Excerpt from “Supporting Critical Civic Learning with Interactive Technology” (2015) by Jason Leggett.
2 Digital Course Design: My Educational Journey (In order to protect the identity of students I have changed their names.)
I was dissatisfied with the traditional textbook approach in face-to-face courses because they often lacked cultural relevance and were consistently out of date with scholarly research but was also less than enthused about online learning environ- ments that focused on short memorization quizzes and disconnected discussion boards. I wanted to design a course from scratch that would bring in cutting edge technologies that were common among millennials, myself included, that we used everyday. However, I wanted to try to integrate these into the online learning systems used by the institution already to avoid access and support problems I encountered in the past using Apple iBook designer and Tumblr for content delivery. I believed I could develop an interactive experience using common word processing applications and converting them into a multi-platform accessible portable document format (PDF). I eventually hoped to transition to more interactive digital document applica- tions like Microsoft One Note or Google Documents to allow real-time editing and collaboration.
Over the course of six semesters I arrived at a model of course design that would use the knowledge gained by the previous cohort of student researchers in the subsequent semester redesign process to ensure students had the skills to be able to conduct D+CPAR.
D+CPAR is an attempt to begin defining a strand of the still-nascent field of Digital Social Science, where digital media and social media are integrated into critical participatory action research (CPAR) (Mayorga, 2014). Digital humanities and digital social sciences are very wide open, emerging fields and the wide availability of powerful digital tools allow integration into critical participatory projects and make it easier for social scientists to collaborate on pressing complex research challenges (Mayorga). As a veritable laboratory of democratic thinking, our community of co-researchers would need to be able to utilize the same emerg- ing technologies to truly analyze and learn from our action research projects in and out of the classroom. I started off with a weekly module approach that included online research projects and digital note-taking but that seemed to confuse most students more than my previous courses. I had made the decision to dialogue with students about the changes from the beginning of the design process literally asking how we might follow a research outline using digital technology. Using Blackboard, I divided the content up into thematic research topics with the intent to connect the civic research and learning outcomes together in a final legal document drafting assignment and a civic engagement learning portfolio that would include our community maps. By the sixth week module I had collected student feedback about academic literacy and civic engagement challenges. It became evident that some students lacked the academic skills that would allow them to work on their own competently in a technologically changing world. While many of the learning platforms available helped enhance the experience of high-achieving students, I observed many of our students would benefit from a different approach that would explicitly develop learning skills, motivate engagement, and engender competence using technologies that respond to pedagogy in the design process. The question that guided the efforts described below was: how could we integrate curriculum, pedagogical theory and practice, and technology in a democratic way that develops college skills and engenders civic competence when students had unequal techno- logical abilities? I believed it was important to include students and other educators in this process from the beginning to document our efforts to address this question.
Using action research principles I engaged in conversations about why this mod- ule approach to using technology was confusing and what could be improved to enhance motivation in teaching and learning. One student. Ralph,1 an adult learner who had a background in software programming, agreed to meet with me and our digital-design manager at the Kingsborough Center for Advanced Technology Training (KCATT) following a face-to-face class meeting. Ralph appreciated our effort to provide accessible course content online using PDF digital learning packets but believed they should be all inclusive in a single document, like a workbook. He also believed it would help if we could more clearly identify when assignments should be completed, when they would be integrated into the socio-legal commu- nity research project, and when students should expect appropriate feedback to guide them along their self-directed learning path. I had experienced positive results with a similarly scaffolded approach in a writing intensive course so I worked to develop digital tools that would respond to his suggestions. With Ralph’s help we began to design a digital calendar assignment that asked students to first design a paper weekly calendar and then to integrate that into a monthly Google online calendar that could provide reminder alarms and could be shared with me.
I believed this creative use of technology would help students who struggle with time-management, planning, and organization. Similarly, I thought a creative use of technology could help students who struggle with a common problem brought up by educators I collaborate with: they don’t do the reading. I designed a PDF module for the first week that included a series of hyperlinks that, when clicked, would download a short reading, including our course text by chapter. I asked students to organize their reading notes digitally and record their responses to directed questions about these readings. One online student, Therese, suggested I design something more like a workbook where students could answer the questions for the reading directly on the screen. The dilemma I faced was that while PDFs were accessible on almost any device and digital platform, unless one purchased the full version of Adobe Reader, editing the document was impossible. In response, by the sixth week module, I converted the PDF into Word and Apple accessible documents to allow students to record their responses directly, and designed a “reading template” with guided questions and space to respond as a separate document which they could re- use for all of their readings, by saving copies of the template and naming these individually in saved documents. I wanted to ensure that students who were struggling had access to digital support resources, collaboratively designed with students and technology staff, that would help them develop college level reading and note-taking skills necessary for both course completion and our community research.
I began to envision a model of digital curriculum redesign that could include scaffolded support exercises and structured learning opportunities using the gen- erative civic themes, our course content, and that would provide documentation for training research assistants. Scaffolding involves breaking the learning outcomes or assignments down in a way that allows the student to learn the necessary skills in steps leading into a final assignment (Bean, 2001, p. 133). I was motivated to change paradigms of inaction in education by Sir Ken Robinson’s Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts (RSA) Animate Video that provides an animated lecture arguing we need to “wake our students up” and let them engage with the interactive world (Changing Paradigms, 2008). This short educational clip capti- vates every student every time I show it. So instead of simply changing the content delivery and assignment assessment systems for digital teaching and learning I wanted to create a learning environment with students that would fit my scholarly writing and social justice action research and meet their needs. In short, because I was using so many digital tools for the curriculum redesign I made it a priority to constantly check in with the class and individual students to see how they were experiencing the changes. However, before I could properly assess whether my redesign efforts had helped students learn the course material, achieve our learning outcomes, and motivate civic engagement, we were interrupted by a devastating act of nature, reminding me of the fragility of digital technologies and our social cohesion in education.