Contributor: Jessica Rivait
School Affiliation: Michigan State University
Writing instructors who teach with technology have bemoaned content management systems (CMS) for being static and for limiting the kinds of interactions that students can have in online spaces (see Fisher, for instance). Even a CMS like ANGEL 7.4, which has the capability of creating multiple forums for student interaction (such as wikis, discussion forums, blogs, and synchronous chat) is often accused of having severe limitations: it has too many bugs and associated updates; it does not replicate the experience students interacting with each other and non-class members in public spaces; it may be in conflict with a tech-savvy writing teachers’ pedagogy (see Reilly and Williams for additional drawbacks of commercial CMSs in the Blackboard family). That said, what are CMS’s like ANGEL 7.4 good for?
I believe that writing teachers must figure out how CMS is useful for them. For me, CMS’s like ANGEL 7.4 are useful as living archives: my course spaces help me think about and facilitate class preparation, class activities, student development, and teacher reflection. To do so, they serve as classroom memory, which must be constantly updated and attended to. At first glance, such an approach may seem to be static because it does not foreground activities considered to be dynamic (i.e., the posting of documents are necessary to this approach, but the use of wikis, discussion forums, blogs, and synchronous chat is not). However, this approach is dynamic because it requires that teachers and students be conversant about the ways in which the classroom is archived, ideas are accessed, and writing development occurs.
While major projects and associated activities shift within the same class, between classes, and between semesters, it can be really helpful to have a consistent framework for producing materials to guide students through the process of making a project. To produce such a framework, writing teachers should take into account the types of materials that they usually make to help students through that process. These types of materials can turn into category names for folders on a CMS.
However, the folder names and content on a CMS need not be determined simply by a writing teacher’s initial patterns of scaffolding daily activities and project sequences. Every semester since I started this folder system, I have asked students in my class to talk about what made sense or did not make sense to them about the way I set up my folders: I incorporated this feedback into the folder names, contents, and labeling. Students have different ways of thinking about and categorizing documents, so my labeling is never spot on for each student; however, my feedback from students with diverse ideas of organization has made my folder system increasingly user-friendly. Of course, the MSU website usability policy (http://webaccess.msu.edu/policies-and-guidelines/web-accessibility-policy.html) also influenced the way in which I labeled folders: I used the additional caption option for folders in order to be clear about what they contain and when content will be posted.
This feedback influences the folder arrangement and labeling in subsequent semesters. At the beginning of the semester, I have my folders set up and orient students to them during the first few class sessions (so that there is understanding of my organization patterns). This organization also influences my preparation for class because I view all of the possible categories for producing documents, and can easily check in with my syllabus, semester schedule, and current project (because each of those documents are posted and easily accessible).
Class preparation on CMS’s like ANGEL can impact in-class activities. In teacher podium-only classes, I can display the agenda, activities, and e-copies of print handouts that they’ll have to fill out individually or in small groups. I can also use ANGEL to capture face-to-face whole class discussions with students (e.g., by using a “class notes” wiki to write down what students are saying; how they are responding to different terms and ideas; and what suggestions they have for my teaching documents).
Because computer labs are few and highly sought after and students do not always have laptops, using ANGEL as an archive can allow them to interact with technology even when they cannot do so extensively during class.
When I do have class in computer labs, my students are able to download relevant documents that can help them to complete work and stay on task. Students can download activity handouts to fill out and post before they are asked to report back to the class about what they did as a group. We can display that in-class work when they are presenting. In addition, students can review peer essays that are posted, and post peer critique so that their peer and I can both have access to their feedback. Also, students can respond to previously crafted and uploaded prompts on discussion boards. Additionally, late students can be less disruptive when they enter because they can easily download the agenda and figure out what we did and what we are doing. These are just some of the possibilities that ANGEL offers for using static and dynamic features fruitfully for student learning during in-class activities.
In addition to offering learning possibilities during class, CMS’s like ANGEL also offer out-of-class learning opportunities. Because every daily agenda, handout, prompt, and set of class notes is posted on ANGEL, students can access what we did in class. These online materials are a clear benefit to students who missed class: they can reconstruct the day’s activities, and sometimes aided by class notes and student postings as gages for how to interact with those activities. However, students who were present can still benefit from archived materials: they can remember what did in class (through class notes and other documents); can find and access extra copies of important documents (and not depend on print copies); and can access resources (external links) or extra handouts not introduced in class to work on class assignments and major projects. While being able to access these documents is convenient for students, access also allows students to engage with a variety of documents influence their understanding of composing objectives and subsequent production of texts.
Finally, CMS’s like ANGEL can facilitate teacher reflection. As I mentioned before, I can look at my ANGEL folders to inspire lesson plans, as well as have conversations with my students about the way that we archive class discussions and activities; these are reflections on my curricular framework. I also reflect on my classroom activities after I have delivered them; if plans did not go as I had expected, I make extra handouts on the gaps I discovered, or rethink or design future lesson plans and homework assignments. I also pay attention to the speed and substance of my communication with students, individually and collectively; in addition, I adjust frequency and content based on student face-to-face and e-mail communication in response to the e-mail messages I send out.
Of course, the way that I use ANGEL 7.4 is indicative of my beliefs, along with my interpretations of the institutional and classroom situations that I find myself in. One of my institutional limitations is limited access to computer labs. Because my students do not always have access to computers, I shy away from having them use interactive features (like synchronous chat): without allowing them practice time in class, I cannot ensure they can be successful. Also, I believe that students have a threshold for learning new technologies: they can get overwhelmed with learning a lot of new technologies. Students do not just use ANGEL, but use other offline software as well (such as MS Publisher, iMovie) in my classes; sometimes it is more important for them to learn use that software than it is for them to learn advanced features of ANGEL (especially when they are using the former to make media with local non-profit organizations). However, student technology learning is not the only factor that influences my practices.
Institutional politics also influences my practices. At MSU, instructors are encouraged to use ANGEL as a method of teaching with technology: every instructor has an ANGEL account they can activate for each class they teach. Each student enrolled in that class is automatically enrolled in the ANGEL course. Because of student familiarity with ANGEL and the required login, it can be a fairly comfortable space for students and instructors to contribute and converse. Students are trained during orientation to use ANGEL, and are expected to own desktops or laptops. However, this differential access, along with considerations of disability, have led to the MSU website usability policy. In compliance with this policy, I have created extra labels on folders, links, and documents (text, video posts).
Although more static features like posting and downloading files have been characterized as non-dialogic, these features can be used to serve dialogic purposes and practices of classroom archiving, writing development, and teacher reflection. Issues of institutional and student access to technologies, paired with pedagogical goals impact use of CMSs like ANGEL may inspire instructors to take this approach because of its relative portability across a range of technology access situations. When constructed and revisioned collaboratively, CMSs like ANGEL can serve as a living archive-a productive, memory node in a hybrid learning community.
There are a variety of free resources you can use if you do not have access to Blackboard technologies (like ANGEL, Web CT, etc.).
Even if you don’t have a wiki space via these technologies mentioned above or below, you can use MS Word and upload those documents as class notes.
Fisher, David. “CMS-based Simulations in the Classroom: Evoking Genre Through Game Play.” Computers and Composition. 24.2 (2007): 179-197.
Reilly, Colleen A., and Joseph John Williams. “The Price of Free Software: Labor, Ethics, and Context in Distance Education. Computers and Composition. 23.1 (2006): 68-90.