Distributed Teaching and Learning

11/21/2006 07:14:00 pm

Terry Freedman asked me to contribute an article the the second edition of Coming of Age: An introduction to the NEW world wide web. It was originally scheduled to be released this month but due to circumstances beyond Terry's control publication has been pushed back to January 2007. Terry recently emailed all the contributors to the new edition to say we should feel free to publish our articles on our blogs in the meantime. The second edition has over 50 articles; I'm really looking forward to reading it.
In the past few months a number of people have emailed me asking how I orchestrate the use of scribe posts in my classes. This article is a step-by-step guide to using scribe posts with your students ... and then, how to take it to the next level. ;-)

Distributed Teaching and Learning
The Power of Pedagogy and Audience

by Darren Kuropatwa

All my classes are hybrid classes. They have both a face-to-face component and an online component. Each class is supported by a blog. The class blog is used in a number of different ways but in this article I will focus on two ideas, Scribe Posts and Feed Windows, pedagogy and audience; the first leads into the second.

Harnessing the Power of Pedagogy: The Scribe Post

This straightforward idea has incredibly powerful consequences.

Each day, except for test days, a different student is responsible for the daily scribe post. This is worth 5%-10% of their class mark (see below), everyone who writes a scribe post gets their marks -- non-blogging students don't (it's their choice). They end their post by choosing the next scribe. Over the length of the course these scribe posts grow into the textbook for the course, collectively authored by the students; one student at a time, one day at a time.

The first scribe is a volunteer. The teacher's daily involvement is limited to updating a post called The Scribe List which is at the top of the links list in the sidebar of each class blog (sample class blog). The Scribe List is an easy way for scribes to see who has already scribed and who they can choose next. Once the whole class has been scribe once we cycle through the class again. I teach in a semester system (full courses are taught in 4-5 month blocks). In my classes, every student will be scribe a minimum of three times; some will write four scribe posts. In this way, the responsibility for teaching and learning is distributed both across the class and the semester.

The assignment is simply to post a brief summary of what happened in class each day. The instructions given to students look something like this:

Write a brief summary of what we learned in class today. Include enough detail so that someone who was away sick, or missed class for any other reason, can catch up on what they missed. Over the course of the semester, the scribe posts will grow into the textbook for the course; written by students for students. Remember that as each of you write your scribe posts. Ask yourself: "Is this good enough for our textbook? Would a graphic or other example(s) help illustrate what we learned?" And remember, you have a global audience, impress them.

The mechanics for teachers, aside from updating The Scribe List, also requires the occasional reminder to students to stay on top of their scribe posts. Occasionally, if the day's scribe is sick or away for any other reason give the class a few minutes, perhaps while taking attendance, to decide among themselves how they are going to deal with this issue. (One of the ideas behind the scribe post is to make students responsible for their own learning.) This essentially requires that a student volunteer to "cover" for the scribe who should pick up the routine again the next day.

This simple idea has lead to some incredible student work. Early scribe posts tend to be entirely text based (example). As the class progresses, successive scribes begin to try to outdo each other and their scribe posts begin to incorporate text, images and colour used in meaningful ways (example).

When scribes reach this level of excellence they are inducted into The Scribe Post Hall Of Fame. The students first name only (to protect their identity), grade, subject, link to their post, post date, inductor and reason for induction are all recorded on a wiki. This is a further motivator for outstanding student work as different classes compete to be the Consecutive Hall Of Fame Scribe Post Record Holder.

Anyone can induct a scribe post into The Hall Of Fame. As a matter of fact, it's more powerfully motivating and has a greater impact when the inductor is not the student's own teacher. You can find a list of class blogs that use scribes in The Hall Of Fame. Feel free to add yourself and your classes to the list. (The password for the wiki is: iscribe) You'll notice that all the 2005-2006 School Year participants are math classes. That's because I began this project and I teach math. Nonetheless the pedagogy is easily transferable to other domains. Anne Smith, an English teacher in Colorado, has started using scribes in her English World Literature class. Alison Elkins, a grade 5 teacher in Winnipeg, has also had some success using scribes in her class (Alison's blog has moved, the new blog is here). This year, 2006-2007, we also have a badge that teachers can put (copy and paste) on posts that get inducted into the Hall Of Fame. Some of the benefits brought on by the Scribe Post Hall Of Fame are:

  • Recognition of outstanding student work.
  • Additional motivation for students to produce their best work.
  • Encouragement for other students to excel.
  • Build students self-esteem by using this forum to generate widespread public recognition.

Of course the question arises, what does it take to get inducted into the Hall Of Fame? In a post to my class blogs called "Create a Scriber's Guide to Scribing", I asked two of my classes these questions:

  • How do you go about writing a scribe post? Do you do anything differently in class when it is your turn to scribe? If so, can you describe what you do differently in class when you are scribe?
  • What makes a scribe post worthy of entry into The Scribe Post Hall Of Fame? Specifically, what should be included in the post for it to achieve this recognition?
  • Compare the first scribe post you wrote to the most recent one. What, if anything, did you do differently?

I'm going to patch together three different students answers but all their answers are worth reading. They answered here and here.

Manny: "When I write my scribe posts, I try to make it as so my classmates go, "ohh!" and "yeah that's it right on." That is my first priority because I want everyone in the class to do well, "we're all in it together" (at least that's how I feel anyway). During class, if it's my turn to scribe, I feel pressure that if I don't do well in helping my peers I'll let everyone down. So in class, I open both my eyes and ears wider than normal, and my pencil taking notes on just about everything related to the topic."

Corrie: "I think to be able to make a scribe post worthy to be in The Scribe Hall Of Fame, is the content. I think that's no. 1. But you also have to look at it differently. You have to be creative with your scribe. I think you should try to be different, do something that no one has done before. You should try to stick out from the group. To be recognized content and creativity is most important ... well that's what I think."

Teddie: "When comparing my first scribe and my very recent scribe I can see the quality of the scribes improve greatly mostly because of the competitiveness of the other scribers to make the hall of fame."

If you've already looked at the examples I've linked to you'll see the quality of work this pedagogy fosters in students. If not, you may be asking "Why should I do this?"

Having a daily scribe has improved both the student's learning and my teaching -- since I insist that they summarize their learning each day I had certainly better provide the content for them to work with. On my professional blog, A Difference I wrote about the impact of having daily scribes on my students and my teaching. I encourage you to read it. In the meantime consider this: Medical school is often considered one of the most academically demanding educational experiences a student can have, and so it should be. The paradigm in medical school that leads to deep learning is "watch it, do it, teach it." Scribe posts will bring that paradigm into your classroom, regardless of what you teach or how old your students are. As a teacher you know that there is nothing like having to teach something that leads to learning it well. Scribe posts make your students teachers ... with a global audience.

Harnessing the Power of Audience: Feed Windows

Once you have created a class blog where students are publishing what they are learning then we can open Feed Windows to each other's classes. Feed Windows are dynamically updated (via RSS) windows into other class blogs. If you can't regularly publish new content to your blog then as long as someone is publishing on a blog to which you have a feed window open new content is added automatically, all the time. This results in really distributing the work of teaching and learning across the globe.

Every blog has an RSS feed (see the article earlier in "Coming of Age" by John Evans, What Are RSS Feeds And Why Haven't I Heard About It?). Using one of the (free) services outlined below you can add feed windows to the sidebars of your classroom blog(s).

It’s too early to identify all the ramifications, good and bad, of using feed windows, but one thing is clear; there are benefits for both students and teachers. Students benefit by getting access to other students and teachers around the world who are learning the same or similar content. Teachers benefit by keeping the class blog a dynamic environment for students and getting pedagogical inspiration from other teachers. For example, my idea for wiki solution manuals came about because of something I saw happening in another class in the feed window on one of my class blogs.

It may be objected that feed windows lead to information overload. Also, what if objectionable content comes through the feed window? The information is there for students who need it or wish to make use of it. They are not obliged to access it. As regards inappropriate content, while possible, it is highly unlikely to occur as students work to outshine each other in their educational efforts. Also, feed windows are only opened to the classes of blogging teachers; the edublogging community is a safe self-monitoring community. Will mistakes happen? Yes, but they really just provide an educational moment for everyone involved. (see my blog post Safe Blogging Resources under the headings Podcasts and Stories From the Classroom).

These two ideas, Scribe Posts and Feed Windows, lead naturally from one to the other. Using Scribe Posts encourages student creation of outstanding content. Using Feed Windows distributes that teaching and learning across the globe. This provides fertile soil for more creative teaching and learning with web 2.0 tools.

How To Install A Feed Window On Your Blog

At the time of writing (September 2006) I am aware of five different ways you can get a feed window for your blog. All these tools are free of charge although one will give more design choices for a small fee.

These first four sites will generate html code that you just copy and paste into your blog template, the last is entirely automated. You may have to experiment a little until you have the Feed Window placed exactly where you would like it. Keeping it in the side bar makes it always accessible from the front page of the blog.

The Grandaddy of them all. Alan Levine really originated the idea of using RSS feeds to redistribute content in the form of del.icio.us links. He not only had the original idea, he created the first tool to make it work. And it's free. This is the tool I use on my professional blog, A Difference, but I also use a little html coding.

Grazr is a web 2.0 site that automatically generates the code to produce a Feed Window on your blog. You select an RSS feed and a few formatting parameters with a few clicks of the mouse and the html code is created on the spot. Copy and paste. With Grazr you can actually wrap several feeds into a single Feed Window and graze the content from several classes.

FeedoStyle is a similar web 2.0 service to Grazr but each feed will have its own window. Also, formatting options are limited unless you upgrade to a paid account. Prices vary from $5.00 US to $15.00 US. The basic service is free.

RSS to Javascript
This is a completely free service. Click on a few buttons to customize the look of the Feed Window. You can preview how it will look before you click the [Generate JavaScript] button. When you do just copy and paste.

Blogger in Beta
Blogger (by Google) has recently updated their software. It's currently in beta but has a host of new features that make it superior to the original service. One of those features is the ability to just paste an RSS feed into a form and Blogger will automatically create a Feed Window for you. Then you can drag it to wherever you want it to appear in the sidebar of your blog. It really doesn't get easier than this. Blogger is a completely free blog hosting service. This is the one that I use with my classes.

Question: 5 marks just for writing a blog?!? If I wrote, "I really can't be bothered to blog about this, but I need the 5 marks", would that get me 5 marks?

No; that wouldn’t be a summary of what was learned in class. Also, it’s not 5 marks, it’s 5 percent of their entire class grade (final marks in Manitoba high schools are composed of 70% of the class grade + 30% of the final exam grade). To the kids this makes it sound as though it is a significant part of their final grade. (I use the terms "grade" and "mark" interchangeably. Depending on the context it means either individual points on an assessment or the sum total numeric grade used to indicate a student's achievement.) Last year, as a result of the outstanding amount of time, energy and effort students put into their scribe posts their grade value was increased to 10% of the class mark.

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  1. Hi
    I just found your blog through Alan November's article. I'm impressed with your "scribe a day". Pardon my ignorance, but does the student use the blog to enter the notes? I understand that everyone has the name and password to sign in and contribute with the notes.Is that right?
    Thank you
    Esther Vieira

  2. Hi Esther. Yes, each day a different student summarizes what they've learned in class that day.

    You might find it helpful to look at a class blog and read through some of the kids' scribe posts here or there.

    Thanks for dropping by. ;-)

  3. Hi,

    I really love this idea, and am trying to start a set of blogs for my science classes. I have a handful of questions on how to get it started and so forth and was wondering if there was a forum or person of some sort I could go to about this?

    Thank you,
    Lauren Lieurance

  4. Hi Lauren,

    You might find reading these other posts here on my blog helpful. If you have more questions after that leave me another comment.

    Let me know the url of your class blog when you;re up and running. ;-)


  5. Did your students use MathType or some other program for their Math blog?


  6. Hi Amy,

    Some used Paint on their Windows computers or other equation editors, some used online equation editors. Another option would be to use the equation editor built into Google Docs.