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Classic Classrooms Plug In

Dr. Harinda Vidanage video conferences with students for one of his hybrid courses.

The “digital classroom” is simply a defined advancement of the already tech-savvy students using cell phones, tablets and various other digital devices that are becoming necessary school supplies in today’s world.

  • Paper and pencil
  • Dry erase boards
  • Printed copies of assigned readings or purchased hard copies of literature
  • A traditional classroom setting

All are rapidly being replaced.

  • A laptop
  • Smartboards
  • Kindle downloads and online Sakai texts
  • A hybrid course involving information communication technologies

Now, St. Lawrence University is slowly becoming one of many universities to take technology in the classroom to the next level in just a few of its courses. Associate Professor of Sociology Stephan Barnard has been teaching with Twitter for many years, though not in every course or in the same capacity. His teaching incorporates a variety of digital tools to facilitate learning in correspondence with technology.

“As someone who teaches with as well as about technology, I’ve found that it’s really important to set clear expectations–whether it’s for student assignments, or for faculty uses of digital media–and to model those expectations by practicing what we preach,” Dr. Barnard says. “Digital technologies are here to stay, and the more we can do to raise awareness of the academic potential of these tools, the better off we will be.”

Dr. Barnard emphasizes that the internet sure does pose an amazing opportunity for people to be “life-long learners,” although he continues that “this requires a set of literacies that we should take very seriously going forward.”

As a Senior Fellow in the Digital Initiatives Faculty Fellowship here at SLU, Dr. Barnard will be working with Leila Walker and Eric Williams-Bergen (among others) to develop more innovative ways to engage students in self-directed and digitally mediated forms of learning. This semester, he is teaching his sociology capstone seminar, Twitter and Society, where he will focus on collecting and analyzing Twitter data to see what he and his students can learn about a variety of sociological dynamics, like social movements and (citizen) journalism, he says.

“Like last spring, I intend for this course to resonate strongly with my research agenda, giving students an opportunity to actively participate in the research process, and for me to learn from the group’s successes as well as its failures,” he says. “We are spending much of the semester learning to work to conduct research using social media data—beginning with word clouds and targeted searches, and moving on to more complex methods like digital ethnography, content analysis, and social network analysis.”

Victoria Leimgardt ‘16, who is a sociology major, took Dr. Barnard’s capstone seminar during the Spring of 2015.

“During this course, we had to create a Twitter account surrounding the Ferguson trial,” Leimgardt says. “ We learned how hashtags worked to enhance social upheaval and also learned a lot about coding in a general sense by engaging in the digital world.”

Leimgardt says that it was the most digitally-inclined course she has ever taken thus far at St. Lawrence and it allowed her to realize that Twitter’s advancement is “definitely a positive element of the digital age because especially during the Ferguson trial, it was a medium that was used to bring people together to voice their opinions.”

Dr. Barnard began incorporating a variety of social media tools in his classes in 2011 — starting with blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumbler — in order to make learning more relevant outside the academy, according to his article “Building Castles In the Air: Critical Digital Pedagogy and the Pursuit of Praxis” published in Hybrid Pedagogy.

“While we were certainly challenged by moments of failure, the majority of my students have found these tools to be a useful supplement to more traditional learning environments,” Dr. Barnard says. He typically uses Twitter, WordPress, and Storify, although the tools can vary greatly depending on the course, student, and project.

Another faculty member, Dr. Harinda Vidanage, is the Visiting Assistant Professor of International Relations and was formerly the Fulbright Scholar in Residence at St. Lawrence University. His course platform also engages the digital technological advancements of today similar to Dr. Barnard, but in a different manner.

This semester, he is teaching his course in it’s third year called Global Cyber Politics in which he delves into the Information Communication Technological Eco Systems and their necessity in every human interaction. His course is an attempt to locate important themes of “international politics” by exploring cyber space as the core of transformation in regards to political representation and political engagement across societies and cultures globally.

The course highlights competing themes that students face daily by living in a society where Dr. Vidanage says, “globalization meets global politics through ICTs (Information Communication Technologies), smart phones, and mobile communication backbones to the Internet.”

Dr. Vidanage hopes that his students grasp the ability to understand the impact of cyber space and cyber technologies in conjunction with mainstream politics, international institutions and security establishments. This class is not your mainstream everyday classroom scenario but rather designed as a hybrid delivery platform in which students will actively develop the course, potentially alter it throughout the semester both in the classroom (offline) and in online interactions. This itself is the nature of cyberspace, according to Dr. Vidanage

“This is the only hybrid course that has ever been taught at SLU,” Dr. Vidanage says. “We had to fight hard for this course.”

By this, he means that he had to create a model that St. Lawrence would accept and deem compatible with the liberal arts values of critical thinking, presenting and more.

“Dean Val Lehr was really backing this and pushing hard while my department was also quite supportive,” Dr. Vidanage recalls. “When I started the course, I taught an in-class session and two outside class components: a forum and a conferencing component, which began with Google Hangouts and has recently moved to a system called Cisco WebEx. I have four video conference groups with five students in each. We conference once per week for half hour sessions, and suddenly, I found I have created a class that is generating a lot of critical mass of knowledge.”

Technology and politics have a main intersection and are significantly affecting each other, which is something that Dr. Vidanage stresses in his coursework.

“Young people don’t realize how much power they have in an iPhone. You are tweeting, Youtubeing, taking video footage of a protest on a smart device,” he continues. “My goal in academia is to make my students part of this not just learn it.”

Dr. Vidanage’s first attempt at this course involved students using their smart technology to create their final projects, which turned out to be a very successful component of his coursework platform.

Thomas Mathiasen ’16 is currently in Dr. Vidanage’s course this semester and says, “It’s something I’ve never been a part of before and it’s interesting to see the new development of a class like this. I hope that more professors implement a similar course platform into their curriculum because it’s such a good way to gain real world experience.”

While many students refer to a classroom setting, like the one Mathiasen is in, as a “digital classroom,” Dr. Vidanage disagrees with the term.

“I don’t agree with the term digital classroom because I want the students to experience how society is changing and I think students are very handicapped in using these devices for only certain reasons,” Dr. Vidanage states. “How do I make more generic conversation in a classroom? If I can make students engage in the material at their own pace and in their own manner, then I will be providing a classroom with more empowerment to the students because they are more accountable.”

Students who were very quiet in the classroom perform extremely well on the forum component on the course, Dr. Vidanage says. Through the forum, one needs to be engaged and have done the primary and secondary readings in order to contribute worthy content. It’s a great testament to their accountability.

“I’m not using technology for the sake of technology,” he says. “For me, it’s providing a space that is more comfortable for my students.”

The class will stand or fall based on how you take ownership, is what he tells everyone at the beginning of his class.

“It’s not just about the classroom and the content, but it’s what you do when you leave here in real life and the corporate world,” Dr. Vidanage says. “You might have to talk with people a lot online and your responsibility is to work with that person. That’s the experience you get right here. You are working and engaging in this conference environment. The course is thus, most importantly based on what happens outside in the real world.”





About the author

Rebecca Doser '16

My name is Rebecca Doser and I am a sophomore at St. Lawrence University. I am an English Creative Writing major and am involved in various extracurricular activities such as the Women's Volleyball Team, The Hill News, The St. Lawrence Review, the Thelmathesian Society, and the Student Athletic Advisory Committee