Imagining our Inquiry Projects

multimedia_storytelling-main-300x287In our summer Univ 200 cMOOC sections, the audience for our students’ writing has been a diverse online group consisting of their individual instructors, other instructors teaching the course, their section-mates, students in other sections, open participants in the course, and likely, quite a few curious onlookers.  I am proud to say that in  this cMOOC course,  not one piece of paper has touched any of our hands (a rare feat in Univ 200, generally a paper-heavy course) — and yet, I have begun to know my students quite well through the online personas I hear every week in their blog posts and comments.  To suddenly ask my students to stop blogging and instead submit a Word document as a final project,  simply copied and pasted into a blog post, is to undo what we have worked hard to develop all summer:  an online community of writers and thinkers who produce writing that lives online, only.

What, then, must the Final Inquiry Project look like?  In the last paragraph of my recent post, I reiterated a question that Dr. Campbell raised in a recent Google Hangout; that is, where will the easy, more comfortable voices that students have found (and used) in their blog posts all summer “go” when they write their final Inquiry Projects?

I think I speak for all of us who are teaching the cMOOC course when I say that we don’t want our students to slip into a forced, false “research paper” voice in their final projects; instead, we aspire for student projects that reflect insightful, carefully articulated, well researched, and creative arguments.  We want, ultimately, for our students’ projects to reflect a “depth” of thinking, a word Jason Coats has used for months, and which we have often discussed.

In some ways, I find it difficult to imagine what the best projects will look like, since this is my first cMOOC teaching experience, and the first time I have asked students to produce a “text” written for an online readership only.  Maybe this prospect is made even more unsettling for me because while I may muster a few cloudy visions of potentially brilliant projects,  I have many more foreseeable fears about what I hope students do NOT do in their final projects.

Recently I asked students to blog about their visions for the design and voice of their projects.  Imagine my relief when Morgan wrote, “If there’s a sliding scale of internet content formatting, Buzzfeed articles are at the bottom of the heap.”   I realized then that students bring their own experience reading internet articles to this assignment, and they are aware, without my saying it, that a Buzzfeed-imitation is not what they should aspire to in their projects.  Whew.  We have that much established at least.

But what do they hope to create?   Gerell’s model was a link to the New York Times collection “2013: The Year of Interactive Storytelling.”  He wrote: “I want my paper to be just as interactive (as these), yet informative.”

Sarah wrote, “I want to move my audience.”  It’s hard to make an audience feel emotionally “moved.”  I admire that she’s set that goal, and my job is to help her meet it.  Can she move an audience and integrate outside research as well?  I think so.

Justin mentioned a model Jon Becker shared called The Case for Reparations, and wrote, “I like the storytelling style that Coates uses in making his points as well as the balance he struck between sounding too dry and coming off as too informal. It made me feel engaged and interested in the reading.”  When he searched The Atlantic website for more articles like Coates’ he found this Beatles essay, but wrote: “The pictures and quotations seemed less put-together than Coates’ article, which made me realize that this is something I’m going to need to spend time working on.”

I took Justin’s comment to mean that he recognized a criteria for the project that I wish to emphasize to my students; that is:  they can’t just drop links into their written text without providing some context and follow-up commentary and analysis.  To do so means the “pictures and quotations will (not) be put-together” in a way that readers will judge successful.

Justanaverageguy wrote, “I’m a simple man,” and said he prioritized  “efficiency over appearance.” Yet, he continued, “Unfortunately, pure blocks of text do not win people over,” and “Just writing a wonderful piece is meaningless if you can’t convince people to read it.”  He decided that if he had “an ideal design, it would be a hybrid of media and text.”  His goal was a “natural voice” like the writer of this short article about the soccer giant, Lionel Messi; a writer whose opinions, he said, were “supported by a natural embedding of the facts.”  My job: teaching students how to “naturally embed” their research.  (I know: easier said than done in two and a half short weeks.)

Later, Morgan complained that Buzzfeed “relies entirely on the pictures and contains very little in the way of content.”  Her accurate assessment gets at my biggest fears about the Inquiry Projects: that  the allure of adding “pictures” will be an easy substitute for the hard work of articulating complex, conflicting research; that instead of working hard to craft transitions, students may stop writing and click “insert media;” or instead of developing an idea or unpacking a quote, students may simply write “click here,” and insert a hyperlink.

But their links can’t do their arguing.  Their writing has to do that.  Their links can supplement their argument, but the links can’t replace it.

The best projects will be a “hybrid of media and text:” thoughtful, smart, well-written text balanced with thoughtful, creative digital media links.   I look forward to reading the first drafts of their project in the coming week.





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