How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Digital Pedagogy

Posted on: August 31, 2022

by Elaine Kaye and Jessica Del Vecchio
Originally published in the JMU CFI Teaching Toolbox

In the summer of 2020, I (Jessica) turned to Instructional Designer Elaine Kaye from JMU Libraries for assistance in putting my courses online. Here we discuss our partnership and how Elaine helped me to see that critical digital pedagogy (CDP) could improve those courses, in both their online and in-person formats. In Part I, we address how a partnership with an instructional designer works. In Part II, we talk through the tech tools I used in my classes.

Part I

JESSICA: I teach in the “Theatre Studies” area in the School of Theatre and Dance—meaning I teach courses in history, analysis, and theory rather than the more “practice-based classes” like acting, directing, or design. But, as a theatre professor, I work in a discipline that holds precious live, in-person experiences. (The notion of in-person liveness as a defining characteristic of theatre is contested, and pandemic-era online productions dredged up a decades-old debate about the ontology of performance.) Though I did not face the same challenges that my colleagues responsible for more performance-centric courses did, I felt extremely anxious about the prospect of losing the in-person aspects of teaching when my courses went online in Fall 2020. In my courses, I often ask students to do in-class presentations and to work in groups to make and present pieces of performance based on historical models. Fearing how those assignments, in particular, would translate online, I decided to reach out to JMU Libraries for help.

ELAINE: As one of the instructional designers in the JMU Libraries, I was supporting our faculty and students in many ways during the Spring 2020 “pivot” to online instruction. My focus during this time included providing A LOT of one-on-one feedback and consultation (which I also do in “normal” times, but usually with a focus on course design across modalities as well as the implementation of digital projects). As an Instructional Designer, I have shifted my approach as the field continues to grapple with what it means to be an instructional designer and as I continue to develop my own “eclectic” practice. My work with faculty (and really anyone) centers care and trust, because, in the end, to support faculty as they explore new pedagogical strategies, as they wrestle with the incredible challenges we are all facing, and as they reflect on their ways of being as instructors, we have to trust each other to do this transformative consultation work. (Charles Feltman defines trust as “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.”) So, with care and trust at the core, I (like many instructional designers and faculty in the CFI) start all of my consulting relationships with an initial meeting to conduct a needs assessment, to explore and listen and really get to know the faculty member. I want to hear all of the concerns, questions, successes, and challenges. Honestly, learning about so many different courses in disciplines from across the university is one of the best parts of my job! I get to learn from faculty who have both incredible passion and expertise. The first meeting with you, Jessica, was no exception! It was a great consultation and we began our conversation in one place, then, through our dialogue, we were really able to articulate your needs and make a plan.

JESSICA: Coming into my first meeting with you, Elaine, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In our initial email exchange, I claimed I wanted to “think through my assignments,” but what I really wanted was someone to reassure me that teaching online did not mean tossing out everything I’ve learned in all my years of college teaching. I didn’t understand what it meant to make my courses “hybrid” or “hyflex,” and I had little knowledge of the best practices for online teaching. I knew there were ed tech tools that might make online courses more engaging, but I wanted guidance on which ones were best suited for my needs. I have never been a technophobe, and I have used technology in my teaching—for example, having students keep blogs in a play analysis course, asking them to use technology to deliver presentations on technological innovations in the theatre, and using the VOCAT web application to comment on student presentations—but it has never been a major part of my pedagogy.

ELAINE: Your comment about technology not being a major component of your pedagogy is really important for me. In my work with faculty, I’m adamant about not centering technology, but rather centering the challenge faculty and students are facing, the pedagogical needs of the discipline, and the consideration that teaching is inherently political work. Critical digital pedagogy (CDP) gives us a solid lens through which to question, consider, explore, and test out the role of various digital tools in our classrooms. You already had a strong background in critical pedagogy and your curriculum, assessments, and pedagogy were already shaped by active learning, amplifying all voices, and focusing on information literacy and research as tools for critical thinking. So, the next question was to consider what was working and what challenges were you facing; this is where making space for conversation becomes so important.

JESSICA: I really appreciated that you started by listening. You served as a font of pedagogical wisdom, but also as a kind of support system, someone with whom I could talk through my ideas, and, later, the successes and failures of those ideas. I described my courses, my objectives, my assignments in depth. I voiced my anxieties about managing a lecture course using Zoom, and my fear that I would not be able to establish the classroom community that I felt was necessary to make my courses successful.

ELAINE: It is really meaningful and helps me do my job when faculty can be honest and vulnerable about a fear, so your concerns about classroom community became a touchstone for our work. Our conversations always began with me asking: “What’s the purpose of this assignment or this activity? What’s the goal? How is this connecting to course outcomes? What are the learning objectives?” If you work with any instructional designer, these will certainly be familiar questions (think “backward design”). But they became the guide posts for determining how to craft each assignment, devise each activity, or make other design choices. Then, based on our identified goals, we can consider if technology could support you and your students.

JESSICA: Before suggesting specific tech tools (which we will address in Part II), you offered me some ideas for rethinking my course structure. You recommended breaking my theatre histories course into units, each with the same number of classes, so that the students could easily understand what was expected of them on each class day. This was a revelation to me!

ELAINE: A clear course structure is important in any class, but it becomes even more crucial as our modalities become blended, flexible, or fully online. (Here’s a great resource on online course structure.) The structure of a course communicates so much more than just content to our students—a clear course structure communicates care. (See the Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project, or TILT, for more information.) It supports our students by decreasing their cognitive load and makes a course more accessible and equitable. (For more on clarity of online course structure, see John Almarode’s Teaching Toolbox.)

JESSICA: Yes! I loved that I was able to make the course structure really explicit from the first day of class. I came up with catchy descriptors for each day in the unit (explore, engage, experience, and expand) and little symbols to coincide with them (a magnifying glass, a head with a lightbulb in it, an audience sitting in a theatre, and a two-headed arrow) that I included on my syllabus and on our PowerPoints (see image below). See Daisy Breneman and Andreas Broscheid’s Teaching Toolbox on the pros and cons of graphic syllabi here.

JESSICA: Each unit consisted of a lecture, which provided an overview of the performance tradition and its historical context; an in-class activity that emphasized one aspect of the performance tradition; a small group discussion of a performance text; and finally, a contemporary application of the issues raised by the unit. Each day had a corresponding assignment: an answer to a question that addressed the lecture’s main idea; an (often creative) assignment due at the end of class; responses to several questions about the performance text; and annotations on an article and a “journal entry” in which students thought through challenging questions about theatre practice today.

ELAINE: Besides helping students to remember what assignments are due when, were there other benefits that came from using this structure?

JESSICA: Patterning the course in this way helped me to spend more time on each unit, ensuring that students came away with a comprehensive understanding of the performance in a particular time and place before we moved on. Each day of the unit focused on building a different skill and therefore achieving one of the course’s objectives. For example, in each unit, students had to closely read and analyze a performance text; read and understand a complex theoretical argument; and apply what they learned about history and theory to their own contemporary context. Patterning the course in this way meant I had to cut some stuff from the syllabus, but trading coverage for depth was worth it to me. This new structure helped me achieve my DEI goals as well, giving equal weight to Western and non-Western performance traditions, rather than tokenizing non-Western traditions by devoting only one or two class periods to their study.

ELAINE: These are such great examples of the results from implementing a framework like CDP that centers equity in our curricular choices. I also really appreciated our conversations about what your students needed to engage with complex material; you focused on centering their needs, scaffolding content, and making space for community building. Was there anything in particular that challenged you about implementing this change?

JESSICA: Well, I had to let go of some of my instructor-centered teaching techniques. I was very nervous about not leading a full-class discussion of the plays and performance texts, but instead, leaving it up to small groups to discuss the plays on their own. I quickly realized, however, that this structure made the students responsible for their own learning. They appeared to be far more engaged in the analysis, doing it themselves, than they were sitting in a 40-person class and listening to me offer my take on the plays. The groups also helped students to stay connected to their classmates despite not being in the same room together.

ELAINE: I’m so glad you shared that! It can be really challenging, but it’s such important work. If we are really considering how we can humanize online learning and center care in our teaching, we must question our place of power as instructors in the classroom (definitely a tenet of CDP). I think the changes you made really supported the creation of spaces of community building and transformation– which is what we identified as a need from the beginning of our time together. So, what are you taking away from this new approach?page4image2961444432 page4image2961444720

JESSICA: The remarkable thing is that this structure was so successful that I kept it in place when I went back to teaching in person this past fall. It worked beautifully. Far from centering technology, CDP helped me to re-center students!

Part II

Building Community with JMU’s WordPress Installation

One of my goals for my Feminism and Performance course, a small seminar, is to build a strong classroom community informed by feminist practices. To help me achieve this objective in the online version of the course I taught in the fall of 2020, Elaine suggested I develop a class website, to which students could post their assignments. After consultation, JMU Libraries staff worked with me to create a course site using JMU’s WordPress Installation. Each student had their own page on the site, which they used as a blog, posting four reflections over the course of the semester. I loved that these posts demonstrated the development of their understanding of feminist thought over time. Students read and commented on each other’s blogs, fostering a true sense of engagement and support in the class even as we were online. Our site was private, but professors can make theirs public and, in other course contexts, it might be beneficial for students to create work knowing that it will be shared more broadly. (A key tenet of CDP and Open Pedagogy is student agency in matters of privacy.) The site housed student responses to the readings, which they wrote as “tweets,” and student-generated videos and short papers on feminist theorists, so it became a resource for the class as they worked on their final papers and presentations. (Interested in how you might be able to use WordPress in your class? You can email JMU Libraries support or fill out a consultation request. There are many people in the Libraries who can help you work through the questions and concerns to determine a best fit for your class).

Social Annotation and

Consulting about my Theatre Histories courses, I mentioned to Elaine that I sometimes assign challenging readings that students struggle to get through on their own. Enter social annotation! Elaine introduced me to an open source, free program called enables students to annotate PDFs and web-based artifacts and to see and comment on each other’s annotations, which gives them the effect of working through the reading together. (See an example here.) also calls students’ attention to how they read. I invite students to share definitions of unfamiliar words they encounter, to point out where the author makes their argument, and to highlight the evidence they use to support it. Since my class is somewhat large– I had 40 students–I assigned them to groups of five to annotate, but I know colleagues who have their entire class annotate together. lets me track students’ engagement with the articles and allows me to respond to any confusion they’re having. (One drawback: while can integrate with Canvas, faculty can only use it through Canvas for a single semester unless JMU decides to subscribe to and test it.) can also be a useful open pedagogical tool. (Read more on that here.) Several students have told me that they like so much, they now use it to annotate readings in all of their classes!

Engagement and PearDeck

During the fall of 2020, I delivered my theatre history lectures asynchronously. Wanting to make things as simple as possible for myself, I recorded audio over PowerPoint slides and posted them on Canvas for students to work through at their own pace. At the end of the semester, I lamented to Elaine about the lack of interactivity of these lectures. I wondered if there were any such thing as an interactive asynchronous presentation software, something that would allow me to embed questions into the lesson so that students would stay engaged throughout. Elaine suggested an application that does just that: PearDeck, which can be used as an add-on to Google Slide or PowerPoint decks. Students access the deck using a link; they don’t need to sign up for an account. After a free trial, teachers pay $149.99/year for the application. It allows teachers to check in with students, pose questions during the lesson, and save their responses in a dashboard. I used it to deliver both synchronous and asynchronous lectures in my online Theatre Histories course in the spring of 2021. Now that I am back in person, I am continuing to use it. I love it because it allows all students to participate, even those who don’t feel comfortable speaking up in a large lecture class. Here is an example of one of my PearDeck slides.

Storytelling with Wakelet

In the in-person version of Feminism and Performance, I have students work in pairs to give presentations analyzing feminist protests. In brainstorming about an online-friendly version of the assignment, Elaine pointed me toward Wakelet, a free online platform that allows students to curate content to share. Students can use Wakelet to collect, organize, and save videos, articles, images, tweets, links, and more. While curating is considered a key 21st century skill, it was also important to me that students contextualize the resources and build a narrative about them. Wakelet allows students to add their own writing around the selected artifacts. I told the students that their Wakelets should make a compelling argument about their protest using text and artifacts (e.g., images, videos, articles, and other online content) as evidence. Each Wakelet entry, or block, included a heading and text that explained the relevance of the artifact and analyzed it toward their argument. The Wakelet was a particularly appropriate medium for exploring protests because it allowed students to bring living online artifacts (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, comments from websites, etc.) created by protest participants and witnesses into their analysis. Elaine and I often discuss the role of reflection in the classroom. For the Wakelets, Elaine suggested a reflective feedback tool called “Glow/Grow/Questions.” Each pair was tasked with providing feedback on another pair’s Wakelet. Students commented, identifying something positive about the work, pointing out an area of growth, and posing one or two questions for further thought.

Data Visualization with Timeline JS

I used Timeline JS to translate what was an in-person research presentation to a web-based assignment in the online version of my Theatre Histories II course in the fall of 2020. Timeline JS allows students to create gorgeous, interactive, web-based timelines. Inspired by The 1619 Project, I asked students to research events in U.S. American history, analyzing them in terms of their long-term and short-term effect on African Americans, as a way of contextualizing performance practices in the 19th century. In the past, I have had students make posters for their events, which we arrange around the classroom and discuss over the course of several class periods. In the online course, my students created entries using Timeline JS, which we embedded into the class WordPress site. Since the tool allows students to pull in media from all over the web, students learned how to find and use open access media. We ended the unit by discussing the limitations of a timeline as a structure for representing histories of marginalized communities. The students suggested brilliant alternatives to linear representations: spirals, circles, networks, and webs. Perhaps next semester, Elaine can help me find a tech tool to bring their visions for non-traditional timelines to life!

About the authors: Elaine Kaye is an instructional designer (Assistant Professor, JMU Libraries) who is interested in critical instructional design, critical digital pedagogy, open pedagogy, curriculum design and development, equity-based teaching, and social justice pedagogy. Jessica Del Vecchio is an assistant professor of theatre in the School of Theatre and Dance and a faculty associate in the teaching area of the Center for Faculty Innovation.

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