Are Your Students AOK? Part II

It’s the end of the semester–time to reflect on the AOK experiment.

A few months ago I wrote about using AOK in my classroom. My hope was that such a game, for a variety of reasons, would increase retention in my courses. Alas, the retention numbers look the same this semester–an obstacle not likely to be overcome by one game alone. However, I’d say that AOK was a positive addition to my classroom and I plan to use it again next semester.

Here are a few thoughts on my sixteen weeks with AOK.

There were perhaps four obstacles to the more effective incorporation of AOK into my classroom and thus the complete adoption of the game by my students.

1. There were a few kinks early on with the AOK online interface. Students could not post their acts of kindness, points were not awarded. These should have been temporary setbacks, and, too be sure, the bugs themselves were fixed quickly (AOK support is marvelous). However, the initial trouble-shooting cooled the enthusiasm of some of the early adopters, those most enthusiastic about the game. Once those early adopters stopped posting, their classmates followed suit. Whether reasonable or not, students expect technology to work the first time out. If it does not, they move on.

2. Caught up in the day to day responsibilities of teaching, I didn’t post my own AOK’s nearly as often as I should have. If you expect students to follow suit, you have to give them something to follow.

3. Assignment design: Given that AOK is running smoothly and you may be more disciplined than I am about posting, the trickiest thing about incorporating AOK into the classroom was its placement in my LMS. Here at Silicon Classroom, we like to use PBWorks. AOK has a free widget one can incorporate into the sidebar of, I imagine, any LMS, but the widget itself is limited. It’s an activity stream rather than a full-featured stream and leader board. Crucial to the gamification of any classroom is a leader board students can use to track their progress and engage in a little friendly competition. While my class had a leader board on the AOK site, I couldn’t embed the leader board in the LMS itself. Students had to go to the AOK site to track their position relative to other students and so when I discussed AOK on a given assignment page, that discussion was divorced from their score/level. Based on some of the announcements I’ve received from AOK, it looks like an embeddable widget is on the horizon. Awesome.

4. Tied to the above is the need for some kind of assignment-specific badge which links to one or more flashtags. Let me explain. My students belonged to our Eng1110 group. Any time they posted an AOK using that flashtag (*eng1110) they received points. Now, in a few instances, I wanted make their AOKs assignment-specific and give them double points. For example, rather than posting about a general kind act, they needed to do something narrowly related to the course, say an additional instance of peer review, then post their AOK about that act. If you fast forward through the process, they would need to complete the act and “AOK it” using the hash tag *additionalpeerreview and then “AOK it” again using the general group flashtag *eng1110. The first hash tag allows the instructor, at a glance, to see who has completed the assignment. The second flashtag keeps their overall score up to date (we don’t want multiple points spread out across multiple leader boards–at least one leader board needs to capture a student’s overall engagement). Additionally, having an AOK badge one can place on web pages, one that clicks through to a specific flashtag, reminds students/players about the game and encourages participation (which is one click away). I’m going to take a guess and venture that a double-flashtag badge is a bit of tricky coding that the folks at AOK aren’t too keen on just at the moment. One quick hack is to create your own badge using a .jpg and associate the non-group flashtag with the image. You can see mine to the

right. When students clicked on that badge it took them to the assignment specific flashtag where they could “AOK” their act. I reminded them on that flashtag page to add the *engl1110 flashtag to their AOK, too, so that their points would be reflected on both leader boards. It’s an inelegant solution but the badge reminds students about the game and directs them to the flashtag page for the new flashtag as opposed to the one they have already committed to memory.

Now. On to the positive.

Despite early glitches and my own insufficient use of the platform, AOK was a great vehicle for that “ambient sociability” I discussed earlier. It gave me additional insights into what my students cared about and who they cared for. Every time a new post popped up, I was privy to a kind act by a student, or one they had observed. I found that through the course of the semester, I identified students not only by their writing, their intellectual selves, but also by their generosity. In more than one instance, in a hectic day, my response to a tone-deaf email (the dangers of online learning) was tempered by my additional insights. Yes, so and so seemed curt, perhaps even rude, but I knew their email was the mis-shaped, hurried message, not the messenger.

Equally important, students used AOK to document their own obstacles to academic success. Minneapolis Community and Technical College has roughly 14,000 students, many of them, particularly in this economy, struggling to make ends meet. Their economic challenges, from money for books to homelessness are daunting. Quite a few AOK’s were inspired by students helping other students to meet these challenges, challenges that, in an online classroom often go unobserved. I was grateful to have these obstacles made vivid in the electronic ether.

Finally, the folks behind AOK and the AOK community at large are a diverse and enthusiastic group. Even when I wasn’t online, there was a sense of continuous engagement with my students (who were participating) from other AOKers–a steady stream of positive comments, thumbs up, and “likes”. While a given AOK may not have been assignment-specific, the reaction to it happened in the context of the classroom, and thus, I believe, added to our sense of community.

Tips for using AOK in your classroom:

  • Post often. No sitting on the sidelines. If your students don’t see you posting, they won’t either.
  • Make connections. My most effective class-related posts came when I drew connections between student work. Perhaps one student had done a particularly effective review of another student’s essay. Commenting on that hard work gave the reviewer the recognition they deserved and the reviewee a little prompt.
  • If you don’t have time to comment on an AOK, a thumbs up will do. Students like the facebook-like micro-acknowledgements.
  • Embed AOK badges into your course pages, badges which click through to a hash tag if possible. Beyond the reasons I covered above, the AOK widget quickly becomes part of the “white noise” of an online course, particularly if it is located in a sidebar. Instead, reminders need to be bold, visual, and redundant. Embed them in pages. Embed them in pages. Embed them in pages.
  • Create a little cross-section competition. It’s easy enough to create competing flashtags for two courses, flashtags which incorporate coursework already assigned i.e. peer review, questions answered in a discussion forum etc.
  • Encourage you students to participate in flashtag campaigns happening outside of the classroom. As they engage the broader AOK community, that same community will find its way into your classroom.

photo by: Terrapin Flyer

Author Dominic Saucedo

Cognitive Surplus: Technology and Engagement

Shirky, Clay.   Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  New York: Penguin Press, 2010.  213+ pages.

I finished Shirky’s second book (for the longest time, his first book – Here Comes Everybody – was my constant recommendation to anyone who would listen).  This book is not as eye-opening as the first book, but Here Comes Everybody is a tough act for anyone to follow.  That said, Cognitive Surplus is now at the top of my recommendation list.

One of Shirky’s most effective rhetorical strategies is his use of stories to tell a larger story.  This is true in Cognitive Surplus, which begins with a wonderful story about the Gin Craze of London in the 1720s and ends with a delightful tale of a friend’s child watching a DVD movie and then suddenly leaping from the couch because she was “looking for the mouse” (212).  In between are many anecdotes that Shirky brings to life so that the reader might understand how the read/write web (Web 2.0) has provided us a space for our cognitive surplus.

This book is about the novel resource that has appeared as the world’s cumulative free time is addressed in aggregate.  The two most important transitions allowing us access to this resource have already happened – the buildup of well over a trillion hours of free time each year on the part of the  world’s educated population, and the invention and spread of public media that enable ordinary citizens, previously locked out, to pool that free time in pursuit of activities they like or care about.  [. . .]  Understanding those two changes, as different as they are from the media landscape of the twentieth century, is just the beginning of understanding what is happening today, and what is possible tomorrow. (27)

Shirky does not look kindly on television, even as he admits to his own voracious viewing habits as a young person.  He asserts that for much of the second half of the twentieth century, we spent our cognitive surplus  watching television.  He writes amusingly of his own television viewing habits, describing them variously as a “job” and an “obligation.”  In a section titled “More is Different” from the first chapter, Shirky muses:

Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and they don’t?  I saw that one a lot when I was growing up.  And every half hour I watched it was a half hour in which I wasn’t sharing photos or uploading video or conversing on a mailing list.  (21)

He commits the bulk of the book to analyzing and critiquing the elements of cognitive surplus – means, motive, opportunity, and culture -  and he devotes entire chapters to each.  Throughout, he weaves the primary motives for participating: autonomy and creativity, sharing and generosity.

Looking back on this book after having read it two years ago, one of the most useful concepts Shirky introduces to me is Jay Rosen’s The People Formerly Known as the Audience.  Since 2010, this concept, which for me explains the revolutionary nature of the read/write web, has constantly been in my mind (and Rosen published this posting in 2006 – what was I doing from 2006 to 2010?).  As a writing instructor and as someone who was trained in composition and rhetoric studies as a graduate student, Rosen’s posting simply and directly challenges traditional notions of “audience.”

The final two chapters explore the potential of collaborative uses of our individual cognitive surplus, and I am particularly interested in his chapter devoted to “Personal, Communal, Public, Civic” uses.

Read the book.  If this posting doesn’t convince you, take fourteen minutes to watch this video on youtube:

 How Cognitive Surplus Will Change the World

Author Michael Kuhne

Wikipedia in the Writing Classroom

“Wikipedia: T-Shirt” by Quartermane, Flickr Creative Commons

“Wikipedia: T-Shirt” by Quartermane, Flickr Creative Commons

Along with my colleagues Gill Creel and Dominic Saucedo, I teach an online research writing course that focuses on Wikipedia. The previous link takes you to the course’s blog, which is where we have established the week-to-week activity for the course, and from there, one could also follow links to the course wiki, where students post their writings and collaborate with others. As I write this, the students are close to ending the summer session, and they are immersed in writing a Reflective Analytical Essay, in which they reflect on their experience as novice Wikipedians.  Two earlier assignments, the Wikipedia Feature Article Analysis and the collaborativeWikipedia Article, ask them to work on Wikipedia articles to improve them.

When Gill suggested three years ago that we use Wikipedia as a site for our research writing course, I hesitantly agreed to collaborate. When we first taught the course, we each taught a face-to-face section that was a bit rough around the edges. While I was on sabbatical (2009-2010), Dominic and Gill moved the course online (which was the plan from the beginning) and made great improvements.

Students write three essays. The first one is a response to approximately a dozen short articles that explain, critique, enthuse, and analyze Wikipedia. The second writing assignment has students using Wikipedia: Feature Article Criteria to analyze the shortcomings of a non-Feature article of their choosing. The students then form small groups of 2-3 people and work for three weeks to improve a Wikipedia article. The final essay asks students to reflect upon and analyze their efforts.

There are many reasons why we think that this course works well. One reason I think it works is because the third assignment – improving a Wikipedia article – draws on a series of civic engagement impulses. Teams of students work to improve an item that belongs to the commonwealth. In the process, they often encounter other Wikipedians working to improve the same articles that they are addressing. When this happens, it adds a public dimension to the students’ thinking and writing. It is not always a pleasant exchange, since these encounters often result in student edits being reverted, but if students are patient and persistent, they learn valuable lessons about how to work with others in online environments where their writing is they only way that they can represent themselves.

Author Michael Kuhne

Better Class Discussions with Highlighter

One of the beauties of asynchronous, online education is the discussion forum. Teachers know the pitfalls of the, say, fifty-five minute synchronous/traditional classroom discussion. In the attempt to both pose a question and collectively find an answer, we swim purposefully towards the answer, rather that splash around in the messy pools of possible answers. We reach conclusions too quickly. And, while asynchronous discussions allow this “splashy” discourse, the challenge for the teacher is to direct and redirect a discussion which can become long, fragmented, unfocused.  Part of this problem is structural. Discussion forums are usually located at the bottom of the article/web page. Comments are stacked, and, unless every respondent has done a good job of quoting and paraphrasing, comments are without context. Take a look at any thread spread out over the course of three pages on the NY Times website and you quickly see what I mean. Yeah, I’m talking to youSupreme Court Lets Health Law Largely Stand

Highlighter, a new-ish highlighter/annotater for content, works to solve this problem. And while I haven’t given up on using the regular comments section on my course wiki, I’ve taken to using the highlighter plug-in on assignments where I want a close reading of a text/where I want students to comment on specific parts of a longer text.

A  few things that I like/my students liked about this tool.  Read More→

photos by: The U.S. National Archives & The U.S. National Archives

Author Dominic Saucedo

Your Online Learning Platform Should Be Central Park, Not Gramercy

Gramercy park is beautiful, but it’s private–one of only two private parks in New York City where “only people residing around the park who pay an annual fee have a key, and the public is not generally allowed in – although the sidewalks of the streets around the park are a popular jogging, strolling and dog-walking route” ( Central Park on the other hand—people sprawled out reading, talking. Interaction. If you’re new to online teaching, you’ve seen the Learning Management Systems (LMS)/Online Learning Platforms used by your school (Desire2Learn, Moodle, BlackBoard). Lots of shiny bells and pretty whistles. Wrought iron gates and ivy covered walls. But once you get it, you realize that it’s just you and your students, separated from the outside world. Your students don’t live in these gated parks, however.

If the public can’t get in, neither can new technologies.

 Twitter, Facebook, Instagram–all social media apps which, at the check of a box, allow users to share contents and comments. Typical LMS systems don’t allow this. Or, at least, you need permission. Someone has to give you the okay. Mimeograph a form in triplicate and then send to the Central Registry. And by then? By then the moment has passed.

You need control over your LMS.

…so you can let in visiting colleagues, experts in other fields, past students who want to chime in on the work of a current student or simply want to lend a fleeting, helping hand.

And here’s another reason: Read More→

photo by: Bosc d'Anjou

Author Dominic Saucedo