Newsactivist was born when Gabriel Flacks, instructor and chair of the Humanities Program at Saint-Lambert Champlain Regional College in Montreal, started looking for ways that students could write about the news in a networked way.
“It started as an extracurricular local group,” recalls Flacks, “then expanded to sharing with other students in other parts of the world. Within a year, the idea became a curriculum.” Working with a collaborative teaching partner, Dr. Eric Kaldor, assistant professor of sociology at The College at Brockport, Statue University of New York, Flacks and his partner started with 140 students in Montreal and 130 in New York. Flacks built a platform for multi-networked collaborative writing about the news — “Read, Write, React” — and by Fall 2013, the platform included 40 institutions and 5,000 students around the world.
Newsactivist, as the name implies, started with Flacks’ course on the civic aspect of journalism (rather than just the production side) — writing about the news. Then, it expanded to other courses that require writing. Flacks swiftly discovered that writing for an audience, especially other students who are assigned to comment, swiftly helps students improve their writing: “Students write a lot, and they write about subjects they find meaningful. Every teacher in the network finds soft teaching moments very quickly. If you title your post “Assignment Number One,” nobody will read it. If you misspell a word in the first sentence, readers aren’t going to take your ideas quite as seriously. Students learn writing skills in a meaningful way when they aren’t just writing for the teacher — when they have a public that takes them seriously or not, depending on how well they write.”
The best cases, Flacks discovered, are where students partner with another class and can expect rapid feedback — when their assignment is due tonight and they know that the other class is assigned to comment tomorrow morning. Flacks instructed his student commenters to “first say something positive about the piece they are critiquing, then either share an idea that would enhance the writer’s understanding, point them to a source that would broaden their understanding, or describe a way to improve the piece.”
If you are a teacher and want to get involved, go to Newsactivist, register, add your institution to the dropdown menu of institutions. Flacks will approve your registration. Then, ask your students to register, select your course from the menu, and you will be able to approve their registrations. “I’ve learned to use captchas and other means to keep out spammers. I’ve done a lot of matchmaking because I see who is coming in and communicate with them, but the site is set up for the network to run itself, so teachers can go to our forum on collaboration planning and seek or join a partner teacher and class.”
Watch my brief video interview with Flacks, who has joined the ranks of reclaim hosting and others in providing a platform for teachers and students to learn collaboratively on the open web.
Banner image credit: Mimi Ko Cruz