Friday, August 23, 2013

iSearched & iFound:

Using the iSearch Model to Improve a Previously Dreadful 5-week Online Comp Course


Last year, I taught my very first online class. I thought I"d be awesome at it, seeing as I'm so connected to social media and constantly using the internet. Gosh, was I wrong! The whole class felt like a trainwreck to me. It was hard to keep students motivated. I realized I was not always as clear as I thought I was being, and I didn't get final projects that demonstrated the kind of in-depth thinking and writing improvement that I was used to seeing in my 15-week face-to-face classes. Changes had to be made.

The problem with my first summer online course was that I was unwilling to try something I hadn't done before. While I was up for trying new technologies, I was sticking closely to what I had done in my face-to-face classes, simply trying to reshape time frames and assignments. Online is not the same thing as face-to-face, and a 5-week class is not the same thing as a 15-week class.

#iSearch for a Better Strategy

This year when I was asked to take on another summer course, I knew I had to approach the task differently. I was ready and excited for the challenge. I always like my classes to be 2 things: fun and challenging (in a positive way). And while the class still needs to be rigorous, I know that I have to be realistic about what students can accomplish. Many of the summer course students were athletes with hectic schedules or international students, travelling between their home countries and the U.S. At the same time, I didn't want to cheapen their learning experience, and I wanted them to see improvement in their ability to compose academic writing.

Instead of focusing on traditional writing goals, I decided that the most important things I could teach my students were to be more rhetorically aware and better at performing research. So, I went with an iSearch project. iSearch projects ask students to come up with a research question, perform in-depth research and analysis on that topic, and come to conclusions based on their findings, rather than arguing a hypotehsis from the get-go. The final product of an iSearch project is not a typical research paper, but a presentation of the research process (which, yes of course, includes the research too).

For the purposes of my class, I gave project instructions and asked students come up with a research proposal in week one. Then, encouraged students to comment and give feedback on each others' proposals (with some guidance for proper feedback).


Now that my course has come to a close, I am happy to report that the short iSearch-based online course was a success. In unsolicited feedback from students, they commented on enjoying the writing in the course, feeling that they learned a lot, and stating that the teaching was "good," which in my mind means I did ok.

But where I really see the success is in the final projects. The vast majority of my students went above and beyond in their research, in their presentations (most of them chose Prezi as their Web 2.0 component), and demonstrated clarity and precision of prose. I enjoyed reading all of their final projects and learned a lot from them, too. It was a fairly painless grading process, as far as grading goes that is.

The iSearch lent itself to student engagement, which was a problem in the last online class. Students genuinely wanted to know more about the topic, so they would check online every to learn more about it and to hear from others. Plus, the central focus throughout streamlined the experience, and students could focus on research and writing.

So what worked this time? Here are some things I learned:

  1. Focus on the big goals. The first time around, I was simply aiming to do too much. I needed to really fine-tune a few important concepts/skills rather than try to tackle everything I could teach them. This time I really thought about what my priorities were as an educator. I had to skip sentence-level instruction for the most part. I did make up for it, though, in other ways.  I encouraged students to seek grammar help from me or on a grammar hotline GoogleDoc and offered resources for them to check out on their own. 
  2. Give them (mostly) short, but meaningful writing tasks. Last time, I was simply asking my students to jump into too many genres, and in retrospect, it was mostly for the sake of exploring genres-- which, to be fair, I did think would help with rhetorical awareness development. This time, I assigned only four genres--proposals, progress posts (blog posts about their research and reading responses for each week), comments on classmates' blog posts, and a final iSearch research presentation via Web 2.0. The genres were varied enough to show them that formulaic essays are not the only kind of academic writing, but narrow enough to keep them from being overwhelmed. They were also manageable within the short time frame. By the time they got to the final project, they had enough information to quickly put together a longer draft, rather than jumping into a new essay.
  3. Don't ask them to use too many new interfaces. The first time I taught the course, I wanted my students to develop digital literacy and experience all kinds of digital interfaces-- Twitter, WordPress, GoogleDocs, GoogleSites, etc. It was too much. It's hard enough to teach students how to write, let alone how to navigate multiple new interfaces. This time I chose to use WordPress for the course and for each student's class blog. I told them about how to use Twitter for research, but did not make it mandatory. I also made the final presentation a Web 2.0 presentation and gave them a list of technologies that they could test over the five weeks. They would only have to choose one, though, which allowed them to use whatever they were most comfortable with and what best displayed their ideas, rather than having to learn and use everything for class. 
  4. Assign useful readings. During my face-to-face Composition class, I sometimes assign readings that can be used as models for the genre in which students will be composing. In a five-week online course, there simply isn't enough time to discuss and deconstruct models in ways that are useful to the students. I decided that I would only give "useful" readings, ones that describe genres, writing processes, or conventions or ones that they choose that directly inform their research. My favorite "useful" pieces come from, namely "What is Academic Writing?" by Irvine and  "Annoying Ways People Use Sources" by Stedman. Students enjoy the writing style, but also learn a lot about the conventions of research-based and academic writing from these pieces. I provide some guidance for finding sources that contribute to students' research projects, but I don't "assign" anything in particular.
  5. Use repetition. Try to keep the same deadline days for every week. It's one step better if you keep most of the weekly requirements the same-- post every week by X day, comment by X day, etc. You can add one or two new things on top of the regularly scheduled work, but anything more than that and students will forget what is due, feel confused, or become overwhelmed.
  6. Allow for more depth than breadth. This is the number 1 reason I believe the iSearch project worked for the online course. By focusing on a single question, which they were presumably passionate about answering, students were able to engage with the material and try new genres. In a week or two's time, they would barely have time to scratch the surface writing about new topics. The iSearch kept them focused on synthesizing ideas, analyzing texts, and working on the clarity of their prose and ideas in writing. In this way, they were able to focus on communication rather than content. That is not to say that new ideas weren't introduced through research or that their research questions did not evolve, but that they were able to sustain analysis, instead of starting from scratch multiple times. 
All in all, if I taught this course again, I would keep it nearly the same, though I might introduce the Grammar Hotline earlier. As far as contract grading goes, the iSearch simplified that too. I found that far from being overwhelmed by having to check up on the many small writing assignments I gave last semester, this semester, it was easy to track the progress posts and my students' comments to one another. I knew the criteria for each post was clearly defined and because I narrowed down the genres, it was far more simple for me to establish the parameters of the contract.

The iSearch was a great method. I saw students learning, interacting, and showing pride in their work. To me, that says #winning.

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