DP Workshop Sessions–Collaborative Digital Spaces: Open Up?

As we planned for the recent Mellon Digital Pedagogy workshop, we noted that many of the grantee projects, quite naturally, involve creating spaces online where students could collaborate around various course materials and ideas. But we also observed that these online “spaces” could be of different types and could be more or less “open” or “closed” depending upon pedagogical objectives, the sensitivity of the subject matter, the developmental stage of a project, and considerations such as student privacy and copyright. So we decided to include two parallel breakout sessions, one on “inward-facing” (closed or restricted) web spaces and one on “outward-facing” (open access) web spaces.

Collaborative and interactive web spaces can take many different forms–for example, blogs, wikis, discussion forums, comment sections, Google docs, Twitter streams, and other spaces defined in particular applications, such as “salons” within Classroom Salon and “projects” within Scalar. In most cases, users (or site administrators) are given a choice of settings to enable varying degrees of publicness. It’s important to note, though, that different kinds of spaces are designed to function best with a particular degree of openness, even if the user chooses otherwise. For example, the benefits of blogging platforms and most forms of social media are maximized when they are completely open and public, yet these tools can also be used effectively with more restricted access. Other collaborative tools, such as Moodle forums or Google Docs, are by design optimally used by teams or groups or classes, though it is possible to open them to wider audiences. And of course “access” can sometimes be further differentiated into various user roles, so that some users are simply viewers, some are creators and editors, and some have administrative privileges.

At one end of the spectrum, an online space may be completely private; a learner may wish to formulate ideas or work individually on a project before inviting the observation or interaction of others. At a next level, a space may be restricted to an instructor and an individual student. That is the case, for example, in Dan Dominick’s project involving music students and their listening journals. Using Classroom Salon, Dan has created a separate salon for each student in the class, in which he and the particular student are the only members. The students upload their musical selections and annotate them with their comments, knowing that only their professor will see and respond to those comments. Several professors in the School of Education have also been using salons in this way to have private conversations with their students about student teaching videos.

A common arrangement is for all the students in a given course to share a common online space that is restricted to members of the class. Learning management systems, such as Moodle, generally operate on this principle. Teams or subgroups within the class may be given their own distinct spaces to work in as well. Wikis and Google Docs work well for these purposes, as does Scalar, the new digital publishing platform now available. David Aiello’s Mellon project includes an example of such a space, the Aiello Genetics Lab Wiki.

Beyond private, group, and class spaces, there is the “open web,” that is, spaces that are public and accessible (at least for viewing) to anyone. In these cases, student work is exposed to the widest possible audience. Some argue that the technical and cultural architecture of the web, which facilitates linkage, open access, and broad distribution of content, promotes an underlying epistemology (“thinking like the web“) and theory of learning (“connectivism“). From this perspective, even though the creation of material and content may in some cases be best done in a closed space, the inner dynamism of the Web ultimately promotes the widest possible sharing of ideas and projects. Wider distribution invites greater levels of feedback and more ways to situate student work in authentic contexts of practice.

In the “open access” or “outward facing” breakout session, we discussed the benefits and challenges of moving students toward a greater degree of participation in the open web in terms of their academic and professional work. We agreed that students need to be mentored and guided toward developing good judgment in sharing their academic work responsibly and taking ownership of their online presence. Perhaps the Communication and Inquiry freshman seminars could be a starting context for developing that judgment. We recognized that there is a wider discussion of student portfolios on campus and the ways in which students would benefit by having a gallery or repository of their academic artifacts to display to potential employers, graduate school admission committees, and others. The technical barriers to academic participation on the open web have come down; it is not necessary to have sophisticated programming or web design skills in order to create attractive and robust presentations of student scholarship. The Career Services and Student Life offices would also be interested in working with students to develop their online profiles.

The discussion then turned toward the possibilities offered by the Domain of One’s Own movement, in which students (and faculty) assume ownership of their own web domains and build their digital identities. Several colleges and universities, such as the University of Mary Washington, Davidson, Emory, and the University of Oklahoma, have established programs in which students and faculty manage their own web domains and leverage new opprotunities to enhance teaching and learning. Web hosting for these programs is provided by Reclaim Hosting, a company created to support just these kinds of initiatives in higher education. There was considerable enthusiasm for bringing the Domains movement to Austin College. We are currently looking into this possibility and planning a pilot program for next year that would involve a small number of interested faculty and students. We’ll have further details and developments here on the blog. If you have any observations along these lines, please let us know in the comments section.


Workshop 2015 Session Notes: Student-Created Video

One of our first two sessions this past weekend was on student-created video: digital stories, video essays, remixes and other motion-picture media students create as an assignment or exercise in a course.  Since that is an area of expertise for me and I was facilitating the session, it probably turned into more of a Q and A than we intended. But to be fair, there are a number of issues, some conceptual, some logistical and technical, that are important to address, so I completely understand the desire to mold it in that way.

We started by talking about what brought each of the participants to the session, and out of that introductory conversation came some useful comments.  Some participants felt that student-created video assignments are valuable because students feel the process of creating a video is more fun than writing an essay.  One question to consider in response to this suggestion is whether this sense among students will be a lasting one, especially as faculty become more comfortable with assigning video projects and genres of scholarly video production like the documentary and the video essay become more established.  Others felt this could also be a detriment, in that the “cute” factor as one participant put it can be more of a driver of the video quality than the intellectual ideas the assignment was supposed to encourage.

We moved from there to a range of concerns participants had with these kinds of assignments.  There were three core issues we discussed during the session:

  • How much tutorial time and effort is necessary with students today to ensure they have the tools available to make a competent video?
  • What about evaluation of video work? Rubrics or other methods of assessment?
  • What is the legality of posting student work online, both in terms of the fair use of copyrighted material and of their own rights to protect their work?

Regarding the first set of questions, I shared that I’ve written a piece for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) Teaching Dossier called “Production as Plug-in” in which I lay out a number of ways to approach the issue, depending on what your pedagogical goals are. We talked about my argument there in broad strokes, but briefly, my experience is that how much tutorial you build into your course schedule depends both on what your objectives are for your video production assignment and what your comfort level is with guiding your students through that work.  Though you by no means must be an expert, there is probably a minimum amount of assistance you should at least know where to point them to for most projects.

Regarding the second set of issues, we discussed that the key is keeping the focus always on what it is you want your students to practice or develop through the assignment, and crafting your criteria around that.  I did do a little research after the session, and there are some tools out there that are pre-built – edtechteacher.org and EdTech Central both have some good links to others’ rubrics for video projects – and some good advice on engaging the rubric-creation process in more depth so as to create your own if you’re interested.  I don’t use rubrics but I give my students a list of “evaluation criteria” phrased as questions that, if answered in the affirmative, constitute successful completion of the assignment.

Finally, regarding the last set, we talked about how the legality of posting work online is a contentious one, as I’m sure most readers will be aware.  As we discussed in the session, the issue of copyright goes “both ways” so to speak: concerns arise both about the use of others’ material in student projects, and about how free others will be to use student-produced material in their projects.  The latter question is actually easier to address because copyright law stands clearly on the side of the creator.  So assuming the student produced the material entirely on their own, they retain the right to decide who can copy it and who cannot. Enforcing that right is the harder part of that battle, but the volume of new material being produced every day is so great (even just to one sharing site) that students’ projects are adrift in it, so the likelihood of another finding and using a student’s work illegally is also quite low.

Most thorny is the question of whether and when a student is legally allowed to use another’s material in a project for a course.  Such “fair use,” and the nuances of the federal act and the case law that surround it, are both too voluminous for this post and not fully in my area of expertise.  In my field of media studies, we are lucky to be able to build on the work of several scholars who do have that expertise, and who have been working for the last few years to develop a set of “best practices” for working with copyrighted content in video production.  The best statement of those practices currently is a document also produced by SCMS, and while it is oriented toward media studies faculty and courses, it can be generally useful to others as well.

Given the brevity of the session and the scope and depth of these topics, we really only were able to touch on them at the workshop.  But we’re likely to have additional lunch or Saturday morning workshop sessions in the future, so if you’d like to see something like this topic discussed in the future, let us know here in the comments below. 🙂

Using Tablets for Presentations and Grading–A Biochemistry Case Study

interactive slide

With their Mellon Digital Pedagogy grant, Austin College professors John Richardson and Jim Hebda are experimenting with new methods of teaching biochemistry. In their spring 2015 course on biochemical metabolism, John and Jim are using tablets for untethered, dynamic PowerPoint-style presentations and electronic grading. Here’s how they describe the results so far:

The rationale of our Mellon project is to recapture some of the personal hands on approach that is lost when using PowerPoint presentations.

Biochemistry is a complex topic with a significant amount of intricate structure and visual content, which makes the traditional “chalk talk” difficult for both students and instructors.  By using PowerPoint lectures, students and instructors are free to spend more time on theory and less time on drawing out structures.  However, in-class questions and additional content that ends up being written on the board becomes lost and disjointed with respect to the pre-made slides when the students begin to study the material at home.

To this end we are using tablet technology to create the presentation, project it wirelessly to a large display screen, annotate slides during class and, if need be, add additional slides to the presentation on the fly. The advantage to the student is that after lecture the presentation (including the audio narration during class) can be uploaded to Moodle for future reference. An additional advantage of using the tablet is that the instructor is free to move around the room, enhancing class engagement and student participation. Furthermore, it would be possible to incorporate student use of the tablet during lecture as a novel way for them to mark up a slide during class.

To support this approach, we assessed the hardware available and settled on the Samsung Note 12.2 for its price point, extremely usable stylus technology, and ability to wirelessly mirror the display to a projector with an inexpensive device (we are experimenting with several streaming media adapters, including the Google Chromecast and the Amazon Fire Stick). On the software side, we are using Explain Everything for slide creation and annotation. As noted above, Explain Everything has the capacity to record audio and turn the presentation into a screen-mirrored movie, which we have done for most of our lectures this semester. Here is a portion of the presentation that we gave in the workshop, which was created using the method described here:



A second major feature of using the tablet is that we can grade student work electronically, thus preserving a record of the original and graded assignment. The students upload pdfs of their assignments, and we use a program called Papyrus to open and annotate those documents. Papyrus allows us to grade the assignment with a stylus, so the student still receives the exact same handwritten comments as before, but now in a digital format. Students thus still feel the direct connection of their instructors taking the time to make thoughtful commentary on the work handed in. Papyrus also has Dropbox support to allow easy import and export of files from the tablet. After being graded, the documents are uploaded back to Moodle in such a way that students can only retrieve their own work. We find it advantageous to keep a record of all our feedback to each student. In this way we can track student progress across the semester by accessing comments made on prior assignments rather than by relying on memory alone.

The objective of the project was to integrate tablets into lecture and grading, using the smaller CHEM 352 class as a pilot. We have done that and are continuing to refine the apps and software that best allow us to do what we want. We are confident that this approach can be successful with a large class like CHEM 351, Introduction to Biochemistry.

Flipping Out–Organic Chemistry

One theme prominently highlighted at the Digital Pedagogy workshop was the “flipped” model of learning. In the “traditional” course, class meeting periods are predominantly designed for information transfer via lecture, and students process the content outside of class via homework, problem sets, exercises, etc. A flipped approach inverts this design; information and content transmission takes place mostly outside of the classroom, and meeting time is then devoted to more interactive forms of learning and processing of content, such as guided problem solving, question and answer, discussion, and peer instruction. Often (though not always) the flipped model involves the production of short video presentations by the instructor, which replace the in-class lectures. Students watch and rewatch the videos prior to classtime, in addition to doing assigned reading, and hopefully come to class better prepared to engage the material.

Several grantee projects incorporate elements of the flipped model. In this post, we feature the work of AC chemistry professor Andy Carr, who flipped his fall 2014 course, CHEM 221, Organic Chemistry I. Here are the slides to Andy’s presentation, followed by his narrative description of the project:


I have successfully completed my first run of CHEM 221 with the flipped model. Over the course of the Fall 2014 semester I learned how to edit videos and compress them so that the files could be placed directly in Moodle. Overall this has been a very satisfying project for me and for my students. Over 70% of the students in my section reported that they learned much more or somewhat more than they would have in a traditional lecture. Many students have stated that they liked viewing the lectures at their own pace instead of frantically taking notes during lecture.

Besides student opinion, I had other markers of success. I had the lowest DFW (a grade of D, F, or withdrawal) rate in my career. Only two students did not complete the course, and only two students did not earn a C- or better. I started with 27 students; 23 moved on to second semester organic chemistry. Typically, organic chemistry has had a DFW rate of around 30%, and it has been as high as 56%. Overall, grades were slightly higher than they have been in the past.

Not only were students in my own classes benefiting from the videos; they also began to share them with their friends in other sections of organic chemistry. I then decided to make the videos available to the other sections of CHEM 221. So in total my videos were watched by approximately 80 students last semester. At the end of the semester students wanted to know which section of CHEM 222 I was teaching so they could make sure to stay in the sections with the videos. I told them that there may not be videos. This statement actually caused several students to beg and plead for me to continue making videos for CHEM 222. I was inundated by requests from students that were not even in my current section for me to continue the videos. I have never had students petition so strongly for anything like this (other than for a passing grade).

As part of the next iteration of the course I plan to use the quiz feature in Moodle to track student understanding of the videos/lecture material and to better link homework problems with the lectures.

Overall I think this has been a great experience for me and my students. I plan on flipping CHEM 222 and making the videos accessible to all organic chemistry students.

This is an outstanding example of the transformative possibilities for teaching and learning made possible by the smart application of technology to pedagogy. In upcoming posts we’ll present other projects embracing aspects of the flipped model, include Jennifer Johnson-Cooper‘s Beginning Chinese I (CHIN 101) and the team-taught course by John Richardson and Jim Hebda, Biochemical Metabolism (CHEM 352).

Scenes from a Workshop

The 2015 Mellon Digital Pedagogy Workshop was held this past Saturday, and the participants enjoyed stimulating presentations and conversations about their projects. Fourteen grantees attended; there were four showcase demonstrations of completed (or nearly completed) projects, and six breakout sessions for attendees to choose from. We’ll be blogging a lot more of the specifics in the days to come, but for now, here are a few pictures from the proceedings.


Gathering in the Library Digital Commons prior to getting started.



Andy Carr describes how he “flipped” his organic chemistry class to improve student learning outcomes.



Jim Hebda explains how he and John Richardson have transformed their Biochemistry class by using tablets to create presentations, then projecting and annotating them during class and saving the files with voice narration for students to watch and listen to again later.



Discussing textual and video annotations during a breakout session in Abell 104



A breakout session on collaborative student learning spaces


We continue the conversation with a working lunch.