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Engaging Ethically and Actively in Online Communities

Posted by on Tuesday, January 8, 2019 in Resource.

by Chelsea Yarborough, Graduate Teaching Fellow, and Derek Bruff, Director

The CFT’s learning community on teaching digital literacies concluded its fall conversation series on November 13th with a discussion of the ways instructors can help students participate productively in online communities. To get the conversation started, Derek Bruff, CFT director, invited each of our three panelists to talk about their experiences intersecting their classrooms with online communities and helping students engage in civil and respectful dialogue in digital environments.

Jessie Hock, assistant professor of English, started her remarks by reframing the question. “My goal isn’t to make students civil and respectful,” she said. “My goal is to make them activists.” She noted that the online world isn’t entirely pleasant. That means she works to protect her students from it, but also empower them to change it. Hock described a Wikipedia project for her course on early modern women’s writing. Like writing on Wikipedia, writing by women in England in the 16th and 17th centuries tended to be non-professional and collaborative. But early modern women’s writing isn’t well represented on Wikipedia, in part because much of the relevant scholarship doesn’t appear in traditional books and journals; it’s found in collaborative online communities. For these reasons, Hock asked her students to assess the quality of existing Wikipedia articles pertaining to the women they were studying, and to suggest edits to the relevant Wikipedia pages. Students weren’t required to make those edits, but many opted to do so. Hock concluded that her goal is to help students become interventionist in online communities (in this case, Wikipedia) and to change the nature and structure of those communities with their participation.

Continuing the conversation, Amanda Little, writer in residence in English, passionately talked about her course “The Art of Blogging.” Students in the course study the evolving literary form of blogging and how journalism, particularly investigative journalism, works in online environments. As part of this work, students are asked to launch their own blogs using WordPress or Medium, publishing 1000 words each week exploring a variety of topics of interest. Little said that one of her goals is to help students “throw off the chains of academic writing,” as they graduate and move into professional settings. She helps her students develop storytelling tools to become better communicators, regardless of their major, and to understand how the field of journalism is grappling with questions of truth and accuracy. Little points to the important role of audience in this work, noting how excited her students are to share their work with authentic audiences beyond the course.

Closing the opening remarks, Patrick Murphy, senior lecturer in Spanish, talked about the joys and challenges of using Twitter as a component of his language classrooms. “My motivation to use Twitter,” Murphy said, “came from the reality that it’s hard to capture culture in a textbook.” His commitment to students knowing the culture of the language and not simply the mechanics pushed him to consider innovate avenues to invite students into authentic language learning. Murphy had students create new twitter accounts specifically for the class, then tweet about issues and articles they saw that complemented the material in the class. For instance, during a unit on Costa Rice, Murphy might ask students to tweet five resources pertaining to the country and its culture. He quickly found that students didn’t put a lot of critical thought into this out-of-class assignment, often not reading the articles they tweeted. So Murphy moved the assignment into the classroom, where he could structure their time finding and sharing resources via Twitter. By projecting the student tweets on the big screen during class, then examining those tweets with his students in small- and large-group discussions, Murphy is able to teach cultural competency and information literacy.

Following the opening remarks from the three panelists, the conversation expanded to the rest of the participants in the room. One of the questions that gained a lot of energy was “Do you do the thing that you ask your students to do?” In some form, the answer from all of the panelists was “yes.”  Jessie Hock noted that she has contributed to Wikipedia articles, noting that when students are asking questions and need help building their understanding of the tool, she knows how to help them navigate. Patrick Murphy followed by saying that he, too, had engaged in his platform (Twitter) more intently in order to help students engage well. As a professional writer, Amanda Little named that as a motivation for her class and work. She has a lot of experience as an investigative journalist on the online platforms that she helps students to enter. The conclusion from this conversation was that it is critical to know the online community that you are trying to engage your students with because it will help you as they are trying to navigate both the technical and social aspects of these community-based assignments and activities.

One of the greatest gifts of the conversation was the important questions that professors should ask themselves as they are preparing to invite students into online communities:

  • Do I know this online platform as a participant and how will I then teach my students how to engage?
  • What parameters will I put around the assignments and what ethical obligations do I feel my students have to the communities they are participating in?
  • How am I inviting students into a dialogue in online communities? How do they respond in conflict and/or what is the expectation for overall engagement?
  • What is my “why” for having students do this work in this particular online community?

In the end, we concluded that engagement in online communities can add a really impactful experience for students and also offer them transferable skills that they can use well beyond the classroom.  Often students are excited to try something different and they can become more invested as they take ownership of their own place within the community they are engaging. Connecting with others outside of the classroom can also be motivating. Patrick Murphy described an assignment developed by his department colleague Melanie Forehand in which students read and analyzed journal entries from a Spanish soldier who was imprisoned in a German concentration camp during World War Two. Those entries are posted by the Twitter account @deportado4443 managed by the soldier’s nephew. As Murphy’s students interacted with the Twitter account, the nephew noticed, leading to a productive conversation between the students and the nephew and, in turn, bringing a piece of history alive for the students.

The “Teaching Digital Literacies” learning community continues this spring! If you’re interested in participating, contact CFT director Derek Bruff to be added to the mailing list.

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