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Step 1: Pedagogical goals and technical tools

Sometimes a pedagogical problem presents itself without an immediately obvious technological solution. One of us had the idea of creating an interactive repository of information and images related to an architectural walking tour his class took together, but he wasn’t sure what the best platform would be for such a project. He had considered setting up a private wiki or trying to adapt a WordPress blog, but both had severe limitations. In one of our group discussions, it was suggested that he use a platform like Omeka or Scalar, both of which focus on curating visual information. With so many new technological tools, part of the challenge becomes just knowing about them, evaluating their usefulness, and developing the skill set (sometimes significant) that would be required to not only use them, but also to teach their use.

When deciding to assign a digital project, therefore, it’s important to think about what the goal of the activity is, perhaps in ways that we don’t consciously do when we’re assigning traditional assignments.  Is the point of the activity to give students a new medium to express themselves that provides unique opportunities for thought or is the purpose to give students a fun way to supplement other activities that the are doing in class or is the purpose to teach digital literacies in addition to the content of the course? The answer to these and other questions will help you decide whether or not to assign a digital project, what type of project to assign, and what tools to use.

Trying the technology oneself beforehand is essential to understandings its limits and pitfalls. One of us, for example, initially, liked the idea of having students write a Bitstrip in a foreign language class.  She knew this tool would offer the students an opportunity to generate simple language, use new vocabulary, and hone their grammar.  This is particularly useful for the elementary and intermediate level students.  However, after trying the tool and and realizing that she couldn’t use it properly herself, she realized that she needed to learn more about it first, particularly because she couldn’t figure out how to integrate Arabic script. Knowing the limitations of a tool is essential to designing a successful assignment.

Step 2: Existing assignments

If you have an existing traditional writing assignment that you are interested in transforming into a digital assignment, you should first carefully consider the learning goals of the initial assignment and how these can (or should be) modified when the assignment becomes a digital assignment. The digital assignment may have some substantially different goals. For example, when one of us converted his short writing assignment into a digital assignment, he decided he wanted to provide students an opportunity to 1) demonstrate their creative approach to the specific course content; and 2) demonstrate facility with digital technology of their choice, goals that were not part of the original essay assignment. As in any assignment, you should be clear about what your expectations are for the digital assignment. In this case, he made it clear that he wanted the students to use the assignment as a means to express their creativity and they did not disappoint. In fact, students often spend much more time and energy on digital assignments than on traditional assignments, which suggests that they are more intellectually engaged with the course material through these kinds of assignments.

Step 3: Logistics

If you are requiring your students to use a digital tool for an assignment, think about how much training they require. For example, do you need to schedule a training session outside of class or can you cover what they need to know in a 15-minute introductory session? Are there freely available tutorials on the web? Do students need to signup for software? Is it free? Do students need specific hardware? Do all students have access to a suitable device? If not, how will you make it available to them? Think also about the longevity of the tool itself. If you plan to use the tool in a future class, will the technology still be available? What is the likelihood that it will have changed in ways that alter the goals of the assignment or the ease with which students will be able to complete the assignment?

Think about how students are going to submit the assignment to you and how you are going to archive the assignments. Will the assignment be available for you to review in a few months time? Does it need to be? Tweets, for example, disappear quickly – you may need to develop a way to archive tweets throughout the semester. You may also want to think about a way to digitally archive student projects so that they are available for your teaching portfolio or to serve as sample student works for the future.

Step 4: Grading

Think about the way that you will grade the assignment well in advance. Provide this information to students as early as possible so that they’re aware of the parameters of the assignment since using new digital tools for academic work may not be familiar to them. Having a grading rubric that clearly describes (for you and for students) what criteria will be used to grade the assignment and sharing it with the students in advance is a good idea.

It would be a good idea to treat the assignment like an extension of students’ learning, even if it’s just giving them the opportunity to explore new technologies. In deciding how to grade the assignment, think about learning goals just as you would with a traditional assignment so that students understand that the assignment is worthwhile. You might, for example, build into the assignment the process of learning the tool, especially if it is an uncommon one, and encourage students to document their failures.

Step 5: Assessing the assignment’s success

After completing the assignment, assess how well it went and what you can do to improve it during the next iteration. Consider surveying the students about their experience. Did they feel prepared? Did they understand the goals of the assignment? Did they have adequate time to complete the assignment? How might you address any problems that arose? In terms of your own pedagogy, think about whether the assignment worked as you intended. What challenges did you encounter that you hadn’t expected? What was the root of the challenge and how might you address it in future iterations of the assignment?

Sample digital assignments

This post grew out of a Digital Pedagogy Faculty Learning Community attended by Ron Buckmire, Hanan Elsayed, Edmond Johnson, Krystale Littlejohn, and Adrianne Wadewitz and sponsored by the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Center for Digital Learning and Research.