Visual Poetry: ENGL 215

Visual Poetry (ENGL 215) is an online course designed for undeclared sophomores and non-English majors at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia. It aims to promote critical thinking and communication skills while teaching students to appreciate irony, metaphor, and ambiguity found in lyrical poetry. The course is taught by Dr. Jason Coats, Assistant Professor of Focused Inquiry in the VCU University College. Although still evolving, the course is becoming a model for instructors who aspire to facilitate connected learning through social media outlets in an openly networked environment.

The Core
(The basic, essential, or enduring part)

Social media offers a distinctive, engaging, and pragmatic approach to promoting student interaction. Coats feels it is important for students to build communication skills and engage with course content through peer interaction. He has observed, however, that students in online courses often have difficulty coordinating schedules for group work, and the quality of projects suffer accordingly. Discussions held on social media platforms such as Twitter allow for partly-synchronous, partly-asynchronous peer interactions that accommodate student schedules and encourage increased time-on-task.

Openly networked classrooms may increase the quality of student work. Although Coats originally taught ENGL 215 on closed VCU Blackboard course site, he concluded that the benefits of open coursework far exceed its potential pitfalls. Coats says, “The possibility that someone else outside the class might read the work has raised the quality of the work substantially. Now that blogs are seen by other people besides the professor, students seem to be thinking more about what they write before they write it.”

Zooming In
(How digital technology optimized course impact)

An ENGL 215 Blog
An ENGL 215 Blog.

As a summer online course, Visual Poetry (ENGL 215) takes place entirely on the open web. Students engage in weekly blogging and Twitter-mediated, structured learning exercises. They are graded on their online participation as well as the quality of their weekly blogs and several additional individual writing assignments. Participation is easy to assess because student blogs are aggregated through a Netvibes account and class tweets are consolidated under a class hashtag, #VizPoem, filtering out unrelated student online activities.

Although Coats originally taught ENGL 215 on a closed VCU Blackboard course site, he moved it to an open WordPress site for several reasons:

Improved student connectivity. Although students can read and comment on other students’ blogs in Blackboard, Coats found that few chose to engage with their peers’ work. He observed that blogging on WordPress seemed to trigger students to read, discuss, and link to other blogs more frequently than previous cohorts had on Blackboard.

Improved quality of student work. During his first semester teaching ENGL 215 online, Coats noticed that students seemed more thoughtful in their Twitter discussions than in their Blackboard blogs. He attributed this to public nature of the Twitter discussions, so the next year he moved all course activities to the open web. There, Coats noticed higher quality student participation as well as an apparent increased time-on-task as they engaged course materials throughout the week rather than just on days when work was assigned or due.

Improved assessment tools. Coats found that the analytic features available through Twitter and WordPress were better than those available on VCU Blackboard. They allowed him to track student participation faster and more easily.

Making the Connection
(How Visual Poetry embodies Connected Learning)

Learning in Visual Poetry (ENGL 215) means:

Participating in a peer-supported community. Coats strives to make students aware of their role within a larger network by having them interact with their peers in a variety of ways. First, ENGL 215 students practice expressing arguments and providing feedback through a variety of structured learning activities designed by Coats.   “Fake Poets,” a Twitter-mediated role-play activity, is one example; some students are assigned to play featured poets while others ask critical questions, heckle, and lurk. Role play gives students permission to explore all aspects of realistic argument and conversation and consider the implications of each role while the activity also engages them deeply with class content.

Coats also prevents student atomization through “weekly recap” blog posts. These require students to reflect on their own learning by linking their thoughts to the work of three peers. By encouraging students to connect, Coats makes them conscious of how their own learning affects and is affected by others. Moreover, students seem to be reading more and spending more time-on-task as they comment on and incorporate their peers’ work into their own. Finally, Coats thinks students like being mentioned in others’ weekly recaps, motivating them to explore how they can best enhance their visibility and linkability during class activities.

Although students drive the online discussion, Coats models good learning behaviors for his young undergraduates; “If students are expected to blog, instructors must blog too,” he says. By modeling, he provides students with positive examples of how critique and feedback should be performed. But over time, Coats has become more confident in students’ ability to achieve learning objectives through peer-driven discussions. He finds that he is much less likely to intervene now than he once was; “It was a challenge for me to understand initially, but some things are better when they evolve organically.”

Doing with purpose. Coats gives ENGL 215 purpose by making sure the learning objectives and content presentation are relevant and compelling to his student audience. He made the decision early on to emphasize the arts of argument, providing feedback, and assessing work critically as well as writing poetry. Open digital platforms such as WordPress and Twitter provided Coats with the means to operationalize learning objectives while allowing students to engage with multimodal art forms. By making the work visually compelling, intellectually challenging, and fun, students who might otherwise have limited interest in poetry are increasing their time on task and potential for collateral learning.

A partial Twitter feed showing participation between a student, the instructor, and an outside participant.
A partial Twitter feed showing participation between a student, the instructor, and an outside participant.

Openly Networked for greater impact. Learning in the open affords students the opportunity to engage interested participants from communities that extend beyond the classroom. For example, when a student connected Wallace Stevens’ poem, Emperor of Ice Creamto funerals, a Twitter user not enrolled in the class asked her to explain. With Coats for the most part observing silently, the outside participant guided the student to a deeper understanding of her position through discussion. Community members such as these are valuable resources and explicit evidence that what students are studying is relevant to living in the world.

ENGL 215 is fully integrated into the networked world, carried out entirely on open digital platforms. This allows students to engage in high levels of instructor-structured but peer-led interactions, practicing communication and critical thinking skills even as they study poetic imagery.

To see examples of ENGL 215 final projects, For more information on Connected Learning as a set of design principles for higher education, click here. For the ALT Lab argument for why VCU needs Connected Learning, click here.

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Last updated: September 26, 2017

Virginia Commonwealth University