Tag Archives: blogs

picking the right web tool for the job

Choosing to use a technology tool in a class can lead one down a difficult road. One important key is to figure out what tool to use for the job at hand. So do you use discussion groups, a digital movie project, a wiki, or a blog? To analogize, I wouldn’t want to use a belt sander to grout my bathroom tile, so it would be nice to better understand the nature of these different tools.

So how does one decide what tool or is the best for a specific application or need?

 I’ve found a couple of helpful guides to better understand blogs and wikis in the context of teaching and active learning:

Managing online discussions

As we at Illinois Wesleyan struggle to adapt courses to include online or technology components it often seems that a square peg is being pounded into a round hole. Some parts of some courses are well suited to technology tools and some are not. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Online resources can be accessed at any time, from any place, any number of times
  • Computers can deliver content at the student’s own pace

So it seems that some things can be done outside of classtime so we can get them “out of the way” to spend classtime on higher-level academic discourse. Why not teach basic terminology or vocabulary as online homework so you can tackle tougher stuff in person?

Similarly, if students are engaging in intellectual enterprises outside of class (such as writing critical responses to class reading) doesn’t that mean they benefit from the practice of constructing arguments, or even from the practice of writing in general?

Certainly there are benefits. But how does a teacher manage student activity in the online medium? Let me start with three common refrains from faculty:

  • “How do I get students to engage in frequent, quality online discussions?”
  • “How am I going to grade all that?”
  • “How am I even going to read all that??”

I attended a conference this month and heard an interesting response to these concerns. John Fritz, from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County uses a construct he calls “Participation Portfolios.” Here is his abstract:

If you want students to use online discussions, how do you avoid initiating every thread or simply counting all their replies? By defining and rewarding substantive Q&A (and requiring an online “participation portfolio”). Students will take responsibility for discussions and reduce your burden in assessing them.

John makes an important distinction between quantity of discussion and quality of discussion. This is something that he clearly sets out at the beginning of a course with a rubric. By setting clear guidelines of what makes a post or response “good”, “average”, or “poor” he eliminates “me-too” responses and also reduces grade-groveling later in the term. He requires posts and responses to be spread throughout the course, to stem the tendency to “dogpile” at the end of a term. And it cannot be ignored that John participates in the online discussion. This models the behavior he desires from his students, and sets the academic tone of the discussion.

The students are then asked to pull the best examples of “good” posts, week by week, from the online class discussion forum. They cut-and-paste them into a Word template, propose their own grade based on the rubric, and hand them in. John reserves the right to adjust the grades, but finds that most students are harder on themselves that he would have been.

This system of Participation Portfolios addresses a number of problems. It provides a for-credit incentive with clear quality guidelines for students . It reduces the workload on a faculty member by distilling a term’s worth of discussion into a single assignment. It also requires a student to evaluate their writing and assess themselves.

If you want to hear about how well the assignment works, watch this video interview with UMBC Professor Chris Swan about this portfolio assignment (opens in iTunes).

UMBC didn’t come up with this overnight. They have a program on their campus to promote Alternative Delivery of class content. Faculty design a online/hybrid learning module and test it twice – once for students and once for faculty. They then make a 10 minute presentation about their experience to earn a stipend.

I hope that by reviewing the best practices at some other institutions, such as the Portfolio that John Fritz proposes, we might ease the integration of technology into some of our own courses.

technology we are thinking about

I’d like to share with you a few things that we are checking out in the Office of IT. These aren’t things we are committed to at this stage but if you have an opinion I’d like to hear it!

  • Moodle, an open-source alternative to Blackboard or WebCT. Moodle provides a set of course tools that include wikis, online quizzes, and grade books.
  • RSS Feed readers like Bloglines, Google Reader, and Mozilla Thunderbird. Check out the great video explaining the meaning of RSS.
  • web meeting capability, using WebEx or Adobe Connect
  • Confluence, a wiki-based tool for managing shared online workspaces.

campus blogs, integration, support, all that jazz.

I’m posting this using the campus implementation of WordPress even though I don’t want to. I’d rather post this using the latest version of WordPress with all the plugins I’ve come to use with my other blogs. The trouble is that WordPress on our campus as currently conceived is more work than our support people are able to deal with in a timely manner. Too many projects clearly and correctly rank higher for our network team than upgrading or patching something that isn’t fully supported anyway.

It is quite nice that WordPress MU allows for integration with an LDAP server. This means that for this blog I can use the same username and password that I use for a number of other campus services. However it does not integrate into our campus website nor does our campus portal let WordPress or RSS feeds “plug in” for a user.

So what is the bottom line? Is blogging at Illinois Wesleyan viable? Sure, but it isn’t bulletproof. We have turned the corner and are engaged in regular discussions about what technologies we need to include in a standard “tool set” for faculty. A few faculty have included blog software in their courses, as a means to facilitate out of class discussion. In my opinion we first need a strong commitment to a technology from the faculty body (the summer workshop sponsored by the Mellon Center was a great start) and then we can find the resources to make it happen.

why would faculty want to blog?

A number of us just completed a 2-day workshop on technology for a select group of faculty here at Illinois Wesleyan. Naturally 2 days is not enough time to even establish the foundations of enhancing teaching and learning with updated communication and research techniques. We had to blast through a lot of topics and examples of a few of the more ubiquitous tools in quite a hurry. I’m afraid that in the rush we might not have expressed why certain types of technology might be attractive to an already busy faculty member. Here are a few thoughts about what might “seduce” a teacher into authoring a blog:

  • at its most basic, blogging is about self-publishing. Anyone with opinions, expertise, or criticisms can simply post to a blog to share it with the world. This sounds a heck of a lot easier (for the casual bits of work) than submitting papers and writing journal articles. A group of undergraduates who tackle heavy scholarly work in a blog could take pride in that work standing up to scrutiny in an extremely public forum.
  • Most of the work is done for you. Barbara Ganley referred to a blog as a “vessel” for your content. You don’t have to design a webpage, learn code, or understand how the internet works. You write, you click “publish” and your work is out there. It is automatically archived by date and by categories that you provide.
  • Our mission statement says “A liberal education at Illinois Wesleyan fosters creativity, critical thinking, effective communication, strength of character and a spirit of inquiry”. I believe that our faculty will benefit from investigating new means of communication simply by expanding their perspective. I suspect that it is with strength of character and a spirit of inquiry that a teacher must adapt, improve, and learn.