Saturday, September 27, 2014

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)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Storybooks: The Big Picture

For Connected Courses (#ccourses), I had posted something about the Storybook project, so I thought I should start the arduous task of documenting that project here too. It's the heart and soul of my classes, and there's so much I want to say about it. For an attempt at an overview, see the Connected Courses post: Why? Writing!

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. The Storybook is a semester-long project in which each student chooses a topic related to the class, finds traditional stories on that topic, and then retells those stories in their own style. They publish the Storybook as a website, and the students share and comment on their Storybook projects week by week. You can see an archive of past projects here: Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics.

DETAILS. There is so much I will need to say about the Storybooks, but for an overview, take a look at the week by week assignments which you can see here: Weekly Storybook Assignments.

As you can see, there is an alternate project called the Writing Portfolio. That is something new for Fall 2014, so I will write up something about that separately when I see how many people choose the Portfolio option. It's totally new and I have no idea what to expect.

The Storybook project begins already in the first week when students browse through the archive of past project, looking for ideas and inspiration: Storybook Favorites.

There then follow two weeks of brainstorming, divided (somewhat artificially) between brainstorming about Storybook Topics and Storybook Styles. I will write up separate posts explaining how those assignments work.

Then, in Week 4, students should be ready to write their Introduction, based on the plan that has emerged from the two weeks of brainstorming. Based on that Introduction, they then make their choice: carry on with the Storybook project, or switch to the Portfolio instead.

Students who carry on with the Introduction then create a website for their Storybook and publish the revised Introduction. (They already created a practice Google Site so that they are now ready to make a website for the Storybook.)

After the website and Introduction are both online, students then start reading and commenting on each other's projects; I'll have more to say about that in a separate post. You can see the projects for the current semester here: Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics. I also keep Pinterest Boards for the Storybooks!

The rest of the semester consists of alternating weeks of writing and revision as students add new stories to their Storybook and then revise those stories. I'll have something to say about the writing-and-revision process in a separate post.

The schedule is flexible so that if a student misses a weekly Storybook assignment, they can still carry on after having missed a week. I'll explain more about the alternate schedules in a separate post. The alternate schedules are an important part of how the project works: it's a demanding project, and while I want the students to work on the project every week, I totally understand that there might be times in the semester when that is just not possible.

At the end of the semester, students nominate their favorite Storybooks and we have a ballot, just for fun, where they vote on the most-nominated Storybooks for the best-of-semester projects. I'll say more about that in a separate post also.


I've used the Storybook approach since I first started teaching online. In fact, one of my biggest motivations for wanting to teach online was to make the students' websites the natural focal point of the class. When I first started, I very naively did not have a cycle of writing-and-revision. Instead, I asked the students to add a new story every week while revising their previous story at the same time. That worked for some students, but many students needed more help with their writing, so starting in the second year, I switched to the alternating weeks of writing and revision. The next year, I created the alternate schedules to help students see how they could stay on track even when missing some of the weekly assignments.

As for the websites themselves, the students originally published them in webspace (4MB) provided by the university, using Netscape Composer (later Mozilla Seamonkey) to create their pages and upload them with FTP. Then, without warning, my school deleted hundreds of student projects from the archive. It was the single greatest setback I have ever experienced as an online instructor; I spent Sunday, August 15, 2010, literally in tears as I clicked through one broken link after another after another, realizing that hundreds of websites had simply vanished overnight, just a few days before the start of the Fall semester. Luckily, some of my students had been experimenting already with Google Sites as a publishing alternative (for students working in computer labs, a 100% browser-based option was much more convenient), so starting in Fall 2010, students began publishing with Google Sites. That is why my archive of past projects only goes back to Fall 2010, and it is also why I will find it hard ever to really trust my university again for any kind of web hosting.

GOALS. I have far too many goals even to possibly list here, but there is a graphic about "teaching writers" as opposed to "assigning writing" or "teaching writing" which really sums it up for me (thanks to Larry Ferlazzo for sharing the graphic at Google+):


I cannot begin to describe my enormous satisfaction with the Storybooks. They are a pleasure to read, and watching the students create the Storybooks every semester is like watching a magic show as they summon the Storybooks out of nothingness using the magic wand of the imagination. Even though I have taught these courses for over 10 years and have seen now what must be over 2000 Storybooks, each semester always brings new topics, new styles, new approaches that no one has ever tried before. As a teacher, I had always believed in each student's creative powers as an abstract principle, but the Storybook project has demonstrated that principle in action year after year after year: the students' creative powers are awesome. Every semester, there are Storybooks that make a huge impression on me, stories and styles that I will never forget.

Even more important: the students have the same experience too, being surprised and delighted by their own creativity while also reveling in the creative powers of their fellow students. The Storybook project has been a great experience for me not just as a teacher, but just as a person; these projects are an important part of my life. Plus, it's a very flexible type of project: I would urge anyone who is looking for a writing-based semester-long project to give it a try. I'm sure it could be adapted to just about any class where the students are reading and writing and sharing their work!

Here's a screenshot of the Indian Epics Storybook Archive at Pinterest: so much goodness — and all created by students in MLLL-4993-995. Please feel free to browse and enjoy! There's an even bigger Myth-Folklore Archive Board, too. :-)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Half-Reading Option

A general strategy I've been trying to use in my classes is making things more explicit and transparent so that the assumptions I have about learning which are obvious to me can be more obvious to the students too. The "half-reading option" in both my classes is one of my new experiments along those lines this semester, and I am really happy with the results so far! Because of exams in other classes around this time of the semester, this is a week when I would expect to see lowered participation in my classes, but when I just checked for this week's reading, every single student in both classes had done at least half the reading, so nobody is blocked from the storytelling post this week! I'm really happy to see that, and it prompted me to write about that aspect of my class for today's post.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. There are two roughly equal reading assignments in each of my classes each week. For students to do the storytelling post, they need to have done at least half of the reading because the story is based on that reading. In addition to the regular reminders I send out about pending assignments, I have a special reminder that alerts people explicitly that they need to do at least half of the reading if they want to do the storytelling blog post for the week.

DETAILS. This works slightly differently in my two classes because of the nature of the reading.

In Myth-Folklore, students choose a new reading unit each week from the UnTextbook. Those reading units are divided in half. Ideally, they start a reading diary post for the first half which they complete on Monday (Tuesday morning grace period), and then they add to that post as they do the second half of the reading on Tuesday (Wednesday morning grace period), followed by a storytelling blog post on Wednesday (Thursday morning grace period), with blog comments starting on Friday. If students miss the first half of the reading, I remind them that they can still make a reading choice and do half the reading; the only limitation is that they should choose a reading unit where the storytelling arc does not require reading the full unit. They can see when they make their choice in the UnTextbook just which units are not suited to half-reading. Here are the specific assignment instructions: Myth-Folklore Reading Diary.

In the Indian Epics class, the reading consists of epics that do carry on from week to week, so students cannot just skip the reading. To fill in the gap if they do miss a portion of the reading, I have Reading Guides for them to use. Those Reading Guides actually serve many purposes, but one important purpose is to cover a missed assignment. Because the reading is more substantial in this class, students complete two Reading Diary posts each week: Reading A due Monday (Tuesday morning grace period) and Reading B due Tuesday (Wednesday morning grace period), following by storytelling and then blog comments, just like in Myth-Folklore You can see the instructions here: Indian Epics Reading Diary. If a student misses the A portion in a given week, I send a special reminder to let them know that they need to read through the Reading Guide for that missed portion so that they can be caught up and ready to read and complete Reading Diary B. Reading the Reading Guides is an assignment that is already part of the class at the end of the week (Reading Review assignment), so the students who do use the Reading Guide for this purpose are making headway on that assignment too!

I am incredibly pleased at how well this working. I was worried that students might find it confusing, but that has not been the case. I've gotten a few emails from students just checking to make sure they have understood the situation correctly, and in every case they have. Sometimes they choose to do half the reading because they are swamped (I know that because they sometimes comment about their choice in their Reading Diary), and in other cases they just run out of time. Either way, the half-option serves its purpose. I would rather have people do half the reading than none at all, especially because they need to do at least some reading to be able to do the storytelling post. That storytelling post is really the most important assignment of the week, providing the basis for the blog comments at the end of the week. It is also, I suspect, the real locus of learning: students probably won't remember much of what they read... but they might indeed remember the part of the reading that they worked with to create their own story!

HISTORY. There is a somewhat different history here for each class.

In Myth-Folklore, I made no half-way mark distinction with regard to the reading. It was all-or-nothing. If students did the reading, they could do the storytelling post; if they did not do the reading, they could not. Every week there were students who were shut out of doing the storytelling posts as a result of the all-or-nothing approach to the reading, and I suspect that there were many students who skimmed the whole reading way too quickly in order to avoid being blocked, so they actually got less out of trying to do the whole thing than they can now get out of concentrating just on half.

In Indian Epics, the readings were always divided into two halves (it's a more substantial amount of reading, so it really needed to be divided up), and I also supplied Reading Guides. But here is what I did not do: I was not explicit about what students should do if they missed part of the reading. I assumed they would realize they could use the Reading Guides to fill in the gaps, but occasional remarks by students in their blogs made me realize that they were not doing that. So, I have now made explicit what was just implicit before: the Reading Guides are an important part of the class; everybody needs to read the Guides and, in particular, people who miss a portion of the reading should use the Reading Guide to fill in the gap before they move on to the next portion of assigned reading.

GOALS. As often, there are several goals at work here:
  • Self-Awareness. I want students to be aware of the choices they are making as they do the work for the class, taking responsibility for their choices.
  • Flexibility. This flexible workload allows students to make choices that accommodate their own interests and priorities.
  • Quality over Quantity. I want students to know that choosing to do half the reading well is, for the purposes of this class, better than skimming through the whole thing in a rush.


As far as Indian Epics is concerned, this is a change I should have made ages ago, and I am kicking myself for not having seen that earlier. It's actually not even a change at all — rather, it is just making something explicit that I had wrongly expected would be obvious to the students, even when it clearly was not obvious at all.

As far as Myth-Folklore, I am really glad that I had the realization about reading-in-halves in the Indian Epics class so that I was able to take that factor into account as I built the UnTextbook this past summer and designed the reading and writing assignments to go with it, making the two-halves distinction very clear.

This system is working incredibly well and, at least right now in the midst of Week 5, I don't see any reason to change this strategy for next semester. So far, so good! I might tally up some stats at the end of the semester just to see what the patterns of half-reading were like. I'll be curious if I can detect a bump because of midterm season for example, and also how levels of reading participation by a given student might correlate with other aspects of the class. Once again, of course, D2L BS gives me no help in doing that kind of data analysis, but I can gather the data on my own and see what I learn!

Better half an egg than an empty shell.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sample Assignment Schedules

One of my students wrote me today to ask just how exactly she could turn the class into a Tuesday-Thursday class, so I wrote up a few sample schedules to share.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. As a way to encourage students to work ahead, I've created three sample schedules that simulate a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, a Tuesday-Thursday schedule, and a weekend-only schedule. You can see the schedules here: Designing Your Class Schedule.

DETAILS. As I explained in another post, the class is self-scheduled. Ideally, I wish students would be working a week or more ahead of schedule, and that way they are really ready for anything that comes up, able to just take time off from this class to handle anything that might happen unexpectedly, good or bad. At the same time, I am very aware that a lot of students just default into letting the daily deadlines dictate their schedule, which is certainly not going to be especially convenient for anybody. I'm not entirely sure that these schedules which I've created will be a perfect fit, but maybe just seeing the examples will inspire people to come up with the schedule that really does suit them best.

HISTORY. This is something brand-new as of September 2014; I am glad that I will have it ready in time for next semester where I can do a better job of promoting it right from the very start of the semester.

GOAL. My goal here is very simple: I would really like for every student to arrange the weekly schedule of assignments so that it fits conveniently into their other obligations!


I am so glad that this student wrote and asked me. From her email, I could tell that she really was stumped about how it would be possible to re-arrange the assignments. So, for sure these sample schedules can answer her question. Now I am hoping that maybe there are other students who might have the same question but who had not written to ask me. As always, it's really great when someone asks! Clearly it was something I would not have figured out to do on my own, and it will be great to have this in place next semester.

Aliud agendi tempus, aliud quiescendi.
There's a time for working and a time for resting.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Grading without Fear

I've updated all my (un)grading materials here in much more detail: (Un)Grading - An Omnibus. That's the post you want to read. :-)

I've been thinking about the wonderful post by Mark Barnes, My Throw Out Grades Challenge Video, along with all the great posts at Joe Bower's blog about abolishing grading. I would also recommend this post by John Spencer: What happens to student engagement when you take away grades? While I cannot abolish grades in my classes, I have managed to reduce my role in grading to zero, and it's something I consider crucial for the success of my classes.
A sad update: Requiescat in pace Joe Bower.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. My school uses an A-B-C-D-F grading system, no pluses and minuses (thank goodness). Within that institutional constraint, I have created a points-based grading scheme, and the students record their own points in the Gradebook using Declarations: they complete checklists in the form of a true-false quiz for each assignment, and those points are automatically recorded. The students thus keep track of their own work, and the result is the grade they have earned based on their total points at the end of the semester. I do set the grading scale and, yes, it is arbitrary, like all grading scales are. Aside from that, though, I do no actual grading for the course. All my time is spent giving feedback (not grades) on their projects every week.

DETAILS. The best way to see how this works in detail is just to read what I explain to the students. I love being able to tell the students right from the start: the grade has nothing to do with me — but we have other important work to do together: Choosing Your Schedule and Your Grade. I also provide an explanation of my philosophy of grading for students who want to know why I take this approach.

HISTORY. I always used this points-based grading system, but I did not invent the Declarations until a momentous day in 2004. That was a game-changer for me. Before that, I used to spend a ridiculous amount of time recording the points in the Gradebook, and the students were sometimes frustrated that there would be a delay (sometimes even several days) between doing the work and seeing the points in the Gradebook. But then I realized I could hack a true-false quiz in order to let the students do that for themselves so they could see the points immediately, while also giving them much more responsibility for checking their own work. Better for them AND better for me! I'm pleased to say that there are other faculty at my school who have adopted this same "Declaration" system, and I am always happy when a student remarks in a blog post that they did Declarations in some other class they have taken.

GOALS. I have far too many goals here to list; the most important goals would be:
  • Remove Myself. My main goal is to remove myself from the grading equation so that I can focus all my effort on providing personalized feedback (which I provide in abundance).
  • Remove Stress. This is meant to be a completely stress-free grading system.
  • Make It Flexible. Students can choose to get an A in the class, or a B, or a C; it's up to them.
  • Make Students Responsible. The students are responsible for checking their own work with the text of the Declarations prompting them to check carefully.
  • Be Clear. At any moment in the semester, students can see exactly where they stand.
  • Be Objective about Grading. There is nothing subjective about any of the grading; it's a completely objective system (aside from the subjectiveness of the A-B-C-D-F scale itself). At the same time, there are no learning objectives; there are only learning "subjectives" (thanks to #Rhizo15 for this great term) meaning that this system allows the students to pursue their own learning paths and to set their own goals.

Without curiosity, there is no wisdom.
(Polish: Bez ciekawości nie ma mądrości.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Student Feedback on the UnTextbook

One of the best things about the UnTextbook for Myth-Folklore is that it is incredibly easy to update the page since they are just Blogger blog posts. In my old website, I couldn't easily update the pages, but now it is completely easy, which means it is really worth gathering feedback, large and small.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. Each week, I ask the students to fill out a Google Form which solicits ratings and open-ended feedback on the reading unit they chose for the week. I then tote up the results each week and share them with the students via the Announcements blog as UnTextbook Weekly Reports.

DETAILS. The data goes into a spreadsheet which is easy to manipulate. I standardize the unit titles, assign the week labels, and then calculate the averages. It just takes a few minutes to do that. I then grab the open-ended comments from the students and use those to write up my weekly replies. Some of the comments are about issues I can take care of quickly, while others are long-term development issues.

In addition to the Google Form, I am also getting more feedback when students choose to do a blog post where they provide more detail about their reading experience. If you read through the weekly essay blog posts, you can see that quite a few students are choosing to write about the reading units, which is just great. They have a wide range of topics to choose from, and I think the large numbers of students choosing to write about the reading units is a good sign! Since they have a wider range of choices than before, it makes sense that they would be more committed to their choice and have more to say about it.

HISTORY. In the past, I had an anecdotal sense of what the students liked and did not like about the course readings at my old webiste, but because the website was so hard to update, I was not able to make good use of that anecdotal feedback. Now that I have a very flexible system that is easy to update, I knew I wanted to get data every week from the students about their reading experience.

GOALS. Here are some of my goals for this feedback process:

  • Revise the Content. By gathering feedback from the students, I can keep revising the content to make it more useful.
  • Target New Content. As I learn more about what the students are enjoying I can make better choices about new content.
  • Promote Self-Awareness. By asking the students about their choices and about their reading experience, I hope to promote more self-awareness as they make choices and do the reading in future weeks.
  • Picture the Community. By sharing information about the choices people are making and their rating of the readings, I hope to create a sense of community experience in addition to each student's individual experience.


I am thrilled with how well the Google Form is working. I would also really like to get students to leave comments on the reading pages, too, asking specific questions about specific stories. I'm not really sure how to do that. I've mentioned it in various places, and they are used to the idea of leaving blog comments from other activities in the class, but they are clearly not used to the idea of leaving comments and questions on the class reading. I may need to just go ahead and require that they do that, although I am reluctant to make it an actual requirement. So I'm pondering on that. The more feedback, the better!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Weekly Blog Comments

The blog commenting assignment is an important part of each week's activity. My goal is for each student to get one or two comments on their storytelling post each week. I can't guarantee that with 100% certainty, but I am pretty happy with how this assignment is working.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. Each week, (most) students publish a storytelling blog post on or by Wednesday. On Thursday, I put the students who have published the storytelling post in random groups of three. On Friday, that assignment becomes available and lasts over the weekend: students respond to the other two students in their group.

DETAILS. One of the tricky things with a self-scheduled course is finding ways for students to interact with each other about the work they are doing. In addition, not everybody does every blog assignment each week, and not everybody does blog commenting each week, but I still want to make sure that everybody gets at least one comment, and hopefully two, on their storytelling blog post. I also want to help students get to know each other, so I ask them to comment on each other's Introduction post as well; if they already know the person (and thus commented on the Introduction post previously), they can choose another post in that familiar person's blog to respond to.

Here's how I make that work:
  1. After the Wednesday grace period ends at Thursday noon, I can see which students have done the storytelling blog post; usually there are two or three students in each class who have not done that post (which is fine — they can make that up with extra credit later on).
  2. I copy the list of links to student blog addresses (raw HTML) into a text file, each blog address on a separate line. Then I delete the students who did not do the storytelling post.
  3. Next, I paste the remaining blog addresses into a randomizer.
  4. I then divide up the randomized links into groups of three and paste them into the page that the students see here: Blog Responding.
  5. I then copy the plain text (names only) into a text file, copy the group numbers after the names, and sort alphabetically to create the group index.
  6. If there is a group with two people instead of three, I just add "choose at random" to that group. If there is a group with only one person, I move a person from another group, and then add "choose from group (whatever)" so that the students in those two groups are responding to each other.
That sounds complicated, but it only takes about 10 minutes per class. I then update the main page of instructions, letting students know the assignment is available starting on Friday through the weekend: Blog Responding.

Just as there are two or three people who don't do the storytelling post each week, there are usually two or three people who don't do the responding. Overall, though, most people do get two comments on their storytelling (plus their Introduction or some other post), and everybody gets one comment. For extra credit, students can choose to comment on additional stories, so that increases the overall amount of commenting that goes on each week (those extra credit comments are free choice). This is not a perfect system, but in terms of overall effectiveness, flexibility for the students, and ease of preparation for me, it works pretty well!

HISTORY. For years, I tried to keep the groups stable over a period of three weeks. That just didn't work, though, because of the students who either didn't do a story in a given week. So, I finally decided to randomize the groups every week, while also having a comment on the Introduction be part of the assignment in order to give a sense of connection even when the groups are random each week.

GOALS. This is a really important assignment for all kinds of reasons!
  • Get Feedback. Students give each other great feedback, and the feedback they give each other is often different from the kind of feedback they get from me.
  • Learn to Give Feedback. In the process of getting feedback, students also learn about giving feedback and can hone their feedback skills.
  • Discover Ideas and Inspiration. By reading other students' writing, students can discover ideas and inspiration that they can use to improve their own writing.
  • Building Community. This weekly assignment (along with the Storybook feedback in Weeks 6-12) is a way of building a sense of community in the class.


I feel really lucky that the students do a great job of commenting on each other's blogs: they are very enthusiastic and offer lots of detail and personal observation. I try to create a positive climate of blog commenting with the comments that I leave on the Favorite Places posts and the Introduction posts from the first week so that when the students start commenting on each other's posts they will do a good job with that. In a separate entry here, I need to explain how I use Feedly to keep an eye on the commenting, just to make sure everything is going well — and it does!

Students regularly comment in the end of semester evaluations how much they like interacting with other students, getting feedback, and sharing ideas online like this. This type of interaction is admittedly different from a regular classroom-based class, and I would argue that this difference is a good thing. I won't contend that the interaction online is better or worse, just that it is a different, and that this difference is a positive value in and of itself. Who knows what kind of non-face-to-face communication students may need to use in their 21st-century careers? I hope that the online interactions in my classes can help prepare them for whatever may come!

Inoreader: Keeping Up With All Those Blogs!

It was my great good fortune to learn about Inoreader right at the beginning of the semester; it's made working with the student blogs so much more fun than ever before. I'll be making changes to my course for Spring semester so that I can make even better use of that tool. Meanwhile, in this post, I'll start explaining how I am using Inoreader in my classes for Fall 2014.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. Inoreader is an RSS reader with some very powerful features that allow me to keep up with hundreds of student blog posts each week. In particular, I am making use of the rules, tags, multiple display views, and HTML clippings. Rules are a "Plus" premium feature ($30/year), but all the other features are part of the free version.

DETAILS. I am doing some powerful things with Inoreader, but at the same time it is very simple to use. Here's how I got up and running:

1. Add Blogs. As the students create their blogs, I grab the RSS to add the feeds to Inoreader, with each class in a separate folder. OU IE is my Indian Epics class; OU MF is my Myth-Folklore class. As you can see, this gives me easy access to each student's blog when I am interested in looking at a given student's blog as opposed to looking at a collection of blog posts for a given assignment.

2. Create Rules. I set up rules to tag the incoming posts based on keywords in the subject lines. So, for example, storytelling posts in my Myth-Folklore class are tagged storytellingmf, and the HTML clippings feature lets me share posts with that tag.

3. Scan Incoming. I also have a rule to tag all incoming posts as "Incoming" which is just a temporary tag. Periodically throughout the day, I scan the posts labeled "Incoming," taking a quick look at the post, adjusting the tags as needed (sometimes students don't put the keywords in the subject lines), and removing the Incoming tag as I go along. This takes just a few minutes each day. I sometimes leave a comment for the student right then; sometimes I add a tag to remind myself to come back and check something, etc. It all depends on how much time I have! Here's what the tag area looks like - the autocomplete means that when I do need to add tags, it prompts me to be consistent with the tags I'm already using:

And that's all, folks! For those of you who are users of rules and tags to organize your email, Inoreader is allowing me to use exactly the same organizational strategies. At the same time, it provides powerful sharing opportunities because each tag has its own RSS feed and its own HTML clippings service.

In other posts, I'll explain more specifically some of the ways Inoreader is helping me with each of the different types of assignments which the students are publishing in their blogs. Just how I interact with the students' blogs and how the students interact with each other varies from assignment to assignment, and Inoreader is helping provide access, both for me and for the students, to the different assignment types.

HISTORY. I started out years ago using Bloglines for student blogs, and then for five years I used Ning, a group blogging platform; you can read more about that history here. As far as RSS readers go, I was a loyal fan of Google Reader, and I made good use of "bundles" then. I switched to Feedly when Google shut down Reader, but I missed my bundles! I put out a plea for help at Google+ when I realized how badly I needed something like Google Reader to manage all these new student blogs, and Stefan Heßbrüggen recommended Inoreader. I am lucky to be connected to so many smart folks online; Inoreader was exactly what I was looking for.

GOALS. These are the main goals that Inoreader is helping me with:
  • Blog awareness. I am able to skim and scan, getting a good sense of all the blog posts as they come in.
  • Blog organization. I can review the different types of blog posts systematically, learning from the posts, commenting, and also re-using them.
  • Blog sharing. Being able to share the blog posts so that the students can get ideas and inspirations from each other is the best thing of all!


For years I have been a wild admirer of ds106 and the aggregation/syndication tools that Alan Levine has been developing for WordPress environments. At the same time, I know that I am just not up for that technological adventure; I am a happy creator of web content, and thus an uber-nerd, but not much of a geek. I use hosted services like Blogger and PBWorks, and I am a big fan of javascript tools (like that let me embed and syndicate that hosted content. For my courses, though, without Google Reader's bundles, I was stumped. Inoreader came to the rescue! Although I am not able to work all the ds106 magic, it has let me come closer than I had ever dreamed possible without running my own WordPress installation.

One thing I like about my admittedly lazy use of hosted options is that it means I can share my strategies with everyone! Anything that I am doing in my courses, my students can turn around and do too, and I can recommend my strategies to anyone with an Internet connection and some time to play around with these hosted tools and services.

Of course, I know that no hosted service will last forever, and in the past ten years, I've seen services come and go, including dearly beloved services like Delicious and Google Reader. But I've also come to learn that sometimes the demise of a beloved service is what galvanizes change, in a good way. It was the demise of Delicious that prompted me to create my eStorybook Central archive of student work, for example, whereas before I had done that with Delicious; eStorybook Central has turned out to be much more useful to me as a project archive than Delicious ever was! Likewise, the end of Ning threw me into a bit of a panic, but it has provoked the biggest and best changes that I've ever made to my courses.

Of course, at the moment I am hoping that Inoreader sticks around for a very, very long time — and I can tell there are still lots of Inoreader tricks I have yet to learn. I am so excited about tweaking my assignments next semester in order to take full advantage of Inoreader's powerful help!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Google Sites: Practice Site

Most students use Google Sites to publish their Storybook project (archive here). Although I don't require any special web publishing software, most students have never published a website before, and I think Google Sites is the easiest way to get started.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. To give the students a sense of confidence about creating a website, there is a "Practice Site" assignment in Week 3: they create a simple website on any topic they want, creating a homepage and several additional pages, each with text, link, and image.

DETAILS. Here are the assignment instructions. I am pleased to say there are really no details to add here. This assignment always goes really smoothly! Students build the site and send the link to me in an email, and I then take a quick look to see that everything is in good shape. If there is a problem, I let them know about it, and then in the follow-up assignment for Week 4, they have a chance to fix that up and ask me if they run into trouble. The most common problem people have is that they do not read the instructions for making links with actual link text; I have a tip page for just that problem: Google Sites Links.

I really enjoy seeing the different topics they choose. Sometimes people share recipes, and pretty much every semester I collect some new recipes to try (yummm!). Occasionally I learn something about a student that I did not know before which might be relevant to their choice of a Storybook project, so that is also something I can write them back about. It's a good way for me to check in with every student in Week 3, reinforcing the connections we made when I read the Introduction posts back in Week 2.

HISTORY. I've been recommending Google Sites as a web publishing tool since Fall 2010 when my school abruptly ceased to support the web publishing system I had used previously (Mozilla Seamonkey as the HTML editor, using FTP to publish in university-provided web space). I am so lucky that the last-minute switch to Google Sites went so smoothly, and I've been using Google Sites happily in the years since.

GOALS. As usual, I have various goals here:
  • Introduce students to web publishing. Students learn how to create pages with links and images, and they also see how Google Sites automatically creates a navigation panel for the site.
  • Build student confidence. Many students are nervous about building a website, but Google Sites offers a very positive and reassuring first experience.
  • Promote self-expression. By letting the students create their practice website on any topic at all, it's a chance for them to express themselves online.


I'm very happy recommending Google Sites as a web publishing tool for my students to use. In the future, I might try exploring some alternate systems so that I could recommend those systems too and provide technical support, but I just have not had time to do that. Since I personally prefer to use Blogger for pretty much all my own web publishing, I don't have a lot of experience with some of the other popular alternatives like Weebly or Wix, but maybe next summer I will play around with some of these other tools and see how they might work for a website like what students create for their Storybooks.

My school has recently started a pilot project of Domain of One's Own: I'm not sure if that will become something available to all students or not, but I learned how to map a Blogger blog to one of those domains, and I see there are instructions for mapping a Google Site too. I should learn how to do that so that I can support any students who might want to map a site to their own domain, just in case that Domain of One's Own project continues at my school!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The UnTextbook: An OER Interview

I am so glad that the OER Factotum at my school, Stacy Zemke, wrote and asked me to participate in her interview series about alternative textbooks! I am not even quite sure how to go about explaining the UnTextbook here in this blog, but answering these questions from Stacy will surely be a good way to start. Meanwhile, you can also see the other faculty she has interviewed here: Alternative Textbooks at the University of Oklahoma.

1. In what areas do you teach and in what course are you using an open textbook?

I teach two fully online courses — MLLL-3043 Mythology and Folklore and MLLL-4993 Indian Epics: Ramayana and Mahabharata — which are both part of the General Education: Humanities track.

MLLL-3043 Mythology and Folklore: The Myth-Folklore is a survey course, and I've always used public domain texts for teaching the class; I've never had a textbook or any kind of printed book for this course since I began teaching it online in 2002.

MLLL-4993 Indian Epics: Ramayana and Mahabharata: In Indian Epics, I am more constrained by the course topic; there are not public domain translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that meet my needs, so in that class I use a combination of inexpensive paperbacks supplemented with open resources.

2. Why did you decide to switch to an open textbook solution for your course?

For me the UnTextbook was not a switch; I've always used online reading materials for the Myth-Folklore course, and I am very lucky that the public domain materials for mythology and folklore are excellent and abundant. Here are the main reasons I have preferred the open solution for that class:

1. Keep costs down for students. I believe this is especially important given that students are already assessed an extra fee just for taking a course online.

2. Cover a wide range of texts. I've never seen a commercial textbook that appealed to me as much as the wide range of public domain resources I can find online.

3. Allow student choice. The course becomes a richer experience for everyone if students are choosing their own reading topics and sharing what they like best with the other students.

4. Adapt the materials. By adapting public domain materials (abridging, editing, illustrating, etc.), I can adjust the materials to suit my students' interests and needs.

5. Share what I love. Many of these books are the same books I read and loved as an undergraduate and graduate student. And now I can put them in my students' hands for free: it's magic!

3. What is the open textbook source or sources you are using for your class (ex. a complete single open textbook solution, a modified/customized open book, a set of open resources that you have organized into a “book” resource for your students). What publisher book/s did you replace with the open textbook you adopted?

The UnTextbook is definitely a set of open resources that have been organized into a "book" — it is a book in some sense, yes, but also not a book. For one thing, it is paperless. No one, not even me, would ever print it out. In fact, I did not print a single piece of paper in the process of creating it. Before I try to explain more about the UnTextbook here, I'd urge you just to go take a look for yourself first: Mythology and Folklore UnTextbook.

As you can see the sidebar navigation, the UnTextbook consists of 100 different reading units. There are also links in the sidebar to the public domain books that I used to create those units. As you can see from this book inventory, most of the books came from Hathi Trust, Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, and Sacred Texts Archive, along with some other online public domain book repositories. (And let me add: I am so glad that OU is a member of Hathi Trust; what a fantastic resource it is!)

The students obviously do not read all 100 units. Instead, they choose each week one unit to read. Given the magic of mathematical combinations, there are literally trillions of possible paths to follow through the UnTextbook. By the end of the semester, each student will have made their own textbook!

I had used this same choice-driven approach at my old course website, but the reading was much more limited in scope. That website consisted of 28 reading units, with the students having a choice of two units each week. Although I have greatly expanded the amount of content, the more important feature of the UnTextbook is that it is very easy to update and maintain. Over time, my very old website had become unsustainable. It was never easy to update to start with, and it became harder and harder to maintain over the years. When I had a brainstorm last spring about how I could use Blogger to publish the reading units quickly and easily, I decided to give it a try. It might seem strange to be using a blogging platform for content management on this scale, but it is working wonderfully! For people interested in the nitty-gritty details, I have documented the entire process at my OU Digital Tools blog.

4. What was your process for selecting/creating this open book?

Over the years, I have kept extensive lists of public domain books for my students to use in researching their class projects. As a result, I already had literally hundreds of books to choose from. So, the real challenge was organizational, figuring out the best way to arrange the materials week by week. I created folders in GoogleDocs for my topic areas: Classical, Biblical, Middle Eastern, Indian, Asian, African, Native American, British Isles, and European. Then, I created a document for each likely book in those categories. I rated books as likely candidates based on a variety of factors: books that I personally love, books that students had used enthusiastically for their class projects, books with a free Kindle version, books with a free audiobook version at LibriVox, books with illustrations, etc. Lots of factors. I was especially glad to see the large number of books at LibriVox. Being able to offer free audiobooks to my students like that is really exciting!

Then, once I had identified the best possible books, I set about extracting the content I would use from each book, copying-and-pasting text from the digitized book into the document. Each reading unit needed to be approximately 15,000 words long (give or take 1000 words). For some books, coming up with this extract was easy, while for other books it was harder, and I even had to discard some otherwise desirable books because I just could not find a good way to extract a self-contained reading unit of the right length.

Meanwhile, at the same time that I was processing the books and turning them into reading units, I was also busy creating the actual blog posts: transferring content from the GoogleDoc document to the blog pages, adding illustrations, building the navigation, proofreading, annotating, etc. By working on content identification and content publication in tandem, I was able to complete the entire process in one summer and be ready to go for the fall semester. The content identification process was something that required a lot of focus and attention, but the publication process was something much more mechanical. I watched a lot of Netflix while performing some of those more mindless tasks!

5. What are/were the challenges in changing to the open textbook – is it similar to adopting a new “traditional’ textbook for a course – or are there other issues?

At no point in this process did I consider adopting a traditional textbook. The real challenge for me was finding the right publishing platform, the right formatting for the content, and the time to get it done. I was very lucky that the choices I made about platform and format worked out really well, and I was able to benefit from my many years of using Blogger for other blog-based projects. (For example, I had used Blogger to support my previous two open book projects as you can see here: Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop's Fables in Latin and Brevissima: 1001 Tiny Poems in Latin.)

6. How have your students responded to this open textbook?

The response has been very positive! I'm gathering feedback from the students every week with a Google Form and writing up the result in a weekly blog post. You can see those reports here: Weekly UnTextbook Reports.

7. Will you continue to use this current open solution?

Absolutely! There is still lots of work to do in terms of annotating the reading units to make them more valuable for the students, and there are also more units that I want to add. As I mentioned, one of the biggest drawbacks to my old website was that it was very hard to update. This blog-based solution is extremely easy to update, and I could add another 50 or even 100 reading units without running into organizational difficulties. For example, I already know that I need to add a unit on Vergil's Aeneid because one student was very disappointed that there was no Trojan Horse in Homer's Iliad (as I learned from a comment shared via the Google Form mentioned above).

8. Would you consider using an open source for other courses that you teach?

Yes! In fact, I've made one of the books in my Indian Epics class optional so that students can choose to replace that book with India-related content from the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook. I am really curious how many students in that class will choose the UnTextbook option; I'll find out in Week 12 of this semester! One of the reasons I made the India section of the UnTextbook class larger than the other sections was because I anticipated being able to use those Indian reading units for my Indian Epics class.

9. What advice do you have for other faculty thinking of adoption an alternative textbook?

I would urge everyone to keep up with available open resources in their field, regardless of whether they are considering an open textbook option. For me, blogs and bookmarking tools (like Diigo) have been a really good way to share resources with my students, and their use of those resources thus allows me to gauge what content they find most valuable.

I would also urge everyone to gather feedback from their students at each stage of the process. I gathered a lot of preliminary feedback from students last year before I built the UnTextbook, and I'm also getting extremely useful feedback from the students now as I deploy the UnTextbook for the first time.

Finally, I would urge everyone to find an online learning network where they can learn from what others are doing with open resources and in general with their teaching. I'm a member of a very active online learning community at Google+ where I'm constantly exposed to new ideas and new resources that I never would have discovered on my own.

Books: the children of the brain.

Student Blog Assignments

There's a lot I will need to say about the role blogging plays in my classes, but as a kind of placeholder here, I will quickly list the different types of blogging assignments the students complete. I'll update this post with links to detailed posts about each of these assignments as I write them up. I started with a write-up of the Favorite Places post — first things first!

Orientation Week: During this week, the students are doing some posts to help them get comfortable with blogging:

Regular Weekly Assignments. These are the posts students complete each week, with the exception of review weeks in Week 8 and Week 15; for more information see the Myth-Folklore Weekly Assignments and Indian Epics Weekly Assignments.

Favorite Places: The First Blog Post

Debbie Morrison made my day by writing something about my students' blogs in Online Learning Insights today! That prompted me to start documenting here the ways my students use their blogs; I'll begin with how the students start blogging in Week 1 of the class and the first assignment that they complete: a Favorite Places post.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. Week 1 of my class is an Orientation Week, dedicated to introducing students to the types of writing assignments and writing tools they will be using in the course. The first tool they learn to use is Google Blogger, and the first post they create is "Picture a Favorite Place," a post that includes both text and image(s).

DETAILS. You can see the instructions I provide for the students here: Create a Blog and Picture a Favorite Place. Thanks to the power of Inoreader, you can see the great job the students did with this assignment here: Favorite Places Post. I made a "Favorite Places" post too. (In a separate post here, I'll explain about the blog I use to post the same assignments that the students complete in the Orientation Week.)

I am pleased to say that the instructions worked really well! The only real problem came with the next post; several students were not clear about the difference between creating a blog and creating a blog post, so I'll try to make that more clear next semester in the instructions both for this first post and for the second post.

As the students completed these posts, I tried to comment on each one promptly. I had so much fun reading about the places they picked! So, that is another plus in this assignment's favor: because I was so curious to see which places the students wrote about, I was able to respond with sincere enthusiasm. I'll have more to say about the importance of sincere enthusiasm in some posts here on feedback!

HISTORY. For five years, I used Ning as the group blogging platform, but the demise of the mini-Ning necessitated a change this year. I opted for Blogger; I need to write up a separate blog post to explain the reasons for that choice. I was prepared to treat this year as an experiment, not really sure what would happen. So far (three weeks into the semester) the results have been incredibly encouraging!

GOALS. This is a very important moment in the class, so I have high goals for this assignment!
  • Get Students Off to a Good Start! I really want to create a sense of both confidence and excitement about the blogging experience students will have this semester.
  • Start Good Blogging Habits. In particular, I am trying to promote the use of labels to make blogs more useful both to their authors and to the readers who visit them.
  • Build Online Presence. The "favorite places" post provides students with an opportunity to share something important to them which is personal but which does not require a lot of writing.
  • Promote Responsible Image Use. I hope students will start to understand some of the basics of image licensing while also learning how to cite the images they use.


What I did not expect was how excited the students would be about having their own blogs. That was such a great difference between the Ning and Blogger! When I used the Ning for blogging, the students did not have the same sense of pride in having "my" own blog. Which is great: since one of my goals (see below) is to create confident and excited bloggers, I am very glad about this switch from Ning to Blogger.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Class Twitter Account

As a follow-up to the post about the Class Announcements blog, I want to say something in this post about Twitter. Having a dedicated class Twitter account is new for me this semester (Fall 2014), and I am so pleased at how it is working!

BRIEF DESCRIPTION. I have a personal Twitter account, OnlineCrsLady (although I use it for professional networking; it's not personal in the sense of being about my private life), and I also have a class Twitter account, OnlineMythIndia.  There are class-specific hashtags: #OU3043 (that's Myth-Folklore) and #OU4993 (that's Indian Epics). At my personal Twitter account, I have two important school-related lists: OU Faculty and Staff and also OU Programs (excluding sports). I keep a Twitter widget of OnlineMythIndia in the sidebar of the class announcements blog. Via that Twitter widget, I am able to share a stream of content, frequently updated, that is both fun and useful: information about campus events, beautiful online resources, all kinds of stuff! Here's a screenshot of how that works:

DETAILS. Maintaining two Twitter accounts has proved to be very easy with two browsers! I log in via Chrome (my main browser) to my personal Twitter account, and I log in via Firefox (my secondary browser) to my class Twitter account. That way, I never get mixed up.

I don't always use the hashtags, but I try to remember to do that. With the students, the hashtags could become very useful if they are tweeting for class inside their already-existing Twitter account. That's something I'll be figuring out as we go along this semester! I set up Tagboards for both hashtags (#OU3043 and #OU4993) in case students do get into using hashtags! I need to write up a separate post about how I am hoping that students will start using Twitter for class; it's still early days, though, and I'm thinking it will really start happening when their projects go online a few weeks from now.

For now, though, even just as a new form of class announcements, Twitter has worked out wonderfully. I love having all this good stuff to share all throughout the day so that the announcements really come to life! Here is the dual-account routine which I follow periodically throughout the day, about every hour or so — it just takes a few minutes now that I've gotten used to the routine:
  • Notifications. I check Notifications for both accounts.
  • Check OU Lists. Using my personal Twitter, I check the OU Faculty List and retweet interesting items. If I have time, I check and retweet from the OU Programs List.
  • Retweet Personal to Class. I switch to my class Twitter and I look at my personal Twitter timeline, retweeting some (but usually not all) of the OU items I just retweeted.
  • Other Tweets to Class. I sometimes tweet other items using the class Twitter account, such as items from the Class Announcements or my progress through the Storybook stack.
  • Class Twitter Timeline. I then check my class Twitter timeline, where I am subscribed to some really cool feeds, very useful for class: Bibliophilia, Smithsonian, British Museum, Met Museum, LACMA, Public Domain Review, all kinds of good stuff. I almost always have several items to retweet!
  • Retweet Class to Personal. I then go back to my personal Twitter and look at my class Twitter, retweeting as appropriate.
  • Pin for Future Use. Then, still looking at my class Twitter feed in Chrome (my main browser), I pin to a Pinterest Board any of the items that are really and truly useful, not just ephemeral. (I need to write up a post on my Pinterest experiments this semester too!)
If there is time — but there usually isn't — I look at my personal Twitter timeline, which contains a lot of edtech. That is of interest to me, but of less interest to my students, so that is a lower priority. I still really rely on Google+ and the blogs I follow for edtech news; I still haven't really gotten into the swing of the edtech Twitter world.

HISTORY. Twitter is something very new for me. In Fall of 2013, I was involved in a series of absurd events at my school that resulted in my creation of those two OU Twitter lists. That proved to be such a good way to interact with other people at my school (none of whom use Google+ ... alas) that I started using Twitter more and more during the Spring 2014 semester. That positive experience prompted me to create the class Twitter account in August 2014, and everything then fell into place perfectly as described above. I am having so much fun with Twitter now, and I am very optimistic that I will find yet more ways to make use of it in the future.

GOALS. I have several goals here:
  • Enrich the Announcements. I seek the enrich the class announcements so that there is continuous new content throughout the day, either via Twitter itself or via the Twitter widget in the announcements.
  • Model Twitter Use. I hope to inspire students to use Twitter in new ways, especially through my use of the OU lists.
  • University Connections. I hope to promote a sense of online community by retweeting and promoting university Twitter activity via the OU lists.
  • Have Fun. Twitter has been so much fun for me; it makes a great little break periodically throughout my workday!


People who know me online are probably surprised by how I have FINALLY gotten into the swing of using Twitter. I tried and failed, tried and failed, and tried and failed again — I just could not find my Twitter groove. Now, though, Twitter is very much a part of my daily routine, and I would miss it if I were gone. Google+ is still my main go-to place online, but it really does not offer a productive back-and-forth channel with my class. Twitter has the advantage of being something familiar to my students, and I am hoping to catalyze some new use of Twitter by the students this semester, too. More on that student Twitter experiment later on. I'm hoping good things as the semester gets underway!

I also need to work on building my own content streams to share for Indian materials. I have not had as much luck finding Twitter streams that are India-related (although I have found some great Pinterest Boards for India), so I am thinking of tweeting content myself for Indian Epics, maybe setting up a half-dozen or so items to tweet every day. I've got almost a thousand images over at the class resources blog, plus a couple hundred Indian folktales in the UnTextbook... so it wouldn't be hard. Even just tweeting the wonderful Wikipedia articles about the main characters in the epics might be useful. Anyway, something to ponder — something FUN to ponder. :-)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Class Announcements

I've mentioned in previous posts that one of my main goals is to minimize use of private one-to-one emails in my classes, using other modes of communication instead. One of the most important is my daily Class Announcements, which will be the subject of this blog post.

Brief Description: Every day (including weekends) there is a new blog post in my announcements blog: Online Course Announcements. I do one set of announcements for both my classes. Each day's announcements contain a few items pertaining to actual class due dates and procedures at the top of the post, and then below there are items for fun exploration. I re-use the content from semester to semester (it's in a Google Doc Spreadsheet, plus I label the blog posts week by week), and I continuously prune and improve as I find new items to include each semester. Students can subscribe to the Announcements by email if they want, and I have set the Desire2Learn homepage for my classes to be the Announcements blog page, as you can see here:

Details: The best way to get a sense at how the Announcements work is to take a look at the Announcements blog for yourself: Online Course Announcements. Indeed, one of the reasons why I like blogging software for this purpose is that it has the announcements out in the open, for anyone to see. I write the announcements during the day, using Blogger to queue them for publication at midnight, Oklahoma time (when I am usually already in bed asleep). I am able to do one set of announcements for both classes because the basic assignment structure is the same in both classes, and the content overlap is very strong. All the enrichment material I share with the Myth-Folklore class is potentially of interest to students in Indian Epics, and vice versa.

Here's how the blog is organized:

In the body of each post, you will see an opening paragraph which states the day and week. This is important because people might be working on their own schedules and not remember what week of class it might be. I include information there about due dates, grace periods, etc. for that day in particular.

If/when there is some kind of computer outage or other breaking news item, I also include that up at the very top, updating as needed through the day. Since the most common type of outage is an email outage or a D2L outage, it sure makes sense to include that information here, rather than trying to communication that information by email or with D2L announcements, eh?

In the Class Procedures and Reminders, I always have a link to the Storybook Stack (more about the stack here). As the semester progresses, more and more of the material in this section is something I am reposting from earlier in the semester. I keep an eye on the students' blogs, I see how their projects are going, I get the occasional email query — all of that information allows me to gauge what people might be uncertain or confused about, and I address those issues in the announcements.

I consider the Fun and Exploration section of the post to be just as important as the class procedures and information. The courses I teach are Humanities courses in our General Education core, so promoting curiosity and passion for world culture is a high priority for me. Here are the items I include in the announcements every day:
  • Miscelleanous. I start off with a miscellaneous item — usually something funny or inspirational or both. Often it is an item related to writing, but it really could be anything to do with school, stories, books, art, etc.
  • Words. I include either an English spelling item or there is an English word origin — either an English word from India (since I teach Indian Epics) or an English word from mythology (since I teach Mythology).
  • Featured Storybook. This is a Storybook from a previous semester (either class) which might be useful to students for content, style, design, etc.
  • Free Kindle eBook. I am such a fan of free Kindle eBooks because they are so convenient to read on any kind of device: Kindle, mobile, or desktop via the browser. The books usually parallel the reading schedule in Myth-Folklore, but I make sure to include one or two India-related books each week.
  • Words of Wisdom. These are proverb posters; I make sure to have one or two proverbs each week from India.
  • Indian Epics image. I include an art item each day from the Ramayana (Weeks 1-8) or from the Mahabharata (Weeks 9-15). I am glad the students in Myth-Folklore get an introduction to Indian art in this way.
  • Event on Campus. I can almost always find at least one event on campus to include. Best of all is when students want me to announce an event they are involved in personally.
  • On-This-Day. For the last item, I include an "on this day" item of some kind. It might be a holiday announcement, a birthday, the anniversary of someone's death or of some important cultural event. Occasionally, when the campus event is a really important one and/or when I have a really excellent graphic for the campus event, I will omit this time to keep the focus on the campus event as the final item in the post.

In addition to the main post, there is also the blog sidebar space, but I don't have a lot in the sidebar of the blog as I don't want it to get too cluttered. I have links to the most recent announcements (helpful for students who check in only periodically but who want to get caught up on the announcements). There's also a "semester progress" widget which shows how close we are to the end of the semester. Below that is the class Twitter widget (I'll say more about the class Twitter feed in a separate post). There's also the anonymous "suggestion box" (also a topic for a separate post), and a form for students to sign up to receive the announcements by email.

History: I used to do announcements Monday-Friday only, but since so many of the students do their course work on weekends (and some of them do work for this class only on weekends), it made sense to switch to every day including Saturday and Sunday. Since it just takes me a few minutes to put together each day's announcements, that's not really a burden at all. I've been through various blogging platforms over the years, but in the summer of 2007 my b2evo installation got hacked, so I started shifting everything to Blogger and using it pretty much exclusively for all my blogging, both personal and school-related. I've had this Blogger blog of class announcements going since August 2008. I've been evolving the different content sections over the years. I always had the "On This Day" item, while the other content areas are more recent additions.

Goals: I have so many goals for the class announcements — too many to try to list here. Some top goals would be:
  • Share Up-to-Date Information. I want students to have instant, up-to-date information about the class, including breaking news about computer outages, campus closings, etc.
  • Promote General Education. The continuous stream of books and artwork is intended to provide both curiosity and passion for the cultures of the world.
  • Promote Campus Events. I want to promote awareness of campus events, especially any events in which the students themselves are involved.
  • Instructor Presence. I want to create a strong sense of presence, showing my daily commitment this class, as well as giving the students a sense of whom I am as a person and what things are of interest to me.
  • Reduce Email. The announcements are intended to reduce email, both for students and for me.

General Thoughts

I love writing the announcements! It's not really a blog in the traditional sense, but it offers much of the same satisfaction that blogging does. It is surely no accident that I use the same content management strategy in the Class Announcements blog as I do in my long-running Bestiaria Latina blog. In fact, I evolved this content re-use strategy for the Bestiaria first, and then I realized that it would work perfectly for the Class Announcements also.

The fact that I love writing the announcements is a sign that makes me hopeful the announcements can be fun for the students too. They sometimes mention the announcements in their end-of-course evaluations, and I am especially happy when students remark that they want to go back and read some of the free ebooks once the semester is over and they have time to read.

By way of contrast, a friend of mine who teaches online tried doing daily announcements, but she did not like it at all — it just did not fit her style of interacting with the class. And that makes sense: it's a very personal thing. That's why I would never label any of the things I do as "best practices." I can only attest that my course design strategies work for me, and I am very aware of just how idiosyncratic these strategies might be. I've always been the kind of person who embraces a daily routine, so the idea of daily announcements works great for me. I feel so lucky that the advent of the Internet makes this so easy to do!

In terms of the future evolution of the announcements, Twitter is clearly going to help me push things to a new level. I'm still experimenting with how that will work, but the Twitter widget has already proved to be a great addition to the Announcements blog itself, and I've also been resharing items from the Announcements via the Twitter feed. I'll have more to say about all that when I write up some posts on the fun new Twitter experiment for Fall 2014!