Sunday, June 30, 2013

Non-traditional assignments

I teach writing and work in a writing center, so I am, of course, quite comfortable with what a colleague dismissively calls "alphabet soup." (He means words and sentences. Groan.) I might argue that "writing" is more important than ever in some ways-- it still amazes me that young people would rather text than talk on the phone, but I'd rather email than talk on the phone, and I'd probably text if I didn't have really clumsy thumbs and lamentably good touch-typing (ALL fingers) habits. There's something about the distance afforded by that alphabet soup, the a-synchronicity of it, the postponement of interaction, that makes it perpetually appealing.

Anyway, in my advising work, I'm placed in different online classrooms every week to help the students with their writing assignments. What this affords me is a quite broad view of how online courses are being conducted in different disciplines and across different levels. (I'm mostly in the undergraduate courses, and mostly upper-level these days.) And something I've been noticing is that a couple years ago, there was a marked tendency to offer students a choice of assignments, one choice being traditional (usually a research paper), and one being non-traditional (usually something more visual-- a Powerpoint, a video, a recording of the student doing a speech). In my own classes, word came down from the department that we too were supposed to offer students the choice between the usual discussion forum posts and "a PowerPoint presentation or Youtube video answering the prompt."

It was a resounding failure. In my own classes, no one went to the trouble of creating a Powerpoint to answer a discussion forum prompt. And while two did choose to make videos instead of the final paper-- thinking it would be easier-- ended up with unimpressive products which didn't fulfill any of the research and analysis part of the "researched analysis project" project. So while they probably enjoyed the 45 minutes they spent on their films, they didn't like the grades they got and complained. I sympathized, but really, it's hard to look at a 20-page research paper with 15 sources and then at a 6-minute video of nature photographs set to a emo soundtrack with 35 words of captioning and think they deserve the same grade.

This year I've noticed that none of those courses that two years ago offered alternatives to writing a paper are still doing it. The end project of all the classes is back to being some arrangement of alphabet soup. (Of course, I'm a writing advisor, so I'm not placed in courses where there's no writing project.)

Why? I'm glad of it really. I think it's certainly possible for students to do effective jobs with other media, but they probably haven't been taught those skills academically. And the resources it takes to, say, do a documentary film about the failure of the bondrating agencies in the 2008 bank crisis simply aren't available to most students the way the library and their word-processor are-- it's not just easier to write a research paper. It's -possible--, achievable, to students. The same level of video products simply is not, no matter how many free apps are out there.

That's one of the problems-- it's easy to do these alternatives badly, and hard to do them well. And no one's really teaching the students to do these things.  Powerpoint's been around forever-- I remember my now-grown kids doing Powerpoints in grade school-- and it's useful enough. I use it occasionally in my other job (I do writing workshops around the country), but not all that much because of the lighting (you turn the lights down, and workshoppers can't read their own work) and because of the tendency to read off the darned slides rather than actually teaching.  But there's this assumption that Powerpoint is so intuitive that students will just pick it up and do it well, like they do with Tumblr or Pinterest. And I don't think it works that way, and anyway, the medium is NOT the message-- there still has to be content. Research. Ideas.

One problem is that there is no purpose being defined usually, and no audience, so there's no real way of getting an idea of what is needed, what will be sufficient, what level of information is needed, how deep the analysis. "Do a video about a problem and solution" tends to get really basic topics like "how to train your dog to beg." Just the tradition of the research paper is enough to steer students away from thinking they can get away with that in text.

I'm not sold on the idea that other-media assignments can be assigned and assessed on the same plane as a research paper. But I think the first step is deciding that the alternative assignment must be as well-thought out and useful as the research paper is. It's not enough that it's a video or a Powerpoint-- it has to be that because this is the best way to present this material. And also, all the academic standards still have to be established and met. If this is a research project, the alternative assignment must require the same level of research. If it's supposed to be analytical, there must be some development and logic involved.

Over and over, we keep making this mistake-- treating alternatives as just tricks, gimmicks, assuming multimedia is good simply for multimedia's stake. Like a talking dog-- just worthwhile in and of itself.  But it's not. It's a medium. It's just pixels on screen unless something intervenes and makes it more meaningful. The content, the organization, the focus, the research, all still have to be there. After all, the point of research paper assignments, even writing assignments, isn't to teach students how to type. And the purpose of alternative-media assignments shouldn't be just to teach them how to Youtube.

We're simultaneously trivializing and deifying "the alternative"-- showing it too much fear and not enough respect.

I think I might deal with this in my constructivist assignment.

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