New semester, new assignments!

Each semester, I want to begin with an introduction not only to the course, but also to the OpenLab, so that students have a sense of where they will be working. I ask them to choose an avatar, and to think carefully about how they represent them. In the past, I’ve incorporated into an assignment a question about an image that represents them, asking them to describe it and show how it depicts them, but also to think about how it might be misunderstood by someone else, how that image can be read differently than they intend.

What made this more effective this semester was starting one step back from there, asking students to look through the People section of the OpenLab and find an avatar that they wanted to think about. Then they had to write a comment about that avatar, how they understood what it represented. Only after writing could they look to see who the person was, what they study, etc. In staging the assignment this way, they had the opportunity to themselves misread someone’s avatar, which they could then apply to their own writing about how someone might misread their chosen visual representation.

I’d love to hear from others how you orient students to the OpenLab, if you incorporate it into assignments, and how you introduce the notion of thinking critically about how we represent ourselves online.

5 thoughts on “New semester, new assignments!”

  1. I’m curious about what subject matter you teach, Jody. I try to introduce my students to OpenLab, but we ( n Math) have a lot of subject-matter-related things we need to work on. We can’t spare a lot of time to get all chatty about this sort of thing. And I am not sure it is such an appropriate use of our time anyway.

    I have noticed, though, that some of my students have avatars that seem to be inappropriate to a work-oriented environment. (One has an avatar which is seemingly her in deep kissing with her boyfriend.) They seem to have put those avatars up for other, prior classes. So I really wonder what people are thinking.

    At least one of my students created a screen name which could not easily (or at all) be recognized as his own name, and when I asked him, he said that his English teacher had specifically told them to be creative in their screen names. Whereas I had told them that we need to know who we are talking to. These are not mutually exclusive, of course, but…

    This is not Facebook: we are here to work, are we not? That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun also (witness my avatar) but I think we should not lose focus too much.

    1. I use the avatar assignment as part of our English Composition coursework on visual literacy. Since making arguments about texts–visual, written, etc–is an important skill in my course, I use this assignment to get us started. I expect that students will use their visual literacy in many other courses, whether they need to examine a graph, a photograph, a blueprint, a geometrical shape, an advertisement, a slide on a microscope, etc. I also think that devoting some time at the start of the semester to introductions both to each other and to the medium we use is a valuable way to get to know each other and establish community and trust among members of the course. Instructors who use an online component for our courses share the responsibility to educate students about the importance of crafting their online presence within the context of the individual course, the college-wide system, and the larger online persona that will accompany any job or university application they submit. Jonas Reitz in Mathematics gives us a great example to work through some of these ideas as a culminating assignment rather than an introductory one when he asks his students what advice they would give to future students. By assigning these responses and comments on other students’ responses, Jonas encourages community in his class while also getting students to reflect on their experiences with mathematical concepts and their use of the OpenLab.

      I’d love to hear how colleagues across the schools and disciplines incorporate introductions, orientation to the OpenLab, and discussions about online personae, both at the introductory level and at the more advanced levels when students are applying for internships, graduate school, etc.

    2. Jody and Sybil, thanks for starting this conversation. I also wanted to add that one of the things I love about OpenLab is that students can take ownership of the platform just as much as faculty. Unlike with a Learning Management System, in addition to participating in courses, students are also free to create their own projects, clubs, and portfolios, and choose how to represent themselves on their profile page. Being creative about their display name and avatar is part of that representation. Creativity and professionalism can easily coexist, and when these two things conflict, it can be part of the learning process and an ongoing discussion about how to represent oneself online in different spaces. It’s similar, I think, to conversations around using email for professional communication. First year students might come in with a very informal email address they use only for communicating with friends and leave using their City Tech email, “firstname.lastname@gmail.com,” or something similar.

      Like Jody, I’m also curious about how others address these questions in courses or in other spaces.

  2. Another thought: the OpenLab interface does not seem to lend itself to getting down to work. To find my courses, I have to actually go to “My OpenLab” first. The default interface invites me to do other things.

    In the past I’ve used Blogger for what I’m now using OpenLab for, and I think it was better suited to the purpose despite some drawbacks.

    OpenLab seems to be trying to be too unfocused. But maybe I’m not seeing something.

  3. Students will presumably use the OpenLab for many courses, perhaps for projects and clubs, and hopefully for their portfolio—they need to think critically about how they represent themselves in this community space, but also to gain familiarity and expertise with the system so that they can develop their work on the OpenLab, rather than stagnate in the most basic uses. With WordPress as an industry standard for so many fields, devoting time in courses for students to learn the OpenLab is a valuable part of their education. If we want to encourage student retention—and I believe we do—then we want to ensure that our students feel they are part of a community. The OpenLab’s front page helps show students what that community is, and gives them easy access to various activities—curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular alike—at City Tech. Community building is an edifying component of a college education, and I embrace it not instead of the course curriculum, but as an integral part of it. The OpenLab can foster opportunities for our students to study together, to encourage each other, to support each other’s success, which is far less likely when students don’t know or care about each other. Faculty and staff members can similarly benefit from working in a community that encourages collaboration.

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