Digital Learning in First-Year Composition

In Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, Collins & Halverson (2009) argue that we are in the middle of America’s second education revolution. The first coincided with the Industrial Revolution, when education shifted from apprenticeships to compulsory education. Today, Collins & Halverson claim we are shifting away from compulsory education toward lifelong learning; in the process, we are reevaluating the purpose of schooling and the nature of knowledge.

Counter to the traditional view of school as a place to acquire the knowledge one will need to be successful in life, Collins & Halverson argue that 12 nine-month sessions are not sufficient to teach a child everything she needs to know because there is simply too much knowledge in the world: “there are as many scientists, researchers, and authors alive today as lived in human history up through 1950” (64). Consequently, Collins & Halverson and other digital learning scholars argue for a new approach to schooling, one that privies customization and learner control, games and simulations, and a broader definition of literacy.

As a college composition instructor, I find the extended concept of literacy particularly interesting; in the following paragraphs, I explore the existing and potential connections between digital learning theory and the composition classroom.

Redefining Literacy

The New London Group (1996) led the charge in redefining literacy in their seminal article, “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies.” They argue that all meaning is multimodal, that everyone engages in multiple literacies, and that educators should help students navigate and critique those various modes and literacies. More specifically, the New London Group suggests we teach students to be designers of linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, spatial, and multimodal meaning. Thomas & Brown (2011) similarly emphasize the need to communicate across multiple modes, but they also highlight the importance of context. Learning in the 21st century, Thomas & Brown argue, “goes far beyond a simple transfer of information and becomes inextricably bound with the context that is being created” (94), which is to say that meaning “arises not [only] from interpretation (what something means) but from contextualization (where something has meaning)” (95). The emphasis on contextualization points to the social nature of this redefined literacy. As Jenkins (2009) explains, new media literacies should be “seen as social skills, as ways of interacting within a larger community, and not simply as individualized skills to be used for personal expression” (32).

At times, digital learning scholars present these concepts as though they are new and unique to networked communication. But, as Lunsford (2007) reminds us, critically understanding context and selecting appropriate communication styles for a given purpose and audience are tenets of classic rhetoric. Further, what’s “new” about the digital age is actually quite old—multiple modes, contextualization, and the social nature of communication harken back to the age of orality, when communication was delivered through your voice and your body, and your message was directly influenced by the real-time reaction of your audience; the shift toward literacy and the emergence of print culture resulted in a view of reading and writing as individualized and private (Ong, 1982). Networked computers have simply closed the gap between reader and writer and reminded us of the interactivity of communication.

Lunsford argues that this 21st century understanding of literacy means college composition instructors should return their focus to classic rhetoric, bringing delivery and performance to the forefront and viewing writing as a multimodal, socially situated activity. As one might expect, this suggestion invites an avalanche of questions: How do I teach “multimodal” writing? Does it mean I need to ask my students to create videos and websites? I only have ten weeks to teach this class; what do I have to give up if I start incorporating multimedia assignments? How will students learn to write an academic essay? How do I make writing “social”? Doesn’t that lead to plagiarism?

One way of prompting students to think about (new) definitions of literacy without completely revamping the first-year composition curriculum is to acknowledge and explicitly discuss with students the existing connections between digital learning theory and composition pedagogy.

Digital Learning = College Composition 

Gee (2007) argues that playing video games is “multimodal literacy par excellence” (18), and he constructs a list of 36 learning principles to prove his point. Several of those principles—especially those dealing with transfer, active/critical learning, and exploratory progress with multiple routes for success—align with composition pedagogy and can thus act as frameworks for a first-year writing course.

Transfer

While difficult to measure, transfer is a foundational assumption in the composition classroom. Most first-year composition (FYC) courses purport to prepare students to be successful writers in college by helping them develop and acquire academic literacy. In this way, FYC is intended to operate like a training level in a video game, where students practice the academic writing they will need to be successful in their future courses. Gee argues that transfer only happens when two problems or situations are designed similarly, and the learner is made “overtly aware” of how the problems “share certain properties at a deeper level” (126). Conversations about genre conventions, understanding assignment prompts, and the writing process (invention, revision, editing) all aim to make transparent the commonalities across academic writing situations and to prompt students to think about how they can apply the lessons in FYC to other academic writing situations. Writing across the curriculum initiatives further support the notion of transfer: FYC may be the training ground for academic writing, but the skill must be fostered throughout a student’s college career. I propose we overtly ask students to consider the ways in which writing skills transfer across rhetorical situations, across college courses, and across academic and non-academic composing tasks.

Active/Critical Learning

Gee argues that good learning is not only active (students learn by doing), but also critical (students assess and challenge the tools and systems through which they are learning). Good writing classrooms similarly promote a student-centered environment. Instead of lecturing about good writing practices, teachers ask students to engage in various aspects of the writing process in class. In my class, for example, there is a brainstorming day for each assignment; I ask the students to work independently or in groups to experiment with different invention strategies. There is also designated class time for editing and revising, and several days are devoted to peer review. Additionally, students write multiple drafts of each assignment and their revisions are guided by peer or instructor feedback. The emphasis on multiple drafts and revision individualizes and makes active the learning process because each student focuses on developing and improving unique writing skills.

Critical learning is probably less common in writing classrooms, but there is certainly room for it in composition pedagogy. In my class, students write reflective memos after each assignment, which explicitly requires them to critically reflect on their experiences with writing the paper and to critique the structure of the task.

Exploratory Progress with Multiple Routes for Success

Gee argues that good video games punish learners for “being too quick to want to get to a goal without engaging in sufficient prior nonlinear exploration” (52), and the same is true for writers. Students who want to write their papers in one night following a template are disappointed in FYC; the writing process asks them to slow down and take time to explore the topic (invention), then to play with the arrangement and organization of their ideas (outlining), before finally composing a first draft, which they are later expected to revise and rewrite. Throughout the recursive process of writing, new ideas and new relationships between old ideas come to light. Admittedly, not all students in FYC achieve this kind of nonlinear approach, but good writing instructors nudge students in this direction.

Gee also explains that exploration allows players to “choose strategies that fit with their style of learning, thinking, and acting,” which not only motivates the players, but also pushes them to reflect upon their “styles of learning and problem solving” (78). In most FYC classes, students are presented with multiple invention, outlining, revising, and editing techniques and are encouraged to choose the ones that best fit their learning styles. They are also given the freedom to select their own paper topics within the constraints of the assignment prompt (e.g., students are asked to write a personal narrative but given freedom to select any topic within that genre). Finally, they receive individualized feedback from their instructor that takes the student’s unique approaches and goals into account (see Brannon & Knoblauch (1982) regarding the importance of providing feedback based on what the student is trying to achieve rather than an “ideal” text defined by the instructor).

Digital Learning ≠ College Composition

Of course, while these learning principles mirror FYC philosophy, not all instructors promote them, and even when instructors ask their students to explicitly engage in and reflect on this kind of learning, it doesn’t always happen. The greatest hindrance to success is lack of motivation because in order for transfer, active/critical learning, and exploration to happen, students need to be deeply invested in the project.

Gee argues that this investment can happen through identity projection. In a video game, players project their identities onto their avatars; in a classroom, Gee recommends students imagine themselves as experts or professionals. For this to work in FYC, students need to find being an “academic writer” something worth imagining. In my experience, this is difficult because many students are convinced they are “just not good at writing,” which I believe is partly due to the fact that they do not have a clear picture of what an “academic writer” looks like. Lack of projection is a problem because, in authentic writing situations, projection defines the relationship between author, narrator, and audience. The voice one adopts and the argument one offers are all projections of the author onto the narrator (and some projections are more “true” than others); the relationship between narrator and audience is similarly a projection because the narrator one creates and embodies is determined by how one imagines the audience.

When the professional “academic writer” does this, she is typically projecting a confident, well-informed narrator who has something to contribute to the conversation occurring between other scholars in the field, and she is projecting an audience of academic researchers who recognize and appreciate the gap in the conversation that her research fills. When the college-student “academic writer” does this, she is generally writing an essay for her professor that goes just beyond demonstrating her comprehension of the topic by adding a clever argument that connects the course topic with something else. In FYC, we do not ask students to project themselves as either: instead, we approximate projection by asking students to pretend like they are writing for a real audience and go through the motions of adopting a voice and style that are appropriate for the given purpose and genre. However, because the student submits her work for a grade, and is rarely asked to contribute to a conversation in any authentic sense, her “real” audience is her writing teacher. Consequently, the writing task is approximate at best, and the power of the learning strategies (no matter how good they are) is lessened.

In recent years, composition instructors who recognize this problem tend to respond by asking students to publish their work on The Internet. Unfortunately, this strategy creates a new problem: there is no guarantee that anyone other than the teacher will actually read the student’s paper, and there is no way of knowing if someone does. So instead of asking a student to write for a specific audience, the potential audience has become so broad that it is no longer a productive rhetorical exercise. Furthermore, there are ways for students to bury their online publications so that no one they actually know is likely to read it, which brings us back to the issue of motivation. The student is only going to publish the work in an authentically public way if she wants her online community to read it, which only happens if she really cares about the project and is truly projecting her own interests into the exercise.

Another solution composition teachers attempt is to make the students write for each other, creating a community within the classroom. This strategy positively aligns with digital learning theory, which tells us that participatory communities “offer powerful opportunities for learning” because they “depend on peer-to-peer teaching,” which results in participants being “motivated to acquire new knowledge and refine their existing skills” (Jenkins, 10). However, these communities are only authentic when people participate “according to their skills and interests” (10). If students are writing and reading each other’s work only because they are required to do so, and they don’t actually care about what they or the other person wrote, the community becomes inauthentic and ineffective.

A Possible Solution: Transparency

While there are clearly problems with digital learning approaches when the learning environment is inauthentic, explicitly discussing the connections between digital learning theory and composition is a productive approach to FYC. I imagine this working like a writing-about-writing classroom, where students read articles and engage in discussions about what “writing” means in their academic and personal lives and how technology shapes those definitions and perceptions. I also imagine them writing to authentic audiences, either by composing for communities in which they already participate or by recognizing that their audience is the teacher. This strategy opens the door to productive conversations about how rhetorical skills can transfer to academic and non-academic writing situations, it asks students to critically analyze their personal experiences with composition, and it allows for legitimate exploration as students analyze the ways in which they want to improve their own rhetorical skills. Writing is a very real and relevant activity in our students’ lives; if we want our writing classrooms to also be relevant, we need to acknowledge and seriously value the strategies and tools they use both in and outside of the classroom.

References

Brannon, L. & Knoblauch, C.H. (1982). On students’ rights to their own texts: A model of teacher  response. College Composition and Communication, 33(2), 157-166.
Collins, A. & Halverson, R. (2009). Rethinking education in the age of technology: The digital revolution and schooling in America.  New York: Teachers College Press.
Gee, J. P. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Lunsford, A. (2007). Writing Matters: Rhetoric in Public and Private Lives. U Georgia P.
Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge.
New London Group. (1996). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review 66, 60-92.
Thomas, D. & Brown, J. S. (2011). A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

CCCC 2013 Kick-Off

The Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) kicked off today in Las Vegas with a fantastic keynote by Chris Anson. He delivered his speech as a third-person narrative following an art history professor discovering the political and social movements around higher education, which of course included the cost of college and the online alternatives being explored.

He pointed out that underlying the debate is the relationship between credit hours and accreditation, which is based on seat-time. What do we lose when we turn to competency-based education, which permits any number of educational experiences so long as the student can pass a standardized competency test? These questions lead to a more fundamental one: What is the purpose of college? Is it job training? Or is there something more that we gain from the overall experience of a liberal arts education?

Anson argued that there are critical capacities gained throughout the two-year or four-year college experience—curiosity, reflection, imagination, appreciating a wide range of ideas and traditions. These capacities are developed by engaging class discussion, co-curriculum experiences with social clubs and study groups, collaboration, and hands-on learning; in short, requiring students to do something. But he also posed an important question: are our institutions really providing students with the transformative experience that leads to these capacities? In most cases, and especially in crowded lecture halls, the answer is no. As Anson put it, “Students are paying for a transformative experience and they are getting a pedagogy that hasn’t changed in years.”

So what do we do? Anson advises us to start by learning more about how students learn and then make our own courses more engaging, more transformative.

MOOCs as Participatory Communities: My Experience with “eLearning and Digital Cultures”

For the last month I have been participating in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offered by Coursera, “eLearning and Digital Cultures,” which was developed and is taught by a team of five professors at the University of Edinburgh. I have simultaneously been enrolled in a graduate seminar, “Learning in a Digital Age,” taught by Dr. Cynthia Carter Ching at UC Davis. This essay is both a multimodal paper for Dr. Ching’s class and my final digital artifact for the MOOC. In writing for multiple audiences, I hope to emphasize the way in which my MOOC experience crossed into multiple arenas of my life.

Inasmuch as we can define a typical MOOC, eLearning and Digital Cultures does not fit the mold. Most MOOCs require students to watch a series of recorded lectures and take quizzes or exams that demonstrate their understanding of the material. Students may also be encouraged to participate in asynchronous discussion forums or engage in interactive online activities, depending on the subject matter, but these activities are not required.

In contrast, eLearning and Digital Cultures is not designed to impart fixed facts to students; it is designed to be an experience, where students learn about digital culture by discovery and experimentation. To this end, eLearning and Digital Cultures takes the MOOC tendency toward flexibility to an extreme. In the weekly “Resources” sections, there are four or five short films and 6-8 articles or TED talks that students are encouraged to read/watch. However, students are not expected to engage with all possible resources. On the contrary, the course homepage recommends that students “’sample’ the films and one or two of the readings.” Participants are also encouraged to reflect upon what they read/watched by engaging in two of five activities:

  • Contribute to the Discussion Forums on the course site
  • Blog in response to the weekly topic (if students choose this option they are encouraged to also submit their blog to the EDC MOOC News RSS feed)
  • Participate in a Synchtube study group with peers
  • Create an image or visual representation and tag it with #edcmooc
  • Share thoughts and links on Twitter

By the time the course began, a sixth option was also available—students had started a #edcmooc student Facebook Group.

Beyond the suggestion to read or view the materials and engage with peers in one way or another, there are no “required” activities in the course until week five, when students submit their final projects for peer review. The final is to create a digital artifact; the only requirements are that the artifact be some combination of text, image, sound, video, and links that can be “experienced digitally, on the web,” and expresses something important about one or more of the course themes.

In many ways, the design of this MOOC exemplifies ways of learning that are highly valued by scholars like Henry Jenkins. In Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture, Jenkins expands upon James Paul Gee’s definition of affinity groups, explaining that participatory communities “offer powerful opportunities for learning” because they are “sustained by common endeavors that bridge differences” (10). Instead of being grouped by age, nationality, and geographical location, participants are brought together by a common interest. Because MOOCs are voluntary and are taught online, the features that traditionally dictate the make-up of a classroom are irrelevant—quite literally, anyone with internet access and a few available hours a week can participate. In eLearning and Digital Cultures, the one thing we had in common was an interest in the topic, and the only reason we were compelled to complete the MOOC was sustained interest in the community.

Jenkins also explains that participation in the community varies according to interest-level and skill. More expert members tend to guide and instruct novice members, and all participants are encouraged to continuously refine their skills or expertise. The result, Jenkins argues, is that “each participant [feels] like an expert while tapping the expertise of others” (10). The idea of novices and experts is applicable to MOOC participants because some people are more technically savvy than others, and some know more about the course topics than others.

I noticed that many of the posts to the eLearning and Digital Cultures Facebook Group in week one were pleas for help from overwhelmed or confused students, and the response rate was impressive.

There was also one student who wrote a blog post about how to survive the MOOC,

and there is a Discussion Forum Thread about dealing with the massiveness of the MOOC.

Awarding participants who make particularly positive or helpful contributions is another crucial feature of participatory communities. As Ito et al. note in Living and Learning with New Media (2009), unlike when students are “graded by a teacher in a position of authority, feedback in interest-driven groups is … one of peer-based reciprocity, where participants can gain status and reputation but do not hold evaluative authority over one another” (64). Instead of “grading” a community member, participants are awarded status for contributions that other participants appreciate. Importantly, these rewards do not devalue others in the community; instead, they encourage all learners to refine their skills so they may also earn community rewards. In eLearning and Digital Cultures, such awards abound in each of the different mediums through which you can interact with peers: in the discussion forums, you can “vote up” responses that you find particularly helpful (similar to Reddit or Digg), you can “like” posts on Facebook, you can “favorite” or “retweet” posts on Twitter, and the winners of the week three image contest were determined by Flickr’s “interestingness” rating (which is based on comments, favorites, and clickthroughs).

The lack of centralized authority is one feature that leads Jenkins to argue that participatory communities foster informal learning and are thus distinct from formal education systems. Jenkins says formal education is conservative, static, institutional, difficult to change, bureaucratic, and fixed; he says informal learning, on the other hand, is experimental, innovative, provisional, easy to evolve, ad hoc, and mobile (11). eLearning and Digital Cultures encourages informal learning, but it also occurs during a fixed time period and contains some of the trappings of formal education like specific reading assignments and forced conversation about those readings. However, each student chooses how formally she approaches the materials, a luxury that is rarely part of formal education.

Choice is especially present in eLearning and Digital Cultures because there are so many different ways to engage. Each student determines which readings and videos to review and in what detail, and she chooses which feature of the material to focus on in her reflection. She also chooses where and how to will make her reflection public, if she does so at all. I chose to write a weekly blog entry. Interestingly, this choice meant my participation extended into non-MOOC arenas because I published my weekly reflection on both my personal blog, Twenty-One Pages, and The Wheel, UC Davis’ instructional technology blog. Consequently, I was simultaneously writing for multiple MOOC and non-MOOC audiences. The result was a surprising merger of my identities as Wheel author, graduate student, friend, and MOOC participant. Another outcome of this choice is my decision to write this essay for both Dr. Ching and my eLearning and Digital Cultures peer reviewers.

I also chose to participate in the discussion forums and Facebook group. The Discussion Forums in Coursera are similar to asynchronous discussion forums in other learning management systems. Students select a sub-forum, such as “Redefining the human: Week 4 discussion” or “General Discussion.”

 

Within the sub-forum, you can start a new thread, or you can contribute to an exiting thread by posting a reply or adding a new comment in response to another student’s reply.

 

What makes the forums different from other LMSs is that they are built for thousands of people. To manage this, there is a “vote” option for each post, and there are organizing features within each sub-forum and each thread that allow you to view the most popular discussions. In the screenshot below, you can see that the popularity of a thread is determined by the number of votes, posts, and views.

You can also organize the threads by “last updated,” “last created,” and “subscribed.” The “subscribed” feature means you receive an email every time someone posts in the thread (and the default is to subscribe to any thread to which you post). I found this helpful at first, but ultimately overwhelming, so I tended to unsubscribe from the threads and manually check the ones to which I had contributed.

The student Facebook group is much less formal than the forums and less topical. Participants post comments about the weekly materials, but they also post information about their lives and the course in general. Facebook also only shows the most recent posts, which makes the community temporal as well as asynchronous. And Facebook sends notifications when someone interacts with a post that you interacted with, thus keeping your personal participation front and center.

In week four of eLearning and Digital Cultures, I posted a response to the “Why do we expect technology to transform education?” discussion forum thread, which became the top thread of the sub-forum. My contribution received six comments and seven total votes, becoming the third most popular in the thread. I wrote a three-paragraph response using formal language; the comments were from four people and occurred within two days of my initial post; and there was not much back-and-forth between the participants.

In contrast, my contribution to Facebook in week four consisted of two brief questions about one of the films. I received 10 comments, most of which are between me and one other student. All but two of the comments occurred within two hours after I posted my questions.

In addition to my weekly blog posts and participation in the forums and on Facebook, I also participated in the week three image contest and watched recordings of the two Google Hangouts (the five instructors reflected upon the week and responded in real time to questions from students who were posting to the twitter feed).

It is my opinion that I have fully engaged in an online participatory community over the last five weeks, and I can’t imagine a better outcome from a course on eLearning and Digital Cultures. Consider my experiences in light of Jenkins’ five characteristics of a participatory community:

  1. “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement,
  2. strong support for creating and sharing creations with others,
  3. some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices,
  4. members who believe that their contributions matter, and
  5. members who feel some degree of social connection with one another (at least, they care what other people think about what they have created)” (5-6)

The asynchronisity of the forums and the fact that I was already a Facebook user and blogger made the barriers to engagement low (#1); the flexibility in how and where I posted my reflections encouraged me to share my creations with others (#2); the discussion forum dedicated to dealing with the massiveness of the MOOC and the culture on Facebook allowed experts to support novices (#3); and the votes in the forums, likes on Facebook, and comments to my blog and to my image on Flickr made me feel that my contributions mattered and that other people cared about what I created (#4 & #5).

While one could argue that Facebook and the forums and Flickr are all distinct participatory communities, I believe it is the combination of mediums that makes eLearning and Digital Cultures a participatory community. Part of this is because the mediums reinforce each other. For example, one student tweeted a request for others to complete a survey that she posted to her blog, the results of which became part of her digital artifact. For me, browsing the discussion forums helped me think more deeply about the readings and videos, which influenced the contributions I made to the Facebook Group; similarly, watching the Google Hangout influenced the reflection I wrote and posted to my blogs, which then became part of the EDC MOOC RSS Feed. And I could have been a much more active participant in this community. I could have watched the Google Hangouts live and contributed questions on Twitter, or participated in the weekly #edcmchat twitter chats, or joined a study group. There are any number of things I could have done; each would have altered my experience in the MOOC, and each would have further reinforced the informal learning that my peers and I were experiencing in this participatory community.

There is also something about being able to pop onto Twitter or Facebook or the Forums at any time and know that someone will be there who wants to talk about the things we have been collectively reading, watching, thinking about, and experiencing. I didn’t know these people and I didn’t need to; who we were outside of the course didn’t matter. And who we were inside of the courses was somehow changed because we were part of something much bigger than ourselves. That’s a participatory community.

SoGoSurvey

I’m enrolled in a Survey Methods course this quarter and have really enjoyed it! I’m designing a survey to describe the uses of educational technology at UC Davis, with the hope of being able to draw conclusions about the digital literacy skills our instructors expect from our students.

It’s kind of incredible how much detail goes into designing a survey. First I drafted the questions, then had a focus group with seven professors, revised my questions, sent them to ed tech experts for review, revised again, and am now actually building the survey on a webplatform. I’ve opted to go for SoGoSurvey, partly because it was recommended by a survey expert who presented to our class, but also because I found the demo video incredibly useful.

Plus, if I like their page on Facebook and put up a blog post about them, they’ll give me a student license for free!

I’d been playing around with the program and it’s pretty nice—easy to use, lots of color schemes and question types, and it seems like it will be easy to track who has and has not responded to the survey once I send it out. The program also lets me export my data to SPSS, or I can conduct analysis within SoGoSurvey.

Thanks for the student license, SoGoSurvey!