Teaching English Studies Through Blended Learning

Yesterday I and approximately 30 other colleagues attended Teaching English Studies Through Blended Learning at the School of English, Leeds. Many thanks to David Higgins for organising what was a lively and stimulating event.  I think we all came away with copious notes and heads full of ideas about teaching HE English in the twenty-first century — in part in relation to e-learning, but by no means exclusively.  I particularly appreciated the mix of presentations and opportunties for reflection and discussion.

I kicked off proceedings with “@likeabatoutofhell @ClosetCase @MsDisillusion @TheBlooferLady: Tweeting the Victorians — New Adventures in #OnlineEnglishTeaching”.  This was a way for me to demonstrate how I have integrated a range of discussion forum activities across my two Victorian Literature modules (many described in detail in other posts on this blog).  It was my first chance to share my Fin de Siecle Twitter session with the wider world, in which my class chose a character from a range of late nineteenth-century texts, also chose a twitter name for them, and then tweeted as Dorian Gray/Dr Jekyll/Dracula/assorted New Women characters, etc.  But we did this all within the VLE discussion forum and not on Twitter.  This provoked interesting discussion: some colleagues told me I could have done this in Twitter if I’d wanted, although I expressed concerns about the rest of the twittersphere potentially joining in.  The ‘walled garden’ metaphor for the VLE came up (which for some is a good thing; for some not), and questions about boundaries in online learning spaces.  I will post about this Twiiter-like activity in more detail another time.

Fiona Douglas (Leeds) talked about developing self-assessing interactive study skills activities for students (and, importantly, NOT calling it study skills but ’Studying and Researching English’) using Articulate software.  Greg Garrard (Bath Spa) then  introduced us to his Poetiks poem reader, which can be used as a tool to aid students with understanding scansion.  I must admit that I feel slightly queasy at the prospect of a computer somehow being able to ‘read’ a poem.  My first mischevious thought was to wonder whether if I tried putting Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh through (longer than Paradise Lost) it would blow up.  Greg is a powerhouse of radical and queasy-making ideas to other English lecturers, as one of our subsequent small-group discussions revealed.  He’s an advocate of cutting down the number of texts we teach students and slow reading.

Alison Johnson (Leeds) used the database Scopus to show how many articles are being written about blended learning, and gave two of her PhD students, Alberto Gomez and David Wright, the opportunity to have their say about how online learning facilities available to them at Leeds had helped their studies.  Laurence Publicover showed us the blog he’d started to accompany a module on ‘Literature and the Sea’, and Paul Maddern took us round The Seamus Heaney Centre Digital Archive, which is a treasure trove of recorded poetry performances.

There’s lots more to say about the day, and I may well post again.  In the meantime Ms E-Mentor has decided it’s time to join the twittersphere, and I’m now tweeting as @MsEmentor.

What’s going down in Bram’s Bites (1)

It’s the Fin de Siècle.  I’m now into a new and unwanted regime whereby I only get to teach this module every other year, and therefore this module’s assessment pattern has had to dovetail with that of its sister module which focusses on the high Victorian period. Practically what this means is that the module is now running with more online sessions than when I previously blogged about it, and thus Ms E-Mentor has been making some new ones up.

For anyone new to this blog a brief outline of how I integrate online sessions with face-to-face teaching is as follows: across a teaching term of 12 classes there are 7 online sessions, assessed to the tune of 40% of the overall marks on the course (the other 60% is a research essay).  From the outset of the course the students are clear where the online sessions dovetail with the classes as listed on the module guide.  Online sessions continue and develop themes and issues that we have started exploring in the face-to-face classroom.  This is a third year undergraduate course, and by this stage English students at Wolverhampton are familiar with using VLE discussion forums.  They will have done so at least once, in the first year, but quite possibly more than once, in the second year as well.

I refer to the online sessions on this module under the acronym of FOE (the Fin de Siècle Online Experience).  Our first FOE Session A is thus in Week 2, when we discuss Oscar Wilde and decadence.  I’ve blogged about what we do in this session before so I don’t intend to repeat the description in full.  What I noted this time round was that it took the students quite a while to get posting, to the extent that I sent round a couple of emails — on the Monday after the Friday class, and again on the Wednesday — encouraging them to take part.  As the online sessions last a week (i.e. students have a week to post in the discussion forum, starting from the day of our class) several left it pretty late in the day to start joining in.  Why was this?  I don’t entirely know, although I was also able to see behind the scenes of the VLE that quite a few students were returning to the forum several times before they actually posted anything.  So perhaps there was an element of ‘first session’ syndrome, with students wary or unsure of being the first to post without seeing what their classmates were doing.

Teaching with Facebook??

I attended a session at Wolverhampton this last week on ‘Teaching with Facebook’ run by Jon Bernardes, the Technology-Supported Learning Coordinator in my School, and Emma Purnell, Blended Learning Advisor.  Jon had attempted to run one of his Sociology modules last term using Facebook (not our VLE) as the online platform where students would engage in discussion.  Whilst this was an interesting session, and I was curious as to how, precisely, FB could be used as a platform to teach in, I kept hearing them say that they were trying to replicate the kind of conditions that are automatically set up in a VLE in Facebook.  In a VLE a ‘safe’, ‘closed’ space is set up for any given module cohort.  Both tutor and students on a module know that this is a space for their module community.  The closed nature of the online space is important if significant work is going to be undertaken in the online space (particularly if it is going to be assessed, perhaps).  Neither tutor or students want other people ‘wandering in’ to a class cohort from outside.  To replicate this a certain number of manoeuvres had had to be made in FB — including starting an entirely new FB group, asking all students to set up an entirely new email account and then getting them to use that email address to create a new FB persona, which was to be used solely for this group.  What the tutors were trying to avoid was precisely having anyone and everyone’s FB friends joining in and also seeing the personal/social stuff of the involved students that will be running on their usual FB pages.

Whilst it appeared that the students had responded quite well, and arguments were also made about students already being familiar with FB as a technology whereas they had to ‘learn’ how to manoeuvre around the VLE (not, in my experience, something students find difficult if given clear instructions) I’m not persuaded for my own purposes to give this a go.  My colleague Aidan Byrne also raised the rightful concern that people are increasingly having with FB as to the way it is creaming off information about you, based on all sorts of things you might say about yourself, and using them for advertising purposes (i.e adverts will target you on FB based on the information you put on it).  Do we want our students to be working in such a space?  We are all so bombarded with consumer information so much of the time (and increasingly so online) that it’s actually a breath of fresh air to be able to go into a VLE discussion space and know it is solely a place for focussed learning free from market demands.

I’m not entirely anti-FB — I have a FB account myself — but there are all sorts of reasons why I think trying to teach with it is a bit of a minefield.  Here’s just one recent article in the New York Times raising concerns about just what info FB is taking about you (based on image recognition).  A university education (to me) should be about critiquing and exposing such covert use of personal information within our culture, not just buying into it without being fully aware of what we are doing.

A Forum of Our Own: The Virginia Woof competition

Due to decisions made which didn’t and don’t have my agreement at all I no longer have a module to teach this semester which has a significant online component.  That’s what you get for being an e-learning innovator.  So … I decided to see whether I could get any interest going on a non-assessed discussion forum on my Level 2 UG module Women’s Writing: Reading Gender.

Within Wolverhampton University’s VLE platform (WOLF) it’s possible to change the name of the ‘Course Café’ which is included within all of our online WOLF topics as a default forum.  So I suggested to the class that they come up with a name for it.  They had a week to post up their suggestions in the forum itself.

In addition, I decided to run the Virginia Woof competition.  We had looked at the famous extract from A Room of One’s Own about the imagined life of Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, in our first class.  In my office I have a copy of ARoOO which was left in class after one of my Women’s Writing sessions a couple of years back.  It was never claimed.  So … I offred a copy of ARoOO as the prize for the best 100 word or less response to the question “Why still have a module called Women’s Writing?”  Why the Virginia Woof competition?  Simply because of the apocryphal story about the student who wrote an entire essay about Virginia Woof … surely one of the best English Studies student howlers (please send me more).  Virginia Woof

I logged on to our VLE late last Friday, not really expecting very much.  To my (pleasant) surprise several names had been suggested (The Purple Room and The Woolf’s Lair were rather good) and about a dozen students had come up with 100 word responses, all of which engaged with a variety of feminist issues and perspectives.  I picked a response that was suitably literary in focus as the winner, and added the quote, verbatim, to the homepage of our VLE topic, so it’s there for the rest of our course.  The Course Café name itself has been changed to the rather witty and Woo(l)f-oriented sugestion in this post’s title.

There’s no integrated use of a discussion forum on this module so it will now be largely up to the student group themselves as to whether they make any use of it as the term goes on.  Certainly getting the class to name their own forum is a good initial way of fostering a community spirit on a module.

In the virtual penitentiary…

Session F of The Victorian Vision Online follows an in-class session on the ‘fallen woman’.  Specifically, we focus on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Jenny’ and Augusta Webster’s ‘A Castaway’ (both published 1870).  In many ways these are a dream team of poems to set alongside each other for all sorts of reasons.  They can be compared as monologues, with DGR’s being considered a kind of ‘interior’ monologue (as Daniel Harris, 1984, suggested), and can be compared through the lens of gender, with the ‘client’ versus prostitute herself speaking.  Many critics (e.g. Joseph Bristow, 1993) have pointed out that Rossetti’s poem, although seemingly emerging from a liberal male standpoint, nonetheless silences and aesthticizes Jenny: it turns her into art rather than having to engage with her as a woman who speaks.  The reappraisal of Augusta Webster in recent years — surely a poet who must in future be taught alongside the dramatic monologues of Browning and Tennyson — has meant that ‘A Castaway’ has also become comparatively better known on Victorian Literature courses. 

Engraving of Augusta Webster (1882).

Augusta Webster (1882, NPG, London).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Fanny Cornforth: Study for 'Found'" (c. 1859-61), BM&AG.



The session itself is in many ways almost a ‘traditional’ seminar, but it takes place in an online space.  I give the students a number of questions about both poems — e.g. “What is our speaker’s attitude to Jenny?  Does this change as the poem /the night progresses?”; ”What kinds of social analysis of women’s position (fallen and otherwise) does ‘A Castaway’ contain?  You might want to think about the topics of work, education and marriage.” — and they are encouraged to make close readings of the poems in their responses.  This always works well.  The ambiguously placed narrator in ‘Jenny’ still continues to get students going, and although once he might have seemed the height of sympathy for the prostitute’s plight he doesn’t fare so well (in my students’ responses and in more recent critical accounts) alongside Eulalie’s attempt to give voice to the prostitute herself.

I decided to do something I’ve never done before with these discussion forums, and I told the class there would be a prize for the student who made the best contribution to the ‘online penitentiary’ over the week of the exercise.  Who would decide this?  The students themselves.  Their final ‘signing off’ from the exercise at the end of the week was to send me an email telling me who they thought should be the winner and, briefly, why.  This they did.  Overall they voted for 13/28 different students as their nominee, with a few students receiving multiple votes.  There was one student who clearly got more votes than any other but two who came joint second.  As I was in a good mood I gave the runners up a small prize too.  The winner got a copy of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (reviewed here by Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian).

Here are some examples of what I thought were good comments by the students about their classmates’ postings:

  • “XX’s own initial posting shows a good insight and is done with close reference to the poem … In her other contributions XX manages to present her own opinion based on her findings in the poem and encourages others to take part in the discussions”.
  • “I think XX is the winner because in her posts she is very detailed and also she has responded to lots of people’s posts. Her dedication to keeping on replying shows her interest in the topic”.
  • “XX submitted her first post on Friday and continued during the week. She gave thoughtful and sensitive interpretations of both poems using good quotations that showed close reading of the texts. She also supported them with refs. She continued her own discussion and contributed to others. Her English and grammar were also good”.
  • “XX’s strands are always informative and very interesting without being too long, or too formal. XX always interacts well with other discussions and you can guarantee a good enjoyable debate with XX, as she always responds to and develops your ideas and opinions”.

 

In the week of the X-Factor final on ITV there was nothing else to do but be democratic about who determined the winner here.  It can perhaps feel risky for lecturers to allow their students to engage in peer assessment, although this was relatively safe (no actual marks involved), and I was pleased by the quality of some of the comments they made on each other’s postings.  I was wanting them to pay some attention to what makes for a good contribution to a discussion forum and I felt they did.