The Quaker Campus

#learningthroughtechnology: How DigLibArts is putting fun back into the classroom

The Quaker Campus

Nicole Guzzo
Originally Published on POETINIS

Twenty-five students sit in a silent room tapping away on laptops, their faces glowing from the ambient light emanating from smartphones and the movie playing on the screen. It’s as if technology supplies the room’s oxygen. What a bystander may not realize is that these silent students are deeply engaged in a community of thought, analysis and conversation.

The students are gathered in a classroom upstairs in Hoover Hall at Whittier College and they are taking their first steps into the brave new world of digital pedagogy. It is “the use of electronic elements to enhance or to change the experience of education,” as defined by Digital humanists Brian Croxall and Adeline Koh, organizers of the 2013 MLA Digital Pedagogy Unconference.

As we continue to move forward in the 21st century, the idea of using technology to improve the quality of learning is gaining in popularity. Proponents of digital pedagogy insist that it is not about replacing old jobs with new tools, but it is about how these digital means can support teaching and learning.

Many educators have access to technologies such as social media and various digital platforms, yet many simply do not understand what they can do with it or chose to stick to what they know.

There are, however, a handful of professors at Whittier College who are starting to incorporate digital technology into their teaching approaches and if DigLibArts  —  Whittier College’s digital liberal arts center founded with the help of a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation  —  has anything to do with it, professors campus-wide will soon be well-versed in digital pedagogy.

Associate Professor of English Andrea Rehn is the Co-Director of DigLibArts. Rehn’s first encounter with digital pedagogy was a digital-storytelling assignment she gave to an upper-division literature course. This experience wet her whistle for more exposure to digital technology and led her to work closely with Instructional Media Designer Sonia Chaidez in creating digital projects for her students.

On the center’s website, Rehn notes that DigLibArts is a “team project.” According to the website, the center’s purpose is “to enhance the liberal arts at Whittier College by empowering faculty, staff, librarians and students to make full and better use of the digital technologies that are reshaping pedagogical approaches and transforming research throughout the liberal arts.”

DigLibArts believes digital tools and methods are naturally complementary to the liberal arts curriculum: a study that, by nature, encourages interdisciplinary, collaboration, experimentation and community. Besides offering guidance and mentorship for digital projects and assignments, Chaidez and Digital Scholar Anne Cong-Huyen, Co-Coordinators of the project, and their team of Student Technology Liaisons are there to host workshops and design events that encourage community engagement in digital scholarship.

Professor of English Jonathan Burton teaches Shakespeare. As an English professor, Burton looks to help students gain critical thinking skills, form complex ideas and learn how to articulate and put those thoughts into writing  —  abilities that may never go out of style. This semester, Burton wanted his Shakespeare students to produce more complex papers but explains, “I can’t just tell them to be more complex.” This is where digital tools can help.“We can go to [DigLibArts] and say, ‘Here’s the problem I am trying to work on in my teaching,’” Burton said. “‘Are there digital tools that can help me with this?’”

After visiting the center last year, Burton began experimenting with live tweeting in one of his classes. He liked how Twitter enabled students to learn from and engage with each other, but he wasn’t fully satisfied with the assignment’s outcomes. “One of the things I want my students to be able to do is to apply the skills that they have as close readers of text to visual cultures as well,” Burton said.

This led him to the online platform VidBolt, a site that allows one to attach comments to specific moments of video clips. Burton then hit on an idea to achieve the more complex essay he was looking for out of students  —  ENGL 328’s three-part Titus digital project.

The students began by live tweeting the 1999 Julie Taymor film Titus. While tweeting during a movie might sound simple, Burton explained that “live tweeting is particularly challenging because you’re watching one thing, trying to respond to it, while also responding to what the other students are saying at the same time.”

Junior Breana Gomez agreed that it was harder than expected. “I enjoyed seeing what other people had to say, but trying to tweet and watch the movie at the same time was distracting,” Gomez said. “Live tweeting is definitely a skill.”

Sophomore Lucy Reidling thought that tweeting enhanced the experience. “I liked live in-class tweeting because it incorporated everyone’s ideas into a broader conversation and it allowed us to each voice an opinion and ask questions in a forum our generation is comfortable with communicating in,” said Reidling.

Live tweeting may take practice, but Burton’s students proved to be quick studies, pumping out 200 live tweets during the film, twice what they were required to produce. By hashtaging “328titus,” every student in the class was able to contribute to the conversation  —  a possible solution for professors trying to boost student participation during class discussion.

Following a class of tweeting, Shakespeare students were required to log onto the online platform VidBolt where users can watch and annotate videos. As the clips play, one can submit a comment that will be “bolted” to that particular video moment for the rest of the class to see. The 25 students were required to leave four annotations posted on the video but again managed to exceed the requirement by producing 163 original annotations.

The goal of this segment of Burton’s digital Titus project was to incorporate visual media with higher-level analysis that produced intricate thought and discussion. Reidling, at least, thought it was a success. “By having our annotations visible to our classmates, we were able to see and think about concepts that we might have never realized if it wasn’t for this collaborative space online,” said Reidling. Gomez agreed, saying, “People brought up a lot of interesting points that I would have never thought of without comparing my analysis to theirs.”

Finally, students were assigned a short essay, covering the same topic they had worked during live tweeting and video annotating. Burton said that these essays “were richer in analysis because the students drew on the hive mind  —  they drew on 25 minds instead of just their own.” His students were able to look back at their live tweeting conversations, as well as the annotations made on VidBolt to produce a thoughtful paper.

Professor Burton isn’t the only educator at Whittier taking on bits of digital pedagogy.

Professor Gil Gonzalez has his theater course design their own personal domain, a task that requires one to own their digital identity. Professor Julie Collins-Dogrul has her students create infographics, using websites like Piktochart or Canva. “They are perfect for disciplines like public health that are actually trying to communicate to the public and change behavior,” Collins-Dogrul said. “Regular, everyday people are not going to read an academic article or book  —  but they do enjoy learning new things through infographics!” These infographics can be found be searching “#wcpublichealth” on Twitter.

“Digital media works in pedagogy when we think about ways it can enhance the things we want to do. If we do it for its own sake, its not likely to accomplish as much,” Burton said.  These few classes are just a few examples of classes that have begun to incorporate digital technology into their curriculum. There are many others that are quickly following suit.

Perhaps the best thing about DigLibArts is how it can return an oft-missing element to pedagogy  —  fun. “Digital pedagogy enables the classroom to become a space of play and discovery, where every student can pursue their individual intellectual enthusiasms, and the class as a whole can learn from each of its members,” said Professor Rehn. “In other words, digital research and pedagogy support the liberal arts college ideal of a community of scholars teaching and learning from each other.”