Teaching to the Digital Natives

Marc Prensky talks of thinking up ways of teaching to digital natives in such a way that makes use of their particular skill set, so I wish to try something of my own.

Last night I gave a talk at the monthly meeting of Watson’s Tin Box, the Sherlock Holmes Society to which I belong.  When I was done many of the older members of the group approached me and said that they wished DH had been better established 40 years ago–if it had, they might have stayed in the English Department. While it may be too late to bring them back to the fold, so to speak, the articles we read this week have me wondering what I can do to attract younger crowds to the original Holmes stories–and maybe the society.

In fact, an interesting point became clear last night, that a good many of our newer and younger members were attracted to Holmes not from the novels or short stories, but by the recent films and television shows.  It’s really wonderful, but not all fans–particularly children–make the switch from television back to the texts that inspire the show.  I fear that to the digital native Victorian London might not hold the same appeal as the BBC’s Sherlockian London of cellphones, texting, blogs, and mile-a-minute modern dialogue.

Every year we run an essay contest for young readers. They read “The Speckled Band” and  write about it. This is wonderful, but I’m wondering if there isn’t more we can do–something specific that will appeal to the digital native.

To begin with, while I doubt that we were the first generation to discover that learning can be made fun–Sesame Street was also not the first to stumble upon that idea (I remember my mother had a board game which my brother and I inherited when we were kids based on Captain Kangaroo–a show that was making learning fun more than ten years before Sesame Street).  Still, even though Pansky’s essay over simplifies things, I do recognize a lot of the qualities he notes from my own experience.  So, whatever the method, it ought to stress things like parallel thinking, random access, entertainment, and user-specified speed.  Further, Bogost and Hieronymi, would have us not forget everything old in favor of the shiny new technology.  Likewise, I think, in this case it is important to make use of the original text–popular culture will introduce students to Holmes, I want to introduce them to the text in a way that is enjoyable and make them pull the complete Canon from the library shelves in time.

So, perhaps, I can create a game with graphs, links, and perhaps even sound where one can find clues by investigating around the story through hyperlinks, but which still uses the actual text–so we aren’t replacing Holmes, but creating a more entertaining, digital native, way of approaching it for the first time.  When the snake of “The Speckled Band” appears (I hope I haven’t spoiled that for anyone), one could offer a link to see that particular type of snake looks like.  I would love to create something that is the updated and more faithful version of the Sherlock Holmes books I read as a kid–the cause of my current addiction–which allowed one to solve the original cases in the style of Encyclopedia Brown, with the solutions in the back of the book when you wished to test your theory.  Something like this imagined game, I believe, would be a great way to introduce young digital natives to Holmes–and help bridge the gap from fandom to the original texts.

Finally, I’d just like to add that one of the few things I believe from “Don’t Confuse Technology with College Teaching,” I agree that podcasts as the the textbook of the digital age and not the teachers, but that doesn’t meant that the educator can’t fulfill a new–or perhaps it is an old role–as guide rather than lecturer or coach?  A sort of Gandolf-like role?  I think one of the best examples of ways to teach to digital native comes out of West Nottinghamshire College, where professors used one of my favorite games of to cause students to pull all-nighters to study.  Using Neverwinter Nights, which has always allowed one to imagine and create one’s own story (many of which are as good as if not better than the original campaigns), the teachers created a story that demanded math and reasoning skills to progress.  My favorite quote from the article comes from one of the designers who complains, “They would come knocking on the staff room door and wouldn’t let us go until we had taught them how to calculate area.”  That, for me, is the best evidence to support the idea of transforming teaching styles.  I hate math with a passion, but even I would be willing to study a bit harder to try this game out.

The Worldwide MOOC

MOOCs are perhaps the hottest topic both in the DH community and throughout the education system. In fact, it has been said that MOOCs and the study of them are changing so rapidly, there is something new being published about them nearly every day. The Chronicle of Higher Education is closely following the trend, and just yesterday printed an article and flow chart of the Major Players in the MOOC Universe.

Following the discussion panel titled “MOOCs in Higher Education: education for everyone?” held today at UMD, it is clear there are still many questions that need to be answered, not just for today’s audience, but across the MOOC universe.  Here are the ones Susie and I devised for class discussion.


• Where is the money coming from? How much is money motivating educational reform and encouraging them to enter into the MOOC sphere?
-UMD did not pay anything to join Coursera
-Coursera is free to students
-however, it is a for-profit institution
• How much does “marketing” play a role in MOOCs? How does this compare to tuition-based education?

• What are issues with public vs. private institutions? How does this tie into claims about elitism vs. open access?
• Even though it’s open to the masses, are MOOCs from schools such as Harvard, MIT, & UPenn giving you an elite/Ivy education?
• How could open access education help students who otherwise might not have been admitted to a four-year college, or be able to afford it?
-MOOCs similar to open admission at CUNY?
-stepping stone to a better education prior to attending a 4 yr university?
-access to elite institutions based on finances and admissions?

Purpose & Benefits
• What can you “do” with a MOOC? You can’t get a degree, ultimately, so what purpose do they serve?
-MOOCs supplement education
-thus far are not able to obtain more than a certificate
-MOOCs are not a replacement for traditional education
• Which types of classes work best in the MOOC format?
-subjects—some more effective in a MOOC format than others?
-which students benefit most from a MOOC format?

• How do MOOCs differ from a traditional campus-based education? What are the pros and cons?
• What is lost between the online platform & the traditional campus environment?
-proven that face-to-face interaction is important, beneficial & sought out
-meet ups between students in MOOCs
• How would you define our 668k class? Is it an online course? Hybrid course?
• How does evaluation change in an online/MOOC platform? Is peer review as effective? How do roles in the classroom shift when instructor/student ratios change so drastically?
-is peer review effective?
-instructor/student ratio
• How does online education interact with journalism, theatre, publishing and other fields of study?

Trendiness & Bureaucracy
• Is this just a “trend” and what role does college administration play in the MOOC movement?
• How are “disruption” and “innovation” helpful in reevaluating traditional structures?

Immigrants vs. Natives
• How will instructors have to adjust to digital teaching?
• What pressure is there to become a “digital immigrant?” Do you think this is a real problem?
• Will “digital natives” prefer MOOCs to traditional teaching in the future?

Efficacy & Retention
• Is attrition a bad thing? How does this affect a community of learners?
• Retention of students
-losing nearly 90% of initial registers
-quality of course/production value

Sample MOOC


19th century MOOCs

As I prepare for Courtney and my presentation on MOOCs tomorrow alongside working on my teaching philosophy for ENGL 611, I can’t help but share this passage from Emerson’s essay, “Education” (which has essentially always served as my teaching philosophy, anyway). It’s funny how the issues we’ll discuss tomorrow (and which scholars have been discussing for months) were the same even while Emerson described his ideal “schoolroom” in the 19th century. Emerson writes

A rule is so easy that it does not need a man to apply it; an automaton, a machine, can be made to keep a school so. It facilitates labor and thought so much that there is always the temptation in large schools to omit the endless task of meeting the wants of each single mind, and to govern by steam. But it is at a frightful cost. Our modes of Education aim to expedite, to save labor; to do for masses what cannot be done for masses, what must be done reverently, one by one: say rather, the whole world is needed for the tuition of each pupil. The advantages of of this system of emulation and display are so prompt and obvious, it is such a time-saver, it is so energetic on slow and on bad natures, and is of so easy application, needing no sage or poet, but any tutor or schoolmaster in his first term can apply it–that it is not strange that this calomel of culture should be a popular medecine. On the other hand, total abstinence from this drug, and the adoption of simple discipline and the following of nature, involves at once immense claims on the time, the thoughts, on the life of the teacher. It requires time, use, insight, event, all the great lessons and assistances of God; and only to think of using it implies character and profoundness; to enter on this course of discipline is to be good and great. It is precisely analogous to the difference between the use of corporal punishment and the methods of love. It is so easy to bestow on a bad boy a blow, overpower him, and get obedience without words, that in this world of hurry and distraction, who can wait for the returns of reason and the conquest of self; in the uncertainty too whether that will ever come? … Now the the correction of this quack practice is to import into Education the wisdom of life. Leave this military hurry and adopt the pace of Nature. Her secret is patience.”

I know that was a lot of 19th century rhetoric (and I don’t want to tell you that your teaching lacks the assistance of God) but I’m very intrigued by these issues and how they correlate with our contemporary technological advances. Start mulling this over, comrades!

Online writing instruction in the digital humanities

I attended Dr. Beth Hewett’s lecture Wednesday on “The Challenge of Online Writing Instruction.”  I found it intriguing that her talk was not billed as a DH event (and she did not frame it as such during the lecture) even though she discussed some topics that have particular relevance to our course readings last week and this week.  Hewett is primarily a rhetoric/composition scholar (as were many in her audience) and she spoke about the problems teachers may face when they are asked (as increasingly high numbers of them are — willingly or otherwise) to teach partially or wholly online composition classes.  She focused on several points for which she urges teachers to fight; among these were that online writing instruction (OWI) classes need to be capped at 20 students (ideally 15) because they involve a 200% higher literacy load.  Hewett feels strongly that online and in-person classes should be treated as having equal validity, but that, in order for them to work, it is necessary to realize that individual students’ learning styles may be much better met by one or the other of them.  Though she believes that OWI can be fruitful, she described a MOOC as “a big-ass classroom where people drop out like flies and nobody does the work;” she stressed instead that personal connection between teacher and students is necessary (for instance, she uses online course management software with a chat function by which she greets students — sometimes freaking them out in the process — and she feels that some difficult situations need a phone call to resolve them).  She also finds it very important to use platforms that enable students to talk to each other (though she cautioned teachers against using this increased visibility of student thought-in-progress to grade more harshly than they might in traditional classrooms) and — perhaps most importantly — allow OWI teachers to talk to each other.  Support for teachers who find themselves suddenly thrust into online classrooms (many of whom having been told in no uncertain terms that they will lose their jobs if they refuse), is crucial.  Hewett said “If you are teaching an online writing class and you haven’t received training, shame on the administration.”

I am curious about why there seems to be such a sharp divide between self-proclaimed DHers and rhet/comp folks who work in digital environments.  (Could this be echoing the making/critiquing divide in DH circles?)  The issues about which she spoke — social support between teachers, structural support from administrators, support for students via recognition that online and in-person environments address different needs — are at the heart of the MOOC question we will discuss in our next class.  The defining feature of MOOCs that Hewett condemns (their massive, impersonal character) is the problem, not the digital nature of the class itself.  This would seem to support Richard Grusin’s point in “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities — Part 2″ that administrators are wont to see MOOCs as shiny, easy things that fit into agendas of “quick fixes and bottom line approaches to the structural problems facing higher education today” instead of looking for ways to make their online course offerings actually helpful to students.  It seems that everyone would benefit if the people who make the online course management software and the teachers who use it were able to work more closely with one another.  (Perhaps rhet/DH collaboration could even help counteract the administrative neglect from which Hewett describes the OWI world as suffering?)

Planned Obsolescence by Kathleen Fitzpatrick

In Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, she tackles the crisis in scholarly publishing (as traditionally conceived) and encourages her readers to develop institutional and electronic cultures in which an alternate, healthier model can flourish.  She specifically states in her conclusion that she has “tried to avoid the prescriptive, focusing less on what the future of scholarly publishing will look like than on how we’ll need to think differently about our relationships – as scholars, publishers, librarians, and administrators – to the process of publishing” (195) as she feels certain that “the contradictions in our current systems are simply too great to be sustained” (194).  I appreciate her openness about the fact that she cannot offer definitive solutions, but I find that (even though she avoids prescriptive directions) my strongest impression of the book is that it is primarily about our need as academics to find better ways of thinking of ourselves and the social/hierarchical world of Higher Education.

In the Introduction and in Chapter One, Fitzpatrick draws the outline of the Problem for us.  In a nutshell, the current scholarly publishing system is broken – mainly because it is being asked to do too many contradictory things by the Powers That Be in the world of Academia.  Administrators want to use the existence and number of a job or tenure candidate’s publications (from established scholarly presses that use traditional closed peer review systems, and, to a lesser extent, in traditional print-based journals) as a simple scale by which to evaluate said applicant’s suitability for the position and ultimate worth as a scholar.  Problems with this role include 1) Scholarly presses just don’t have enough money to print everything that deserves their “seal of approval”; 2) Holding out from disseminating research that can’t be traditionally published harms the field because much that should be said isn’t — it’s dumb financial luck, not academic worthiness that is in the driver’s seat; and 3)  When scholars spend their entire professional lives being taught that their worth depends solely on finished, marketable, singly-authored projects that exist in print form, the kinds of work they attempt – the ideas they regard as thinkable – become unjustly diminished.  The system we now have is ailing and will die in the reasonably near future, but this is not because it has been neglected and needs us to take better care of it; it is ailing because it is simply not equipped to handle the expectations different groups of users place on it.  As Fitzpatrick puts it in her introduction:

“In the end, what I am arguing is that we in the humanities, and in the academy more broadly, face what is less a material obsolescence than an institutional one; we are entrenched in systems that no longer serve our needs.  But because we are, by and large, our institutions – or rather, because they are us – the greatest challenge we face is not that obsolescence, but our response to it.” (13).

Of course, the flip side to the problem of very little getting through the System to readers is how can we ensure the quality of the work that gets seen if we delete the System?  Fitzpatrick argues that we shouldn’t.  Instead of gatekeeping on the front end of the “publication” process, we need to create a scholarly environment in which everything can be “published” AND THEN evaluated by knowledgeable and helpful reviewers who can help guide readers to the best work and that which is most relevant to their needs.  Fitzpatrick acknowledges that it will be hard to create such a new system and that doing so depends on finding a way to reward competent reviewers for their time and effort, moving toward a “gift economy” in which scholars help each other for the good of their fields.

In Chapter Two, Fitzpatrick explores the often counterproductive ways in which we think of ourselves as “Authors.”  She argues that we academics are firmly habituated to thinking of our own writing in ways that, ironically, ignore the death of the author as we readily apply the theory to the writing of others.  We have pinned our very identities as scholars to notions of originality, individual creativity, and solitary intellectual labor; these beliefs about ourselves are deeply held, and so will be very hard to change, but they do not accurately describe the writing process as it actually is or as it should be.  Focusing only on academic labor as traditionally conceived can push us toward self-defeating evaluations of our own work; by internalizing the (broken) System’s values, we may feel that “as long as we are in the process of writing, we have not yet completed it, and without completion, we cannot get credit for what we have produced; we haven’t accomplished anything” (68).  She argues that we need to reconceive ourselves, our institutions, and our work in ways that allow the work-in-progress to mean something to our administrators, our communities of networks between scholars working in the same fields, and – most crucially – to ourselves.


Questions for Discussion

Fitzpatrick’s recommendations depend on the accuracy of her analysis that the so-called “scholarly publishing crisis” is real and operates in the way she describes.  Do you find her argument convincing?  Have you had personal experience with the publishing industry that might support or contradict her conclusions?

Who do you think is Fitzpatrick’s audience for this book?  When she hails her reader using “we,” she nudges that reader toward seeing him/herself as a part of a group about which she makes certain assumptions and in which she explicitly includes herself.  When she says “we,” do you think that she is talking to you?  We have a good mix of people on different career paths and at different stages of those careers in our class; I’m curious about what the multiple “audience” of our class finds relevant (or not) for our own work.

How do think of yourself in relation to your own writing?  Is Fitzpatrick’s diagnosis that “we” tend to semi- or unconsciously regard ourselves as Authors (with a capital A) applicable to you?  Or do you think of yourself in a different mode?  Does your self-identification change based on the type of writing you are doing, i.e. traditionally-published scholarly work, essays for classes, blogging, or content you post on personal and/or professional social media accounts?

Which of the models that Fitzpatrick suggests as possible solutions to the Problem do you think sound most promising?  What flaws seem most worrying?  Can you think of anything else that we might try?

Multimodal Stuff:  Do you make it?  Do you want to make it?  What (if anything) might you do (or do you do) with it?

How does Fitzpatrick’s Conclusion – a case study of her own book’s publication process – affect your evaluation of her argument?  Based on the evidence she provides, would you consider taking a similar approach if/when you write a book?


In order to fool around with interactive nonfiction, I did Public Writing Audit #2 in Twine! Here it is.


I wanted to do something fancy where it would add up the total number of words in the order that you click on each post, but that wasn’t happening just yet.

Note: this doesn’t include Tweets, which have dropped off sharply on my end as the semester’s progressed due to not paying my phone bill…..