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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Preparing to “Build a Better Book”

As often happens in my professional life, earlier this year, I was invited to lead a session broadly related to teaching writing and digital literacy, specifically for middle school students. Unlike my previous experiences, however, this particular opportunity came from CMU’s Center for Excellence in STEM Education‘s partnership with the Build a Better Book Project. In short:

The Build a Better Book project, based at the University of Colorado Boulder, works with school and library Makerspaces to engage youth in the design and fabrication of accessible picture books and graphics… Through the Build a Better Book initiative, middle and high school youth develop technology skills and learn about STEM careers as they design and create accessible, multi-modal picture books, graphics and games that can be seen, touched and heard!

So, in this case, I was invited to lead a session on a topic that I had quite a bit of experience with (teaching character development in writing), but needed to think critically and creatively about how to present the idea, taking concerns about accessibility into account. And, as often is the case, I turned to my PLN for help.

Originally conceived as the “Tactile Picture Books Project” at the University of Colorado Boulder, I quickly discovered that another digital literacies scholar, Bridget Dalton, was part of the research team. Reaching out to her, she shared her scholarship about the project and the four core experiences for any tactile book workshop:

  1. “Introduction to the design task and audience”
  2. “[t]actile sensory immersion”
  3. “[t]eams’ making of tactile pages to retell a picture book” (and presentation of that book
  4. “[r}eflection on the experience.”

In the sense that students will already be immersed in the process, I’m fortunate that my lesson will come on the second day of a multi-day experience, focusing mostly on steps 3 and 4. They will have had some experience understanding the design task and the audience of visually impaired readers, as well as some tactile sensory immersion. When I see them on day two, my goal will be to help them think about ways that authors describe and develop characters in picture books. So, I am working on the retelling, but also the annotating. Taking what I learned from Margaret Price at DMAC earlier in the summer about annotations for accessibility, I will ask students to both write descriptions of the character as well as to use tactile materials for creating far, mid, and close-up representations.

The challenge, of course, is that helping them figure out how to create tactile books – as well as annotations – that accurately and creatively represent those characters.

Thus, I wanted to find a children’s picture book that – both literally through images as well as figuratively through language – “zooms in” on a character. I want them to write/create three different perspectives of the character – long shot, medium shot, and close up – both in writing and with crafting materials.

To that end, I again turned to my PLN to find an appropriate picture book, and Colby Sharp suggested Mother Bruce, by Ryan T. Higgins. His suggestion did not disappoint. Mother Bruce is perfect, with images of Bruce the bear from afar, from nearby, and in extreme close-up. Coupled with a flipped lesson from Aron Meyer on “Using the Zoom-In Strategy to Enhance Narrative Writing,” I will use a series of images from Mother Bruce to then have students think about descriptive words for illustrating characters in terms of shape, size, and proximity.

So, these slides represent my general thinking about how I will approach the lesson. We will look at the generic images, do a read-aloud of Mother Bruce, then look again at the images in the book more carefully, with a lens for both annotation and tacitly illustrating them:

Build a Better Book Lesson - Slide 1
Build a Better Book Lesson – Slide 1 (Images from Mollie Bugg)
Build a Better Book Lesson - Slide 2
Build a Better Book Lesson – Slide 2 (Images from Ryan T. Higgins)
Build a Better Book Lesson - Slide 3
Build a Better Book Lesson – Slide 3 (Resources adapted from Sight Word Games and Interesting Things for ESL Students)

So, the lesson focuses on the words…

  • What would a description of Bruce need to include when we “see” him from a distance? At a mid-range? Close up?
  • How can we use different words to describe shape, size, and proximity?

And the tactile elements…

  • What would his fur or nose feel like from far away? Close up?
  • What about the additional features of his body and face? Eyebrows? Snout?
  • How can we change shapes and texture to help the reader know that the image is a far shot, mid shot, or close up?

My goal will be to have them create the three tactile representations, as well as write the annotations for the tactile books as a way to supplement the readers’ experiences. Though we will probably not have time in my workshop to invite the students to audio record these annotations and connect them with Makey Makeys, that would be one extension that could make the text even more accessible, and is in line with the Build a Better Book pedagogy.

In sum, this is an interesting way to cap off a busy summer of professional learning. When the CMU STEM Ed Center invited me to do this work at the beginning of the summer, I had no idea what I would do. Yet, the challenge was given to me, and I kept thinking about the possibilities with each opportunity that I had to learn throughout the summer. I look forward to seeing how students responds to the lesson and, in turn, what they might do to more completely and complexly represent Bruce through both their annotations and tactile pages.


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Ramping Up Revision – ISTE 2018

RESOURCES TO TRY


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The Next Decade of Digital Writing

Cover from Voices from the Middle (Vol. 25, No. 4, May 2018). Courtesy of NCTE.
Cover from Voices from the Middle (Vol. 25, No. 4, May 2018). Courtesy of NCTE.

With the support of Sara Kajder and Shelbie Witte, I am pleased to share that I recently published a “Leading the Call” article from  Voices From the Middle, “The next decade of digital writing.”

Through NCTE, they have made it available through open access, and here is the abstract:

The author, a leader in bringing digital tools into the writing workshop and writing classroom, discusses how the use of digital tools in the classroom has evolved in the first decade of this century, especially in the writing workshop. He examines ways several ELA teachers are using specific tools to assist with literacy learning in the classroom right now and makes some recommendations regarding the future of digital writing instruction.

Read more here: Hicks, T. (2018). The next decade of digital writing. Voices From the Middle, 25(4), 9–14.


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Preparing to “Turn the Corner” at DMAC18

Photo by Federica Galli on Unsplash
Photo by Federica Galli on Unsplash

The days do go fast at DMAC.

As a participant, I am reminded of the many, many moving parts that the facilitators for such an institute need to plan, and I have been fully engaged in the workshop for the past few days. Couple that with needing to continue working on all my regular tasks as a program director, faculty member, and consultant, and the time here at DMAC slips by entirely too quickly.

I need to pause. To scale back a bit. I woke up early this morning, and knew that I needed to reflect. To refocus.

So, here I am.

Without a doubt, I am enjoying the process. Since my infographic prototype post earlier this week, we’ve also tinkered with Audacity and the audio assignment, as well as iMovie and the video assignment. Fortunately, I’ve had experience with both these tools — as well as these concepts — so I’ve tried to focus more of my attention on the deeper, more theoretical implications of what DMAC has been pushing me to consider.

For instance, yesterday, we were asked to consider the politics of race and social media, deconstructing images and considering how to layer meaning with memes. I’ve certainly thought — and written about — memes before, but the new lenses of accessibility and social justice are all helpful reminders for me as I prepare to create my projects this weekend. Speaking of projects, my work is moving forward, but at a seemingly glacial pace. Again, being a participant reminds me that — when I am in the facilitator role — I need to be quite mindful of my audience’s needs, both technical and social.

Still, I am impressed by what we can do when we put our minds to it. For instance, Elvira and Rich created concise, compassionate short film yesterday:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Giving students — and, when in workshops, teachers — the time and space to play, take risks, and be creative makes a world of difference. I’ve heard these types of opportunities called many things. Quickfire challenges. Rapid prototyping. Sandboxing. Whatever we want to call them, we simply need to do more of them. I will remember this in preparation for the fall.

Of course, the conversations with colleagues from around the country have all been productive and refreshing. Today, we head to the Ohio Union for the Innovate: Forward conference. This, too, will be a refreshing change, as I hear about the many initiatives related to digital learning that are happening here at OSU. While keynotes are always interesting, I look forward to seeing what faculty are doing in their face-to-face and online courses, and I’ve mapped out some sessions that deal with digital distraction, new environments and structures for learning, and building better online discussions. These may ebb and flow throughout the day, of course, but that is the thrill of going to a conference!

As we prepare to “turn the corner,” moving into the deeper, more substantive work of producing our audio, image, and video projects. Again, my work this week is largely in preparation for teaching the honors seminar this fall, “Our Digital Selves.” My aim this weekend is to have my infographic, podcast, and video in a near state of completion for Monday’s preview. What’s interesting in that part of the assignment is that we are supposed to create “no more than :60 (sixty seconds) of video and/or audio that illustrates your work in progress that you plan to share at the upcoming showcase.” Making a recording about our work in progress, rather than simply standing nearby to describe it, is another interesting pedagogical move that I am learning from the DMAC structure, and I look forward to that challenge.


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DMAC18: The Image Assignment

Image of my Infographic prototype for DMAC18
Image of my Infographic prototype for DMAC18

Yesterday, Scott DeWitt introduced to our first task for DMAC, the Image Assignment. The main goal of the assignment is “to work with a collection of information that you can use to
compose a persuasive piece of displayable and/or distributable multimodal media.”

In short, we are making an infographic.

Our task yesterday afternoon was to create a prototype using good ol’ fashioned paper, scissors, glue sticks and other craft items. I know that this one isn’t much to look at yet, but that is part of the process… a process I will try to explain a bit more here.

First, I should say that I’ve had some experience with infographics before, though I am not a graphic design expert. Kristen Turner and I wrote about infographics as one chapter in our Argument in the Real World book, and I also had students in an honors class that I taught a few years ago create infographics, too. I’ve introduced infographics to teachers in workshops, too, yet this is the first time I have been asked/required to create an infographic (at least one that I will iterate and refine).

Second, our second goal emerging from yesterday’s work was around accessibility, and I have many, many ideas spinning in my head, as noted in a number of tweets I shared like this one.

So, our challenge before this morning was to think about an initial design for an infographic, create the prototype, and to think about how, eventually, we will create an audio or textual description of the infographic. We were able to review a number of infographics as samples, and I developed the one above. Here is my first, very quick attempt at describing it:

  • The title of the graphic is “Disrupting Digital Distraction,” and below the title are three main portions of the overall graphic.
  • The graphic is approximately three times as long as it is wide, with a white background and accent boxes in green, red, orange, and yellow.
  • In the first third of the graphic, there are six boxes arranged in two columns and three rows.
    • In the left-hand column (with green, then orange, and again a green accent box) are statistics about the prevalence of device use among adults and teens.
    • In the right-hand column (with yellow, then red, and again a yellow accent box) are suggestions for how to manage distractions.
  • The middle section of the graphic is approximately one-third the size of the first segment, and is comprised of text only. There are three sentences, with the first discussing “digital distraction” (highlighted in blue font), the second discussing “digital addiction” (highlighted in red font), and the third is a question.
  • The final section of the infographic includes four more accent text boxes, two columns by two rows. These boxes describe actionable steps for users to consider in taking back control of their digital lives.
    • In the left-hand column, there are again green and orange accent boxes.
    • In the right-hand column, there is a yellow accent box.
    • The final box, when reading left-to-right, top-to-bottom, is in the lower right-hand corner, and has two accent colors: red and green.

And, that’s about it for now… I know that I have lots more work to do, but this is a prototype and a rough draft, so I will take a deep breath and let it go. Being at DMAC reminds me of the ways in which I often position students and teachers, inviting them to create something quickly, and to embrace the messiness of the process. It is good for me to feel some of the same pressures in my own composing process, here, and I look forward to continuing the work on the image assignment.


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Prepping for DMAC 2018

Photo by Christopher Gower on UnsplashToday, I made my way to Columbus in preparation for the Digital Media and Composition Institute, also known as DMAC. In more than one way, this has been a career aspiration of mine for well over a decade, and I’m very much looking forward to the immersive, sustained experience of working with colleagues over the next 10 days.

I first learned about DMAC, then CIWIC, when Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher were still at Michigan Tech, from my mentor and dissertation director, (and, eventually, co-author on Because Digital Writing Matters), Danielle Nicole DeVoss, as she had pursued her own graduate studies there. To make a long story short, I feel like part of my academic heritage is deeply rooted with CIWIC/DMAC, and in many ways I feel like I am returning “home” though I have never actually attended the workshop.

At another level, this spring is also quite important for me as a moment to pause, reflect, and refocus. Since 2003, I have had the incredibly good fortune of leading countless conference sessions, day-long workshops, and multi-day or even multi-week institutes. This has come about from my long and productive relationship with the National Writing Project. I’ve been humbled and honored to have started the Chippewa River Writing Project at CMU, and to have been invited to dozens of writing project sites – as well as other school districts and professional organization events – over the past decade.

However, one of the things that I miss is simply being a participant in a workshop, to be fully immersed so I can soak up ideas and wisdom from other participants and facilitators. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy opportunities for leadership, because I certainly do, and I’m looking forward to at least half a dozen different opportunities this summer, not least of which is facilitating our own weeklong CRWP leadership institute, returning to Rhode Island to help facilitate the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, and also coordinating our Beaver Island Institute for science and literacy. I look forward to all of these, and to my time at ISTE and NWP Midwest, among other conference events. All this will be wonderful, too.

Still, there’s something to be said for just having one’s mind in a state of “being.” DMAC will allow me that time and space. And, I will get to meet other like-minded scholars, reconnect to my writing roots, and think critically and creatively about digital composition. In short, it will be intellectually engaging and fun.

And, I’m at a point in my career where, not needing to “pivot” or “redefine” entirely, what I really need to do over the next ten days is get refocused. I have a number of specific projects that I want to work on over the next 10 days, many of which are connected to my teaching, scholarship, and service.

With teaching, in particular, I’m trying to imagine the possibilities for a class I am teaching this fall, a seminar class for honors freshman, that I have entitled “Our Digital Selves.” There’s quite a bit of work that I need to do this summer in order to figure out exactly how I want to teach the course. First, I’m looking to a colleague and leader in the field of digital badging for composition, Stephanie West-Puckett, and the work that she has begun at URI with Writing 104. Titled MakerComp, she helps her students move toward self guided inquiry and significant projects, bundled in a system of badging.

Additionally, I’ve been “away” from writing for a significant amount of time. I have certainly been busy with some smaller projects this year, I have not gotten refocused on a book-length project since the publication of Argument in the Real World, From Texting to Teaching, and Coaching Teacher-Writers in 2017. I have a number of writing opportunities ahead of me, as well as potential collaborators with whom I would like to work, and so these next few days will give me lots of time to consider possibilities and develop project proposals.

Finally, of course, I am interested in learning how other people design professional development experiences for their peers and colleagues. I’ve been struggling to try to figure out how, exactly, to help re-invigorate our own writing project site’s work, connect to our masters in educational technology program, and consider new possibilities for CMU’s education program at large. I hope that watching the DMAC team in action as facilitators will be good for me, too.

In short, I need DMAC.

I am deeply fortunate to have a patient and flexible wife who is managing the chaos at home, as well as an employer in CMU who has given me significant financial support to attend this DMAC Institute. I am thankful for these blessings in my life.

And, I’m looking forward to the work ahead.


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