5 Things to Do When You Teach Digitally

My first time working synchronously in Google Docs felt like a caffeine buzz. Cursors flew about madly on the page. My sentences were completed before I could finish them. New ideas sprung fully formed onto the page as I struggled to formulate my own.

My first Twitter hashtag chat was the same. Words rolling over me, voices crowding my feed, jubilant in their display and conversation, threading out a million different ways behind the screen. I remember struggling to make sense of it all, to not become overwhelmed by the clamor and ring, and to respond as much in kind as my alarmed mind and slow fingers would allow.

The web is an environment where play and chaos are always imminent (and immanent). Teaching there is not unlike rousting math equations from kindergartners on the jungle gym. The permeability and presence of the Internet’s digital tools can make attention to a single task, a single question, a single conversation feel impossible. Our students are lively on the web (even if they aren’t lively in our online courses); they tweet and post and like and favorite as butterflies tasting pollen in a field of poppies.

Many teachers, when first approaching digital environments, respond to this infinite variety by trying to shackle it. The LMS works to confine the online learning experience within certain specific walls. As I said in “What Is Digital Pedagogy?”:

"LMSs have more than snack-sized shortcomings, but the biggest dilemma they pose is that they create the illusion of digital learning without really ever encountering the Internet. Like all illusions, this is misleading, because digital learning (and by necessity, digital pedagogy) takes place all over the web.”

This being the case, our pedagogies and students are better served with flexibility, with embrace, rather than with calcified resistance.
There are many approaches that favor flexibility, and more than one way to embrace the raging tiger of the web. Here are five solutions that I’ve found work well. They are pedagogical in nature, and so must be translated by you into practical teaching methods.

1. Decide that failure is a win. The digital is a space that changes dramatically from semester to semester, sometimes day to day. New tools and new ways of operating (new operating systems, updates to new tools) abound as quickly as we hit refresh. We must learn—and we must teach—discernment within the digital environment. And since we cannot contain our students (or face it, ourselves) on the Internet, we must prepare them to fail now and then. To try tools that don’t work, to discover virality as an accident, to become overwhelmed from time to time in order to struggle their way into understanding. Failure is vitally important to all learning, and especially digital learning.

2. Let tools guide the learning. Many teachers new to digital learning insist on teaching content and not tools. That’s all well and good until our students hit the bricks of the real world and need to know how to use digital tools in their lives. Keep in mind that the tools themselves are neutral, and only become active when we put them in students’ hands. So, put them in students’ hands and then see what comes next. Allow students to figure out the tools, to break them, hack them, use them to their own purpose. Give them an iPad and let them make a movie. Give them Twitter and let them hold discussions. Hand them WordPress and watch them form a company. Letting tools guide the learning is letting students guide the learning.

3. Break your lesson plan. Ultimately, the digital will overwhelm. Putting an agenda to a hashtag chat will fail. In all learning, but especially in digital learning, the lesson plan can become a choke chain. So, when we approach planning a lesson (or a syllabus), we must be prepared to change our expectations for the content and the outcome. Setting objectives is fine (and in some cases bureaucratically necessary), but plan to exceed them, or plan to come to them in a new way. Scaffolding is so last year.

4. Plant seeds and wait. Digital learning is learning in the wild. At its best, it is learning as learning happens in early childhood—spontaneous, reactive, experimental, and full of discovery. Traditional “point-A-to-point-B” pedagogy falls flat in so dynamic an environment. What’s needed is “point-A-to-point-78-to-point-banana” pedagogy. To foster this kind of experimentation takes openness, kindness, and patience. It’s improvisational and responsive pedagogy that succeeds best in digital learning.

5. Get down on the floor and play. The Internet has made us all students these days. Don’t be afraid of this. When we’ve spent so many years teaching, we get to where we think we know our stuff. We know what works. We know how to teach Shakespeare, and physics, and biomechanics, and business, and philosophy. And we do. The digital won’t necessarily add to our knowledge, but it does ask us to reconsider our approach. It offers options we never had before, and makes even the most seasoned of us new teachers. So, engage with it, play with it. Our hands should be as digitally dirty as our students’ hands.