Darcie is out of town this week, so I’m doing a bit more than usual to take care of the girls (with the invaluable help of Darcie’s parents). This means that rather than staying at my place after my 10am-8:45pm Wednesday teaching marathon, I went to Darcie’s apartment–and encountered the Wednesday-night math homework that I normally miss. This isn’t going to be a math post–I can multiply numbers, and there were only five problems to work on.

However. The sheet also had QR codes that students were supposed to scan to check their answers (incidentally:

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I really do enjoy things like this, and for the above you can thank this doohickey.)

I was too tired Wednesday night to get really worked up about this, and maybe I’m insane for getting around to angst by Thursday morning, but this is 3rd-grade math homework. Are we really expecting kids to have access to a QR reader? Maybe we’re expecting parents to all have smartphones that they let their kids use? Or smartphones at all? Isn’t this simply perpetuating educational inequalities that already disproportionately disadvantage kids from certain socioeconomic backgrounds? If it’s classroom work, and there are iPads or whatever for kids to use, that’s fine, but as homework I worry this adds an element that all these kids won’t have equal access to.

And another thing: what value does this actually add? Sure, QR codes aren’t uncommon, and they have their uses, but I don’t see how this helps anyone learn math, or how QR-code-scanner-use is a relevant skill for a 9-year old. I use the things for boarding passes when I travel, and now I have one sending unsuspecting/irresponsible scanners to my website; you can get by without knowing what to do with the things, and by “get by” I mean “experience no real change in your quality of life.” At least using a calculator (slide-rule? Abacus?!) to check your answers requires you to think about what you’re doing, and use a device people frequently encounter in either physical or software form, instead of just pointing a camera phone at a code and seeing a number pop up in response.

Maybe the intent is simply to give students something kind of fun to play with, something interactive, and maybe there is value in that. Personally, I don’t think this particular approach is really all that fun or interactive (especially since I won’t hand the iPhone over for her to use herself), but maybe that was the intent. But frankly, this seems about as passive a way of checking an answer as I can think of, and I tend to think that getting it wrong wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.

Whatever the case with the QR reader and 3rd-grade math homework, I do think this raises a larger issue in relation to our application of digital technologies in higher ed. We tend to assume that our students do have internet access, and laptops or smartphones or tablets, and that they’ll be able to engage with whatever educational resources we’re developing. I realize these things are relatively standard for many of our students at UMW, and for those without, there are labs in the academic buildings and libraries to provide access. But the basic costs of higher education are already rising to an extent that does exclude many people, and technology is another cost. In my last job, in a county where more than 20% of the population lives below the poverty line, I did have students without smartphones, and without internet at home because it was unavailable or unaffordable where they lived in rural Minnesota; they could be out of touch for days in severe weather, unable to check the LMS or email (although I also suspect some just used that as an excuse).

As we assign digital technologies a more central role, students faced with the realities of those limits may be marginalized–despite what some of these approaches offer in terms of useful skills and wide accessibility, and sometimes lower costs in some respects. I’ve had students pull up readings on smartphones in class, and I’ve asked them to form groups around those with laptops on a given day to do some work online, but I’ve also been careful not to assume that everyone had some device they could use, and to form groups around students who had tech in evidence. Online discussions have provided adequate forums for student discussions as we’ve dealt with snow days this semester, but they are qualitatively different than the conversations we have in class (though I think more experience with that format could make my approach and my students’ involvement far more effective), and at least at this point they are a fallback rather than a substitute for seminar meetings (unlike my mother’s community health seminar meetings, in which students doing internships currently meet once a week, but which her department/college has decided will be moved to online-only spaces next year–I tend to think this is the result of a combination of administrative pressure to utilize Blackboard, and full-time faculty working to further minimize their face-to-face instructional time in a department where several “part-time” faculty are teaching higher credit loads than the full-timers).

But I do think most faculty adding digital elements are doing so in thoughtful ways–if nothing else, the fact that it’s rarely the easiest route for our teaching, takes additional work for us to learn and implement, and requires another level of monitoring student work, encourages us to be selective in what we use and how we use it, and to consider what it offers to our students. And I think that careful, conscious approach is important to maintain in the midst of what can sometimes be a rush to add digital elements simply for the sake of having them, to meet administrative mandates, etc. While these digital elements obviously can add tremendous educational value, they don’t necessarily do so, and the value they add may not always balance the costs–financial or educational or social–to our students.

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Respect, Virginia.

That’s what UMW History’s department chair, Jeff McClurken, told one of his classes the other day, and I’m reminded of it after last night’s mad scramble to figure out what to do about the snow.

I have a senior seminar that meets once a week, on Wednesday nights from 6-8:45, and we already lost a week to the semester’s first snow day. That one was relatively easy to recover, since I was going to lead that discussion, rather than it being a student-led discussion, and thus a graded assignment. I moved that discussion online, and hosted it on Canvas, our LMS, monitoring the conversation from home and adding my thoughts as appropriate. That still let me model the advance post I was going to require of student discussion leaders, how I’d like them to participate in discussions, and the summary I want them to write afterwards.

That was the first time I had run a complete discussion online (I’ve had students post, but that in my absence, and I’ve summarized after rather than being involved in the ongoing posting), and so I turned for help to my significant other, Darcie, who recently completed her MLS through Rutgers University’s online program. She had lots of tips for refining what I was asking students to do, and how to explain it to them, and the whole thing seemed to work out fairly well.

Last night promised to be a different story. With impending severe weather, administration announced between 3 and 4 pm that campus would be closed and classes cancelled after 6pm. I’d been madly scrambling all day to be ready for class (6 hours of scheduled classes on Wednesdays), meet with students (two advisees, a potential thesis student, a current thesis student), and polish off an abstract for a conference panel proposal (which I felt obligated to do, since my collaborators had already spent time on theirs). Nonetheless, it was not a relief to return from my 3-4 class to discover the email announcing the cancellations. Now what was I supposed to do with my evening class, which would be missing another week, this time a student-led discussion of a great book?!

Luckily, I had the earlier online discussion to work from. I talked with a colleague to think it through, then modified the earlier discussion guidelines. This time, students would work from the advance post their classmates had shared, responding to prompts as well as to each other, and the student discussion leaders would check in and add their thoughts as the conversation progressed. I also told students to expect to spend the first hour of next week’s class revisiting the online threads, and addressing topics the discussion leaders felt needed additional attention. I emailed everyone, posted the plan on Canvas, and stuck around to make sure no one showed up for the start of class–no one did (I’m sure they were checking their email diligently every couple of minutes until the announcement came, but they may not have checked since).

I’m not sure I could have brought that together as effectively if I hadn’t done it already earlier in the semester, and perhaps more to the point, I’m not sure how fair it would have been to students to ask them to pivot on such short notice and expect it to go smoothly without them having had earlier practice. And I’m also absolutely positive that even the ability to move things online wouldn’t have been so plausible just a few years ago–other LMS’s I’ve used have been less user-friendly, the format would have been less familiar, and at my last university a shocking (to me, anyway) number of students didn’t have home internet access (lived in very rural areas, truly couldn’t afford it, etc). Nonetheless, I still wonder about whether my email and posts–all I can really do at the moment–made it to everyone, since some people likely don’t watch their email for that kind of information (perhaps deliberately), and could have gotten the announcement via other channels, like the UMW website, university announcements via text message, or Twitter.

And then I realized there’s a downside for me to all this. As I dropped files into Dropbox and added notes and reminders to the Notes app–both of which sync to my phone and are accessible from the laptop I often have with me–it occurred to me that there’s no snow day for me, either: no excuse not to write that letter for a student’s internship, keep up with the conference proposals and other writing, set up my grade book in Canvas, etc. And maybe those students who don’t check their email after the snow day is announced are on to something.

I know none of my thinking here is revolutionary, but I think that is telling in itself.

Readings

Weller’s chapter was an interesting start, and I appreciated the note towards the end that the pedagogies being posed were not a how-to guide, but rather a glimpse of some of the possibilities. It seemed to me that elements of many of these strategies are not too far from our ideal classrooms/teaching strategies (critical engagement and knowledge construction over knowledge acquisition, open-ended questions/problems and diverse possible solutions, etc), though they’re often not entirely realized. Certainly some of that is due to educators’ various constraints–time, resources, experience, comfort, effectiveness devising strategies to pursue those goals, etc. But I also think students’ comfort levels matter as well–they also have expectations for how education works and what its outcomes are supposed to look like–since as Madsen-Brooks points out, there has been an emphasis on content over skills like considering/critiquing content.

Part of the student discomfort I’m imagining would arise from these models is due to exactly the changes Weller is arguing should produce some sort of reconceptualization of teaching strategies (and the list of skills Madsen-Brooks produces–can you imagine telling students in a classroom that your goals for the class remain ambiguous, and your priorities may change?), that is, the abundance of content/connections as the core of educational models. I think we tend to be leery of that abundance because there is so much “bad” content out there, and based on my experiences, many students struggle to effectively assess it, so educators feel the need to moderate/curate it (hey, recreating that “scarcity” sort of like DRM etc). And here the “power of the crowd” gets a bit scary because of its potential to authorize (based on numbers/popularity rather than complete understandings–see Madsen-Brooks pondering Texas’ content standards) problematic knowledge. So I think lots of this would have to start with, or really intensely moderate and develop, some of those basic skills of assessing selections from among that abundance. Of course, making this a collective assessment rather than leaving it to individual learners to decide might help alleviate that challenge somewhat.

Incidentally, this reminds me of a conversation with Jim Groom a couple of years ago when I was setting up a UMW Blogs site for my Colonial America class, and he was tossing out ideas about how to construct an online archive of primary sources, located and introduced and tagged and categorized by students as part of their course work, that then subsequent classes could add to as well as draw on. There would ultimately be more content than every student would use (abundance), but there would be that process of selection and constantly growing materials available. The thought was totally overwhelming at the time, but getting more intriguing now. I could even see this crossing classes, with upper-level history classes aggregating things (curating them as a group) and lower-level classes deciding how to draw on them as a resource. Madsen-Brooks’ “Crafting Idaho” is an interesting example of how this could work, and so is Historic Buildings of UMW.

Twitter. I’m in the Reluctance spot still. I don’t especially want to be that visible, and the service will remain firmly in the professional realm for that reason (there are students present in that space and able to follow me). I do see how it could be a great tool in terms of networks>hierarchies, succinct thoughts (we can often drone on, and this forces you into a more constrained format, hopefully more “punchy” comments), etc., but I’m also glad to see that even people who made it central to a class found it uncomfortable to do so at times. What I do especially like is the cross-class potential–a hashtag for our methods students who are spread across three sections but working with parallel syllabi/assignments/goals, for example.

Reading the Campbell piece made me wonder about introducing a Technology-Intensive course designation that would fit alongside UMW’s Writing-Intensive and Speaking-Intensive designations/requirements. I know we have the new Digital Studies minor, but that is an opt-in program, whereas a TI designation might be a way of broadening our definition of the types of skills liberal arts majors WILL (rather than COULD) develop at Mary Washington. Maybe that goes along with the long-term goals of giving incoming freshmen web space, and has already been discussed, but it popped into my head, and a cursory Google search reveals that there are a few colleges out there with TI courses.