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Overcoming Resistance to Digital Pedagogy

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Let me begin this discussion of digital pedagogy with a brief story about my own real-life encounter with institutional resistance to creating a class based entirely on digital media production. About six years ago I was approached by the director of the Center for Community Studies at the institution where I was working with the idea of offering a documentary film research and production class that would be open to social science majors as a way of transforming their senior research projects into a digital medium that was more appealing and accessible than the traditional research paper.

At this institution they have a faculty curriculum committee, chaired by the dean of faculty, through which all new courses must be vetted. The thumbnail sketch of the meeting at which I defended my proposal is one of a very contentious, even hostile debate, with the dean in strong opposition to the course on the grounds that he was unsure of its intellectual merits. He was, however, in favor of a course which strictly taught the technical skills of documentary film making. My, and my sponsor’s, response to this suggestion was that the actual technical skills are very much secondary to the intellectual process of researching, synthesizing, and creating meaning to share with others. In effect, we were arguing for the validity of digital pedagogy as a worthwhile addition to this institution’s curriculum.

Ultimately the course was approved, and I taught it for several years with great success. But the debate over the merits of the medium itself is the important thing here. Why was this administrator so opposed to the idea of giving students a new vehicle for expressing their understanding? To unravel this mystery, it is first necessary to understand what digital pedagogy is and why it is important.

What is Digital Pedagogy?

The biggest obstacles to the acceptance of digital pedagogy in academia are a lack of understanding of what it is and a failure to recognize its inherent value to students, academia, and society.

The Queensland Department of Education and Training has a very concise definition given for digital pedagogy: “Digital pedagogies establish a way of learning and working in a digital world.” This video from Holly Willis at HASTAC elaborates on what digital pedagogy is and what it looks like:


What Is Digital Pedagogy? Holly Willis HASTAC video 1 from IML @ USC on Vimeo.

The three big changes from traditional pedagogy to digital as expressed in this video are:

  • Select and Combine – Use database instead of narrative as a pedagogical model: This change in paradigm from traditional to digital pedagogy removes the linear narrative structures from our concept of what knowledge is in a way that may be challenging to understand, let alone embrace. Information no-longer rests with a single linear description, but rather in an aggregation and purposeful parsing of data.
  • Distributed Authority – User oriented? User generated?: Because of the social nature of technology and the rapid pace at which new information is generated, a single authoritative voice is no-longer sufficient to give weight to an idea, finding, or belief. Authority now lies in the public sphere and new metrics of understanding are required to incorporate collective knowledge and its production into the classroom.
  • Soft Media Objects – Digital materials are eminently mutable: Due to the changing and transformable nature of information and the media via which it is distributed, efforts must be made to account for the original meaning of a piece of scholarship, its contribution to the larger social pool of knowledge, and the degree to which it has spawned new offspring.
    (Willis, 2010)

These characteristics of digital pedagogy, along with a nearly limitless number of forms, make it hard to quantify and even more challenging — for those not familiar with the vastness of the new media landscape — to value or evaluate.

The Value of Digital Pedagogy

This video of Lord David Puttnum, chairman of Futurelab, begins with an excellent example of what digital pedagogy could look like. He then proceeds to discuss the value of digital pedagogy as a vehicle for developing individuals who can substantially contribute to economic growth.

The cultivation of talented individuals who can actively contribute to the economic well-being of a country is only the most basic value of digital pedagogy.  A fluency in creating the types of rich information media that digital pedagogy supports has other significant benefits to the individual and society.

On a personal level, an increased proficiency with digital information and communication resources allows an individual to access a wide variety of tools related to personal safety, health, and finance, as well as being able to deftly complete work-related tasks.

The added societal benefit derives from the ability of proficient individuals to feed new and innovative ideas back into the system. The complex and cyclical nature of Information Age technology allows for consumers to simultaneously also be producers and shapers of media, information, and social systems in order to mold new products and systems to meet their needs. The use of digital pedagogy in the classroom facilitates this grassroots cultural and commercial development.

Reasons for Tension

Lord Puttnam is generally not very optimistic about the prospects for a timely, large-scale implementation of digital pedagogy. His reasoning parallels my understanding of the reasons for the resistance that I encountered in the experience mentioned at the outset of this piece:

  • Lack of Understanding – The concept of digital pedagogy is relatively new and many members of a campus community may not have heard of it, may not understand what it is, or realize the full weight of the implications associated with its implementation.
  • Lack of Funding – Implementing digital pedagogy in the classroom requires resources. In my own case, my documentary film course required digital video cameras, tripods, microphone kits, light kits, computers for editing, and expensive software. The technology limitations themselves necessitated that the class be capped at an artificially low number of students. Lower enrollment in a class makes offering it less profitable to the institution, thus amplifying the initial funding issues.
  • Curricular Requirements – At all levels there is a lack of understanding of how to evaluate the products of digital pedagogy. In my own teaching, I focus on the process of creation rather than the product of the creative process. I expect my students to fail or falter along the way and learn from those mistakes. Often, the movies that my students produced lacked the polish of a professional production or contained technical flaws that make evaluation very difficult for the inexperienced observer. Those flaws do not, however, diminish the value of the process that students have completed.
    (Whitson, Oct. 16, 2011)

The Solution – Create a Buzz
Digital pedagogy is coming to a university near you. Look around and you will find colleagues already doing it successfully. Talk to them, talk to others around campus and create a buzz for digital pedagogy. Aside from the learning benefits, which are substantial, one of the best reasons for engaging in digital pedagogy is that it is enjoyable. It is fun for the instructor, for the campus community, and even for the surrounding community, but it primarily fun for the students because they are challenged and ultimately overcome those challenges to produce real media that they can be proud of. I hosted a public screening of my students’ films at the end of each semester. We invited members of the campus community as well as those who participated in the films and the general public. Turnouts were great for the film festival events and local participants in the films enjoyed their instant celebrity status. 

Look for an upcoming post in this space about how to implement digital pedagogy in the classroom. In the meantime, however, create some buzz of your own by preemptively answering some of the resistance you might encounter by talking up these points about digital pedagogy:

  • Natively Digital Media – Rather than converting something old to a new medium, have your students work in a new way that fits with some of the latest forms of digital production.
  • Flexible Standards – Think about new ways to evaluate student work, based not on final products, but on successfully navigating a process and thinking digitally.
  • Global Connectedness – The ability of digital media to forge connections across many traditional boundaries, including national ones, should be explored and celebrated.  Think big, think global, think connected, and take your students along for the ride.
  • As a final word, here is an example of one of my favorite student pieces arising out of my foray into digital pedagogy: