|Project: Creating An On-Line
Learning Community in the Humanities
Project web site: www.cocc.edu/hum299/ccha/ccha.html with course at www.cocc.edu/hum299
Team members: Kathleen Walsh, Cora Agatucci and Bart Queary
Cora and Kathleen's combined expertise and efforts at using the internet in classes to varying degrees and purposes prior to summer 1999 (the point at which we developed our proposal) led us to agree that the next crucial step for us would be to more fully and directly include students not only as users, but as collaborators and producers, of instructional web sites. We also believed that a key need for our small college in the future was to break down barriers around our "courses" and our "disciplines" and prepare for new ways of learning and of packaging instruction that would strengthen interdisciplinary coherence and technological competencies acquired through our students' education.
This effort to find ways to break down disciplinary barriers had engaged us for some time; in fact, Cora has led the writing-across-disciplines effort and implemented the "WIC" (Writing in Context of another discipline) Program at our college. Across the campus, instructors periodically express the desire to draw together students with similar interests and requirements into learning communities, but available models for learning communities have fit poorly with our institution. Our small size and the place-bound, time-bound lives of most of our students present barriers to real-time, on-site, multi-course linkage in sufficient numbers to support the concept. For example, with only a limited number of writing sections, we reduce student choices by dedicating one 10 A.M. section to a particular theme or "community," and, at the same time, many students who might want to join that "community" are unavailable at 10 A.M., or indeed at any other common time.
We proposed using the CCHA-NEH initiative to find a solution in virtual space, where the limits of time and location could be transcended. In our proposed project, groups of students (from different but potentially related courses) would meet on line and review, develop and discuss materials relevant to "Student Perspectives on World and Multicultural Writers." This broad topic would connect with a number of courses that Cora and Kathleen teach (as well as in others of our English, Humanities and Writing courses) and has potential interest for certain social science and other courses, developed to qualify as "WIC" and/or "MIC" ("multicultural infusion courses").
For the spring 2000 experimental course, we proposed recruiting interested students from our English/Humanities courses, as well as others, for an independent "special studies" credit course in collaborative authoring of web pages. Students would be grouped to develop a web site appropriate to in-depth or extended study of a focused literary topic, such as an author, work or theme. Critical, contextual, comparative, and/or interdisciplinary components would be encouraged. Students would be given some initial training in web-authoring, plus models and templates for the kind of sites they were asked to produce, and they would meet in a group for these initial training sessions. Subsequently, students could collaborate asynchronously through our First Class Conference system.
We planned for the student websites to include reviews of available and recommended sites, as well as original student commentary, questions and research findings about the subject. Websites would also feature an "about this site" page devoted to identifying student web-authors, the envisioned rhetorical context (purpose, audience, web-genre), key principles guiding the project development, criteria for evaluating websites and self-reflections on achieved learning outcomes. Once topics were chosen and projects were underway in spring 2000, we proposed to recruit a small group of interdisciplinary faculty, optimally those with interest in the project and/or expertise in student topics, to serve as project reviewers and content-area resources.
The action plan which we created while at the George Mason national conference, revised with our mentor's assistance during her site visit in April 2000, included these key activities and provided for us the kind of road map which enabled us to successfully complete our ambitious project. (See Appendix B for the team's action plan.)
Over the summer of 2000, Cora used new Front Page 2000 software to migrate student work to a more permanent Hum 299 site, gathering student permissions for this publication.
By September 2000, we had planned for the second offering of the course and begun our longer range planning for a permanent home for this Special Topics course within the curriculum. We also invited interested colleagues and our faculty evaluators to a workshop to discuss the student work, provide input into our analysis of the project and discuss with us the best way to include the course as a permanent part of our college's curriculum.
In October 2000, team members approved Kathleen's detailed analysis (See Appendix B.) of the project, drawing on of the various evaluations we had received to date: student course evaluations, lengthy reviews from our faculty reviewers and Cora's own evaluations through her teaching journal.
The course has been offered again in spring 2001, and our team has continued conversations about the place of this course in the curriculum. The spring 2001 student web projects include multicultural and world literary resources for middle school teachers and students, comparative cultural study of interrelationships between environment, customs and creative arts, and oral histories of the Jewish Holocaust
At Central Oregon Community College, we undertook a number of dissemination activities:
The instructors' projects involving the web in English instruction had gone through a certain evolution leading to this proposal. Beginning efforts, about six years ago, involved writing with the web, enabling the students to research online, find information and use that information in their academic essays. In the second stage, Kathleen was involved in instructional projects enabling students to write on the web, specifically using web boards for online discussions, editing and review of drafts. Our CCHA-NEH project involved a significant shift in focus, now engaging students to actually write for the web. We sensed that students would be as engaged as we are by the creative potential of web authoring.
One immediate result of the project is that we quickly became educated in the ways that writing for the web is different from writing for print, or writing the standard academic essay. We now use the term "cyber rhetoric" to identify the particular rhetorical challenges of writing for the web. Students who engage in such writing need to be prepared for the unique composition challenges, such as the role of graphic enhanced design and hypertextuality, that are a part of the web environment. They need to be prepared for specific audience expectations, becoming familiar with the browsing and information gathering patterns of web readers and web-communication codes of web readers. And students, of course, require specific instruction in web research tools and strategies, especially involving responsible use of sources.
Through the course of this project we also confirmed our suspicion that the wealth of cultural, multicultural and literary sources available on the web could provide a rich resource for engaging and informing students about multicultural literary topics and issues well beyond the boundaries of our isolated community. As students completed their initial web work and moved toward their individual project designs, their excitement over these available materials was evident and the instructor skillfully led them from that excitement to clearly focused web projects.
The student web projects themselves are the strongest affirmation of the importance of engaging students to be creators rather than mere consumers of web content. Students accomplished a great deal in the ten-week quarter. The eight completed (and published) student web sites consistently display graphic skills, clear organization around a useful menu, and responsible citation practices. All of the web sites to some degree, and the best of them to a large degree, develop around a key purpose that the student writer has wanted her web page to achieve, and all students strove to communicate their purpose to their audience. Thus, the students have made clear contributions to academic dialogue around their topics; they do not simply compile long lists of web links. Sonja Menard's Latina Authors site (www.cocc.edu/hum299/colleen/latinawomen/index.htm), for example, is subtitled "Power through Education," and her stated focus makes clear that the authors she studied have a common bond, enabling the site user to study a specific topic: "Most of the women I chose have two things in common, the belief that education is vital for women and more women must be trained to be self sufficient." Colleen Mathews, author of African Folktales (www.cocc.edu/hum299/colleen/african/index.htm), states, "My purpose in these web pages is to take a selection of African folk tales and try to cross-reference them to other cultures using motif and type classification." The student outcomes make clear that the dynamic writing environment of the web, with its multimedia capabilities and the gratification of immediate publication, can arouse both creativity and persistence in student writers.
It should be noted that the course carried no prerequisite for previous instruction in web design or web authoring software, and it did include instruction in the use of FrontPage web-authoring software, instruction in web citation requirements, prompts and practices for each design stage, faculty review (across the disciplines) twice during the quarter and frequent instructor and peer review. This effort involved enormous dedication on the part of the instructor (Cora Agatucci), support staff (Barbara Klett) and the students themselves. Our assessment of this experiment has always involved this central question: where does this course belong in the curriculum? We have concluded that the materials and methods generated through this project can support curricular growth and change in at least three ways at our institution:
1. A writing course with a cyber
A Cyber Rhetoric
Advantages: The writing demands of the web are clearly specific enough to require direct instruction, instruction at a rhetorical level not obviously part of web design and web production classes taught within Computer Science departments. The web template flattens the learning curve for students and also reduces the distractions of graphic design and expression (though we continue to debate whether the reduction of these features results in fatal change to the web writing experience). Clearly, becoming web authors enables students to achieve an appreciation of the intellectual property rights so easily ignored on the web, and clearly most students are already doing most of their research paper work on the web. So the overlay in outcomes between this course and the English Composition research paper courses are sufficiently close.
Disadvantages: The focus on writing and research may eliminate too many of the elements that led to the striking student persistence during the experimental course: the opportunity to create, to express, to soar. And this is a difficult option to pursue in that no such course exists in Oregon, especially as an alternative to the required WR 123 (the research paper course). Overall, this alternative does not answer two of the most central of our original aims; the aims of harnessing the creative lure of the web and of connecting our students across disciplines and to other cultures and points-of-view.
Recommendation: We will continue to pursue this option by offering footnoted sections of WR 123 that will have a web focus.
Advantages: The students would come in prepared for the course requirements, thus making the workload for students and instructor more manageable. The resources of the web would continue to be harnessed for students interested in these topics, and the students would continue to express their unhampered creativity.
Disadvantages: The course might not be regularly scheduled, because it would not be a requirement in any program, though some colleges would accept the course as fulfilling a general humanities elective requirement. Because it would be an elective course, it might attract fewer students. Instruction in cyber rhetoric, which we expect to become a greater need for writing students, might not be regularly sponsored in our curriculum, unless we also proceed with the Cyber Rhetoric course.
Recommendation: Both the completion of the spring 2001 course and our preparation for the American Studies Association presentation, and the responses we will get from colleagues at the national American Studies Association convention in November 2001, will provide us opportunities to further explore, refine and promote this course.
Advantages: Such a space would support a number of our original objectives: allowing students to work together or individually to produce and publish work in almost any of their courses; supporting student creativity; involving the kind of faculty oversight necessary to ensure good web authoring and web citation practices. Most importantly, this option supports our aim of increasing opportunities for students to work across the disciplines. And this option also could lead to some new curricular directions. For example, we have been interesting in creating a student web zine to publish student creative writing. And such a web space provides a venue for development of student and staff expertise in support of two degrees now in development, an applied communications degree and a multimedia minor being created by our new partner, Oregon State University, now in the process of developing a branch university at our campus.
Disadvantages: The cost and the requirement for close faculty and staff involvement to maintain the pedagogical and quality standards might be more than the college is willing to provide.
Recommendation: We have begun to seek grant support for this project, and we will need to consider ways of generating FTE and tuition for student work in this instructional web zone.
Central Oregon Community College
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