I’m thinking this post is a kind of response to the weekly reading question “What factors might limit the feasibility of robust interaction face-to-face or online?” Correct me if I’m wrong…
An opening note: I was struck by how the “techno expression” section of the reading focused on so many rhetorical factors–audience, purpose, writer/student positioning/need. They were describing the rhetorical triangle, more or less, with an emphasis on (kinda) multimodal methods of delivery. They were speaking my language, and it was comforting.
I have a confession to make: I hate Learning Management Systems (LMS). That’s not really a revelation in and of itself. Many instructors I know take issue with the rigidity associated with management systems like Blackboard or Desire2Learn; in addition, I’ve heard (& lodged) many complaints about the fact that LMS interfaces can sometimes feel counter-intuitive for both instructors and students. I use my university’s LMS Desire2learn (D2L) to email students (and encourage students to email each other when they’re working in groups), collect major assignments, post grades for students over the course of the semester…and I also use the nav bar in the course D2L site to link to a class blog, which I create every semester on WordPress. In other words, I use D2L to launch my students onto a course website separate from the university LMS, and that blog is where most of the online action takes place in my classes. For an example, you can click here to see the blog for a Composition I class I am teaching this semester. For the record, this is a traditional Composition I class that meets two days a week for 75 minutes. The course blog is an extra resource for students, but they often get this information in class, too.
The blog is essentially an online syllabus (everything in the traditional paper syllabus is posted here), and the front page contains homework posts, in-class work posts, and other “just cause” or informational posts I want to share with students. I like the dynamic nature of WordPress. And I’m used to it. D2L, not so much. That being said, I feel like a blended course (rightly) requires me to use D2L more fully instead of keeping a course blog on WordPress, because I’d need the discussion and content spaces to promote interaction with and among students. It seems like a bad idea to me to have a class D2L site with discussion boards, full content modules, etc. in addition to a course blog on an entirely different site. I realize the “news” function of D2L could basically function as the course blog. But I’m being stubborn about using WordPress. It’s like my own technological security blanket. I think I’m just going to have to suck it up and migrate over to D2L for the purposes of a blended course.
In addition, I realize that the way my online component is currently structured doesn’t promote student interaction as well as it should; in fact, I fear that I’m encouraging too much passive consuming of knowledge instead of active participation on the blog. When I was at Miami (OH) as a PhD student, I also asked my students to keep individual blogs all semester, and I posted links to these blogs on the side of the main page of the class blog; as part of their participation grade, students were also required to regularly respond to their classmates’ posts. Of course, I was teaching in a laptop classroom at the time, which meant students were in class working on their blogs in addition to posting as homework.
Student Access to Technology
Which leads to another concern I have: I could require students to post on their own blogs now, or to post on the class blog and share links/media/other information. But I don’t. I no longer require students to keep blogs due to technology access issues for my students. I teach at a rural, regional state university in western Oklahoma. Believe it or not, I still have students who only have access to the internet at home via dial-up because they live so far out in the country. What’s more, a fair number of my students tell me that they are uncomfortable with technology, and these students are all ages, from diverse backgrounds. Despite claims that students are now “digital natives” (a claim that has been complicated by many people already), I believe that my students are “smartphone natives,” which is not quite the same thing: while my students can usually guarantee that they can read the class blog on their devices, they cannot always guarantee that they will have access or the comfort level to compose on their own blogs (my students do keep an informal writing journal all semester, and I offer a blog as an option other than keeping a traditional handwritten journal, though nobody’s taken me up on the offer). Sometimes, students cannot guarantee that they have regular access to technology at all, or they just don’t want to use technology, even if they’ve signed up for an online class…I realize that this is just one professor’s experience on one campus, but it is the unique location in which I find myself creating a blended course syllabus for Blendkit.
Based on the readings for this week, I think I’m drawn most to constructing a course based on the curatorial learning method, with dashes of atelier & network administrator thrown in: I envision a Composition I blended class that meets f2f about 40-50% of the time: if the class meets two days a week in a traditional format, then I envision a class meeting f2f once a week and working online the rest of the time (of course, depending on student needs and the time of the semester, that meeting pattern could fluctuate a bit). I want the f2f meetings to be a kind of writing studio and opportunity to share work and get feedback (this writing and sharing would continue online, too). I worry, though, that f2f meetings could turn into trouble-shooting sessions that cover issues students have with D2L/whatever technology we’re using in the online components of the course. While I believe that should be one function of f2f meetings, especially early in the semester, I don’t want the f2f meetings to become some kind of supplement, as though this were an online course that happens to meet occasionally for tech help.
I realize that it’s up to me as the instructor to keep the course on track. I also realize that once students understand what a blended course involves, they will be responsible for making decisions about whether or not to continue in the blended class or to find a more suitable alternative (traditional f2f or entirely online) instead. If a student chooses to stay in my blended course, then they’re agreeing to go with the flow, so to speak, despite any bumps they might hit during the semester. Of course, since I’m talking about a general education requirement that all students must take, the student choice factor takes a slightly different turn.
The funny thing is, the class blog is one of the aspects of my teaching that students traditionally praise in my class evaluations: most students appreciate the online component and visit the site frequently, and I think that the vast majority of students on my campus would feel quite comfortable with a blended course. Apparently, I’ve decided to be Denise Downer today, because I’m envisioning worst-case scenarios that will probably not happen. And if they do happen, I can handle it. I have before, and I will again. I think I needed to work through these (irrational?) fears here on the blog to calm my nerves.