Meandering Between Curriculum and Website
The Relationship between Site and Course
The relationship between the Internet resources used in my course and the course itself is not linear, they evolved together. My first Profweb article examined the original idea behind NewsActivist which stemmed from a desire for a media source that fostered active responses to the news. As a student of philosophy examining the media and the way it is changing with the Internet, I have long considered the possibilities the web offers for presenting news that encourages readers to become more engaged through providing the possibility of online interaction with news-coverage that could then lead to offline reactions to the subjects the news presents.
The technical possibility of taking advantage of social media to present news interactively happened prior to the creation of my course. The site and project named NewsActivist came about with the original intention of presenting national and global news with associated volunteer opportunities. In order to get the idea off the ground, however, I ended up looking locally at finding content.
A View of the Homepage at newsactivist.com
While exploring the creation of such a site and researching local, provincial, nation and international NGOs while teaching in the Humanities department of a cegep, it struck me that there was a serendipitous connection between a curriculum where students were being asked to write and learn about what they cared about and researching how to foster change in that area
Starting with an extracurricular group and handpicking seven students to try a blogging curriculum worked well. In response to a request for release time to manage the extracurricular group, the academic dean at my school suggested developing a Humanities class. Creating a complementary course emerged from the discussion. I believe this course is one of the first courses that takes advantage of the ministry’s new types of complementary course classifications, Domain 6: Contemporary Issues.
In my first complementary course, there were thirty five students and the quality and substance of the work presented was beyond my expectations. Many students reported having read and written more for this course than any of their other courses. Seventeen of them chose to do volunteer work with organizations they had discovered through an assignment to find five organizations working on one of the concepts they’d been blogging about. Students had to contact these organizations by e-mail or by phone, ask them what current projects they were working on and ascertain short-term volunteer opportunities. They then had to provide this information in a Google Doc database where all the students could see what’s out there. By the end of the semester, either they had to do a multi-disciplinary term paper on the important knowledge generated by academic research, giving them a sense of academic direction and value, or work on a volunteer project and summative explanation of what the volunteer work that they did was and its relation to the news.
Building a Site to Meet the Course’s Needs
An interesting aspect of the course’s online presence was the public nature of student writing. I had to use existent web resources and tools to host the student blogs for the first two times I taught the course. My choice was ning.com. It worked effectively for the parts of the course that are like a silo, where internally all the students can see each others’ work. I could have assignments where they commented on each others’ work, and within the silo, it could work. One of the long term goals of the course, however, was to be broadening student perspectives by allowing them to read students’ work from elsewhere, and my site on ning was not meeting those needs.
Newsactivist Over Coffee
I had a colleague in New York who was teaching an intro composition course in the SUNY state system. We wanted to have our classes do their writing independently and at a certain point, allow some cross-pollination of ideas. We both used Ning, and the complexity of joining the silos of our individual classes became very evident through the technological demands on the students. It wasn’t great, and there was a real “feel” lacking. The students were stepping into each others’ classes as interlopers, and they couldn’t carry their own writing with them.
What ended up happening is that the Director of Champlain College’s St. Lambert campus allocated a little bit of technology money for me to have the support of a web designer to create a website. I spent many, many hours with him, and many hours working on the site. The result is this web tool provided at newsactivist.com which was available to the public in August. I now look forward to welcoming more and more dedicated teachers with like-minded projects to the site, as a place to help their students interact with the news, each other, and the world.
Each student in a teacher’s created class can write a personal blog of submitted assignments such as “news summaries” and “editorials”. Each student can choose to retain privacy on her work, so that work is shared only with her teacher, or her friends on the site, or public to her classmates or public to the world.
The satisfaction that came from building the site and seeing how it has succeeded in its first semester of operation has been worth the effort. It is exciting to look back at the fifteen years of this project’s development, and more exciting to consider the ways the site might evolve into the future.
Have you developed IT resources to meet the specific needs of your courses?