Student Agency in Canvas Groups

College students want opportunities to practice being professionals, but they infrequently have those opportunities because so much of their lives are scripted or pre-defined. Their class schedules determine where they spend their time; their instructors determine what they do with that time; their campus activities teams often determine the events they attend during a week. When exceptions creep up, and students have a chance to practice being professionals, they’re often seen “dressing up” and walking across campus in suits. They carry themselves differently than when they arrive to a class groggy and pajama-clad. When students take themselves seriously and have a chance to act professional, it’s fun for instructors to watch, and it’s a great, low-risk opportunity for the student.

My classes are first-year writing courses, taken mostly by freshmen, often among the earliest classes in their days, and rarely a class they expect to have control over. Most students arrive to a college writing course with experience in five-paragraph, formulaic writing that meets the needs of the teacher or fills a blank on a standardized test. Many of my students arrive to my classes looking resigned. I work hard to change that and give them agency over their learning—to be professional learners—and group work through Canvas facilitates that goal.

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Learning beyond the Course

"Learn" signThis piece was previously published at Educating Modern Learners in September 2014.

A lot of the most valuable learning that occurs for students is not easily visible or measurable. But this should not mean that we as teachers shouldn’t aim to develop that learning in our students. It also does not mean we cannot evaluate that learning; but it requires a shift in our perception of what and how to evaluate in that invisible learning.

I had two experiences last year that solidified my belief in the importance of emphasizing the process of learning over the product of learning. The first experience was my educational game design module. I teach the third and final module of an undergraduate core curriculum course on creativity and creative problem solving. I could have approached the entire module with a lot of scaffolding, teaching my students the details of how to design a game, how to make it educational, etc. They probably would have produced wonderful games that are really well-designed if they had followed the instructions and rubrics I gave them in advance. Instead, I chose to give them minimal scaffolding.

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Clippy’s Ghost: Teaching from the Margins

6111633558_45c6bf02aa_bA long time ago, when many of us had to dial up their Internet providers, Microsoft granted us a companion. Clippy, as she was known, offered assistance with letter writing, formatting, and even suggestions for revision. For some, she was the original AI, a vision of things to come. And in many ways, this proved prophetic. Clippy predated the widespread integration of digital technology in education. For the rest of us, however, Clippy was pithy, obtrusive, and nearly impossible to turn off. Despite her extensive (albeit, technical) knowledge of writing, the author often preferred not to listen. Clippy was not a good teacher.

Writing is a daunting task. This is especially true for those uncertain of their abilities. Young authors, the newly literate, and foreign language learners among others struggle to express their ideas in words. Hell, I struggle to express my ideas in words. I am frequently at my most vulnerable when I am in front of my keyboard, trying to translate the things in my head into pixels on a screen. I get the itch to tilt my screen away from other living souls, cat included. In my stronger moments, I resist; however, I often find myself Alt+tabbing to a nondescript webpage when I pause to ask my partner a question, usually about the piece I am writing.

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Advice from a Luddite

colorful abacusI’ve never asked my students to use an abacus. David Schwartz, via his book, G is for Googol, informs me that an abacus is an impressive piece of technology, often allowing abacus users to best calculator users in a race for mathematical answers. The international history and enduring presence of the abacus are also fascinating. But still, no abacuses in my classroom. Not yet, anyway.

So why am I such a luddite? There’s some truth in simple, somewhat lazy, answers: I’m not sure what an abacus has to offer me or my students, I don’t have one, I don’t really know how to use one, and no one, neither student nor teacher, not even an administrator, has yet regaled me with stories of the abacus as a transformative classroom tool.

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CFP: Student-Centered Learning

Boy in Aquarium“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” ~ John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education

What is student-centered learning? Depends on who you ask. Even a brief survey of teachers elicits a variety of responses:

“It’s a buzzword.”
“It allows learning to originate from students.”
“It’s when you settle for the lowest common denominator.”
“Too often, it’s just a platitude.”

During my various tenures as a graduate student teacher, an adjunct Composition instructor, and the chair of the English department, student-centered learning was always at the top of my priorities in terms of pedagogy. For me, it was simple: put learning in the hands of students. Give them the autonomy to be responsible for their own learning, and both respect their efforts and expect great results. I was taught that critical pedagogy (my preferred approach) is always student-centered, and that its aim is for learners to take learning into their own hands, because by doing so they would develop agency — which then would carry them into the world beyond the academy. “Education,” says Paulo Freire, “becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

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On Not Silencing Students: A Pedagogical How-to

Painted crosswordWhy do students submit writing to their teachers? Many writing-intensive courses at all levels of education center on student-created, teacher-graded writing assignments. Such a system streamlines the production process, letting students know what tools they should use to create and submit their work, and letting them write to a familiar audience. After all, if students write to a teacher every year, they should be good at guessing what teachers expect by the time they get to college. By always writing to a teacher for a grade, students implicitly learn that writing exists for the benefit of that audience, and that readers assess the quality of writing…and do nothing else in response. All their work creating words falls silent after we issue a grade.

Compare that scenario with the small-scale writing goals of students outside the classroom: They send text messages to coordinate activities with friends, craft Facebook updates to garner likes and tweets to garner retweets or followers, or post yaks to get upvotes or attention. When students write content on social platforms, no matter how public their voices become, their writing is purposeful. Outside the classroom, students write to do things. Inside the classroom, students write to get a grade. What I’ll call the “purpose disparity” immediately renders classroom writing less meaningful and less real to our students. To reverse that imbalance, we need to see student writing in a different context.

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Structure is Not Sacrosanct:  A Pedagogical How-to

Old frame amidst junkWhat does a student-centered classroom look like?  In recent years this question has gone from a fringe conversation amongst scholars of pedagogy to a mainstream discussion more and more common in spaces around higher education and beyond.  A recent report by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA confirms this; for the first time in the history of their expansive triennial study on faculty attitudes in higher education, the majority of surveyed faculty reported using non-lecture classroom methods in their face to face spaces.   Within six years, the study notes, the trend could become permanent, meaning a change in the discourse around higher education, where society no longer views instruction as dictated to passive students from a person standing behind a lectern.

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#iNACOL14: Blended Learning, and the Talk at the Table

Last week, I heard Sal Khan speak at the iNACOL 2014 conference in Palm Springs. Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, a virtual, multi-disciplinary massive open project that bears as its tagline the promise: “You can learn anything.” Khan was a good speaker, entertaining and approachable — huggable even, as entrepreneurs go. And the overall message of his plenary keynote speech was very similar to his company’s tagline. He spoke about offering a “world-class education” to anyone, anywhere. He offered up the video testimonial of a high school dropout who used Khan Academy to reignite his love of learning, get a degree, and go on to meaningful, gainful employment (at Khan Academy). The keynote — as keynotes are wont — was meant to inspire and excite the 2,500 teachers and administrators and information technologists in the room toward a better and brighter future for K-12 education. Continue reading

Rhetoric of Design: A Pedagogical How-to

8374850916_f33c988eef_zThe word ‘rhetoric’ has a bad reputation. When most people use it, they use it negatively: “That company just spews rhetoric about their political views.” But most of us who live in the academic world know that rhetoric is much more than this. For Aristotle, rhetoric was “the available means of persuasion,” which is still a pretty good definition today. Recently though, our available means have shifted to include means that many of us never could have imagined as children, not to mention what Aristotle never imagined. Now, we can include items in our persuasion tool belts like fonts, layouts, and even web design. Of course some of us possess internet skills that others don’t, and that’s always okay, but because you clearly know enough about digital writing to be reading this Keep Learning blog, I want to explain how important knowledge of digital design is to have in our pedagogical tool belts.

It is becoming increasingly important for writers to think visually. If we are going to survive in a world of screens, we need to begin to think about how to go about it. One of the tools we already have is design. We already think about the margins and fonts we use when we create a traditional style essay. And those of us who tweet, blog, or use Instagram are thinking about the presentation the 140-character message, the blog we keep about running, or the Instagramming we do of our food. In 2002, rhetoric and composition scholar Diana George claimed in her article, “From Analysis to Design” that “to talk of literacy instruction in terms of design means to ask writers to draw on available knowledge and, at the same time, transform that knowledge/those forms as we redesign” (26). George goes on to quote the New London Group on the matter: “Designing transforms knowledge in producing new constructions and representations of reality.” For both George and the New London Group, design is an impactful part of our rhetorical approach to whatever project we’re working on. Further, design is not a neutral space. Think about the colors you might chose for the background on a blog about your travels to Germany. If you chose to make the background colors red, white, and blue, what message(s) are you sending choosing this color palette over a red, black, and gold one?

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Wired for Collaboration


Beth Sanders and Pernille Ripp, along with countless other teachers from around the world, are “connected educators.” Beth uses digital technologies “to tear down the walls of a traditional classroom”. An educator committed to social justice, her students share their voices with the world through class discussions held on Twitter. Pernille has brought networked learning to a global level — in 2010, she began the Global Read Aloud program, which connected more than 144,000 students, representing thirty countries from six continents. They are exemplars of connected educators, teachers who construct knowledge, collaborate, and interact with other educators all over the world via social media to develop networks to deepen understanding (Wong, 2013). Connected educators embody Siemens’ connectivist theory emphasizing the need to collaborate, and learn through networks. This approach to teaching and learning enables teachers to positively engage K-12 students with global experts and opportunities.

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