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Reflecting on the Impact of Learning: Student Thoughts about Learning and Digital Literacy

In 2007 I found myself teaching a speech class for the first time. As I excitedly prepared for this teaching experience, I reflected on times when students gave speeches in my English courses. Often I found students didn't remember what they said in the speech they delivered. At times, they questioned my comments about any content they missed or how their voice and tone sounded during their presentation. It's easy to see how that would happen, public speaking is a common fear and with adrenaline, it's harder to tell how we might deliver something when we cannot see ourselves or hear ourselves as an audience would.

Recognizing this need, I knew I would record speeches so students could watch themselves, but I also wanted to offer another experience for students - the opportunity to listen closely to their voice. Sure, videotaping and recording have been happening for years, but this was still a one time take. Speak and record. Yet, even in watching or listening to a recording, the speech itself was over, and students didn’t transfer what they learned to future speeches.

I knew that there were opportunities to revise voices and broadcast them to the world. To embrace this opportunity to refine vocal delivery with students, I turned to podcasting. By posting their work online students could not only benefit in terms of hearing and refining their own voice, but they also had an opportunity to engage in thinking about digital literacy through reflection and discussion of the process of revising their speeches and sharing their work with a larger audience.

Since podcasting was new to me and I was working to hone my skills with instruction in digital spaces, I embarked on an inquiry project exploring podcasting in speech class. In “From the Front of the Classroom to the Ears of the World: Multimodal Composing in Speech Class,” a chapter written with Troy Hicks in Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom, I highlight my experiences with podcasting in speech. In this chapter, I note the reactions and reflections of my students toward this project beginning with a vignette from when my students and I discussed Time magazine’s 2006 “Person of the Year” as “You.”

In his explanation of “You” being “Person of the Year,” Lev Grossman shares the importance of everyone being able to publish to a wide audience through the creation of content in online spaces, such as through blogs and YouTube. While some students shared the excitement highlighted in Time, most were quite skeptical, including one who wondered why anyone would take time to create a video instead of watching their favorite television show. Six years later, I caught up with this student, who I’ll refer to here as Norvel Lancaster, now four years removed from high school. Norvel shared his reflection on our experiences in speech class in order to help me reflect on some of my questions about his learning from the project. His reflections provide the opportunity to revisit, reflect, and reassess my podcasting project of 2007. I’ll turn to his reflections in a moment. First, I want to share some of my reflections and curiosities about learning and digital literacy, which led to my desire to revisit this work.

Do “Cool” Projects have an Impact?

Often teachers work to create "cool" projects and opportunities for students to engage in writing, hoping that the academic skills and critical thinking that students use far outweigh our efforts to motivate them. As teachers, we reflect upon our experiences, student needs, research, and pedagogical implications. We know about technology standards and embrace opportunities to develop digital literacy skills. We've accepted that Digital Is the way of our world and we embrace learning experiences for our students that develop their digital citizen and literacy skills.

As a Red Cedar Writing Project Teacher Consultant, the role of technology in writing experiences has been a collaborative study and practice of our Teacher Consultants for well over a decade. And I've embraced opportunities for teacher inquiry, research, and publication, such as my resource Voice and Composition: Authenticity Through Digital Literacies. Moreover, digital literacy connections to writing courses have been embraced through the work of professional organizations, such as the National Writing Project and the National Council of Teachers of English, as well as rich work in the field recognizing that Digital Writing Matters. Digital Is the way of our lives in today’s society. Digital Is my writing and teaching life.

Yet, I wonder...

  • What do students think about their digital literacy experiences in school?
  • What impact does digital literacy learning have on student lives later on down the road?

In those moments when I wonder are students getting it and what really matters for student learning, I find the role of impact and transfer of learning is one to contemplate. Scholars such as Moore, Anson, and Bass discuss transfer learning as means to consider how knowledge or skills transfer from one project to the next or to the future lives of students. When learning transfers for writing, writing skills would be able to move from one context to another. As Moore put it transfer is “what students bring with them that informs their actions in the class and what students carry out to future settings, whether it’s informal context, whether it’s future classes, whether it’s the future nonacademic settings.” Anson refers to transfer as “the ability to move from one context to the other as a writer and a communicator” and he notes the importance of a “meta question of what happens when people move across contexts? What are they bringing with them?” These ideas led me to wonder, what do students remember, years after being in my classroom? What knowledge sticks in their memory? And why?

I wonder what learning matters to students and whether these "cool" projects have an impact. It's true that many factors impact student experience with learning: from what is going on in their everyday lives to the important role of community in the classroom, the rapport between teacher and students, and the connections among students. Still, the conversation about the impact of learning and digital literacy remains worthy of reflection. Albeit, as part of a larger conversation. With this in mind, I decided to go to the experts: my students. I contacted former students and in April of 2013 met up with Norvel for a conversation about learning and digital literacy in the classroom.  

Student Thinking Beyond High School: One Student’s Reflection on Learning and Digital Literacy

As a sophomore in the 2007 speech class I referenced above, Norvel Lancaster was shocked that people would actually make videos instead of watching videos. More importantly, he was amazed that people would actually watch amateur videos over their favorite television show. To help explore my inquiry into what students think of their digital literacy experiences and the transfer of learning, I reconnected with Norvel to learn his perspective. Norvel graduated in 2009. Since then he went to culinary school and now works in the restaurant industry.

He still enjoys a favorite television show, “Lost,” but he now understands the role of video creation and YouTube. In fact, one of the first things Norvel mentioned was that he remembered our class conversation about Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” This lead to a discussion about the significance of YouTube today and how much it has grown since speech class in 2007. Today, in 2013, Norvel was now offering me suggestions about what I should check out on YouTube. He admitted that he didn’t understand the role of amateur video making as a sophomore in high school, yet he now views YouTube as “a good access point for information” and even noted times when he participated in creating videos with friends and how he carefully considers crafting YouTube videos as a way to advertise for a business, such as with his dream of opening his own barbeque restaurant. In this way, Norvel described YouTube as a space for advertising or teaching people about cooking. He even cited how he could give away recipes as a possibility for attracting future customers.

Kindly, Norvel praised my class as a space to learn about podcasting and YouTube. With it’s spread of popularity, Norvel would have still been exposed to YouTube based on the movement of social networking and interactive media regardless of our class. So, what struck me most about our conversation was the richness in which Norvel could discuss the role of digital spaces in terms of audience and purpose, a topic we studied extensively through our discussions in speech class and as echoed in my English classes. He recognized that the bigger a show gets on YouTube with followers means free advertising, which can be a good opportunity. He even noted that “I hate the fact that I’m going to reference this, but YouTube is the way Justin Bieber got his start.” He explained that some kid was messing around with music, talent was noticed and picked up. Norvel noted that this same publicity Bieber received is valuable in the restaurant industry.

Norvel recognized the value of audience in digital spaces and he is a critical reader of his world. Norvel highlighted the importance of credibility in online spaces, as any time he discussed YouTube or posts on Facebook, he’d say “of course, you should check your sources.” Beaming brightly, I recalled chanting this mantra in class about the role of validating evidence. Norvel recognized real world application for this skill, when he said “far too many times on Facebook, people spout ideas without facts.”

This critical thinking of checking sources is important to Norvel, as evidenced by the many times he repeated “check your sources.” When I asked Norvel to expand on these ideas, he noted that “news sources put their own spin on something” and that the closer to the original source one can get makes the information more accurate. He said “check[ing] resources is checking the truth.” While Norvel didn’t cite this critical reading and reflection as important to his career, he recognized the importance of this type of thinking in his life. In our conversation, he noted literacy sponsors in his parents and also through his work in my classes (he was a student in my speech class as a sophomore, but also as a freshman and junior in my English classes). I was beaming as he spoke.

When we discussed speech class and the role of audience in his high school learning experience, Norvel noted that he checked our speech class blog for comments to his podcast for one-and-a-half to two years after our class. He wanted to know what my future students as well as any online audience members had to say about his work and that of his peers’ podcasts as well (when we originally posted our speeches, we specifically asked students in Utah and New York to respond to our posts, so we had a fairly large audience beyond those simply stumbling on the site). He wanted to check for comments “to know that I actually reached out.” He described the feeling of having such a large audience as “exciting and scary.” When I asked Norvel to compare his English class experiences to speech class, he noted speech as having a greater impact because of podcasting and demonstration speeches because they related directly to his job. For instance, Norvel gave a demonstration speech on how to make peanut brittle including the steps and ingredients, which would be something he might do today when training other people in a restaurant. He recognized direct connections from speech class, yet his critical thinking about the world, including checking of sources, and consideration of audience and purpose, echo skill sets I want all of my students in English classes to hone in my classroom.

Norvel recognized the importance of purpose in communication. He noted that if you “talk or act with purpose people take notice” and that when you act with purpose there is a “reason behind it.” While Norvel originally didn’t notice as many connections between his learning experiences in my class and his role as a chef, he was able to discuss critical thinking, reading and writing as important to his world. When I asked him about whether or not he saw value of studying and writing through digital mediums in the classroom, he said “Yes, because podcasting on subjects” teens care about, allow them to be the center of attention which is key to investment in learning. He also noted that technology in the classroom is essential to student research.

Norvel recognizes audience, purpose, and critical thinking as important in his life. In our conversation, he also highlighted the importance of digital spaces - one he was not so sure of five years ago as a sophomore. He mentioned the joy of recognizing literary references when watching videos and saw reading as a way to gain access to knowledge and even understand intellectual jokes.

Since Norvel explained being a visual thinker, he noted that he appreciated film and today follows blogs and YouTube channels relevant to his own curiosity and learning outside of his career. He saw the connection to his goals of starting a restaurant and continuing to learn more about his work as a chef. Additionally, Norvel views writing as a gift, as he composes with family members and shares recipes and stories with others. Norvel also noted the importance of reading in digital spaces as a means to learn about restaurants to visit. He also saw the value in social media as an important tool as he thinks ahead to his plan to open his own restaurant.

Norvel helped me to recognize the value of digital literacy for students, regardless of career or educational goals. Often, we think of “later on down the road” as being solely for career or college preparation. Norvel’s appreciation of literature and composition, as well as his reminder to check sources (something, he doesn’t have to do everyday as a chef) reminded me that we are preparing students to be critical thinkers for everyday life. Norvel lit up with critical conversations about digital literacy and learning, not because he needed to do so for a job, but because he enjoyed the discussion as an intellectual.

His reflections also helped me see that Digital IS the way of the world. Moreover, being critical readers and writers of digital spaces is not just for academic purposes, but also for the importance of finding truth in society, pursuing goals, and interacting on an everyday basis with others in an intellectual manner. The digital learning that Norvel experienced in my classes, as well as conversations about audience and purpose has allowed him access to be a critical reader and composer in our society. While he has many sponsors of his learning development beyond just me, it’s helpful to know that the practices in our classroom supported his critical thinking and learning.

Digital is truly important to our way of being in the world today and purposeful literacy experiences in school enrich learning for many facets of our lives beyond just college and career. Making an impact is about audience and purpose both informally and formally, academically or career based, and quite simply just for life and intellectual conversation. For Norvel, critical analysis skills transferred from his learning experiences in high school to his reading of the world today, and reading of the world today includes movement in digital spaces. Norvel’s experience composing a podcast in my speech class offered him the opportunity to care about impact, audience, and purpose as a teen, an experience now reflected in his daily life as a digital citizen in our increasingly electronic world.