Friday, January 24, 2014

Writing Across the Curriculum and Teaching with Technology: Making Learning Hard Fun

A session for the

2014 Northern California Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) ConferenceFriday, January 24, 2014 from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM (PST)
San Francisco State University

This session will focus on using technology to teach writing across the curriculum by looking at how instructors can use simple tools – discussion boards, online books – in easy to start ways to promote both writing to learn and writing in the disciplines.  Our students come to us already using digital technologies to write a lot in online social networks and other settings. We’ll look at how we can begin with literacies and practices students know, and then use those to move them into the kinds of academic habits of mind we teach in our courses.


As Andrea A. Lunsford said in an article by Clive Thompson on new literacies, "we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization."  Because of networked computers, social networks, internet connected phones and tablets, people, including our students, write now more than ever before. And that writing, contrary to many of our personal impressions and anecdotal evidence, while often informal, isn't a cause of weaker academic writing. Lunsford's research -- The Stanford Study of Writing -- has been bolstered by other studies of students use of social networks and texting and the effects those writing practices have on learning and writing in college.

All of which is to say, that as always, our students come to use ready to learn, able to write with coaching and guidance, and wanting to do well. The trick, as always, is to help them develop academic habits of mind. My favorite articulation of those habits of mind comes from a joint report published by the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Writing Project. In summary, and quoting directly, here's what the NCTE/NWP describes:
Habits of mind refers to ways of approaching learning that are both intellectual and practical and that will support students’ success in a variety of fields and disciplines. The Framework identifies eight habits of mind essential for success in college writing:
  • Curiosity – the desire to know more about the world.
  • Openness – the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world.
  • Engagement – a sense of investment and involvement in learning.
  • Creativity – the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas.
  • Persistence – the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.
  • Responsibility – the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others.
  • Flexibility – the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands.
  • Metacognition – the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge.
The Framework then explains how teachers can foster these habits of mind through writing, reading, and critical analysis experiences.  These experiences aim to develop students’
  • Rhetorical knowledge – the ability to analyze and act on understandings of audiences, purposes, and contexts in creating and comprehending texts;
  • Critical thinking – the ability to analyze a situation or text and make thoughtful decisions based on that analysis, through writing, reading, and research;
  • Writing processes – multiple strategies to approach and undertake writing and research;
  • Knowledge of conventions – the formal and informal guidelines that define what is considered to be correct and appropriate, or incorrect and inappropriate, in a piece of writing; and
  • Abilities to compose in multiple environments – from using traditional pen and paper to electronic technologies.
So. Students come to us as digital natives, but not as academic natives. They know how to Google something, but not necessarily how to research. They can text with fluency, but can come up mute in a class discussion. They post to Tumblr, YouTube, WordPress, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest and more, but launching an online discussion in our courses can be challenge. They read a lot, but quickly, and so getting them to slow down, to read more critically and closely, still must be taught. Let's look at some ways e-book technologies are changing to support this quest: meeting students where they are and then bringing them to academic habits of mind, the ways of thinking and writing that mark our disciplines.

Bringing the Social Into the Academic

Click the image to enlarge. What you'll see is an ebook page. However, unlike a print book or a PDF ebook that keeps print-book page fidelity, this book -- The Everyday Writer 5e Xbook by Andrea Lunsford -- uses course management and social networking tools to change how the book is referenced, read, written in, written with, and written about.

You can see that there are tools for assigning readings, that the content, if you dive in, is more than text -- it includes self-scoring exercises, manually scored writing prompts, images, video, and audio. But what it also does is bring writing into the book. For example, in the Table of Contents, added to a chapter on understanding rhetorical situations is a link to a discussion board a teacher created called "Discuss Your Rhetorical Situation."

It was created by the course instructor using this tool that lets an instructor add activities and content to the book, making those part of the book itself. Here's the Add tools menu from a variation of the XBook called LaunchPad:

You'll notice that in addition to a discussion board, an instructor can add a writing assignment, create an html page -- with full html features, including the ability to upload images, embed video, and so on -- the ability to upload a collection of documents, and a dropbox for students to turn in work.

So with an XBook or Launchpad, the book becomes a place for the class to meet, a space to work in. For writing to learn, the discussion of the text is embedded in the text being studied. Students can be prompted to copy and paste from the text into their discussion responses, drawing on the text for evidence, as writing to be analyzed, writing to summarized or synthesized with materials added by the instructor or discussion posts written by classmates. 

But there is another tool key to these kinds of books -- annotations that can be shared among students, giving them the power of social reading. Here's an example of note from a history LaunchPad title, positioned at the top of a page from the book -- in the page. 

The ability for instructors to have students write and share in text annotations, so see those annotations, opens up new ways to use writing to learn and writing to read. It builds on the kind of social networking technologies students know -- the short post (because annotations are shorter than discussion comments usually) -- in a way students know: socially shared.

What this allows us as instructors is ways to see students use writing to develop the kinds of habits of mind we want to encourage. We can then, if we choose, direct them on the kinds of annotations to write, the kinds or reading heuristics to use. We can shape reading, slow reading down, foster close reading with these kinds of writing tools. 

That's cool. It's fun. And the work we ask students to do when we do this kind of assigning is hard, but it's purposeful and in the context of seeing other students notes, of other students thoughts in discussions, each student will have models of good thinking, new ideas, different interpretations to consider, all of which will help that student become a better reader and writer.

As students annotate and discuss, they begin to do the hard work, the necessary work, of moving into the conversations of our fields, of learning to think like a historian, or psychologist, or chemist, or rhetorician, or in other ways our courses seek to have students apply to their reading and writing. 

That's the power, really, of books like these -- the way they can not only capture learning via writing, but provide insights into that learning teachers can use to help meet students where they are and get them to where we'd like them to be.