The latest and last in the series of digital literacies staff-student event was focused on the use of social and/or multi- media technologies in teaching and learning. Personally, I’m a fan of finding new ways to do things (a prezi might take hours or even days longer to put together than a PowerPoint presentation, but it can be more dynamic and engaging and give a lecture a different atmosphere). As one of four ‘case study’ speakers, however, I kicked things off by talking about the need for a bit of caution. Whether we’re active users of Facebook and Twitter or not, it’s easy to assume that students are heavy users of social media and thus that it would be a good idea to bring these platforms into the classroom. My experience has been mixed, but it’s often not the case.
As an active user of Facebook and Twitter I know how useful I find them for keeping up with what’s going on in my field, and for sharing ideas, links, videos and so on. I can access them whenever and wherever I like (and I probably do so too frequently). In-house virtual learning platforms struggle to ape this kind of sharing environment, so it seemed natural (I will make explicit the problems with this assumption in a moment!) to create a space on Facebook for students on a large, broad-ranging first-year module I taught on at my previous university. Most people, if not everyone, would already be on there, the module convener and I reasoned, so it was just a matter of creating the sort of private group that we used with research colleagues.
In fact the students were so resistant to it that we never got as far as that. Students did not want to share their social space with the likes of us, and they didn’t feel that they’d be missing out on much by not having a space for discussion. Among groups at this week’s LearnIT event, it was suggested that students who are not already using a site might actually be more receptive to using it in learning and teaching contexts – particularly so in the case of Twitter, since they don’t have months or years of often quite personal narrative to make available to a new and unintended audience. (These questions drive right at the heart of digital literacy, of course, and students need to confront the public nature and accountability of social media use, but perhaps asking them to do so for the purposes of one module is unwise.)
Various other concerns emerged from these group discussions, including a reminder that accessibility is not universal, and not even the (popular) suggestion that all students and staff are issued with iPads would remedy that. It was also pointed out that online platforms lack the cues as to likely reception that students get in face-to-face interactions in seminars, which inhibited even those students who most wanted to speak. Though students suggested that they often use Twitter with different intentions or emphasis to academics (see image), there was some suggestion that module hashtags were popular with students, who could follow posts without being under pressure to contribute.
Our group spent a long time discussing how staff might be able to inspire imagination and risk-taking in coursework, and the feeling from students was that this needed specifically to be incentivised (by warning of lower marks for ‘safe’ submissions) and also to be visibly supported by staff (by being available to help students whose more creative efforts feel less secure). It was perhaps out of this that we developed our recommendation that the Developing Digital Literacies Working Group (DDLWG) takes this forward by commissioning and analysing case studies from existing modules at the university, presenting staff and student perspectives.
It was interesting to hear from a colleague in engineering, Dr Ian Walkington, and one of his students, Alistair Craig, about a module on climate change that was assessed in ways designed to address concerns that employers had about skills typically lacking in engineering graduates, including communication skills. On this fourth year module, students had to write an essay (as opposed to a technical report); a brief blog post and a poster, each communicating a complex idea; and produce a video looking ahead to the year 2100. Alistair reported that students recognised the benefits in terms of the job market but that the success of module (on which numbers have been rising over the past few years) rests chiefly on the fact that the use of digital technologies feels integral to the design and aims of the module; that is, it makes sense.
For me, the key thing is to ensure that we don’t use these things because they’re shiny and new and disrupt, in whatever limited way, the familiar university teaching and assessment routines (for students and for staff). Those should be the bonus features of doing something that is primarily motivated by pedagogic and skills-based goals. Our embrace of digital technologies in teaching and learning needs to show an awareness of the uncertainty and insecurity that students may experience in the process, and to avoid a situation where students given assignments using digital technologies for the first time in their third or fourth year feel like guinea pigs – a conclusion that suggests this is a matter we need to think about not only in our own modules, but at programme level.