Learning and Teaching Class: Second Reflection

This semester, I am co-teaching a graduate class focused on college learning and teaching. Each week, our students will have to write a reflection based on a prompt we provide them. Partially to “pre-test” each prompt but mostly because I believe in reflection and purposeful metacognition, I’ll write my own replies to the prompts in my blog.

This week’s prompts are both intended to get students to consider how they organize information and how that differs from how their students organize information. It follows the second chapter in the book we’re using as our text and it should also link well with the work we’re doing in class right now, particularly the focus on learning bottlenecks (which are often caused by the differences between how teachers – experts – and students – novices – organize and connect their knowledge).

This week’s prompts:

First: As a graduate student, you have become (or are quickly becoming) an expert in your field. And as described in this chapter, you have almost certainly learned to organize your knowledge differently than you did as an undergraduate. How did you did you organize your knowledge as an undergraduate and how does that differ from how you do so now? How did you learn to organize your knowledge in those ways? And how can you best help your students organize their knowledge like you – an expert – do?

Second: Identify a specific moment in your course in which your students face a learning bottleneck, something that is essential for their success but which semester after semester large numbers of students fail to grasp. Describe as precisely as you can what they are getting wrong (i.e. what is the nature of the bottleneck?).

(I don’t feel like this first answer is sufficient. I still have a lot of thinking to do about my own thinking and how I organize knowledge and I fear that my answer is incomplete because my own self-knowledge is incomplete.)

First, I am an interdisciplinary scholar so the inherent challenge I face is connecting seemingly-disparate bodies of knowledge. As an undergraduate, I usually partitioned my classes, keeping their content separate in my mind just as my class schedule ensured that my courses didn’t overlap. Why shouldn’t I have done this? It seems to have been what was expected by my faculty and making connections between disciplines was rarely if ever rewarded outside of a handful of exceptional classes. Now that I’m a graduate student, I find that interdisciplinary work is indeed valued by many faculty members but it’s rarely taught or practiced so the path is still a solitary one with few guideposts.

It seems that the best thing I could do for my students to help them make explicit connections between disciplines and courses is to publicly practice making those connections myself. In that way I can demonstrate how it can be done as I work to discover broader principles and methods to make this practice easier and more approachable. Moreover, students should be encouraged to draw upon all of their knowledge and experience in their learning and rewarded whenever they make strong connections between disparate bodies of knowledge.

Second, in a course I previously taught undergraduates about identity in the digital age students seem to get tripped up in the readings, especially but not exclusively the more academic ones. Specifically, they didn’t seem to understand the importance of critically reading and evaluating the arguments made in the readings and the evidence presented in support of those arguments. Most students seemed to accept the assertions made by each author as if it were The Truth, even if This Truth contradicted That Truth We Read Last Week. I expect some of this is related strongly to the level of intellectual and ethical development of many younger students who still expect to receive the truth about the world from the anointed experts. But I imagine that much of this is related to inexperience in making such judgments, both because they lack a sufficient knowledge base to challenge factual and methodological inaccuracies and because they lack experience and practice in making these judgments.

(An aside: I wonder if some kinds of bottlenecks are only experienced by experts and easily avoided by novices. It seems that experience places blinders on us and invites trepidation when we approach forbidden areas of philosophy or methodological approach.)

Learning and Teaching Class: Trepidation and Thanks

As noted in a previous post, I’m co-teaching a class this semester. Specifically, I’m co-teaching EDUC-C 750 (Section 15753): Learning and Teaching on the College Campus with Dr. Joan Middendorf. I took the course two years ago and I’ve been working with Joan and her colleagues in our Campus Instructional Consulting shop for about 9 months so this is a good fit for me and a great opportunity.

Teaching a class about how to teach class is daunting. It feels like there is no room for error in a class like this because if we make blatant mistakes then it undermines our credibility in the very topic we’re teaching. I’m not sure if that’s something the students will immediately pick up on explicitly but I feel very strongly that it’s inevitable so Joan and I are going to address this on the first day of class. Not only will it address a real issue for our class but it will be good to model the kind of honesty and trust that is necessary for good teaching. Striking that balance – teaching the class while providing as good a model as possible of good teaching – will be stressful and demanding. But it will be a good challenge to face because it ensures that we will be very intentional and thoughtful teachers.

Teaching this class is also a wonderful opportunity for me and I am very thankful for it. Joan is a wonderful mentor who has been very open to my ideas and even criticism as we’ve planned the course. Despite the fact that her experience far outstrips mine, she has treated me as a respected colleague. Although I often defer to her judgment and experience, she welcomes my input even when I push back (hard) and not only explains her rationale (which is often why I’m pushing back – so I can learn from her!) but she often changes her approach based on my feedback and questions. I’m very fortunate to be able to teach a class with Joan, particularly one directly related to her experience and research!

Learning and Teaching Class: First Reflection

This semester, I am co-teaching a graduate class focused on college learning and teaching. Each week, our students will have to write a reflection based on a prompt we provide them. Partially to “pre-test” each prompt but mostly because I believe in reflection and purposeful metacognition, I’ll write my own replies to the prompts in my blog.

Aside from a minor concern about accountability (Did they read the assigned reading? Are we appropriately incorporating it?), the prompt for the first week of class is intended to do two things. First, it will start students thinking about one of the major topics of the course, bottlenecks in learning. This topic is being incorporated in this class by way of research conducted here at Indiana University (e.g. the History Learning Project) where faculty have identified ideas or concepts that are both essential and particularly problematic for students. Second, it will help ground our discussions of learning theory in students’ own experiences, both helping them understand the theories better and reminding them that these theories are not applied to just some students (an “other”) but to everyone, including themselves.

This week’s prompt:

This week’s reading focuses on the experiences and knowledge students bring to class and how that affects their learning. You, too, have experiences and knowledge you bring to this class that have shaped your beliefs about effective college learning and teaching. We will have to work to discover and incorporate those experiences, knowledge, and beliefs and that work begins with this reflection.

Reflecting on your undergraduate experience, which problem was more prominent in your major classes: Inaccurate prior knowledge, accurate but insufficient prior knowledge, or inappropriate prior knowledge? Why was it the biggest problem? Of the possible approaches described in the text, which could have been most effective in addressing the problem? Finally, do undergraduates in your discipline still have the same obstacles and would the same approach(es) work for them? Why or why not?

(I fear that my response may lack depth; my undergraduate degree is in mathematics and although I conduct quantitative research I have strayed very far from my undergraduate discipline and have become almost entirely a consumer of mathematical knowledge. But here goes…)

In my opinion, the biggest problem facing undergraduates in nearly any math class is that their prior exposure to math has given them a completely false image of math. For nearly everyone, mathematics is a large set of disconnected rigid rules and procedures that make little sense and are retained purely through repeated practice and memorization. In fact, the heart of math is creativity and connection. Math is the language of the universe but we never learn to read or speak it; instead, we focus on following often-meaningless rules and memorizing procedures without any context or explanation. Without understanding the role of creativity in mathematics and its inherent interconnectedness, no one can truly understand math and apply it well.

Of the methods presented in the text to help students “correct inaccurate knowledge,” the most applicable seems to be “ask[ing] students to justify their reasoning.” I believe that most students would not be able to justify their mathematical reasoning beyond “that’s just the way it is” which is not a very good reason. So the challenge – and it’s a big one! – would be to help students understand not merely what to do but more importantly why to do it. And that would include explaining that some mathematical conventions are just that – conventions that ensure consistency and help everything else make sense.

Finally, it seems obvious that this problem is not unique to me or my classmates but is a problem that has lasted for generations. Not only is it an inherently difficult and challenging problem but its history has given it momentum that is difficult to alter: Students who were never exposed to the inherent beauty of mathematics and creativity of mathematicians become teachers who never expose their students to those critical elements. And the challenge is passed on to the next generation.

Quals and Google Docs

I’m not shilling for Google; I’m just very pleased with what we’ve been able to do with Google Docs and want to share.

Me and several of my classmates are beginning our qualifying exam on Friday. In our PhD program, we are given a question on Friday morning and we turn in our answer – maximum 20 pages – by Monday afternoon. Then we do it again the next Friday with a different question written by our respective advisers. We can’t work together on our answers but we have worked together to collect and summarize (what we hope to be) helpful resources on Google Docs.

Google recently added two features to Google Docs that have made this possible:

  • Shared folders: We have created folders in Google Docs to organize our materials (Faculty, History, Finance, etc.) and shared those folders with one another.  So we didn’t have to create our own set of materials and organize them; we created one set of folders, organized them, and shared them with everyone.
  • Upload any file: Google now allows you to upload any kind of file to Google docs, including pdfs and Word documents.  This has allowed us to not only create summaries of resources for each topic but also upload a copy of the article, chapter, etc.

It’s not perfect.  Sharing folders with 7 other people requires you to either (a) obsessively reorganize and rename every file so everything is consistent or (b) let it go.  We have also stepped on one another’s toes at least once in editing a document but it was easy to roll back to an older version of the document.

Our colleagues who took their quals last semester also did something like this and those materials are shared with us.  We also uploaded to Google Docs older collections of materials from colleagues that took quals a few years ago.  So at this point we have a sizable collection of materials that should be helpful in preparing for quals and writing our answers.

But it’s not just about those of us taking quals this week.  We’re also thinking about the future and those who will come after us.  In that vein, we’ve already shared all of the materials (they’re all in one folder with many subfolders so sharing is easy!) with classmates who will be taking quals in the future (next year, 2 years from now, etc.) so they have access to all of these resources, too.  We hope that they do the same thing for future generations of IU HESA doctoral students.  We’re paying it forward and Google Docs has made it easy for us to do so.

(There is one additional step in my personal process of collecting these materials and organizing them: I’ve uploaded all of them to my personal bibliography.  I’m trying to keep my materials centralized there where I can access them from anywhere and share them with anyone.  It was also a helpful part of the review process because as I was uploading them I reviewed every document that my colleagues contributed.  Finally, my bibliographic tool creates the correctly-formatted APA citation – with some known exceptions and quirks – for each source so I don’t have to worry about doing that myself or relying on the citations created by my classsmates.)

Online Identity Class: Final Reflections

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

I’ve graded the final assignments and submitted final grades (and made one correction to a final grade).  The class is over and I now have some time to try to see the big picture and reflect on the class as a whole.  I learned some very interesting things from reading the final assignments but I’ll save that for a separate post as that goes well beyond just this one course.

Taking the course as it was conceived and constructed, I am relatively pleased with how it turned it this second time around.  The material flowed much more smoothly this semester and that helped me keep the the ideas and concepts integrated as we changed topics.  Although I risked being repetitive, I constantly and intentfully reached back to material we had previously covered to tie it in with the new material and discussions.  That was a challenge for me at times but it’s a good challenge to undertake both for me and my students.  If it had been too difficult – if I had not been able to tie the ideas together on a regular basis – that would have indicated potentially severe problems with the design of the course.

Eliciting discussion was a constant challenge.  I attempted to meet that challenge by varying our activities.  I have a lot to learn about how to effectively use active learning activities, particularly those that employ different learning styles and engage more creative skills such as visual and physical skills.  In a course designed as this was (with a rather formal structure and flow), I would have liked to have employed more creative activities such as concept maps.  We made concept maps on the last day of the class as a way to reflect on everything we had discussed and learned and I was very pleased with the discussion generated by that activity.  It’s easy to blame the difficulty of engaging in discussion on the diverse makeup of the class and the general nature of U212 courses as nearly all of the students are in the course solely to pick up a few credits after having dropped another course.  It’s also easy to blame it on the fact they’re “just undergraduates” and discussion-based classes are relatively rare for many of them, particularly those still in their first couple of years.  There is truth in all of those reasons but I can’t help but view them as excuses.

Ultimately, however, I question whether the class was constructed in the most effective manner to help the students learn about identity and how it is being presented online.  Although I incorporated active learning and assessment throughout the course, it was still at its heart an instructor-led course built on the readings that I had collected and thought were interesting and insightful.  I am very inspired by the innovations of teachers like Michael Wesch and how he has structured at least one of his classes as student-led, trusting them to be not just students but partners in research and exploration.  I imagine that it’s difficult for most experts to put that level of trust in amateurs; even my language – “experts” vs. “amateurs” – betrays some of my emotions and difficulties.  But it seems like an incredibly powerful way for people to learn and I hope I can figure out how to integrate those kinds of ideas into my teaching.  I think it all comes down to trust: trusting that undergraduates can be mature partners in exploration and trusting that a class without a rigid syllabus stuffed full of pre-selected readings and content can be a meaningful learning experience.  Intellectually, I know that it’s not about content but about learning.  But that’s a difficult chasm to leap when almost all of my 20+ years of education have been content-centered.

I don’t know if I’ll want to teach this class again, at least in the near future.  Logistically, it’s been taught for two semesters and it appears that the powers-that-be want to keep the roster of U212 classes fresh.  Teaching is definitely good experience for someone aspiring to the faculty ranks but teaching undergraduates doesn’t carry near as much weight for me as teaching or working with graduate students since higher education programs only exist at the graduate level.  And as you can tell by my comments above, if I were to teach this again I would try my best to significantly change the structure of the course to make it less content-centered and instructor-led and more exploration-centered and student-led.

Online Identity Class: Week 7 (Final Week)

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

Last week was the final week for this class. We spent the week ramping up for the final paper that is due on Wednesday during Finals Week. That paper, as described in the syllabus, is a brief policy proposal outlining the use of SNSes in evaluating applicants for undergraduate admission.

We spent Monday in small groups creating brief policy proposals for the use of SNSes in evaluating entry-level job applicants.  This is, of course, very similar to the final project.  The different groups came up with very different answers but they had pretty good reasons for their answers and we had a good discussion afterward about some of the contextual issues (historical, legal, etc.) that could come into play in a real policy proposal.  Of course, I also explicitly told them that they were not expected to account for those contextual issues in their final paper as we didn’t have time to discuss those issues in this half-semester course.  Overall, it was good practice for their final paper and I think that it got them thinking about the issues and the different angles one could take.

Wednesday was our last day of class and it was even more relaxed than normal as I brought in cookies and milk (I feel a little bit emasculated saying that but damnit I like to bake and I’m good at it).  One of my students also brought in some food he made which was very nice of him and very welcome.  We began the class by quickly reviewing the breaking news about NACAC’s just-released report “Reaching the Wired Generation: How Social Media Is Changing College Admission” (400k pdf).  This was an incredibly timely report as it discusses exactly what we were discussing and writing about in the final paper!

We spent the rest of our time in Wednesday making concept maps recalling and linking together the main ideas of the entire class. At the suggestion of one my colleagues, we began by making a list on the board of the main concepts we had discussed throughout the class.  As my students called the ideas out, I wrote them down.  I often asked for clarification or explanation to help jog everyone’s memory about the ideas.  I also prodded for a few specific ideas but overall I was very pleased with the level of recall exhibited by my students. After we had a good list, we then broke into small groups and created concept maps and then shared them with the rest of the class.  The maps themselves were not terribly good but they were (a) created quickly and (b) the first exposure many students had to the idea of concept maps.  Although the maps themselves weren’t very good the conversations before and during their creation were fantastic.  And that – recalling the ideas, grappling with them, and trying to see how they relate – was the point of the exercise.  The maps are just a side effect and an artifact of those conversations.

This week, I also had to deal directly with those students who had slipped behind in the class or simply never showed up.  I obviously can’t go into any detail about this but I am sure that every teacher shares my frustration in knowing that there are some students who you can not seem to help.  I know these students are adults and they need to learn to deal with the consequences of their actions (they’re all young, traditional students, by the way).  But having been there myself – young, naive, and listless – I am sympathetic and there is still some small heartache when I give them the poor grades they have earned.

I will write closing reflections later this week after I have received and graded the final assignments.  In the meantime, those who are interested in some of my personal reflections about this class are welcome to read the brief “Learning Essay” (13k pdf) I wrote for my College Teaching and Learning class.

Online Identity Class: Week 6

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

In the penultimate week of class, we continued discussing the empirical research about SNS users and how the media portrays youth use of SNS and CMC.  One assignment – locating and analyzing three different media reports – was due this week.  I was also forced to make some decisions about readings, grades, and assignments that should have should have been made much earlier.

In Monday’s class we opened the class by viewing “Facebook Manners and You:”

Before watching the video, I handed out a “cheat sheet” with some of the properties and observations we have read about and discussed. As we watched the video, I paused for about a minute when each rule in the video was presented to allow us time to each silently reflect on how that rule interacts with, falls out of, or contradicts the things we had discussed and read about. After finishing the video, I asked my students to discuss their thoughts and observations with their neighbor (the classic “Think-Pair-Share” activity).  We then discussed our thoughts as a class (i.e. I asked specific students to discuss what they had discussed and we reacted).  This activity went very well and it drove home the point that these ideas and properties are all intermingled and messily connected as we never agreed that any rule was linked to only a few ideas.  It’s also a very funny and well-made video that was a lot of fun to watch.

I then asked my students to break in to groups of three to answer one question: Who are the people that don’t use SNSes?  Both of our readings for Monday – and each student only had to read one of the readings – focused on those people who don’t use SNSes and I wanted to ensure that my students were able to sort through the literature to paint a broad picture of SNS non-users. Given the incredible and still-growing size of the Facebook user base it’s easy to assume that all college students are Facebook users.  Given how similar in popularity Facebook and MySpace are among American youths, it’s tempting to conclude that all youths are using one or both services. But the digital divide still exists, there will always be people who choose not to use even the most popular tools, and even among SNS users the frequency and manner of use varies significantly.  So for all of these reasons and more it’s important to disabuse people of the notion that everyone uses these tools.

We also spent a few minutes on Monday looking at another critique of media reports about SNS use. Estzer Hargittai wrote a blog post discussing the media coverage about a recent Facebook study.  She was critical of the media reports and the research and several leading scholars (including Nicole Ellison, Fred Stutzman, and Barry Wells) posted comments, joining in on the fun.  This served as a great example of how to critically look at a media report given that the assignment that was due on Wednesday called for my students to do exactly that.  I didn’t expect my students to lay out the exact same kinds of arguments laid out by some of these scholars (“When I did my research last year, I didn’t find that!  I found that…”) but many of the criticisms were valid and ones from which my students could learn.  It was a very timely blog post.  Thanks Estzer and friends!

Wendesday’s class initially had four separate readings.  When I noticed the number of readings and the total volume of reading, I made the executive decision to immediately e-mail my students and reduce the readings by making three of them optional (what in the world was I thinking when I made the syllabus???).  In class, we discussed the remaining required reading, danah boyd’s “Why Youths Heart Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life.” This is danah at her best and if I were asked to recommend one and only one piece from this class for others to read this would be it.  She does a great job tying together many different threads, including historical arguments and ideas.

I also broached the idea of cancelling or somehow modifying the next assignment which is due this Wednesday.  In part, I am motivated to examine this assignment in part because I am sensitive to the schedule and workload of my students at this point of the semester (not to mention my own!).  Incidentally, this was on my mind in part because of a great book we read earlier in the semester in College Teaching and Learning, Duffy and Jones’s Teaching Within the Rhythms of the Semester.  However, this was largely motivated by own concern that we did not have time to adequately build up to both this assignment (linking earlier Goffman ideas with later SNS and CMC research) and the final assignment (a policy recommendation about SNS use in evaluating college applicants). I think our time is better spent looking ahead to the final assignment so I have made this next-to-last assignment optional.  Why optional?  I don’t want to catch anyone offguard who may have a lower-than-desired grade and deprive them of a chance to raise that grade since the assignment is in the syllabus.

We finished a bit early on Wednesday and I was so very happy that I had something up my sleeve just in case this happened (something I would not have had last semester when I first taught this class)!  To help my students understand that the properties and ideas we had spent so much time discussing and examining are not necessarily negative or detrimental, I showed them the video below. It’s a difficult video to watch but the point is that without some of the properties we have discussed, particularly asynchronocity and invisible audiences, we would never be able to understand what Amanda has to tell us about herself, others like her, and ourselves.  It’s hard to watch but it’s worth the payoff.

I didn’t have a chance to ask my students what they thought of this video but the room was dead silent as we watched this, particularly once we got to the part of the video where Amanda “speaks.”  I’ll ask them on Monday.  I think there’s a 90% chance that they were moved by the video and a 10% chance they thought it was absolute crap and a waste of time.  I hope they were moved as I believe that some of the things we do in classrooms should and sometimes must emotionally move our students (and ourselves).

Next week we wrap up.  We’ll build towards the final assignment and bring the class to a good close (something I failed to do last year and something that still bothers me).

Online Identity Class: Week 5

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

We only met once this week as I spent most of the week in or traveling to and from the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) where I presented a paper (122 kb PDF).

For this one class, I asked my students to read boyd and ellison’s introduction to the Fall 2007 special theme of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication focused on social networking sites (SNSes). I also assigned half of the class Bumgarner’s 2007 First Monday article and the other half Joinson’s 2008 ACM SIGCHI paper. The hope was that we could (a) use boyd and Ellison’s article as a foundational piece to understand SNSes, particularly their history and how (some) scholars define them, and (b) compare and contrast the two empirical Facebook articles to give us a good understanding of what people actually do (or “did” given the age of these articles?) in Facebook.

It didn’t quite work out as well as I had hoped it would work out. The first article was straight-forward but the other two articles were not as simple, particularly Bumgarner’s. I forgot how much of my own knowledge and background I take for granted as I was able to cut through all of the cruft in both articles to easily find the really interesting and meaningful information but I’m afraid that wasn’t so easy for my students. For example, I knew to gloss over the tables in the Bumgarner article that presented the factor loadings derived from his exploratory factor analyses but my students didn’t know that.  I think it could have gone better if I had done a better job preparing beforehand and giving my students some advice and guidance before having them read the articles.  I don’t think I would have cut out the articles completely as (a) they’re still useful, informative, and interesting and (b) it’s good to have challenging material as that is how you learn how to cope with and overcome the challenges. If I can figure out a good way to do it, I’d like to spend a few minutes this week going back over this material to reinforce it.

One interesting confluence of events is adding to the class and our understanding of the material. Last week, the media picked up on new research that found a correlation between Facebook usage and lower grades among college and university students. It turns out that this research is a poster session that was presented at the conference I was attending so I was able to (a) see the poster firsthand and (b) speak with the author. Most of the media reports are pretty far off the mark and we’re seeing some really neat reactions (to both the research as reported and the reports themselves) from scholars and experts. This is excellent timing as the next assignment in this class is to write about and critique some current or recent media reports!  I’m able to use these reports and discussions as real live and current examples of both how the media often get things wrong and how one can analyze and critique the media.  (Incidentally, the author of this poster session strongly encouraged the use of her research and subsequent media reaction as an educational tool to do these exact things instead of focusing on the results of what was really a small-scale one-off survey; Aryn was very gracious and my heart goes out to my fellow graduate student who unexpectedly got caught up in a small media-driven tempest-in-a-teapot.)

Online Identity Class: Week 4

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

During our fourth week we explored two sets of properties that some scholars have identified as associated with mediated communications. The first set of properties is a set of properties identified by ethnographer danah boyd as associated with networked publics.  The second set of properties are those described by psychologist John Suler as associated with the phenomenon of “online disinhibition.”

On Monday, I employed an active learning technique described by some as a “jigsaw puzzle” activity.  My students prepared before class by reading one of four sets of readings (I assigned the readings, reminding my students both in class and by e-mail).  For each of boyd’s properties of networked publics – Persistence, Searchability, Replicability, and Invisible audiences – there was a different set of readings (specific details are available in the syllabus). Last week, I randomly and evenly distributed the properties among the students so they would know which set of readings to tackle for Monday’s class. In class on Monday, I created four groups of students, ensuring that each group had at least one person “from” each property. I gave each group a separate “case study:” sexting, law enforcement use of SNSes, recent research about the futility of anonymity in SNSes, and the MySpace pirate/teacher. Each group not only had to briefly discuss what they read before class but they then had to read about their “case” and discuss how each property impacted or played a role in that case. Towards the end of class, I gave them an example of what I expected on Wednesday (more below) and then ended a bit early to give them time to meet and plan for Wednesday.

Wednesday’s class was, for me, the easiest class session. When I divided the class into groups for Monday’s readings I also divided them into five groups for Wednesday’s activity. Each group was assigned one of Suler’s online disinhibition properties: dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of status and authority. On Wednesday, each group was to define their property, explain its significance, and then demonstrate or illustrate the property. I modeled the behavior for them on Monday by taking the property “minimization of status and authority” myself and presenting a few different ways that one could explain and illustrate it. Wednesday’s presentations were excellent and every group used great examples (four groups showed video clips and one showed several photographs).

I also took some time on Wednesday to revisit “replication,” one of the properties we discussed on Monday. I don’t think that collectively we did a good job discussing that property and I think that may have been caused by the fact that the property just didn’t really shine through in any of the cases we examined (which means I need to take a look at and possible change the cases if I teach this class again). I found some good examples of incidents where this particular property played a clear role and I hope that these helped us understand the importance of this property since I didn’t think that we did that on Monday.

On both days, the activities went very well and my students had very positive feedback about the activities. In both instances, however, I look back and believe that I could have done a better job in helping to tie everything together.  Both activities partitioned the material so each individual student was only directly exposed to part of it and I think that it would have been helpful to do something more deliberate and intentional to draw everything back together, especially for the online disinhibition properties. In fact, continuing to tie each individual topic back to the main ideas of the class seems to be something that I need to work on diligently throughout the course.

Next week we only have one class as I’ll be travelling to AERA to present a paper.  But we’ll be reading and discussing some great really great articles as we move on to Social Networking Services (SNSes) and I’m excited, particularly as some of these articles are new for this semester and I believe they’ll be very helpful and informative.

Online Identity Class: Week 3

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

During the third week we began to transition from the traditional sociological ideas in the first two weeks to more modern ideas that directly grapple with the advancement in information and communication technologies (ICTs).  To make this transition, we read and discussed the first two chapters from John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s excellent book Born Digital.

The first chapter of Born Digital discusses “identity” (I put that in quotes because the general idea is approached differently in this book compared to the authors we’ve previously read and discussed so this is a reinforcement – for myself, my students, and for you – of the idea that there are many ideas and conceptions of identity).  Before diving into a discussion of the material on Monday, I opened with 10 minutes of a video clip of John Palfrey, one of the authors, discussing the book and some of its premises (I meant to show a slightly different video that is higher quality but the video I showed worked just as well). The main thing that I wanted to get out of that video clip – aside from a general introduction of one of the authors and his point of view – is an understanding of how Palfrey and Gasser defined “digital native.” That’s a key idea in their book and their careful and explicit definition is a very important and interesting advancement in how we conceive of digital natives.  Unlike many who do not define what they mean with their use of the phrase digital native (an omission that often seems to be rooted in their own confusion and lack of rigor i.e. they don’t define it because they don’t have a good definition or haven’t really given it the thought and attention it deserves), Palfrey and Gasser explicitly define digital natives as those (a) born after 1980 (b) with access to and (c) comfort and knowledge of ICTs. This is an important definition as it (wisely) limits their discussion to a subset of the entire population of youths – those who are on the “right” side of both the digital divide (access) and the participation gap (comfort and knowledge).

To discuss the materials (remember, I lecture very rarely and only for short periods of time) I used an active learning activity that requires the students to focus on a small part of the reading they select and discuss. First, I had each student spend a few minutes silently selecting a short quote from the reading that spoke to or interested them.  Second, they broke into groups of 3.  Third, one person read their quote.  That person then sat quietly for a few minutes while the other two memebrs of the group reacted to the quote.  Finally, the person who first read the quote explained why they selected it.  The same process repeated twice so all three members of each group presented their quote.  Afterwards, we all came together and I chose a few students to read their quote aloud and share what they and their group discussed.  The exercise seemed to work well and when I explicitly asked for feedback about the exercise my students agreed that it worked well.  I tried to use a structured discussion protocol during the activity where I kept track of time and let them know when they should be moving on to different phases of the activity but that part didn’t seem to work too well as my students kept themselves on track well without my intervention so the protocol may not be necessary in the future.

The week’s second class focused on the information that is collected about us, stored, and made available online.  Palfrey and Gasser discuss this in their second chapter, “Digital dossiers.”  The activity I created for this topic was to break the class into three groups.  Each group had to answer an identical set of questions but each group had a different focus. One group focused on their grandparents’ generation, one on their generation, and the third on their grandchildren’s generation. The specific questions dealt with the type of information that has been, is being, or will be collected about people in that generation: who owns that information, how it’s made available, how that information is or is not linked together, etc. I hoped to motivate discussion and thought about how the information that is collected about us has changed and continues to change. Unfortunately, much of that information and activity lies outside of our individual control so it was a bit of a depressing conversation (I spent time talking with one group that finished early and I ended up talking about IBM’s role in the Holocaust and the historical role and rise of organized information collection related to national censuses, Social Security, insurance and pensions, etc.). This activity worked out moderately well in both my opinion and my students’.  I really like the general idea of the activity but it seems to lack some polish although I’m still not quite sure exactly what that polish is and how to apply it.

Next week we’ll move on from Born Digital to discuss some specific properties of mediated communications proposed both by communications researchers (boyd‘s properties of mediated communications: Persistence, Searchability, Replicability, and Invisible audiences) and psychologists (Suler‘s properties of online disinhibition: dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of status and authority).

One interesting thing that came up this week occured as a result of the feedback that I solicit at the end of every class period (the Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) mentioned in previous posts). On Monday, I asked my students to simply write how their views of identity have changed (if at all) during the course of this class. The responses to that question were, of course, interesting (and mixed) but several students also hinted at or directly mentioned how they were or have been restricting the information they post online because of fears about safety. I view a large part of this class and my role in this class as “setting the record straight” by introducing the good research that’s been done and contrasting that research with the common public perceptions, perceptions often created and driven by the popular media and press. So I used the first 15 minutes of class on Wednesday – after having read and digested the responses to Monday’s question – to discuss some of the research and realities of online safety and hazards. To do this, I showed a short clip from a 2007 panel discussion of youths’ online safety and spent a few minutes discussing some of that research. In addition to being an interesting discussion in itself, this should be helpful for my students when we more explicitly address the media perceptions and reports of online communication and safety in a few weeks.