Open Active Learning

Digital Humanities at UCC practice open, collaborative pedagogy. We work both within and without the old LMS/VLE. Some of our learning is based on open reflective student writing on blogs and wikis, hosted on Reclaim. Some has been kept inside the safe space of our Blackboard LMS, but we’re tending to use that mainly as a base camp, a convenient place to post links to our open learning spaces. All our BA DH&IT students, MA and Phd students are required to have a domain of their own, hosted on Reclaim, and use it to explore building their professional digital identity.

So first I want to walk through some of the paths we tread in the old style LMS, It is heavily based on exploring and reflecting on a range of tools and methods As we move along, you will see how some of the discussion can work in the wild.

I’ve enabled a tool called Hypothesis, and people in the room with hypothesis accounts can and will, I hope, add marginal comments here as we go along. If you navigate to this page in your browser,  – then you can annotate with questions or comments using Hypthesis, or just post comments at the end in the old way, and I’ll approve them and refresh the page to make the visible from time to time.

Writing Every week

Our students come to us now with a level of digital skills, but that isn’t digital literacy for learning. They can use digital tools like Facebook, but aren’t ready for critical digital work. In part, we have been deficient in making even non-digital research, analysis and writing skills visible. The challenge of digital scholarly literacy exposes that even more.

That sort of digital literacy cannot be embedded by the occasional digital skills class, nor is it purely digital: we have found that digital tools must be related to traditional scholarly methods, and that the habits of mind can only be developed by regular work. Writers, real writers, write every day. Athletes train every day. Digital knowledge workers must work digitally, every day.

So my assessments are designed to make the students learn and exercise new skills every week. As they progress through a real continuous assessment, every week they must read, they must discuss, and they are expected to respond and reply to other students as thoughtful critical friends.

So this image is a grab of part of one of my assessment portfolio descriptions. It’s the first few weeks of a first year class, and they are learning the basics: locate and evaluate sources, read and annotate an article digitally, mindmap the argument in an article and so on. There’s a task, a short description, a clear requirement and the digital tool used for it. These build over the semester, in this case to a collaborative writing exercise. Increasingly, I’m requiring these in later modules: here’s one reading , now locate and evaluate another on this topic, for example.

The second image shows how each weeks work is packaged in Blackboard. There’s a discussion prompt, which links to the discussion forum (where the prompt is repeated) and 2-3 readings on the topic. Note that the work of reading the material is shifted from me to the students. I make them read and annotate or map the readings, and share that back to the class discussion, and I only fill in gaps where they miss something.  Where we’re looking a developing a metacognitive skill, I choose readings to explore recent research on that skill, linking the digital tool use skill to the scholarly methods.


Here we see an an example of a a series of posts. First, part of an initial post, where the student has picked out some key points, explained how she created the mindmap, and the attached map of the reading.






Then we have sections of two of the responses from later that week.  Note that these are more than ‘I agree..’ because the replies bring more into the discussion, broadening it, and in one case ending with a question, which provides a hook for other responses or even something that could be picked up as a full topic later.

Trigger Explore Integrate Resolve

I feel strongly that it is really important not to confuse teaching students how to log in and post in the forum with digital literacy. Click here, type there, click that is digital, but it isn’t the real skill, which is understanding the flow of a discussion, from Trigger, through Exploration to Integrating ideas and, hopefully, some sort of Resolution, which might be an answer or might be a new question. (Some of you will recognise this  formula from the work of Terry Anderson, Randy Garrison and others on the Community of Inquiry Framework)

So that works inside the closed garden of the LMS, but how do we move that discussion model out into the wild to accustom our students to open, public scholarly discussions of knowledge work which belong, not to the university LMS, but to the student as part of their digital journey?

Well, we’re doing it right here! This is a public blog post, and as you may have noticed, people in the room have been adding comments and questions to the text as I worked through it. It was also possible to scroll to the bottom of the page, and post a comment in the traditional way of commenting on a blog or article on the web. As I’ve refresh the page here, you can see an emerging public discussion. I can reply to those comments and annotations directly now, or, if a theme shows up which warrants a longer response, I could do a new post.

If I’ve posted something which has inspired, or annoyed you enough to get you to respond, because it’s on my blog, I have a copy of that discussion as it unfolds. If you felt it was worthwhile, you might write a full post in your own blog, linked back to this one.

The annotations are even more interesting, because that new standard maintains the annotations as a separate, stand off note, linked and visible on this page, but also on my account.

Other Tools and Ideas

In the BA in  Digital Humanities & IT, we make students use a lot of digital tools – they need to be comfortable ranging across the digital landscape if they are to function as professionals. We have no idea what tools they will be using in 20, 10 or even 5 years, but we know that they will need to understand how to work flexibly, openly, collaboratively, and to understand the underlying methods of scholarly work and apply them to a range of tools. They need to be comfortable exploring new tools, and expect to fail occasionally, and be able to work out why, to own those failures and to fail better. This ability to explore, experiment, occasionally make mistakes and build on them is critical, and the safe closed space of a Learning Management System simply doesn’t allow that degree of freedom. Domain of One’s Own, and the control it offers over personal learning and identity, does allow that growth.

(This post was originally placed on a separate wordpress install to demo during a workshop in April 2017; it was moved back here in May 2017)

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