Friday, April 10, 2009

Hypertexts in the Rearview Mirror

A couple of weeks we sat down as a teaching team and reflected on the Year 11 Hypertext unit as we moderated the work produced by students. Moderation meetings are one of those things that scares a lot of teachers - they're long, they can be controversial as marks are debated, and they can be confronting as your students' work is on the table and the inevitable fear of "Did I teach it right?" crosses your mind.

Despite all of that our moderation processes are an invaluable part of our processes in my Academy. It's where we get the opportunity to look at the whole cohort of work and reflect on our original objectives for the unit, as well as share our failures and our success stories.

Essentially it gives us a chance to connect beyond our classrooms and timetabled lines.

As a group we were impressed with the quality of the narratives crafted by our Year 11 students - their confidence in experimenting with story-telling techniques and the maturity of so many of their writing styles often left us speechless. There are two which have lingered with me after reading them and I still want to pull one character away from the risk she's about to take and another I feel heartbroken for as the student took us on a journey into the mind of an alzhemier's sufferer.

But writing a good narrative wasn't all this unit had been about. It was also about the students carefully selecting where to place hyperlinks within the narrative in order to invite their audience to learn more about the narrative through different perspectives or additional information (expansions) before returning to the main narrative. This was the hardest part of the task because it was much more subtle in its management than most of the students thought it would be.

At first we had a lot of students link words like "rain" to and image of rain with an expansion such as "it was raining hard that night." As we got deeper into the unit and students became more confident with the potential of the hyperlinks they started to play more and they began to take advantage of them to position their audience towards characters and events. One that stands out is how one student used the main narrative to tell one side of the story, but then explored the reactions of other characters affected by the main event.

So, in terms of writing and 'mastery' of a new genre the students (and the staff - most of who had never heard of a hypertext before this year) did well.

It's a given that people are going to roll their eyes when I talk about this unit (probably not my lovely PLN members who are big nerds like me :P). I get a lot of comments like, "How would you do it with limited computer access?", "Blackboard is too painful to work for a project like this.", "Wouldn't the kids just copy each others?", "What if someone leaves a nasty comment for another student?", "Our staff don't have the skills to teach this."

And yes, these were all challenges. But, you know what? We overcame them and it was an awesome feeling to have so many 'A' grades compared to 'D'.

How did we manage the issues?
  1. Were aware of what the (major) potential problems were going to be - nothing took us by surprise as an issue during this unit and as issues came up we rolled with them and worked as a teaching team to solve them.
  2. We gave each student their own wiki, set so that only they could edit it - even if another student did copy someone else's narrative we'd be able to look at time stamps and in conjunction with normal proceedures for plagarism we'd be able to able to deal with it (we did have one case of plagarism, but not from another student).
  3. Comments - before we "went live" with the wikis students were shown exactly how we could track everything in the Blackboard and reminded about appropriate and inappropriate behaviours (and that the College's Code of Conduct extended to this space as well) and that any breach of these expectations would see students face serious consequences. (We didn't have any inappropriate comments left - a couple of narratives with...interesting...content, these were locked from viewing and, again, normal proceedures followed).
  4. Blackboard not handling it - this one I did stress about...big time. We're only allocated 20MB per Blackboard at the initial set up, we're able to request an extension of this if there is a need. Before we even began the unit I requested a significant increase given the unit and the sheer number of participants (175 students approximately and five teachers), closer to the due date of the hypertexts I requested a further increase ("just in case") and again it was allowed. So, Blackboard handled it just fine and I have to say a big shoutout for the support of the project I got from the eLearning team who oked my requests.
  5. Limited computer access - up until two weeks before the due date we had incredibly limited computer access in our classrooms. We're a new school and had just had our next phase of buildings opened, we also had a massive intake of students at the beginning of the year, and while the new rooms got settled and the new students were absorbed into our cohort EVERYTHING was stretched (even now there's no such thing as a "free room"). On top of that the distribution of computer access was undergoing massive restructure to lessen the damage to our laptop trolleys and to take advantage of the federal government's funding to increase student:computer ratios in secondary schools. It was stressful and it did require a great deal of patience and team work, and we were starting to get creative.
    A lot of students were happy to work on their wikis at home and that did ease a little of the pressure...still, imagine our delight when the restructure happened sooner than predicted and the tech fairy left us all ten brand new laptops in each of our rooms (we're spoilt and so lucky).
  6. Teacher's comfort levels...this was fun...not. Of the six teacher team we had everything from highly confident to open refusal to begin with. In the end with support, coaching and a fair bit of hand holding we got everyone over the line...just.
  7. We did have 1-2 students who couldn't even figure out how to log into the Blackboard and who somehow missed their teachers' attention during the drafting process. Out of 175 1-2 aint' bad in my eyes.

Overall the unit was a success. What will I do differently next year? Honestly, I'm not sure, maybe spend more time talking about skills such as image sizing to save space (we touched on it, but really due to variations in teacher confidence the focus was on the wiki skills) and leaving productive comments (we had a lot of "this is great!" without any offers to extend the conversation). Actually, I'd love to have students do more of the 'teaching'.

I mentioned in today's earlier post that this unit has impacted on other subjects. As teachers gained confidence with wikis they started to see how they could be used in other subjects and we saw wikis become common in Geography, Humanities, English Communication, Year 10 English and Ancient History. Some of these are just starting to play with the potential while others are way out in front.

I think that covers that reflection in sufficient depth to bore you all to tears.



joy simpson said...

Hi Nic
Not boring at all! I am very interested in the part where you talk about the different ways that your students hyperlinked. Fascinating. I am in the process of thinking about how to teach children who are yrs3-6 how to hyperlink and how it is a different way of planning for and writing.

Shane Roberts said...

Simply inspirational stuff. Well done.