Particularly in my [media design] class, which is fundamentally more process-driven, but also in my more application-driven computer animation class, I want to push my students to think critically about their own work and the work of their peers, and to reflect on that feedback (and, potentially, my feedback) in a constructive, forward-looking, “lessons learned” manner. To this end, as we reach the end of a project or unit, and we critique work presented, I ask students to respond the criticism that their work has received (while simultaneously providing similar criticism to their peers). I have them post their responses to our class blog, and then ask them to review each other’s responses, posting comments on ideas or insights that are particularly interesting or challenging to them.
In the interest of “pre-thinking” big questions before students arrive in class, I may also present them with a big question and a list of resources as a starting point for beginning to think about that question. I ask them to post their response to the question to the blog as a way of ensuring some level of thought and reflection prior to class, and ensuring that our class discussion can go further and deeper, rather than getting bogged down in background material.
This is definitely something that works better the more you do it. And initial forays will be deeply disappointing. The best advice I’ve ever received about asking students to be reflective (especially in public) is that you have to have one or two “throw away” assignments where the focus is on getting the process under their belt, without regard to the quality of the outcomes.
By the middle of November, I have really asked my students in [media design] class to critique and reflect on our class blog only a couple of times, at the ends of units. This is, perhaps, not frequent enough for them to develop real facility. I have interspersed the feedback reflections with the big questions, so that they stay in the habit of posting to the blog every couple of weeks.
I have found, however, that the process of pre-thinking (first espoused to me by my colleague Anna Reid at [my previous school]), is very effective. Particularly when done regularly (I have also used online reading quizzes in a similar way, asking open-ended questions based on the reading to focus their thought while providing mandatory accountability.) I found, for example, that when we sat down to discuss issues of copyright and Fair Use in class, the students who had posted had already developed much more nuanced and thoughtful perspectives on the issues, and that we had a much deeper and more informed class discussion than we had had on the introduction of the assignment before the weekend. (In fact, when presented with optional reading assignments, most of the students read them as well.)
The process of developing an online conversation, in which students are actively commenting on and discussing each other’s ideas and work also requires more development. I have assigned a couple of rounds of online commenting, asking students to post n responses to each other’s work, but have not had in depth discussions of those comments. I have modeled this commenting, particularly early on, although the process of commenting on every student’s work quickly begins to (at least) feel prohibitive in terms of time.
This is actually an area that I want to really hammer away at over the rest of the year. I think that the payoff — not potential, but actual payoff — is huge, in terms of helping students both learn to think critically about their own and other people’s work, and to develop their own perspectives based in evidence rather than hearsay. The big challenge for me, is to really embed this in the routine of my class. (I have mentioned this elsewhere, but the adjustment from 4-5 class meetings per week to just 2-3, is really messing with my rhythm… and I didn’t have terribly reliable rhythm before this.)
Seth Battis November 22nd, 2009
For the last few years, I have found that, when appropriate, I get far more use out of my notes if I take them on a computer. Using the computer allows me to keep my notes organized, to instantly create links to related information (either within my notes or on the web), to flag my own questions as they arise (and unflag them as they are answered), to find ideas in my notes later (search is way faster than flipping through my notebooks and legal pads), to share my notes with colleagues and students, and to link to as references and resources in later iterations of documents.
It’s not always kosher to have your laptop open in a conversation. If I take notes in a one-on-one meeting in my laptop, there is a real danger that I will be talking to my computer rather than the person I am meeting with. (Simultaneously, if I take the notes on my laptop, I am able to refer back to them more easily than in handwriting.) Personally, I have found that if I feel compelled to take notes by hand, that those notes are not going to make it into my computer except in extraordinary circumstances, and that the only service that paper notes have for me is as a memory aid (“the information has passed from at least one neuron to at least one other neuron, crossing at least one synapse in the process, giving you a faint hope of remembering the information.” — Duane Bailey).
If there are network connectivity problems (or battery power level issues), my notes may either not be available or may disappear entirely (as happened at one point this fall, taking notes on [a major collaborative project] presentation). This doesn’t happen with notebooks. However, referring back to the last paragraph… those notes would have gone into the ether anyway (for me at least) if I had taken them on paper.
I find that I am much more willing to share my digital notes than I would hand-written notes — not just because of legibility issues, although those are real, but also because when I share my notes, I share it with an expectation that the recipient will be adding some input to those notes, adding value for me as well.
I have also found that using the tagging feature of the wiki gives me a tool for taking attendance at a meeting — who was there, so that I can find notes based not just on content, but on the makeup of the meeting: “I know we discussed this in EdTech, I think Scott said something about it…”
As someone who spent years not taking notes on anything, simply remembering what was said to the best of my ability, I find that taking notes on my computer is a massive advantage: it allows me to empty my brain and forget things with confidence. And taking my notes in a wiki makes them instantly shareable and referable from any computer, anywhere. I love it.
Seth Battis November 22nd, 2009
This is actually a classic use of wikis — the one for which they were developed, in fact — and one that I have found very useful in the past. By documenting my work on a project in a public, shared space, I am both sharing information that needs to be known and inviting other participants to contribute their knowledge as well. I use wikis both for shared projects with my colleagues (as a way to guarantee that only the most current documentation is available, rather than distributing instantly out-dated paper handouts) and as a way of pushing my students to document their own work so that I can grade them on process. Additionally, wikis are a way for me to document my own thought process for both professional development and future planning purposes.
I have found that many of my colleagues (both at [my current school] and [at previous schools]) are hesitant to edit existing documents. The most reliable contribution that I have found my colleagues make is on meeting minutes, when I invite those who did not attend a meeting to insert their contributions to the meeting as comments on the page.
When working on a project with a similarly technically-inclined colleague (say, in the Education Technology department), the process is more likely to be more collaborative, as we edit each other’s work more liberally (although even this is not a guarantee).
Students don’t document their working voluntarily. I have only had success in asking students to document their work when I have both assigned the documentation for a grade (usually a grade separate from the end product of their work, so that I can distinguish between process and outcome not just in narratives but also in my gradebook).
The closest that I have come to developing a true classroom culture of collaborative documentation was last spring at [my previous school] in my Application Design classroom. In this case, I worked with the students to help them select and design an open-ended project for which they had to do immense amounts of research (they were creating a computer-controlled CNC lathe). I found that there was an inverse relationship between the amount of expertise that I demonstrated and the amount of work and thought that my students contributed: when they could rely on me for answers, they were lazy about documenting their work and finding their own solutions. When I professed no knowledge (often truthfully), students were far more likely to both do much more exhaustive research and to present their findings more clearly.
One challenge of creating a truly collaborative wiki environment (whether with colleagues or with students) is to get all of the participants to read, respond, revise and/or react to each other’s contributions. For example, I am doing a miserable job, on this page, of linking to the work of others in the Laptop Leaders program. I suspect that a major part of this is simply the “drinking from the fire hose” feeling incurred by the stream of data as everyone contributes simultaneously. In a classroom, I have had some success dividing students into groups around a shared research interest. To that end, I need to sift through the other Laptop Leader documentation that refers to, say wikis.
At the basic level, my sense is that wikis represent such a shocking change in paradigm for how the web is used that the average user is either befuddled or intimidated by them. I found that I was explaining how wikis work to my classes and the students were fascinated and mildly horrified at both the ease with which they could make changes and the ease with which I could track their use of the wiki. I don’t know for certain, but I wonder if my colleague’s reluctance to update wikis is a combination of fear of the unfamiliar (editing the wiki) and fear of speaking out (publishing their words/ideas to a broader arena in a way that feels more permanent than, say, an email — more on par with a faculty meeting).
Seth Battis November 22nd, 2009