Eliciting both passion and bloviating, the topic of appropriate technology use in the college classroom is sure to spark lively conversation among college instructors. While more and more institutions are requiring at least some use of course management tools like Blackboard and Moodle, instructors still can decide whether to incorporate technology and digital pedagogy into their classrooms. Some choose to give traditional lectures and allow their students full use of laptops and the Internet (see David von Schlichten). Others allow no laptops or cell phones in the classroom (see Hinda Mandell).
Because I study technology and new media, colleagues will often ask about my classroom practices. Their initial questions, though, are exactly that: about practice rather than philosophy, about what rather than why. This serves as my public contribution to the technology-in-the-classroom conversation, though hopefully a contribution supported by more evidence than a typical professorial water cooler conversation (or, I suppose, “coffee pot conversation” may be more accurate in practice). I aim to suggest a pedagogical approach to technology and the classroom that does not stop at whether or how students may access digital devices in my classroom, but seeks also to address why it is important that students critically engage these very questions.
Introducing Digital Wisdom
A few years ago, I found myself arguing in a public gathering of faculty that I hoped my students would not simply gain “digital literacy” but find “digital wisdom.” I soon discovered that my use of the phrase was not unique. In an article describing digital wisdom as the next iteration of his digital natives and digital immigrant work, education technologist Marc Prensky writes that “digital wisdom is a twofold concept, referring both to wisdom arising from the use of digital technology to access cognitive power beyond our innate capacity and to wisdom in the prudent use of technology to enhance our capabilities.” The first part of Prensky’s notion is fairly straightforward. My iPhone gives me directions, reminds me about my daily appointments, and connects me to the power of the Internet. Zotero manages much of my academic library and citations. iTunes organizes my music. These tools, and many more, certainly extend my cognitive capacities in various ways. It is the second part of Prensky’s notion that I wish to engage here, the “prudent use of technology to enhance our capabilities.” Reminded by drivers who end up in lakes because their navigation systems directed them to, or cyclists who follow their phone’s directions to pedal on busy freeways, simply because a technology exists does not mean we will use it wisely.
As a professor who attempts to embrace what digitally-enhanced teaching makes possible, I have at times been drawn to a tool simply because it exists rather than due to its actual potential to support students’ learning. For instance, after discovering a screencasting program, I recently found myself designing a screencasting assignment required of all my students before I paused to think, “Why?” and “For what purpose?” To help rein in some of these tendencies, I have developed several emphases for seeking and teaching digital wisdom. This work is my attempt to expand on that second part of Prensky’s notion of digital wisdom, taking it to the classroom and fleshing out its possible implications. As I have honed my teaching philosophy and practice, reflecting on the use of digital technology, I have surfaced four pillars for pursuing digital wisdom in the classroom: forming collaborative relationships with peers, preparing for citizenship, encountering difference and disagreement, and welcoming complexity. The pillars help make up an important part of a whole education. Ultimately, I invite digital tools in the classroom if and when they help students discern and develop their own digital wisdom.
Forming Collaborative Relationships with Peers
A pedagogy seeking digital wisdom welcomes collaborative learning that nurtures supportive relationships among students. Krista Kennedy and Rebecca Moore Howard consider the power of digital environments to support collaborative, social learning. They do so for specific pedagogical reasons, but also to yield long term outcomes. They write, “The need to create assignments that reflect the reality of contemporary writing environments remains a pressing pedagogical concern, along with the need to prepare students for workplaces that are increasingly reliant on digital, global communication and collaborative labor” (44). The concerns of students are vast and certainly include gaining future employment, but they sometimes forget such employment requires them to interact and connect with others. Therefore, a classroom that employs collaborative writing in digital forms may help to build digital wisdom by developing students’ skills for collaborating in our networked society.
Networked life together — whether for an assignment, or a job — requires negotiating amongst peers in spaces both online and in-person. For example, Jill Darling uses Twitter as entry point to class discussions on wise engagement both online and offline. She notes that, in a recent class discussion, students said “keeping up with the barrage of Tweets among one’s peers can be exhausting and overwhelming,” even if, as some students claim, they cannot opt out of the platform entirely. For Darling, then, a discussion in class led naturally to a “topic often at the heart of [her] classes: the relationship between the ‘individual’ and ‘society,’ and our role as citizens in this complex, consumption-oriented, global world.” As Darling suggests, using social technology in the classroom, when led well, can push students to discuss wise stewarding of our connections to one another.
Relatedly, my plans for a unit on crowdfunding in a newly-developed course will include an option for students, in groups, to launch a crowdfunding campaign. Crowdfunding is only successful when project creators connect to the passions and hopes of those beyond themselves, and the most successful projects tend to be launched by teams. My new course will also include an activity in which the class debates and ultimately decides to what charity-minded crowdfunding campaign I will donate $200. Students will learn much from one another as they make efforts to persuade others to support their cause.
Not all digitally-enhanced collaborative writing is without question, however, as Kennedy and Howard note the “negotiation of privacy” is a central pedagogical challenge. The question of students’ privacy also raises the question of privacy beyond the classroom as digital tools make tracking, scraping, and storing private information relatively simple. Aware of these concerns, using publicly accessible digital writing for class-related activities also pushes students to engage with one another in the classroom around questions related to how they manage their online presence. Digital wisdom, ultimately, includes the ability to use digital tools to collaborate effectively and ethically. Supporting a classroom environment that welcomes such an approach to collaboration builds peer relationships as students engage with, and learn from, their negotiation of digital technology.
Preparing for Citizenship
Community-engaged pedagogies, sometimes known as service learning, particularly address preparing students for life as a citizen beyond the college classroom. As Laura Julier et al. explain, community-engaged pedagogy helps provide “that students work in relationship with a community-based organization or initiative, to write for purposes that are shaped or defined by the public sphere” (57). The authors further suggest that, compared to other pedagogies, community-engaged pedagogy can lead to a stronger investment in the university and surrounding communities, and help grow instructors’ awareness of local issues and concerns (61).
While community engagement can occur in-person, it may also happen in ways not solely reliant on face-to-face communication. For example, public writing online connects students to the community in ways that then can lead to feedback from the community. In recent years, my students have built websites for their community partners, written Op-Eds and blog posts, and drafted social media plans. They came to these projects based upon the needs of their community partners. For instance, a partner might ask how (or if) their non-profit might develop a web presence. Before simply jumping to launch a Facebook page, students propose a possible project that fits with the capabilities of the non-profit. This proposal is then workshopped in small groups in class. The revised project plan is next presented to the community partner for feedback before the student moves to implementation stage. In this way, students participating in community-engaged pedagogy build digital wisdom by connecting to digital tools and the people behind and before them. When students move away from passive consumption, as Darling argues, this new understanding extends to the practice of citizenship. Certainly, in today’s digitally rich world, the practice of wise citizenship must include thoughtful application of digital tools and digital discernment.
Encountering Difference and Disagreement
Nearly any comment section of an online news article of consequence will serve as a place for those of differing opinions to share their points of view — and that’s putting it mildly. Taking up Min-Zhan Lu’s call to engage “colliding voices,” my pedagogy invites students to engage difference. One such approach is an assignment that requires students, in digital essays on a WordPress site, to describe a social problem in 500 words followed by a response in 500 words. For example, student Kayla Bones recently posted about race in the United States and particularly her experience traveling to Ferguson, Missouri, and several civil rights rights sites in the southern U.S. over spring break. Her essay engages our nation’s protracted disagreement concerning racism and how white Americans might respond. Further, if students share such writing on Facebook and Twitter, their own social networks can become places for voices to collide (as was the case for Kayla). Even then, however, students might learn from the experience.
Stepping into the waters of collaborative learning, John Trimbur questions the claim that an aim of collaborative learning is to help bring about consensus. “Consensus,” Trimbur argues, “can be a powerful instrument for students to generate differences, to identify the systems of authority that organize these differences, and to transform the relations of power that determine who may speak and what counts as a meaningful statement” (442). A pedagogy seeking digital wisdom, then, will look for areas of dissensus and critically examine differences. For example, in a recent Critical Theory course I took, Professor Miriam Mara required students to tweet responses to each week’s reading using the course hashtag. Every other week, however, students traded off between tweeting comments in support of the writer’s arguments and comments that pointed out flaws in the writer’s work. This assignment encouraged building digital wisdom by teaching students to tweet well, read critically, and welcome dissent. Because the assignment guaranteed differing views on each text, students came to appreciate how multiple perspectives can further illumine a reading.
Authorship and audience on the Internet are complex notions. It is just this sort of complexity that a pedagogy seeking digital wisdom welcomes and engages. Thanks, in part, to digital technologies, today we must consider the possibility for multiple rhetors in any given rhetorical situation (see Keith Grant-Davie). Working with students to understand such roles grows digital wisdom. For example, some rhetors, in their email signatures, have an automatic message that reads something like, “*Confidentiality Notice*: The information included in this e-mail is intended only for the recipient to whom it is addressed. The message and any attachments may contain confidential information….” The message goes on to demand that the email not be shared or forwarded. Such confidentiality notices attempt to limit the audience of the message even as technology fosters the capability for easy sharing. Similarly, it is common to read a message concerning rhetorical situation on Twitter, such as, “All tweets/views = my own.” Such notices anticipate questions concerning whether the rhetor is tweeting in a professional or personal capacity. Simply having the notice as part of one’s Twitter bio, however, does not actually elucidate from whose thumbs a particular tweet derives. The notice does not really answer Grant-Davie’s question, “Who is the rhetor?” Even so, it highlights the complexity of the medium.
One way to teach these complexities is by using genre pedagogies that emphasize particular genres, genre awareness, and genre critique. Combining these areas leads to a sort of wisdom, suggests Amy Devitt. It creates a pedagogy “to help students act rhetorically and consciously within and beyond the situations they will encounter throughout their lives” (147). Devitt suggests moving away from teaching specific rules of a genre, and instead the etiquette of a genre that “involves teaching the context, time and place, audience’s expectations, and strategies for working within the genre” (148). To learn blogging or tweeting, Devitt’s students analyze already existing material and then explore the genre with students themselves authoring posts. I explored a version of this technique in a praxis-oriented assignment I called “Let’s Go Viral” (more here and here). Following Devitt’s pattern for learning genre awareness, I had students collect samples of viral Internet content, identify the genre and patterns, and make claims about what the patterns revealed. Once students completed this work, in groups students launched their own projects with the aim that the projects become viral. Outcomes ranged from a few dozen hits to one project that drew thousands of Facebook shares well over a 100,000 hits. Grading was determined by the quality of the project as well as the students’ level of critical evaluation after the launch. While written project reports surfaced some critical evaluation, subsequent class discussion drew out even more.
Ideally, wisdom grows in time and with practice. Digital wisdom accepts — even welcomes — the complexities of digital writing and community. “Calling students’ attention to hybrid, blurred, or emerging genres can help students gain a critical stance towards genres more fully normalized,” Devitt suggests after describing the work of Heather Bastian (155). Digital wisdom, while seeking clarity, does not so privilege absolutes that it disregards the often blurry, gray nature of digital life today.
It is time for instructors to move from simple questions like, “Do you use technology in the classroom?” to the more complex, “For what purpose, and with what learning theories, should I engage digitally-enhanced pedagogies?” I have suggested a way forward that I have found useful, an initial attempt explicitly to address why, and for what reasons, I have proceeded with digital practices in the classroom. These four pillars — forming collaborative relationships with peers, preparing for citizenship, encountering difference and disagreement, and welcoming complexity — represent four possible emphases, and surely there are others. A teacher may wish to emphasize a particular pillar more than others. You and I can, together, develop practices that match with our courses, our pedagogical gifts, and our particular subject matter. Ultimately, I invite us to move away from easy answers, whether for or against technology in the classroom. The nature of these challenges still defies simple conversations around the departmental coffee pot, so let us, with digital wisdom, welcome the questions.