There won't be a research paper in my "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" course this semester. Nor a midterm. Nor a final. Nor (we know this, right, blogosphere?) conventional grading systems. Everything about this second run of the course I taught last year is designed to test the limits and potential of the new ways of learning on line. This summer I blogged about "How To Crowdsource Grading" and 10,000 views and many articles and comments and lots of denunciations later, that is what we are doing. Guess what? If you don't have conventional grades, you can then think about everything else. As I said to my students, for most of their lives, grades have equaled education. That is, you proceed from grade to grade, and you receive grades in each class. For most people, that is what education is. If grades no longer equal education, what does learning look like?
That's a really interesting way to frame this, as provocatively as possible, so I'm going to repeat: If grades no longer equal education, what does learning look like?
We're going to find out this semester. One other feature of this course sure to provoke comment and, I hope, interest too (I have learned "comment" and "interest" are not synonymous: comment first, then pay attention is the way for many people), is that there will not be a midterm, a final, or a research paper. The first two are obvious. If you don't have conventional grades, you don't need conventional ways of determining a grade. Since my class is small--eighteen students--and since I have a whole learning team helping me in the "teacher" role in this seminar (one TA, two graduate student Teaching Apprentices, and two senior program officers of HASTAC sitting in to learn more about students today), if I need a midterm and a final to figure out who is and who is not learning, something is drastically wrong with me and my five teaching companions! These students are going to be so scrutinized for learning . . . a midterm and final would be laughable in such a situation.
But the research paper? The research paper! First, recent tests I've seen indicate that this generation of students writes better than previous when measured even by conventional means, when one compares the writing skills of same demographic of student over time. (The great study that came out of Stanford this year showed this was true of the quality of recent students accepted to Stanford, a trend that surprised everyone.) Second, I love the tests that show students make more not less grammatical, syntactic, and semantic errors in research papers than anywhere else--it make sense, given Labov's classic experiments about grammatical errors resulting from over-correction ("I" when "me" is grammatical, etc) in status-driven situations. I think the research-paperese it is the legacy of high school where you were supposed to use a thesaurus and "sound smart" in all you did. It's a subgenre of "dissertationese." Who writes like that anywhere else? Third, I am convinced that regular, weekly blogging, addressed to the other students in an exceptionally smart class (this group is brilliant, I assure you, even when tested by those old, traditional means that they've used in every other class they have taken their entire lives), is more meaningful in terms of a class dynamic and class innovation than writing a research paper. No one but the prof sees the results of a research paper, and it often comes at the end of the term.
Weekly blogging on the material at hand allows for a communal result, the process of working out and working towards innovative ideas is revealed and shared. Plus, because other students respond, the writer has a stake in them. Part of our process in ISIS 120 is responding to one another, listening but also giving meaningful critique and an opportunity to augment or revise ideas, and even change one's mind. Research papers lead to an individual result; this blogging is about a community of ideas and interchange. One is not necessarily better than the other, but each has different goals, utlities, purposes, and benefits and minuses, too. Weekly blogging also elicits far more attention from me than a research paper. I try to respond to, if not every blog, most of them.
That requires a pause. HASTAC Scholar Gerry Canavan, on his recent post on this site, asked about blogging that he is starting in his Writing 20 class. My advice is that, for it to work, it has to be meaningful. Meaningful means interactive, both with the other students and, most of all, with the prof. Last year, I think I personally out-blogged and out-commented any other single member of the class by a significant ratio. So my students were receiving constant feedback pushing them to think more deeply and critically from me and, extended from that example, by the other students in the class. Learning how to give and receive constructive feedback is a key part of TYBI.
Unlike writing comments on a research paper, which comes at the exhausted end of the term, and when one is never sure if the students will read the comments or if the comments will have an impact, responding to weekly blogging helps students form patterns of thinking in process, at the moment. A research paper is an end product. A blog is a process. Substituting one for the other in every class would be as ridiculous as the current one-size-fits-all-requirements of a conventional humanities course. The downside, of course, of weekly process-blogging is precisely that students don't have that chance to read extensively, formulate an argument, and then present it in a sustained way. So those choices and goals have to be weighed and balanced. I know at many universities students don't write research papers any more but these students all have. So this blogging vs. research method is not a universal recommendation, but something specific to this course and the objectives of thinking of new ways of thinking together that help us fulfill the promise and potential of thinking together on line. (i.e. "This Is Your Brain on the Internet.")
In "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" we are postulating a new method of collaborative, process-oriented, associational, iterative thinking based on the original architecture, as invented by Tim Berners-Lee, of the World Wide Web, the open end-to-end principle architecture that not only invites participation but has grown because of it. In that spirit, instead of a final research paper written individually by each student, teams of four or five will be working together on some major project that they will present to the whole class. It needs some text-based component, but there will also be other components that students develop together, drawing from the different talents ("collaboration by difference") of the individual members. They might also create something--last year, one group did a silent rave; another constructed a scientific experiment. A thorough final research paper requires intensive thinking. A multimedia, collaborative final project does too. In some ways, it is a choice, and, if we are really thinking about "your brain in the Internet," the choice, at least in this iteration of the class, is for the collaborative project, co-developed and presented to our class. That, to me, is more in the spirit of our class goals and practice.
Given these goals, these requirements, this set-up intellectually, and these goals, in this class, in the great battle of Blogging vs Research Paper, blogging wins by a knock-out. It's not even a close call. I'm calling the fight right now, in round one. In "This Is Your Brain on the Internet," blogging rules.
To follow along on the public blogs for This Is Your Brain on the Internet," you can search using the tag "ISIS 120" and you will see all the blogs for this course produced this semester for public consumption. Most of the blogging will be happening, however, on an internal class blog just for the students in the course.