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Event Archive: Rethinking Debates on Digital Learning . 12 Feb 2014

February 13th, 2014

Steve Anderson

Yesterday CDH sponsored a talk by Professor Juliette Levy of the Department of History at UC Riverside. In her discussion, Professor Levy described her own evolution toward using digital technology in order to broaden the learning experience for her students.

Professor Levy’s talk began with a common experience many in academia have shared — traditional methods of teaching are not being adapted to the changing needs of students in our modern world.

The RSA talk by Sir Ken Robinson, which was turned into an animated video, was central to describing this need for change. There is a great chasm between the needs of students and the pace of innovation within the classroom.

Central to this movement toward digital learning in the traditional classroom is the need to meet students “where they are” with digital technology. The call for action is not to expand the technological savvy of the students, but to leverage their preexisting familiarity with digital culture and devices in order to expand the classroom experience.

Harnessing the digital skills of students can extend the learning experience outside of the classroom walls, and it can also create more collaboration between the students themselves. For example, every student may not have a smartphone, tablet, or laptop, but many do. Sharing these devices and skills during group exercises can help students get to know each other, while at the same time thickening the learning experience.

Most interaction with technology in the classroom is with a Learning Management System or LMS, like Blackboard or Canvas. These LMS systems are very necessary for grades, enrollment, and automated exercises like quizzes. The key, however, is to move beyond the reliance on the LMS, which was designed to assign, control, automate, and distribute information, and experiment with more decentralized and multi-nodal methods of digital interaction. Decentralized digital platforms like Twitter and Piazza allow for traditional academic hierarchies to be broken-down and remixed in new ways that are rewarding for students and professors alike.

A few key points from the talk:

1. Model the behavior.
Modeling the behavior, such as live-tweeting lectures, will help instructors to retain a sense authority while also allowing for more flexible pathways of interaction. Also, modeling provides students with concrete examples of what digital technologies are available, and also how to use them professionally. Teaching assistants can begin processes like these with Twitter, or tweets can be scheduled to automatically post during the lecture. Students should be encouraged to tweet also, in order to gradually take over the entire note-taking and note-sharing process.

2. Incentives and risks.
Some incentives and risks are set by the professor through the syllabus in an explicit fashion, such as attendance or exam dates. Other incentives and risks are more subtle, but they can also be very powerful and possibly limiting. For example, it’s difficult to harness the technical prowess of students if they are not allowed to use digital devices in the classroom. Of course some students might be inclined to wander off into the far reaches of the Internet, but they should be redirected toward more fruitful material rather than completely restricted.

3. Experiment and innovate.
A sense of experimentation in the classroom can also lead to a sense of excitement. Involving students in the process of the course through polls on Piazza, for example, can foster a sense of student empowerment. Also, if students are aware that the professor is experimenting with pedagogy, they’re also more likely to push the boundaries of the assignments in positive ways. Many students are afraid to take risks academically for fear of failing, and a sense of experimentation in the class can help relieve that pressure.

All in all, Professor Levy made it clear that she is not advocating for building larger lecture halls, or relying on MOOCs to educate the masses. Instead, she calls for the directed application of digital technology in order to expand the traditional classroom experience with the consideration and participation of the students themselves.