Going Digital

CSt 1101: Introduction to Cultural Studies was a course that I created in 2001 as part of a civically engaged, interdisciplinary new program that taught students methods for uncovering the connections between culture and power in everyday life. Already a highly collaborative learning environment, in which media-rich assignments were hallmarks, the course and the professor were well-versed in how technological innovations could enhance learning.

So why mess with what works?

By 2012, the course had become stale.  Course goals of using cultural analysis to render the familiar strange, primarily through visual literacy, were being implemented and with good success.  But the passionately engaged students of the early 2000s were rare and far between.  I became curious about contemporary students and about making sure my learning outcomes would prove relevant as today’s undergraduates entered the workforce.

Through the unique integration of teaching and research supported by the OIT Faculty Fellowship program, I chose to implement pedagogical innovation through digital storytelling. My curiosity about contemporary students developed into a combination quantitative/qualitative study of what I’ve come to call students’ naturalized technology practices. As a cultural anthropologist and ethnographer, I wanted to bring my training to the cultural worlds of students’ new media engagements. I wanted to take my findings and use them to disruptively innovate in my classroom. I like the notion of “disruption” in this context, because in my experience, a powerful and useful pedagogical innovation must necessarily disrupt the familiar realm of the classroom – turning both students’ and instructors’ expectations on end.

I selected Digital Storytelling as my disruptive innovation, specifically the model of Digital Storytelling developed outside the academy at the Center for Digital Storytelling (long associated with civic engagement and creating tools for social justice activism). Visual literacy and civic engagement had remained fairly separate learning outcomes, and digital storytelling allowed me to bring them together. In the process of interpreting my research findings, I realized that while students were often technologically savvy, they enjoyed and often chose “low tech” over “high tech” when it came to learning environments. While digital story production included basic and simple video production skills, it also held a collaborative writing process at its core. Script-writing and the implementation of a Storycircle that moved script drafts into polished, powerful pieces proved highly effective teaching tools and ones that encouraged more of a “flipped” classroom.

Learning outcomes so far include skills in producing short video stories  – a skill that is highly applicable to today’s job market, as well as a deeper stake in the connections between cultural production and analysis. Another important outcome I’m finding is that students engage much more meaningfully in collaborative learning. An unintended outcome has been increasing the amount of workshop time in class and implementing a greater team-based pedagogy.  As a result, I am also now using a more hybridized approach to learning in which well-constructed homework assignments can do the work of previous lecture-discussion based modules. The overall benefits to students of the innovations yielded by this project are learning collaborative, team-based skills applicable to their future workplace, developing new skills in video production, and more one-on-one time with me as I learn to teach effectively in a workshop environment rather than a more traditional lecture/discussion format.