Thinking about course texts and technologies

After teaching a course designed to introduce students to Shakespeare’s plays and to their film adaptations, I’ve been wondering how reading technologies shape students’ engagement with course materials.  On reflection, the traditional screening format for films or film clips (single focal point, lights off) might implicitly invite students to tune out or change their focus when our classes don’t explicitly discuss the assumptions that we bring when we begin reading or interpreting.

When we used electronic versions of the plays (eBook readers, tablets, and laptops), the change in format seemed to free students from the implicit authority of the printed text and spur conversation.  At the same time, many of my students have talked about how their study habits differ when they work with either electronic or printed course texts.  Some prefer to print even short readings because the medium changes the relationship between the student and the text.

How, then, do embedded video clips within a course management system differ from the same clips shown during a classroom session? How do they differ as modes of educational instruction with their own implicit interpretive maps?

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“[It’s] been my…

“[It’s] been my experience that whether they are studying accounting or philosophy, hotel management or history, the vast majority of college students are capable of engaging the kinds of big questions–questions of truth, responsibility, justice, beauty, among others–that were once assumed to be at the center of college education”

“[A]nyone who witnesses or participates in this kind of teaching is likely to be chastened and moved. It is a reminder, as Botstein puts it, of ‘the connection between ethics and learning,’ which can be harder to establish among students ‘for whom the privilege of moving seamlessly from high school into college is taken for granted.’ In general, I think, we are too quick to assume that students with lesser preparation are unfit for education in this enlarging sense.”

from Andrew Delbanco, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. pp. 173, 174.

Newstok on ‘Close Learning’

Newstok on ‘Close Learning’

In this recent article, Scott L. Newstok eloquently defends the face-to-face interaction that serves as the basis of the student’s learning experience.  While I may not agree with every conclusion here, Newstok’s interest in student learning as the end that technology–and any other classroom practice–must serve is important.  Newstok reminds us that these debates aren’t new and relate closely to our understanding of what education should be or should become.

What’s new and significant here is Newstok’s argument for “close learning” as something valuable in itself and something closely linked to the purposes of education more generally.  We need educators that can articulate the purposes of education and the value that students bring to shared learning experiences, whether in the classroom or through emerging technologies.

Electronic Texts, or Staying on the Same Page

Having organized two extra-credit “reader’s theater” sessions in my general education Shakespeare courses this semester, I was drawn to the possibilities that electronic texts provided for this kind of learning experience.  While more carefully edited texts continue to have a central place in my classroom, I decided to work with a public domain text from Project Gutenberg because the primary intent of these sessions was to invite students to experience the aural quality of the texts at length*.  Many might not ordinarily attend a Shakespeare performance or even imagine themselves in an actor’s role, and the more informal setting meant that asking students to purchase texts would be a difficult proposition at best.  Because I would be trimming the texts down to about two hours’ time in performance (no small feat with some Shakespeare texts, which is why I didn’t suggest King Lear), I wanted to give students a single e-text that they could print or use as they saw fit within the reading.  The advantages of providing a single version for students would be that students should theoretically have the same texts, but I have some concerns about the possibility of needing to troubleshoot several different media (print texts, tablet, e-reader, laptop, phone) within a very short session.  Where should this kind of training and support come from in the twenty-first century university?

*As the Project Gutenberg terms indicate, these public domain e-texts can be reproduced/changed provided they are not sold and that those texts including any references to Project Gutenberg itself must then include their full terms of use.

Asynchronous Questions as Starting Points for Discussion

One pedagogical experiment that I’m taking on this semester is an attempt to draw students into the lecture/discussion more fully by using exploratory questions to invite students to work on a common problem with the instructor.  While it is admittedly somewhat Socratic, beginning with a shared question can help to articulate the purpose of the class session and motivate students to think about the underlying intellectual issues that this problem engages.  For classes that tend to be relatively pragmatic, this kind of starting point seems to provide a more concrete analog for discussion at a more theoretical level.

Teachers can pose these initial, exploratory questions to the class directly, or they might pose them rhetorically and articulate the stakes before inviting student input.  According to What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain (Harvard UP, 2004), these questions “confront students with a common problem (of understanding, application, analysis, or synthesis)” and help to explain its broader significance.  In a larger class, however, this can lead to a few students frequently dominating the conversation if other students feel less comfortable speaking publicly about new ideas.  I’ve tried a number of strategies to try to invite more of the class into the conversation.

The first strategy is requiring that students complete a course journal or discussion board question on the topics to be discussed in class.  Gathering these responses before class allows me to see what students throughout the class are thinking, and calling on students based on their ‘published’ written work does not put them on the spot in the same way that asking them to respond to a question or idea for the first time might do.  A second option, which I’m trying this semester for the first time, is to use in-class polling.  Many campuses still have “clickers” for this purpose, and smaller classes can use the resources at PollEverywhere to have students answer with their phones or computers.  Students can see the breakdown of results immediately, and the distribution of responses (particularly to more open-ended questions) can be provocative.  In a sense, students can see how many other students in the class share their opinion in real time, which might inspire confidence in students less likely to speak on their own or might encourage students with different opinions challenge the prevailing assumptions.

Using Offline ‘Journals’ in General Education Classes

While currently teaching a course on Shakespeare and Film, I asked students to keep a regular course journal in a single subject notebook rather than use the online tools (Blackboard’s blog or discussion board function).  Part of my justification for this assignment was to encourage regular writing and reflection on the material because it was a once-weekly evening course.  Rather than have all posts available for other students to read on the Discussion Board, I opted for the relative privacy of a single notebook.

I was impressed that a number of students who found typing more comfortable felt free to ask about an alternative medium, but I continue to wonder if there would be a way to allow a wider range of writing media for an assignment like this that would fit more closely with the ideals of universal design but avoid fragmentation of the assignment/task itself.  The privacy of the written journal in particular seems to have improved the quality of many posts above my colleagues’ similar assignments.  I also suspect that an unexamined, subconscious assumption about the personal nature of the written word over the printed word may have cut down on the number of directly plagiarized entries that I might have otherwise received.  The fact that not all students have the same facility in handwriting and the practical inconveniences of asking 50-80 students to hand in a physical journal, however, might still give us pause.