Friday, September 29, 2006

Online Journals and the College Writing Classroom

I'm interested in hearing about how YOU use technology in your class(es).

I've found that with a bit of planning, and some searching for free resources, teachers can find a multitude of opportunities out there to help our students--many of whom would probably never give writing a chance otherwise.

I've written a review of a new onilne tool I've been using this semester:



This semester, I decided to try Web Biographies as an instructional aid. When I did, I noticed a marked improvement in my students' quantity—and quality—of writing. Over the years, (as graduate student, and now faculty) I've found that students want new ways to write, and to share what they've written.

Recently, my Composition students have been creating online journals for their own writing, and responses to the semester's reading list. The assignment is similar to the traditional paper based reader-response journals that I've asked students to write in the past.

In the old assignment, students kept a notebook, where they wrote creative works (poems, etc.) and personal responses to reading assignments throughout the semester. I've always enjoyed seeing how their ideas about literature and writing--as well as their own writing--changed as they discovered new genres and writing styles that they found most (or least) appealing, or became excited (or angry) about various issues raised in what they were reading.

However, now that I've moved my students' journals online, I've found that their responses have become more than just the required (and sometimes tired) weekly entries. My students have been engaged in regular explorations of their relationships with the subjects we're covering.

I've discovered that many of my students are already fans of blogging. Most students read blogs on an almost daily basis, and some have even been writing their own for some time. I am finally able to productively tap this reservoir of generative creativity by migrating their formerly handwritten journals to an online format.

Unlike the traditional paper-based assignment, students are able to insert pictures, music and video into their responses—whatever is the best fit for their individual talents and learning styles.

The fact that my students have the option to password-protect their journals has been particularly valuable. It has ensured that what they post is only viewable by their classmates (and myself). I had always wanted my students to be able to share their journals, but it was simply impossible to implement with the old paper-based system (some journals would almost certainly be lost, etc.).

Gradually, through their experiences with this culture of sharing, my classroom is in the process of becoming a true community of learners--a creative organization. Their familiarity with one another's posts has been directly contributing to greater student participation this semester.

And unlike other online programs that I've used at universities, such as BlackBoard, students get to KEEP their online accounts/writings after the semester is over. BlackBoard (in case you're not familiar with it) locks and erases all work by teachers and students at the end of the semester. They also own whatever work you upload to the system... This is their--no, OUR work--and I want us to have to opportunity to KEEP writing, and to OWN our writing. By using http://www.webbiographies.com (accounts on Web Biographies are free, by the way), they can continue their journals long after my class is over.

And what teacher wouldn't want that?

What is the Role of Today's University?

Among the Liberal Arts disciplines, there's a persistent distrust (or is it intimidation?) of the business community. Certainly, this is in many ways well-founded--for example, aggressive technology-transfer policies have been shown to actually be hampering the progress of broader scientific and technological research.

But perhaps, with the shift to a creativity-based economy over the past decade or so, the business community is finally searching for students who best exemplify a Liberal Arts education. Of course, this depends on the industry in question. Some industries will have more of a need for students with superior communications and critical thinking skills, than others. But overall, there is a general sentiment that the most innovative and creative organizations will necessarily become the most successful.

My personal experience is in the field of Tech, which is in desparate need of skilled workers with multidisciplinary backgrounds. And this is exactly the realm of a traditional Liberal Arts education....with a twist.

For example, the rise of social networking sites like WebBiographies.com, in addition to juggernauts like Google.com, Yahoo!, etc. have spawned a second (more even-handed/mature) tech boom. One of the distinguishing features of the second boom (I'll refer to this as Boom 2.0, as it's largely a product of the rise of Web 2.0) is that these sites are about people first, and technology second.

Therefore, the best employees that are working for these sites also have a knowledge of psychology, marketing and communications, graphic design, etc. IN ADDITION to their technical expertise as a programmer, database manager, etc. And vice versa--the content generation team must also have a basic knowledge of what is both possible, and practical, from the programmers' and information managers', etc. ends.

Boom 2.0 is a Renaissance that is demanding men and women whose knowledge is more suited to a "Renaissance Man." And this also applies to other industries. Corporate R&D spending is, and always has been, high--but today, the focus on creative approaches isn't limited to the R&D lab. Throughout the economy, we need specialists, but specialists with interdisciplinary backgrounds, who can approach problems from diverse perspectives.

I'd like to propose that those of us who teach in the Liberal Arts likewise follow suit. We ought to educate ourselves about what employers are seeking, so that we can better educate our students. In scholarship, there has been a push toward interdisciplinarity, and what's called "hybridity" within one's field. For example, today's scholar of Modernist Literature is encouraged to address the broader cultural context of a work, such as how developments in Physics (Einstein's Relativity) may have influenced the aesthetic structure of art and literature, such as the Cantos of Ezra Pound.

Perhaps we should also approach our field itself in a broader cultural context. For instance, we can work on issues like "How can the skills and methods by which scholars of literature approach a text--and discover new uses, perspectives, etc.--be applied OUTSIDE the discipline?" These very skills are what the business community is crying out for, and what Boom 2.0 requires.

They need what we can give--original approaches to common problems. If only we would do a better job of opening a dialogue between the business and Arts communities, we might never have to deal with questions like "What are you going to do with an English major? Teach?" ever again.