If You Move Your Blog

Posted on by Brooke Lester

By all means, go ahead and change your blog location. I've done it twice myself with, first from to Squarespace, then from Squarespace 5 to Squarespace 6.

But seriously, keep your links intact. I mean, you wanted me to link to your posts, right? And bookmark them? And suggest them to others?

If you find yourself saying something like this:

Please update your bookmarks, favorites, feeds, links, etc.

At least forget the euphemism, and say it like this:

I have broken all your bookmarks, favorites, feeds, links, etc.

Please delete all your bookmarks, favorites, feeds, links, etc.

After all, we were close once, weren't we?

[If You Move Your Blog was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/10/03. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

What Makes it Play-skool? Fear and Safety in the Learning Space

Posted on by Brooke Lester

Play-skool and peer review: Commonly, I have my class write a project in stages, with peer review of each stage. Every time I introduce peer review to my learners, they go willingly enough through the exercise, submitting their work to one another and accomplishing their reviews. Then, as reliably as heartbreak, one of them asks optimistically, "So when will we get our real feedback?"

"You just got it," I reply with the even voice of long practice. Cue chill breeze and blowing dry leaves in twilight.

On the next round, the peer reviews are always better: more detailed, more genuine, in closer engagement with the assignment rubrics. The reviewers tackle their assessments as if something were actually at stake, which of course it is.

They have discerned the truth: peer review, in my class, is not "Play-skool." It's the real thing. They are afraid to let one another down, and they should be. A "safe space" is suddenly something that it's up to them to construct.

Slight shift of gears: In a recent faculty discussion about race and racism, we compared notes about how we address systemic racism (or, for another example, systemic mysogyny) as a subject matter in our various courses. As often happens, a colleague mentioned the frustration expressed in class (sometimes professionally, more often unskillfully) by the white man, usually young, who feels targeted in such a discussion. We talked about how to facilitate a safe space for him, but at the same time, we agreed that that's just the way the ball bounces: "The learning space is never completely safe. And shouldn't be." If it were completely safe, it wouldn't be a learning space.

It would be Play-skool.

So. On the one hand, I absolutely believe that the creative activity of making meaning can only happen in a space where fear has been removed…or removed enough, or removed in the right places. I have determined this in the crucible of fairly long experience. But at the same time, if all possible fears have been removed, if the space is made unsurpassingly safe…then we're in Play-skool, and learning is done.

Thoughts coming later on parsing this out more completely. What are your thoughts on fear, learner safety, and Play-skool?

[What Makes it Play-skool? Fear and Safety in the Learning Space was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/10/01. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Twitter Chats for "Introduction to the Old Testament"

Posted on by Brooke Lester

Something new this year for the online Intro class: weekly Twitter chat.

How It's Done

On Twitter, you normally see the posts of people you follow, in an undifferentiating stream with the latest posts at the top. However, you can also view a Search window, and see all posts that include your search term…including posts from people you do not follow. So if a set of participating users agree to include a shared search term in their posts, then they can use that Search window as a chat forum. By convention, such a search term is proceeded by the hash sign (#), and is called a "hashtag": for example, our hashtag is the hash sign followed by our course number, #11500x. We meet Tuesday evenings 7:00-8:00 pm, CT.

Our Course

This course is "Introduction to the Old Testament," a fully online course with about 20 learners, taught by me at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. The course is completely asynchronous: there is no time at which all learners must participate together in real time. Also, our learning management system (Moodle) does not include a "virtual classroom" module. (It could, but we have not purchased one.) So, a Twitter hashtag chat allows us a space in which to have synchronous engagement with one another.

How It's Going

I am using the one-hour weekly Twitter chats to engage "big ideas" or "essential questions" that are foundational to the tasks they are accomplishing in the course; for example, "What is 'academic biblical studies'?"; "Academic biblical studies as public work"; "Biblical literature as narrative art"; and so on. Participation is voluntary, and has ranged from 10-14 learners (of my 20) to a scant 2.

Since Twitter is a public forum, our followers from outside of our class have discovered our chat and joined us. This includes my colleagues who teach biblical studies elsewhere (some known personally to me, but not all), former students, and other interested outsiders.

Each week, I have assembled a list of prompts, to keep things going or to get things back on track if necessary. I have not had to use them often, but I feel more comfortable having them ready to hand. Some "template" tweets are a good idea to keep handy though: reminding learners to use the course hashtag, announcing the chat and its topic, inviting lurkers to join in, etc.

Nearly all of my learners are brand new to Twitter. In every class I teach, whether online or face-to-face, I like to incorporate an activity that will introduce most of the learners to a new digital accomplishment of some sort. The idea is not that they should all like Twitter, but that they should have regular, guided experiences of braving new digital tasks.

Have you ever used Twitter chats as a teacher or as a learner? Are there other digital "new frontiers" that are part of your course work this year?

[Twitter Chats for Introduction to Old Testament was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/09/27. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Brooke's Despair

Posted on by Brooke

This weekend I tooted an initial draft of an epigram describing a phenomenon that I would dub, "Brooke's Despair":

Early in term, feedback is most urgent, yet assessments are (early in term) most time-consuming.

On reflection, I would augment it:

Early in the term, prompt assessments are most urgent, yet most time-consuming, and most in competition with other demands.

Learners have got to get feedback into their hands as soon as possible. All of them need to assess their strategies for tackling the course work. All of them need to see how the assignment rubrics (which they have, right?) function in practice. Some of them are going to need to withdraw at some point, and need to begin to become aware of the fact (it costs more the longer you wait). In my own experience, the course has to be designed with short assignments, early in the term, graded promptly.

But assessments are most time-consuming early in the term. If I have a Teaching Assistant, we are still learning one another's routines; they are still getting to know my rubrics; they are still getting to know how I want to exchange files. Neither of us has gotten to know the learners yet. And the learners themselves are exacerbating the problem through their own problems, forgivable (students entering the course late off of the wait list; problems in student housing; books not attained by the book store) or less so (sloppy interaction with course documents or LMS).

And assessments are in competition with every other start-of-term manner of thing. Every committee has its first meeting coming up. Everything left hanging in the last term demands to be picked up again. Email boxes fill at a soul-crushing rate. The kids are also back in school, so lives at home are in transition ("Hey, Dad, I'm in accelerated math this year! Can you help me?").

Early in the term, prompt assessments are most urgent, yet most time-consuming, and most in competition with other demands.

[Brooke's Despair was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/09/17. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Shorter Colorado State University (CSU) Story

Posted on by Brooke

So, shorter CSU story: The Establishment went to Vegas with the economy, consumed the winnings whole, scorched the earth in their wake, and now their representatives in the academy (along with their relatively few multi-generational "made men") prepare to dispose of the casualties as Unpersons.

K tx. Please ignore my unsurprised, slacker, vacant stare.

Or did you think that this was just about PhDs "growing stale after three years", and that the permanent erasure of those sidelined by the crash of 2008-2010 was a coincidence here?

"They're gone, that's all. They're gone. And we couldn't do nuttin' about it."[1]

Lee Bessette asks, "Why do we fight?" It is a great question, though I've never thought of the post-boomer generations "fighting" against the self-serving wastefulness of the Baby-Boomer masters of the universe. It's more about being like water, fitting into the nooks and crevices, usually digital crevices (library science, online learning, "alt-ac"). If it's a "fight," then it's not "fighting the power," but rather, "a fight to survive."

(CSU has repented of having used its outside voice and has papered over the mistake. It will now return to speaking its name indoors.)

[Update: Harvard too. h/t @readywriting]

[1]: h/t Driftglass.

[Shorter Colorado State University (CSU) Story was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/09/14. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

See You at THATCamp Hybrid Pedagogy

Posted on by Brooke

It's official: I will be attending THATCamp Hybrid Pedagogy in Portland OR, on October 20-21.

Last year, I made it to THATCamp Pedagogy in Poughkeepsie NJ. I would love to see a more-or-less annual pedagogy unconference unfold, in some form or other.

More as we get close, but you can expect some live-tweeting and blogging from THATCamp Hybrid Ped.

[See You at THATCamp Hybrid Pedagogy was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/09/13. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

The Real First Day, RBoC

Posted on by Brooke

Classes start a week from tomorrow. But as of today, summer is officially over.

Today begins our 2-day faculty retreat. Then, the rest of the week is new-student orientation. Then, a relatively joyless Labor Day weekend filled with the last-minute labors of course preparation. Then finally, "Good morning, eager young minds."

Here are my start-of-term Random Bullets of Crap:

  • Try to chill out and enjoy faculty retreat for two days;
  • Prepare for student orientation session on online coursework and our Bible Content course;
  • Get advisees safely settled into their sockets for the term;
  • Finish planning, syllabus, and LMS build for online course Intro to Old Testament;
  • Complete last set of Flickr slides for face-to-face course Elementary Biblical Hebrew;
  • Make progress in home stretch of online course in online pedagogy;
  • Make long-postponed repairs to my suits: buttons, hems;
  • Office housekeeping: get plant out of water pitcher into planter, and swap out cafeteria plastic tableware for a couple of sets of proper, if cheap, table settings.

Where are you in the start of the term? What are your own random bullets?

[The Real First Day, RBoC was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/08/27. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Late Work

Posted on by Brooke

I am changing my "late work policy"...again.

My policies go through stages: I slash-and-burn down to apodictic simplicity ("Thou shalt not kill"). Then over the years, as "edge cases" or unforeseen scenarios stack up, the policy grows to resemble the casuistic laws of Exodus or Deuteronomy ("...but if…then…").

The Old

I had had my late work policy leveled to an elegant simplicity:

No late work shall be accepted (except in the case of emergency or disability documented with the office of the Dean of Students, and then at the discretion of the instructor).

Problem One: Volume.

Way, way more students than you think will turn in late work anyway. Distressingly often, they will acknowledge that they had read the policy, but assume nonetheless that there is a grace period. ("Well I just thought….," they begin. In the immortal words from Bull Durham's Crash Davis, "Don't think, Meat; just throw.") Either I cave, and that's it for my policies from then on; or I stick, and it takes only a very few of these episodes to add up to a huge overhead in time-consuming administrative fiddle-faddle. And all this time, what I want to be doing is attend to students accomplishing their work outside the blast zone of "Well I just thought..."

Problem Two: What about us oh-so-hip instructors who assign significant amounts of collaborative projects?

Late collaborative work is a nightmare. It is THE nightmare of us oh-so-hip instructors who assign these projects. The AWOL student's peers are thrown into a tailspin and have to be reassured that they won't be "dinged" for lost productivity. Then, late in the game, the slacker wants to suddenly show up and pitch in...creating more chaos than if they just stayed away from the project altogether, since they have no idea what's going on.

So. Casuistic law: Let there be separate policies for individual work and collaborative work. ("…but if the attacker did not lay in wait for him, but God let him fall into the attacker's hand…").

The New

This is what my new attempt at a late work policy might look like:

Late or Missing Work:

Tip: plan your progress in such a way that you will have something to submit on time, even if it isn't perfect. (Fact: work drafted at the last minute is imperfect anyway.)

Individual Work: Except where noted elsewhere in the syllabus, late individual work will be penalized at a rate of one letter grade during the first 24 hours, and one letter grade during each additional interval of 24 hours.

Collaborative Work: This includes any writing to which peers are expected to reply. When somebody fails to accomplish collaborative work on time, she prevents her peers from succeeding. Penalties for late collaborative work will be assessed at the sole discretion of the teaching staff. Possible penalties include:

  • a score of zero (0): this is the default penalty;
  • a non-zero failing score (for example, 60%);
  • score reduction at some rate based on how late the work arrives;
  • loss of later opportunities for participation (for example, if the project has "moved on" without the late participant).

Learners will not be offered "make up work" to compensate for late or missing work.

The You

So tell me: what improvements can you offer, or what experiences do you have with a late work policy?

[Late Work was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/08/24. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Making Better Ancient-Language Reading Exams

Posted on by Brooke

Some modern-language "reading exams" reflect a sound pedagogy that 1) reflects communicative learning of the target language, 2) offers clarity of expectations for assessment. I would love to see graduate reading exams in Hebrew and Greek achieve that same pedagogical footing, incorporating an extemporaneous oral component and rubrics made available to the learner.

The "reading exam" is well known to many graduate students. Because introductory and intermediate foreign-langauge courses vary from school to school, most Ph.D. programs will ask applicants to take a reading exam to show their proficiency in a given "research language" (often German, French, Italian). In some cases, a program might ask for a similar examination for an ancient ("dead") language: in my field, for example, Hellenistic Greek or Biblical Hebrew.

Reading exams tend to vary with the idiosyncracies of the examining instructor. A departmental guideline might offer expectations or options regarding format: our own offers the student a choice of having two "unseen" texts to translate, or else having to answer comprehension questions (posed in English) on both an "unseen" text and a set of short "seen" texts. Beyond the formatting guidelines, though, expectations are usually pretty opaque. How long will it be? Will the content be related to the learner's field of study? What kinds of errors are important? Is it better to turn in an incomplete exam that is error-free in what it accomplishes, or is it better to finish with some parts left really rough? "Only the Shadow knows."

Some modern language reading exams reflect an expectation that the student has really learned to communicate extemporaneously in the target language, for example by an oral component with "Q and A" conducted in that language. To my knowledge, exams in Hebrew and Greek never include this, because so very few seminaries or divinity schools teach biblical languages using communicative-language/second-language-acquisitions methods. (The overwhelmingly common model is to teach the elementary linguistics of the target language; believe it or not, in many courses, the target material is not even read out loud by the learner.)

Here's what I would like to see in ancient language reading exams:

  1. Extemporaneous, oral component: This could be small or large. At minimum, the exam itself could be simple translation, but preceded by a "social" exchange in the target language (welcoming the student, pleasantries, getting settled). At most, the entire exam could be a discussion, in the target language, of readings that have been accomplished ahead of time by the student. I might like to see an exam that splits the difference:
    • a brief social exchange in the target language;
    • simple translation of a reading not seen before by the learner;
    • a handful of comprehension questions, in the target language, concerning a reading that the learner has pre-read.
  2. Rubrics for assessment: The truth is, not every mistake counts equally in assessment, and (depending on the assessor) some mistakes won't count at all. For example, an assessor might not detract from the student's score if she appears to transform a passive form into an active form while preserving the correct meaning. These matters should be agreed upon within a department, and made available to the student in a rubric.
  3. Word count expectations: In a timed exam, how many words/minute can the student expect to be asked to translate? This needn't be the same for all languages and all programs, but again should be made clear in the rubric. From the very few examples I have been able to put my hand to, I think that 4+ words/minute (250/hour) is reasonable for modern research languages; for ancient languages (Latin, Hebrew, Greek) I would like to think that the same expectation is within reach, while about half that (2-3 words/minute) is usual.

The first item could only be used, of course, with a learner whose instruction has prepared her for it. The second and third items, however, should be incorporated into every program's guidelines for foreign-language reading exams.

What is your experience with "reading exams"? Does your experience with them give you grounds to critically assess my observations or suggestions?

[Making Better Ancient-Language Reading Exams was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/08/22. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Free Your Twitter-Using Learners from the Car Boot? It Will Cost You

Posted on by Brooke

A novel and exciting business model seems to keep coming up a lot lately, one that educators using social media might keep an eye on. It's so "out there" that it might as well be fantasy or science fiction. In fact, here, I'll draw on an episode of the TV show Angel (spin-off from the better-known Buffy the Vampire Slayer) for an example; the scene is a classic ransom swap:

Italian Demon: "You give me the money, I give you the head."
(Angel and Spike stare at him blankly.)
Italian Demon: "You give me the money…I give you the head."
(Angel and Spike stare blankly.)
Italian Demon: "Money, head. Money, head."

What we expect, of course, is that the Italian Demon will make the head freely available to the protagonists, while accepting advertising revenue on the side. Naturally, the Italian Demon would then be free to negotiate with his advertisers concerning how the head might be festooned with banner ads; or whether Angel and Spike might be invited to choose their advertising experience before accepting the head (and their personal preferences sold as data to marketers). Since Angel and Spike are themselves paying nothing for the head, they are comfortably excluded from all decision-making concerning the transaction, and if they don't like the terms, they'll have plenty of friends to admonish them not to complain about free stuff.

But here, instead, Angel and Spike are paying directly for the head. By spending their own money, they become partners in the transaction, rather than passive recipients of whatever the Italian Demon and his actual partners (his advertisers) choose to deliver. (In fact, Angel and Spike will use this agency to decide to fight the Italian Demon instead of pay him, and the Italian Demon will give them a bomb on a short fuse instead of the head. But anyway.)

It's a powerful idea. Earlier this year, I moved this site from to Squarespace. I did this for a handful of reasons, but one of them is that, since I pay for the service, I get 24/7 living-person customer support. ("You give me the money, I give you the head.")

I wrote last week about some troubling developments at Twitter. As most of us know, Twitter's partners are not its users, but its advertisers: as Jason Lefkowitz has said (quoting Dave Winer), users aren't even riding in the backseat, they're locked in the trunk. Most users won't care much as "promoted Tweets" by BP and KFC take over their feeds, and as Twitter rubs out 3rd-party Twitter applications in order to provide users with a "consistent (i.e., Twitter-controlled) user experience." But it won't just be nerdy app developers that lose out: educators, for example, will likely lose the ability to use Twitter in ways that they choose (like with Storify), if their pedagogical choices don't match up with Twitter's (potentially ever-changing) "rules of the road."

A group of app developers have gone off and created a Twitter alternative, "app dot net." Users pay (currently $50/year) to keep the service working and growing, and so the proprieter's business is with the users, rather than with advertisers. Whereas Twitter is chopping off the development of 3rd-party applications, AppDotNet is largely inhabited by such developers. And here's my point: if as an educator, I want to see a certain kind of user-experience for my learners, then in principle, I can create the app I want or contract with a developer to create it for me.

"You give me the money, I give you the head." It's a powerful idea.

I do love getting free and cheap stuff on the web. I willingly sit through commercials on Hulu. I grudgingly hand over my personal consumer habits to Google. It's one way to do things. But it's not the only way. And for educators who have a stake in taking ownership of the "user experience" and, and in multiplying the possibilities for the learner's ability to experience and manipulate of web content, riding locked in the trunk is not always going to be the best way.

[Free Your Twitter-Using Learners from the Car Boot? It Will Cost You was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/08/20. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Twitter to Learners and Teachers: Run Along and Play...Somewhere Else

Posted on by Brooke

Twitter has published the coming changes to how it allows applications (programs) to use its service, and these changes spell debilitating problems for educators who use Twitter.

Teachers on Twitter overwhelmingly favor some form of "active learning" or constructivist pedagogy: whether in face-to-face or online courses, the idea is that students learn by doing, making, building (often collaboratively). As part of a typical learning cycle, the learner is exposed to knowledge or information or has an experience facilitated by the course designer, and then goes on to make something in response. By working (often with others) to create something (a paper, a debate, a presentation, a tool), the learner makes original connections between data points and thereby constructs new meanings for herself. The result is a perception-changing experience of the subject matter. Make sense? Making a thing > making meaning.

Twitter's changes will make it impossible for many educators on Twitter to facilitate the kinds of activities that accomplish this. For one depressing example, take Storify. Educators use the dickens out of Storify, for good reason. After a student has had some instructor-facilitated, varied experience mediated through (say) Twitter, blog posts, news articles, Facebook, and so on, she can use Storify to make meaning of that experience, and to create a digital narrative of that experience for others. But look at Twitter's "rule 5a" for Time lines:

Tweets that are grouped together into a timeline should not be rendered with non-Twitter content. e.g. comments, updates from other networks.

As far as I can see, this is a bullet in the head for the use of Storify with Twitter.

The "big picture" of Twitter's changes to its API can be seen in the quadrant at the bottom of the announcement…or even better, in Dan Wineman's improvement to the graphic. As I tweeted before, the graphic amounts to this:

  • business engagement, business analytics, consumer analytics = GOOD.
  • consumer engagement = BAD.

In Rene Ritchie's words, "Twitter wants to marginalize apps used by me, and maximize apps that would use me and my data."

Welcome to the Facebook-ization of Twitter, the perhaps inevitable result in services that are free to consumers and depend on leveraging their attention to advertisements. In a later post: "Welcome to App-dot-net."

[Twitter to Learners and Teachers: Run Along and Play...Somewhere Else was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/08/17. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Participant Pedagogy: a MOOCMOOC Production

Posted on by Brooke

(This week, I am a learner in a Massive Open Online Course—a MOOC—that is on the topic of Massive Open Online Courses. Yes, it's a Moocmooc. Our assignment today is a short post about "participant pedagogy.")

In Jesse's post today and elsewhere, he kicks "learner-centered learning" up a notch (Emeril style!): for the course designer, it's no longer just a matter of asking, "What does the learner need in order to accomplish the learning that the course asks of her?" It goes further, asking, "What role does the learner need to take in joining in the design of the course during the course itself?" How do I design a course such that the learners, as part of their learning, make decisions about the structure and expectations of the course?

This raises for me a distinction that I have learned regarding course design: the difference between closed-ended "selected response" assessments (multiple choice, short answer, matching, true/false) and open-ended "constructed response" assessments (learning logs, presentations, discussion, portfolios, productions such as artwork). When we talk about these, we usually are talking about how to assess a student's control of a subject matter: geology, history, a language, mathematics, or whatever.

But Jesse's post makes me review the ways in which I empower students to participate in course design, and I realize that it is mostly in a "selected response" style: I allow the learners to choose among options that I have set. For example, for their final project, I will give the learners a set of rubrics that tell them what that project must accomplish, then I let them choose between, say, a thesis paper or a digital visual essay ("selected response"). What I have resisted doing is to allow them an open-ended choice: "Go ahead and come up with something that will accomplish the requirements of the rubric" ("constructed response").

My reasons for resisting this have more to do with how I perceive my own limitations than theirs: What if I fail to equip them to make good choices? (And by "good choices," I don't even mean "choices that lead to a good product"; I mean, "What if they make choices that don't even lead to a learning process? What if they don't even "fail well"?)

If you are an instructor, what kinds of "participant power" have you given your learners to shape their learning experience: closed-ended "selected response" or open-ended "constructed response"? If you are a student, what kinds of "participant power" have you been given? What kind have you wanted? What has happened as a result?

[Participant Pedagogy: a MOOCMOOC Production was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/08/15. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

First Day of School! So Hit Snooze Again, Already

Posted on by Brooke

Everyone brush your hair, hang your name cards around your necks, and gather outside with your best neighborhood friends while your family takes pictures: it's the first day of school!

My summer session begins today. It's on online class, six weeks in length (therefore "intensive"). The course is "Introduction to the Old Testament," essentially an introduction to historical-critical and literary-critical biblical studies. There's a separate course focusing on Bible content.

Of course, "first day" is a relative term. The learners have already accomplished some minor tasks in the last weeks: logging on, doing a one-question "Choice" about whether they plan to pre-read the textbook, and taking a diagnostic quiz called "Is Online Learning for You?"

For my part, the "first day" is--quite intentionally--a bit of an anti-climax. For one thing, I haven't slept well. I never sleep well the night before the first day. It doesn't matter whether it's a face-to-face course or online. First-day jitters, I got 'em. For another, an online course is largely asynchronous: there's no three-hour block during which we've all got to be "on" for one another. Instead, we're all "on" for one another off-and-on throughout the week.

So, I've developed strategies for the "first day":

  • No hunting trips: Undoubtedly there are a few students who have not accomplished all of the pre-course activities, or whose registration is in some kind of limbo. I have been in contact with them regularly in the weeks and days before the term. It's tempting (especially to us tightly-wound types) to want to get all that buttoned down. (OMG!! It's the first day!!) Forget that. Unless they reach out to me (and it's great if they do), it can wait until the second day. Or the third. Hey, it's their course.
  • Get a late start: As surprising as this is to me, most of the learners have not taken a vacation day from their employer to celebrate the first day by jumping onto the LMS at dawn. Or even at nine. A few of them will bang out their Introduction before work or on lunch, but if the earliest deadline isn't until Wednesday, why shouldn't I plan to get some additional exercise on Monday morning? Eat a hot breakfast for once? Pet the dog and catch up on my Instapaper?
  • Smile before Christmas: I get the thinking behind "don't smile before Christmas." I just don't accept the costs in trust, good will, and positive reinforcement. The first day is a great time to catch students doing things right and, as publicly as possible, pasting a gold star on that and posting it to the refrigerator. A new course is like any other fear-inducing new environment (say, prison, or an alcoholic home, or the Internet): noobs will have their radar up for "cues" about what will be punished and what will be rewarded. Reward is more motivating and cleaner in its outcomes, so I try to catch good behavior early on.

What have you learned about yourself and "first days"? How do your routines reflect that?

[First Day of School! So Hit Snooze Again, Already was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/06/25. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]


Posted on by Brooke

The "Unconference"

Many of my readers will already be familiar with the "Unconference" model of the professional conference, especially through its use at THATCamps. Those who aren't familiar with THATCamp or the "unconference" can get a quick history in Episode 2 of the Gradhacker Podcast. Briefly, an "unconference" is an academic conference for which the sessions and agendas are, for the most part, established collaboratively on-site, at the outset of the conference.

I've been to one THATCamp, and was deeply impressed by how well the on-site collaborative planning went. The veteran supporters clearly had a lot of experience, and used that experience to empower newcomers to fully participate efficiently and successfully in the session planning. I wound up taking some notes on what made it work well.

  • Canvassing for provisional ideas before the event: in the days and weeks before the unconference, attendees can write tentative proposals into a comment section on the THATCamp's blog.
  • An intentional eye on "splitting and lumping": watching for opportunities to split a compound idea into separate sessions and to lump similar or related ideas into single sessions.
  • Fixed "Bootcamps": an anchor set of planned sessions, showing enough variety that many tentative proposals can be hooked into the Bootcamps rather than require a session of their own.
  • Asking attendees what sessions should not be held concurrently. Attendees loved this.

So, this got me thinking about what else I could "Un." This Spring, I took a shot at "un-ning" my Moodle training sessions for faculty and Ph.D. students.

The "Untraining"

Most of our faculty and Ph.D. students have had "basic training" and some experience with our Moodle learning management system, which we have used only since Summer 2011. I wanted to continue to offer "Moodle for Users" advanced training, but since this is an entirely optional training, I have to make it attractive to a lot of really busy academics who have other, more immediate, demands on their time.

So, I set it up as an Untraining, using the strategies listed above. I would canvass for ideas ahead of time, encourage splitting and lumping, and offer one or two fixed concepts to be taught. (At this time, I am the sole facilitator, so concurrent sessions is not an issue…though I'd love attendance to rise until it becomes an issue.)

Attendance was small, largely for institutional reasons; for example, many faculty tend to arrange their schedules to come onto campus for packed, marathon TWRs, while working from home on MF. And a lot of our Ph.D.'s commute a good ways. Nontheless, participants responded positively to the "Untraining" aspects of the advanced training, and remarked that they were relieved to find the session worth their while.

In 2012-13, I will look for ways to make attendance easier, and to fully "market" the advantages of the Untraining model in my invitations.

Have you "un-ned" anything besides a conference? What might you "un," and what sorts of challenges or promise do you think it has?

["Untraining" was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/06/14. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Re-thinking My Creative Commons Licenses

Posted on by Brooke

I'm rethinking my copyrights.

Bethany Nowviskie wrote recently that she is dropping the "no-commercial-use" specification—the clause that prevents people from making money off her work—from the Creative Commons copyright she holds on much of what she makes. Briefly, she concludes that, if she is already making the content available for distribution, and requiring that the work be attributed to her, then the "no commercial use" clause only functions to slow the work's dissemination…and thereby to limit the dissemination of her name and ideas.

Creative Commons offers six kinds of license (scroll down). All six require others to grant you attribution for your work. To select a license for what you make, you have to decide whether others may re-mix your work into derivative works; whether others may use your work for commercial projects; and whether those using your work must license their work with the same license you have chosen.

Recently, I was collecting photographs from Flickr to use in a recorded presentation. In this case, the presentation is to be published on our school's web site. While we won't be "selling" the images, and the purpose of the presentation is educational, we are putting the video next to an Admissions link: not very different from how an overtly commercial site might wrap the images in clickable advertisements. Therefore, I had to restrict myself to Flickr images employing Creative Commons licenses permitting commercial use. You know, that thing that I myself don't allow for my own Flickr images. And I thought of Bethany. If someone wants to use my Hebrew learning images, and is willing to grant me attribution, do I want them to be frightened off by the fear that using them in a tuition-based context will violate my "non-commercial" clause? Even if they're used in a work published for profit…well, look, I do make some stuff for private distribution and (hollow laughter) potential profit, but if I've made something for open distribution anyway, I don't lose anything if someone incorporates it into a non-free work, and I gain by their attribution.

This weekend, in response to a Prof Hacker post, I was experimenting with making my syllabi available on GitHub for other teachers to "fork" (duplicate in whole or in part to re-mix into their own "branch" syllabi). I began to attach a "CC BY-NC" license (allowing distribution and derivative works but forbidding commercial use), when I thought of Bethany again. Almost anyone creating syllabi is making them for a course that charges tuition, a commercial use. I want my colleagues to use the work without fear, as long as they grant me attribution.

This blog is a different story. For one thing, I do not want the content re-mixed, because words taken out of context combined with attribution sounds to me like a recipe for abuse. Also, the most common commercial use of blog posts—scraping the RSS feed and surrounding the content with ads—is unethical: posts tagged "Education" wind up scraped onto sites that plug the worst of the for-profit-education scams. Here at Anumma, I'll keep the "CC BY-NC-ND" license, allowing distribution with attribution but forbidding re-mixing into derivative works and also forbidding commercial use.

But, the GitHub syllabi (on which I will write more soon) are available for attribution alone, and once I've had time to sit on it a bit, the Flickr images are likely to follow.

What are your copyright practices for your own open work? Do you agree that a "no-commercial-use" license is unnecessarily chilling for educational use?

[Re-thinking My Creative Commons Licenses was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 20121/04/23. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Borrowing Syllabi: Collaborate, Re-mix, Acknowledge

Posted on by Brooke

A number of years back, Chris Heard posted the flowchart [link updated] by which he assessed a certain paper-writing assignment. I have mentioned before that I picked it up and modified it for my own use. At that time, I incorporated much of it into a checklist for the students to consult before submitting the paper. More recently, convinced of the value of rubrics for assessment, I have developed that into a three-column rubric. I realized recently that, some point, in the heat of revision, I had dropped my standard acknowledgment of Chris's original work.

Katharine Harris wrote recently on the value of including acknowledgments in syllabi: if we are smart, we are re-mixing assignments and assessment tools designed by others, and as an ongoing research project in curriculum, a syllabus should reflect that.

"Re-mixing" syllabi created by others (or their elements) is not different from how designers of open-source software "fork" already-existing applications: taking a tool that exists, then copying and modifying it into a new creation, is to create a new "fork" for that tool. Brian Croxell talks about "forking a syllabus," and Lincoln Muller offers tips on using GitHub—an online resource for sharing and forking software code—to collaborate on and share syllabi, assignments, and assessment tools.

I have begun developing an online lesson for faculty on the value of using plain text [in] the writing process and in collaborative writing, and a section of that lesson will include the use of GitHub for sharing modules from syllabi: policy statements, projects, assessment tools, and so on. I will plan to work out parts of that lesson here on the blog.

How have you built on tools drawn from others' syllabi? What are your habits regarding acknowledgment?

[Borrowing Syllabi: Collaborate, Re-mix, Acknowledge was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 20121/04/18. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Akma on Uncritical Criticism

Posted on by Brooke

Akma has resumed his blog series, "How to Do Exegesis," with a post describing an example of "critical scholarship" sneaking in uncritical or fallacious moves (like poisoning the well, or ad hominem, or the non sequitur).

Yesterday I applauded the SBL's new "blurb" concerning its standards for "critical" content and argument in presentations offered at its annual meetings. I remarked that a hallmark of critical scholarship is its availability to critique regarding the truth of its premises and the soundness of its arguments. Akma's post is an excellent lesson in what that kind of critique can look like in action.

Go enjoy!

[Akma on Uncritical Criticism was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/04/13. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

"Farewell to SBL" Revisited: Biblical Studies, Religious Faith, and the New "Blurb"

Posted on by Brooke

We've just emerged from that exciting time of year when scholars in biblical and religious studies await word on whether their presentation proposals have been accepted by the sessions of the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion.

Those in the SBL whose proposals are accepted will have found this blurb included in the congratulatory emails that they receive:

Please note that, by submitting a paper proposal or accepting a role in any affiliate organization or program unit session at the Annual or International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, you agree to participate in an open academic discussion guided by a common standard of scholarly discourse that engages your subject through critical inquiry and investigation.

It hardly looks like something to get excited about, unless you see it as one stage in a current unfolding controversy in the field and in the SBL. If you do, then you will know why one scholar of my acquaintance refers to it as "the Hendel clause."


Ron Hendel, in the July/Aug 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, wrote an opinion piece "Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies." There, he criticized the SBL for blurring the distinction between critical (or "secular") biblical study and faith-based biblical study. Examples included the publishing in RBL of book reviews that adopt a non-neutral stance on confessional or denominational reading of the Bible, and having sessions at the SBL Annual Meeting that turn out to presuppose a confessional stance or that proselytize.

The SBL's formal response to Hendel's BAR article refuted the more bombastic and inferential elements of Hendel's opinion piece, without directly addressing the basic question raised: What is the role, in the SBL, of claims whose arguments grant methodological privilege to sectarian dogma or private revelation?

[Update: I do find an email sent to SBL meembers by John Kutsko, as executive director of SBL, in August 2010, in which the substance of Hendel's concerns are addressed more directly. I should add that there, John writes that an SBL initiative to redraft program unit guidelines regarding critical inquiry preceded Hendel's piece.]

Hendel went on to write a follow-up rebutting the SBL's response along with a responsive piece by James Crossley and its comment thread. The matter was well discussed in the blogosphere (search for "Farewell to SBL" in your favorite search engine for more results). Naturally, the affair drew out the sadly predictable proportion of commenters insisting (irrelevantly) that people of faith can do biblical studies too! (a claim not disputed by Hendel and not germane to his opinion piece).

The SBL "blurb"

Against this background, I judge that the new SBL "blurb" cuts through the noise gets things exactly right: Hendel's piece was not about atheism, or about cutting people of faith out of biblical studies. It is not about what people are or are not at all (people of faith, or evangelical, or atheist, or anything). It is about what people do or do not in their scholarship.

Critical Biblical Scholarship: If your argument consists entirely of publicly available evidence and an explicit line of reasoning, subject to critique if found to be logically unsound (for example, depending on premises not demonstrable or on logical fallacies), then what you are doing is open and critical—sometimes called "secular"—biblical scholarship. This is scholarship to which all persons may contribute, regardless of their faith commitments.

Confessional Biblical Theology: If your argument grants methodological place to sectarian dogma or private revelation, then what you are doing is some form of confessional biblical theology. This can be an excellent theological discipline, and in many forms presupposes, and rigorously participates in, the results of critical biblical scholarship. It can be "critical" according to its standards and within the rules of its own game. Nonetheless, this is "in-house" scholarship, conducted in a closed circle of those who assent to the dogma or revelation presupposed in the argument.

Let's look at that SBL "blurb" again, in this light:

Please note that, by submitting a paper proposal or accepting a role in any affiliate organization or program unit session at the Annual or International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, you agree to participate in an open academic discussion guided by a common standard of scholarly discourse that engages your subject through critical inquiry and investigation. (emphases mine)

The substance of Hendel's criticism is, as far as I can see, addressed. At the same time, this excludes nobody in terms of who they are or what they believe. It does restrict SBL sessions to a particular set of activities: open discussion (not limited to a closed circle) guided by a common standard of discourse (not a standard shaped by private confessional claims), involving critical inquiry (nobody's claims are "off limits," by special pleading of privately-held commitments, to evidentiary and logical testing).

What are your own thoughts on the new SBL "blurb"? Does it address the problems described by Hendel? Does it create new problems? What ancillary issues, if any, continue to haunt the background?

["Farewell to SBL" Revisited: Biblical Studies, Faith, and the New "Blurb" was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 20121/04/12. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Blog Discovery: "Academic Workflow for Mac"

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I don't know why I haven't seen this blog already: Academic Workflow on Mac. For me, this blog fits nicely in the gap between the "productivity on the Mac" resources (like Mac Power Users) and the "academic productivity" resources (like Prof Hacker). "Academic Workflow for Mac" looks at familiar critical issues in productivity—note taking, task management, emailing—from the perspective of an academic in higher education…using the Mac OS/iOS.

The blog now has a long-overdue place in my blogroll, and I am sure I will be linking to it often.

The blog author is Aleh Cherp, professor of environmental sciences at Central European University.

[Blog Discovery: "Academic Workflow for Mac" was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/04/11. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Use Verbal Phrases in Bullets, Lists, and Outlines

Posted on by Brooke

Wherever my students have needed to write bulleted lists or other short phrases, I have found myself urging them to use verbal phrases rather than just nouns or noun phrases. This has led me to review and change the way I write outlines, lists, presentation slides, and other works calling for short, undeveloped prose.

Student work

Most of the written projects I assign call for paragraphs of developed prose, rather than outlines or bullet points. But sometimes an outline is unavoidable; our institution requires an outline as part of a student's Masters thesis proposal, for instance. And occasionally, I will offer an assignment that asks for short phrases rather that developed sentences. For example:

  • a presentation whose slides follow the 1/1/5 rule of "no more than five words per slide";
  • a worksheet to be filled in with short phrases;
  • a list of "critical issues" regarding a particular biblical text.

So for example, if the student is writing a Venn diagram comparing the birth narratives in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, I may see items like these. My proposed improvements follow in parentheses.

  • the angel Gabriel (> angel Gabriel appears to Mary)
  • the star (> star guides three wise men)
  • shepherds (> shepherds receive a revelation)

Look how much more content comes to the fore by the inclusion of a verb (often with its object). Similarly, a list of critical issues surrounding a biblical text may look like this:

  • redaction (> vocab changes suggest redaction)
  • genre (> formal elements point to novella genre)
  • the word "virgin/young woman" (> meaning of alma is disputed)

(Note that, in the last example, I offer a passive verbal phrase. This is still verbal! Don't make me go all Pullum on you about the misunderstood and maligned passive verbal construction.)

Again, in the list of critical issues, the inclusion of a verb forces the student to actually articulate the critical issue, rather than merely evoke it with a noun or noun phrase.

I began asking students to incorporate verbal phrases into their bullets and outlines simply so that I could better understand what in the world they believed they were doing. The results have been excellent: often a piece that looked shoddy in its first draft proved to be really well and carefully conceived once I could see the "verbs behind the nouns."

Professional work and productivity

Only as a result of all this have I found myself looking at the outlines and bulleted lists that I produce in my own work, whether for others or, more often, for my own consumption. I find it much easier now to "keep the thread" from one stage of a written piece to the next, instead of staring dumbly at my pre-writing and wondering what the heck my ideas had been.

Some of my readers will know of David Allen's "Getting Things Done" methodology, or will use a task-management tool like OmniFocus. When creating Projects and Tasks in a productivity scheme or tool, it is essential to give them names that have verbs: not "Jill's thesis" but rather "Read Jill's thesis" or "Annotate Jill's thesis" or "Return Jill's thesis"; not "Presentation" but rather "Brainstorm presentation," "Outline presentation," "Collect graphics for presentation," and so on. A noun phrase just sits there and stares vacantly at you. A verbal phrase pokes you with a stick and issues a command.

What is your experience with short phrases in outlines, presentation slides, task management, or wherever you read and use them? Do you do okay with noun phrases alone, or have you also found that you need a verb to bring things into focus, whether in others' writing or in your own?

[Use Verbal Phrases in Bullets, Lists, and Outlines was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/04/09. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]