As part of my attempt to shift my assignments to a more project based learning approach and increase student choice I created an assignment that, quite frankly, kept me up at night. Although several of the other assignment choices used in my 2018 POLI 370 (Peacebuilding) course were new to me and thus also experimental, they only involved 4-5 students each. Thus, if things had gone wrong with any of these assignments, I would have a small number of unhappy students who might therefore leave the course with a diminished learning experience. This assignment, however, would be undertaken by over a third of the class and thus if things did not go to plan I would have over 30 students miffed at me and unlikely to have learned the important lessons I hoped they would acquire from this project.
Beyond the number of students that could be impacted, why was this particular assignment causing me a disproportionate amount of anxiety? One word. Technology. I hate it. I am not good at it. It is my Achilles Heel. I am ‘That Prof’ who considers it a huge success if I can get my PowerPoint slides up and running at the beginning of a lecture without help from a TA or student. If I can properly embed and then get a video to play within my PowerPoint slides, instead of having to close-file-open-browser-play-video-switch-back-to-PowerPoint, I do a little dance (in my head) and look around the room to see if anyone else is impressed with my technological prowess. Below I describe, what I did, the reasons it was successful and how it has impacted my thoughts about technology in the classroom moving forward.
What I did: The Peace Database (Begins! And Continues!)
One of my aims in many of my upper year courses is to try and get my students to see themselves as producers of knowledge, not just consumers. At the same time, whilst there are many examples of databases and resources on conflict, war and violence, notably fewer are more squarely focused on ‘peace’ (with some notable exceptions of course). Putting these two together, I decided to have my students begin to create a Peace Processes and Policies Database (okay, not the most creative of names, but as noted, I had other issues keeping me up at night). In groups of 2-3 students had to work to create an interactive timeline using ‘timeline js’ of a given conflict and peace process as well as create and embed (electronically) a series of analytical pieces and resources that form part of the qualitative, comparative database.
The goal was to create something both technologically and visually appealing, that would also be useful to peace researchers wanting to engage in comparative analysis between cases of peace negotiations or wanting to go more in depth on a single case.
Below is a screenshot of one of the cases covered last year (note the site is still under construction and I’ll release the database this spring). This coming semester, I will be adding to the Peace Database by having student groups work on a different policy area—Security Sector Reform. I will be following a similar model—with student engaging analysis of the policy area in ways that allow for comparison. Since timelines for the countries are already in place from last year’s students, students will instead be thinking spatially alongside their database entries, creating a visual story of this policy area alongside their written analysis. To do this, student will be working with ‘Story Map js’ to show, geographically where troop/rebels were positioned whilst also marking out the relevant sites where SSR programming occurred.
All along the ways I received incredible support from my university in the form of one-on-one support from UBC’s ArtsISIT unit. Here is a list of all of the big things their staff did for me (I’ve lost track of the little things)
- Created the site based on my vision and specifications
- Embed editing access into my course website so student groups could populate their entries
- Create a step by step instruction sheet for students
- Run a training session for students in my lecture
- One-to-one trouble shooting for me and individual students when problems arose (particularly around the due date!)
The project was only possible and a success because of the infrastructure and people around me at UBC. Thanks to them, I believe the project was a huge success. Students’ individual reflective writing at the end of term demonstrated not only how the project deepened their knowledge of concepts and cases of formal peace talks, but were also full of wonderful examples of self-reflection on personal and professional growth. Nonetheless, there were some assumptions made that made the project run not so smoothly.
Faulty assumptions about young people’s technological fluency
So why do this to myself? Beyond wanting to address my own personal phobias of technology and become more adept at integrating technology in the classroom (because, well, 2018), I have had much informal feedback from my Arts students over the years lamenting at their own discomfort with technology. I (along with many of my colleagues) have come to realize that we are making faulty assumptions about many of our students’ technological fluency, and I believe in a small way, this project helped address this.
Whilst it is unlikely that students will ever use the two programs they used to populate this database, what I did hear from students in their final reflections was that the project gave them confidence in trying out new technologies more generally. There was a de-mystification of technology to be sure—several students had initially thought that I would be asking them to do coding in order to create the database. Realizing that they can use and create technological deliverables without such skills was a major win in these cases.
Do as I say, not as I do
Admittedly, I was useless when it came to helping students trouble shoot the technological side of the project. There is zero chance this assignment would have worked without the support I mentioned above. When the troubles with timelines and lost text (inevitably) occurred—well if I had been on my own, I would have just told my students to submit everything they had in a Word document or something else terribly old-fashioned. That would have been the extent of my trouble shooting. I also did not attempt to build a timeline or enter text as my students were doing. Not only did this limit my ability to help them with their assignments, but also meant that the whole process did very little to help me overcome my fear of technology.
Recasting Technology in the Classroom: Students as producers as opposed to only users
What this experiment in assessment has really done for me is shifted how I think about ‘technology in the classroom’. I feel as though most of my thinking and exposure to this area has focused what technology I as an instructor integrated into my classes in order to teach my students more effectively. However, what this project reminded me is that integrating technology into the classroom is not just about how we as instructors use technology to teach our material better. Whilst developing experience with augmented or virtual reality, classroom response systems such as IClicker or TopHat is one area of technological learning innovation that we rightly engage in to ensure student learning, it is only one side of the coin.
Mastery of a new technology on the instructor side is only one option. Technological innovation in the classroom can, and in my opinion should, include providing our own students with the opportunity to learn and master new technological skills. My above reflections on assumptions about student fluency with technology have really driven me to continue making this database assignment a core feature of the course moving forward.
Of course, I am not suggesting we turn our Arts courses into IT training sessions and I too am resistant to pressures that seek to turn our courses into a series of ‘employability targets’ that require us to tick ‘professional skills development’ boxes. However, if we think about how we read, write, talk, argue, research, analyze, disseminate findings as *insert your disciplinary identity here* so much of this requires mastery of a range of new and emerging technologies. If our goal is to not only teach our students the content of our discipline but also the practices of our discipline, then we have much work to do and a range of possibilities available to us that allow our students to learn content through and alongside, the development of technological skills.