Marginal Syllabus Conversation – February 22, 2017 at 6:00 PM EST

Image by Hans from Pixabay
Image by Hans from Pixabay

Tomorrow, Wednesday, February 22, 2017 at 6:00 PM EST, join my colleague and co-author, Dawn Reed, and me as we participate in an “Annotation Flash Mob” on the preface for our book, Research Writing Rewired. We’ve been invited to participate in this opportunity through Dawn’s collaborations with the Marginal Syllabus Project.

The Marginal Syllabus team is part of the larger Syllabi Project, which “leverages web annotation to collect primary source documents by theme and organize communal conversation of those documents.”

Here is a bit more from the Marginal Syllabus’s “About” page:

The Marginal Syllabus seeks to advance educator professional development about education in/equity through the use of participatory learning technologies. We are a dynamic, multi-stakeholder collaboration among:

Hypothesis, a non-profit organization building an open platform for discussion on the web

Aurora Public Schools in Aurora, CO, and in particular educators and administrators associated with the LEADing Techquity research-practice partnership

Researchers and teacher educators from the University of Colorado Denver School of Education and Human Development in Denver, CO

While this group will work together for one hour tomorrow night, I am looking forward to seeing how the conversations Dawn and I had while writing will come alive with the annotations of other educators.

All educators are welcome to participate, and we recommend that you sign up for ahead of time, and install the Google Chrome browser extension.

From their blog, it also seems that the conversations might keep going on, and I am interested in seeing how that unfolds over the days and weeks to come.

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Can We Make Online (Graduate School) Discussions Suck Less?

Unsplash Image from Juliette Leufke
Unsplash Image from Juliette Leufke

As many of you know, and have probably experienced, discussions in online classes can be notoriously bad.

At best, many online courses feign discussion as a pseudo-cooperative (and not a collaborative, generative) task, and students engage because they are required to connect with the content and with one another.

At worst, the tasks are perfunctory and just for points.

This student summed it up quite well:

7. Responding to Fellow Students

Hi, I don’t know you, but I’m required to respond to your post so we can all act like we give a shit about what each other has to say. Great, good one sided talk, keep up the good work.

NOBODY CARES. This is not real participation. It doesn’t even make sense, if you want students to actively have a discussion about something, then do it. But to just say respond to two other students, it’s like talking to a wall. Most students won’t read their responses, and if they do they won’t care enough to do anything about it.

So, yes, we would hope that students would see online discussion in a different light, no doubt.

Yet, we can’t be angry at the student, since it is we, as the instructors, who create the tasks. But, our discussion design is, usually, a variation on the notorious Initiate-Respond-Evaluate (IRE) pattern, only we substitute the students’ peer responses for our own.

This is a teaching problem.

Why does it happen? Alex Halavais, blogger and professor at Arizona State University describes the problem of learning how to teach online this way:

Few schools require “traditional” faculty to teach online, though they may allow or even encourage it. As a result the best teachers are not necessarily trying to figure out how to make online learning great. We are left with the poor substitute of models coming from industry (modules teaching employees why they should wear a hair net) and the cult of the instructional designer.

So, as online instructors — especially those of us who are tenured faculty — we need to do better.

Good online discussions can happen, if we plan them intentionally. And, there are ways to do it.

As Darabi et al summarized in this meta-analysis:

In summary, based on these findings one can conclude that for online discussion to be an effective instructional tool, it needs to have structure, elements of interaction, a certain level of complexity, task orientation, clear expectations, and personal involvement of the instructor in the course and her/his personal interaction with students.

I appreciate these categories as a way to think about online discussion, and I would add one more element: we need to focus on texts (literally, on text as words, but also on texts in the form of image and video). Students need to talk about something, in context, not just try to randomly transfer their ideas into an online forum with no reference to the text under discussion.

To that end, I am using NowComment as a tool for discussion because I believe that it allows me the opportunity, as the instructor, to set the task and expectations, and it allows students all to engage in conversation with one another around the text itself, at a deeper level of complexity.

And, this is especially important at the masters and doctoral level. The heart of graduate study is to engage, deeply, with these complex issues.

This requires us to rethink our teaching, as noted in this Chronicle essay by Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University. He argues that the main point for graduate seminar discussions is to support two learning goals: transfer and retention. He makes the point this way (emphasis mine):

How might graduate professors teach in order to promote the sensible goals of knowledge transfer and retention?

We have to start by reverse-engineering from those concepts. But there’s the rub: Most graduate teachers don’t want to do that. As self-styled defenders of the last bastion of teacher-centered curriculum, many professors in graduate school want to cover “content” and consider anything else to be a distraction.

I am not suggesting that we abandon the work of the discipline, of course. Graduate students have to read a lot to learn their fields, and nothing is going to change that. But they also have to be able to work with what they’ve read. Seminar leaders therefore need to leave enough time not just to “cover” material but also for students to practice doing things with it. As Robert Frost once said, “It’s knowing what to do with things that counts.

Thus, over the years — both in classrooms and online, but especially online — I have continued to work to make sure that we are not just learning the things, but learning what to do with the things.

To the extent that I am able, I structure discussions have a clear purpose, expectations for turn-taking, and a timeline. With the past few online courses I have taught, I am learning to do this with even more intent. I take time to set up the documents in NowComment, to frame the task, and to set (minimal) expectations for participation. For masters and doctoral students in online courses, I think that these are reasonable ways to initiate a decent discussion and to get students intellectually engaged.

One of my master’s students from last semester described our process in this way:

The most beneficial learning activity for me was using NowComment each week. I prefer to use this format over the Blackboard discussion board because I can find very specific areas of discussion and don’t have to continually click back to a source to discuss it.

So, that was encouraging.

But, right now, I’m struggling.

I am teaching an online doctoral seminar this semester, and I have been trying to scaffold thoughtful discussions around one text and one video each week. I set up the conversations in a protocol-like manner, and  I have been sharing resources like the 50 Questions and Critical Thinking Cheatsheet to help them ask critical (but, kind) questions of one another.

The goal is twofold: they should be talking about the content, yes, but they should also be talking with each other. This is what academics do, and I am trying to intentionally scaffold the process for them as graduate students. NowComment is the best tool that I have found in order to meet these purposes.

And, moreover, for any of them who will be teaching online, I want them to use these types of thoughtful, engaging discussion techniques with your students, too. Part of the purpose of our program is to help them become researchers, yes, and to help them become practitioners of educational technology, too.

Yet, I’m still struggling.

A few are participating regularly, and with purpose. Some are participating. Many are not participating at all.

Earlier this week, I tried to call them out, while I also acknowledged the complexity of their lives:

So I know that we are all busy, all the time.

On the go, on the move, on the run.

Pick your euphamism: our lives are *&%#@! busy. 

And, I can understand that we are all going to have “off” weeks.

You’ve got family in town. You’ve got exams to grade. You got sick. I totally understand. 

As I tried to make clear in my announcement earlier this week, your active, critical, and thoughtful participation in discussion is a key component of your doctoral education. It’s how you retain and transfer information. It’s how you build relationships. It’s how you stake a claim and establish your stance as a researcher. 

NowComment is our place to do those things.

In short, I’m trying to be clear about my rationale for having them participate.

Still, participation is stagnant.

I need some help.

So, I ask… any ideas (both technological and pedagogical) for making online (grad school) discussions suck less?

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Reflections on the Digital Literacy and Higher Education Winter Symposium

Public Domain Image from FirmBee on Pixabay
Public Domain Image from FirmBee on Pixabay

My first draft, unfiltered thinking from the end of our day reflections:

Of course, the opportunity to meet and greet is wonderful. As we have noted, it is easy to fall into “silos” in our academic roles, and being able to talk with librarians, media literacy scholars, education scholars, doc students, and others is always a good thing. I would like to think that we have already learned enough just by being here and sharing with one another. That said — and knowing Renee and Julie — I can only imagine that there will be new opportunities that are going to come from the conversations begun (continued) here. Even in the Virtually Connecting session this afternoon, I realized that there were at least half a dozen other people that I think should have been here.

Also, for my particular interest areas — teacher education, writing studies, and digital/media literacy — I think that there is a great deal of work to do. I was fortunate enough to be here for the summer institute in 2016, and then went to the UNSECO/GAPMIL meeting in Ontario. At the same time, I’ve switched from English to Teacher Education (as a departmental affiliation) and I think that is helping me rethink what I am doing and what I want to do in the near future. Ideally, I would like to see how other colleges/universities are integrating digital/media literacies into teacher education (and not just as a separate methods class) to make their programs — and their students — more robust and viable.

My interests also are moving toward graduate education, both MA and doctoral, in educational technology. What is it that we (as the scholars and educators on the bleeding edge of digital literacy) need to know and be able to do in order to teach these current teachers and future scholars? What do they, in turn, need to know and be able to do? How, specifically, can we be thoughtful about integrating elements of ISTE, ACRL, and other standards into our teacher preparation programs?

I suppose that I am also, as always, interested in helping my own children to learn and grow in their ever-connected world. As a parent, I fear that they are not really learning how to use technology in critical, creative, and collaborative ways through their K-12 schooling. The conversations this afternoon about the dominance of LMSs in 1:1 or BYOD is only reiterating what I had feared. Knowing how to login, upload an assignment, and check your grade is not nearly enough to become digitally literate. My children — and all our children — really need to have a thoughtful, integrated approach to digital literacy built in across the curriculum. They are not getting that right now, and it worries me on many levels.

Public Domain Image from FirmBee on Pixabay

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Analyzing Our Own Social Scholarship Profiles

During our workgroup meeting this morning, Maria Ranieri has asked us to engage in an analysis of our own social profile(s), and to reflect on our decision to engage in social scholarship.

For me, the choice to engage in social media began over a decade ago, while still in graduate school at MSU. The first entry for my blog was in 2006, at the NWP-sponsored Tech Matters advanced institute, and my first tweet was in May 2007 (also at an NWP-related event). In a sense, the growth of social scholarship in the past decade has mirrored my own journey. I’ve always lived in the world that leaned toward open-access, collaboration, and public engagement, and I have grown my network exponentially over my past 10 years at CMU.

DuckDuckGo Screenshot of "Troy Hicks" Search
DuckDuckGo Screenshot of “Troy Hicks” Search

Today, it was interesting for me to “Google” myself. I actually started with DuckDuckGo in order to get a (relatively) objective look at what “Troy Hicks” yields. Here is what I found, with my annotations. Interestingly enough, I am not in the “top 10” of Facebook profiles for “Troy Hicks,” and I actually think that is a good thing. I did click on the LinkedIn search, too, and I showed up second, FWIW.

Then, I did hop over to Google. Here is what the automated complete function showed with just “troy hicks” and the with a “troy hicks d” (because I wanted to see what would happen with digital writing).

"Troy Hicks" on Google Search with Autocomplete
“Troy Hicks” on Google Search with Autocomplete
"Troy Hicks d" on Google Search with Autocomplete
“Troy Hicks d” on Google Search with Autocomplete

Interestingly, the “brookings sd” is for a man, Troy Doyle Hicks, 52, of Brookings, SD, who died last November. As soon as the “d” was added after my name, however, it is interesting to see that the connections to “digital writing” as well as my books showed up. Not sure that I need to buy another domain name right now, but that was an option, too.

She concluded by having us ask one another about affordances and opportunities as well as constraints and challenges. There were many, many points made, but I will focus on one: my profile on Rate My Professor. I haven’t been on the site in years (I had only seen the 2008 post) and was interested to read the 2015 post about my ENG 514 class. I can reflect more on my experience of teaching that class, how I established timelines/provided feedback, and what I have changed since, but that is for another post.

The other point I want to make now was captured best by Jillian Belanger in a tweet:

Tweet from Jillian Belanger
Tweet from Jillian Belanger

Onward! Looking forward to my next steps as a social scholar.

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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

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 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 (, 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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Posting, Probing, and Reflecting on Conversations with NowComment

Screenshot of my class’s discussion with Now Comment

So, I know I’m a little bit late to the web, image, and video annotation phenomenon that’s taken place over the last few years. I’ve talked a little bit about it in some of the pieces that I’ve written on Connected Reading, but I haven’t really been an avid user simply because it couldn’t quite figure out ways to integrate it fully into the courses I was teaching. This fall, however, I jumped in feet first and the particular tool that I have chosen to invest my (and my students’) time in is NowComment.

I was made aware of the impending changes to NowComment’s text-only to image and video annotation features earlier this year when Dan Doernberg was featured on the Teachers Teaching Teachers weekly webcast (below). I very much appreciate – especially this week – Dan’s mission as founder of

“Beginning with the 2008 Election, our focus shifted to improving some of the fundamental “cultural infrastructure” that makes it far too easy for the powerful to take advantage of the less powerful. NowComment®, a software tool that facilitates in-depth, intellectually honest discussion of complex documents, is the first of several such projects.”

As a teacher of writing and educational technology, I have been quite impressed with the features that NowComment offers. In addition to a user-friendly interface, NowComment’s ability for me to look back through threaded discussions and to sort my students comments individually has been immeasurably helpful. As I think about designing the discussion task, looking for ways to optimize student learning, I know that I will be able to do this kind of advanced sorting when I prepare to evaluate their participation.

And, for me, this is the crux of online (or face-to-face) commenting/annotation. We want to invite and encourage conversation, not just comments. I have shared with my masters students (mostly teachers and professional educators in other fields) a few additional resources to help them move the conversations forward, and this is what I am playing with more and more each week. For instance:

  • In forming their initial response to the readings/viewings for the week, I am asking the teachers to use Terry Heick’s “19 Reading Response Questions For Self-Guided Response.”
  • As they engage with others, I ask them to consider the National School Reform Faculty’s “Probing Questions” protocol as they push their classmates’ thinking.
  • Finally, as they reflect each week, I am asking them to pull specific examples from the conversation on NowComment into their discussion board postings (in Blackboard).

And this is just the start of my thinking.

I’m sure that there are other all even more robust ways that I can blend thoughtful pedagogical approaches to discussion with the numerous tools that NowComment offers. I’ve shared this tool with a few other faculty members, and I’m thinking about ways that I can integrate it more fully into future courses and professional development that I offer. I wonder:

  • How else are we thoughtfully connecting the teaching moves of conversation with technologies for annotation?
  • In what ways we help our students use these tools to “listen,” and not just annotate, deeply and empathetically?
  • How can the conversations that happen around documents then transfer into deeper, more substantial learning through additional writing and reflection?

These are the questions that continue to drive me forward as I watch my students post, probe, and reflects using NowComment this semester.