This post is part of a lecture to new faculty at Fayetteville State University. In part,, it grows out of my participation in the American Democracy Project’s eCitizenship Initiative Meeting in Detroit, along with several other faculty members. The goal of the project is to introduce faculty to social media tools that we can use to help students become more engaged with their classroom experiences and campus communities.
I have been using many of these tools in my English 518 course, “Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom,” which focuses on instructing teachers on using some of these tools. Some background: The ideas here are the practical and pedagogical expression of some of the research that I have been doing over the last 6-7 years (basically since spring 2003). To some extent they are informed by the emphasis on “crowdsourcing” explored by Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody) and on “commons-based peer production,” discussed by Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks).
Blogs: Although blogs are becoming a fairly visible part of web culture, professors and teachers are still exploring their implications for classroom use. The most common expectations of blogs is that they are frequently updated, with newer entries appearing at the top of the page, making them valuable for course updates and for organizing class discussion. Although Blackboard offers a blog function, I have often used public blogs in order to help students learn to write for a public audience and to help students begin to develop the “filtering” process that has become one of the central tasks of information literacy. Some useful links for faculty interested in blogging:
- Possible benefits of “public blogging:” the potential to connect with other readers who might have shared interests
- Clay Shirky’s discussion of looser networks (strong vs. weak ties); benefits of being able to move beyond an immediate circle of peers
- My original appraoch to blogs saw them in terms of a Habermasian public sphere, allowing for unfettered dialogue across social groups
- Limitations: Cass Sunstein, in particular, is skeptical that such dialogue can sustain a vibrant democracy; instead we exist largely in echo chambers where we tend to communicate only with others who already share our point-of-view
- There are two major free blogging services, Blogger and WordPress (demo setting up a Blogger blog), where you can set up blogs, usually within minutes. Both services offer default templates, but if you have basic web design skills, you can customize your template rather quickly. Both services allow you to insert hyperlinks, video, and images quickly and easily.
- Here are two past courses, both at Georgia Tech, where I required students to create both personal and group blogs, Rhetoric and Democracy and Writing to the Moment. My current course, Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom, also uses a blog, primarily to organize/disseminate information, but I also model some of the more helpful/useful blogging practices there (http://fsutech.edublogs.org/).
- I usually require students in the graduate course to write two blog entries a week, one that addresses that week’s reading assignment and another that asks them to identify an article or essay outside of the course readings to share it with classmates.
- Goal: to create a sense that course material connects to the “real world” and vice versa. One of the challenges associated with teaching is conveying (1) a sense of relevance and (2) connections between classes.
- Be sure to illustrate this point using the Rhetoric and Democracy blog, showing how you were able to get feedback on course readings, interests, etc.
- Advantages/disadvantages of different kinds of blogging structures: (1) individual student blogs; (2) group discussion blogs (4-6 students); (3) course streams
- Be prepared for readers outside the class to discover your blogs and your students’ work, especially if you create a direct link to someone else’s site. In a few cases, authors have left comments on student blogs responding to what they have to say. For the most part, this seems to validate student perceptions of their writing, suggesting that others found it interesting or engaging.
- Sample class blogs by faculty at other universities include David Silver (University of San Francisco), Bill Wolff (Rowan University), and Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Pomona University).
- For some information about blogging and scholarship, here is a presentation I gave at this year’s MLA conference in Philadelphia, and for another helpful explanation of the value of blogging, you might also read Andrew Sullivan’s “Why I Blog.”
Twitter: Another easy-to-use resource, Twitter is a microblogging service that limits updates to 140 characters. Although it has been much-maligned, it is also an incredibly valuable tool for sharing information and organizing conversation. Valuable to contextualize Twitter in terms of liveness, immediacy, etc. Steven Johnson explains “how Twitter will change the way we live.”
- My personal Twitter account. Discuss how you find people, how you deal with followers, etc.
- Use of Blackboard to compile a list of Twitter accounts for your courses
- Possible classroom uses for the @reply/retweet feature: users can direct a response to a specific comment while keeping their tweet public (demonstrate, asking readers to say hi, tell us where you are)
- Role of hashtags in organizing conversations: #MLA09 as conference backchannel. You could create a course hashtag and allow students to submit questions via cell phone/text during class or to raise questions outside of class (one problem: older tweets may not be successfully archived after a few days; Twitter is more ephemeral than blogs).
- An article by Virginia Heffernan of The New York Times about the role of hashtags in reshaping Twitter conversations.
- Posting links: although Twitter is often criticized because it limits discussion to 140-characters, many tweeps use it to link to longer forms of writing, including blog posts. There are several URL shorteners on the web, including bit.ly and tinyurl.com.
- Acknowledge that 21 y.o. and younger students have been less likely to pick up Twitter than older groups (especially 21-40 y.o.). Perhaps a product of Twitter’s vibe as a networking tool for connecting with others
- Younger students are more likely to prefer hanging with their friends: questions about privacy are relatively complicated. Most teens are actually fairly cautious about interacting with anyone outside their social circle; however, they may be a little less attentive to some of the privacy issues that Facebook, Twitter, and other sites introduce
- Although students have been more reluctant to pick up Twitter than Facebook, it is being widely used by film, media, and literary scholars (among others). For some discussion of Twitter’s use in the classroom, see Kelli Marshall (who identified some problems with using it) and David Parry, who offers a number of helpful instructions on setting up students with accounts.
- The backchannel in a classroom: if you allow students to use laptops in class, this is a good way to provide them with an additional outlet for posing questions to the class or of raising questions when discussion moves too quickly. Again, this is an opportunity to show students how to use social media effectively in order to find information they might find interesting.
- Lists as a convenient way to follow a sub-group of specific Twitter users: Film Studies for Free’s “Essential Reads” and Dan Cohen’s “Digital Humanities” list. My course list (http://twitter.com/#/list/chutry/english-518). Allows me to review Twitter conversations at a glance, to see quickly who is participating.
- One activity could ask students to create a list of users who are addressing issues related to the course that you teach or related to an issue of interest to them.
- Three recent articles on Twitter: Inside Higher Ed reports on Twitter’s use at this years MLA Convention, Clive Thompson on Twitter’s “sixth sense,” and my AlterNet article, “Why You Should Be on Twitter.”
Wikis: Most people know wikis only from the collaborative encyclopedia, Wikipedia, the massive online encyclopedia that “anyone” can edit. Although this crowdsourced approach to knowledge organization has been widely criticized, research has shown that it is no less accurate than other major encyclopedias, but most media scholars are interested in the wiki tool as offering a new mode of authorship for the digital age, one that emphasizes collaboration rather than individuality.
- Blackboard offers a wiki function that I haven’t yet tested. PBWiki is a free wiki service that offers basic wiki authoring tools (they make money through ads). Other professors have had success with requiring students to write Wikipedia entries on subjects that haven’t yet been included in the site or to polish entries on subjects familiar to the students. Wikipedia has a very helpful page offering suggestions for instructors thinking about creating assignments around the site.
- There is a relatively slow learning curve with teaching students wiki authoring. I spent several class periods working with students and many of them still struggled. But here is a typical welcome page for a wiki (login may be required) (my most recent wiki: http://fsutech2010.pbworks.com/).
- PB Works and most other wiki programs offer the administrator to make the wiki public or private, depending upon the needs of the course.
- Some limitations on the amount of free wiki space available to a wiki organizer, but I have never come close to reaching that limit (heavy use of images and embedded video may cut into these totals considerably, though).
- Benefits, if you can get the site to work: great for collaborative writing and for providing students with a space where they can pursue a collective research project
- Biggest challenge: finding something that will keep the students engaged. I have tried to create projects focused around Fayetteville, often without success. Still thinking about ideas here. One of the best I’ve seen is Krista Kennedy’s class project: 35W Bridge, a project where students worked together to create an information hub about the Minneapolis bridge collapse (http://35wbridge.pbworks.com/).
- Could work as a cross-course project? Useful in leaning communities, maybe, where students are expected to do some cross-disciplinary work
- Wikis might also be helpful in teaching students to use other networking tools. Use of Flickr to teach students how to find images (make sure you have some discussion of copyright, Creative Commons).
- A more productive project–one that I found to be very successful, even if students were originally resistant–was an assignment asking students to analyze Wikipedia as a source. Here is my original description of the project (note: this entry offers a number of useful links, including the assigned readings I gave) and an update a few weeks later after I’d read the students’ papers.
- My project in particular asked students to examine how a typical Wikipedia entry is conducted in order to make conclusions about new forms of digital writing and collaboration. I used the entry on Representative Joe Wilson to jumpstart this project, showing students both the discussion and archive pages for his entry (see the tabs at the top of the page on Wilson).
Google Docs: Related to wikis, Google Docs allows you to share a document with as many people as you would like. You can give full editorial control to as many users as you would like, and the site allows you to create documents that can easily be translated into most word processing programs.
- May be useful if you are trying to organize resources for a larger project; in fact, in the famous video, “A Vision of Students Today,” Kansas State University professor Michael Wesch used a Google Doc to work with his students to compile the data that he used in the video
- So far, I have used Google Docs once in class (http://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=0Ac9F-AzMT4gUZGc0Yzk1ZGhfM2huZmc0eGZk&hl=en), and am working on getting the students to answer a few questions about their students’ experiences with various online research tools.