Tuesday, December 16, 2014

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!

DETAILS.

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!

GENERAL THOUGHTS

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! :-)



Friday, December 5, 2014

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:




Wednesday, December 3, 2014

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.

HAPPY.

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

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