A little over a year ago, someone new entered as an open participant in ds106:

I’m working this summer as a grant researcher, and part of the project I’m working with has to do with innovations in education. Partway through my project, I stumbled across a blog called The Tech Savvy Educator, and I continued stumbling onto Jim Groom“˜s Digital Storytelling class (Mr. Groom magically found and responded to my first blog post before I’d even told anyone that I was making a blog, I’m assuming through some kind of back-link-sensor or quite possibly MAGIC).

Following the discovery of the Digital Storytelling (ds106) class, I proceeded to basically do the class, reading the essays, watching the videos, figuring out how to register and manufacture the blog-object you’re viewing right now. And I started having all of these huge hits for teaching in the fall, like using shared documents to teach research paper writing and format style, and using blogs, wikis and flickr accounts by a fictional character (or characters) to teach creative writing

Brian really came on early 2012 with his introduction of his Bagman character, an exemplar of someone carrying a theme or character through multiple assignments:

I was very excited to get an email from Brian this week sharing the news that he would be teaching a digital storytelling course at University of Michigan starting in early 2013, and it would be connected with ds106. He specifically asked for tips for teaching the course.

For reference, I have been part of ds106 as an open participant (in 2011), taught it as an in person class (Spring 2012), and an online class (Summer 2012 and currently Fall 2012)… that is me experience, not expertise. My notes are spread across a few places, a category of my teaching related ds106 notes, audio reflections from Spring 2012, the web site for that same course and the summer “camp” version.

So what can I tell Prof Bagman?

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by andessurvivor

I guess this is the part after the preamble where I actually try to answer the question.

First, everyone that teaches the class is going to have their own method, syllabus, outcomes etc. That sounds obvious, but is what still makes ds106 radically different from other large, massed, big courses- all others aim to replicate the same experience for all participants. What we do at University of Mary Washington, ends up being the hub of the front of the main site ds106.us, but taught elsewhere, be it York College, Kennesaw State University, Temple University Japan are actually overlapping on the elements of ds106 and their own on the ground courses.

And this does not even address the surrounding cloud of open online participants who pick and choose their own levels of participation.

What it means is there is no single “ds106 course” but more or less some messy Venn diagram, where the lines between classes participating is porous and blurred.

The other aspect I am still formulating is developing my own persona or character as a teacher. I struggled with this my first time around; I knew my presence would not and should not be the way Jim Groom teaches, and even noted the way Scott Lockman describes his class presence as performance, even “vaudeville”. It comes with time and experience (I actually had not done classroom teaching in 12 years before last Spring). I am rather confident knowing some of Brian’s experience that this is something he has a feel for. It’s not that the classroom is a broadway show, but there is some element of show time to doing it, even online.

The way we run the class at University of Mary Washington is intense. The usual feedback is how much work the class was (coupled with how much it was worth it), and that it is “way more work than other 100 level courses.” But the students stay in it, mostly. And put a lot of time into it. Why? We collected some of this as an end assignment for our summer class where students wrote their last “letter home” with advice for future ds106 students.

So we make this clear upfront. Jim was always excellent in his over the top scare email sent to registered students before the class starts. I might be getting better, since I had about 8 students drop (and 6 added). I actually said that I was trying to talk them out of the class. But letting the students know early, even before the class is started, how much work it is helps them set their expectation. It may also be setting them up to try harder?

One of the biggest challenges in doing ds106 is getting students set up in their domains, installing wordpress, and then being able to get functional in their ability to use their blog well. There are a lot of mechanics to cover. If you teach a ds106 class, you do not have to have students do the entire “manage a personal cyberinfrastucture”- they can easily do all work on a hosted space like WordPress.com, Blogspot, tumblr. That is a call on how important it is for your students to learn this bit of managing their digital selves (this is a key outcome for our class).

Last Spring, because we were having students register their own domains and arrange their own web hosting, it was really 3 weeks into the semester before all of then were set up, and then they ended up being at different levels of proficiency- even 5 or 6 weeks into the semester, I was commenting and reminding some students about linking and embedding media. I am not sure if there is a better way to streamline this- a simpler tool or having all students use the same?

But this semester we have greatly accelerate this process via the support of UMW and its IT department for the Domain of One’s Own project. We are set up now to register domains for students and set them up on a web hosting platform that we manage (and students get for free)- and I had 3/4 of my students set up and using their wordpress sites in 2 days. Tis greatly shortened the time spent on mechanics.

Martha and I came up with the idea of devoting the first two weeks to what we called ds106 Bootcamp, where we made assignments mostly focussed on things that would get them writing posts, using tags and categories, customizing their sites with themes and plugins, and understanding how to embed media.

As we have done it at UMW, there is a balanced sense of both structure and lack of structure and largely we are also inventing and tweaking the course as we go. One of the most pleasing things I found in my first round of teaching was how little I have to do in terms of teaching students how to use software. This is because we actually do not prescribe that students use specific software- for doing their graphics work, they are free to use commercial copies of PhotoShop if they own it, but also refer them to open source tools like GIMP and web-base ones like Aviary (see our ds106 Handbook section on Tools).

We have a comprensive archive of past ds106 syllabi now for 6 different semesters (including 2 summer sessions) — and one of my current projects is to harvest all the material from them (recorded presentations, recommended readings/videos) into a generic syllabus for someone like an open participant o pick and choose the things to do that they prefer.

What has been most impressive is in ds206 is how adept our students have been at figuring out the tools. They struggle with it, yes, but they also are able to seek their own answers, or reach out to ask for help. I could very well be wrong, but I think we often underestimate this in our students, or maybe need to provide more places for them to struggle a bit- that notion I ascribe to of UMW History Prof Jeff McClurken about wanting to make his students “uncomfortable but not paralyzed”. My hunch is often we over structure things, and waste a lot of time doing cook book recipes.

It was this kind of thinking that led my colleague Martha Burtis and I (we each teach our own sections of ds106, but we work together to plan all assignments, so our sections are in parallel) to come up with a challenge assignment in our second week. We actually gave our students the assignment to create an animated GIF but purposefully did not tell them how to do this. We wanted them to take on the challenge of discovery.

We each spend a lot of time both preparing and providing feedback. I cannot overstate how important that contact is, even more so in an online class. Here in week 4 I am trying to keep up with the task of reading all and commenting on most of my students blog posts. I know that will tail off as we get into more complex assignments (reviewing video work takes a lot more time than visual assignments), but also that the students and the open participant community pick up on commenting.

Google Reader is essential for keeping up to date with the student blogs.

Sp students need to know they are not writing into an empty space. Commenting is key glue, eb it acknowledgement of work, suggestions for improvement, critical evaluation, or just providing something fun or relating it. All of our students work is what is done in their blogs- we do not do any quizzes or tests in ds106 at UMW. The same goes for twitter- we made an early assignment to include a twitter message and reply they got. If comments are glue, twitter is the electricity then generates nerve impulses. If you cna get your students bouncing not only to you, but each other in this space, it goes a long way. They learn it is not only a place to get answers, but a space to have conversations, to have some fun, to be more connected.

But you as the instructor are the key hub in the network, so I am keeping a steady pulse of calling out students positive efforts, or drawing in my own connections to comment or tweets to students.

The last thing I ever want to to is require X number of comments or tweets per week. If you as the instructor are monitoring the blog comments and twitter streams, you will have a good sense of who is present and who is not, just the same as you can gauge their participating in class. Setting up counts makes it seem more like a primary school measure. I expect my students to gauge for themselves how active they are– giving them hints like that there is a URL for a twitter search to show an individual’s activity in a hash tag stream, and setting up RSS feeds for comments on student blogs (well if they are using WordPress, you can do this).

Be a drill sergeant on due dates. I was way too lax my first times through, I bought almost all excuses. No mas. The load of reviewing student work gets crazy when you have to rewind to the expectations of two weeks ago. Tis semester we are trying out using our LMS, Canvas, as only a gradebook, where student have to enter a URL for their required weekly assingment. This has a deadline, plus it gives students s sense of where they stand on the course.

Maybe this seems obvious, but the work should be fun. We use a heavy dose of humor in ds106, be it in the play of animated GIFs, wearing goody hats in Google Hangouts, or creating fake summer camps. This is not limited to ds106 as a “creative course”; I see a place for play in everything. Witness Jim Groom Art.

And it should be fun for the instructors. (and it is if they do the same work). It was one of the things that impressed me about Jim Groom’s first ds106 classes (even before it was an open course) as well as earlier in the game by people like Barbara Ganley — that teachers are seen doing the same work / assignments the students do. One one hand, it gives them a better understanding of what is being asked of students, but more so, it does something to enhance or even flatten the student/teacher relationship… that it is not an instructor telling the students “You need to do this” but students hearing and seeing– “We are all going to do this…”

parent/dog head swap

Encourage and generate free form riffing. This might not always pan out, but a combination of instigating and inviting others in generates a dynamic and energetic environment. This has happened ins ds106 when somehow one idea gets propagated out, more like a small scale meme. This happens often in ds106, like with Slide Guy or early on with Bags of Gold remixes. How to do this is yet to be quantified, but I bet you do not see it in any Coursera class.

What helped in my in-person class was chunking the time into discrete segments especially for doing things like our “rapid prototyping” activities- giving students something to make or produce in 15 or 20 minutes. We did photo challenges and how Michael Branson Smith started his current class with a challenge of shadow pictures. One of the more amazing stories was how in Spring of 2012, a former student gave us a design challenge related to Valentine’s Day – something we added on the fly to our class that week.

Maybe my highlight in the Spring was the audio activity I did to have my students learn Foley techniques by making them create sounds in real time for a silent movie.

The whole dynamic and energy of the room changes when I stop talking and the students start doing. I did this with having them use groups to share project ideas, to teach a technique in class. The worst classes were ones where I stood up in the front of the room and talked. This again is patently obvious (until you find yourself in the front of the room talking).

What’s hard is breaking students of their assignment focus mentality. They come to you with 12, 13, 15 years of experience of doing what it takes to get the points for the grade. That is what we teach in school. We have criteria for our assignments, and things that get produced for grades. Ot can take time and a lot of repeating to have students do more than post something that says “Here is My Assignment”. The get really focused on producing the product, and what we emphasize is that more important is that they share the idea and thinking behind what they created AND that they narrate the process. Some students take along time to stop writing like they are filling a blue book. Again and again, I encourage them to think about doing assignments in a novel way, that they can do things opposite tot he assignment if they make it interesting and can explain it.

We try to create a sense in students that their work is not isolated. In most school work, the only audience is a teacher. In ds106 we have a start by being in public publishing space, but we are always triyng to have students be aware of the connections to other works, be it looking at examples in the Assignments Collection or seeing the best of work, the in[SPIRE] site. But its more than that- having students understand how tagging can group media in sites like flickr Youtube, is a key skill, as well as having them understand how to manipulate URLs to generate links to related (or not) content.

It takes a while, sometimes forever, for students to find a blog voice. Not only that, with no experience in writing for the web, they typically do not provide the context for what they are doing. If the assignment is to make a photo that illustrates an idea of “tension” often we see a post titles “Tension Photo” and just a picture.

Again and again I leave comments asking them if that single post was ll anyone saw from their blog, would they even understand what the picture is meant for? I am constantly reminding to link to the assignment, to restate it, to expand on their choices for they way they responded to the assignment. Just doing the assignment is not enough. We ask them to blog like champs.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by andessurvivor

SO does this help? I dont know, I hope Professor Bagman can give a thumbs up. And we are excited to see what he does in ds106 with his new course.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as @cogdog@cosocial.ca


  1. This is a phenomenal post, and touches on some extremely pertinent points about how new media, especially classes like ds106, provide spaces for students to really shine by giving us more control over our educational experiences.

    Also, STOP MAKING ME WANT TO TEACH THIS. I have been saying I will never be a teacher since I was in grade school. Now I’m all, “But that’s so true! And so cool! And it’s everything I wanted to be doing as a kid and it’s so EMPOWERING and…”

    Seriously. Cease with the awesome. It is RUINING my plans to go into chartered accountancy.

  2. You win at life!

    If not for this single post, then for all of the work you’ve done trying to get people to uncover the storytellers and life-long learners buried deep within them. Your amazingly reflective life and writing practice is what made me start following the blog back when I started blogging in ’05, and has what made me so giddy to finally be a part of one of your amazing experiences (ds106) over the course of the last year and a half!

    Keep the hits coming, Alan!

  3. OH. MY. GOD.

    That was amazing, A. I’m humbled to get a directed blog post and also incredibly excited to start doing all of this work. It’s def. an ‘on the shoulders of giants’ moment but I am hoping that UMDS will be able to bring some new, strange, compelling content to the party.

    Or at least some more puppets 😉

    Seriously, Alan, thanks a lot alot. You are totally the man. Drinks on me when we finally meet up (whenever that is).

    Professor B.

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