The Third Space – Digital Tools Disrupt Learning Hierarchies

For both teachers and students, the shift from independent departments of history and English toward a successful 3.0 Digital Humanities program began through collegial dialogue and active collaboration both during school hours and through virtual interactions on Twitter, Tumblr, and Blogger. Reconceptualizing essential skills through the lens of the Digital Humanities has strengthened the technical literacies of our students; deepened their understanding of historical and socio-political context; and augmented the overall quality of their expression. Technology tools have proven especially effective in redirecting the learning lens away from a teacher-centered classroom and blurring the distinction between “requirement” and “enrichment.”

In 2005, I presented on media literacy at the NYSAIS Conference For Managers of Information Technology. We were given the assignment to read The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman for the keynote addresses by Alan November, founder of November Learning, and John Palfrey, who at that time served as executive director of Harvard’s Berkman Center For Internet and Society. It was transformative, and changed the way I approached teaching and learning. Back then Web 2.0 was in its infancy centered on wikis, blogs, podcasts, and RSS feeds. Now we are moving full throttle toward Web 3.0, redefining literacy, and reinventing our curricula for a 24/7 world. As subjects blend through the power of digital tools, the segregation that occurs when we operate in distinct silos of learning diminishes. Ideas are no longer fixed by time and space. From visualizations to social media, technology transforms the humanities into a layered discipline. The learning becomes relational, removing the boundaries between individuals, whether teacher or student, and the sharing of content becomes fluid, social, and organic.

Using tech tools is no longer an option in the classroom. The connectivity of today’s students is light-years from that of 2005. The power of digital technologies has changed drastically since then. Embracing this fast paced growth can at times seem overwhelming for some teachers putting them at a disadvantage in terms of skill. Our students use these electronic devices with ease, and continually share in ways that we sometimes do not understand. Harnessing that ability and using their tech savvy can change the dynamic of learning. We can learn from each other. This sharing blurs the boundaries between teacher and student.

It is no surprise to us anymore, when our students go off on their own to research in anticipation of the next topic, or to extend their understanding on what they learned in class. Students today take it upon themselves to learn more. Subjects no longer seem isolated bringing real time into a digital space on smart phones, tablets, and more. The digital humanities provide the perfect place for a fluid sharing of content and skill. It is not only social, but also mobile. The organic growth of ideas that reaches across predefined roles is empowering for teachers and students alike.

My students love the sense of choice in developing content, or in which tech tool to use. Likewise, I constantly remind them of “content first, pretty second.” We want a “so what,” and guide them in ways to help them develop their ideas. It doesn’t matter if they are writing stories using Storybird, creating talking avatars with Voki, commenting on each other’s work in Voicethread, or designing tagged images on Thinglink. This year we started a Humanities Enrichment Tumblr and the response from our students has been amazing. So much so, that they will send us things that they find such as visualizations, maps, and infographics to possibly include. While I know Alfe Kohn is a controversial and an outspoken critic of education, his one mantra that I stand by is to get kids “juiced” about learning.

For my students, that sense of shared public content provides that subtle push to do their best work, and the freedom to self-select to make their own decisions disrupts the traditional learning hierarchy. Building in digital tools in the humanities blurs the boundaries; it is no longer inside the classroom and homework, but learning in a third space. It reaches across disciplines, extending beyond just being virtual.

Photo Credit: ralphbijker via Compfight cc


Thanks for the invigorating post Patricia. Much of this potential you describe seems to require a certain attitude towards technology that, for a variety of reasons, isn't shared by all students. Collaborative learning builds trust not only in themselves, but in one's peers and technology as well. In your experience, what have you observed in students growing through this issue while they work on projects? Out of curiosity, where do you find students who are well-versed in digital learning placing more of their trust: in the technology, themselves, or in one another?

Thanks again!

Patricia, I appreciate the energy of this post. I agree that technology has transformed the humanities and that as educators, we need to acknowledge how connected our students are and implement digital tools into our classrooms in ways that support specific learning objectives. With regard to students’ digital skills, I have taught students who, as Patricia describes, “use these electronic devices with ease”; however, I have witnessed just as many students who, for whatever digital divide reasons, do not use digital tools with ease, especially digital tools of production. Although not a new point, it is, perhaps, worth reiterating that those of us who teach with digital technology and expect our students to construct meaning and to produce texts in digital spaces and via digital tools should do so with an enthusiasm tempered with a critical eye and an anticipation that not all students are equipped with the knowledge and experiences that predispose them to successful digital experiences in the classroom (something I acknowledge may vary depending on institutional setting). In so doing, we position ourselves to better support our students as they engage in the work of learning, composing, and creating in digital spaces.

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