Teaching a web-design service-learning course

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Image: T. Smith, 2009. With subject's consent.

Nearing the end of an adventure

In a few days my students in Communications Studies 463 will be completing their final websites and collected experiences and reflections.

Their thoughts will be presented publicly on campus on April 14th to an audience of approximately 30 people in addition to their class of 27 students and 4 instructional team members.

My post today responds to several of the common themes of their reflections:

  • transformed expectations about what the course should/would be like
  • the unexpected workload that comes with increased accountability to stakeholders in addition to the usual fear/respect for the grade
  • the technology challenges and learning
  • the teamwork challenges and learning
  • the unusual roles of the instructional team members as collaborators
  • the unfamiliar assignments that are a “hybrid” of academic, public, and organizational genres suiting our hybrid partnership and bridge-building aims.
  • the joys and fears of producing a real website for a real public while being evaluated by one another and supporting one another.

Community – Campus – Student collaboration

COMS 463 Instructional team

COMS 463 Instructional team. The blog author & instructor, T. Smith, in Red. Photo: T. Smith, April 7, 2010, with subjects' consent

In Community Service-Learning (CSL) we are always working within a very fertile (and “turbulent” as one student says) nexus between academia and professional practice where the two can influence one another in a positive way, even as the sparks fly when iron sharpens iron.

There is much that the nonprofit / professional world can contribute, via community partners and the workplace and public communication experience of students in the course as well as the instructor’s experiences.

Professional communication practice generates its own sort of wisdom, and it influences by its sheer weight of energy and mass production and precedents over time.  Professional communication practice seems to be justified by the money made through it, not necessarily by the communities and insights formed (or ignored or destroyed) through its communication.  These are often treated as means to the financial / practical end.

At the same time, there is much the academic world can critique/contribute to the professional and public world even if it is out of date by 3-10 years as is usually the case.

History itself provides food for thought.  When past communication practice clashes with present (and it will always contrast with the unknown future) we can always think critically and learn about how communication patterns and expectations change in online genres over a very short period as technology changes.

And academia, especially in the Arts and humanities, has a lot to contribute in terms of ethical critique and suggestions for how communication can and should aim to be carried out.

However, academia itself, especially in a publicly-funded institution,  is bogged down with fearful bureaucracy itself.  We saw in this class the inner workings of huge institutions like universities, as the zillions of consent forms required by university research ethics policies, signed waivers,  and anxiety over captions & references for all media and textual sources.

Bureaucratic requirements and accountabilities were reasons I had to depend on the assistance of Carmen, my course’s learning coach, beyond her role in relation to student coaching.


Hybrid online genres

Screenshot from a COMS 463 team website. Click the image to go to the site.

Clip from a COMS 463 team website. All website links: upper right corner of the COMS 463 W 2010 home page (click on image)

In the case of the COMS 463 web development project, academia is an audience as well,  not just the public, and so we needed to write “hybrid” genres  (half academic half public) that made sense for our real rhetorical situation.  We could not craft “purely” organizational, public, or academic genres, because these would not fit the hybrid goals of service AND learning.

The individual blog assignment described here was the students’ first encounter with a genre/assignment description that asked them to see “editing” as selecting and introducing, not just fixing up, text provided by others.

  • They were asked to skim “inherited documents” legally signed over from former CSL students to our students for online editing and publication.
  • Then they were asked to choose how best to post and profile and reformat those pieces so that the public could make sense of them and benefit from them as windows into service-learning processes and outcomes.
  • They had to learn how to respect and navigate the boundary between themselves and an author at a distance, AND learn how to talk to the public about this document.

Not easy.  Thus a grade adjustment was compassionate for the whole class.   They learned greatly from feedback, and got in touch with a perspective on CSL that was different from their own.

Then on the individual website assignment described here, the technology got more challenging (WordPress blogs were much simpler in structure than Google Sites).   Logistically our course’s leadership had a lot of work in ensuring that interviews were conducted within a short 2 week frame.  However, the final genre became more familiar (the journalistic interview) and was less of an academic “hybrid.”  People had already learned a lot about online rhetoric by then, so generally the quality of writing improved greatly.

Then on the final team website described here, our teams had a challenge departing from the familiar genre of the institutional program /organization site and the retail outlet site.  As they brought at least 2000 words of their previously authored material onto their team sites from their individual blogs and websites,

  • It was difficult NOT to separate audiences and sort them into tracks on the site as if they were consumer markets.  As requested by our partners, and in line with the ethos of service-learning, this was to be a site where instructors should be interested in learning about students’ experiences, and vice versa.
  • It was difficult for our students NOT to impersonate the persona/ethos of most websites, which is a corporate identity, and instead take on the ethos of a student team speaking with confidence that their partial and personal knowledge was nevertheless deep and worthy of public engagement.
  • And we  needed to write in a way that respected the humanistic/historical content of the site as a navigable online magazine/book that could have a life long past our students’ course and even perhaps graduation date.  Normally sites are frequently updated; these had to speak in a way that could outlive their original authors’ involvement.  Sites could not be dependent on a certain future configuration of organizations taking responsibility for their website.

By this time, our learning about CSL from an article by Clayton & Ash, our own experiences, from editing an inherited document about CSL and from doing an interview on the theme of CSL certainly formed a foundation of CSL knowledge for us to understand how we could address our stakeholders and the public in a new and unfamiliar way in order to inspire social and institutional change.

Throughout all this, we needed to pay our dues to Mr. APA (an academic publishing style, the American Psychological Association) even though the world out there cites & references by its own quirky and generally much more lax standards.  Why?  Because I teach in Communications Studies and APA is our most frequently used academic style.  It would be a death knell to CSL to appear as if I were not teaching ethical academic rigor when it comes to sources and author/editor roles.


Workload and responsibility

Coms 463 calendar screen clip

Coms 463 calendar screen clip

The workload issue is one that will never be resolved without registrar accommodation for additional credit as well as scheduling, because students and instructor and community partner have different expectations and we need “wiggle room” in order to negotiate them and learn through them.

When you multiply stakeholders and visibility of student work, you increase the social and emotional workload that goes beyond mere time-stamping.

It becomes hard for students (and teachers, and partners) to draw the line between what the teacher expects, the public/community expects, and their own expectations for grades and final product quality.

Integration is the aim and collaboration the mode of CSL, and yet integration/collaboration blurs the boundaries of our “normal” categories of school, work, volunteering, and private life.

Time boundaries and role boundaries and reward boundaries shift and overlap.  Ultimately in learning to dance together as partners in CSL, we often step on each other’s toes.

As long as we each take responsibility and also share the “appreciation/blame/forgiveness” for one another’s challenges & contributions, we will come out with recommendations worthy of acting upon.


Learning and reflecting

A screenshot clip from the COMS 463 blog where students posted short reflections at the end of Monday "Labs"

A screenshot clip from the COMS 463 blog where students posted short reflections at the end of Monday "Labs"

I am all ears and I have learned immensely even during the past week from being involved in student teams.  However, I still have a sensitive heart and can take things too personally.  For example,

Yesterday evening I had a panic attack and imagined it all falling down on me during class evaluations Monday and the public presentations Wednesday, with everyone blaming me personally for challenges that were part of the collaborative partnership and which were the natural result or corollary of good aspirations and hard work.

Fear is our bane. Students fear what I will think of their work.  They fear the grade. But I also fear being blamed for the consequences of our collective virtues and efforts.  That fear threatens to focus us on the negatives and challenges rather than the benefits — so many of the benefits we cannot experience at the moment because they consist of subconscious learning and future benefits from our increased expertise and knowledge and widened interpersonal networks.

This is what I believe and hope

It is because we all care so much about what each other thinks, and the long term consequences and short term costs, that we all get so stressed out at times!

Many of us will look back on this experience as a formative experience.  I hope for some people it will forge lasting bonds of respect and mentorship.  I hope that some good memories of accomplishment and learning is intermixed with the memory that stress was experienced.

Coms 463 Presentation advertisement banner

Coms 463 Presentation advertisement banner. Photo Montage by T. Smith, 2010

I feel their stress vicariously. Because I can see into their team work processes more than in other classes, I am “there with them” more so than in other courses I teach more traditionally.

I know that it is hard to take certain types of “help” from an instructor as real valuable help before the grade and public revelation.  It is tempting to perceive it as a cruel or unreasonable demand or evidence of too high expectations.

My expectations must be limited by the time and the level of the course, but should my expectations of quality and student intelligence be low?

Not at all.   I refuse to underestimate my students.  Students have such riches of their own wisdom, skill and knowledge to offer, and in many areas beyond me.

I am here both to assist the most struggling student and to challenge the best student to reach for outstanding excellence.

Possible comparison:

Isn’t it that way with parenting too?  I have not been a parent myself, but I recall being parented.  Teenagers can see their parents’ concern and fear as restrictions on their freedom, or their career and relationship advice as ways of controlling them.

Misunderstandings occur across generations and hierarchies.  Students can see teachers’ necessary help and instruction as demands, or their flexibility to changing situations as a sign of disorganization, or their respect for history and perceived slower thinking as being “behind the times” or being unreceptive.

I know this potential misunderstanding and this kind of interpersonal fear and stress is the price I must be willing to pay for a project that is deeply meaningful and long lasting in impact for students, partners, and myself.

I know I am not like other teachers.  I have different strengths, and different weaknesses.

Good teaching and learning requires a continual balance between confidence and humility.

Like my own students, at this point of exposure and vulnerability, I must be the best I can be, and not be ashamed and fearful of being accused of what I did not try to be, and could not be, within this situation.

Students, as my fellow citizens and human beings whom I respect,  will learn something from me that they will not learn from others.

Hopefully we will all learn how to cover and compensate for the inevitable weaknesses that underlie our amazing strengths.

I believe all my effort in planning the course, coordinating the partnership, and supporting students’ learning is all worth it in the end, because I am trying my best to be a good educator, a community-builder, and an ethical and public rhetorician.


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