The primary goal of the Future Academic Scholars in Teaching (FAST) Fellowship Program is to provide opportunities for a diverse group of graduate students to have mentored teaching experiences and to gain familiarity with materials on teaching and assessment techniques. As part of this program, we developed and undertook independent research projects that focused on addressing a specific question in teaching, and testing it in a classroom.
I was the first anthropology student selected for this fellowship, and was also chosen as the fellow to participate in the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning Exchange Program.
Teaching as Research Project:
“Digital Digging: The impact of technology on learning and digital confidence in an undergraduate archaeology course”.
Digital literacy, defined as the skills and knowledge to create, evaluate, critically apply, navigate and leverage digital tools for professional use, is increasingly important within our modern Western society. Studies show that 77% of employers expect college graduates to have internet-based computer skills and will independently acquire new skills as technology changes. Despite this, universities do not prepare students with the necessary digital competencies or build student confidence. By embedding digital tools into our course curriculum, we can improve students’ digital literacy and confidence.
This research examines digital literacy perception and digital abilities of undergraduate students in an introductory archaeology course (n=187), and assesses whether integration of new technology into the classroom improves learning and confidence. Technology use in classrooms fails when it is used for the sake of being new and digital, rather than being critically used to improve learning. Archaeologists use digital tools for networking, engagement, analysis, data storage and more. Since digital literacy is an important skill for archaeologists, the addition of digital tools fits into the broader course goals.
The first objective was to assess the myth that current undergraduates are considered “digital natives” and will therefore innately know how to use technology for learning. It was hypothesized that if students were digitally literate, they would be able to use digital tools to describe and evaluate an archaeological controversy, and that they would learn better using online videos instead of traditional texts. The second objective was to integrate a variety of digital tools into the classroom in order to increase confidence in using social media and technology for learning. To address these two objectives, students were given a preliminary survey on perceptions of their own digital literacy. Next, interventions were implemented: 1) Storify, a digital storytelling tool, was used to examine digital literacy as it required students to locate, organize, annotate and evaluate digital media; 2) quizzes were used to address whether students learned better with video or text, and 3) students had the option of creating and turning in homework through analog or digital methods, such as Popplet, a mind-mapping tool, Dropbox, and Twitter. Finally, a post-course survey was administered to examine changes in perceptions of their digital literacy and attitudes towards technology in the classroom.
Results from the preliminary survey showed that students were confident in their ability to use technology and digital tools for learning, but the majority had issues actually using Storify: including not sharing the posts, not annotating the correct materials, citing inappropriate material, not removing the help text, and citing other people’s Storify assignments instead of finding original content. Further, most students were under the impression that they could identify scholarly resources online, but the majority could not- an issue that was pervasive throughout the course. This research reveals a gap between perception and ability. Students did correctly predict that they would learn better with digital tools, and were able to provide correct answers more frequently when the material was learned from video or a digital tool. Results from the final survey show that student confidence in their ability to use digital tools slightly declined, which may indicate a better awareness of their abilities rather than actually loss of confidence. However, most were enthusiastic to re-use digital tools from the course for future educational projects, and over the duration of the course, student usage of digital options increased and basic technological mistakes declined.
Integrating technology into the classroom does appear to have been successful- students liked the technology, would reuse it in academic settings- some of which have already alerted me they’ve used it in other ways, and they appear to learn some topics better through digital materials. Since digital literacy is an essential 21st century skill, we need to start treating it like basic reading and writing skills, and make integrating it into our courses a priority.
This teaching as research experience was important for a number of reasons. First, it gave me the opportunity to try non-traditional methods in a class that is usually fairly traditional. By experimenting with these new tools, I was able to show the importance of digital tools within archaeology, and also demonstrate that technology can be used in creative ways to solve social science problems. Second, it gave me the opportunity to learn more about my own course and how students were reacting to it because I was taking survey data throughout. Since I was consistently asking students about their experiences in the course relating to technology, I also learned a lot in general about my teaching style, what my students liked and didn’t like, and was able to actively change the course to improve their learning. Finally, I was able to directly apply what I learned from this study into my own teaching so that I can be a better educator. I am teaching the same course this year, I will be able to improve my own skills, improve learning, and better integrate technology into the course.
For future research, I need to look closer at the skills that students are lacking, and exactly how this technology can support better learning. Further, it was an unexpected result that the most frequent issues with technology were not the digital tools I added, but D2L and email. I think I need to reassess the level of literacy I start with, and create better scaffolding from the beginning so that I can support student learning, both their broadly transferable skills and their archaeological knowledge.
The most important takeaway from this project was the importance of being critical about my own teaching. As educators, we are never done learning, and no class is every perfect. Students, materials, knowledge, technology and even ourselves are always changing, and we have to be able to adapt and be flexible to new challenges. I relished getting the opportunity to experiment with my own teaching, and I think in many ways it made the students feel like they were more part of the design of the course because I actively changed it to fit with their survey responses and technological needs. I look forward to repeating this survey next year, and updating it to provide more support and improve their learning.
The results of the study were presented as part of the final FAST fellowship meeting. In addition to this, I was invited to present the results to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning fellows.
In addition to the oral presentations, I presented the results of this study as a poster presentation at HASTAC 2015.