First in a Series: Leveraging Digital Pedagogies to Energize Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Association of Colleges of the South (ACS) faculty to completely revamp the ways in which they engage students and deliver course materials. Despite the sudden change, the pandemic has catalyzed productive experimentation with digital collections and multifaceted interactions both within and beyond the traditional space of the physical classroom. While their collaborative organization may eventually transform into a more permanent group, the goals of our collaborative endeavors were two-fold: 

  1. Develop an ongoing inventory of pedagogical methodologies and digital resources to enhance student learning across the disciplines, and
  2. Encourage participants to revise their syllabi and classroom norms by incorporating technological resources and capabilities to stimulate new possibilities for teaching, scholarship, and service.

Throughout their monthly meetings, the committee assigned priority to digital resources readily available at all 16 ACS institutions. In surveying digital resources, moreover, faculty were encouraged to consider collections available through their libraries, as well as the digital environment of their corresponding learning management systems (LMS). For specific external needs, precedent has been given to free or low-cost, open-source tools that can be readily and safely integrated into any curricular experience.

In this vein, the ACS has promoted equitable tools that offer immediate enhancement to diverse undertakings in teaching and scholarship without the need for excessive additional funding. We should work to minimize the barrier to learning as much as possible, and digital resources can help faculty and students to push the boundaries of learning to the open frontiers of new media.

Fierce Education is going to run a series of these vignettes written from the faculty’s perspective.

Below is the testimony of Dr. Michael Marsh-Soloway, Director of the Global Studio, University of Richmond.

Teaching throughout the pandemic has entailed manifold challenges, worries, and hardships, but I derive unique inspiration and optimism from galvanized commitments forged with colleagues to promote more authentic realizations of community, solidarity, support, and innovation. Covid-19 has served to catalyze changes that were already largely underway in education-- global connections, online resources, and digital infrastructures have transformed from amenities to necessities, and institutions have a reinvigorated obligation to utilize, leverage, and advance the creative ways in which faculty, students, and staff have more capabilities than ever before right at their fingertips on laptops and mobile devices. Aside from the more formal academic evaluation of teaching methods, which coalesced in the ACS working group that we came to view as loosely modeled on the cartonera movement started in Argentina, thanks to insights shared by Elizabeth Pettinaroli and Claudia Ferman, our discussions highlighted the complex professional and personal dimensions of teaching in the era of Covid-19. For instance, how did we manage the rapid transition to online and HyFlex teaching? What aspects of life did we share, or keep private, in interactions with colleagues and students?  Will any of the insights gleaned or practices derived from teaching in the pandemic persist to disrupt traditional pedagogy? 

If I were to reflect critically over the last eighteen months, I would view my collected observations as the evidentiary basis of a moderately bold prediction that education stands at the precipice of a new paradigm that emphasizes and reinforces engagement, data-based analytics, empathy, and creative connectivity. At the beginning of 2021, I began collaborating, for instance, on the development of an online teaching and research tool, Textopian, with my friend and colleague, Carlos Alvidrez. The site offers a library of open-source materials to facilitate collaborative and annotation in all languages, while deepening understandings of intertextual allusion and bibliographic references in the same medium of assigned books, articles, and documents. Promoting accessibility and equity, the tool is compatible across all computer and mobile variants, and provides analytics detailing how students engage course materials, experience presented narratives, and respond emotionally to canonical works.

The largely invisible activity of reading, consequently, becomes visible, as instructors better track how students read, whether they comprehend assigned materials, and how they relate meaningfully to the opinions of authors and peers. The site also measures the quantity of work performed, highlights opportunities for qualitative improvement, and students can export all notes to a consolidated Word document, so the act of reading contributes directly to writing. As teachers use Textopian for class activities, they contribute to a growing body of imaginative interpretation and analysis shared across diverse curricular contexts. Carlos and I are eager for colleagues to test the site to see if it would be beneficial for their courses and research interests. 

The pandemic has contributed directly, furthermore, to the heightened need for educators to take pedagogical risks. Unusual times call for unusual measures, and there seems to be a pressing void in traditional teaching positions and roles that would explicitly incentivize the adoption, evaluation, and development of methods, assessment criteria, and tools to engage student audiences more meaningfully, even if these items fail initially and require adjusted permutations to perfect. While these kinds of activities could conceivably fall under the broader auspices of ‘scholarship,’ it would be of tremendous benefit for instructors to work with administrators and partners to codify enhancements to teaching, learning, and institutional effectiveness as explicit components of our shared responsibilities, promotion criteria, and career profiles.  

One of the greatest realizations that I made throughout the pandemic was the intensified need for community, and the fostering of a sense of togetherness, and I was somewhat awestruck to find that a digital community could cultivate a sense of belonging just as much, if not more, in certain respects, than traditional, face-to-face models. Students in my online 2021 spring first-year seminar, FYS 100-51 Technology in Fantasy and Society, came to befriend each other in collaborative course activities that they completed online through JamBoard, Google Docs, and digital storytelling projects. These virtual interactions translated to real-world relationships, and I have a standing monthly lunch event to meet with them in person throughout the fall.

Similarly, teaching and research materials are changing from physical objects to virtual bytes that can be shared, modified, bookmarked, mapped, and analyzed. Digital information connects almost every facet of our lives- from bank accounts to medical records to social interactions and beyond. Digital technology both disrupts and empowers the realization of new practices, industries, and opportunities for individuals and their communities around the globe. What are the costs and benefits of information technology, and how does the business of data sustainably, humanely, and ethically transpire? By asking these kinds of questions throughout the pandemic, I developed the framework for a new Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) course to be offered at the University of Richmond in the 2022-2023 AY -- Digital Revolutions: From Book to Byte and Back Again. By evaluating the ways in which interactive media simultaneously reflects divisions and unities of human interests, political organizations, and ideologies, and by surveying changes in modes of self-expression, this course will interrogate the presentation, perception, and consumption of digital media in relation to dynamic world events.

Although I, like many of my colleagues, applauded the arrival of the Covid-19 vaccine, and the return to the classroom experience, I still believe firmly that we cannot go back. We cannot just pretend that the pandemic never happened. The cat is out of the bag. Online and hybrid education are no longer just for other peoples’ children. These new modalities are here to stay, but that’s not to say that they should replace, or work to the detriment of traditional, residential learning. Rather, the modalities should enhance one another, and be used in tandem, at different periods, for different purposes, goals, and contexts. How teachers deploy these modalities may challenge presiding assumptions, categories, and classifications of institutions, but there is tremendous opportunity for universities and colleges to recognize the value that these synergies pose, and our ability to reach students, scholars, and communities at unprecedented scales and magnitude. While the media of recent history might seem preoccupied with fake news, political polarization, and the rejection of science, higher education confronts pervasive distrust in its central mission, but with online and hybrid learning, and the associated digital resources required to bring these modalities to light, the fruits of our research, efforts, and activities can reach more people than ever before. The traditional vision of higher education did not fail society; it just needed to progress to a more dynamic form, and we are only just getting started.