Digital Pedagogies: The Shock of the (K)New
As summer is drawing to a (rainy) end and August is traditionally a quiet month within the University, it is a good moment to use this island of time in the ocean of conferences, meetings, symposiums and events that has characterised the Digital Cultures Network thus far, to update you with our recent activities over the summer. To paraphrase Mungo Jerry’s classic ‘In the Summertime’, have a drink, have a read…
The digital is not just changing the way we do research, but it is also changing the way we teach and disseminate that research to students. Whether it is by simply showing a YouTube clip or by getting our students to blog about their own research, the digital is becoming more and more integrated both within the lecture theatre and seminar environment. It is also greatly informing students’ experience of what academia is and how it works. Social Media sites such as Facebook and Twitter allow students to comment upon and interact with researchers and research in an unprecedented way. Positively or negatively, the digital has created a situation where students can participate in research and academic culture any time of the day, seven days a week. This workshop, the third run by the Digital Cultures Network, explored and investigated some of the issues and implications around what it means to teach digitally.
What then is digital pedagogy? Brian Coxall writes that:
Broadly defined, digital pedagogy is the use of electronic elements to enhance or to change the experience of education. This can be anything from the simple use of Powerpoint in the classroom, to the Khan Academy’s exhortation to “flip the classroom,” and the growth of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) such as Udacity and Coursera offering free online education to the general public. Examples of digital pedagogy also include blogging assignments, the use of social media in the classroom, “forking” syllabi with GitHub, and getting students to use digital tools to test ideas. In sum, digital pedagogy is an attempt to use technology to change teaching and learning in a variety of ways.
Much like how the digital humanities itself seeks to, if we concur with the writers of the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 who observe that this new discipline aims to ‘reshape and reinvigorate contemporary arts and humanities practices, and expand their boundaries’, so digital pedagogy aims to achieve something similar for students. It is about expanding our students’ minds through the potential of digital technology so that they not only become far more inquisitive and imaginative in their own work, but they also then begin to engage more creatively with scholarship and learning through the very practical means of making things or taking them apart. A traditional student essay, for example, exploring gender in Jane Eyre might be of some value or interest, of course, but how much more exciting and intellectually rewarding would that investigation be if that student had decided that the best way of expressing their ideas was not in the medium of words, but, perhaps, through a social network that visually charts the different character’s interactions with each other revealing in the process the profound gender implications inherent within that novel. As Mark L. Sample notes, ‘I’ve also begun taking the words out of writing. Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects?’ If digital pedagogy does one thing it is about establishing new ways of thinking through new ways of articulating problems and ideas.
That said, however, the digital in and of itself is useless. It is what we do with it that counts. Quoting Aaron Santesso in her book Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundaries Work in an Emerging Field, Julie Thompson Klein writes the ‘term “digital pedagogy” has now achieved the same status as “interdisciplinarity” […] We express enthusiasm about it publicly, while privately confessing that we don’t know how to do it.” The danger here, of course, is that digital pedagogy as a term, effectively becomes meaningless because everyone is using it to describe what they do. Even Coxall, in the above quote, uses it to describe a vast variety of practices. I certainly find it problematic that MOOCs are included here alongside the far more interesting description of using ‘digital tools to test ideas’. My problem stems from the fact that MOOCs, as important as they may be, maintains the teacher/student status quo whereby the student is the passive learner. Ideally, I suggest, digital pedagogy should flip this relationship to the point where students become the active agent through creating new digital artefacts that they then explain to their teachers. New ways of doing things creates news ways of making meaning and generates new relationship dynamics between student and teacher. Digital pedagogy needs to be active.
But how can we cultivate such a situation within a learning environment? Jessie Stommel who runs the terrific website ‘Hybrid Pedagogy’ writes:
Digital pedagogy calls for screwing around more than it does systematic study, and in fact screwing around is the more difficult scholarly work. Digital pedagogy is less about knowing and more a rampant process of unlearning, play, and rediscovery. We are not born digital pedagogues, nor do we have to be formally schooled in the ways of digital pedagogy. There’s lots to read on the subject, but we can’t just read our way into it; there is no essential canon. In fact, expert digital pedagogues learn best by forgetting — through continuous encounters with what is novel, tentative, unmastered, and unresolved.
These ideas of ‘play’ and ‘unlearning’ are echoed throughout much literature on digital pedagogy. Whilst these are crucial aspects for the teacher to develop and ‘unlearn’ (!) they are also approaches and a mind-set that we should try to foster in our students. Just as the digital humanities is more about ‘process’ than ‘product’, by encouraging our students to be playful, to create, and not to have to worry about an end result means that the class-room changes from a hierarchical power structure where the most often heard question is ‘how do I pass this exam?’ to a creative playground where the question should then become ‘I wonder what happens if…?’ Whilst teachers have obviously aspired to these ideas in a pre-digital world, what marks the digital out is its capacity to bring them to fruition easily and rewardingly.
Imagine: what happens if our classrooms, through the power of augmented reality become locations, like in Pokemon Go, inhabited by literary and historical characters? Maybe some students will catch a wild Shakespeare or an evolved Jane Eyre. Either way the digital has the potential to redefine learning in unforeseen, exciting, and radical ways. We can turn learning into a game.