Digital technology has the potential to empower and liberate learners, both providing a unique, individual experience, while connecting communities of learners. Through the interconnectivity afforded to us by the internet, we can enhance the learning experience and enable our students to excel beyond the limitations previously imposed upon us by a physical environment. However, this can only happen when we put pedagogy first.
Just because we’re digitally mediating our teaching doesn’t mean we can skip any steps. Following Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding By Design principles, our first step will be to determine what we want our learners to be capabable of doing, and working backwards from there. We want to build up from lower-order thinking skills to higher-order thinking skills, along Bloom’s traditional taxonomy, or along a modified “Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy”. Ultimately, the goal is for students to create something with their newfound knowledge and skills, and to share it with others.
Designing at the Activity Level: A Latin Video Project
For a Latin IV class I taught–a spectacular, if small, group–I gave a list of options for their final projects, among which was a video project based around the Orpheus and Eurydice myth they had recently read. The entire group chose to work together on creating a masterpiece. One student knew their way around a video camera, another was skilled at post-production video editing, several wanted to act and recite their lines in Latin, and others still worked on writing up their own original script in Latin. It turned out absolutely wonderful.
When I designed this option for their final project, I kept the following learner objectives in mind:
- Students will be able to (SWBAT): Read, interpret, and summarize Orpheus and Eurydice in Latin;
- SWBAT: Outline, design, plan, and produce a video retelling of the piece; and
- SWBAT: Apply their background knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology to their retelling (e.g. costumes, other relevant characters & scenes, etc.);
As the course objectives included reading and interpreting Ovid in the original Latin, this project acted as a summative assessment. Here’ s the rubric by which I graded them, into which I incorporated the non-Latin skills of acting and cinematography:
|All (or nearly all) details of Ovid’s version included
|Missing some minor story elements
|Missing a major story element
|Missing several major story elements
|You were supposed to do Orpheus & Eurydice!
|All characters identifiable, and in some form of costume
|All major characters identifiable and costumed
|Some characters identifiable and costumed
|Only Orpheus and Eurydice in costume
|Sponsored by Old Navy
|Clear scene transitions, complementary VFX/AFX/PFX
|Can’t tell what’s going on/camera unfocused/gave me tinnitus
|Omnia latine quasi-perfecte scripta dictaque
|Some minuscule errors in language
|More than a few errors, but comprehension uninhibited
|Errors hinder comprehension
|Copious errors that completely inhibit comprehension
|Here’s your Oscar Award nomination!
|Most lines delivered well, but lacking in emotion
|Lines delivered well, but no physical acting
|Poor line delivery/reading entirely off of scripts
Students used Google Docs to collaboratively work on their script over the course of a week or so. They communicated via texting in a group chat to coordinate getting costumes, rehearsing scenes, and filming. For their Latin compositions, they used the free, online Latin dictionary tool, Whitaker’s Words. They recorded on their cell phones, and of course, post-production used video-editing software. Finally, the completed project was hosted online, and premiered in our classroom. The entire project was a group effort, mediated in a blend of physical and digital spaces.
Designing at the Course Level: Pandemic Planning
Planning needs to happen at the meta-course level too. If I’ve learned anything from teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that the format for a course can make or break the experience for learners–and what use is a course which doesn’t engage learners? Prior to the pandemic, I taught in the following modalities:
- Fully in-person (old-school format: physical books, board, etc.. Tech generally not required for schoolwork);
- In-person with external tech (tech available to students outside the classroom, required for some schoolwork);
- Digitally-ehanced in-person (students have personal devices for learning in the classroom, required for lots of schoolwork both for in-class activities and homework); and
- Asynchronous, digitally-enhanced, blended instruction (in-person with personal devices part time, asynchronous online part time, tech required for majority of in-class activities and homework);
During the pandemic, I’ve added to my repertoire:
- Synchronous, digitally-enhanced blended instruction (in-person with personal devices part time, synchronous online part time, tech required for majority of in-class activities and homework);
- Remote asynchronous instruction (all course tasks completed at learner’s pace within course deadlines); and
- Remote synchronous instruction (in-person meetings replaced by video calls, tech required for whole course).
It’s important to recognize the affordances and limitations of each of these formats before planning any kind of course–especially as they affect students. Synchronous modalities allow learners to interact with the instructor and other learners in real-time, allowing for spontaneous dialogues in the target language, whereas asynchronous modalities might make coordinating collaboration between multiple learners difficult when they had the expectation of being able to complete tasks according to their own schedules. Some digitally-mediated activities enable instructors to provide instant feedback through automatic grading, but those sorts of activities tend to target lower-order thinking skills.
My personal favorite as an educator? I’ve struck a balance with a Remote Synchronous course in which I’ve applied flipped learning. Students engage with and study the French course on their own, outside the classroom, before each class meeting. When we meet as a group, students practice speaking French together with collaborative, communicative activities. I also meet with each student separately for one-on-one French conversations, and to clear up any questions they might have. At the end of each lesson, students complete a quiz, which has some automatically-graded elements, and some manually-graded elements. In addition to expedient grading, a cheap textbook, and tons of multimedia content, the online modality also provides convenience to students when scheduling their meetings with me–and it’s perfect for my students who don’t want to risk travelling to campus during the pandemic.
Accessibility and Learner Needs
The COVID-19 pandemic gave all educators pause to think about best practices for remote learning. However, ensuring equitable accessibility and meeting all learners’ needs takes precedence.
Although video-chat enables us to connect face-to-face while remote, we’ve also seen the damaging effects of Zoom fatigue. While I would certainly prefer to see my students’ bright, smiling faces for visual confirmation of engagement and understanding, the pandemic has forced some students into precarious living situations which they may not want to broadcast to the whole class. This past semester, I had students who preferred not to appear on camera for religious reasons, and some whose bandwidth couldn’t support video chat without stuttering the video. We’ve also seen how lack of digital devices and internet access severely hampered student learning during the pandemic. I find it obscene that it took almost a year for the US government to try to ensure equitable internet access to low-income households.
I state up-front in my syllabus what my technological expectations are for students, and encourage them to reach out to me if they’re having any issues. I was fortunate enough at the start of the pandemic to be teaching in a K-12 district well-funded enough to provide Chromebooks to every student. For them, the struggle became bandwidth limitations rather than access to the technology. I switched to asynchronous work so they didn’t have to compete with the rest of their family to be on 8-hour Zoom calls. For my undergraduate students, their blended course became a flipped course with minimal changes. Many of my students had to fly back home before international lockdowns would leave them stranded. A couple of my students ended up in quarantine wards with no internet access for two weeks or more. Some had to return to take care of ageing parents/grandparents who came down with COVID.
Last Summer, during a fully-asynchronous course, a tropical storm knocked out the power for several days for some of my students. This spanned an entire module in our fast-paced intensive course. Some students hastily typed up work on their phones, or hunched over their laptops while parked outside a Starbucks a few towns over where power had been restored. I just extended the module deadline for everyone–no sweat. Why should students’ grades suffer when they cannot access the course? This minor accommodation saved my students from an additional stress during the pandemic.
Switching modalities took time and training to do well, but it cost me nothing to extend my deadlines. I’ve moved my own schedule around so my students with +8/+10/+12 hour time differences can meet with me remotely via video-chat after they’ve eaten breakfast. I’ve assigned longer periods to submit work (at least 24 hours) so everyone has a chance to work during daylight hours, regardless of time zone, instead of having to set an alarm for 3AM local time for a 30-minute window of opportunity.
I view teaching as a service; I am here to guide students, not to nitpick or crack the whip at them. Everyone learns at a different pace. Everyone has pre-existing knowledge they bring to the classroom. Everyone has different needs. It’s not my job to be a human textbook, with immutable practices, dictates, and deadlines; it’s my job to help my unique, individual students learn specific skills.