Luddites, Laputans and Literature teachers

Thursday 29 March 2018

Digital Technology in the Literature Classroom

Digital Technology: what works in the context of teaching English Literature? 

Five recommendations, after a preamble about technology, teachers and Literature...

If there is a stereotype of a Literature teacher (and I am sure there are several), one of the defining characteristics would probably be a suspicion of digital technology, a fear that, if a teacher allows it to snake its way into their classroom, the literary Eden they have created will be polluted and destroyed forever.  Of course this is an outdated stereotype - I have met and worked with teachers like this, though not so many in recent years. However, it might still be true to say that Literature teachers are more cautious than others when it comes to the use of technology in the classroom. This is not because Literature teachers are Luddites or sentimentalists; it’s because, as a rule, Literature teachers are (perhaps) more intelligent and less credulous than most other teachers.

If we study Literature, we know that change is inevitable and that there is no point trying to cling to the past; at the same time, Literature teaches us to be wary of brave new worlds and Laputans promising solutions.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This captures the approach most Literature teachers adopt when it comes to digital technology in the classroom: we reserve the right to be sceptical, while also keeping an open mind and acknowledging that, at times, technology can help to facilitate teaching and learning.

There is no denying that digital technology has made a significant difference to the way we teach in the last ten to fifteen years. Some might say it has 'transformed' the way we teach but, being an Englishman, I prefer to err on the side of bland understatement rather than hyperbole. When all is said and done, teaching is still teaching and I'm with Dylan Wiliam when he says that "there haven’t been any real breakthroughs in teaching for the last two thousand years."  However, there have been breakthroughs in terms of the tools we use in order to teach. For most of us, the days of Overhead Projectors are long gone (and if you need a reason to be grateful for the new technology, there's one right there); now we are faced with what can often seem an overwhelming range of devices, applications and innovations, all announcing that they will "transform" or make us "rethink" the way we teach.  

So what works in the Literature classroom?  Many of you will already be using a whole range of digital tools in highly effective and creative ways but, if you do need some ideas, here are five recommendations of things we think work well in the context of the Literature course.  The first three are completely free; the last two do cost money but may be worthwhile investments: 

1. Padlet for the creation and organisation of resources on a text.  

Padlet is a free tool which works really well as a platform for collaboration and sharing of resources.  The ‘Shelf’ layout (see example below) allows you to organise however you want - by chapter, by character, by theme etc.  It is easy to use and offers a clear, attractive place for the collation and storage of notes and resources that students can return to for reference and revision.  

2. Soundcloud for peer and teacher feedback on oral presentations.

This tool is particularly useful when preparing students for the IOC.  Students record a practice IOC, or part of an IOC, and then share it with a peer or teacher.  The peer/teacher can comment at specific time markers on the recording, giving the student very precise feedback and helping them identify issues quickly.  Rather than students solely relying on one ‘mock’ for feedback before doing their final IOC, this tool gives students the opportunity for lots of practice and feedback so that they can refine their skills and develop their confidence over time. In the example below, the blue markers on the recording timeline show where comments have been made for this student; these comments can be viewed by clicking on these markers or by looking below the line. 

3. Edpuzzle video for questions and feedback on video clips. 

Often we want students to watch a film version of a text we are studying, or a film related to the text, but find it hard to justify the time to do so in the classroom.  These are times when we might choose to ‘flip" the classroom and get students to watch a video at home.  However, when we do so how can you ensure that they a) watch the video and b) think about what they are watching?  The answer is to use Edpuzzle, which allows you to assign a video to a group of students and set questions at specific points as the students watch. You can then see their answers and give feedback.  It also allows you to track who has watched it and see how many times they watched each section.

The example below was used for a class studying Henry V.  The first image is the student's view as they watch a clip from the film version of the play; the green markers indicate points where the film stops and a question appears (you can see the question here at the bottom of the screen).  Students can rewatch the relevant section if needed in order to answer the question and they need to enter their response before they can proceed with the film. The second image shows a teacher's view of one student's response to this question. 


4. Document cameras for modeling annotations or recording feedback.

A document camera is a worthwhile investment: these can be plugged into a laptop so that you, or a student, can model the annotation of a text for the whole class, either live in class (via projection) or recorded for later viewing.  There are other uses: for example, you can record your feedback as you annotate a student’s work so that they can hear your thinking as you mark (some self-editing may be required for certain students!)

5. Literary Apps.

In the olden days (i.e. when we were at school), if you wanted to conduct deep research into a text you needed to travel to a very good library or bookshop (or several different libraries and bookshops).  Now, for certain texts, there is no need to even leave your chair, as long as you have a tablet with one of the new interactive, encyclopedic literary apps that are coming onto the market.  Two notable examples are Random House group's app for Antony Burgess's A Clockwork orange and an app for T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland by Touch Press in partnership with Faber and Faber.  Both of these are excellent resources that include hyperlinked texts, readings and a wealth of secondary materials, both textual and audio/visual.  At present there is a limited range but, given how popular (and profitable) these have proven to be, there are sure to be more on the way soon.  


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