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.

  • Ketsana

    "I hear from several colleagues who feel that going digital will take up too much of their time in their already busy schedules. "

    I am very familair with this statement. As an educator, I hear this many times. My response is always the same. Yes, it does take time in the beginning but it's worth the time commitment for any furtue classess. What you and the students get out of it is truly exciting!

  • marjuki

    that great

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  • Debra Ferdinand

    I endorse your reasons for going "all digital" when teaching Composition students. As an international student who studied in the U.S. (Assoicate's to Doctorate), I can testify that it was less intimidating for me to receive my intstructor's feedback (writing) online or by soft-copy attachment than in a f2f session. I have also found as an instructor that digital feedback on writing takes less time as I do not have to explain all the corrections, but rather indicate what the main problem is and then just provide the online link to examples and explanations on how to fix it.

    Many thanks,

    Debra Ferdinand, PhD
    Educational Technologist
    School of Education
    University of the West-Indies

  • gxgraham

    I enjoyed reading your article and will use your idea of a guided peer review session. I think that'll be effective.

    In truth, I am one of those who resist going "all digital," not because I'm afraid of it, but because I think face-to-face is the best mode of communication and writing by hand has unique cognitive benefits.

    A couple of questions came to mind reading your article. First, does every student in your classes own a tablet or laptop? I teach at a medium-sized public university and probably 80% of my students own a tablet or laptop, creating access issues for anyone wanting to go "all digital"? As one who has taught at the Community College level, surely you know those students don't all own a laptop or tablet. There'll even be one or two without a smartphone.

    Second, are you really going "all digital"? That term creates a polarity that I think is unhelpful and causes teachers like me to get our hackles up. I realize you probably didn't write the headline and that headline writers are trying to grab readers' attention, so you may not have chosen the term "all digital"; however, you do state that "all the reading, writing, and process work is performed digitally". Really? Nothing is ever written on a piece of paper in your class? Nothing is ever printed out and read, even though half of students surveyed say they prefer printing articles out and reading them? I might come across as nit picking, but my point is that this language unnecessarily creates an either/or dichotomy, when in fact the best way forward is both/and. Don't you agree?

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  • Michelle Rhnea

    Nothing can replace face to face teaching and learning. However, I am a strong advocate for adding digital tools and resources to enhance writing. I use a blending learning approach as well. I'd like to ditto Ketsana, "Yes, it does take time in the beginning but it's worth the time commitment for any future classes. What you and the students get out of it is truly exciting!" Students construct and submit essays online, complete self reflection, conduct peer reviews, and this makes deconstructing and revising so much more effective. The results are amazing!

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  • Keri Lamle

    This is a very refreshing article. After reading the article, on Mind/Shift: Can University Professors Benefit from K-12 Progressive Teaching Tactics?
    I found myself wondering about how accurate the characterization of the university professor was.
    I was left with and uneasy feeling after reading the comparison. With 3 children in college, this depiction would have been enough to keep me tossing and turning wondering about all those $$ going for tuition.
    The Mind/Shift post appeared to be an over generalization of university professors as opposed to K-12 teachers; unfortunately, I lack the background in secondary education needed to refute the depiction presented. This was compounded by my previous experiences with the material on Mind/Shift. Normally, I have believed the articles to be a fair representation of both sides.

    Then I stumbled on this post. Just what I needed, proof positive of professors practicing "progressive teaching tactics". I will be bookmarking this particular post just incase I ever find myself needing some assurances of technology savvy professors.

    Thank you again!

    • Lynda Haas

      Thank you!

  • Keri Lamle

    I apologize for my blunder and offer the following correction.

    Correction: I lack the background in post* secondary education.

    My only excuse…I also seem to lack the sleep needed for accurate communication

  • Judy L

    If the objective of a writing course is to develop the student's writing skill set, how can that happen without students writing? Digital or not, these are techniques for communicating the writing skills. It's still the writing that has to be practiced.

  • Nate branson

    I am a Millennial. I'm 30 years old. I think that some of the push to "go digital" only applies to teacher who are Baby Boomers and older Generation X teachers. No to put people in a box. I often encourage my students to unplug——because technology is so integrated into their lives already. I don't think teachers will have to persuaded to "go digital" who are under the age of 35. (We've been given the fancy name "digital natives.")

    So in some ways, I already think digitally and there isn't a need to talk me out of doing things online. It already makes sense. But what I fear for my students——is that they won't know much about what an non-"digital" life looks like. That's what scares me.

  • Alexander E. Timothy

    Well I'm 50, but believe going digital is inevitable. Anyone who uses a cell phone is already going digital. I teach in a university where most of the students haven't an l-pad or android phone. However, I encourage them to start from the phone apps like 2go, whatsap to access and utilise the digital highway. I've not developed enough confidence and neither does my environment make it very easy to go all digital, but I'm in love with the possibilities.

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  • Sheri Evans

    Humans obtain between 60-90% of communication (information) through rich communication medium (face-to-face). Yes, the 'eyes are the window to the soul' and when we come face-to-face with others we gather information about them that is not achievable via technology – for example, are they genuine? can I trust them? We also learn to interact in a relatively 'safe' environment in the real classroom. What goes on in the classroom, stays in the classroom. People can experiment with ideas and behaviours that might not otherwise be possible either online or in their normal lives (home/ workplace). People can practice 'speaking up', 'asking questions' and making contributions to the conversation / intellectual debates in a way that might not be possible in certain organisational/ cultural/ domestic situations. As humans we are prone to making incorrect attributions about others (stereotyping, sexism, racism, ageism, etc), 'judging the book by its cover' and we can become distracted by a persons' charisma, by their 'beautiful' face/ body, or be distracted by 'disruptive' classmates in face-to-face situations (although I have experienced all of these in university online courses as well). There are, like most things, benefits and disadvantages. Coming face-to-face with a learned person can be daunting, but they can also help you grow intellectually and professionally if you are willing. If you build positive ongoing face-to-face contact, a strong professional relationship can develop for the benefit of both – mentoring, co-researching/ co-producing. While teaching/learning is transitioning from offline to online we cannot determine what is being lost because no one really knows the full extent of what face to face communication impacts upon, and those in the transition have the benefit of both environments. Once fully online, if that ever occurs, then those who live in such a world won't know what it was like to have face-to-face contact/ communication, just as today's cellphone users don't know what it was like to write a letter and wait for a reply in the mail on a stage coach/ horse that arrives next week/ month (and the excitement of writing and receiving a well constructed handwritten letter). Fronting up to your 'scary' teacher to hear why you didn't pass is tough, but getting sacked for not performing in the workplace, when you have a car/ house/ education loan to pay off, maybe kids etc etc, is much worse, but eventually someone, somewhere, somehow, whether it is online or offline is going to tell you that you are no good at something and you are going to have to deal with it. You can get depressed and take pills, and/or go to an online course to avoid having to interact face-to-face with your teacher or you can reevaluate why you failed and make a plan to do better. Mind you, your teacher online might also fail you, its just done electronically and unemotionally. Face to face you and your teacher will 'feel' that emotion – and your teacher will probably be motivated to give you genuinely valuable feedback, you might come to realise the teacher cares about your education. Either way, it is vital to realise that failure is your opportunity to begin again more intelligently. Avoiding the risk of failure is to avoid learning and growing. Understand that failure provides us with the seed of success, it pushes us to do better than we did before, it makes us work harder for the things we cherish or alternatively it forces us to re-evaluate and redirect our efforts towards those things that we are prepared to work hard for and to find out where our abilities lie and how to make the best use of them. Sheri

  • It is doubtlessly an era of technology and digitally approached way of working is now not a surprise at all! With sorts of devices being introduced, there has been a definite decrease in manual working; yes, truly amazing making the students understand in the most presentable way (with a quick understanding too).

    Digital literacy in composition pedagogy seems pretty much interesting to both learners and experts. It has not only eliminated needs of paper, pen (replaced with a digital way of writing & reading), but also has somewhat traced those with real interest in studying (who once appeared with less interest in doing so); speed, face-to-face learning environment, increased interactions (amongst students) and a strong database maintained through – is a real charm of going digital!