Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mind Bend

I’m a lucky girl. When I create content for online learning activities, the educational technology experts who work for my school system collaborate with me. Last week, I went to them with a dream. My students still struggle with reading their Turnitin.com reports; they don’t understand when a “match” constitutes plagiarism and when it’s incidental. To help them practice, I imagined creating an activity that branched. If students answer a question correctly, they would continue to a different question than if they answer incorrectly. This way, the activity can provide extra help to students who misunderstand a concept before layering on the next complex circumstance.

The experts greeted my dream with calm nods. “Yup. We can build that. Send us the content.” Oh! Okay! All systems go, right?

Since these magical people agreed to do the technical side, I started sifting through last semester’s Turnitin.com reports for screen shots showing the kinds of matches I want to help students distinguish. After I assembled half a dozen images, I started writing the first question. Question…feedback for correct answer…feedback for incorrect answer—Wait! Stop! I can branch out! Instead of writing feedback for an incorrect answer, I could write another question. In my better teaching moments, I greet student errors with follow up questions, trying to direct students towards the thought process that will yield greater comprehension. Now I could try and structure this computer activity to model that practice. (It’s not that I think the computer can replace me here, but as things currently stand with my students, I am not getting this Turnitin.com report lesson across to everybody. I decided to go down this road because I think students need to process this kind of critical reading independently to fully internalize it.)

Deciding to write a branching activity turns out to be very different than actually writing a branching activity, at least for my non-millennial brain. It hurt as much as my earlier attempts to be non linear. Flow charts and diagrams started to swim in my mind’s eye. How many branches would there be? Would the students answering follow up questions to incorrect responses ever get back to the trail blazed by students giving correct responses? Within half an hour, I felt hopelessly snarled in all the potential variables. My pedagogy bases itself on adaptability, so here I am knee deep in branching online activities when I love linear structure. Gosh, I miss the days of constructing linear activities exclusively. Sigh.

So I spent a few days feeling panicked every time I opened up my attempts at drafting this activity. Finally, I decided to write the activity from beginning to end as if a student answered every question correctly. What would the tree trunk of this branching exercise look like? What breadth am I trying to cover here? I needed to know the answers to those questions. Then, I looked at each question and imagined my follow up questions like traffic pattern clover leaves, looping out from the main trunk only to touch back again with a review loop of that concept planned for later in the sequence.

Will it work? Will it make any sense? Time will tell. I hope this kind of effort yields a differentiated learning tool that serves students well. Right now, I’ve turned the draft over to my tech wonders as I sit in a sweaty heap, exhausted by thinking outside my natural thought patterns. Do my students feel this way all the time? My goodness. No wonder they want to sleep through first period…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

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