Twenty Fourteen – WordPress, that is

January 14th, 2014 by michaeljcripps

I’ve launched my Spring 2014 courses with a new WordPress theme. It’s been a long time coming. While I started my install of a Network WordPress running courses in the Twenty Ten theme, I have resisted the move to X-Eleven, X-Twelve, X-Thirteen.  Laziness?

I don’t know, really.  It can’t quite be laziness. Customizing sites with a theme requires production of a child theme, which IS some work if one wants a color palette that works off a main header graphic.  WordPress installs offer no easy color picker WYSIWYG CSS styling. But perhaps it was inertia.  Twenty Ten was something I could modify (lightly) without too much effort.

Anyway, after four years it seemed time to move on.

The big disappointment for me has been the pseudo-footer widget feature.  I “thought” I’d actually get to write some custom text into the real footer of the WordPress theme, something I had to hard code into the footer.php file with Twenty Ten.  But the “footer” widget isn’t really putting content into the footer.  It makes a bogus footer above the real footer.  Think of it as “ankle socks” for the theme.

Not sure how long I’ll hang with Twenty Fourteen.

Digital Thoreau at Walden

October 28th, 2013 by michaeljcripps

My digital humanities course took a trip to Walden Pond in early October to soak up the colors, scents, and textures of Walden while we worked on a TEI encoding project associated with the Digital Thoreau initiative at SUNY Geneseo.

Thoreau texting at Walden.

Thoreau texting at Walden.

Our guided tour began at the statue of Thoreau, where we immediately noticed the opportunity to invite Henry David to join us in our digital initiative by placing a smartphone in his hand. With skies threatening rain – and some rain during the walking tour of the original Thoreau house site – we wandered the pond, noting in particular the number of seemingly competitive swimmers stroking in the water.  Also striking was the odd color of the water itself.

It is difficult to bring together the close coding work of TEI diplomatic transcription and the “natural” experience of Walden itself. But I think the connection comes through the manuscript leaves. While they point in a decidedly digital direction when works to encode them for the web, the texture of Thoreau’s handwriting and the assorted scratches signaling revisions point back to the site that inspired the text itself.

From UNE, this was a comfortable day trip that was only slightly rushed because of our need to be “home” by 5.  We clearly shortchanged the historic town of Concord, but perhaps that omission will inspire some to return to visit other historically significant sites in that area.

AAEEBL ePortfolio Conference – Boston 2013

July 31st, 2013 by michaeljcripps

Two undergraduate English majors (Lauren Levesque and James Muller), Cathrine Frank, and I joined Michael Smith at York College/CUNY on a panel at the 2013 AAEEBL ePortfolio conference in Boston. Our panel, “Who Owns the ePortfolio,” explored some of the tensions in ePortfolios when an institution is interested in assessment but wants students to embrace the value of ePortfolio for their development and digital identity.

Our English majors offered brief tours of the ways they are putting their ePortfolios to use. And with Michael’s support, we streamed the presentation to the Web at CUNY.is/LIVE, a phenomenal free streaming service available at the CUNY Academic Commons. And we recorded the broadcast do document our students’ presentations.

Bass and Eynon

Following our panel, I attended the keynote jointly delivered by Randy Bass (Georgetown University) and Bret Eynon (LaGuardia Community College/CUNY). Their central questions as they look to the future of higher education: How do we create an integrated learning experience for students across an increasingly disintegrated set of structures and contexts? How do we assess learning holistically? How do we demonstrate educational distinctiveness?

Bass and Eynon are interested in the contributions ePortfolio might make to the future. After introducing their FIPSE-supported project entitled “Catalyst for Learning,” they articulated a set of practices that seem to yield effective ePortfolio initiatives.

  • They function at campus level, with departments, and with institutional stakeholders. Successful projects work with all groups.
  • Pedagogy, professional development, assessment, technology, and scale must come together if ePortfolio is to make a difference.
  • Inquiry learning, reflection, integration work iteratively in successful initiatives.

Their research (based on 24 campuses) shows that ePortfolio initiatives:

  • Advance learning success
  • Make learning visible
  • Catalyze institutional change

If the data support these conclusions – and they presented some of this data – they’re working in a space that meets a real need for the ePortfolio community.  Moving beyond testimony, individual spotlights, and even department-level assessment, the “Catalyst for Learning” project seems to speak to some of today’s hot-button institutional outcomes. Some of their data point to associations between ePortfolio implementation and retention, GPA, and even graduation rates.

But what might ePortfolio have to do with the challenges of higher education? What does this future look like?

  • MOOCs today look like a return to an instructor mode, an earlier teaching mode, but this will likely change
  • Endless pursuit of productivity, scale, efficiency, with quality often dropping out of the conversation
  • High failure rates in online learning environments may change,  but this problem also points to opportunities

The discourse that emerges from these higher ed discussions is focused on data, scale, and personalizing learning through knowledge of individual learners’ behaviors.

As Bass and Eynon see it, three core principles seem to guide those involved in much of the higher education discussion.

  1. Technology is only way to break the access, cost, quality conundrum
  2. Learning processes can be understood via data analysis
  3. Improving human learning depends on improvement in machine learning.

The landscape in this future:

  • Taking Instructivism to Scale
  • Learning Paradigm on Analytics
  • Productivity Agenda

As Bass describes, MOOCs focus on the fact that a large part of education is generic/interchangable.  On the other side of a continuum is the local and identity-specific component of education.  In between the generic and the local/experiential, Bass argues we find the high-impact integrative curriculum. The challenge is that higher education seems not to recognize these three zones, making it difficult for institutions to make this change.

For Bass and Eynon, ePortfolio may be an “agent of an integrated learning culture through evidence of impact.” If this it to happen, Bass thinks we need Integrative Learning Analytics.  We need “integrative learning” analytics, ways of evaluating integrative learning. But we also need integrative “learning analytics,” a bringing together of a range of learning analytics.

Their talk was a fascinating argument for the potential centrality of ePortfolio to an institution’s effort to meet the challenges of higher education: a bridge between instruction and learning, between productivity and quality, between granular learning/metrics and integrative learning/outcomes.

This is a heavy burden for ePortfolios. While I am an advocate for ePortfolios, I’m not yet convinced they can meet this challenge. Certainly, the larger forces of education commodification, standardized assessment, and the cost containment pressures on colleges and universities are not particularly conducive to some of the more exciting elements of ePortfolios.

Big “Fail” for the Hynes Convention Center Exhibit Hall

The conference venue gets a big “fail” on its family-unfriendly accommodations in the exhibit hall.  A conference attendee, presenter, and friend of mine with a toddler in a stroller was denied access to the lunch because it was held in the Exhibit Hall.  The hall, it turns out, would not permit individuals under 18. Insurance liability, according to security.

And they placed lunch at the back of this “childfree zone” in the Hynes Center, so my friend couldn’t actually get to the food or network with other attendees in a structured luncheon program that involved sitting at the tables focused on specific aspects of ePortfolio and technology.

Apparently, shameless promotion of products by vendors hawking tech wares is allowed, encouraged, and monetized by the Center. Every accommodation was made to ensure vendor access to adequate power, bandwidth, and presentation space. But a conference presenter with a paid registration (and a child in a stroller) cannot get in.  And a look at the swag given away by the vendors would suggest that the Exhibit Hall is actually a confectionery and toy shop: lots of hard candy, and even Peeps; buttons with fun pictures on them; wind-up dancing robots; funny little squeezable figurines with big hair; and more.

WTF.  It’s 2013. It’s the United States. And it’s Boston.  We’re not in the 1950s or in some backwater where people think women should be bound to the home. And it’s not the nineteenth century in which children should be seen and not heard. Is this an emerging trend? In the twenty-first century children should be neither seen nor heard?

One has to imagine the money saved by not buying the liability for children for three days ($50? $250?).  Juxtapose that economic reality with the cost of the electrical drops to support something like 100 technology vendors, including the placement of a leather-appointed, limo-like surveillance van right in the hall.

The overall conference venue was very welcoming, but the Exhibit Hall earns a big fail.

Omeka or WordPress. Omeka or…

July 23rd, 2013 by michaeljcripps

I’m teaching an advanced humanities seminar called “Doing Humanities Digitally” this coming term. New course, new materials, and an open field in which to run. I’ve been working on some connections to pull in some TEI coding, some archival interactions, and even some collaborations with the natural sciences (think HASTAC). I have mostly settled on some work with the Digital Thoreau project, am toying with a foray into the Transcribe Bentham project, critical reviews of extant DH projects, a student-developed remediation of a prior humanities project (course paper), AND a digital exhibit project.

Omeka logo

I’ve been familiar with Omeka (developed by the CHNM at George Mason University) for a couple years now, and I’ve browsed through some of what the tool offers. I have always wondered whether it is really better/more powerful/more suitable/etc. than something like WordPress, a CMS/blog tool I use regularly and that is pretty easy to manipulate for a range of purposes.  This DH course, particularly the idea for a project that brings environmental science research together with some archival work, forced my hand and left me no choice but to get serious about evaluating Omeka for our purposes.

  1. First idea: Grab a free Omeka.net account and try out the tool. This couldn’t work because the free account doesn’t include the Geolocation plugin that enables users to locate items on a Google Map.  (There are some workarounds, I now know, but that’s a different story.)
  2. Second idea: Grab the open source Omeka CMS and install a test version within my domain. Complete control, full front and back end control. Not wanting to spend money on a sandbox arrangement, I went with this second idea.

A Preliminary Review/Evaluation

Installation was not as easy as I had hoped. This isn’t Omeka’s fault, really. It had more to do with some php settings that I didn’t know how to tweak/adjust. But I would estimate it took about 12 hours over several days to actually get the CMS to behave in a way that enabled me to test the tool. WordPress, in contrast, is included in many webhost packages, making it a truly one-click installation.  (The WordPress Network install is another matter.)

FWIW, here are the settings I needed to tweak on a Lunarpages-hosted installation:

  • php.ini – needed to comment out some “disable_functions” code in the file located in my public_html folder to get ImageMagick and Omeka communicating.
  • Path to ImageMagick isn’t so easy to locate on Lunarpages, but it’s here: /usr/local/bin/
  • I’m still sorting through a fileinfo module “warning” that Omeka spits out at the first install screen, but the CMS itself seems to work even with that problem/warning.
The theme options are still pretty limited (Omeka is in 2.0.x right now), but that’s a CSS issue that shouldn’t stop one from using the tool. Any self-respecting library or museum using Omeka for real exhibit purposes would almost certainly get some custom styling on the site.  I haven’t looked at the CSS yet, but I imagine it’s pretty easy to adjust.  It’s probably comparable to WordPress in that regard.
Dublin Core baked into Omeka makes it scream “legit” DH tool. This feature alone puts it ahead of WordPress when considering a course whose goals include some engagement with DH standards for describing archival materials. In fact, the entire process of adding materials to Omeka foregrounds good description practice. It isn’t sexy, but the GUI effectively tells users to get their Dublin Core metadata in first.  This isn’t required, but the order of presentation signals its importance.
I’m still very much toying with Omeka, but I think the ability to present multiple exhibits lends itself to a range of points of emphasis. WordPress could easily accomplish this using subpages in a nav structure, of course.  But the exhibits model in Omeka also offers users ready-made templates for presenting pages within an exhibit.  One could build a photo gallery, a mix of images and text, a text-only page.
Geolocation is available in Omeka. This is less exciting than it seems at first, really, since Omeka doesn’t import the geolocation metadata from images on upload, and it can’t handle KML/KMZ imports of GIS data to display in a map.  But it is still pretty nice. I even managed to embed a custom Google Map into an exhibit page, effectively enabling one to pull GIS data loaded into a Google Map into an Omeka exhibit. Of course, it’s all running on embedded Google Maps, and WordPress handles that just fine.
I’m going to run with Omeka for the project, not because it’s better than WordPress (it isn’t – yet). I’m going to use Omeka so my students have the EXPERIENCE of using a hot new DH tool that is legitimate and still under active growth and development. I’m also going to use it so that I can help my colleagues consider including digital archival and exhibit projects in their own humanities courses. WordPress would be much, much easier for me.  But why do the easy thing?

Acknowledgements

I have to thank my colleague Pam Morgan for a series of conversations that yielded the idea that would draw together some of the data she (along with her colleagues and students) has collected on the Saco River estuary, research on the uses of the Saco River, and historical photographs and documents at the McArthur Library in Biddeford, Maine. I must also thank Renee DesRoberts, the archivist at the library, for her willingness to really open up their collection of glass plate negatives for our project. I’m really looking forward to this project!

I also want to thank the tech support at Lunarpages and patrickmj from the Omeka Dev Team for offering me some help on the features and limits of the Geolocation plugin.

John Carlos, Closed Fists, CCCC

March 14th, 2013 by michaeljcripps

John Carlos and Tommie Smith

“The Silent Protest: Open Hands, Closed Fists, and Composition’s Political Turn”

Why run in Mexico and crawl at home?

In 1968, John Carlos and Tommie Smith each raised a gloved, clenched fist during the Olympic medals ceremony as the national anthem played. Gold and silver medalists, the two African-American runners were frustrated by prejudice and racism at home at the same time they were “representing” the US in the Olympics.

John Carlos spoke at the 2013 CCCC. He shared his memories of black-white relations, and his interactions growing up in New York. From neighborhoods full of bars and liquor stores to mistreatment by others. He recounted the time he went to see Malcolm X speak and approached him after his speech. Malcolm X invited John Carlos to follow him around, if he could keep up. And he credits his parents and relatively stable home for much of his character. As he put it, his parents taught him to be “honest and faithful.”

His conundrum: To whom should he be honest and faithful? Man or God? A major theme in his talk was the way that man’s law is sometimes (often?) in opposition to God’s law. Which law does one follow? This is a fascinating perspective on the challenge of following the laws one perceives as unjust. It provides a person with a critical perspective on the laws of the state. At the same time, though, it potentially leads down the path to anarchy.

“When I got on the plane to go from Harlem to Texas, I was John Carlos. The minute I got off the plane my name changed to boy.” As he put it, people in Texas had never seen someone with his talent, and they tried to tell him what he could do. This tension brought out the frustration in a man unaccustomed to the kind of full-bore segregation he experienced in Texas and culminated in the events in Mexico City.

Carlos’ talk was fascinating precisely because he talked about how he used the celebrity of his athleticism as a “springboard” to advance the cause of social justice and was prepared to suffer the negative reaction to his gesture. I had not realized it, but Carlos explained that he and Tommie Smith thought a great deal about their actions before they did it. They thought through the possible repercussions, considered how to protest, and made a decision about the timing. His “platform” for a statement came from his success as a gold medal runner. The question was whether to use that platform to make a statement or to use it celebrate his athletic achievement.

Would Carlos become just an example that shows that America is a land of opportunity? Or would he become a conduit for channeling African-Americans’ frustration with prejudice, racism, and inequality in the US?

When Tech Woes Rain Down

February 10th, 2013 by michaeljcripps

The last week has been a tech nightmare.

My university switched its email/calendar provider in the middle of the semester and in the middle of the week. On Tuesday night, IT moved students, administrators, and faculty from Google Apps for Education to Microsoft Office 365. But the move to MS has been limited to email/calendar – for now. The rest of the band-aid comes off at some unspecified future date. After spending nearly a year communicating to the community that we’re moving to Google Apps for Education (from a woefully outdated and undersupported local solution that many still used), the leadership changed course almost instantly.

Impact on me: At least 10 hours of lost productivity as I worked to re-cobble together a unified solution to bring my mail and calendaring together into my mail and calendar clients in a way that enables me to share my availability with my wife. Did I mention this happened in the middle of the week and in the middle of the term!

More important than the email/calendar insanity is the impact of the switch on my department’s student learning and assessment plans. After embracing Google Apps (because we’re a Google Apps university) and planning to launch a major ePortfolio initiative in Google Sites, the whiplash-quick pivot from Google left me holding a bag of, well, nothing. With a colleague requiring ePortfolio in our pilot course, I could NOT in good conscience move forward with a platform I knew would be deprecated once the MS migration was complete. (Goodbye Google Sites template for student ePortfolios!) Result: Two crazy days trying to decide on another solution.

Enter WordPress! After pricing a non-university hosting solution, I was able to work out an arrangement with the university to host student ePortfolios in a WordPress Network installation on site.  This is, frankly, the best solution for us because it keeps the project in a .edu domain, it is a platform with which I’m familiar, and it has real portability for students after they graduate. And WordPress is much more than a blog tool these days. We’re implementing a full-on CMS.  The whole thing would be ideal, but our rollout timeline is, unfortunately, quite compressed since we have ePortfolio running in a class right now!

As if this weren’t enough for a week, today I received a “vulnerable script” warning from my own web host. After some digging, it turns out that my archived WordPress-based course websites now need to be upgraded to close some security loopholes in 2.x versions of WordPress.  This looming upgrade headache and CSS update has me pondering the value of maintaining live, visible course archives in the first place. Nice.

Hopefully, this set of three significant headaches will mean the pox has moved on to someone else.

Google Docs: (Still) Not Ready for Primetime

October 18th, 2012 by michaeljcripps

Last year I embraced Google Docs for student peer review and document submission in composition courses. I’ve been pleased with the way the sharing of documents helps me better track and support the peer review process in my writing classes. Peer review reading/marking becomes homework, class time is spent on discussing revision options, and everyone involved can see the comments as they emerge. And the addition of offline commenting and access through Google Drive really enables me to do my own commenting even when I lack internet access. All good!

But I remain flummoxed by the print limitations embedded within the app. I cannot understand why Google has not implemented a “print with comments” feature for its tool.  I worked around that problem in Spring 2012, but I really expected Google to add the feature by now. Amazing that Google Docs drives users through MS to make full use of a central feature of its tool.

How to print a Google Doc with comments?

It’s easy, if you have MS Word: Simply download the document as a .doc file, open in Word, and print. That’s great for a one-off print job.  Now, multiply that by 50-75 papers, the number of papers one might print if one teaches 2-3 sections of writing.

Here’s the workflow:

  1. Receive shared document from each student in the class.
  2. Move each document into a Google Drive folder to organize the class papers.
  3. Open each paper in Google Apps, make comments.
  4. Download paper to hard drive as .doc file.
  5. Open in MS. Word.
  6. Print.

Insane. I recently printed marked papers for two sections of composition and spent about an hour just getting the shared docs (wtih comments) to print. And if one uses Google Drive’s offline access, this workflow effectively means doubling the copies of the student paper on one’s harddrive.

Why Not Just Use MS Word?

Great question! I have several key reasons for avoiding MS Word:

  • Not every student has MS Word. (Yes, there are workarounds – Open Office, for example.)
  • I don’t like the idea of moving progressively more “marked up” papers around a peer group via email attachments. The Cloud is key because of the simultaneous editing features and all comments appear on one document.
  • Ease of “accepting changes” in Word bothers me.
  • I really like the versioning history in Google Docs.

The real question here is whether the cloud-based Office 365 tool would radically simplify my workflow here.  I don’t know, really, but reviews of that tool suggest that autosave may be problematic in Office 365.

Why Print Docs in the Cloud?

This is the $64,000 question.  Can’t we simply avoid the whole doc print thing here? After all, papers are submitted electronically, students comment electronically, and I comment electronically. Writers have ready access to the original, marked document. Why bother to print?

Read just about any study of screen vs. print reading and you’ll quickly find that we read more carefully when a document is printed. We skim web texts.  Make no mistake about it: A Google Doc may be akin to a printed paper in terms of content, but keep it on the screen and most of us fail to read as carefully.  In a writing class, where evaluation of claims, evidence, organization, and proofreading are central elements of the revision process, there’s real value in retaining the “print” output.

I have already ceded so much to the cloud by putting the drafting, peer review, and revision processes online. For some strange reason, I want to retain the easy ability to hand my students printed, marked comments on their final drafts.  We spend class time reading the comments, considering areas of strength and weakness, and focusing on the writing without the distractions of social media, the email inbox, etc.

Plea to Google: Activate the “print with comments” feature in Google Docs.  If I’m not mistaken, you used to have that feature in an earlier version of the tool. It’s essential in the Google Apps for Education suite!

Cutting the Cable

August 14th, 2012 by michaeljcripps

After living for more than 20 years without cable, I was “forced” to sign on with Time Warner when I relocated to Maine. I’m exaggerating about the lack of cable: I spent years with Dish Network, and later adopted AT&T’s uVerse service when it hit my neighborhood and bundling meant a savings fo $50/month.

It’s funny, but I loved the Dish UI, and the uVerse UI was also reasonably decent. (Where Dish simply hid unsubscribed channels, uVerse gave me visual cues that showed channels I didn’t get.) TWC’s UI is just awful! They tease you by showing you the entire package of programs, and many of them are not really available without significant subscription charges. And, oddly, the entire system has a time lag in the UI – try scrolling through a channels menu and the system can’t keep up. This from a company that advertises super high speeds.  (My guess is that Dish and AT&T DL channel menus to a HDD, but TWC prefers to serve it all up over and over.

Anyway, I’ve just completed my one year “teaser” rate on the bundled TV, Phone, Internet service.  (It’s really about the only game in town, or in the woods where I live.) When I called to secure a continued discount I learned that I’d be getting the “step” rate. I get a discount over full retail pricing, but it’s less than the teaser.  This is like getting the second bag of dope at half price. Why the discount? To lock you even longer so you really feel the pain of loss (withdrawal?) should you cancel.

So we’re cutting the cable! Think cold turkey.  OK, not quite.  I’m implementing a hodgepodge setup for media.  Netflix streaming and a DVD plan, something we’ve had for nearly a decade.  I’ve spent a whopping $79 on the refurbished high end Roku box, with the bonus of a HD Netflix stream that far exceeds the quality we’ve been getting through our Wii.  And now I’m working up a set of channels on the Roku that will get us some of what we’ll lose by cutting cable. Plex is going to be an awesome way to stream our own media to the TV without putting a computer in the room. And I’m likely to subscribe to Hulu Plus to get some network programming.  For the networks, I’m toying with the OTA HD reception we can pull in from the Portland stations.  That’s a project, but I can already see it working reasonably well.We’ll end up saving about $40/month, so it will take a couple months to recoup the Roku investment. And a decent HD antenna will run me close to $100.  Of course, that’s all equipment I get to keep, unlike that cable box I rent for about $100/year.

We’ll lose Disney, and the kids do watch 2-3 of their shows pretty regularly. And Cartoon Network is a favorite for the Clone Wars animated series.  I’m working on solutions for those challenges. I’m hoping that I might use Plex, iTunes, and possibly Hulu Plus to assist here. And I don’t have a DVR solution in the mix – yet.

And we’re also talking about dropping the landline for another $30 savings.  I’m still feeling too old fashioned to be without a phone, but we’re already getting a VOIP phone setup through TWC. We don’t get the old phone system that works in power outages anyway, making the security of a landline a kind a mental fiction. There’s no reason I can’t implement a third party VOIP solution at a fraction of the TWC price, and I’ve looked into it. My real hesitation: TWC has my number and won’t allow another VOIP provider to port it out.  We’d need to get a new phone number! Local calling only is my fall back option here. Save money, but keep the phone number. Our cell plan could easily handle our national calling, particularly if mostly restricted to cell-to-cell and evening calling.

 

 

Google Apps for Education – Migrating Email & Calendar

June 25th, 2012 by michaeljcripps

We’re a “Groupwise” institution that is also a Google Apps for Education school. Over the last two years, I have been forwarding Groupwise email and calendar data over to a personal/professional Google account not associated with my school. On top of that, I actually like to use my mail and calendar clients to handle most of my reading and scheduling. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I really like the off-line access.

This has been quite clunky, mostly because it has meant that I need to manage multiple data streams and not all of them clearly line up. And sometimes my outgoing mail gets sent “from” the wrong account and I get what amounts to peanut butter in my chocolate. But I recently learned that we’re going to move off Groupwise and simply embrace GMail and Google Calendar. Time to act!

Email

Adding the requisite “GMail” account information to Mail has been fairly simple. I just added a new account. I’ll need to do a whole lot of pruning as I complete my migration since I have now effectively doubled my inbound email traffic with the migration. (Not fun, but straightforward.)

Calendars

I already use iCal to manage multiple calendars, and the family uses sharing to help keep the various work, child activities, and social events in what amounts to a single place. It seemed like it would be easy to set up the new Google calendar. Not so fast.

It turns out that one has to use the correct server information in order to get the Apps for Education calendar to play nice with iCal. IT couldn’t help me because “iCal isn’t supported” by IT at this time. Google to the rescue. If you’re struggling to get your Google Calendar to talk to iCal, check out the instructions: http://edutraining.googleapps.com/Training-Home/module-3-calendar/chapter-9/3-2.

I’ve done this set up with a couple other Google calendars, so I’m not sure why I couldn’t remember the “special” instructions.

Now it’s onto tweaking forwarding options within Groupwise.

Google Docs and Composition Instruction

March 1st, 2012 by michaeljcripps

My handwriting is poor. For years I have joked that I can get away with this because I’m a doctor.  And I have absolutely no trouble reading my own brand of shorthand. What’s the problem? As a writing teacher, I am always commenting on my students’ texts, mostly in marginal notes on papers and in an end comment letter. I work very hard to write legibly on my students’ texts. But the fact remains that my poor handwriting always makes its way into those comments. I offer a translation “service” to my students when I hand back papers and dedicate class time to a reading of my comments before we work to put common writing challenges on the board. And over the term my students do become better interpreters of my shorthand.

Commenting on student texts has always seemed more personalized when I’m hunched over a desk with a pencil in hand, making decisions about where and when to mark the text. And space limitations of the margins help reduce the likelihood that I’ll overwhelm the student with feedback, though that’s always a real possibility.

Back around 2001, when I taught freshman writing as an asynchronous online course, I experimented with digital markup using Acrobat. I found it time consuming and clunky, and while I could write more text quite quickly – and legibly – I disliked the distance the process put between the printed page and myself.

MS Word’s comment tools and track changes have always bugged me for some reason. Perhaps it’s the ease with which one can simply “accept all changes,” effectively allowing a student to let me revise the paper. (I feel this way even though I almost never actually rephrase or rewrite a student’s sentence.) This is already a challenge in teaching revision: students often revise only those moments we mark in a text, thinking that will “fix” the paper.

Strange. For all I’ve done to embrace emergent digital writing technologies over the last dozen years, I have resisted what is perhaps the most basic tool the writing teacher might adopt in working with student texts. Until now.

Enter Google Docs

I feel like a luddite for not getting serious with Google Docs. My institution uses Google Apps for Education, effectively putting all of my students on the Google network. This is quite exciting for a number of reasons that go way beyond Docs. But that’s another story.

Students write their papers directly into a Doc they create on their account, copy-paste a text document from their computer into a Doc, or upload a text doc to Docs. Once they have the paper appropriately formatted (double-spaced, block quotes, page numbers, etc.), they “share” the document with me. I comment on the document and they get immediate feedback.

It’s a bit like MS Office, making it less than beautiful, only I don’t need to have the files on my machine or worry about file compatibility. (Until this term, I regularly received attachments in .pages, .doc, .docx, .txt, .odt, and even – yes – .wpd formats.) I have four different word processing programs on my computer so that I can handle this variety!

I do have an issue with “shared” documents and marking texts. The real-time nature of Docs means that my comments show up immediately. I prefer to distribute final, marked papers at the same time, particularly since it can take several days to work through a (virtual) stack of papers. The workaround I’m using involves copying the shared document, pasting it into a new document I own, and making my comments. I can then share the comments to each student at roughly the same time.

Peer Review

More important than the way this tool enables me to comment on texts is its potential in the peer review process.  My approach to peer review has always involved in-class reading and discussion of student texts. Everyone brings multiple copies, small groups do read-arounds and discuss each text in the group, and I sit in on groups to offer guidance and encouragement.

New this term, I’m putting the reading of drafts onto homework, with the class period reserved for discussion of the ideas and suggestions for revision. Students share their draft Doc with designated peers; commenting happens on the Doc.

I can quickly and easily see the character of the students’ comments, flag and echo some of the best comments by peers, and add my own to the mix. Gone are the days when I would have to collect 3 copies of a draft to see the “layers” of peer feedback on a student’s text, or rely on some other elaborate, paper-heavy mechanism to evaluate the peer review in my classes.

I do worry that the marked document may overwhelm novice writers who can easily become overwhelmed by the quantity of feedback on a single document. (It would be very, very cool if the author could choose to view one set of comments or another.)

Problem – MS Office is Inescapable

In terms of workflow, I have found that the current version of Docs is very limiting when one wants to print comments. Print your Doc and the comments get stripped out before printing. Docs has a full portfolio of export/download options (.doc, .pdf, .html, and more). But only .doc preserves the comments though the export. Frankly, this stinks to high heaven!

Here’s the workflow:

  1. Open Doc with comments that you want to print to bring to class, perhaps to reduce laptop multi-tasking during peer review.
  2. Download .doc file to computer. Open in Word, Pages, Open Office, or another editor. Print.
  3. Bring to class.

This approach isn’t too cumbersome if you’re only printing one Doc. Now multiply the process by 20, 40, 60 to hand back papers with comments.

The writing teacher has already spent 15-30 minutes marking each text. Putting two steps between “desire to print” and “actual print” seems ridiculous. And I’m not sure what technical hurdle would prevent comments from printing. I’m sure Google will address this in some upcoming update.

In an online or hybrid/blended writing course, I can see Docs as a wonderful tool. Printed text becomes irrelevant in an online environment.