The Prongs of Engagement

When I approached my co-conspirator, Cartland, about presenting at Reclaim Open to discuss the work we do in the Digital Knowledge Center (DKC) I had one request and that was not to do something too serious. In the spirit of many presentations I saw Jim Groom and Tom Woodward do (Greeting from Non-Programistan) I thought it would be fun to be a bit more performative and we decided that using the rhetoric of the “get rich quick scheme” to talk about the work we do would be a humorous framing. We created an over-simplified, if not convoluted, framework of reclaiming digital fluency through our patented “prongs of engagement” which, of course, form the Trident of Digital Fluency. Since we chose to do a 15 minute presentation there wasn’t any time afterwards for conversation, so this post is an attempt to capture the details of the presentation as well as discuss what this has to do with digital fluency.

Prong 1: Workshops

Workshops get a bad wrap (sometimes rightfully so), but it seems to be a perennial refrain that people “want workshops” (even if they never show up). So, in 2021 when one of our student workers asked if we could start doing workshops I was initially skeptical. By the end of the semester my feelings about our student led workshops started to change and I was surprised how eager some of our students were to do these and delightfully surprised at the attendance at some of them. There was certainly room for improvement though and we’ve iterated ourselves to a fairly successful model that works for us. It goes a little something like this:

  1. Finding workshops
    • While many of the workshops are done by our student consultants we do invite others to propose their own. We have a form that anyone could fill out to request a workshop they’d like to see or to propose an idea they’d like to present on. Our goal is to give students an opportunity to share their expertise with others, so we aren’t particularly picky about what the topic is, which opens us up to all sort of cool workshops (like creating an interactive fiction game or launching your DJ career on Twitch).
  2. Building the workshop
    • After we get a proposal we have an initial jam with the presenter to get an idea of what the workshop will be about and help them figure out the beats of the presentation. This is where a lot of the magic happens. During the jam we engage in a back and forth with the student as we work to understand what they know and mold that into something that is accessible to a wide audience. Students rarely get the opportunity to teach others and these workshops gives them a perspective about teaching and learning they did not have before. I imagine for many students they are simultaneously thinking, “wow, I really do know a lot about this” and “teaching is not as straightforward as I thought it was”. Lastly, before we are done we come up with a snazzy title for the workshop by getting in front of a whiteboard and brainstorming together. This is one of my favorite things to do because we do not treat it too seriously (I love proposing bad pun titles) and is a rare opportunity to engage in brainstorming that feels wildly open and creative. Some of the best titles have come about riffing on what was a silly suggestion. After the title is chosen we are ready for the necessary evil that is…
  3. Marketing the workshop
    • Once the workshop wheels are in motion we set our student workers to the task of creating graphics, blurbs, an event for our events page, and of course pushing the content to all the different platforms on campus. We take the marketing piece off the presenters plate so they can focus on putting together the workshop. Cartland put a ton of effort into figuring out the process for this so that we could hand it off to our student workers. Our feedback has revealed that a lot of students attend because of our advertising efforts.
  4. Workshop rehearsal
    • Before the actual workshop we have the presenter run through the workshop under “show conditions” (or as close to that as we can possibly get). This is where we can try out the hands on pieces and work out the technical issues that inevitably arise. It gives us time to give the presenters feedback and hopefully give them a boost of confidence before they present (and I imagine that getting in some practice on presenting may help with anxiety about running a workshop).
  5. Fabulous workshop!
    • The day of the workshop we make sure catering is lined up (we’ve discovered our students love hot cocoa) and then at the start of the workshop we introduce the DKC, our other upcoming events, and most importantly the student who will be doing the workshop. Once it gets going it is the presenters time to shine. Many of our student workers will attend these workshops. We consider workshops a form of professional development for them (and they get paid for their time). Lastly, I’ll mention that we do pay presenters a small honorarium for all their hard work.

Prong 2: Fellowships

This is the newest of the prongs and we’ve only recently established a process (although I’m sure there is more iteration to go). Our goal with the Digital Knowledge Fellowship is to empower students to deeply engage in a specific area of digital creation and give them incentive (stipend or credit) to dedicate the time to explore something they are excited about. This idea arose of out our desire to try and encourage students to pursue a passion project more deeply by making it financially possible to achieve those projects. In return for our support of their project we get to learn from their explorations. So how do we make this happen?:

  1. Application
    • Students can learn more and apply to the fellowship through a simple application process. Right now we’ve had to actively encourage students to apply so we haven’t had to deal with having more applicants than we can support (a bridge we will have to cross if we get there).
  2. Initial Meeting
    • Before we get going we have an initial meeting to learn more about what the student wants to do. Since the application doesn’t require a lot of information this is our opportunity to learn more from the student and also to make sure they understand what our expectations are during the fellowship.
  3. Project Contract
    • Once the fellowship is a go we work out the finer details. There is what the student hopes to achieve with their project and how they think they will get there. We also include what we would like in return (e.g. a workshop or a presentation on their work). Helping the student scope out the project is a key part of this. Some student are not used to having control over defining what the end goal of a project should be or what success might look like for their experiment. This contract also sets up an initial schedule of deadlines. This can be flexible, and in fact we expect it to change, but we’ve found that this bit of structure helps keep everyone on track around expectations.
  4. Meetings, meetings, meetings
    • Throughout the semester we regularly meet with the fellow. Since we don’t have an expectation that students have to be in our space working on their fellowship this gives us a defined time to hear about their progress, if they need support, or if there are any adjustments that need to be made to the deadlines or deliverables (as you can imagine students are often more ambitious than is feasible, but that is okay!).
  5. Fabulous project!
    • We’ve done two fellowships so far, one involving 3D design and printing to make a practice bagpipe chanter, the other involved green screen video and animation to capture dreams. I’m still working on having a place to showcase the work they’ve done, but it so gratifying to watch these projects unfold over the course of a semester.

Prong 3: Jobs

This is the prong that has been around the longest. Since it’s founding in 2014 by the inimitable Martha Burtis, the DKC has been about peer to peer support. It was an outgrowth of the work DTLT did with faculty in support of class projects and assignments. As you can imagine the more classes you work with the more students with questions. Additionally, these students also make it possible to grow and sustain additional services or programs that support the mission of the DKC. As far as the peer to peer support goes there is plenty of research showing the benefits of peer tutoring not only for those students who use the services but for the students who provide the support. I feel fortunate that Cartland and I share the same view that the students who work for the DKC aren’t just here to help us “get work done” but we are there to give them experience and skills that will help them on their next steps after college. There is nothing more rewarding than hearing that a student’s experience working in the DKC has helped them succeed after college.

Now, I’m not sure about your institution but I know at mine we’ve long underrated the amount of work it takes to give students a valuable employment experience. If you have ever managed students you quickly realize how much work it is. I won’t get into detail about what it takes to manage students (honestly that could warrant several blog posts), but I will note that we spend a whole semester training students in a cohort model before they are considered official consultants. So, what do these students do once they are working for the DKC?:

  • Consultations
  • Class visits
    • We’ve invested more in class visits over the last year. In some ways these visits are less about the practical help in the moment and more about putting ourselves in front of the students. There have been many times a student has intentionally booked an appointment with a student worker because they knew them from a class visit. I’ll also mention that like workshops, we have found that our class visits are more successful when we can collaborate with our student workers on the presentation for the class.
  • Writing and updating guides
    • During the early COVID days we were looking for ways to keep our students busy but also have them work on something that could be useful. From that grew our series of guides on tools and how to get started on projects. These have become invaluable for class visits and training new students.
  • Lead on services and other things that help use get the work of the DKC done. This upcoming year we are moving away from the model of having one or two “supervisors” and more towards having many “lead” positions so that student workers can really dedicate time at become expert at those positions. For example:
    • Marketing Lead
      • Is tasked with making sure we are getting the word out about all our events and services and works with other students to make that happen
    • Workshop Lead
      • This student coordinates meetings with presenter, jams on the workshop, and relays to the marketing lead information about the event
  • Projects
    • During downtime we expect that our consultants are working on things to professionally develop. We’ve found one of the more effective ways to do this is to define a project that is meaningful to them and bonus if it means we are getting something we can use. Many videos and graphics that we use have come out of these learning projects.

So, digital fluency?

At the conclusion of our presentation we had a series of questions that brought home the reality that the approach we are taking is hard to scale, requires time (and a lot of it), investment in people, and it can be hard to measure impact. But despite all this (or more factually because of this) the students who come into contact with our “prongs of engagement” are having meaningful educational experiences.

So, what does this have to do with digital fluency?”

Glad you asked because honestly the answer is nothing and everything. The framework that we showed could easily apply to many different kinds of “fluency” or educational outcomes because it isn’t about the “bits”, like how to use technology and interrogate it (although this is very important and I do get paid in part to know these things), but how do you engage students about the bits in a meaningful way in the first place? If you look at what we proposed (workshops, fellowships, jobs) there isn’t anything radically new there, but what we do emphasize is the importance of human connection in those three prongs. We don’t just do workshops, we co-build a workshop with a student and along the way we have conversations around accessibility, ethical uses of tools, how to explain to others what you know. We don’t want to have student who just work for us, we want to have students that will care about helping the individual in front of them, that want to expand their ability to tackle technology questions both practical and abstract, and to build their creative confidence with digital tools.

One of the reasons we titled our presentation “Reclaiming Digital Fluency”, was to resist the narrow track conversations around digital fluency can sometimes go down (learning outcomes, badges, etc) in favor of the broader scope of what it means to educate a student. Perhaps this happens more in the technology field where there is a lot of focus around “skilling” people around digital tools that can lead to conflating digital fluency with digital technology proficiencies. As if digital fluency were merely a series of activities strung together where you end up with a badge at the end. Education is relational, not transactional, but how does one capture that in a meaningful way? How do I even know students are becoming “digitally fluent”? (As an aside: imagining that my interactions with students must lead to some sort of measurable outcome is nausea inducing. What if the time we spend with that student on a workshop ends up being useful for them for some other reason? Is that not worth something?).

To the “capturing piece” I will say that one thing we’ve identified we need to do more of is build in the reflection piece with students. As facilitators to students learning we often see the growth and change that they are unable to see in themselves. Even more alarmingly students sometimes believe the work they do outside of class (especially if it is fun) doesn’t “count” as part of their education. It is incumbent upon us to have these conversations with students to reflect back to them what we are seeing, to give them words to explain what they’ve accomplished, and to encourage them to cogitate on their own experiences. We need to help them see it at all matters and that, as Dewey put it, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

The Jam

One of my favorite things to come out of the work I do with my co-conspirators Cartland and Jerry is “the jam”. I believe credit goes to Cartland for the naming and codifying it into a Thing™, but it evolved out of many meetings where we would sit down and actively work on building something together. Whether it was revamping a presentation, figuring out work flows, or architecting a site we realized some of the best work came out of sitting down and hashing it out together. So, whenever we need to work on something like that we don’t call it a meeting, we call it a jam, and we go into that space ready to build, make, or blow up something. Additionally, in these collaborative moments we reveal and clarify our thinking and ideas (e.g. how do we talk about online identity to students?). I often come out the other side of those jams not only happy with what we’ve built but with a better and more nuanced understanding of the topic, idea, or purpose. It should be noted that at the foundation of all of this is trust. Even when we argue, sometimes vociferously, we all want to work towards the same goals.

Earlier this year Cartland and I were wrestling with better ways to scaffold our DKC student consultants to be better prepared for class visits. We had an explosion of class visit requests from faculty (seriously, we’ve done about double the amount of class visits than what we had done the previous two years). Some of these class visits required students to understand an assignment for a class and explain how to get started with technology tools. Many of our consultants had not done this kind of presentation and although we gave them a outline template to use to prepare for these presentations, they were not utilizing them in the way we wanted.

Sunset view up the Rappahannock river

Cut to an evening paddle along the Rappahannock river where many a work question has been pondered. As we paddled upstream Cartland asked the question, “What if we extended the jam model to our work with students?” As soon as he said this not only did I know we had a very viable solution, but a parallel musing that had been running through my mind suddenly found itself doing a hard right turn and coming together in his simple idea. You see, one of the most the valuable parts of my undergraduate experience was my time spent as a student employee in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT). It wasn’t necessarily the projects I did (although I did learn things), what I really had access to was a seat around the table (and I mean this literally) and the opportunity to listen to people (really smart and thoughtful people) think through ideas and be creative. I got to see how people think. In retrospect it seems like this shouldn’t have been a radical practice, but my schooling experience was full of assignments and projects where I was expected to complete them on my own (and in fact perhaps collaborating could even be considered cheating) and I don’t recall any moments where teachers demonstrated how they wrestled with complex questions and ideas. Cartland’s simple idea of “why don’t we jam with the students?” brought together all of this. Why wouldn’t we share the process that helped us create better things?

The jam is not necessarily a defined protocol we follow, but I do recommend that for anything you are planning to jam on with student that having an outline or questions to work from is helpful. It gives enough scaffolding to have a conversation, but by going through it together, out loud, we can also have those clarifying conversations. My favorite application of the jam has been for our DKC workshops. We encourage our students to propose a workshop around a digital skill or topic and we work with them to develop it, name it, market it, and run it.

The naming is honestly my favorite part of the whole endeavor. Once we have established a topic we gather around the whiteboard with the student (and anyone else in the room that wants to be involved) and start to brainstorm. We strongly push the “no bad idea” part of brainstorming. If you say it out loud, write it down. I think students have been able to see the value of being generative in ideas and not self-editing so quickly. You never know what is going to inspire the next thought that will lead to everyone exclaiming, “That’s it!”

whiteboard with brainstorming words about designing graphics
The winner for this workshop was “Let’s Get Graphic! Designing for Social Media”

Not only have we come up with some terrific names, but I think student have a lot of fun with this process too. There are often silly suggestions that don’t lead anywhere but at least one workshop on building accessible websites was titled “Oops, I Made the Web a Better Place!”. This title jam is also an opportunity to make sure we all are on agreement about what this workshop is going to be about. If you are trying to come up with a concise title and tagline it reveals what you think is important and can help clarify focus of the workshop itself.

A whiteboard with brainstorming words about a storyboarding workshop
We went with “From Post-It to Production: Learning to Storyboard your Videos”

Combining an eye catching title with some snazzy marketing graphics designed by our students has led to some fairly amazing ads as well.

An ad for the DKC workshop series titled "Mixing it up with JMack: Launching your DJ Career on Twitch"

We have seen an uptick in our workshop attendance this semester and I think credit can be given to the combined effect of a good title that makes a compelling pitch, alongside pushing that marketing material everywhere you can get in front of students (more props to Cartland for taking the time to figure out a process for getting this distributed to all the places at the right time. He should really write about this).

One thing I’m eager to see is how the jams will evolve over time as students gain creative confidence and become more practiced in the process. While I can’t speak for my students experience I suspect that like me at that age their experience in this kind of collaboration is minimal. I hope they see value in it and I hope we can continue to make time to prioritize it. Honestly, we are lucky we can do this kind of work because it is time consuming (in the best way). I think the jam not only leads to a better “product”, but it lets us have real human connection and a shared experience building something great.

Mucking about in databases and giving it all over to google

Shelves and Book Cart_9556678137_l

As mentioned in my previous post one of the projects I wanted to complete over last summer was digitizing as many of the paper processes that I could. One of the largest challenges was finding a way to digitize a major task my student supervisor performs. In the library the student supervisor takes time each week to spot check some of the shelving of the previous week. In order to do this the paper process was as follows:

  •  When a student assembled a “ready to be shelved” cart they filled out a slip of paper and wrote down 6 random call numbers that appear on the cart. This slip of paper went in to a bin near the computer workstation.
  • They would also write their name, date, time and cart number on another slip of paper. This slip stayed with the cart until the cart was completely shelved. Each student who worked on a cart would write down their name on the slip of paper. If one student shelved the entirety of the cart they only had to write their name at the bottom. If multiple people worked on a cart there was a field to indicate where they stopped on the cart.
  • Each time a student would head up to the Stacks to shelve they had to fill out their name, date, time and, cart number on a log also kept by the computer workstation.
  • The student supervisor would have to match up the the various pieces of paper to figure out who shelved what and then they’d take the slip of paper with the 6 call numbers and go do the spot check. During the spot check they’d write down anything that was out of order and if they did find an error they’d put the slip of paper in a binder that had the various student aides names so they could go back and correct their mistakes.

How do you even begin to digitize this process?

During my first year I had been introduced to Navicat which is piece of database management software (like Microsoft Access). My supervisor had shown me some queries she had built because the reporting tool that comes with our ILS (Integrated Library System) is not very robust. So, while I was thinking about ways to digitize the process it occurred to me I probably could put together a report of some sort. Every time a cart is assembled by a student the cart gets a second check-in. This ensures that all things have been checked-in and catches other statuses a book may be on that need to come off before they head back to the Stacks. Knowing that all these second check-ins were being recorded by the system I was able to build a query based on the items checked-in, the computer they were checked-in on and, a date range. Now, a lot more than just carts get checked in on the computer in the back so I needed a way for the student supervisor to sift through the items relatively easily. I created a google form for my students to fill out:

This form gives the student supervisor the barcode information they need to easily find the carts that have been made. In, addition I’ve made my students scan a barcode before and after they check-in a cart.  This helps speed up my student supervisor’s process even more by giving them an easily identifiable number to search for in the report that is generated. After the student finish shelving they also fill out an after-shelving form:

The input from these forms gets dumped in to google spreadsheets that both my student supervisor and I have access to. My student supervisor then has to match up the corresponding information.  They look at when carts were made and choose the date range for the query (which they are able to run themselves using some nice and free software that allows you to run basic queries) and then they run the report. They then take the database query output and import it in to our shared google drive folder where they can identify all the carts that are made based on the information in the “Assembled Carts” spreadsheet. After they have identified carts they pull up the “After Shelving” spreadsheet to see who shelved the cart and write their names down. For this last part I let my supervisor choose how they wanted to format things so that when they went spot check it made sense to them. My student supervisor this year color coded the spreadsheet and came up with a system of naming when identifying errors and that seemed to work for them. All that was left to do was grab a tablet (or their phone) and go upstairs and spot check. An, additional advantage to this system of spot checking was the student supervisor now has a complete list of everything on the cart. Rather than leave it up to person assembling the cart to pick 6 random call numbers the student supervisor can be more targeted in their checking. We know certain areas of the Stacks have more problems than others so it makes sense to check those places more often.

In order to get the information back to the student aides about what errors they need to correct  I gave them all individual pages on (which are hidden behind a login) and on each page is an editable spreadsheet so that not only can my student supervisor record the errors, but my student aides could grab tablets and head up in to the Stacks to correct their errors and mark that they fixed them while they are up there. Many opt to write down call numbers still, but quite a few adopted picking up the tablet and heading upstairs to check. This is one part of the process I’m trying to figure out how to make more easily accessible so that more student feel inclined to pick up the device rather than write down a bunch of call numbers on a piece of paper.

We’ve done this new way of spot checking for one academic year and the experiment has been very successful and few fun side benefits have come out of digitizing this process. My student supervisor now spends half the time doing the spot checking that it used to take and now I have the opportunity to expand out that positions task to include more variety and higher-level activities. One of the more fun side benefits that I had not given much thought to is the massive data collection that is a by-product of this process. I now know on average how many carts each week get shelved, when are our busiest weeks, how many items have been shelved, who had the highest accuracy (did I mention my student supervisor was keeping an on-going spreadsheet of student aides accuracy rates?). It was very cool to tell my student during the last week of school that they had shelved over 12,000 items during the semester.

Now that I have all this data it has my brain going about a new approach to student supervisor spot checking and on an even larger scale it has me thinking about the best use of student aide time while they work. I’m going to spend the summer sifting through the data a bit and spend time thinking about better ways to record statistics, do proper analysis (finding rates of accuracy on uneven sample sizes? Got to figure that out) and figure out what data is meaningful to keep recording. I’m excited that the experiment went so well and hopefully with a few more tweaks the system will be even better for this upcoming academic year.