The Project Blog
my reflections on this blog
Acting on a suggestion I believe Randy Bass made at one of the VKP summer institutes, I kept a journal along with the course. A sort of blog. I had no regular routine. I just started a web page and added to it when the mood struck me, when I thought about it. Turns out I made nearly 50 entries over the course of a 14-week semester broken down into 7 2-week units. I have broken the entries down into units and numbered them for easier reference, and my reflections on this blog are on another page.
 -- Had to rewrite the community document for a face-to-face class before we began. The version I had was aimed at an online class. Made it clear to me that my project is really aimed at an online class. Damn. Worried about how this will play out. At the very least maybe I can learn something that I can apply in the online class this Spring.
 -- Project is aiming more at response posts eventually, and I'd left the initial post (the "serve") without much thought on my part and without any direction/guidance/instruction for them. So, I sort of panic'd and created the "five eyes" document just before the class started so that they had some guidance with the first post. I didn't trust them. Felt they needed some framework. Why so timid, frail teacher? Hmm, should I have waited on the "five eyes"? But, hmm, at least my panic forced me to think about a way to introduce the "serve." I had been at a loss there and that's probably why I had done nothing before.
 -- I had envisioned I would lecture, thus having a clear function for the discussion board separate from the class. You know, this is MY space and time in the classroom, there is YOURs on the discussion board. I had imagined some class discussion but not much. (30 in the class.) However – halloo! -- I find I have given up the lecture mode. Couldn't bring myself to lecture. So the class is a pretty much a "class discussion" class, tho, granted, I lead, facilitate, direct. I mean, I still am in the center. I feel this kinda muddies the focus on the db as the "visible heart" of the course. Feels like things are screwed up from the word go.
-- Trouble with Blackboard and the survey. I want to do "surveys" not "tests." But, at the same time, I want the responders identified at times so I can track them. "Anonymous" responses will work sometimes but not always. BB only aggregates survey info. I'll have to call the things "tests" if I want their names on them. I guess I can explain that. But I don't want them thinking of these things as "tests." Grrr.
-- Irony: I bill this as a "community of learners" course where interaction and "presence" are key and the discussion board is the "visible heart" of the community etc etc – and I spend the first two full 50-min classes "lecturing"!!! There seemed so much to go over. So much different than courses they are used to that I felt I had to do a lot to set them up. Seemed like a lot to explain. Goddam. I couldn't get off stage. Goddam. I thought I was killing them, stomping the spirit right out of the class. Fortunately, when I had open discussion in the 3rd class it was spirited. But is there some way I can offload all that intro crap? Can't the tech help me there? Or is that a time for them to hear me and sense me, and perhaps good for that reason?
 -- Survey1: 13 questions. Most just about the discussion board, of course. But it did occur to me to ask some more general questions just to see what comes up: what was the key element in their best college class, what role other students play in their learning, and to give me an analogy or metaphor for college or for courses (on the order of "learning community" as my metaphor).
 -- I spent a full week on what I'm calling and telling them is the "meta" track in the course. So it's like the course will have 2 tracks. There are 2 weeks in each unit, 1 week on the lit. content track, the other on the "meta" track. Actually this time it works well because the second book is the 600-page Uncle Tom's Cabin, so the meta week is a week for them to read the novel before we discuss it. That will work well if they take advantage of the time to do the reading. The work on the surveys is not all that much, so there is plenty of time to read if they time-manage themselves.
 -- I felt odd spending a week on this meta level. But I have made a commitment to cutting time out of the normal coverage of content to spend on what I think is important for their learning. I wished especially that I had taped the first class in the week. I felt I was "on," that I was "hot" as I extemporaneously talked about the way I see the discussion board as different from other kinds of writing and tried to make a case for wider understanding of how to act in discussion situations for whatever careers they have.
 -- There is just not enough time during the course to assess the survey stuff. I scan over it. But I'm going to have to wait till Christmas break or hope for a light Spring semester to really get into it. One problem with me in doing this kind of VKP stuff is that I am always doing new courses and have the content to work up as well. This has always scrunched me when I come to think about evaluation. If I could do these research projects with classes I've taught before I would feel better, that I was giving the research stuff more focus and more attention. My "history," tho, is always doing new courses. I'm suicidal. But VKP primary researchers probably should not be using new preparations for their projects.
 -- I have some positive first reactions, tho. I find in the surveys and in class discussion that a decent number of students have picked up on that "five eyes" document as an aid to thinking about a first post and the nature of their posts in particular. And a decent number have started picking up my sport jargon, referring to their first posts as "serves," for instance. I must admit that has at least given me an initial sense that the way I'm framing this is making sense to some people. It would be a long semester if I didn't get some of this kind of feedback. Wheeee!
 -- I asked them to look at the first posts, to pick out one they thought the best and to give reasons. From my perspective this worked very well. 6 got a vote for best post, 2 with 4 votes each, 2 with 3 votes. I grouped the reasons on a handout, put the post up on the screen, and talked to them (yeah, this was pretty much me on stage) about the reasons given. I thought this worked very well. Not sure about them, but I think so. Though they sure have curious looks on their faces, like they never heard this kind of thing before. It worked well for me because I had concrete criteria that they gave, and a decent range of it. It covered a lot of territory in a very down-to-earth way. The main thing I saw was that they in general thought the same principles applied to essays as posts and that they were not real conscious of what a first serve should be.
 -- I asked them to look at their own first three posts in another survey, didn't have an opportunity to go through their responses in any detail, but tried to get open discussion in class about what they saw in their posts on the basis of things I had been raising. The discussion was not great. Lots of silence. I recall being struck by one student mentioning the lack of a "comfort zone" on the discussion board, different from the kind of writing they can do in the "Talk Radio" space I provide. I tried to provoke follow-up on why there was not comfort but that didn't get specific.
 -- I have been thinking about the big difference between the kind of modeling I do for essay writing and the lack of it for discussion board writing. Like we give prizes for essays, but not for posts or sequences of posts. So-and-so is a prize winning essayist, we say. But not sos-and-sos won a prize for their sequence of discussion board posts. Hmm, something to think about. What we value and what we don't.
 -- Reflection: I can say this is a "community of learners" and do stuff to try to foster community, but it's clear creating community is a bigger challenge. My fault? Or just working against ingrained tradition? I have them do the personal home page with pictures, spend the first 2 weeks or so having them introduce themselves, call on people loudly by name for the first several weeks, suggest that they sit in different places to interact with different people, suggest they copy the roll list and consciously check off people they know and don't, put them in groups, etc. But it still seems so many are clueless about what being part of a community means. What to do? It occurs to me that a colleague – an actor --years ago used to spend the beginning of each class having them do "warm up" exercises. Maybe I gotta do more like that – or something. I am perpetually disappointed at the level of community. Gotta find a way. Community is where all this discussion starts.
 -- Where the rubber hits the road on this community issue is in unit 2 when they are to respond to each other. Between 10-20% are not posting at all or posting late. That hurts the groups. That makes it hard for the conscientious ones to do what is assigned in the way of returns and they are not getting returns on their posts. We live in a fallen world, eh. What to do? I will raise this as an issue for the class. But the obvious expectation on the part of the students who complained is that I would drop a hammer on the slackers. Don't want to do that. Not yet. My advice was that they contact the slackers and try to engage them. My idealistic notion is that only when students are willing to confront fellow students about such matters as responsibility will the culture begin to change. Too much to ask?
 -- A student made an interesting point in "Talk Radio" that Lehigh was too oriented to the "practical" and that he took this course to escape that. He was kind of bitchy, and I took it that he was saying that he hadn't really escaped the practical here. Made me realize that my pitch toward improving discussion skills has been aimed (or at least it sounds that way to them) to the "practical" – to business, to career, to getting ahead. Gotta watch that in the future and find a balance (although I think I have been balanced, dammit).
 -- Joe just sent an article with lots of refs to the discussion board operation. Tempting. But I don't think I can be "distracted" at the moment. Feeling overload with the new content in the course as well as the extra level of research stuff. Can't crash. But feeling guilty about not living up to the "community" we established at VKP. How's that for irony!
 -- Realizing that I am doing something totally different in regard to past practice with the discussion board. I am usually very active, very visible there. Hmm, why is that? So they know I'm around and won't skip their posts? To model posting behavior? Because I'm nosey and talkative? Because I'm afraid to be left out? Because I think I have the answers? Because I think they need me? Because I'm afraid I'll miss something? Hmm, dunno. But I am clearly invisible on the db this time. Leaving it up to them. I guess that just goes with the "experiment" here. I set them up, watch, interpret. But I am not involved. Izzat ok? I guess if I were "there" it would muddy the issue.
 -- It occurs to me that after I "present," setting them up in the beginning of a unit, that I should ask right then for some feedback, for what they remember, for what they take away. Instead of waiting till the survey at the end of the unit. Would that help them do better?
 -- Not all of the "guidelines" document is applicable to this stage where they just serve and return. I should have made that clearer and gotten them to focus just on those parts that apply at this point. Remember for next time.
 -- Community, community, community: I'm starkly seeing that the most important thing for the way I'm trying to run this course is right at the very beginning. Establishing what it means that this course is a "community." Ha! Rather than what? A "tyranny"? But you know what I mean – rather than a very teacher-centered course. I am very much trying to establish, in class as well as on the discussion board, that we are a community and that the first document in the course (the"Learning Community" one) is a kind of "constitution" for us. Without that, without a commitment to talk to each other, to be active participants, to be responsible , etc and etc, then the whole concept is dead. This has little if anything to do with the "new" technology. It has all to do with the way students expect the classroom environment to be. Now these students are not English majors, who might be more attuned to a discussion atmosphere. They are a range of humanities, social science, science, and business majors. So at this point in unit 3 I am feeling more needs to be done back at the beginning to make the words about community mean something – to translate those words into action – to make the students feel the reality of those words. Not sure what, tho, as I think I wrote earlier. But I've taken some little – artificial? – steps to lubricate community more. I dropped 4 students who were deadheads and not pulling their weight, retarding groups etc., and I talked with 4 more about weak performance in class and board discussion. Hoping, then, that there won't be dead spots in groups and pairs. I changed the environment in the room a bit. I tightened the circle to bring people closer together, I asked people to fill in the first row every class, I distributed a roll list with the suggestion (that I had made earlier, in fact,) that they check off the people they know by name till they get everybody in the class). Such things seem "surface" to me, but maybe necessary. I have thought about more draconian measures like asking them to report absences to the group not just to me (symbolic) and asking them to go around the room and give the name of everybody (ha! a "test"). In addition, tho, I will be experimenting with more substantive things to draw them out. Maybe more on that later. But sufficeth to say that the thing hammering at me now is the idea that the discussion board won't create community as much as a community will find strength thru the db. Ha! But what does that mean for a totally online course where there is no face-to-face! O, I have thought myself into a box. All for now.
 -- I gave a Teaching, Learning, and Technology Roundtable talk on my project. Used my poster. Crowed about the general VKP project and surfed through the site. Only about 15 attendees, 2/3's tech people unfortunately. The talk helped me think out some things – good. People were supportive. I remember a bit of consternation about my imaging db activity as a pepper game, as non-competitive tennis/racquetball, and as love-making! It was obvious that others thought of the db in other ways, and I kept having to make the point that what this was about was teaching this course, to these students, at this time (from one of our readings). And that different ways were ok, but the main point is that everybody needs to clue students in to the nature of the db in a specific class and thus what expectations are and how grades will be given.
 -- Looking through Gail and Edward's stuff in preparation for a triad discussion made me think about asking leading questions to be answered on the discussion board. I have been leaving it open for them to "serve" whatever they wish. Of course, the problem for me is that I am teaching this material for the first time, so I am not "ahead" enough to know what questions to ask. So I'm stuck with this openended method this course, but I gotta try the leading question method at some point and see how that feels when I look closely at results.
 -- We are sortof around mid-term and I just spent the class period before a long weekend break that the students have sermonizing about community. Of course 1/3 of the class cut this last class before break, probably the ones that needed to hear the sermon. I was pretty brutal. It seems to me that 11 of the now 25 students (down from 29-30 as a result of me dropping non-participators) were considerably delinquent on the discussion board, and that maybe 7 were doing a top-notch job. So basic. Unless everybody (or very nearly everybody) is posting regularly, it's hard to center a class around the discussion board. I keep thinking that this project ought to be first about ways to create community before one can think about the effectiveness of the discussion board. But maybe I am too idealistic, too naïve. I'm expecting everybody to be perfect?! On some level I guess I am. Where do I get off, eh?
 -- Thinking back to my presentation at the TLTR a couple weeks ago. One comment is coming back. From the faculty member specialist in small group discussion. Said that what I was talking about was teamwork and that I should look at the literature on teamwork. Groan.
 -- Ruminating. How to make students feel they "own" the classroom. That the classroom is "theirs" not mine. I set up the circle before class, I buy the goodies for unit wrapup day, I man the computer most of the time. Maybe I can turn over some of these things to them.
 -- After the break. Not real anxious to get back. Slowing down and making everything visible – their stuff as well as mine – has brought me face to face with some deep feelings about what the classroom should be like. And I am bringing to the surface all the warts. I'm consciously facing more than I guess I usually do. I have very high hopes and expectations for what a class should be like that are embodied in the community idea. And the slightest failing seems to hit me hard. Too hard for a veteran like me. I frankly find myself angry at students. For being kind of unconscious. Like at the end of the class before break that I wrote about above, in which I could feel that I was passionate about working together, and even admitted my passion, a student came up and said something like "Your passion is good and all that but I have two tests today and I simply didn't have time to do the Talk Radio hosting [an open space on the db for off-topic stuff] you assigned me for today and I don't know what I'm supposed to do anyway." His tone really irritated me -- I pointed out that he had not been a regular contributor in class, had obviously not yet been to the Talk Radio space (tho we're ½ way through the class) where the instructions are, and, in fact, that his assignment was for the next Wednesday so he had misread the schedule. Clueless. How had he been in class for 20 or so meetings and not have a clue? Grrrr. I don't seem to be able to shrug this off like I once could.
 -- "Play": the racquetball analogy seems to have caught on. I can hear the terms "serve" and so forth coming back at me as we discuss. Seems to me appropriate too because we talk of "playing with ideas." Non-competitive racquetball as a way of thinking of the discussion board. Yes.
 -- Most student response on the db angle of the course has been in the form of surveys. In the "meta" classes I have been pretty much the one "on" and, tho I have given them handouts with selections from their survey responses on them, I have been in the center during those classes telling them what I see. Not too much response or discussion. In the last survey, tho, one student advised me to involve them more in the meta stuff. That hit me as right on. So I asked them for two classes to come ready to talk about specific db exchanges. They had done a survey in which I asked them to look at every interchange in unit 3, so I thought all I was doing was asking them to make some of those statements in class and actually have the posts on screen while doing so. Bombed! I was lucky to get 3 volunteers. Now I could have called on people, could have required response, but I am committed to this community thing where in my view students are voluntarily active. Groan. The upshot was disappointing, then. People looking at their shoes as I asked for volunteers to talk about something interesting in regard to their db exchanges. The 3 volunteers, tho, were pretty good, kinda explaining what they were trying to do in their serve and the pros and cons of some responses they received. What I noticed in other student responses, tho, was a tendency to focus on the class content in the posts, where I was more interested in hearing about the strategy of the posts, what thinking went into them, etc. They obviously are not used to thinking in those terms.
 -- It occurs to me that the negative commentary (actually doesn't seem to be much, tho) about this self-consciousness about posting is related to seeing discussion board posting as "spontaneous," as like class discussion – which it isn't. Have to remember to make that clearer. The point of asynchronous discussion is to have time to think and reflect and not be spontaneous. So how does that square with my guideline about free writing. Chasing ideas etc on the db. Hmm, I probably have a contradiction lurking here. To try to resolve it, I guess I have in mind the encouragement to think ahead about a response but then when it is in mind to simply let loose and write merrily away. Not labor over every word, or do drafts, and that sort of stuff. But actually I think I have a contradiction here. Maybe I should stress that the reflection beforehand is crucial to the good posts. Gotta think about this more.
 -- I think I wrote earlier about having prompts for the db. I do not have specific prompts in this course, tho I have used them in the past. Maybe I should have them. We're doing Moby-Dick in this 4th unit, a very difficult book. I'm not sure they will know where to start.
 -- Kind of the dog days of the semester. People feel tired. Mid-term exams going on. And Moby-Dick was very tough for them. Most just couldn't get into it in class. Probably not good planning, for this was the unit when they would do more posts than ever: serve, return, then (new) field the return. So there's a 3rd layer of posting. I'll be anxious to see if they were able to keep conversation going on the discussion board in a way that they weren't in class itself.
 -- I must admit that I too am feeling the dog days and the tension between teaching and learning. I can feel a bit of frustration at this "meta" level of the course. My love is for the teaching of and talking about the literature, of course. And I am feeling vividly the "sacrifice" one makes when concentrating on the learning. Ahhh, to be one of those teachers who just lectures, quizzes, grades, and walks away clean. I feel more than ever the burden of making sure everybody gets to a high level. The more I see in detail what they are writing and thinking about, the more I feel responsible for their learning.
 -- Some interesting developments. I think I've been whining a lot lately. But some good signs. As a wrap-up for unit 4 on Moby-Dick, I asked people to prepare a 2-minute or so statement and we went around the room. I was very pleasantly surprised. First, everybody did talk, some for the only time so far in the course. Second, there were really some interesting, serious comments. In other words, I got a sense of engagement that I think I was losing. I had a feeling the class was drifting off, but now I have a better feeling.
 -- Also, trying to still act on student comment that I involve them more in the "meta" phase of the course, I spent a class talking about the posting in one group over a week's time, that is, for the whole unit. I tried to be descriptive rather than personally evaluative – just talking out what I saw and how I felt about what I saw in terms of the general goal of improving db performance. I tried to call on "community" – that none of this was to criticize or praise anybody in particular, but to have solid, current examples of work to look at. As always in this "meta" phase, I worry that they glaze over. I mean, they truly have not had this kind of experience. But I did that one day, asked for people to volunteer interchanges that we should talk about the next day, and actually got some volunteers. Last time I asked for volunteers there was little or no response. They were doing the surveys, providing info there, but reluctant to talk about things openly in class. So, I sensed a difference not only in more volunteerism, but in discussion among them about the posts in class. It's still a bit of a hard sell that we should linger over their posts very minutely, and they still don't have a "vocabulary" internalized to talk about the posts, but I felt more life this time. I'm wondering if my modeling a non-personally evaluative commentary on the posts helped create a bit more trust that might have encouraged them to open up more.
 -- I'm changing my mind about an important thing, I think. In my "guidelines" document, I suggest that posts should be spontaneous, brainstormy, and so forth. But, of course, this whole thrust of making them more conscious of their posting strategies and options works against that. Well, wait a minute, let's think about that. Maybe what has to happen is that they be conscious of strategies in an early phase, that they practice certain modes in an early phase, till the use of these strategies and modes becomes internalized and unconscious/spontaneous. So, in sports, you learn certain moves and you practice them, but in the game you do them instinctively. Does that sound right? Well, back to my point. I think now that what I should be telling them that in this asynchronous environment they should be just as formal as they are in formal writing. So that maybe the main difference between essay writing and discussion board writing is length – the ability to write, say, one good paragraph rather than one long essay. Or is it that the spontaneous stuff is best (or, at least, ok) for the "serve," for this new way of thinking is coming at the point where we're doing serve, return, field the return. It just seems to me that in this fielding-the-return stage, you gotta be conscious. Interesting. Gotta think more about this.
 -- There's a guy on the faculty here who is well known for and prides himself on giving a quiz at the beginning of every class. Says it improves the level of class participation. Forces the students to read. Says the students have always given this aspect of the class good ratings on his evaluations. The other day I had a conversation with a young faculty member, who said she has begun doing the same thing with the same results. If the students say this is good for them, she said, hey, it's a no-brainer. So why do I balk. So idealistic as to still imagine a world in which people don't have to be forced. In which, in fact, people don't see themselves as needing to be forced. I dunno, seems sad to me. Lehigh has just subscribed to Turnitin.com, the plagiarism system. Teachers will turn student essays in to be checked for plagiarism. There are huge issues here. But the reaction in my class was that it's a good thing, since it will force them more to do their own work. Force them to do their own work??? Ahhhhhhhh!!!!!!! I guess I see a discussion board post as a better way to achieve the same result – that is, to make sure they read and engage. But is it?
 -- Community. The first premise of this course. I have that Talk Radio space on the discussion board. It's been pretty interesting and lively there lately on music topics. That really seems to make them come alive. Got me wondering if a way to try to break the ice/form community etc in the beginning of the course might revolve around music. I dunno, asking them to bring some in to play perhaps or something like that. Posting their profiles and writing intros on the db just doesn't quite go far enough toward weaving them together in the way that a course based on db interaction needs. Here we are a good 2/3's through, and I am just feeling that they all know each other's names! God! Next time I just wanna jump on the stronger community thing right away.
 -- Another point on Talk Radio. Seems to me (will have to check this out later) that the last few threads have been different and more energetic. One on cheating (as with a boyfriend/girlfriend) and another on things overrated/underrated. The students seem engaged more. Now is it the topics or are they finally starting to feel like a community? I mean, I've noticed some loosening in class too. In the recent "meta" class, there was decent response as we talked very specifically about their posts up on the screen.
 -- I was also thinking about the amount of work that goes into posting and the kind that it is. I may have mentioned this before when, I think, Edward Tang pointed out that I was having them post an awful lot compared to him. Well, anyway, I think this unit they were asked to do two sequences of 7 posts each during a week. 14 posts a week. Now that is quite different than sitting in class, taking notes, saying a thing or two once in a while, then waiting for a quiz or an essay once in a longer while. That's being put on the spot to "think," to come up with something very specific to say 14 times that week. I dunno, when I think about it that way, it really does seem like a lot more than they are asked to do in other kinds of courses. I also was thinking about this in regard to conversations in class and on campus on academic cheating and plagiarism. The whole fraternity file thing about essays came up, and it occurred to me that these discussion board posts probably cannot be faked. Can I imagine there will be a fraternity file of discussion board posts in the future???? Wheeee! So they are being asked to do more "thinking" and don't have as much opportunity to fake.
 -- Flow chart: Making a note to myself about something that I was thinking of in today's "meta: session. A flow chart of posts within a group. I was showing them unit 5 volleying posts. There was a three-person group. I followed the posts from one server and each of the other two group members separately through the return, his fielding of the return, and then the member's first volley. Each interchange separately. In a line. But the prompt in the assignment was to read every post from all group members on the board before posting. So what about interaction or lack of it between the two threads. When I arranged the posts chronologically it was manifestly obvious that the two group members did not look at what was in the thread between the server and the other person. In one instance, one group member used the very same example that had been used in the other thread by the other group member. The student admitted in class that she had not done what she was supposed to do, and I was able to make the point that if she had then she would have had to do something different and thus the conversation would have been advanced. The other situation was slightly different. The server went beyond his original point on one thread, and the second group member replied to the original question, unaware that the conversation had advanced to another level. Now, I'm not thinking of some draconian flow chart to catch people, because I think it can work the other way, but simply to make very explicit where people are being effective discussants and where they aren't.
 -- A corollary to the above. I'm imagining a series of boxes in which somehow I or the students would put their posts after an interchange. Those boxes would have questions beside them relevant to step in the posting. And the idea would be that the student and I could then judge the quality of the post. Let's see, something like this. A box titled "your serve" that would have questions like this: How many serves from your group members were on the board before you posted? If there were any, which of the "five eyes" types were they? If there were any, in what way did you conceive of your post to insure variety? In any event, what type was your post and how did you structure it to engage a return? Things like that.
 -- We are getting toward the end of the course, and I am starting to think of ways I would teach this discussion board writing a next time around. Like way back at the beginning, asking them to do a sample serve using each of the "five eyes." It's clear to me that tho some, perhaps many of the students have picked up the terminology, that almost all feel tentative about identifying posts using these terms. They need more practice, right at the beginning. I can see an exercise too something like asking them right in the beginning to look at a collection of posts and label them. Gotta do more back at that first step if by this point they are to be on track.
 -- Thinking also of an exercise in which I give them a serve then asking, say, three people to each respond to that serve using one of the response options we've identified. Just to give them practice. That kind of thing. I'm realizing that doing some of this would have been a more effective use of the "meta" time than what I've been doing. Sigh. Never do anything the first time, my father always used to say.
 -- Dear diary: I am sorry. I have been remiss. My other life overpowered VKP in this last unit. We did not do a survey for unit 6, but I think that's alright, since the assignment was basically the same as unit 5 but with pairs instead of a group. And we didn't even do a discussion board in unit 7. Couldn't get quiet time to think of how I wanted to organize it. But, again, ok, I think because we had really covered the territory that needed to be covered previously, and I should have plenty of data.