In July 2018, I travelled out to the USA with the generous funding of UCISA to attend the Digital Pedagogy Lab 2018 (DPL18). This blog post will be some of my reflections about what I took part in, learned, and applied.
Digital Pedagogy Lab 18 was hosted by the University of Mary Washington, a small liberal arts college of 5000 students in Fredericksburg, Virginia, about 45 minutes south by train from Washington DC. Arriving at the height of summer on the East Coast highlighted my lack of ability to deal with warm weather despite the UK’s summer of records: temperatures were 30C with 95% humidity. So the lack of public wifi to book an Uber was cursed with every step as I walked the 2 miles uphill from the station to the University. The University itself is a beautiful green island within the town, with mature trees, manicured lawns, snaking paths between buildings, and the typical grand style of building us Brits have come to expect from our American cousins (they do love columns).
I opted to stay in the halls of residence, and to be fair, they were pretty good. A kitchen nicer than mine at home was shared between two en-suite bedrooms and the four inhabitants. Luckily, we were assigned a bedroom each, so no room sharing.
The conference itself was hosted in their impressive Hurley Convergence Center (https://convergence.umw.edu/), which is home to Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, and some excellent, adaptable spaces. Visiting other UK institutions, I see buildings with similarly-designed spaces, but not necessarily to this scale. The central atrium provided three floors of open space where you could work, chat or socialise without disturbing others. Who doesn’t love an atrium?
Each day followed a similar pattern: breakfast together in the Digital Auditorium (which is a real place, I promise), a welcome talk, then we split up into our workshop streams. We would all reconvene at lunch in the University Center, before further workshops in the afternoon.
Digital Literacies track
The first day was made up of a one-day workshop. I attended the Digital Fluency track. The audience was a good mix of people from a variety of backgrounds, and I ended up sitting with a group containing academics, library staff and educational development-type staff. All were based in the US. The session itself was interesting, focussing around a collective understanding of what is meant by digital fluency, and how it can be supported on campus.
It was agreed that any definition had to offer longevity, but also be specific to an institution’s context. Key questions included why did we chose that definition? Who are the key players who can make this work? and how can we effectively embed digital fluency across the institution? These are not questions we could answer in a day-long workshop, but they were important pointers to take back to our home institutions to follow up.
What does that follow up look like? It’s all well and good producing a shiny report highlighting benefits, offering insights, proposing new strategies and initiating task forces, but we need actual change. Some of our discussions centred around how we did this. I’d be lying if I said there were all the answers; more accurately I’d say we started to ask some of the right questions: who are the right people to talk to? How do we get diverse ideas? What are the affective barriers? What are the affective enablers? Who are the allies? Who are the champions? Who are the complainers? How are we going to express the digitalness of our institution? What does this mean to our students’ experience?
These are some of the questions we discussed when I attended the Jisc Digital Leaders course in 2015, and they remain important to keep asking. Developing digital literacies and affecting digital change rely on getting the people bit right. The technology is often the easier part. Often when we discuss digital change, we focus on the change in technologies, rather than the essential change in culture that needs to accompany it.
Personally, in some ways, I feel the UK HE sector is slightly ahead of our American cousins when considering digital fluency, literacies and capabilities. I appreciate that in my role, I am exposed and continuously am thinking about digital capabilities as part of my work, and that might give some bias. However, the independent organisations that support the use of technology to support learning and teaching (e.g. ALT, Jisc, SEDA, and UCISA) helps us to learn from across the sector. This has been incredibly beneficial in supporting a comprehensive improvement in the use of digital over the last few years. But there is room for more. From my short visit, it didn’t seem that the UNited States have the same range of supportive, member-led organisations.
Writing about teaching track
The rest of the week was dedicated to the second workshop, in my case Writing About Teaching. I chose this partly because it provided a great overview of Critical Digital Pedagogy, I wanted to work with Jesse Stommel who was leading this track, and because I am not a confident writer.
It wasn’t what I expected.
There was poetry, there was free-writing, there was collaborative writing, there were tears, and there were a lot of laughing. It was probably the most challenging time I’ve spent in a classroom, ever. The tasks and thinking around them tested the very boundaries of my understanding, values, ethics and morals. It questioned who I was as a human, and who I want to be. That might sound a little over-dramatic, but how many times have you been to a conference and it has been a transformational experience.
My career in education began inauspiciously by taking a temp admin job in a school office after leaving university. That led to a Teaching Assistant position because I seemed to ‘get on well with kids’. Then, fire-sparked, teacher training. I then worked as a secondary science teacher, moved on to FE as a tutor (and part-time supported staff with elearning advice and guidance). I then made the jump to Higher Education to work in Digital Education, where I work now.
My thoughts about the Lab
The Digital Pedagogy Lab shone a light on the whole process of education and my role in it. I re-examined what my role was, who I am, and what I think education is for. This is something we often miss when we are thinking about our work in Higher Education (or FE); what we do doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is part of something bigger. Even our practice in HE is part of something bigger. Please bear with me, but I am about to torture an analogy. Hopefully it will help.
When we watch professional sport, we see only see the players on the pitch and the manager or coach on the sidelines. Interviews before and after games focus on these groups too, but they aren’t the only ones responsible for the performance you see. Most professional teams will have doctors, physiotherapists, nutritionists, human resources, marketing, accountants, kit managers, drivers, kitchen staff, groundskeepers, ticket agents, stewards, corporate hospitality, directors, coaches, scouts, psychologists. These others, who you don’t see, often outnumber the visible ones.
But the unseen are no less important. Without them, the visible would not be able to perform at their very best.
In the same way, the university is like a professional sports team, except instead of players we have teachers, instead of managers we have Senior Leadership Teams, instead of coaches we have organisational development, instead of kitmen we have IT. All the unseen people in the universities fulfil vital roles that allow teachers to perform at their highest level.
If the technology in a classroom doesn’t work, then it doesn’t stop the teaching, it just makes it more difficult. If teachers don’t undertake professional development (organised or not) then their practice could become stale and the students’ learning might suffer (Freire writes “as an educator, I must become more and more competent or else my struggle will lose its efficacy”)
However, unlike professional sports, our teachers are not (generally) global superstars. They are just people who want to do their job, and do it well (if they don’t then maybe they have some thinking to do). That’s not to say that the tasks others perform could not be done themselves: Could a professional footballer cook their own nutritious and balanced dinner? Could a professional rugby player wash and prepare their training and game clothing? Could a professional cyclist maintain and fix their own bike? I have no doubt all these are possible, the question is, is that the best use of their time?
Teaching is a tough game. Tougher than a lot of people (especially in the media) give it credit for. It isn’t about pouring your knowledge into the minds of students; there is no pail to fill, Paulo Freire was clear about that. It isn’t just standing at the front of a lecture hall, talking at 200 students for an hour, and then doing some marking. Teaching definitely isn’t about meetings.
Teaching is about people. It is about creating an emotional and cognitive link with people. It is about understanding who someone is and then working out how best to support them to learn. So what then is learning?
Learning goes beyond reciting facts or producing essays. Social constructivists, like Jerome Bruner or Lev Vygotksy, would ascertain that learning is where knowledge and understanding is developed in response to our interactions with the world and the people in it. The classroom is our space where we can help shape those interactions. Except every classroom is different, every iteration of a class is different. DPL Director, Sean Michael Morris stated that:
when Paulo Freire talks about students learning to critically read their world, at least in part he means cultivating the ability to see clearly the foundations upon which we have built our world, and still upon which we propose to change our world
Teaching requires a lot of emotional, cognitive and physical labour, hence why professional services have been built up around teachers to support the process. Sending out the slides from a session is laborious, so we have a VLE. Finding and organising a suitable space is troublesome, so we have an estates and timetabling teams. Continually developing our teaching skills is problematic on your own, so we have Organisational Development teams.
The classroom, teaching and education are complex systems. Humans are complicated beings, so popping up to a few hundred in a room for a ‘shared experience’ is not an easy thing. The people, the culture, the emotions in that room all affect that shared experience of the process of learning. Our support systems, whether technological or ‘professional services’ are a further layer of complexity.
You’d think the Digital Pedagogy Lab would be focussed on how we can use technology to improve teaching. That makes sense, doesn’t it? We spent a lot of the time at the Digital Pedagogy Lab talking about power dynamics, imagination and love in the classroom. We often focussed on how to create an atmosphere that allows all students to thrive, whatever their starting point, and whatever their needs. We used technology to support our processes, from Google Docs for sharing content, to twitter as a back-channel. But the technology was always in the background, ethereal and implicit. What was at the forefront of the discussions was the student.
Technology can support this process. But it doesn’t determine it. There are plenty of conferences that look at instrumentality of technology – the world doesn’t need another one.
One thing that has struck me about technology at #digped is the courage to say no to using technology, and to be able to provide the reasons why. Critical pedagogy uses technology as an enabler not a driver
— Marcus Elliott (is sad because #digped is over) (@marcuselliott) August 3, 2018
One of the attendees, Stefanie Chae – a recent UMW graduate – told me that Digital Pedagogy Lab was somewhere they could “productively share [their] experiences and thoughts to those who have a voice in the field of classroom, teaching, and learning. In hopes of using both my great and frustrating collegiate experiences to help others realize the various ways students encounter education”. In short, DPL is a place for educators to learn about the world around them, the experiences of others, and how it can all be integrated into a learning experience.
The Digital Pedagogy Lab is about making a difference. It may be one week in the humid heat of the American South, but in bringing together a diverse group of people, we can help start making a difference. As I wrote while I was there:
The thing about making a difference is that it will keep making a difference, and those differences will multiply exponentially as they ripple out. Every connection you have with someone makes a difference; it changes them, and it changes you. These changes ripple and grow. Every action you take has consequences that are felt.
Some pictures from my trip
Morris, SM (2018) ‘The Habitus of Critical Imagination’. [Online] Available from: https://www.seanmichaelmorris.com/the-habitus-of-critical-imagination/