Provocation: Academic Taskscapes, Learning Ecologies, and the Pandemic

I’d like to begin my provocation by framing the material conditions of digital technology against the backdrop of remote learning during the pandemic, specifically in reference to Smale’s and Regalado’s Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier in Higher Education. In particular, I think it’s important for us to consider how the shutdown of CUNY’s physical infrastructure has forced students to create new “taskscapes” for themselves as part of their remote learning, presumably repurposing domestic spaces into sites of technological access and academic coursework. Since these challenges are heightened for CUNY students, who must frequently navigate the close quarters and socioeconomic conditions of NYC living, I’d urge us to unpack the complexities of domestic taskscapes in terms of how “multiple actors may be simultaneously engaged in creating different kinds of meaningful spaces in the same place, creating the possibility of conflict over who can define how space in particular locations is used” (15). What’s especially striking to me about this perspective involves how students must juggle their academic and domestic identities in ways that restrict not only their technological access and sense of focus but also their authentic means of participating in academic coursework.

I wonder, for instance, about students who might feel disincentivized from bringing their full selves to in-class work for fear of how their contributions might overlap with their domestic relationships. These concerns come to a head when students hesitate to air sensitive content in class discussion due to their close proximity with surrounding homelife. I encountered precisely this issue when tasking my students with a literacy narrative assignment in which they were to narrate their experience acclimating to the conventions of a given discourse community; and one of my students expressed interest in writing about their encounters with the LGBTQ+ community despite having yet to come out to their parents. Knowing that others were also planning on discussing sensitive content in their literacy narratives, I tried to better support student discretion by altering the peer-review context for the assignment from small-group discussion to asynchronous writing. But this experience was a wake-up call for me – one that I try to bear in mind each time I sit down to design lesson plans and homework assignments that might hypothetically invite delicate lines of inquiry and/or self-reflection from my students.

Given the constraints of remote learning in how students navigate domestic spaces to create academic taskscapes for themselves, I’d also like to highlight the value of using digital technology to foster multiple points of entry for class participation, often in ways that expand beyond large-group verbal discussion. On the one hand, as John Warner discusses, the so-called customized learning of adaptive software clearly stands at odds with this move to agile learning ecologies, serving instead to enclose students within a banking model of education bent on standardized modes of trial-and-error memorization. On the other hand, as Ugoretz writes, productive digression in discussion forums (and surely elsewhere) may “facilitate a process whereby students may make new and original connections arising from their own thinking and discovery processes” (2). Importantly, productive digression also invigorates the sort of interest-driven learning that runs parallel to responsive teaching, enabling a fluid mode of instruction that accords itself with the emergent needs and preferences of our students throughout the semester.

I feel strongly about the prospect of designing agile learning ecologies with the digital technology of our remote classes, if only because the domestic barriers of taskscapes are largely unknown to us as instructors, yet greatly encroach upon the academic coursework of our students. I would therefore encourage each of us to negotiate this discussion so as to better understand the current taskscapes of students during the pandemic, while also imagining new pathways to knowledge and participation in how we facilitate learning in both online and in-person contexts. For the most part, the technological barriers of remote education do not spring forth entirely novel obstacles in our teaching and learning practices; rather, these barriers intensify our awareness of preexisting difficulties in how we as educators afford our students meaningful learning experiences via digital technology. Accordingly, I feel as though we might devote discussion time to determining which ways the pandemic may bring to light otherwise invisible barriers related to our students’ use of technology as part of their newly formed taskscapes.

Teacher’s Guide to Discord

At the moment, I feel as though my ITP project will most likely take the form of an interactive website on the Commons, dedicated to introducing the pedagogical possibilities available to Discord as a dynamic learning space for instructors teaching in online, blended, and web-enhanced contexts. The content of the website, as I see it now, would include instructional support documentation, student testimonials, server templates, as well as analytical reflections on the affordances of Discord-enabled learning models. Some of these features might include a server setup guide and other technical docs, along with a series of teaching recipes tailored to synch and asynch learning formats. While I’ve considered the prospect of forking off an open-source Discord bot and repurposing it to support class activities, I’m not convinced that doing so would be the best use of my time, since the bots currently active on Discord already appropriately serve that purpose. As far as design practices are concerned, I may choose to develop and showcase a taxonomy of Discord templates for instructors to adopt in support of different pedagogical models. For what it’s worth, here is one such template, entitled “Writing 101 Classroom Server,” which I’ve designed (and used) for the purpose of first-year writing instruction, specifically with an emphasis on writing groups and peer-review activities.

Moreover, I hesitate to frame Discord against the limited backdrop of distance education, since doing so may pigeonhole the project, inviting a false equivalency between Discord-enabled classrooms and the emergency-response pedagogy of distance learning in 2020/21. I’d rather dig into the pedagogical affordances of Discord as an fluid learning environment whose community-driven design fosters student agency, group cohesion, and peer-interactive pedagogy across multiple learning formats. In other words, I would like to explore the various ways in which Discord can support online learning environments not only during our stint with distance learning, but also as a web-enhanced extension of face-to-face instruction following the pandemic. Doing so may reinforce the social ecosystem in which college students find connection and belonging alongside their peers, forming online communities of practice that then enrich face-to-face learning encounters.

In my experience, for instance, Discord has enacted as an interstitial space in which my first-year students have linked up and developed social connections, building for themselves a broader sense of community than is available simply within the formal confines of (online) educational contexts. I think Discord class servers may in turn operate as a “digital third place,” where community life may casually unfold with students having easy, transparent access to one another both within and outside the online learning environment. This prospect is heightened when students friend each other on Discord and voluntarily communicate through direct messages and additional student-led Discord servers. I’ve also found Discord to offer affordances in establishing clear lines of communication between myself and my students, streamlining the extra steps required to send emails by enabling a self-contained domain for communication via direct messages and engagement with different text/video channels. On that note, since Discord collapses the text-video divide, I also find the platform to be especially attuned to one-on-one conferences (via office hours), which may support students in futures times who feel the need to meet temporarily but would rather not commute 30-60 minutes to do so.

Since I also serve as an admin for the English Student Association’s Discord server, I’ve also toyed with the prospect of collaborating with Baruch folks to help build out a server tailored to instructors in the first-year writing program. In this regard, my goal would be create a collaborative academic space for first-year writing instructors to communicate and pool their resources, staying in touch by means of both text and video. Such opportunities testify to the fact that strategic uses of Discord may foster connectivity between an array of teaching and learning models, as well as broader academic communities among the CUNY system. Whether or not such a prospect might be feasible, I see my ITP project as expressly defined by this community-driven ethos, one in which my efforts would involve articulating how and why Discord may effectively serve as a collaborative online ecosystem for instructors and learners alike. There are more granular pedagogical details and features related to Discord that I would like to explore in pursuit of these goals, but for now I’ll conclude in the interest of brevity and of seeking feedback from the class.

Thank you for reading!!