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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