As we started the Mapping the Futures of Higher Education “experiment” last semester, there were so many productive conversations happening around critical thoughts about technology, ideas for student-centered learning exercises, and models for collaboration in and beyond the classroom. However, I felt somewhat disconnected from the conversations we were having during the sessions and the reflections in between—all because I wasn’t teaching a class.
The ideas discussed every week were so inspiring, and I wanted an opportunity to try applying them in my own classroom, so I decided to take on an Adjunct position to teach Speech Communication (COM1010) at Baruch College—an intro-level class teaching public speaking to first-semester students.
As I sat down to create the syllabus for the class, so many of the thoughts from the Mapping the Futures class were still on my mind. I decided to incorporate into the class, as much as possible, the ideas around technology, student-centered learning, and collaboration. I also consulted the excellent Pedagogy Project, put together by the HASTAC Scholars Program a couple of years ago.
Three elements of the course stand out as particularly meaningful and influential structures that deeply changed the dynamics of the class:
(a) The use of Google Docs through and through. I chose to use Google Docs as the collaborative platform this semester because of several reasons:
- many students might already be familiar with it (though it’s important to also recognize that many might indeed not be familiar with it);
- it’s free (compared to many other solutions for collaborative writing)
I think the most important way I used Google Docs was to make the syllabus more of a collaborative document (open for commenting to students and editing only to me). I opened every class by projecting our document, which had the bit.ly link to the document on top, and every time I opened it, the students were also logged into Google and on the document as I could tell by the little critters on top. It seemed that this made students pay attention to the syllabus in a different way than in any other class that I’ve ever taught.
They cared so much that the student body in the classroom made an intervention and voted to change our sessions! One student suggested the change and I told them that this is the point of a student-centered classroom, and that they could go ahead with the vote if they did it in a democratic manner, using Robert’s Rules. They did, and the proposal found a majority, and we changed our sessions around in the schedule. This, to me, was proof that I had succeeded in my intention. Every student in the classroom was naturally not part of the conversation and voting process (it’s still hard to reach every student in the room) but many were engaged in the process.
(b) The vote on the structure of our classes happened, I believe, also as a consequence of the fact that I had decided to create a class constitution at an early point in the semester. The exercise borrowed (and heavily modified) Cathy Davidson’s ideas for creating a student-centered classroom. I asked all the students to bring a computer to class. (Disclaimer: My classroom this semester was filled with students who were fortunate enough to have won a competitive fellowship with Baruch College called the Dean’s Scholars Program, which had provided them all with a computer among other things.) Before the class, I had set up the document with an outline of five articles: (I) the students’ expectations of me; (II) the students’ commitments to me; (III) the students’ commitments to each other; (IV) the students’ commitments as speakers; (V) the students’ commitments as listeners.
The resulting Class Constitution was licensed under the Creative Commons (which gave me the opportunity to talk about fair use, copyright, and plagiarism in the classroom) and put up as a public document. I tweeted it out, and Cathy brought it up in her keynote lecture at the Leaps Of Knowledge Conference in Kuala Lumpur. My students were thrilled!
(c) Lastly, since the class ultimately was a skill-building class where students learned to use their bodies and voice in public speaking, I wanted to incorporate video feedback. I wanted to annotate those videos with comments and grades. This was a trial—and perhaps it goes without saying, that trial doesn’t come without error sometimes. I recorded the videos of my students’ speeches using a Macbook and it turns out the video quality of the built-in webcam leaves a lot to wish for. All the videos needed editing, to improve the image quality as well as the audio quality. I thought the platform that I had chosen, Acclaim, was going to be entirely free to use but after having edited and uploaded the videos to the platform, students reported that they were asked to pay to get access to their videos. It took a tremendous time for me to figure out what was happening, and unfortunately, as much as I care, my adjunct salary does not weigh up for the labor that I would have needed to sort out this situation. The video feedback this semester became a big failure that I choose to learn from for next semester.
As I am planning the next semester, some of these reflections are making their way into my syllabus:
(a) I may very well turn away from Google Docs, at least in part, to Social Paper, “an online, non-proprietary writing environment where students, at any point in the writing process, could publicize their work for feedback from a select group of peers” (quote from Project Manager Erin Glass’s website).
(b) I am definitely keeping the class constitution exercise but will try to move it up to an even earlier time in the class and I also want to think more about how to build it into the syllabus and the class structure in a more profound way.
(c) I need to find another platform to annotate videos with comments—for-profit models of educational software are not going to be part of my future classroom. YouTube has a built in function to do so, which I may actually try out. You can post videos as private, which gives students access to the link (and they can share it as they wish).
The idea of using YouTube has also made it further into my reflections around my syllabus: I am now thinking about incorporating a truly public exercise in my students assignments for next semester. There may be a slew of public videos coming your way, HASTAC audience—we may very well end up doing public informative videos, including the students’ speeches and some creative way of creating visuals for them as well.
Featured image by JohnDiew0107 on Flickr. Image has been cropped to fit HASTAC's format.