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The Digital Classroom: First Encounters

How viable is the digital classroom?

I’ve only ever approached this question from the perspective of a student. For me, it’s always been a personal question rather than a policy decision. It’s taken four (four!) years of college to get things straight: will I really be able to devote my full attention to a lecture or discussion with a laptop in front of me? If the lecture is slow, will I be better off staying awake by accessing more information channels, or watching my mind start to wander as I try to focus on just one?

This semester, though, I’ve found myself on the other side of things. For the past few weeks, I’ve been working as a teaching assistant for a class at Harvard Extension School. It’s about Technologies and Politics of Control, and offered in association with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society (also home to the Digital Natives Project). Tonlycompletely digital; many of them are taking the class at a distance. In order to instruct those students with some level of parity, we’ve been using all sorts of strategies. In the process, some of the ideas and suspicions I’ve had about the digital classroom are quickly confronting reality. Incidentally, so am I. A few things I’ve learned so far:

If students are motivated, the digital classroom is quite viable. For the two hours every week that class is held in person, it’s my job to man the webcast (switching between computer-view and professor-view as needed) and watch the question tool, adding discussion points as they surface. The experience is completely engrossing for me; there are so many streams of information to manage at once. In a way, that multi-stream experience more closely matches the way I navigate the Internet on my own time. Managing 3+ information sources at once means that even when an attention switch occurs, it’s just switching to a different channel on the same topic. The discussion in last week’s question tool (a kind of class-wide chat room, with threaded discussions) was incredibly lively. Cultivating information overload during classtime, as strange as it sounds, seems like a way to keep students more engaged.

Interestingly, though, the digital classroom seems to work better when it’s all-digital: webcasted lecture, live chat discussion, real-time class wiki updates. The dozen or so students who sit in the physical classroom every week all bring their laptops, and seem to take notes assiduously. But they’re far less likely than the distance students to participate in the question tool, or add links to the class wiki during class itself. It’s the students who are sitting at desks—at home or staying late at work—who add the most to the online discussion. The goal of providing so many rich channels for real-time online interaction, after all, was originally to make the distance experience more closely approximate the in-class one. Ironically (and promisingly, at least for the future of distance education), I feel like I know the question-tool students and their interests better than the students I meet in class. In class, it’s a fleeting hello. Online, it’s lively discussion, affirmation, debate. The difference is striking.

A corollary of the all-digital advantage is the advantage that comes from having teaching staff dedicated to the digital front. I’m one of two teaching assistants for the class; it also has two professors, and enjoys substantial support from the rest of the staff and fellows at the Berkman Center. In terms of student-to-teacher ratio, even counting distance students, that’s close to 10:1. The class works, in part, because the teaching staff can pay so much attention to all the many online streams of information that are happening. Especially thinking about what the world of teaching is like in elementary, middle, and high schools—even in most colleges—you’d be hard-pressed to have that many teachers devoting their attention to a group of students all at the same time. It’s an anomaly. Discussion on the question tool is lively, because everyone’s involved, and there are two hours per week when everyone can involve themselves in it simultaneously. By contrast, my instant-messaging office hours are often quiet. When there’s no real-time event to pull students together, they often don’t pull together at all.

These are just some preliminary observations, but I hope more surface as the semester progresses. So, what do you think? In your experience, how viable is the digital classroom? And, more importantly, what practices and tools can improve its viability? I’m currently preparing for a panel at SXSW Interactive in a few weeks on a panel called Blackboards Or Backchannels: The Techno-Induced Classroom of Tomorrow. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the digital classroom and technology in education more generally; I’d be especially grateful for any reports from the front lines of trying to teach younger Digital Natives, outside of the college setting. If you’d be willing to share your observations in the comments, or even email me — at dkimball a t fas dot harvard dot edu — I would truly appreciate it.