The COVID-19 pandemic has unceremoniously thrusted into the spotlight the value of digital technology – in preserving work, play, and learning – at a time when physical interactions are constrained. Looking beyond the enormity of human sufferings and tragedies the virus brought in its way is a peek of a silver lining of its contribution to human civilization, and that is, to advance digitalization efforts, which might otherwise have taken decades. Having experienced digitally-mediated interactions in work, play, and learning, will we revert to the exact “old normal” after these tumultuous times? In terms of learning for example, can we take the best of what we have experienced in digital learning to complement the limitations of face-to-face learning, and to resist, as default, the familiar learning experience we have been schooled in and have, in turn, schooled others in?
In an environment where digital learning is now a non-negotiable, we have seen colleagues and fellow educators all around the world conducting many effective and inspiring digital learning experiences. Over the past weeks, the challenge of transforming our lessons into digital learning has made many teachers reflect on how best to exploit the affordances of the digital mode in designing learning experiences for our students.
Digital learning is not the same as face-to-face learning. We should not pretend it is, or strive, in vain, to make both the same. Just as there are things that can be done better in face-to-face learning, it is also useful to recognize that there are things that can be done better in the digital learning realm.
Designing Digital Learning
What are some things that we can do better in digital learning than in face-to-face learning? In my forthcoming book “Designing Learning with Embodied Teaching: Perspectives from Multimodality” (Lim, in press), I discuss how learning experiences can be designed with semiotic technologies, along with attention paid to the use of various meaning-making resources, such as the use of language, gestures, positioning and space in the classroom, that is a part of embodied teaching. The latter is a subject for another day.
The concept of “designing learning” was introduced in the seminal work of the New London Group (1996). They argued that teaching should be seen as design work and that teachers are to step into the role as designers of the learning experience. More recently, the role of teachers as designers of learning was discussed in a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) titled, “Teachers as Designers of Learning Environment: The Importance of Innovative Pedagogies” (Paniagua & Istance, 2018).
A designer of learning works with semiotic technologies. The term “semiotic technologies” (van Leeuwen, Djonov & O’Halloran, 2013; Djonov & van Leeuwen, 2020) refers to instructional tools and platforms that are both resources, and also social practices that we make meaning with. Semiotic technologies can include the choice of learning platforms, video conferencing software, and the various apps for learning. Just as a designer chooses her tool carefully based on knowing what a tool can and cannot do, as well as her familiarity and fluency with it, a designer of learning chooses the tool that is best fit for purpose to achieve the learning goals of the lesson (Kress & Selander, 2012).
Semiotic technologies could be chosen based on the considerations of 1) the ways knowledge can be expressed, 2) the nature of interaction with students they offer, and 3) how they contribute to the learning experience.
Each semiotic technology has specific affordances. Gibson (1966) describes affordances in terms of “what is offered”. Norman (1988) extends affordances as “action possibilities”, that is what can you do, and be prompted to do, in the use of a tool. From a social semiotic perspective, Kress (2015, p. 88) explains that affordances “not only allow you to do different things, but insist that different things are done”.
In terms of the affordances of semiotic technologies, we can consider the ways in which a particular set of knowledge is represented. For example, some knowledge may be better presented visually in a multimedia presentation, whereas other knowledge may be better synthesized and distilled as bullet points on a slideshow presentation. We can also consider the nature of interaction the semiotic technology affords.
For example, a live video conference presentation limits interaction to one speaker at a time and with the teacher usually dominating airtime, whereas a forum thread discussion allows all students to contribute their thoughts simultaneously and in response to one another. The affordances of the semiotic technology ultimately contribute to shaping students’ learning experiences, and it is useful for the teacher to imagine students’ experiences when designing their learning.
To practise what is preached, I applied these considerations to designing digital learning experiences for my students in a postgraduate class in April 2020. This piece illustrates an approach to designing digital learning and presents some of my reflections.
In the design of any lesson, the fundamentals are to establish the learning goals, and consider the students’ profiles. The first has usually been determined by the syllabus. In this case, the learning goal was to have students understand and evaluate an approach to discourse analysis and consider its relevance and appropriateness for use to analyze the data they have chosen for their course project. I have 23 full-time and part-time students in my postgraduate class, and their age ranges from twenties to fifties. From previous lessons where there were technologically-mediated class activities, I observed that some students had stronger digital skills than others.
In light of this, the choice of the tool used for digital learning had to be circumspect. Rather than chasing after fads and be seduced by the bells and whistles marketed by newfangled technologies, I wanted to use a technological platform that was simple, reliable, and if possible, familiar to the students. In this, I had the benefit of having previously assigned students homework involving tasks and discussions on an online digital platform. I decided to use the same platform to leverage the familiarity and reduce any anxieties from my less tech-savvy students. Ultimately for digital learning, the best tool is one that facilitates and not distracts. Consider what is most familiar and comfortable to you and your students; never mind if it is not the most fashionable of tools. If you must introduce a new tool, do so gently and gradually, being mindful of the range of student profiles in your class and their readiness to work with new technologies.
In better times, digital learning can serve as a valuable complement to face-to-face learning. The best mode to choose is one that best meets the learning goals. In our current circumstances, we are limited in our options and will have to optimize the affordances of digital learning to achieve our learning goals. One of the affordances of digital learning is that it can happen asynchronously – where each student can access and interact with the content at a time of their own choosing; or synchronously, where all students and the teacher meet online at an agreed time. Given the two possibilities, which mode should I choose? If the content is static, such as a video to be viewed, and an article to be read, and if time is needed for a good reflection of the content, then perhaps the asynchronous option offered might be more appropriate. Online discussion could still happen, with students responding to each other’s comments in their own time, within a certain stipulated timeframe, such as before the next lesson.
I have tried the asynchronous digital learning previously, and it has worked well when expectations are set clearly. Students provided lengthy and substantial reflections on the articles and responded intelligently and critically to each other’s and my comments. I wanted to explore synchronous digital learning and see if that will work just as well. My hypothesis was that if all of us were online at a given time and were responding to posts with timed release over 3 hours, it can reduce the sense of isolation, a common concern in asynchronous digital learning. Beyond creating a sense of “togetherness as a class” and heightening the intensity of interaction and participation, it can also reinforce a sense of discipline towards digital learning, rather than for it to be viewed as laissez-faire. And so, like every other “kiasu” (fear of losing out) teacher would do, I did both.
The first consideration in the use of a semiotic technology is how knowledge can be expressed. Video conferencing technology has enabled the possibility of “live-streaming”, where many teachers now give their lectures online in real-time. This didactic approach towards the learning of content may still work, although the challenge now is that the teacher is unable to have an immediate gauge of the students’ attentiveness and response to their lecture. Research (Guo, 2013; Guo, Kim & Rubin, 2014) has also suggested that students’ engagement with online lecture does not last beyond six minutes, although this attention span can perhaps be extended a little more with interactivity (Geri, Winer & Zaks, 2017; Lagerstrom, Johanes & Ponsukcharoen, 2015).
If giving a mini-lecture is the preference, I have found pre-recorded video presentations uploaded on the platform more efficient and less of a thing to worry about than an attempt to do a “live” lecture even as you are also facilitating the digital learning interactions. Unless the intention is for students to engage and ask questions during the lecture that you would like to respond to immediately, a recorded video uploaded on the digital platform, followed by questions for all students to respond to in a discussion thread may be more productive. It also overcomes the limitations of face-to-face learning where the teacher can respond to only one student at a time. The students’ typed responses on a discussion thread are also recorded. The posts can be revisited, reviewed and reflected upon (as I was told by my conscientious students) long after class is dismissed. Extensions of learning are also easily made through a link to other sites that elaborate on topics of interest and offer literature for further readings.
Within a digital learning context, it is also possible to think about the different ways a particular set of knowledge could be introduced to the students. Is a “lecture” by the teacher the best way? Perhaps a brief presentation by an international authority in the field might be better? Or a short professional video production of different authorities on the topic might help better illustrate the applications of teaching and learning online multimodally? The last two options were what I chose in my digital learning class, and I think they introduced the knowledge to the students better than I could ever do with my talk.
The digital space offers rich multimedia resources that invite exploration and curation, as well as prompt deeper reflections on how best a particular set of knowledge is to be learnt. Digital learning challenges us and offers the opportunity for us to move away from the default transmission model of teaching, where the teacher is the authority of knowledge, to take on the role of a designer of learning experiences.
As a designer of learning experiences, the nature of pedagogic interactions in the learning experience is to be considered as well. In typical face-to-face learning, much of the interactions centre on the teacher in the classroom. There may be peer-learning through group discussion and activities, but the consolidation of learning at the class-level often orientates the discussion back to the teacher.
This set of dynamics can be turned on its head in a digital learning experience. When well-designed, social and collaborative learning amongst the students can take centre-stage in discussion threads, with the teacher probing assumptions, prompting elucidations and challenging perspectives – often together with other students responding to the comments as well. While the teacher may still consolidate the learning and conclude with the last post, students have the “final say” as they comment on the posts and potentially extend the discussion beyond the class-time.
In face-to-face learning, the interactions are constrained to one at a time. Only one student can respond and interact with the teacher at any one time, with the others listening in. In digital learning, all students can respond simultaneously to the teacher’s questions and can respond to each other’s posts, while waiting (if they do) for a response from the teacher to their posts. In my experience, they often get a response from their peers, even before I get to their post!
Such pedagogic interactions are valuable especially for postgraduate students because they come from different backgrounds, experiences, and expertise. I have found many of their responses to one another enriching and educational for me as well. I also like the fact that learning is happening not just between their interactions with me, but also through their online interactions and discussions with one another.
The online platform offers a digital learning experience that does not attempt to replicate the face-to-face learning experience. There is no need to. Different modes, and different semiotic technologies, offer different ways of learning. As a check-out activity, I had students give a comment or make a meme to describe their digital learning experience of the day.
Students expressed that it was a chance for the “timid” and “shy” ones to express their views in a “non-threatening manner”, and that it was “more challenging”, “more mentally intensive”, and “more engaging” than a “face-to-face” class. Students also liked the “almost instantaneous sharing of ideas, knowledge, and perspectives” and the “pseudo interactive connections” in the synchronous digital learning experience. Notwithstanding the positive feedback, students also found that they had to “think fast, type fast, organize fast and proof-read fast”. The memes some of them made also reflected their emotions.
Advancing with Digital Learning
In designing digital learning experiences, it is useful to be aware of the ways in which the semiotic technology chosen can shape the ways knowledge can be expressed and the nature of interaction the teacher can have with the students, as well as the students with each other. The affordances of semiotic technologies, and how they are used, ultimately contribute to the students’ learning experience.
As I explore the world of digital learning, thanks to my long-suffering students who are the unwitting lab rats, I have learnt what (not) to do and how I can do better. I have also learnt that digital learning need not be Plan B. It should not strive to be a replication of a “lost” face-to-face learning experience. While we may be too familiar and pre-occupied with how the digital mode cannot allow us to do some things as well as the face-to-face mode, we should also think about how the affordances of the digital mode can allow us to do certain things that a face-to-face mode cannot.
The fact remains that as social beings, we will always miss the social interaction of meeting up physically, which is irreplaceable, and can only be poorly approximated in virtual interactions. The pandemic shall pass, and we will all celebrate when the crisis is over. However, having tasted the value of what digital learning can offer, I believe that many of our explorations have developed our versatility in using different modes for teaching and learning, and placed us firmly on the path of becoming a designer of (digital) learning experiences for our students.
Digital learning offers unique and meaningful learning experiences that were not available when we were students. When designed well, digital learning can be even more engaging, interactive, and rigorous, than – do I dare disturb the universe – a face-to-face learning experience.
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Published 3 June 2020