BlogHer 2006: Mixed Feelings

I’m still in California, so the unsettled feeling I am experiencing can’t be attributed to jetlag; rather, I am feeling quite uneasy about some of what I observed and heard at BlogHer this weekend. On the one hand, it was a kick to be one of some 700 women bloggers for two days–the energy, humor and good will were palpable among the attendees–and some of the conference was very interesting and thought-provoking–facilitating the edublogging session with Laura and Barbara, for instance, was great; as was running into Stephanie Hendrik whom I had met at Blogtalk; hearing Dina Mehta, Grace Davis and Sarah Fordtalk about their blogging relief efforts; meeting the incomparable Nancy White and hearing her talk about how to set up and nurture online collaborative community sites; having J D Lasica of all people videotape our session.

But rumbling through the two days was, as Laura points out, a strong whiff of the almighty dollar. People were looking for hints on increasing traffic to their blogs, making money blogging, encouraging advertisers. In sessions I attended, and in the buzz around the pool, there was a whole lot of attention paid to getting people to your blogs. Fascinating.

Okay, so I learned that my world is indeed what I expected to find out–a bit out of touch. But I expected there to be a huge outcry against DOPA–after all, Danah Boyd spoke on Day Two. But no–NOTHING within my earshot. And in fact, as I went around talking about it, I found out that many, many bloggers, including those in academic circles, hadn’t even heard of it. How can that be? I was shocked and not a little bothered–we were surrounded by the sponsors giving us everything from zipdrives to condoms, fake flowers to souped up water; but no talk about legislation that will deepen the digital divide by making blogs and other social networking sites out of reach for kids without computers in the home, and force those who do use the sites underground to form their communities. Read Danah Boyd’s inspired research on MySpace and adolescents if you don’t believe me.

And so while I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people showed up for the edublogging session, and how they really wanted to talk about all kinds of Web 2.0 and learning topics (and how challenging so many of them felt sifting through the Web to find helpful sites on pedagogy and technology integration, on places for teachers to gather) I was dismayed by the lack of substantive talk about what’s going on with the Internet and kids. And in fact there were very very very few teens in attendance. And teens of color?

Maybe I just felt uneasy in a crowd of women who were basically having a ball blogging and meeting other women who blog and whose lives have changed through finding this means of expression. Maybe I’m too wrapped up in the future, on trying to reform education. Maybe I should have sat down with a couple of Yahootinis and stopped thinking about DOPA. But I can’t…it’s too big…

I threw this idea out there a while back, but now, now I’m convinced we’ve really got to figure out how to have an edubloggers gathering (K-16, and teacher-training programs), a face-to-face one where we sit down for two-three days and hammer out better ways for us to collaborate, to get materials and ideas to those who need them, and to talk about keeping the internet open to all.

And so, I’m gad, really glad, that I went to BlogHer, for it illuminated for me the current state of blogging, both the good and the bad. And it’s making me ever more determined to get out there and do what I can to get people talking about teaching and learning.

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BlogHer 2006: Talking about Education outside the Edublogosphere

I’ve been quiet on the blog for nearly two weeks due to a schedule filled with projects and planning and snatches in the garden and lovely moments with family—true true—-but really, now that I’m here at the keyboard, I confess that the multitude of fascinating projects has been as much an excuse right now not to post as a real reason why I have been scarce around these parts. When I received an email from Terry Freedman today in which he extended his hope that I was enjoying my vacation, I thought, vacation? what vacation–and I told him as much. And indeed, I have been absorbed by my work this summer, and it’s been incredibly exciting to move between plans for my fall teaching to workshops for Middlebury faculty, and writing applications for grants (well, that’s not all that exciting) to leading and planning Web 2.0 workshops and giving talks and writing and reviewing and meeting with colleagues in the field. Phew–it’s a whirlwind and incredibly stimulating.

But truth be told, I have dragged my feet on the blog because the closer I have come to BlogHer, the further away I’ve been from knowing what I want to say in the session on edublogging where I am co-presenting with two of my absolute must-reads in the edublogosphere, Barbara Sawhill and Laura Blankenship. I couldn’t quite get my head around what to say in a non-education-oriented conference. After all, many people outside this realm, when they hear the word “education” during the course of a conversation, smile politely and let it just pass on by without comment. As Ken Robinson said in his riveting talk, (and in his equally compelling book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, people don’t want to talk about education; they want to tell their own learning stories, sure, the terrible or wonderful things that happened to them in school, but they blanch at the mention of EDUCATION (and I DO try to stay away from that word as it smacks of the delivery-system of knowledge rather than the student -centered process of learning). They hear me say, “I’m an edublogger” and they recoil just a bit or look blank. And indeed, in the din of the pre-conference shindig for presenters last evening, someone thought I said I was an “anti-blogger” not edublogger–ha. I bet some of the people here (and even in my edublogging world) think this loose kind of essay writing I do is anti-blogging. I know that. I’m okay with that. In fact, the reason I wanted to come to BlogHer was to see the wider world of women bloggers first hand. Do they struggle getting their voices heard in a male-dominated world? Do they care? How do I talk about the things I am passionate about in teaching and learning to people outside this world? If we don’t want disasters such as DOPA to strike again and again, we have to get out beyond our own set of readers and thinkers as well as throw ideas around with one another.

I’m learning, I’m learning…

And I’ll be back with another post on creativity in the classroom–

Assessing Multimedia Composition (or Digital Stories)

As part of Middlebury’s ongoing summer series for faculty on Exploring Pedagogies and Tools, yesterday Karen Gocsik, the Executive Director of Dartmouth College’s Writing Program, talked about Assessing Multimedia Composition, a term she prefers to use instead of digital storytelling as academics often resist accepting narrative, especially if laced with the personal and/or the emotional, as a means of scholarly discourse. (What she does at Dartmouth looks a whole lot like what we do at Middlebury with digital stories, meaning creating multimedia essays through incorporating a voiceover, images and sound. It’s good to see other undergraduate institutions using multimedia composing as a viable form.

She opened by offering reasons for integrating multimedia composition into the writing classroom:

As it is no longer possible to cling solely to textual notions of discourse in this world where we converse and are immersed in multimodal forms, we need to improve visual literacy (I’d add that we need to pay attention to a whole new spectrum of literacies, visual being one)–to learn about how images are composed, students must compose with images. (Indeed, I would add that it is natural to want to communicate in as rich and varied a genre as possible: we gesture with our arms and express emotion through our faces while telling stories; draw maps while giving directions, make noises while describing animals, etc. If we could have composed in hypertext or in sound/image/text forms as we now can, we might never have ended up relying so heavily on the written word, pushing away image and sound away from text because they could not easily be transmitted and/or dispersed to many over time and space. And it is true that my students find it a little uncomfortable at first using images and sound files in an academic context because they have no experience doing so, no expectation that writing in college could involve more than text. But once they have a taste of the digital story or multimodal/mutimedia compostion, there’s no turning back for them. Their expression grows richer; their engagement more active, and the learning community’s bond stronger for the new forms of writing.)

Karen also pointed out that in her classes the process of multimedia composition has led to stronger traditional writing skills–her students would never have paused over a text to examine transitions closely, for example, but they now easily spend an hour arguing with one another over a transition in their multimedia work. Once they return to traditional writing, they transfer these skills, remembering what they learned about the importance of effective transitions, and the writing improves. I have found the same to be true of my students and why I use non-text-based writing in all my classes, asking students to compose an story in images only–an assignment I try out, too, of course, on my own blog to model and to test my own notions of what will work in a class, and I do so publicly because that’s what I’m asking my students to do, yes?–( here’s more on how I do this John Berger-esque exercise )–or to dance a poem, or create a story in non-speech sounds only.

Other talks about evaluating digital media projects I’ve heard don’t go much further than this, focusing mostly on why we need to include images and sound in our classrooms instead of on practical and effective ways to assess the work and why. Not so Karen. She came ready to talk about how it is she actually grounds the work within writing courses, and how she assesses the projects.

(And yes, assessment seems to be on my mind a good deal these days on the blog, and I do like to listen to people who are struggling as much as I do in creating a method of assessment that makes sense.)

Her Four Principles for Assessing Multimedia Composition Projects:

1. Assessment Mechanisms Should Reflect the Goals of the Assignment

In other words, you have to think through your objectives with the assignments–are you trying to get your students to create a visual argument? Structure? Work with primary sources? Technical prowess? Voice?

2. Assessment Values and Standards Must Be Transparent (YES!)

A) Show media to your students–talk about what we value in the pieces

B) Invite students to participate in creating the standards for assessment based on the particular assignment’s objectives. Review and revise the standards according to the group’s input.

(I particularly like how she involves the students in creating a rubric for evaluation–they have ownership, which is essential to effective learning.)

3. Assessment Should Be Public

Film is public–in fact it is most often a collaborative form with every moment negotiated. It is made for an audience (here I would add that what distinguishes the webfilm from the big-screen film is the intimacy of the experience of watching, webfilms being made for one viewer at a time or many viewers dispersed–see Peter Horvath’s work , and so if your students are making work for the Web, different sorts of objectives and ways of evaluating have to be considered.)
The audience for the projects should be real (as opposed to the inauthentic-feeling audience of an undergraduate paper), and they themselves are a part of this audience.
The assessment cards they came up with as a class are handed out to the audience which fills them out and ends by grading the project. (I wonder how they decide as an audience on what constitutes an A, etc.–this seems potentially problematic when the audience–as I think it should–includes more than just the learning community itself.) These responses become at least half the grade for the project.
The project creator(s) holds a Q & A session with the audience and essentially must defend the choices, in terms of content, argument and aesthetics.

4. For Collaborative Assignments, A Mechanism to Assess the Collaboration
The students answer questions asking them to reflect on their own process and participation relative to the group’s. She takes this process reflection into account when grading the projects.

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Barbara Sawhill Comes to Middlebury!

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In a convergence of Barbaras (and a stroke of pure genius), Barbara Ganley (yours truly) invited Barbara Sawhill to Middlebury College to give a workshop on using Web 2.0 technologies in second-language teaching. So for once, instead of skyping or blogging, we sat in the same room, and it was quite a pleasure to listen to her talk about how blogs, wikis and skype have informed her teaching. I blogged the session and recorded the first half of the workshop (on a wee iTALK, hence the fuzzy quality), so I’ll get out of the way and let her do the talking via my notes and the audio files:

I. Introduction
Barbara opened the workshop with a writing prompt: “If you could change one thing about your language class, what would it be?”

“I am a teacher and a technologist–and I put those in that order,” she continued:And indeed, I know from having heard her talk before and from reading languagelabunleashed, that she grounds the technology deeply in the teaching; she tries out the tools in her own classrooms before introducing them to her faculty. (This is the wisdom of educational technologists having a foot squarely within the classroom, sharing the experience of the teachers they are trying to reach–teaching technologists or techie teachers? She can speak to teachers from the authentic successes and failures of her own classroom, and that makes all the difference in her understanding of the relationship between technology and teaching, and in her ability to reach faculty.)

She also pointed out that she uses tools that have been out there for 4-5 years and are quite stable–what’s new is using them in foreign language teaching, not in other ways. She wants others to try the tools out, tweak them, inprove them before she hands them to her students or to her faculty.

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Blogs and ePortfolios and Assessment: Thinking Out Loud

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Three recent moments–reading my spring semester teaching evaluations, reading Lanny Arvan’s post on LMS, and participating in a lively and stimulating discussion with Pete Smith ( UT-Arlington) and Jan Marston of the DULAP program, and Barbara Sawhill of Oberlin College on her languagelabunleashed skype show— have me considering the relationship between blogging, ePortolios and evaluation in my classroom. And while I have used the term portfolio to describe our blogging, I’m not sure I will in the future, for I don’t want my students or anyone else confusing what we’re doing with blogs as solely filling the traditional role of a portfolio, that Scott Wilson in his eportfolio PPT describes as “a collection of artifacts that say something about the subject.” (Slide 8) . Now, I’m no expert on ePortfolios (see Scott Wilson or Helen Barrett, who in her white paper on “Researching Electronic Portfolios and Learner Engagement” writes:

…an educational portfolio contains work that a learner has collected, reflected, selected, and presented to show growth and change over time, representing an individual or organization’s human capital. A critical component of an educational portfolio is the learner’s reflection on the individual pieces of work (often called “artifacts”) as well as an overall reflection on the story that the portfolio tells.

Also complicating research and literature regarding portfolios in education is the fact that there are many purposes for portfolios in education: there are portfolios that center around learning, assessment, employment, marketing, and showcase or best work. With so many purposes for portfolios it becomes clear that the term “portfolio” should always have a modifier or adjective that describes its purpose.

Cautioning against eportfolios being turned into static vessels for deposit of artifacts only, she and others emphasize the importance of reflection and of storytelling in the making and content of eportfolios.

Explore, too, the TenCompetence site from Europe or the excellent paper, “Creation of a Learning Landscape: weblogging and social networking in the context of eportfolios” written by David Tosh and Ben Werdmuller in 2004 as they worked on ELGG, the open source learning landscape platform. What they describe is what I am after:

It can be argued e-portfolios are more valuable when used continuously throughout a course as an integral part of the learning experience, as opposed to a reporting mechanism used after the main body of learning is completed. To affect this, there are three important aspects a system would need to encompass:

• Reflection – the student can map out his or her thoughts on a course, a piece of work, or more general experiences.
• Communication – the student can communicate his or her reflections to other students, staff, tutors and lecturers.
• Sharing – the student can give selected other users access to their digital objects. Learning is not as effective in isolation; there is a great deal of discussion involved in traditional courses, and this would need to be reflected in any electronic learning aid. The importance of linking together people, ideas and resources cannot be overestimated.

It’s a complex series of possibilities, this ePortfolio phenomenon, and one that Lanny touches upon when he thinks about what his institution needs in a robust, flexible, responsive LMS–should there be a way to evaluate the group as well as the individual? My response to LMS will have to wait for another post, but that he brings up blogs in the same breath as LMS and assessment means that I can no longer use such terms as portfolio when I talk about our blogging, as casually as I have in the past.

In my classrooms blogging is about organic, emergent possibilities, a fluid weaving of the group’s and the individual learner’s many stories –to try to articulate this narrative as a portfolio of any kind perhaps limits blogging by asking it to be one thing only–something to present, assess, evaluate, collect, select. Blogging with learning communities not so much captures that which traditional learning portfolios do: snaphots of a student’s work at given intervals and often in relation to specific competency benchmarks, but as Pete said during the skypecast, by weaving these moments into a larger tapestry, builds a linked, richly textured conversation with the self, the work, the learning community and the world by including and valuing just about everything created in conjunction with the course (images, text, podcasts, digital stories–informal and formal, drafty as well as polished, conversations with the group as well as individual work. We don’t do much selecting, if selecting means keeping drafts and failures off the blogs–we do selecting through the tagging, the naming, the categorizing of the posts) .

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