By Lisa Brundage and Emily Sherwood
We met as Instructional Technology Fellows (ITFs) at Macaulay Honors College of CUNY (MHC). The ITF program matches CUNY doctoral candidates who have expertise in instructional technology with faculty teaching the core Macaulay seminars. The goal of the program is to embed pedagogically appropriate digital work in Macaulay’s courses in order to foster digital literacies amongst our students; the ITFs help facilitate this work. With a cohort of fellows contributing to the collective hivemind of technological and pedagogical innovation, the result is a community of practitioners that the ITFs themselves create and sustain beyond the program.
Lisa moved into a postdoctoral position at MHC around the same time the first FTN DOCC was starting to gather momentum, and was able to put the course through our curriculum committee, without even thinking of having an ITF to work with herself. Finding out that she would be paired with Emily–a trusted colleague and friend–meant she knew the class could take on an ambitious project in a nurturing environment.
As ITFs, we were both accustomed to working with varied needs and priorities in interdisciplinary classrooms and contexts. As such, we were able to sidestep the initial negotiations that are part of forging relationships between instructor and ITF, and approach the class as a united team. We were prepared. We were structured. We were bold. In class, our students matched us.
So it was much to our surprise when class forums and blogs failed to ignite. Posts were made–but in a perfunctory “I did my work” way. We had a great class, but we had tech failure. How could it have happened to us, two people with lots of experience in applied instructional technology?
When we turned to our class project–a digital companion to Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood–Emily researched and suggested a new tool, Mural.ly, a virtual whiteboard space, for planning the project. (One caveat: though it was successful for our class, the pricing structure has now changed, as so often happens. We are searching for an alternative, and hope an open-source platform with similar functionality will emerge.)
The white board format is different in that it removes much of the hierarchical structure found in blog posts/comments or forums. The mural allows students to add shapes, text, draw lines, overlap ideas, and add post-it notes. It also has a standard commenting feature, but one that can be attached to any element on the mural. In this way, even the comment threads are spatially located within a broader discourse or subject. Within 24 hours of setting up the mural, students were posting and responding to each other in an open, engaged, and frequent fashion that we had tried–and failed–to foster all semester. The video below shows a rough estimate of the development of the mural in a matter of weeks. The experiment was so successful that we abandoned the class forum and started another mural for class readings and general discussion. It, too, proved productive and prolific, and students continued to use it beyond the end of the semester.
This is just one example of the need for experimentation when it comes to online spaces. When we think about how and why online learning should inform our pedagogical practices, we think it is useful to consider the importance of pedagogical and student-centered disruption in the educational process. This type of disruption is the willingness to experiment, fail, and try again. Standard teaching methods, like lectures, do not always allow for this. It wasn’t that our students weren’t willing to engage each other outside of face-to-face class, it was that we hadn’t yet found the space where they felt comfortable doing so. Whiteboards might not work for other classes, but it is worth considering that sometimes our students need online spaces that match the messiness of classroom interaction where a call and response–that matches the forum or blog/comment structure–may not be the most effective way for them to draw connections, engage with each other, and learn.
*FemTechNet Roadshow Blog Series – Over the past couple of months, about a dozen FemTechNet participants have presented work based on our research and teaching related to FemTechNet in a two-part FemTechNet Keywords Workshop at the CUNY Feminist Pedagogies Conference in April 2015, and at the Union for Democratic Communications Conference at the University of Toronto in May 2015. Since these gatherings brought together such divergent modes of FemTechNet engagement, we thought we’d collect and share this new work over the last two weeks of May, leading up to the deadline for our 2015 FTN Summer Workshop. For more information on this series, contact T.L. Cowan