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research papers are not the only fruit & some tech tools for student projects

Typically, instructors assign a final paper. For many reasons, I still believe that a final paper is great assignment. One of the principal reasons is that despite all the chatter about valuing process over product, in many cases in the "real world," evaluations for promotion, pay, etc. are based on product. Even in academia, I know of no graduate school that will confer a doctorate on someone despite years of practice and experience (process) who has not completed a dissertation (product) (perhaps the exception being all those honorary degrees floating around...). Thus, I still strongly believe that sitting down and writing a final paper is an important and worthwhile exercise.

However, I also know that unlike a dissertation, many instructors assign research papers not because they think students will write the definitive and most creative paper on some entirely new topic in a mere 5-10 pages, but because research paper assignments strengthen a set of skills that we think are important for students to have and develop including the ability to critically evaluate information, organize and reorganize that data, use it to support and defend arguments. and, of course, strengthen writing skills. And if these are the skills we're really interested in, many alternative assignments can be just as good at strengthening such skills. For example, student-created blogs or magazines require students to first think about what theme they want to create a blog or magazine around. Then, they need to sift through and critically think about information before they can make posts or write articles. Moreover, blogs require students to regularly read and write which tends to improve students' critical reading and writing skills.

When I first assigned semester projects instead of final papers, I wasn't sure what I would get. But three semesters of such assignments and I am a convert. Admittedly, many students initially elected what seemed to them like the "lazy path" (many actually admitted to me that they chose their projects because they thought they would be easy). However, once they got started, they usually found themselves deeply engaged with their projects and eagerly looking for more information. They were more likely to do extra work to make sure their projects looked great, worked well, etc. Because their peers could see their projects, many felt a certain amount of responsibility to make sure that they did their best work. At the end of the semester, it was the rare student who had too little information; instead, it was much more likely that they had too much information and were working hard to evaluate information for exclusion rather than inclusion. In short, alternative projects often strengthen the same skills that we deem important when we assign research papers-- gathering information, evaluating it, and finally, integrating it in support of argument.

Of course, there are projects that don't earn student high marks-- but in such cases, they are likely to come from students who probably wouldn't have worked very hard on research papers either. BTW, students certainly have the choice to write a research paper as well.

Below is just a short list of some digital tools students might consider for their semester projects:

Online Magazines:
Blogs:
  • Blogger
  • Wordpress.com
  • Tumblr
Mindmaps:

Timelines: 
Presentations: 
  • Prezi
  • a PPT presentation is NOT a semester project (a PPT point presentation is great for distilling some project into a few slides, but it does NOT count as a final project. For example, you may want to showcase the results of your final paper in a PPT presentation to present to the class, but your final paper is the semester project)
Bookmarks with Comments:
  • Pinterest
    • You may NOT just make a number of pins. Instead, you must comment on your pins and consider how they each individually and collectively address the major themes in this course.
  • Pearltrees
    • As with Pinterest, you may not just make a number of bookmarks. Instead your bookmarks should inform and support your larger ideas.
    Please note that I have NOT tried out all of these tools. You may or you may not find them useful and you are NOT required to use one of these. If your preference is to write a 10-15 page paper, that is certainly a worthy and appropriate semester project!


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