177. Blogging in Unexpected Disciplines

Maybe you’ve seen professional development sessions about digital portfolios or blogs and thought, “that is not relevant to my classes.” In this episode, Dr. Kathryn Berkow joins us to discuss how she has used blogging in her Business Analytics class to allow students to share their learning journey. Katy is an Assistant Professor of Management Information Sciences at the University of Delaware. She is also the host of the ON Cultivating Student Engagement in Higher Ed podcast.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Maybe you’ve seen professional development sessions about digital portfolios or blogs and thought, “that is not relevant to my classes.” In this episode, we look at one example where blogging has been used to share students’ progress on business analytics projects with an audience.

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John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Kathryn Berkow. Katy is an Assistant Professor of Management Information Sciences at the University of Delaware. She is also the host of the ON Cultivating Student Engagement in Higher Ed podcast. Welcome, Katy.

Katy: Well, thanks so much for having me. I’m a huge fan of your podcast.

John: And we’re fans of yours.

Rebecca: Our teas are:

Katy: I am drinking tea today, I just made a cup of something called Scandinavian detox, which is an herbal caffeine free blend.

John: And I’m drinking ginger peach green tea.

Rebecca: Oh, back to an old favorite. Me too. I’m back to the Scottish afternoon tea… just delivered.

John: We’ve invited here to discuss how you’ve been using blogs in your business analytics class. Could you first describe the class in which you’re doing this?

Katy: Absolutely. So I teach business analytics at the University of Delaware. And the course that we’re talking about today is a reformulation of a traditional second course in statistics, and it’s for sophomores and juniors. So this is a required course in the business school for most business majors. For some, it’s their last statistics class they’ll ever take. And for others, it’s creating the opportunity to introduce perhaps more study in analytics. There’s a wide range of students in the class, lots of different majors, lots of different interests. And the topics that we focus on, are sort of three-pronged instead of a traditional two-pronged approach. So we focus on introducing a programming language, which is always a topic that introduces some fear for many students. We talk about statistical modeling, which also brings some fear. And the third, the part that introduces the reformulation of the class is the communication around the results of building a statistical model. And the potential impact on the research question and what the potential is for using these analytics. We really want to connect the students to the impact that their analytics could have on an organization.

Rebecca: Statistics isn’t necessarily the first topic that comes to mind to meet a blog assignment. So can you talk a little bit about how you decided to introduce blogs into your course?

Katy: Absolutely. And I completely agree with you, Rebecca, this didn’t come on suddenly for me. There were two things that were happening concurrently. The first was, I was experiencing a lot of frustration with my multiple choice homework assignments. When I started teaching the course, I had traditional exams, and these multiple choice questions. And there was always a problem with the multiple choice questions. I’m not putting enough time into writing them well, and generating the multiple questions for each topic that’s going to create that ability to randomize selection for different students. And there was always a problem, you know, a student would email and say, like, “I think I got this wrong, but I don’t know why.” And we would discover that there was actually a problem with the question. But the second thing that was happening as I was becoming more and more frustrated with my homework assignments was that I attended a workshop about digital portfolios. And it was the kind of workshop where you go to several sessions over the day, and you have a great choice. And this was one that I was like, “Well, that sounds interesting, but I’m not sure it’s going to be useful for me,” just like you said, I’m not sure that’s a statistics class was an obvious digital portfolio class. But I just kind of listened, I loved the idea and filed it away. They were giving examples of using it for writing courses or art classes to feature students’ work. But eventually, this moment came where I realized that the two could absolutely go together and highlight the communication in my class that’s missing from the multiple choice homework questions. The students were not getting practice at communicating the impact of their results, or the meaning of their results, in multiple choice questions, really. So the idea to create a space for them to not only report results, but to talk about them in their own words, really made me excited. And I just immediately started developing this new assignment, knowing that I was taking a risk, but I was really excited about it.

John: And so as they’re reporting this, is this something they’re doing over the course of the whole project?

Katy: Yeah, absolutely. So the way the project begins, that first week of the semester, I have students select their own data set of interest from some resources I provide. So an example of that would be like I send them to Kaggle. As a first source. Kaggle.com has lots of publicly available data that people have put up on the site to share. And I’ll have the students select a data set of interest, and work with that particular data set all semester long. So they start by generating an interesting research question to them. And you know, I’m just asking them to put some context around. So some students will select something very serious. Last semester, some students wanted to work with COVID-19 data, which is so relevant and interesting, but others did not want to work with COVID-19 data, they wanted to work with something that was maybe feeling like more of a break from what we were experiencing. So, a lot of students choose sports related data. And whatever the students choose, they’ll work with that data set. The intention is for them to work with that data set all semester long, and apply every skill to that data set and report out. So, there are a variety of different topics, and I also include In my syllabus that we should just be conscious that we’re not all going to choose the same type of data. Some of us are going to choose very serious topics and we should all treat the discussion of those topics in a serious way, and some of us are going to choose some things with a little bit of levity like studying the winners of the bachelorette and what their characteristics are like, and that we should appreciate the levity in that too, and just appreciate each other’s choices.

Rebecca: One of the things that I know that I’ve appreciated in doing projects like this in my class, is the ability for students to practice that professional communication and have an audience. Can you talk a little bit about who the audience of the blog is, and whether or not it’s public facing?

Katy: Oh, sure. So the blogs are intended to be public, because they’ll submit the links to their posts as their homework assignment. And then we use Canvas as an LMS. So Canvas loads those assignments right up, and I can look at them right away, which is great. But because the blogs are public, I also include some notes about that in my syllabus, pointing out that you wouldn’t want to report personal information, for example. You can keep it as private as you’d like to, in that you don’t have to identify yourself as the author if you don’t want to. But I encourage them to keep a professional tone, especially if they want to use this as a potential portfolio to share with future employers as evidence of their study and their work. And I tell them, they can spend as much or as little time as they’d like making it look beautiful, with some really beautiful images. Some students choose not to do that at all and it’s just a plain white background with a title. And that’s fine, too. So I tell them, I am their audience, but that they should consider that this is a public space, and that they might have a broader audience. But I also include in the syllabus, if anyone is uncomfortable with the idea of a public facing blog, they can request a different option. I’ve never actually had to offer that option. But I would offer like, let’s create a Google Doc that is more like with chapters instead of a blog with individual posts.

John: What platform are students using? Do they get to choose our own? Or are they all working in one platform?

Katy: So, I suggest WordPress because it has a free option. And because that’s where I built my example blog, which I’m happy to talk about as well. And I can provide more detailed instructions and troubleshoot with them a little bit more easily. But if they want to choose Wix or something else that they’re more comfortable with, I’m completely fine with that so long as they know that I’m not an expert in any of these other platforms.

Rebecca: Do you want to talk a little bit about that example you just mentioned?

Katy: Absolutely. So the example blog that I built was sort of my first experience with understanding if this could work in the class. As I was trying to formulate what we would do, I was writing my own version of the blog, which later turned into a resource that can help students as an example. So I selected a data set about understanding diabetes, and its relationship to age and blood pressure. And this is a very common data set on Kaggle. So I was writing. The goal is for students to take each topic that we learn in class, and there’s about, say, 15 topics over the course of the semester. So if we learn to build a basic regression model, the students will then apply the basic regression code that we’ve learned in class, and we’ve seen a couple examples and apply it to their own data set. So now I’m thinking about COVID-19 and I want to understand the relationship between, say, rates of cases and age groups, something like that. So they now have my example blog to go to and read and see how I structured what I did. And they’ll say, “Okay, Katy built her model relating blood pressure to age, and I’m going to do something similar.” And one of the reasons why I like creating the example is so that they can see where they’re going. But I also really liked that it serves as sort of a textbook support where we don’t have a textbook in our class. So in the later, more complex topics, I also write a lot about how I’m interpreting my results, and why, so that they have a little more support as they try to make those interpretations. And of course, if they’re having any trouble making those connections, they can always come to office hours and ask questions. But those who have used the example blog as a support really report that it’s useful.

John: You mentioned that you don’t have a textbook, but I’ve seen on your website that you have created videos that serve as a substitute for a textbook.

Katy: Yes, as we’ve transitioned to online remote teaching, I had actually been very lucky to have had experienced teaching online before. And I wasn’t using those videos that I had used in the online version of the class in my on campus class at all. But there have always been students not able to attend class for various reasons. You know, “I’m an athlete and I’m going to be traveling, I’m going to miss class” or “I’m just sick and I’m going to miss class.” So for lots of reasons, students have needed an additional resource and, without a textbook, that’s always been a concern. So I wanted to provide those additional supports but, of course, as I’m sure you’ve considered before as well, does providing the video reduce my attendance in class? There’s this constant struggle. But as I have been doing this online remote teaching, I think that I don’t care, I just want to provide all of the resources, so that every student can find this material in whatever way is easiest, most flexible, most accommodating to their lifestyle. And so that means putting out the videos in what I’m calling a digital textbook. And I can also refer it to students even when we’re on campus as an additional support if they need it after class.

Rebecca: How have your students responded to working through this information in this way? And have they had the opportunity to look at each other’s blogs and comment and do some peer feedback as well?

Katy: That is a great question. I have not incorporated any peer feedback of the blogs into class… except this semester, as we were doing the remote teaching, I was meeting in small groups, so the students would watch the videos from the online class. And then we would come together in conversation. And the only peer feedback that I’ve ever incorporated is having the students present their issues as they work through their blog posts during these small group sessions, and then having others weigh in. And I found that to be so rewarding, it was just so much fun to have them identifying each other’s problems. And there were lots of students in each group studying similar types of data. So one student is studying hockey, “Oh, I’m also studying hockey, did you find this…” and so it really was fun to make those connections. So in that way, we have had some peer oversight and I think I’d like to find ways to continue that kind of small group discussion about the blogs. But overall, the feedback on the blogs has been positive. The way that I know that is I’m looking at course evaluations, I would say, in maybe 40% of my course evaluations, students are mentioning the blogs in general. So, not everyone by a longshot. And when they do mention it, it’s in two ways, in general: 1. I really loved the blog posts, or 2. the blog posts were really hard, but I knew I was learning. And so seeing comments like those, it really makes me feel like I’m achieving the goal of helping the students to get to a place where they’re ready to apply the skill in a new setting. So that’s the beauty of the blog, that it captures what we really want them to do, which is to get into their professional setting, ready to apply it to a new situation, because they have my example blog, they have their example blog, they can remember how to do this given those skills.

John: You provide students with a sample blog, but do you give them any other guidance on what they should include in their blog post?

Katy: Absolutely. So in each problem description, so for each blog post assignment, I’ll give a bulleted list of items that they should include. But in addition to that, because I probably go on a little bit in my bulleted list, I also provide a rubric. And Canvas, as an LMS is really helpful in this way, because I can include the rubric right in the assignment and tell students how I’ll be calculating the points for each assignment. So I can have one point for including an image showing the results, I can have one point for correctly interpreting the intercept, etc. So the students will know as they’re writing, what are the things that I’ll be looking for. But even better than that, they can also see where their blog posts needed improvement. So after it’s been graded, and by the way, it’s very easy to grade in Canvas, because it can take me just a few minutes to read through a post and know whether the student has done the five or six checklist items in the rubric and just click, and I’m done in just a few minutes per student, which is great if you have a large number of students say whether it’s 50 or 150. It’s relatively quick. And I’m very lucky to have the help of a TA with that. But the beauty of the rubric in canvas is that the students can see which buttons I’ve clicked so they can know “Okay, I got a five out of six on this post. And where I wasn’t effective was at describing what the meaning of the intercept was. So now I can go to tutoring or to office hours or talk to the TA about how I could change that for a project or an assessment.”

John: How many posts do they have to make as you’re working through the project.

Katy: So the students will work on a post for every topic over the course of the semester, which ends up being 14 topic related posts. I also have them create a welcome post that’s just “Hey, I’m here blogging as their first assignment…” that just officially sets up their blog and creates their first post walking them through the process. And they create one additional post about “data and impact” I call it so they report which dataset did I select? Why? What’s the potential impact? So I have them create a research question they’ll be focused on through the semester and describe what impact it could have. Now this is a business analytics class, but I think of it more like an organizational analytics. So even if you’re studying the bachelorette, you can position yourself to think about, “Okay, I work for Netflix, and I’m trying to understand, is there a theme here? Do we need to have more diversity and inclusion in our bachelorette or bachelor? So what are the dynamics around the situation we’re studying?” And obviously, some things lend themselves more to a traditional business analytics context than others. But I want the students to know that any organization can have any research question. So you can create that context. And then they do a final post with conclusions at the end of the semester.

John: Do you have a generic rubric that works with all of the posts? Or is there one for each of those stages?

Katy: Great question, John, you’re pointing out that there was quite a bit of setup on the front end of this. So it was good that I was really excited about it when starting the experiment, [LAUGHTER] because I had to build that example blog, I had to build each of the 17 total assignments, and that kind of semi-custom rubric to each one. So each one includes the requirement that an image must be posted, for example. But, if we’re studying linear regression assumptions, I’m going to have one point associated with each assumption that needs to be tested correctly. So there is a lot of customization. However, after creating, because these are so generic or agnostic to the material the student is studying, after creating that first batch of assignments, I’ve been doing this two years now, I have never needed to change it. And I really haven’t had any issues with these assignments when it comes to “this wasn’t clearly enough defined,” for example, because while the students do tend to become frustrated with open-ended assignments, they hear me say, a lot of the time, business analytics is an open-ended kind of structure. It has a lot of art, and a lot of science. And I can’t answer the questions, always in a direct way because your real life is not going to have direct answers to every question. And so over the course of the semester, I do find students tend to get more comfortable with this ill-defined nature. But they also have the support of specific rubrics to give them some sense of structure when possible.

John: Would you recommend this approach to other faculty outside of the more traditional writing fields?

Katy: Absolutely, but I won’t pretend to know how. What I would say is that I encourage just hearing what other people are doing, like I get so much value out of listening to your podcast, and to Bonni Stachoviak’s podcast, just hearing what people are doing in their classrooms that’s engaging their students, because one of the reasons I created my own podcast was to generate more sharing, because what happens in our classrooms is so opaque to others. As I told you, I attended that session a couple of years ago, maybe three or four years ago now. And I didn’t really think it applied. And I know we all say like, “Oh, well that’s not for me,” or “that’s not gonna work,” I just feel like the more ideas we have circulating in our minds that you know “don’t work,” and the more issues we face on our own in our own classes about, especially now, how to engage students under these changing circumstances, I just feel like having a glossary of ideas that you can pull from and maybe adapt to your own class is so helpful. So I think there are lots of potential applications to this, that I could see. In fact, I use this in my other courses. So I teach a capstone course at the senior and graduate level. And when we’re not using proprietary data related to an organization, which I do in my senior capstone, like in the graduate course, I do have students select publicly available data, I also use a blog reporting structure. So I did need to develop a similar framework with rubrics. But it creates this sort of agnostic space where no matter what project you’re working on, you can report out on that topic, and all you need to do is share a link with me and then I can see your status update for the week. And you can really tell a lot by how students are writing about what they’re doing. Now in, say, a finance class where there’s a correct answer to every question, I’m not sure a blog is going to be a perfect fit. But it’s just really nice to have it as one option for reporting something because probably there’s going to be a report or a reflection or writing assignment in some space, where digital reporting is a really nice way to reduce paper, make our classes much more streamlined for remote delivery or flexible delivery as we move into the future. I do think it has a potential for tons of applications that I certainly haven’t thought of yet. But I really like this delivery method in class.

John: And you mentioned reflection, and that’s something that’s useful in any discipline, and that’s one way in which it could be fairly easily integrated. You’ve made my life a lot more complicated this week, because I’m supposed to be preparing my syllabi this week. We’re recording this in late January. We’ll be releasing it a little bit later. And when I saw the description of what you were doing, I was thinking this is something I should try this semester. So I’m probably going to be trying to implement some of these ideas in my econometrics class this semester.

Katy: Well, that’s great to hear. I hope it works.

John: I hope I can get it all together.

Katy: Well, I’d be happy to share anything by the way, like if you want to see my example blog or if you want to see an example rubric or an example assignment description, I’d be happy to share any of those things.

John: That would be very helpful. Thank you.

Rebecca: It is funny that sometimes we get these really great ideas to try out these new things, and John and I certainly experience this frequently. As podcast hosts, we’re exposed to so many great ideas, and then we have so many. But it’s really great, even though that sometimes there’s a lot of time involved in the setup of these things, they often play out in saving time over time….

Katy: Absolutely.

Rebecca: …presuming you stay with it, right? [LAUGHTER]

Katy: Well, absolutely. And that’s one of the things that has been the neatest for me, because one of the issues with the multiple choice questions is that they were so specific, and there was so much opportunity to make a mistake, missing a dollar sign or writing the wrong variable name. With the blog assignments, they’re so open ended. All I’m saying is: “Apply using linear regression with two variables to your dataset.” How can I get that problem description wrong? I can’t. So the beauty of the blog is that the nature of the description of an assignment is so open ended, but so directly flowing from what we did in class that the students really know how to accomplish each step.

Rebecca: I’m sure they also can see the practical application and how all of this skill sets not only from the statistics part of it, but also from the blog component of it, or the digital reporting of it, is practical for their future careers and things. And I think that tends to give students a little bit more buy-in to these kinds of assignments.

Katy: I think you’re right. And it achieves two other critical things. One of them is that it brings the sort of inherent motivation that we know is so important for student learning right up front, the students are choosing what they want to study. So they’re going to have a lot more excitement. And honestly, I see that when I’m talking to them. I don’t know anything about professional hockey, but when my students are working with hockey data, and that’s the area that they have the greatest interest in, I see them light up when I ask questions about like, “Now, how did you make this interpretation? Why do you think this is related to this?” So inherent motivation is a big deal. But the second thing that is a really fun byproduct is that having read what students are doing and having spoken to them in office hours, it brings up a ton of fun examples to talk about in class. So I might remember that Adrian is working on, you know, the COVID-19 data, and I can sort of bring that up casually in class. We found this weird thing that happened in Adrian’s dataset, and why do you think this is happening? Or what do you think is a good solution to this problem that Adrian’s facing and we can talk about things that I had never imagined would come up in class just because of a quirky dataset that was publicly available.

Rebecca: I could see how that also puts students in the position of being an expert or a co- teacher in some ways, which I can see as being another motivating factor.

Katy: Absolutely. That’s such a great point, because they’re also experts in each other’s conversation. So in the small groups that I was doing in the remote teaching in the fall, one student would say, “Oh, well I bought him an idea for your data set based on our conversation last week.” And even if you just watch hockey, and you’re not working on a hockey dataset, but you really like it, you can be an expert in someone else’s space. And clearly I can’t, because I’m upfront with the students about what I know and what I’m interested in and what I’m not. So like, I don’t watch a lot of hockey. so you have to help me understand. And that sort of puts me in a backseat in the same way it puts them in the front seat.

John: Earlier, you mentioned that one of the motivations for doing this was that you wanted to move away from multiple choice tests. Have you eliminated multiple choice tests from this course?

Katy: So yes, I have… sort of. In the remote teaching environment, I have relied more on team projects and multiple choice quizzes. I was trying to model after folks I’ve heard on your podcast and others say that having smaller-stakes quizzes is much more inclusive, gives students more of an opportunity to learn and to course correct, and so I was having these multiple choice quizzes. But I’m finding that the multiple choice quizzes are really an obstacle for students. And I am as frustrated as they are with them. They’re doing great on the blogs, but they’re not doing as well on the multiple choice questions. And I suspect it’s because of the poor design in the multiple choice questions and not because the students don’t know what they’re doing. They couldn’t do a great job on the blog if they didn’t have the skills. So as we head into the spring, where I’ll be teaching remotely again, I am planning to drop the multiple choice quizzes completely. That’s not to say I’ll never use multiple choice questions again. In my in-person class, I have used multiple choice questions or a multiple choice final as part of assessing students. But for now, it seems that the multiple choice quizzes really have not been effective. So this semester, I’m going to be grading students on their blog posts, team project, and participation, which is just an interaction metric

John: Are the team projects the same as a project they’re reporting on the blog?

Katy: Oh, great question. So when I assign a team project to students, it is on a data set that I’ve selected. So at the beginning of the semester, they are downloading a folder of lots of different data sets that they’ll need for examples working through the course skill videos that we’ve talked about. And I’ll choose a data set that they might not have seen yet and write some questions that are somewhat open ended, “build a model,” and I’ll try to randomize across teams like which variables they should use in their model. So they’ll all be predicting sales, for example, but they might have different predictor variables. So team one is going to choose variables, 1, 2, 3, etc. So they’re all working with something a little bit different, but they’re trying to end up in the same place: predicting sales. And these are totally open ended. But they get to work together, and that helps. And I’ve also been using specifications grading in this class over the last semester, which has been a lot of fun. The students have started to appreciate it toward the end of the semester, though, maybe I shouldn’t have selected a semester that was so much in transition to experiment with that. [LAUGHTER] Maybe it created a little stress at the beginning. But by the end of the semester, the students were saying things like, “I really liked that I could choose my level of interaction with the course.” The reason I bring this up is because I would require revisions in team projects. So every team had to score 100%, which of course is alarming to students until you say, “there will be revisions required until you’ve scored 100%.” So I want us to move past these topics, but we are going to make sure that we learn them. And I think that was a really neat experience for me to be able to coach students through finally getting mastery, which I have never done in class before. If a student didn’t master a topic, we just move on and maybe there will be an opportunity down the road. But it really was nice to see students come to a place where they had achieved a particular benchmark.

Rebecca: Were your collaborative assignments done during class time, or were they outside of class?

Katy: So this semester, I allowed students to have an entire day that they could complete the assignment anytime between 12am on that day and 11:59pm. I also encouraged my international students to do it during that 24 hours, but to make sure it was done during that eastern time 24 hours. And they could work on it during the class time, during the scheduled class time. Because it was a day that we would have had class, but they didn’t have to. So they had the flexibility to choose a time that worked for them. If it was late at night, great. If it was early in the morning, great. Or if it was during class time. That’s fine with me too.

John: We’ve really been enjoying your podcast. And you’ve mentioned this a little bit. But can you tell us a little bit more about how you decided to start this podcast?

Katy: Absolutely. First, I want to thank you both for listening. I’m such a fan of your podcast and others that are similar. And just like the digital portfolio idea, the possibility of creating a podcast has been in the back of my mind for a while, listening to some others like yours. So just as I have learned so much from hearing what others are doing via podcasts like yours, I just feel like I can’t get enough examples of creative ideas that people are using to engage their students. And not just big ideas like “Oh, implement a new grading system.” But small ideas like “Oh, I spend the first minute of my class engaging my students in this way,” or “I have this micro assignment that we do only occasionally but builds community.” And as I mentioned before, what we do in our classrooms can feel so opaque. It’s really that I just wanted to contribute in a time when we can all use more sharing of the things that are working for us, and not every idea is perfect for every person. But just more sharing of what’s working so that we have more options to choose from when teaching feels so different and so challenging to so many of us right now. And so the podcast is generating, selfishly, tons of new ideas for me, which even if that’s the only thing that comes out of it, that’s enough. But it’s also doing the service of drawing attention to the great ideas around me at the University of Delaware this semester, and hopefully, in a broader sense in the future. And so I just really appreciate being able to feature great ideas that are happening around me that might not otherwise be heard about except in documentation of excellence, for example.

John: And often those are only seen by a few people on review committees and sharing it more broadly, both within your campus and across the whole academic community, raises the visibility of that work much more extensively.

Katy: That’s my hope because the more people I talk to, I just feel so impressed by the exciting ideas that I’m hearing from different people and to be able to amplify their voices. I couldn’t be happier to be able to do that.

Rebecca: Well, you’ve talked about some really exciting things that you’re working on. But we always like to raise the ante by asking: what’s next?

Katy: So next, for me would be a second season of the podcast. I’d really like to incorporate more ideas from a broader range of places across the University of Delaware, but also bringing in others from outside just to add to the discussion. And also, I’m really thinking a lot, listening a lot to your podcast, and thinking a lot about what the future looks like in my classroom. I will have taught remotely now for…. this will be my second semester in the spring teaching remotely. And I’m learning so many things about how we can make learning more accessible to more students under the current circumstances. But I think a lot of it applies to what our future looks like. So I’m really not sure when we go back in the fall, I’m hopeful we’ll be back in the fall safely, but I’m really not sure what my class is going to look like. I can’t imagine that I’m just gonna slide back into what I used to do without incorporating some new things. And finally, I am expecting a baby in June. So there is a new chapter ahead for me that will bring some other fun changes. And so that is what’s next.

John: Congratulations.

Rebecca: Congratulations. Yeah.

Katy: Thank you very much.

Rebecca: …definitely exciting times on so many fronts.

John: Rebecca had that experience fairly recently.

Katy: Oh, congratulations.

Rebecca: Yeah, my daughter is three and a half now, but yeah, it was a great adventure and continues to be a great adventure. So I know you’ll have a great time.

Katy: Yeah, I’m certainly looking forward to understanding all the things that are ahead and totally different and maybe they’ll also inspire some new ways of thinking about learning from seeing it through a different set of eyes

Rebecca: It definitely did for me. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think it does for everyone who raises children. And actually Josh Eyler, after watching his daughter learn and experience the world…. it inspired him to study more about learning, which is ultimately the source of his book on How Humans Learn.

Katy: I think I heard him talking with you about that on your podcast.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much, Katy. This has been a great conversation.

Katy: Well, thank you both so much for having me. It’s really been a pleasure chatting with you.

Rebecca: Hopefully we’ll have you back in the future to hear more about the fun things you’re doing in your classroom.

Katy: That sounds fantastic. Thank you.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

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136. Learning Networks

Students in many classes work in isolation to create written assignments that are shared only with their professor. Unless they’ve kept a copy of this work, it disappears once their course ends. In this episode, Gardner Campbell joins us to discuss how student motivation, engagement, and learning might change if students instead become active contributors to public knowledge sharing networks.  Gardner is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Gardner  has long been a leader in the use of open pedagogy projects.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Students in many classes work in isolation to create written assignments that are shared only with their professor. Unless they’ve kept a copy of this work, it disappears once their course ends. In this episode, we examine how student motivation, engagement, and learning might change if students instead become active contributors to public knowledge sharing networks.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Gardner Campbell. Gardner is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Gardner has long been a leader in the use of open pedagogy projects, and we’ll be talking about that and a few other things today. Welcome, Gardner.

Gardner: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca. It’s great to be here.

John: It’s good to talk to you again. You were on our campus when I first took over as the teaching center director here, you lead a symposium and then a workshop for faculty on web 2.0 tools about 12 years ago, I think it was.

Gardner: It’s hard to believe it was that long ago, but I remember my time on the campus very fondly and had a great time. So, if 12 years ago that would put it what ‘08? Yeah, that’s interesting. Wow, that doesn’t seem like that long ago.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are.

John: Are you drinking tea?

Gardner: I am not. Should I be drinking tea?

John: Well, it’s the title of the podcast… So, Rebecca makes us do that.

Gardner: Am I underdressed? Oh dear. No, I’m actually not drinking anything, though I see that it’s soon going to be five o’clock. So, that could change.

John: I’m drinking honey green iced tea today.

Gardner: Oh, nice.

John: Most of my tees are up at the office in a safe, secure location. [LAUGHTER]

Gardner: John’s tea is at an undisclosed location somewhere in a bunker underneath the White House.

Rebecca: Luckily, I have a nice stockpile. Today I have glazed lemon loaf.

Gardner: Hmm, interesting. What is a lemon loaf?

Rebecca: I think it’s like breakfast bread that you might have at like a Starbucks or something. And it does smell a lot like it… it doesn’t taste a lot like it. but it smells a lot like it.

John: So, are there crumbs in it or something? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: No, but it smells like crumbs.

Gardner: See, we’re getting virtual already. I’m all about it. Let’s get to metaphor and I’ll be right at home.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about some of the open pedagogy projects you’ve done with your students. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got started with these projects?

Gardner: Well, a long long time ago, I got very interested in the capacity for network communications to kind of erase the compartmentalization of learning on a college campus or in a college community generally… the idea that well, you went to this class from 9:30 to 10:45, you went on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you went to this class from 1:00 to 2:00 Monday, Wednesday, Friday… things never really connected. You never had a sense that it was something more than just one thing after another. And to my way of thinking it had become increasingly difficult, even in the 1990s, to get to this idea of the life of the mind, which sounds kind of highfalutin, but really, for me, it means that you’re never not thinking about things. And you’re always kind of putting things through the tumble in your head to figure out “Huh, well, I learned this in my economics class, and I learned this my Milton class, but Milton was in the government. And so he was familiar with some of the stuff that was going on with finance, and he actually wrote about currency at one point in Paradise Lost.” Those things need to connect, it seems to me, especially in a liberal arts education setting, so one of the things I always felt like I was fighting was the walls of the classroom, including the temporal walls when you were in a particular place for a particular time. When I saw the birth of high-speed internet connectivity in the mid 90s, at Mary Washington, where I was at the time, I saw an opportunity to try to get students interested in various kinds of asynchronous communication that would keep the thread going, would keep the conversation going, would keep that life of the mind present to them in a way. And the first thing I used was email and had it backed up on a listserv server. Back in those days, students would get their first email accounts when they came to campus. And now they don’t have email accounts, because that’s for old people. It’s taken about 25 years to make that change, which is pretty rapid. But, what I found was there was an interesting way, that even though that wasn’t what I would later do with big open project, there was a way in which I was finding what they call a third space, like a coffee house, or a cafe or a diner or a place that wasn’t a formal institutional place and it wasn’t just a home place. But, it was this third space where people were informal, but they also had an idea that they were with other people and they couldn’t just slouch around in their jammies and slippers, they really did need to metaphorically kind of be present in a social setting, but it wasn’t a formal or scripted setting. So I got really interested in that. And then when the web came along, just about a year or so after I started the stuff with email… it was already there, but we were really getting into it in a big way at Mary Washington… I saw an opportunity for students to build things that would be out in the open, that would give them the opportunity to create something that would last beyond just the semester, and that would have an audience besides just the professor or even each other in the class, and that that would present certain interesting challenges to students. That is, they would have to do something that would represent their own growing expertise, but would also be potentially of interest to someone who hadn’t been at the class. When I first started doing that with a first year writing class, and it’s the kind of long tail effect about two years after the first time I did that with a partner in crime named Bill Kemp, who passed away recently, but was a really close colleague and a wonderful mentor and friend at Mary Washington. There was a moment when I got an email (because we had asked that people contact either me or Bill, not the student directly because we were trying to protect the students contact information and privacy) and a student from Africa, wrote in and said, “I just read what one of your students wrote about Tupac Shakur, and he speaks for me, would you please just let him know?” Now, I didn’t have WordPress, I didn’t have any way for people to leave comments on these web publications, but as soon as I got in touch with the fellow who had written that essay, he was just flabbergasted: “You’re kidding me? Something I did for a first-year writing class has now touched somebody halfway around the world two years later.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s part of what the promise of the web is, that these things that we do for ourselves in particular contexts, will find affinity groups, will find people we had not anticipated, making use of what we’ve created and learning with us in ways that we hadn’t anticipated.” So, those two things together: the way in which the class could be in communication with itself without simply being in the same physical space, and know themselves as a learning community; and then this other idea that by being open and sharing what we have done with the world, we could have these unanticipated, these serendipitous, encounters with the way in which this work might matter outside of a school setting, those two things really did, I think, lead to everything I was trying to do with open pedagogy from thereafter. And then you’ve already mentioned the advent of web 2.0. And that was the next big turning point for me, when it suddenly became clear to me that, for very little money, I could set up my own domain, I could set up my own blog, I could run all sorts of discussion forums on my own domain, which I continue to do, that that would be an opportunity for me to kind of set up shop on the web in a way that would be persistent and would make my work more visible. And then I said, “Well, now, hmmm… what if I ask my staff to do that? And hmmm… what if I asked my students to do that and what if I did AAC&U projects using that idea of the open platform and opportunities for connection that had not been anticipated or scripted, but would arrive serendipitously with some intentionality as we reached out to our various networks. I just got completely hooked on that. And I guess the high point of all of that, for me was a moment in 2015, in which I was still on senior staff, I was a Vice Provost at VCU at the time, and there was a lot of conversation about what were we going to do with the World Championship bicycle race that was going to be coming to Richmond, and of course, “What are we gonna do with it? We’re gonna watch it. Are you kidding? This is once in a lifetime.” But the concern was that because the bicycle race would be going around the main Arts and Sciences Campus, that we wouldn’t be able to get faculty in regularly or efficiently. We wouldn’t be able to ensure people could leave at a particular time. And so we couldn’t even be sure the dining services would be able to stay open. We’ll just have to send everybody home. But, there were a number of us who said “Hmm, why would we send people home when part of the way that we recruit them to VCU is to promise them Richmond and the urban setting, and here’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.” So, to make a long story short, there was a project that I was very privileged to lead. But I had some really great collaborators who came up with really wonderful ideas and fed into the project people from the community engagement Vice Provost Office, people from communications, people from web services, just, you know, the Dean’s office, etc. And we had a curricular event during that week, in which we offered about 26 different courses, one credit each, at a special price that would have a kind of in place component related to the bicycle race, but would be conducted primarily online or in perhaps smaller groups that wouldn’t be at any risk of not having facilities they would need during that time, and first-year students would be able to stay on campus, and that was called the Great VCU bike race book. The promise was that what students did would all be syndicated upwards into WordPress sites. These 26 classes were massively across the disciplines, everything from the psychology or in the motivation of exercise to gender and bicycling to bicycling and film to the physics of bicycling. And the student works syndicated up into the WordPress sites would then be curated by the faculty, and would then become a permanent part of the scholarly depository in the library, which made students go “Wait a minute, really, I’m going to be doing something that will be permanently stored in the library as part of the scholarly activity at VCU.” And the answer was “yes.” And while we want you to be very aware of the potential for copyright violation and be a good copyright citizen, when we talk to you about fair use, we’re also talking to you about fair use of your products, the things that you are making that reflect the work you are doing. And everyone I guess, except 2 of the 350 students or so who signed up gave their permission, and their work is now in the scholarly depository at VCU. Jimmy Ghapery, who’s in charge of the digital part of the library’s operations, was good enough to work with me, work with the academic learning transformation laboratory to digitize these student websites and to make them part of the permanent cultural record that was documented during this event at VCU. That was massively open. But it was interesting. I, of course, tracked the MOOC mania very carefully when it was coming out 2011… 2012 all the predictions about “Well, soon we’ll have 10 universities, and they’ll simply offer 10 million courses and it will all scale up and all the rest of that,” I was highly skeptical, though I recognize there’s a little bit of a conflict of interest since I make my livelihood this way. But, what I’ve been working at is not so much these massively open online designs, though I remain interested in them. I think there is some value there. But what happens if you scale up smaller learning communities into larger networks, that is to say you can actually have… wait for it… a network of networks, like the internet On the internet, we’re not all logging into one gigantic computer that AT&T operates on our behalf. There was a time when that was the model that people had in their minds. What we have instead are all these individual computers, these personal computers, that can hook up freely with either other computers in a smaller network, or do things that then become amplified up through greater and greater networks through the web. And that’s really, for me, been the focus of most of my work in open pedagogy. It’s been trying to figure out ways to generate healthy, medium-sized networks and then network the networks. I’ve had some success with that, and at the same time, I can’t tell you that people know more about the web now than they knew in the 2000s, they probably know a little bit less, the smartphone has made a huge difference along those lines, and not just in a good way. I mean, I love my smartphone. But, there’s been a way in which we’ve all kind of retreated into this closed system, and one that’s built on apps and I think that some of the deep knowledge of the way the web operations has eroded over time. But I’m still in there and still getting my students to blog and putting them onto old school PHP, BB forums, because they still have more functionality than anything that the learning management systems have provided. And I guess that’s my story. And I’m sticking to it.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a lot about the scope and some of the possibilities of networks to connect and people to connect from different communities and around the world. Can you talk a little bit about some of the learning gains the students get from working on these larger scale projects?

Gardner: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I think the first thing that students get is a kind of ambient awareness of what out there in the environment they could connect to. So, for example, when my students are blogging on WordPress, the first thing they start to figure out is, “oh, I can embed a video,” “oh, well, if I can embed a video or whatever, I could make a video” or” Oh, I wonder if I could put screenshots in here to illustrate the kinds of things I’m talking about.” Now, these are things that students typically are pretty capable of doing. It is true that students are not necessarily very sophisticated about the web. I think URLs puzzle a lot of my students, they don’t understand how they’re constructed or what they signify. But they’re doing screenshots all the time. They use their smartphones, that stuff is built in, their tablets have screenshots built in. Well, what if you use the thing that you’re on a day-to-day basis to communicate with your friends, and you use it to illustrate a point you’re making? Could you do that, and typically, that kind of thing starts to happen pretty organically. There’ll be a student in the class who either gets it very quickly or has already done something in multiple modalities, maybe in a composition class or something like that. And they’ll break the ice. And then this ambient awareness starts to emerge as, what I think of it as an enormous learning game. What could I bring to bear on this thing I’m writing that would make it more persuasive, that would illustrate it in a more interesting way, and that by doing so, would draw me into the project in a more interesting way. So, the first learning gain, I think, is that ambient awareness… just what is possible, and I’m an academic, so I do a lot of stuff with academic writing… scholarly publishing. I think it’s fair to say that you don’t always get an enormous amount of ambient awareness of how you connect to the wider world in the scholarly literature. It’s in some ways, I guess, it has a different purpose. But that’s what students are told to do: go get peer-reviewed articles. Nothing wrong with that… a lot that’s good about that. But the other side of that is students get locked into a kind of an imitation rhetoric, that is to say they’re trying to do the thing that the professor seems to recognize as a thing that can be done and the examples of that are in the scholarly articles, and they miss out on some of the ways that they could begin to experiment with multiple modalities and kind of rethink even what an argumentative paper might be. So that’s one of the things I think is a gain. The other gain is when they begin to realize that there are other people in the environment doing similar work and they have an opportunity to connect. Now this is where the school begins to acquire a much bigger role in the student’s life than just the set of classes they’re taking, they start to become aware in a deeper way of what it means to be spending time in a learning community that it’s not simply going from door number one to door number two, that you’re in an environment and that the environment is kind of greater than sum of its parts. This happened just in a blog post that the student published in my senior seminar just today, the senior seminar is on a filmmaker and a writer named Errol Morris. And one of the things that the student began to do was to be curious to see if there were any traces of her classmates in other classes working on Errol Morris. Now, already, this is an interesting kind of ambient awareness that takes the knowledge of other communication channels and the experience of other communication channels, and you get the feeling that “I wonder if anybody is out there in another network.” Typically, learning management systems shut down the network of a class at the end of the semester, because they’re not even thinking of a class as a network and they’re thinking of the learning management system as a kind of a document delivery platform. But,as it happens, this student was in a communications class that used Slack. So she’s using WordPress, as well as we’re doing a Wikipedia project in the senior seminar that kind of goes along with the research project they’re doing for the seminar. And we’ve been spending a lot of time in these other platforms like Zoom, making these kinds of connections and bringing the buffet of what’s available in. So, she went to her Slack channel, which had preserved the chit chat from her class and saw that there was somebody in there this semester, who was also working on Errol Morris. And she thought, “Well, now, that’s interesting.” And then she continued to do this exploration. And she said that the thing she found was that there were more people at VCU working on Errol Morris than she had ever dreamed, and that it was a real surprise because she had never heard of Errol Morris until she came into the senior seminar. And this is a sophisticated student. This is someone who’s not just keeping blinders on and not aware of anything thing that’s going on in the world. But, nobody knows everything. She took the senior seminar and now she’s kind of finding out, “Huh, this is kind of all over the place, including in various places in school itself.” And I think without an open pedagogical approach, in this case, it’s the Wikipedia project and blogging that my students are doing, there’s a way in which it just never rises into their consciousness to even ask the question::are there other people around me doing this?” And of course, if those other channels don’t exist, if everything is locked away in an LMS, it wouldn’t matter if you did ask the question. Which brings me to a part of the question that you’ve asked that I think is also very important, it informed a lot of my work when I was doing this as an administrator for about 13 years. I always knew that the more of my colleagues who were adopting aspects of this approach… and not everything has to be open, closed things need to be a part of what we’re doing… there needs to be a sweet spot between the things that what’s said in the senior seminar stays in the senior seminar and what you’re able to do as a more public self, those are useful skills. But I always thought the more my colleagues who began to adopt these approaches, it wasn’t just about the increased value of the pedagogy in their classrooms, which I firmly believe would happen, but the more open classes we have the more chances for these classes to discover each other. And again, it’s this idea that each class has a network, but then the networks start to network. And the big learning gain, if you’re able to do that is that you’re able to start to understand how connections scale in the world. And I think it makes you a better citizen in a democracy. I think it makes you more effective as a professional, really any activity that you’re in, you start to understand how smaller units like families exist within a community; how communities exist within larger units, like states; how states exist within larger units, like nations; and so forth. So, those are just a few of the learning gains that happened and then maybe two years later someone reads your blog and they say “Wow, you speak for me” and you get a nice little surprise as a comment on something you’ve written.

John: Going back to Rebecca’s question a little bit. I remember when you were here and you gave a keynote address at our teaching symposium, one of the things you mentioned was that students had been writing on a blog, and they continued writing even after the class ended. And that was something I think that people still talk about, how these open pedagogy projects if they get them started, and they continue to provide students with motivation that they might not typically have in their regular assignments.

Gardner: Oh, that’s right. David Wiley, who’s been working with open education for decades now has this great phrase for the opposite of what you’re talking about. He calls them disposable assignments. And I think what you’re saying is absolutely right. The things that students contribute to the world through open pedagogical practices and putting their artifacts up where other people can see them helps students understand that the work they’re doing is not disposable. It’s something that not only can persist but can be the first stage in an expanding kind of public presence as a writer, as a thinker, and as a student. This is a particular challenge… and first of all, I should say that there are not many students who will be motivated to keep on with this in any kind of formal way after the class is done, but some of them are, and if you get any of them, I think that’s a great advantage. But, even for the students who don’t go on as bloggers, or don’t go on to doing podcasts, or whatever. the seed is planted, there’s a way in which sometimes these things may take 10 or even 20 years, and then suddenly, the student will be in a particular context again, and go, “Ah, oh, that’s interesting,” and something will come out of that. It’s just the way it is with any kind of teaching. You can see certain things happening right away. Other things, you just hope you can live long enough to see the day when suddenly there’s an idea and it comes back at you. You recognize it’s what a student has built out that started at a particular moment back in the day, but yeah, I think disposable assignments… it just gets back to this thing that john Dewey said he said, you know, “education is not preparation for life, Education is the process of living.” And there’s a corollary to that, which is hard for my students to understand. But I think it’s valuable. When I tell them blog, they say, “Well, what am I going to blog about?” And I say, “Well, you must tell the story of your learning.” And for a number of them, this is the first time they thought of their learning as a kind of a narrative, that this is a set of experiences, they are living through a set of cognitive events that make a difference in the way they’re going to be approaching the world afterwards. And so you might as well keep a diary, and you’re not going to be wrong. It’s your story. It’s your learning. But it does mean that you think about your learning in a different way,

John: Which builds in a nice metacognitive component where students can learn more by reflecting on what they’ve learned. And that’s something I think you’ve written about a little bit in some of your writings recently.

Gardner: I have tried to do that. I’ve tried to emphasize that when students understand that this metacognition, which for me, of course, I’m always doing that, but for many students either they’ve never thought that that is something they need to do with school, because school for them has just been a series of tasks, or they think of their own metacognitive ideas out in the wild as somehow not being worth other people’s time. And lately I’ve been doing some work with memoirists and one of them is Patricia Hampl. And she has this really great way of talking about her own reluctance to write a memoir at first because she thought it was the most narcissistic thing you could possibly do. And then found out, as I think many of us do, over the course of our lives, that if you write something honest and searching about your own experience, people will connect with that… the first person is a way to get to the first person plural. And it’s kind of a mystery in a way how that works. But I want my students to have that idea. And there have been so many times when students have essentially said to me, “Well, who cares what I think about something,” and I say, “Well, it is true, you’re not an expert. It is true that we got plenty of opinions floating around. In the world, and maybe we don’t need another op ed, but nobody else is going to be able to tell the story of your learning. And if you tell the story of your learning, you’re also telling it to yourself.” And that kind of metacognition expands in all sorts of directions. And when it happens, it’s pretty extraordinary. It’s a wonderful thing to see.

Rebecca: So one of the things that I hear coming up and all the learning that we’re talking about is moving beyond being consumers of tech and consumers of knowledge to creators, and being scholars and students thinking of themselves as scholars, which I think is really interesting because it gives them agency in a way that they might not understand that they have agency. And so when they see themselves as agents, in communities, there’s a lot of power there. And maybe they’re not always able to act on that power initially, but I think that’s what you’re pointing out, Garfner is like, later on, down the road, they realize that they have that power and that they are able to act on that agency… that maybe they didn’t choose to act on earlier. And so I think that’s really powerful and not seeing school as a silo, but part of this bigger part of their lives. And that this agency crosses between a lot of different domains that they exist in.

Gardner: I think that’s exactly right and very well put. It also has the bonus that they begin to understand some deep truths about the scholarly life, which are, for me, that scholarship is about creation. It’s about a certain kind of rigor and responsibility with regard to the material you’re working with. And it’s also about a conversation. So, for many of them, and I’ve seen this happen with the Wikipedia assignment very recently in a poetry class, and I’ve seen it happen with blogging a good deal, for them books on the shelf in the library, or even more so the e-stuff that they get through JSTOR or whatever, it just all looks, again, to use your word, like silos, like these bound volumes, these discrete units. What they can’t imagine is that when you walk into a library, either physically or when you’re surrounded by these electronic resources online, what you’re hearing is a conversation, what you’re hearing our voices over many years, and within each of those articles within each of those books, there’s a network of all the things that the author has brought to bear on his or her argument. And once you kind of get away from this idea that books are inert, articles are just book reports that these things are simply there, like pebbles, or like little capsules. And you start to think, no, this is a kind of time lapse photograph of a flower blooming. This is something that has a rich temporal dimension. And then to the next part of your point, I can be one of those voices too. I need to be a responsible voice. I can’t just run into the conversation and blurt out whatever’s on the top of my head. That’s kind of a rude way to get into a conversation, and nobody’s likely to listen to you. They’ll just be annoyed. But you may come in and find that you have something to say that is rich, that’s authentic, and may surprise the other people in the conversation. This is something that I learned a long time ago from one of the scholars in residence at Baylor University, that if people are sufficiently observant and responsible and responsive to their environment, there’s always a chance that they’re going to see something nobody else has ever seen. And I really do try very hard to work that into my own pedagogy. And if I’m working on, I don’t know, Citizen Kane, a movie I’ve seen 60 times, I always try to tell my students the story of moments when students saw things that I had never seen, because you just need to be alert, you need to be awake. And so that agency that you’re discussing, which is a sense of responsibility, but also a sense of why it’s worth discovering your agency, I just think that’s so crucial. And it can be very, very difficult to convey that in a way that gets those students in the sweet spot where they’re not just kind of popping off without thinking at all, but they’re also not clamming up because what can they offer? They’re not the expert. There’s that middle ground. And in some ways, the open pedagogical framework, that third space idea is the ideal place for them to start spreading their wings and finding that agency.

John: You mentioned that you’ve used blogging for quite a while and you’ve been having students do some wikipedia assignments. And also I believe you have your students work with hypothes.is as well. Could you tell us a little bit about the details of how all these things fit together in your courses?

Gardner: Happy to do that. I know there are a lot of moving parts and some of my students are not happy with all the moving parts, I think because they like the regimented approach. I think we’ve all found that if we try to do some things that are a little more open, or a little more freewheeling, that often students will resist that because that’s not the way they’ve been managing their presence or their activity within school. But, for the students who thrive, here’s what I hope it offers. I always describe this in terms of zooming out and zooming in, or sometimes the microcosm and the macrocosm. And I actually use those as kind of tropes as I’m talking about it with students. There’s no great mystery there. I’m just trying to give them a framework for thinking about it. The blog, it seems to me, is a place for synthesis. It’s a place to take a step back as you tell the story of your learning. You’re making In these connections. You’re knitting things together. You’re trying to make something larger out of more discrete encounters, let’s say with a text, but with hypothes.is, which is a platform for online annotation, now you’re zooming in. Now you’re doing close reading in a social reading environment, in which, in my case, it’s usually a PDF, but it can also be a web page, all the students are reading the same thing and they are highlighting places that strike them as puzzling or interesting or insightful. I actually asked them to use those words as tags, and they highlight those bits. And then in the margin, they leave a comment, they leave a note or they respond to another comment or another note. And hypothes.is, as a platform, has been super because it starts to encourage students to read things more carefully, read things more closely, and to consider again, how the shape of an argument can unfold because they’ll leave a comment at the beginning or a question in the beginning, and then by the end, they see the authors anticipated that question or maybe has complicated that observation even more, and they also become, and this is a great bonus for me as an English professor, they become very attuned to ways in which writers can word things in insightful or beautiful ways. And the tags I’m talking about in the hypothesis environment have to do with making students aware of what Paul Silvia calls knowledge emotions, which he categorizes as confusion, awe, surprise, and interest generally (that also includes curiosity), and for Sylvia, it’s all about balancing certainty and uncertainty in a framework that encourages students to respond but not simply to sum things up… to respond in a way that would record at a particular moment, a cognitive and affective response without simply delivering a summary judgment with a bow on it, which we know can happen. You can think that your whole job as a student is to deliver a set of pat conclusions, but hypothes.is, and using these knowledge emotion tags of “interesting” or “puzzling” or “insightful,” that encourages something that’s a little more open ended and also very attentive to the particulars of a text, it tends to work against paraphrasing. And then often what I’ll do is I’ll say, “Okay, folks, now I want you to blog about your experience of using hypothes.is.” And then they begin to back up again, and synthesize some of the more granular and specific things they were doing with a particular text, also with the dimension of how the interaction with students went, their classmates. So the zooming out, the zooming in, and then connecting that to the work with Wikipedia, you’ve got opportunities to do very granular work with particular facts, with particular sources, to step back a little bit and start to think about the information design of the Wikipedia page. And then to learn how to interact with the other Wikipedia editors in the wild and interesting world of the culture of Wikipedia. Michael Nielsen says “my favorite thing about Wikipedia,” he says “it’s not an encyclopedia, it’s a city whose main export to the world is an encyclopedia.” And in his book on network science, he talks about ways in which the culture of Wikipedia manifests itself throughout Wikipedia. And by the time we are moving in that direction, ideally, if the hypothes.is work and the blogging work have achieved that kind of synergy, students are going to be ready for the detailed work and the cultural work and the synthesis work that comes with contributing to a big public resource like Wikipedia. In that effort. I have, of course, enormous partnership help from various organizations: hypothes.is, the learning resources there, the way they have set up Jeremy Dean as a Director of Education who was able to work with individual faculty and with students to help them make the most of this platform and then Wikipedia opened up to me by means of an organization called Wiki Education, which is a fantastic group of folks, may they live forever. They are devoted to setting up environments in which faculty can very easily, and in ways that are very straightforward with the students, set up a series of training encounters for the students… ways in which the students are able to think at a much deeper level about how to be a responsible contributor to Wikipedia, can begin to grapple with issues of copyright, issues of how do you deal with sensitive things like health pages, or pages describing mental illness. Now, my students aren’t doing a lot with that, but those training opportunities are there for people who are running a class in biology or running a class in psychology and they want to contribute to these articles. And it’s a way to, again, to emphasize to students that we have this enormous privilege of being in this very high-level learning community. Let’s give back. This is a kind of experiential learning in which we’re actually contributing what we have been able to be in contact with and to learn in ways that will benefit the world. And that’s no idle promise either. There’s ample documentation of all of these communities for whom Wikipedia is a primary means of learning about the world and, I would add, a primary means of learning about the dangers and the promise of the internet. I think that my students work in blogging in hypothes.is And in Wikipedia, in particular, make them into better digital citizens, people who understand, I think, at much greater depth, what they can contribute, and what kinds of privileges and pitfalls accompany these platforms. So, ideally, what I’m describing is a kind of synergy. I always want these positive feedback loops in which what you do in one environment makes your work stronger, richer, and brings you more surprises with connections when you move into another environment or when you’re working at a big level what happens when you start to work at a more focused and granular level. This is all interactive. It’s another network and my hope is that it creates a network inside students’ heads. At its best, I think, the kind of, I guess, open ecology and the hypothes.is tends to be open, that tends to be in a small, closed group for the classroom. But what they do there, they can bring in weblinks, they can bring in things from the outside. But my hope is that that kind of ecology begins to create, again, the sense of possibility within the students and they begin to see that, really any class, if you look at it’s design carefully, if it’s been put together thoughtfully doing things that should be mutually reinforcing, and not just one thing after another,

John: What do you do with those students who are reluctant to have their work shared publicly, at least under their name? How do you address the students who prefer to keep their work private?

Gardner: Well, the first thing is, they don’t have to do it under their name. One of the nice things about the platform that we’re using, which is WordPress multisite platform, and I’ve done this on my own web-hosted accounts, but we have the big one at school called Ram Pages, they can choose a pseudonym, so they can be pseudonymous to each other. They can be pseudonymous to the world and I talked to them a great deal about the difference between personal and private. I say, you know, you want a good sense of who you are as a person out there. It’s part of your voice and you need to know how to do that in a public setting. But, at the same time, you don’t want to disclose private details. You really don’t want to do that. Because it’s unpredictable how that will promulgate once it’s out on the web. I think the idea that, you know, once you publish something to a blog, it’s there forever, it’s part of your permanent record, is a little overblown. There is that security through obscurity, you’re not going to be found right away. There’s a little bit of space there. That happened to me once. A student blogged about using a roommate’s key to get into the room. And of course, that was an honor offense, you weren’t supposed to do that ,you weren’t supposed to use somebody else’s ID and I had a talk with a student I said, you need to take that blog post down because “ain’t no big thang, but you really don’t want to be talking about that stuff out on the open web.” So, there’s a way I frame it so that I try to anticipate some of the reluctance that students might have and answer questions ahead of time before they even start writing on their blogs. The other thing I do is I always, always, always talk about it in terms of how this is going to be a part of their learning. And I compare it to classes that would have a public performance aspect, a music class, or an art class or a theater class. And I’ll say now we’re doing early modern literature. It’s not necessarily a performance class, but it can have a performance aspect to it that I think is pedagogically valuable. And here is why. If you have a particular objection, then please come to me and we will talk about that. I will try to make you as comfortable as possible and give you what you need to be able to work successfully in an open medium. If at the end of the day, you just can’t bear it, then we’ll have that conversation. What’s interesting to me is, I can’t think of any student who’s ever said, “I’m just not going to do that. I am just not going to do that.” If they don’t do it, it’s usually not because they’re reluctant to put themselves out on the open web. It’s because it doesn’t fit into their normal view of schooling and they just neglect to do it. And that’s the part that always saddens me, because there really is nothing sadder than seeing a student write a tremendous blog post and you think, “Wow, this blogging thing is really bringing out a voice and agency I wouldn’t see otherwise.” But then the student just gets preoccupied or just kind of checks out a little bit and you don’t hear anything from them again. Typically, those students are not going to be attending regularly. They’re not kind of all in to the class. And it’s often been said, and I think it’s true, that one of the things about using these online means is that there’s really no back of the classroom. You’re either there or you’re not. And it’s pretty obvious whether you’re there or not. And some students are just kind of used to being on the margins and being on the periphery. And this is kind of a challenge to them not to do that and they just kind of drift. They’re not terribly interested. But, the idea that people would go, “oh my goodness, if I do this, I’m compromising my inner self and I will be haunted by this for the rest of my life.” First of all, that’s not what we do when we blog in a class. I make that very clear. And second, very few of them say anything about that even after I’ve talked about that as a common apprehension. So, I really do try to make their consent, informed consent. And so far, knock on wood, that certainly seems to have been the case. Every now and then I’ll have a student reach out to me, this happened about 10 years ago, and say, “I just want to make sure that you’ve taken my posts down.” But, that really only happened once, and that was a very special circumstance. Of course, to the best of my ability, I took it down right away. I would like the blog post to have a truly global audience, but a semester is not really a lot of time to build up any kind of a big audience, but the potential is always there. And I think that’s what excites students about work that prepares them to be citizens in a public sphere in ways that maybe they weren’t able to imagine before.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a lot about ways to frame projects like this as a faculty member to make sure that students are safe and responsible and doing what they need to do, and maybe should do, in thinking about their agency. Can we shift gears a little bit and think about what faculty might do to get started on a project and introduce these to students? Where do they start? You know, obviously, there’s the framing, which I think we’ve covered. But, what tools or techniques or kinds of projects would be a good small step in this direction to get started without going full in with three platforms?

Gardner: Well, you know, I feel like if you’re going to take the medicine take the whole dose, because then you’ll conclude, oh, penicillin doesn’t work. And how much did you take? Well, really half a tab every other day. Ah, you didn’t get it up to the therapeutic dose. But, I’ll back down from that. I actually have an answer for your excellent question. I think the first thing that would be helpful for faculty is to run a fairly unscripted, unprompted, discussion forum. And that can even be inside the learning management system. Because one of the first things that faculty need to get comfortable with in my experience is this idea that the student participation doesn’t need to be led by them. I mean, certainly in the classroom, it can be in the assignments, but if there’s a space, a little clubhouse, where students are told they need to be doing things that are interesting, substantive, and relevant to the course, but the teacher is not supplying the prompt. The teacher is not saying it’s going to be 250 words, the teacher is not doing the things that a teacher would often do to try to ensure that students would do interesting, substantive, relevant work. There’s nothing wrong with stipulating certain kinds of ways in which you imagine substantive work would be or interesting work would be and you can talk about that. And I still tell my students, this paper needs to be 10 to 12 pages long, because that’s a way of signifying how much I want them to be invested in a kind of breadth and depth as they approach the topic. But the big step is to say, here’s the forum, I want you to do work that’s interesting, substantive and relevant. I want you to post on three different days and three times a week. In other words, set up the platform so they’re not phoning it in, so that they’re not just kind of doing a big “Oh, I’ll do my three posts on Sunday night” and ”oh, now I’ve got that done.” So that there are maximum chances for the students to work in a constructive way and a couple of guardrails to try to keep them from just driving out of the lane all together. But then don’t prompt it, don’t make the topic yourself, see what happens. And sometimes, of course, you’re going to be disappointed. Other times, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised. And one of the surprises is likely to be the way in which the students who are most committed begin to serve as kind of examples and inspirations for other students, and it belongs to them. I’ve run the discussion forum in my intro film classes for a long, long time. And the platform I use is not hard. It doesn’t seem hard to me, but it’s probably not as, I guess, click here as something that Blackboard or even Canvas would have. I think it’s a lot better. But the key is really not going to be the platform right away. I think I’ve got a platform that encourages kinds of rich interaction that maybe Blackboard wouldn’t, but even if you do it on Blackboard, when the students sense that this is a place in which they are going to need to steer the conversation… within these guidelines: interesting, substantive, and relevant, I tend to use adjectives and talk about qualities in ways that don’t get reduced right away to “How long does it have to be?” and “Do you have a rubric?” Like,” Yeah, my rubric is interesting, substantive, and relevant.” And then if you have questions about those things, let’s talk about that. What does substantive mean? What do you think it means and we have a conversation. If you can habituate yourself to that, then I think you become braver about other kinds of open platforms where you are going to have to give up a little bit of control unless you want the student’s blog to be a kind of term paper published to WordPress, which is a disaster. Just don’t bother. That’s not what a blog is. WordPress can certainly be a place to share the work you do in a term project. You can put your research paper up on WordPress, but that shouldn’t be the only thing you do. There needs to be these opportunities for students to have an idea of what the fruitful directions will be, but not a script, and not a map. And when you get to be able to do those things… And I would say just start small, you know, maybe even start with two weeks in a particular discussion forum just to see what happens and then talk to your students about what happened or what didn’t happen. It becomes a way to reflect on your own instructional design and for them to start to reflect on some of their own contribution or lack of them, and then you just start to build up over time. Now, if you wanted to do something really interesting and a little braver than that, but with plenty of help, I would definitely go to Wiki Education. Wiki education will be a wonderful set of scaffolding for you and your students. It does require some commitment, it requires a little more than running a discussion forum in an unscripted mode for a couple of weeks… that you really do need to think of it as a fairly substantial component of the course, I think, because otherwise it’s just too much work for too little reward for the students. But, if you can do that, you’ll find that you’ve got an army of helpers on Wiki Education. You’ve got a liaison for the students. You’ve got a liaison for the faculty member. You’ve got a dashboard you can look at to be able to see at a glance where students are in working on their articles. You can also pitch the articles they’re working on as making substantive contributions to things that are not well represented in Wikipedia. Women computer scientists, people who are in marginalized groups of any kind… the work that they have done to contribute to any field, or information that’s really important but kind of scant on Wikipedia, having to do with any sphere of interest or something that you’re passionate about that you want to see represented more fully on Wikipedia and the scaffolding you get to help you get the community become part of through the wiki education people, which is simply wikiedu.org is just staggering to me. And did I mention it doesn’t cost anything? There’s that too. So, those are some ways I would say to get started.

Rebecca: I think one thing that’s really interesting to observe as we’ve become distributed teachers and learners with COVID-19… everybody’s remote… is how many of these informal spaces are getting formed by students and faculty alike. I’ve heard examples of students forming their own slack channels to collaborate on work unprompted and just doing that. At Oswego, we’ve had a faculty member who created an Oz hangout group on Facebook that’s actually been really active. So, beyond the formal structure that we generally have for professional development, it’s a space that people have come to and are helping each other out. So, we can observe these things and see how they naturally happen to get an idea of how we can help facilitate that to happen a little bit too.

Gardner: Well, I certainly hope so. And I have to say, though, no one would wish to live through this kind of time. No one would sign up to say, “Gee, I wonder if I could be part of a pandemic.” It is true, necessity is the mother of invention. It is true. Hello. I’m waving to the toddler in the background. And this is another thing that’s so nice about some of these moments, to connect your family and your home with your professional life in a way that everybody is just going to tolerate because my dogs barking in the background and all these things are happening. It helps us embrace the mess and maybe not have the illusion that we can walk around in our uniforms and just keep everything all pristine. So, to your point in particular, it’s always a question of whether the motivation and the sense of urgency and opportunity that you feel during a crisis can actually carry over into business as usual. And I’ve always thought that higher education is the place that is uniquely suited to being able to maintain a sense of urgency and adventure, even if the world isn’t on fire. I can’t say that always happens in higher ed.[LAUGHTER] We have our ruts too, but I remain hopeful and I think your point is exactly right.

John: We’re only in the first week of this ,we’ll be releasing as a few weeks later. But, in my own class, using Zoom for meetings, students start coming in a bit early, and they’ve been likely to stay later. And it’s broken down a lot of the barriers where students might have where they stay a little more distant. We’re seeing them in their natural habitats in their homes. There’s dogs wandering by and so forth. And there also before and after class, and sometimes during class talking about their fears and their concerns.

Gardner: It was such a poignant moment to me when I did my first Zoom session with the senior seminar, when at the end of talking about the unknown known, which was the Errol Morris movie we’re discussing that day, one of the students just said, just almost blurted it out, “I’m so glad for this contact today. You people are the first people I’ve talked to outside of my home all day.” And as the crisis wears on, it’s an opportunity as the uncertainties mount, your dad gets laid off, you find out that somebody in your family is sick, or you’re just kind of increasingly worried, the chance to be together, kind of get your mind off it by doing another kind of learning, but also at the same time to be present to each other with these intimate little portals, which work pretty well now. This is a lot better than CU-See-Me was in 1997. I can tell you that. That’s pretty rich. I think it increases that ambient awareness I was talking about, and frankly, it’s a chance to bond with each other a little more.

Rebecca: I’ve heard some really interesting examples of students from different schools trying to connect as well. I know that’s something in the design area that we’re talking about helping to facilitate a little bit through our professional organizations. Our senior design students, for example, are used to having exhibitions in galleries and can’t, because they can’t have it in physical space. So we’ve talked about ways that they might actually interact with each other and their work in a way that they wouldn’t normally.

Gardner: That’s terrific. Now, that’s magnificent. And you have the impetus to do it quickly. not let the great be the enemy of the good. And then there’s this openness to discovery. That just sounds like a great project. Are you blogging about it? Can I follow you? You’re on leave, That’s right.

Rebecca: We’re discussing how we might be able to help facilitate that to happen and provide a little structure so that the students don’t have to provide the structure, but I’m pretty confident that something will happen.

Gardner: That’s terrific. That’s wonderful.

John: We always end by asking, what’s next?

Gardner: Wow, that’s a great question. What is next? I’m not sure. I’m going to keep on keeping on. I continue to be interested in harnessing Wikipedia in ever more intense ways. I’ve use Wikipedia a long time I had been an editor inside of Wikipedia, since I don’t know, I guess I got my first account in the early 2000s, not long after it became Wikipedia. But, it’s one of those things that the farther in you go, the farther in there is to go. And you start to become aware of things that I’m always telling my students and then finding out to my own surprise, it’s true. I was watching a movie called Festival, which is a documentary about the Newport Folk Festival from I think 63 through 67, something like that, and found an artist in there, Horton Barker, I just was fascinated by a blind singer. It turns out he lived in southwest Virginia, knew something like 2000 songs, and had actually performed at the White House at one point. So, I started getting interested in that and decided I would go find more about him on Wikipedia. There was no Wikipedia article on Horton Barker, but because I had been doing this with my students, I knew a lot more about how to start an article up from nothing, what sorts of things might happen. If I didn’t pitch it the right way, it would be marked for deletion, somebody would be on me for this or that because sometimes Wikipedia are kind of persnickety about this wonderful thing that they’ve helped to create, which is perfectly understandable. And the first thing I knew I was creating this Horton Barker article, the next thing I knew, there was an article about the Library of Congress releasing all these folk song recordings in their archive. And Horton Barker was one of the people that they were mentioning, and it was a hyperlink and it linked back to the Wikipedia article I had started and while I was doing it all I met another Wikipedian named Julie Farman, who was one of the people kind of watching new articles about music. She’d never heard of Horton Barker, she gave me some encouragement for the article. and said she was going to spend the rest of her morning listening to Horton Barker, who did put out a long playing record in the early 60s. So the next thing for me is going to be, in terms of my own teaching, is going to be thinking about ways I can be a scholar-practitioner and model that more intensely for my students. They already know I’m on Twitter, they know that I have a blog. But if I ramp up my own involvement in some of these things, I’m interested in in Wikipedia, that gives me another way to create a feedback loop. So I can bring in not just what I’m seeing in articles that they’re doing, but, here’s my Horton Barker article or other things. I just made my 500th edit in Wikipedia, which is nothing, 500 just barely gets you in the door, but it felt like a lot. And so I was at 499, and I said, I’m gonna make my 500th edit in the article on John Milton. And that was my 500th edit. So, that was good. In terms of my own scholarship, I’ve got a project I’m very excited about, which has also been something I’ve worked on in a networked way, which is a book that I’m writing on the story behind Doug Englebart’s authorship of the 1962 Manifesto, which was a research report called Augmenting Human Intellect: a Conceptual Framework. And one of the things I’ve tried to do, in a networked setting, I actually had a big open project on this involving hypothes.is and video interviews over Zoom, just February, I guess about this time a year ago, to try to bring in voices from many different sectors, students, teachers, people who knew Doug and worked with him, people who have used his work in their own work in subsequent years, and try to create a network of conversations to raise awareness of this document, this 1962 monograph, really it is, that was written by an electrical engineer pretty much just off to himself the way a humanities prof would write a monograph. It represented about two year’s sabbatical that he finally had gotten funding for from the Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. So it’s a massive multidisciplinary effort, and it’s a conceptual framework that has never been as widely known as it needs to be. My thesis, one of them anyway, is that without a conceptual framework, we’re just kind of out here on the internet willy nilly, not able to fend off the problems or realize the promise in any kind of rich and ultimately beneficial way. So, let’s go back to 1962. What was this Doug Engelbart guy doing when he was doing the research in everything from linguistics to magnetic core memory that would lead to this document Augmenting Human Intellect: a Conceptual Framework. It’s really a kind of philosophy of networks, a philosophy of computing. And it turns out that there’s a very rich archive at Stanford University of rough drafts of this document, of correspondence with the people who are helping to fund his research from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, various stages of presenting parts of the argument to various people along the way. And the early days of what would become Doug Engelbart’s Augmentation Research Center at SRI. They were the second node on the internet. UCLA was the first the Augmentation Research Center was a place out of which came the mouse, out of which came this idea of a very close coupling between the psychomotor things that the user was doing and the environment in which the user was working. There was even this idea that the operating system, which was called the online system, at the Augmentation Research Center would be a kind of a blueprint for the way in which the internet could keep on providing opportunities for people to innovate applications as they wanted. So there’s a kind of almost a worldwide web built in, even though this was the big mother of all demos that kind of showed a lot of the startling technology to the world, was 1968. So, many decades before the World Wide Web, and many years after Doug had put together really the intellectual and philosophical visionary document, this 1962 manifesto that I want to do a deep dive into to help to try to explain what I think are some of its deepest implications, to tell the story of how it came to be, and to talk about some of the things that it might have to offer for us today, as we try to think about where we’ve gotten to and maybe what direction we should go in. So, that’s my book project. And as you can tell, I’m kind of jazzed about it.

John: It sounds like a fascinating project. Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you again, and it’s good to see you.

Gardner: Good to see you too. And thanks for a fine conversation. We have a good little network here and it’s a privilege to be part of it today. Thank you.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.

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