March 10th, 2014

Four Reasons Going All Digital Can Improve the Quality of Higher Education


I’ve been teaching composition at the college level since 1984, and have had the pleasure of working with students at several different institution types: a community college, a private college, and a research university. For 10 years, I served as writing program administrator at the University of California, Irvine, responsible for facilitating required first-year writing courses and for training new graduate students to teach composition. The first-year writing class is truly a rite of passage, a common experience for thousands of college students across the country every year.

Increasingly, part of that experience is learning to use technology as a foundation for the writing process. Since the national council of Writing Program Administrators published student learning outcomes that include “Composing in Electronic Environments,” I’ve been experimenting with ways to include digital literacy as part of my composition pedagogy. For the past four years, I’ve conducted my writing classes with no papers or books—although the classes are “traditional” in that we meet at the same time each week in a classroom, all the reading, writing, and process work for the class is performed digitally.
In a typical class, students come with their laptops or tablets and I project from the classroom podium an assignment they previously completed online—sometimes it’s a grammar module from McGraw-Hill’s Connect Composition, other times it may be a peer review activity they completed online before class or paragraphs from a collaborative project they’ve been writing in groups.

My own reasons for going digital
Educators all have their own reasons for going digital, or at least incorporating certain elements of digital into their classrooms and curricula, including perceived cost reductions and eliminating the need for excessive materials. For me, there were four main reasons:

  1. Digital tools can enhance the face-to-face classroom experience. Since I teach composition, the time we spend in a classroom is always structured as a writing workshop. I tell students to imagine they are on a team and when they come to class, it’s like our team practice. For example, while working on a specific writing assignment, I’ll ask for volunteers who want to get some feedback on a draft; I’ll then post the volunteer’s writing sample on the screen for all to see, and we’ll go through a guided peer review session. Incorporating technology in the classroom doesn’t render the role of the instructor obsolete—it’s just the opposite: technology can extend the teacher’s role as a facilitator to keep students engaged. Going digital allows greater opportunity for students to collaborate, and for instructors to provide feedback in an effective and instantaneous fashion.
  2. New technologies such as adaptive learning can help English language learners get up to speed. Students come to my classes with an array of preparation when it comes to English language abilities. Approximately 74 percent of our students at UCI speak a second language, even though most of them were born in the U.S. With varying experiences with writing instruction in high school, many come to college with high GPAs, but a limited ability to write complex and sophisticated English sentences. The wide variety of language preparation of our students is the reason I first adopted McGraw-Hill Education’s LearnSmart Achieve—an adaptive and interactive tool that diagnoses what a student knows and doesn’t know and then creates an interactive assignment that is individualized to that student. Because the information covered is tailored to students’ abilities, they gain confidence about what they know and more fully understand what material needs more time and attention. This personalization has been highly successful for both the students and for me, as I can now see where my students are in their learning as a class and individually.
  3. Using a digital platform insures that students are interacting with assigned material. Going digital has given me confidence that all of my students will be actively engaged in my class for two reasons. First, I know that students have actually purchased the textbook. As the price of print books increased, I noticed that more and more students did not purchase a required textbook—they’d try to share with a roommate, or they’d purchase a used copy from someplace and it would be the wrong version. But with a digital platform, students have to purchase access because much of their graded work will be turned in there.

    The other reason that going digital gives me confidence is that the digital content itself is interactive and multimodal; instead of assigning pages from a book and hoping that students will read them (or having to quiz them to insure that they did), they now interact with the material I assign, which means they may be reading a page or watching a video or listening to aural comments—in each case, they will interact by clicking on response buttons or inserting information into text boxes.

  4. Going digital means a wealth of data about what students are learning. One of the most important reasons I believe digital is the future is that it simplifies the process of identifying and assessing learning outcomes. Today, I think there is a much greater push for assessment than we’ve ever had in higher education, and not only for accreditation. Several programs are conducting assessment projects for their own curricular goals.

    Using online platforms makes available a wealth of data, which in turn enables instructors to be more effective. For example, I am able to analyze student performance using a number of different data cuts, which helps me tailor my instruction to better meet the needs of the students in a particular class. One section may need more help in one area than another section—having the detailed reports gives me knowledge about my students I’ve never had before.

How to Get Started
I hear from several colleagues who feel that going digital will take up too much of their time in their already busy schedules. They’re fearful of unfamiliar methods, that technology glitches will disrupt the course, and that students may not really understand how to use the technology. Although there is a bit of a time commitment for the initial set-up, I’ve found that once you have become familiar with the platform and used it for one class, it drastically cuts down your time investment for future classes. And don’t forget—the technology platform can deliver pedagogies (like adaptive, individualized learning sessions) that simply do not exist in a non-digital world.

If you have the slightest inkling of going digital but have some reservations, my recommendation is to take baby steps. You don’t need to convert your classroom overnight— implement tools when you see that they can help facilitate particular pedagogical goals. Also, student response to digital pedagogy is quite often a reflection of their instructors’ attitude. If you are excited and enthusiastic, and thus focus on the benefits of using technology, your students will be excited as well.

Dr. Lynda Haas teaches in the Department of English at the University of California – Irvine.