Sunday, February 25, 2007

Thanks, Florida!

I had a wonderful time at TYCA-SE, and I'm eager to jump in and try some of the great ideas I heard there. As promised, I'm going to look into some of the software options suggested by people in my conference session. I'll post more here on that as soon as I catch up another item or two on that To Do list. In the meantime, please contribute your own feedback by adding a comment to this post.
Thanks for a great conference, Florida! I hope to see you all again next year in Kentucky.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Blogs and the Professionally Hooked-Up Instructor

I got interested in blogs a little more than two years ago when I discovered some of my friends from graduate school were blogging. That was 2004, an election year in which "blog" claimed the notoriety of "word of the year" and suddenly everyone seemed to be keeping a weblog or online journal. With more desire to experiment with blogging than actual knowledge, I convinced my friend and colleague Tammy Townsend to submit a proposal with me for the 2005 TYCA-SE conference in Jackson, MS. As part of this presentation, I set up a blog called Composition Southeast and invited those in attendance at our session to join me in a group blog modeled after Community College English.

Nothing went according to plan. First, you can take the blog to the people, but you can't make them love it. People signed up willingly enough, but no one kept coming back. I was left with me, myself and I to run my nicely planned out group blog.

But I was not alone. Soon other composition bloggers came along, and before I knew it I had my own little network of "peeps."

Through these connections, I met Mike Edwards, who invited me to collaborate on a panel proposal to the 2006 CCCC conference in Chicago. The proposal was accepted, and, thanks to Mike, for my first trip to CCCC, I ended up on a panel with Peter Elbow. Yes, that Peter Elbow.

This inspired me to write more proposals. This year I travel to New York for the 2007 CCCC conference with my friend and colleague Patti Smith where we will be on a panel chaired by Nell Ann Pickett. Yes, that Nell Ann Pickett, my former teacher, personal mentor, and a former CCCC national chair.

All of this proposal success and "Elbow" rubbing got the attention of my deans, and I was named JCJC's 2006 Mississippi Humanities Council Teacher of the Year. For that occasion, I put together a talk called "Harry Potter and the Monsters and Magic of Literature," which I was asked to give a second time the same day I presented it last October 31.

One thing has led to another, and each project has played off the last, but it all started with the blog. In 2005, I was just minding my own business, teaching my own classes and doing what I had to do. Now, people invite me to speak, to come to meetings, and to travel to places I would not otherwise see. It all goes back to the blog.

I met people through blogging who have made a real difference to me personally and professionally. I got ideas through blogging that have made a real difference to my teaching and to my professional productivity.

Through blogging, I can be part of something larger than my own classroom or my own campus. I have a kind of personal connection to the larger world of Academia that I've just never gotten from reading the professional journals. I have a way of finding the people and ideas that matter to my own teaching. I have a way of understanding trends in the profession that go beyond my own state or even my own discipline. I find out what other schools are doing sooner and in a way that is clearer to me than I ever did before.

The old models of academia are shifting for the instructor just as surely as they are shifting for the student. Blogging is just one way to have a more professional presence in the digital age, but it is a very effective way.

I am a better teacher because of the blog. I am a much more "hooked-up" professional because of the blog. Come over to the blog. You won't be sorry. :)

Blogs and the 21st Century Classroom

Two years ago Tammy Townsend and I spoke on the subject of blogging in education at the TYCA-SE conference in Jackson, MS. Here are some of the handouts we used then.

Blogging in the English Classroom
Blogging Terms

So much has changed. So much has remained the same.

Blogging software got somewhat more sophisticated. Podcast quickly overtook blog as "word of the year" for 2005 (blog had that honor in 2004). MySpace and Facebook have been hugely popular with college students in ways that Live Journal only ever dreamed of. Cell phones have gotten far more sophisticated, and Internet gadgets are so much more common that there hardly seems a need for a word to describe blogging from a mobile device. Moblogging, in other words, just never caught on as a household term. It's all just blogging to us.

The biggest difference, though, for me is simply that I've used blogs more and have more opinions about them. This time, instead of talking about ways that teachers might use blogs, I'd prefer to talk about ways that I have used blogs.

Professional Discussion Forum--With Composition Southeast, I've communicated with other composition instructors from all around the country and from all types of institutions. We've shared ideas and assignments, debated theories, reviewed books, and forged friendships and professional ties.

Class Bulletin Board--With Dr. Gerald's Blog, I've made class announcements, distributed handouts, given instructions and feedback on assignments, and provided links to outside resources for my students. I can post things once there and never have to worry about whether I remember to take extra copies of a handout with me to class for those who lost the first copy or were not present to get it. The students find this just as convenient as I do, and if I forget to post information, they are quick to remind me.

Classroom Discussions and Presentations--Students in my morning literature class are currently using Dr. Gerald's World Literature Class to publish their group reports on class discussion topics. The students have responded well to the assignments, and I've found their collaborative work to be more motivated and better thought out than in other formats I've tried for similar assignments.

Conference Preparation--This blog, Casting Classrooms, is my preparation for the TYCA-SE conference. I am going out on a limb and refusing to put together a PowerPoint for this particular presentation. I believe this will be more useful in the end because it is the visual aid that keeps on giving. All the audience has to do is keep up with the URL in order to take the whole thing home in the end.

Open Source, Free Stuff, and the Hooked-Up Classroom

What is open source?

Imagine this. I create an assignment to use in my ENG 1113. I pass that assignment on to my friend Tammy who teaches the same course. She makes a few changes to suit her own needs and passes it on to Jeanne. Jeanne adapts the same assignment to what she's been doing and gives a copy of it to Susan who passes it on to Pam who gives it to David who adds an extra component and shares copies with Cheryl and Missie.

That's open source. No one is concerned with ownership or copyright. Everyone is just interested in helping each other make what we have to work with a little bit better and a little bit more useful to our own individual needs. This model is a time-honored tradition in education, and the collaborative spirit behind it is the same spirit that has fueled the open source movements in software development and in online educational environments.

Open source software means that the source code is left open for others to borrow, copy, edit, change, improve, and so forth. According to, this initiative is based on the premise that collaboration means improvement:

The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing.

Open source is often confused with freeware and shareware, and though it doesn't really matter for our purposes in finding high quality, free stuff out there to hook up our classrooms, a good explanation of the differentiations can be found here.

The point is that open source is a friend to you and me.

MIT demonstrates the epitome of the open source ideal in its open courseware program in which a wide variety of materials for entire courses are posted online for anyone to view and even potentially to use in other courses at other universities. Other universities are on board as well with web-based classrooms and open podcasts.

In short, open source for us means that we have an enormous amount of both course materials and course tools available that would not otherwise come to us from the more proprietary conditions of the corporate world.

Programs Available Without Cost

Some of these programs fit the technical definition of open source, and some are just free and useful by any name. They are in no particular order other than the order in which I remembered them.

Open Office--Open Office is an alternative to Microsoft Office. It includes a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation-maker and more. It is available as a free download.
Google Docs & Spreadsheets--This is an online word processing and spreadsheet program that allows for collaborative editing of files as well as web publishing. It is a great alternative for students who have compatability issues between their home computers and their school computers. To use Google Docs & Spreadsheets, all that is needed is a free Google account. If you are a teacher who would like an invitation to join Google, send me an email: sharon dot gerald at gmail dot com.
Google Groups--Google Groups are online discussion groups in the vein of message boards. This could be used for peer review groups, presentation groups, and/or class discussion groups. Google Groups also requires a free Google account.
Blogger--Free blog software and hosting. The new version of blogger is also associated with Google accounts.
Word provides blog software that is available as a free download. It must be loaded to a server to be used. provides an online version of the blog software as well as free blog hosting. is essentially an easier but more limited version of the same software available through To read more about the comparisons, click here.
Drupal--Like Wordpress, Drupal is blog software available as a free download. It requires finding a server to host it. Drupal may have more features for group sites such as wikis, but both Drupal and Wordpress make excellent blogs.
Moodle--Moodle is a course management system available as a free download. It is an open source alternative to Blackboard and WebCT. Click here for a study comparing Moodle and Blackboard.
Audacity--Audio recording/editing software available as a free download.
Odeo Studio--Audio recording and hosting software available online with a free membership.
PBWiki--This is wiki software that claims to be as easy as "making a peanut butter sandwich." The basic wiki features are available for free with free hosting. More advanced features require a paid membership.
Active Boards--Message board software that can be set up to be used with entire communities, such as classrooms, with a free membership.
Gimp--Photo editing software available as a free download. The screen captures on this blog were taken and edited using Gimp for Windows.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Wonderful World of Wikis and the Digital Age of Peer Groups

What is a wiki, and what is it good for, you ask?

A wiki (IPA: [ˈwɪ.kiː] or [ˈwiː.kiː] [1]) is a website that allows the visitors themselves to easily add, remove, and otherwise edit and change available content, typically without the need for registration. This ease of interaction and operation makes a wiki an effective tool for mass collaborative authoring. The term wiki also can refer to the collaborative software itself (wiki engine) that facilitates the operation of such a Web site, or to certain specific wiki sites, including the computer science site (the original wiki) WikiWikiWeb and on-line encyclopedias such as Wikipedia.

This definition comes from the most famous wiki of them all, the much touted, much maligned Wikipedia.

Okay. This isn't too difficult to understand. A wiki is a web site that any viewer can potentially edit. If you are like me, your first question upon hearing this definition is something along the lines of "Why would anyone want a web site like that?" On the heels of this question come many more, including the one any sensible teacher would ask, "Why would anyone want a web site like that in a classroom?"

Just ask Sheizaf Rafaeli. He had his students use a wiki to write their own textbook. An English Professor at SUNY Geneseo used a wiki for collaborative writing assignments. Some universities, like Case Western Reserve University, have made use of wikis as means of keeping campus announcements and activities up to date and available to the public. The wiki Palimpsest was created to provide a forum through which English teachers could share materials and ideas.

To peruse just a few ways wikis have been used to aid and abet classroom activities, click here for a "wikiography" provided by the libraries of North Carolina State University. For more suggested uses of wikis in education, check out The Science of Spectroscopy.

The primary answer, I think, to the question of why anyone would want to use a wiki in an English classroom is because English classrooms often rely on very interactive, collaborative assignments, and wikis are the Digital Generation answer for collaborative writing. Wikis are not for those who need to be proprietary about every word and every sentence; rather they are an opportunity for multiple voices to be heard in a fairly unified fashion.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The MyPod Generation and the Casted Classroom

What's a Podcast Anyway?

A podcast is basically an audio recording that is posted online so that it may be downloaded and listened to either on a computer or on an MP3 player.

If you are feeling behind the times for not having podcasted yet, perhaps you would like to skip audio podcasting and move straight ahead to vodcasting, or video podcasting. As one article put it even as early as 2005, "Podcasts are so last month."

Still, podcasts are young enough to be considered up and coming in education, and they have not yet reached their peak of popularity and/or usability in the classroom. Like radio, there is a reason television never eliminated it as the more complex medium gained in popularity. Sometimes less is more.

The term podcast comes from a combination of broadcast and iPod, the name of the incredibly popular MP3 player from Apple. Podcasting refers both to the product (digital audio) and the delivery (Internet broadcasting). Purists consider that the only true podcasts are those that are episodic in nature and available by subscription or syndication. Lots of options are available for delivering podcasts via subscription, but one of the most popular is the iTunes store from Apple.

What Are Colleges Doing with Podcasts?

Applications for podcasting in the classroom probably vary as much as the instructors and disciplines themselves. Though a large number of universities have already been through their pilot phases and established some very successful models to follow, the possibilities are still wide open for experimentation and individual discovery over what to do with a podcast. Some options for classroom recordings include test reviews, daily lectures, small group discussions, short explanations of complex concepts or individual passages of literature, student presentations, interviews with experts who may or may not otherwise be able to visit the classroom, and feedback on assignments.

Follow these links to see a little of what colleges are doing.

Lars Bronsworth's history podcasts and the New York Times article about him.

The Chronicle article on podcasting.

Open Culture's university podcast collection.


Why Podcast?

Good question. Though emerging technology is interesting without fail, it isn't automatically worthwhile. New technology purely for the sake of new technology is not a plus in the classroom. This said, podcasting does serve a purpose.

In a nutshell, there is still nothing quite like the power of the spoken word.

Our students are changing. Their attention spans are changing. Their habits are changing. Their daily schedules are changing. Their learning styles are changing. They may not get as much out of the old lectures delivered in the old ways, but that doesn't mean they don't still need the touch of the human voice to learn.

Teachers so often complain that "they just don't hear what we say." We find ourselves repeating the same points over and over for people whose bodies are present while their minds have wandered off to do something else. With podcasts, our voices can be repeated with only the touch of a button. And if they happen to reach the students while the body is busy at the gym or driving to work or walking to other classes, then we are only following the old adage to "teach them where we find them."

How to Podcast

To get started in podcasting, you'll need a microphone and a computer. You'll also need some audio recording/editing software and a way to make the recording available online. For more portable podcasting options, you would need either a digital voice recorder or a notebook computer.

Microphones--The microphone is an essential choice in podcasting. The better the microphone, the better the recording. This does not, however, mean that an instructor needs to spend a lot of money to get started. A basic headset microphone will do just fine. The pictured model currently sells for $24.95 at Best Buy.

The headset microphone is a good choice for recording made by individuals. This might be used by an instructor wanting to podcast a weekly overview, a test review, or assignment feedback.

For group recordings, higher sensitivity microphones are in order. Sound Professionals offers a USB microphone that works well in classroom settings for about $60.

Software--One of the most popular audio recording/editing packages is Audacity, available as a free download. For a list of other options, click here.

Delivery--Once the recording is made, the next issue is how to get it to the students. Many schools provide server space where instructors can post audio files that are then linked from a blog or class website. If this is not an option (or even perhaps if it is), try Odeo Studio, a free site that provides a way to record, edit, publish, and syndicate all in one.

Once all of this is done, it's time to move on over to iTunes and follow the instructions for submitting your podcasts to them. It's as simple as 1, 2, 3, and maybe 4. Welcome to podcasting!

Who is Today's College Student?

People who turned 18 in 2006 were born in 1988. Beloit College provides a few facts about them in their Class of 2010 Mindset List. Two of my favorites on the list are "Google has always been a verb" and "They have rarely mailed anything using a stamp." They're called Generation Y, and topping the list of almost everyone's definition of Gen Y is "tech savvy." Also known as the Digital Generation or the MyPod Generation, the one thing we do know about them and the way they learn is that they have grown up immersed in technology that still seems new and foreign to many of their instructors. A recent list of got-to-have back-to-school gadgets from contains items I daresay many college professors could not identify.

Simply put, the degree to which technology shapes the mindsets of today's students goes far beyond entertainment values. According to Pew Internet, by 2002, not only did approximately two-thirds of our college students admit to having more than one email address, they were using them to communicate with their instructors with nearly half claiming they shared information via email with professors that they would not have mentioned in person.

That was so 2002. Jump to 2006, and email is already old school with MySpace clocking in at over 56 million users, iPods jumping off the shelves, and text messaging taking over as one of the typical student's primary means of communication.

Today's students have constant digital stimulation in their personal lives. As such, they are less prepared than ever to retain information through the old lecture/test classroom models. What's more, they will leave us to go into careers that consider technological skills to be a fundamental requirement.

One of those most common complaints about bringing technology into the English classroom is "I'm here to teach writing, not computer skills." In today's world, however, the two are one and the same. With or without us, our students are the Digital Age. We can only teach them if we teach them where they live.