Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Personal Contemporary History Assignment

Well, in one of my earlier posts about a month or so ago, I wrote about a possible new history paper assignment. "Well, I've adapted to my students this semester and decided to try out a new assignment with them, by having them write up the history of the last ten years, from their own perspectives."
I was much surprised by their final projects, which all turned out to be very good--even from those who I didn't think had a chance of writing ten coherent pages. You can take a quick look at the papers: novaonline.nvcc.edu/eli/evans/campus/His135/Assignments/Links.html
I originally planned on using a wiki to set this up a collaborative project, but the free, online wikis available to me did not seem fitted to the task of long, research papers from multiple groups of collaborators. No matter how much I worked around--and I'm sure that it could have been done--but it seemed to be too much of a hassle for me to figure it out. It should have been simpler. So I settled on using google docs. Now, I could not track editing changes or specific collaborators with google docs, but the docs worked ok and it was simple. Besides, there weren't too many students who opted for the collaboration (Don't we all hate group work!), and so it just amounted to me working online with individual students.
Anyway, back to my point that students did very well. Some needed a bit of prompting, but most did a lot of work and enjoyed the paper and the opportunity to reflect on what they had seen and already lived through in the past ten years.
Most, of course, wrote primarily of things that happened in the US. That is not unusual, given that most of these students were very young with limited news exposures, but still some had overseas experience and could bring very interesting perspectives to the assignment.
Second, it was hard to get students to do supplemental research to investigate more thoroughly the events that they were writing about. This was especially the case with the use of Wikipedia. Most students are more than happy to read wikipedia, but they are not interested in looking further for more sources, nor are they even interested in looking at the notes or citations in a wikipedia entry itself.
Third, there is a problem of writing contemporary history and that is the issue of historical perspective--there is very little when covering ten years past. I worked a bit on this, but the very nature of the assignment which was kind of a personal memoir of recent history allowed me to bypass some of this issue.
Fourth, it was difficult to get students to read the other papers and produce detailed, competent critique, even though many ended up covering the same events. For example, a lot of students wrote about the Columbine Shootings, but they would not ask why one student omitted something, or point out mistakes in information in another paper.
Fifth, what struck me more than anything was the fact that when students had to work on impersonal, analytical writing assignments, such as I use elsewhere in the course, then they really struggled. They struggled with writing mechanics and style; they struggled with thesis and content. But with their personal writing and memoirs in this assignment, they wrote pretty darn well. I think that is reflective of the kind of writing that they now do in high school (I write this, I think this, I feel that, I, I , I , but that is not the kind of writing that they need to succeed in college or professional life.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

New BB 8.0 Sets New Standards for Un-Usability

Well, we haven't even started using a new upgrade of BB at our college--8.0 in this case--and people are already praising it to the heavens, especially the the newly-redesigned "Grade Center." Look, I wrote about this in a previous post. One of the main problems with BB is that is tries to span the teaching scale from grade 1 to college, and to do that, as is obvious, it tries to pack too much garbage into the overall package. Some of these grading features are perfect for a fourth grade teacher; not so for a college instructor, and not needed! It would be smarter if the BB team had targeted versions of BB for specific ed environments.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Even More questions about Blackboard

Just realized that my son's second grade class has access to Blackboard, and so do the fifth graders (where homework assignments from the teacher are supposed to be posted). They use Blackboard in the Middle School, and it is used in the High School (where students can post and submit assignments). And we are supposed to use it on the college level. Now, someone please tell me, how this BB CMS is appropriate across all of these educational levels; is it that brilliantly-designed with so many options that can be tailored to the individual learning needs of vastly different audiences? Hardly!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Still More Blackboard Badness

Well, try and do any batch-type action in Blackboard, and I promise that you will go through a lot of extra steps. For example, I had to inactivate some students from one of my Blackboard course gradebooks. This involved going to control panel, list students, check their properties, and then make the appropriate change to "not available." This had to be done student by student, with a lot of screens, submits, confirms. I could not just go down a single list of students and change the properties and submit it all. These folks no nothing about productive use of an instructor's time.

Monday, September 15, 2008

More of Blackboard as bad, bad, bad

Continuing my previous post:
1. It is very difficult to link to anything within Blackboard.
2. If you don't think like the Blackboard design team--most of whom I'm guessing have little actual educational experience--than nothing will be intuitive about the system. Look, I've used a lot of Blackboard. Try and do something simple. For example, enter a grade for a student in the gradebook; it is a lot more difficult a process than you would think. I've had to write it up with about ten lines of directions for some of my adjunct instructors. Try and make a suggestion about what would work better, forget it. Changing the corners and colors of the buttons does work well.
3. Why doesn't Blackboard recognize that I am an instructor when I log in so that I have the tools that I need as an instructor available to me from my carefully chosen menu buttons?
4. I also think that BB is close to being illegal by seeming to protect instructional materials from perusal and use by the citizens of the state that have paid for those materials.
5. BB destroys the entire premise of the web which is the free access and sharing of materials across all disciplines and boundaries. If I create something for one of my history courses, other students in other courses can have access to those materials and use them if they wish. They can learn! The web is great at fostering collaboration; but not BB because you can't get to or share anything in there unless you have the magic password.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The electronic textbook

Just received an email from the editors of Innovate, a journal of online education, in which the editors are seeking contributions about the future of textbooks and how they might or might not change in the electronic near future. Very interesting. I have been toying with the idea of abandoning a regular textbook in my HIS 135, contemporary history course, but I haven't yet been able to get up to do that, thinking that I need a bunch more resources online for the course before I could make any change.
It is worrisome, the thought of abandoning the text, not from the point of view of the material in there, but considering that students read so little now, and they have such poorly defined reading skills, especially when it comes to interpreting the information--not to mention actually being able to read a couple of hundred pages a week. I am not sure where that leaves us if we abandon a large part of the reading demands on them, because you can't just replace a text with an equivalent amount of online text. More thoughts on this later.

Blackboard, let me count the ways that it is bad, bad and bad

1. It uses an archaic frame-page set up that was long ago abandoned by most web designers. With the current way that BB run, you get about 30-40% of a computer screen (in the target area) to design with. Boy, that is real exciting! You can really do a lot with graphics and images in a 400x400 pixel box.
2. Blackboard depersonsalizes (sic) the educational experience. When you take classes in person at any college in this country, every time you step into a different professor's classroom, you experience a different learning environment (some are good; some are not so good), but all are different. Everyone teaches slightly differently from their colleagues, even with the same course. Well, Blackboard aims for uniformity of expression' although the BB people do allow you to change the color and style of the buttons. Wow, that makes for a different classroom experience.
3. It is ugly. Enough said; oops, maybe I should say BB is really, really ugly. There is no aesthetic sensibility about it.
4. The BB setup also rewards those instructors who don't want to go beyond the technological requirements of being able to create and upload a Word document. The web and the "cloud" have a lot more potential than a black-and-white, text document.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

New Semester online

Along with my campus course, my online courses start this week. One of the main points in that regard is keeping track of my adjuncts--have to do that in the campus situation also--and keeping track of the various administrative due dates in the semester. I'm also trying some new assignments as extra credit options, for example the Wikipedia analysis paper, in the course to see how they work out before putting them permanently into any course course.

I am also planning to do some short videos: an introduction; how a historian analyzes a document; why proper and correct writing is so important to a historian.

New Semester on campus

In my campus course, HIS 135, I will be trying out a variety of new assignments to see what works with the students. I think that I will also try a collaborative paper using a wiki just to see how that goes. I'd like to start the course by showing students a clip from the Live 8 Concert back in 2005 (so very long ago for many people) in which the Pet Shop Boys are playing on a stage set up on Red Square in Moscow. Could the same concert be scheduled for 2008? I'll write about some of my other ideas later.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Students and the Blog?

Well, this spring I experimented with using a blog in my Russian history courses as opposed to the usual course-management-system discussion forums. The results were not much different than what I experienced with the forums, i.e., mixed student participation. On the plus side, the blog allowed me to offer some "spur-of-the-moment" thoughts to students as they were progressing through the course; the blog also allowed me to comment on current events in Russia that I normally would not have been able to bring to the attention of the students. On the negative side, the learning curve (however small it may have been) was a bit much for some students to handle. In addition, when students did choose to comment or post, their contributions were not always solid contributions. I think the next time that I try this, each student will have their own blog, and I'll use it as more of a reflective instrument for students to comment as they work through the course material. I think that kind of use would also work well with some kind of portfolio project.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Using Video

Just finished some training in Adobe's Premier CS3--I needed it since this new upgrade was much different than my old Premier 6.1 software. I'm hoping to get started on some short videos for my online classes, but haven't decided whether to shoot with my mini-dv camera or my logitech webcam. I think that these will end up in Flash format. Also have some home video projects to attend to this summer.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Student Technology Know-How

Is the newest student generation really tech savvy? Or is just the portion of the students at the high end of the tech use spectrum driving that label for all students? I've got an awful lot of students in my classes with very low level tech skills. Browsing, or searching, the web, sending an email using Word are all things that are problematic. I don't necessarily label calling with, or talking on, a cell phone a tech skill.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Interactivity (commenting on images)

What I'd like to be able to do is figure out a way that students can comment throughout my course on, for example, some of the images that I use. In a blog, students can add comments to posts or images that are included in the blog. In Flickr (or other online photo sites), users can always add comments to images. Now, I've just got regular html pages, and the question is how can I make them more interactive for users. I'd like to see students build up a line of commentary on specific images that I use.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


One of the many problems that we face at our college is staying in touch. Seems simple enough! We're a large college, with five different campuses (in an area where driving any amount of distance can always be problematic), with faculty having heavy teaching loads. Plus we are all dealing with our different discipline demands. So, while technology can offer us some solutions, it is interesting that even though some of us can be pretty darn good with tech, it can be still be tough to stay up on what others are doing. The tech just doesn't enable communication as flawlessly, as easily, as it should be.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Resizing Pages

It is a minor point, but one of the things that came to my mind as I was working on these course re-orderings was that I should redo my page widths. Since I first started working on the web years ago, I always designed my web pages with a define width of 600 pixels. That worked well with the low graphics resolutions and small monitors, but now I figured that I could throw caution to the wind and expand everything to at least a width of 800. That gives me a lot more design room on the pages. But it's also going to add another step in my work.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Digital Teaching Workshop

Right now I'm directing a NEH-funded, year long workshop focused on teaching/studying the humanities with current and future digital technologies. I am not quite sure yet what will come out of this, but currently I am working on separating content from course assignments in all of my online history courses. It is a bit laborious to do that, but I'm hoping that this will give me more options in considering which, if any, web 2.0 applications I can begin to use in the courses. Separating out the content will also allow me to develop my content a bit more and add in a lot more images.