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Librarian's Perspective on Setting-up Classrooms

A Q&A with the Global Languages Instructional Technologist at MIT
Published onDec 15, 2022
Librarian's Perspective on Setting-up Classrooms
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Joseph Borkowski is the instructional technologist in the Global Languages unit at MIT. He wants to make it clear, even though he has no formal LIS training, he has backgrounds in language and literacy education, developmental studies, information technology, and theater, and has been involved in some way in language instructional technology for about a decade. As an instructional technologist, Borkowski provides both physical and digital resources for for language pedagogy. That's not just setting up the the larger structure of LMSs, but also investigating tools for language learning, and working with lecturers and faculty.

Q: How did you first become involved in helping/consulting on setting up Three Kingdoms with Emma Teng and Russian Stuides with Maria Khotimsky/Elizabeth Wood for Russian Studies?

JB: Emma introduced me to the platform first in 2019, when we were exploring the possibility of posting working papers on second-language pedagogy. Late in 2020, the MIT Programs in Digital Humanities and the MIT Libraries hosted a Zoom discussion about PubPub in humanities classrooms, with Catherine Ahearn, Catherine D'Ignazio, Lauren Klein, and Jeff Ravel. That renewed our interest in the platform, this time as a pedagogical tool, and Emma and I quickly implemented it for the Spring 2021 semester and really learned as we went. She was looking for a reliable platform where students would be able to work on semester-long projects with multimedia, in full view of each other. She'd worked with walled-garden social media platforms/learning management systems before that either never fit the bill, or ended up being unfeasible due to high licensing costs. PubPub was so promising that we jumped right in.

Elizabeth and Maria were in a similar situation, seeking a platform where students could work in plain sight of each other, asynchronously, on a semester-long digital project. Because of Emma's success, I had no qualms about recommending PubPub, and I worked with them to put together student-facing documentation in advance of their Spring 2022 class.

Q: What needs to be taken into consideration when setting up a digital classroom?

JB: The most important consideration is ensuring that the choice and use of digital tools align with learning outcomes expected for the activity or course. It's easy to be swept up in a presentation or a trend without making these explicit connections. With an appropriate tool, however, it should be just as easy to connect student actions in the digital classroom with student achievement.

Expanding the classroom into digital space requires clear intentions. I often see a rule posited for instructional technology: know how to use the tool before asking the same of your students. I think it is just as important, if not more so, that instructors be able to explain to students why a tool is worth using. It doesn't require an elaborate introduction, but when an instructor's motives are clear, it gives more room for students and instructors to explore possibilities in the digital classroom and overcome difficulties together.

Q: What’s unique about a language-based class? A history-based class?

JB: At the risk of vastly oversimplifying second-language pedagogy, effective instructional technology in language classes typically invokes principles of comprehensible input and communicative language use. Language educators use technology to contextualize language so that meaning and function can be understood at an optimal level for individual students, and to foster opportunities for real communication using the target language in appropriate situations and cultural contexts.

At the risk of vastly oversimplifying digital humanities, in the history classes I've encountered, instructional technology provides avenues for the contextualization of artifacts, whether they be textual or multimedia, primary sources or secondary, data sets or corpora. Frameworks for timeline visualization, mapping/GIS, and annotation tools all provide simple yet powerful ways for students to make sense of historical periods and subjects.

Q: What feedback did you get from the professors and students?

JB: I really worked very closely with Emma time on the Three Kingdoms course. When the pandemic hit we were looking for something that was that was creative, but also with the possibility of being asynchronous. We really gave each other a lot of feedback as she set up the proof of concept and we dug into the space as if we were the students. That's something that I often greatly encourage the instructors in my group to do is to jump in as if they were a student. As the instructor, you know how creative your students are in a particular class when they're working with a particular subject.

Sometimes we would get frustrated with perceived limitations of the platform. It's very easy to frame limitations as limitations or bugs instead of looking at them as features instead. That was the biggest thing that we we discovered working back and forth with each other in the beginning, was that PubPub is a really unique environment that focused the work that she was doing. Rather than getting hung up on formatting (How do I center this? How do I change the font? How do I put this in this color? ) — which are all really just distractions from the scholarship — we realized that the simplicity would allow students to use creativity in their ideas and concepts rather than design. For these classes, the students are looking at and analyzing specific artifacts and the simplicity of the page layout means that the focus is on the artifact itself and the discussion around that item or text. And so when you embrace that simplicity and the power that the tool provides for revisions and collaboration, then students get to actually work and think and create.

Something that using PubPub has made us question more is the role of privacy and annotations. Both of these communities have their content not publicly available to protect student identity. That said, the projects that they are collaboratively making over the semester are genuine scholarship with correct references and everything so students are eager to hit the publish button. Still, they’re anxious about not being able to revert to draft, or sharing their name attached to a sensitive topic as in the case for the Russian Studies class. With regard to annotations, there’s increasing evidence that public and social annotations help with engaging with the text. Remi Kalir’s book Annotation (that’s on PubPub!) describes that annotation on the work becomes the work itself. That additional layer is really interesting and an important part of the process of scholarship. But within a classroom setting, it opens a lot of questions that we’re thinking about: who has access to the annotations? Do you have a responsibility for the annotations to be open? It what's the value in it being walled in? And what's the value of it being open? I think right now, we’ve landed on the idea that the primary and secondary text is enough information for undergraduates to digest, but we’re still open to how to use annotations more.

Q: What resources should other instructors look for if they’d like to set up classes like these at their university?

I think that that the resources exist in different ways at different institutions. Sometimes there'll be a humanities center that has instructional technologists, and some of them will be specific to languages. Sometimes there'll be a specific language center with multiple people that could provide resources like this. There are some institutions that have a larger academic technology group and a language center. But many institutions, if not most, have some sort of analog to my role, even if it's not embedded in the language department.

Whatever you end up doing though, I again highly recommend that you get in there yourself with the perspective of the student to test out new things and explore.

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