Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Digital Ecologies Across Contexts

Because the labor of composition is primarily cognitive in nature, it is easy to begin thinking the compositionist as some sort of brain in a jar, divorced from any physical context. Throughout the the text, DeVoss has done a wonderful job of thinking digital writing beyond alphanumeric graphemes, and accounting for the manner in which other modalities of communication can be utilized in the compositional process. In chapter 3, “Ecologies for Digital Writing”, DeVoss situates the cognitive work of digital composition within a variety of environmental contexts which she terms “ecologies”. The ecological metaphor is perhaps useful insofar that it foregrounds the embodied nature of all composition. Indeed, DeVoss does just this as she attends to the physical, institutional and online environments which academic digital writing often takes place. As I do not find much of the chapter problematic, I will attend to how digital writing practices seem to transfer across institutional contexts, and then consider problems which might emerge that are largely institutional in nature. 

The chapters opening anecdote dealing with Renee Webster’s oral personal narrative was interesting. As Webster points out, this project helps the students begin to “perceive themselves as composers” with  “agency and responsibility” as they communicate with an audience. To my knowledge, none of us are working in elementary education, however, as Jamilla pointed out, engendering students with a feeling of “agency” should be a perennial concern for educators. It’s also worth noting that the Wheatley lab conforms to the layout in Figure 3.2. (DeVoss 69), and the physical environment is meant to facilitate similar outcomes. Similarly, Webster’s work speaks to a variety of other concerns in secondary and higher education environments in ways unaccounted for in the text (for obvious reasons), indeed, our own digital story project is very similar.

As a number of students in our class commented, such projects, by thinking composition beyond alphanumeric literacy, can effect the process in productive ways. Rob mentioned feeling liberated from the encumbrance of the blank computer screen by the oral mode. Although Webster’s students wrote their narratives and then remediated them to an oral mode, I know that I personally went off of my script — feeling the same liberation that Rob mentioned — and veered off in interesting directions I may not have otherwise. Christie rightly pointed out that projects such as this function to emphasize that academic writing can be understood as engagement in a conversation with other academics. This is crucial as writers advance, as all too often students seem to understand academic writing as an agonistic endeavor. Moreover, projects like this can defamiliarize the process and  foster a more focused revision process. I believe Tim mentioned that because he was quoting sources which were not alphanumeric such as visual and audio, he reflected more deeply on the compositional choices he made. 

The above suggests how effective engagement with an embodied multimodal composition  can be across a variety of institutional contexts. However, the relationship between the embodied and digital is not completely one way. It’s worth noting that the entire metaphor for the digital here is spatial with words such as “space” and “forum” used to describe the digital environment. as the policy for engaging in the digital environment could just as easily function as a policy for engaging with peers in the physical classroom space. In light of this, it might be worth thinking the digital environment the way we think “play” environments, as low risk spaces in which students might practice optimal behavioral models in preparation for “real” encounters.

But beyond the core educational goals, the language of discourse and the space in which learning takes place, there are key differences in pedagogical approach and policy constraints which vary depending on the context. A crucial difference between K-12 and post-secondary education seems to be the latter’s aversion to flipping the class and making in-class time a workshop — I believe Erin has recommended flipping as a workaround in a variety of situations. Joe pointed out that the allocation of class time to familiarize himself with the technologies interface, as well as, the affordances of the digital platform he utilized to compose his project was helpful. Although this is a common practice in K-12 classes, because of time constraints, this is rare in undergraduate post-secondary contexts. Although in our class — which is concerned with the digital — we have made use of lab work, it is also rare in graduate level courses as well. I wonder what else professors might stand to gain from considering K-12 pedagogy. A recurring concern in our class has been the legal and policy elements that define the various institutional contexts (both real and imagined) in which we find ourselves. In the case of Webster, she needed to secure consent from parents to engage in digital learning with her students (DeVoss 62). As Jamilla pointed out recently, before parents can even be contacted, one needs to secure the permission of the institution which they are a part of. This seems to be getting overlong. I hope you all find something interesting to engage with, as my aim in paraphrasing your observations and concerns is to communicate how interesting and engaging I have found all of your contributions thus far in the seminar, and attempt to return the favor. Thank you.


  1. Darisse, you offer a lot of insight to what the third chapter of DeVoss’ work touches upon. What I found most interesting - and I know that I have been repeating this in many of these blog posts - is the time taken to properly educate and prepare students to use technologies to complete assignments.

    Our digital stories project is a great example of taking time out of class to practice using new programs, not only for our own benefit to test the waters on our own, but because we were offered past examples and because Alex was working on the assignment alongside us. He was completing the activity, just as we were. I think that students respond well when they see that teachers are willing to do the work that they are assigning. It almost offers a deep sense of camaraderie that makes the assignment more of a group effort. Suddenly, this is no longer an assigned project, but an experience that we are all going through together.

    I’m not sure if I mentioned this in a previous post, but I am actually a part of the Secondary Education MEd program. Interestingly enough, many of our classes are actually spent going through programs, tools, and practices during class time. For instance, a mandatory class within my program is Inclusion and Classroom Equity, in which we spent weeks in the computer lab learning about and developing our digital stories about what equity means to us. (For what it’s worth, we were learning about them in the light that this mode might be used to help students express themselves in new ways, abiding by the UDL guidelines, help ESL students, and even help students with certain IEPs that may have issues using written forms.) However, this is just one example of many.

    Considering the program is geared towards learning how to educate grades K-12, I definitely see how professors integrate practices that are common for middle and high schools into these graduate-level courses. Also, I see the benefit of them. I understand the mentality of assigning a project to graduate students without actually going through the motions of demonstrating, practicing, or even fully explaining in some cases what it is the professor is looking for. We are graduate students and are expected to figure it out. However, and we see this in K-12 classes, the time taken out of class to show and practice with certain tools or resources is almost essential in most students being proficient and comfortable using them in the future.

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  3. Darisse, you mention some interesting points about this chapter in relation to our previous class discussions. I completely agree that these digital contexts can help to defamiliarize the compositional process as a whole, which, as we have seen, can bring beneficial results. As the book mentions, even something as simple as an audio recording can allow for a unique experience with a familiar task, such as a new understanding of craft and style. I can still remember the first time I encountered “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which my teacher had played aloud as an audio-recording on Halloween. Encountering this particular story through this particular context really highlighted the significance of Poe’s writing for me and I don’t think I would have appreciated this story to the same extent if I had read it on my own.

    Similarly, because our digital story assignment required an unfamiliar channel of communication, like Tim, I became more conscientious of the choices I made and therefore remained engaged throughout the entire learning process. I think that this assignment would be particularly helpful for students who are hesitant writers. By providing students with an unfamiliar communicative tools, such as Imovie, all students are forced to take on the role of the “novice learner,” and those who dislike writing may perceive this as an opportunity to, in a sense, “start over.” Although there are many ways to collaborate through writing, hands-on practice with unfamiliar technologies (such as Imovie) are equally collaborative, and, as Brandon said in his comment, these instances can serve to create a deeper sense of “camaraderie” within the classroom environment. Students may even rely more heavily on the suggestions of others in these instances compared to the comments made in a conventional compositional settings, which would serve to reinforce the collaborative nature of composition as a whole.

    You mention Jamilla’s problems regarding the technological restrictions in her classroom and I found this to be a problem during my own classroom experience as well. This chapter mentions the “Maine Laptop program from the Maine Learning Technology Initiative” (70). In Maine public schools, every student is granted a laptop or ipad that they “own” for the entire school year. As someone who has attended a Maine public high school (for one year) and who completed student teaching at a Maine public middle school (for six months), I was impressed by this statewide initiative, however, it made no difference to the utilization of technological resources compared to any Massachusetts public school. In both instances, the technologies were minimally used (with emphasis on Google Classroom and Google Docs). I found that both teachers and students received inadequate training on the programs being used, and the time spent for this preparation was often considered to be a waste of time. This passive approach to digital learning, in turn, resulted in outdated restrictions, similar to those that Jamilla faced in her own classroom. As the book mentions, “the policies and procedures surrounding student Internet use need frequent review and revision.” (74) In order to keep up with the evolution of technology in relation to learning, the text suggests that colleagues seek to actively and continuously discuss digital writing, and share “useful tools that might be incorporated into the school-wide community.” (86) Because the teachers at these Maine public schools did not engage in such practices, the digital resources did increase not student engagement, and they did not serve as an advantage to the overall learning process. Hopefully, in the near future, public schools will begin to reassess the restrictions placed on technological access and, instead, consider how digital freedom may contribute to the engagement and overall success of our students.

  4. When talking about the physicalities of a digital space I found it interesting how they noted that the spaces often "facilitate individual, isolated learning that is the antithesis of the kind of collaboration and flexibility that networked computers can foster" (p. 66). It makes me think back to when classrooms were designed this way, when teachers were the primary focus of the classroom and desks were set apart in neat rows. Classroom set-ups have been revolutionized since then to incorporate more student participation and collaboration. It is interesting to me that digital spaces weren't automatically designed in the same way the modern classroom is, especially since a major component of using technology in classrooms is collaboration.

    As you mentioned in your post, teachers have very specific boundaries and rules they have to adhere to when using technology with students. We must first get administrator permission and then contact parents. It's a drawn-out process and sometimes, even after going through it, your idea still get shut down. It is a huge frustration for me because I want to do more online projects with my students but I am also worried about what my administrators and the parents will have to say about it. I was actually discussing the digital story assignment with the other 6th grade English teacher at my school and how I think it would make a great project for next year and the first thing she mentioned was what our principal would say about it. As an educator, it can be very discouraging to even think about doing these types of projects, knowing that there is a possibility your ideas will get shut down.

  5. "I wonder what else professors might stand to gain from considering K-12 pedagogy." I selected this line out of many provocative thoughts you offered here, Darisse. As Brandon, Amanda, and Jillian attest, we at the college level have quite a bit to learn from K-12 educators. What is perhaps most disturbing to me about college pedagogy is that there is no systematic teacher training or credentialing. It is true that some programs, like ours, offer this training, but because it is not required, some college instructors have not had any training at all. While this is a larger problem for the culture of teaching on college campuses more broadly, we can easily identify how this might affect digital pedagogy. Since this training is not required of college teachers, digital writing has little to no place in many college classrooms. On the other hand, because college teachers don't have resistant principals restricting what they do, college teachers also have more freedom and access to resources for digital pedagogy. This makes setting up a lab, such as ours, with an optimal pedagogical arrangement much easier than it is in many K-12 schools, which may not have the time, money, or space to devote to such environments. It seems to me that there has to be some happy medium between the "can't" culture of many K-12 schools and the "won't" culture of many colleges.

  6. When I began reading this chapter, I immediately thought of what you spoke about last semester about having students record their own voices, then transcribing that to paper, including all the "umms" and "likes" as a way to get students to see that a paper is part of an ongoing conversation. Thinking about that, as well as attempting this first project for this class, I can definitely see the benefits of using technology for oral narration.

    I agree that having in-class time to learn about the technology is essential to success. It allows the students to get somewhat familiarized with the programs being used, and also allows networking time between classmates who might have some suggestions already on how to best utilize the technology. Learning at home can be fun for some, but daunting and terrifying for others. The physical space for digital writing is an excellent mention in this chapter.

    When it comes to learning from K-12 pedagogy. I would love to believe that the education system acts as a unit that shares information with itself. I mean, it should be "One team, One fight," no? I say, as Joe mentioned, it is better to ask for forgiveness in this case than permission. Use the technology in class and then, after you can prove it is useful with actual results, go throw it in your institutions face, Good Will Hunting Style, "How you like them apples?!"

    1. Rob,
      I like your approach about using technology in the classroom and then proving it with actual results. Christie mentioned that some teachers my be hesitant to use technology due to fear of what may happen online. I agree with her that these are large concerns, but I think educators must find a way around these concerns. DeVoss et al. mention that many teachers create their own spaces for a strong digital equality and "many focus their efforts on publishing student work online; others are working to create networked environments for students to interact and share with each other" (83). This type of pedagogy is something students will get excited about, and it will eventually catch on.

      Teachers who are willing to explore digital tools and build a network with other likeminded teachers can push digital literacy into the forefront. Computers and online communication tools aren't going anywhere, so education is eventually going to have to catch up.


  7. Thank you for your insights, Darisse, and to all who have provided comments. I really became invested in this chapter, and thinking of digital writing in terms of physical and online space. The first "computer lab" in my elementary school was a tiny room connected to the library with about 10 computers in it. I remember the desks and chairs being too big for me. In middle school, the computer lab was made up of row after row of brand new colorful iMacs, which was great, but this "lab" was housed in an old garage from the old vocational school. In high school, labs were usually old classrooms that had been converted. None of these setups were very conducive to collaborative work. I agree with you about the Wheatley lab being an ideal set up (although I think it could be better). My Inclusion class last year took place in the new 1st floor lab in University Hall (Jamilla was in my class; the rest of you should check it out). There are round table "pods" with flexible computer screens and plenty of space. Students can project their work onto the large screen with the push of a button. I found that it made collaboration and tech projects really easy and fun.

    I absolutely agree with you about post-secondary teaching, although I do think that undergraduate and grad students are expected to be a lot more independent and in-the-know about digital spaces. However, that doesn't mean that these learning experiences wouldn't be incredibly helpful in college classrooms. My college experience was very low-tech. Most professors did not allow laptops, as they were distracting and created a physical barrier between students during seminars. Most of the time, we sat around a table with our books. I only remember one professor ever using Blackboard, and when my Italian professor assigned a video project, my class collectively panicked because no one knew how to do that. There definitely seems to be a large gap between K-12 and post-secondary in that regard. If I wasn't (like Brandon) in the MEd program, and was just going into teaching with my bachelors without any hands-on training with technology, I would be totally lost.

    Jillian's comment on the administration's restrictions on digital projects in K-12 schools brings up a very important concern. With all the resources out there, I wonder how often students are free to use them. I remember a student in my high school wanted to do her research paper on the gay rights movement, but because of filters and restrictions on certain searches, she couldn't access any information on the school computers. Similarly, student blogs and social media projects also get turned down due to concerns about cyberbullying, privacy, etc. Don't get me wrong, these are VERY important concerns for schools to take into account, especially for younger students. But I think sometimes we rob students of valuable tools and experiences due to fear. There must be a better way to keep students safe while also encouraging them to be part of the online world.

  8. I’m surprised by the findings of the study Amanda mentioned, because one-to-one would be a total life-changer for me, even coming from a mostly well-equipped district. What I really appreciated about this chapter is that it is an honest, practical assessment of many of the challenges educators face in effectively integrating technology into the classroom. It provided suggestions and best practices to address all three elements of the digital ecology—physical space, policy, and online space.

    In some sense, I think the physical environment that I work in reflects the ideal situation outlined in Figure 3.3 on page 69. We have a number of laptop carts that teachers can check out and bring to their classroom, which offers me a lot of flexibility in the physical layout. The bigger issue for me, however, is time for access, which DeVoss discusses on page 70. Again, I need to acknowledge that compared to most districts I should probably consider myself quite lucky, but I can’t help but notice that the process of “using” computers—both from a teacher and student perspective—is so far removed from the classroom routine. I need to book a cart many weeks in advance, supervise the distribution of the laptops, handle any issues with starting the computers up, and make sure the laptops are returned and plugged in before the bell rings. Compare that to how we use technology in our class sessions. When we need a computer for a task (say, to send Alex a link to our digital stories), we pull out the computer. When we’re done with the computer, we put it away. Many of the basic classroom functions that benefit from technology require having technology on hand and accessible at all times, and almost any university or workplace will function around that basic principle. Until K-12 schools have caught up with that standard, I think many teachers will remain resistant to bringing technology into their classrooms—it will remain a “separate” activity, rather than something that integrates naturally into the classroom. As DeVoss notes, mobile devices are beginning to help close this gap, but I don’t think they’ve quite caught up to the full-featuredness of a laptop.

    The one area where I felt that DeVoss’ ideology prevented her from engaging with the sort of common-sense, down-to-earth approach that characterizes the rest of the chapter is in the discussion of plagiarism and academic dishonesty. I agree whole-heartedly with dispelling the myth of the “solitary genius,” and I have a lot of reservations about software like Turnitin (which I’m required to use), but I think the cherry-picked quote from Steve Maher, which conflates cooperation and plagiarism, is a totally disingenuous representation of many teachers’ concerns. The cooperation described by Maher is the exact sort of activity that many digital classrooms encourage, and while I acknowledge the complexity of the situation described by the following example, I think it’s unfair to characterize teachers who use software like Turnitin as close-minded towards rethinking notions of authorship and intellectual property.

  9. Darisse,

    In response to the section of your blog post on lab work, I believe that more lab work would be done both K-12 classes and college classes if technology was present in daily classroom activities. In chapter three, the authors seem to promote the use of personal computer and mobile devices because “1 to 1 programs and mobile devices aim to make it possible for students to have a computer available to them at all times so that a computer - along with the tools and spaces accessible on the Internet - can be fully integrated into a learning environment” (70). I have enough computers in my classroom to accommodate all my students, so I use them pretty consistently. The larger English classes, however, teachers have to move students to the library or technology center for digital activities. This is one more step, and it often discourages the teachers from attempting the activity altogether, resulting in many falling back on more traditional bookwork. I agree with Amanda that simply ensuring each student has a computer does not automatically lead to digital literacy, but it is a first step so teachers are not initially deterred by space and equipment restrictions.


  10. I agree with the statements above, which echo the statements within Chapter Three; there are a multitude of manners in which we, as educators, can have students engage in writing through the avenues of technology. Unfortunately, most teachers are prone to use it in the typical regards. For example, students will only be permitted to use the internet on laptops/computers to do research on The Great Depression and then use a writing application, such as Microsoft Word, to write this five-paragraph research paper. Or at least, this is how I wrote and used technology in the past. Unfortunately, not much has changed since I first started using computers in fifth/sixth grade. The only difference is the variety of tools that we are allowing students to use isn't he creation of traditional papers. In the past, I might have used DogPile or Google, but now my students are able to use YouTube, Twitch, Wikipedia (sparingly at best), Google Scholar, etc. Or, in the past, I might have used Microsoft Word and written a paper on my own, but now my students are able to collaborate with one another or me on Google Documents. However, more often then not, students are still being asked to do the same writing assignment on similar applications.

    There is innovation in regards to the technology that we are using to complete tasks, but there is a lack of innovation in relation to the tasks and skills that students are being asked to showcase. Why? Where is the disconnection happening? How can we fix it and better engage students in their education without decreasing the rigor. Is there an actual medium that teachers students the skills that they need to be successful academically, and in relation to the ELA Common Core Standards or is it just digital narratives on top of digital narratives on top of digital narratives?

    How can I, as a teacher, find this medium when I am also trying to push students to meet their last year standards, and make a dent on their current standards? I love digital narratives, but I am tired of doing them and I do not want to continuously ask students to do them as well, especially since I am not sure that they actually help growth and development in common core standards or standards that are assessed in standardized testing. Perhaps, the more comfortable I become with standards, assessments, crafts, and technology, the better I will be able to create a digitally inclined, technology based, ELA classroom.

  11. As someone teaching in higher ed in a community college setting, I had a similar response as Alex about your comment that "A crucial difference between K-12 and post-secondary education seems to be the latter’s aversion to flipping the class and making in-class time a workshop." Most non-community college higher ed institutions hire faculty who have Ph.D's and are experts in their field, but don't seek out faculty who have teaching experience or any knowledge of pedagogy. Institutions that value research and have a "publish or parish" culture, make it difficult for professors who may want to invest time in exploring teaching pedagogy to do so. Then there are professors who have little interest in the teaching part of their jobs. But faculty in higher ed who do have teaching experience/pedagogy background, I would argue are more likely to approach teaching in a student-centered way -- by flipping their classrooms and providing space for workshopping -- including for supporting students with integrating technology into their assignments. In addition to the fact that I love the mission of community colleges and the student population, the value placed on good teaching practice as opposed to research and publishing (though these aspects are creeping into the community college as more Ph.D's can't find jobs elsewhere and there's pressure for community colleges to hire PhDs whether they can teach or not) is what has drawn me to the community college.

    Also as Alex mentioned, I very much value the academic freedom I have which means I don't have to deal with getting permission from higher ups to integrate into the curriculum social media or other technology considered "off limits" in the k-12 system. Even more important, so far, I don't have to deal with the testing that has taken over k-12 education systems (but that's unrelated to this topic).

    Basically, community colleges have the best of both worlds -- people who care about teaching and have the freedom to help students achieve learning outcomes in whatever way they want! On the other hand, while no teacher in this country is valued the way they should be, faculty at community colleges are paid the crappiest of all! Adjuncts especially!


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