A few months ago a call came across our university Portal asking for TEDx speakers. For those unfamiliar, TEDx is a way for local, independent organizers to host TED style events. The students, faculty, and staff who organized the TEDx: Stevenson University event chose “Embracing Change” as the theme. Initially, I was hesitant to submit a talk proposal. Sure, I’d given countless conference talks over the last decade. But this was different. The only guidance was the theme. We could talk about ANYTHING that could be construed as “embracing change.” What could I possibly say that would be of any relevance? But I also couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So I decided to throw my proverbial hat into the ring. What follows is a mix of information from my talk and a reflection of my experiences.
When people learn what I do, they assume that I’ve always wanted to be an educator. But the reality is a little more complicated and, I think, important to the development of my own pedagogical methods. The idea of “embracing change” seems to be something like a mantra for my entire life. I grew up in an extremely lower “middle class” blue-collar family. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to attend college. In fact, my father had to drop out of high school before graduating in order to help care for his mother and later went back for a GED while in the Navy. We settled in the piedmont region of North Carolina when I was about 8 years old and from that point forward I attended relatively small public schools for K-12.
Although many in my high school had plans for college, it was in no-way a foregone conclusion that all of us would go to college. Knowing my parents’ dire financial situation, college seemed impossible. But my mom managed to squirrel away $50 for me to send in one college application. So it was all or nothing for me. Just a few short months later I was accepted to Appalachian State University in the mountains of North Carolina: requiring a $300 deposit to secure my spot to be paid within 2 weeks.
Would I make it to College?
I sat in my AP English class during the lunch break and cried. My mom had barely been able to scrape together the $50 to apply. How could we possibly come up with $300 in just 2 weeks? My AP English teacher happened to find me mid-tears and asked me to fill him in on the details. Three days later, I received confirmation that my deposit had been paid. It came with information on summer orientation sessions and dorm assignments. I asked my mom how she did it and she simply said “I didn’t.”
Now, I don’t know if I’ve altered this memory in some way. But in my mind, I am confident my AP English teacher found a way to cover my deposit. Or my mom lied so I wouldn’t feel bad. Either way, it was to be the first time in my now-adult life that I would be forced to embrace change: I would soon become a first generation college student.
Me: The College Years
Now, if you’re thinking that I immediately decided to be a teacher in that moment due the actions of my AP English teacher, I’m sorry to disappoint. I had no idea what I wanted to do. My dreams of becoming a medical doctor had been thwarted by an unkind counselor and I didn’t know what my passion was. College was a new experience. I was no longer necessarily the “smartest” kid in class. I had to learn how to study and manage my time. And I had to do it all myself. There didn’t seem to be many obvious & readily available resources for someone like me. Someone who didn’t come from a background of family members who went to college.
First, I earned my B.A. in Archaeology. But 3 herniated discs in my back during the required dig made it clear I had no future in the laborious field of Archaeology.
My next step was to earn an M.A. in Public History, which I thought would marry my love of archaeology and history with a field that was less physically demanding. But after a snoozefest of an 8 week internship, I realized that, too, wasn’t my calling. So as I talked out my frustrations with one of my professors, she asked me what my favorite thing about working on my M.A. was.
On to the PhD!
It was in this moment, nearly 5 years after that fateful day in high school that it clicked: my favorite part had been working as a T.A., developing assignments, and helping the undergraduate students. So with the advice of several other professors and roughly 8 rejections later, I found myself on my way to The Ohio State University. This would be another major chance for embracing change. I’d never lived anywhere but the East Coast before. And no one I knew (aside from my professors) had ever earned a PhD. Somehow I had managed to navigate the difficult world of the B.A. and the M.A. But the PhD was filled with acronyms and phrases and language I had never heard before.
Changes in Academia
It was during my time at OSU that I learned a lot about the changing field of higher education. This was most often in the form of laments about what was wrong with those changes. So I began to develop an evolving pedagogy that, in my mind, would embrace those changes. All through the PhD process I heard about how I’d never land an academic job because there simply weren’t any. I was told that online education was bunk. Many told me that technology was ruining the classroom and that students just didn’t care about education anymore. And for a long time I bought into those grievances because they came from scholars and mentors whose opinions I respected.
And who was I, a lowly PhD student, to question them? Their lamentations and fears seemed supported by the latest musings. Stuart Butler of the Brookings Institute, a highly respected thinktank, argued in 2013 that traditional college models should give way to “contractor models,” in which the “core business function of the contractor-college would be assembly and quality control rather than running an institution and hiring faculty or holding classes.” Basically, the college would customize a package of courses and educational experiences from many suppliers.
Similarly, Dr. Alex Hope suggested that “the ‘academic’ of the future will not be tied to an institution, but be a thought leader, communicator, and teacher undertaking a range of activities on a freelance/contract basis-and that the world would be a better place for it…” Many colleges have taken advantage of the model Dr. Hope recommended, leading to our current adjunct crisis. And as far as pedagogy, several colleges, like George Washington University and the College of William & Mary, and countless professors took to banning technology from their classrooms arguing that laptops and phones have become powerful distractions, calling students “tech addicts.”
My Current Pedagogy: Digitally-based Assignments
Rather than focus on what is or isn’t changing, I used the TEDx talk to offer just one example of a way that we can “embrace change” in the classroom pedagogically: digital assignments & literacy. This is not to say embracing change for the sake of change. Rather I tried to demonstrate how we might marry traditional modes—like exams and lectures—with innovative course/assignment designs that take advantage of tech in the classroom.
Most recently, Cathy N. Davidson, distinguished professor and founding director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, argued that we must recognize that educational structures should meet the needs of the time, to “train active learners who don’t just fit into the status quo, they challenge it.” Although my examples represent my field—history/humanities—I firmly believe that those in other fields can implement assignments in their own way.
My pedagogy has been, and is, shaped by both my own background, educational experiences, and the ever-evolving backgrounds/needs of the student population. My educational philosophy is grounded in four important principles that I believe create an active and involved classroom environment: passion, creativity, independence, and clarity. I’ve been able to create digitally-based assignments and incorporate digital/visual elements—such as music videos, historical reenactments, or comedic sketches—into my classrooms to help foster those principles. I’ve found that it has helped students understand that A. history doesn’t have to be a boring, rote memorization of names, dates, and places and B. that they can incorporate many of the skills they learn in my classroom—digital or not—into their daily lives and future careers.
Digitally-Based Assignments: A Learning Process
I think one of the ways that digitally-based assignments have not always been as successful and impactful as they could be is the result of the “digital native” myth, which Stevenson English Professor, Dr. Amanda Licastro, discusses in her recent open-access publication on the problem of multimodality. Assuming that students have certain digital literacy skills due to growing up with this technology at their fingertips undermines students’ ability to successfully complete many digitally-based assignments. Even I’ve had to learn the digital world. One example Dr. Licastro discusses in her case studies is the use of multimedia, folksonomic elements—or tags/categories—and commenting in digital writing, such as blog posts, Learning Management System (LMS) assignments, Tweets, etc.
By scaffolding “digital literacy practices into assignments with careful attention to the rhetoric they use and intentional instruction” and developing these skills in the academic environment suggests Dr. Licastro, instructors may cultivate active digital citizens and more successful digitally-based assignments. This is still a learning process for myself and I’ve learned that I have to be specific and teach the students how to use the elements I want them to use. I just wanted to share a few of digital assignment examples from my recent classes that help harness students’ dependence on social media in a way that can be not only academically productive, but develop digital skills that employers desire from recent graduates.
Digitally-Based Assignments: Some Examples from my Classroom
These examples demonstrate how, despite being digitally-aware, students demonstrated varying proficiency with the Twitter platform. The only directive I gave starting out was to create a handle specific to their “persona” and to use a hashtag I created for use with that specific class. As you can see, some students were better about incorporating other folksonomic and multimedia elements than others. I’ve learned that I have to begin creating more “rules” for the assignment and teach them how to use the platform, rather than assume they know how to do so; especially how to make a succinct point in 140 characters or less.
By allowing my students a bit of creativity and flexibility, I was turned on to a new tech platform that is great for my field: Tripline. Students are able to create digital “roadtrips” showcasing important historical landmarks along the way. It allows me to incorporate basic map-usage, digital writing, and multimedia skills into a single assignment. It also forces the student to think constructively about the point they are trying to get across.
PowerPoint is not a new tool, but I’ve found that students often have very minimal skills when using the software. Aside from choosing a pre-made layout, students often incorporate too much text, too few visuals, and little-to-no animations. This is a demonstrable way for me to marry the traditional PowerPoint with new modes of thinking. In my assignment, I require them to design their slides as if they were Museum Exhibit panels. It forces them to think more specifically about the layout, text-to-visual ratios, and “visitor” attention spans.
Blogging is another tool that isn’t as “new” as others, but offers another way to teach digital literacy in the classroom. I’ve found that students often have difficulty navigating new platforms (ex. WordPress vs. Tumblr). They also use tags, categories, and multimedia elements with varying proficiency. It’s another assignment that I’ve had to be more explicit in my expectations. This helps students to understand how and why to use folksonomic and multimedia elements. They seem to understand “tags” in a loose sense for things like Instagram (as a way to drive traffic). But students aren’t always able to transfer that skill to other modes of digital writing.
Tiki-Toki: Interactive Timelines
Timelines are a pretty traditional and standard way of laying out information across time/space. Tiki-Toki and similar platforms allow students to translate the traditional skill of linear-thinking with critical thinking, examining not just when, but why, events have occurred. Not only do students lay events out on a timeline, but they provide categories for those events in a variety of ways (in this example: sources vs. structural elements) and incorporate multimedia elements to support their historical research.
I was the last person to speak during the day-long event. But I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who stuck around to hear me talk. The variety of topics within the theme of “Embracing Change” made for a wonderful experience. And there was a great mix of students, faculty, and staff who gave presentations. Each one was unique. Many were deeply personal and heartwrenching. Although mine was pedagogically focused, I hope many found it useful. As far as conclusions about my digitally-based assignments, it’s a learning process.
Don’t assume tech is useless or too complicated. Much like any other skill, students will have varying proficiency. Think about scaffolding assignments. This allows you to incorporate specific skills you want students to achieve or specific target goals (like X number of multimedia elements). Routinely incorporate digital technologies into the classroom/syllabus so that it becomes a natural extension of your pedagogy. Harness students’ reliance on digital devices and social media usage. Let digitally-based assignments serve as teachable moments regarding digital presence.
The Live-Stream Video
Below is the live-stream video from the second half of the event. I start at 1:25:25, but please feel free to listen to the other speakers!