I should begin with a little context on how I am now in the position of writing a blog. Maybe it will speak to others like me. Individuals who roll their eyes at whatever new social media trend there is, people that scoff at blogs or vlogs, folks that grumble and mumble about millennials and their internet this-or-that. It all began with #DigPINS, some summer activity I thought would advance my teaching agenda. I still grumble about Twitter and other forms of social media but more importantly, I found myself connected to a network of likeminded people (who are probably a little less curmudgeonly) with a wide range of skills and interests in digital learning and pedagogy.
I left #DigPINS and started the fall semester, a new course, a global seminar– African Wildlife Conservation and Health. I had all of sorts of ideas bouncing around in the back of my head, things about digital literacy, domains, and scholarship. I had no real intent of implementing any of those concepts into my new course, until part way through the semester when a colleague used the term “disposable assignments.” I have assigned plenty of research papers over the years but never considered that students did all of that work and I would be the only other person to ever see the product. This new course was meant to provide students with an opportunity to dive deep into some aspect of African wildlife that would allow them to explore an area meaningful to them. This was the perfect place to utilize elements of open pedagogy and create something each class could learn from and build on.
A webpage! Or web based something? I could have students build their own sites and link them all together. I wasn’t off to a very good start. I know some HTML, I was sure I could cobble together some assignment and get students doing more with the digital tools that were out there. My lab website is hosted on Google Sites and every student at SNC has a Google account so this could work? Everyone seems to be using WordPress these days, so maybe I should switch to that, and what’s this Domain of One’s Own? So using this newly found network I asked these questions. Actually what I asked was “Why use a Domain of One’s Own… it’s just a website right?” The short answer is no, it isn’t just a website and be careful who you pose this question to or you’ll get quite the earful. What I didn’t realize is that with Google Sites you get a very limited webpage building tool, and with Domains you get access to all of the elements that allow you to develop nearly anything web based (within reason). You have back door access to a platform with tools that could let you build a simple web page, or an interactive site to collect data and run simulations, or perhaps deploy an app. You are really only limited by your own creative and technological abilities.
Exploring the domains project, I was direct to Knight Domains. This is St. Norbert College’s initiative “that empowers students, faculty, and staff to take responsibility for a little piece of the internet that they can call their own.” I explored the different tools available attempting to find something that I could use for my course. WordPress (a blogging application) came highly recommended and there are many examples of other faculty using this tool. In case you missed my earlier grumblings, I was not about to start blogging for my class (pay no attention to my current actions). In searching through the many other non-WordPress tools I came upon dokuwiki, an open source wiki publishing tool. This! This is what I needed to create some lasting and meaningful assignment for my students. The basics of this tool is that I create a sub-domain within my main Knight Domain to host the wiki site and give it some sort of frame work that the students can then build onto. For this course, I wanted students to be able to pick a topic, thoroughly research the subject, and create an informational wiki page akin to those on Wikipedia.
I was prepared for an uphill battle with my students. Sometimes getting them to turn in an assignment as a PDF is a challenge and now I’m asking them to be creative, use a new syntax, and develop something that could be seen by anyone. The fact that they struggle with what should be simple digital skills is all the more reason to throw them head first into this project. There was some guidance, sticking with the digital theme I created a tutorial video to show them exactly how to get going on the project (I recommend playing at ½ speed unless you can easily follow what an auctioneer says – I talk really fast). Nonetheless, as students worked through this project they had the opportunity to build skills in two areas of digital competencies.
Digital Survival Skills. Despite students growing up with ready access to computers or other devices, I find it surprising that this area remains a major challenge for students. With such an open ended assignment and a novel platform, there are countless ways for things to go wrong. As students attempted to create or edit pages, some accidentally deleted parts of the site. Others would modify an image only to crash the overall formatting. While the content was important, the lesson focused more on learning how to troubleshoot digital problems. Once they managed to stop accidentally deleting things, they moved into metacognition and life-long learning. They were out of their element and they knew it. After I assured them that they couldn’t permanently hurt anything and after showing them how to quickly resurrect deleted pages, they began identifying their own strength and weaknesses. I was expecting them to complete this project and a grade was at stake, this was the true motivator. If they were to succeed they needed to learn techniques for adding images, incorporating citations, and better understand the different dokuwiki tools. If they were going to finish the project with a high grade they needed to find ways to improve their skills beyond asking me how to do everything. The students spent more time reading the documentation, searching for solutions on the web, and even finding unique workarounds.
Digital Communication. Specific to this competency were lessons in digital writing and publishing. Students had the opportunity to choose between using the native dokuwiki syntax or a rich text editor wrapper. Spoiler alert they chose the latter. Nevertheless, there were times when even the editor caused problems and students needed to parse the syntax to get the page to appear as they desired. For most this was the first experience with any sort of programming language. They may not be experts at it, but now they know how to do some basic level coding and they can use this knowledge on something like that reliable but ancient piece of equipment every lab seems to have still running MS DOS.
Conclusion All in all, the first pass at this project didn’t take too long to prepare or implement. I spent some time doing some behind the scenes work and tidying up the site, but the end result is a good start. Eight really well-crafted pages on topics relating to African wildlife conservation and health etched into a corner of the web that will remain for some time. At the very least my current students learned some new tools and hopefully some skills that will benefit them in the future. In the next iteration of the course, students will have the opportunity to learn from what was done and further build on this growing body of knowledge.