December 18, 2013

Digital Content and Flexible Learning Pathways

I've written before about using blogs for class content, and one of my main reasons for using the blog platform for content is the ease of development AND the ease of revision. I spent most of yesterday revising the blog post pages that make up a crucial assignment in my Indian Epics class: the project topics pages that help students as they begin defining their projects already in second week of the semester.
In this class (unlike in my Mythology class), students are often starting from square one, not having any prior knowledge at all of the subject matter of the course and, in some cases, no real interest in the subject matter either. It's a Gen. Ed. class that can be used for a graduation requirement and, being online, it fits anyone's schedule, so students end up in the class for reasons of convenience, very different from a class students are taking in their major, where you can assume some connection with the class content.

As a result, this assignment is really important for all kinds of reasons - the students will be working on the project all semester, so they need to choose something that will sustain and reward their interest. That means they need to do some independent research to make sure the topics they are considering really are of interest, but they may have no assumptions or expectations about the subject area to start off with. In turn, that means I really need to support them in doing that research, making it fun and productive to explore the possible topics. I had not tinkered with these pages for a couple of years, but now having access to the Diigo links for the past student projects, I was able to do some serious revision of these pages, giving students more and better access to past projects, in addition to links to Wikipedia and other online resources (I'm very lucky that Wikipedia is consistently an excellent resource for this class).

So, thanks to the ease of publishing content on these blog pages, I was able to work through all the material yesterday, making revisions to every page. It was fun, and I think it is going to prove to have been a good investment of my time. I cannot imagine teaching a class like this without the flexibility of digital content! This allows me to prepare an abundance, even a superabundance, of content, knowing that students will choose their own paths as they explore. I can see how different those paths are when they turn in their brainstorming assignment - everyone goes in different directions. As a result, responding to their proposals is one of my favorite tasks all semester long because I get to see what their interests are and provide more research recommendations based on what they are already thinking about.

Call it what you want - personalized pathways, student-center learning, differentiated instruction... whatever! I just love the way that by preparing digital content I can keep on improving what I offer to the students and letting them choose their own paths through that content. I had a lot of fun revising those topic pages yesterday, and I really hope that the students will have a better experience as they begin planning their projects when the new semester starts up in January.

One of the things I did different this time was to put "random images" in as a prompt for topics (I built this image widget last semester); for some students, I think the images can do more than my words ever can to excite their curiosity. The widget displays an image at random when the page reloads; all of the images have a link to the image source at Wikipedia, and the Ramayana-related images also have a link to an actual Wikipedia article. I'm really excited to see if students mention that their interest in a topic was prompted by an image! Here is the widget in action:

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