On the LMS, Wikispaces, and Where to Next

As anyone familiar with online teaching knows, critiques of content management systems, especially Blackboard (Bb), are common.

From articles in the popular media, to critiques in peer-reviewed journals, to an analysis from an Bb itself on the way it is used by instructors and students, there are many, many of us out there who dislike the way that an LMS, especially Bb, dictates (either explicitly or implicitly) the way that we teach and learn online.

A recent conversation with a colleague about this topic reminded me of the many reasons why I, personally, dislike Bb:

  • The interface is almost entirely teacher-centric, and even the features that allow students to contribute (discussion forums, and “innovations” to the LMS like blogs and wikis) are still very didactic in nature requiring that the teacher set them up in a manner to “allow” students to contribute. For instance, look at the many options available in just the “discussion board” settings in the screenshot below from Bb and consider the levels of autonomy that the teacher can decide upon for students, leaving them with fewer and fewer decisions to make for themselves. This is not really a discussion, but an assignment.
  • Similarly, the interface is designed on a “delivery” model of content. Yes, a creative instructor could build some self-guided learning, inquiry, and even “gamification” into the system (which Bb has conveniently added as “achievements,” but it is centered again on content consumption, assignments submission, and the gradebook. Again, the premise with the LMS is that students are logging in to view content that the teacher has created (or curated), and that this content (and this content alone) is what is important. Even if students create content (and could, theoretically, do so by embedding images, videos, or other types of digital artifacts). Still, for the most part, when directed to engage with the content (and I haven’t even mentioned online quizzes/exams), students are encouraged to do so most often to earn points.
  • Even in the best possible case, where a teacher is open to multiple revisions of an assignment that allows students to engage in an iterative process of learning, the interface for responding to assignments is, again, didactic, with the student submitting a paper, the teacher using commenting tools and rubrics to reply and, perhaps, opening up another “attempt” for submission. In contrast to a more open and flexible system of collaboration (as enabled by, say Google Docs or even the most current version of Word with synchronous and cloud-based editing), this workflow in Bb still relies on discrete assignments, deadlines, and grades.
Screenshot of Bb Discussion Forum Options for Instructors
Screenshot of Bb Discussion Forum Options for Instructors

There are more critiques that I could levy, but these are the main concerns that I have with Bb. So, from my earliest experiences teaching at the university, then, I have been trying to upend the expectation that I must use an LMS to organize my courses… as well as my thinking and my teaching. It is a struggle, and I have succumbed to the convenience (and mundane normality) of Bb in my past few semesters when teaching masters and doctoral courses all online. (I’ll have to describe my (compromised) rationale for all that in another post, but suffice it to say that I have, at least in recent times).

For the moment, I want to reflect on my journey with wikis as an alternative to the traditional LMS, in particular, with Wikispaces. Eagerly heralded as one of the revolutionary Web 2.0 tools that would democratize knowledge, especially for digital teaching and learning, wikis have been a staple of my teaching and professional development work for over a decade. So, like many others in the ed tech community who were both saddened and shocked when Wikispaces announced its imminent demise (some more shocked and outraged than others), I knew that this was more than just a moment to rethink where I store my data and how I organize my teaching.

First, a quick note of thanks to Wikispaces. Yes, I know that I have lots of data to recover, and that will be a pain. But, I can’t complain. I’ve used, enjoyed, and promoted Wikispaces for over a decade, and I appreciate what they have done with and for educators. Alas, like anything that has been offered for free, I am well aware that it too could go by the wayside (and soon will be). Wikispaces, alas, is no different. People are figuring out ways to save and repurpose their Wikispaces data, and I will, too (before the end of July!).

So, instead, I look at this as an opportunity to rethink my presence on the web as a teacher, teacher educator, and scholar. I will do that in the weeks and months to come. What I want to reflect on for a moment, however, is different. I want to think about why I really used Wikispaces, and whether I was being as open-minded, collaborative, and innovative as I thought I was.

That is, even as a progressive-minded educator, opting to use Wikispaces as a substitute for the LMS, as a tool for students to collaborate and contribute to our classroom community (as well as during workshops in which I lead professional development for teachers), I don’t know that I have fully enacted or lived up to my egalitarian ideas. If I were to do an honest accounting of all the Wikispaces that I manage, and see what I have contributed versus others, I would guess that I am, at best, close to a 50/50 balance. More likely, I am the one doing most of the adding and revising, especially in my course and workshop wikis.

In other words, at a deeper, more substantive level, have any of the wikis that I have created — and the pedagogy that I have enacted surrounding those wikis — really been about the participants, or has it been about me?

For all the class websites that I have created with Wikispaces, including ones for undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students, and for all the pages that I have created for workshops and longer PD institutes, I have to wonder… was I creating things on Wikispaces because it was convenient for me?

Was this a technical choice, perhaps, because giving a wiki address was an easy to find a domain (back before shortened URLs and QR codes made it easier to get to a Google Doc?)?

Was it because I wanted the public facing interface and immediate editing as a way to fit my own style of teaching, and not so much as a tool for really encouraging substantive contributions and communication amongst students?

I’ve been wondering all of this because – as I prepare to download the data from dozens of wikis and figure out where and how to archive it – I’ve noticed that I am the main contributor to most of the wikis I’ve begun. There are exceptions, of course, including our writing project’s wiki which has existed for nearly 10 years and contains the contributions of dozens of teachers. There is also a smattering of wikis that I’ve created in a one time workshop, inviting teachers to create their own page, for a day, that then linger in cyberspace. And, of course, there are the class wikis, where I have had varying degrees of success with students creating and curating their own profile pages and contributing to other sections of the class wiki site.

Still, the challenge is taking a deep, thoughtful look at all of these wikis again and thinking about who it is that has done most of the contribution. There is the old adage that “school is the place where young people go to watch old people work.” Bb, certainly, seems to be virtual manifestation of that physical truth about schools.

My question, at least at this moment, is whether or not I have been simply recreating that truth under the guise of collaboration, creativity, and inquiry by using wikis…

… or, have I really done anything different in the space of hybrid/online learning over the past 10 to 12 years? And, to circle back to the dilemma of the LMS, this has given me pause to seriously reconsider my use of Bb, too.

I’ve started to become complacent, and that is a dangerous place to be when it comes to digital writing and digital teaching. Like most teaching dilemmas, this is a wicked problem, and one that I will need to wrestle with more and more as the July 31 deadline for Wikispaces’ imminent demise comes closer and closer. In a way, I am thankful for the the opportunity to rethink why and how I create and curate materials for the web, for students, and for other teachers. I don’t know that I will ever have the answer, but I hope to soon have some thoughts on how to approach it from a new perspective.


Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

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Reflections on Participating in KQED’s “Finding and Evaluating Information”

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Over the holiday break, I’ve participated in an open course for educators, “Finding & Evaluating Information,” sponsored by KQED. Though the course ended last week, many of the materials are still available online, including this GDoc that contains a list “greatest hits” (and resources) from all the participants.

Among the many lessons posted by other participants, I created my own, Ethical Photo Editing (Personal, Professional, and Journalistic) that is designed to help students understand the decision making they would need to make when representing images through digital media, depending on the context. Also, one of the participants pointed me to an article by Poynter, “Three ways to spot if an image has been manipulated,” which I found quite useful.

Another one of the activities, adapted from the New York Times Learning Network’s “Media Literacy Student Challenge | Explore Your Relationship With News,” asks you to

Do a personal 24- to 48-hour news audit in which you record all the news you get now, where it comes from, and how well it meets your needs and interests.

This short course reminded me of the power of experiential, inquiry-based learning. As I am redesigning a media literacy course for teacher candidates, I am thinking that one of these types of brief activities each week could be incredibly useful, so I will return to them again in the future.


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Reflections on Panel Discussion: The Current State of Ed Tech

Delia DeCourcy and I prepare for the panel discussion at Sylvan's owners' meeting.
Delia DeCourcy and I prepare for the panel discussion at Sylvan’s owners’ meeting.

Earlier this morning, I was invited to speak with my colleague Delia DeCourcy, Executive Director for Digital Teaching & Learning, Chatham County Schools, on an educational panel for Sylvan Learning during one of their annual owner meetings in Houston, TX.

The topic was the current state of educational technology, and I was able to share some insights and resources on the questions below. In particular, they are in the process of updating their Sylvan Sync digital learning platform, and they wanted to glean ideas about what they could be doing with this tool, in particular, as well as with broader initiatives related to digital literacy and citizenship.

In interest of full disclosure, please know that I was invited to speak at this event by Sylvan’s Vice President for Education, and my travel costs have been covered. I received no honorarium, nor do I have a financial interest in Sylvan Learning.

That said, here are some thoughts and resources.

Question 1 – How has ed tech changed the way students learn today?

On one level, we could say that learning is more personalized, that students can get immediate feedback through automated scoring, and that they are able to make better decisions about their own learning. We have many great technologies that will help — especially with some of the more mundane aspects of memorization and ensuring comprehension — and there are ways to use those, within reason, and for purposeful learning.

At a deeper level, however, I would encourage us to think about the approach to learning — and the assumption about what “good” learning is — that underlies these practices. What is it, exactly, that we are asking our students to do with technology, and asking the technology to do with and for our students? In this case, we need to look at the pedagogical assumptions underlying the tool, the website, the program.

As it relates to the way that many educational technologies are packaged, I would want us to think more about the ways in which we can use technology to help students do more than consume, to answer questions that fall on the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Instead, we need to teach them both how to be conscientious consumers of technology and media as well as how to be creative producers of their own products. They need opportunities to represent their learning in many ways, with many forms of media from the written word, to an audio recording, to recording themselves solving a problem with a digital whiteboard demonstration recorded as a screencast.

Question 2 – What is your experience with students as “digital natives”? Are there any assumptions that need to be rethought?

First, we should remember that the term “digital native,” used as shorthand to describe kids who have grown up with persistent and ubiquitous technology, was long ago dismissed by the ed tech community. There is a great article that pushed back on this phrase from both a cultural and intellectual standpoint.

That said, yes, that are quite a few assumptions that we need to consider who millennial students are, what they value, and how they learn. There are technical, social, and academic aspects.

From the technical standpoint, millennial may be on their devices all the time and have exceptional proficiency with a number of apps, websites, games, operating systems, and so forth, yet is safe to say that the vast majority of them still need explicit instruction with technology when we consider higher-level thinking, communication, and problem solving tasks. For instance, I seriously doubt that most students know how to use more than 10-20 basic features in a word processor, most of those having to do with font selection, size, and color. We talked about the use of Ctrl+F for find/replace as a basic tool, but also an opportunity for editing and revision.

We need to acknowledge the social context in which these texts are situated. If you are writing an academic paper for a college course, you better not use spaces to indent. You need to learn how to use tabs. If you are producing a flyer that will be distributed on social media, you better understand the effects of warm and cool colors on a reader/viewer.

So, there are many assumptions that need to be thought, including those that we — as adults and educators — have, including the fact that (though we may not know everything about technology) we do have many experiences as readers, writers, and thinkers that we can reference and build on as we teach students to be thoughtful, productive users of technology.

Question 3 – Has technology created a set of new fundamental skills? What are they? Whose role is it to make sure students have these skills?

Yes, technology has created a new set of fundamental skills, both technical ones (like how to use a device, install a program, and operate software) as well as social ones (such as being a good digital citizen who uses social media in a responsible manner, treats intellectual property in an ethical manner, and engages with technology in a critical, yet creative manner).

Depending on who you ask, that particular set of skills can be very granular — knowing how to keyboard efficiently, being able to operate XYZ program — or they can be quite broad like, as noted here, being a “good digital citizen” which includes many technical and social skills.

We all play a role in teaching students these skills. Of course, parents are their children’s first teachers, so modeling an effective approach to using technology across a variety of contexts, managing one’s own screen time, and setting expectations for children about their use of technology and media is important. Then, yes, the responsibility will fall squarely on the shoulders of educators, as it so often does for all other “wrap around” elements of our work in terms of emotional, financial, health, and other elements of a child’s whole self and education.

We discussed a few resources that could be helpful in this quest, including Common Sense Media’s incredible curriculum for digital citizenship.

Question 4 – What should our centers be doing to make sure we continue to support students with technology expectations of schools and ultimately the job market?

At a minimum, we should be teaching students how to evaluate their own uses of media and technology, to help them be metacognitive about the decisions they are making, both in and out of school. At the next level, I think that we should be teaching them how to explore, evaluate, and employ digital tools and information in creative, academically-appropriate ways. Then, we need to teach them how to collaborate effectively with one another, as well as with others (peers and adults) outside the walls of school.

Open Q & A with Audience

What advice would you give teachers who want to help students identify real news from fake?

As it happens, this is something that I have been working on quite a bit lately. That said, to be very concrete and concise, I will point out two resources, one a website and one a strategy:

What writing types/formats provide the best digital literacy practice for students prepping to enter college or the workforce?

First, let me begin by saying that, just as I would want for my own children, I want all kids to learn how to read and write, both with pencil and paper, as well as with smartphones and laptops. These are tools. So, let’s not confuse the tool with the task.

That said, I would also want for all children, including my own, the opportunity to write in many different genres, for a variety of audiences, and a whole continuum of purposes. So, we know from research on best practices that students need models, they need practice, and they need feedback. They need all of these things, all the time.

Check out Traci Gardner’s list from chapter 4 of her Designing Writing Assignments book:  “Defining New Tasks for Standard Writing Activities”

Is informal language (text speak) ever okay in school writing assignments?

Yes. Depending, of course, on the assignment.

For instance, in writing an essay on text speak, you would certainly want to include examples. If you were writing a story. Even in informal writing assignments (quick writes).

But, as has always been the case with grammar, when we get our writing to a point that it will be made (more) public, we want to make sure that we are using an appropriate tone, with appropriate vocabulary. Context matters.

We also tossed out a number of other ideas/tools in various parts of the conversation, including:

There are, I’m sure, more… but this is what I could recall from the conversation this morning. My hope is that the conversation was useful for those at the event, and that this round up is useful for my readers.


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Creating MINDFUL Readers and Writers

MINDFUL Graphic
Image Courtesy of Heinemann

Based on the book that I wrote with Kristen Hawley Turner, Argument in the Real World, one of the tools/strategies that I have been sharing in workshops this past year is the “MINDFUL” heuristic for readers and writers as they engage in academic arguments with, through, and about social media.

When we were wrapping up the book in early 2016, even before “fake news” and “alternative facts” became a phenomenon, Kristen and I designed this heuristic to fill in the gaps that we felt existing website evaluation checklists were missing.

In short, those checklists and other tools were created in the early days of the web when we – as educators and information consumers – generally placed the onus of responsibility on the creator for being accurate. This, of course, was a holdover from our view of the printed word having gone through extensive review and editing in order to be published. The power of books, periodicals, encyclopedias and similar sources came from the fact that they were curated by experts.

Yet, with the abundance of material emerging on the information superhighway, educators, especially librarians, knew that careful editing and peer review weren’t happening all the time. We needed to create a way for students to understand that some creators were thoughtful and accurate, while others were misleading or creating an outright hoax. So, we  held those creators to task by engaging with such checklists as readers so we could bring a critical eye to what we were reading/viewing. We also encouraged students to never trust a blog, or Wikipedia, or other sources that were not well-vetted. (Of course, we have since changed our tune. A bit).

At any rate, website evaluation checklists worked okay, for a while at least.

However, this was before the vast majority of us became content creators in the Web 2.0 era. Blogs, wikis, and other forms of media were being created at a constant pace and, unfortunately, with different audiences, purposes, and degrees of veracity.

More recently, through social media,  we are all creators, curators and circulators. Our roles as writers have changed. The role of the reader – as someone with agency and perspective in the online reading and writing process – also needed to take responsibility for the types of arguments being created and perpetuated.

What Kristen and I wanted to do, then, was to rethink this instructional strategy of website evaluation. We came from the stance of helping students –as both readers and writers of social media – to recognize that (borrowing from  Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters’ book title) everything is, indeed, an argument.

Retweets and likes are, despite the disclaimers, endorsements. And, by extension, arguments. The way that we see evidence presented in social media matters because it will inform our own stance, as well as the perspectives of others with whom we engage. We create arguments through the act of liking, retweeting, reblogging, or otherwise endorsing, let alone when we create our own updates, tweets, or blog posts.

Rethinking the traditional website evaluation tool meant that we need to consider the challenges that new media, new epistemologies, and new perspectives all bring. In other words, it was no longer enough to simply read the “about” page, do a WHOIS lookup, or even try to understand more about the language/discourse being used on the page/post.

We needed something different. Hence, MINDFUL.

We wanted to help teachers, in turn, help their students slow down just a bit – even a nano second before retweeting, or a few moments when crafting an entire post – and to think about how arguments in digital spaces are constructed, circulated, and perpetuated.

I think that MINDFUL is helpful in doing just that. Below, you will find slides that I have been using over the past few months as well as links to additional resources I discuss in the presentation.

Additional Resources

  • Argument in the Real World Wiki
  • Our post on the Heinemann blog:  Seriously? Seriously. The Importance of Teaching Reading and Writing in Social Media
  • For the MINDFUL elements
    • Monitoring our own reading and writing means that we must be aware of and account for  Confirmation Bias. Of course, helping students (and ourselves) to do that requires a number of strategies, which are outlined in the rest of the heuristic.
    • Identifying the claim means that we must separate the opinions that someone offers from the facts that may (or may not) support the claim. A refresher on Fact vs Opinion from Cub Reporters is a useful place to begin, even for adults.
    • Noting the type of evidence and how it supports the claim is useful. As a way to think through different types of evidence – In the claims they can support – it is worth taking a look at the Mathematica Policy Research Report “Understanding Types of Evidence: A Guide for Educators
    • Determining the framework/mindset is perhaps one of the most difficult elements for anyone, especially children and teenagers, to fully understand and accomplish. Without taking a full course of study in critical discourse analysis, a few resources that are helpful include the idea of Sam Wineburg’s (of the Stanford History Education Group) idea of  “reading laterally,” explained here by Michael Caulfied. Also, using sites like AllsidesOpposing Viewpoints in Context, and Room for Debate can help. Finally, there is the Media Bias Fact Check plugin for Chrome and Firefox (which, of course, has some bias, and questionable authorship). But, it’s a start.
    • Focusing on the facts requires us to check and double check in the ways that researchers and journalists would. Despite claims to the contrary from those on the fringes, sites like SnopesPolitifact,  and FactCheck are generally considered to be neutral and present evidence in an objective manner. Also, there are lots of objective datasets and reports from Pew Research.
    • Understanding the counterargument is more than just seeing someone else’s perspective and empathizing/disagreeing. We need to help students understand that arguments may not even be constructed on the same concept of information/evidence and in fact some of it could be one of the 7 Types of Mis- and Disinformation from First Draft News.
    • Finally, leveraging one’s own response is critical. Understanding the way that fake news and other propaganda is constructed  and circulated will help us make sure that we do not fall into the same traps as  writers WNYC’s On the Media provides a Breaking News Consumers Handbook for Fake News that is, of course, helpful for us as readers and viewers, but could also be a guide for what not to do as a writer.

My hope is that these websites/resources are helpful for teachers and students as they continue to be mindful readers and writers of social media.


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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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