Digital Literacies: Surviving and Thriving in Classroom Spaces

Digital Literacies: Surviving and Thriving in Classroom Spaces

post by The Educator Collaborator member Shawna Coppola alongside her colleagues at the University of New Hampshire, Alecia Magnifico, associate professor of English and Laura Smith, senior lecturer

Digital Literacies: Surviving and Thriving in Classroom Spaces

As someone who grew up surrounded by medical professionals–and who has been married to one for almost twenty years–it’s not unusual for me (Shawna) to equate our collective experiences as educators to those working in the medical field. Throughout the past year and a half(+), the experience of working as an educational professional during what can arguably be considered One of the Most Challenging School Years in the History of All School Years™ felt suspiciously akin to what it must feel like (albeit on a much smaller, less gruesome scale) for those who work in triage.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, triage is most commonly understood as a process where the professionals in charge– the paramedics, the ER staff, and other first responders– determine the priority of care based upon the severity of a patient’s condition or the seriousness of their injury. Often in a triage situation, less consideration is given to the patient’s long-term and holistic medical needs–i.e., what that patient needs to thrive– and more on the immediate action(s) or treatment(s) that will serve to interrupt, in the moment, an acute and possibly life-threatening medical situation–i.e., what that patient needs to survive. A common rule of thumb in triage is to do the most good for the greatest number of patients in as short an amount of time using the best available resources.

During the hasty pivot to remote teaching and learning that took place during the early days of COVID-19, many of us shifted our educational practices from ones that helped our students thrive as learners (over the long term) to a need to help us all survive this enormous–and alarming– crisis. In terms of our digital literacy practices, this shift was all the more acute–and wholly entangled with the experience of remote teaching in general. 

Within in-school spaces, remote teaching practices were both helped and hindered by swiftly-made, triage-like decisions that required the use of certain classroom management systems and online meeting platforms. Such decisions helped us “survive” as educators due to our urgent need to replicate, as efficiently as possible, the experience of in-person schooling within remote learning spaces. But in some ways, they hindered our ability to help ourselves and our students “thrive.” This is because many of the digital tools that were selected were severely lacking in pedagogical features, such as the ability to consider students’ varying needs and levels of access as learners over the long-term.

In out-of-school spaces, most particularly on social media, both our remote teaching and digital literacy practices were again helped and hindered by (very well-intentioned!) folks who saturated these spaces with ideas for engaging students online, collecting student work, housing online resources, teaching content and skills via web tools, and so on. Soon, many educators found ourselves making triage-like decisions as we considered important survival-focused questions, such as those pertaining to digital access and efficiency, all of which were necessary and important. During this time, we (the authors) were also engaged in a research project around how both remote learning and digital literacies were being impacted by COVID-19. One K-12 educator who participated in a focus group described her experience this way:

“[W]ith the shift to remote, people kind of just went into like a… just like, […] survival mode. And, it’s like… we got to plug the holes up there. It’s like, the ship’s going down.”

Our own experiences working with students during this initial shift mirrored this sense of the “ship going down.” During the March 2020 pivot, so many students encountered difficulties. Many moved long distances; some lost their housing; others picked up “essential” jobs in order to support family members.   Like many of our colleagues, we became immediately concerned not about what digital tools and practices would meet each student’s long-term needs best, but about simply surviving, in an educational sense, this shift–e.g, maintaining a sense of community to bridge the distance between ourselves and our students, prioritizing care, etc. After experiencing a variety of bumps and bruises along the way, we finished the 2020-2021 school year having engaged in it fully in triage mode, surviving and making it work, sometimes through tears.

Once we could figure out how to establish and maintain a sense of community and care in a remote learning environment–and take a deep, cleansing breath or two–we considered how we might also help our students thrive as learners not simply in the moment, but over the long term. It was time to align our tightly-held pedagogic principles with our new practice– moving from triage to reflective digital practices and literacies, choosing tools that deepened content learning and student interaction. 

This necessitated a greater focus on questions that helped us look back and look forward, helping us to develop both remote teaching and learning skills in the moment and lifelong digital literacies over the long-term. For example, we thought about students’ comfort and confidence with learning in the digital environments established the prior year, hoping to sort out what worked for them during the initial pivot to online learning and what didn’t, and inviting them to evaluate digital learning environments both for immediate accessibility and for long-term understanding.

As we write this blog post reflecting on what we’ve learned over the course of studying digital literacies and teachers’ experiences in this challenging year, we have settled back into our own teaching spaces and have deeply reflected on what and how we’ve learned from twenty months of pivots and remote teaching. The COVID-19 variants rage on, and we’re tired. But our work as well as that of our colleagues has affirmed for us that we shouldn’t take students’ (or teachers’) knowledge of and confidence with the digital tools we use in our classroom spaces for granted. In fact, asking the right questions–of ourselves and our students–can help us to survive and, eventually, thrive in new digital learning environments.