Digital Learning Podcast: Episode 13, Experiential Approaches to Learning



Welcome to the Northwestern Digital Learning Podcast, where each month, we look at an example of innovative teaching and learning. I'm Matthew Aron, your guest host for this episode.

Bonnie Stewart
Teaching and Learning Technologies was pleased to have Bonnie Stewart join Northwestern for a day of talks and workshops as part of our ongoing TEACHxperts Speaker Series. Bonnie is assistant professor of online pedagogy and workplace learning at the University of Windsor, Canada, and she has an extensive background in digital and experiential education, and in work-integrated and adult-learning approaches. We sat down to talk about her presentation, and the work she has done both with adult learners and as an educator of future educators. We started with some of the basic ideas that inform how she frames the conversation: digital literacy and digital practice.

BS: I think to be digitally literate, for me and for me only, is to be able to navigate the digital space and social networks as a human space and as a societal space—sociality is not just individual-to-individual, it reflects the social structure around us. It reflects the fact that not all identities have the same social location. To be able to communicate with different peoples productively and humbly, you need to view them as people. So when I teach digital literacies with my students who are going to be teachers and hoping that they're going to teach this to their students, I'm really teaching the pro-social web, a pro-societal web, where we're not building towards our own burning destruction but possibly towards using some of the power of these networks to push back against the really negative messages we're often getting.

MA: It was interesting to hear in the sessions today your framing of what we all do [ed. pedagogy], even if we're not conscious of it or even if we don't own it as practice, as part of our identity. So I wondered if you could talk a little bit about where that comes from, how you think about it, and how you teach around that.

BS: When we're mentoring students in digital spaces or kind of fostering their practice in digital spaces, the things that we do become visible. I taught this past term with a hashtag for my course. We weren't on Twitter all that much, we did one focused Twitter chat that I scaffold in a reasonably safe way. That was the only time I required it. But I did use Twitter as a, “It's here. You don't even have to log in because you can still see my Twitter even if you're just looking at the feed from an un-logged-in position,” but I'll share links there to keep the conversation going. I'm modeling practice, but it also forces me to look at what I do and think about what kind of messages I’m sending because sometimes the signals that you're sending out are not the ones that you are intending to send. This is true in any classroom.

When I did my B.Ed. twenty-five years ago, one of the only things that’s stuck with me from that particular experience was actually the message which was both said by some of my faculty but also instantiated and embodied by others, is that your students learn more from what you don't think you're teaching than from the content that of the class. They learn more from how you carry yourself in the classroom and how you treat people than maybe from what you say. I think the same is true in digital identity.

MA: As an educator and social media researcher interested in the implications of digital networks for institutions, for culture and society, and for learning, the technologies themselves are not Bonnie's focus. She talked about what digital communities do and what they need to work—social tools for participatory learning and tools for navigating real complexity.

BS: The most dramatic change pieces that I've seen are really just the platforms and the ways that they allow us to use many to many communications in education so that we can go beyond broadcast, or one to many, and we can go beyond one to one and actually do networked communication in ways that isn't totally chaotic, like Twitter.

Now, there are lots of reasons not to bring students onto Twitter, but, frankly, Twitter is the most interesting digital innovation that I've seen for education and that's 12 years old now. I was using an LMS [ed. learning management system – i.e. Canvas] in 1998, and the LMS that I'm currently using is not vastly different except in its bells and whistles.

The other thing I would say is that smartphones’ video capacity gives my students the ability to do instant video responses in creative ways that don't require a huge amount of technical skill on their part. I love that I can ask them to make a case study for somebody else—which creates whole different ownership over their learning. If people say their students are not engaging with the reading, make them create the reading.

MA: It may seem like a dark time and a difficult time to think about what educators using technology can and should do, but Bonnie felt like there was still hope—even if the internet feels like a dumpster fire.

BS: I used to say on my Twitter bio that I was an educator, writer, and a social media fortuneteller. About two years ago, I decided that I wasn't a fortuneteller anymore because it was too depressing.

I think higher ed has a great many significant grappling moments that it needs to have with itself and with the larger structures around it about which directions it's going in. I don't think that higher ed can do that without the broader societal conversation of what we value education for and what do we value learning for. Increasingly, we have the whole question behind experiential learning as it's being sold as a way to navigate that problem for an entire generation, Millennials, because the truth is that the jobs just don't exist anymore. And so precariousness is becoming more and more of this factor of people's lives. How do we create a value proposition for education if it isn't social mobility?

I think there is always going to be a portion of the population who value learning because you learn more about yourself and the world and it's interesting. But not everybody has the privilege and luxury of time to do that kind of learning. Not everybody's personally inclined to do that kind of learning. And, as inequality and corrupt power become super visible, increasingly I think fewer and fewer younger people are going to think education sounds like a good game when clearly that isn't really the message we're sending as learning to succeed. So we need to figure out as a society what's education for. I don't know.

I spent last year not teaching I was doing a fair amount of personal work, which I really enjoyed, but I was not teaching any students at all. Going back into the classroom and working with the students I'm working with—anywhere from third-year undergrad to postdocs—has been a hopeful experience. I’m still an idealist. I believe that there is a portion of human beings who are decent and interesting and who I would like to know and I choose to focus on them. So working with students have reminded me that this is worth it.

MA: Thanks again to Bonnie Stewart for participating in our TEACHxpert Series and spending some time talking with us. We will have more podcasts from our speakers in the 2019-2020 school year.

You can find this episode, as well as all of our previous episodes, on the Digital Learning Soundcloud.