Bloggers and Digital Anthropologists Unite at AAA

I’m going to the AAA in Chicago this year and am keen to meet other blogging and tweeting anthropologists. There are a few of us here in New Zealand and it will be great to meet others from all over the place! I’m not presenting on digital anthropology but will blog and tweet from the conference as I can.

How I use social media in teaching III: In the classroom

In this final post in a series on how I use social media in teaching I focus on what I do in the classroom. I’ll begin with a summary of my learning and teaching philosophy, which I include in course outlines:

This course combines lectures and films with interactive tutorials in a format designed to guide students through the major topic areas and encourage discussion. The emphasis is on collaborative learning through dialogue and active participation rather than passively listening to lectures. Lectures will utilise various forms of technology (Blackboard, Twitter) in order to encourage in-class participation so students are welcome to bring smartphones, iPads, netbooks or laptops to class.

In future this will be followed with a caveat based on recent research carried out by Faria Sana, Tina Weston and Nicholas Cepeda (2013) which found that in-class use of laptops hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. I will still encourage people to bring technologies to class but recommend that they read this article and try to stay off Facebook and other distractions during class (unless I have specifically asked them to look at something online).

Like most lecturers, I usually show a relevant YouTube clip or a TED talk (TED-Ed is a great tool for the classroom) during class, which I embed within Blackboard so students can view them again in their own time. I also add extra relevant links (YouTube, blogs, websites) to Blackboard for those students who are really keen on the subject and want to find out more. I do not expect students to watch anything extra that I have not shown in class, but I do want to inspire them to check out interesting anthropological content when they are browsing the web in their own time.

In large classes (300+ students) I use a ‘virtual lecture hall tool’ on Blackboard. This is what I have called the Course Blog function within Blackboard (although I am sure I could probably come up with a better title for it!). It is a way for students to ask a question without having to raise their hands and speak up in front of everyone, which can be daunting for some. Students can post questions here during lectures and I set aside time to look at the questions – usually when I am showing a YouTube clip or TED talk – and respond to them either straight away or at the beginning of the next lecture.

When I respond I just address the question; I don’t look for the person who asked it. To start with I tried to engage with students by naming and looking for the authors of questions (students cannot post anonymously to Blackboard) but found that doing so discouraged some from using the tool – they wanted to remain as anonymous as possible. I only answer questions in class and do not post replies or monitor the ‘virtual lecture hall tool’ outside of the lecture situation.

I use other social media (such as Facebook) as objects of study. Facebook is a great topic with which to explore anthropological concepts and one which resonates with students. However I do not use Facebook as a vehicle to communicate with students. I have found that students usually create their own group Facebook pages for courses, which I do not participate in or view. I think it is good for students to have a space to ask one another questions and discuss course content that is not monitored by lecturers or tutors – kind of like a virtual library corner.

I would be interested to hear from others  – teachers and students – about experiences with social media in teaching. I’m sure I could learn a lot from your practices!

How I use social media in teaching Part II: Wikis on Blackboard

As I mentioned in my first post on using social media in teaching, I use Twitter (and all social media tools) within Victoria University’s Blackboard learning system. This is because students all have access to Blackboard, to campus computers, and to the internet on campus. I don’t expect students to sign up to platforms such as Twitter just for my courses. Also, while many of them do own smartphones, iPads, and laptops, I do not assume that they can all afford (or want) to. Blackboard has a clunky interface and is not the sexist learning environment out there – and student feedback indicates that they don’t particularly like it – but keeping everything ‘in house’ for me is a way of ensuring ease of access.

Tutorial Group Wikis on Blackboard

I teach a large introductory anthropology course and this year adopted a new learning approach to tutorials inspired by Mike Wesch’s World Simulation. I like students to be active participants in tutorials, which I believe should be distinct from lectures in style and content. Rather than summarising set readings or reviewing the lectures, during tutorials each I have each group engage in a collaborative task to help students learn to use the concepts presented and to prepare for their assessed coursework.

I assign each tutorial group to an area on a map of the world and students collectively research and become experts on a real-world cultural group (such as the Trobriand Islanders). Each student chooses a particular aspect of culture to research (e.g., religion or systems of trade and exchange – the list of aspects they choose from aligns with my weekly lecture topics) and works with one or two others to learn all they can about that aspect as it relates to their cultural group. In this way, tutorial groups build a full ethnographic description of the cultures they are assigned. Each student then writes an ethnographic essay based on their aspect of culture which is individually assessed – this is not a form of group assessment.

Wikis are an important part of this collaborative tutorial task for two reasons:

1. Wikis contain a crowdsourced list of relevant references.
This is a research exercise and students are expected to find at least one unique academic resource on their aspect of culture. I encourage them to share relevant resources (by listing the full reference and providing a brief summary of its contents) on their group’s Wiki on Blackboard. When everyone in the tutorial group does this, they build a collective repository of approximately 20 resources they can draw on for their ethnographic essays and other coursework.

2. Wikis become a valuable resource for their coursework.
Part of the essay requires students to discuss how the particular aspect of culture they are focusing on is integrated with the other aspects of their cultural group (e.g., the role of religion in systems of trade and exchange). They do this by participating in tutorials on a weekly basis. The Wiki lets them continue these conversations and work on their essays outside of the classroom setting. When everyone shares their research findings on the Wiki, they collectively build a full ethnographic description of the cultural group they are studying. The Wiki becomes their first ‘go-to’ place when they write their individual essays and prepare for other assignments.

2013 was the first year our class worked with Wikis and I received some wonderfully critical and constructive feedback from students about how to ‘tweak’ the exercise for next year. I am currently processing this feedback and rewriting the collaborative tutorial group instructions for 2014.

Do you (as a student or teacher) work with Wikis on Blackboard? What have your experiences been? What might you do differently (or keep the same) in the future?

How I use social media in teaching Part I: Twitter

In an earlier post I discussed why I use social media in teaching: as a pedagogical tool, and for my own professional development. In this post (the first in a series on how I use social media in teaching) I focus on how I use Twitter.

Until recently, I have not had much luck in using Twitter as a teaching tool within the classroom. In 2011 I experimented with Twitter as a backchannel for students in a small 300-level (third year) anthropology class. I set up a class account, which I used, and embedded the Twitter stream in Blackboard for everyone to see. I tweeted during lectures to show them the difference between thick and thin tweets (as David Silver describes it) and encouraged them to set up their own Twitter accounts. I designed in-class activities that involved composing 140-character questions and tweeting them to the authors of the films and articles we were watching and reading at the time. (The authors were all anthropologists I followed on Twitter, and I checked with them beforehand to make sure they were happy to receive and respond to student tweets.) I also monitored the class account and class hashtag during and outside lectures so I could respond to any student queries or comments.

Despite my efforts, it did not take off. The students just weren’t into it. As one student put it, they felt that Twitter was for “old people” like me.

Today I still embed my Twitter stream in Blackboard (using my own account rather than a class account) but I don’t encourage students to set up their own accounts or tweet questions to me during class. Instead, I talk about Twitter during lectures and draw their attention to my Twitter stream to model how I use this form of social media as an anthropologist. Most of the time they are astonished to find that I follow hundreds of anthropologists on Twitter and that we tweet about things other than what we had for lunch.

I have had more success with Twitter at Honours level. As I mentioned in a recent post, students live-tweeted from our recent Anthropology and Agency Honours Student Conference. They seemed to enjoy the experience and the interested generated within the wider academic community about their research (which they are keen to collate into a journal and make publicly available later this year).

For me, Twitter is most useful as a way to find out about current research, to engage in conversations about teaching practice, and to source new lecture material. In future I might try using Twitter to “co-construct” lecture content (an approach described by Daniela Retelny, Jeremy Birnholtz and Jeffrey Hancock), but based on my past experiences I think this would be best suited to a smaller, 300-level or above class.

There is quite a bit of information available on teaching with Twitter (e.g., Teaching with Twitter by Stephanie Hedge on Inside Higher Ed, and this guide on Web 2.0/3.0 Teaching from Dartmouth College Library). I am keen to hear how others – especially students – use Twitter in a university setting. What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked?

Why I use social media in teaching

I used social media a lot while I was working on my PhD. I visited blogs dedicated to the joys and pains of thesis writing (such as The Thesis Whisperer), used the Twitter chat channel #PhDchat to connect with others working off-campus most of the time like I was, and surfed YouTube channels looking for interesting videos related to anthropology. I came across a short video called A vision of students today by cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch which revolutionised the way I thought about social media and why I should use it as a teacher.

I sought Wesch out on other social media platforms and was struck by his approach to new media and philosophy of anti-teaching:

“Anti-teaching is about inspiring good questions. Since all good thinking begins with a good question, it struck me that if we are ultimately trying to create “active lifelong learners” with “critical thinking skills” and an ability to “think outside the box” it might be best to start by getting students to ask better questions.”

Wesch goes on to note that many students – especially those in large introductory classes – rarely ask ‘good’ questions and instead ask questions like ‘what do I need to know for this test?’ I have heard this a lot and it always makes my heart sink a little. I know studying is hard, especially when you have to juggle full-time study with work and family committments, but to me this question feels like another way of saying ‘I want to make sure I don’t accidentally learn too much so please tell me exactly what you want to see in my work.’ Wesch’s strategies for encouraging ‘good’ questions – especially his World Simulation for first year cultural anthropology students – resonated with my own teaching philosophy, which is based on educationalist Paulo Freire’s approach.

Today social media is an important part of my teaching practice. I use social media as a pedagogical tool to take learning beyond the classroom, teach transferable skills, encourage reflexivity and critical thinking (by having them look at how and why they use platforms like Facebook), and to model how anthropologists can use social media. (I’ll talk about how I use social media in another post.)

I also use social media for my own professional development. It is a great way to learn about what other anthropologists are doing in the classroom, to source new ideas and teaching materials, and to engage in online conversations about teaching anthropology. It is particularly good for networking and I have had conversations with Mike Wesch about adapting his World Simulation for the large first-year cultural anthropology class I teach at Victoria University.

I am curious about the reasons why others use social media in teaching. Why do you use it? Why don’t you use it? I’m sure I could learn a lot from your practices!