Reflections on a Technology-Driven Syllabus

I’m five weeks into the new semester, and it’s time to consider how my ambitious technology-heavy Graphic Novel course is going. And I’m serious when I say it’s technology-heavy: we’re doing a blog, a wiki, Twitter, and rigorous Pecha Kucha presentations. About the only thing we’re missing is a MMORPG.

I plotted out the major components of the class back in May, and the actual implementation is surprisingly close to my original vision. There were two reasons for all this technology:

  1. I wanted to use technology to help me maintain the student-centered environment of a smaller class when I was in fact going to be teaching a much larger class (there are 40 students in the class instead of the usual 25). Let’s call this goal community-building.
  2. I wanted to use a range of smaller, low-stakes writing assignments paced steadily throughout the semester instead of two or three major assignments. My intention was to keep students continually engaged throughout the semester rather than “checking in” once mid-semester and once at the end.  Let’s call this goal focus-sustaining.

The chief mechanism of the class is The Group. My 40 students are evenly divided into five groups, and each week they rotate group roles. For example, last week students in Group 1 were responsible for the collaboratively-written class notes on the wiki, while this week they are the class’s Searchers, charged with blogging short evaluative reviews of relevant online resources. The group has next week off and the week after that, they are Respondents, commenting upon the work of another group (the First Readers) on the blog. And in the midst of all this activity, students are expected to post to Twitter using the class’s hashtag (#eng493) and prepare class presentations following the strictly defined Pecha Kucha format (20 slides at 20 seconds per slide, focused on a single page from the week’s graphic novel).

My inspiration for all these activities came from a number of sources, which I simply pulled together and stitched into a cohesive structure: the initial idea of groups came from my friend and longtime collaborator Randy Bass; the wikified class notes were based on something similar Brian Croxall does; the use of Twitter in the classroom was influenced by Dave Parry’s thoughts on the matter; and I’m indebted to my George Mason colleague Doug Eyman for introducing me to the idea of Pecha Kucha.

So how is it all working?

Preliminary evidence suggests it’s working, and working well. When it’s only the second week of the semester and a student hopes aloud that all our collaborative work will remain online after the semester’s over, that’s a good sign. When students in my other class spontaneously start their own Twitter hashtag after hearing about this class’s, that’s a good sign. When students are documenting the class discussion with photographs and adding them to the wiki, that’s a good sign. When I am seeing the most disciplined and focused undergraduate presentations of my career, that’s a good sign.

Any difficulties so far?

Oh, yes.

The primary challenge at the outset is the deluge of information I’m faced with every week. I’ve never had so many things to keep track of at once in a course. If it weren’t for a few tricks I’ve already learned, I’d be drowning in data. Here are some administrative and pedagogical hacks I couldn’t live without:

  • RSS is my friend. All of the online resources I use (the WordPress class blog, the PBWorks wiki, the Twitter hashtag) have RSS feeds, and I stream all of them into one monster-stream using Postbox, an enhanced version of Mozilla Thunderbird. You could also use Google Reader’s bundle feature or Yahoo Pipes to achieve the same all-in-one-space aggregated feed. I like Postbox because it archives my feeds on my hard drive, so they’re always there, whether I’m online or off, and they’ll continue to be there long after the semester is over. Here is what the master activity stream looks like in Yahoo Pipes:
  • RSS is my friend. Seriously. I can’t emphasize this enough. Being able to read blog posts, Twitter updates, and changes to the wiki pages all in one integrated stream is essential. Postbox is always open on my laptop and I can see at a glance how much activity there’s been with the students. Unread items are in bold, which helps me keep track of what I’ve read (and graded) and what I haven’t.
  • Grading doesn’t have to be hard. As I’ve written elsewhere, I use a simple 0-4 point scale to rate the critical value of each entry on the blog. As a matter of routine, I’ll let students know their grade on the blog if they are habitually getting less than 3 or 4 points per post. I also comment on several posts a week, to let everyone know that I am indeed reading their work. By the end of the semester I plan to have commented on every student’s work at least three times.
  • Let students evaluate each other. Though the students are divided into groups, the only time they work as a group is when they collaborate on the weekly class notes. PBWorks tracks every user’s edits, so it’s easy for me to see who’s done what (or who hasn’t done anything). But trusting in the power of peer pressure, I wanted to make the value of each member’s contributions more transparent to the rest of the group. So I ask the students to rate themselves and the other members of their group at the end of the week, with two questions about each student, one on the quantity of their contributions to the wiki and another question on the quality of their work. It’s a simple form on Google Docs, and the results are automatically feed into a Google Docs spreadsheet:
  • Redundancy is redundancy is redundancy is important when it comes to archiving. I am very aware of the ephemeral nature of online communication, especially with something like Twitter. Don’t trust the cloud. So in addition to preserving feeds in my offline reader, I use The Archivist to capture the #eng493 Twitter conversation and save it as an exportable XML file. Once the data is in XML format, you can manipulate it in all sorts of ways. The Archivist has a few inline data visualizations too. Here we can see when spikes in activity occur (usually the night before class, when students are reading and tweeting as they read):
  • #eng493 Twitter Timeline

So there you have it, some reflections on a technology-driven syllabus. These reflections are strictly from my own perspective, of course. Something I need more information about, then, is what my students think about the technology in the course. My sense is that it’s a daunting amount of activity for them to keep track of. I sometimes forget that students have three or four other courses besides mine, each with their own demands. I’m hoping that some activities, like Twitter, fit into their existing lifeflow, though I know others, like working with a wiki, can punctuate their daily lives in a disruptive way.

Then again, the kind of estrangement and readjustment such pedagogical tools precipitate can be valuable in their own right, if only they’re harnessed properly…something I’ll be writing about soon.

Teaching Technologies for Large Classes

Faced with the prospect of teaching larger classes, I’ve been thinking about how technology might help me preserve what I value most about small class sizes—and perhaps even bring added value to those large classes. But first some background.

There’s probably not a humanities program in the country that hasn’t received a memo from its dean that begins something like Due to the ongoing economic downturn and ends with bad news. Friends at other universities have been put on furlough, have had their benefits frozen, and have even been banned from making photocopies. Things aren’t that apocalyptic at George Mason, but we have had to slash our department budget, including reducing the number of courses we teach by six percent. That figure may not sound like much, but in a department our size it means cutting 18 sections for Fall 2009 and 16 sections for Spring 2010. In other words, in the next academic year we have to teach the same number of students as before, but with 34 fewer classes.

In addition to eliminating under-enrolled sections (forcing students to fill remaining sections to their maximum capacity), our department’s solution to this mathematical problem is to increase the size of a few key classes that are sure to fill, no matter what the cap is. I am the lucky professor of one of these newly designated “extra-large” classes. My Fall 2009 upper-division graphic novel class, once capped at 27 students, is now fully enrolled at 40 students, an increase of 50 percent.

How should my pedagogy change to meet this new teaching context? Or should it?

My classes are student-centered and discussion-oriented, and I rarely hold forth in any kind of lecture mode. It’s unusual for me to talk more than five minutes at once (a legacy of Doc Fuller, my undergrad mentor at Miami University of Ohio, who promised me his ghost would piss down my neck if I ever lectured more than ten minutes).

Rather than looking at this shift from a smaller class to an oversized class as a hardship or an obstacle to my teaching philosophy, I see it as a challenge: How do I continue to engage students on a dialogic plane when they, my department, and institutional momentum all expect me to lecture as the most efficient means of delivering content?

There is no single answer, but I have begun thinking about tactics I might employ that allow me to maintain a student-centered classroom while taking into account the larger class size. Not surprisingly, some of these tactics exploit technology that my students are already familiar with, but in different contexts.

Here are four I’ve been thinking about, followed by more detailed explanations of each:

  1. Blogging
  2. Wiki
  3. Twitter
  4. Pecha Kucha


I routinely have my undergraduate and graduate students contribute to a class blog. The advantages are many: it’s a public space that requires students to consider questions of accountability and audience; students begin to see themselves as participating in an ongoing conversation about culture; and participation jump-starts class discussion so that I already have an idea of what students are thinking and wondering about before I even enter the classroom. In smaller classes I read and evaluate every post (according to this rubric) and generally comment throughout the semester on at least two posts by every student.

The problem with 40 students is that there is no way to read (much less comment upon) every post if every student is posting every week. I am toying then with a rotation model (inspired by Randy Bass),  in which students are divided into five groups of  eight students, cycling through these five roles:

  • Role 1 – Students are “first readers,” posting initial questions and insights about the reading to the class blog by Monday morning
  • Role 2 – Students are “respondents,” building upon, disagreeing with, or clarifying the first readers’ posts by class time on Tuesday
  • Role 3 – Students are “synthesizers,” mediating and synthesizing the dialogue between first readers and respondents by Thursday
  • Role 4 – Students are responsible for the week’s class notes (see next section on Wikis)
  • Role  5 – Students have this week “off” in terms of blogging and the wiki

I like the rotation model because each group of students is reading for and reacting to something different. The shifting positionality affords them greater traction, offers greater variety, and guarantees a dialogue without comments from myself.


Students in Role 4 will be responsible the week’s class notes, written collaboratively by the group on the class wiki. I am indebted to Brian Croxall’s Wiki Class Notes assignment for this idea. I haven’t thought through all of the specifics, but essentially these students will capture what happens in the classroom—synthesizing the discussion, referencing the visuals, highlighting moments of confusion and understanding—and then archive it and make it available for the entire class. I would even encourage students to document each session with their cell cameras and incorporate annotated versions of this “evidence” into the wiki. The notetaking students can also use the Twitter backchannel (see the next section) as another source for their notes.


A number of professors and instructors have begun using Twitter in their classrooms (see the Ultimate Twitter Teacher Resource for some ideas aggregated from across the web). I am most interested in Twitter as a backchannel, in which students use hashtags to create a stream of realtime on-task chatter about the class, which we can refer to at key moments during classtime. Outside of class, Twitter can be a microblogging-lite platform as well, for students to share quick notes and inquiries whenever they come across something in their daily lives relevant to the course material. This is the kind of use that David Parry writes about on Academhack.

Pecha Kucha

The most exotic sounding of all these tools, Pecha Kucha (pronounced “pe-chak-cha” ) is in fact the simplest idea: student presentations of 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, adding up to a total time of 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

This rigid format sounds like it might lead to manic presentations, but I see it as the perfect solution to the usual crop of undisciplined, unfocused student presentations, especially when we have 40 of them to get through in a semester. There is no way to do a timed presentation without practice, and no way a student can get through one of these presentations simply by reading aloud the text the audience can read for themselves on the screen. Think of pecha kucha as Ouilipo for PowerPoint. The formal constraints paradoxically unleash creativity.

A Note About Grading

Taken together, these four digital pedagogies will add up to quite a bit of writing for my students—writing that will replace several of the major assignments I’d normally require. Eventually such dialogic, community-based writing might encompass the entire grade for a class. (At Leheigh University, for example, Ed Gallagher has successfully experimented with online discussion comprising 100% of a student’s grade; read his thoughtful reflection at Academic Commons.) For now, though, I’ll still have at least one paper, and I’ll also require a meta-reflection two-thirds of the way into the semester (similar to my blogging about blogging assignment).

What Else?

My extra-large class is three months away, so I have plenty of time to rethink these strategies or add more to my arsenal. I welcome suggestions, both lofty untested ideas and proven, practical techniques. The class will be an experiment in pedagogy, and even if it fails it will have failed successfully.