I am in the throes of revising a year-long second year undergraduate module, Prison Voices: Crime, Conviction and Confession, 1700-1900. Last year students worked towards two research blogs, designed for a public audience and published on the website we created www.prisonvoices.org. I am tremendously proud their work has been well-received, with their research posts appearing alongside the blogs of crime historians at the New Newgate Calendar. But the module was challenging for me and my students. The biggest challenges in seeking to enhance students’ online skills, I found, related to academic literacy and writing style more than digital literacy. Here I outline the problems we faced and changes I’m making so I can introduce 50 students to online research and producing high quality, readable blogs for a public audience.
Only a handful of students had any experience of blogging except, perhaps, a short blog or wiki shared in a VLE. Most quickly picked up the basics of using wordpress and soon many were far more adept at discovering tools and nifty ways of incorporating images than I am. Far more challenging was teaching them to research effectively online. Though they were directed to curated digital resources, some relied too heavily on websites and blogs of dubious provenance.
While this is a familiar problem in HE, it was amplified on this module because students are encouraged to read blogs and to take the form seriously. I don’t want students only to read academic blogs because that would exclude some of the most interesting and innovative blogs. But this year I will give much clearer guidance on how to recognise research-based websites and blogs and students will only be allowed to use sites which give full references. (This means excluding some academic blogs which do not reference primary sources, presumably in the name of research ownership!).
Difficulties in distinguishing reliable sources of online information, however, were often symptomatic of wider gaps in core undergraduate research skills. I found I had to go back to basics and teach the differences between primary and secondary sources, which some students struggled to understand, even with clear guidelines.
Writing for a public audience requires a very different style of writing to conventional academic essays. I encourage students to find their own voice by focusing on their primary sources and writing in a clear, lively and economical style. While it can take time to find their voice, many students relish this more relaxed and accessible style and feel it helps them improve their essay writing too. When we try out new styles, however, our writing can become worse before it gets better. We had to do lots of work on getting out of bad habits and writing tics, particularly verbosity, passive constructions, and syntax errors.
Students were expected to proof-read each other’s work but, even so, many needed substantial guidance on revising their drafts. When we mark essays we select a few issues to address in future work, correct and highlight some errors, but we do not attempt to fix everything. Because students were publishing their work, marking became much more like editing. If students had simply been careless or lazy I would not give them the opportunity to improve their work but, since most had worked hard, I chose to work with them to strengthen both their research and writing. I am glad I did, for many have said they learned a lot from the opportunity to improve a piece of work. For me, however, it was not, however, a sustainable model of teaching.
Last year students wrote two 1,500 word research blogs towards the end of each semester. This year they will work on a short blog of around 200 words in each workshop, based on close analysis of a primary source. We’ll then be able to pay close attention to referencing, using hyperlinks, writing style and editing while working on short, manageable pieces of writing. In addition to feedback I give them in class, they will nominate one post half way through the semester for me to mark. They will select material from these short pieces to develop for the end of semester blogs which will be published at www.prisonvoices.org.
Individual student blogs
Students will write their weekly posts on their own blogsite so they experience designing and managing a wordpress platform. As well as working in groups to proof-read each other’s posts, they will be asked to comment on each other’s blogs.
Flip the classroom
Last year we worked online each week in an IT suite but I continued to run workshops much like standard seminars, moving between group and whole class discussion. With the large room layout and computers humming, this did not work as effectively as in a traditional seminar room. So this year, we’ll use the IT suite for what it’s designed for: online work. Students will listen to the lecture by podcast before the class so we can devote three hours to the workshop. We’ll begin by finding a digital resource and analysing a source as a class, and then they will conduct their own research using the resource before working in pairs, towards the end of the class, on polishing and enhancing their drafts.
I could not manage this on my own. Instead, I’ll be working with a group of 8 final year students who excelled on the module last year and who will act as mentors. All the changes made above have come out of discussion with these students which resulted in a successful bid to ‘Change Liverpool’, an LJMU scheme to enhance graduate employability. Two mentors will work with me in each workshop to help students find their way around blogging and other social media, navigating digital resources, and enhancing their writing and presentation skills. I am sure the mentors will be inspiring role models while at the same time building on the impressive skills they developed last year. They’ve certainly inspired me to look forward to this new phase in the life of Prison Voices.
Have you experienced similar challenges and how have you and your students faced them? Have you any tips on flipping the classroom? Would you advise us to do anything differently? The mentors and I have one more week to get our planning right!