This past month, I attended my third ThatCampPhilly, a digital humanities unconference. In addition to sitting in on some great sessions, which you can explore here, I facilitated a discussion about working digitally with students.
As a result of my involvement with the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), I’m often asked how to introduce students to learning digitally. I have to confess I am tempted to answer, rather unhelpfully, digital pedagogy changes everything changes nothing. The more teaching I do digitally, the more I learn how to teach digitally, but I am always doing the same thing, facilitating student learning. The following tips build on the excellent work done for NITLE by Rebecca Frost Davis, Katherine D. Harris, Lisa Spiro, Kathryn Tomasek, and Adeline Koh and Jesse Stommel at Hybrid Pedagogy.
Build from success
Like researching digitally, teaching digitally begins with a good premise. What is it that students will learn? How will they learn it? What will they do with the knowledge they gain? Why will doing this digitally be better than doing this in other ways? In workshops I lead on transforming assignments digitally, I ask participants to start by thinking of a successful assignment from a past course. What makes this assignment work? What objectives does it fulfill in your course? Spending time analyzing past successes pays off by yielding the building blocks for translating that assignment digitally. Only then should the search for digital platforms, tools, or infrastructures start!
Be honest with yourself
Working digitally may involve a considerable investment of time on your part if you have to learn new skills and will definitely require time to redesign the assignment. Participants in my workshops are usually committed to the idea of working digitally, so I don’t need to convince them of the pedagogical value. However, I do try to highlight some additional challenges they need to consider.
How invested in the “expert” role are you? The degree of expertise you will need is determined by your risk tolerance and how heavily you are committed to the idea that you need to be the person in the classroom who knows everything.
How comfortable are you with risk in the classroom? How change averse is your department or campus culture? Are you the first to attempt working digitally with students? Students may not necessarily embrace working digitally, especially if you choose to leverage platforms they associate with recreational use of social media. Depending on your campus climate, colleagues or administrators may view working digitally as “too fun” and question the pedagogical value. This situation may arise in particular if you choses to work with a controversial (at least in higher ed) platform like Wikipedia.
Do you have a plan for dealing with “failure” (which is not always negative in digital humanities circles)? The idea of failing to learn is well established pedagogically, but somehow when working digitally, the stakes seem higher. There are ways to mitigate this, by having students work in a sandbox environment, for example, or by labeling work made public as a student project in process, but they need to be thought out in advance. Students, too, may need prompting to risk failure, and support along the way as they encounter difficulties. Having students work in smaller groups can provide important peer support, but you may also want to draw in additional members of your campus community, such as professional staff from the library.
The single most common mistake I encounter in workshops is professors who want to do too much digitally too fast. With all the great examples out there, it is easy to get inspired and carried away. I advise them to pick only one way of working digitally for your first assignment. Break down the work required into smaller tasks and incorporate those elements into your syllabus. Set concrete and specific parameters each time you ask students to work digitally. In some cases your students may be more adept at working digitally than you are (although beware of the myth of digital native). Empowering students to support one another or take leadership roles is an excellent way to offset anxieties and create a collaborative learning environment. This can be done officially, with a skilled student designated as a helper or by pairing more experienced students with less experienced students. Informally, you can create a crowdsourced help environment, on a closed Facebook group for example, and award points to students who answer questions posted by their confused peers.
Something has to give
Many years ago I began my work in curricular transformation by introducing multicultural and gendered content to professors. Colleagues would often assert that there was no room on the syllabus for this new content. While at first I fought that logic, ultimately I realized the truth of take something out if you put something in. Just like you can’t teach all the content, you cannot feasibly expect students to do all the things. I hedged in my earliest assignments by asking students to work digitally and then produce a short narrative paper summarizing what they did digitally. The paper was redundant and the students resented it, as they should have. There are excellent ways of integrating longer-form writing with work produced digitally, but they need to be thought out carefully in order for them to be productive pedagogically.