Introducing online assignments

(This is the first in a series of reflections on last year, when I required only born-digital assignments.  This year, I’ve shifted back to a mix of these assignments and conventional papers.)

In nearly all of my classes last year, students worked in a wiki, with a course blog, and with   My various assignments all have their own logic, but they also have in common a couple of goals:

  • to create a sense of the class as a shared intellectual project, by writing in networks (sometimes collaboratively, sometimes not)
  • to disrupt a common pattern of student engagement with course material: drift through the course when possible, but binge around paper deadlines or exams.  Rather than having a few higher-stakes assignments, we’d have more or less constant lower-stakes assignments.

In general, these assignments were pretty popular, and I’ll talk more about them over the next few weeks.  But there was also a persistent minority opinion, which argued that the assignments achieved these goals, and therefore the students didn’t like them.  In the first instance, they resented having to attend to their classmates’ views, and, in the second, they complained that they had to think too frequently about the course.

I usually spend a fair amount of time introducing the pedagogy behind the assignments, but clearly I need to do better at reinforcing it.  (This is one of the reasons I’m looking forward to teaching Digital Literary Studies this semester, as I’ll be making all of my assumptions far more explicit and testing them.)  Also, of course, there will be a certain number of students who just want to get through, and aren’t happy about renegotiating the implied teacher-student bargain.

What was so interesting about this reaction is that when I hear administrative-types talking about our students today, the so-called Millenials, they usually emphasize how students crave new media approaches, how they’re “naturally” technologically adept, and how they expect constant access to course material, assignments, and the like.

I have pretty serious questions about some of these.  A startling # of students I encounter have never heard of a “podcast.” Many, many students can’t adjust margins or fonts in Word.  Lots of students use IE or the branded version of whatever browser comes with their internet provider.  And I think students who are clamoring for access to the material really mean that they want *me* to be around when it’s convenient for them, but not to be bothered with course material too persistently.  I’m far from a skeptic about the potential of these digital tools–but I think that it’s useful not too expect too much.

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5 Responses to Introducing online assignments

  1. I am looking forward to seeing how your more explicit ‘tests’ of your theories turn out this semester. I myself am using several technology-oriented assignments mixed with a handful of more traditional assignments this semester, but am already finding it difficult to assess the success of these tools. Basically: are the ‘failures’ failures of a) my teaching (still getting the hang of this stuff! I’m a grad student and this is my first upper division class!) b) my students in just not pulling it together, or c) the assignments as valid pedagogical tools? Likely, some mixture of all of these…

    So far that has been a fair amount of enthusiam for all of our ‘web 2.0’ assignments, but also some anxiety about them–from students, who, probably much like myself if I were in their shoes, would rather ‘just write the paper.’ I have, like you, been surprised by their ignorance of what I consider to be pretty basic computer skills these days–yesterday I had to explain what an RSS feed was, and how they could sign up for one to monitor our class blog.

    At the same time that I know these untraditional assignments have already scared off a few students from the course, I also know that they have kept a few of my students in it who would have already departed to escape an avalanche of 6-10 page paper assignments. I’ve got neuroscience, business, math, economics, and art history majors in a class where once there were none–and they’ve already brought a different energy and perspective into the room.

  2. Dance says:

    Agreed. They are not very tech-savvy at all. Especially not with Word. Here’s my rant.

    Did I miss the post about the class notes wiki? I was really hoping to borrow that idea.

  3. Brian says:

    I too am looking forward to these reflections, and I too am skeptical about the vaunted ability of our students to navigate all things digital. As JBJ points out, the exciting thing about digital assignments is that they change the pace of a class, give students more opportunities to interact and to keep learning. The trouble is that many of them don’t want this. They don’t want to be “in school” for many more hours a day than they are required to be. This is why, in my experience, Blackboard sites never really flourish. Facebook groups for classes do better.

    A rant of my own along similar lines is available here.

  4. jbj says:

    @Dance–no, you’ve not missed it. I’ll write it in the morning.

    @Paraphernalian–I think you’re right about nonmajors, and will say more about this soon.

  5. Madhu says:

    Fascinating discussion – esp. following the several other rants linked above. I share some of the same misgivings about how computer-savvy students really are! I’ve tried student blogging as a pedagogic tool, as well as shared workspaces such as Google Sites (kinda like a wiki) for collaborative learning, and might give this wiki class notes idea a try next semester. So I look forward to the post on how you did it!

    It is, however, hard to assess learning through these media. I’m curious how you actually do it. One idea I’ve had is to build in some degree of peer-assessment into these sorts of collaborative tools (isn’t that how wikipedia sort of works?). Not sure how best to implement it – but maybe the software has some options for rating authors?

    @Brian – Blackboard has indeed not worked for me when I’ve tried it. How would a Facebook class group work? Just as a forum / discussion space?

    BTW, I teach biology classes, so my perspective is from the science side of things.