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Recently I’ve caught a bit of widget fever. Widgets are modules of web content usually wrapped in an iframe that can be added to any web page and are often enabled for use on popular content management systems and social networking sites, such as Blogger and Facebook.
Widgets are to multimedia content what RSS feeds are to blog posts.
Widgets are many, varied, and, above all, fun! But like many things on the Internet, their early iterations are directed toward diversion and novelty. On the techrhet listserv for tech-savvy teachers of writing, I’ve chatted with Kathy Fitch about the potential widgets hold for writers. That has lead me more recently to some experiments in widget-based education.
This week, we are releasing the Topoi Pageflake, a page that allows visitors to rip, share, or repurpose any of its content. The “we” includes a team from USC, mainly Writing Program personnel. Fellow instructor Kevin Egan, Senior Associate Director Jack Blum, director Mira Zimet, and I have put together these tools to help students all over the web with this challenging but rich set of heuristics or prewriting tools. I must admit, I’ve been inspired by Dave Parry’s recent move to offer his class for free. I’d like to start by offering some content.
The page attempts two goals:
- To create learning modules as content to be shared, ripped, and reconfigured.
- To use page aggregators to create multimodal learning pages centered on a given lesson.
The page itself is made up of a set of widgets all centered around a single composition lesson (that usually spills out into more lessons), the topoi.
I’ll let the page explain what the topoi are, but suffice it to say, the topoi are tools that are quite useful in developing the complexity of an idea. The problem is they are also quite difficult to teach. Or rather, they are easy to present, hard to sell as a useful go-to exercise for your essay-writing needs. In other words, they’re no freewriting. But because of their complexity, they can be very powerful.
The topoi are typically taught in-class: a short presentation on the topoi followed by a demonstration using an example. There are write-ups of the topoi in many composition text books and all over the web, but none are particularly effective. In other words, the topoi are a difficult beast to cage in print and my guess is that even limited exposure to them in class does not sufficiently demonstrate their effectiveness.
Over the summer, collaborating with several other folks over at USC, I’ve developed a page of widgets around a single lesson, “the topoi.” The Topoi, originally attributed to Aristotle, are a heuristic taught in many college writing classes. They are complex and often challenging for the students to adopt. Despite the growing popularity of page aggregators (iGoogle, netvibes, and Pageflakes), most people currently seem to use them either as stylized RSS feed readers or as curio cabinets (full of “Hot or Not” widgets, YouTube videos, or even Sudoku). A few power users have found ways to make them into effective research tools, and the companies behind these sites (particularly Pageflakes) seem to be supporting their use as CMS. (Their are elementary school classes using Pageflakes). But I have not seen pages (or widgets, for that matter) centered on particular lessons.
My idea was to create pages around particular learning tasks built of widgets that target different learning styles (text, video, interactivity). Then, users can copy, cut, or change whatever doesn’t work for them. Each student and faculty member can create his or her own lesson plan based on the tools they find most useful. This isn’t meant to replace the classroom (ala distance learning, though it would help) — but to create a set of learning objects that people can add to their own pages or rework to suit their needs.
All of these pieces work together, offering complementary pedagogical approaches. The videos offer classroom discussion, a sample student conference, and an on-screen demonstration on how to share and reuse these widgets. At the same time, the video does not have to show text since the other widgets serve that purpose, presenting the interactor with a sample assignment. While the conference video shows how one student might use the topoi, the interactive demonstration (rendered in Flash) allows interactors a glimpse at how the topoi might develop initial thoughts toward a “points to make” list.
The Widgetbox Topoi Widget is the easiest to share. It contains explanations of the topoi, examples, guiding questions, and videos. It can be shared on Facebook, MySpace, blogs, et cetera. (Some of these versions are still in development). With this piece, I hope to encourage the social networking of writing lessons among teachers and students. I plan to work with the Writing Program at USC to develop more widgets and Pageflakes, and I hope others will follow suit. It would be great to see students (both in and out of school) creating their own pages from tools freely available online.
I am eager for feedback, so please, Widgety Readers, Talk!