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It looks like I’ll be teaching my very first course next summer. This will be my chance to experiment a bit and get some practice on what kind of teacher I want to become. I have my role models but ultimately, to be successful, our teaching has to agree with our personalities. I have an inclusive personality so I tend to focus on giving everybody a chance to participate and get engaged. The key is to get students to participate. And as I’ve mentioned before, this is where I think blogging can be useful. Blogging has made me not only more aware of my surroundings but also more politically and socially engaged. If that sort of dynamics can be reproduced in the classroom some real learning can be achieved.

But how to do that? How exactly do I get 45 students to actively participate in a course blog? Do I make it an assignment? Do each student has to post something? How often? Under what criteria? How do I integrate it to the curriculum and what goes on in the classroom?

In order to get some ideas, I registered to a workshop last week on blogging offered by the Resource Centre of Academic Techonology, at U of T. I was very excited but unfortunately, unable to attend. A more urgent academic engagement came up and I had to miss it. So today I went by RCAT to ask if there were any handouts from the talk. They gave me not only a copy of the ppt presentation but also the presenter’s blog address where I could find further resources.

Her name is Michelle Mazar and her blog is subtitled Diary of a Subversive Librarian, which I think it’s quite brilliant. She wrote a very inspiring reflection about blogging and academia on the day of the workshop.In it she says:

(…)Which leads me to something that bonked me on the head yesterday while reviewing for Learning Inquiry. I read this fantastic article that used some extremely bang-on terminology: productive failure, and unproductive success.

Here’s what I’m currently considering: we tend to reward unproductive success more than anything. If a student walks into a class knowing the subject material, that student will probably do extremely well. If a student spends 3/4ths of the class struggling with the material and getting things wrong, not understanding, struggling with concepts, and then really gets it, that student will probably not do as well. But that student is actually learning, and demonstrating learning. We don’t have an effective way of rewarding real learning.

Which is the key reason why I object to switching out the word “student” with the word “learner”, though I know it’s trying to get at the same idea. We don’t know whether we have “learners” or not, on a grand scale. Often we have a group of already-knowledgeable students who will unproductively get As and we feel good about it the learning experience. How do we measure learning? Real learning? Going from confusion to understanding? How do we even see it when undergrads often don’t even open their mouths in class? Do we really have a “Learning Management System”? Really? How do we really support and reward learning rather than merely unproductive success?

So I think blogging done well, set up with good expectations and with a fostered honesty, can reveal the actual learning going on, and can give students the option of displaying the learning they’re doing. And we can reward it that way. If a student struggles for the first half of the course and demonstrates that struggle, and then suddenly GETS IT, you’ll have evidence of their learning. You can reward that, you can grade them according to how they learned and how articulate they can be about the way in which they learned and why. At the moment we grade them based on whether or not they get it fast enough, for the most part. So you can use these tools to support and encourage productive failure as a means toward productive success. I’m not saying it’s enough to just try. Unproductive failure isn’t the goal either. Failure that builds into understanding is productive.

I’ve began to consider this very process lately. I’ve had students who have clearly benefited from the class and through informal interaction with me showed me they “got it” at the end of the course. Yet, I could not reward their learning since these didn’t translate into their first assignments. I think there should be some room for that.

In her powerpoint presentation, Michelle gives some useful tips on using blogs effectively. My favourites are blogs as reflection paper and blogging as conversation. She suggests four possible ways to use a blog as a reflection paper:

  • Pick a quotation from the reading and relate it to the lecture
  • Pick a CC-licensed picture from flickr and relate it to the readings, lecture
  • Pick a comment from a fellow student, agree or disagree with its content
  • Ask a question that remains after the lecture and the reading

I think these could be easy to implement and would create a connection between readings and lecture as well as conversation among the students.

Her powerpoint doesn’t specify what she means by blogging as conversation but I’ll definitely ask her directly. This is very exciting stuff.

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The university where I teach uses Blackboard as their main course management/website platform. This year will be my first year using it but after taking a couple of workshops, it doesn’t look bad at all. In fact, it looks sleek and has lots of potential useful tools.

Browsing through some of the documentation, I came across an optional tool that might be useful. It’s called EduBlogger and once enabled, seems to all each student in the course to have a blog and the instructor to track it all. Blackboard also has a forum, of course, so it got me thinking about what would be the pros and cons of using a blog vs a forum to encourage either student participation outside of the classroom or allow the students to engage with the material in a media other than essays/exams.

I was thinking of using the discussion board feature of blackboard this term. I’d perhaps post some questions about the readings ahead of time and invite students to respond to them or post reactions of their own to the readings before the class. They could earn extra points for doing so, particularly if they engage in fruitful discussion with their classmates. The bonus would be to get them thinking before class and to allow shy students to get some extra marks.

In future, when I design the course myself (currently I’m just a TA), I’d create a class blog and make it more of an assignment. For this term, I might stick to the discussion board.

As an aside, I found this post on education blogs that was interesting and had many useful links. A lot of resources on using blogs on education seem to be related or geared towards primary and secondary school. Let me know if you find any discussions of it in a university context.

Like most TAs, I tell my students to stay away from Wikipedia when writing their essays. To be fair, I don’t simply condemn it as the source of all evil, I merely point out how problematic it is to rely on information posted anonymously unless it can be checked elsewhere and that encyclopedias and dictionaries, while very useful to get started, do not provide enough information to support the kind of essays they need to write in history courses.

A friend of mine argues that better than blankly forbidding the use of Wikipedia, we would do the students a better service by teaching them how to use Wikipedia effectively. She talks about creating an assignment that would require the students to do extensive research on a given topic and either create a Wikipedia entry for it, if that doesn’t exist, or edit the existing entry with the information they gathered. That would teach them that anybody can create a Wikipedia entry and perhaps help them use it more critically in the future.

While Wikipedia has a big no-no in many academic circles – and historians are perhaps the most critical of it – some articles suggest it’s not all bad:

David Parry, “Wikipedia and the new curriculum: digital literacy is knowing how we store what we know” in Science Progress, 11 Feb 2008.

Nicholson Baker, “The Charms of Wikipedia,” review of Wikipedia: The Missing Journal by  John Broughton, in The New York Review of Books, 55 (4), published 20 March 2008.

Michael Booth, “Grading Wikipedia“, in The Dever Post, 30 March 2007.

All the articles above suggest we need not dismiss Wikipedia completely, that it can be very useful and its dynamic nature means that many subjects in it reflect some of the latest developments in a given field. An example is the entry on global warming, considered by specialists in the field to be “a great primer on the subject, suitable for just the kinds of use one might put to a traditional encyclopedia. Following the links takes the interested reader into greater and greater depth, probably further than any traditional encyclopedia…”(Scott Denning, Monfort Professor of Atomespheric Science).

I confess I have no prejudice against Wikipedia as I often find myself using it for general information and if I tell my students no to use it, it is simply because I don’t want them relying on either encyclopedias or textbooks to write their essays. But maybe we need to discuss more the reasons behind that.

Wow, I knew I had neglected this blog but not quite this long! The previous post was about getting ready for my first day leading tutorials and today’s post is about my teaching evaluation results. But before I get into that maybe I should say a few words about my general experience last term.

I had five groups, totaling about 60 students, and there were enough keen students in each group to make all of them enjoyable in their own way. I started each meeting by going around the room and having each student say what they liked/disliked about the readings, what baffled them, what was interesting and I took note of their main points. I felt the exercise to be very helpful for me since it gave me a good glimpse of their reactions and the kinds of issues they had trouble with and what interested them. It also put on the spot those who hadn’t read anything but gave an occasion for the shy ones to participate. That was my impression of the whole thing but I had no idea whether the students liked it or felt it was a pain. The evaluations definitely validated the approach. Nobody said anything negative about it; in fact a lot of students mentioned it as a really good way of starting the tutorial.

The comments were all similar and positive and I won’t go into details here because I want to spare you too much self-congratulations. The only thing semi-negative that they mentioned was my soft-spokenness. Some mentioned it casually, as a positive thing, others mentioned it as something I should work on. I do feel I need some lessons on voice-projection. I can project but often I’m not aware when I’m not doing it.

Since these will be the only teaching evaluations I’ll have if I go on the market next year, I’m very happy that the comments are consistent, deal with various elements of teaching, and are positive. What a relief!!

Tomorrow I’ll lead my first set of tutorials. In history, a tutorial (aka a conference session at Concordia) is dedicated mostly to discussing primary sources and teaching students how to read critically and how to get their points across. If done properly, I see it as also a venue where the students will learn most of the skills we expect of history students – the ability to write a variety of assignments based on secondary or primary sources and to question those sources with good analytical skills.

Teaching was precisely what first attracted me into a degree in history. Ironically, however, my career so far has been heavily focused on research and I have had no opportunity to teach so far. It’s only now, in my fifth year, that I’m finally getting to do what I came here to do: to teach university students. Although I haven’t taught, I’ve certainly never stopped thinking and preparing myself. I have taken a number of teaching workshops, I have had endless discussions with colleagues and professors about their teaching experiences, I have even helped organize a series of teaching history workshops in my department. But now the time of truth approaches: tomorrow at 9AM I’ll hold my first tutorial. I hope it goes well… I’ll come back and tell you about it…

Update…

Well, it’s done. I had two tutorials this morning, one from 9-10 and another from 10-11.  Both of them were great! From the 19 students that showed up today, only one hadn’t done the readings . I guess things will change once the semester gets busier and they start having midterms in other classes. It was a very good introduction to teaching since both groups were made mostly of good, eager students. I still need to work on my general pacing – parts of the first tutorial went a little faster than I anticipated – but I can say that I got every single student to participate today. So I think I fulfilled my duty 😉 I’m curious to see what the groups I’ll have on thursday are like…

I don’t know why, but while I do research my thoughts are filled with teaching ideas. The lastest has been the possibility of using a blog interface as a course website. It’s a very handy platform, easy to master and preloaded with a host of interesting tools. The calendar on the side can guide students to particular lectures, which can be added as posts (long or short) in which students might dowload whatever material the instructor wants to distribute (lecture notes, powerpoint presentations, videos, images, etc) as well as ask questions. There could be posts with instructions on assignments or any other issue that arise in class. All posts can be categorized and searched. The whole site can also be easily password-protected. Course materials (syllabi & handouts) can be placed on a permanent page that would be always visible on the side bar.

What do you think? Can the more experienced instructors out there think of the drawbacks of such a system?