Kelly and Cox (2008) use the term “techno expression” to refer to “a technology-based process by which one or more people, either individually or collaboratively, use words and/or media to articulate ideas or thoughts” (p. 414). They hold that this is merely a manifestation, in our networked age, of an intrinsic “to express their ideas and viewpoints, both within and outside the context of their coursework” (p. 414).
Considering Techno Expression During Course Design
In this section we focus on those aspects of course design that relate to interaction and expression. We will give some examples and strategies for providing students with opportunities for expression in any scenario, face-to-face courses with online supplements, hybrid courses, and fully online courses. We will also discuss our own experiences with, and preferences among, these three scenarios.
When you design your own online course environment, keep interaction in the front of your mind. Many people new to using the online environment start the course design process by planning what materials they want to upload. For example, many instructors state “I just want to upload my syllabus for now.” This is a logical place to start. After all, you want the students to know up front what your expectations are, whether they are the course learning objectives, your course policies, or your grading plan. It does not take much more, though, to give students an opportunity to state their own expectations for the course. Create a threaded discussion or wiki assignment, asking students to review the syllabus and then to write one or two things that they would like to get out of the course, how the material could be made more meaningful to them or for their goals, and even their preliminary opinions about some of the main course themes or topics.
Even if you are not completely familiar with the online environment, you can go beyond just uploading a syllabus by including course materials, such as readings, presentations and lecture notes. Again, it will not require a huge effort to create one general threaded discussion to let students tell you about the applicability of the materials to their lives or studies or to express their opinions about different aspects of the content itself.
In addition to giving students an opportunity online to discuss the course overall and its different components, we recommend giving students an opportunity to talk about themselves. Many face-to-face instructors devote some portion of the first class meeting to an icebreaker activity or student introductions. You can do the same thing online. Create a discussion forum, blog, or wiki assignment for students to state how the class will help them meet academic or professional goals, or what they expect to achieve personally. An online activity like this allows you to return to it throughout the term, assigning student reflections about their own progress towards the previously expressed goals. The assignment can also enable other student techno expressions, such as photos, brief descriptions of where they are from, or even a sense of “in the moment” place (e.g., “From my computer, I can see the pine tree in my yard through the San Francisco fog each morning”).These activities can be limited to individual student-to-teacher communication, or they can be public, so other students can provide encouragement, feedback, related stories or resources, and more.
Online Asynchronous Expression in Blended Learning
Asynchronous activities allow students to enter more deeply into the material or an idea. There is time to look up facts, to draft an outline of what to say, and to revise mistakes before others respond. For students who speak English as a second, third, or fourth language, asynchronous activities give them time to translate instructions or other students’ ideas and to refer to other resources before they communicate their own thoughts. Provided that they have done some preparation, students can be more confident in their work. This aspect of student expression should not be underrated.
On the flip side, some people feel that going through a course with only asynchronous forms of communication can cause students, and even instructors, to feel disconnected. While I have participated in some amazing discussion forum sessions in which students have demonstrated genuine care for their peers, I recognize that we were in a hybrid class that got to meet in person half of the time. Students may drop out of a fully online class, even if it is past the drop deadline, if they do not feel a connection to the instructor or at least to some of the other students. At the beginning of an online course we’ve found it useful to ask students to talk about what fosters their learning. We share a script of online discourse from a previous semester and cast roles. After the script is read, we ask students to describe what they heard. They often respond by describing the voices as “respectful, collaborative, and caring”, or “thoughtful and insightful—I could really hear that people took time to respond”. How opinions are shared can be crucial to sustaining a safe environment that all will participate in. Hearing what a democratic dialogue sounds like can help to set a valuable tone and move a group from being a group of learners towards becoming a learning community.
Even in math- or science-related fields, students can express opinions. For example, you might create a wiki for the entire class or small groups to solve problems together over time. The first part of the assignment could be for each student to state the best way to solve the problem, to provide a rationale, and to vote on the one the group will use. For problems with more than one solution pathway, this could generate some interesting dialogue. Be sure to read all the winning solution pathways so you can steer groups in the right direction if no one got it right, or if the group chose the wrong pathway.
Face-to-Face Synchronous Expression in Blended Learning
Synchronous activities can provide a sense of community. We co-teach a hybrid class about distance education, where five of the ten class meetings are conducted online. The first classroom meeting is face-to-face. At this meeting, we ask students to use pastel pencils and construction paper to draw a symbolic representation of how they see the educational process. At the same meeting we use a focused listing activity, first asking students to list five to seven characteristics of the best course they ever took, and then to compare those lists with a neighbour to find similarities. We go through these two exercises back-to-back. It is always interesting to see how they yield some similar results, confirming what the students think, and some different results, perhaps due to the fact that the students are using a different part of their brains. The same is true for you. Provided that your students have equal access and ability to use various media applications, you can ask your students to use different methods to express their ideas.
If you have a choice, we recommend designing a hybrid course over a fully online course. Even if it means having only two face-to-face sessions—one to launch the course by setting course norms and expectations and by reading a script of online discourse to set tone, and one to close the class—this will improve students’ abilities to express themselves freely to peers.
Similarly, it is important to mix it up, with respect to the work that you assign. Apply the good lessons that we have learned from those who have explored online community building, such as those that tell us to assign community roles, assign rotating facilitation, and incorporate assignments that ask students to engage in experiences offline and then to report back to the instructor or the class.
Construct Assignments That Encourage Expression
You may already have dozens of ideas, or you may have some difficulty thinking of assignments that require students to express their points of view. Below are some questions that you can use to get started during the course design process.
To Whom Will Students Express Themselves?
There are a number of potential audiences to whom students could express themselves: to the instructor, to an expert in the field, to a small group of peers, to the entire class, to prospective employers, and to the public.
No matter what size the audience or who is in it, students should be prepared to make their case, to state their opinions, and to answer follow-up questions. This means that over the course of a term, you should mix up the audiences for various assignments to give students practice in expressing themselves differently. For instance, a marketing student creating a video advertisement presentation will most likely behave differently for a group of peers than for an advertising professional. A special education credential student writing a reflective weblog entry about a classroom observation only for the supervising faculty member might use different language than for the public at large. These types of experiences will prepare the students not only for future coursework but also for job interviews.
How Will Students Express Themselves?
The question of how students can express themselves was discussed earlier. During the course design process, your task is to identify the best method for students to achieve the learning objectives. If you want to assign reflection activities, consider using ePortfolio, a blog, or a podcast. These reflections can ask students to describe why they did something a certain way, or they can ask for opinions about a topic. If you want to have students work in groups to perform research, use a wiki and ask students to state their viewpoints in addition to the facts related to the research topic. If you want students to give a presentation, either live or online, then use podcasts or VODcasts, have students post PowerPoint slides with audio, or have them give the presentation using an online meeting space.
Why Will Students Want To Express Themselves?
Many students will want to express themselves, but not everyone is built the same way. Some students may feel uncomfortable and others may not have much experience making their own thoughts public. Therefore, it will help if you choose meaningful assignments, define the expectations, and provide examples of good work.
Provide Guidelines for Students
There are a number of ways that you can help students—before, during, and after the assignment. Before, the assignment, write clear instructions, including information about your policies on academic integrity and plagiarism. Provide examples of prior students’ work.
If this is the first group to do this type of assignment, go through the assignment yourself to create a model of what you consider to be good work. Let students know what could happen to their work if someone else were able to change it.
Acknowledge Student Views
It is not enough to just create an assignment that gives students a chance to give their opinions. For this to be a part of the learning process, we need to acknowledge the students’ points of view and provide feedback. If workload is a factor, then try acknowledging just one or two ideas in the face-to-face setting. You can choose these at random, or you can pick the ideas that have generated the most discussion. The point is to let the students know that you are aware of their work and that you value their opinions.
This chapter is a remix containing materials licensed under a variety of open licenses including:
- derivative work of content from The BlendKit Reader, edited by Dr. Kelvin Thompson, available under a CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 license;
- derivative work of content from Techno Expression by Kevin Kelly and Ruth Cox in the Commonwealth of Learning’s Education for a Digital World under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license