When Teaching Becomes an Interaction Design Task: Networking the classroom with collaborative blogs

Mushon Zer-Aviv

 

Pedagogical Practice

My creative, professional and intellectual practices all revolve around new media and information technologies. In the past decade, I have used digital media as both a subject of and a means for learning.

I have been teaching Web/Interaction Design classes in institutions such as Shenkar (Tel Aviv), Parsons (New York City) and Bezalel (Jerusalem) as well as Digital Media theory and research classes in Media Culture and Communication at New York University.

The students I teach use collaborative blogs, social bookmarking, mailing lists, version control systems (for code), Wikis, slide sharing, video sharing, podcasts, graphics software, mapping tools, and sometimes they are even required to use pencil and paper. This multiplicity of tools has a contradictory effect. On one hand, students are continually challenged by technology. On the other hand, they are never constrained to a single tool. Learning does not have a “killer app,” that one necessary tool everyone just has to use. Moreover, those attempting to develop such “killer apps” end up often killing learning itself.

My experience with the tools I choose for my own practice guides my choice of tools for my students. I see no point in using tools and methodologies in class that would be useless outside class. This is equivalent to saying that learning is something that happens in class but not outside it. For example, for my design students I set up a free SVN code repository tool for collaboration and file version control. At the end of the semester, the repository would not be maintained any longer and the whole semester’s coursework would become the equivalent of “abandonware,” deserted by its authors and users. Recently, I got students to explore Github,[1] where they manage their own code repositories throughout the semester and beyond it.

The great paradox of teaching students to use tools is the certainty that these tools will become obsolete, some even by the end of the semester. That is why we should teach methodology, not technology. We should value the “why” over the “how” because the latter will change much faster than the former. This is more easily said than done. Students demand to learn skills they can evaluate; “Can you use Photoshop?” is more easily answered than “Can you manipulate an image?”

Moreover, the market (with which we educators maintain a love/hate relationship) reinforces similar demands. To keep the market influences away from the classroom, many educators value open-source over proprietary software. Being an open-source software enthusiast who devotes a substantial part of his practice to this collaborative method, I definitely share this sentiment. Yet, I wonder whether we are really serving students well by replacing the “Can you use Photoshop?”[2] question with “Can you use Gimp?”[3] Even though the choice of open-source software is more politically correct, it only partly answers only one of the parameters we should evaluate, the political one. There are many other parameters to evaluate and we should equip our students to think critically about these decisions, evaluate tools and optionally extend them through hacks, mash-ups, code and brute force.

I believe we should try to teach our students to teach themselves. This, too, is more easily said than done. Acquiring self-education skills is demanding and some students get it more easily than others. When we throw students into the water, those who can swim will swim far, but those who would drown end up discouraged and frustrated. It might have been easier to learn and excel with one tool with fixed rules and a stable environment, but that is not the world we live in anymore. Fine tuning a balanced strategy for teaching is not a simple task. Though it seems clear that we need to challenge our students, it is easy to celebrate the successes of some and blame the failures of others on lack of hard work. Like myself, many educators are also early adopters of digital tools and are more comfortable with this methodology. Are we promoting a learning environment that benefits those like us and cripples others? I have to admit I am still grappling with this question and would appreciate a wider debate of this subject.

Another caveat of the networked classroom is networking technology at large: information overload and attention scarcity. We encourage students to participate, create and discuss. It seems that our creative capabilities have been widely extended through digital media and online distribution, while our receptive skills have not evolved as much. For better or worse, the classic master-apprentice relationship fostered a high level of dependency and trust. We should cherish the liberty, pluralism and healthy skepticism that comes when this centralized model is challenged. At the same time, decentralized and distributed models of information creation and consumption result in low attention span, murky evaluation standards and diminishing levels of trust. These qualities are challenging for us as educators and learners and they become even more challenging when we are encouraged to further disembody the classroom in the form of Web-based education.

This networked learning experience requires establishing trust through a lively, unplugged, face-to-face classroom experience. I try to use my interaction designer skills to design a structured online experience to funnel the limited attention spans of both myself and my students. But I have not found a way to establish the required level of trust in the form of an online-only experience. Finally, these are urgent times for academia. The crisis of authority experienced across all information economies is likely to hit academic institutions next. For the time being, society still entrusts us with the classic roles of gate-keeping, accreditation and the standardization of intellectual merit. For better and worse, the network will change both that trust and these roles. We should not just stand by as this happens.


Networking The Classroom With Collaborative Blogs – The Student’s Experience

Teaching with Collaborative Blogs: A Brief History

 

In “the early days,” tech-savvy individual authors “hand coded” weblogs as static HTML websites. These were later developed by ambitious, skilled coders into custom Content Management Systems (CMS). As the reverse-chronological blog format evolved, more systems such as Blogger (1999), Movable Type (2001) and WordPress (2003) were adopted.[4] This democratization of the blogging medium nourished different use patterns by authors of different technical skills.

While the blog format was mainly celebrated as a revolutionary, individuated printing press, some still choose to use it collaboratively. The raison d’etre and hence the publishing dynamics for these collaborative blogs varies. Some of them started when individual bloggers gained popularity and chose to transform their blog into a wider online publication (e.g., Boing Boing, Lifehacker, TechCrunch).[5] Others gather a group of authors to focus on a topic (e.g., RedState, Huffington Post).[6]

The most popular blogs in the world today are collaborative blogs. Some of them employ a whole editorial staff with full-time employees, yet they still choose to maintain the “blog” categorization, which is generally considered more grassroots and “authentic.” On the other end, in many small-circulation collaborative blogs, the authors serve as each other’s audiences. The writing styles of these blogs are much more casual and the posts are often less content-driven and more about conversation.

The collaborative blog format is distinguishable from networks of individual blogs and from social networking sites as it values the unified, multi-voiced feed over the individuated, author-based filter. However, as traditional online magazines adopt some key aspects from blogs, such as reverse chronological order, reader comments and syndication, and as collaborative blogs further customize their delivery of content, the lines between the collaborative blog and the online magazine blur.

The rise of open-source blogging systems has nourished a lot of experimentation in the blogging field and some innovative collaborative blogging models. One example is P2, a collaborative blogging theme for WordPress that blurs the lines between posts, comments and updates. The theme inspired by Twitter and microblogging takes advantage of more recent interaction design patterns like inline editing, front-end and mobile posting and rapid “push” updates to foster a more casual conversational interaction.

The collaborative blog format is an experiment in online group dynamics. Such experiments take place in many fields, including academia. While the blog format has been widely adopted by individual academics world-wide, many institutions have started adopting collaborative blogs that amplify, extend, and might one day even replace the role of their academic journal. These online experiments in new forms for academic publishing challenge the cultures of peer review, public vs. private debates, intellectual property, academic freedom and accreditation.

Some of these collaborative blogs have been used to extend the classroom experience too. Educators who incorporate collaborative blogs into their curriculum invite their students to create some of the content that will lead the class through the semester. These contributions can be anything from a single guest post to a full integration of blogging and commenting into class dynamics with multiple postings from students every day through the week. We already see some educators developing custom plug-ins to support this custom use (like Grader, Courseware and others).

What I Learned

 

I have been teaching with blogs since 2003. Initially, I used a Movable Type blog as an online format for paperless, weekly design assignments and an easy way to answer and archive the students’ Q & A. Quickly I realized that it would not be too hard to get the students to post everything on the blog and use it as the focal point of the class activity. The collaborative blog proved successful, streamlining course dynamics where we had previously been disrupted by file transfers and incompatibility issues.

A few years later, I became a student once more and re-encountered the educational use of blogs as a graduate student. There is no polite way of saying this: I simply hated it. The student blog was a nuisance. It was hard enough to follow the class, and writing a blog post for it was just a pain in the neck. No one would ever look at the posts in class or ever comment on anything there. Students would either write long and exhausting posts or very short ones just to meet the requirement. The professors wanted us to document and to use the media, but we did it only because they said so, not because we acknowledged the value of the assignment.

The approach my graduate school took was to create a blog network. Each student would run their own blog and post their research and assignments individually. The class blog, functioning as a hub, would then aggregate the student posts through RSS feeds and, on top of that, add some posts and instructions from the professor. Politically, I definitely valued this networked model. It gave the students much more freedom to manage their blogs on their own terms and to control their own data. Practically, though, it failed.

As soon as I graduated, I started teaching both design and media theory classes, both with collaborative blogs. The shortcomings of blogs, which I experienced as a student, clarified what worked and what did not in the collaborative blog format. The first thing I did was centralize everything under a single, collaborative WordPress blog. Students got limited authoring permissions, allowing them to publish posts, upload files, comments and so on. They could do everything they needed to do, nothing more, nothing less.

The class blog became at least as important as the classroom; it is the core of everything we do and it is constantly with us, projected on the screen. Everything is posted to the class blog; even when a student gets feedback in class, they are required to then post it in bullet points as a comment to their post. The blog extends the course beyond the time and space constraints of the classroom as students publish and comment every day, around the clock.

If students do not read the assigned texts, class discussions may result in long embarrassing silences. To counter that I—along with most educators in the field—designate assigned materials as either “required” or “recommended,” where the former is often lighter reading or an audio or video file, and the latter is more involved. One student is assigned to lead the class by reading and summarizing all the material in a post and publishing it 48 hours before class. The rest of the students are required to read and comment on that post. This methodology requires that they engage in a written debate and develop critical perspectives about the reading. The students challenge arguments made on other comments and on the summary post. By class time, the discussion has already begun, and the students are eager to reiterate and further develop their arguments.

We cannot discuss every student’s work in class, so I built game mechanics to address that. Most of the debate happens as comments on the blog. In class, we highlight some of these. A student is asked to introduce a post they commented on and to raise their takes on that post. The student who wrote the post gets to hear about their research as understood by their peers and expand the discussion in class. Then that student is required to discuss another student’s post and the chain continues. We rarely cover half of the students’ posts, but the networked dynamic keeps everyone on their toes and the online discussion compensates for what we do not achieve face-to-face.

Class dynamics are an interaction design challenge, and my classes function as close-knit social networks, both online and offline. The blog interface encourages students to position their avatars (not necessarily their faces) next to their posts and comment to further emphasize identity and community. I control the interface, but I encourage the students to propose ways of modifying, challenging and even subverting the interface through any of the 11,500 (as of October 2010) plug-ins on WordPress. One student persuaded me to add a live chat to the blog sidebar. This completely undermined my centralized control of the discussion as the discussion happened on the screen, peer-to-peer, literally behind my back. This student later co-founded the Diaspora project.[7]

The posts are published for the world to see, and, as is common in the blogosphere, the posts’ subjects often respond in the comments, extending or even contesting the student’s post. One student put some in Washington on the defense when her post labeled parts of the Obama administration’s “Open Data” initiative as “transparency-washing” (Jaschik 2010).

The WordPress platform is constantly on the cutting edge of web publishing. It allows for vast customization and integration. We were able to pull in images, audio (student podcasts), video, slide shows, maps, etc.: whatever technology the student might need.

Finally, students were asked to collaboratively contribute the knowledge they acquired in class to Wikipedia (thereby reversing the controversial use of Wikipedia as reference) (Jaschik 2007).

At the end of the semester, I have a lot of data to evaluate the volume, persistence and quality of each student’s contribution. Grades are very foreign to the dynamics of the class, as they represent but a cold, mathematical measurement of what has become a much more engaged learning experience. After the last class I export the content of the blog and mail it to the students. It is their data; they deserve to keep it. The blog is maintained as an archive, and students can always log-in, post again, change their previous posts, or change their display names. Every now and then, a random comment is added; when the semester ends, the class persists.

Sample Assignment: A Week Without Google

In trying to equip our students with self-sufficient problem solving skills, we might suggest: “Google is your friend.” But is Google really their friend?

Rather than speculate whether this data-omnivorous corporation is a friend, foe, sinister evil entity, or benevolent dictator, or whether it embodies any other humanizing characteristics, we can try to measure to what degree we are actually dependent on it. Towards the end of the third class in my “Topics in Digital Media” course at New York University, I inform the students of the terrible news:

In the coming week, starting from the end of this class, we will attempt to make it through a whole week without using any Google service. Not Google Search, not Gmail, not Google Talk, not Google Docs, not Google Maps, not Google Earth, not Google News, not Google Groups, not YouTube, not Blogger, not Picasa, not Google Calendar, not Google Checkout, not iGoogle, not Google Translate, not Google Voice, not Google Latitude, not Google Chrome, not Google Wave, not Google SideWiki. If you have an Android phone, you are not allowed to use Google services with it, talk and text only … you get the point. (For a partial list of what you are not allowed to use, go here[8] . . . while you still can.)

We set rules for what we will need to do when we are ambushed by an embedded YouTube video or a Google Map; we share tips and tricks for ways of protecting ourselves; and we promise to comment on the blog every time we trip up and to write a post of defeat if and when we give up.

The results have been fascinating for all of the five times I ran this experiment (Spring-08, Fall-08, Spring-09, Fall-09, Spring-10). After the initial frustration, students felt challenged enough to make it through the week:

“i made it! so far at least with 24 hours to go! it was super tempting to log into my google maps especially when i was wandering around the most confusing neighborhood in the world, the west village! but i resisted!”

NateGsays

“Everyone should check out the Firefox Add-on LeechBlock, which I posted to our del.icio.us last night.

Steps:

  1. Install
  2. Restart Firefox
  3. Go to Tools -> LeechBlock -> Options
  4. Enter google.com, gmail.com, blogger.com, youtube.com, and whatever else (no commas, separated into lines) into the first field
  5. Click “All Day” on the right, about halfway down
  6. Click “Every Day,” a little bit further down
  7. Press “OK””

Harold Li

 

“My boss literally passed by and asked why I wasn’t using Google to do the daily search. The boss looked angry so I just went back to Google.”

Karina

The comments served as a forum to share experiences, successes and failures,  functioning as a 24/7 support group. The students were surprised to discover how automatic their subconscious browsing habits had become. Bounding these habits allowed them to critically examine their single-vendor dependency and possible alternatives to it.

Joining my students in this assignment every semester, I discovered two things. First, and even though I had expected the opposite, every semester it actually became easier for me to handle my Google fast, probably due to my increasing suspicion of this dependency. Second, social ties in class made a giant leap right after this unique, awkward, shared no-Google-experience, proving true the saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Works Cited

Jaschik, Scott. “A Stand Against Wikipedia.” Inside Higher Ed. 08 March 2010. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://cultureandcommunication.org/tdm/s10/03/08/wheres-the-transparency-in-the-white-house-visitor-logs/>.

Jaschik, Scott. “A Stand Against Wikipedia.” Inside Higher Ed. 26 January 2007. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/01/26/Wiki/>.

Harold Li. “Comment on A Week Without Google.New Media Research Studio Research, Spring 2008. 6 February 2008. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://www.mushon.com/spr08/nmrs/02/04/a-week-without-google/#comment-73>.

Karina. “Comment on A Week Without Google.New Media Research Studio Research, Spring 2008. 6 February 2008. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://www.mushon.com/spr08/nmrs/02/04/a-week-without-google/#comment-72>.

NateGsays. “Comment on A Week Without GoogleNew Media Research Studio Research, Spring 2009. 9 February 2009. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://www.mushon.com/spr09/nmrs/02/03/a-week-without-google/#comment-247>.

Zer-Aviv, Mushon. “A Week Without Google.” New Media Research Studio, Spring 2008. 4 February 2008. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://www.mushon.com/spr08/nmrs/02/04/a-week-without-google/>.

Zer-Aviv, Mushon. “A Week Without Google.” New Media Research Studio, Fall 2008. 16 September 2008. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://www.mushon.com/fall08/nmrs/09/16/a-week-without-google/>.

Zer-Aviv, Mushon. “A Week Without Google.” New Media Research Studio, Spring 2009. 3 February 2009. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://www.mushon.com/spr09/nmrs/02/03/a-week-without-google/>.

Zer-Aviv, Mushon. “A Week Without Google.” Topics in Digital Media, Fall 2009. 3 February 2009. Web. 27 December 2010.

<http://cultureandcommunication.org/f09/tdm/admin/a-week-without-google/>.

Zer-Aviv, Mushon. “A Week Without Google.” Topics in Digital Media, Fall 2009. 3 February 2009. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://cultureandcommunication.org/tdm/s10/01/26/a-week-without-google/>.


[1] See <http://github.com/>.

[2] See <http://photoshop.com/>.

[3] See (the GNU Image Manipulation Program) <http://www.gimp.org/>.

[4] See <http://movabletype.org/>; <http://wordpress.org/>.

[5] See <http://www.boingboing.net>; <http://lifehacker.com/>; <http://techcrunch.com/>.

[6] See <http://www.redstate.com/>; <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/>.

[7] See <https://joindiaspora.com/>.

[8] See Google Dashboard <https://www.google.com/dashboard/>.

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