I have just finished grading essays in both classes I am teaching this term. The final examination papers are next. In the breather I have given myself between the two tasks, something occurred to me about the current generation of students. The best essays are visual rather than traditional text essays.

Let me explain.

In my last year of elementary school (my semi-rural school system did not have Middle Schools), in High School and in my undergraduate degree program essays followed a familiar format. You had a point you were trying to make, a thesis which you introduced in an opening paragraph. You followed this with as many paragraphs of evidence as you needed to make your point. You finished with a concluding paragraph where you summarized your evidence and thesis. In History classes, evidence consisted of issues, events, and so on in the past and you used footnotes to give credit to the words and/or ideas of others and you had a bibliography attached to the paper. The footnotes and bibliography followed a strict format, which in those long ago days was called Humanities Style, then later Traditional Humanities Style and now is called Chicago style (or in some cases, Turabian or Oxford).

I am an historian and I wrote my first history essay using this format in Grade 12. This was in Ontario, Canada which then had a Grade 13 for students who wished to go on to university. In Grade 13 I wrote two more of these essays. Thus, when I arrived in university to take history courses, or sociology, or anthropology, this same format was used in each and already familiar to me. Part of elementary and secondary preparation for university was reading:  quite a bit of reading of plays, novels, short stories, poetry, and essays. My mind and that of others was trained to think in this orderly fashion. Evidence and logical argument ruled the day.

Anything visual was frowned upon unless you took an art class and they were rare beyond the very earliest grades of elementary school, for my generation. I was in school from 1957 to 1969. Even imaginative text based work such as poetry was taught in a cold and scientific manner where you deconstructed the parts and identified metre and its uses. Iambic pentameter ruled!  That is the only metre I can recall from those days.

In recent years, I have allowed students to submit visual essays. Not without text, of course, but analyses of art and architecture in relation to religion and society, formed around images. They can use Powerpoint or Keynote, or Prezi. Not too many did, but in the last year or so, more and more are availing themselves of this choice. Many wish to submit purely text essays using presentation software, but I do not allow that.

But what I am finding is that the visual essays are superior on average to the traditional essay. Students are giving quite sophisticated interpretations of the role of art or architecture in history as regards religion and society.

On the other hand, the traditional essays submitted are declining in quality. I teach at two very different, albeit connected schools. One is Toronto-based and has a student body that mostly consists of first or second generation English speakers. The other is a small town, rural based school with a student body mostly drawn from families who have been in Canada for generations. I find no significant difference in the visual vs. text based essays.

This, in a very unscientific manner, leads me to suspect we are in an age where images trump words. Or, words must trot along after images, leaving visual elements in the lead.

So far, the majority submit text based essays and a minority image based. But this blog post was prompted by my dual realization that the proportion of image based essays is growing and that the quality gap between the two is widening.

I wonder too, if a course run along similar lines but in a classroom format would find any different results?  Online teaching is much more agnostic about the use of presentation software where there is no actual presentation in front of a group. I get puzzled emails from the people at Prezi who had not considered its use in this fashion. I think I might have to develop a section at the beginning of each course where I specifically talk about the use of presentation software in the online setting and where it is appropriate, or even better than the standard essay. As of now, I have a blurb in the course notes where I discuss word counts, double-spacing, thesis statements, etc. as well as a mini essay on writing essays. For my next online class beginning in January, I will need to do a Prezi on presentation software!  The design bureaucracy does not allow me to change the course notes on the fly – they require two good months of preparation time.

So, I will do a Prezi and link it to the section of the course site where I speak to the class in general.


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A new term and two classes online. For the past few years, I have posted YouTube videos where I provide additional explanations of course content. This has been in response to evident misunderstandings of text or images on the course site. One of the problems of the system used at my university is an instructor cannot alter a site, even to correct minor errors. Equally I cannot rewrite sentences or paragraphs that have produced confusion rather than elucidation. Corrections of any sort must be collected, then sent to the Distance Ed team between semesters.

In order to get around this problem I managed to convince the Distance Ed department to link a Prezi to my site, where I could offer additional material. I began also to record 5-10 minute videos, which I could post in the Announcements area. I record initially using my Mac’s Photo Booth app, then upload the result to YouTube. I post this YouTube link on the course site. I would rather have been able to post these videos in the same area of the course that produced the confusion, but this has worked well.

But, each term I had hoped to post an overview video, explaining the theme running through a unit and week at the beginning of that week. (The university uses a Monday-Sunday week instead of the standard Sunday-Saturday calendar week.)

This term I have begun that… and so far so good, except that on the Monday of the first week my electricity was out most of the day, forcing me to post on the Tuesday.

It took me about an hour to research and produce an outline for my comments (I don’t like to read a text) and about 10 minutes to record and another 10 to do the tech stuff to get it onto the course site. These comments are, as I said, intended to give students a thematic sense to the welter of socio-cultural data presented each week.

I will also continue to add shorter videos explaining areas I have identified common misunderstandings.

In the past, I have always received positive comments for posting videos. The increased number may be a good idea and may not; I shall see!

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A murmur of voices

A murmur of voices from stylish young men in silly hats kept intruding on his thoughts. Not that his thoughts mattered much except to keep his synapses oiled and sparking on this day. Bad music played too, barely heard beyond the human noise. Good Friday. Once, long ago he had looked up why it was called that but he had forgotten and it was lost somewhere in the jumble of broken boxes and spilled things and cobwebs. He watched a couple leaving with food from a Chinese restaurant, rebels ignoring the fish & chip place two doors down. He decided to rebel too and put two typist spaces after each sentence despite the article saying woe processors no longer required that, but he felt daring anyway. He only remembered this because part of that article was visible under a torn paper with a poem just peeking out of the half opened box on the floor. Peaking maybe. He noticed the typo now woe processor but decided to leave it as writing was his woe processor.

He began to feel silly and satisfied now at his cleverness and wondered how to stop that bit of nonsense. He frowned, annoyed at his conceit. Suddenly the murmuring hats didn’t seem so silly.

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the book?

Initially this blog was to be just that, a blog. After attending (virtually) a session in a past Alliance of Independent Authors’ online conference that said those challenged for time could use a blog as a first draft for a book, I turned this blog into just that.

I am nearing that point now. I scrolled through the blog posts and discovered that  first is dated March 29, 2012, almost seven years ago to the day.  For some odd reason, the blog counter off to the side puts this March 2012 blog post into 2011. Well, cyber space is an odd place. Nonetheless, now is the time to start turning this long running blog into a book. The session I attended suggested one year of weekly blog posts would be enough. I haven’t posted weekly here, but seven years is more than enough to produce a decent book.

I will continue to post here as ideas and observations occur to me, but it is time!

Posted in blogging a book, Distance education, Learning online, online resources, teaching, teaching online, technology in teaching, time, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

teaching History to the pragmatic

I was taking an afternoon nap when my brain finally kicked into gear. I say finally because I have felt rather dull lately – probably too many cookies and candies and the long term impact of Christmas lingering and raising my blood sugars.  Which is probably why I wrote this off topic first paragraph!

Today, one of my more contentious students asked me why he needs to have a thesis driven essay. ‘Why’ he asked, couldn’t he just write an essay telling me what happened. His chosen topic is the Social Gospel in Canada. This university has no History department and no Humanities faculty other than in training for art, writing, journalism and so on:  but no History, no Philosophy, no English literature, etc. Most of my students are in training for business, work in Day Cares, elementary school teaching, media studies or  hoping to be police officers in a program called Justice Studies. They are focussed on a pragmatic career path. We historians are part of an amorphous group labelled ‘Electives’.

Here is my answer, slightly edited:

What impact did the social gospel have? Was the impact lasting? If so why? If not, why not? What cultural forces caused it to come into being? Why were only certain churches proponents of the social gospel? Why did social gospellers in Canada go into politics and form a political party? These are all possible questions you could ask ( theses) and use evidence to answer. It isn’t enough to just give a list of events and describe the social gospel – ask questions about it.

This exchange (one of several with this student via email) sharpened my thinking about how to get ideas across to students online. What do I say to make assignments clearer? What, especially do I say to make the usefulness of the study of history apparent? Students in High School in Ontario, Canada rarely study history anymore. When I was a High School student back in the 1960s, History was a required course in Grades 9, 11 and 12. We also studied history in elementary grades 7 and 8. We had Grade 13 in those days, which was a university prep year, equivalent to the now abandoned Sixth Form in English Grammar schools.

In a face to face classroom, questions such as these arise naturally in the course of talking to students, teaching, that is, and in breaks and immediately after class. Online, they occur mostly through email. The course design used by my university has an ‘Ask the Instructor’ forum but most students avoid this in favour of sending an email question directly to me.

This reinforces the necessity of answering emails promptly, in the same day certainly and even more often if possible.

One problem that can arise, grows out of the lack of body language when communicating with a student. Last semester in my student evaluations one student claimed I was extremely rude to her. I don’t recall being rude to anyone (though I have thought rude things, but keep those to myself). This reinforces the need to be clear and friendly in your language used with students, no matter what. This is a technique that should be used in social media, but is quite rare there, where bad manners and open insults are the order of the day.

Teaching online is not social media; it is not a place to provoke battles. It is a place to work against the culture war raging today in the English-speaking world.

The study of History online is a good place to start this amelioration of anger.

Finally, I hope that training these pragmatic students to ask the question, why, and to look for balanced evidence in answer to this question, is a pragmatic reason to study History.

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After the Storm

Another term has vanished. Though there is the possibility that complaints will arrive and re-grading and deep sighs as debate over a just grade ensues. I find this more common than it ever was when I taught in class. Students would write their exams in paper booklets in an examination room or hall – usually in a gym, (which seems somehow appropriate – but that might make another post, another day). They would hand them in early, or just as the invigilator/proctor called TIME… or keep scribbling frantically until I or someone paid to do this stood over them, waiting, foot tapping to take the examination paper.

That would be that. The papers collected, graded, final grades calculated and entered into the gradebook.

But today, a certain percentage of students in online courses send emails insisting they could not have done so badly on the final examination as they knew they wrote incisive analysis, or at least did better than the grade they received. Please would I, could I, read it over again and change their grade to the proper A that they know they earned. Universities being what they are today allow a formal appeal and a committee of mysterious assemblage then takes the work and does some sleight of hand to mollify the consumer (aka student).  I don’t know if this is common for ‘in class’ courses now. Maybe the problem is general. I only know I would hate to be an employer or a colleague of someone who constantly complained that their less than satisfactory work was somehow someone else’s doing. I worked in the head office of a major corporation for twenty years and cannot quite wrap my head around, or imagine even, someone like that lasting more than a week in employment. But, perhaps as we graduate more and more, this will become a problem for the business world too.

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random thoughts while working

I am marking (grading) student assignments today (and yesterday and the day before that….). This assignment is a group assignment. I divided the class of about 200 into groups of about five to six people each and they were required to organize themselves within each group to create a photo essay. They were to produce a single document containing one image at least per group member, an agreed theme that reflected the underlying themes of the course and have it submitted by a due date. Some groups managed to meet in person in the university library, but most worked together online, using Google docs, a forum set up on the course web site, email, Skype and so on.

A number of groups had great difficulty getting others to contribute. They learned what all instructors know, that some students do nothing until panic sets in at the last possible moment. I, myself, as an undergraduate pulled a  number of all nighters to get an essay finished by the deadlline, but I was working alone.

What I found surpising was something else entirely. The groups were formed randomly by dividing the alphabetic class list into groups of six in a rote fashion.  Thus a group would have six with last names beginning with ‘S’ for example. Yet this random group formation resulted in some groups producing very sophisticated images and analyses from every group member, and a nuanced thematic overview. Other groups produced work that was shall we say, lacking in nuance.

Perhaps some whiz of a statistician in psychology or sociology has a theory as to why this should occur. As for me, I wrote a blog post mentioning the phenomenon.

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