Tag Archives: students

Tensions between disciplinary and media instruction

I’ve been talking with a colleague about coming up with a mission statement for our educational technology program, so as to better position ourselves to assess our successes and failures. We’ve got a ways to go before we’ll have anything approaching a final version, but the brainstorming conversations we’ve had so far have been fruitful. In particular, a conversation we had yesterday gave me a chance to articulate a tension fundamental to the promotion of meaningful ed tech, a tension that had been bouncing around in my head for a while but that I had never formalized. I thought it’d be worthwhile to post it here.

My view is that there are two broad, interrelated reasons for implementing various kinds of technology in the classroom. One, certain kinds of technology can help to achieve the independently existing goals of the course. (For example, blogging in an Intro to Philosophy class might help students get a better introduction to philosophical methods and topics.) Two, it’s independently valuable for students to engage critically with and create content with new media. There are a couple justifications for this second point, I suppose, the more obvious of which is that there’s a vocational advantage to having Google-fu, web savviness, etc. More important, perhaps, the nature of information, and the relationship between information and its producers and consumers, is in significant flux. The more information the internet provides, the more necessity there is for students to develop effective bullshit filters – filters which can only be developed through critical practice with the medium. Moreover, the increasing ease of production (computers, cameras, etc that are cheaper and easier to use; sites like YouTube that allow people to publish and distribute in free and massive ways) means that today’s students could potentially be much greater participants in the creation and dissemination of knowledge than past generations. Part of the educator’s job is to teach students how to harness their creative power for their own good as well as for the greater good.

So I take it as given that there are plenty of justifications, independent of the specific content of a course, for teaching new media literacy. And such literacy can only be taught through practice and iterative reflection. I propose the caveat, though, that one can only become fluent with new media by the right kind of practice. What counts as “right” can vary, but what is definitely not right is to simply do digital versions of analog assignments. If I have my students write traditional, argumentative papers, and then post them on a website, I am just porting an analog assignment to a digital medium. When they add videos or hyperlinks or a comment section or a “tweet this” button, only then are they engaging with features of the native features of the medium that set it apart from what they’d do on paper.

From this I conclude that an educational use of a technology isn’t independently beneficial unless the use engages the meaningful or “native” features of the medium enabled by the technology. Instructional technologists, if they are to be advocates for the most effective uses of tech in learning, should therefore be advocating for native uses.

Here’s the tension. “Native” uses of ed tech – uses that are typified by a real engagement with the features of the technology that set it apart from different media – are, at least prima facie, exactly the kinds of uses that instructors will and should resist. Most instructors I’ve talked with see the instructional goals of their class as primarily disciplinary. Broader benefits, like the kind of media literacy I’ve urged here, are nice, but distinctly secondary, considerations. And the problem with the desire to teach your discipline first is that your sense of what counts as good disciplinary instruction is determined by the state of your discipline in general. Take philosophy as an example. With few exceptions, what constitutes quality philosophical work is linear, text-only, relatively long-form prose. The bodies which are de facto responsible for setting the standard for philosophical legitimacy – journal editors; tenure, promotion, and hiring committees; graduate school professors; etc. – reward this kind of work nearly exclusively. The ramifications for the philosophy instructor are that (a) in the absence of alternative motives, the production of traditional philosophical works is the end goal when training budding philosophers, and (b) the means for achieving the goal of traditional philosophers will mirror the results that we desire to achieve – in other words, the only way to produce a student who’s good at writing traditional philosophy is to have them write traditional philosophy.

What it boils down to is that the instructor who focuses on disciplinary goals is, at least at first glance, beholden to the traditional disciplinary methods to get there. And since those traditional methods are necessarily at odds with “native” uses of instructional technology (because in order to be native, a use must engage in a critical way with a feature of the medium that sets it apart from traditional media), disciplinary instruction seems almost incompatible with new media literacy instruction.

I have a few ideas about how the cycle might be broken. One is that the de facto standards of excellence in a discipline are de facto only, and if we examine what we really value in (say) a good philosopher, we’ll see that the traditional medium is not critical. Another is that traditional disciplinary excellence can and should be taught by methods other than simply aping the greats – in other words, it might not be the case that writing a lot of traditional philosophy texts is not the best way to make a better writer of traditional philosophy texts. Whatever the response to the tension I’ve described above, it is crucial to respond to it if instructional technology is to be able to fulfill both its goal of enabling disciplinary ends and striving for increased student facility with new media.

The ethics of Turnitin, or How I Learned To Stop Detecting Plagiarism

Yesterday I was feeling sorry for myself with regard to Turnitin and the like. I ended up having an interesting discussion with @LanceStrate, @mattthomas, and @KelliMarshall about the ethics surrounding plagiarism detection service. It got me to thinking about why it bothers me.

My gut feeling is this: Turnitin, SafeAssign et al make big bucks off of their database. More papers scanned means a bigger database; bigger database means (in theory) better plagiarism detection; better detection means (in theory) more value and more profit. Forcing students to relinquish their papers to this machine feels exploitative.

John Stuart Mill – Awesome Guy | cc licensed flickr photo shared by netNicholls

But I wonder why this bothers me. I have no problem feeding different kinds of information-gathering machines. Take Google. I use Gmail, Google Reader, Google Calendar, and google.com extensively. The more I use these services, the more information they gather about my online activities; bigger database means better ad targeting; better targeting means more value and more profit. My “stuff” – information about me, writing I produce, records of my activity, etc. – is not sacrosanct. I’m willing to give it up in some cases.

So what’s the difference? Most obviously, I am choosing to use Google’s products in a way that students are not asking to use Turnitin. I will grant that there are different levels of “forcedness”, as @LanceStrate points out. Students can opt out of a class, or out of school in general. And if instructors make the Turnitin requirement explicit in the syllabus on the first day of class (or earlier), students will be reasonably well-informed about what they will be “forced” to do. But no matter how you conceive of the spectrum of requirement, the fact remains that my use of Google is far freer than students’ use of Turnitin.

That a professor requires students to do certain things that they wouldn’t otherwise do is not, in itself, an indictment of the requirement. I doubt that my own students would write about the Nicomachean Ethics if their grade didn’t depend on it. But, in this case, I as an instructor am obligated to exercise my power in a responsible way. (Heavy is the head that wears the crown.) Requirements should not be arbitrary, but should serve the goals of the class and the best interest of the students. Requiring a paper on Aristotle has negative effects on students – it takes away from the time and energy they could be spending on other things that are valuable to them – and it’s my responsibility to ensure that these negative effects are outweighed by the benefits bestowed by such an assignment. A well thought-out term paper assignment will, in the long run, have positive utility for the student.

Is the same true for plagiarism detection? Are the negative effects of such technologies (being forced to enrich a corporate entity, losing control over one’s intellectual property, feeling a presumption of one’s own guilt in the absence of supporting evidence) outweighed by some benefits? It’s at this point in the thought process that the pedagogical implications of Turnitin should be considered.

  • Is Turnitin good at detecting plagiarism? My experience says: Not really. While Google’s database doesn’t include as many student papers as Turnitin’s, Turnitin is in turn pretty awful at identifying plagiarism from the open web. Thoughtful reading and Googling has been more effective for me. I’d like to see data on the larger trends, though – for example, what percentage of student copying comes from the open web (Google’s domain) versus for-sale paper databases.
  • How much harm does “plagiarism” really do? This is really the more important question. Even if it turns out that Turnitin is very, very good at plagiarism detection, there is very little benefit from the software’s use if it turns out that plagiarism, as defined, isn’t really that harmful. This question is tough to answer, though. For one thing, there are lots of different kinds of plagiarism, certain kinds of which are more harmful than others. A student who copies a paper wholesale from Wikipedia is doing more harm than one who synthesizes a coherent paper from a bunch of different sources, or one who fails to cite a paraphrased argument. Surely the second and third students are getting more out of the assignment than the first. Furthermore, I have an untested gut feeling that the most harmful types of plagiarism – where a student steals wholesale – are easier to detect without using Turnitin, since they’re more likely not to be even approximately in the student’s voice or level of expertise. If this is right, then it might be the case that Turnitin is most necessary for the least harmful varieties of “plagiarism” – varieties whose ethical implications, some might argue, ought to be reassessed in light of how new technologies are affecting knowledge creation. (Too big a topic to address here, but you get the idea.)
  • Are there less troubling alternatives to Turnitin? Let’s grant that Turnitin is very good at detecting plagiarism, and that plagiarism is hugely pernicious. All things being equal, if we could avoid plagiarism by means that have less of a downside, we should choose those other means. In my experience (again, I have no comprehensive data to back this up), the answer is yes, there are far better ways. @KelliMarshall suggests assigning unique paper prompts, making plagiarism more difficult. I’ve found that the scaffolding of assignments – such that students write early, write often, and write in a low-stakes milieu – is extremely effective at lowering the tempation to plagiarize. To be more specific: When students are writing in journals or blogs – spaces where they are not harshly graded – and when their formal assignments allow students to pull from and build upon the ideas that they’ve already put to paper(/bits), cheating simply doesn’t happen very often. That initial moment – when a student sits down at the computer the night before the due date, not having written a single word, not knowing where to start, and copying out of desparation – is averted altogether. In the semesters I’ve used blogs and structured assignments in this way, I’ve had to deal with plagiarism maybe once per semester (out of 70+ students writing hundreds of papers). Another thing that’s worked really well for me is having frank discussions with students about why plagiarism is so demonized in academia in the first place (perhaps this conversation is a little more justified in an Ethics course). When they understand the motivations, and are not simply handed seemingly (and perhaps actually?) arbitrary rules about the Evils Of Plagiarism, they’re more likely to grok.

On balance, then, it seems to me that there is very little, if anything, to be gained from Turnitin et al that cannot be gained through other, less harmful means. Now I have to work up the guts to start sending links to this post whenever a faculty member asks me how to do plagiarism detection! But I suppose my lack of intestinal fortitude is a topic for another blog post.

On the communal v. the individual student voice

On Thursday afternoon of this year’s Open Ed conference, a challenging contrast began to emerge between the approaches to student writing being espoused by the various speakers. First was Gardner Campbell and Jim Groom, who delivered a talk titled No Digital Facelifts: Thinking the Unthinkable About Open Educational Experiences. (This and other links go to Ustream recordings of the talks – they’re well worth your time, if you weren’t able to attend in person.) Gardner’s message echoed some of the familiar strains in Jim’s talk from the previous day, putting forth the idea that instead of herding students together into a single platform of our choosing, we should be giving them the tools and knowledge to be creators and curators of their own digital identity. (See this post at bavatuesdays for some of Jim’s thoughts on “a domain of one’s own”.) Gardner pushed this line of thinking a step further, suggesting that students literally become the sys admins of their own web space. Not only should students be able to move outside of the institutional platforms to develop their digital selves, the argument goes, but they should be free to choose and maintain whatever platform they’d like, without the different but perhaps equally cumbersome constraints of free/commercial platforms (like wordpress.com and others).

Now, before I start talking about where the tension arose, I should point out that while there’s something very right about this idea of Gardner’s, there’s something arbitrary about it as well. He suggests that we conceptualize something like cPanel as a meta-framework for the construction of identity. But why stop there? If cPanel > wordpress.com because of cPanel’s additional freedom to maneuver, doesn’t it follow that it’d be better to give each student a virtual machine with a bare OS on it? Or maybe for them to build their own kernel from assembly code, which would truly provide the most software freedom? The obvious reason is that at some point the tradeoff is no longer worth it: what you gain in freedom by dropping down a level of abstraction is not worth the extra effort you’d need to master the medium. And I’d argue that as time goes by, and software both advances to higher levels of abstraction from the raw code and at the same time becomes more useful, the calculus of determining the ideal level of abstraction is constantly in flux. To echo a discussion from this year’s THATCamp: while it might be the case that most students would benefit from learning some HTML and some basic programming today, it’s likely that there will come a point at which it’ll no longer worth the trouble; this, in much the same way that you don’t need to know assembly code to qualify as a computer geek (in most circles?!). A GUI like cPanel might be the right meta-framework for most students today, but we should constantly be reassessing this conclusion.

OK, so back to Thursday afternoon’s tension. The session following Gardner and Jim’s was led by John Maxwell and was titled Thinkubator: Wiki as CMS/LMS. (Actually, sandwiched between the two was a fricking awesome demo by Grant Potter of some work he’s doing with virtual worlds – but I’ll gloss over it for the purposes of this post.) John has been doing amazing things with the wiki, related to his research, to organizations he’s been involved with, and – most germane here – to his courses. He conceptualizes the wiki as a place where students – especially graduate students – learn to work in the way that scholars work. (John, I’m going to fill in some points you left unsaid here, so please tell me if I’m borking.) While it’s of course true that individual scholars maintain their own voices and perspectives, there is also a voice that emerges from a community of scholars who are writing about the same things, publishing in the same journals, editing and reviewing each other’s work, teaching in the same departments, etc. In one of the best one-liners of the conference, John pointed out that students get practice in developing this kind of communal space in kindergarten and in graduate seminars – but not in between. Multi-authored wikis are, by their very nature, communal spaces. Thus, when students do their work on a wiki, they are learning the sociology of group work and of their discipline at the same time that they’re learning the subject matter of the course.

So here’s the tension (which John himself articulates very clearly in his own reflection on the talk). The Campbell/Groom angle is that students are better served by stewarding their own spaces: emphasis on the individual voice. The Maxwell angle is that students learn about how scholarship functions by authoring together in a space like a wiki: emphasis on the communal voice.

There is a sense in which the tension might be fundamental, going to the heart of what we want our students gain from our classes. If the point of education is to shape students’ individual agency – to make them sys admins of their own souls (?) – then it makes perfect sense to make them sys admins of their online selves. If the point of education is to develop the next generation of scholars (or, if we want to take the point further, the next generation of society members), then the wiki approach might be more sensible. Insofar as there is a real conflict here, it might run even deeper than the purpose of education, but to the purpose of knowledge production itself: is it more important to foster and encourage each individual’s idiosyncratic “truth” scheme or our collective movement toward Truth?

From a practical point of view, the tension is probably not so stark. A student with a developed voice and identity is more likely to be able to step back and envision his or her place in communal spaces; and someone who is comfortable participating in shared knowledge development will be better equipped to develop his or her own particular point of view. But the contrast with respect to educational technology policy remains. A wiki setup like Maxwell’s is homogeneous and centralized, while the Campbell/Groom arrangement is various and distributed. I wonder how much of this is a technological accident, though, and to what extent the phenomenal qualities of Maxwell’s method can be superimposed on the Campbell/Groom architecture. What I mean, very roughly, is that we might envision a new generation of software whose underlying infrastructure is essentially distributed and customizable – respecting the agency of individual student-sysadmins – while communal spaces, rich with the versioning and community feature of wikis, can emerge at the higher levels of abstraction. I’m not smart enough to envision what this might look like in detail, but in theory it might preserve some of the educational advantages of each approach.

What do you think? Is there really a tension between the two approaches? Does the underlying technological model you choose for classroom work rule out certain rhetorical models, or does it just make some a little harder to attain?

Hub-and-spoke blogging with lots of students

Inspired by some of the blog posts that have recently come through my reader on the topic of classroom blogging, I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring. In particular, I wanted to respond to some of the concerns raised in the comments to Mark Sample’s post regarding the “hub and spoke” method, where students maintain individual blogs that are linked through the teacher’s hub blog. Can this model work with a large number of students?

Not quite drowning | cc licensed flickr photo shared by Jaako

Over the course of several semesters using such a model in Intro to Philosophy and Intro to Ethics classes, I’ve hit on a couple of techniques that have made it easier to deal with somewhere between 60 and 70 students (from two sections of the same course) blogging roughly twice per week. Here are some thoughts, in no particular order.

  • Groups – On the right hand side of http://boonebgorges.wordpress.com, you’ll find a link to the blog of each student in the class. The links are organized into groups of five or six students each. The students’ first assignment at the beginning of the semester is to register for a wordpress.com blog and to email me its URL. As these URLs land in my inbox, I number them 1-7 (in sections of 35 or so students, seven seemed like the right number of groups). The blogroll is then split into groups, using Wordpress’s link categories.

    In practice, the groups serve several purposes. First, membership in a group give individual students a more focused and manageable reading load. That’s because the syllabus requires students to read only the blog entries of their group members. As the semester progresses and students get to know each other, their blog reading (as evidenced by, among other things, the scope of their commenting) increases dramatically, but this is self-motivated rather than required. Second, focused groups mean that each student has a guaranteed audience. If all students were assigned to read all blogs, then only the most popular blogs (or those appearing first in an alphabetical list!) would get regular readers and commenters. Groups make sure things are more spread out. Third, dividing the class into blog groups provides ready-made groups for in-class work as well. I’ve found that the camaraderie that forms in a blog group (see these comments for an example of what I mean) translates very nicely into in-class work, and vice versa.

  • “In the blogs” and classroom integration – When my students first started blogging a few years ago, I would make a habit of finding a few posts that caught my eye before most class sessions to discuss with the class. Bringing the blogs to the center of the classroom experience does a couple of things: it highlights good student work (I try to talk about everyone’s blog at least once per term), it creates the impression that the blogs really are a crucial part of the class, it’s a good way to revisit issues that went either unexplained or underexplained in the previous session, and it makes future blog posts better when blog authors believe that their work might be discussed in class.

    Since I was going through the process of picking out and making notes about interesting posts anyway, I figured I might as well make my notes available to students before class. So I started writing “In the blogs” posts, digests of what caught my eye that day, and a brief description of why. I’d generally try to post this at least twelve hours before the class session where the posts would be discussed. After a few weeks of doing this, I noticed that many students had actually read the posts that I blogged about (though I didn’t require it). Comment counts on those posts also tended to be a bit higher.

    Near the beginning of the term, I deliberately overdid it with In the blogs, in order to give students the sense that the blogs were really significant intellectual spaces and important to the class. See, for example, digests from the beginning, the middle, and the end of the semester.

  • RSS and grading – The purpose of the blogs in these classes is to give the students a space for reflection that they take seriously (publicness does this) but that is low-stakes enough to allow for risk-taking and experimentation. Thus my pass-fail grading: if the blog post is on time, and demonstrates even a modicum of thought, you get full credit. The happy byproduct of this arrangement is that a close reading of every blog entry and comment is not necessary. Early in the semester I try to read every post relatively carefully and comment on most of them – largely so that I can model the kind of thoughtful but not-too-formal commenting that I’d like the students to adopt – but as the term progresses the community generally takes care of itself pretty well. By the end of the semester, I hunt and peck my way through the blogs at my leisure, much like the students do.

    I used Google Reader to keep track of the students’ blogs, so that at the end of each blog grading period (every two or three weeks, I think), I could scan back through the feeds to see that they were on time. Comments work in a similar way: I subscribed to the comment feed of each blog, and at the end of every grading period would scroll through the comment feeds, keeping a tally of comment authors (this makes comment counting a bit more time-consuming than post counting).

Requiring such prolific blogging with so many students is not for the faint of heart (or, perhaps, for those with a 5-4 load), but I’ve found that some of these techniques – and especially the general rule that doing a lot of work early in the semester means that a self-sustaining community will develop – make the job much more manageable.

Nudging faculty toward paperlessness

I was included on an email sent recently by the VP of our school’s student association regarding the newly implemented pay-to-print policy. The student association is not happy with the policy, and their reasons were good: it’s not so much that students want to print, but instead that their professors require them to print. The email was a reminder to me that, at least in this particular area, it’s not students who are resisting change.

On this note, I’m planning some faculty development for the spring semester related to the idea of paperless teaching. I need to do some brainstorming as to what this means. So here goes:

  • Readings that have, in the past, been photocopied and distributed, should be distributed electronically. There are some procedural challenges here, though. Digitization itself is increasingly easy. More and more, I think faculty members are getting things from online databases, so that no digitization is needed. When the original is on paper and needs to be photocopied, more and more of our copy machines have scan-to-PDF functionality. So faculty need some guidance on using this functionality.

    Where to upload things for distribution? This is one area where Blackboard has some real advantages. For one, Bb courses are set up automatically, and so there’s no real setup on my part. Access is limited to those enrolled in the class, which is (lamentably, perhaps) required by copyright considerations.

    In cases where faculty members use Blackboard to distribute readings to students, it should be made explicit that printing is not required. A brief discussion early in the semester regarding the readings and how best to approach them is a good idea in any class, and considerations of paper vs. non-paper reading could be part of that.

  • Assignments comprise another class of tree-killers. Faculty who adopt wholly online assignments like blogs and wikis for the pedagogical benefits get paperlessness as a bonus. More traditional assignments – essays, journals, and the like – can be collected electronically in a variety of ways: with a Blackboard Assignment, Turnitin (or SafeAssign or whatever it is in Blackboard 8), as attachments to email, as postings to a blog or discussion board (where privacy is not an issue). Faculty members might need a little bit of help dealing with the different kinds of file formats coming in, but many will already be used to downloading and viewing various kinds of documents.

    Grading these electronic assignments can be a little bit trickier. I personally like grading papers with the Track Changes feature in Word or Record Changes in OpenOffice.org or whatever. The big downside of this is that, in order for your students to be able to read your comments, they’re going to need this particular software, or at least a compatible reader – which is a dangerous supposition when you use commercial software like MS Office at a demographically diverse public university like ours. Tablet computers offer an alternative, especially for those faculty members who like to mark papers full of circles and arrows. The problem with tablets is the overhead, though – they aren’t cheap.

How are you trying to move away from paper in your teaching, or in your faculty’s teaching? How do you convince individuals who have been trained to use paper over their entire careers that there are practical benefits to going electronic? Is it even possible to move our current kinds of curriculum, which are so deeply rooted in paper, to the digital realm? Or will the change only happen when the course materials and assignments move away from the old paper metaphors?