newsactivist.com – A Conversation with Gabriel Flacks about Technology that Could Change Your Classroom

My move into the CEGEP world has exposed me to some really amazing teachers, and I’ve been humbled by the pedagogical commitment I see around me on an almost daily basis. I’ve had English teachers walk me through incredibly thoughtful assignments that teach students to see past the trappings of a book and really get at the guts of a text. I’ve also had a colleague in the Social Sciences department invite me to be a “guest specialist” in her class – she brings faculty members from several different departments into her classroom on a semi-regular basis to offer criticism and support as her students compose their major research papers, which at the college level, are interdisciplinary in nature. Most recently, Gabriel Flacks, who currently serves as the Coordinator of the Humanities Department at Champlain Regional College, St. Lambert, has introduced me to a website that he created. It’s called NewsActivist.com and it has a wide range of applications, but for now, I want to let him introduce it himself via a brief Q&A.

 

1. What is News Activist.com?
NewsActivist is a website built to support courses that are supplemented and enhanced by students writing collaboratively across campuses and borders. Specifically, it was built to support my college-level Humanities course about contemporary issues by getting students to write and think critically about the news through the lens of volunteer work, academic research or entrepreneurial endeavors. The website grew out of a desire to get my students talking with students in a sociology classroom that was run by a colleague who teaches at a university in New York. The idea was to facilitate cross-cultural understanding, to note the effects of “the framing effect” in mass media, and to make writing assignments more meaningful by providing students a broad audience. We therefore organized a set of asynchronous writing assignments that encouraged students to consider how social issues in New York and Quebec are often both similar and dissimilar all at once. However, when we attempted to implement this course work, we had difficulties integrating our classrooms using any and all existing web tools. After our attempts to use numerous sites for cross-border collaboration fell short, I approached the director of Champlain College, who, seeing the value of our cross-border approach, supported my desire to create a website built specifically to help our students collaborate. NewsActivist.com was quickly built from my design, and it went online in 2012. In that first semester, it was used only by my colleague and I to allow our students to dialogue; since then, the website has been attracting new users very quickly. It has been used by over 2000 other students enrolled in over 50 different courses in the disciplines of Humanities, Sociology, English, Psychology, Business, English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL), and more. The teachers using the site have discovered, as I did, that many types of courses can be supplemented, internationalized, and enhanced by using newsactivist.com to support collaborative cross-campus writing.

2. Why does it work better than other technology that allows for long-distance multi-user communication, such as Facebook or Twitter?
Twitter does not encourage academic writing as such; its microblog format is simply too short to help students develop their writing skills or communicate ideas that need more than a few sentences for complete expression. Further, for teachers and students, tracking the work of the students from individual classes is difficult using Twitter.

Facebook is equally non-academic in design and is not a “writing platform” per se. It allows each teacher and student a limited range of options in how each class’s “activity feed” can be presented. More importantly, privacy settings are limited. This lack of control creates limitations in how individual users can exert control over the visibility of submitted content. So, although it appears open, Facebook does not offer a safe, academically-formatted, open exchange across campuses; unlike NewsActivist, it just isn’t designed to facilitate the transmission of academic assignments or submissions between teachers and students, while offering the opportunity for students to have control over these assignments’ visibility across a network.

For teachers, NewsActivist is built to make one’s class easy to manage. It’s easy to find students’ work and it is quick and simple to engage with them. There is also a “Collaboration Planning Forum,” where teachers can find collaborative partners, track their collaborative schedules and share ideas and resources. Approved teachers are able to easily add classes, invite students to these online classes, and make these classes private, public, or semi-private. They can then use the site in many different ways, from a regular ongoing aspect of the course, to a single assignment which moves academic work into an authentic cross-cultural setting; teachers can use the site as it suits the pedagogical goals of the course.

NewsActivist also provides a number of student privacy options, giving students control over who can see each piece of their work. Each student is given the option of making each piece of his or her writing visible only to their teacher, restricting it to members of their class, or electing for it to be fully public and accessible to anyone online. Regardless of what option a student chooses, only approved users – that is, other students participating in an authorized class – can submit or comment on work at NewsActivist. Students therefore have an audience, but are also in a safe academic environment, with complete control over their work.

To give a specific example, this month, my students are using the site for collaborative writing with a Sociology class, an Entrepreneurship class, and a Business Communication class. All four teachers involved use the Collaboration Planning Forum (only teachers who have registered at the site will be able to see this forum) to communicate and are able keep their partner classes apprised of what assignments will be submitted to the site on any given week. This allows other teachers to assign feedback-focused work in their classes; they ask their students to write a specific number of constructive comments under newly posted work that has been created by students in a partner classroom. On NewsActivist, students are always teaching other students and teachers can manage otherwise unwieldy course planning for collaborative coursework using features that facilitate marking and organizing assignments. And all of this happens in an organic way.

3. What have students had to say about the website?
There are several journal articles in press, written by professors who have used the site, attesting to the fact that students love it (see the list below). They learn about issues they wouldn’t have considered before, and start reading, volunteering, and even voting more. One of my students puts it this way:

“I was much more motivated to write my blog posts then my regular essays because I knew some people would actually read it and my opinion could have a voice.  We could also see what other students thought of what we were doing or give our opinion on other people’s posts whether we agreed or disagreed, which motivated me to write better posts.  I got to work on a subject that really matters to me and it made me care about it even more.” – Natalie Geukers

Below are some other anonymous testimonials, and more can be found at the site:

“Getting to choose my own topic and commenting on other people made me feel like a journalist and that my opinion mattered.”

“English is my 2nd language so I liked being able to take my time and come up with an answer.”

“We are a technologically advanced generation and the education system should recognize that”

“I liked seeing what other people thought…  it helped me understand issues in new ways.”

“I took more time thinking about what I was writing because I knew people could check my facts…I don’t usually worry about that.”

I think it is a great way to encourage students to participate since you get lots of comments and feedback. It is also great because you can see others people work!”

4. What is the most unexpected thing that’s happened since launching the site?
The most surprising thing was discovering just how many teachers have been looking for a site like this, and so the process has been very rewarding. Demand has led the site to be translated into French, has allowed me to work on the project as part of an existent Entente Canada Quebec grant that supports cross-campus pedagogy, and allowed me to give my students access to more perspectives than I could ever have hoped. In April 2014, several classes from Japan and Florida will be sharing academic-style writing about current events via NewsActivist, providing my current class a completely new set of peers with whom to exchange information and collaborate on assignments.

5. How do you see the site developing over the coming years?
I try to just go with the flow. I’m doing my best to continue to improve the site by considering both teacher and student feedback. The more teachers and students use the site, the more exciting my classes become – and so, I hope that the network of teachers and students using the site continues to grow. I ask students to comment on writing shared at the site, and as disciplines and institutions multiply, my students are constantly provided with fresh content to interact with. In the process, I’m learning more about my students. One of the great surprise benefits of using the site to support my classes has been that otherwise shy students are often more open and engaged in a safe, academic, social network, and so I’ve found ways to expand use of the site into other classes that I’m teaching. Hopefully, people will continue to see value in the project and it will continue to diversify.

 

NewsActivist has already been used by teachers in a variety of different disciplines. My immediate reaction to hearing about this technology, however, was that someone should use it in a historical context. Being a British historian by training, I thought it would be really exciting to pair an undergad class in North America – studying, say, Tudor-Stuart history – with one in the United Kingdom that was looking at similar material. I would absolutely love to see how students from such different backgrounds could learn from one another. More specifically to the Quebec context, there also seems to be a lot of potential when it comes to teaching either Quebec History, or Canadian history more generally. Given the cultural divide that separates Canada from the “ROC” (that’s “Rest of Canada” for those of you who don’t know the lingo), I thought it would be a great idea to pair a Quebec classroom with a class in Ontario, Alberta, or British Columbia. Sparks may fly, but that would be a conversation worth having!

 

To learn more about NewActivist, click here and check it out.

For academic articles commenting on the project see:

Flacks, G. and Eric Kaldor(in press) “Facilitating Globally Networked Courses with Newsactivist.com: Student Blogs, Social Networks, and Collaborative Pedagogy.” Canadian International Journal of Social Science and Education. June 2014

Thomas, T., Fournier-Sylvester, N., & Venkatesh, V. (in press). “Citizen in/action: Analyzing online forums for pedagogical insight. “In V. Venkatesh, J. Wallin, J. C. Castro, and J. E. Lewis (Eds.), Educational, behavioral, and psychological considerations in niche online communities. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Fournier-Sylvester, N. (in press). “From the chat room to the voting booth: The potential of using online discussion forums to develop civic skills”.Citizenship Education Research Network.

Flacks, G and Lynn Reid. (in press) “Blogging Democracy: Reconsidering Community Engagement with Web 2.0.” Fourtheenth International Conference on Education and Social Sciences Conference Proceedings. ISBN: 978-605-64453-0-9

 

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7 thoughts on “newsactivist.com – A Conversation with Gabriel Flacks about Technology that Could Change Your Classroom

  1. I’m really interested to see follow-up on your experience using this platform. It has so much potential, but I’m trying to imagine to to keep the workload manageable for the instructor in a collaborative university classroom. But, definitely something to think about. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Justin,

      This is Gabe, happily expanding the wonderful conversation with Sarah into the comments section!

      I wanted to respond to your thoughts regarding the amount of work involved in
      a. using newsactivist and
      b. collaborative teaching

      With regard to the work that use of the site adds to a teacher’s day, very little work, if any, is added from asking students to use the site. If you register as a teacher (in seconds at http://newsactivist.com/user/register) you gain access to sample materials, a forum for questions, and best practice tips. Once I have an assignment prepared for my students, asking students to use the site as a method of submitting the assignment does not add any additional work for me. However, it easily gives my students and my class a broader context as students are reading work by students from other countries and receiving feedback on their writing from students from other classes using the site. There is no increased marking work for me, as I don’t mark on the site, which keeps the site’s voice student-centric. So I have students submit the assignments through turnitin.com as well; this is also handy since many small assignments can be combined into a single submission for turnitin.com, making my marking go quickly. Perhaps integrated marking tools will come along to the site in the future.

      In regards to the workload involved for collaborative teaching itself, I think that is a fascinating question.Through this project, I have met and keep meeting many wonderful teachers experimenting with many different strategies involving collaborative classes which affect the demands on the teachers involved. In the end, many factors contribute to the amount of work required in any course that involves such ongoing cross-classroom collaboration.

      Would you suggest the kind of experience you envisage being potentially useful for your students? I’d be happy to wager a guess as to how it might develop and what it would take to get it going; I might even know a teacher who might be seeking a similar collaborative teaching partner. Feel free to email me at gabeflacks@newsactivistl.com or to respond here!

      Best,
      Gabe

      • Hi Gabe,

        Thanks so much for your reply, and further explanation. The focus on keeping the voice student-centric is useful and valuable.

        I’m not currently teaching (I’m on a research postdoc), so I don’t have specific experiences or assignments in mind. But when I do teach at the university level again, I wouldn’t really be able to compel students to use any site/tool without giving of my time to evaluate their participation. On the other hand, I worry about participation levels if I only made it available to them as a collaboration tool without any form of grade associated with their use of it.

        I do, however, really like the ability to collaborate with other instructors who are interested in teaching design and pedagogy, so I’m all for this and am definitely bookmarking it for the future!

        Justin

  2. Pingback: Media | gabrielflacks

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