Happy New Year and New Semester!
My fellow teachers won’t be surprised to hear that I didn’t get a chance to finish another post last semester. But that delay turned into an opportunity to reflect at the end of my first semester teaching in a highly digital environment. What follows is a list that isn’t meant to be at all comprehensive; I rather hope you’ll think of it as lessons learned.
1) Management, management, management
Technology in the classroom needs to be managed well. What the students do with tech needs to matter, otherwise it’s all just blather, a classroom version of “Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation Reads Inane Tweets while Doing Yardwork.” It’s important for students to have clear boundaries on when and how and where they can use their devices. My colleague Diane Jakacki here at Georgia Tech has a very simple method for this. She announces “devices down” when she wants to do something in class requiring deep and undivided attention. Does that keep students from trying to surreptitiously access their phones? No. But it gives us teachers opportunities to use peer pressure to our advantage. For example, when we stop mid-sentence to stare at a twittering student and the rest of the class stares, too.
2) Repetition, repetition, repetition, facepalm Even though the avenues for alerting our students to due dates, assignment updates, and time of year have exponentially expanded, some days we just repeat ourselves on multiple platforms. As it was in times of old, some students just don’t listen. And some of those don’t even have their heads buried in in their phones. There are just those students who won’t. Thankfully the platforms on which to say “I announced this in class yesterday; ask a classmate” have also multiplied.
3) I can’t unzip or download or find your work, so one of us fails.
You might think that with dropboxes available through course management software, convertibility of files to different formats, and quick upload speeds, accessing a student’s work would be rather easy. Unfortunately, it’s not. The students who never paid sufficient attention to whether their paper-based projects were formatted correctly — or were too hurried and overwhelmed to do so — will likely repeat this behavior digitally. Following the example set by another Georgia Tech colleague (Aaron Kashtan), I now have a clause in my syllabus about the electronic lengths to which I will and will not go to access an assignment. Here is the big not-so-secret-secret: our students, these extremely savvy and skilled digital natives who can make a movie in ten minutes or design an app in the last two days of the semester, are still new immigrants to academic culture. They know how to type a paper into Pages on their Ipads, but they don’t have any idea why Word might be a better format (and they can’t comprehend that you can’t read it on your office PC). We assume our students share our knowledge of traditional writing formats and conventions. This assumption is wrong.
4) Support, support, support. Have you tried turning it off and on again?
It has become clear to me through conversation with colleagues across the country that technical and pedagogical support for teaching digitally enhanced face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online classes is essential. Without both tech and pedagogical support, such classes tend to live down to the most common criticisms made by detractors of digital education—online courses are for lazy professors and students, students use them as throw-away courses, students don’t learn anything, and students use them to take advantage of the system. Another problem is that many institutions encourage students and instructors to “go digital,” but this encouragement is not usually followed up with consistent, organized, and sustained guidance and support in multimodal instruction, making digital offerings look haphazard and hurried (despite the effort of well-meaning instructors). Individual faculty members can attempt to remain current and to develop good practices in technological-based teaching methods (especially hard for adjuncts teaching at multiple institutions). But these faculty have a hard go at it without the opportunity for dedicated time and mentorship in developing digital pedagogy literacy. I speak from my own experience and this is why I applied to be a Brittain Fellow here at Georgia Tech, which provides support, mentorship, and community. I have been lucky to work at institutions that smartly support digital pedagogy. A former workplace of mine, Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, MN, runs a Teaching Online Institute for faculty about to teach their first online courses. Metropolitan State University’s Faculty Resources
This program performs two very important functions. First, it recognizes that teaching online or even with digital tools is a different sort of teaching that requires different pedagogical styles, activities, and content. It provides examples of successful online or hybrid courses in addition to resources for continued learning. Also, the TOI shows professors how to use Metro’s CMS and other digital teaching tools.
5) I tease because I groan.
Finally, I’ve learned to keep humor readily available. This helps drown out my internal groans of anguish at the ways students have found (mostly unintentionally) to digitally screw up. But humor also keeps things going. One of my pedagogical tools is occasional gentle teasing. This is never insulting or shaming, but rather is used as a reminder for students to think carefully about their technology use. When the twittering student that I’m staring at looks up because she feels everyone’s eyes on her and the room has gone inexplicably silent, I smile as if to say, “Heya! Thanks for looking up, and thanks for putting your phone away. No hard feelings—I’ve been distracted in class too.”
6) “Hey Professor Weaver, I’m following you on Twitter!”
A student said this to me near the end of last semester. He meant it nicely, probably as a way to say that he felt comfortable with this kind of connection, that he felt some kind of rapport with me. This student had read my posts of TV quotes, retweets of colleagues’ publication announcements, retweets of poets, my posts about the Twin Cities Book Festival, and my comments on the election. Internally, I reacted as though I’d accidentally encountered a student on my day off, when I was sick, in the cold medicine aisle of the grocery store, sniffling and wearing old track pants. But I soon realized with relief that how boring and anemic my Twitter feed actually is, and wondered how he was able to find me until I remembered that I, like most Twitter users, have a public Twitter account. I did not tweet with my students in mind, but in a professional capacity, knowing that my feed was public (more like seeing my students at a restaurant or school social function, which is a pleasure). Now I’m worried about how boring my Twitter feed probably seemed to this student; in traditional classroom settings, I know how to use excitement, knowledge, and intensity–as well as a little bit of charlatanism–to keep my students engaged in our work. Many days, it isn’t difficult, as these are some of the hardest working and nicest students I’ve ever had. However, I’m still a novice at integrating digital tools and pedagogy into my practice of academic community building, and I’ve only recently begun to feel somewhat knowledgeable about the limits and possibilities of this new environment. Until next time, best of luck to all of you in this new year, and thanks for reading!