Will It Blend? Lessons Learned Using Collaborative Media in a Liberal Arts Classroom

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol. 1 Winter/Spring 2013
Brett Boessen
Austin College

In the Spring of 2010, I offered a class on Participatory Cultures, which I intended to be a vehicle for me and the participating students to explore the concept, both through the more typical methods of readings, discussion, and writing, and also through some exercises and assignments that were themselves participatory in nature (or would draw upon materials created through collaboration and sharing).  This was quite deliberately an exercise in “blended learning” or “hybrid pedagogy” in that I knew whatever form the exercises and assignments would take would include both traditional and digitally networked elements.  I knew I wanted them to regularly blog, comment on others’ blogs, and make their own remix video, all of which were assignments I had used in previous classes in various ways.  Still, I wanted something that was lighter in content (something in which they did not need to invest much time), but would move them closer to my objective of more sustained, deeper engagement with the concept of participatory culture.  A “blog story” seemed to fit my goals nicely.

What I’m calling a “blog story” or “Twitter story” is really just a digitally networked instance of collaborative storytelling.  Others have embarked upon similar experiments; in fact, I first began to consider it as a possible assignment after reading Bryan Alexander’s book The New Digital Storytelling, in which he moves methodically through dozens of examples of stories told using digitally networked tools: games, augmented reality, blogs, social media, even wikis.  Alexander focuses on that which is common among all of them – the use of digital networks (especially the Web) to bring pieces of stories to a far-flung audience – to help us see the power of digital networks to connect people not just organizationally and economically but emotionally, and powerfully so. It was after reading Alexander’s descriptions of the various projects he had studied (including this one in which War of the Worlds is semi-re-enacted via Twitter) that I began to consider this format as a possible means to achieve both of those goals.

That first iteration, in the Spring of 2010, was built around another structural component of the course, the individual blog assignment: each student created and maintained her or his own blog (most of us, including me, used WordPress.com), and posted to it a range of short assignments such as author’s statements on media projects created for the course.  Since this was already in place, I chose to have them participate in an on-going story begun by me with a somewhat open prompt by serializing the content in small chunks posted to their blogs (e.g.: part II, part III, part IV).  Each student was responsible for posting the next piece of the story the following day, and for providing a link backward to the previous piece (by linking to the post itself from the previous poster’s blog) and a link forward to the succeeding piece (once it had been completed).

What we quickly generated during that iteration was a complicated and far-ranging sci-fi tale of murder and intrigue built on shifting sands of perspective and frequently shifting time frames, in which the reader likely could never predict what was coming next.  Ultimately it was a complete mess: the introduction of characters in rapid succession, plot twists that went nowhere, and at least one student who seemed to revel in undermining and/or unraveling any consistent thread of story just because he could.  In fact, this went so far that the class ended up splitting into two factions, both writing forked parallel stories that remained separate until I ended the exercise.  This forking process, which at first seemed like it might derail the experiment, instead seemed to invigorate it, as students in each faction seemed to take greater ownership over the project when they knew they had a choice about which direction they could take.

We spent some time in class discussing the issues we found with the process in order to try to make it work (one of which was this story forking), and we were able to have a sustained conversation about the pitfalls of collaboration in a digital networked space that was borne out of something we all created in common (as opposed to something we had simply consumed in common or created individually).

So in the Fall of 2012, when I decided to teach a version of that course again under a new name (Digital Networked Narrative) and with a more focused objective (to study contemporary forms of digital networked storytelling), I decided to bring the assignment back, but with some important changes intended to address the specific issues and concerns we had encountered two years before.  First, I shifted the platform from individual blogs to Twitter.  I hoped the self-organizing nature of tags and the 140 character limit would discipline us in a way the overly convoluted arrangement of blog-post-with-forward-and-backward-pointing-links had not.  Second, I decided to organize the story as it developed using Storify, so after we had finished, we could have a single place to access the full story (which was, and still remains, a significant problem for anyone who actually wants to read the story from the first iteration).  Finally, having had the previous experience to draw upon, I verbally cautioned them to “please take it seriously” and explained our collective woes with our previous hijacker, in the hopes that no one would try to take over the narrative in the same way.

The enactment of this version of the assignment was much more smooth, though it also had its own issues.  First, the class did take it more seriously–perhaps a little too much so.  We ended up telling a war drama about a young man who leaves for the front without settling a major argument with his mother, and in the process manages to smuggle his pet dog with him, leading to some Rin Tin Tin-type adventure on the front lines.  It wasn’t goofy time-travel-with-dinosaurs, but it was somewhat heavy drama for what was supposed to have been a lighter assignment.

Second, we had some technical problems with Twitter and Storify that were not catastrophic, but should be mentioned.  With Twitter, using the hashtag #dnn12 (which does not currently return any results; more on that below), there was an issue with proper syntax for hashtags, which was an issue for all of us, but especially those who were new to the platform.  Some tweets were lost and/or had to be re-posted because they were improperly tagged and as a consequence couldn’t be seen by others in the class.  In addition, because we relied on the hashtag as the central linking mechanism, we both had to constantly use the tag to actually see the accumulated tweets, and managed to write the story without actually following each other directly.  I’m not sure what I think about these details: doing a search in Twitter just to read a story is no more work, I suppose, than turning a series of pages, although it is certainly not what readers are used to; collaborating on a story online without following each other online is surely something only a group that also meets regularly in a face-to-face setting could pull off with any aplomb.

The Storify I generated from our Twitter story is here, and with it there were also both beneficial and detrimental elements.  Storify was excellent at helping to organize and arrange the tweets into a coherent and readable format that could be saved for later. In addition to the story tweets, I also incorporated  the “what is going on?  Whose turn is it?” tweets we saw, along with some additional aside commentary about those additional tweets for context. I pulled together the otherwise disparate threads posted by the class, both within and about the story, and organized them in a way that made sense for what had been happening at the time they were posted.  However, I almost lost some tweets because I had not realized that Twitter does not keep tweets of a certain vintage (or rather, I had known this abstractly, but did not realize how quickly they evaporated into the ether).  As a consequence, I needed to return to the site for Storify editing much more regularly than I had initially planned.

Still, with all these issues taken together, this was an improvement over the first iteration, and is likely to be fairly similar to the version of the assignment I use in future iterations of the course. WordPress, Twitter, and Storify are particularly effective tools to support collaborative learning in a blended or hybrid learning setting.  WordPress.com offers an easily and globally accessible platform for student writing (and other media production) in a somewhat robust format that is still lightweight in terms of resource needs but offers numerous options for customization.  Twitter has become the backyard fence of American culture, and anyone interested in inviting their students to engage with that culture will find a fascinating depth there to mine at their leisure (again in extremely resource-light and easy-to-access formats).  Storify is a clever solution to what had been a growing problem: the widely spread and far-flung nature of information on the Web and its consequential opacity to the individual reader.  Storify allows a connected author to pull relevant pieces together so they aren’t lost to the ether, which can be extremely helpful in spanning the gap between online and face-to-face interaction in a blended approach.  Perhaps most importantly, all of these resources are free (in the forms we used in each iteration).  Each of these tools has inherent advantages and disadvantages, but for someone seeking to engage students in collaborating in new but still deep and robust ways, these tools have much to offer.

However, my experience also indicates that none of the tools I used was a perfect fit for my pedagogical goals for the course.  As a consequence, this assignment has helped to reinforce a lesson I continue to learn with my own course design, which is that digital tools are ultimately inert in themselves – they can only provide opportunities for learning when coupled with course objectives (whether articulated or implied).  Whether you agree with the effectiveness of “learning objectives” or “learning outcomes” as a strategy for success, I imagine you would still agree that teachers want their students to learn, through instruction, facilitation, mentoring, or some combination of these.  WordPress, Twitter, and Storify are excellent tools for facilitating each of these objectives when used well, especially when intended for use in a hybrid pedagogy.  But they do not offer a one-size-fits-all solution to student learning.  It takes a skilled educator’s committed effort to develop a set of tools and practices that can consistently produce engaged learners.

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