Ideas on Assignments

Since I wasn’t sure if the assigned reading for this week was the entirety of the June 2009 issue of Academic Commons or just one or two articles, I got lost in time and perused them all.  For years I thought peruse meant to leisurely browse, but then I learned it means to read deeply or scrutinize. I still think of the word peruse in a playful way.

These articles seemed to reinforce many of the ideas we talked about last semester, and continue to discuss in the current ITP term. One of the main framing points for these papers is that in the current era students need to practice analysis of material not content regurgitation (Wesch, 2009).

Each article is quite rich so I’ll just pull a few of the parts that struck me and maybe people can add their perspectives on what they found most intriguing, whether from my post or otherwise.

In one piece Davidson says “The whole system of credentialing, grading, evaluating, writing recommendations, all of that, is antithetical to true participatory learning formats and learning communities. Higher education has never figured out if its primary goal is learning or if its primary goal is training citizens for elite positions of class power and leadership. The whole system of ranking (among institutions and among students) is based on “distinctions,” as Bourdieu would say. Participatory learning, especially when it is anonymous, contests the bases and even the sanctity of many of those distinctions”.

I’m puzzled; Higher ed is both, is neither, is both but shouldn’t be either? Agree, disagree?

The Yancey article on E-portfolios was intriguing and is perhaps especially relevant to Humanities or creative writing and digital art programs. I wonder how relevant an e-portfolio is for social science or hard science students? I guess this comes down to the question of what is valued. In my field, psych, the value seems to be placed on tight impersonal writing. I wonder what a student would gain by developing an E-portfolio of their research reports. Okay they would gain knowledge about digital tools, but how does this help them if their goal is to be a biologist? Wouldn’t their time be best spent crafting their writing and reading about their content area?

If pressed, I might say that one activity for a psych student could be to do a ds106 type creation of their research project. Perhaps film the data collection, a few interview clips, and then share this. As an instructor I would be a little concerned about the department giving me a hard time for having undergrads film their participants and not following all of the necessary ethical procedures for recruitment. I guess that would push me to be better versed on these procedures, so it could be a good thing.

Finally, I find assessment is one of the most challenging parts of teaching a course. I use a research paper rubric and a presentation rubric. Even with a rubric I find it really challenging to grade student presentations. Perhaps it comes from an inner contradiction about who I am as an instructor; I want my students to work hard and earn their grades. But how do I measure ‘hard work’. I don’t want to be a dream crusher nor do I want to be a pushover, and striking the balance is a great challenge. I like what Rhodes is doing in creating a broad interdisciplinary rubric. One shortcoming of the Rhodes rubric is there is no section for basic writing mechanics.

Any interesting ideas for integrating digital assignments into the courses you teach or participate in? Any assessment ideas? Other thoughts?


9 thoughts on “Ideas on Assignments

  1. Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land

    Thanks for your post, Phil! I often have trouble with evaluation and assessment in my teaching. I can identify with the tension between wanting to be encouraging and supportive, while also wanting to effectively confront the failure of students to do what I expected of them. The focus in this week’s readings on the embodied and affective components of the learning process helped me to understand this tension a little better, I think. How can we account for those aspects of learning and transformation that occur when students participate in various ways, even if they’re not doing it “properly” or to our exact specifications?
    This question has become especially important to me this past year since starting to teach at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. I teach criminology in the sociology department. A sociological approach to the study of crime requires a critical, theoretical exploration of questions like “what is crime?” and “why do we punish?” – qualitatively different questions than students are asked in their criminal justice classes (which, as far as I can tell, are mostly focused on psychology or program-evaluation style assessment of policy). I have found it so interesting and challenging to try to facilitate this kind of critical engagement with people who aspire to be employees of the criminal justice system. For example, if we accept that what counts as “crime” is socially constructed and variable across time and place (which is kind of a basic defining premise of the sociological study of crime), how, then, do we understand the work of a police officer which is supposedly to detect and prevent “crime”?
    When students imagine their future selves as police officers and detectives, engaging with this subject-matter is necessarily an engagement with subjectivity and identity. Learning criminology in this context is not just about analytical or cognitive skills, but about cultivating the “dispositions” (as Bass et al. put it) that allow their minds to be flexible and open to the kinds of challenges to criminal justice that criminology offers.
    So – I guess that doesn’t really offer any suggestions as to how we can better evaluate student learning (or how we can better manage or guide affective engagement, which I don’t really know how to do well). I guess it is more like a vigorous nod of agreement with the insight that those affective processes are important.
    Turning now to the gap between acknowledging the potential of digital technologies to facilitate this kind of engagement, and actually experimenting with those technologies in our teaching practice…
    In Bass (et al.) Cathy Davidson expresses that she doesn’t “get” why educators aren’t taking the opportunities afforded by digital technologies and running with them, given the evidence of their potential effectiveness in enhancing student learning. She suggests that educators are “futzing around the edges” by talking about these practices a lot without actually using them very often. A lot of us were frustrated with Davidson’s book about “the brain science of attention” last term and I think many of the same criticisms apply here. The explanation as to why these teaching tools aren’t being taken up has to go beyond the simplistic notion of teacher choice or even teacher capacity.
    In the widespread documentation of the Visible Knowledge Project we see that simply employing a digital tool (or a digital space) that may very well have the potential for facilitating deep engagement and collaborative learning doesn’t mean that deep engagement and collaborative learning will necessarily happen (just because you built it doesn’t mean they’ll come, so to speak). The question of why and how and under what conditions this type of learning happens is ongoing, and extends far beyond the classroom into the structural expectations of teachers, mandated forms of evaluation, education funding schemes, etc.
    Moreover, thinking about the affective and identity-based nature of learning draws attention to what a delicate process teaching can be. The use of digital technologies in the classroom – for all the opportunities they afford – can easily be discouraging, or end up shallow and isolating. I don’t think the task of separating “the meaningful from the trivial?” (in reference to digital tools) is as simple as Davidson makes it sound and it certainly doesn’t make sense to me to deplore educators for failing to take up the call.

    1. Michelle A. McSweeney (Johnson)

      Bronwyn, I think you’ve touched on exactly my hesitation about Davidson, it’s not so simple as she makes it seem. It’s really easy to blame teachers since they are at the border between a huge system and students, but most teachers I’ve met were inspired at least at some point along the way.

      A professor in Linguistics (Eva Fernandez) recently put together a report of Queens college students and their relationship with technology. The results were similar to the rest of the country – the majority have facebook, spend many hours a day on the computer, etc., but would prefer less, not more technology in the classroom. The report suggests it is instructor incompetence and professional development is the way forward.

      After reading the VKP reports and struggling with my own current foray into a technology-dependent assignment, I think there is a lot more going on than Davidson suggests. This semester, I’m having students build websites about languages . It’s an attempt to get them to take ownership of their research projects, to make them public, to connect them to each other and to language more broadly – to allow the linguistics, sociology, anthropology, computer science and biology students to all get what they need and want out of the course (and a lot more goals). With all of these goals, the end of the semester is going to look both like a giant teaching fail and a small teaching success. A lot of the VKP articles reminded me of this – in 15 weeks, we try to teach content, a new way of thinking, a different grading schema, how to use a piece of technology and to be a thoughtful citizen. I don’t think that it’s bad teaching or an unwillingness to adopt new technology that makes teachers reluctant to ‘teach digitally’. Rather, incorporating technology in any kind of a meaningful way goes far beyond just using it in the classroom to make it digital… It’s an entirely different way of communicating.
      Phil, you brought up an excellent point – how do we grade this? Not only how do we grade the essay, but how do we grade a non-traditional classroom?

      I have no idea… This semester, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to if they do the assignment on time and address at least 3 points, they get an A. This is clearly grossly inadequate, but my classes are small and I’ve worked with about half of them before… If it weren’t for those relationships that already exist, I don’t think this would be possible… Which brings me back to MOOCs – education is dependent on communication and relationships, if classroom technology damages that, it wasn’t worth it!

  2. Pingback: » Ideas on Digital Assignments in response to June 2009 Academic Commons Philip Kreniske

  3. Julie Fuller (she/her)

    I agree with what people are saying about the issues of student assessment and want to add another layer to this conversation. Specifically, I want to use my own teaching experience to support the following point Terrel Rhodes makes about assessment in his interview with Randy Bass: “By gathering and disseminating student work through electronic portfolios, the same set of student performance information can be used at course, program and institutional levels for assessment purposes, and faculty can collaborate on assessing and responding to student progress.”

    I agree that it would be helpful to have a sense of each student’s learning on a program level when I am assessing his or her progress in my class. I teach English 220, Introduction to Writing about Literature, which is the requiste gen-ed course for all undergrads following English 120, Introduction to Composition. Clearly these two courses are conceptually linked and the one is intended to build upon the other to advance student learning. However, in practice and assessment, the courses are completely separate. What I mean by this is that I simply must assume that my students have a base-line understanding of composition and that everyone generally enters at the same knowledge level having passed the prerequiste 120 course. I have no sense of the past progress or performance of my individual students, thus when I assess any one of them at the end of the semester, it is not an accurate reflection of his or her development in the field that the 120 and 220 courses share. After taking these English courses the student ends up with two separate grades, not a holistic assessment of his/her developing expertise as a reader and writer.

    This makes no sense when I think about it, and funny enough, my college requires student portfolios for 120, but these are not shared with 220 professors like myself even though it is our job to oversee the next stage in these students’ learning. These are paper portfolios, but I don’t think electronic portfolios would in and of themselves make a difference because it is not the common practice of higher learning institutions to facilitate “collaborat[ion] on assessing and responding to student progress” or to assess students’ knowledge aquisition holistically. This culture needs to change before technology will make a difference here. (Obviously another thing to consider is that this kind of collaborative, holistic assessment of student progress would likely mean a lot of additional work on the part of already overtaxed adjuncts.)

  4. Greg Narr

    Thanks Phil!
    I liked these questions about Davidson’s piece that you posed:
    In one piece Davidson says “The whole system of credentialing, grading, evaluating, writing recommendations, all of that, is antithetical to true participatory learning formats and learning communities. Higher education has never figured out if its primary goal is learning or if its primary goal is training citizens for elite positions of class power and leadership. The whole system of ranking (among institutions and among students) is based on “distinctions,” as Bourdieu would say. Participatory learning, especially when it is anonymous, contests the bases and even the sanctity of many of those distinctions”.
    I’m puzzled; Higher ed is both, is neither, is both but shouldn’t be either? Agree, disagree?
    I think the key to understanding this quote is the first sentence which reads:
    “The whole system of credentialing, grading, evaluating, writing recommendations, all of that, is antithetical to true participatory learning formats and learning communities.”
    Cathy is all about participatory learning and thinks that it will be hard to foster if we continue with “The whole system of credentialing, grading, evaluating, writing recommendations.” This is reinforced by her use of bourdieu, saying:
    “The whole system of ranking (among institutions and among students) is based on “distinctions,” as Bourdieu would say.”
    Bourdieu was very critical to the educational system, seeing it as a way to transfer economic capital into cultural capital and then back again, therefore allowing a capitalist system to seem meritocratic, eg. “those rich people are rich because they are smart. They got into Harvard and have so much knowledge of Shakespeare!,” not “those people are rich because their parents are rich and could afford to send them to Harvard where they could read Shakespeare all day because they weren’t working two jobs in order to eat.”
    I agree with Cathy. I think, however, this is easier said than done, and technology could potentially be more detrimental to this process than productive if it is not implemented with care. For instance, I’m teaching two identical classes this semester that utilize wikis. The main difference is that in the first class the wiki was down so the students had to do their first presentation the old fashioned way, by getting together in groups, meeting each other, dividing up tasks, etc. That class is much more dynamic than the second class which was able to use the wiki from the beginning, so they didn’t have the initial meeting. On the other hand, the first group failed their first quiz miserably; whereas, the second group aced it. Is this an indication of Cathy’s notion that truly participatory learning isn’t compatible with our traditional way of grading and evaluating?

  5. Erin Glass

    The more I wade through discussions regarding the transformative power of technology in the educational sphere, the more I find my opinions somewhat paralyzed by a blind spot. I am the first to admit that the blind spot may be in my eye only. If so, then I hope someone might quickly teach me to see. The blind spot is the answer to the question: what is higher education in the 21st century for?
    If anyone could point me to the URL that answers such a question, please proceed. In the meantime I will suggest there are two ways of responding to this question, the first being one’s personal reasons for participating in higher education, the second being why it’s important that society at large support such an endeavor. Because these discussions circulate around questions of large-scale educational reform, it is the second response that needs articulating. Perhaps it’s not articulated because the answer is so obvious, or that to ask such a question is to reveal one’s lack of membership to the club of knowing. I have plenty of suggestions for both answers, but none I think that would be universally agreed upon or immune to critique. It seems the silence I’ve experienced on the subject may be due to the fact, that in today’s climate, such an answer is in impossible.

    But whether such an answer is possible or not, it is ultimately impossible to analyze how education or learning is best facilitated if we cannot articulate the overarching objective of such education and learning. This week’s reading — like much discourse surrounding digital technology and education — starts from the premise that learning is an indubitable good, an end in itself, and that in its ideal form, its practical purposes are useful, but somewhat secondary effects. Though it’s not expressed this way, one gets the sense from reading almost any contemporary meditation on education, that its true purpose is some sort of vague form of transcendence. The right to education is the right to become oneself. In this view, one senses a sort of Barthesian entanglement of history’s many suggested objectives for learning: salvation, enlightenment, informed citizenry, global peace, etc.

    We are wary of such universal justifications for anything, but such sentiment hardly liberate us from them. Instead, our wariness only hides them in more neutral sounding terms such as “success.” For example, one might measure the value of a certain digital tool, as one speaker did in “The Future of ePortfolios,” by whether or not it helps the student become successful. No one, it seems, would disagree with such a statement, but it leaves one wondering how exactly one measures not just a student’s success, but the success of education as whole. Is it to become informed citizens? Technological innovators? Producers of knowledge? Educators? Employed? Intellectually satisfied? If we don’t articulate the objective, then it leaves one little choice to assume that all disciplines, educational paths, teachers, classrooms, etc all have the same exact, though inexpressible, objective. To my mind, this conversation would benefit immensely if proponents of digital technology strove to express the objective of learning as much as they expressed how well different tools contributed to that so-called learning. These need not be universal declarations and it would be a good sign if they sparked further debate.

    Additionally, I think the praise and excitement for emerging digital practices need not be given at the expense of traditional practices (as is done often in these texts, top down vs participatory for example), for each contain exclusive and irreplaceable features. However, there’s no way to defend against either from the shifting enthusiasms of the day if we don’t intimately understand what we gain, both personally and socially, from them. Beatrix Kiddo would have never learned the ‘Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique’ from a blog. There are other things too, it seems to me, not quite transmittable through the crowd.

    1. Jennifer Stoops

      Phil, thanks for your motivation, and thanks to everyone for responding. As always, the questions are so rich that I don’t know where to begin. Erin’s comment is most recent and references Kill Bill, so I’ll address it briefly. She asks, what is higher education in the 21st century for? I would complicate that question by removing the qualifier “higher” and simply ask, what is the purpose of education?

      Again, one could approach this by thinking in terms of oneself or of the society-at-large. Historically, public education seemed to serve the twin needs of assimilating a diverse population and of developing civic-minded people who could participate in government. Of course, public education has always had hierarchies, and education was never equitable.

      The tension between what education means to an individual and what it means to a group is really key. Any education reform that envisages success as what is good for the isolated self (a meritocratic system where cream rises to the top and is rewarded with forms of capital, ensuring inequality) clashes with what might be good for a collective where resources are distributed more equitably.

      I’m recalling how much we as a group struggled with how to attack the Kitchen Sink/Table Utilities page, and how difficult it was to imagine a rubric that would evaluate the tools and their pedagogical use. We need a comprehensive project that researches how people define, practice, and promote education before we can accurately measure success in that arena. As for K-12, the discourse has revolved for so long around student achievement as measured by standardized test scores. It’s exciting to think about alternatives that indicate success. Tonight, Kathleen Lynch is speaking about affective equality at GC, and it is truly radical to imagine education that has at its foundational goal developing and encouraging relationships, care, solidarity, and respect. I think technology can play an important role in helping to redefine and reorient education both in K-12 and higher ed.

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