This semester, I’ve been teaching an experimental course for the English Department, my home at SJSU for 9 years. I’m tenured now….and have been promoted to Associate….I hate to say it, but this has given me a certain confidence and freedom to screw around with Digital Pedagogy. And, this has been my best semester yet! … granted we’re only 5 weeks into the semester

Last Spring, our Dean and the Interim Department Chair were contemplating ways to pull the English Department into the Udacity-mania that erupted on our campus after a semester of trial and error by the science and soft science colleges. Myself and one other faculty member volunteered to test drive the Philosophy Udacity course but soon came to find the limitations of a lock-step course completely steeped in the white dudes of the Philosophy canon. The project changed, and we were encouraged to experiment with content-delivery, class meetings, format, and more. Basically, we were invited to test flipped classroom strategies, hybrid courses, or completely online methods. I chose a hybrid style and began crafting a course based on English 10 Great Works of Literature: TechnoLiterature that I had taught in a previous semester. The literary content has been tested; some technologically-enhanced assignments have already been piloted in this and other courses; the only unknown was integrating Canvas, the university learning management system. (At some point in the summer, I ditched Canvas because I was spending more time figuring out how to integrate WordPress blogs and Twitter and Google Docs into Canvas on the back-end than developing the curriculum.) What resulted is a hodge-podge of open access, easily accessible set of tools and content-delivery:

See WordPress course website: Great Works of Literature: TechnoLiterature (Fall 2013).

With a stipend offered and some student help available, I set about reading the latest ideas on hybrid learning (according to the NEA):

Blended and/or hybrid learning is an integrated instructional approach in which a student learns, at least in part, at a supervised physical location away from home and through online delivery where the student has control over at least some aspects of the time and place of accessing the curriculum. The policy statement supports maximizing student learning by using both technology and real life educators in the process. It rejects the idea that effective learning can take place completely online and without interaction with certified teachers and fully qualified faculty.

[Added 10/7/13: I also spent some time familiarizing myself with the Modern Language Association’s recommendations for distance education and technologically-enhanced education.]

This type of curriculum sounds most like Digital Pedagogy (see my latest explanation about how I use Digital Pedagogy in my particular type of institution), and I was excited to offer students an opportunity to engage in more activities during class than to listen to me lecture or lead a discussion. Mind you, lecture and discussion are important, but I find that a General Education course requires engagement in a different way than, say, my Gothic Novel & Horror Fiction course which is filled with English majors who are already invested in the material and the topic.

The focus of the course is really “narrative.” The carrot is that we’ll play Diablo III by the conclusion of the semester, but that we need to do all of this work before we can get to that. The course is structured for face-to-face days with student presentations (an introduction to the novel, and a gamification of the novel on the last day). The middle day is given over to watching recorded lectures and producing a blog post or an activity. After each novel, we host a lab day to perform some activity in class — a special classroom chock full of technology and applications already loaded onto the bay of 60 Macs & PCs allows us to move along seamlessly.  We blog in class for participation credit, out of class for points, collaboratively for formal writings — all kinds of high and low stakes writing.

But, today, today I made something up on the fly because I had forgotten that Google Earth needs to be downloaded onto computers before employing this particular tool in any assignment. We were scheduled for a lab day, an activity to map a particular novel. The idea, borrowed from Erin Sells’ assignment to map Mrs. Dalloway, would be too complex to teach along with the technology in a single lab day. I had just used Google’s N-Gram Viewer in my Gothic Novel class and then moved into the Oxford English Dictionary database (to look up vampire, vampir, vampyre, etc.). It could work here, right? I could sneak in some literary research under the guise of playing around with Google Books and the huge amount of information available. Right?

Students had already begun creating a dictionary of Nadsat used in A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess’ dystopic novel from the 1960s. For today’s lab, we proceeded in steps to deal with the technology and the core intellectual work:

Step 1: Take 10 minutes to add to the Nadsat dictionary in our Google Doc as a group.

Step 2: Groups had 1 minute to claim 5 words to work on for the rest of the session.

Step 3: Search Google’s N-Gram Viewer for your group’s words. Report the definition, corpus used, and source for 3 of those words. (We proceeded through a brief tutorial about the history, use, and research applications for the N-Gram Viewer, including the resource available in Google Books that showed the use of that word in print material scanned by Google Books.)

Step 4: Discussion ensued about the importance of missing words: what does that signal? (We found that using the Spanish corpus indicated that A Clockwork Orange might not have been translated into Spanish because none of the Nadsat shows up. We also discussed here the limitations of Google Books and copyright issues with this novel.)

Step 5: Search the Oxford English Dictionary database for any of your words and fill in the Google Doc with your findings. (The idea here is that most of the words won’t appear in the OED. Surprisingly, some did!) We then tweeted some of the findings.

Step 6: Collaboratively author a blog post (with group members): a critical analysis of the evolution of the group’s 5 words; 100 words/per entry; formal language (no personal pronouns or accounts of the research process); use the evidence found during class (make reference/links to materials found in Google Books); collaborative entries with your entire group; link to each group member’s blog post. Tag your post “language.”

The blog post is due the next day and will be graded by my TA. I read through about half of the blog posts to see how they’re faring with the material and to adjust my pedagogy and curriculum according to what they need. It’s been a relief to be able to assign so much blogging and writing knowing that I don’t have to shoulder the responsibility for grading all of it.

Typically, I don’t have a TA to help, but since we raised the class cap to 50 students, the department and the Dean paid for this TA and a course release. I think I’m working more this semester than ever to keep up with all of the writing. But, that’s what it takes to keep our kinds of students engaged: don’t let them fall through the cracks, give them brief videos to watch (10-20 mins), offer a quiz or some other activity to reinforce the information in the video lectures, call them in for face-to-face meetings when they miss 2 blog posts.

A note about teams/groups: On the first day of class, since there were so many students, I divided them into group based on their operating systems (Mac, PC, tablet, smart phone, nothing). They’ve been working together for more than 5 weeks and are familiar with each other; a group leader or project manager is the point person for the group. When they are going to be absent, they let the group leader know. If some work is missing, the project lead takes the “heat” (that’s just me asking questions and putting them on the spot) and passes it on to those who didn’t do the tasks.

This experimental course has been incredibly fun, and I get to work with a technologist in our Incubator Classroom. The room itself is “awarded” by competitive application each semester. I’ve been teaching in there for the last 10-12 semesters with great success. The idea behind the room has always been that we would then take the ideas to our regular classrooms. But, that hasn’t always been easy. I find myself back in that room, inspired by the technology and creating much more active learning than in a regular Smart Room with just a projector.

In TechnoLiterature, more so than any other courses, I’ve introduced digital tools incrementally. For instance, we’ve been tweeting notes, and I hold Twitter office hours, so that students become used to using Twitter in preparation for our Tweeting as a Character assignment later in the semester (similar to this assignment from a British Literature survey course).

As a specialist in history of the book, Digital Humanities, and Digital pedagogy, today’s assignment was exciting. I can’t wait to see how they articulate their findings in the collaborative post. I suspect that the writing will be raw, but they’re encouraged to fully use everything that WordPress offers to embed and link to materials. It’s our first step into conveying formal ideas and demonstrating critical thinking about the novels that we’re reading.  The exercise will also prepare them for the critical thinking requirements in the final project (I hope).

Next semester, I will return to teaching this course in a regular Smart room. I wonder if it will be as exciting. With the Gaming Initiative and the Game Developers’ Club growing on our campus, word has begun to spread among non-majors that they should take English 10 from me next semester. That’s me — spreading the “narrative” about Humanities. Totally cool, man….