Wednesday, August 16, 2006

4 easy-to-use online resources for higher ed learning

When I designed my Introduction to American Studies course for second summer session,I decided to take a bit of a risk and ask my students to interact with some online digital media. The jury is still out on how they'll perform--after all, the second summer session is still young--but I wanted to share some of the resources I'm using and have used in the past, in case anyone else is looking to experiment a bit more with digital media.

1. CommunityWalk describes itself as "the easiest way to map things out." I like it because it was incredibly simple to take a map of my university town and allow students to log in and annotate it. We're doing a cultural landscape survey of a road that runs from one edge of the town to another, and CommunityWalk not only lets students place markers on the map, but they can add notes, photos, and links to each marker.

I like the collaborative nature of CommunityWalk, but of course you could use it to set up your own map to help students study for any number of disciplines or projects, from plant identification to architectural history to forensic science.

2. Photos: I turn frequently Flickr, Google Image Search, and American Memory at the Library of Congress. No, I'm not using these in particularly innovative ways, but they're my go-to sources when I need an image for a lecture. For example, today we're talking a bit about the Manzanar internment camp where Japanese Americans were detained during World War II, and I wanted to show my students photos of both historic Manzanar and the tourist/memorial site it has become. I found some terrific photos, including some by Ansel Adams that, according to the Library of Congress rights and reproductions info on the collection, are apparently open to use by anyone:

My next goal is to get students annotating and commenting on a common set of photos on Flickr, as seen here.

3. Class blog: I've set the Intro to American Studies course blog up on Blogger because it's the platform with which I'm most comfortable. It's also easy to add students as co-authors, or what Blogger calls "team members." Students can choose any usernames they wish; I gave them the opportunity to remain anonymous to everyone but me. Most students, however, have followed my lead and use their first name and last initial to sign their posts.

I assign them one brief (250-500 word) post each week that relates to the course texts but asks students to draw on their own lives. This kind of prompt helps them, I think, write in a conversational, yet not too informal, tone that's appropriate for the web. I count their blog posts as a discrete part of their writing grade and their comments on others' posts as part of their class participation grade. They're also welcome to post additional links, photos, thoughts, or other items of interest at any time.

Only I have administrative control over the blog, but students can post and edit their own entries. It's a bit of a pain to set it up at first, but once it's rolling, it's easy to administer. To make grading the posts more efficient, I've created a sheet to allow for faster grading. I based it on a rubric that makes my expectations for student blog posts very clear.

So far, my only complaint is that students aren't commenting enough on each other's entries. I need to give them more incentive to carry their conversations outside of class and onto the blog.

4. PBS and NPR offer a wealth of resources on just about any topic. For example, in my material culture course, when I was giving a presentation on women and hats, I used a PBS piece on the tradition of hats in the African American church. Both PBS and NPR also had some good resources on the quilts and quilters of Gee's Bend. In both that class and my current one, I'm using excerpts from This American Life. For the material culture course, I used the episode The House on Loon Lake. This quarter, I'm drawing on an episode on alternative ways of mapping, since I'm asking my students to come up with alternative, imaginative maps for their street survey.

Depending on the length of the class period and the length of the NPR or PBS episode, I either share an excerpt in class or assign listening to the episode as homework.

I'd also like to get them to explore the free podcast subscriptions on iTunes. Certainly there has to be something relevant to our coursework that's worth listening to. . .

In implementing new media in the classroom, of course, I try to remember my goal is to help students

1) develop critical thinking skills
2) practice collaboration
3) learn course content
4) acquire new tech skills

. . .in that order of importance. In the end, it's not about technology. It's about learning and collaborating.

3 goals for my future media use:

1. Learn to use one or two open-source content management systems, and set up one that meets the specific needs of my courses. My university is moving to a Sakai-based platform that supposedly makes it simple to integrate many course functions. It's about time--for years we've been using a system that pretty much only allows for posting of grades and multiple-choice quizzes. Still, I'd like to be in control of my own course site; besides, it scratches my creative itch.

2. Explore wikis, especially for collaborative essay writing. I'd like to really get students thinking about the process of writing, and a wiki might promote that goal.

3. Podcasting. I'd like to see my students gain a few potentially valuable multimedia skills while focusing intensely on American Studies content. Creating podcasts or digital videos might also get them thinking about intellectual property on a higher level than simply worrying about whether they're plagiarizing from a website in their papers.

What about you? What resources do you recommend? With which ones are you merely flirting?

Note: I was inspired to write this post by the group list-writing project at ProBlogger.


RLT said...

I’m through with school, my kids are through with school and still, I find reading about the way you are using technology to make your classes interactive is so exciting.

I completely agree that “In the end, it's not about technology. It's about learning…” But the educational system in this country is so in need of such a major overhaul, and the only hope I see for the future is in having students participate more in their own learning.

Not only do I like, and am so impressed by, the creative way you are using technology, I love the fact that you have detailed it here where it may give others ideas of how to implement it, as well. Great job!

Addy N. said...

Thanks for the great tips! I'm always looking for new places to do things on the web with my classes!

TrudyJ said...

I like the idea of a class blog. I think I might experiment with ways to apply that idea in my very different teaching setting.

Sarah said...

Thanks a million! I'm getting into online teaching this fall, so I'll have some things to add. I'll be using blogs, Wikis, and podcasts.

Jeff Mather said...

We use Wikis for almost everything at the office: meeting agendas, meeting notes, specifications/proposals, to-do lists, brainstorming outside of meetings, etc. Plus, we have lists for all sorts of non-work topics, from recommendations for restaurants and local service providers to "get to know your Chinese coworkers" type pages. In addition, each employee has her own "user" page, which is akin to a virtual blotter with notes, links to Wiki pages and web sites, and anything else.

Admittedly the classroom is a bit different from the office, but that only affects the content of your Wiki. The key thing is that Wikis lower the barrier to information storage and encourage collaboration as people add what they know and recognize possibilities in unexpected connections. In larger companies like mine, the physical and organizational distance between knowledge workers begins to disappear.

Academia has a bad reputation for insularity, top-down hierarchy, and marginalizing heterodox ideas. Wikis challenge these forces from the grassroots. Of course, this is also the most challenging aspect: anyone can put anything in them, including items only passing near truth. Of course, the "community" can always change incorrect information, but you need interested experts.

Wiki content is often like the web itself: hyperlinked, but often only available by searching or by picking a good starting point. Consider how you use Wikipedia. Searchability is fantastic, but it means editors can create islands of content. Some of these islands can include (if you let them) students' class notes and research. (In fact, I'm going to create my own personal Wiki to store, among other things, notes from my upcoming graduate studies -- unorganized notes that I can search when I need to recapture a particular thought. Yay!) Personally, I think higher ed places far too much emphasis on individual work, but students can easily run afoul of academic honesty rules if the Wiki is used as collaboratively as it is in many nonacademic projects.

Phantom Scribbler said...

dr. m(mmmmm) is podcasting his lectures for the fall. Sounds very cool to me.

Mama Duck said...

Excellent list of resources ;). Our list is up if you’d like to look… have a great day!

JM said...

When you introduce the concept of these sorts of collaborative online things in your class, do you do it in one class session or interspersed throughout several?

If you do it in one class session, can I sit in on that class, the next time you introduce something? (serious)

Josh Maher said...

This this a helpful list and an interesting set of ideas for these technologies, thanks!!