Pandemic Pedagogy: Some Questions About Being “Successful” and Getting it “Right”

Introduction

With the midpoint of the summer and the July 4th Holiday weekend in the rear view, and states (like our own home of Michigan) now releasing plans for a “safe return to school” in August, we feel it is worth taking time to pause.  

As parents and teacher educators, as well as long-time colleagues and friends, the two of us have had many conversations in the past month as educators in the state of Michigan and around the world have moved to “remote learning” in K-12 and higher education.

In thinking about ways we can productively talk about complicated issues, we have been informed by our experiences in the National Writing Project, and the use of protocols, or guided discussion models, for moving forward through difficult conversations. 

In a recent chat, we used the “What? So What? Now What?” protocol to share our thoughts and feelings related to “pandemic pedagogy,” “getting remote learning ‘right,’” and other phrases that capture the COVID-19 zeitgeist. 

This blog post summarizes our current thinking and, we hope, will serve as a time capsule for questions we need to ask in the weeks, months, and years ahead. 

What? 

Humans, by nature, want to help others. Our willingness to do so is, most often, well-intentioned. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and both higher education and K-12 schools moving to “remote” instruction, there have been a number of companies that have offered their products for free (or at reduced cost) so that teachers and students can use them.  Moreover, professional organizations have shared K-12 resources through blogs, podcasts, webinars, lesson plans, and countless social media posts. We believe teachers and their students are doing the best they can, given the circumstances. We also trust that parents and guardians are doing the best they can. Humans are navigating uncertain futures and as we do so, we must help ourselves and our children navigate what is, indeed, a brave new world.

That said, in the past few months — and even more so in as we reflect on “remote learning” successes and failures from the end of the 2019-20 academic year — there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of such resources that have been distributed to support a “continuity of learning.” Again, all well-intentioned, and many useful. 

However, when we see headlines like “getting remote learning right” or “successful strategies for online teaching,” we wonder what “right” or “successful” (or, for that matter, “teaching”) even means. While we do have empirical evidence about “what works” for nearly all students in typical school settings (e.g., IES What Works Clearinghouse), which are still in and of themselves contextual, we don’t yet know what works for all teachers and students when teaching and learning remotely. We also don’t yet know the full impact of social distancing on teachers’ and students’ learning and emotional well-being.

We are left with many questions, few answers, and a great deal of uncertainty. 

So What?

Despite the terrible, tragic circumstances in which we find ourselves, one of the silver linings, perhaps even a gift, of this pandemic for educators —  if we dare call it a gift — is the opportunity to re-think what has been considered the standard parts of teaching and learning for decades, if not centuries. As educational professionals, if we want to take advantage of what we’re learning and experiencing in this COVID-19 era, we must be willing to ask (and, eventually, answer) some important questions.  So, as we consider the days, months, and years ahead, we believe that it will be imperative to create time and space for conversations about what we’ve experienced and learned. 

In other words, as the world is experiencing a pandemic,  what is “right” or “successful” for one remote school or class may not actually be “right” or “successful” for another. And, we believe that part of getting it “right” — or achieving “success” —  extends well beyond the immediate needs and outcomes of the upcoming 2020-21 academic year. 

Indeed, the ways we prepare ourselves for 2020-21 matters in many, many ways. Thus,  framing questions for the conversations we have now — both about what we’re experiencing and learning as well as  how we can use what we learn to help us move forward in the future — is critical. 

Now What?

As noted above, there are already countless resources available for remote teaching and learning. 

We are not dispensing more advice or resources in this post. There are so many of us — individual teachers, entire school faculties, district administrators, teacher educators, policy makers, the business community, and, of course parents and caregivers of our youth — all of whom have questions. And, we’re all trying to figure things out. 

Instead, we want to pivot and pose some questions that, right now, can’t be fully answered here as we are still trying to plan for August. Whatever happens in a few weeks, when schools “re-open” for the fall, we know that it will still be an era of pandemic pedagogy. 

In fact, we consider this a “time capsule” of sorts, and these questions, we hope, can guide our own thinking as well as our PK-12 and higher education colleagues as we transition into a post-COVID, socially un-distanced world. Whether we are face-to-face, online, or both — and whether we are talking about one day of instruction, one week, one month, or a whole year — we wonder…

For educators:

  • What is essential for your students to learn, in terms of content and skills? 
  • What is essential for your students to do as they learn to communicate with one another? 
  • What were the “rhythms” of the school week for each of you? What was the workflow? When did you meet with students? How did you support students’ emotional and academic needs?
  • What communication media (text, image, video, audio), methods (through an LMS, via text message, via email), audiences (one student, small group, whole class), and frequency (hourly, daily, weekly) are effective? 
  • What content needs to be “delivered,” asynchronously, and what, instead, might need to be “modeled” and “coached,” synchronously? 
  • What should be the [new] norms of online meetings with students? 
  • In this time of remote learning, what practices have you developed that could be carried forward, in hybrid or fully online courses?
  • What have you learned about yourself, your teaching style, and what you really value as an educator?
  • How might this entire experience frame your pedagogy and practice moving forward? 
  • How much synchronicity is necessary? For full classes? For small groups? For individual tutorials? 
  • What ways did you see students be creative as they developed their thinking and expressed what they learned? How might they have used “old” and “new” technologies to meet these goals? 

For administrators:

  • What worked best for communicating with your staff? For providing feedback and direction? For maintaining relationships and supporting one another?
  • What might have worked well in the past for organizing faculty meetings, curriculum, assessments, PLCs, etc.? How did these change and, perhaps, become more [or less] efficient? 
  • For online meetings with other adults/colleagues, what norms did you establish and how did these facilitate communication and teamwork? 
  • Based on your experiences supporting teachers during remote teaching and learning, what changes do you hope/expect to make when you return to brick and mortar buildings and classrooms?
  • How did you partner with and/or support students and their families?
  • What success(es) should be celebrated?

For business and community members:

  • In our efforts to create a 21st-century workforce — and with the changes that have been made in your places of work over the past two months — what should educators know about what it means to prepare their students for the workforce in months and years ahead? Given potential past efforts connected to volunteerism and mentorship opportunities for employees to work with K-12 students, what might you need to reconsider when planning for future opportunities?
  • Even in light of the economic impact that all businesses are sure to face, what role do we all play in providing equitable access to broadband or mobile internet, as well as low-cost laptops or devices for family use, both for K-12 students as well as their caregivers who may be reskilling for a new job? 
  • What new partnerships could be developed with local K-12 schools to support students’ learning and connect their learning to the community? 

For higher education faculty, administrators, and teacher educators: 

  • How do we effectively prepare preservice teachers for all the realities of teaching and learning, including future remote teaching and learning?
  • How can teacher educators clearly model high-leverage teaching and learning practices for preservice teachers?
  • How can colleges/schools and departments of education more directly support our communities’ schools, including their teachers and students as well as parents and caregivers?
  • How can we better advocate for and partner with local K-12 districts and schools when integrating technology?
  • What new partnerships, programs, and models could be forged to partner universities and K-12 schools (e.g., traditional models of student teaching and field placements, dictating required observation/teaching hours, etc.)?

For parents, guardians, and caregivers: 

  • What are your children passionate about? How did you help them follow those passions in this time of staying home and staying safe?
  • On the flip side, what led our kids to distraction (and/or ourselves)? What did we do to help them learn and/or practice self-regulation and to follow their interests?
  • What kinds of topics, subject areas, and questions did they follow?
  • What did you notice about their use of various learning technologies and modalities such as video, audio, and text, as well as virtual interactions with others?
  • How did you and/or your child[ren] process the “loss” of the remainder of the school year?
  • What do your children need as they head back to a regular school building and schedule, whenever that might be? 
  • What do you, as a parent/guardian, need as you send your child[ren] back to a regular school building and schedule, whenever that might be? 
  • What was most helpful, in terms of the way(s) your school/district responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • What was least helpful, in terms of the way(s) your school/district responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

For legislators: 

  • What laws perpetuate inequality for public education and how can we change these to ensure all students have access, no matter the location of learning and/or the modes/methods?
  • What needs to change, at the state and/or national levels, so that K-12 administrators and educators can quickly and effectively respond to current needs and environments, including the need for remote teaching and learning?
  • What role does technology play in providing “equal access for all” K-12 students?
  • What do you need/want to learn from K-12 teachers as well as their students and families about their experiences with remote teaching/learning during this crisis? 
  • Beyond increasing teachers’ pay, how might we recognize the contributions that educators and schools/districts made to students’ learning, both intellectual and socio-emotional, during this difficult time?
  • What can we do to recruit new teachers to join/stay in the profession, and prepare them for new modes of instruction?
  • What can we do to keep current teachers in the profession and how can we prepare and support them for new modes of instruction?

(A Few) Essential Questions as We Move Forward

These are a lot of questions and necessitate conversations over time. As we conclude, we close with a few questions for us all:

  • What might a typical school day (week) look like in the years ahead? 
  • How might we build remote/online learning into our normal patterns of work?
  • How will we maximize synchronous learning times, whether face-to-face or remote? 
  • What content can be “delivered” asynchronously and what platforms/delivery works best for asynchronous delivery?
  • How will we engage all students in substantive learning, inviting them to create — and not just consume — content?

These are more questions, we know, than can be answered right now.  However, in addition to responding and reacting to immediate needs and contents, we must also deliberately think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and its impact on students’ learning and development. 

We are, indeed, in the midst of a pandemic pedagogy and while we’re all hard at work, our success and ability to “get it right” depends not only on what we do right now but also what we do moving forward.

We hope you’ll consider joining the conversation that these questions invite.


Erica R. HamiltonDr. Erica R. Hamilton, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, MI

Erica R. Hamilton works with pre-service and in-service teachers and serves as a K-12 teacher coach and professional development provider. Erica’s teaching focuses on helping teachers support and extend K-12 students’ literacy and learning. Committed to professional service, Erica currently serves on GVSU’s Online Education Council and GVSU’s IRB committee. She is a peer reviewer for various journals and organizations and is active in West Michigan schools. Her research interests focus on teacher learning and professional development, place-based education, literacy, and educational technology. Connect with her on Twitter @ericarhamilton.

Troy Hicks Portrait

Dr. Troy Hicks, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, MI

Dr. Troy Hicks is Professor of English and Education at Central Michigan University (CMU). He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, he collaborates with K–12 colleagues and explores how they implement newer literacies in their classrooms. Since beginning work at CMU in 2007, he has earned numerous distinctions including the Michigan Council of Teachers of English Charles Carpenter Fries Award (2008), CMU’s Provost’s Award for junior faculty who demonstrate outstanding achievement in research and creative activity (2011), the Richard A. Meade Award for scholarship in English Education (2014), the Michigan Reading Association’s Teacher Educator Award (2018), CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award (2020), and the Initiative for 21st Century Literacies Research’s Divergent Award for Excellence (2020). An ISTE Certified Educator, Dr. Hicks has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro


Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

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Resources for ETA NSW

This list of curated resources represents work that I have produced from March to May of 2020, all aimed at helping educators as they transitioned to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The full article. “Critical, creative, and compassionate: Resources for teaching English in an era of COVID-19” appears in Australia’s English Teachers Association NSW’s journal, mETAphor (openly available through their website and as a PDF here).

The links here are presented in the order that they appear in the article, which I will provide a link to (once the issue is published online).

March 2020

April 2020

May 2020

Summer 2020

Books

Updated on June 30, 2020 to include article link.


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Podcast with Ivy Ewell Eldridge on “Writing with Digital Tools”

While attending the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) conference in February, I was invited to speak with CNUSDEdChat. My thanks to the entire CNUSDEdChat team — Ivy Ewell-Eldridge, Annemarie Cortez, Kim Kemmer, Jenny Cordura, and Kate Jackson — for welcoming me to this conversation. Follow more of their work via their homepage, Soundcloud and Twitter. Enjoy the podcast!

Dr. Ivy Ewell Eldridge chats with Central Michigan University professor and author, Troy Hicks, a super advocate of ways to teach and enhance the process of writing through the use of digital tools. He encourages educators to nurture our students’ curiosity, openness, flexibility, persistence, engagement, and responsibility as they engage in the writing process.


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Webinar Archive: Literacy in a Time of Rapid Change – Strategies & Resources for Virtual Learning

Here is an archived recording of our Wednesday, March 25, 2020 webinar on EdWeb, “Literacy in a Time of Rapid Change: Strategies and Resources for Virtual Learning,” as well as the GDoc handout from the session.


We are now in the midst of a “new normal,” and questions about what virtual instruction will look like — in our own classrooms and across the globe — abound. Join literacy experts, authors, and experienced virtual educators, Dr. Troy Hicks and Shaelynn Farnsworth, as they discuss resources and strategies to best support remote teaching and learning.

In this edWebinar, explore ways to virtually teach and engage students in literacy learning by sharing curricular content, edtech tools, resources, communities, and tips to get you thinking critically and creatively in this time of crisis. As we are working to meet the needs of all students virtually, we’ll also be mindful of issues related to equity, accessibility, and student populations with special needs.

We can do this together. Please watch the conversation.

This recorded edWebinar will be of interest to kindergarten through higher education teachers, librarians, school and district leaders, curriculum and instruction, TOSAs and coaches, assistant superintendents, and tech directors.

Troy HicksAbout the Presenters

Dr. Troy Hicks is Professor of English and Education at Central Michigan University (CMU). He directs both the Chippewa River Writing Project and the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, he collaborates with K–12 colleagues and explores how they implement newer literacies in their classrooms. In 2011, he was honored with CMU’s Provost’s Award for junior faculty who demonstrate outstanding achievement in research and creative activity, in 2014 he received the Conference on English Education’s Richard A. Meade Award for scholarship in English Education, and, in 2018, he received the Michigan Reading Association’s Teacher Educator Award. An ISTE Certified Educator, Dr. Hicks has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

Shaelynn FarnsworthShaelynn Farnsworth is a coach, consultant, and educator for Web20Classroom. She is a leader in the convergence between literacy and technology. As a high school teacher, she redefined her English classroom as not only a place to learn about literature but also explore how technology is shaping the future of communications. She continues this exploration in her role as a consultant focusing on technology, literacy, differentiation, and systemic change. Shaelynn is a staff developer, literacy coach, and supports districts in the implementation of initiatives. She is a MIEExpert, Google Certified Innovator, Apple Teacher, and has training in Project-Based Learning from the Buck Institute, Visible Learning with Hattie, Instructional Coaching, and K-12 Literacy Best Practices.

Ideas from Instagram Live Conversation: “Online Teaching and Learning English”

Edited Post: Video added on May 30, 2020.


Instagram Advertisement - Online Teaching and Learning EnglishEarlier today, I was honored to be invited by Alireza Qadiri Hedeshi, Dean of Foreign Languages Department at Mehryar Institution of Higher Education, for an Instagram Live conversation. Here are some of the questions that he and his colleagues shared, as well as some brief responses that I wrote to prepare for our conversation.


1. You have titled one of your scholarly works “Because Digital Writing Matters”. What do you mean with digital writing? Is it different from ordinary or academic writing?

As we argue in the book, digital writing can be defined as “compositions created with, and oftentimes for reading or viewing on, a computer of other device connected to the Internet.” While that definition was written just as the iPhone and touchscreen devices were being introduced to the consumer market, it still holds up today. Digital writing, in this sense, is writing that can be composed, stylistically/rhetorically as well as technically, for the screen. Hyperlinks, embedded media, and interactivity are hallmarks of digital writing.

And, yes, while traditional academic writing is typically seen as thesis-driven essays with outside citations from reputable, peer-reviewed sources, we are coming to new understandings — as scholars and educators — about what “counts” as a thoughtful, rigorous argument. Intellectuals can present their work in critical and creative ways, employing the tools of digital writing like alphabetic text, of course, as well as photos, graphs, maps, timelines, videos, and other “born digital” artifacts. These artifacts are created for others to engage with them, and can be effective uses of digital writing tools/skills to support academic goals.

At the International Literacy Association Conference last fall, I shared some more ideas about how digital writing and best practices in writing instruction intersect, and here is the handout for that session.


2. How can we improve interaction over online methods of teaching language?

AND

13. In respect with real classroom environments, how can we make effective use of technology in providing learners with feedback?

There are ways that we interact with individual writers, as well as our entire classrooms.

First, with individual writers, there are strategies we can use. In a recent blog post, I argue that, even in times of remote learning, “we can teach writers. And, we can teach them online. To paraphrase Lucy Calkins’ oft-cited advice, we teach the writer first, then we teach the writing.” I offer, in that post, three main practices that we want to continue doing: connecting, conferring, and responding. In another recent webinar, for CCCC/TYCA, I went into more detail and offered a list of tools that could be helpful in that process.

With entire classes, we need to make sure that we are using synchronous video sessions with our students to their full effect. To do that, we need to think about what happens before, during, and after a video class session. When I consider that I might only have an hour of focused time with all my students — and what I want them to do with one another during that time — I think through the types of collaborative activities they might do to talk about their own writing, give one another feedback, and grow their knowledge about language. I may model a writing process for them, using sentence templates and engaging in effective web search and evaluation strategies, then invite them to do the same.

Finally, as we interact from session-to-session, we can think about tools to build continuity and collegiality amongst our students, outside of the normal learning management systems. This is not just a “discussion forum” in the classic sense, but a space for students to engage around course content in an informal manner. For my adult learners, Voxer has been effective for this, however there are many other options that exist.


3. How can we encourage learners to take online medium as serious as real classroom environment?

AND

4. How can teachers keep their authority over online classroom environment?

AND

6. Many ESL teachers find speaking the most challenging skill to teach online as learners tend to be passive listeners in online classes. What can we do to cope with this issue?

When we remain consistent in our approach — regular announcements, effectively run class sessions, brief and engaging instructional screencasts as needed, timely and goal-oriented feedback — students will know that we are taking our teaching seriously, and this will raise their level of expectations. We model the kinds of behavior that we would expect of them by staying organized and efficient, since we can’t rely on regular, face-to-face class sessions for informal conversation and last-minute reminders.

From our webinar the other day, Jessie Borgman (Arizona State University), and Casey McArdle (Michigan State University) shared their Online Writing Instruction Community with many ideas, including their “PARS” approach (Personal, Accessible, Responsive, and Strategic). Another great set of resources for effective online instruction is Global Society of Online Literacy Educators (GSOLE), and their “Online Literacy Instruction Principles and Tenets.” By thinking through these principles, we can design our own online philosophy for teaching, and make it clear to students.

For our actual online sessions, we need to learn how to be strategic in our use of time, as well as become familiar with controls in our video conferencing software. While designed for business people in training sessions, this guide for facilitating remote workshops has some helpful ideas for helping move online meetings along in productive ways. Also, we can use tools like Flippity to share an on-screen tool that will randomly pick student names, so we can let them know that they will be called on soon to take the microphone and turn on the camera. In a worst case, we can mute them, turn off their camera, or kick them out of the remote room.

We can also invite students to use tools like Voxer, mentioned above, or Vocaroo to record their voice and share with one another or the teacher. Also, they could use Flipgrid to have one-to-one, or small group, conversations. This can be done at their own pace, and if they make a mistake, they can rerecord themselves, avoiding embarrassment that would happen in class.


5. How do you suggest learners/teachers to use social networks effectively as means of language acquisition?

AND

7. A big problem is that during online classes, some learners confuse the learning process with chatting language. For example, they use the language developed for chatting (e.g. Thx for thanks or L8 for late). Do you think we should worry about the way they are using the language or regard it as a way of enriching the language?

AND

8. Some learners are unwilling to take part in online classes, as they believe this deprives them of socialization opportunities provided in real classroom environment. Is this claim true? Is there any way through which online world improves their social skills?

We can ask students to think about the tone and style that they might use in social networks and how they need to code switch as they move across different online/social media spaces, as well as communicate in more academic settings. Helping them see that they use a different register of language in these different spaces — and to reflect on why they do so — is one step to making these spaces useful.

Also, we can have them think about how they might use these tools and what they offer (like “streaks” in Snapchat) to stay in touch with another person trying to learn the language. They can communicate with one another each day, and try to maintain their “streaks” in the process.

We could also ask them to think about how they would “translate” a message from one social media form to another. For instance, what would a tweet (without an accompanying image, and using hashtags) look like in Facebook (with use of fonts and colors) or on Instagram (an image with a caption). How would you have to change the style (and amount) of words? What about fonts and colors? These conversations can be helpful for them as they think about the audience, purpose, and media being used.


9. How can we reduce distraction while learning English online?

Teaching our students — and ourselves — to self-regulate is a challenge, no doubt. And, different people have different tolerances for working at their own pace (or in a way other than traditional face-to-face schedules), so we all need to figure out ways to manage our time and attention. I think that it can be done, yes, though there is no single answer that works for everyone.

To that end, I would encourage students to adjust some of their web browser settings and install extensions, turning on ad blockers and using tools to block distracting sites. On their mobile devices, they can turn on “do not disturb” settings (or simply put their devices in another room) while studying. Also, they can set up times to study with classmates, holding one another accountable for getting work done and sharing their progress, as well as more intensive studying. They can also use apps like Duolingo, which “gamifies” the process of learning, if that is motivating for them.

Ultimately, our students need to self-regulate. While we would like to think that they are 100% focused and on-task when they are in our classrooms, we know that is not true. The same is true when they are at home, on their devices. They will not be 100% focused for an entire learning session, whether looking at asynchronous material or in a synchronous video class. We need to acknowledge that, plan for interactive and useful lessons (as noted above), and encourage them to self-regulate and stay motivated in the ways that work best for them.


11. Is it effective to devise a mixed/combinatory method with some skills being taught online and some others in real classroom? (If so, what skills do you suggest to work online?

AND

10. Generally do you think it is possible to learn English via online tools without the help of a tutor?

As I have noted throughout, I think that there are times and places, ebbs and flows, in the learning process. Sometimes, we can accomplish a lot by having our entire class work together, sometimes we meet with them individually or in small groups. Sometimes, we provide a video lesson for them to watch ahead of time, and then we work on something together during class time. Sometimes we set up individual conferences with writers. Whether we are partially or fully online, we need to consider the many ways in which we move back and forth between realtime communication with students and other tasks that can happen over time.

To put this in more concrete terms, and from a student perspective, my writing/language class might look like this over the course of a week:

  • Day 1: My instructor sends me a 10 minute video lesson and the assignment for the week; I start my writing and speaking tasks and communicate with my study parter via Skype for 30 minutes.
  • Day 2: My instructor hosts a one-hour video chat, and has us working in small groups to share our writing. I give feedback to three classmates as we work together for about 15 minutes in a breakout room, then we come back together and my instructor points out good examples of writing from a few classmates. We ask questions in the last few minutes to clarify our assignment for the week.
  • Day 3: Today is an independent work day. My instructor asks us to send a screenshot of what we have accomplished on Duolingo, and I share a voice message on Voxer. I work on my paper, and add comments to my partner’s paper.
  • Day 4: We have our second, one-hour video chat of the week, and our instructor demonstrates how to revise our thesis statements. We watch as he shares his word processing screen, and talks about how he is making revision decisions. We then go into breakout rooms to rework our thesis statements with our small groups, and give one another feedback.
  • Day 5: My instructor has asked us to sign up for 20 minute video conferences, and I shared my draft with him the day before. On the video chat, I tell him about what I am doing with my thesis, and he recommends a few changes. I leave with a good idea of how to revise, and spend the rest of my study time making changes.

As you can see, the student is moving back and forth between synchronous and asynchronous learning, with the whole class and a partner, as well as independently. Having the consistency — yet flexibility — is powerful, and keeps students connected, motivated, and on track to complete their work with support and feedback.


12. Except for saving time and energy, does online teaching/learning have any privileges over real classroom environment?

Well, honestly, I don’t know that teaching online saves time!

As you can see from the example above, my week as an instructor would be spent planning the two, one-hour synchronous class sessions so they are highly engaging and useful. I am also creating a weekly video lesson, and pointing my students to other resources. I am providing written and audio (and, perhaps, video) feedback, and meeting with students in brief video chats. So, I am spending quite a bit of time being intentional about making connections and supporting students.

We can rely on the thousands of things that are already out there to help our students understand grammar and engage in basic writing skills, including websites, videos, online games, flashcards, AI built into word processors, and other resources. They can use those resources, if we guide them in smart ways.

What they need from us is our time and encouragement. That is what we provide when we teach in a manner like the one that I described above. Students have consistent schedules and expectations, and are accountable to us, as teachers, as well as their classmates. They feel connected and valued, and are likely to stay engaged.

This is about more than just pointing them to pre-recorded lessons, online quizzes, and correcting their papers. This is about building relationships, and making their voices heard as writers. It is difficult work, but it is possible if we rethink what it means to be an online teacher of English and to invite our students into meaningful language learning.


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Resources and Reflections from “Online Environments and Your Students: Strategies to Inform Writing Instruction Webinar”

4Cs Online Writing Instruction Webinar AdEarlier this afternoon, I was pleased to be on a webinar, “Online Environments and Your Students: Strategies to Inform Writing Instruction” (Archived Video) with Jessie Borgman (Arizona State University), and Casey McArdle (Michigan State University). Hosted by Brett Griffiths, Director of Reading and Writing Studios at Macomb Community College, we covered a good deal of ground.

For my segment, we discussed tools for conferring and responding to student writers. Building from my experience in writing centers, NWP, K-12 teaching, college composition, and mentoring graduate students, I consider conferring to be the single most important activity in writing instruction. In the context of online learning (and our current “remote learning” scenarios), I am referring to “conferring” as scheduled meetings with students, via phone or video conferencing. This involves planning the conference, interacting during the conference, and follow-up after the conference.

Again, building from my experiences, I contend that timely, specific, and goal-oriented response helps writer move forward. When conferring is not an option, responding in an efficient and effective manner is second best. I work from the writing center-influenced ideas of responding first to higher order concerns, yet I am also willing to break protocol and offer directed feedback on lower order concerns. Responding can take the form of text, image, audio, or video and can happen at any stage of the writing process. Here are links to the tools that I shared:

Updated on May 17, 2020, with a link back to program page on NCTE’s website and a link to the archived video recording.


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Recap of #ILAChat from August 8, 2019

Earlier this month, I was invited to be a co-host of ILA’s chat, focused this month on the “dos and don’ts” in writing instruction. As a prelude to a Research Address at this fall’s annual ILA convention, the entire conversation was robust, and I am particularly appreciative of Dr. David Kirkland‘s erudite responses and questions.

As just one example, his response to the first question pointed out a stark truth:

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

This resonates for so many reasons: personally, professionally, historically, institutionally. I appreciate his keen insights and the ways in which he continues to push my thinking about literacy and social justice. I very much look forward to hearing his message as part of the Research Address and, for the full archive of the chat, visit ILA’s post on Wakelet.


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Getting Started with Selwyn’s “Distrusting Educational Technology”

Book Cover for Distrusting Educational Technology by Neil Selwyn (Routledge)
Book Cover for Distrusting Educational Technology by Neil Selwyn (Routledge)

This semester, I have shifted the focus for EDU 807 to begin immediately with more critical perspectives on educational technology. Over the past year, I have encountered the work of Neil Selwyn, and I am particularly interested in his 2014 book, Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times. As a way to share some of my initial thinking on the book for my EDU 807 students, I plan to blog about it while we read together this semester.

As I initially read the ebook, I immediately appreciated his perspective. He argues in the fifth paragraph of the introduction that “[t]o put it in crude terms, educational technology could be observed to involve a hierarchy of actors and interests ranging from those who generally ‘do’ educational technology through to those who generally have educational technology ‘done’ to them”
(Selwyn, Distrusting Educational Technology. Routledge, 20131126, VitalBook file). From that opening attack, he reminded me of other authors willing to take on the education(al technology) establishment, including Joel Spring, Audrey Watters, and Stephen Downes. So, I was interested from the start.

I knew that I needed something different for my EDU 807 course (focusing on the broad goal of examining educational tools and technologies), and Selwyn’s book hit the mark, both in terms of topic and also because it lends itself well to jigsawing, as the middle chapters of the book take on four major issues: virtual, open, game, and social technologies. My students will choose one of those topics to dig into, creating a set of resources related to that issue. So, in preparation for that process, I will be blogging my way through my own re-reading of the book, and here are some initial thoughts on Selwyn’s approach.

From the Introduction: “Why Distrust Educational Technology?”

From the opening paragraph of the preface, Selwyn notes that he is “deliberately distrustful of the ongoing digitization of education provision and practice” and, in the next, notes the “gulf that persists between the rhetoric of how digital technologies could be used in education and the realities of how digital technologies are actually used in education” (emphasis in original, Selwyn, 20131126,  VitalBook file). Thus, from the get-go, Selwyn establishes his critical stance and deep concern about the ways in which our field typically describes and celebrates educational technology, inviting us to consider whether our expectations align with our reality. These are the kinds of questions that I appreciate most as a reader and scholar, so he had me hooked in these opening lines.

Before the end of the preface, he also describes the use of educational technologies as “a profoundly political affair — a site of constant conflict and struggle between different interests groups.” As someone deeply involved with and concerned about teacher education and professional development, these politics are ones that I find don’t get discussed enough. Though I am a strong advocate for resources that are inexpensive or, using the scare quotes intentionally, “free,” even before I got to Selwyn’s chapter on open source materials I began to think again about how I describe and use technologies in workshops and courses. Yes, I know that I have referred to some of them as “free,” and — if we’ve learned anything from the Facebook situation in the past two years — we know that nothing is ever without cost. Making these political aspects of ed tech use even more a part of my on-going dialogue with teachers and the doctoral students with whom I work is a distinct goal for reading Selwyn’s work.

As a final note from the Preface, I was compelled by Selwyn’s idea that “educational technology is not value-free but value-laden, and therefore something that can be trusted and distrusted, agreed and disagreed with. Second is the belief that the nature and form of educational technology are not predetermined and inevitable but negotiable” (emphasis in original, Selwyn, 20131126,  VitalBook file). The sad fact is that many educational technologies that exist are set out to solve specific problems (learning facts) with a pedagogical frame (usually a behaviorist or cognitivist one). While this is good to take the perspective that ed tech is mutable, I’m not so sure that this is the case with all ed tech. Yes, we could have teachers and students repurpose skill-and-drill software in creative ways, but that is different than starting with a tool designed specifically for creation rather than consumption.

All the same, Selwyn’s preface had already given me enough to chew on when I first encountered it that I knew this would be the new text for EDU 807. With class starting tomorrow, and our attention on Selwyn’s work coming in a few weeks, I will be writing more about the remaining chapters in the book over the next few days.

And, as one side note, I am finding it difficult to cite, specifically, where I found the information in the book. While I know that Kindle gives locations, the VitalBook file that I am reading does not. So, my apologies for not providing more direct citation info.


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Wrapping Up a Semester of Digital Badging

Digital Badges... Still Under ConstructionThis past fall semester provided me with an opportunity to teach an undergraduate honors seminar, focused broadly on the role of technology in our personal and professional lives.

Entitled “Our Digital Selves,” I was able to work with 22 students over the 16 week semester as we engaged in some shared inquiry, some small group inquiry pathways, and a number of writing-to-learn activities that helped them engage with and understand a variety of digital tools ranging from browser extensions to the Zotero bibliographic management system.

Moreover (and more to the point for purposes of this post), we utilized digital badging as a tool for documenting performance, eschewing grades and, instead, relying on lots of formative assessment, peer review, and self-evaluation. Since the National Writing Project first became connected with the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Learning Initiative, I have been interested in badges, and will likely be pursuing the use of badges in teacher professional development this spring.

For HON 206, the purpose of the badging system was, as I documented earlier, meant to be an opportunity for students to reconsider the role of traditional grade-driven assessment practices in their learning, providing them with more flexibility and opportunities for them to work creatively with one another. As with all teaching experiences, this one had some ups and some downs.

On the positive side:

  • Badges held a novelty factor that — combined with the overall topic of digital ethnography that permeated the course — did remain relevant in our discussions and activities.
  • In pursuing the goal of digital authorship across multiple platforms and with various activities, students began to see how multimodal texts (including badges) could expand their thinking well beyond the traditional academic essay.
  • Coupled with the inquiry-based, experiential nature of the pathways, students did begin to identify themselves with the badging pathways. They called themselves “Makers,” “Adventurers,” “Hackers,” and “Writers.”
  • In the end, having some freedom and flexibility was a powerful motivation for learning. While it really wouldn’t have mattered if we had badges or not, talking about the idea of “earning a badge” is more concrete than times in the past where I have used contract grading, which feels much more amorphous.

And, on the negative side:

  • No matter how much you try to dress it up, even with lipstick, a pig is still a pig. Though the ultimate goal was not to gain a set number of points in order to earn an “A,” this still was a class, with homework and expectations for participation. Try as I might, badges didn’t change that fundamental equation. Some students completed their work on time and with a high degree of quality. Some did not. And, for all those who are worried about grade inflation, well, I am part of the problem, since they all ended up with the same grade at the end.
  • Interoperability. Even though I was using the open badge standard with the Badgr platform (read more about how Badgr evolved from the Mozilla Open Backpack, and where it is going next), I thought that it would be easy for students to share their badges on LinkedIn (not at all easy, and only as a “certification”) or WordPress (no embedding of iFrames on the free accounts). They could download the image, make a link, and share it that way, but the ease of a “point and click” transfer of the badge from being issued in Badgr to making it into a more viable, professional space simply didn’t happen.
  • Though there were some other minor concerns, the final major problem is that, even after a semester of talking about badges, showing them how their “evidence” of earning the badge is “baked in,” and that they could easily demonstrate to another instructor or employer, I don’t think that any of them (save for one) really felt like these digital credentials would help them later on.

As with all teaching innovations, I sometimes fear that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I should have opportunity to teach HON 206 again in the future, and I am already thinking about some ways in which I might adapt; I think that there might be some specific ways that I can make things more compelling while also not losing my mind from issuing badges.

  • First, the badges need to be earned for (some) smaller tasks, not just the final projects. In order to earn a badge for say, “Level I” work in a pathway, you need to have the item turned in on time and to a high degree of quality. If not, no badge. You can still turn in the work and get credit for the assignment, but I need to issue smaller badges, faster.
  • Second, in a similar vein, I did about eight in-class, intensive “writing-to-learn” activities that were highly scaffolded as Hyperdoc-like activities. I think that I would have at least five of those (of the students’ choosing) become longer assignments that would include the in-class work as well as an out-of-class extension, probably a brief essay (500 words or so). Those, too, would accumulate into a bigger badge, but would be issued more frequently.
  • Finally, I need a system for them to share the badges. Perhaps, as part of the course, I have them subscribe to WordPress for four months, dropping the text book and paying for that instead. Then, I could build blogging (and reading one another’s blogs) more diligently into the course process, and I could expect them to share their badges more publicly.

So, my first go at badging was compelling and not a complete failure. My hope is that I have opportunity to try this again with undergraduates and — if I get really motivated — with my ed tech doctoral students, too.

For now, I wish that I could give all of my students a digital backpack (ala Mozilla’s original vision) for a Christmas present, so it was easier for them to share their badges and, more importantly, be able to reflect on their learning for the semester. But, that’s on my wish list for next year and, for now, I am satisfied with the gift of a wonderful teaching experience this fall.

I have more to learn about badging, and will continue to reflect on my HON 206 experience, too.


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NWP Midwest Keynote

Can I Cite That?

Examining What Counts as Evidence in a Digital World

“Students have a greater role and responsibility in creating new knowledge, in understanding the contours and the changing dynamics of the world of information, and in using information, data, and scholarship ethically.” ~ ACRL

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Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

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