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Design for digital literacy

This post will share the solution I came up with regarding the design of the online component for a course that emphasizes digital literacy. The course is primarily a course on culture and language. By online component, I mean the online space where students find course resources (readings, videos) that is also a space where they can co-create (create their own content as per course prompts).

I had two guiding questions:

Where do I want students to assemble? Last year, while some students loved having an app for comments in addition to the site, others did not like having to ‘move around’ so much on the web.

What experience do I want them to have? I want them to experience making something online together – but in a place that is somewhat private and that is not riddled with data mines. (I have no illusions about escaping that completely.) I wanted them to be motivated to create something they would actually use, so their writing needed to be visible, starting from the front page, yet I also wanted there to be visible ‘course structure’…

Use vs. make
Choosing an online platform/app can appear deceptively simple when there is an entire market offering different goods. Do you just have students download another app? That is the easy way out. But this isn’t the right time in history for a passive experience of the tools of the internet as issues like privacy and walled gardens (both of which involved in the ‘just-use-the-app approach). The places of assembly we choose require conscious reflection.
Co-creation
I also wanted to integrate student contributions to the core visibility of the course and make it central to their experience. This meant integrating space into the online component of the course to include their contributions. This is to enable collaborative syllabi, etc., and Peter Elbow’s unilateral grading contract and collaborative models.
But guided
I decided against using a wiki, although there are many interesting open source options, because I also wanted the visual experience to show that there would be some structure and guidance to the course: i.e. the course is not only about student input.
Textpattern
I chose to go with the GNU-licensed CMS called textpattern because it has plugins that allow tailored specification of contributor permissions. Also, it can be designed as one likes, so can look like a website and not a wiki while having wiki features. And finally, its txp tags encourage easy interconnection of topics and themes within the site. I have since learned about its incredible dev feature that allows you to try out changes to the code without affecting the live version. I have also experienced how helpful their forum is. I know almost nothing about coding (once upon a time, I learned enough to customize a blogger blog). My approach is copy-paste and learning on a needs-basis – and the forum held my hand through the moment of self-doubt I experienced when I realized how much goes into even the simplest site. This included a moment of superfluous self-deprecatory pathos, which was unfortunate – but they kindly looked away! To be clear, textpattern provides readymade templates (‘themes‘) that can be installed. I am choosing to make my own template because I had begun learning to code for other reasons. Also, I wanted to tailor it to a vision but to be honest I sometimes get really bored merely consuming readymade digital products. One of the points of technology in general – and what textpattern offers – is the ability to reach the Goldilocks concept of “just right”.
Learning to learn the roots of what I am teaching
My goals include learning only enough to be able to do simple programming things – and to be cognizant of just how little I know vs. expert knowledge. Achieving this is so important to me because it occurred to me how ridiculous it is to teach digital culture without this basic knowledge. My students do not have to know these things (I am not teaching a course on coding!) but I would like them to engage with the subject matter with a maker, not user, mindset. I have written about this in a paper I hope will be coming out soon, so will not elaborate further here. Approaching the topic this way further allows interested students to explore programming if they want to, though I will ask that they write about it – to practice the technical writing skills that are relevant to the course. This is the ‘meta’ level, and I always try to design into my courses space for students to grow in this direction, but don’t push it (except for a few basic guiding questions) if it is too far outside of students’ zone of proximal development.

To conclude, I chose to create a textpattern site as my online course component because it looks like a website but has some great interlinking features. It will allow students (in groups, I have too many students) to create articles, and interlink to each others’ articles thanks to emphasis on such categorization both in the textpattern design and in its pre-prepared code blocks (txp tags).

A list of the categories of the articles written by students will appear on the homepage. The homepage only partly looks like a wiki so does not look like it is entirely ‘everyone’s contributions’ but visually looks like a wiki-website hybrid. The txp tags allow for a selection of homepage formatting to be carried forwards to visited articles. Specifically, clicking on an article brings a person to the page of that article, but with the same homepage logo and search bar (things I chose) and list of categories above the article. This means that students are always visibly encouraged to explore more, and not just finish reading an article and leave.

If you care enough to contribute, you can care enough to not wait for perfect. – Seth Godin

I plan to share what I create, probably on github – but of course this will be a very tiny contribution and will likely contain beginner’s messiness. And I still have a lot to do. I still need to find code for comments, multiple device display – then finesse that a little with foldable attributes… I was looking for the link about display that I was reading earlier but instead found that one of my favorite bloggers wrote about it, so I will link to his post. I should mention how hard it is to enforce good documentation habits during the overwhelming steepness of the start to the learning curve: I need to be mindful of this when I teach. That is another important aspect of design: creating a reflective section to address the moments of discomfort in learning. In the case of my own beginning, I believe I will be able to get the site done not just because I finally got some objects into place last night but because of the support of the textpattern forum which kindled this faith. In closing, this application has given me the online experience I had also been looking for – an online community. As Seneca once wrote, Homines, dum docent, discunt.

p.s. by way of full disclosure there is another reason I opted for textpattern: there will be a way to integrate it into emacs. At the moment I think I will do this through the textpattern markdown plugin and pandoc-mode. I currently don’t know enough to use emacs for everything but since I like it so much, learning how to use it for certain things is a goal – even if, in the end, I choose not to use it for these purposes.



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