident in their digital literacy skills. This first year seminar will challenge students to critically examine what it means to lead a digital life – personally and academically – and to rethink our understanding of what it means to be mindful, productive, and responsible users of technology.

This seminar would be designed with both face-to-face and hybrid components.

  • In the face-to-face sections of class, we would be engaged in small- and whole-group conversations about articles, chapters, books, videos, and other pieces of scholarship related to digital identity; we would also be examining case studies of digital literacy practices considering current professional standards (such as the ACRL Information Literacy Framework); and, ultimately, we would be producing students’ initial online portfolio using a social networking tool such as About.me or LinkedIn.
  • In the hybrid/online sections of class, we would be exploring a variety of digital tools to help students develop personal, professional, and academic skills including, for instance: shared document collaboration (Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365), bibliographic management (Zotero, Mendely, Endnote), presentation and publication (Infogr.am, Atavist, Adobe Creative Suite), and workplace communication (Slack, Yammer). We might also involve students from outside of CMU as part of our inquiry.
  • Across both the face-to-face and hybrid meetings, we would also be using our time to reflect upon the experience of being engaged in these various exercises with specific tools. In short, we would be metacognitive, critically thinking about our use of digital devices and social practices.

I welcome thoughts, comments, and questions… as well as knowing if anyone else with students from upper elementary school through graduate school would be interested in collaborating on this course to make it an open, immersive experience for everyone involved. If it gets accepted, I will put the call out there again in the spring, but I would be happy to hear from interested educators at any point.


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Feature in ACI Author Spotlight

Image from freepik.com
Image from freepik.com

Thank you to ACI Information Group’s Traci Hector for featuring me in their Author Spotlight this month. Also, my profile on ACI is available here.

As I continue to move forward in my career, I need to think about the ways in which sites like ACI, ORCID, and others work, I am curious to know more about the advantages and disadvantages of such systems. These systems appear to create a public profile for a scholar that then allow users to then follow links into official databases.

On the other hand, there are sites like Academi.edu and ResearchGate, which have received some criticisms such as this from the Chronicle’s Vitae blog and this one from The Scholarly Kitchen. The main point is that they ask scholars to upload PDFs of their work (sometimes without appropriate copyright permissions) and then they connect those articles with other analytics for ads.

Then, there are my LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Klout and (seemingly) countless other profiles.

So, each year around this time when I have to update my CV and enter my own work into CMU’s faculty records database (we use a site called OFIS), I wonder if there isn’t a better (more efficient, more connected, more useful, more public, more open…) way to do this work. It leaves me with lots of questions:

  • What does it mean to be a public intellectual today?
  • “Where” is “public?” Also, “how,” “when,” and “what” is public? To whom?
  • Should I just focus my energy on one of these systems/sites? Or, do I need to keep doing more with each?
  • What does this all mean for open education?

At any rate, I have a profile in ACI, and a featured article. As always, please check it out and let me know what you think.


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Introducing EDU 807: Learning Tools in Education Technology

As the fall semester comes to a close, it is already time for me to turn my attention to the winter/spring. In 2016, I will have my first opportunity to teach a doctoral course, CMU’s EDU 807: Learning Tools in Education Technology.

My goal/hope is to reenergize my blogging activity and to share some timely and consistent updates from EDU 807. As a way to begin this conversation, here is my video introduction to the course.

One idea that I am still mulling over is if and how I might “open” up EDU 807 to bring in additional voices of teachers and teacher educators who would want to experience the course in a MOOC-like manner. That is, participants would be able to listen in and participate in our class discussion, both in a synchronous manner through video conferencing as well as around discussions of our shared reading.

So, for all of you reading along this far… if you have any interest in this potential MOOC-like experience, please let me know by sharing a comment below or sending me a tweet or email. If there is enough interest, I may just pursue it.

More on EDU 807 to come soon, most likely around the idea of how we will use tools like Kami, Hypothes.is, and NowComment for our initial reading discussions.


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DLDay 2014 NCTE Chat

In the next few weeks, I will be participating in a few events related for Digital Learning Day. Here’s one of them:

January 19, 2014: Celebrate Digital Learning!

ncte chat logoAs you prepare for Digital Learning Day (#DLDay) — February 5, 2014 — join two NCTE members and edubloggers for a conversation about classroom technology’s past, present, and future.

Kevin Hodgson (@dogtrax) and Troy Hicks (@hickstro) will host #nctechat on Sunday, January 19th, 8 PM EST, and will invite you to consider three big questions while sharing tech tips and teaching tools:

  • To begin, what was your first brush with technology and how did it change the way you wrote, read, and interacted with others?
  • As you think about your classroom right now, what are your plans for Digital Learning Day this year? With critics concerned that technology has become more and more of a distraction, how can we help our students stay focused on smart, intentional work?
  • Finally, what are you looking forward to learning, trying, or making in 2014?

Join us for a conversation about the history of Digital Learning Day and great ideas for teaching digital reading and writing in your English classes!

UPDATE (January 22, 2014): Here is a link to the Storify archive of the chat.


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Please Join Us: K-12 Teaching in the 21st Century MOOC

Follow the MOOC via Twitter @k12techcourses

Though I am a little late to the MOOC movement, I’m excited to be participating in a venture this fall — K-12 Teaching in the 21st Century — that will be facilitated by Rick Ferdig, Kristine Pytash, and a host of other educators from around Michigan. Here is a quick summary, and you can register on the MOOC’s main website.

This free course runs from October 7 to November 8, 2013. It is aimed at high school students, pre-service teachers and in-service teachers who are interested in a conversation about using 21st century tools for teaching.

My hope is that we can use the MOOC to foster rich dialogue about the nature and uses of digital literacies, looking for themes within and across the experience of teachers at various stages of their career and in different professional contexts. More on this next week as we get closer to the October 7th kick-off date.


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Information on the 21st Century Youth Project

After an email exchange with Antonio Rowry, a cofounder at 21st Century Youth Project, I felt it was appropriate to share the work of their organization here on my blog. They describe themselves as “an innovative after school initiative to do a small part to change education” and here is more straight from Antoinio:

The idea first came to us when we read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. To give a quick synopsis, one of our major takeaways from the book is that to become very successful, it’s a combination of several elements: perfect place, perfect timing, with the proper training. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell highlights the massive forces that combined to produce Bill Gates and Bill Joy. They had access to computers and equipment that enabled them to code far before most of the people their age. What does the 21st Century Youth Project entail:

  • Mobile App Development: We are using the Google Android platform where the students will each create their own unique app. The fun part about this is that they can create apps for their friends, family, schools, places of worship, or for the general community. We want to develop leaders, and we’re excited about the power of a student creating an app for their school, and receive recognition for the contribution in the same way as a school athlete.
  • SAT Training: We want to develop students for the next level, being college. Enabling them to slowly receive instruction, we hope to improve their scores so they can attend the school of their dreams. I’m particularly excited about the opportunity to give ACT/SAT math training to communities where paying $1,000 for a class isn’t an option. In many ways, your scores on standardized tests are directly linked to income levels and training, and we’re aiming to bridge that gap.
  • Business Planning: In addition to building an app, we want the students to understand the business implications and executions of their concepts. They will be formed into teams to discuss their business opportunities and create value for their customers.
  • Mentorship: The founder, Prof. Emile Cambry, Jr. is excited to give back because he was very fortunate to be a byproduct of many free educational programs that exposed him to business. Growing up, he thought he was going to be a doctor, but his mother always enlisted him in several programs to learn. It has led to his intellectual curiosity and more importantly; he realized business was his calling. He had attended the LEAD Program in Business and in many ways; the 21st Century Youth Project is based on their implementation. The students will be taking tours to college campuses, primarily those with strong computer or engineering departments, attending technology events in Chicago, and attend lectures taught by Chicago software developers.
  • Open-Source Educational Curriculum: We are slowly enabling, on an invite-only basis, an opportunity to create a dynamic curriculum to be used in the classroom.  This curriculum can be edited like Wikipedia and by keeping it open and dynamic, we hope to develop the best curriculum that isn’t based on state mandated codes, but instead, on what is best for the children. We will have topics in business, technology, finance, film, music, fashion, etc. We only care about providing instruction that the students respond to and learn the most.

After nine months of meetings, conference calls, presentations, and pitches to parents, students, faculty, and administrators, we are finally launching the 21st Century Youth Project. Our first day was February 12th, 2011, one of our MOST personally and professionally satisfying experiences. We’re documenting the progress of the pilot in hopes that we can gear up for a highly successful summer program.

Quick Thoughts on the State of Tech Ed

Earlier today, I was sent a request for an email interview from a CMU undergraduate. I only had a quick turnaround time to reply (so she could get enough info to write her paper about technology in education), but her deadline encouraged me to be brief in my responses. With her permission, I share her questions and my answers here. As I prepare for many professional development events coming up in the next few weeks, this was a good time to capture some of my thoughts in such a succinct manner.

What are some specific topics you have researched in technology?
My research focuses on the ways that teachers integrate technology into writing instruction. In particular, I am interested in how K-12 teachers blend a writing workshop approach to instruction with specific technologies such as blogs, wikis, collaborative word processing, digital stories, and other multimedia to engage students in meaningful writing and learning.
What are the “hot topics” right now?
Given President Obama’s interest in STEM and the new national educational technology plan, I think that the main focus on technology use in education is for science and math instruction. Also, with the push towards more student engagement, paperless classrooms, increased wireless broadband access, and tablet computing, I think that we have an interesting opportunity to change the ways that teaching and learning takes place inside and outside of school.
Describe the current debates of using technology in the classroom
I think that the main debate centers less on why we should use technology, as that is more or less a given, and more on why to use it. On the one hand, we have advocates for online/virtual learning that acts as a supplement or replacement for instruction. On the other, we have advocates who suggest that students should be using the technology to communicate and create, not just for remediation. As we continue to push for technology in schools, I hope that we invite students to be collaborators,  communicators, and creators, and not just to reinforce old models of instruction with newer, shinier tools.
Have you read any informational journals or books on technology?
I do read journals and books, and those are helpful resources, but get most of my news comes from educational bloggers/tweeters and eSchool News.
How do you conduct research?
For the most part, I do research with teachers as we co-design curriculum and instruction that is technologically-rich and pedagogically-sound. This involves time talking and planning with teachers, working with them and their students, doing follow-up interviews and surveys, and then integrating my thoughts and ideas into the existing literature and knowledge about technology in education and writing.
Where do you get funding to support your research?
Mostly from grant dollars which allow me to have release time. For instance, we currently have a grant from the National Writing Project for our local CMU site, the Chippewa River Writing Project. Also, I am working on a Title II Professional Development grant, WRITE NOW.
If I were to look for sources to write grants, where would I go?
For your own classroom, you would look most likely to local sources like community or school foundations. For the district or regional level, you would look to other agencies such as the Michigan Department of Education or National Writing Project.
What are the most enjoyable parts of being a researcher?
For me, the most enjoyable part of being a researcher is working with teachers to help them develop their own passions and ideas into classroom practice. The second most enjoyable part is being able to write and talk about those ideas in my own CMU classes and in professional development sessions that I lead around the country.
Do you ever work with a partner? How?
I am almost always working with partners. From the teachers that I meet with and plan projects to other CMU staff and faculty who help me develop and implement grants, I am working with partners all the time. Especially with writing, I am constantly working with colleagues to do grant applications, human subjects research applications, chapters, articles, books, and presentations.
What are the frustrations of being a researcher?
My main frustration is that I have to divert my attention away from research, writing, and collaboration to write reports and attend meetings that have little to do with my research. Yet, I understand that this is how the university works, and I really do enjoy being a researcher so I am willing to put up with the frustrations.
What do you think will come with the future of technology in education?
That’s a huge question. While I am not 100% sure of what will come, what I would hope will come is something like this: all teachers and students will have ubiquitous and uninterrupted one-to-one access to a tablet or other computing device, high speed wireless internet, and numerous online, open educational resources. This would allow for anytime, anywhere learning that truly pushes us to be instructional coaches and leaders for our students, since the answer to simple questions will only be a Google search away, and we can spend our time answering the bigger, more complicated questions through project-based learning.
Are there are connections to other disciplines? Or opportunities for interdisciplinary research?
Yes, there are many, many opportunities for this when you think about writing and technology. I think that you could connect to any discipline given the interest that you can generate from working with colleagues in that discipline. In particular, I am interested in how English teachers and librarian/media specialists could work together to address concerns about information literacy, copyright, and plagiarism.


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