(Still) Learning How to Be a Digital Writer, Digital Teacher

As I whittle away some time between flights on my way to visit colleagues at the Boise State Writing Project this weekend, I finally have a few moments to capture some thoughts about my experience leading the book club conversation on the English Companion Ning during the month of September. Overall, I want to start by saying that it was a positive experience, and that I was energized by the participation and enthusiasm of the 100+ members who joined in the conversation. So, my comments below don’t reflect negatively on them… it is more of a musing about what it means to be a digital writer and digital teacher, even when technology doesn’t cooperate. With the smart, collegial nudge from Kevin, I offer some thoughts on what I had hoped to do over the course of that book club discussion, as well as what really happened.

Week One: (Mis)Adventures with a Webinar
In the first week of the discussion, we got off to a wonderful start with some pre-discussion threads that led nicely into a conversation about how we are using digital writing in our classrooms this fall. There were many thoughtful conversations that happened on the forum (which I hope to reflect on in more detail in another post), and I wanted to have an opportunity to more directly address some of the questions that were emerging. So, I signed up to host an Elluminate session through LearnCentral. I thought I had gone through the steps necessary to have a full session, not the kind that was limited to only three participants. I broadcast the URL on the ECNing and on Twitter, and anxiously awaited the opportunity to chat with people in the webinar.

What happened, unfortunately, was that I had signed up to host only a three person “room” with the free version of Elluminate and, once I had logged in, only two others were able to join me. Notes appeared on the ECNing and via Twitter, and I quickly had to change gears and launch a chat in an alternative space, a Meebo chat room. That, too, gave me difficulties as I had to login (after not using Meebo for almost two years) and finding a stable URL for the chat room to share with people. Eventually, we were able to make it in, and about 15 people were in the conversation at one point.

As with all things tech, I realized again that I needed to have a back up plan for when something didn’t work the way that I wanted. My pedagogical goals were still accomplished, but only after dropping five and punting, which was frustrating. It reminds me that I (and all teachers, for that matter) need to have a certain level of TPACK in order to make plans, and contingency plans, on the spur of the moment. Fortunately, people were able to follow me to Meebo, although I am not sure how many. They had to have a certain level of experience to know that it was a problem with Elluminate, not them, and then to navigate their way to Meebo based on my updates. That takes some initiative and skill, which is tough to coach when I, as a teacher, was not able to really talk with them. While I was hoping for one experience, I had to settle for another, yet still held tight to my purposes (talking about the issues raised in the forum through an interactive chat). From this, I am reminded that we can meet our pedagogical goals using a variety of technologies, yet both teacher and learner need to have some level of expertise with navigating online spaces and be highly motivated to participate.

Week Two: A Voice(less) Thread
The second week, I wanted to create an interactive, multimedia experience through which we could all contribute to a conversation about a piece of student work. Voice Thread seemed to be the logical choice for this. So, I created a Voice Thread about Looking at Student’s Digital Work, and posted it to the ECNing forum with some discussion points for people to respond to. I welcomed comments on the forum, as well as on the Voice Thread itself, where people could leave voice, video, or text comments right there. I sent out the email to the book discussion group, and waited for replies. Kevin replied quickly to let me know that I had to adjust the settings on the Voice Thread to make it public (a point I will come back to in a moment).

By the middle of the week, there were only a few replies, and one person emailed me to say that this was a big jump for most people — moving from a text-based discussion thread on the ECNing to a Voice Thread — and that they may not have know what to do, both in the practical and technical sense. While many people still seemed comfortable with the process of reading and replying to discussion threads on the ECNing, suggesting/encouraging alternative discussion formats without the opportunity for explicit coaching and mentoring stifled the conversation. Also, it could just be that people got busy with back-to-school work, but I seem to think based on the initial technical difficulties of not being able to post, combined with the hesitation that many people may have had about moving their conversation to a Voice Thread, I inadvertently made a pedagogical move that, instead of opening up conversation, unfortunately shut it down.

As I continue to think about how and why I would invite fellow teachers and students into a Voice Thread, I think back to our brief experience using that tool in the CRWP summer institute and to this conversation on the ECNing. I am still not exactly sure why the technical problems with Voice Thread occurred in the manner that they did, but I do know that, again, I had tried to make a technological move that didn’t work with the pedagogical goal I had in mind. This time, I failed to drop five and punt. I just turned the ball over on downs, and let the week’s discussion remain stagnant, both on the Voice Thread and the ECNing. In a classroom situation, I couldn’t have let that happen, but I was able to in this case given the context of the situation. Not a teaching move that I am proud of, and it makes me think about how I might recover from such a situation in the future, both in face-to-face and online teaching. I’m still thinking.

Week 3: A (Semi) Failed Attempt to Teach Both F2F and Online
Knowing that I would be delivering an opening session at the Eastern Michigan Writing Project‘s “Writing Beyond Expectations” conference at the end of my third week of leading the book club, I had thoughts that I would create a video stream of the session for others to join into the conversation. Having cleared it with colleagues at EMWP and knowing that I would have a wifi connection that would handle the stream, I sent out a note to the ECNing and on Twitter to join in the next morning. As luck would have it, this would be strike three.

As soon as I connected to UStream and had a signal, I sent out the tweet. I tested the broadcast in another browser and it all looked good. As the time to begin the presentation neared, however, UStream lost connection to the server. I don’t know exactly why this happened — was it a UStream error, a wifi error, or user error? It doesn’t matter because, again, the technology that I had hoped to use failed me. This time, I had no backup, although I am sure that I could have tried to get another service to connect and stream if I had wanted to. But, I had no time since the presentation was starting with the audience in front of me waiting.

Also, Sara and I had hoped to have a back channel conversation occurring on a Google Doc, but because of our set up in the room (two computers running, with one unable to connect to the wifi), and the fact that many participants couldn’t connect either, I was stymied. Luckily, I was able to jump from one computer to the other and deliver my Prezi, with the few people who were able to get on the Google Doc adding some ideas. In my evaluations, many people expressed frustration with the pace of my presentation and the fact that they couldn’t get online. I know I was moving at a speed that assumed most people were online, but I wasn’t able (or, at the very least, didn’t take the time to) confirm that this was the case. Because of this, people in the room weren’t able to engage in the ways that I had hoped they would, and there certainly was no external audience either. Again, the technology didn’t work in the way that I wanted, and while we were able to recover and still have a good presentation overall, I agree with some of the comments from participants that what I did was not immediately applicable to their classrooms because, well, it just isn’t practical to fumble so much during our limited class time.

As the presentation continued and I was asked smart, hard-hitting questions about how and why we should continue to use technology when, not only in my own presentation but also in the schools in which we work we can’t rely on the technology to do what we want or need it to do, I continued to answer with my belief that we are still able to use technology now in more flexible and robust ways than we were able just a few years ago. I still believe this, and I think that technology can allow us to write beyond expectations, as I shared in an earlier blog post. Yet, these are important questions when, for the third time in three weeks, the technology guru was stymied. I began to wonder about my own stance related to technology use and I shared my frustration on Twitter. And, as I noted before, Kevin encouraged me to write and think about this experience, and here I am.

Closing Thoughts
As much as I want to say to say that I have clearer answers about why and how we should use technology to teach writing after this experience, I simply don’t. What I do know, however, and have reaffirmed through this experience, is that online and face-to-face networks of teachers who work together have the potential to make substantive changes to their teaching practices. n particular, by working together to use technologies in new ways, we can see what works, when it works, and why it doesn’t work. I am glad that I shared these “failures” in front of my colleagues because, as I noted above, it shows that even the “tech guru” doesn’t even have all the answers. Yet, I keep asking the questions and trying things out. That’s the philosophical response.

Here is the more practical response, for those who are teaching other teachers about digital writing, as well as for those of us who want to integrate digital writing into our own classrooms. When introducing a new technology/digital writing practice into our teaching, make sure that you are building on an established practice, and make sure that you have a back up plan. For instance, I wanted people in the session to be able to contribute to a collaborative Google Doc during the presentation. Many were not able to, and I simply asked them to write down (on paper) words and phrases in my talk that sparked other ideas for them. This led to a turn-and-talk moment, and we were able to move forward from there. When Elluminate didn’t work, and we couldn’t literally talk through our ideas in that forum, we switched to a chat room which, while clunky, still worked.

I wish that I had a particular plan to share with you for how to use all different kinds of technology for all different situations (when, for instance a wiki is better than a Google Doc, or which program you “should” use for digital storytelling). Yet, what this experience leading the discussion on the ECNing, and the associated failures that I had with it, remind me of is the fact that we really can’t have a strict blueprint. This is the reason that we have to think about our teaching with technology from a broader perspective, thinking about how to build our own TPACK through our own personal exploration, play, and failure. I am thankful that I continue to have opportunities to read, write, and teach about digital writing in a variety of contexts, and to learn from my mistakes.

So, I end this post where I began it… with the energy and enthusiasm of those teaching in their own digital writing workshops. At the end of September, Joel Malley represented the NWP on Capitol Hill, and shared this video about his digital writing workshop. I appreciate what he is doing with and for his students, and for all of us, in providing this vision of what it can mean to teach digital writing and it reminds me that, at the end of the day, we are all still learning.

Writing in the Digital Age from Joel Malley on Vimeo.

Thanks, Joel, for sharing this resource, and Kevin, for prompting me to write this blog post.

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12 thoughts on “(Still) Learning How to Be a Digital Writer, Digital Teacher”

  1. Wow
    Such a smart and thoughtful reflection of the situation, Troy, and something that we (I) need to keep thinking about when we (me) say we are now “in the moment” of transition. There are still a lot of hurdles, technical and otherwise (ie, making the leap to non-written forms). But I still think the positive outweigh the negative and thinking through the accomplishment as well as the hurdles is critical.
    We all learn from each other, I believe.
    Take care, friend.

  2. Troy,
    I found your piece here through following you on Twitter. just FYI.

    I was in the discussion group on ECNing. Thank you for all your work there. It was encouraging to me, and I learned and will learn from your book.

    I want to comment on the Voice Thread aspect. I usually ignore Voice Thread links. Here’s why. If I am reading print material, I can scan, jump ahead, jump back easily. If I am listening, I can’t do any of that easily. Getting the same amount/value of info on VoiceThread compared to print just takes way too long for me.

    I’m thinking a lot of teachers, who never have enough time anyway, may feel the same. Voice Thread (and podcasts in general) are great ideas, but just don’t benefit me enough at this point.

    again, thanks for all you do for teachers, your students and my students.

    Joy Lowell

  3. Hi Joy,

    You make a really good point. I, too, find that engaging in a Voice Thread can be a time consuming task and that it may be that the benefit is not worth the cost, at least in terms of time. How, then, can we frame the use of Voice Thread in ways that are inviting, both in terms of the content and conversation involved, as well as the time commitment?

    Thanks for your kind words about my work and I wish you the best this year!


  4. Hi Kevin,

    Yes, still transitioning, for sure. I think that we may always be in a moment of transition when it comes to teaching writing, yet right now is as sharp a moment of transition as ever. I appreciate your comments and the work that you do, too! Thanks for continuing the conversation.


  5. A well written and humorous article! It is quite true that Digital writing and digital teaching is the new and most happening technique in the 21st century. Though it sis still at its transitional stage and mostly used by tech savvy people, soon its is going to be an indispensable method for the media people and those having blogs.

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