Mass email? Put everyone’s addresses in the BCC-line

One of my pet peeves is receiving mass emails with ALL recipients’ names in the TO-line. When this happens, I usually send a polite response to the sender asking if, in future, they would put all recipients in the BCC-line.  What surprises me is that some of these emails are from academic associations. I’m not sure why that surprises me, but it does.

I recently found this useful blog post explaining why and when we should (and shouldn’t) use BCC in emails.

Is anyone else concerned about seeing their names in a mass-mail TO-line without their consent?  Or, to put it in more theoretical terms, are we still navigating the genre conventions of emails, even after 20-something years?

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Writing as Action (updated January 2013)

Thousands of academics/teachers/writers like me release hundreds of thousands of words every day on thousands of blogs. So why another?  Everyone’s different, so here’s my angle:  like the rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke, I think writing is a form of action; every word a potential catalyst for change.  Even the most routine email could change lives in ways we don’t always expect.

My teaching experience in writing and communications includes colleges and universities in Canada and the US, students from Grade 12 through graduate school (sometimes in the same class), and disciplines from business to English to engineering to women’s studies.  I also develop and facilitate online writing courses, for however much we may love print books, we need to be comfortable and fluent as writers and readers in electronic environments.  I also design and deliver workshops for businesses and organizations outside academe. There’s a lot of satisfaction in working with professionals who want to take their writing to the next level.

And I write. When I was a child, I used to make up stories, which I sometimes wrote down.  When I was a teenager I threw them all away in a fit of pique.  I like to think I made up for that later, for I’ve since written newspaper features and stories, published academic articles and book chapters. I’m also working on my first novel, though lately “real life” has been interfering with that process. That’s frustrating, but it’s also part of an equally real-life struggle through the writing process. Some people can sit and let the words flow, but for me, writing doesn’t come quickly. So I can empathize with students’ struggles, but at the same time I’m the first to say–“No excuses. Just get it done!”

Part of students’ struggle with academic writing, I think, involves the language of academe. I don’t mean the terms specialists use with each other as professional short-hand, but the dense, inflated style to which we have become so accustomed (some might say resigned). Whenever possible, I like to teach plain-language strategies and even focus on the basics of storytelling. When it comes down to it, aren’t we all trying to tell a story when we write?  Who did what? What happened? What’s next?

One more thought: The way we communicate is a measure of our civility, as people and as a society. I’m sure I’ll be posting more about that topic!

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“Learn” Discussion Forums, Knowledge Sharing, and Privacy, Part 3

On Apr. 8, I commented on one student’s concerns about accessing each other’s online assignments.  Today, I’ll wrap up thoughts about knowledge sharing and privacy in the “Learn” Discussion Forums by commenting on a second student concern about privacy.  The question (paraphrased):  does assignment sharing make it easier for students to steal each other’s ideas?  This is of course, a form of plagiarism.

From an Australian site—Academic Knowledge Development—I found a useful link inviting viewers to compare two views about whether or not online assessment increases the risk of plagiarism.  I favour the first view:  I don’t believe that assignment sharing within a close-knit community encourages plagiarism.  In fact, a degree of transparency around assignment submissions reduces the chances of plagiarizing, either from scholarly sources or from other students.  In Rhet&WWW, the fact that students could (and in fact were encouraged to) look at others’ work in process and final assignments made it far more difficult to get away with passing a fellow student’s work off as their own.  It would have been an egregious violation of not only academic ethics but of the community and social standards (tacit and explicit) governing our course site—standards the students themselves had some say in creating.

That’s all very well for me, but what about other online teaching practices or policies?  I found not much linking plagiarism concerns with online discussion forums until I added “assessment” to my search and found, among other sites, the Australian Flexible Learning Network’s guide to assessment and online teaching.  Here is one of the Network’s guiding principles:

If teachers are to engage in new forms of teaching and take advantage of the greatly enhanced teaching options now possible through online and mixed-mode teaching then it stands to reason that we need to unpack assessment options and issues if online teaching and learning is to be maximised.  (Assessment, 2004)

One option for assessment is making assignments available for other students.  Mind you, I didn’t require students to assess each other’s work in any formal way; I just provided opportunities for peer feedback (which few took advantage of) and encouraged students to comment on anything they found useful in another’s work.  For that reason, plus the fact that only two students out of 24 expressed concerns about “open” assignments, I’m not sure whether most students in Rhet&WWW found it disconcerting to reconceptualize “private” as “public.”

A text aimed at students—Learning online:  a guide to success in the virtual classroom (2004)—explains that online instructors employ several valid methods to help prevent “cheating on assessments.”  One is cooperative learning:

Assignments are made that require some degree of cooperation and coordination among students … [and] make it difficult for a student to find consistent [outside] help throughout a project of some duration and complexity.  (Lynch, 2004, p. 179)

Another method is to make all assessments (assignments) “open book” as well as substantive (p. 179) … which, in a way, describes the open-forum assignments in Rhet&WWW.

Explorations of online assessment, such as the Australian Flexible Learning Network guide, make it clear that an online syllabus must spell out policies and requirements around academic honesty, crediting each other’s ideas, and using online resources ethically.  Institutional boilerplate used in most course outlines may or may not address the “knowledge sharing” issues that arise in courses based on cooperative learning (online or otherwise)—in which case, the instructor must.  I relied on some boilerplate for my syllabus, but also developed my own description of knowledge sharing and privacy issues, some of which I’ve shared in this series of three entries.  I also embedded requirements about citation and ethical use of sources within assignment descriptions.

Could I have done more?  Undoubtedly.  Scaffolding, scaffolding, scaffolding!

Now, privacy of the web site itself, as well as instructor feedback and marks, constitute separate issues.  The institution and instructor must ensure the security of the course site, and information about individual grades has to be kept confidential (a departmental requirement that fulfills Manitoba’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act).  During Week 1, students found this information in the course syllabus:

While you need to post assignments in forums rather than submit them to me privately, the larger public will not have access to any work submitted in this site.  All instructor feedback and marks for assignments are private information and will be conveyed to you within “Learn” via your personal Drop Box (which only you can access) or by Private Message.  No one but you will receive this information.  For team assignments, each member will individually receive instructor feedback and the mark for the team.

 To respect privacy requirements, then, the following basics must be in place:

  1. The institution must ensure the security and privacy of the web environment. 
  2. Online instructors must be aware of and follow departmental and legal policies concerning information and privacy. 
  3. On Day 1, online instructors should clarify for students what materials and topics are private between the student and instructor (and why), and what materials form part of the community’s knowledge base (and why). 

In retrospect, that might have been an excellent conversation to have with my students as we explored the rhetoric(s) of the web:  the rewards and the risks of making each other’s work freely available within a learning community via discussion forums.  Among other things, an open-assignment pedagogy seemed to me a valid way of enhancing accountability.  While much is made (and rightly so) about reciprocity, engagement, and collaboration in online community building, I think we need to do more work around accountability and consider “best practices” that will enhance it.

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References:

Australian Flexible Learning Network.  (2004).  Assessment and online teaching.  Australian National Training Authority.  Retrieved 9 April 2007 from http://www.flexiblelearning.net.au/guides/assessment.pdf

Lynch, M. M.  (2004).  Learning online:  a guide to success in the virtual classroom.  New York:  Routledge.

~The End~

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“Learn” Discussion Forums, Knowledge Sharing, and Privacy, Part 2

After the Rhet&WWW team presentations and seminar discussions were completed, I asked my 24 students to submit a private individual reflection to me about their team process, including any comments they might have about how the Learn environment shaped their experience.  One purpose in this blog entry is to respond to a couple of concerns expressed about the openness of the discussion forums—concerns that inspired me to reflect more on why I chose to use open forums in this course.

One set of reflections focused on assignments, which the student defined as personal and private transactions between student and professor.  The reflection expressed discomfort about students being able to access others’ assignments.  This is certainly indicative, I think, of tension between educational paradigms.  On the one hand, posting assignments to forums within an online class is hardly a new or radical element of online learning, as this online teaching guide from Flinders University attests:

By posting assignments, via e-mail or the Discussion Forums to each other, students can give each other feedback before submission to you.  This assists in promoting the critiquing of other people’s work, collaborative work practices, and increasing the quality of submissions.  By using the Discussion Forums or e-mail, you can also trace the amount of feedback given and used.  (Emphasis mine)

On the other hand, for some students (not to mention faculty and institutions), it’s still a radical move to redefine assignments not as strictly private student-professor transactions but as tools for building knowledge sharing communities.  I’m sure more than two students found it unsettling to move from “closed” to “open”; from “teacher has knowledge, student doesn’t” to “open and transformative group of individuals interacting” (Peters, 2004, p. 30).

Now I don’t want to imply a simplistic dualism between “traditional/private” = lecture hall and “new paradigm/shared” = online.  At least one of the ETEC courses I took used the WebCT Assignment Tool, which uploads work directly from student to prof.  There are legitimate pedagogical reasons, depending on the course goals and outcomes, and (unfortunately) compelling institutional reasons why online courses would want to use private assignment submissions.  There’s also an assignment tool in Learn—though if you go a few entries back in this blog, you’ll see there was some tension among Sakai designers about incorporating tools that perpetuate “hierarchical” pedagogy.  But I decided early on that the Assignment Tool wouldn’t fulfill my outcomes.

Why?  As Caplan (2004) notes,

Instructors and other members of the online course development team should strive to create learning environments that exploit the features inherent in computers and the Web, in order to promote active learning that resides in the control of the student, and that can effectively lead to the development of high-order and critical thinking skills.

In an online course that defines the web as social discourse and explores relationships between these discourses and community, I’d argue it makes sense to promote active learning and critical thinking by making our research, results, and arguments available to each other for learning and constructive critique.  As Bruffee argues, such sharing

… is one way of introducing students to the process by which communities of knowledgeable peers create referential connections between symbolic structures and “reality,” that is, by which they establish knowledge and by doing so maintain community growth and coherence.

Would it have helped, I wonder, to emphasize these benefits and principles more explicitly in Week 1 – or perhaps even moot the topic in a discussion group?

In my final entry about knowledge sharing and privacy in “Learn” Discussion Forums, I’ll respond to the second concern raised:  the possibility of plagiarism.

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References:

Bruffee, K. A. (1984).  Collaborative learning and the “conversation of mankind.” College English 46, 7: 635-652.  Electronic version available from JStore.

Caplan, D.  (2004). The development of online courses.  In: Anderson, T. & Elloumi, F. Theory and Practice of Online Learning.  Athabasca University.  Retrieved 8 April 2007 from http://cde.athabascau.ca/online_book/ch7.html

Peters, O.  (2004).  Distance Education in Transition: New Trends and Challenges. 4th ed. Oldenburg: Bibliotheks-und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg.

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“Learn” Discussion Forums, Knowledge Sharing, and Privacy, Part 1

In the first iteration of Rhet&WWW on Web CT, I followed the lead of a Fall 2005 ETEC course I’d just taken on WebCT in which we had to prepare team projects.  Each team was given its own private forum, open only to students in that team and the instructor.  This seemed to work very well from a student perspective, so for my Winter 2006 course (using WebCT) I did the same thing.  I stressed as an advantage the fact that each forum was a safe space for members to let the messiness of project planning hang out.  This seemed to be a perfectly sound practice; students used the spaces productively, and no one misused the privacy afforded them.

In that same ETEC course, only the team assignment was available for our classmates to read.  Each team posted its work in an unlocked discussion forum serving as the team’s “seminar room.”  Everyone had to read each team assignment as preparation for posting in a team’s “seminar room.”

I’ve incorporated this “seminar room” process into both versions of Rhet&WWW—both times with very good results.

Then … I took another ETEC course in Fall 2006 in which we had to prepare team projects.  But in this case the team planning forums were not restricted.  Any one of our classmates could peek into another team’s forum.

At first I found this voyeuristic slant a little odd.  But I quickly realized it didn’t really matter in terms of maintaining “privacy” and “originality” of ideas.  In fact, being “voyeurs” enhanced one of the course goals, which was knowledge sharing as a constituent of and motivation for forming a viable learning community.  While I’m confident none of us “stole” each other’s content (and in an upcoming post I’ll discuss concerns about plagiarism), I found it fascinating and edifying to scroll through others’ planning threads and get a sense of their best practices and processes.  It helped our team planning in material ways.  In turn, I hope others picked up a few helpful ideas from our forum.

I was impressed enough by this implicit collaboration that, for this iteration of Rhet&WWW, I decided to move to open team planning forums.  I articulated this pedagogical choice for my students during Week 1 as an explicit course goal:

From the Rhet&WWW Syllabus…

“Knowledge Sharing”:  You will normally post each assignment as an attachment within a specific Discussion forum. According to standard practice for many online courses, and in the spirit of knowledge sharing and community building, you need to know and be comfortable with the fact that all your assignments can be read by your classmates. In the case of the online team presentation and seminar discussion, such sharing with classmates is a requirement. (Emphasis added)

It can be disorienting, when one is used to assignment preparation and submission as a private matter between student and professor, to have your process opened up and your product available for an audience larger than one.  So you may notice a slight undertone of warning in my explanation.  I wanted students to pay attention to this and approach me if they had any concerns (two did at the very end, as I’ll discuss in my next posting).

When I later provided more guidelines and preparatory readings for the team project in the form of a learning module, I described the team planning forum as

your team workspace:  use it to stay in touch, discuss process and tasks, share documents and research, bounce drafts back and forth, and evaluate and monitor your work as a group.

I also encouraged students to “go off-Learn” and communicate via other means whenever they felt it convenient or necessary:

As well as checking in with your team forum X number of times per week (and putting those dates on your calendar), it’s a good idea to arrange synchronous (real-time) contact.  This helps you remember that you’re all human, not just bits and bytes!

Finally, I required that each team use its forum to summarize “off-Learn” activities:

If you’d like to use other means to communicate during this project (see above), or collaborate in ways other than exchanging attachments, please post the gist of your exchanges inside this forum for the record.

As it turned out, even if I’d wanted to, it’s not possible to restrict Discussion Forums in Learn.  All forums are open to all users in a given course space.  But as I noted in an earlier entry, Learn is set up for both public sharing and private work:  each user has a Workspace that they can convert into a restricted project forum.  They can invite certain individuals to join their workspace, chat in that workspace, and upload docs and other resources.  (I erroneously noted earlier that one couldn’t create a wiki in a private workspace.  A a member of our Learn team informs me that one can, so I stand corrected there.)

I confess I didn’t see the potential of these Workspaces when I planned the team projects this time around.  But even if I had, I wouldn’t have substituted them for the forums, for the whole point was to make it easier to share knowledge and best practices.

Did it work?

Tune in again tomorrow for Part 2!

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Emoticons and Community Building in “Learn” (Final)

In this last entry about emoticons in “Learn,” I’ll try(ha!)  to reconcile scholarly views about the value of paralinguistic cues like emoticons and students’ (and some instructors’) ambivalence about whether their use is credible or rhetorically appropriate. 

First, what do emoticons do?  Rhetorically, what’s their function?  I see them not only as a feature peculiar to online communication but, in Burkeian terms, as a strategy for enabling identification with others, or the sharing of substance—inseparable from persuasion (you’ll find here a note-form sketch of “identification”).  Emoticons can help create identification among participants who have reason to trust each other, or in a situation when they can reasonably assume they can “give face” without being threatened, or when power relations are theoretically equal … or all of the above.

In “Learn,” I think it’s safe to say relations are cordial, trust is present and has increased (at least among students), and all participants feel safe enough to express reasonable positions without feeling a threat to their “face.”  These conditions are basic to productive learning and knowledge-sharing.  But as you said, Jeff, in your comment on my previous emoticons entry, students and even sometimes instructors are uncertain about how to “read” an emoticon in terms of what that says about not only the person’s character but (in the case of an instructor reading a student) what it says about the writer’s ability to construct academic discourse.  Since “Learn” is necessarily grounded on a student-teacher power dynamic, unavoidably, within that dynamic, undoubtedly students will always feel they’re being “judged” in some way, shape, or form (sometimes by each other as much as by the teacher). 

When I posted in the “Emoticons” student seminar forum (see previous entry), I also said this:

I find it fascinating that WebCT doesn’t have emoticon tools.  As a student in a WebCT space, I hesitated for the longest time to use emoticons in case it made me “seem” less serious than all the other deep thinkers in the group.  (I wonder if some of you have been experiencing the same uncertainty here—essentially a concern about ethos.)


Student postings implied that it’s almost always rhetorically infelicitous to transfer one type of online language, Netspeak, into a classroom setting, which is (even in online form) traditionally associated with “formal” discourse.  It’s reasonable to assume that because emoticons are often equated with Netspeak, an informal (even semi-literate) shorthand form of communication, then using emoticons within a learning community places the speaker at greater risk that her or his “good character” will be “judged” and found wanting.  (It’s almost on a par with attitudes about using the first person in academic discourse, but that’s a whole n’other topic.) 

Yet I as the teacher not only use emoticons in “Learn” but do so a lot more often than the students.  In the context of ethos, identification, and giving face (I mean this in Erving Goffman’s sense), I have less to “lose” by using emoticons than do the students.  I see using them as a way of giving face, which means in this case relinquishing the privilege of creating a formal “professor”-ethos because I want to flatten that pesky student-teacher power curve a bit.  In this way, I hope to convey an ethos of as much trust and “safety” as possible, within the constraints of a student-teacher power dynamic, which in turn I hope creates a more productive learning environment.

But does my emoticon strategy work?  Does it make any difference? 

If both students and teachers seem reluctant to transfer these paralinguistic cues into online classroom discourse, then I wonder if this is partly because what Peters (2004) calls the “dominance of expository teaching” (p. 31) still pervades online learning communities.  Or the ethos of expository teaching predominates?  Either way, online collaborative teaching/learning is shot through with (creative) tension between that dominance and the process of shifting toward a more eclectic, interactive, and autonomous learning universe.

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From the Conference on College Composition and Communication

This morning I attended a session in which three writing teachers/scholars presented theories and strategies on how to improve interpersonal interaction in online courses.  Here’s a synopsis of what the first presenter said, followed by my reaction:

(Pavel Zemlianksy)  Need for interactive, collaborative, constructivist approach is a given.  But how do students get to the point where they’re comfortable with online interpersonal interaction, and how can teachers encourage this?  Immediacy and social presence are goals in online classes as well as f2f.  Peer editing as example—acknowledgement of “presence” is one stage; “interactive” (dialogic) response is the goal.  (Note use of nested threads (Droople platform) to indicate degrees of interactivity.) 

Practical strategies:  Create instructions for commenting on the responses of others, and include what makes a good post—bad and good models.  (Good posting instructions are like good web design, with simple interface, no more than 9 items per page.)  Also encourage positive behaviour; praise good posts and show why/how they’re good.  Avoid “e-mails to teacher” trend; use discussion forums instead.

My comments–This was useful and clear.  I was impressed at the screenshots of Droople’s discussion threads; it was easy to see the “call and response” pattern that should characterize dialogic communication.  I never did create instructions for posting for Rhet&WWW, though I laid out some content parameters from time to time.  Most discussions in Rhet&WWW are of high quality, well developed and on-message; only a few are a bit perfunctory or off-topic.  Is this because most students in this course have taken online courses before and thus are already knowledgeable about the genre requirements of online academic “discussion”?  What instructors say about “how to post online” would at least partly depend on students’ previous experience with online course discussions.

(In New York City)

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