UMW-DSI, aka the Digital Studies Initiative

Here is my blog contribution for the Digital Studies Initiative, an interdisciplinary collaboration of Mary Washington faculty interested in integrated digital tools into their classes. This semester, I have learned a lot from my colleagues about the variety of ways we can try to maximize student interaction with our course content using digital approaches.

This past year I required students in two of my classes – US Political Film (fall semester) and US Media Politics (spring semester) – to write two blog posts a week: one the readings for the week and one on the film of the week (for the film class) or a media item (for the media class). Examples of media class items include a Post story on how today’s college students mainly scan written material [link], a 60 Minutes segment on a health car van tooling around SW Virginia trying to help the uninsured [link], one of my op-ed columns in the Times-Dispatch [link], Obama’s interview on “Between Two Ferns [link],” key campaign ads like “President Zero” (Rick Perry’s epic takedown of Obama) [link] and “Morning in America [link],” and the YouTube clip that ended George Allen’s political career in 2006 [link]. Over the course of the semester, I required 20 blog posts – two per week for ten of the weeks during the semester. (Both of those classes are part of the digital studies program as well as elective offerings in the political science department).

I chose blog posts to maximize thoughtful student interaction with the material and with each other. I also limited access to the comments to students enrolled in the class so that they could be more comfortable with the format. (Students could cut and paste their own comments from our course blog on their own web pages, Facebook, etc., if they wished their work to appear in a more public space. Only a few students said they did so.)

Students said they found the blog posts a useful way to gain insights into the readings, the films and the media content provided. Students who do not like to talk in class much or who like to be careful with their words appreciated an alternative venue to participate that permits careful editing. As I had hoped, the students said that having to comment on the readings forced them to focus and not fall behind. The comments of other students, they said, helped them think more extensively about the material.

The main challenge I saw with the postings this semester was that the students did not interact with each other enough within the blogs. Many posted their comments and didn’t return to read the comments of their fellow students. Students suggested that I require all students to opt-in to receive emails of all comments, and that I enforce strictly the deadline rules for submission. (I used a “5 pm night before class” rule but the students asked that it be midnight. That seems too late for an 8 am class but I will try it next time.)

We’ll go through some of my discussion prompts and student comments on Monday and I look forward to the feedback.