Feb 022014
 

The roots of my course plan revision reach back to the classroom wiki project I began creating last May. As part of my early preparations for this project, I created a personal wiki to experiment with the software I’d be using and decided to populate it with course materials to get it started quickly. This got me thinking about how planning a course in my Tinderbox template was different from what course planning would look like on a wiki.

Now, it was obvious almost immediately that the wiki was too limited to do any actual course planning. But at the same time there were two real and enormous benefits that I could see in a wiki-based approach. First, the wiki forced me to focus on texts and how pieces of text lead me to other (or new) materials. Second, the wiki nurtured a mild but generative confusion as I worked. Both of these seemed worth importing back into my Tinderbox template.

So, in this post, I’ll explain how I’m rearranging my template to shift my focus to the text of my notes, and in my next, I’ll explain how (and why) I’m “breaking” my template enough to let in some confusion.

The Problem of Title-Notes

Because I worked in outline and map views in my original course planning template, many of my notes consisted of little more than the title attribute (plus whatever attributes or copy-pasted text I used to catch them later with agents). These titles needed to be short enough to be viewed on a single line or within a reasonably sized box. They were also largely static.

In practice, the titles of empty notes named or described content (lecture notes, exercises instructions, etc.) stored outside my template, often as a keynote or word processing file. Generally but not always, I linked to that external file from my note. Generally but not always, I copy-pasted the content of that file to the note on the day I taught so that it would be included in the Nakajoki view printout I brought to class.

Notes as Titles

Dig down into map view and you find a bunch of empty notes.

Notes in my Wiki

In my wiki, things worked very differently. There were no map or outline views, and page-note titles were displaced to the top of my browser window. I was forced to deal with the actual content of pages and found this confrontation with the imperfect messy details of my work inspiring.

I also found that depending on links to navigate created a pressure to state ideas and information rather than merely to name them. In principle, blank pages in the wiki were the same as blank title-notes on my outline or map views, but in practice they were not. I needed note texts with links to navigate from page to page on the wiki. A blank page was a dead-end in a way an empty note wasn’t in map or outline view. The way past these dead-ends was to add content and links, even if only provisionally, so that the blank obstacle opened up and gave me a way to move on to the rest of my materials.

Living in note texts and making them lead one to the other through links pushed me to bring materials into existence and toward maturity in a way I hadn’t been pushed to do in my original course template.

Creating “Wiki View” in Tinderbox

A primary goal of my template revision has been to create a similar immersion in note texts and a similar link-driven push to develop materials in Tinderbox. To do this, I set my old template aside, created a new file, and:

  1. switched my preferences to hide the sidebar;
  2. created a first note called home in the initial outline view and opened it;
  3. closed the initial outline view;
  4. worked out from the home page, creating and writing new notes as I need them.

This set-up recreated my wiki experience. Note titles, which were central in my original template, were here displaced to the title bar, and my note text was pushed front-and-centre. As I write material, I added links to new notes, and used these links to navigate.

Wiki View

My “Wiki View”

But It’s a Tinderbox Wiki

This set-up is not, however, simply recreation of my wiki experience. It also improves on it in two ways.

First, links in my new template open in a new window. Some might find this annoying (and tabs are coming to Tinderbox) but without the sidebars, the note window is very compact and I like seeing and working on multiple related notes simultaneously. (Multiple windows also makes linking pieces of text to other notes very easy.) More importantly, open windows can be arranged on my desktop as an ad hoc map view but with one great benefit over a regular Tinderbox map: my note texts on this map are both visible and editable.

Second, because of how Tinderbox is built, this new way of working can operate alongside all of the course planning strategies I used in my previous template. My workspace has been expanded–an entirely new “ground level” space has been created underneath the eye-in-the-sky map views–but those map views are only a hotkey way. When I’m ready to do so, all of the notes I create in wiki view can be organized into semester schedules and content groupings just as I did in the past. Which is incredible.

(What’s even more incredible is that, although I’m working in a completely new and better way, I get the sense that, if it talked, Tinderbox would say “well of course you can do that” as if it had been designed to do exactly this new thing and had been waiting all along for me to realize it.)

Next up, how I’m cultivating a bit of confusion

Jan 302014
 

My second stab at using a classroom wiki has launched. It’s going well so far: everyone has posted a profile and is figuring out how to use the basic mark-up.

Something that caught me off guard last time was the peculiar mix of ignorance and familiarity most students bring to an internet-based project and which tends to block them early on. This time around I have redesigned the pages providing general course materials so that they serve as models students can use when creating pages of their own. Obvious, but I didn’t think of it last time. More on the project later in the term.

As I have been getting students up and running on that site, the pipeline of posts I’d prepared on my course planning revisions has run dry. I’m working on the rest now, and they should start up again this weekend.

Jan 272014
 

I suppose I should say something about agents before I start talking about my new course file.  

Basic Agents

In my original template, agents were as basic as basic could be and were used initially to sort student notes. By the midpoint in the semester I’d created an individual note for each student by importing an Excel spreadsheet. In the note text I’d indicate basic information about the student’s submission of assignments and my feedback on their written work. Keeping track of who had submitted drafts or participated in peer review or sought help from a tutor at the writing center had always been quite difficult. But now I was cutting and pasting fixed strings into student notes that I would then search for with agents. Tons of work was suddenly gone.

Basic Agents

A basic agent. Later agents might search for an attribute as well as some text, but seldom more than that.

Eventually I understood what attributes were.* By the end of the term, I’d begun converting some of my text strings to Boolean attributes. I’d set the default to true and then mark “false” for anyone who didn’t hand in a draft, for example. This was easier than cut and paste and tidier too.

All that said, I should admit that what I could do with agents in absolute terms was very limited. I knew no scripting or programming languages and was completely new to the concept of regular expressions. Everything I did was based on the basic syntaxes demonstrated when I selected options from the dropdown menus of the agent-creation window. By using these simple examples as models (and with some flipping through action lists in the manual and rereading some explanations in The Tinderbox Way), I figured out how to do what I needed to.

Agents and Links

I used agents to gather material without ever using them to perform actions. Partly this was because of my limited ability to write action scripts. But it also reflects what I was trying to do: I needed to schedule and categorize material by date or by connections to readings but also wanted to work with them in a way that didn’t resemble a filing cabinet or file structure. My boring basic agents cut across the hierarchy of boxes I’d built in a way I’d imagined links doing; and they confirmed that the materials dropped into boxes were in fact interconnected.

My template revision is very much about nurturing the interconnections I’ve been picking out with agents in my original template. My next post will talk about what that means and how I’m going about it.

________________________

*I “knew” what attributes were, but I associated them with fields in a database and saw them as fixed and complicated, something I had to create in anticipation of future needs. What attributes actually are “clicked” when I realized I could add and delete them at will.

 

Jan 242014
 

As I explained in my previous post, I scheduled class time in my Tinderbox template by dropping notes (or aliases) into a class meeting’s container. I also kept related materials together in “Reading” containers. This set-up works fine–better than fine: it’s more useful than anything I’ve ever before!–but clearly I’ve become greedy, because as I’ve used  my template, I’ve decided there are things I want to work better.

Boxes within Boxes

Course content late in term is dependent upon content from early in term, and over time, I’ve realized that my template set-up obscures all connections that are not about sequence within the schedule. For example, when looking at my semester schedule map, I see whether something is “before,” “with,” or “after” something else. Colors applied with prototypes also identify four kinds of material: readings, lectures, activities, and assignments.

But when I double-click into a day’s container in map view in order to work with the notes directly, I can no longer see what came before or will come next. My schedule, which shows the progression of material across the entire term, disappears from view, and I’m left considering the day’s materials in isolation. Keeping open multiple windows with multiple views addresses this problem, especially once I realized that dropping notes and aliases between windows was problem-free. Yet, I’m not entirely happy with this solution: I want to begin with connections and organize them, but my containers make isolated material my starting point. This feels backwards.

Hopes for Links…postponed.

Linking was a more-or-less new proposition for me when I began using Tinderbox. But I’d bought into the idea that it might open up new ways of seeing my material and had built links up haphazardly as I added my content notes. I soon discovered, however, that many of the links I’d built between notes were hidden by my set-up. Links to notes within the same container show up visually on the map, but links to notes in other containers do not. Instead, they are indicated with a short arrow coming out of the lower edge of a note or going into the top edge.

Links in Map View

In-coming and out-going links to notes in other containers are indicated with small arrows above and below notes.

To see which notes are being linked to or from I could have opened a “Browse Links” window or opened the note and clicked on the link list. But most of the time I didn’t do this. I was using links hopefully rather than with purpose. And so, I seldom had a good reason to open a “Browse Link” window to see where those in-coming or out-going link arrows led. What I wanted was the link pictured so I could see what I might find out. But my containers were keeping that from happening. 

And so, linking became something I explored in other Tinderbox files built up for personal projects rather than in my course file, and course maps like the one above were largely abandoned. Now, with more experience with links under my belt, bringing links back into the planning process is the primary goal of my template revision.

My next post is about agents

Jan 222014
 

Although I’ve written about my original course plan a bit in earlier posts, I need to review a few points so that what I want to do differently this semester will make sense. So here goes.

Mapping a Schedule

I began my course plan by duplicating my paper schedule using adornments. That was it. Adornments plus notes with titles dropped where they would happen.

Image of Adornment-based Map Schedule

A semester of class meetings in a single view

Things changed after I took my schedule-map and looked at it in outline view and realized that note-images were also manipulable note-files. (I had known this but not understood what that implied.) When I saw both views side-by-side, I suddenly realized I could organize in two independent but interconnected ways: change the materials (revise the title, add note text) and they were updated everywhere, but change their organization in the outline view and the note-images stayed in place on the map. This was major.

Outlining a Schedule

Now my outline was initially a mess: dozens of notes randomly arranged, my adornments didn’t show and I didn’t know that separators existed. So to organize my outline, I decided to create a hierarchy. This created an outline-schedule that worked like a file structure with collapsable containers.

Image of Schedule and Reading Outlines

Outline views from late in term. Early on there were fewer notes.

Next in map view, I deleted the adornments I’d used to make my map-schedule. I then sized and arranged the note-images of my new containers to replicate the layout of the adornments I’d erased.

Image of Container-based Map Schedule

Containers holding notes rather than adornments sitting under them.

In a sense this brought me back to square one: I had my map schedule back. It still offered in a complete, readable, interactive overview of my schedule for the semester. But now the flat adornments were “keyholes” looking in on rooms holding each day’s materials, and my new outline views gave me quick access to what each room contained.

Content plus Scheduling

The final big change came when I created a “Readings” container with one note for each assigned text. I then moved the note for every lecture, exercise and activity related to a text into its note making it also a container. This kept related content together in one spot. I then repopulated my outline- and map-schedules with aliases of these reading and activity notes so I knew when they would be covered.

The result

All of this led to a more-or-less fixed workspace.  I kept open two different schedule views (one in outline, one in map) and a content bundle (also in outline view) that together offered me three avenues for developing, expanding or refining my course. For big picture concerns I worked in the map view. To plan or adjust individual class meetings, I worked in outline view. I sorted out the progression of materials (or identified missing or incomplete materials that needed development) in my “Readings” window. Before each class I also printed a Nakakoji view of the day’s container and used it as speaking notes.

I tried other things as I went along, but in general terms, this is the foundation of what I worked with for the rest of that term and for the remainder of the year.

In my next post, I’ll explain two limitations I’ve found in my template.

Jan 202014
 

A little over a year ago, I bought Mark Bernstein’s Tinderbox and began using it to plan my literature courses.

The software was flexible and useful, but there was a lot to learn and I was figuring things out as I went. I’ve written about that experience twice before: once about six weeks into it when I was just starting to get my feet under me, and again at the end of that same semester, after I realized how useful my course plan had been.

After that early success, I revised my file into a template by cleaning out everything except the basic categories, adornments and agents I would need to plan other classes. I have used it to plan all my courses since.

But now with another semester on its way and with some experience using Tinderbox in coordination with my classroom wiki project, I decided to set my template aside and to approach course planning from a new angle. I’ve been talking my way through this process in my notebooks, and it seems like a good idea to post some of my thoughts here so that I don’t lose them.

These posts will pop up slowly over the coming days. The first one reviews the template I’ve been using for a year.

Jan 122014
 

The following is a quotation from For PC Makers, the Good News on 2013 Is That It Is Over on The New York Times‘s site:

People everywhere are buying tablets and smartphones instead of PCs. … the market is still capturing a lot of people who just need to get on the Internet and do simple tasks,” Mr. Chou said. “From a strictly consumer, couch potato view, the Internet takes care of an awful lot.

This description of people accessing the internet without needing or wanting a computer got me thinking: “Using a computer” to me means using an open-ended tool to do a variety tasks in ways that imply some consciousness of the machine-medium. But the alternative described in the Times is a less about using a tool than riding a vehicle. And this oddly enough, got me thinking about students.

We don’t say of someone who takes a car to go to the mall, “They are interested in cars”; or of someone who takes a bus to go to the movies, “they are interested in public transportation.” We certainly don’t assume that, if we build a road to the dentist, these people (because they can take their car or the bus to the dentist’s office) will like getting their teeth drilled.

And yet, we see teenagers using their phone to look at their friend’s photos on Facebook or to tweet about their best friend’s latest epic fail, and we say “If we teach using phones or computers students will engage with education and learn more.” But aren’t they really just interested in their friends? Aren’t they, like the people described in the quotation,  just looking to get onto the internet in order to be social?

This is about metaphors: computer as tool, as vehicle, as window, as terminal. Which applies? Because each imply meaningfully different interpretations of students’ fascination with their cellphones.

  •  January 12, 2014
  •   Comments Off on Engaging Students, or What Is a Computer?
  •   Reflections, Teaching
Dec 272013
 

Mark Bernstein talks football for a moment on his blog.  What caught my eye was this:

In much of Red State America, the highest-paid public official in the entire state is the coach of the university football team.

This should be an incredible claim but isn’t really. I mean does anyone else on  state payrolls receive high-six or low-seven figure salaries? Certainly not any of the people hired to govern.

So is Bernstein right? In a better world he wouldn’t be.

 December 27, 2013  Scratch File, Teaching Comments Off on Can this possibly be true?!? (I fear it may be)
Nov 162013
 

My biggest problems with the wiki project to date have arisen because students don’t read what’s on their screen or pay attention to system prompts. They are used to web-pages that either do nothing or have been designed to just take them along for the ride. When they want something to happen they start clicking buttons–seemingly at random and without waiting even a moment to see what their click did–expecting apparently that if they click enough or in the right place the site will eventually do what they want. But it doesn’t and the carelessness wrecks havoc!

In the worst cases, they erase other students’ work or lose their own. (And they don’t save work in intermediate steps. I don’t understand. Who doesn’t save work?!?) They also don’t pay attention to where they are on the site or adjust to context, and so for example, they lose formatting by cutting and pasting from a display screen to an edit screen. (There’s no markup on the display and the bold, bulleting, etc. they see there disappears in the plain text editor. They respond by clicking randomly and by the time help arrives they’ve erased their tracks badly enough that they have to start the mark-up all over again.)

Teaching attention and carefulness is hard because they are about habits not knowledge.

 

Nov 152013
 

The wiki project is off to a solid start, and students seem to like it. My fears about basic site maintenance–can I run the tech for this project on my own?–have also faded. Things are stable and work. That said, my initial goals for the project have been radically revised: what I imagined this project would be about is not what I’m dealing with and so my goals and what I’m trying to teach are changing. Fast.

Linking as Literacy

The most substantial change is in my literacy goals. As it turns out, markup and the distinction between content and formatting is not difficult. Linking is. Creating links (as opposed to following them) requires working at a level of abstraction that is quite difficult for my students to handle. You must hold bits of text in your head, juggle them, and always read (and write) with an ear turned to hear echoes of other things that you could search for and link to. Or at least, you need to see places that ought to link to something and mark them with a link, even if that link is just pointing to a blank page in the wiki for the moment.

Linking also invites confusion. Links can be arranged as a kind of file hierarchy that duplicates a finder or explorer structure. Which is fine and some of my students have fallen back on this strategy. But links can also (more profitably?) be arranged in a web that resembles, when things go wrong, a knot or, when things go right, a line thrown blindly out into the darkness that you hope will grab something useful on the other end. Building a webbed structure requires faith in the process, faith in the idea that good work connected link-by-link will slowly develop into something useful and insightful in the end. But that kind of faith is hard for overworked students to muster. They don’t want to waste their time. And of course: are the links graded?

From Revision to Note-taking

Linking now seems more important to me than revision. I would like students to learn both to make links and to “make links.” And so, I have shifted my expectations and have adjusted the assigned work. I am now encouraging students to take notes on the wiki rather than to create finished texts there. I want this note-taking to be experimental, personal, idiosyncratic; I want it to be a process where they notice, collect and select info and then mark its importance by formatting and arranging it and by drawing links between their various collected tidbits. In order to allow them to experiment in private, I have set up a private group space for each student where they can post pages that only they can access. It was laborious to do but worth it.

Annotations

A principal assignment for the wiki is now going to be an annotation of a poem. I will assign everyone a poem. They post it correctly formatted and then add explanatory and interpretative annotations as footnotes. These annotations will be sourced and will connect to additional resources on the wiki or the web. It’s a new kind of task. I’ve never done it before and it is only possible online.

What I like about it is that it encompasses both aspects of the course content: literary analysis through close reading and hypertextual, online writing. In this, it moves completely beyond my initial conception of the project, which was mostly just a repackaging of my normal class as an online activity. With this assignment, the wiki project creates something new and useful that changes how I teach my course.

Surprisingly, I’ve had only one major problem so far this term.