My New Metaphor: Being the (Hyper)Link

Image from Oregon Writing Project Facebook PageYesterday, I was fortunate enough to lead a workshop for teacher consultants at the Oregon Writing Project at SOU. Fall in Oregon is beautiful, and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to be here.

Like all the workshops I do, it was a unique experience in the sense that I begin with some idea of a plan and, as I interact with the teachers, I make moves from one topic and activity to the next based on their needs and interests. I’ve used this model for nearly all of the workshops that I have done in the past ten years. Call it flexibility, call it intuition. I am not sure. I just can’t plan out, minute-by-minute, a workshop that will be “delivered” to an unwitting audience. I want to be a professor who teaches, not just one who professes.

At any rate, their site director, Margaret Perrow, and I had time to talk on Thursday night, and I had shared my strategy for leading workshops. We talked about flexibility, especially as it relates to using digital tools. She then told me how each teacher in their summer institute will often choose a guiding metaphor to describe themselves, and how they will carry their metaphor throughout the SI and into their writing.

Her metaphor, for me, became “the hyperlink.”

In all the best ways, that gave me pause to think. And I kept thinking about it all day yesterday and into this morning.

Unlike many workshops that I do, this one (on the west coast) didn’t require me to rush off yesterday afternoon to catch a plane (because the flights home didn’t go that late!), so I was able to stay another day. I’ve had some time to think, and I have continued to ponder this guiding metaphor over the past 24 hours.

Immediately, I thought of Bud Hunt’s “Teaching Blogging Not Blogs,” which has been a seminal piece in my thinking about what it means to teach and learn digital writing, and I am spending my few minutes at the airport to reread his work and think about it even more.

Despite Bud’s concern that he is aging (hey, aren’t we all), I think that his post has, indeed, aged well. Written in 2010 as a summary of ideas about blogging (and hyperlinking) from 2005 forward, here are some of the relevant quotes for me as I reflect on what occurred in yesterday’s workshop and, metaphorically, think of myself as the hyperlink.

Blogging is that set of skills that he [Will Richardson] talks about. It’s the reason why I want the students that I work with to use blogs — in the end. But I don’t think that many of them will start with that skill.

Bud’s point here — that students need to experience how we, as writers, use blogs — resonates with the broader philosophy of the National Writing Project: teachers must be writers themselves. In this case, he is talking about how teachers can be digital writers and think about using links in strategic ways. In turn, when I lead a workshop, I want teachers to see me model the kinds of teaching that I want them to do. Without being trite, I want to be the change in the world (of teaching with digital writing tools). When teachers can see a model for digital writing and learning in my workshops, my hope is that they, like students, will begin to build their own skills. Linking requires us to stretch in these new directions.

Digital texts have the potential to make a big, juicy mess of a linear experience. Or to turn a so-so piece of writing into a masterful collection of references, linktributions, and pointers to other good stuff. My hunch, a rough one, but one I’ve held for a while, is that reading and writing that way makes you (ultimately) a better reader and writer. I just don’t really think I know how to teach that way yet, or at least, I don’t know how to teach other people to think about teaching that way.

This is a quote that I’ve cited before, and I agree with Bud’s hunch. Reading and writing (in a digital space) has the potential to make you a better reader and writer overall. As the news media and some sensationalist scholars would have us believe, it has the potential to make things (much) worse, too. I suppose that the jury is still out on that.

Anyway, during my workshops, I am usually faced with a question. Many versions of the question abound, but one teacher I worked with yesterday asked it pretty bluntly: why should we be asking our students to do this (digital reading and writing) work?

I am not entirely sure how I answered: modeling and mentoring are important, it’s the world in which we live, it’s part of the standards and digital literacies. Something along those lines.

But, at the core, I want teachers and students to be smarter, more productive readers and writers. Being the hyperlink — connecting them to new visions for teaching practice — is, indeed, what I hope I am doing.

Blogging as experimenting. Want us to try out a tool or a lesson or an activity? Post it here along with some instructions and, perhaps, a question or two to guide our exploration/experimentation.

Experimenting is risky, and doing so in front of an audience is even more so. I want the teachers with whom I work to experience risk by trying out new tools and practices, so I need to risk, too. Without a doubt, there will be a link that doesn’t work, a question I can’t answer, or a tool that won’t load on someone’s machine. That is risky, and it causes many teachers to feel (at least) a small degree of panic. I want to model for them how I handle that stress, how I problem solve, how I adapt and move on. Hyperlinks take us from one place to the next. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

But, you have to keep clicking, keep linking.

Again, being the metaphorical hyperlink is something that I can aspire to. Thank you to Margaret for the metaphor, to Bud for your reflections, and to the entire NWP network for continued opportunities that amaze and enlighten me.


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The Three Rs for 21st Century Learning: Relevance, Relationships, and Reflection

Image from Paul Tomizawa‏ @mrtomizawa
Image from Paul Tomizawa‏ @mrtomizawa

As I mentioned earlier in the week, I had an opportunity to collaborate and learn with about 130 other teachers, librarians, and higher ed faculty at the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy. Given that this was my second go-round, I had some idea of what would happen day-to-day, and over the arc of the entire week, and again the institute met and exceeded my expectations.

First, I appreciate having had the chance to collaborate with Jill Castek on our Thursday keynote, “Deepening Assessment, Digitally.” Here are the slides, as well as many additional links.

Resources from the Session

Further Your Learning

The other key takeaway for me — which is really just a reiteration of what I have learned from my colleagues in the National Writing Project — is that relevance, relationships, and reflection are at the heart of learning, for both kids and adults. No secret here; just a gentle reminder that great learning takes all three of these elements, and those elements are fostered through sustained immersion in an intensive, sometimes disruptive, yet ultimately supportive and growth-oriented environment.

Both summers at URI have provided this for me, and in a slightly different manner than what I experience in NWP work. One protocol that we use at the end of the day, both with participants and faculty, is a group discussion of “highlights and lowlights.” Not meant to be a space for problem-solving, it is a structure that allows us all to share the best and worst part of each day in a setting where our colleagues listen empathically. While I was quite tired at the end of each day, those conversations were rich, and I am still thinking through what everyone brought to them.

So, the reminder that these elements all matter is a good one, and knowing that there are multiple paths to pursue as we lead our colleagues in professional growth is a good reminder, too. I’m heading back to Michigan with a renewed appreciation for what it takes to immerse one’s self in a digitally-rich learning experience, and that we need to take time to build those three R’s of a true twenty-first century education: relevance, relationships, and reflection.


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Deepening Assessment, Digitally

Summer Institute in Digital Literacy LogoThis week, I head to Rhode Island for my second year as a faculty member in the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy in Providence. I’ve been fortunate to be part of the leadership team again, and I look forward to working with educators from a variety of contexts: K-12 teachers, librarians, higher education instructors, and more. One key portion of my work this week is to collaborate with Jill Castek (University of Arizona) to prepare a keynote session for Thursday morning, “Deepening Assessment, Digitally.”

My interests in deepening assessment have been, well, deep, for a number of years. In 2015, I published Assessing Students’ Digital Writing, a collection in which I had worked with seven National Writing Project colleagues to examine their students’ work through the use of protocols. Our discussions about their students’ work led to their individual chapters, and the collection as a whole reminds me that we can, with diligence and discernment, broaden the kinds of digital writing we ask students to do and, more importantly, the ways that we respond to their digital writing.

Since that time, I have become even more interested in how we can use various media (text, audio, and video) to respond to students’ work. Through many courses that I’ve taught, as well as presentations and workshops I’ve delivered, I’ve been meeting more and more teachers who are interested in providing, with technology, even more timely, specific, and goal-oriented feedback to their students. For instance, I am curious to know more about how we might carry on asynchronous conferences with our students using tools like Voxer or Kaizena, or how we might have students reflect on their own learning by creating screencasts in which they describe the decisions that they have made when crafting digital writing.

Thus, as I head into planning for my keynote this week, there are a few key questions driving the presentation that Jill and I will deliver.

  • How do you define “formative assessment?”
  • In what ways do we typically think about using technology for formative assessment?
  • How might we use technology to help students deepen meta-cognition and reflection?

We plan to have participants engage with these questions through some brief pre-writing, pair-share conversations, and by analyzing some examples of student work/reflection. For my part, I am returning to a video that my daughter and I recorded a few years ago, In it, Lexi reflects on a number of the choices that she made to craft a piece of digital writing. As I reconsider the video for this week, a few of the questions I want people to consider include:

  • In what ways could we prompt and encourage students to create screencasts like this in order to describe their decision-making process as digital writers? What, specifically, are the questions that we should ask of students so they can substantively engage in reflection?
  • If we are asking students to assess their own work in this way, how might we move beyond using rubrics as a way to provide feedback? What, specifically, would we as educators want to discuss/reply to in a student’s work at this level?
  • Ultimately, if we shift to deeper, more substantive assessment practices that utilize technology in new ways, what implications will this have for our curriculum and instruction as well?

There are, of course, quite a few days (very full, active days) that will assuredly cause me to think more about these questions and how to frame the talk for Thursday morning. Also, I will have time to talk with Jill, which I very much look forward to, and we will have new ideas to consider together.

Still, the core of the presentation will remain the same. Jill and I want to push participants’ thinking about both why and how they assess student work. In turn, we hope that the process will open up more opportunities for them to think about their own teaching, in their own context, and to take these types of questions and conversations back to their colleagues once the institute ends.


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The Future (Shock) is Now

Future Shock Cover (Wikipedia)
Future Shock Cover (Wikipedia)

Having been on my “to read” list for quite some time, I was finally able to dig into an oft-mentioned book: Alvin Tofler’s 1970 look at, well, today, Future Shock.

I had not read it before, though I see one of his quotes mentioned quite often: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Quite awhile ago, I had heard a story about the book on NPR, and was reminded that a copy still sat upon my bookshelf. Why I hadn’t cracked the cover, I am not sure. And, of course, hindsight is 20/20, so there are tributes to Toffler’s insight, as well as critiques. Prediction is a tough business, so I don’t really want to offer either. Also, I will be honest… I made it about 2/3 of the way through, and then took a fast-forward jump to Chapter 18: “Education in the Future Tense.” So, some of the quotes below are from earlier in the book and some from that section, and I need/want to finish the entire book.

So, here, I want to just pull out a few quotes that speak to the current state of debate when it comes to education, school choice, and ed tech, without offering too much additional commentary.

On education:

“Failure to diversify education within the system will simply lead to the growth of alternative educational opportunities outside the system.” (274)

On technology:

“Moreover, in the educational world of tomorrow, that relic of mass production, the centralized work place, will also become less important… A good deal of education will take place in the student’s own room at home or in a dorm, at hours of his own choosing… he will be freed, for much of the time, of the restrictions and unpleasantness that dogged him in the lockstep classroom.“ (275)

On individuality:

“It is obstinate nonsense to insist, in the face of all this, that the machines of tomorrow will turn us into robots, steal our individuality, eliminate cultural variety… technology, far from restricting our individuality, will multiply our choices—and our freedom—exponentially.” (282)

On mass schooling:

“Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed… The inner life of the school thus became an anticipatory mirror, a perfect introduction to industrial society. The most criticized features of education today – the regimentation, lack of individualization, the rigid systems of seating, grouping, grading and marking, the authoritarian role of the teacher – are precisely those that made mass public education so effective in instrument of adaptation for its place and time.” (400)

He goes on to know how progressives such as John Dewey were trying to instill ideas of “presentism,” and to push back against the ideas of the education industrial complex. I’m still not sure that we are all reading enough Dewey. At any rate, back to the quotes:

On the connection between school and work:

“In such a world, the most valued attributes of the industrial era become handicaps. The technology of tomorrow requires not millions of lightly lettered men, ready to work in unison at endlessly repetitious jobs, it requires not men who take orders in unblinking fashion, aware that the price of bread is mechanical submission to authority, but men who can make critical judgments, who can leave their way through | novel environments, who are quick to spot new relationships in the rapidly changing reality.” (402-3)

On the study of history and social issues:

“It is no longer sufficient for Johnny to understand the past. It is not even enough for him to understand the present, for this here-and-now environment will soon vanish. Johnny must learn to anticipate the directions and rate of change. He must, to put it technically, learn to make repeated, probabilistic, increasingly long-range assumptions about the future. And so must Johnny’s teachers.” (403)

On the structure of schooling:

“This trend [toward a knowledge-based industry] will be sharply encouraged by improvements in computer-assisted education, electronic video recording, holography, and other technical fields. Parents and students might sign short-term “learning contracts” with the nearby school, committing them to teach-learn certain courses for course modules. Students might continue going to school for social and athletic activities or for subjects they cannot learn on their own or under the tutelage of parents or family friends. Pressures in this direction will mount as the schools grow more anachronistic, and the courts will find themselves deluged with cases attacking the present obsolete compulsory attendance laws. We may witness, in short, a limited dialectical swing back toward education in the home.” (406)

On the nature of truth as it relates to schooling:

“Given further acceleration, we can conclude that knowledge will grow increasingly perishable. Today’s “fact” becomes tomorrow’s “misinformation.” There is no argument against learning facts or data – far from it. But a society in which the individual constantly changes his job, his place of residence, his social ties and so forth, places an enormous premium on learning efficiency. Tomorrow’s schools must therefore teach not merely data, but ways to manipulate it. Students must learn how to discard old ideas, how and when to replace them. They must, in short, learn how to learn… By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to the education.” (414)

My hope is that I can find some time to read the last third of the book and, perhaps, watch the documentary.

In the meantime, I just wanted to share the quotes that I found compelling in hope that it will give me some ideas to talk about/from in the PD events I have coming up this summer. My hope is that Toffler (and his wife’s unattributed) work still resonates for you, too.


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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 Hypothes.is 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 Hypothes.is annotations of other educators.

All educators are welcome to participate, and we recommend that you sign up for Hypothes.is 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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Updates from Our Book: Argument in the Real World

Image courtesy of Heinemann
Image courtesy of Heinemann

As a writer — both in the sense that I am a blogger and the author of texts for teachers — I am well aware of the fact that writing is never really “done,” it is just “due.” I am thankful that I have the opportunity to keep writing, keep sharing, keep updating. It is as important now as it has ever been.

When my colleague and co-author, Kristen Turner, and I were putting the finishing touches on our book, Argument in the Real World, last summer, we knew that the world would be experiencing digital arguments in many ways across the closing months of the US 2016 election cycle. However, we had no idea that “fake news” or “alternative facts” would become part of the Orwellian discourse. Over the past few months, the incredible team at Heinemann has been sharing a number of posts and videos related to the book:

They also helped us refine the MINDFUL poster:

How to teach students to be MINDFUL readers and writers of social media.
How to teach students to be MINDFUL readers and writers of social media.

Finally, here is a video in which I demonstrate how students can remix existing news content to analyze the implicit arguments presented in the news.

As teachers continue to work with their students to overcome the many challenges we continue to face with media literacy, we will continue to update the book’s wiki page and share more ideas. My hope is that this collection of resources is a good place to begin those difficult lessons and conversations.


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