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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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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