Why I teach digital literacy

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This past weekend, I gave a presentation with Susan Miller-Cochran at the Southeast Missouri State University blended learning conference on critically adopting technology in a hybrid writing classroom. The presentation was well-received and I’ve even gotten some follow-up correspondence based on our discussion. But what I want to talk about here, though, is an idea that came up in a conversation I had after our presentation with some of the those in attendance.

One of the comments made raised the issue of, “Yes, technology is there, but – why should I be teaching it in my course? A student getting an education at a university should be capable of using those tools of his/her own accord, not through me teaching it.” There are a few assumptions here: that course time should be solely focused on course content, not skill development; that if a faculty member learned on his/her own time, the student should be capable of doing so too; and that students these days are “digital natives” and probably know a lot of this anyway. I think the first two could be easily countered, so I’d like to focus on the last, and more complex idea – the one of “digital natives” in the university system.

Many educators question the assertion that students now are “digital natives,” that they grew up with this technology and thus are well-versed in it and can use it in ways that educators and/or older generations cannot. A recent post on Digital Media and Learning Central debunks four key myths in the “digital native” discussion: that digital natives are always young, that they were “born digital,” that they live digital lives (and thus have a hard time living/communicating without a screen or device) and that being connected = being digital. The best point made is that being a digital native means being more than having access – it means being able to critique, evaluate, produce, amplify, respond, and so much more. And this is what educators are not seeing students do with their access.

Case in point: a critical component of digital literacy is sifting through an evaluating the content that is produced on a daily basis and can potentially be used in research and writing. There’s much out there on the web that is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A good example of a lack of critique came in a debate about technology in education in my PhD class a few weeks ago. In playing an anti-technology role, a student cited from The John William Pope Foundation’s website. The point made drew immediate laughter and dismissal, with a quick reference made to the real mission of the organization and its founder. However, that brief comment also raised a more important issue. Much content on the web is disguised as something it is not, and without having students participate in analysis and critique of sites, we miss an important opportunity to teach them that not everything on the web is genuine, truthful, worthwhile, or credible for citing. (And this Pope Foundation example may be as good as any).

Using word processors is another simple example from my own experience. After teaching students how to use our LMS (Moodle), a word processor is the next tool that I focus on in the class, showing them how to use rulers, change styles, create a hanging indent, save as a different file type, and insert comments. I generally have one or two students every semester who know how to insert a comment, but for every other student, it’s magic, and all of them need time to get the hang of using the rulers and styles. Another critical literacy for word processors? Naming files. That’s more of a rhetorical literacy for technology – how do you name a file so that your instructor knows it’s yours amongst the 22 others in the queue? How do you name it so that you know which project it is when you go back to revise? We need to teach students not only to use the tools adeptly, but also to think critically and rhetorically about how and why they are using them (and this isn’t a new idea; it comes from Stuart Selber several years ago).

Being native in a language means having fluency, and we’d all agree that simply having access to a language everyday does not equal having fluency – so why do we conflate this idea when it comes to technology? We must for now call our students something other than digital natives. Digitally naive (while catchy) doesn’t seem all that appropriate. Must we call them anything? My parents’ and grandparents’ generations were literacy natives, but I don’t think anybody called them that. If we don’t label them as digital anything, then we may be more apt to think of them simply as students we have to teach and prepare for the world that awaits them, and all of the skill sets that they need to do well when they get there.

A moment to top all teaching moments

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Today, the most bizarre thing happened to me in class that I think has ever happened since I began teaching. Which granted is not that long, compared to my colleagues and my own instructors, but still a milestone that I’d like to discuss… mostly for its weirdness.

Right before class officially started today, one of my students (who is openly gay) began inviting his fellow classmates to NC State’s next LGBTQ events, a drag parade at the nightclub Flex here in Raleigh. After canvassing the class on an individual basis, he turned to me and yelled, “Ms. Kittle Autry! You have to come to the drag parade at Flex. YOU inspired MY costume!” . . . Awkward. So was the silence in our class. He quickly filled in with, “In the way that, you know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” The laughter in the classroom was uncomfortable, as was I, and I quickly said, “Well, I think I’ll take that as a compliment,” and launched into taking attendance. I did not – and still do not – take offense to the student’s comment. I’m flattered that he has considered me in trying to find a fun costume for an event that he is passionate about.

I hope now that I did not come across as “blowing off” the student’s interest. Although I’ve never had a student ask before, if one of them invited me to attend a sporting event, theater production, drag parade, whatever – I would seriously consider going to support the student and show my genuine interest as his or her teacher. And quite honestly, I’m more than mildly curious about this student’s interpretation of me (as a teacher) for various reasons. At this point I’m undecided: after looking at Flex’s website, the show doesn’t start until 12:30 Thursday night (aka Friday morning)! What party starts that late? I’m feeling older and older than my students all the time. But what matters is that I would like to support this student, who is actively pursuing his interests on campus.

My reflections on this incident have me thinking that – no matter how much TA training and faculty development workshops you attend, how many books you read, or how many other teachers you talk to – you will always encounter situations that you are utterly unprepared to deal with. People are vibrant, unpredictable, and full of new things you don’t know. That’s what makes life fascinating but also what makes teaching a roller-coaster ride. In one sense, it’s the challenge that draws you to teaching – no semester is ever the same! – but it’s the challenge that causes us to snark on Twitter or on other Internet fora. Maybe the more I teach, the faster I’ll be on my feet to think of what to say in that kind of situation.

So now I’m curious – what situations have you had teaching that render you helpless/speechless/unsure of how to deal? (You know, so in case it ever happens to me… I’ll have some knowledge upon which to draw!) Do share. And if I go to Flex tomorrow night – I’ll be sure to update you on that as well.

What I’ll do better next semester

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At the beginning of the semester, I talked about how I wanted to do a better job of encouraging my students to engage critically with ideas and to work with social issues that they are passionate about, inspired by Friedman’s discussion of creativity and ingenuity in Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Last week I had my teaching observation, which led me to reflect on what we’ve accomplished thus far and what still remains. Overall, I feel as if I haven’t lived up to the expectations I set for myself in teaching the students critical thinking about real world situations. Sure, they learned to think critically about a speech, a couple of journal articles, some sample student papers, but – I didn’t bring opportunities to them to discuss much that’s happening outside of our classroom. And that disappoints me. I think I got so wrapped up in trying to make the hybrid class experience as effective as possible that I forgot about my other goals.

Now that I’ve gotten the first semester of hybrid teaching (nearly) under my belt, I’ve got plans to revamp the material. I’m teaching the same type of section in the spring, still the 100-minute class time, and I plan to use the first ten minutes of each class to talk to students about something that’s happening at that time in the news or at NCSU and have them engage in critical thinking about these issues every class. I know this isn’t a new or novel idea and that many other instructors incorporate something like this in their curriculum already.  I was inspired last week after re-reading some of Victor Villanueva’s Bootstraps to tackle something along these lines. I thought going in to the reading that I was doing what he advocates for, but after finishing, I felt as if I fell short.

So, over break, I’ll re-work some of the syllabus to accommodate more time for class discussion about current issues and maybe come up with a system for having the students bring in articles and ideas that they want to discuss. If I start “exercising” that component of my students’ brains early on, I have a hunch that it might improve my students’ ability to think critically about the texts they analyze for homework or for their unit projects. I also hope it will teach them a little maturity, too, by exposing them to ideas that they are uncomfortable with initially or showing them alternative ideologies that they may not have considered before. Another benefit that might come out of these discussions is a greater connection to the students. This semester has been difficult for me, only seeing students one day per week. I don’t know the students as well, and overall, the vibe is just different from other semester (where I would teach them four days a week!).

Do any of you do some kind of critical thinking activity/discussion in your classes before you begin the lesson for the day? How do you introduce outside topics to the class for discussion? I’d love to hear suggestions about what works and what doesn’t.

Halfway through the Hybrid (or Blended) Class

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An article published earlier this week by the Chronicle, “Tomorrow’s College,” prompted me to think more about how I am teaching my hybrid academic writing class this semester and the impact that the format has on students. Until now, I’ve really only been thinking about how my teaching has to change and how I’m trying to take advantage of technology to teach a blended course successfully. My thoughts are that the students in my hybrid classroom are learning new and different skills from the students in the traditional ENG 101 classroom

I’m confident that my students are learning to use different technologies, software platforms, and website tools to accomplish tasks in our hybrid class. In August, they had no idea that you could use Google for more than searching or email, and now they are adept at using Google docs and sites for classroom purposes. I’ve introduced them to Mendeley for organizing their files for the literature review, though I didn’t make it required for them to get it (more on this soon, with an update on grading with Mendeley). Obviously, they’ve mastered Moodle, the learning management system that our school uses. Next semester, I’d like to show the students even more ways to use technology to help them accomplish their school work. Some possibilities: blogs (either reading or writing them, or both), Twitter, and Reddit or Diigo. Any other suggestions of useful technologies/software/websites that I should consider for the spring?

This is not to say that students in the traditional classroom don’t use these tools (because I know that they do), but that the tools are embedded into the format of the course. I’d like to think that this benefits them – they are learning that the Internet is useful for things other than Facebook. I think that’s a win!

I’d also really like to think that being in a hybrid class for their first semester of college encourages them to develop the self-motivation necessary to succeed in future courses. Again, that’s not to say that traditional class formats don’t – but a hybrid class forces it on the students from the get-go. If they don’t do the work online and turn it in, twice a week for every week of the semester, they’re “absent” and would eventually fail (due to the First Year Writing program’s attendance policy, which holds all students equally accountable for attendance). It’s painfully obvious when students leave work to the last minute, but I’ve noticed that many of the students turn in the work up to a full day before it’s due. Those assignments are less likely to be rushed and are unequivocally stronger responses than those that are posted the minute before the deadline. I’m not a social scientist, but that’s correlation, people.

So, is hybrid (or blended) format the future of college teaching? I don’t know. But, it’s here, and I’ve been asked to continue teaching in that format for the spring, so I’m going to embrace it and use the opportunity not only to diversify my teaching portfolio and technology repertoire, but also to show my students how to use technology and Internet tools to help them succeed while they’re here.

    Another reason I love Mendeley: Grading student projects!

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    Ya’ll, I’m totally on the Mendeley bandwagon. In an earlier post, I talked about how great it is for organizing my course readings and for taking notes on the readings to have them all in one place. But I’ve branched out to experiment with another potential use for Mendeley – grading student projects. So far, I think it works pretty well.

    For the second unit of ENG 101, we explore the differences between academic writing (through looking at journal articles) and public writing (by analyzing magazine articles). Their unit project is to adapt a journal article for a popular audience by creating a magazine spread that reports on the information and targets their audience effectively. I let the students get creative and go all out with the layout and design, whether with just MS Word or with Adobe Creative Suite. Because of this, I ask them to submit their projects in PDF format instead of as a Word document or RTF (which is how they normally submit projects; I grade everything electronically in Word using “Insert Comment” and “Track Changes”). Before using Mendeley, though, I had no way to grade ON a PDF; instead, I would create a Word document and just record my comments in there. As you can imagine, that’s not the most efficient way to do so. (I know, I should just buy Adobe Pro, and then I’d be set, but – I’m holding out until I get my new computer.)

    So, since I’ve discovered Mendeley, I’ve been thinking that it would be a possible solution to my grading PDF conundrum. And it is! I just download a folder with all of my students’ projects in them. I start grading by highlighting where there are spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors, just like I used to in Word. Then, I’m able to insert comments directly at the point where I’m commenting on. When I’m done, I export the PDF and am able to email the file with annotations back to the students. Genius!

    I’ve really only one complaint about the process: when I export the PDF, I lose the little comment graphic that shows students where I’ve commented in their file. I don’t know if that’s only because of my computer at this point, or if that’s how it works for everyone. So, I’ve come up with a solution by highlighting just the final word of a sentence where I’m commenting and then inserting the comment over top of the little highlighted part. In my emails to students, I tell them to hover their cursor over the small highlights, and they will see my comments for that part. (Dear Mendeley: Is it just because my computer is older? Or if the graphics do not export, can you try to make that happen for future versions? Thank you!!).

    Overall, though, if you like working with free software and grade PDFs, this is totally a great idea. Even better if your students use Mendeley, as I’m sure the graphics would show up if they imported the graded file into their own Mendeley desktop. If I ever move to a no-textbook and only online readings course, I might just make them all download the software…

    **Edited to add: Also, once I’ve exported all of the PDFs to save them on my computer in my teaching files and emailed them back to students, I plan to delete them from my Mendeley desktop & web account so that those files don’t contribute to my free space limit.  **

    Preliminary Thoughts on Hybrid Teaching

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    This fall, I’m teaching the same course that I’ve been teaching at NCSU – ENG 101: Academic Writing and Research – but in a new format. As a hybrid course, half of our course meetings are in-class and half are virtual. So, I have one 100-minute session per week with students, and they complete 100 minutes worth of work online to earn credit for the other “class meeting.” I came into this new teaching experience with an open mind and wondering how this format would compare to my previous experience of four 50-minute class meetings in person per week. To corral my thoughts so far…

    To start with what I see as a negative aspect – I only see the students once per week! Three weeks into the semester, I feel disconnected from them. Only seeing them on Thursday afternoons makes for a very different interaction with the students. I can’t ask them how their weekend was, or follow up from a conversation we had the previous day, or even bring in as many current events as I’d like. To counter this negative, though, I will point out that I’ve only ever taught one class per semester, so I’ve always had the opportunity to get to know students personally. I won’t always have this luxury and suppose that this problem may not be such a big deal by the time that I’m teaching three lecture courses per semester. But for now – this is a drawback. I feel that I’m at my best as an instructor when I really connect with the kids, and this has yet to happen (and it may still).

    On the plus side – the students are doing a lot of writing. Definitely a lot more writing than when I saw them in person four days a week. When we’re in person, I can get recognition of understanding by asking questions, have them do group work, or have them lead a part of the class. But when you have to evaluate a student’s participation and understanding virtually, one of the most obvious options is to have the write and submit their work on the learning management system (we use Moodle at NCSU). The funny part is… it makes perfect sense! I’m teaching a course on academic writing, and my students are practicing writing. Not sure why it seems like such an epiphany, but when you’re in front of students in person, it somehow feels as if you should be speaking to/with them and not watching them think and write. With online class time, I actually feel more free to assign work that gets them practicing the ideas we talk about on the days that I see them in person.

    Other things that are positive: attendance is great. Because I only see them once a week, they’re always there for that one day. They see how important it is to be there and do their best to get the most out of the one class session that we have each week. And with very few exceptions, they turn in all of the virtual work in a timely manner, and some have gotten in the habit of doing things well ahead of time, leaving them the opportunity to ask questions if issues arise. Moodle works pretty well for our class setup, giving us a central location for our class online. The students have caught on to the system fairly quickly, and I love not collecting a single piece of paper. The only component of it that I don’t use is the grade book. For some of their class work, I use an Unsatisfactory/Satisfactory/Outstanding grade system, and Moodle translates those designations to grades of 0% / 50% / 100%. To me, satisfactory is a C, and there’s a big difference between completing half of the work and completing it perfectly, so I haven’t used the numbers for student grades as Moodle has calculated them. I’ve translated the grades into my own spreadsheet system, which requires a little extra work on my part, but allows me to use a grading scale that I truly believe in. 

    As we progress through the semester, I will try to shape my thoughts more cohesively to come up with a proposal for talking about the experience at the North Carolina Symposium for Teaching Writing hosted here at NCSU. In the meantime, if you have experiences with hybrid or distance ed. teaching, I’d love to hear ideas and suggestions for fostering a greater sense of community among the students for the one day per week that we are in class. How did you do it?