Just-in-Time Teaching & Course Blogging

Course Blogging and Social Media – The Rudiments Just-in-Time

Just-in-Time Teaching & Course BloggingMy college is in transition from Blackboard, the giant of all course management systems, to Desire2Learn, which I can only refer to as D2L. During our opening faculty workshop I’ve volunteered for a breakout session on course blogging and social media. I’ve been making use of course blogging mostly as a way to stimulate discussion and identify where students are in the readings, and I’ve just begun using some social media tools to connect to discussions beyond the classroom. My approach is rudimentary, not anywhere near the true course blogging and social media expertise some professors bring to the classroom. I hope to offer a quick start for those who want to try out some of these techniques. Also, the last time I ran a workshop on academic blogging, my sample blog-post on Gender is a Social Construction inadvertently became one of my most popular posts.

In many ways, my course blogging and social media stem from the same reasons I began an academic anthropology blog, Living Anthropologically and then editing Anthropology Report–the feeling that there needed to be a better discussion of anthropology in public. Likewise, my college is famous for hosting informative internal discussions on listservs and over e-mail, but these are rarely or only tangentially connected to outside debates. Just last week the listserv basically re-played many of the positions and responses to Steven Pinker’s Science Is Not Your Enemy (see Science & Humanities Together for an overview and the previous post on the humanities numbers) but without apparently realizing the congruent discussion or the immediate relevance to our own humanities-science enrollment balance. Meanwhile the Pine Lake Archaeological Field School is a perfect example of inter-institutional collaboration, experiential learning, practical skills, and a grounded-campus experience which can’t be MOOCed–but hardly anyone, even on campus, discusses it in these terms or uses it as a model for other endeavors.

First some reading resources, in an attempt to make this a “flipped” breakout group:

  • What’s different about the inverted classroom? Robert Talbert reflects on the ways that indeed a flipped classroom approach may not seem all that new, especially in the humanities, but argues that done well it does structure the out-of-class experience in ways that may not have been true previously. I’m not entirely convinced that the vaunted flipped classroom is all that different from a reading assignment with questions to think and write about, but Talbert makes a valuable contribution.
  • A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn’t Working. An article about anthropologist Michael Wesch, who really pushed the boundaries of digital media use in the classroom. A reminder that there is not a magic formula here, and seeking the professor-student connection can potentially take many forms.
  • Best practices and tips for Twitter in the higher-ed classroom. Still one of the best Twitter resources from anthropologist, Twitter-and-MOOC enthusiast John Hawks.
  • Go Where the Students Are: Facebook. David M. Perry suggests that if you want to meet students where they are, it’s still Facebook.
  • The First Day. John Kaag offers some interesting advice which I’ve now at least partially adopted. I like to go technology-less in the first class, and coming in with a blank piece of paper–no roster!–has been particularly liberating. Kaag’s suggestions probably work best in classrooms of 10-40 students, as is true of my suggestions here.

Using Course Blogging in Course Management Systems

Although I do a lot of academic blogging, I do not have the energy to help every student set up a WordPress blog. I also am wary of making things too open to public comment. Instead, I’ve used the course blog function of Blackboard. It’s very basic, to the point of ugly, but it’s simple to set-up and easy to use (for those looking to go into more full-on course blogging, see Develop and Implement a Course Blog). Basically before each class I set up a new blog and send students an announcement link. By a certain time before class, students should write something–something they found in the reading that is of interest, that connects to another part of class, or a question about the reading. I require that each entry includes a page-number reference to the reading, and it should be a new contribution, not something that has been written before, although that can be difficult to monitor.

What this seems to most correspond to in D2L is what they call the Discussions section rather than their blog. I am hoping it is a bit prettier than Blackboard, and I’m also intrigued by Must-Post-First: “Encourage original thought with the ‘Must Post First’ option, in which learners are required to create a post before being able to view their peers’ content.” This could certainly help with the problem that students simply peruse other posts before composing their own. The downside would be that it limits comments on other posts, but I’ve found that such comments are usually limited, and in Blackboard the comments are hidden-until-click, which pretty much defeats the purpose.

I read over student contributions and use them for lectures and discussion. I’ll call on students to ask them about what they wrote, and I usually put names directly into the notes section of my PowerPoint. All of this is actually like what people were doing in the late 1990s when electronic discussion boards were first introduced, and the Just in Time Teaching styles that arose around the same time. In fact, reading through the Wikipedia entry and the book descriptions for Just in Time Teaching makes it apparent that this is very similar to what I’ve been doing all these years!

Indeed, one point I would emphasize is that a lot of these teaching techniques that are seen now as a magical formula have been around for a long time. Blogs are rather like the old discussion boards, and the new collaborative learning is rather like what people were doing with small-group discussion over thirty years ago. I used some of these techniques around 2000-2002, drifted away into more lecture and PowerPoint, and am now going back to groups and discussion boards. Some of these techniques seem to be working better now, but they may again lose appeal (see the Wesch article above).

That said, lessons learned:

  • Keep the prompts short. I’ve found minimal specification works best, and for some reason the seminar discussion-posts have generally been longer and more in-depth, the introductory posts appropriately shorter. If a student is not writing enough, or too much, or not using a page-number reference, I send an individual reminder.
  • Keep the discussion board student-centered. One of the reasons I gave up on electronic discussion boards is how much time I would spend commenting and offering summaries, which I am now sure went unread (like most paper comments). I rarely intervene now, although since I talk about their posts in class and call on them, they know that I’ve read them. However, I would resist the impulse to track things like grammar, punctuation, or comment too heavily (or at all!).
  • I haven’t figured out the grading yet. I’ve definitely resisted giving a full and formal grade for each blog-post and evidence suggests it is wise to refrain. When I first started the course blogs, I gave points simply for posting and participating, with points off for repeated infractions like not including a page-number. At the time, grades seemed to balance out just with that measure, but in recent courses participation increased and made it feel too much like dreaded grade inflation. Last semester I tried a full-letter A-B-C system, with the thought that on most comments people would get a “B” but over time it would again even out. That too seemed to lead to slightly-higher grade distributions than normal. I did like the flexibility of being able to give more points for commenting on the more difficult readings. This semester I’m pondering an overall mid-semester and end-semester blog-participation grade, or potentially incorporating the D2L feature of giving posts ratings.

Social Media for Coursework: Twitter, Facebook, Blog Comments

Last semester I tentatively tried using Twitter as a part of the course. However, I used it more as a participation option and was not a consistent Twitter-pusher. There were some fun moments, especially when I first introduced the idea, and I especially enjoy projecting what people are tweeting about the Nacirema at any given moment. But in general it was a flop.

This semester I am planning to use social media more consistently as a three-pronged option. I will post or point them to a blog-post, and they can either post a blog comment there, put a comment on Facebook, or compose a Tweet with a link.

I am doing this partly because as from the David Perry article, students are on Facebook, not Twitter. Twitter is mostly for middle-aged, professional types–see Twitter Academia. The few students who are on Twitter don’t use it the way most people I follow do–to share a link or engage with colleagues. I also don’t like pushing a particular service–Twitter does serve up its strange form of spam, and I don’t think mandating commercial Twitter use is a good idea. At the same time, I want to encourage professionalizing whatever social media platform students happen to be on, whether that be Facebook, Twitter, or as a blog commenter.

The fact that students really are not on Twitter and don’t usually use it well leads me to one point I want to emphasize: Today’s students are not generally more technologically advanced, digitally native, or even more social-media proficient than the typical professor. So get over the myths–there may have been some point in the 1980s when the youngsters really were technological tinkerers, but for the most part the students are not now any more technologically adept–and in some cases much less digitally-savvy–than the typical aging professoriate.

Comments welcome for a just-in-time faculty workshop. Now I must write a just-in-time syllabus. Yikes!

Update: This statement about students being on Facebook caused a mini-debate on Twitter. My evidence for that statement was from my own students but also this 2012 article, Social Networks and College Choices: “Of the more than 7,000 students surveyed, nearly three-quarters said they check Facebook at least once per day, while more than half never use Twitter, the next-most-visited network. Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram were even less popular.” That said, I’m inspired to survey my students and will report back!

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