At the beginning of the summer, as I settled into planning for this fall, I made the decision to jettison the traditional research paper assignment–which had heretofore served as a capstone project–from my upper-level History courses. If you’re interested in the thought process that led to that momentous decision, I blogged about it then. After a summer of planning, and a few weeks of implementation, I feel even more strongly than I did then that I made the right call. I’m convinced that replacing the 15-18 page, double-spaced, works-cited-appended, immaculately-cited-in-Turabian-style research paper with an ongoing, curated digital project will lead to better work from, and better learning by, my students.
The primary reason for my confidence here comes from the point made so well in a recent essay on final exams by Anthony Crider. The audience for a final exam (and, by extension, a research paper that a student turns in on the last day of class), Crider points out, is basically two people: the student and the professor. So the most labor-intensive project–often the theoretical capstone of the course, one that is supposed to demonstrate mastery of the course outcomes–is relegated to an afterthought: it is submitted meekly, at the end of the term, with no ceremony or discussion or affirmation. It just…is. So what’s the point? Crider asks, and it’s a great question. “Where a ‘final’ implies that one is done discussing something,” he argues, “a ‘finale’ is something that inspires speculative discussion beforehand and reflection afterward.” That’s what I want in my courses, and that’s ultimately what prompted my decision to have students create a website–a course blog–that they would build, curate, and publish throughout the entire semester.
I’ve used blogging before in my classes, with mixed results (especially in the early iterations). The first time I made a blog part of a class’s structure, I intended it to be a replacement for Blackboard’s Discussion Board and its hideously clunky interface. However, I didn’t structure the expectations well, naively expecting conversations to spring up more or less organically, and the blog went about as poorly as you would imagine. In subsequent courses, I stipulated weekly posting requirements and a bit more structure, but that had the effect of preventing interaction and discussion, as students posted their own work, but didn’t engage with anyone else’s. The course blog thus became a series of monologues occurring in the same digital space with each one unaware of the others.
Finally, last academic year, I was able to make blogging a successful and integrated part of my courses. The secret, I discovered, was to have not only a clearly-defined structure, but clearly-defined roles for the students as well. At the end of each week,one or two students wrote “lead posts,” which were 500-700 word entries that somehow engaged with the material we’d worked with in class that week. Everyone else was responsible for commenting on each lead post, with the requirement that they write at least a good paragraph that engaged both the original post and other comments. Students signed up for two weeks to serve as leads, and were thus able to both select units that piqued their interest and weeks that fit well with their academic schedules. With this structure in place, the blogs finally started to do what I had hoped they would; they contributed to the course conversation in a different medium, allowed for deeper discussion of student-selected topics, and sustained themselves throughout the entire term.
While this model was fairly successful, I felt like I was merely scratching the surface of what blogging could potentially do for my courses. Part of the issue was environment-related: we used Blogger, Google’s blogging service, which has the advantage of being free and simple to use, but is also a fairly limited platform. I also wondered how using one blog for the course–as opposed to individual spaces–might have actually constrained my students. I set up the blog space and made the layout, theme, and related design decisions myself. Essentially, all I had done was recreate the type of rigidity and sterility I was trying to escape when I moved away from Blackboard’s Discussion Threads in the first place.
So when I decided to look for alternatives to the traditional research assignment that I felt was no longer accomplishing what it needed to for either my students or courses, I immediately gravitated to creating digital spaces as a potential substitute. Here was a chance to try some of the changes I was contemplating, as well as to see whether or not web-based projects would accomplish what I believed they could. Here are the decisions I made for my Latin American History course this semester, and a brief explanation of my rationale:
Students would, for the course’s principal project, create a website organized around a particular theme in Latin American history since 1500.
- I wanted them to build an online exhibition that involved significant research and analytical writing. But with Latin American history, I’ve discovered that my students come in with so little background knowledge of the region that even casting about for a potential topic is problematic–they don’t know what they don’t know. So I built a list of suggested themes–like indigenous peoples, religion, economics, and foreign relations–that were broad enough for this type of project. If students wanted to pursue something not on the list, the only stipulation was that their proposed theme be framed in a similarly-broad manner. For example, one of my students, an education major, decided upon Education, while another identified urban life and culture as her area of interest.
We would create the online space immediately, and begin creating content in the course’s first module.
- One of my main problems with the traditional research paper is that much of its high-stakes work is so backloaded in the semester that students are trying to juggle it with final projects in all of their other classes. This leads to work that shows less what they’re capable of and more how stressed out and mentally scattered they are. With the website, students would start creating text and content right away, and then would keep pace with the chronological progress of our course. The workload is more evenly distributed, and I’m hopeful that the quality of the projects will reflect that.
There would be a set of basic expectations for the site’s content but, more importantly, room for flexibility and creativity.
- My course is divided into six chronological chunks (which I call “modules,” because that looks more professional on the syllabus); for each module, students are required to create a significant piece of content. The expectations are at least 750 words, the inclusion of at least three external media items (images, maps, audio, video), references to course and outside scholarly material, and that the post integrates the site’s theme into the chronological period under current consideration. Within this basic framework, I want students to be able to make their own decisions about how best to convey their theme within a specific historical context. A synthetic overview is a strategy they could choose, but so too are case studies, biographical sketches, cross-national comparisons–there’s a lot of latitude, and that’s by design. I want my students to gain experience in understanding and deploying rhetorical strategies, and an appreciation for the diversity of ways in which we as historians interpret and represent the past.
We would use WordPress to build our sites.
- I wanted students to be able to create interesting and creative sites, but I knew that none of us were bringing an extensive knowledge of web design or HTML coding to the table. WordPress.com (the basic, free version of WP) was the best fit for these needs; it isn’t an elementary, drag-and-drop, limited platform like Weebly or Wix, but students wouldn’t need to know code or be advanced designers to employ its cooler features either. We jumped right in–on the first day of class (I requested a computer lab for my classroom), we created WordPress accounts and domains; I let them experiment with selecting themes and we dabbled a bit in customization. By the second week of the course, then, everyone had carved out their digital space and began to conceive how their site would be organized and laid out. Moreover, WordPress is so ubiquitous–powering a majority of sites in today’s web environment–that experience and proficiency with this tool would be an excellent added outcome for my students. With this modest site, as well as another blog I maintain for our Teaching Center, I have enough WordPress experience to help my students navigate the platform and do at least basic troubleshooting.
This project would be a great way to integrate Information Literacy and research strategies into my course in ways that would serve my students well, regardless of major.
- I have a variety of majors–History, Liberal Arts, Education, and others–in my class. Information literacy, and in particular, proficiency in navigating the flood of material available digitally, is a skill that’s absolutely vital for all of them to develop–if for nothing else than simply being an informed citizen and discerning consumer of information (in other words, unlike 98% of the people posting on Facebook). Working with one of our Instructional Librarians (pro tip: your librarians are awesome resources, and you should be inviting them to your classes to work with students), we’re learning not only how to effectively search for and use digital materials, but also about fair use, copyright, Creative Commons, and the other complexities of the digital landscape. Proper attribution and citation practices are required, so I still get my Kate Turabian fix. The research involved in finding the media and external sources for their posts is exactly the process they’d be using for a standard research paper assignment, and the ways in which they are presenting their information in this medium meet or exceed the rigor involved in the traditional assignment as well. They’re producing at least eighteen pages of text; the material is researched, sourced, and cited; and they have to literally design the presentation of that material in a way that reaches a potentially wide audience of online readers. It’s a far cry, really, from a research paper that only they and me see at the end of the semester.
So here we are, then, wading into the deeper waters of digital content creation. My students have written a practice post, we’ll be doing peer critiques soon, and their first module’s post will go live in a little over a week. Already, there’s a buzz with this type of work that simply wasn’t present for previous research assignments I’ve given. We dedicate some class time to creating and critiquing posts, and the vibe is very much that of a writers’ workshop. There’s a lot to be said in favor of writing for the web–its public nature and immense potential audience can powerfully shape my students’ growth as writers. Written just for class, a piece might be just “good enough.” For this audience? Well, it’s time to up your game.
I’m hopeful the positive results continue throughout the semester. I’m excited about the possibilities with these projects, and am anxious to see how my students develop, revise, and curate their digital spaces. The early returns suggest there’s much to look forward to.
Note: Here’s the Blog Rubric that I use to assess student posts, which lays out the basic expectations I described above. We also use it for peer critique, which serves as a chance for lower-stakes feedback and revisions before my more formal assessment takes place.
Image Credit: My favorite t-shirt, bar none, acquired from the inimitable Raygun in Des Moines.