For my Summer Session II class, I wanted to add a social media/microblogging component. I’d used my University’s Blackboard Wiki in a previous class, but found the whole thing badly-designed. I was determined to step up my game in terms of social media integration, so I decided to test-pilot Tumblr. Students were required to post two assignments on the class Tumblr, but were NOT required to use the site in any other capacity.
1. Tumblr as the Class Commons
Tumblr became the de-facto landing pad for my class. Since I was in a smart classroom, it was easy for me to pull up announcements, tips, reminders or examples that I’d posted since the previous class--I usually opened class with the Tumblr. As opposed to Blackboard, Tumblr was a clean and publically accessibly interface. When updating my lectures, I often found it easier to put images and clips up on Tumblr than to hassle with powerpoint, and I could throw up last minute examples as they came to mind late at night or during class break. I can’t speak to how this compares with something like WordPress (haven’t tried it), but I like the simplicity of Tumblr’s post-types, the ease of pulling content from the Tumblr community, and the fact that students would have to engage a bit with the online community of Tumblr. Our class Tumblr was like a little hub in a much larger hive.
2. My Students Surprised Me
After I modeled the Tumblr as a place for posting class-relevant content, several students began using the Tumblr volitionally. They posted vids and images with a few keywords about how it might relate to the course, or linked to an example they brought up in class. When we went on a tour of the Met, students uploaded their cell phone snapshots, which enabled me to discuss works they liked by scrolling through the Tumblr. Naturally, some students participated more than others, but I’d say about 1/3-1/2 of the class used the Tumblr on their own, with no incentive. This was revealing, because several of my heaviest users were low-level in-class participators. The Tumblr became a space of serious engagement for those students who didn’t like to talk, and I was able to take that into account for participation grades. In short? They surprised me with their willingness to use the site, and the quality of the content they put there.
What Didn’t Work (Or, Lessons Learned)
1. Make Them Members
Because I didn’t go into the Tumblr with much of a “plan”, I fumbled a bit with how to manage a group of students on the site. First I made the site password protected, but some reported they couldn't access it with the password. I didn't have time to troubleshoot their problems individually, so I dropped that and tried to make them all become members, so they could access the Tumblr on their Dashboard. But then, because I’d also included a “submit content” option on the sidebar, some students decide to forgo setting up accounts and just submitted content that way. So I deleted members and let students just use the submit function. But the submit function isn’t as advanced as the Dashboard posting options, so there were inconsistencies that popped up which I still can’t explain: some students were able to submit directly to the Tumblr and have their content appear without being approved, while others had to be cleared by me. Students with Tumblr accounts had their names attach automatically, while other posts remained anonymous. Submissions were often poorly formatted, especially when students needed to compose more complicated posts (with links, multiple images, etc). I wound up having to re-format several student posts, particularly in the case where students posted a youtube link address, rather than having the option to embedded a video. These problems could have been avoided if they had access and training (see below) in the Dashboard feature.
2. Give Them a Tutorial
I rather dumbly presumed that, hey, my students are all “children of the Net”. I thought they’d acclimate quickly to this interface just like I did, and they could google for help. This presumption was a mistake on my part—because there’s more than one way to skin a cat on Tumblr, there’s also more than one way to make an ugly post, or a post that’s accidentally all HTML code. I didn’t forsee that they needed to be taught how to “Copy Image Location” rather than a Google image site address, how to link text, even to double check the site to make sure their content loaded. In short, the site was a BIT of a mess because I didn’t anticipate that they needed to be taught basic technical web skills.
In the future, I will require students to accept a member invite to the Tumblr, give a basic tutorial to Tumblr on the first day (with an instructional post for students who add the class late), NOT have a “submit” sidebar and require them to compose a technically correct post with a variety of content types (text, image, video are the most common). Barring my first-timer errors, I think Tumblr was a worthwhile addition to my class, has dynamic participatory potential, and I plan on using it in the foreseeable future.
1. Privacy—Student and Instructor
I’d originally set up the Tumblr to be password protected, but this was creating difficulties for some students that I didn’t have time to deal with, so I thought it easiest to just drop the password protection and make the whole thing public. However, I’m cognizant that students—and their writing—are identified by name. I’m not sure how to contend with this, and it wasn’t a problem I thought about when I threw the Tumblr together (not a topic really covered in traditional humanities pedagogy classes). I’m inclined to mothball this Tumblr because I didn’t take into account issues of student privacy, and try to come up with a more secure system for next time. Any thoughts?
If I use Tumblr for future classes, how do I manage these sites—does each class get its own secondary Tumblr (which could get voluminous fast)? Do all classes of the same course designation use the same Tumblr (presuming I’m not teaching multiple sections of a class in the same semester)? Is there any easy way for me to archive a Tumblr site for my own files, while deleting it from the net? For anyone who has used Tumblr for multiple classes, how do you manage these complexities?
If you live around NYC, mark your calendars for the NOW! Visual Culture Conference, being held May 31 - June 2 at New York University. This is the biennial conference of the International Association for Visual Culture. At the end of the 2010 Visual Studies Conference held in London two years ago, a proposition was put forth to inaugurate an international association for visual culture studies (it was a blast of a conference I was very lucky to be at, as the Editorial Assistant of the Journal of Visual Culture). Two years later...taadaa: Visual Culture Association in bloom.
It's going be a rad three days, and nothing quite beats New York at spring time--so come on down (or up or over!). There's no concurrent sessions, just one, long major event, so no stress of panel-hopping or missing "the good stuff". Check out the schedule here.
I must give a nod to my good friend and outstanding illustration history scholar, Jaleen Grove, who will be presenting on the panel "Locating the Object in Visual Culture Studies" I'm excited to see her take to the stage!