Virtual Pedagogy: Centering Students through Digital Lessons

 September 11, 2019

Anderson Hagler teaching

Student-centered classrooms place increased responsibility and control in the hands of the learners. Digital tools extend the benefits of student-centered methodologies by providing students the opportunity to build practical skills in using technology. Even more importantly, well-designed student-centered lessons can increase both technological familiarity and critical thinking. I designed my own course, History 326, by thinking about the learning that digital tools would facilitate first and then developing my lessons around them. Online courses, such as Writing 270, for which I was a teaching assistant, help students to consider how writing in a virtual format shapes the reading public’s interpretation of that content. Lastly, other tools such as 3-D modeling software encourage students to analyze the spatial dimensions of faraway places, thereby increasing accessibility, potentially, for any area of study. 

Although some humanists may fear that the rise of digital pedagogy and online education will precipitate a decline in classroom education, as Eladio Bobadilla has noted, the reality is that digital tools help students to learn proactively. In my class, Hist 326: Colonial Latin America, I provide students with digitized copies of historical primary sources. Students can access these documents while also bringing the past—specifically colonial New Spain—to life for a new generation of tech-savvy learners. Highlighting the formulaic language used in many of these historical legal cases helps students to think about the layers of mediation between the present and the past. This exercise also helps students realize that archives cannot provide total transparency into the past. Digitized primary sources highlight how technological advancements facilitate historical inquiry.

Many of the assignments for my course contain digital components. For the final video project, students record a presentation using their mobile phone. Students use this assignment to research lesser-known historical figures such as a swash-buckling transvestite, Catalina de Erauso, or to reassess the legacy of famous icons like Christopher Columbus. This project lets students create new material in a comfortable setting, enabling them to articulate complex ideas from a position of strength. The process of creation helps transfer the content of the course into students’ long-term memory banks. I believe that this is a more productive way to teach instead of having students cram for a final exam, the content of which they soon forget. Viewing digital pedagogy as an opportunity helps teachers to create lessons that stay relevant for longer in today’s technologically driven environment.

Some instructors at Duke are providing online classes for undergraduate students. I had the opportunity to work as an online teaching assistant for Dr. Denise Comer’s award-winning class Writing 270: Composing the Internship Experience: Digital Rhetoric and Social Media Discourse, which helped me create student-centered lessons using digital tools in other classes. In this course, students analyze the role of social media in the workplace while also curating their own digital identity through platforms such as Instagram. It is only by doing the work themselves, and engaging with these digital tools directly, that students can begin to think critically about their online presence in professional contexts. For instance, after viewing a clip about the ethics of blogging, students are encouraged to think about their online presence and the enduring effect that words have when posted online. The recent example of Harvard’s decision to rescind admission to Kyle Kashuv resonates with undergraduates and therefore helps generate discussion about free speech and accountability in modern times.

In order to provide the biggest impact, however, teachers need to use digital tools that will benefit students in the long term. In Writing 270, students write their reflections about social media on Sakai. Students also respond to their peers’ posts, enabling them to engage with their virtual classmates in real-time while also honing their critical thinking skills. Although improving students’ overall level of academic writing on Sakai takes time, teachers can think of educational software as an opportunity to integrate their learning outcomes into a semester-long digital project. Here at Duke University, the 3-D modelling tool SketchUp, housed in the Wired! Lab, lets users create detailed models to visualize both modern-day and historical buildings. Users can then pose questions regarding change, continuity, and transformation. For instance, the Visualizing Venice project, which began in 2009, has drawn from the expertise of dozens of faculty, postdocs, and graduate students. This extensive collaboration helped to bring Venice directly into a college classroom over four thousand miles away, where students gain an appreciation of the spatial dimensions for a place they have yet to physically visit. Moreover, this project shows how digital tools can make learning more inclusive as Venice itself is a popular destination but a problematic place to visit for those from low-income backgrounds. Thus, digital tools such as 3-D modelling can help students visually experience inaccessible places, helping them to remember the course’s content for a longer period of time.

Teachers will more readily embrace online education when they see how digital tools can benefit their students and their careers. Taking stock of the tools at our disposal, while also considering the educational uses in the classroom, helps instructors to create more effective teaching strategies. Doing so can offer insight for instructors to improve lessons in the future. In my own course, I allocated additional time to discuss a difficult reading after the students’ Sakai posts showed me that the learning outcomes had not been achieved. These Sakai forum posts actually empowered students because they provided a virtual platform for students to express their concerns and communicate with me outside of the classroom. I’m convinced that devising student-centered lessons for tech-savvy learners facilitates pedagogy inside the physical and virtual classroom.


Anderson Hagler
Anderson Hagler

Ph.D. candidate, History

Anderson Hagler is a Ph.D. candidate in colonial Latin American history at Duke University. His scholarship examines how subaltern vassals have resisted state-led attempts to impose orthodoxy. His most recent research analyzes how popular magic and deviant sexuality in Mexico problematize the construct of the human being during the Enlightenment.