10 Things the Best Digital Teachers Do

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Image: circuit (CC licensed image by Flickr user Fio)

This column was co-written by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris.

Both of us came to digital teaching early but somewhat reluctantly. What we love most about teaching are the interactions with students, and 15 years ago we didn’t see clearly how adding digital tools would allow us to strengthen those interactions.

The truth is: Face-to-face teaching has no direct digital analogue. However, digital technology has helped us have different kinds of interactions, and with a much more diverse set of students. Likewise, using digital tools has allowed our students to interact with a global community.

The best digital teachers share certain perspectives on the use and abuse of technology in the traditional classroom or online; and most of those teachers have learned their techniques through experimentation and revision. Some of the best examples come from folks like Cathy Davidson, Bonnie Stewart, Dave Cormier, and Maha Bali, and can be found on blogs like Hack Education, Profhacker, and Keep Learning. We’ve also recently curated a collection of articles — by these and other teachers — on Hybrid Pedagogy into a Digital Pedagogy Primer. And the book we recommend most highly for getting started is Net Smart by Howard Rheingold.

Below are 10 things we’ve picked up from our dialogues with digital teachers.

  • 1. Don’t imagine that good citizenship is different from good digital citizenship. It is not a platitude to say that education has to be about kindness. We don’t believe there is some secret recipe for engaging with students effectively online, outside of basic respect, attention, and care.
  • 2. Be honest about who you are. How you present yourself online should not be all that different from how you present yourself in front of a chalkboard. Don’t filter more online than you do in front of a class of students. Make room in your digital presence for you at your most impromptu, quirky, and off-the-cuff.
  • 3. Hack. Any digital tool is useful only insofar as it is reusable. When we hack something, we reinvent its intended use. Digital literacy is less about following the rules of any given interface or app, and more about manipulating them. You do not need to understand the rules before you can break them. Start from a place of breaking.
  • 4. Grade less. Digital teaching should start with inquiry and investigation, not assessment. If your first concern when assigning a digital project is “How will I assess this?” then you are already off-track. Arrive at assessment, but leave space for tangents, exploration, and other lovely things along the way.
  • 5. Work with the materials at hand. Digital pedagogy doesn’t demand that we use shiny or newfangled technologies. The best digital tools for teaching are often the ones we are already using. Find out what your students use — you’ll have better luck reaching them if you meet them where they meet each other.
  • 6. Get a Twitter account. There is no evil in knowing how powerful social media works. Thousands of teachers use Twitter to discuss teaching methods, curriculum, and other digital tools. Find communities of practice. Learn to use hashtags. Better yet, get your students to teach you about hashtags. And encourage your students to join digital learning communities.
  • 7. The cake is a lie. Some digital advocates would have you believe you must make your classroom as digitized as possible, that you’ll fall behind if you don’t. In fact, digital tools only offer different opportunities for teaching and learning … not a new frontier.
  • 8. Don’t worry if you don’t know what “digital pedagogy” is. Teaching digitally doesn’t require a special vocabulary. Sure, do some research on the topic. But the best place to start is from a place of not-knowing, a place of fumbling and discovery. Stop worrying about whether your class is “blended,” “hybrid,” or “mixed-mode” and just teach.
  • 9. Keep your babies and the bathwater. Add one new digital activity, strategy, or technology to a class at a time, and not 12 at once. Invite your students to remix the syllabus in a Wiki. But don’t also introduce another unfamiliar platform and ask students to collaborate in groups of 12 on a video project, all while juggling monkeys. Really, sometimes one new thing is enough and will complement the stuff you’re already doing.
  • 10. Don’t let your learning management system tell you how to teach. The LMS can be rearranged like chairs in your classroom. Hacking digital tools should not be limited to apps and social media platforms. Approach every interaction with the digital as an opportunity to shape your teaching and to enable students to shape their own learning.

Get started by clicking a few links in this post (like this one) or elsewhere on the web. Then, work to build a network by joining online communities or by gathering together a group of teachers at your own campus. To delve deeper, look into the digital pedagogy track at DHSI or HILT, and consider attending Digital Pedagogy Lab, a five-day intensive institute launching this coming summer.

Oh, and:

  • 11. Improvise. Digital tools — and students using digital tools — will often surprise you with their possibilities. Let investigation guide your outcomes. Make room in your syllabus, curriculum, assignments, and activities for epiphanies. When we crowd a classroom with expectations, we suffocate everything good inside. If you expect 10 things, plan for 11.
Sean Michael Morris is a director at Hybrid Pedagogy.

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