Tech Tips

My courses are Gen. Ed. Humanities writing courses, not technology courses. At the same time, I consider "everyday digital literacy" to be an important part of what students can gain from taking an online course. So, I use these extra credit "Tech Tips" to introduce curious students to various tools that I use in my own work and learning online, hoping that those tools can be useful to the students too as they work and learn online.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. I make sure to provide detailed instruction on the core tools we use in the class (Blogger, Google Sites) while using a big list of extra credit "Tech Tips" for students who want to learn about other web-based tools. The idea is that students choose whatever tips grab their attention, with a point of extra credit available each week for the tips they complete. Like all the other work for class, these can be done ahead of schedule, so some students sit down and do a whole semester's worth of tips all in the first week or two, which I think is just great: that means they have learned about all kinds of tools that they can use all semester long!


You can see the list here: Technology Tips. I am constantly adding new tips and retiring old ones; I like the idea that the list is long, but I don't want it to be so long that the list itself becomes overwhelming. My focus is on web-based, cross-platform, browser-neutral tools, so you won't find any actual mobile apps there. I am really interested in content-generating tools (especially meme generators!), and also time-management tools, along with anything that can help students be more productive online.

In general, these are all tools that I use myself, with just a few exceptions. For example, I actually use Gmail, but I do teach students how to create email folders in their OU Exchange email (sad but true: many students report that they did not know how to do this). Likewise, I keep D2L use to a bare minimum (Gradebook only) but I do teach students how to add a photo to their D2L BS profile because they are probably using D2L discussion board in their other classes, in which case a profile photo is really important.

Almost every tip asks the students to DO something to their blog (either in the form of a post or a design change at the blog) or to their website or to their Pinterest Board, etc. Some of the tips take more time than others, but they are meant to be fun, and I really enjoy seeing which tips the students choose and what they do with them.

I sometimes add new tips during the semester, although I usually try to get them all lined up before the semester starts or during the first week. Whenever I see a likely candidate for a Tech Tip, I bookmark the tool in Diigo using the label "techtip," and that means I always have a big heap of possible tools to add when a new semester rolls around.

HISTORY. I've been doing the Tech Tips since Fall 2009 (I think), and in those years there are tools that have come and gone, while some great tools (like the OU Library Custom Homepage) have been available every semester since the very start. At first, the tips all asked the students to send me emails, but that was kind of overwhelming, so in 2013 I switched the emails to blog posts, making the Tech Tips more social, which was definitely a big improvement. This way, students get ideas about which Tech Tips they might want to do by seeing things at other students' blogs. In Spring 2015, I hope to create a special category of "quote generators" based on my own Doctor Who Quotes project. More on that later!

GOALS. The general goal here is to increase students' digital literacy, introducing them to new tools and also to new features of familiar tools. In addition, each Tech Tip has a goal of its own, which means there is all kinds of learning going on here. My greatest satisfaction comes when students let me know that they are using the tools they learned about in this class for their other classes or for personal projects of their own: success!


I would say the Tech Tips are one of the most important features of my class, even though they are just extra credit. Whether students do only a few of them, or whether they do Tech Tips every week, they get a sense of what IS possible with free web-based tools. I would actually love to teach a class in web tools, especially tools related to writing, web publishing, and digital content creation. It's nice to be able to sneak that in as part of the classes that I teach now; my guess is that for at least some students, what they learn from the Tech Tips might turn out to be their most valuable learning in the class!

There were 254 Tech Tips completed in Myth-Folklore in Fall 2014 and and 225 Tech Tips in Indian Epics, so that's almost 500 Tech Tips all together... a whole lot of technology going on! :-)

Retooling my Indian Epics Resources Blog

Now that I have begun collecting materials for the Indian Epics UnTextbook, I needed a place to do that, and the Indian Epics Resources blog is already up and running: perfect! I can use the power of the blog labels, blog comments, and RSS to use this as an interactive space where I can curate these public domain books together with the students!

Current contents of the blog. I had created that blog in summer 2014 in order to relocate the Reading Guides for the books to a space that was easier to maintain and update than my old website; the Storytelling Prompts for the books are also there at the blog. Mainly, though, I have been using this blog space to start building an image library, with each image having its own blog post; there are about 500 images there now.

Building a Library at the blog. What I will be doing at the blog now is building a library of online, full-text books that are relevant to the class; these books are also the candidates for inclusion in the UnTextbook. Eventually, I will also add reference books and other useful online references and resources, but for now the focus is on the full-text literature books that could go into the Untextbook: Indian Online Books Library. That index page will, in turn, link to individual posts for each book, as in this example: Indian Idylls of the Mahabharata by Edwin Arnold.

Students as curators. What I am really excited about is that this will allow the students to get involved in reviewing these materials; that would have been such a big plus for the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook, but I did not have as much lead time. The way that will work is that I will offer the students in both classes an extra credit option for reviewing the materials that look to me likely to be useful as new India units in the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook and/or as units specifically for the Indian Epics UnTextbook. I will flag the book pages with the appropriate label for likely candidates: Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics. Then, students who want to participate in the review process will be able to browse those the labeled posts, find something that grabs their interest, do some reading, and leave comments at the blog.

Power of RSS. Because this will be happening inside a blog, I will be able to use the power of RSS to re-use this content automatically in different ways through the Inoreader blog network for my classes. For example, by subscribing to the comments feed at this blog, I will be able to create an HTML Clippings page that will show students the comments made by other students; they might want to see what items are attracting the most positive feedback from other students as they choose what items to review. I can also create label-specific feeds, so that I can channel the new biblio items, for example, into the online books area I have in Inoreader; below is a screenshot of what that feed looks like in Inoreader:

Summer 2015: An UnTextbook for Indian Epics

Unlike other posts here at this blog which document my current courses, this is a forward-looking post: I have got a BIG NEW PLAN for Summer 2015. During Summer 2014 I created the UnTextbook for the Myth-Folklore class, and that was a big success I think (in addition to being the most fun summer project ever). Since there were 12 India-related units in that UnTextbook, I was able to use some of those materials in the Indian Epics course this semester, making one of the four paperbacks for the class optional and substituting UnTextbook units instead. The response from the students to that was super-positive, and when I asked at the end of the Fall semester if they would like more UnTextbook-type of readings, the response was a loud "yes!" Then, through a series of supernatural coincidences (life works that way sometimes!), I realized last night — December 2, 2014 — that I could actually ditch not just one of the books, but all four books I have traditionally used for that class. Yes, I can make an UnTextbook for Indian Epics, just like Myth-Folklore!

So, as I thought about this pretty much nonstop for the past 24 hours, I've become more and more confident that it will work, and I'm going to use this blog post to write down how things look as of right now, knowing of course that things will evolve, probably a lot, between now and August when I hope to have the UnTextbook ready for the Fall semester. SO EXCITING.

Books I Use Now. Right now in the class I use four books: three required and one optional; until this semester, they had all four been required. They are the prose versions of the Ramayana by Narayan and by Buck and the prose versions of the Mahabharata, again by Narayan and by Buck. I chose those books back in 2002 when I first designed this class, and I have not been unhappy with that choice. The books were very affordable (mass market paperbacks, available super-cheap from used booksellers online), and the readings gave the class a really nice structure: first half of the semester was Ramayana (2 weeks of Narayan, 4 weeks of Buck, whose books is much more elaborate and detailed), and second half of the semester was Mahabharata (once again 2 weeks of Narayan, 4 weeks of Buck). The students enjoyed the readings very much, and I have a good set of reading guides which have been a big help in making sure everybody was able to keep up with the readings even if there was a week or two when they were short on time.

Problems with the Books. So, overall I would rate the current reading for the class as effective, but finding a way to satisfy all the students all the time is not easy. Some students prefer Narayan and some students prefer Buck, and likewise some students prefer Ramayana and some students prefer Mahabharata, which is natural, but it was also true that sometimes students really did not like Buck very much (in which case, that was a serious chunk of the semester spent on two books they did not like), or they might really prefer the Ramayana to the Mahabharata (and that was especially difficult since the second half of the semester is when students have less time/energy to spend on the class anyway). The change I made in Fall 2014 was a very good one because it saved students from the double-whammy of not liking Buck and not liking the Mahabharata: instead of reading Buck's Mahabharata for the last four weeks of the class, they were able to choose readings from the Indian units in the UnTextbook instead, which was great. Other students also got the benefit of that because they were able to enjoy the stories from the units that those students included in their blogs.

Available Books Online. Meanwhile, the world of books online is completely different than it was back in 2002 when I first designed this class. At that time, there was nothing online I could use: Gutenberg and Sacred Texts Archive did not have the epic materials I needed, and I paid a student out of my own pocket to digitize Dowson's Hindu Mythology & Religion from my physical copy of the book so that I could provide my students with at least a basic reference work online to supplement the paperback books I asked them to buy. At the time even Wikipedia was very short on India articles (I remember starting the Nala and Damayanti article myself since there wasn't one!). Now, however, it is a new world of books online, and that is what allowed me to create the 100 units of the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook in Summer 2014. I could have easily created 100 more units if I had not run out of time.

Indian Epics Online. Admittedly, epics are more resistant to the "module" approach that I use in the UnTextbook, so at first I did not really even think it would be possible for me to replace all my Indian Epics books with these public domain materials online, but when I started exploring the possibilities last night by browsing through public domain book sources, I realized that I do have all the materials I need! Yes, it will take a huge amount of work on my part... work I am glad to do, though, because I absolutely love these materials — the Mahabharata especially, although I have really grown to love the Ramayana also as a result of teaching this class all these years. Basically what I will be doing is what Narayan and Buck themselves did, but instead of letting them do the selecting and paraphrasing, I will be doing that as I anthologize from the different sources for the epics that I find online. And, even better, I will be able to expand on the epics by looking at closely related materials in other genres: a play by Rabindranath Tagore inspired by the Mahabharata! Kalidasa's own version of the story of Nala and Damayanti! Plus, the most delightful treasure of all: Nina Paley's animated film, Sita Sings the Blues! In this way, not only can I share the epic stories with my students, I will also be able to show them how those epic tales inspired artists working on other genres both in ancient and modern times in order to create new versions of those old stories.

Books OR UnTextbook. Of course, as I mentioned above, the current books I use for the class are very satisfactory, so what I will be doing here is basically offering two different tracks in the class. People who want to do some/all of the reading with traditional paperback books can continue to do that, absolutely. There is no reason why that approach to the class reading needs to change. The reading schedule and reading guides are solid, with no reason at all to eliminate them. So, what I will be doing is offering a CHOICE, just as I did this semester where students could choose Buck's Mahabharata in the last four weeks of the class OR they could choose four week-long India units from the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook. The difference will just be that students will have these choices starting in the very beginning of the semester. It will be a little complicated to explain to the students just how that works, but I know I can do it; the UnTextbook seemed like it might be complicated to explain, but it worked out just great and the students were totally enthusiastic about the process of making their choices as well as being very curious about what the other students chose. I expect to see the same dynamic of excitement and curiosity in the new Indian Epics class too!

Rough Outline. So, just brainstorming in a very preliminary way, here is how things might work in this new scheme for DIY reading plans. The basic division of the class into two halves will still hold true: Ramayana for six weeks in Weeks 2-7 and Mahabharata for six weeks in Weeks 9-14. Then, I would break those six-week units up into three two-week units that would work like this:

Weeks 2-3. For the first two weeks of the Ramayana, I will make sure people choose from specifically Ramayana-related units to get an idea of how the epic works: that would mean EITHER Narayan's book (as now in the class) or some UnTextbook units that are Ramayana-related — I already have Nina Paley's film and Mackenzie's retelling of the Ramayana, which would actually work just fine like that since Nina's film and the Mackenzie reading would make a great two-week experience. But I can review that decision as I look through the available materials; it might be better to find a two-week online equivalent to Narayan's two-week book experience for example, just to make sure people do have a solid grounding in the overall flow of the epic plot (although the Ramayana really is not very complicated, very unlike the Mahabharata in that regard).

Weeks 4-5. Then, for the next two weeks I would ask people to do more Ramayana-related materials. For people who want a book, they could read Buck (and they could actually read Buck for four weeks, just as now), but I would arrange for more free-choice Ramayana-related materials. That could include units I prepare from Griffith's verse translation of Valmiki's Ramayana (with audio at LibriVox!!!), a retelling by John Campbell Oman, the retelling by F. J. Gould, the Romesh Dutt version, the version by Sister Nivedita, etc. Some of those would be multi-week versions; for Griffith, for example, I would prepare a whole bunch of units so people could choose their favorite episodes... and with audio, too!

Weeks 6-7. Then, in the final two weeks of the first half of the semester, people could keep on doing Ramayana-related units (since obviously there would be lots they did not read for Weeks 4-5 already) OR I could offer a selection of other India units about heroes and heroines: that would mean units about Krishna's adventures, the life of the Buddha, the legends of Raja Rasalu, etc., and also heroine stories like Shakuntala, Savitri, and Damayanti.

Weeks 9-10. Moving into the Mahabharata, students could choose to do Narayan's book OR a two-week long presentation of the Mahabharata from one of the public domain sources. I would need to find one that is just the right length for two weeks; it might be Mackenzie again, but I sure found a lot of other great alternatives that I need to read and ponder. For example, I am really intrigued by this book I found by Wallace Gandy, The Pandav Princes.

Weeks 11-12. Then, just like for the second two weeks of the Ramayana, I would offer here a whole range of readings that are Mahabharata-related. If they like Buck and/or want a book, they can read Buck's book, but I could offer plenty of options from the public domain for free online. For example, I could prepare a whole bunch of units excerpted from the Ganguli translation — oh my gosh, think how fun that will be, choosing my own favorite episodes from the epic to focus on, annotating Ganguli to make it more comprehensible... and there's even a digitized version of that at Sacred Texts now, so I am not wrestling with OCR. For audio, there is Dutt's version at LibriVox. For the Bhagavad-Gita, I could use Arnold's English version (the first version that Gandhi himself read!). And I could give people a second chance at Savitri and Damayanti this time around if they did not choose them before, of course!

Weeks 13-14. Then, just like with the Ramayana, people could choose to carry on with two more weeks of Mahabharata materials (finishing Buck's book if they prefer a book OR carrying on with the choices they had in Weeks 11-12) OR I could totally open up with wisdom and folktale literature here with all the Panchatantra-derived texts and the Buddhist jatakas.

Doesn't that sound AMAZING??? Seriously, I am so excited about this that I can barely slow my thoughts down enough to try to write them here. This is how I felt at the beginning of the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook, but even better really because this will allow me to revisit the stories of India and learn so much new, more even than I learned when preparing the UnTextbook last summer. I discovered Sanskrit far too late in my academic career to become the Sanskrit scholar I probably should have been (my Sanskrit classes with Sally Goldman at Berkeley were the single most satisfying experience of my language-learning life)... but this way I will get to share my total passion for the Indian epic tradition in a richer, more varied way with my students. Going all-public-domain here will not only save them money (which is good too course): it is going to give them a far better learning experience than I could offer with traditional books or textbooks.

(pause) I really did have to get up out of my chair and dance around the room for this one.


I love you, Public Domain!!!!!!!

Below is a screenshot of Sister Nivedita's
Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists
at Internet Archive:

LibriVox: Free audiobooks for my classes

One of the most exciting discoveries I made when working on the UnTextbook in summer 2014 was the amazing range of relevant full-text, public domain audiobooks at LibriVox! I'm someone who listens to a lot of audiobooks (I do almost all my reading for pleasure with audiobooks), so I'm excited to have audiobooks to share with my students.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. There are audiobooks available for 36 units in the UnTextbook: Reading Units with Audio. LibriVox offers a variety of download options for people who want to listen offline, and I have linked to their online audio player story-by-story for each page in the reading units with audio, as you can see here: Why the Lizard Moves His Head Up and Down.


As the LibriVox motto proclaims, this amazing community of volunteer readers is dedicated to the "acoustical liberation of books in the public domain." The recordings are not just CC-licensed; even better: the recordings themselves are in the public domain, just as the texts are.

For my purposes, the best LibriVox recordings are the ones that match up nicely with the specific contents that I have included, as in the Lizard story. Sometimes, the LibriVox audio files do not stop/start at the same places where I have excerpted the content for the UnTextbook, but even in those cases the audio can be useful, especially for people who are dedicated audio listeners.

During the first semester of using the UnTextbook in Fall 2014, there was a small but very dedicated group of students who used the audio, and several of them remarked that it was a determining factor for them in choosing their reading unit each week.

For the Spring 2015 semester, I want to do a better job with the audio: (1) I want to find ways to encourage students who have never used audiobooks to give it a try, possibly with some Tech Tips that encourage them to try out the different audio options and also compare just listening to listening while reading the text, and (2) I want to promote LibriVox books by including a recommended book every day in the class announcements, just as I currently include a free Kindle ebook every day; to do this, I've started to systematically review the LibriVox holdings, bookmarking possible items to feature with Diigo. I've also subscribed to the LibriVox RSS feed for new releases so that I can keep up with new items too, along with new releases at Project Gutenberg; here is the Inoreader HTML clippings view for those new public domain ebooks.

My main focus in Summer 2015 will be redesigning my Indian Epics materials while I work on the UnTextbook, so I am especially interested in Indian materials I can find at LibriVox.

HISTORY. I had known about LibriVox for years, but I had not realized how large their collection has grown! I had already completed a significant part of my UnTextbook in summer 2014 when I discovered how many books I could use at LibriVox. So, I refocused my project to take advantage of as many audiobooks as I could, and when I start expanding the UnTextbook in summer 2015, I will be using LibriVox as a key factor in deciding what new material to include. I've starting building a Diigo list of possible UnTextbook LibriVox materials so that I'll be able to hit the ground running when summer 2015 arrives!

GOALS. Here are my goals in sharing audiobooks with my students:
  • To support students who enjoy listening to the reading material, either just by listening or by listening while they also read the accompanying text.
  • To make students aware of the free audiobooks available at LibriVox, both books relevant to our class along with other books that might be of interest.

I love audiobooks, and I love the public domain, so of course I think LibriVox is an amazing project. They have such a great community of readers, and there are new books coming online all the time. One of the problems with the site, though, is that it is not all that easy to discover things; I hope I can eventually build up a kind of "online library" of mythology and folklore materials that will help people in general access these wonderful LibriVox materials, in addition to promoting this content with my students.

A personal note about audiobooks: I've been listening to audiobooks since the early 1970s when I was just a little kid. My grandmother was blind, and she shared reel-to-reel tapes with me so that I could listen to books while I played with my toys. So, some of my happiest memories are of playing with Legos or Spirograph while listening to books on tape! Many of the same books I loved then are available now at LibriVox, like Alice in Wonderland or Andrew Lang's fairy books. In high school and college, I didn't listen to books on tape so much, but I fell in love with back in the year 2000, and I've been a loyal subscriber all along. Commercial audiobooks can be quite expensive, though, so I am thrilled that LibriVox provides people with the opportunity to enjoy thousands of free audiobooks online!

New Google Site: Teaching with Inoreader

Given interested by others in how I'm using Inoreader, I decided that it would be more productive to collection my Inoreader-related items at a website, rather than at a blog: Teaching With Inoreader. I'm excited about this because it will give me a chance to re-acquaint myself with Google Sites, too, so that I will do a better job of helping my students as they work on their own Google Sites. So, on this page, I will keep regular updates about what I am posting at the new website that specifically pertain to my classes.

Here are the new posts as of November 23, 2014:
  • Student Blogs and Comments. This explains how I set up the blog network by subscribing to student blog post feeds and comment feeds.
  • Archiving Assignments. There are a few assignments that I want to archive after the class is over; here's how I save an assignment archive as a PDF.
  • One-Time Fetch. The lack of updates for post content is the only real problem I had with Inoreader, but I found some good work-around solutions.
  • My Rookie Mistakes. Learn from my mistakes, so you don't have to learn from your own! :-)

Spring 2015: Pinterest Plans

This will be the first in a series of posts about plans for the upcoming Spring semester. Since they will be about planned changes rather than reviewing current class procedures, they will have a slightly different format, more open-ended as I just try to think-out-loud through some of the ideas I'd like to try!

So, Pinterest:

I continue to really enjoy using Pinterest for class-related Boards, and there has been a fair amount of student interest in using Pinterest too, clearly more than for using Twitter. Here's the Socializing with Twitter and/or Pinterest extra credit option that I set up this semester, and Pinterest has been the preferred option by far.

Then, a big development happened just last week: I learned that Pinterest Boards have RSS feeds! Incredible, huh? So, I was able to subscribe to my various class-related Pinterest Boards using my amazing RSS reader, Inoreader. Then, because the Pinterest content is coming in to Inoreader, I can use the amazing RSS-out feature at Inoreader to combine those Pinterest feeds and send them back out via an RSS feed of its own, along with an HTML clippings view (see below for the clippings embedded here).

So, with RSS, that means I would be able to keep up with my students' Pinterest Boards, actively and passively, like I do now for the blogs. I think that would be great! One of the biggest challenges with an online course like this is feeling in touch with what the students are doing but without being overwhelmed with email or having to spend lots of time going from blog to blog (or Pinterest Board to Pinterest Board). Inoreader has given me the perfect way to do that, allowing me to watch the incoming flow and also to flag and tag things for future reuse, while also having the RSS-out and HTML clipping service in order to share content back with the students.

Which means... I am on the verge of making Pinterest a required tool for class, so that bookmarking, curating, and sharing would happen at Pinterest as a natural part of the class. As I type these words, I'm thinking, hmmmm, can I really make that work in a way that will not feel burdensome to the students, and I'm thinking that it can. Using Pinterest is incredibly quick and easy, and it also has big payoffs for reuse and efficiency. It's not the most powerful bookmarking and curating tool out there, but the ease of use and sheer appeal makes it the best way to START bookmarking, curating, and sharing.

So, here are my initial thoughts: I will ask everyone to create a Pinterest Board during the first week to use as their "personal portfolio" for the class. That will be a fun and easy addition to the first week of class. Then, there will be a Pinterest element associated with the class assignments I have now:

  • weekly reading: students can pin their favorite story from the reading (UnTextbook) or they can pin their favorite image from the epic selection (Indian Epics)
  • storytelling/essay: students can pin their own storytelling/essay blog posts to their Pinterest Board
  • Storybook: students can pin each page of their Storybook to their Board as they complete them
  • blog comments: as they comment on other students' blog posts, they can pin the other students' blog posts to their Board (this will be really great for remembering who you commented on!)
  • Storybook comments: likewise, as they comment on other students' Storybooks, they can pin those pages to their Board (which will also help them remember just which Storybooks they liked best)

Adding that Pinterest element into the existing assignments will only take a few minutes each week, but it will help the students produce a unified "picture" of their class experience, one that integrates their own writing as well as their interactions with the other students.

Then, for extra credit, I will encourage other kinds of Pinterest pinning each week that goes further:

  • research: pinning research materials relevant to the class reading each week and/or relevant to their class project
  • students connecting: pinning other materials that they find by exploring other students' blogs and looking at other kinds of posts in those blogs
  • class sharing: pinning materials from the class announcements and the class Twitter stream

Doesn't that sound cool? Then, by subscribing to the RSS feeds for the students' Pinterest Boards, I would get a sense of what things are being shared and reshared across the network, giving me a chance to foster that sharing also by grabbing items from the Pinterest Boards to put in the Twitter stream for the class, etc.

Here's the HTML clipping feed for my Pinterest Boards; just think how much more cool that would be with my students' stuff too:

Storybook Schedule and the Free Passes

In last weekend's post, I promised something about Storybook scheduling and free passes, so here it is! I probably need to break this up into separate posts, but this will do for now. The Storybook is really the heart of my classes, so please forgive the long post. You can find related posts also with the Storybook label. Starting in Fall 2014, there is an alternative semester-long project, the Portfolio.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. A completed Storybook website has a coverpage, introduction, and four stories — but it is also entirely possible to have a nice little Storybook with three or even just two stories. The Storybook schedule is flexible enough to accommodate these possibilities, and it also includes two "free passes" for students to choose when they need them. There is an archive of Storybooks for both classes, and the schedule I will be discussing in detail below is here: Storybook Schedule.

DETAILS. This is really nitty-gritty detail that pertains to this specific way of approaching a semester-long project. What I'm describing here is probably not directly transferrable to anybody else's classes, but the general principles involved — starting early in the semester, weekly additions to the project, and flexible scheduling — are general principles that can be applied to very different types of projects. Here's the Storybook Schedule page for the students, and I've commented on the weekly assignments below:

Week 1. Storybook Favorites. Students browse the archives of past projects and start to think about something they might want to do as their class project. Seeing what other students have done is so much more effective — and inspiring — than just reading instructions from me! It also gives them a sense of how important the Storybooks are not just now, but in the future. Next semester, after all, future students could be looking at the Storybooks they will now write and choosing them as favorites.

Week 2. Brainstorm Topics: Myth-Folklore - Indian Epics. This is a really fun assignment for me to read and reply to because it gives me a sense of just what the students are really interested in! One of my favorite parts of the whole semester, in fact, is reading and replying to this assignment, giving students lots (and lots and lots) of suggestions about online resources to use for the topics they are considering.

Week 3. Brainstorm Storytelling Styles. For this assignment, students choose their topic and start thinking about possible storytelling styles. While I written up some information about the wide range of possible styles, the most valuable resource here is the archive of past Storybooks, where students can see how different students have developed different storytelling styles in the past.

Week 4. Storybook Introduction. This is also the first piece of writing that students do for the class which will be revised; they receive detailed comments back from me to use in revising for Week 5. For some students, that comes as a real surprise; it is often the case that they have never, literally never, revised a piece of writing for a class since Freshman Comp.

Week 5. Revise and Publish Introduction. This is a really exciting week because the Storybook websites really start to take shape, having both a coverpage and a separate page for the Introduction.

Weeks 6-8-10-12. New Story. After the Introduction is published (and students get comments back from me on the revised version in order to do more revision if needed), it's time for the first story in Week 6, with new stories in alternating weeks: write-revise-write-revise, etc. If a student stays on the regular schedule, they turn in new stories during Weeks 6, 8, 10, and 12.

Weeks 7-9-11-13. Revisions. I've written another post about the revising process and the importance of feedback and revision in the overall flow of the class: Writing - Feedback - Revision. The feedback and revision process is an essential part of the Storybook projects, and the same weekly cycle is also how the Portfolio project works, too: write-revise-(revise)-write-revise-(revise)-and so on.

As you can see, the Storybook project is over in Week 13, two weeks before the end of the semester: students on the regular schedule add their last story in Week 12 and revise it in Week 13. There are no Storybook assignments for Weeks 14 and 15, and that's where the flexible schedule and the free passes come in!

Free Passes and Alternate Schedules. For students who complete the Storybook on schedule, there is no Storybook work in Week 14 or Week 15. I call those "free passes" because they get credit for a Storybook assignment in those weeks, although there is nothing they need to turn in. Those two weeks off are compensation for the fact that the Storybook is extra work compared to the Portfolio since the Portfolio contains stories that come from the weekly storytelling blog posts, while the Storybook stories are written in addition to the weekly blog post assignments.

Instead of staying on track and taking Weeks 14-15 off, though, most students end up going on an alternate schedule, missing a week or two (or more) earlier in the semester. The first two times that they miss turning in a Storybook assignment, the free pass covers the gap in points, and the schedule just moves up to adapt. That sounds kind of confusing, but in practice it's very simple. If a student doesn't get their Introduction turned in during Week 4, they turn it in during Week 5 and remain on the "one-week-off" schedule. Similarly, if a student stays on schedule up until Week 10 when the third story is due, but they don't get the third story turned in that week, they turn it in during Week 11 and remain on the "one-week-off" schedule. If you look at that schedule - One-Week-Off Schedule - you will see that there is no free pass anymore in Week 14, because the student has used those points to cover an earlier missing week.
If they are on the Two-Week-Off Schedule, that means they have used both free passes, and they have Storybook assignments still due in Week 14 and in Week 15.

The way I accommodate the flexible scheduling and free passes in the Desire2Learn Gradebook is by creating a Gradebook item called "Free Passes" and by using a text item which reminds students of what they have due that week for their project. Here's a screenshot of what that text item looks like at the end of Week 10:

As you can see, most students actually end up on an alternate schedule (one or two or more weeks off the regular schedule) by the time the semester reaches the end. And that's great: the whole idea of the flexible schedule is that it is something students really need to accommodate their complicated lives! The Portfolio also has a flexible schedule, but it does not have the free passes. Instead, students can use extra credit to make up for any missing Portfolio assignments.

HISTORY. The flexible Storybook schedule is something I have had in place since the first year or so that I started teaching online. I noticed that sometimes students got confused about just what they had due, so starting in about 2010 or so, I began using the text field in the D2L Gradebook to give students a reminder about what schedule they are on. The free passes are something new for Fall 2014, which is also the first semester that there was a Portfolio option; the free passes are my way of compensating students for the extra work involved in the Storybook compared to the Portfolio. I always had what were essentially "freebie" Storybook assignments in Weeks 14 and 15, just revising the Introduction and then doing a final revision check. Now, though, it is so much more useful to really acknowledge them as freebies and let students take advantage of that when they really need them, rather than just getting a break at the end of the semester. So, I've folded those final revisions into the process of adding the last story, and now the students have the free passes for whenever they need them during the semester.

GOALS. My overarching goal is for the students who choose the Storybook option to end up with a project that they are proud of. The flexible schedule is designed to keep the students always moving forward so that in any given week they can make progress on their project without worrying about a lack of progress in the previous week(s).


Overall, I am extremely happy with how the Storybooks are working. Adding in the Portfolio option was clearly a good choice, both for students who are looking for a semester project that requires less time than a Storybook project and also for those students who, for whatever reasons, are not ready to commit to a Storybook project topic by the time Week 4 of the semester rolls around. Because of the success of the Portfolios this semester, I am hoping that more students will choose the Portfolio option in the future. Exactly because it is different from the Storybook project, it offers the students some really good opportunities.

Even with the Portfolio option in place, I am seeing some students this semester whose Storybooks have gotten stalled out. It's not a widespread problem, but I think those few students might have been happier with the Portfolio option and would have ended up with something more satisfying than what they have with the stalled Storybook. One student switched over to the Portfolio even after she already had her Storybook up with one story in it (an excellent story... but her topic was indeed a lot of work!), and she ended up with a wonderful Portfolio. So, that was something I did not anticipate but was really glad to see, and I would like to promote that option in the future, especially for students who feel stuck with their Storybooks.

So, one thing I am thinking about doing next semester is to build in the Portfolio option as a choice right from the very start, so that students who want to commit to the Portfolio already in Week 3 or 4 can do so. If they do not find a Storybook topic that really interests them, the Portfolio should be an option they can choose already in Week 3. Another thing I need to do is improve my communication with people who are falling behind on their Storybooks. In the past, when the Storybook was the only option, it made sense to let people fall behind provided that they ended up with at least two stories in their project by the end of the semester. I did not really have an alternative to offer, after all! Now, though, the students who get four or five weeks behind on their Storybooks are not doing themselves a favor. They probably should switch over to the Portfolio so that they can still come up with a good writing project for the class, as opposed to the real risk of not ending up with even two stories in their Storybook. So, I am going to focus on the two free passes next time, and when people fall more than two weeks behind on the Storybook (the two weeks covered by the free passes), I will urge them to consider the Portfolio. I won't require the switch... but I'm guessing it would help the students to see the Portfolio as an option if they are feeling stuck with their Storybook.

One fun thing from this semester has been pinning new stories from the Storybooks to a special Pinterest Board for each class: Indian Epics and Myth-Folklore, so here is a screenshot of the current Indian Epics Board below. I like being able to keep track of the individual stories by pinning them this way, in addition to the class Storybook lists.

Safety Nets

As we get near the end of the semester, I can tell that students are more and more stressed out, and so I am very glad that my courses have a lot of "safety nets" built in. I do have high expectations for my students and the work they will do, but I also know that life can be kind of overwhelming sometimes, so safety nets are important... vitally important in fact!

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. There are a variety of strategies I use that fall into the category of "safety nets" to help students cope when things don't go according to plan. These include both time scheduling strategies (Grace Period, Alternate Project Schedules, Late Projects) and flexible assignments (Half-Reading, Portfolio Option, Storybook Free Passes, and Extra Credit). It is my goal that every student should pass the class, and these strategies are designed to help them bounce back from anything that goes wrong and to keep on moving forward.


Grace Period. I've written a post about the Grace Period, which is an automatic no-questions-asked extension for assignment deadlines.

Alternate Project Schedules. I need to write up a post about this, but the basic idea is that students can miss and/or repeat a given week in the Storybook or Portfolio schedule and still carry on using an alternate schedule. No backtracking, no making up missed work; instead, the schedule adjusts to the fact that they missed a week for whatever reason, and they carry on from there. You can see the alternate schedules for the Storybooks and the Portfolios here: Storybooks and Portfolios - see bottom of page for alternate schedules. I also have an FAQ about that for the students: Alternate Project Schedules.

Late Projects. The Storybook/Portfolio assignment is due at the end of each week, with a Grace Period that extends until Monday at noon. After this, students can turn in the project assignment for partial credit: later on Monday, 8 points (out of the 10 possible); Tuesday, 7 points; Wednesday, 6 points; by Thursday noon, 5 points. The hard deadline of Thursday noon allows me to still get comments back to the students by the end of the week. Admittedly, I do not always apply the late penalty. If I know that a student is struggling with something, I often tell them to turn in the assignment by Thursday noon and just to remind me not to count it late. Also, if someone turns in something late, but it is really excellent work, I don't apply the penalty, and I make a point of explaining that in the comments I send back. If, however, something comes in late and shows signs of having been done in haste, I apply the penalty and I do so without hesitation. The students can always make up the missing points with extra credit (see below), but I am frustrated when I see haste and sloppiness, and this is one way that I do indeed try to counter that sloppiness. Having students revise the work is, of course, the important way to counter that sloppiness, but I would rather put a stop to it earlier than the actual revision assignment!

Half-Reading Option. Each week the reading is split into two halves, with specific accommodation for students who end up only having time to do one half. I've written a post about the half-reading option here.

Portfolio Option. I've written a post about the Portfolio alternative to the Storybook; it's a new experiment for Fall 2014, and I would say it has been a big success.

Storybook Free Pass. This is something I have done in response to a student last semester who, when commenting on my idea for the Portfolio, suggested that I do something extra for the students choosing the Storybook since it is indeed more work than the Portfolio. I thought about that a lot, and it was pretty tricky because I absolutely did not want the people doing the Portfolio to feel penalized in any way for their choice. In the end, I came up with something I am calling a "free pass," and Storybooks have two free passes built into their schedule that the Portfolios do not. I need to write up a separate post about this because it is a little weird, but it has worked out wonderfully! Most of all, it has been a big help for the students who start out struggling a bit at first with the Storybook (which is admittedly more complex than a Portfolio), so that the free passes allow me to help students to really slow down and think about the organizational aspects of their projects without any points penalty. I need to write up a post about this. It's kind of complicated, but it has been a really great thing, both to create a sense of equity between the two different project options, but also as a way to help people do a better job with the Storybooks overall.

Extra Credit. I need to write up a long post about my whole philosophy of extra credit, but basically it is this: I can only ask students to do 6-8 hours of work per week... but there is so much more that I would like for them to do, especially on the interactive side of the class, reading and responding to other students. So, I have no problem at all of thinking up lots of great extra credit assignments, because they are exactly the assignments I would require of the students IF we had more time together. In that sense, there is really no difference at all between "required" and "extra credit" ... all points go into the same pot, and I consider all the assignments to be of equal value in terms of the overall learning experience and success of the class. They are "extra" only because I am asking the students for extra time. I do need to write up a post about this approach in general; it is one that is really important to how I see the overall course design and how, ultimately, student choice is the single most important factor in that design. To see how extra credit works now, check out the Myth Assignments and Indian Epics Assignments pages.


I've always let students work ahead, and I still consider that the single best safety net of all: if they can work ahead, instead of waiting for the deadline, then they have a built-in cushion to accommodate anything unexpected. When I first started teaching online, I was very naive about that: I assumed that all the students would work a day or two ahead, and maybe a week or two, and that would be all the safety net I would need. Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case. Even when given the opportunity to work ahead, most students wait for the deadlines; I'll blame the schooling environment for that bad habit. Given that students are rarely given the opportunity to set their own schedules and work ahead, it's not surprising that the habit is hard to adopt at this late date in their school careers.

So, as a result, I've added in these different safety nets over time. I'll try to list them here in the order that I have added them over time.

Extra Credit. This is something I also had from the start. I originally intended it as a way for students to build up credit in advance, but it quickly became obvious that they also needed extra credit options to make up for missed work.

Alternate Project Schedules. I probably started this a year or so into my online teaching career since it was a natural feature of the Storybook project. There's no specific reason why a Storybook has to have four stories total in the end — three stories or even just two stories can make for a good project. As a result, I early on decided to make it easy for students either to miss a week and/or spend an extra week on revisions, with the alternate schedules showing how they would then proceed to the end of the semester.

Late Projects. This is something I started doing around 2005 or so. I originally accepted late projects without penalty up until Thursday noon, but this became so onerous for me in terms of the workload I had at the end of the week, trying to get comments return to everyone by the end of the day Friday, that I had to institute the partial-credit policy.   I feel badly about how that works (I don't like the idea of penalties at all, and I do call it "partial credit"), but so many students are oriented towards the deadline for an assignment that, without a real distinction between the soft deadline and the hard deadline, they will indeed wait for the hard deadline.

Grace Period. This is one of the single best things I ever came up with, and I guess it dates to around 2007. The students certainly did not enjoy writing me to ask for extensions (and I had students writing me basically every day), and I certainly did not enjoy hearing about whatever particular problem it was that prevented them from completing an assignment before midnight. I realized that of course it didn't matter to me whether an assignment was done at midnight or 3AM or 10AM for that matter, as long as it did not affect the overall workflow of the class. I wish I had thought of this sooner: it's been great for both the students and for me, given me a chance to send out a reminder email each morning that really is a big help to some students who do just need a last-minute nudge. They do their work mostly in the evenings and at night; I do most of my schoolwork during the day. The Grace Period is a perfect way to take advantage of that fact!

New for Fall 2014: This semester has been a time of all kinds of changes in my classes, and I am so happy with how those changes are going! In terms of safety nets, these three are new in Fall 2014: Half-Reading, Portfolio Option and Storybook Free Passes.

GOALS. Quite simply, my goal is for every student to pass the class. If a student fails a class simply because of poor time management skills or poor workload management skills, that seems to me a very bad business indeed. It means the student has lost out on the money they have paid for the class, and they have an "F" on their record which really does not indicate engagement with the course material one way or other other; instead, it usually just represents a failure to engage at all as a result of poor time management and workload management skills.


I really believe that addressing the issues of time management and workload management head-on are is an incredibly important aspect both of course design and also of our day-to-day interactions with students. Some people might say that in a college course, it should be all about the content and it should be left entirely up to the students to do their own time management and workload management; to design a course with these factors in mind is considered by some of my colleagues to be "pandering to the students" or "dumbing down" of the class. I disagree. If the end result of these strategies is to increase the OVERALL level of student engagement with the coursework, then the exact opposite is true: by strategizing about time management and workload management, I am "smarting up" the class rather than dumbing it down!

Comment Wall

One of the biggest dilemmas I faced in switching from the Ning group blogging platform to Blogger was losing the great Ning Comment Wall feature. A simple solution — having students create a post called "Comment Wall" at their blogs — has turned out to work just fine! Not as good as Ning's Comment Wall... but definitely good enough!

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. Each student creates a simple post called "Comment Wall" in their blog which is easily accessible via the Comment Wall label. The post exists so that visitors to the blog can leave comments there. This is how students comment on each other's websites, and also how they leave thank-yous and other miscellaneous messages for each other. You can see how that works by looking at the Storybook listing for Myth-Folklore. As you can see, each Storybook has a link to the student's blog with Comment Wall. (For the Portfolio, since the writing consists of blog posts, students can just leave comments at those post although, interestingly, some students choose to do that at the Comment Wall instead and, of course, either way is fine!)


Students do brainstorming and develop their Storybook projects during Weeks 1-5 of the semester, and then in Week 6, they begin commenting on each other's Storybooks. By that time, they have been leaving comments on each other's blogs for five weeks already, so they have become proficient at that, so the Comment Wall makes sense as a mode of communication. They receive feedback on their Storybook in this way for Weeks 6-12, which means every student should get around 10-15 comments total, and sometimes they get more if they are selected as a "free choice" in addition to the commenting group assignments.

I subscribe to the comment feeds for all my students' blogs, and I am really pleased by the quality of comments that are left both at the Comment Wall and also on the individual blog posts. Thanks to the power of Inoreader, you can see an HTML clippings view of the comment feels in my two classes. The Storybook comments are longer than the individual blog post comments as you'll see:
Myth-Folklore Comments
Indian Epics Comments


For five years, I did all the student blogging in a Ning, and I used the wonderful "Comment Wall" on the Ning Profile page for students to leave comments for one another. That was the single best thing about the Ning: the Comment Wall really fostered CONVERSATION, in addition to comments, because it had a "reply" link with every comment, where you could create a threaded conversation back-and-forth between Comment Walls. Admittedly, though, students rarely took advantage of that option, and I suspect that was because the Ning had a strangely impersonal quality (see below) because of the generic design that did not allow individual customization.

In any case, I was very sorry to give that up that threaded conversation feature when I switched to the blogs, but I'm still pretty happy with how things have worked out: I use an Introduction blog post which serves much the same function as the old Profile Page did (I should write up an explanation of that also!), and the Comment Wall post solution has been working just fine.

One way in which this solution is superior to Ning is that when students visit another person's Comment Wall, they go in through the blog's main page, using the Comment Wall label to then click on to the Comment Wall. This means they get to see at a glance the person's latest posts, giving them an impression of what that person was doing for class over the past week. In the Ning, the Comment Wall was not integrated with the blog in that way and given how nicely the students are customizing their blogs to create a sense of personal presence, I really like the fact that to get to the Comment Wall you go through the blog home page.

Another factor that is contributing to the quality of interchange is how the students are in groups of three for their Storybook comments each week (new random groups each week). So, that means that they are both giving-and-getting comments to-and-from the people in the group. As a result, there is a sense of interchange that results from the round-robin strategy of using the groups. The comments are connected to one another in a kind of conversation among the group members each week.  Much of my approach here was driven by the QuadBlogging approach, along with a combination of randomization (so that everybody can meet everybody) and free choice (so that people can connect and reconnect based on shared interests).

GOALS. I consider student feedback on the Storybook to be one of the most crucial components of the class:

* Students have an audience for their work that is not just me.
* Students tend to provide holistic, personal feedback that is different from the feedback that I provide.
* Students learn how to provide feedback by practicing this skill every week while also receiving feedback each week from others.
* Students receive feedback in a timely fashion that allows them to improve their project week by week.
* Students can access all the project comments in a single place to review each time they spend time working on the project.


The switch to Blogger which provoked me to use this "Comment Wall" post solution has been one of the best things that has ever happened in my classes. I had not realized what a negative effect the sameness of the Ning interface was having on the interactions: all the Ning blogs looked more or less the same (in a mini-Ning, students all had to use the same blog design), and all the comment walls looked more or less the same also. With Blogger, the sense of individual student presence and personality is so much stronger than it ever was before, which I think has given a big boost to the quality of the comments overall, with much more of a person-to-person dimension. I am very pleased with both the blog commenting and also the project comments at the Comment Walls!

Week 8: Review Week - Spring 15

The Week 8 Review Week went even better in the Spring 2015 semester with a more clear set of assignments, so I've updated this post to explain my current strategy.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. There are two review weeks in my classes each semester: Week 8 and Week 15. The idea is to promote some self-reflection, looking both backward and forward, while also soliciting feedback and suggestions from the students — suggestions for me, and also suggestions for future students. The workload is also much lighter, saving the students two or three hours of time. We all need a break for humpweek, after all! The semester has a very nice symmetry now as a result: Orientation Week (Week 1), six reading weeks (Weeks 2-7), Review Week (Week 8), six more reading weeks (Weeks 9-14), and then a Final Review Week (Week 15).


Instead of the usual Monday-Thursday assignments (reading, reading diary posts, and a storytelling post), the Week 8 review week has four very simple assignments: three are blog posts in which students review their progress in the course so far, and one is a blog check-up:

Monday: Reading Review.
Tuesday: Writing Review.
Wednesday: Commenting Review.
Thursday: Blog Label Check-Up.

I thought it was pretty cool how the class really does exist along these three dimension. I could have added a Technology Review post also, but I figured the blog label check-up was really essential, and three reflection posts are enough. I'll do a Technology Review post at the end of the semester, though, because it will fit nicely there, and the students don't need a blog check-up at that time.

Of course, these assignments can all be done at once, and some students did indeed do all of them at once, freeing up the rest of the week for other things. For most students the blog check-up required no real work at all, although it served a very useful purpose for students who either were having trouble with their blog labels and/or people who had missed the Comment Wall assignment earlier in the semester.

For the Friday-weekend blog responding, there were no new Storytelling posts in Week 8, so I modified that assignment slightly: instead of commenting on Storytelling posts from the current week, students responded to these Review posts in each other's blogs.

HISTORY. My Indian Epics class has always had review weeks because of the way the reading was structured, with the Ramayana taking six weeks (Weeks 2-7) and the Mahabharata taking six weeks (Weeks 9-14). I felt like the students really needed a break in that class, both in order to help with the transition from one epic to the next, and also because the reading load is significantly heavier than in Myth-Folklore. But then as I thought about making changes to the classes for Fall 2014 (this has been a semester of some huge changes!), I decided that having review weeks would be great in Myth-Folklore also. I am very pleased with how that has turned out, and I am especially happy with the assignments as they have evolved over the past two semesters.

GOALS. Each of the individual assignments has its own goals, but overall some goals for this Review Week are:
* to prompt students to reflect on their work during the first half of the semester
* to encourage students to plan and strategize for the second half of the semester
* to solicit feedback and suggestions for me to use and also for future students
* to give students a break with a lighter workload during "humpweek"


I guess that when students see the word "review," the first word that pops into their minds would be: exam. And, of course, it does make sense to review for an exam. The more important role of review, however, is the role that it plays in any kind of learning experience. In my classes, I have no exams or tests, but I really believe in the value of review for learning. There are elements of reflection and review built into many of the class activities, and I am also really glad to have these review weeks in place for Weeks 8 and 15 also. I say "no" to exams... but I say "yes" to review!

For a graphic, here is something from David Kolb's model of experiential learning which I found in a wonderful post by Karen LaBonte: The Quest in the Quest-ions - reflecting is crucial!

Writing - Feedback - Revision

My anecdotal impression is that students do very little revision in their other classes and, even when they do revise, they have very limited feedback to go on. If we want student writing to improve, we have to offer offer multiple revision opportunities with abundant, detailed feedback.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. In addition to their weekly blog posts, students complete a formal, semester-long writing project, and revision is a key component of that process. You can see the overall writing and revising schedule here: Storybook and Portfolio Schedules. For each assignment that they turn in as part of the project, the students receive detailed feedback from me which they then use in the revision process, and they also receive feedback from other students.

DETAILS. In other posts, I've written about these semester-long Storybook projects and Portfolio projects (students choose one or the other). In this post, I will focus on the role of feedback and revision in those projects.

Student writing workflow. The basic workflow is as follows:

* new story: students publish a new story and get detailed feedback from me, with ongoing feedback from other students
* revised story: students published the revised story, and they again get detailed feedback from me, with ongoing feedback from other students
* final revisions + new story: students revise the story one more time and also publish a new story, on which they get detailed feedback from me, etc.

As a result, each story in the project is revised at least twice, once substantially and once more for light editing. If needed, it's easy to add in an extra week of revision; the semester-long schedule is very flexible that way. As I've explained elsewhere, there is no grading component here, so students are not penalized in any way for needing an extra week of revision. There are no grades given on any of these writing assignments. No grading: instead, it's all about the feedback.

My comment workflow. Here is my comment workflow:

* Students alert me that their story is ready to read via an email that contains a completion checklist.
* I copy the text of their published story from the website into a plain text editor.
* I insert running comments into the student's writing, sentence by sentence and/or paragraph by paragraph.
* I write a paragraph or two of general comments at the top when I am done.
* I paste the result into an email replying to the student's checklist email.

Using plain text this way means that I do not have to worry about specific software choices: plain text email works well with any program on any device the student prefers to use. It is fast, convenient, and highly reliable.

Feedback contents. When the students turn in the stories for their projects, the first round of feedback they receive from me is extremely detailed, often sentence by sentence or even phrase by phrase. My aim is to share with them my experience as I read their writing, responding to it on a variety of levels such as:

* remarks about the story's overall development (character, plot, etc.)
* comments about composition at the word, phrase, and sentence level
* detailed identification of writing errors of all kinds
* questions about gaps, bumps, and other composition problems
* suggestions for further research and reading (links to online resources, other students' writing, etc.)

Here is a screenshot of a typical chunk of running comments inserted into a piece of student writing. My comments are marked with ==>

Canned comments. For comments related to writing mechanics (which is a huge problem for many students), I rely on an ever-evolving document (appx. 30 pages long now) which contains canned comments and links to online help. The comments have "xxx" in them where I can paste in the specific word or phrase or sentence from the student's actual story so that they can see what needs fixing, along with a link to an explanatory help page. You can see there the kinds of problems the students struggle most with at my writing support website: The Writing Laboratory.

Revision comments. When a student turns in a revision assignment, they get more limited feedback from me, focused strictly on remaining items that still need their attention. These are almost always just canned comments about writing mechanics, although if a student has substantially rewritten the story rather than just revising it, I'll treat that as an original writing assignment and provide sentence-by-sentence commentary a second time, which may or may not lead to a second week of extensive revision.

Time required. As you can guess, the time required to provide this type of feedback is considerable. I have designed my classes so that I am able to spend almost all my time each week providing this feedback to the students. I have 80-90 students each semester (three sections, 25-30 students per section), and the stories are typically 800-1200 words in length. On average it takes me appx. 20-30 minutes to comment on a new piece of writing, while a revision assignment goes much more quickly, usually taking just 10-15 minutes. My weeks alternate between original and revision weeks and, luckily for me, the students are also on slightly different schedules (the Portfolio option has also helped with that), so that in an original writing week I might have 50-60 new stories and 20-30 revision items, while in a revision week I'll have 50-60 revision items and just 20-30 new stories. Either way, it's real work: in an original writing week, I'll spend easily 30 hours writing up comments, but then I get a break in the revision weeks, when the load is more like 20-25 hours.

Feedback nirvana. Yep, you read that right: 30 hours. 20-25 hours. I am a full-time online instructor, and providing feedback to students is the single most important part of my job. Luckily, I also enjoy it enormously! When the day comes that I am not excited to get to work every morning, then I will redesign my courses from scratch to re-ignite myself. So far though — and I've been doing this for twelve years now — I find myself liking the job more and more, largely I suspect because I am getting better at it, which means the students are having a better experience too. That's a positive feedback loop for all of us!

In addition, the piecemeal nature of the commenting process means that I can take frequent short breaks, allowing me to attend to other class-related tasks (writing class announcements, responding to other student email, setting up the weekly comment groups, etc.), as well as spending time interacting with other teachers online. My use of social networks like Google+ and Twitter fits in very nicely with this intensive but piecemeal workload, so that I can take "social media breaks" all day long, often sharing what I am learning from my students as I work through the stack of assignments.

Daily quota. To make sure I keep up with the work and finish every week by the end of the day on Friday, I have a daily quota, Monday through Friday. I use labels in Gmail to flag the incoming assignments and to determine my daily workload. I also share my progress through the writing stack with my students as I've explained here: The Stack. I do no work on the students' projects over the weekend, although I sometimes choose to do course-related development activities ... like writing this blog post on a lovely Saturday afternoon. :-)

Feedback from other students. The students also provide feedback on the Storybooks and Portfolios each week. Their comments tend to be more holistic, not the sentence-level detail that I provide. This feedback takes the form of comments at the "Comment Wall" at their blogs.  Helping students learn to provide specific, useful feedback is an important goal, and it is often something new to them. Here are some of the materials I use to help the students learn how to provide useful feedback: Giving Feedback: Details, Details, Details and Storybook Feedback.

You can get a sense of the kinds of comments students leave for one another by browsing through their blogs; you will see a "Comment Wall" link in the top navigation or sidebar for each student's blog, along with comments on individual blog posts: Blog Directory. The students' eagerness and willingness to help one another with their writing is one of my favorite things about these classes!


I was extremely naive when I first started teaching at the University of Oklahoma in 1999. I had no idea how much support my students needed in their writing, and I was also surprised at how uninterested they were in improving their writing for its own sake. When the students turned in their first papers in my first semester of teaching, I was simply overwhelmed. I realized that it would be impossible for me to comment on all the papers in a meaningful way while still returning them in a timely fashion, so I offered the class two options: get a grade on the paper but no comments, or rewrite their papers based on detailed comments from me, but not for a better grade. The comments and revision would simply be in order to improve their writing. Out of 50 students, exactly one took me up on the opportunity to rewrite his paper — Randy Hoyt, now a game developer and web programmer extraordinaire, and also a great writer.

So, that moment in Fall 1999 was my wake-up call. I realized that I was trapped in a meaningless, grade-driven writing nightmare, and I decided that I had to do something completely different. The next semester, I switched from traditional essay-writing to creative writing, helping the students to publish their writing as stories online, and so the Storybook was born. It was a great success: students loved writing the stories and they loved sharing them with their fellow students online. They were also extremely eager to learn how to create websites. Back in the year 2000, it was still quite an unusual skill to have. And even today, in 2014, the vast majority of my students have never published a website or even a blog.

So, solving the engagement problem was easy: the students were now eagerly writing stories that were truly a pleasure to read. In terms of writing mechanics, though, they still had serious problems, and it was harder for me to find a way to find a solution to that problem. In fact, it took another several years until I finally settled on the writing-feedback-revision routine that I now use. I simply did not realize at first that I had to make revision weeks a formal part of the process so that every other week students were doing revision, and nothing but revision, before they moved on to the next new story. I am very happy with this routine now, though, and it works well for students with a whole range of writing skills and motivation. Every student benefits from the opportunity to revise, and I try to adapt the feedback and revision expectations to the individual skill level and motivation of each student.

In the 2013-2014 school year, I embarked on a new dimension of the revision process, hoping to promote more autonomy in the revision process and encouraging the students to develop a personal repertoire of revision skills independent of the feedback they receive from me. This is still a very new project and, while I have seen some early successes, I still have a long way to go. It is proving to be a good challenge for me as a teacher, and I am learning a lot as I watch the students attempt to build up their independent revising skills. I have some new ideas I want to try in that regard next year; I'll write some more about all that in a separate post!

GOALS. Here are just a few of the goals I have in mind for this writing-feedback-revision process:

* to help students improve their writing
* to encourage students to feel a greater ownership of their writing
* to show students that writing is a process, not a one-time event
* to give students experience in commenting on other people's writing
* to separate evaluation of student writing from the grading process


I have to note here that this all happened by accident: I never set out to be a writing teacher. If during that first semester of teaching the students had turned in assignments that were more or less acceptable, I probably never would have felt compelled to turn my classes into writing classes. I am so glad things turned out the way they did, though, as I have ended up with a more exciting job as a teacher than I ever imagined. Every week of every semester is so stimulating, filled with wonderful reading experiences for me and also with great teaching challenges as I am continually reminded of how difficult it is to write in English, but also how worthwhile it is to rise to that challenge.

What I like best is being able to feel confident about every single student, even if they might not be feeling any confidence in themselves. After having done this for so many years, I know for sure that every student has stories to tell, and I also know that they can learn to tell those stories well, using the power of language to bring their stories to life. With abundant feedback and opportunities for revision, they will all learn to become better writers.

Sad to say, though, my class might be the only college class in which their writing really improves, and there are all kinds of reasons why the writing process is badly neglected in other college classes. Here are what I consider to be the top three reasons:

1. The teaching of content trumps the teaching of writing.
2. Writing, and the teaching of writing, both take a lot of time.
3. Almost no college instructors are trained as writing instructors.

These are not easy problems to fix, yet I do not see how we can continue to graduate students with poor writing skills and low confidence in their writing. I find it frustrating that we hear an endless chorus of praise for "critical thinking skills" yet almost nothing about the teaching of writing. The next time you read some high-minded defense of humanities education, take a look to see exactly what the authors say about the teaching of writing and what specific proposals they offer to fix the serious structural problems listed above. They might opine about the importance of writing, but such platitudes don't help to solve the actual problems we face.

If college students are going to learn to be confident, skilled writers, they require abundant feedback and revision opportunities, and I think it is time for us to have an honest conversation about how we can make that happen. If we are not going to have that conversation, then we need to be prepared for Kaplan and Pearson and the other purveyors of standardized education and standardized testing to take over higher education, with no one to blame but ourselves: they are only filling the educational vacuum that we have created.

We can and must do better!

The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. — Robert Cormier.

The Portfolio Option

One of the biggest new experiments for me this semester is the Portfolio as an alternative to the Storybook, and now that Week 5 is over, I can report on how that is going since Week 5 is when the students made their choice!

Update: Week 10. I continue to be really pleased with how this option is working! One student decided to switch from her Storybook to the Portfolio option because she was so pressed for time, and that ended up being okay too. I was a little worried about how that would work since she was switching in Week 7, but she had so many good storytelling posts to choose from by that point in the semester that it has gone really well!

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. Each student completes a semester-long writing project, choosing to do either a Storybook (writing on a single topic) or a Portfolio (collecting their best weekly blog posts). You can see the schedule of assignments for both projects, along with information I provide to students about choosing between the Storybook or Portfolio.


I have always required that the students do a semester-long writing project with a fully developed writing process: brainstorming, research, writing, revising... and revising some more. LOTS of revising. Since I started teaching these courses back in 2002, that project has taken the form of a Storybook, in which students choose a topic and come up with a storytelling plan that suits their topic. You can see an archive of past projects to see the results: Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics.

Starting in Fall 2014, I am offering an alternative project: instead of a Storybook, students can instead choose to compile a Portfolio of stories chosen from their weekly storytelling blog posts. This is similar to the Storybook in that it is based on writing and revising, but the stories are not connected to one another. Instead, they respond to the weekly readings in the class, using whatever style the student happened to have chosen that week for their storytelling experiment. So, just as for the Storybook stories, students will be turning in a new story to me every other week, and I will give them detailed comments back; they then revise the story, I read it again... and the it is time to add a new story to the Portfolio. At the end of the semester, the students will have a set of four or five stories labeled as "Portfolio" in their blog, accessible via the label link. To see how this is going to work, here is one student's Portfolio for Fall 2014 (one story so far).

So, as the semester begins, all the students explore past Storybooks and go through the brainstorming process for a Storybook, which culminates in writing an Introduction in Week 4. Then, they decide which way to go: carry on with the Storybook or opt for the Portfolio instead. The Storybook brainstorming is productive for its own sake, and it is also very helpful in preparing students for the kinds of writing they are doing in their Portfolio also, so in no sense is the time spent on early Storybook work lost time at all. In fact, one of the first Portfolio-related assignments I ask people to complete is to look at existing Storybooks to brainstorm about all the possible styles they might want to explore in their Portfolio over the course of the semester: Portfolio Brainstorm.

I'll surely have more to say about the Portfolio project as the semester goes on, but my verdict after the first week of Portfolio assignments is that it was a big success. I read and replied to all the Portfolio stories, and next week those will be coming back in as revisions, while students will also be getting feedback from other students this weekend, just as for the Storybooks. I'm really excited about that! In the old system, the students who were struggling and/or behind on the Storybook did not get any feedback from other students until their Storybook was actually online and ready to read. Sometimes that meant they were out of the student feedback loop until Week 6 or even Week 7. Now, with the Portfolio, they are going to be part of the give-and-get of student feedback this weekend, along with everybody else.

I'm so happy how this has gone so far, and I'll report back again later in the semester!


I had been troubled by the fact that every semester 1 or 2 students abandoned their Storybook projects before the end of the semester. It was never more than 1 or 2, but it was a persistent problem. Not every semester, but almost every semester, at least 1 or 2 Storybooks never got finished, and I felt badly about that, since the experience was surely not very satisfying for the student. It also made me wonder, of course, just how many Storybooks students were finishing because they "had to" and not really because they wanted to.

So, this had been simmering on the back burner, but it was never really a big enough problem that I devoted a lot of thought to it specifically; I had other, bigger problems to work on, ha ha. But then, one day last spring, I had a BRAINWAVE. I can date it specifically to March 29 as I learn from this old Google+ post. It was kind of eerie to read that post now and realize that the idea was kind of a "birth of Athena" thing, because what I ended up doing is almost exactly what I figured out in that moment of revelation back in March. Freaky!

And here's how it turned out this Fall! In the Myth-Folklore class, the first time this option was offered, 7 students chose the Portfolio out of 48 students total. In the Indian Epics class, 7 students chose the Portfolio out of 32 students total. I really did not know what to expect, but I knew there would be more takers in Indian Epics because the reading load in that class is more demanding than in Myth-Folklore, so the students are pressed for time, and it's also the case that finding a topic for Indian Epics is more challenging, especially when Indian culture may be something completely new to the students, as it often is. So, that means 14 students out of 80 overall chose the Portfolio. I will try to remember to update this post every semester so that I can keep track of this over time!

GOALS. Since the semester-long projects are really the heart-and-soul of my classes, it's hard to list just a few goals; I have so many goals here. So, please look at the goals that I have listed for the Storybooks: TEACHING WRITERS. All those goals hold true for the Portfolios too, and I've reproduced that "teaching writers" graphic below.

As a special subset of goals, here is what I hope to achieve by offering the Portfolio specifically as an ALTERNATIVE to the Storybook:

  • Choice. Give students a wider range of semester-long project options.
  • Time Management. Help students who are facing serious demands on their time.
  • Blogging. Provide students the chance to develop a "curated" section of their blog, featuring their best posts.


I am glad that there are enough Portfolios in both classes that it is not going to be seen as stigmatizing in any way, although I am still worried about that. I am hoping to gather some testimonials from the students at the end of this semester about whether they are glad or not about having chosen the Portfolio. I think their testimonies could be very useful in helping students decide to opt for the Portfolio. I really think BOTH options are excellent, and I am delighted by both writing projects. If all goes well, the students doing Portfolios will have a good experience with that, and I can find a way to share that positive evaluation with next semester's students so that people will see that the Portfolio is a great option, one that every student might want to consider!

In particular, I was glad to see that some students who are strong writers DID choose the Portfolio option. I suspect they did so because they are feeling overwhelmed by their many obligations, so it just makes sense for them to choose the option that lets them build on the existing stories in their blog, rather than writing additional stories. So, as students read the Storybooks and the Portfolios, they will see strong writing in both types of projects, along with less strong writing, since in every class there is an incredibly wide range of writerly experience, writerly interest, etc. Luckily, though, it is not going to be the case that students will be associating the stronger writing with the Storybooks. There is a range of writing to be found in both types of projects and, of course, with the revising, both the Storybook stories and the Portfolio stories will get better and better, week by week, all semester long!

(thanks to Larry Ferlazzo for the graphic)