Moving beyond the paper assignment – Facebook, Prezi, and…?

When I started teaching writing classes at Georgia State in 2011, I soon realized not merely the benefit of moving beyond the traditional paper assignments, but I also the importance of allowing students to practice writing in various contexts. To that end, I began looking around for suitable writing environments, and quickly settled on having students design Facebook profile pages as part of personal narrative assignments for example. I would also have students create Facebook pages on behalf of literary characters to foster their critical thinking skills. Alternatively, I suggested students to use Prezi for presentations because Prezi pretty feels like Powerpoint on steroids. One can really go crazy with movement. And students always have a blast using the tool’s features for in-class presentations.

Though I still see instructors using Facebook and Prezi, I now feel these writing environments to be somewhat obsolete. A lot has happened in the course of the last 5 years ever since I began teaching at Georgia State. So, this semester I’m assisting a professor in the English department with her editing class when it comes to assigning digital projects, an this has given me the opportunity to research more current / more innovative tools that can be used for assignments. So, I want to use today’s blog post to present a couple of exciting alternatives to Facebook and Prezi as far as multimodal writing assignments are concerned.

1. PowToon and Moovly

Animated content has become quite trendy in the last few years. Tutorials, product videos, advertisements, explainer videos, just to name a few. PowToon and Moovly both offer tools that make it really easy for students to create visually exciting videos, where motion and animation are used consciously and creatively to gain audience attention. Though both websites come with a dedicated subscription based pricing structure which unlocks additional pro-features, the basic options come free of charge, definitely sufficient for class projects. The nice thing about Powtoon is that the tool comes with various templates when creating a video, there is a gallery with example videos, and an entire tutorial section to get students started. Videos can have voice-overs as well. Overall, I find that Powtoon works beautifully especially when it comes to issue reports, historical overview, or as visual attention grabbers as part of projects that involve students to create websites. The video can be embedded on the main page of a project website. Moovly does everything that PowToon does, but what I really like about the former is that its interface reminds me a lot of more professional programs such as iMovie and Adobe Premiere Pro.

2. Weebly

While Weebly is a popular website creator which can be used as the basis of a blogging assignment, it can also be used as a wiki. What I find particularly interesting about Weebly is that the websites a user creates, are responsive, meaning that they translate from a computer screen to a tablet, to a mobile device. That way students not only engage in web design that is limited to the computer screen, but they also have to make design choices to ensure that the content remains visually appealing across various devices. Again, there is a pricing structure, but there is also a free version with limited features.

3. Wikispaces

Wikispaces is a popular wiki-creation tool. Oftentimes, I find that students are interested in engaging with projects where they can put together a resource for their peers, and wikis fulfill that purpose beautifully. Certainly, GoogleSites has a wiki-creator tools as part of its feature list, and students could also the wiki-took that comes with Sharepoint. But I find Wikispaces to be more intuitive and easier to use since it’s a dedicated wiki-creator and not just a side feature of a bigger website creation package. On top of that, students can created wikis that are password protected, which is a nice feature to ensure that content stays within the context of the classroom.

Students in the editing class this semester will be using these tools for group projects, and I’m excited about what they are going to come up with. In any event, this is an exciting time for instructor to allow students to work with all kinds of tools to develop and present content. Of course, this also poses the question of how to assess digital project assignments. After all, the tools used will, most of the time, not only be unfamiliar to students, but also to instructors. I suggest not only to be frank and open about this circumstance with students, but also to involve them with regards questions of assessment. After students have worked a bit with each tool, and they have created a rough draft of their project, instructors and students should have a conversation answering questions pertaining to what counts as a successful or failed project.

Alternative Assessment Criteria, but How?

There has been a tremendous amount of discussions concerning the goals and practices of Digital Humanities within the setting of undergraduate instruction, and I welcome not only the increased attention but also the marked shift that has taken place on how this discussions are framed. Interestingly, the question at hand has shifted from whether to embrace DH pedagogies or not, but how to best incorporate DH into the undergraduate curriculum.

Certainly, given SIF’s mission to consider course matter from new vantage points and to develop innovative pedagogical practices, the ‘how to’ premise is far more appealing to us than the ‘whether or not’ when it comes to a 21st century informed curriculum. But still, there is a lot of reservation, especially from faculty, on going digital with their undergraduate classes. One of the main reasons is that faculty members—while not opposed to the idea of creating course content and assignments that engage students with digital artifacts—find it difficult to develop suitable assessment criteria. After all, at the end of a semester, instructors need to assign grades based on the students’ performance.

Thus, one area where we might apply the lever is the assignment rubric as the ubiquitous and guiding paradigm of student assessment. The rubric seems to be the place where the prospect of assigning creative and organic digital projects clashes with the idea of assessing student work with standardized metrics. While we can certainly see rubric based assessment as a big innovation when it was invented in the 1960s, its pervasiveness in higher education today creates a dilemma for faculty members (me included) who would like to go digital with their classes but worry about assessment, and rightly so.

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending this month’s Digital Pedagogy Meetup, which provides a setting for educators to share assignments, methods, theories, and/or resources that focus on student engagement and learning in the Digital Humanities. At the meeting, David Morgen, who is the coordinator of the writing program at Emory, discussed alternative assessment strategies in the context of DH course content. He calls for so-called ‘dynamic criteria mapping’ as a new, alternative assessment model to overcome the seeming gridlock (for lack of a better term) of the rubric as a set of decisions designed to standardize what’s valuable and what’s not.

‘Dynamic Criteria Mapping,’ or DCM in short, follows a grounds-up approach to assessment rather than the top down structure prescribed by the rubric. That means that assessment criteria for a project would only be developed after students have had time to create a working draft of their projects. Moreover, assessment criteria for a given project are discussed with the students. Of course, while such an approach may very well help students in thinking through questions of what counts as a successful project and what doesn’t, this requires not only a lot of confidence from the instructor to allow students to work on projects without knowing in advance on how to assess the finished product; it also requires the instructor to be relatively tech-savvy already to be able to anticipate potential projects that students might propose. David Morgen here suggests that instructors should meet regularly and share insights to stay current. He argues that rubrics not only make it more difficult for students to find their own paths of learning, but that they also don’t allow instructors to assess student development over time. DCM, by contrast, would provide a promising avenue to gather information on real practice.

While I’m very interested in the idea of active learning, and while I do not dismiss the inherent problems with rubric based assessment, I’m still not sure on how this might work in practice. For example, I often find myself lamenting about the limited time that I have with students in the class to discuss content and I’m worried that involving students more in the development of assessment criteria might take away too much time in-class. Maybe this would require decreasing the overall amount of assignments during the semester? Or maybe a balanced approach with rubric-based assignments at the beginning of the semester and a more organic development of assessment criteria for final projects? I’m really not sure, but what is clear to me is that class logistics also play a role. Assessment has to remain manageable.

So, if you’ve read this, I’d really like to use this blog space to start a conversation about this. Do you have experiences to share concerning the collaborative development of assessment criteria? How has this played out for you? How have your students responded? In more general terms, what’s your view on the rubric? What other ways have you found helpful in promoting active learning?

I look forward to your comments!


Reporting on IR16: The Association of Internet Researchers conference in Phoenix, AZ

Between October 21 and 24, and with generous funding provided by GSU’s Center for Instructional Effectiveness (CIE), I had the great pleasure of presenting my current research at IR16, the conference of the Association of Internet Researchers in Phoenix, Arizona. This annual conference is one of the most prestigious opportunities for Internet researchers to connect, collaborate, and discuss current issues regarding digital communication. Further, while the focus lies on the Internet, social media, and big data, the conference is very interdisciplinary in scope as it brings together researchers from various disciplines, not only from the fields of computer and information sciences but also from areas such as communication, literature, sociology, political science, and cultural studies.

The pre-conference day was all about workshops, and I attended various meetings from the “Digital Methods in Internet Research Workshop” segment, hosted by the research team from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia. During the workshop I learned more about big data research methods and how to treat big datasets analytically. One of the tools that Prof. Axel Bruns, director of the research lab, introduced to attendees is called DMI-TCAT, developed by the Digital Methods Initiative located in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The program is used for real-time social media data collection purposes. It is mostly geared towards quantitative analysis but qualitative approaches are also possible.

One of my favorite presentation from the conference was given by Helen Kennedy, Professor of Digital Society at the Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield (UK). Her talk was based on questions of how we make sense of data visualizations. As it turns out, data visualizations (graphs, histograms, both static and interactive) are usually evaluated on their efficiency value. However, most often, human beings understand data visualization through the way they feel. Prof. Kennedy is project director for the Seeing Data – Initiative, which is a research group in the UK that has been conducting studies on the particular dynamics that are at play when “ordinary” and professional people make sense of visualized data. I can certainly see the benefit of addressing the effectiveness of a visualization through the kinds of feelings that it invokes in the viewer, and I encourage all of you to check out their website by clicking on the hyperlink above.

Another great presentation was given by Dr. Robert W. Gehl from the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. His talk focused on the recent developments of alternative social media platforms. As we all know, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram pretty much control the social media market. However, when it comes to questions of meaning-making, deliberation, and collaboration, these big social media platforms only offer limited features. Not only that, the big platforms also often overshadow the fact that there are a whole host of smaller, more specialized social media services available on the Internet. Dr. Gehl and his team have, therefore, put together an archive of alternative social media platforms, which includes information on both current and discontinued social media. The list, which is updated frequently, is comprised of the kinds of platforms that have attempted or are currently attempting to move beyond the restrictions imposed by the big boys such as Facebook and Twitter. It is definitely worth it to check out the archive.


End of the year reflection: media competence vs. media literacy

Hi everyone,

So my first year as a student innovation fellow is reaching its end. It’s been so far a great experience. Not only have I learned a lot of new things, I have also enjoyed the opportunity to share my knowledge and ask new questions.

What could be better now to use the final blog post of this semester to reflect about current issues that have come to the fore as I was working on various projects? Specifically I want to talk about the important distinction between new media competence and new media literacy,

I define new media competence as the individual’s capacity to use new media communication technologies. However, in today’s media-saturated information environment, the mere appreciation of technical expertise does not seem to be enough anymore. Not only does the individual need to learn the necessary skills to use communication tools, he/she also needs to embrace the political, social, and communicational aspects of media utilization. Since we spend more and more of our time online, the use of media today has an holistic personality dimension, i.e. the development of a habitus, a personality-based attitude towards new media. Media competence does not include that aspect. Media literacy, I would argue, does.

Proper media education, thus, lies at the heart of what it means to engage with communication tools in the 21st century. With the implementation of a program such as the Student Innovation Fellowship, Georgia State University has laid the foundation for an educational environment that doesn’t merely teach students how to use new media, but how to live with new media. Media education facilitates critical reflection. Teaching media literacy, then, encompasses the individual holistically, i.e. it prepares him/her for a professional career, it nurtures a critical understanding of media in everyday life, and it confronts the individual with his/her own situatedness as a social and political subject in society. In that regard, the teaching of media literacy, which goes beyond media competence, takes into account a moral dimension of media use (media ethics), a socio-political dimension (media influence), and an affective dimension (living with media).

The Student Innovation Fellowship has served a vital function at Georgia State University in that regard. I have enjoyed my role as mediator and facilitator of a holistically informed media education. I believe that only if the entire student body can benefit from such a media education, then we as educators respect the central goal of higher eduction – equal opportunity – and we prevent creating an educational rift that treats students preferentially whose educational backgrounds already come laden with an appreciation and understanding of media literacy. At SIF, we are embracing a media-conscious pedagogy that moves beyond mere technical applications, i.e. the teaching of skill sets. At SIF, our mission has been to facilitate media use as a holistic, life-long practice.

And with that I am signing off. I wish all of you a pleasant and successful end of the semester!


And I thought we’d moved on…?

I’m confused right now, so be prepared that this post is going to be half-informative and half-venting. I’ve recently come across a Youtube-sensation, for lack of a better word, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I’m talking about Salman Khan whose free learning website,, hosts more than 3000 lesson videos and his Youtube channel attracts millions of students and teachers alike. Apparently, it all started in 2004 when he just wanted to help his cousin with some private tutoring lessons in math. Fast forward ten years later, and Salman Khan is known across the world as the “global teacher”. Pretty impressive, yes, but what I find even more confusing is that he manages to attract such widespread attention with a teacher-centered, lecture style approach to teaching that many of us teaching have found to be an antiquated and, flat out obsolete method. Why? Well, the most common argument is that frontal teaching limits students in developing their own critical thinking skills. Rather than having students engage with content actively, they passively consume the lecture.

So, I’m wondering why Khan’s approach has been working so well. Usually his videos last between 8-15 minutes, are produced in a relatively simple fashion, i.e. he uses a screen capturing software where he solves math problems for instance, and his voice narrates the whole process. So, you only hear him but you never see him. Instead, you see a black canvas on which he scribbles the equations and explains the whole process. Aside from math, physics, chemistry, and economics, he also teaches history and biology (the last two not being his particular area of expertise), even admitting that he gets most of his information for those topics from Wikipedia entries.

I find that whole thing fascinating and scary at the same time. I wholeheartedly reject the teacher-centered approach to pedagogy, always trying to empower my students so that they can develop their critical thinking skills. And then I see Khan and his success with an antiquated teaching method, and it seems to work. Khan has been receiving wide-spread media attention now for years, and many students have said that before they take high school level or college-level tests, they would watch a couple of Khan’s videos to prepare rather than going over their class-notes (check this link).

What do you think / how do you feel about this? I’m really interested to read your comments, and have a lively discussion about the potential merits of such an approach to teaching.