There is an article published today in Inside Higher Ed about how online classes seem to be attracting students who might have previously not been able to have access to higher education. The article talks about students of color who are more likely to come from working class backgrounds and have schedules that are restricted by jobs. Online education seems to offer these students a new opportunity to complete college degrees. Read the article here.
How to help students use digital media effectively is an ongoing question that I have had when working with undergraduate researchers on building the Urban Archives. Students are often eager to learn, but I find that there is a delicate balance between nurturing their creativity and making sure that they don’t get frustrated with information overload or too many technology problems.
My personal approach to learning digital technologies is much like playing a game. I have to make mistakes in order to find out what works and what doesn’t work. I recently learned how to play Jacks (we didn’t have those in Russia). At first, the ball and the jacks were flying all over the place. By trying variations of the force I used to bounce the ball and the timing between the bounce and grabbing those little metal things, I got better and better. But I had to do it wrong first. Making mistakes is all part of learning how to do something new. The main question in my own teaching is how do I give students an opportunity to learn from mistakes?
Here are a few strategies that I use when employing digital technologies in teaching:
Assessing student’s skills and access to technology at the start of the course(before if possible) is important for understanding what tools the students will be able to use. This can be done with a survey before or at the beginning of the class. Technologies and students are constantly changing, so I try to keep my survey updated.
Experimenting – many students are not used to experimentation in the classroom. They are often required to provide “the best answer” rather then asked to try things out without being judged for making mistakes. Students' anxiety about getting a good grade can squelch their creativity or inspiration to try something for the sake of seeing if it works. Experimentation allows students to find potential problems and to learn from mistakes. After all, when a problem occurs we have to come up with a solution. Problem solving is the key skill when dealing with any technology.
Focusing - after experimenting for a while and becoming comfortable with making mistakes and learning how to solve problems, it is time to focus. Now that we know what problems might occur (for example software compatibility or broadband issues), we can think about how to avoid them. Focusing on a few of the technologies that worked well will help. There are a lot of tools out there (free software, Creative Commons content, portable devices to use, etc.) and it is a good idea to pick a specific project at this point and identify a limited amount of tools that will be used.
Learning by doing – once the students set a reasonable goal for their project, I find it helpful to begin with a small, low stakes task that will again allow us to experiment and to make mistakes, but this time working on a particular project. This is similar to a pilot study that senior scholars employ before jumping into the research. This initial test will allow students to work out the kinks before they fully dive into gathering their data. At this point, students might also find new glitches in their plan. Again, I have found it helpful to remind students that glitches are part of the process and that they should be seen as an opportunity to learn and to get creative. This often happens to artists, when a limitation or a mistake leads to a “happy accident.”
Being open – this last point above, leads me to the value of staying open to new directions. When something is not working, it may be helpful to think creatively about how to get around the problem rather than to keep trying to make something work when it clearly doesn’t.
Setting clear goals – here I am back to that fine balance. On one hand I would like to encourage creativity and a mindset of exploration, on the other hand I want to keep students form trying to do too much or being too “all over the place.” Some instructors recommend creating small assignments that build on one another and sometimes it is helpful to place specific limitations on student projects. For example,
a. Selecting a limited number of projects that students can work on (this may result from an initial brainstorming session with the students).
b. Asking students to select the specific technologies that they will use and to stick with them.
c. Asking students to produce a low stakes prototype and several iterations of drafts of their final project.
d. Instructing students about the methodology beyond just how to use the technology. For example, if they are recording interviews – the students will need to know what makes a good interview question, the ethical way to conduct interviews, how to properly document the interview, etc.
e. Telling students about the tech. specifications. For example, if students are collecting digital photographs they will need to know the best resolution, size file, file format, etc.
There is more, I am sure. These are just some thoughts to build on.