ds106 Class Notes and Stuff

A Year of Breadlike Syllabus Making for ds106

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by Little Wide World

During a presentation last month for the TCC World Online Conference a participant noted in the chat with some irony, that despite the unconventional form and function of ds106 I pointed them to a traditional (long) syllabus for my 2013 class.

I said that it was a university course at UMW, so it needed a syllabus.

Somewhat later (like yesterday while sitting on a beach) it struck me that it’s another case of Korzybski’s line of the map not being the territory – the syllabus is not the class, the experience, but some representation of it.

In wrapping up a year’s experience teaching ds106 I was thinking of how the syllabus was like a mode of bread making, following someone else’s recipe, but changing up the ingredients and the process, iteratively, and getting one’s hands in the dough. And each time you bake, you tweak.

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by Ben Ward

So down the post I am going to write up some of the things that went into the class map, how it evolved; there is stuff here that is not explicitly in the ds106 assignment bank that may (or not) be of value to someone else.

But there is something else.

I remain astounded that anyone with a fully functioning neocortex talking seriously about MOOCs being some model of saving educational costs when the word is each course rings up a tab of $250k (edx) or even more. What does an institution get for dropping a quarter of a million per course?

I can tell you what you do not get- an ongoing open sharing of the processes, of what worked, what did not work. Not a Udellian narrating of the process. It’s more like another loaf of pre-packaged Wonderbread off the racks.

And it ties back to what Leslie Madsen-Brooks recently summarized eloquently in using UMW as a case example of innovation on higher education. That’s right, look beyond the Ivies and the Silicon Valley darlings, and you land at a tiny, public liberal arts college in Virginia. Jim Groom writes it all in the title- the Innovation isn’t Technical, It’s Narrative.

I spent 6 months working at UMW thinking they had some magic in the water (did not taste any). But it’s a culture of open sharing, not the final products, but the makings thereof. It’s not a mindset of saying, “Look what we experts hand you like Greek gods”, it’s an ongoing narrative of trying, asking, failing, reflecting, of process, not just product.

And so, for your $250,000 course, do you get the story of how the sausage was made? Or just sausage?

When my Fall 2012 ds106 class rolled around, I realized it was ridiculous for me to proffer a definition of what “Digital Storytelling” is- a place where most courses start as their map. My map for it was- I don’t know what it is, but we will spend 16 weeks asking the question again and again. Learning should never be an end game of an answer, but the quest, right?

So for ds106, you have a history (at least all the bits I could find) of the class back to Spring 2010, it has its own digital story. You get 9 iterations of the class at UMW, both 16 week semester versions, and the summer “performance” types.

The syllabus I have been using is part of a lineage that goes back to the beginning, with changes incorporated along the way, and not just mine, but the ones of co-teaching along side Jim and Martha Burtis.

I will add that this course asks a lot of the students. We tell them up front, the scare email I learned from Jim. I encourage newly enrolled students to drop the course. We don’t want them in there without knowing the demands. And as usual, the end of class feedback is usually of the of “this is way too much work for a 100 level class”. It’s usually, but not always followed up by a “but I learned so much”.

I felt less bad about this for Spring 2013- Nearly all of my students were seniors, getting their last credits in. They are experienced students.

But there is something else that ought to be its own post– I firmly believe that learning should be hard. We need to push learners- not make it hurt or hard just for the sake of being hard, but I feel like a lot of education hinges on making it easy, not hard. What accomplishment is truly worth achieving if it is easy?

Also, note that my year of ds106 includes teaching it once as face to face, and 3 semesters (one a 10 week summer session) as a fully online class. In all cases, 90% of my students finished and passed (out of 25 students). There was no change in that in an online class.

A cornerstone of the students work is a weekly summary of their work as a blog post on their blog. It was Martha’s idea that we require them to enter that as a URL in Canvas to document their assignment work for the week. I still am in favor of this approach- I get a snapshot of their blog at the time of submission, I can review and give some grade, and students get a better measure of where they stand. I can comment there on things might not do on their blog, and it makes the final grading really straight forward.

The downside is I have a glut of work, since 90% of their blogging happens in the last 2 days of the week. I read easily over 1200 student blog posts this semester.

So here’s a bit of over the shoulder analysis of my most recent syllabus for Spring 2013.

We do not do a tremendous amount of reading chapters or articles in the course. We have no textbook beyond this free one called “The Open Web”. There are weeks when their are required viewings of videos or audio content, but the gist of the course is making stuff, and writing in their own digital space about the process of making stuff.

The other thing I love about the class is that I am not teaching software. We do not require tools they should use. They can use whatever software they oen for image, audio, video editing; we provide a resource of open source and free web based media tools. They qiuckly learn to first try finding the answers to using tools themselves. There are more how to tutorials out there than I could create in a lifetime.

I should also note that my online class has no weekly lectures. All of the class is done by a weekly post of work to do. I offered each week an optional live session on Google Hangout, themed as “The ds106 Show” (students had a participating requirement to join me for at least one episode). I found these incredibly valuable to have conversations with the students and the open participants who joined me. The production of these was nil — my cost was I decided to do a series of silly promo videos for each week

I also set up optional open drop in labs for students, but participation falls off quickly as their schedules get busy.

The keys to me are frequent commenting on their blogs, and responding to their questions on twitter- that community space only makes sense if they see a quick value to it.

Weeks 1 & 2: Bootcamp
This is an idea that came from Martha and I teaching in parallel in Fall 2012. The first two weeks are focused on getting the students up to speed quickly in managing their install of WordPress, blogging, organizing things in categories, customizing with themes, plugins, widgets.

We wanted to get this out of the way, so in week 6 I was not having to remind them about using hyperlinks and embedding media. I start them early with an understanding what I want in their writing up assignments, that its more than just posting a piece of media.

They start right away doing Daily Creates. In the first week, I made sure there was a simple video one as we saw it powerful to be able to see each other and the place we did our work. I would link to it, but YouTube gas totally fubared their own tagging system, so finding videos by tag is seriously broken.

They are asked to look at advice from pervious students, something they will come full circle to do at the end of the class (another brilliant Martha Burtis idea)

Students love the Daily Create.. for weeks. I usually require 3-4 per week. They are not graded on what they do, but I give feedback. Their attitude towards it seems to plateau mid-semester. I can tell when they reach this point when it starts to look more perfunctory. Not all the students get to that point, but I keep tabs on it, and drop it as a required thing usually when we start doing video.

I had the most blog ready set of students in my last class, liekly because a good number of them had been writing on UMW Blogs for 4 years. That goes a long way to explain the “water” theory at UMW (it’s not in the water, it’s in the WordPress).

In the challenge part, their last bootcamp task is that we give them an assignment (make an animated GIF) and do not provide any instructions on how to do it (besides a few reference links). The goal here is not the media they create, but that they learn the “ds106 way” of not expecting the course to provide all the steps, but to find their own way.

Week 3: What is Storytelling?
We finally get into the topic here.

In semesters past, we had them read a selection from Bryan Alexander’s excellent book but I got tired of seeing parroting of readings. They get some videos to watch that offer some insight (Kurt Vonnegot’s Shape of Stories always a hit).

I actually want them to blog their oen ideas on entering the course, of what storytelling conjures up, and what they think adding “digital” means. At the end of the semester I ask them to revisit this and reflect on what has changed, or not. They start ramping up their creating, with some story creating activities.

Week 4: Introduction to Audio
Martha and I moved audio earlier in the semester– they get a heavy dose in the middle when they do radio shoes .Nearly every student dreads audio, and we thought by starting them earlier gives them a longer run with it. We introduce the mid term group audio show project so they can start thinking about it and forming teams, so the work is segmented in the next weeks when we move into visual and design activities.

So we start like all of our media- an observation/listening activity. I have them listen to selected audio storytelling from This American Life, The Truth, and Radiolab, so they can start paying attention to the nuances they may not normally hear- use of music, cuts, overlaid tracks, sound effects (foley), ambient sounds. I use an edited down version of a Radiolab episode where I have marked these things to listen for as soundcloud comments

I ask them to listen to a few videos by the makers of these shows. And they get their first audio creation assignment, a five sound story. It’s just to get them doing simple audio editing.

Alsot every student dreads audio going in. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of media, it just gets no respect. By the time we move past audio, most of them have a new appreciation for it. A few still hate it. But I emphasize that good audio on its own makes other projects (e.g. when they do video).

Weeks 5 and 6: Visual and Design

These are often the favorite portions of the semester. The assignments here are fun and very doable. They get experience image editing; I really encourage them to use an editor that allows creating in layers (as it becomes obvious that stuff done in Microsoft Paint just looks crappy). They dont need Photoshop, GIMP has all they need, even if the interface can make you cuss, and the online editor pixlr is pretty darn sophisticated.

Each week has a “Safari” type challenge, something Jim and I found worked well in our face to face class, was to give them a creative challenge to do in a limited time frame and using what was around them.

Both of these fall into a meta layer of ds106 I call “Seeing the World Differently” — students end up looking at their surroundings and noticing what they did not even see before.

I want them to start using their cameras (or mobile phones) for going beyond snapshots, so provide them a collection of techniques to try.

And one that I love, and the timing works for it, is the Valentine Day’s challenge — because it was created for us by a former ds106 student. Sarah contacted Jim in Spring 2012, and challenged our classes to modify some cheesy sappy valentine’s day card with new captions. It’s not a huge technical task, but doe shave them probing a bit more with their visual editing.

For week 4, there is a “photo blitz”, essentially a scavenger hunt of things to capture photos of in a 20 minute time span (their first and last images need to be a clock).

  • Make an ordinary object look more interesting, almost supernatural.
  • Take a photo that makes use of converging lines.
  • Take a photo dominated by a single color
  • Take a photo of something at an unusual angle
  • Take a photo of two things that do not belong together.
  • Take a photo that represents the idea of “openness”
  • Take a photo that expresses a human emotion
  • Take a photo emphasizes mostly dark tones or mostly light ones.
  • Make a photo that is abstract, that would make someone ask, “Is that a photograph?”
  • Take a photo of an interesting shadow.
  • Take a photo that represents a metaphor for complexity.
  • Take a photo of someone else’s hand (or paw)

The outcome is predictable, as they write of looking at their rooms, class buildings, campus in a new way.

When we move into Week 6 and doing design assignments (the line between visual and design is always fuzzy), they are getting more experienced at picking things from the assignment bank, and writing them up.

As a variant on the photo blits, there is a design assignment to review some design concepts outlined in a shared doc, and to find examples of 3 or 4 of them as they go about their week. Again, it’s trying to see these design principles not in some book or video, but where they live. They add their example links to the google doc.

They also get in here the specifications for the mid term group audio project– and they have to start their process in these weeks of visual and design.

Weeks 7 & 8: Group Audio Projects
This segment amps up the stakes, because not only do they have to deal with a media they still may dread, there is the expected dysfunction of group projects, and it is a segment where the deadlines are moved from weekly to having 2 weeks span (and this time, it was 3 because spring break was in the middle).

The final audio shows are broadcast the week later on ds106 radio, an event I just love. Its fun because their work goes live, we challenge them to grow us an audience (I think we did top 30 listeners), but also because at least one team member has to join me live on the radio to talk about their shows.

It is both pain and joy to see the group dynamics pan out. We had some drama this time around, and a lot of ideal group activity too. They have to figure out how to work together. I did not see any groups this time where it all fell on one person. And the production value this time was really high.

It would be easier, if all they had to do was individual audio assignments, but the group dynamic is one of those things that are hard for them, yet the challenge is one of those growth ops.

They also had their own audio assignments to do. One of the required one was taking a 30 second segment of a Charlie Chaplin sequence, and recoding the foley sounds that might work with the action (this idea came from Scott Lockman in Spring 2012 when my in class students performed their foley live). For this time around, their segment to do was based on a formula of what month was their birthday; I wanted a mix of segments for a later assignment.

Week 9: Stories in and of the web
This is one of those “only in ds106” ideas- that we have students explore how stories might be told within the construct of the web itself, within neither the comment space of sites, or of creatively re-writing web pages to tell a new story.

We’ve come a long way since the first few times of wrestling with the Firebug tool, Mozilla’s Hackasaurus is a gem of a tool, and students have a lot of fun seeing how they can recast a web page. Some of them get a better sense of how web content is assembled. Generally, most of them dont go as far as I would like with changing up a web page.

To add some juice to student commenting (I still struggle for a magic postion to have them learn to comment just for the sake of commenting), I came up with a new idea- they were to create a fake persona and have that character leave comments (or engage with other fakers) on each other’s blogs. That was a win.

Week 10: Reading Movies
Again, another level of noticing a media before starting to create it. I had a few required viewings on movie making, and yes, a reading of Ebert’s How to Read a MOvie (sadly he passed away the week before!).

I have an activity I came up with for Fall 2012 I am really happy with, the three part scene review. I provide a list of YouTube collections of famous movie scenes, and ask the students to view it 3 times and to record their thoughts:

  1. Turn down the volume, and notice the camera work- cuts, angles, character placement.
  2. Turn down the visual, and pay attention to just the audio- dialogue, foley, sound effects, ambient.
  3. Watch it normally, and comment on how the first two work together.

Weeks 11 and 12: Movie Making
Video editing brings together much of the semester so far, so their only task for these two weeks is doing video assignments from the bank. This time, I required them to do opening titles, closing credits, and I was looking for their writeups to reference sources for all of their video.

I seemed to have to do less support for Windows Movie Maker (maybe because Andy Rush was my guest that week on the ds106 show).

Weeks 12 & 13: Remix and Mashup
The last content sections of the course, involved work that again continues movie editing in terms of putting together bits they have done all semester.

I have to say after discussion a few weeks ago (was it Giulia Forythe or Micheal Branson-Smith when we hung out in New York?) who noted that students were doing remix/mashup work all semester long, and it might be artificial to present it as something of its own at the end of the course.

Actually Brooke said it best:

So, remixing. Like I said before, this week really didn’t clear up what remixing really is. As I talked about in my video, is editing a photo I found on the internet remixing? I call it photoshopping.

I don’t even think there should be a name for either of those, to be honest. I’m taking a course on the Memory of the Civil War, and we’ve discussed a lot about how memory comes into being. Everything comes from somewhere. There are no original ideas. So why do we have to have a name for something we do naturally? Intrinsically, even? Is it because it has become part of the legal system that we need a name for it?

I had them watch videos like Everything is e Remix and Remix Manifesto– I was lucky that Andy Baio’s New Prohibition one came out that week, which may be the most insightful piece to see on the topic.

Students had already been getting YouTube copyright flags, and of course they got mad. “Don’t they know I am a student? I am not trying to make money. I am doing this under Fair use”

And thats the crux of Baio’s message- Fair Use is not a law. It offers no protection. All it provides is a way to argue a case if you want to spend a few hundred thousand dollars defending yourself in court.

I have to admit falling down on introducing creative commons and copyright like we typically did in earlier ds106 classes. I always found students did not really “get” creative commons just because I told them it was important. I had hoped to come back to it after they had a few rounds of creating with media, and they might reflect on the idea that they should have access to all media in their culture to create from. I cannot say I got to that message in the end.

Most of them just wanted to know how to post their video and not get flagged for copyright- to complete the assignment. We do want them to have this experience of being flagged so they can question the laws, because its going to be on them going out in the world and making these changes our generation has failed to do.

Week 15: Final Projects
In lieu of a final exam, I have students complete a final project- the specs are shared with them 2 weeks earlier so they can get started.

The first time I taught ds106, the projects were wide open as to what students could do, and so ended up their final products. Over the last few rounds, I had honed it. This time I asked them o start with a character to be the focus, the hero, it could ba real or fictional persona. Their story had to be told in multiple media created in response any of the ds106 assignments, but they had to put their character on an arc (Vonnegut’s story shape was a useful reminder). They had to assemble it all in a single blog post that combined their embedded media with narrative of their blog post.

They first had to write a post about their character choice, and that gave me room to suggest that the consider how to place their character in a different context or challenge than we know them. I asked them to surprise the audience, to play with reality.

I was highly impressed with their output this time, I assemble all the stories in a storify. I also ask them to use categories on their blog to organize what they think of their best work, and lastly the “pay it forward” assignment of recording a message or media that represents their advice to future ds106ers.

Whew this post was a marathon, and still feels like it is scratching the surface of the experience. I’m super proud of my students, even the one who’s reflection considered the class busy work and recommended to future students “drop this course” ;-).

It’s not only the media they created but the extensive narration most of them did for their work- again, at UMW, that is what is in the water, the idea of narrating ourselves. There are pure chunks of golden bag substance on the way students articulated their experience.

The World's Ugliest Loaf of Bread

Yeah, and if anyone makes it this far, let it be known how crappy my breadmaking analogy is– look at my bread!

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web 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.


  1. What a fascinating account of the real ways technology can work. I join you in your suspicion of MOOCs. I envy you delving so deeply into a truly fruitful interaction of technology and education. But I am sorry to hear the part about not being Greek gods anymore. I used to like that feature.

  2. Oh, and this might not interest you, but your article really should be published (though what do I know, maybe the Internet is the best place).

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