This reflective blog post comes at an interesting time for online teaching. The spread of COVID-19 has not only meant that professors at Harvard have had to replace handshakes with ‘elbow bumps’, but also that many classes simply had to be moved online to avoid contact. This move might however not be as simple as many academics think it will be.

 Teaching online might require a broad set of skills and new pedagogical approaches. But more importantly, it will definitely require that teachers and students alike either have, or have the capability to acquire, a certain level of digital literacy––basically meaning that they are able to work, understand, and navigate on various digital platforms. There is truth in that younger students in general can find their way around social media (some, I have noticed, can even scroll through Instagram during my regular lectures AND pay full attention to what I am saying).

Still, just because one knows how to scroll through Instagram, post on Twitter, and make a video on TikTok (if that is what one does, I honestly could not tell you) does not per se means that they will be able to navigate an online teaching environment. The classroom being full of young people does not necessarily mean that the classes simply can be moved online with the expectation that everything will work out just fine. Studies have found that difference in gender, education, cultural and economic levels are associated with various degrees of digital literacy, meaning the level of digital literacy rather depends on who your young students are, not simply that they are young.

Now what does this mean for prospective teachers, including myself, that are stepping into the world of online teaching and learning? I have worked with videos, quizzes, and pre-recorded lectures and many other tools to harness the positive aspects of online and blended learning. I am, however, not an expert on online teaching and digital literacy. Recognizing this is probably the best first step. The second step is to do what all good researchers does when they set out studying a new topic: see what others already have done to address digital literacy, and build on their work.

I am particularly inspired about the work from anthropologist Michael Wesch. In his YouTube video “Teaching without walls: 10 tips for Online Teaching” Wesch shows how one can structure a digital learning environment to avoid unnecessary confusion by using a minimalistic structure of the course room. The video is great, check it out below.

Michel Wesch: Teaching Without Walls: 10 Tips for Online Teaching

Another example of a great and easy to follow structure comes from Jesse Stommel, founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab. Searching through his very interesting (and often entertaining) Twitter-feed, I found a link to his Digital Studies 101 class, which had few links and easy to follow week-by-week instructions the structure is similar to the one Wesch proposes. What I found particularly great about Stommel’s course is his clear, almost laid back, use of language in the course room. This has probably several pedagogical points that I am unaware of, but I think that by introducing the course room and schedule by writing “Here’s what we’ll spend our time doing this term (and space for us to fill with other stuff we decide on together” removes unnecessary academic jargon that could have been an obstacle for many students.

To summarize, my one tip is this: do what you usually do when you do not know what to do. The great thing about online learning is that the things you are searching for most often is, well, online, and easy to access. By recognizing that moving from the offline to the online brings new challenges, you can also recognize that it brings new opportunities for how to structure a course. I hope that this short blog post has inspired you to see that digital literacy is not to be taken for granted, and that by following the examples of experienced digital educators such as Wesch and Stommel you might just be able to help students follow your online class more easily––how to make them do it without scrolling through Instagram at the same time will have to be a topic for another blogpost. 

Note: This blog post was written for the ONL-Community about online participation and digital literacy.

Getting Started with Online Teaching: Respecting Digital Differences & Learning from Your Elders