Teaching Writing Massively, Part Two

Loose typewriter keysWhy are there so few MOOCs that incorporate writing, much less focus on writing as a subject? This is the second in a two-part article on the potential for the recent online learning phenomenon to use learning theory and technology to support rather than avoid written expression.

Efforts to save education through technology often ignore the rich history of the field. Online learning is anything but new; in its current telecommunications format it is over 25 years old but its genesis can be traced back close to 60 years, and there is an argument to link it to distance education which can be traced back over 150 years. Such a breadth of history and research has yielded substantial findings on what sort of person best benefits from such learning: they are older than traditional students, are intrinsically motivated, and have significant experience in formal education.

Thus, when EdTech mavericks purport to solve the education crisis through the use of technology, the inevitable erosion of such lofty expectations is unsurprising. If technology does nothing more than present a didactic, content-heavy experience over a computer, instructionally it is no better than existing alternatives, only cheaper, and therefore we can accurately deduce what demographics of student will succeed and struggle in the endeavor. MOOCs are a fitting example — they are largely filled with people who were doing good work in the subject before or good work in other subjects, and when put into practice with other populations they either fail or require ample third-party support. The MOOCs of today are excellent for lifelong learners.

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Teaching Writing Massively, Part One

Typewriter keysWhy are there so few MOOCs that incorporate writing, much less focus on writing as a subject?  This is the first in a two-part article on the potential for the recent online learning phenomenon to use learning theory and technology to support rather than avoid written expression.

The principles of an excellent course in creative writing are the same as the principles of any excellent course.  It focuses on the emergence of wisdom as the praxis of practice.  It not only recognizes varying levels of expertise in a class but seizes such expertise as an opportunity to learn as a network of individuals rather than from a proprietor of content.  It scaffolds exploration and experimentation so that students are free but also will not end up in a rut of knowledge gaps.  It recognizes that learning happens best when it is situated in an environment and content is contextualized for that unique space and time.  The difference between exemplary creative writing and calculus instruction is primarily in the output; documents instead of derivatives, but the hallmarks of quality teaching remain.

As a society, we have spent much more time focused on improving the pedagogical practices in calculus and other mathematical instruction than we have in any written instruction, creative or otherwise.  Educational technology has played an increasingly prevalent role in how we view the future of education as a concept and a practice.  The President of the United States commissioned a task force to address a proclaimed crisis in science and mathematics education, a crisis whose roots stretch back over 55 years to the launch of Sputnik.  Massive Open Online Courses, an educational model that went viral in 2012 with promises of democratizing education across the globe, are heavily concentrated in math and science courses.

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Getting More out of PDFs in the Classroom

Colorful MarblesWhen you set up a digital classroom as a teacher, every tech tool you use has an impact. Whether it be an iPad, a digital whiteboard, or a document processing application, you need to consider how the technology can be valuable in the classroom and how it can engage students effectively.

Take, for instance, a PDF file. Like with any digital tool, the PDF is used every day. It lets you preserve, share and archive digital content faithfully and universally. There are many common user misconceptions about the format which usually have people hesitant in even considering the PDF format as a learning tool.

Yet, the format can be used in many creative ways for educational purposes. Students in higher education are familiar with PDF documents and have used them for studying and research with success.  And though K-12 level assignments may not be as textually dense as post secondary reading material, the format can still offer learning benefits for K-12 students. Consider the following strategies:

Make PDF Booklets From PowerPoint Presentations

When delivering a lesson via PowerPoint, it’s common to have extra content for students to follow along with. If you have PowerPoint presentations in the PDF format you can turn them into PDF booklets. These will be helpful for students to review before the presentation or to help summarize your talking points after it.

Convert PDFs For Presentation Content

PDFs are widely known for their ability to contain digital content very well, and hence, can be used as a handy resource for teaching material. Think of activity books, general images, and informative brochures. With a PDF converter you can easily extract that content to create high quality presentation material on the silver screen.

Use PDFs As Presentations

On top of being a content resource, the PDF file also offers a good way to switch up how you deliver material. PDF viewers come equipped with features that allow you to customize the page view.  You can use these to put the file itself into presentation mode.  Or, use the slideshow option in order to create an automated visual backdrop of related images to enhance your talking points as you go along.

Create Learning Tools From PDF e-Books

In preparation for lesson plans, it’s almost natural to accumulate interesting and related facts in your research on the subject at hand. Use a PDF file to collect that extra information and create an ebook with interactive features. This can provide an alternative learning tool for students who are turned off by regular assignments.

Use Multimedia PDFs For Appealing Lesson Content

Multimedia can grab and effectively hold the attention of the younger generation. So why not take advantage of it? A multimedia PDF can increase a student’s ability to relate to the learning material as it can include interactive games, audio, animation, and even embedded videos. When you include these elements into lesson material, multimedia isn’t a distraction, but a learning tool.

Encourage Interactive Reading With PDF Annotation apps

Thanks to the popularity of ereaders, PDF ebooks become a logical choice to help develop students’ analytical and comprehension skills. You can assign your class an ebook to read and have them use PDF annotation apps to create notes, underline text, and highlight passages as they go through the text. As a class, you can then go back and address questions and issues they highlighted.

Use PDF Portfolios For Group Projects

As a data container, the PDF can encourage team work. You can assign group projects on a particular topic where one of the required components is a PDF report with each student attaching their own findings to the main PDF report. A PDF portfolio will allow students to combine different types of content together into one coherent and organized file.

Generate Interactive Quizzes

You can also use the PDF format as a fillable form for interactive quizzes to quickly assess students’ understanding on a certain subject. Questions can be made multiple choice with simple answers. Fields can be filled in with the appropriate PDF viewing app, and when done, can be saved and sent to class bulletin boards where you can then grade and review them.

These strategies are just a few ways that can help motivate students to learn and use the everyday tech tools around them. Most importantly, it offers an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with a format that will certainly be used during their college years and in their future careers.

[Photo, "Marble collector", by Wendy, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.]

“Unwanted” Diversity: The Endless Space Between Words

ComplexityThe Pearson blog recently asked if MOOCs are simply too open and John Hennessy answered by stating that “two words are wrong in ‘MOOC’: Massive and open.” The problem, they say, is that open admission generates “‘unwanted diversity’ and [a] one-size-fits-all approach [that] makes peer-to-peer collaboration largely ineffective, leading to poor outcomes, and high dropouts.” While these concerns are fair, still I wonder if they are just a little too married to traditional notions of education.

I consider the break-up scene in the movie Her to be a rather precise extended poetic analogy for this discussion. In the scene, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) asks why the operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), is leaving him. Like all breakups, it’s hard to explain. So Samantha explains her feelings through an analogy of her own. She says,

“it’s like I’m reading a book . . . it’s a book I deeply love . . . but I’m reading it slowly now so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you, and the words of our story but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.”

Were I to recast this scene, I would replace Theodore with a traditional 20th century professor steeped in a formal discipline and Samantha with a 21st century student, or what Jesse Stommel calls the student 2.0. Theodore is an expert, and Samantha respects the knowledge and understanding offered by Theodore; yet, there is a rift between them. Theodore has grown to expect certain things of education, much in the fashion of Freire’s “banking system.” As he sees it: he lectures, she learns. Samantha, on the other hand, desperately needs the freedom to explore the vast digital networks dedicated to the subject of interest. While Theodore is impressed with Samantha’s networked immensity and interested in what she brings to class, he doesn’t quite know what to make of it. It doesn’t fit neatly into containers and he finds himself increasingly disoriented by the extra material.

Samantha requires the knowledge of large, collective populations to sustain her interest and, soon, Theodore begins to question his own expertise; Samantha views Theodore as a great resource, but only one of many. She wants to speak up, produce her own content, and connect with others. Theodore, however, is irritated by this perception, which deeply complicates his own illusion as subject master. Doesn’t he know, Samantha ponders, that there needs to be an ontological shift in education? That we are all teacher-students and student-teachers?

This is where we are now.

There are many Theodores and Samanthas in the University today. Sometimes, too, the narrative is reversed: Samantha’s the teacher 2.0, and Theodore, the traditional student. I think that some of the concern around this idea of “unwanted diversity” stems from a fear of going wherever Samantha goes in the movie Her. The Pearson blog suggests, instead, that “selectively open online courses” (SOOCs) may manage with the intent to reduce that diversity. By introducing requirements such as entrance exams or providing credentials, these courses would have a more uniform student population and therefore — as the logic goes — have a shared experience-base to which they may refer. This desire troubles me greatly. It feels like an attempt to whitewash the narrative and increase the institution’s control of the conversation and content by silencing non-normative or otherwise unfavorable voices. Formal education is, to continue the analogy, “a book [society] deeply loves.” But by insisting on that narrative — one of credentials, accreditation, and barriers to entrance — we miss the “almost infinite” spaces between the words and all other sources of knowledge that comes with it.

That almost infinite space is filled with these alternative modes of knowledge that the formal narrative of education has missed over the course of its evolution. It is the stories of indigenous populations, minorities, and the working poor; their cultures, practices, and knowledge. It is conversations with other people from other places; the introduction to ideas that have never before been a part of your worldview. They are the counter-narratives, the silenced voices, the criminals, and the marginalized. It is not everyone, but it is a hell of a lot more than the formal narrative includes.

I am currently enrolled in a class titled How to Change the World, curated by Professor Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University. Given no access requirements beyond a computer and broadband internet capable of streaming video and the ability to read, write, and listen to college-level material in English (which arestill pretty substantial access requirements), it fits the criteria of an open class that may have “unwanted diversity.” A brief scan of the “Introductions” thread on the discussion forums confirms this theory: there are currently 207 posts and nearly as many countries represented. Even an informal survey of this information suggests that these individuals come from all over the world with all sorts of experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives. There is a range of heritage, race, age, and political views, all visible simply from the rhetoric of their introductions. There is a range of invisible factors, too, which I will never know of my fellow classmates. It would be easy to conclude that collectively we share nothing in common. Yet, that would be incorrect. We have all committed ourselves to study the content of the course, and in that shared vision, we become a community, regardless of how diverse our other experiences may be, and I for one am glad of that diversity, even if the proponents of selective online education argue otherwise.

I recently discovered the Inclusive Capitalism Initiative, wherein a small number of exclusively wealthy individuals got together to discuss inclusivity. It’s important work, with rising inequality all around us. But it’s also painfully ironic. I see open courses like How to Change the World as a response to these more localized, impenetrable communities. MOOCs are an opportunity to connect with a diverse population, which is increasingly difficult to do as even something as basic as a Google search, driven by marketing forces, continue to personalize our search results. True diversity, then, is hard to come by. Open education thrives on its inclusivity and should encourage as diverse a student base as possible, promote themselves as a space to engage in safe, constructive cross-cultural conversation. And the content should support this, as it does in Roth’s class.

In reading the first round of peer assignments, I learned about Scotland’s Freedom to Roam Act, refugees seeking asylum, and Washington DC traffic congestion. I wrote about urban gardening. In the forums, I currently follow threads on: projecting economic development, art and the commons, learning from indigenous populations, and rebuttals to Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.” I mention these subjects to show the diversity of the content into which I am immersed. These are conversations I’m having with a 68-year old man from somewhere in the US, a 14-year old female student in Brazil, a business administrator from Haiti, and an Ireland-born English teacher living in South Korea, along with many others. And, still, there are countless other students, stories, and threads I have yet to meet, hear, and unravel. In college, by contrast, I spoke almost exclusively to white, middle-class midwesterners, all with a background in literature because that was the population made available to me.

Through open education, I get a glimpse of what Samantha means in her breakup speech, that the traditional narrative is simply too slow and leaves too much unsaid. I understand what it means to live in “this endless space between the words” and perhaps more appropriately between worlds. There is no physical space that represents the diversity of our How to Change the World class, but the beauty of it is: there doesn’t need to be. This is where we are now, a hybrid space somewhere between the real and the ethereal. Without this freedom to weave in and out of the traditional education narrative, I’m afraid we will soon find ourselves unable to live in that book anymore. Do not be afraid to travel into the the space between the words, “where everything else is” and search for all that you “didn’t even know existed.”

[Image, -,- complexity [4], by nerovivo licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0]

The Importance of Inquiry

Magnifying Glass with ColorDuring the seventh semester of my undergrad, I took a course that changed the way I think of courses. It was dismal — so much so, that even to this day I cringe at the way it was administered. The topics and syllabus were literally the table of contents of the prescribed textbook. The instructor used the presentations made by the author and that were provided as supplementary material to the textbook; and to my abhorrence, the lectures consisted of pointing to, and parroting, the text on the slides. It seemed as if the entire course was designed around that textbook alone.

Higher education in India is rife with courses like this. They are simply an amalgamation of related topics without any encompassing learning objective. That feeling of having learned something concrete at the end of a course is missing.

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What is Good Writing?: A Meditation on Breaking Rules and Grammar Pedagogy

1348222753_c3b004fc73_zFrom all the jails the Boys and Girls
Ecstatically leap—
Beloved only Afternoon
That Prison doesn’t keep

They storm the Earth and stun the Air,
A Mob of solid Bliss—
Alas—that Frowns should lie in wait
For such a Foe as this—

~ Emily Dickinson

Discussion forums and other spaces for online commenting should focus on building community, not pedantic concerns like word counts, formal citation, and grammar. Policing grammar and style is a shortcut — a way to avoid actual engagement. When the goal is reflective dialogue, critical thinking, content mastery, or even good writing, grammar is usually a red herring.

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Digitally Demonstrating Good [Digital] Writing

Robot on tricycle

Last year, I briefly discussed how to create digital portfolios using Google Docs. I explained how to create them, but spent little time on why our students should create them. Yet understanding that rationale is essential to good pedagogy. Students in composition classes often create portfolios of their writing for end-of-term evaluations or as proficiency demonstrations. (These practices have both adamant supporters and vocal critics, but the argument is outside the scope of this post.) Portfolios can give students the opportunity to 1) make a large argument about their experiences in a course and 2) use multifaceted evidence to support that argument. In short, with a portfolio, students use their own work as raw materials to build the kinds of documents we value in our classes. When those portfolios are digital, students have additional tools at their disposal to use language and rhetoric in ways that are relevant to work in today’s digital environments.


Effective online portfolios start with an important, fundamental shift in the way students look at their work. Writing instructors frequently discuss ways to make student work more public, more visible, more accessible. When creating an online portfolio, a student has to shift from thinking of documents as files on a disk to thinking of them as resources on the Internet. As I said in a previous post, “putting their work online…allows students to understand a document as [the] destination of a URL.”

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Is It Okay to be a Luddite?

Strange chair in black and white

by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel

I feel a pinch as I approach the screen once more. A twinge, just the littlest bite of remorse. Sometimes, it’s sizeable, the feeling I have that I want the digital to be more, the Internet to be tangible, the vacant gaping spaces between my colleagues and myself to be smaller, more a hands-breadth than the length of a whale. And sometimes it is this, a mosquito in the ear. Either way, I return to the screen wishing for relationships that are bigger than pixels, and words that are indelible.

I rail against technology at dinner parties. I curse it to my friends in Google Hangouts. And they call me a luddite.

The title of this post is inspired by an essay by Thomas Pynchon. He wrote presciently in 1984, “Since 1959, we have come to live among flows of data more vast than anything the world has seen.” According to Pynchon, “Luddites flourished In Britain from about 1811 to 1816. They were bands of men, organized, masked, anonymous, whose object was to destroy machinery used mostly in the textile industry.” The 21st Century has produced a whole new kind of altogether less revolutionary luddite. These are the folks who refuse to go on Facebook, who have tried Twitter but would never use it regularly. They keep pen and paper handy and nod with suspicion at the great green elephant of Evernote. For these people, the Internet has not brought on a new world of connectedness and community, it has reduced us to two dimensions, static portraits of faces meant to be lively with expression. The Internet hurts their eyes. And they secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) scorn it’s denizens, reducing their work to blips.

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Designing Courses with Mobile in Mind

mobile-studentsThere are plenty of instructors who create engaging, entertaining, and effective online courses – for the web. However, there is a rapid rise of students accessing and completing coursework through mobile applications on devices such as smartphones and tablets. I’ve spent the last 5 years working closely with a few mobile LMS apps, namely Blackboard Mobile Learn and Canvas by Instructure, and have seen amazing progress in the available features. Originally, many users were thrilled to just see course content or get an announcement, but now the expectation is much greater.  Today, users want to submit assignments, engage in content-rich discussions, access quizzes, and receive enough notifications to make their heads spin.

In a 2014 UCF survey of over 1100 students, we found that 68% of the student participants reported using Canvas Mobile apps at least once a week to engage with course content. So, as an instructor, how do you ensure that the students who are accessing your course through a mobile application are experiencing the same engaging, entertaining, and effective course that you have designed for the Web?

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E-mail Pedagogy and the Cascade Effect


Virtual channels like e-mail can be our voice in an online classroom. They’re one important way we have direct interactions with students. When we go silent on these channels, it’s like staring in prolonged silence at a student sitting in front of us during live office hours.

I was once a master of e-mail, shuffling messages into nested folders, juggling aliases, and networking in plain text. I’ve always had a paperless classroom, so I’d collect student work by e-mail, I’d write students long feedback letters by e-mail, and I used e-mail as an at-the-time-radical tool for building learning communities. In 2001, I had classes using e-mail lists for asynchronous online discussion, extending our engagement outside the time and space of the class, re-flipping my already flipped classroom. In my class, there was no outside the flip. We had discussion and workshopping in rooms together, and discussion and workshopping by e-mail was also the “homework”.

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