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Education Opinion

Make Writing Classes Larger and Other Heresies of Connected Courses

By Justin Reich — November 17, 2016 3 min read
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Kim Jaxon decided that for her freshman writing seminar at California State University, Chico, she needed more students. Many, many more students.

You read that right, she lobbied for larger class sizes. Kim Jaxon is heretic.

Kim isn’t a penny pinching administrator, or a lecturer enraptured with her own voice. But she is a big believer that special things can happen when students write for real audiences. As she argued in her recent ignite talk at the Digital Media and Learning conference, when large groups come together, there is a chance for performances to achieve an epic status.

Of course, Kim’s a great teacher, so she also knows that writing students need regular, personal feedback, small discussion groups for critique, and all the benefits that small courses can bring. For Kim, the way to reconcile the benefits of large audiences and small discussion groups was to use a connected courses framework.

Connected courses are learning environments where student work happens on the open Web, and where students publish and share their work in online spaces that they own, manage, and control. The instructor’s responsibility is to create a technology framework that connects and aggregates student-generated content from these learning spaces.

This is stark contrast to the dominant model of online and blended learning that takes place in learning management systems, which are controlled an administrated by institutions and faculty.

Through a networked set of blogs and social media tools, students in Kim’s class can share work with each other, with the faculty, with the team of teaching assistants, and ultimately with the whole world. For a physical classroom, Kim uses a large, flexible conference space that allow different configurations of learning, sharing and working among her large group, facilitated by a team of TAs. A volunteer group of students serves as “editors” for the student work products, reading through all of the major assignments produced by students and selecting the best ones to be featured in class and on the class site.

If you had asked me the moment before Kim’s ignite talk what the ideal class size for a writing seminar would be, I would have said 8-12 without hesitation. By 5 minutes later, my ideas were profoundly challenged. Kim has a compelling case to make that if we want to inspire young writers, we need to give them access to larger audiences, to more peer exemplars, and for the energy and excitement that can come from large groups working together towards a common goal.

Kim, despite be an inspiring teacher of connected courses, was a participant in a workshop that Alan Levine and I offered at the Digital Media and Learning conference called Crafting Connected Courses. In it, we provided some pedagogical rationales behind connected courses, some exemplars of amazing courses like Kim’s, and then technical instruction for how to build the infrastructure online that supports connected courses--how to get students set up with blogs and social media accounts and then how to set up the websites that can aggregate and organize these materials.

My colleague Alan Levine pulled out all of the stops for the website for this workshop. Alan has built a series of custom Wordpress templates that support different kinds of connected courses from very simple picture and text aggregators to more complex ways of aggregating and displaying student work. He then partnered with Reclaim Hosting to create a site, stateu.org, where people can create turnkey versions of these Wordpress sites for free for 30 days. Participants in our workshop created three to four different sites over the course of the day to experiment with and explore different ways of empowering and connecting student writing.

Then, he created another website, connectedcourses.stateu.org, that exhaustively details in text, screenshots, and Western-themed gifs how to do everything that we discussed in the workshop. Creating your first Wordpress blog? No problem. Interested in creating a simple Wordpress photo aggregator? Got you covered. Like the Daily Create assessment system in DS106.us? You can have one. Want to stand up the FeedWordpress powered, connected courses aggregator sire that Alan has spent years tweaking and perfecting? Done.

The workshop website is basically a stand alone online course, an incredible labor of love, and it will be an incredible asset for faculty looking to create connected courses for years to come. Check it out, see some of the older work at connectedcourses.net, and get started helping students get connected and learn on the open Web.

Connected Courses are how the Web was Won!

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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