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The Help Desk as a Community-Building Tool for Online Professional Development

Abstract

COVID-19 safety measures have forced professional development programs to pivot to online environments, which affects how participants interact and collaborate. When the University of Rhode Island hosted their annual, week-long teacher professional development event as a fully-online program, the staff of the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy provided an online, real-time help desk service, knowing that some participants would benefit from targeted, individualized support. Using evidence from the help desk incident log and post-event qualitative interviews, this research deepens understanding of what teacher professional development can look like in online environments. Through the provision of personalized, real-time assistance that created a relationship between the participant and the staff member, those who used the Help Desk reduced their feelings of isolation, increased a sense of connectedness, and demonstrated agency as co-learners in a professional development learning experience. By providing intrapersonal, technical, and navigational support, the help desk deepened a sense of community connectedness in an online professional development program for educators who faced a dramatic pivot to online learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Closures and physical distancing measures due to COVID-19 have shifted the way we interact, forcing many organizations to eliminate programs in teacher professional development (TPD) or move them to online platforms for the first time. In this shift, educators have faced some obstacles and adjustments. Although online learning is not a new model for digital literacy education, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how and to what extent educators are expected to utilize online platforms for learning and community, bringing with it challenges to and opportunities for growth.

Given this backdrop, we look to understand how current research in TPD translates for fully-online experiences, exploring principles of community-building to understand the affordances of online learning. Importantly, our work seeks to understand the possibility of successfully applying known, effective in-person practices to online learning and professional development. This study documents a key feature of the 2020 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy (SIDL), a TPD program affected by COVID-19 restrictions. In its eighth year, SIDL was held completely online for the first time, gathering around 150 participants—mostly from the United States but including more than two dozen from 10 countries around the world. Educators, school leaders, researchers, librarians, and media literacy advocates come together annually for the week-long intensive program to learn about digital literacy, practicing skills and instructional techniques that support student learning via digital platforms (Hobbs and Coiro 2019; 2016). When pandemic restrictions emerged in March, program planners decided to use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning, using a learning management system plus video conference meeting rooms, along with flexible scheduling

Because of the intensive nature of the program, with its focus on hands-on media production activities and the activation of digital literacy competencies, they also decided to add an online help desk component to act as a support mechanism. The help desk would rely on a dedicated Zoom video conference room and text service (Google Voice) staffed continuously to offer hands-on, real-time support throughout the six-day, 42-hour event. By visiting the Lounge/Help Desk, participants could hang out and engage in informal dialogue but also get questions answered or receive individualized coaching.

In this study, we aim to better understand the value of the SIDL Lounge/Help Desk as a component of a teacher professional development program. Through the provision of personalized, real-time assistance that created a relationship between the participant and the staff member, we wondered if it could replace the “elbow-to-elbow” support that the program embodies when implemented in face-to-face learning contexts, where faculty and participants work side-by-side to create to learn (Hobbs and Coiro 2016).

Literature Review

The academic scholarship most relevant to this work focuses on the characteristics of professional learning environments that address the identity of teachers as learners and the role of help desks in community-building for both face-to-face and online learning contexts.

Teachers as co-learners

COVID-19 restrictions have required educators to adopt online teaching methods not as an option but as a necessity, and the suggestion that “what works in effective traditional learning environments may or may not work in online environments” has proven true in the forced remote learning of the 2020 pandemic (McCombs and Vakili 2005, 1582). In these unusual circumstances, teachers must “unlearn” traditional concepts in order to be receptive to new approaches that work better in online settings. While some teaching and learning habits are useful, they can also be detrimental, especially in unpredictable and unstable moments in time. Not only must educators learn new forms of social engagement, they must also “unlearn habits that have been useful in the past but may no longer be valuable to the future” (McWilliam 2008, 263).

One of the most dynamic settings where a teacher can embrace the identity of the learner is a TPD program. Ann Lieberman (1995, 592) argued for teachers to be actively involved in their own learning, noting that “the ways teachers learn may be more like the ways students learn than we have previously recognized.” When teachers actively learn from each other, they may create communities of practice where participants share, reflect on, and build new knowledge (Darling-Hammond et al. 2017; Desimone 2009).

During professional development, educators are placed in student roles, where they may enter into a “troubling zone” that can be also described as a discomfort, and it is this discomfort that helps to build a critical inner reflection leading to openness and empathy (Fasching-Varner et.al. 2019).

In online learning contexts, the ability to critically reflect on the identity of the learner is crucial for the design of effective TPD (Baran, Correia, and Thompson 2011). A profound learning opportunity can be created by the temporary disequilibrium caused by switching from “expert” to “learner” (O’Mahony et al. 2019). An aggregate review of how to improve TPD for online and blended learning confirms this, stating that teachers must have “the opportunity to reflect on the roles that they ascribe to themselves and their students in (online) environments” (Philipsen et al. 2019, 1157). This empathy for learners creates critical awareness that can be used during times of acute situational adjustments, such as with COVID-19.

Help desks as spaces for online community building

Online learning creates many opportunities for communities to form. Smith (2013) notes that community is variously developed by place, interest, and communion and is built through tolerance, reciprocity, and trust. But community doesn’t make itself: Connections are made through interaction, thus enabling people to build those communities (Smith 2013).

So what does one do when interaction becomes virtual, such as occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic? Coryell (2013) contextualizes collaborative and comparative inquiry in cross-cultural adult learning by framing learning as participation (partaking in knowledge), rather than learning as acquisition (possessing it). In referring to Sfrad’s (1998) work, she argues that in learning-as-participation mode, learners recognize knowledge as an interactional journey (Coryell 2013).

Community cannot exist without shared experience, and TPD programs must activate a sense of community if they are to be successful. A sense of community informs the formation of collective identity, which “is demonstrated when group members work interdependently with a shared purpose and responsibility for collective success” (Vrieling et al. 2018, 3).

Help desks may be spaces that support collaborative learning. In the field of information science, computer help desks located in universities have been studied to understand their organizational or technical functions, with focus on staffing, training and other issues. Some researchers have explored how help desk activity is used to create, manage, and share knowledge (Halverson et al. 2004). But there is limited research on collective identity, participation, or co-learning in help desk scenarios. Only one study is especially relevant to our work: it looked at what kind of learning takes place between those who need support and those who offer it. In this help desk research, a consistent sequence of four phases emerged to support communication, learning, and engagement in a face-to-face help desk. The phases included the processes of introduction, knowledge establishment, conceptual change, and agency. Findings showed that these interactions (consisting of two professionals of different expertise) activated metacognition, a type of reflection, leading to learner agency and personal fulfillment (O’Mahony et al. 2019).

With this understanding of community-building via help desks, we can consider the unique opportunities and challenges of online learning environments, including for TPD. As a result of the rise of social media, digital interaction has become normative for most people around the world. Yet for many educators, online learning has been thought to be inferior to face-to-face learning. For example, researchers who conducted a meta-analysis of various TPDs and how they affect student outcomes found that TPDs with online components yielded lower student achievement than programs that were entirely face-to-face. Yet, in that same study, several online learning practices were associated with gains, including having space to “troubleshoot and discuss implementation” of digital tools (Hill et al. 2020, 54).

To prepare teachers for online learning, online TPD may be a powerful treatment. But an understanding of the full potential of online TPD is still in development. Based on participant comments regarding collaborative and face-to-face engagement in Collins and Liang’s (2015) study of online TPD, little advancement in both the approach and implementation of these programs seems to have occurred. They report:

A number of individuals expressed they did not find OTPD as effective or meaningful as traditional face-to-face protocols…hardly anyone mentioned the online environment as engaging or encouraging participation through support or collaboration. A high number explicitly expressed that interaction was lacking … and many reported that even though they appreciated online delivery and its accessibility … they still missed the dialogue and collaboration of face-to-face PD. (Collins and Liang 2015, 28–29)

Online learning pedagogies are still primarily viewed through a prism of limitations when it comes to community-building. But scholars and practitioners are beginning to reimagine the use of technology and digital devices for collaborative learning. Bhati and Song (2019) conceptualize the creation of a dynamic learning space (DLS) in combination with mobile collaborative experiential learning (MCEL) as a means to encourage “high-level learning” and personalization. To our knowledge, approaches that level up these experiences by using the collaborative value of peer-to-peer synergy—proven instrumental to successful social learning—have not yet been studied.

Research Methods

The purpose of the paper was to understand the role of the help desk in online TPD as a form of informal learning and community building. Because this is a form of exploratory research, we asked: How did adult learners experience the value of an online help desk in the context of teacher professional development?

Participants and program context

The Lounge/Help Desk was fully-integrated into the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy (SIDL), the six-day, 42-hour TPD program, which included 135 participants and fifteen staff members. SIDL is an established program with a long history (Hobbs and Coiro 2019; 2016) but 2020 was the first time the TPD program was offered as a fully online program. Thus, many features of the program required adaptations that were new to the event organizers, faculty, staff, and returning participants.

The SIDL Lounge/Help Desk was conceptualized as an informal gathering space, where participants could go to get help—but also to interact with other participants and staff. Describing the Help Desk as a lounge was also intentionally designed as a means to reduce the stigma of asking for help. Participants were reminded of the Lounge/Help Desk every day. Each morning of the six-day program, participants received an email with the links to the learning management system, where links to video conference Zoom rooms and the Lounge/Help Desk were provided. The first and second authors were responsible for staffing the Zoom room Lounge/Help Desk, and the third author served as their supervisor.

The Lounge/Help Desk was both a synchronous and asynchronous communication channel for program participants and faculty, open to join at any time throughout event hours (9 AM–5 PM). Participants joined the Zoom Room or sent texts or emails, and these were handled throughout the day as the TPD program was in operation. Program faculty also participated in the Lounge/Help Desk, joining the online Zoom room for 1–3 hour shifts. In cases where the staff could not answer questions, one member would reach out to program organizers via a private Signal chat, which was used as a backchannel tool, in order to gain information needed to answer questions or solve problems.

As Lounge/Help Desk staff members, we gradually came to recognize that we were teachers in the TPD program and that our role was truly educational. We were not just providing a transactional service: Through our interaction, we were demonstrating the depth of community building that is at the heart of the SIDL program (Hobbs and Coiro 2019). People came to the Lounge/Help Desk needing different kinds of personalized support. Some were clearly beginners in their use of technology, while others had considerable expertise. But each of these individuals were people that we had a chance to interact with and learn from; during other components of the program we sometimes encountered them, particularly in small breakout groups and informal discussions. Indeed, it was the awareness of our own experience as co-learners with the participants that inspired our interest in this research project.

Data collection and analysis

Incident Log

During the program, we logged every visit to the Help Desk in an incident log to identify each time a participant visited the Zoom room or interacted via Google Voice text messages. During the real-time TPD program, this practice helped event organizers to understand participant pain points for particular learning activities that involved digital media and technology. It also functioned to help staff contact participants when reaching out to those whose questions could not be resolved in real time. The log documented: who contacted the help desk; who assisted them; what the question or problem was; and how the resolution occurred. The incident log was not initially designed for research, as we merely imagined its function as a tool for formative assessment during the program implementation.

During the program, the Help Desk Zoom room was accessed 76 unique times by 41 different participants. Fourteen text messages were sent to Help Desk staff. In our first phase of data analysis, the first and second authors used data from the incident log to categorize our encounters with participants. We worked independently to develop categories to account for the variety of interactions in order to increase divergent interpretations and reduce confirmation bias. By reviewing the categories created by each researcher using simple description, we identified emerging themes like: “emotional support needed after confusion caused by new platforms,” “tech glitches,” and “wanting to be told what to do.”

Interviews

After the event, we reached out to 41 participants who had used the Help Desk and eight agreed to participate in a research interview; one male and seven females. In terms of race and ethnicity, six participants were White, one Black, and one Latina. Seven participants were from the United States, while one participant was from Great Britain. The average age of the participants varied from 40 to 65. The demography of the research participants closely represents the SIDL demography, with the majority of participants white, female, and based in the United States.

The interview was conducted through Zoom and included ten scripted questions regarding the participant’s experience using the Help Desk. Participants were asked to describe what led up to their decision to access the Help Desk, the emotions they could recall at play before, during, and after its use, and how the experience compared to other help desk services they may have experienced in the past. Interviews were conducted three weeks after the event. The University’s institutional review board approved the research and participants gave permission for audio recording.

In the second phase of data analysis, we analyzed both the transcribed interview data from the individual interviews and the incident log data collected during the TPD program. The interview data helped to more deeply contextualize the documentation in the incident log. For example, interviews suggested that areas first coded as “tech glitches” may also relate to “confusion,” and that participants who we initially perceived to be “needing to be told what to do” were navigating the social loss of community interaction.

Findings

Three themes emerged from this work which give insight into how informal learning was experienced in the context of using a Help Desk during an online teacher professional development program. Participants came with a variety of very specific questions and problems during the week-long program. Of the 76 visits to the Help Desk, many were easy to answer, requiring only a few minutes. Examples of these include finding a link to a Zoom room, recalling a password, or noting the day’s agenda and schedule. These were often merely a matter of visiting a web page and clicking a link.

But some questions required some additional form of co-learning as Help Desk staff needed to answer a question by modeling a learning process with a participant. Some of the questions that participants asked could not be easily answered by Help Desk staff. For example, one participant needed help learning how to edit a post on Wakelet, a digital curation tool, while another wanted a tutorial on ThingLink, a visual annotation tool. Neither staff member was familiar with these digital tools but both were able to demonstrate co-learning with participants to answer their question or solve their problem. Another participant struggled to find a solution to the microphone on her laptop, which suddenly stopped working. In each case, the Help Desk staff demonstrated through inviting the participant to share their screen, using coaching that enabled participants to solve their own problem with scaffolded support from a member of the staff. For questions that Help Desk staff could not solve on their own, they explained and modeled how they reached out for help from the larger faculty team. In those cases, staff were able to find answers within an hour or two of the request being made. Considering the nature of the help provided in the context of the participant interviews, we found that many of the Help Desk encounters created a rich interpersonal relationship between participant and staff member that functioned to reduce isolation, deepen a sense of community, and increase learner agency.

Co-learning as a journey borne of isolation

The Lounge/Help Desk reinforced the perception that the TPD program was a co-learning journey that involved the participants and the staff as collaborators. Many participants (and program faculty) were experiencing online TPD for the first time; it was a new experience for everyone.

While describing initial feelings and the scenarios leading up to accessing the Lounge/Help Desk, participants mentioned experiencing “confusion,” “nervousness,” and “anxiety.”[1] For example:

  • “Before [coming to the help desk], it was confusion and a little bit of…I wouldn’t go as far as to say panic, but close.”
  • “I was a little lost a couple of times in terms of where I was supposed to be going.”

In the TPD program, the novelty of a fully online event was made even more intense by the expectation that participants would be practicing the use of new digital tools, including Pathwright LMS, Adobe Spark, Padlet, and many other platforms. This may have exacerbated concerns that participants naturally have in new learning scenarios, except that, instead of being able to organically turn to the person next to you and ask questions, participants were, in that moment, alone.

Interview data clearly reveals that awareness of a sense of isolation was a precipitating incident. Participants noted feeling confused about “where” to go and when, unsure of which “Zoom room” they belonged in. At various points during the week, there was uncertainty regarding task details and/or deadlines for completion. These are common in learning environments, and the accessibility of the Help Desk acted as a bridge in lieu of the missing opportunity to “turn to your neighbor,” thus helping participants keep involved and engaged.

Some veteran SIDL participants (attending for a second or third time) hesitated in reaching out to the help desk out of concern for others, downplaying their own need for support. Feelings of demoralization and inadequacy were also referenced in the moment of realizing help was needed.

  • “[Y]ou think, ‘should I know the answer to this—is this something I can figure out myself?’ … my hesitancy was that people might need [the Help Desk] more than I did.”
  • “Everybody sort of doesn’t want to take time away from other people or you don’t want to bother people. So there’s always that, but I felt more comfortable using it after I used it the first time…”
  • “The feeling before I joined the lounge was ‘I’m “supposed” to be doing this, but I can’t.’”

One participant said that she felt much more comfortable coming to the help desk when she realized she knew one of the staff members. Clearly, such relationships and bonds can support not only successful learning but also continued community development.

Co-learning as a journey to connect

The decision to share Google Voice numbers with participants offered additional options to connect with the Lounge/Help Desk staff through calling or texting. One participant noted this as particularly helpful; as a non-native English speaker, it was easier for her to write her question. Because the help desk was continuously available during the six days of the program, it created a sense of immediacy, efficiency, and effectiveness, as participants saw how the help desk embodied the empathy of the program’s tagline: “Everyone Learns from Everyone,” a phrase that made adult learners feel welcomed as peers (Hobbs and Coiro 2019). For example, participants noted:

  • “The people there were very helpful and compassionate … about leading me through where something was and actually, one time, the assistant was confused as well. They didn’t quite know where to go. So we were learning together—how to navigate the site. So it felt like a very welcoming place.”
  • “I was very reassured. I was helped immediately; I wasn’t kept waiting … and I felt as though my concerns were being dealt with.”

Many participants had experienced help desks at their workplace or school. There, they encountered a generally asynchronous system: submit query, wait for response, hope for solution. But the SIDL Lounge/Help Desk was different. Participants who reached out for help mentioned appreciating the immediacy and liveliness of the help desk interaction. The help desk was an online “place” for congregation; after all, it doubled as The Lounge. Participants noted:

  • “Having a real person to talk to is a bonus. It’s better than either a chatbot or talking with somebody online—having somebody to actually talk to and have working through it is definitely a good thing.”
  • “When you contact a regular help desk, you feel like you’re just lost—your request is out there; you may or may not hear from anybody. That wasn’t the case here.”

During the interaction, some participants realized their initial confusion was a result of inattention. In being able to focus and talk through a concern and visualize it on a shared screen with the help desk staff, participants gained awareness of what they had overlooked. As they worked together, the missing piece of information would often be noticed by participants themselves. The sense of pleasure in solving a problem transformed the sense of isolation into a shared experience.

Co-learning as a journey toward agency

Interview subjects described the calm and confident feelings they experienced upon resolving their questions or concerns through the help desk interaction. Important to supporting this sense of agency was the ability for both the staff and the participants to share their screens. Screen-sharing enabled help desk staff to model the iterative process of learning to use digital platforms and the shared experience of confronting and solving a problem together built trust and independence for the participants. For example, participants noted:

  • “I could see things that I needed to see and know that I wasn’t missing anything.”
  • “Afterward, I had very clearly seen where to go. So it was a sense of relief that now I could do that by myself.”
  • “I learned that it wasn’t as complicated as I thought it to be. And that there was more than one way to approach the issue we were having.”

Almost all interviewed noted how their own struggles aligned with what their students may experience with online learning. In fact, contrary to Collins and Liang’s (2015) suggestion that honoring the adult is part of effective PD (the idea that while learners, they are first and foremost experienced adults and professionals), we found that participants who could embrace the role of learner—complete with the requisite insecurities, needs, problems and questions—gave them the opportunity to deepen empathetic connections to their own learners. This is one way to understand how an online help desk can provide value to adult learners in the context of teacher professional development.

We found that three forms of support—intrapersonal, technical, and informational—all contributed to increased participant agency as co-learners. Intrapersonal support occurred as participants entered the Lounge/Help Desk with strong feelings, the full range of feelings that manifest when something does not work as expected or when obstacles occur. Emotions varied from frustration to panic. Sometimes, these feelings emerged from intra-actions related to self-imposed expectations; in other cases, external pressures like time constraints were activating strong emotion. Feelings often coincided with information structure and technical scenarios, as when one is distracted or flustered and forgets simple things like how to log in. The ability to acknowledge and validate participant concerns in real-time provided an immediate sense of relief to participants—even when a solution wasn’t immediate.

Technical support included both hardware, software, and online platform glitches, as well as password problems. During the week-long program, a variety of forms of basic IT support was provided, such as updating software, changing passwords, checking settings, and restarting computers. In one instance, the Help Desk assisted a participant who was experiencing prohibitive technical problems (e.g. a poor network connection) by emailing PDF copies of online content. Participants learned more about their digital devices from the transparent way in which these forms of support were modeled by staff.

Navigation support was provided to participants in helping them find what they needed using the learning management system, which was unfamiliar to them. Help desk staff demonstrated how to find specific information, and in the process, they recognized that some of the challenges that participants were experiencing was the result of errors made by program staff, including mislabeled or broken links or poorly expressed language or wording. The help desk participants enabled the TPD faculty to recognize weaknesses in their own explanations of program activities. For example, in one instance, a set of Zoom links were presented using a red font color, which led them to be easily overlooked on a page full of text, even as the red color was intended to make them stand out visually. Help desk staff thanked participants for calling attention to the problem—but participants were equally grateful, expressing feelings of relief as they realized the problem was not “their fault.”

By supporting participants emotionally, technically, and navigationally, feelings of community emerged, because despite the lack of face-to-face encounter in this fully online TPD program, participants felt taken care of. As one experienced participant put it:

all the things that I think made Summer Institute special for me (in-person in past years) … were present this year … And the Help Desk was part of that. So the Help Desk was an even bigger part because without it, SIDL couldn’t have flowed—somebody could get lost.

Through the provision of personalized, real-time assistance, those who used the Lounge/Help Desk reduced their feelings of isolation, increased a sense of connectedness, and demonstrated agency as co-learners in an online professional development learning experience.

Discussion

Our findings provide strong support for the ability of help desks to function as vital components of online teacher professional development programs. SIDL’s Lounge/Help Desk enabled participants to move through an arc of learning-as-participation that not just supports but enhances learning. Rather than conceptualizing the help desk as a merely transactional experience, at the 2020 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, it functioned as a meaningful part of the overall learning experience.

Of course, this study has several limitations: the small sample size and potential respondent and research bias must be considered as limitations, given the researchers’ own roles as staff during the TPD. We aimed to minimize this limitation by developing the initial analysis of the incident log separately in order to increase divergent interpretations and minimize confirmation bias. We recognize that our ideas of community-building in TPD are framed through an American, Westernized cultural lens, though effort was made to review work from across the globe. The research reviewed for this study is gleaned mostly from abled/neurotypical interactions of spoken or auditory communication, potentially limiting outreach and input.

This research makes a unique contribution to new knowledge by re-framing the online help desk as a novel feature of teacher professional development. Because the online help desk was available throughout the TPD, it functioned to engage participants much like in face-to-face interactions, qualifying it as space to troubleshoot and discuss implementation, a category found to be successful in creating student learning gains from teachers’ TPD learning (Hill et al. 2020).

Key features of the Help Desk design were critical for its use as such an informal learning space: it was called the Help Desk/Lounge, and it was designated specifically as a hangout place online, thus reducing the stigma of being perceived as a place for “people who need help.” For those educators with insecurities about their digital competencies, there was no shame associated with visiting the Help Desk. Thus, it connected and strengthened the program’s core value of “Everyone Learns from Everyone” (Hobbs and Coiro 2018).

The potential to build personalized engagement is another feature needed for a help desk to be part of successful TPD. As designed and implemented, the Help Desk provided the situational context needed to question and solve problems immediately and in real time, running in parallel to the formal program. It also exposed pain points in the event and platform infrastructure, offering a form of continuous evaluation of the TPD experience and enabling event producers to make adjustments during the event itself, further enhancing the program’s overall quality. This tailored approach, so aligned with teacher needs and experiences during COVID-19, enhanced the TPD’s sense of relevance for participants, a requisite dimension of effective training (Stein et al. 2011). The Lounge/Help Desk contributed to this sense of relevance by engaging one-on-one with individuals on the emotional, technical, and navigation challenges they were likely to face as educators heading into an unparalleled 2020-21 school year. The process of engaging with a help desk that offered individualized support offered participants the opportunity to develop understanding of possible hiccups that may be encountered in their own classes and the confidence to troubleshoot these problems themselves. This finding aligns with research that demonstrates the value of helping educators critically reflect on how they approach their work and consider their roles in the educational dynamics of learning (Baran et al. 2011).

While some researchers claim that TPD support must come “from an educational technologist or an expert within the field” (Philipsen et al. 2019, 1155), we found that a help desk intentionally staffed as a peer-supported environment was effective in modeling how to investigate problems together. In such paradigms, trust helps to bridge the implied power dynamics between the helper and the “helped.” Because the help desk staff positioned themselves as participants and partners in the process, they offered the support for collaboration so valued as a critical ingredient for teacher learning (Bates and Morgan 2018; Darling-Hammond et al. 2017) As Bates and Morgan (2018, 623) point out, “a co-learner stance” ultimately contextualizes and personalizes support, guaranteeing “that actual problems are addressed.” The question moves from an individual, isolated/ing concern to a social learning opportunity, something Vygotsky (1978) addresses as essential to meaning-making.

By viewing an online help desk as a shared learning experience with value as a programmatic feature of TPD, we will need to consider how it could be adapted in post-pandemic times, as teacher professional development returns to be provided in face-to-face contexts. The help desk offers the value of providing that “in the moment” experience for individualized grappling and reflecting on problems, helping to meet the needs of every learner. Because the online format was new to everyone involved, including the help desk staff, the co-learning journey in finding answers offered value to faculty, staff and participants alike. Although it was intended to provide individualized support for those experiencing technology problems, the Lounge/Help Desk actually became a part of the overall TPD experience, enabling it to be a programmatic feature that extended the value of the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy as a genuinely collaborative learning experience.

Notes

[1] The quotations in this section come from research interviews with 2020 SIDL participants (names withheld) and were administered by Salome Apkhazishvili and Serene Arena in August, 2020.

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Vygotsky, Lev S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

About the Authors

Salome Apkhazishvili is a media and communication researcher from the country of Georgia where she coordinates the media and digital literacy program for the conflict-affected youth in the South Caucasus. She is a Fulbright communication graduate from the University of Southern Indiana. Apkhazishvili is a communications officer at the European Communication Research and Education Association Children, Youth, and Media section and a staff member of the Media Education Lab.

Serene Arena is a communication design expert focused on language use and collaborative development in communication and social systems. She has a Masters in Civic Media from Columbia College Chicago, where she studied social power dynamics and informal social spaces as foundations for community and personal identity.

Renee Hobbs is a professor of communication studies and director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media. She has offered professional development to educators on four continents and authored 12 books and more than 150 scholarly publications on digital and media literacy.

Printed pages, bound with a ring; top page includes a landing spaceship and a bulldog mascot.
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From Page to Screen and Back Again: Archives-Centered Pedagogy for the 21st Century Writing Classroom

Abstract

This paper describes the efforts of three instructors to incorporate archival research into first-year and advanced undergraduate writing courses. Inspired by recent scholarship on the value of archives-centered pedagogy in rhetoric and composition, we participated in the second cohort of the University of Georgia’s Special Collections Libraries Faculty Teaching Fellowship program, an effort to help faculty learn best practices and methods for using primary source material held in our Special Collections Libraries. In the program we developed courses that ran during Academic Year 2017–18: two First-Year Composition II courses and one upper level writing course, Writing for the World Wide Web. We found that working with archival material in writing courses allowed students to remix, appropriate, and curate the past as they identified new avenues for exploration in the unanswered questions and creative provocations presented by the historical record. In addition, the collaborative and active nature of the archives-based composition process helped build an awareness of the social nature of writing and the material properties of texts that are essential for critical 21st-century literacy.

Introduction

In 2017, we participated in the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Special Collections Libraries Faculty Teaching Fellowship (SCLFTF) with a common goal of using archival collections and research methods to improve student writing. The fellowship offered us access to the expertise of the archivists and the space of the library for our student population in courses that we developed over the course of the program. As Wendy Hayden (2015, 404) has noted, “One challenge to integrating archival research into undergraduate courses has been the lack of practical advice and training in archival research provided by the field.” UGA’s archival Teaching Fellowship  program provided us with crucial training in navigating the collections, working with finding aids, and understanding the “archival and library principles that support robust discovery and integration of relevant special collections materials” (Center for Teaching and Learning, n.d). During Spring 2017 semester, we each developed writing courses that would introduce students—both first-years and upper-level English majors—to archival research.

In this article, we describe the resulting archives-centered courses that we ran during Academic Year 2017–18 and discuss what we see as the most significant implications and opportunities for writing pedagogy that emerged from our experience. More specifically, we focus on the way this work foregrounded the technologies and materialities of texts and the collaborative and social nature of writing activities. In our courses, students, instructors, and librarians worked together to assemble and recontextualize archival materials through varied lenses and to produce new collaborative and multimodal texts that drew on that material in different ways, not necessarily simply as sources to be cited, but as inspirations for new ways of thinking about the past and future. Using archival research also gave our students the opportunity to think in new ways about how library-based material can produce new questions for exploration and how rare books and manuscripts can inform and inspire textual form and delivery systems in the digital age.

A key question for us was, “What does this kind of focus on textual materiality and physical interaction with primary texts bring to the table for writing pedagogy?” We observed that archival work is not, as typically depicted, solitary. As Matthew A. Vetter has noted, instructors who use the archives must collaborate with the librarians and often with outside organizations in charge of the archives as well; as such the authority in the classroom is dispersed throughout a community that is able to include and inspire the students (2014, 36–37). In each of our courses, we, the instructors, could provide some guidance but not prescribed rules for interaction with the archive, nor could we predict the outcomes of the class research.

The instructor generally curates the archive in an undergraduate setting, encouraging the students to work collaboratively with the texts to decode unfamiliar media. In addition, all work must be done at the archive, in reading rooms with strict rules, all of which takes reading out of the private space and into a social one. In her consideration of how to tap into the social affordances of digital media in scholarly publishing, Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2007) reminds us that “the technology of the book, and the literate public with which it interacted, produced a general trend toward individualizing the reader, shifting the predominant mode of reading from a communal reading-aloud to a more isolated, silent mode of consumption.” Classroom archival work shifts the focus back to reading as a communal act, serving as a model for cooperative writing. Fitzpatrick notes that “texts have thus never really operated in isolation from their readers, and readers have never been fully isolated from one another, but different kinds of textual structures have given rise to and interacted within different kinds of communication circuits.” One of these communication circuits is the work the archivist put into developing an archival collection. A well-developed collection has been built with an eye toward how the material is connected. So, by the time the collection is available to the public, the networks between the materials have already been established. Thus, archival work allows for an alternative “communication circuit” between readers and writers—both a return to more traditional (communal) modes and forward movement toward new modes of communication enabled by new media. In addition, by bringing different but related materials together, the archive allows students to see how diverse texts and types of media are in conversation with one another.

Following these textual considerations, we wondered, “How does archives-centered writing pedagogy promote the kinds of collaborative, curatorial, and recombinatory skills that are critical to digital age composition and literacy?” Building on the idea of archives-centered pedagogy as social and networked production and dissemination of knowledge, archival work in the undergraduate writing classroom also engages students in developing what the National Council of Teachers of English defines as 21st century literacies, including collaborative problem-solving, information management, and multimodal textual analysis and production skills. We were also inspired by the London Recut project, which uses digital film archives to allow communities to co-curate and remix archival material based on affinity and interest. As Recut’s Andrew Chitty notes (2011, 418), “Opening up film and video archives for use (not just viewing) by the wider public may create new narratives and interpretation, but it might also create new uses discovered by the users themselves.”

All of our courses were engaged in a kind of “meta-remix” composing process in that we asked students to mash up, combine, and translate primary source materials in a variety of ways, whether through historical reenactments, creation of mini collections/exhibits, or inspiration for digital textual design plans or their own zine compositions. These meta-remixes pressed students to find sources that provoked them to rethink their preconceptions rather than simply finding sources to use as evidence for preconceived arguments. In what follows, we provide individual case studies of our courses and conclude with some final thoughts on the benefits of archival work in writing courses.

Saxton’s ENGL 1102: “Scandal in the Archives” in First-Year Composition II

I was drawn to the archives and the archival Teaching Fellowship because of the ways in which archival materials demand investigative and engaged interaction. Susan Wells (2002, 58) has posited that the archives “prompt us … to resist early resolutions of questions that should not be too quickly answered”; this resistance might take the form of refusing answers, unearthing new depths or expanses for research, or necessitating new forms of expression to encapsulate its contents. My hope was to find materials that might inspire students to dig deeper into their sources to better analyze and contextualize them, but also to become comfortable with more open-ended research.

I coupled the archive’s lack of closure with the similarly open theme of scandal. Scandals, by their nature, offer a sense of mystery; even from the same smattering of facts, the connections between those facts and conclusions from them vary. Scandals disrupt modes of meaning and, as such, are interesting sites to examine rhetorical and contextual meaning. As Adrienne McLean notes, scandals are “discursive constructions as well as events, and it matters who controls the selection and omission of their narrative details” (2001, 2). Moreover, the culture in which the scandal occurs matters; what might be a scandal in 1900 might not elicit a reaction in 2018. In this way, scandal allows for a thorough investigation of who controls the narrative and how it is received; scandals, the students learn, resist fixed facts but instead show the ways in which meaning is constructed.

The archives and the focus on scandal forced my students to grapple directly with this openness but also to rely on their classmates to build a new network of knowledge. For example, the first scandal we investigated followed the archived media flurry surrounding the disappearance of an 18-year-old servant, Elizabeth Canning, in London in January 1753. Despite the hundreds of witness statements, thousands of pages of speculation, and incredibly detailed court documents, there is no authoritative document revealing the truth of what happened to Canning during the 28 days she was missing. Working in teams, students shared responsibility for the hundreds of pages of texts on the event. Yet, even with the accumulation of information, my students noted that their sources required them to read with a critical and active eye to determine what was important. Such analysis was built through collaboration as each group had to work together to create meaning—filling in factual background for their peers but also offering theories of how best to understand the event.

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Figure 1. Students encounter a carefully preserved edition of Henry Fielding’s treatise supporting Elizabeth Canning as well as Crisp Gascoyne’s defense of Mary Squires. (Image courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library/University of Georgia Libraries.)

In addition to researching the scandal, the students were asked to inhabit the texts, taking on the roles of Canning supporters, defenders of the accused Mary Squires, or undecided “jury” members. Borrowing from the Reacting to the Past model, students searched the documents to find evidence and viewpoints that would cast doubt or bolster Canning’s story. Because of the breadth of the archive, group members were forced to collaborate, sharing information and determining a “narrative” of the event or, in the jury’s case, questions about the most puzzling parts of the evidence. This research culminated in a day of gossip as the Canning and Squire supporters attempted to sway the jury. The exercise asked students to take control of the archives and experience the scandal. Ultimately, students reported feeling overwhelmed by the ways archives pushed them to decide what was important in the reading and when their research was “finished” but such ownership of the work also inspired them to more and better research. Likewise, they were able to experience how the Canning scandal spiraled through the act of gossiping. The nature of scandal and the extensiveness of the archive resulted in a break in the pyramid structure of the classroom hierarchy and isolated writing; instead students built a network of information they then accessed in the process of creating new analyses of how the Canning event was reported.

Throughout the semester I repeatedly struggled with how to facilitate student interactions with the physical archive; however, student responses indicated that the physicality of the text was crucial because of its unique ways of provoking questions and revealing gaps in knowledge. Because the 60 total students could not all fit in the archives at the same time and because the archives had more limited access hours, my class used a combination of physical and digital archives, beginning in the special collections and moving into online replications or additions. While the blended method has significant logistical and access benefits, the students preferred their interactions with the hard texts. Looking at the online versions of 1913–1915 newspapers that covered the Leo Frank case, one student complained that the search functions “ruined” the research. The online versions cut out the surrounding articles to show only the searched-for material. The time in the archives, however, had shown the students that not all articles pertaining to the case mentioned Leo Frank but the extensive coverage would often give head-scratching in-depth coverage of a wide range of characters, such as the “Epps boy” who may or may not have seen Mary Phagan on a trolley or the long character pieces on the lawyers involved in the case. The search function, by taking over the investigation, limited the contextual range and sense of discovery the archives provided.

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Figure 2. Image on left shows a full-page view of The Atlanta Constitution; image on right shows the screen view of a targeted search. The targeted search cut out three related articles. (Image courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library/University of Georgia Libraries.)

For each scandal, the students strove not just to understand the archives but also to comprehend the ways in which the archives interact with a larger sense of history and culture. The performative aspects of embodying the Canning case forced students to consider contemporary and historical values. Likewise, the class read and created adaptations to continue these discussions. We read a 1947 novel adaptation of the Canning case—Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair—and a 1937 film adaptation of the Frank case: Mervyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget. In working with these adaptations, students were able to note how each creator approached the archive; Tey shared an anxiety about young women’s sexuality with the original Squires supporters while LeRoy worried about the impartiality of Southern courts as did the northern journalists covering the Frank case. From these adaptations, the students recognized the importance of perspective and audience and the weight that interpretive power can have on the present. They, too, were asked to perform this curation of the archive—creating their own adaptation of one of the scandals. Throughout the semester, the students were asked to remix or immerse themselves into the scandals; in doing so, they engaged in deeper levels of analysis and application in their writing.

Reeves’s ENGL 1102: “Aliens in the Archives” in First-Year Composition II

My objective was to show students the collaborative and symbiotic nature of writing, how composition begets composition, and encourage students to become not just consumers but also active members of writing communities. To do this, I turned to the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Collection and its store of pulp magazines and apazines. Pulp magazines proliferated in the first half of the 20th century and were made up of genre fiction printed on cheap wood pulp paper. In these circulations science-fiction fan culture started. Like all fan cultures, community was a key component, and in this community, the written word became a means of connection. Fans started out writing letters to the editors, then moved to writing letters to each other based on the published fan letters, and graduated to the creation of apazines. Apazines, or amateur press association magazines, are handmade magazines with parts written by individual members, which are then sent to a predetermined editor, who collates the entries and then mails the completed apazine out to members. Science-fiction apazines became an important way for fans and budding fiction writers to communicate about their favorite authors and pulps, plan fan conventions, and make personal and professional connections. Ultimately, the pulps and magazines offer students the chance to look beyond academia and see how composition has shaped culture and how they might join such conversations.

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Figure 3. This issue of Super Science Stories, November 1941, is of particular interest to my students as it includes the first story renowned author Ray Bradbury was paid for. (Image courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library/University of Georgia Libraries.)

This science fiction fan community and its connections between pulps, apazines, and authors was new territory for my students. As this contextual investigation is not the focus of FYC, I curated my students’ archive visits. Prior to our first visit, I divided students into six groups, with each focusing on a specific pulp writer. When they arrived at the library, the pulps that contained their author’s writing were waiting for them. For this first visit I had them focus on the pulp as an item. They examined the construction, paper and font type, use of color and art, and type and placement of ads. As a group they analyzed what these elements told them about the time period in which the pulp had been published and the intended audience. Such close interaction with the materiality of the text disrupted students’ conceptions of “acceptable” writing communities and forms, providing a clear example of how writing communities create their own ethos and voice.

This wide-ranging first visit was coupled with an in-depth read of a full pulp. The students returned to the reading room on their own and read their pulp from cover to cover in preparation for two short papers: a starred review of the pulp and an analysis of the part their pulp played in building a writing community. Before they began this second paper they were introduced to the libraries’ apazine collection. As Hayden (2015, 421) notes, one way to include the productive pedagogy of the archive in first year composition courses is through “smaller-scale projects … [involving] primary research or work with particular documents or collections.” As with the first visit, I curated their interaction with the apazines, so they would be looking at issues that had connections to their pulp. Both the apazine and the pulp collections have thousands of entries and no guiding information. While the possibility of not finding what you are searching for is an important part of archive learning, the goal of this class is to improve student writing through the archives—being able to navigate the archives is secondary. To do otherwise at this level and with these time constraints would result in students’ frustration, failure, and resentment toward the archives and composition.

After the short papers were completed, students made two collaborative apazines and engaged directly in the communal process observed in the archives. The first apazine was made up of responses to archive resources. As a class, students drafted the rules of their apazine (i.e., entries can’t be over 500 words; Courier font only; graphics required), designed cover art, and voted on a title. Each student then revised one of their earlier papers, which became their apazine contribution. On the due date, each student brought 22 copies of their entry to class, which were then collated, and each student received a hard copy of the class apazine. The rest of class period was then spent in reading and conversation about the apazine. The second apazine was composed of responses to and interactions with their peers’ apazine writing. A student might write a response to a review of a story they hated but their peer loved, express admiration for a well-analyzed connection, or build on the research started by a peer. Each student entry had to be in conversation with an entry from the first apazine. In this way students were not just consumers of archival material but were producing writing that will itself be archived—at the end of semester, the apazines were donated to the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd Art Library. By making their own network of connected writing, students were able to experience the social nature of writing and produce a new archive of zine art.

Printed pages, bound with a ring; top page includes a landing spaceship and a bulldog mascot.

Figure 4. Finished class apazine. The title, “Dawn of the Dawgs,” is an amalgamation of science fiction and University of Georgia culture.

Davis’s ENGL 4832W: “Rare Books and Book Technology” in Writing for the World Wide Web

The relevance of archival research for many of the upper-level writing courses I teach was clear from the start of my time as an archival Teaching Fellow, but the course that I ultimately structured around a major archival research component was Writing for the World Wide Web. Writing for the web is not simply about content creation. I have to prepare students for a future in which machines join us as readers and writers in networks, engaging in processes of pattern recognition. Writing for the Web has to focus not just on content production but also on how to work with and against algorithms, software, data, and metadata, as well as helping digital media authors understand themselves as participants in a network of distributed cognition.

The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Collection presented a wealth of material that would intersect nicely with one of our texts, Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. My goal was to foreground the problem of writing for online readers—readers who, as Baron’s research indicates, aren’t so much reading as scanning, skimming, and clicking quickly away to the newest, the now-est, the next. I focused on this problem of “not-reading” (or, in web lingo, TL;DR) in this course as the major design problem for writers in the digital age to solve, a problem that will, if we do not think carefully and critically about how to foster effective reading onscreen, have significant consequences for literacy and knowledge. In past semesters, I have drawn extensively on Murray’s conception of the “Four Affordances” of digital media to foster a design thinking approach to digital textual composition. In this course, I put Murray and Baron’s ideas into conversation with the history of the book as a material object in hopes of creating productive thinking about digital textual design. In addition to Baron’s text, I included Nicole Howard’s The Book: The Life Story of a Technology, in order to provide students with an accessible history of the book and to emphasize the connection between technologies of reading and writing. This combination provided the framework for an examination of the examples of book technology and its evolution contained within UGA’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Collection. Essentially, the course would foreground the way technologies enable particular kinds of textual production which, in turn, produce particular kinds of reading and writing practices—practices that ultimately have wide-ranging cultural effects.

I developed a design project that asked students to use rare books from the collection as inspiration for an innovative digital textual design concept. The Hargrett holds a wide range of texts—everything from early print incunabula to conceptual artists’ books—that would require them to reconsider their understanding of what a book is, as well as the kind of literacy practices that different types of texts cultivate. The project involved several components including a depiction of the text’s design (visuals, description/explanation, written manuscript of text); an analysis of how the design plan remediated features of the inspiration text and drew on digital media affordances; and a critical reflection on their design process. Additionally, we needed to connect the dots between the inspiration texts from the archive. To achieve that aim, we created a digital exhibit using Omeka, not only because it allowed us to create a public-facing product, but also because it introduced students to metadata, both conceptually and practically. Collectively “curating” and framing an exhibit of the archival material and working with the common vocabulary of Dublin Core Metadata standards would give us a final collaborative project to present to the Special Collections Library faculty as well as other interested faculty members and students.

My own work as an instructor consisted largely of facilitation and research: I searched the archives, in consultation with a Hargrett librarian, for an initial collection of material that would represent a range of rare book items. On our first visit to the library, I gave each student an item to review along with a worksheet that asked them to consider several questions about the material aspects of the book they were examining and how it fostered or constrained different kinds of reading practices.

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Figure 5. The prompt worksheet for Spring 2018 Writing for the Web students’ first visit to the Special Collections Library, asking them to explore and consider material properties and reading practices as they examine rare book items from the Hargrett Collection.

For our second visit, I asked students to tell me the kinds of texts they found most interesting from our first visit and, additionally, to provide an initial idea for their project that would help guide our archivist and me in curating a second collection of material for another round of hands-on exploration. We provided students with a tutorial on how to search the Hargrett collection themselves so that they could request additional material for viewing on their own. We also visited the Digital Arts Library Project, a collection of “legacy computers and video game systems as well as a collection of electronic literature pieces, digital interactive narrative pieces, and video games” (Digital Humanities, n.d.), and a copy of Raymond Queneau’s (1961) Cent mille milliards de poemes, a print precursor of digital media’s procedural affordance. Eventually, each student found a rare book (or two) that served as the primary inspiration for their design concept and they were each responsible for entering the information about the book (along with their own images taken during their time with the book at the library) into the Omeka site I set up at my web domain (having given each of them contributor access). For that exhibit, I also worked with the students to develop a conceptual frame for the project that would ground the exhibit in the concepts and scholarship that we were working with throughout the semester and, on the last day of class, we presented our work to an audience of interested colleagues. The event gave students a chance to engage in dialogue about their ideas and design process.

Title reads 'Translating, Transitioning, Transcending: Rebinding the book for digital reading.'

Figure 6. The collaboratively-produced promotional flyer for Writing for the Web’s end-of-semester exhibit of the design concepts inspired by rare book material.

Discussion

Our experiences suggest that archival work in the writing classroom facilitates greater interaction between the material properties of written texts and the students, while fostering collaborative curation. These collaborations add to or create new collections that are, in a sense, adaptations of the original archives. Reframing archival material in these ways makes new connections or linkages between seemingly disparate materials and reinforces the social and networked nature of knowledge production and a re-conception of how to use source material for remixing and remaking.

While our courses took us in diverse directions in terms of archival material and foci, the materiality of the archival texts played a large role early on for all of us. Pulps are characterized by colorful, larger-than-life covers that demand attention, as do the daring conceptual artists’ books and texts produced during the early days of printing press technology. These texts forced the students to reconsider how materiality affects reading practices. More eye-catching in a different way, the postcard that depicted Leo Frank’s lynching put students in physical contact with brutal history. This type of active learning pushes students outside their comfort zone and puts them in situations that require them to consider class content and apply that thinking toward course goals and their lives. Students began to see themselves as “scholar adventurers blowing dust off documents that could contain mysteries, answers, or maps of the past” (Norcia 2008, 107). It’s clear this technique relies heavily on critical and analytical thinking, which in turn improves and fosters strong writing skills (Bernstein and Greenhoot 2014; Gingerich et al. 2014). Perhaps even more important, it exposes students to a whole new world of composition. The inclusion of apazines, letters, and art projects in the archives showed students the legitimacy and value of such unconventional writing.

As each class progressed, students used the skills gained from archival research to recalibrate and restructure composition. Working with a physical text, as Kara Poe Alexander (2013) found when she incorporated scrapbooking into her first-year writing course, teaches “students the concept of affordance and demonstrates to them how materiality impacts design, composition, and rhetorical choices; it also provides a low-key, low-stakes entry into multimodal composing and reflexivity on the rhetorical decision making process.” A material example of the mingling of words and art/bookcraft gave students the tools they needed to compose their own multimodal projects and move from the page to the screen, without losing what made the original art projects unique. While Reeves’s students took advantage of the do-it-yourself nature of zines to produce their own, Davis’s students were unable to actually produce the digital texts they designed, lacking the advanced programming and coding skills necessary to bring those conceptual plans to life. This foregrounds again the social and collaborative nature of digital textual composition in which skilled programmers and visual artists might be required to actually produce an interactive digital text, just as a community of specialized craftsmen was needed to produce early print texts.

Ultimately, through both research and writing, the insistence on a more open, flexible network of knowledge remained key. This is perhaps best illustrated through one of the texts that several students in Writing for the Web found particularly compelling—a copy of Queneau’s (1961) Cent mille milliards de poemes. This mid-twentieth century precursor to the digital hypertext demonstrated the way that a single text can be remixed and reconfigured to provide an interactive experience for readers. That concept of interactivity became a key goal for Davis’s students’ design projects as they discussed the ways that the rare book material from the archives provoked a sense of pleasure in discovery and exploration. Janet Murray identifies this kind of pleasure in the text as an effect of careful design in her definition of the Procedural Affordance of digital media: “Procedurality and participation are the affordances that create interactivity and visible procedurality combined with transparent participation creates the experience of agency for the interactor, a key design goal for any digital artifact” (n.d.). In each of our classes, the experience of working with archival materials provided an experience not unlike that of “reading” Queneau’s text in which the ability to recombine and reconfigure the sonnets results in a sense of endless possibility for construction and reconstruction of meaning.

In her argument for “textual curation” as a unique “category of compositional craft,” Krista Kennedy cites Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s (2005, 134) contention that “Creativity is no longer the production of original texts, but the ability to gather, filter, rearrange, and construct new texts” (quoted in Kennedy 2016, 176). As in the Pop-Up Archives Project Jenny Rice and Jeff Rice facilitated at the University of Kentucky, our students curated experiences of archival material whose goals were “neither preservation nor a totalizing narrative” (2015, 247), but recontextualizations that, as in the conception of curation in the art world, put forward new arguments. Thoughtful curation requires immersion into larger conversations about issues and discernment about what is relevant and important in order to generate further discussion by “customiz[ing] archives toward their own ends” (Enoch and VanHaitsma 2015, 221). This year our students created their own handmade apazines, designed concepts for interactive digital texts, and performed reenactments of historical scandals. In each instance, they were asked to use historical materials throughout the compositional process, from the starting point of invention, all the way to the delivery of their ideas through curated performance, exhibits, and portfolios that present new understanding or expose new lines of inquiry.

We have come to consider archives-centered writing instruction as a pedagogy of remix, curation, and appropriation in which students are faced with a set of materials that may be vast and yet incomplete—an archive filled with gaps and unanswered questions that, like Queneau’s sonnets, can overwhelm with a sense of infinite possibility and insistent lack of closure. As scholars of digital culture have long insisted, remix is the foundation of knowledge construction and creative production. We each asked our students to discover ideas and compose new texts through a communal process of appropriation and reconfiguration that resulted in an awareness of what Neal Lerner (2010) has framed as the incompleteness of histories (203) and in, we hope, a reconsideration of what writing and textual form mean in the 21st century digital age. For student writers, exploring a variety of historical texts can decenter their conception of what constitutes writing or textual form, as Wells (2002) notes when she claims that “[a]rchival study of other kinds of texts also broadens our own sense of how difficult it is to write in new and untried ways” (59–60). That awareness is critical as we continue to chart the waters of digital writing at this particular technological moment. Digging into the past, we find in the archive a pedagogy well-suited to the future of writing.

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Kennedy, Krista. 2016. “Textual Curation.” Computers and Composition, 40 (June): 175–189. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2016.03.005.

Lerner, Neal. 2009. “Archival Research as a Social Process.” In Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition, edited by Alexis E. Ramsey, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, & Lisa S. Mastrangelo, 195–205. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

McLean, Adrienne. 2001. “Introduction.” In Headline Hollywood: A Century of Film Scandal, edited by Adrienne L. McLean and David A. Cook, 1–25. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Murray, Janet. n.d. “Glossary.” Janet H. Murray, accessed June 13, 2018. https://inventingthemedium.com/glossary/.

National Council of Teachers of English. 2013. “Definition of 21st Century Literacies.” Updated February 28, 2013. NCTE, accessed October 5, 2018. http://www2.ncte.org/statement/21stcentdefinition/

Norcia, Megan A. 2008. “Out of the Ivory Tower Endlessly Rocking: Collaborating across Disciplines and Professions to Promote Student Learning in the Digital Archive.” Pedagogy 8 (1): 91–114.

Queneau, Raymond. 1961. Cent mille milliards de poèmes. Paris, France: Gallimard.

Rice, Jenny and Jeff Rice. 2015. “Pop-Up Archives.” In Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities, edited by Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson, 245–254. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Vetter, Matthew A. 2014. “Archive 2.0: What Composition Students and Academic Libraries Can Gain from Digital-Collaborative Pedagogies.” Composition Studies 42 (1): 35–53.

Wells, Susan. 2002. “Claiming the Archive for Rhetoric and Composition.” In Rhetoric and Composition as Intellectual Work, edited by Gary A. Olson, 55–64. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Davis is the Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Writing Certificate Program at the University of Georgia. In her teaching and research, she focuses on experiential learning in the writing classroom, digital rhetoric and storytelling, and ePortfolio pedagogy and assessment.

Nancee Reeves is a lecturer at the University of Georgia, where she teach literature and writing. Her research interests include science-fiction and how it shapes and is shaped by social policies.

Teresa Saxton is a lecturer at the University of Dayton, where she teaches classes on writing and eighteenth-century literature. Her current pedagogical projects are interested in bringing together the archives, public writing and advocacy.

1

Video Essays and Virtual Animals: An Approach to Teaching Multimodal Composition and Digital Literacy

Abstract

This article explores the pedagogical goals and student artifacts from a first-year composition course that provides students the opportunity to analyze interactive technologies—including video games—as rhetorical texts. As an approach to teaching digital literacy and multimodal composition, this course addresses the question of how to teach students to analyze not only the content of new media, but also how the design of social media platforms and video game mechanics persuade users to act and understand in circumscribed ways. More specifically, this article describes the process of assigning students a video essay project that requires them to articulate and defend a sustained argument about how a video game represents nonhuman animals. As a multimodal medium, video essays can provide a record of interaction between students and human-to-software interfaces, including video games. By analyzing how and why video games afford possibilities for interaction with virtual animals, the student artifacts examined here demonstrate students’ recognition that interfaces are constructed to achieve rhetorical ends. It is my intent that such recognition serves as a gateway for students to begin approaching everyday texts as rhetorical, that is, as working to incline them to persuasion and, by extension, certain patterns of thinking and behaving.

Introduction: Course Overview and Objectives

I teach a first-year, multimodal composition course at the Georgia Institute of Technology themed around interactions between animals and technology. I titled the course “Technocritters, or Animals and/as Technology.” Broadly, the course aims to develop students’ skills in multimodal communication (including written, visual, oral, nonverbal, and electronic communication) through an emphasis on process and rhetoric. As the second course in Georgia Tech’s two-semester first-year composition sequence, students should arrive in my course having been introduced to basic rhetorical concepts and strategies for effective communication. One of the “animals and/as technology” theme-related areas we study is the impact of new media on representations of animals. We ask questions such as: When and why does new media represent animals? How do the social media interfaces we use to access and share images of animals shape our understanding of them as food, pets, or pests?

For a STEM-focused institution like Georgia Tech, many of the first-year students I encounter plan to study in fields that will require that they utilize existing technologies and engineer new interactive computer systems for both specialized and public audiences. Consequentially, a course themed partially around a rhetorical analysis of computer-mediated communication helps increase engagement in a course students widely regard as “required” but not desired. Further, digital literacy skills are increasingly essential for all first-year college students, particularly given the near-ubiquity of interactive technologies in students’ academic, workplace, and recreational lives. Even writing programs and composition courses that prioritize traditional genres of academic writing must take notice of the rapidly growing rhetorical influence of new media on students learning to write, read, and think in the twenty-first century.

Digital Literacy… with Animals

At the beginning of each section of this course, I take an informal survey to learn a little about students’ personal histories, including their personal experiences with animals. As a group, we establish students’ prior knowledge about animals as a baseline for their exploration of animals in new media. Such a baseline enables us to raise questions such as: To what extent do animals in new media challenge or reinforce my previous assumptions about how animals look, move, think, and feel? How can and should humans interact with them? What are animals “for”? Almost all students enter my courses having had experiences with animals typical for young adults from non-rural areas of America. That is, few have first-hand experience with animals beyond their family dog or cat. Between two and three students may have experience riding horses, hunting deer or small game animals, or tending to farmed animals. Nearly all students have visited at least one zoo or amusement park that displays captive animals. Several students (between 4-5 each semester out of 75) have worked with or are currently working with animals in a laboratory setting: always mice. Finally, very few students—roughly three out of 75 every semester—identify as vegetarian or vegan. Therefore, most students are familiar with animals as products for consumption, even though, by students’ own admission, they do not readily make the association between the sliced meat on their lunch plates and animals.[1]

After students identify their personal history with animals, I prompt them to consider how varied media forms affect their understanding of animals, particularly nonhuman behavior and appearance. Students are quick to admit to consuming new media texts—including memes, Instagram profiles, and videos—as a source of “information” about animals. At the time of this writing, dogs and puppies (or, per the language of doggolingo, “doggos” and “puppers”) enjoy wide popularity across social media platforms. Cats and kittens (including Grumpy Cat, Maru, and the many Lolcat variants)—a variety of companion animal once nearly synonymous with digital image virality—persist in students’ vocabulary. That said, some students go so far as to claim that internet cats are “outdated.” Such recognition on their part—internet trends come and go rapidly—is an important insight: it helps students recognize that patterns of representation—such as the once-ubiquitous new media portrayal of house cats as playful, erratic, and cute—are neither fixed nor inevitable. As Sarah Warren-Riley and Elise Verzosa Hurley suggest, even when it comes to cat memes, “Liking, sharing, or reposting a cute cat meme does result in advocating specific values and ideologies (regardless of whether the individual agrees with those values) and results in something (in this case, the reinforcement of Western values that cats are cute house pets)” (Warren-Riley and Hurley 2017). By asking students to consider the frequency with which certain animal behaviors are visually depicted and shared through new media, I want to encourage them to consider how pervasive but undertheorized texts like cat memes advance ideologically-laden understandings about the subjects those texts represent, such as which nonhuman species should be treated variously as “pets,” “pests,” or “food.”

Developing students’ digital literacy additionally requires that students consider how computer interfaces facilitate and constrain the actions they perform in digital environments. My use of the term “interface” refers to the programs (such as applications and software) and hardware (including a mouse, keyboard, and display screen) that enable interaction between computers and people (rendered through said interaction as “users” or, for video games, as “players”). When it comes to a rhetorical study of new media, students must consider not only the content of new media (the memes themselves), but also the means through which such content is disseminated (interfaces that include but are not limited to those of social media). Because the interfaces of social media make sharing content easy, for example, students are likely to consider the act of “liking,” “retweeting,” or “upvoting” a piece of internet content “mundane and routine” and, by extension, inconsequential (Warren-Riley and Hurley 2017). To challenge the notion that the act of sharing content online is meaningless, we might ask students: what is the relationship between the popularity of animal images on the internet and the ease with which we share those images?

The pervasive tendency for humans to project meaning onto animals’ often inscrutable behaviors and expressions works in tandem with the seeming effortlessness involved in sharing content on social media platforms. Joseph Anderton (2016) advocates for such a contextual assessment of internet memes, writing that the meme’s “ability to pervade privy groups cements non/human animals in facetious material and renders them vacuous figureheads subsidiary to human meanings” (142). That is, the represented animal, rather than the meme itself, is rendered vacuous by the form’s popularity across web platforms. Memed animals become flexible signifiers for a range of human expressions and desires, a flexibility that advances an understanding of animals as a kind of bare material upon which human meanings can be inscribed. Here, the ease of sharing content online encourages the proliferation of texts and genres with highly malleable semiotic potential.

This image of “Chemistry Cat,” a popular meme, depicts an all-white cat, wearing black-rimmed glasses and a red bow tie, seated in a chemistry laboratory. The cat is surrounded by beakers and flasks filled with blue, green, yellow, and red fluids. The chalkboard in the background displays silly equations involving mice, milk, and cheese as the variables. The text on the image reads, in all caps, “I’d tell you a chemistry joke… But all the good ones Argon.”

This example of the “Chemistry Cat” meme demonstrates how cultural values and assumptions inform animal memes. For example, the cat’s white fur resembles a white lab coat, her glasses serve as a cultural signifier of intelligence, and her bow tie implies the traditional representation of men as scientists.

Teachers of digital literacy and rhetoric are therefore faced with a two-part challenge. First, students must learn to recognize how new media representations, such as the cat in the cat meme, reinforce variable—that is, both prevailing and niche—cultural values. Second, students must learn to recognize and consider how the interfaces that enable the circulation and popularization of certain representations are themselves built to encourage and facilitate a particular set of user actions. Asking students to consider how interfaces encourage, facilitate, or reward certain user actions and behaviors enables them to perceive interfaces as rhetorical. The range of social media platforms that students interact with every day can serve as a reliable starting place for students to begin this process of recognition. I have found, for example, that students are quick to recognize how social media platforms encourage users’ public affirmation of posted content (via the “like” function on Instagram) as well as the broader sharing of that content (such as “retweets” on Twitter).

Students’ examination of how they interact with computer interfaces should not and cannot end with a consideration of social media, however. Computer interfaces endeavor to conceal their function as rhetorical texts, that is, their own status as persuasive tools that influence user behavior. As Lori Emerson (2014) underscores, “interfaces themselves and therefore their constraints are becoming ever more difficult to perceive” as contemporary technology seduces us with feats that seem at once “wondrous” and magical (x). To be sure, the range of interfaces with which students interact on a daily basis are varied and quickly changing. Many college students own at least one if not multiple personal computers (including laptops, tablets, and smartphones) for both academic and recreational use, and their experience of those interfaces—except, perhaps, when they fail to work seamlessly—are likely to go largely without much or any critical inspection. Teena Carnegie (2009) argues that teachers and students of writing must learn to talk about the often invisible or “natural”-seeming work of interfaces (166). For Carnegie, as interfaces work continually to engage the audience through interaction, they create “higher levels of acceptance in the user,” acceptance that leads to the increased invisibility of the interface itself (171). In consequence, increasingly taken-for-granted interfaces make users more susceptible to persuasion and more likely to “accept the messages contained within the content, to continue to use a particular site, or to perform certain actions” (171-2). To my mind, that interfaces both render themselves invisible and dispose users to accept messages make the study of the rhetorical work of interfaces essential to developing students’ digital literacy.

Why Video Essays?

A video essay project like the one I assign in my multimodal composition courses presents not only an opportunity for students to practice strategies of analysis and argumentation, but also the opportunity to reflect on how software interfaces ask them to behave. Like written essays, video essays should make a clear argument. Additionally, video essay creators must consider how audible and visual registers reinforce, elaborate on, conflict with, or distract viewers from the essay’s argument. Therefore, successful video essays take seriously how the combination of moving images, still images, oral narration, and a revised, written script can work together to facilitate audience comprehension. Moreover, assigning students a video essay project provides one way for them to practice composing in all of the modes of communication.

As a form, video essays are particularly popular as an emergent form of film criticism. Rather than rely on written descriptions or even screenshots of filmic features, film critics increasingly turn to video essays for their ability to present for analysis the complex visual and nonverbal features in films, features that include lighting, shot design, sound, and costume. To show students the wide range of approaches to video essay design that critics take, I offer them writer Conor Bateman’s “The Video Essay as Art: 11 Ways to Make a Video Essay,” a brief, introductory text useful for its discussion of varied video essay forms as the vlog, scene breakdown, and desktop video. Then, to demonstrate how digital media critics have turned to the video essay for the purposes of making arguments supported by visual evidence and gameplay analysis, I refer to Anita Sarkeesian’s series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” on the website Feminist Frequency.

Thanks to screen-capture software (including free tools such as Open Broadcaster Software), students can record particular moments of interaction between themselves and software interfaces for later use in video essay arguments. After recording, students can review their documented interactions and analyze them. To be clear, the aspect of the video essay project that requires students to record their interactions is, to my mind, essential. The process of recording footage for the video essay and then constructing an argument using that footage asks students to critically assess how software interfaces incline them to behave in particular (and variously circumscribed) ways. The process of recording, reviewing, and analyzing also has the effect of making students more interface-savvy. That is, after recording their actions in one interface, they may become more likely to reflect on how their actions in other systems could undergo similar analysis.

Why Video Games?

Video games as persuasive texts lend themselves well to student analysis of the often hidden rhetorical implications of software interfaces. More explicitly than the social media interfaces mentioned above, video games as software ask players to behave according to a set of rules or constraints in order to advance or “win.” Relevant to the “animals and/as technology” theme of my course, video games present strong arguments for how players should interact with and, by extension, regard the animals they encounter within game worlds. In response, I ask students to explore how players can interact with animals in games as a means to uncover the implicit or explicit arguments video games make about human-animal relationships. For example, students raise questions such as: what forms of interaction between humans and animals does the game afford me, the player? How easy does the game make it for the player to facilitate that interaction? Is the interaction sustained, or brief? What is that animal’s function in relationship to the player and/or to the game’s narrative? Is the player required to kill or otherwise manipulate the animal to proceed with the game? Can the player mount the animal and use it as a form of transportation or to enhance the player-character’s mobility? Can the player take the role of an animal by guiding it in the first person (as in simulator games)? When the player assumes the role of an animal, what abilities does the animal have? Do the rules of the game change when a player inhabits the role of an animal?

These questions encourage students to consider how the interactive possibilities between player and virtual animals reproduce or challenge pre-existing assumptions about animals in industrialized societies. As Adam Brown and Deb Waterhouse-Watson (2016) remind us, “To varying degrees (but always to some extent), human beings learn about other animals through the symbolic status attributed to them through cultural products, and this frequently involves the naturalization of anthropocentrism.” Anthropocentrism, or the human tendency to privilege the wants and needs of Homo sapiens above the wants and needs of all other forms of life, certainly informs the design of many video games. However, playing video games does not always necessitate that players passively accept anthropocentric interactions with animals as an inevitable requirement for play. With his concept of “procedural rhetoric,” Ian Bogost provides a precise term for how video games encourage (while often allowing for degrees of freedom to resist) a particular manner of interaction between player and game world. For Bogost, “video games can make claims about the world. But when they do so, they do it not with oral speech, nor in writing, nor even with images. Rather, video games make argument with processes. Procedural rhetoric is the practice of effective persuasion and expression using processes” (Bogost 2008, 125). Processes comprise the rule-based systems by which games as computer software unfold as well as the rules that constrain the actions of players. Asking about the “rules of the game” or how and why a game constrains and incentivizes player interactions with particular game features attunes students to the ways games-as-interfaces construct rhetorical arguments.

Scaffolding Game Analysis

Before we begin playing games and analyzing the arguments they make, I provide students with an illustrative model of academic video game criticism: Gary Walsh’s (2014) article “Taming the Monster: Violence, Spectacle, and the Virtual Animal.” By seeing video game criticism in action, students recognize that their video essay projects can contribute to a visible, existing conversation in humanities disciplines. Walsh argues that “videogames create a space in which virtually anyone can commit acts of violence without being registered as such,” that video games be read as opportunities for players to subject animals to violence and to read their own actions as strictly entertainment (22). Many students initially resist Walsh’s argument. Their inclination is to dismiss the implications of game processes that reward violent interactions with nonhuman animals, suggesting instead that games are unworthy of the careful scrutiny provided more transparently rhetorical texts. Indeed, the phrase “But it’s just a game” circulates during the session we consider Walsh’s work. Working through Walsh’s essay, I urge students to examine their reluctance to 1) read video games as argumentative, and 2) consider their actions as players as participating in an argument constructed by interface with a set of game rules. With students, I ask: why does the pleasure we take in video games’ fantasy spaces preclude a critical examination of the way games rely on existing ideologies and ways of interacting between humans and animals?

To give students practice formulating critical questions about games’ rhetorical choices while also thinking about how games ask them to behave as players, I require students to play a series of free-to-play games that involve animals. Asking students to play a set of preselected games prior to their in-depth interrogation of a single game for their video essays serves two important instructional purposes. First, these games help familiarize students with common video game genre conventions. One represents a “casual game”; another lets us explore the conventions of the “first-person shooter.” By introducing students to some of the basic video game genres, even students relatively unfamiliar with game genre conventions can draw on their experiences playing these free games as a foundation for the more sustained rhetorical analysis of game conventions and rules that they undertake soon afterward. Second, I select the initial games students play because of the illustrative way each game represents animals. Rather than offer complex representations, these games are simple both in terms of controls and argument, making them excellent starting points for a more in-depth interrogation of how games make claims about animals.

For example, one of the free games I ask students to play, Linksolutions’ Pets Fun House, represents a “casual” game in which players assume the role of a new pet shop manager. Pets Fun House asks players to feed, water, and clean up after an expanding collection of dogs and cats with the objective of selling those pets to impatient shop customers. As the game proceeds, players’ in-game profits can purchase increasingly larger shop facilities and a wider range of dog and cat breeds to exchange for additional profits. After playing Pets Fun House, I can reliably anticipate that students will respond eagerly to the question: “What argument does this game make about animals?” That is, after playing the game, students identify, at minimum, that 1) Pets Fun House reduces animals to commodities, and 2) Pets Fun House simplifies the needs of companion species, the player needing only to click once per creature to alleviate hunger, thirst, and waste (the three needs that must be satisfied to successfully prepare the animals for sale).

In another of the free games I require students play, DroidCool.com’s Deer Hunter 3D (2015), students become acquainted with the genre of the first-person hunting simulator. In this game, players must shoot an increasing number of deer before time runs out in order to proceed to the next level. Each deer in the game looks and behaves identically to every other deer: they pace across the screen and remain blissfully unaware of the player’s approach. The game’s simplified representation of deer appearance and behavior prompts students to identify that this game promotes the idea that animals are repetitive, instinctual machines. Further, since the player must slay as many deer as possible within a narrowing time frame in order to proceed to the next level, students quickly see how the game’s deer have a single purpose: to “die.” The game portrays its animals not only as machinic obstacles to overcome, but also as morally and physically simple to eradicate. Here, the simplicity of the game’s interface—point and click to shoot without the need to reload or take cover in features of the landscape—implies that the act of killing deer is both easy and straightforward and, consequently, does not require player reflection. As we saw with animal memes, the ease with which video games as interfaces can make an action possible—here, the ease with which Deer Hunter 3D makes it possible for a player to kill deer—is instructive for students as they consider the rhetorical work of interfaces in general.

Work and Play: The Video Essay Project

For the image-based version of the video essay project assignment sheet, please click here.

For a text-only version of the assignment sheet, please click here.

The student artifacts included below comprise a representative sample of the video essay projects students submitted during the past two semesters of this course. Briefly, this project requires students collaborate in groups of 4-5 members each and choose a Steam-based video game to analyze from a list of games I briefly pre-screen for cost and content. Assigning a game available through Steam, a game distribution platform for personal computers, streamlines the requirement that students record their gameplay. Additionally, I tell students that their video essays should not “review” their chosen game. Rather, their video essays should analyze the game’s rhetoric and make an argument about how the game represents animals.

Importantly, I require that students compose their video essay projects for a public audience: students must upload their completed video essays to YouTube and list them as “public.” This requirement has two important pedagogical benefits. First, composing for a public audience allows students to become active knowledge producers, not simply passive consumers. That is, public video essays enable students to contribute their voices, interests, and, by the end of the process of analysis, expertise to an existing network of positions and ideas. Second, I find that students not only produce better work when composing for outside-the-class audiences, but also make more connections between the work we do in the classroom and communication practices in the “real world” when required to produce public-facing work. They see how the work of rhetorical analysis, for example, can influence and inform others. Centrally, a public-facing project teaches students a fundamental concept like the rhetorical situation by providing them a “real” audience to persuade.[2]

Finally, this project requires students to draft and revise a rough script and storyboard for their essays. Their script organizes the scope and structure of students’ voice-over narrations; it also emphasizes the importance of clear, succinct writing in projects that seem at first glance to prioritize visual and electronic modes of communication. Indeed, assigning a multimodal project like a video essay does not alleviate or dismiss the need for students to consider how and why certain “moves” in their persuasive texts become rhetorically effective. For example, student-produced video essays like Essay I on Giant Squid Studios’ 2016 game Abzû present widely-recognized indicators of an effective argument, such as discussion of counterexamples. In addition to the students’ discussion of counterexamples, Essay I demonstrates students’ attention to how the game’s mechanics (or rule-based systems) affect how players think about the role of animals in the game. Against their primary argument that the game promotes a “genuine connection” between player and virtual animals, students analyzed how the inclusion of the mechanic of “riding” animals (see between 4:23 and 5:00 in Essay I) violates said connection. They explain:

By latching on to these creatures, you can take control of their actions and use their bodies to your own benefit…The animal gives up its autonomy…establishing a hierarchical relationship…By riding these creatures, you create temporary and superficial bonds that disappear once you let go.

This piece of analysis demonstrates the thoughtful associations that students developing digital literacy skills can establish between game interfaces and game arguments. Specifically, students here articulate their perception of a link between the interface-afforded opportunity to “ride” animals in the game and the “hierarchical relationship” between human character and nonhuman animal such a rule implies.

Essay I:

Mairead Gawryszewski, Carlos Gabriel Velazquez Sierra, and three anonymous students created Essay I.

 

In Clip I, students explain how Might and Delight’s 2013 game Shelter restricts player movement to incline players to think about the badger cubs placed in their care. This clip shows not only students’ rhetorical awareness (insofar as they address audience members directly by telling them which visual features of their gameplay footage to pay attention to), but also their astute attention to the relationship between the rules of the game and how those rules persuade players to feel a certain way: in this case, to invest emotionally in the badger cubs.

Clip I:

Dylan Pirro, James Forsmo, and three anonymous students created Clip I.

 

Many of the most effective multimodal arguments take seriously what a given medium affords in terms of opportunities for persuasion. Throughout Essay II, students use a combination of gameplay footage, video, and overlaid graphics to enhance their argument about how the visual and mechanical simplicity of Chris Chung’s 2013 game Catlateral Damage creates a fantasy of carefree nonhuman embodiment for the player. A particularly rich example takes place during 3:39 and 4:25 of Essay II. Here, students demonstrate their understanding that showing an image of a “cockroach” and “spider” followed by a series of clips of house cats provides a visceral visual reminder that we very often value the lives of (cute) animals over others. Such a difference in species’ implicit value, students claim, is central to the lack of a death mechanic in Catlateral Damage, a game they claim is largely about causing destruction with no fear of consequences.

Essay II:

Joo Won (Michael) Lee, Ryan Pickart, Matthew G. Weissel, and two anonymous students created Essay II.

 

As a final example, Essay III demonstrates students’ recognition that games can make culturally-specific arguments. Throughout Essay III, students analyzed how developer Upper One Games translated interactions between indigenous Iñupiaq culture and nonhuman animals into the game interface of Never Alone (2014). Students saw such translation occur through what they termed the “equal but different” representation of the game’s human and fox protagonists. From 5:35 to 6:59, Essay III provides a particularly astute analysis of how game mechanics can construct one argument while a game’s narrative can construct another, contradictory argument.

Essay III:

Maya Flores, So-Ying Ester Chang, Kia Clennon, and Elizabeth Stephens created Essay III.

 

Despite the success of many of the video essays I received, issues that teachers of persuasive writing will be familiar with still persisted in some cases. For example, some essays did not provide sufficient evidence to support students’ claims. In other essays, students failed to articulate a clear and straightforward argument. Moreover, it is worth pointing out the ample hardware and software resources available to students at Georgia Tech as they play their games, record their footage and narration, and edit their essays. I recognize that such resources are far from universally available. Even with these challenges in mind, I am encouraged by the work students have accomplished in these video essays, and I will continue to adapt this project to help students analyze other forms of interactive technology in the future.

Reflection and Conclusion

Looking back at the results of the informal survey I administer to assess students’ familiarity with animals, I am impressed by the wide range of interpretations students developed in their video essays, interpretations unlikely to have emerged from attempts to simply apply their prior knowledge of human-animal relationships. Richard Colby, Matthew S. S. Johnson, and Rebekah Shultz Colby (2013) suggest that video games constitute “exemplar multimodal texts, aligning word, image, and sound with rules and operations constrained by computer technologies but composed by teams of writers, designers, and artists to persuade and entertain” (4). Even so, after analyzing survey data of texts selected by writing teachers for use in writing courses, Johnson and Richard Colby (2013) found that “video games are…neglected as texts to be analyzed” despite statistics that show “the sheer number of gamers and the magnitude of the game industry” (87). By bringing video games into the first-year composition classroom, I witnessed students moving away from their initial impulse to regard everyday texts as innocent and undeserving of critical inspection. An overwhelming majority of essays showed students performing thoughtful, in-depth analyses of texts with rhetorical content that once seemed invisible. As regards nonhuman animals, too, an examination of video games may train students to consider their acts of “interfacing” with animals both virtual and actual as worthy of curiosity and reflection, especially if a particular form of interaction seems only natural.

Bibliography

Anderton, Joseph. 2016. “Cyberbeasts: Substitution and Trivialization of the Animal in Social Media, Memes and Video Games.” In Screening the Non/Human: Representations of Animal Others in the Media, edited by Joe Leeson-Schatz and Amber George. New York: Lexington.

Bogost, Ian. 2008. “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” In The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, 117–40. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Brown, Adam, and Deb Waterhouse-Watson. 2016. “Playing with Other(ed) Species: Games, Representation, and Nonhuman Animals.” Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy, no. 6.

Colby, Richard, Matthew S. S. Johnson, and Rebekah Shultz Colby. 2013. “Introduction: Rhetoric/Composition/Play through Video Games.” In Rhetoric/Composition/Play through Video Games: Reshaping Theory and Practice of Writing, 1–8. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

DroidCool.com. (2015). Deer Hunter 3D.

Emerson, Lori. 2014. Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.

Johnson, Matthew S. S., and Richard Colby. 2013. “Ludic Snags.” In Rhetoric/Composition/Play through Video Games: Reshaping Theory and Practice of Writing, edited by Richard Colby, Matthew S. S. Johnson, and Rebekah Shultz Colby, 83–98. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pets Fun House. Linksolutions.

Teena A. M., Carnegie. 2009. “Interface as Exordium: The Rhetoric of Interactivity.” Computers and Composition 28 (2):164–73.

Walsh, Gary. 2014. “Taming the Monster: Violence, Spectacle, and the Virtual Animal.” Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, no. 30 (Winter): 21–34.

Warren-Riley, Sarah, and Elise Verzosa Hurley. 2017. “Multimodal Pedagogical Approaches to Public Writing: Digital Media Advocacy and Mundane Texts.” Composition Forum 36.

Notes

[1] The data referenced here represents survey results that I collected informally.

[2] I anticipate and address students’ potential privacy concerns and hesitation to share their work in three ways. First, within the first week of the course, I ask that students sign a “Statement of Understanding,” a brief form in which they disclose if they feel comfortable with me referencing their work in print or electronic publications and how they want to be credited (either by name or anonymously) if they do permit me to reference their work. A sample Statement of Understanding can be viewed by following this link to the course syllabus and scrolling to the bottom of the document. Second, the course syllabus includes a “Public Nature of the Course” clause that informs students that most of their work for the course—including drafts prepared for peer review, in-class presentations of their work, and digital sharing—should be composed with a larger audience (that is, an audience not exclusive to their professor and themselves) in mind. As part of this clause, I emphasize that students’ grades will never be made public. The syllabus linked above contains the “Public Nature of the Course” clause. Finally, I provide students a range of options for posting their work to YouTube. Even though their work remains visible and shareable on this platform, they can choose some combination of the following, privacy-assuring precautions: they can 1) remove all references to their names, 2) “unlist” their video, or make their video undiscoverable by in-site searches, and/or 3) disable comments in YouTube. Perhaps surprisingly, many students want to be credited by name for their work and are excited to share their work with others. Others take comfort in anonymity while still fulfilling the course objectives and seeing how others respond to their efforts via peer review and questions from their classmates.

About the Author

Christina M. Colvin is currently a Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. There, she teaches courses in multimodal composition that emphasize digital rhetoric. Her research focuses on American literature, new media, animal studies, and ecocriticism.

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Practicing Digital Literacy in the Liberal Arts: A Qualitative Analysis of Students’ Online Research Journals

Abstract

How can we use digital technologies and pedagogies to foster students’ development as digitally literate researchers? We examine an undergraduate course on new information technologies for which we developed a research journal assignment aimed to develop students’ digital literacies. We conducted a qualitative analysis of students’ research journals as they investigated global internet censorship. Our study contributes to growing interest in digital literacies and how to shape learning opportunities to promote students’ identities as digitally literate researchers and citizens.

Introduction

Information pollution, information overload, and infoglut are some of the most common terms used to describe the “almost infinite abundance” and “surging volume” of information that “floods” and “swamps” us daily (Hemp 2009). Popular media articles appear regularly offering tips and strategies to “cope with,” “conquer,” and even “recover” from information overload (e.g., Harness 2015; Shin 2014; Tattersall 2015). Information Fatigue Syndrome, a term coined in 1996, refers to the stress and exhaustion caused by a constant bombardment of data (Vulliamy 1996). In Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, David Shenk (1997) argues that the surplus of information doesn’t enhance our lives, but instead undermines and overwhelms us to the point of anxiety and indecision. According to research conducted by Project Information Literacy researchers, “it turns out that students are poorly trained in college to effectively navigate the internet’s indiscriminate glut of information” (Head and Wihbey 2014, para. 7).

The study presented here emerged from “New Information Technologies,” an undergraduate course in the media and communication department at a small, private, liberal arts college in the northeast United States. The course introduced students to key concepts and tools for thinking critically about new information technology and what it means to live in a digital, global society. Course goals underscored the importance of developing students’ capacities as digitally literate learners and citizens of a global network society. We intentionally articulated course learning goals around both the content area and the practices of digital literacy embedded in course assignments. We asked students to reflectively discover, organize, analyze, create, and share information using digital tools. Our aim was to empower students with the tools and abilities to thrive in the information ecosystem as both consumers and producers, rather than flounder in information overload. We wanted students to experience research as active agents driving the process through their choices and attitudes. With these broad framing objectives in mind, we developed a multiphase research assignment called the Internet Censorship Project.

In this article, we detail our collaborative development of the Internet Censorship Project assignment and discuss a qualitative analysis of the resulting student work. In our analysis, we focus in particular on students’ engagement in and reflection on the research process and their agency and identity therein. Our close look at the assignment and student learning offers an opportunity to consider the possibilities of integrating digital tools and pedagogies to deepen students’ digital literacy in the context of liberal arts education.

Collaborating for Digital Literacy

This course provided ideal opportunities for collaboration between an information literacy librarian and a media and communication professor with shared interests in digital literacy. Our respective disciplines have a common concern for digital literacy, although we often describe and approach the concept in distinct ways. The library and information science field typically uses the term “information literacy,” while media and communication studies uses “media literacy.” The Association of College and Research Libraries (2016) defines information literacy as “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning” (3). Media literacy, as defined by the National Association for Media Literacy Education (2017), is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. In its simplest terms, media literacy builds upon the foundation of traditional literacy and offers new forms of reading and writing. Media literacy empowers people to be critical thinkers and makers, effective communicators and active citizens.” We find common ground in these definitions and the values they convey, especially in the degree to which both disciplines prioritize critical thinking about and active engagement with information. In this paper, we invoke a shared definition of digital literacy, referring to the practices, abilities, and identities around the uses and production of information in digital forms.[1]

Our respective understandings of digital literacy have evolved through extensive and ongoing collaboration with each other and with students. Our disciplines both recognize that definitions of literacies are shifting in the digital environment. One premise of our work is that digital technologies afford new possibilities for collaboration across disciplines and fields. We believe that digital teaching and learning benefit from, if not require, connecting diverse ways of knowing. Digital learning emphasizes connectivity and so we have designed our teaching approach to model the same.

What matters most here is how these definitions come to bear on framing student learning outcomes in this course and assignment. There were no digital literacy learning outcomes explicitly embedded within the course syllabus prior to this collaboration. Discussions about how and where to integrate digital literacy goals within existing course assignments gave rise to our collaboration. These discussions revealed that while the course aimed to promote critical thinking and analysis of the so-called information age, it did little to intentionally link theory to critical practice in ways that highlighted development of students’ digital literacy habits and abilities. The library’s statement on information literacy, inspired at the time of its creation by an earlier iteration of the Association of College and Research Libraries information literacy definition, offered a welcome starting point and with very little modification was introduced as a course goal (Trexler Library, Muhlenberg College 2010). Among course objectives, the syllabus newly included this statement: “students in this course will have opportunities to develop capacities as information literate learners who can discover, organize, analyze, create and share information.”

Assignment Design and Instructional Approaches

The Internet Censorship Project required students working in pairs or small groups to investigate the state of internet censorship and surveillance in different countries. The project extended across four weeks in the latter half of the semester. Students shared their research findings in culminating in-class presentations. The entire process was designed to encourage students to link their critical theoretical understanding with digital literacy practices. We purposefully integrated digital tools and pedagogies throughout the assignment to help students move beyond only amassing and describing sources to higher order research activities and more advanced digital literacy behaviors and attitudes.

Our first implementation of this assignment in fall 2013 revealed some of the general challenges of asking students to critically engage with information. Students tended to gather large amounts of information and dump it into their work without clear purpose or analysis. Ultimately, this resulted in lackluster project presentations in which students’ facility with the mode of digital presentation (Prezi) was often more impressive than the story being shared. These issues are not unique to this assignment, course, or campus. Many educators have likely seen evidence of students’ struggles with “information dump.” Information dump demonstrates students have collected relevant data, but they are unable to present it logically or think about it critically and analytically. This challenge relates to larger issues with helping students develop and strengthen their research habits and abilities. There is often a wide gap between where students begin and where we want them to arrive with respect to information gathering, evaluation, analysis, and synthesis. They often do not successfully make the leap from one ledge to the other (Head 2013; Head and Eisenberg 2010). Frequently what seems to be missing is students’ engagement with research as a process and their critical reflection on that process.

Among the many personal benefits students gain from research, they “learn tolerance for obstacles faced in the research process, how knowledge is constructed, independence, increased self-confidence, and a readiness for more demanding research” (Lopatto 2010). Participating in the research process also promotes students’ cognitive development, supporting their transition from novice to expert learners. Undergraduate research encourages students to exercise critical judgment and to make meaning of what they are learning. Such experiences help students construct a sense of themselves as researchers, gaining a sense of agency and ownership of the research process. If today’s students are “at sea in a deluge of data” (Head and Wihbey 2014), carefully crafted research assignments can help them acquire the skills and awareness that serve as life rafts and anchors.

This kind of work presents opportunities to promote students’ metacognition, or awareness of and reflection on their thinking and learning (Livingston 1997). A metacognitive mindset can help students identify their research as a process in which they are located and over which they have agency. “Successfully developing a research plan, following it, and adapting to the challenges research presents require reflection on the part of the student about his or her own learning” (Carleton College 2010, para. 5). By reflecting on their steps and thinking, students can perhaps more easily recognize their choices and beliefs, enhance their ability to plan for and guide their learning, as well as adapt in the face of future challenges or new situations (Lovett 2008). “Seeing oneself as capable of making the crossing to a better understanding can be empowering and even exhilarating….The ability to manage transitional states might be, then, a transferrable learning experience, one that involves increasing self-knowledge and confidence” (Fister 2015, 6).

Close review of Internet Censorship Project student learning outcomes in 2013 informed our revisions to the assignment in fall 2014. (See Appendix A for the assignment.) We strengthened the assignment by gearing it more toward process and reflection. Our goal was to better support students as they worked to bridge the gap, from start to finish, in their research knowledge and abilities. This time around, we emphasized steps within the research process and prioritized the development of critical and reflective thinking about information. We did this by redesigning the project phases and intentionally using carefully selected digital tools.

In the first phase, student partners collaborated to select and organize research sources about internet censorship and surveillance in their selected countries. They used a collaborative, cloud-based word processing application (Google Docs) to gather and share information with each other as they discovered it, working both synchronously and asynchronously. Documents started as running lists of sources with links to original content, but were to evolve into meaningfully and logically organized and annotated texts that demonstrated critical thinking about sources. In fall 2014, we dedicated more in-class time modeling for students how documents might evolve beyond mere lists into collaborative space for organizing, summarizing, assessing, and interrogating information.

We also integrated a crucial new element, a photo journal created in WordPress, into the assignment as a metacognitive bridge to support students’ development from information gathering to presentation. We selected WordPress for this activity for a number of reasons. On a practical level, we have a campus installation of WordPress and strong technology support for it. WordPress is easily customizable, extendable, and enables students to work with the various media types we sought to promote with the assignment. Just as importantly, using WordPress aligned with one of the underlying goals of the course to deepen students’ critical reflection of their own digital presence. We wanted them to gain experience working in a widely-adopted open source environment—approximately 25% of all websites that use a content management system run on WordPress (Lanaria 2015)—so that they might compare this platform to their experiences within commercial social media platforms. Overall, WordPress enabled us to provide students with hands-on experience as information producers that developed digital literacy practices that could serve them well beyond this assignment and course.

The photo journal transformed the assignment in important ways and is the focus of our case study. We described its purpose to students in the following way:

The journal is your individual representation of the process as you experience and construct it. The Photo Journal is created in WordPress and includes photos, images, drawings, screenshots, and narrative text and captions that take the viewer behind the scenes of your research process. Think of this as “the making of” your project, uncovering the questions and thinking behind your project, and documents the “what, why, where, and how” of the research you are producing.

Students were required to create a minimum of 10 posts, the first of which asked students to reflect on their ideal research environment. The final post invited students to contemplate their presentation and completion of the project. In between, the remaining eight journal entries were designed to document and reflect on students’ research experiences. We provided optional prompts to kickstart their posts, including the following:

  • What do you know about the topic? What do you want to know?
  • Why does this source matter?
  • How did you get started?
  • What led you to this source?
  • What questions does the source raise for you?
  • How does the source contribute to other knowledge?
  • What do you know now? What have you learned?

We constructed the photo journal element to activate for students an attitude of critical engagement and a more reflective, metacognitive mindset (Fluk 2015). In documenting their research processes, the photo journal was intended to surface students’ thinking for both themselves and us as instructors. We wanted to promote their reflection on steps in the research process and, therefore, change and deepen that process. By modeling and scaffolding these behaviors and attitudes through the phases of the assignment, we hoped to move students progressively toward stronger engagement and understanding. Rather than drowning in information overload, we hoped to develop students’ sense of agency to be able to comprehend, communicate about, make meaning of, and reflect on their information consumption and production. By asking students to include images as representations of their research, we further hoped to make the research more visible as a process.

Through our qualitative analysis of students’ photo journals in this case study, we attempt to better understand both the connections students make, as well as where they need help to bridge the gaps in their learning. Our case study explores how we can use digital technologies and digital pedagogy to better foster students’ development as digitally literate researchers.

Methodology

In this research, we look closely at student learning outcomes aligned with the digital literacy goals of the Internet Censorship Project. Collectively, the 17 students in fall 2014 generated 170 photo journal entries. Our data collection, coding, and analysis were conducted using Dedoose, a cloud-based platform for qualitative and mixed methods research with text, photos, and multimedia. The program enabled us to organize and code a large set of records.

Each journal entry included a narrative update or reflection on students’ research and a related image. While designated a “photo journal,” students’ posts included a considerable amount of text that is central to this study. Our qualitative content analysis concentrated on students’ description of, and reflection on, their research sources and their research steps and behaviors. We also constructed a series of identity codes to indicate those instances where students self-consciously located themselves within their research and reflected on their research as practice.

Analysis of Students’ Journals

Students’ journals varied in depth, detail, and critical engagement. Two types of journals emerged clearly: robust and limited. In robust journals, students exhibited a general thoughtfulness and demonstrated a more expansive engagement with content of sources and process. Limited journals were generally more superficial and formulaic, focused primarily on content of sources rather than process. We assign these categories to help improve our pedagogy in order to advance student learning.
In the following sections, we discuss three major areas that emerged from our qualitative analysis of student journal data:

  • Students’ engagement as reflected in project pacing
  • Students’ attention to process and content
  • Students’ identity and agency as digital learners

Students’ Engagement as Reflected in Project Pacing

The journal project required that students submit a minimum of ten posts over four weeks at a suggested rate of two to three times per week. Past experience has shown us that students often tend to squeeze their work into a limited time frame. Student Q, for example, described his usual work tendencies in his journal:

“Typically when I study, do research, or write papers, I end up waiting until the last minute. This isn’t really a voluntary practice, I just can’t find the motivation to prioritize long term assignments until the deadline begins closing in.”

By requiring students to post consistently, we aimed to push them beyond their typical practices. We structured the experience so that students could aggregate and analyze information incrementally over time in order to develop more effective research habits—both attitudes and practices—and to avert information overload. We anticipated that students who worked steadily would have more opportunities for progressive development and reflection and therefore would engage more deeply and critically with the sources and the issues addressed in the assignment. We anticipated that students who worked inconsistently, by comparison, would be more likely to engage superficially and minimally achieve project learning goals. Our interest in “students’ engagement as reflected in project pacing,” then, refers both to the timing of students’ journal posts and the pace of students’ work on the project overall.

We characterized students’ journal pacing quality as excellent, good, fair, or poor. Excellent pacing described journals with posts spread evenly throughout the project. Good pacing described journals with posts occurring every week of the project, but with some posts closely grouped on consecutive days or even on the same day. Fair pacing denoted journals with some posts closely grouped on consecutive days or the same days and some multi-day or week-long stretches with no posts. Poor pacing referred to journals with posts primarily grouped on just a few consecutive days or the same days and no posts for long stretches of time.

Robust journals were distributed evenly across all four pacing quality categories: two each in poor, fair, good, and excellent. Limited journals, though, were predominantly in the poor pacing category: seven poor, zero fair, one good, and one excellent.

Calendar marked with four students’ journal posting dates, with each student color-coded to represent one of the four pacing quality categories: Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor

Figure 1. Calendar marked with four students’ journal posting dates, with each student color-coded to represent one of the four pacing quality categories: Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor

Overall, the pattern we saw in the pacing of students’ journals in part supports our intuition. Students who demonstrated lower engagement with content and less reflection on process—that is, students’ whose journals we categorized as limited—appeared to work inconsistently on the project or in a compressed manner. Yet pacing alone is not enough to ensure students’ success, as we saw in the case of robust journals. Their strength was less tied with pacing quality. Perhaps these journals were robust for other reasons such as the students’ developmental levels, their effective integration of our writing prompts, or intrinsic motivation and interest in the assignment. Many factors, then, surely contribute to students’ learning and success, yet students’ reflections suggest that adequate time and project management are among them. Student B, for example, described the positive impact of the assignment’s structure on the pacing of her work:

“The components of the project, the Google Doc, photo journal, and presentation, seemed to work well together to organize our thoughts and pace the research so we did not save it until the last minute. Even though it was a busy week for me, the way the project was set up was very helpful in facilitating the assignment.
This overall experience has taught me a lot about research and organization. It has also given me valuable experience preparing and speaking in front of a class. This project was due during a particularly busy week for me. I had three large assignments due that week, this included, but I learned to cope with that, take things one step at a time, and I am proud of what we were able to accomplish.”

Student C’s comments illustrate how the expectations of a measured pace in the assignments were a challenge for him, but that they contributed to his effectiveness in research and in preparing for his final presentation:

“By the time I finished the research for my journal entries, I had all the information I needed to prepare for my presentation. It was nice to be able to share some of the interesting things I learned about. Meeting with [name redacted] a few times before we had to present was helpful, and gave us a chance to organize and practice. . . . The biggest challenge of this project was staying on top of all my journal entries. Trying to organize how to space them out in a way that made sense, while trying to balance all my other work, was difficult. I had to be extra careful not to forget about them and leave them all to the last minute.”

Articulating and modeling for students effective strategies for doing research over time can contribute to their success with organizing and processing large amounts of information, and help students to develop and sustain deeper engagement in their learning.

Students’ Attention to Process and Content

Our assignment aimed to foster students’ metacognitive awareness of their research process which contributes to students’ learning and is essential to digital literacy. Unprompted, however, students often struggle to engage at this level of critical self-reflection. In our first attempt with this assignment, they tended to focus only on amassing and describing their sources, essentially information dump. We hoped that students’ journals, then, would provide visible evidence of their research processes in order to better understand and reflect on their steps and their thinking. By bringing the process to the surface, we hoped students’ attention would shift beyond just the what of the sources and toward the why and the how of their sources, choices, and processes for richer critical thinking. Therefore, our analysis of student journals naturally aligned into two major categories: content and process. Content codes were used to identify journal excerpts in which students commented on sources in the following ways: summary, assessment, interpretation, connection with other information or personal experience, judgment, and reinforcement/challenge of preconceived notions.

In their journals, all students summarized sources with some frequency. For some, it was the focus of an entire post. For others, an initial summary was a foundation from which they built more diversified or reflective posts. In limited journals, we saw that students often paired the description or summary with their opinions or judgments. The following excerpt from Student I’s journal illustrates this common combination. He began with a summary of a source and then segued to his beliefs on the matter:

“After The London Riots, Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to censor social media, and ban rioters from communicating on these platforms. However, this did not pan out as well as he thought. So, it was back to the drawing board. In another one of Cameron’s plans, he wanted to censor emails, texts, and phone calls. According to the article, internet service providers would have to install hardware that would give law official real-time access to users emails, text messages, and phone calls. . . .

This also relates to the fact that Cameron still wants social media sites to censor their users. I think that this really impedes on a persons’ freedom of speech. If people are posting things on social media, they are public, therefore, they can be seen by whomever. So for instance, if people were planning violent rallies on Facebook, authority members could see this, and stop it before it happened by sending troops to the spot of the rally. Still, this is a major shot at peoples’ freedom of speech, therefore, I do not think it is necessary to take away a persons’ right to post on social media.”

In robust journals, by contrast, students more often paired summary with meaning making—that is, they interpreted the sources and attempted to make connections between different sources or with personal experience, as in this excerpt from Student H’s journal:

“This article focuses on the government trying to control what is posted on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. November of the last year, the Russian government created a law that would allow them to blog any internet consent they deemed illegal or harmful to minors. The only website to resist was YouTube which is owned by Google. They removed one video that promoted suicide, but wouldn’t remove a video that showed how to make a fake wound, because YouTube declared it was for entertainment purposes.

However, when the Federal service for supervision in telecommunications, information technologies and mass communications in Russia went to Facebook and Twitter, they complied with the bans the government gave them. If they didn’t comply the whole site would have been banned from Russia. This source makes me ask was this law only created to protect minors on the internet? Are there other motives with this new law? Will they ban other content that may be appropriate but not agreeable with the Russian’s views? I want to look into what other sites or content this law has been used to ban. This source definitely gave me insight into more issues of censorship occurring in Russia.”

While judgment and meaning making both require students to interact with sources and insert themselves into the conversation, they require rather different levels of critical thinking and self-awareness. With judgment, as illustrated by Student I above, students took a stand or made a claim, often in ways that promoted or reinforced rather than challenged their assumptions. With meaning making, on the other hand, as illustrated by Student H above, students attempted to interpret, clarify, and probe sources. These are different ways of interacting with information. The latter requires a greater degree of critical awareness and self-reflection on the part of the researcher and, therefore, denotes higher order digital literacy.

Process codes were used to identify journal excerpts in which students described their steps, as well as their metacognitive reflection on those steps. They included searching strategies and behaviors, organization, source selection, information availability, use of assigned digital tools (i.e., Google Docs, WordPress, and Prezi), information needs, next steps, and collaboration with their peers.

In limited journals, students frequently described their research steps. In this excerpt, for example, Student O described transitioning from using Google to library databases in order to locate academic sources:

“After finding several newspaper articles on Google, I started to finally look at the academic journals using the library databases. I was shocked to find that there was not that much information about the internet censorship in Iraq considering it is a big controversy. The few articles that I did find did have a lot of useful information to begin sifting through. Looking at the articles from the database is much different from Google because you can read the abstract to find the significance of the article and if it is worth taking a closer look at. I read through some of the abstracts and found some great information from background to actual laws and regulation. Now that I found out so much more information, I need to read through all of the articles diligently and take notes.”

In robust journals, students described their steps, but many also elaborated on why they took those steps and the questions they raised. In the following example, Student F described her use of library databases to locate scholarly sources, but also reflected on her motivation for doing so, her strategy, and the connections between her past experience and her current research:

“For awhile, the only type of research [name redacted] and I had done was through Google. While this was extremely helpful in gathering information and background facts about the censorship in Russia, we thought it was important to ensure we got some information scholarly sources. Using the Trexler Library website, we searched multiple databases searching for information on cyber censorship in Russia. We used information we found in the articles on Google to get more information into our search.

While I know finding scholarly sources is important, I have not always been the biggest fan of database searches. I always get frustrated when I can’t find sources that match what I am looking for. However, after some research, I found some sources with great information. Although the sources we found on Google were from reputable news sources, sometimes using Internet searches does not always produce the most reliable information. We thought it would be a good idea to get started and use scholarly sources to not only gather new information, but to verify the previous information found.”

The student provided insight not only to her awareness of her information needs, but also how her past research experiences were shaping her current work. She also recognized her ability to overcome obstacles and the intellectual rewards of doing so.

Many students described their steps to organize their sources and their work. In robust journals, some also reflected on the ways their organizational practices helped or hindered their effectiveness in managing information and their project. The examples below illustrate this important contrast.

Excerpt of Student O’s journal illustrating organization:

“I printed out most of the article that [name redacted] and I shared in our google doc of research. I have spent the past few hours reading through all of the articles highlighting key points and writing notes for myself in the margins. The notes have different categories to help me organize the research that I have found such as laws, what’s banned, background, etc. I have found this organization to be very useful so far.”

Excerpt of Student M’s journal illustrating organization plus reflection:

“The most difficult part of this project was definitely the research process—I had trouble with the organization of information. I often go overboard in my research process, gathering more information than I need. Sometimes I go so far in depth that I have trouble keeping things straight in my head (even if these things are written down, it’s hard for me to retrieve the information in my brain because I get jumbled and confused due to the abundance of information). So, although organization was the most difficult, this process helped me find ways to organize information in an efficient and helpful manner.

Keeping things in a Google doc. was a great source for me. By compiling all of my research in one place (the Google doc.) I was inspired to work on the research process every day. I’m not sure why the Google doc. provoked me to work on the research process each day, but color coding my sources and breaking things down into categorizes inspired me to do my work (as corny as that sounds). I think part of the reason for this was because the research process felt less daunting when I worked on it a little bit at a time. By creating categories for myself, and working from the question posed in our rubric for the project, I was more able to deconstruct the process. Rather than spending 4 hours research in the library every week, I spent 30-40 minutes researching every day. This was a much better process for me than what I am usually used to doing. Also, I think there may be a chance that since the Google doc. was online, over time I logged onto my e-mail or Facebook I thought of the Google doc. (and it was in my bookmarks bar) which reminded me to work on it.”

Students in robust journals demonstrated more awareness and understanding of their processes. We also saw more evidence of students’ description of and reflection on more inherently metacognitive themes such as identification of their information needs, charting of their next steps, and rationales for the selection of information sources. The excerpts below show the reflection intrinsic in these areas.

Excerpt of Student B’s journal illustrating rationale for selection of information sources:

“I have learned a lot from the research we have done, not only about censorship in Egypt, but also about research in general. It is important to gather information from a variety of sources, and types of sources, to get a full perspective on the issue. We used some informational sources and some current event/popular sources. This allowed us to find out what was happening at the time of the protest and censorship in Egypt as well as the political aspect and how people felt about it.”

Excerpt of Student H’s journal illustrating description of rationale for selection of information sources:

“I’m at the point in my research where I have enough information to satisfy the requirements for this project. I now have to figure out which information is relevant and which is not, what information should go into the presentation? Do we pick information that just covers the surface of all of our research or do we choose to be more specific and go into depth on one topic? I find all the information important and interesting, so how do I pick? I’m going to look at the most reoccurring themes and terms. Organize the content by those subjects and use that in the presentation. My reasoning behind this, is if this the more popular content among different sources than this must be what is more important.”

In limited journals, then, we saw students engaged primarily with specific tools and practices. In robust journals, by contrast, we saw students negotiating the bigger picture of their project. These students reflected on their choices, discussed their place in the project and in the larger information ecosystem, and generally moved toward more analytic thinking. Such awareness and reflection are crucial to digital literacy development.

Students’ Identity and Agency as Digital Learners

When we first implemented this assignment, we noted that students lingered most comfortably in information-seeking mode and struggled with critical analysis and comprehension of the information they were gathering. Recall that our purpose was to integrate and implement digital tools in ways to help students move beyond information-seeking mode to adopt more critical analytic habits and more advanced digital literacy practices. We were especially interested in the possible uses of digital technologies and pedagogies to help demystify research practices for students so that they might identify as researchers. Our goal was to leverage the collaborative, social, and public affordances of digital tools to make research practices more visible. In this iteration, then, we examined journals for instances where students explicitly located themselves within their research and identified themselves as engaged in and driving their research processes. We also included moments where students conveyed their feelings about their research processes—in short, their affective response.

Because we emphasized both the process and product of student research, it was important to pay attention to students’ subjective experiences along the way. We structured the assignment to empower students’ digital literacy practices. As discussed above, students did describe feeling more organized and less overwhelmed with this research project compared to prior experiences. However, we found very little evidence of students overall using their journals to reflect on their identities as researchers. There were little or no differences between robust and limited journals in this category. We did see a difference in students’ remarks concerning their research paths and next steps, though. Students who produced robust journals more often voiced where they were in their research and where they were headed. In this way, they conveyed a sense of self-direction and control over their work.

Students occasionally reflected in their journals about how they were feeling about the research project. This was true in both robust and limited journals. The following excerpts illustrate such instances of affect.

Excerpt of Student M’s journal illustrating description of anxiety:

“I have also included a screenshot of all the tabs I have open on my computer. This is somewhat out of character for me, which is why I thought it would be important to document. Usually, I can’t have more than 4 tabs open at a time or I start to feel disorganized which sometimes makes me anxious. On this particular evening I have so many tabs open they don’t even all show up on the bar itself. These tabs picture the sources I am pulling from while creating my Google doc. The Google doc. is seriously helping me so much—it’s a great organization tool and it’s helping me understand my information in a really efficient way.”

Excerpt of Student A’s journal illustrating description of confidence:

“We were extremely confident and knew that we were talking about.”

Excerpt of Student B’s journal illustrating description of feeling overwhelmed:

“So far, it has been a bit daunting to start finding articles that have good information to use for the project.”

We are wary of conflating students’ affective statements about their research with self-conscious identification as researchers. We do think it is important, though, to note these instances as part of the meaning-making process. The journal provided space for students to give voice to what it feels like to practice research, thereby making public what often remains hidden in undergraduate research.

Research practices are situated in environments, both online and offline. One of the most important choices students make about their research is where it takes place. Our assignment asked students to be attentive to the “spaces” of their research. We asked students to focus on space in the first journal post by reflecting on, describing, and providing photos of their ideal research environments. Our aim was to encourage students to develop awareness that research is situated in contexts and that, to certain degrees, students can make choices that shape where research happens. When students reflect on the place of their research, they locate themselves in place as researchers. There was no difference between robust and limited journals in this category of reflection.

In this excerpt, Student A responds to that initial prompt:

“My ideal place to do research is in my room. It is the only place where I get all of my work done and efficiently at that. I’ll usually play soft music in the background for me to listen to so I don’t get bored while I’m doing my research. I get my work done best when I’m doing it on my own, in my own space, and on my own time. I like to be in control of my environment and if I’m not, I’ll struggle to get my work done. I also like to have a coffee and a water nearby in case I need a drink. When I start my work, I usually have 1 bag of pirates booty or smartpuffs to kickstart my brain and my work. Below is a picture of my desk. Unfortunately, my desk is smaller than it’s been in the past, but it still gets the job done. I’m able to spread out my work as much as I want.”

Beyond the first required prompt about the places where student research happens, we found additional instances where students reflected on the environments of their research. The first post calling students’ attention to place likely helped to train their awareness on this theme later in the project. The following excerpt is from Student M, who paid continuous attention to the contexts of her research throughout the project:

“This has more to do with my working environment right now than my research, but right now as I am doing work my three roommates are in the midst of watching Gilmore Girls (I got their consent to post this picture). I am surprised that I am able to work in this environment, and to be totally honest, I think a lot of the reason is because I do not feel anxious about this information. I know that I still have a lot more research to do and a lot more work on my plate, but rather than finding this overwhelming I am genuinely excited to find a way to put together my information about North Korea so that it makes more sense to me and makes sense to other people.”

Student M’s lack of anxiety stemmed from her ability to control the place and pacing of her research. The excerpt conveys her thoughtfulness about where and when she was doing research. Moreover, it shows her enthusiasm and intention to meaningfully develop her research to benefit her own learning as well as her peers’ learning. Rather than being adrift in a vast sea of information, wading through sources, an awareness of research as situated helps anchor digital literacy practices.

While we understand affect and place as indicators of students’ awareness of themselves as agents within a research activity, there are notably few instances in students’ journals where they explicitly identify themselves as researchers. The following remarks illustrate this infrequent theme.

Excerpt of Student K’s journal illustrating description of feeling like an expert:

“It was also an interesting experience presenting on a topic that no one else in the class had knowledge on besides us, so it made us seem like the experts of subject matter.”

Excerpt of Student P’s journal illustrating description of researcher identity:

“Personally, I try to eliminate all distractions while I’m doing research. Depending upon how pressing the assignment is, I sometimes disable texting and prevent my computer from allowing me to go on Facebook. Ideally, it would be nice to have a private office with a door, but at college, that isn’t really realistic.”

Excerpt of Student Q’s journal illustrating description of connection of research to becoming an informed citizen:

“Researching North Korea’s internet connectivity policies was especially helpful to me in analyzing how our own policies in the USA might parallel. This may help me recognize the consequences of certain laws passed, and ultimately will make me a more informed citizen and voter.”

Beyond research “skills,” our assignment hoped to promote the development of students’ metacognitive awareness of their abilities to effectively engage in research activities using various digital technologies. This includes identifying paths and next steps. When students described their current and future research paths they were locating themselves in the research. Students did not use their journals to explicitly reflect on their development as researchers, but they did frequently identify in detail plans to advance their research. This occurred more frequently in robust than limited journals.

Excerpt of Student H’s journal illustrating description of next steps:

“This time difference has me questioning the relevance of this source and how to related it to my more current sources. Although it is helpful to understanding the background of Russian Internet, I find some of the information contradicting to the current information I have found. From here I think I need to look into more sources about classifications and see if there are more recent publications on this subject.”

Excerpt of Student Q’s journal illustrating description of next steps:

“From here, I think I would like to find out the exact specifics on the restriction imparted on North Koreans in regards to the internet, and look into exactly what the distinctions are between internet users and non-internet users in North Korea (whether it is determined by class, political position, or both). Furthermore, I want to investigate how these restrictions might impact foreigners visiting the country, and how the internet restrictions may also be stemming any information leaks coming from North Korea.”

In these posts, and others like them, students conveyed awareness of where they were in their research processes. They commented on the value and limits of their current searches and sources. They suggested what they needed to do or find next to advance their projects. Often in these posts, they articulated next steps in response to a particular limit or gap in knowledge that they had identified. Such reflection indicates to us an awareness of research as an iterative process, where a student can connect their current information seeking and analysis to their future activities.

Application to Practice

Our analysis guided us to make further assignment revisions for fall 2015. (See Appendix B for the revised assignment.) First, it was clear from our analysis that there was opportunity for us to increase the transparency of the project goals and purposes. We were more intentional in articulating these goals both in the written instructions and in our class discussion of the assignment and its elements. We spoke with students about the value of metacognition and our attempt to direct and focus their awareness in the research process. Second, we recognized that students who used the guiding questions were able to dig deeper and demonstrated stronger learning outcomes. Therefore, not only did we more emphatically urge students to employ the prompts in their journals in fall 2015, we also added new prompts and organized them in two categories (content and process) to better motivate their metacognitive awareness. The table below shows the revised prompts.

Content (commenting directly on sources) Process (commenting on your research steps, struggles, goals)
Describe the source. What led you to this source(s)?
How did you get started?
Why does this source matter? What questions does the source raise for you about your research process?
What questions does the source raise for you about the subject matter? Where does this source lead you next?
How does the source contribute to other knowledge or connect to other information? How is the environment of your research impacting your work? How are you using digital tools to promote your development as a researcher?
What voices or perspectives does the source include? exclude? Take stock of your progress to date. How does it look to you, from a bird’s eye view?

Finally, we saw that students who published to their journals inconsistently also demonstrated a lack of engagement with sources and reflection on process. We therefore modified the assignment to make consistent pacing a formal expectation for the project and included it in the evaluation rubric. (See Appendix C for rubrics.) By making this change, we made the benefit of pacing extended research projects more transparent to students. Our future analysis will consider the impact of these changes on student learning outcomes.

Conclusion

The rapid growth of digital technologies and their integration in higher education is spurring conversation about what it means to be literate in the digital age. On a number of liberal arts campuses across the US, educators are asking, what does “the digital” mean for liberal arts education (Thomas 2014)? Some are now speaking of the Digital Liberal Arts (Heil 2014). Our case study contributes to a growing interest in understanding what digital literacies look like and how these abilities and practices can be developed to enhance learning in the liberal arts.

In our work, we saw students grappling with and frustrated by the challenges of information overload online and offline. While information overload may be an issue, it is a well-worn tendency to blame technology for young people’s deficiencies as learners and citizens. As educators, we must design digital pedagogies that create opportunities for students to navigate this complex environment. The digital pedagogies we are developing begin by shifting the locus of agency from technology back to our students, empowering them to manage the multiple contexts of information they traverse in their learning. By integrating digital tools in research projects that foreground pacing, metacognition, and process, we can help students develop their agency and identities as researchers. This agency is central to what it means to practice digital literacy.

Notes

[1] For additional discussion of digital literacy, information literacy, and media literacy conceptualizations, see Jarson (2015).

Bibliography

Association of College and Research Libraries. 2016. “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” Last modified January 11. http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/issues/infolit/Framework_ILHE.pdf.

Carleton College. 2016. “Why Use Undergraduate Research?” Pedagogy in Action: Connecting Theory to Classroom Practice. Last modified November 14. http://serc.carleton.edu/sp/library/studentresearch/Why.html.

Fister, Barbara. 2015. “The Liminal Library: Making Our Libraries Sites of Transformative Learning.” Keynote address at the Librarians’ Information Literacy Annual Conference, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom. http://barbarafister.com/LiminalLibrary.pdf.

Fluk, Louise R. 2015. “Foregrounding the Research Log in Information Literacy Instruction.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 41 (4): 488-498. doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2015.06.010.

Harness, Jill. 2015. “How to Deal with Information Overload.” Lifehack. Accessed September 24. http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/how-deal-with-information-overload.html.

Head, Alison J. 2013. “Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College.” Project Information Literacy, December 5, 2013. http://www.projectinfolit.org/uploads/2/7/5/4/27541717/pil_2013_freshmenstudy_fullreportv2.pdf.

Head, Alison J., and John Wihbey. 2014. “At Sea in a Deluge of Data.” Chronicle of Higher Education. July 7. http://chronicle.com/article/At-Sea-in-a-Deluge-of-Data/147477/.

Head, Alison J., and Michael B. Eisenberg. 2010. “Truth Be Told: How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age.” Project Information Literacy. November 1. http://www.projectinfolit.org/uploads/2/7/5/4/27541717/pil_fall2010_survey_fullreport1.pdf.

Heil, Jacob. 2014. “‘Defining’ Digital Liberal Arts.” Digital Projects and Pedagogy: A Digital Projects Initiative of The Five Colleges of Ohio (blog). March 22. http://digitalscholarship.ohio5.org/2014/03/defining-dla/.

Hemp, Paul. 2009. “Death by Information Overload.” Harvard Business Review 87 (9): 82-89.

Jarson, Jennifer. 2015. “Versus / And / Or: The Relationship Between Information Literacy and Digital Literacy.” ACRLog. October 20. http://acrlog.org/2015/10/20/versus-and-or-the-relationship-between-information-literacy-and-digital-literacy/.

Lanaria, Vincent. 2015. “WordPress Is So Big 25 Percent Of All Websites In The World Run On It.” Tech Times. November 9. http://www.techtimes.com/articles/104519/20151109/wordpress-is-so-big-25-percent-of-all-websites-in-the-world-run-on-it.htm.

Livingston, Jennifer A. 1997. “Metacognition: An Overview.” State University of New York at Buffalo, Graduate School of Education. http://gse.buffalo.edu/fas/shuell/cep564/metacog.htm.

Lopatto, David. 2010. “Undergraduate Research as a High Impact Practice.” Peer Review 12 (2). https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/undergraduate-research-high-impact-student-experience.

Lovett, Marsha C. 2008. “Teaching Metacognition.” Paper presented at the Educause Learning Initiative Annual Meeting, San Antonio, Texas, January 29. http://net.educause.edu/upload/presentations/ELI081/FS03/Metacognition-ELI.pdf.

National Association of Media Literacy Education. 2017. “Media Literacy Defined.” National Association of Media Literacy Education. Accessed April 10. http://namle.net/publications/media-literacy-definitions/.

Shenk, David. 1997. Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut. Rev. ed. New York: HarperCollins.

Shin, Laura. 2014. “10 Steps to Conquering Information Overload.” Forbes. November 14. http://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2014/11/14/10-steps-to-conquering-information-overload/.

Tattersall, Andy. 2015. “How to Cope with Information Overload.” CNN. May 13. http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/13/opinions/surviving-information-overload/.

Thomas, William G., III. 2014. “Why the Digital, Why the Digital Liberal Arts?” Lecture at Digital Liberal Arts Initiative at Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont, December 8. http://railroads.unl.edu/blog/?p=1149.

Trexler Library, Muhlenberg College. 2010. “Trexler Library Statement on Information Literacy.” Last modified February. http://trexler.muhlenberg.edu/about/policies/information-literacy.html.

Vulliamy, Ed. 1996. “If You Don’t Have the Time to Take In All the Information in this Report You Could be Suffering from a Bout of Information Fatigue Syndrome.” The Guardian, October 15.

Appendices

Note: Appendix materials appear as the original, unmodified versions submitted to students in 2014 and 2015.

Appendix A: Fall 2014 Assignment

Country Internet Censorship & Surveillance Report

This assignment puts students in the driver’s seat by asking you to collaboratively research the state of internet censorship in a specific country and report out to the larger class on your findings. This assignment moves beyond the borders of our local experiences to situate questions about censorship, surveillance, and privacy in a global context.

Recall that the primary goal of this course is to introduce students to some key conceptual tools for thinking critically about new information technologies in a global, technological society. This project also entails developing students’ capacities as digitally literate learners who can discover, organize, analyze, create, and share information in order to achieve their goals as learners and as citizens. Digitally literate students will thereby develop an intellectual framework for critical analysis and reflection on diverse information resources.*

This project extends beyond the borders of our class and relies on critical partnerships with Jen Jarson, Social Sciences Librarian at Trexler Library, and Tony Dalton, Digital Cultures Media Assistant, who are contributing their respective areas of expertise to enrich the learning activity and experience. This assignment has been collaboratively developed with Jen and aims to integrate deeply the digital literacy practices that are central to our learning goals this semester. Additionally, Tony will be visiting class to make sure you have the support necessary to develop the digital literacy skills necessary to work with WordPress and Prezi platforms.

Project Overview

With a partner, you will select in class on October 21 a country to research in class on October 21. Your research is concerned with the following basic issues related to iInternet censorship:

  • Classifications: Hhow do various reports and organizations rate or rank the country in terms of iInternet freedom? Consult multiple sources for this information, for example: Reporters without Borders’ “Enemies of the Internet” and “Countries Under Surveillance,” Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net,” OpenNet Initiative, etc.
  • Censorship: What is the nature of iInternet censorship in the country you are researching? Political, social, other? What are the laws pertaining to iInternet censorship? What sanctions are in place to punish citizens who violate country censorship laws?
  • Surveillance: What is known about the state of iInternet surveillance in the country? What particular forms of iInternet based surveillance are employed by the government to monitor online activities of citizens? What online activities are most targeted?
  • Advocacy: What local or international efforts are focused on protecting iInternet freedom in the country? Are there particular examples or cases that have been rallying points for advocacy to protect access to information and the iInternet?

Project Elements

This project is comprised of three elements, each worth 10 points (overall points = 30 points):

1. A shared Google Doc where you will collaborate to select and organize your research sources. Your overall project is only as strong as the research beneath it. An evolving document throughout your research. It may start as a running list of sources, however it should evolve into a document that meaningfully organizes and evaluates your information. We will work with an example in class. (You are creating one document per pair). Include in your doc citations to all sources, and include hyperlinks to original content. More than a compilation of citations, your document should also demonstrate how you are interpreting and evaluating the information included. For example, this might take the form of annotations, asking questions about the source, etc. (Partners receive same points.)

2. An individual Photo Journal where you will document your research process and practices. Although you are researching collaboratively, the journal is your individual representation of the process as you experience and construct it. The Photo Journal is created in WordPress and includes photos, images, drawings, screenshots, and narrative text and captions that take the viewer behind the scenes of your research process. Think of this as “the making of” your project, uncovering the questions and thinking behind your project, and documents the “what, why, where, and how” of the research you are producing. Each student will create their own WordPress blog as the platform for the Photo Journal. During the course of the project, you will document and reflect on your research in a minimum of 10 posts. (Individual points.)

First journal entry prompt (due October 23): What does your ideal research environment look like, what does it include, what does it sound like? And why? Post an image (or images) and your reflection on these first steps.

Eight journal entries are due between October 24 and November 13. Post 2-3 times per week as your research evolves over time. We’re trying to uncover and investigate your research processes and pathways and what you think about them. You may have your own thoughts about how to approach this in your posts, or you may find useful choosing from the following prompts to kickstart your reflections (there is no order to these prompts or limit to how often you can use or adapt them):

  • What do you know about the topic? What do you want to know?
  • Why does this source matter?
  • How did you get started?
  • What led you to this source(s)?
  • What questions does the source raise for you?
  • How does the source contribute to other knowledge?
  • What do you know now? What have you learned?

Last journal entry prompt (due November 20): Post a photo from your class presentation and reflect on your presentation as the culmination of your research project. What do you think was effective and why? Overall, what was the biggest challenge of this project for you?

3. The culminating element is a collaborative presentation, built in Prezi with your partner, sharing your research with your peers. Your 10-12 minute presentation captures your research in text and image and effectively and compellingly shares the story with your peers in class (on either November 11 or November 13). (Partners receive same points)

Tips on Creating a Compelling Presentation

  • More than just a 10 minute delivery of information, your presentation—delivered with Prezi—should demonstrate clear ideas about and a thorough understanding of issues of censorship and surveillance in your specific country. Depth of knowledge, accuracy, and interest of information, are all essential to a compelling presentation.
  • Your presentation should pay close attention to your audience—make eye contact, consider pacing and flow of presentation, use images and multimedia effectively to keep audience engaged.
  • Images, videos, links should be integrated to enhance your presentation but they should not comprise the entire presentation. Videos can add to a presentation, but remember that the presentation is your own original take on the issues at hand: don’t include a 5 minute video of someone else talking on your topic. Rather, use clips selectively and to serve your main points.
  • Proofread carefully to ensure there are no spelling or grammatical mistakes.
  • It’s your choice whether to provide handouts with your presentation. If you do, make sure they are integrated into your presentation and serve a clear purpose, not just information overload.
* adapted from the Trexler Library statement on information literacy with assistance from Jennifer Jarson.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/).

Appendix B: Revised (Fall 2015) Assignment

Country Internet Censorship & Surveillance Report

This assignment puts students in the driver’s seat by asking you to collaboratively research the state of internet censorship in a specific country and report out to the larger class on your findings. This assignment moves beyond the borders of our local experiences to situate questions about censorship, surveillance and privacy in a global context.

Recall that the primary goal of this course is to introduce students to some key conceptual tools for thinking critically about new information technologies in a global, technological society. This project also entails developing students’ capacities as digitally literate learners who can discover, organize, analyze, create, and share information in order to achieve their goals as learners and as citizens. This project helps you develop digital literacy through “the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.”*

This project extends beyond the borders of our class and relies on critical partnerships with Jen Jarson, Social Sciences Librarian at Trexler Library, and Tony Dalton, Digital Cultures Media Assistant, who are contributing their respective areas of expertise to enrich the learning activity and experience. This assignment has been collaboratively developed with Jen and aims to integrate deeply the digital literacy practices that are central to our learning goals this semester. Additionally, Tony will be visiting class to make sure you have the support necessary to develop the digital literacy skills necessary to work with WordPress and Prezi platforms.

Project Overview

With a partner, you will select in class on November 4 a country to research. Your research is concerned with the following basic issues related to internet censorship:

  • Classifications: how do various reports and organizations rate or rank the country in terms of internet freedom? Consult multiple sources for this information, for example: Reporters without Borders’ “Enemies of the Internet” and “Countries Under Surveillance,” Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net,” OpenNet Initiative, etc.
  • Censorship: What is the nature of internet censorship in the country you are researching? Political, social, other? What are the laws pertaining to internet censorship? What sanctions are in place to punish citizens who violate country censorship laws?
  • Surveillance: What is known about the state of internet surveillance in the country? What particular forms of internet based surveillance are employed by the government to monitor online activities of citizens? What online activities are most targeted?
  • Advocacy: What local or international efforts are focused on protecting internet freedom in the country? Are there particular examples or cases that have been rallying points for advocacy to protect access to information and the internet?

Project Elements

This project is comprised of three elements, each worth 10 points (overall points = 30 points):

1. A shared Google Doc where you will collaborate to select and organize your research sources. Your overall project is only as strong as the research beneath it. An evolving document throughout your research. It may start as a running list of sources, however it should evolve into a document that meaningfully organizes and evaluates your information. We will work with an example in class. (You are creating one document per pair). Include in your doc citations to all sources, and include hyperlinks to original content. More than a compilation of citations, your document should also demonstrate how you are interpreting and evaluating the information included. For example, this might take the form of annotations, asking questions about the source, etc. (Partners receive same points.)

2. An individual Photo Journal where you will document your research process and practices. Although you are researching collaboratively, the journal is your individual representation of the process as you experience and construct it. The Photo Journal is created in WordPress and includes photos, images, drawings, screen shots, and narrative text and captions that take the viewer behind the scenes of your research process. Think of this as “the making of” your project, uncovering the questions and thinking behind your project, and documents the “what, why, where, and how” of the research you are producing. Each student will create their own WordPress blog as the platform for the Photo Journal. During the course of the project, you will document and reflect on your research in a minimum of 10 posts. (Individual points.) Your photo journal should attempt to creatively represent your research process, in images and text, represent your research process. More than mere illustrations of the content you are working with, the photo journal should document the work itself, what you are doing and thinking to advance your project.

First journal entry prompt (due Monday, November 9):
What does your ideal research environment look like, what does it include, what does it sound like? And why? Post an image (or images) and your reflection on these first steps.

Eight journal entries are due between November 10 and December 7. Post 2-3 times per week, each week, as your research evolves over time. This project cannot be undertaken at the last minute. We’re trying to uncover and support your research processes and pathways and your awareness of those processes. The following prompts will help kickstart your reflections. There is no order to these prompts or limit to how often you can use or adapt them, but your entries should include a balanced mix of “content” and “process” reflections.

Content (commenting directly on sources) Process (commenting on your research steps, struggles, goals)
Describe the source. What led you to this source(s)?
How did you get started?
Why does this source matter? What questions does the source raise for you about your research process?
What questions does the source raise for you about the subject matter? Where does this source lead you next?
How does the source contribute to other knowledge or connect to other information? How is the environment of your research impacting your work? How are you using digital tools to promote your development as a researcher?
What voices or perspectives does the source include? exclude? Take stock of your progress to date. How does it look to you, from a bird’s eye view?

Last journal entry prompt (due December 11): Post a photo from your class presentation and reflect on your presentation as the culmination of your research project. What do you think was effective and why? Overall, what was the biggest challenge of this project for you?

3. The culminating element is a collaborative presentation, built in Prezi with your partner, sharing your research with your peers. Your 10-12 minute presentation captures your research in text and image and effectively and compellingly shares the story with your peers in class (on either December 7 or December 9). (Partners receive same points)

Tips on Creating a Compelling Presentation

  • More than just a 10 minute delivery of information, your presentation—delivered with Prezi—should demonstrate clear ideas about and a thorough understanding of issues of censorship and surveillance in your specific country. Depth of knowledge, accuracy, and interest of information, are all essential to a compelling presentation.
  • Your presentation should pay close attention to your audience—make eye contact, consider pacing and flow of presentation, use images and multimedia effectively to keep audience engaged.
  • Images, videos, links should be integrated to enhance your presentation but they should not comprise the entire presentation. Videos can add to a presentation, but remember that the presentation is your own original take on the issues at hand: don’t include a 5 minute video of someone else talking on your topic. Rather, use clips selectively and to serve your main points.
  • Proofread carefully to ensure there are no spelling or grammatical mistakes.
  • It’s your choice whether to provide handouts with your presentation. If you do, make sure they are integrated into your presentation and serve a clear purpose, not just information overload.

Evaluation Rubrics
See Appendix C for rubrics.

* Association of College and Research Libraries, Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/).

Appendix C: Revised (Fall 2015) Assignment Rubrics

Internet Censorship Project: Google Docs Rubric (Team)

A. Accesses needed information
Accesses a relevant and diverse pool of information sources.

___ Exceeds expectations ___ Meets expectations ___ Does not meet expectations

B. Interprets and evaluates information and its sources critically
Annotations demonstrate interpretation and evaluation of selected sources using multiple criteria (such as relevance to the research question, currency, and authority).

___ Exceeds expectations ___ Meets expectations ___ Does not meet expectations

C. Organizes information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose
Communicates, organizes, and synthesizes information from sources. Intended purpose is achieved.

___ Exceeds expectations ___ Meets expectations ___ Does not meet expectations

D. Cites information appropriately and effectively
As appropriate: uses citations and references; paraphrases, summarizes, and/or quotes information; uses information in ways true to the original context; distinguishes between common knowledge and ideas requiring attribution. Document is fully hyperlinked.

___ Exceeds expectations ___ Meets expectations ___ Does not meet expectations

 

Internet Censorship Project: Photo Journal Rubric (Individual)

A. Creates/selects representative images
Effectively documents in images research processes and paths.

___ Exceeds expectations ___ Meets expectations ___ Does not meet expectations

B. Uncovers and reflects on research
Provides evidence of thoughtful reflection about research processes and paths.

___ Exceeds expectations ___ Meets expectations ___ Does not meet expectations

C. Posts at regular intervals (2-3 times per week)
Demonstrates sustained engagement in research process throughout project.

___ Exceeds expectations ___ Meets expectations ___ Does not meet expectations

 

Internet Censorship Project: Presentation and Prezi Rubric (Team)

A. Determines the extent of information need
Defines scope of the research and determines key concepts.

___ Exceeds expectations ___ Meets expectations ___ Does not meet expectations

B. Accesses needed information
Accesses a relevant and diverse pool of information sources.

___ Exceeds expectations ___ Meets expectations ___ Does not meet expectations

C. Evaluates information and its sources critically
Demonstrates critical evaluation of information using multiple criteria (such as relevance to the research, currency, authority, etc.).

___ Exceeds expectations ___ Meets expectations ___ Does not meet expectations

D. Uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose
Communicates, organizes, and synthesizes information from text and image sources effectively. Intended purpose is achieved.

___ Exceeds expectations ___ Meets expectations ___ Does not meet expectations

E. Cites information appropriately and effectively
As appropriate: uses citations and references; paraphrases, summarizes, and/or quotes information; uses information in ways true to the original context; distinguishes between common knowledge and ideas requiring attribution.

___ Exceeds expectations ___ Meets expectations ___ Does not meet expectations

F. Effectively delivers presentation
Delivery is paced appropriately for a 10-12 minute presentation and is well-practiced. Speaks clearly. Presenters wWork in complement to each other, such that presentation is delivered collaboratively. Attentive to the audience and uses a purposeful structure to organize presentation. Tells story in a compelling way.

___ Exceeds expectations ___ Meets expectations ___ Does not meet expectations

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/).

About the Authors

Lora Taub-Pervizpour is Professor of Media and Communication and the Associate Dean for Digital Learning at Muhlenberg College. She teaches courses on documentary research, new media literacies, new information technologies, and youth media. As associate dean, her focus is on developing initiatives in digital learning that value and amplify student voice and empower faculty and students to build a meaningful digital presence.

Jennifer Jarson is the Information Literacy and Assessment Librarian at Muhlenberg College. She is an ardent advocate for the role of libraries and librarians in advancing teaching and learning excellence. Her research interests include information literacy pedagogy and student learning assessment, as well as issues regarding communication, collaboration, and leadership.

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