Amy Collier is the associate provost for digital learning at Middlebury. When she was hired in 2015, the position was a new one, created as part of an institutional effort to devote more resources to digital fluency. What that meant, beyond the immediate impetus to invest in the rapidly expanding digital field, was to be discovered over the coming years.
When Collier arrived in Vermont from Stanford, she realized that across Middlebury’s campuses there were pockets of digital energy—pedagogical innovation, student experimentation with emerging technologies—but no central support hub. It made sense to form a group that could encourage initiatives and then help implement them. That’s how Digital Learning and Inquiry, or DLINQ, came into being in 2018, drawing upon instructional designers, digital scholars, teaching and learning professionals, and student interns from across the institution. Little did the members of DLINQ know how vital their work would become as a pandemic began to loom in early 2020.
You had some preview of trouble on the horizon when students in China couldn’t return to the Middlebury Institute for the 2020 spring semester, and you had to help faculty there adjust to online learning. What preparations did you think about for the undergraduate College?
I remembered when I worked at institutions in Texas that many of them have emergency keep-teaching sites because they have a lot of tornadoes and hurricanes. They do preparatory work for sudden closures, and I thought, you know, we should probably just go ahead and do something like that just in case. So that weekend I threw together a remote teaching site and spent the next week talking with my leadership team about what we could do if there was a rapid transition.
Then you got a text from Provost Jeff Cason asking if you could come to a Senior Leadership Group meeting . . .
Yes, it was a Monday morning and he asked if I could come to SLG right now. They were talking about different ideas of what the College might do in the face of the pandemic. I was sitting next to [College physician] Mark Peluso, and he was saying we were getting to where we really might need to start thinking about closing. And Laurie Patton looked at me and she said, “Can we do this? Can we close?” And I said, “Well, here is what would need to happen,” and told them what my team and I had discussed, like how to offer the training and support for faculty and students that they would need.
So, technology to the rescue?
We like to say we are not techno evangelists. We don’t believe in technology for the sake of technology. We kind of occupy a space of criticality and hope. We are critical of the problems that technology embodies and we are also hopeful of the ways technology can support student learning and exciting, creative outcomes for students.
Looking over the past year, how do you think it went?
I think what came to the forefront was a concern we had around the issues of equity that technology can exacerbate, and the issues tied to it about privacy and accessibility. Those are concerns we’ve had at DLINQ for years, but this past year, watching how technology was the vehicle by which students could stay connected to their educational experience—or the way they were disconnected from that experience due to a lack of Internet access or in some cases even electricity access—made us more aware and alarmed about these concerns. We saw students being exposed to more privacy harms than ever before.
So what I wouldn’t want us to take away from the past year is a sense of euphoria and unabashed optimism about technology in education, because that’s not what we saw. We saw lots of good things being implemented—lots of interesting pedagogies—but we also saw the equity and accessibility issues intensified.
What could you do to help students?
Before students left, we did a survey, asking them what situation they were expecting to go back to, and if they identified a need, we tried our best to help with that, like providing a laptop or a hotspot. On the pedagogy side, there are ways to give students more accessibility through asynchronous things like fewer live class sessions and more recorded ones, which students could watch on their own time. We were advising faculty on how they could make learning more accessible and encouraging them to talk to their students about the issues and to regularly check in with them.
In other words, everyone was in this mess together and trying their best to make it work.
Right. No one at Middlebury opted into this type of learning. And it was a year of kind of grieving in some ways, right? People pick Middlebury because they expect a set of things that Middlebury has to offer. And when that doesn’t happen, whether it’s out of our control or not, it can feel like a big loss.
I would say, too, we have digital learning expertise and know the research around digital learning. Before the pandemic, there was a lot of research pointing to ways in which digital learning could improve student learning outcomes by helping students do creative multimodal work and network with professionals and experts online. But with the pandemic, what we were doing was we were putting students into a situation where they were learning in those ways but not by choice. It became clear the outcomes were going to be less positive than what the research indicated.
I imagine you also ran into a lot of screen fatigue.
Yeah, absolutely. One of the things we try to do is what we call multiple means of representation, which means presenting the content of the course in multiple ways. So not only could you record a video for your students to watch at a time when they could connect, but you could also create a podcast version. Rather than sitting in front of a screen and watching your lecture, a student could put in some earbuds and take a walk.
You interviewed faculty and students recently about the digital experience they’ve had this past year. What did they have to say? Were there some positive outcomes?
Yeah, definitely. We heard from many faculty who said that with intentionality they were better able to understand where their students were from a learning perspective and even just from an interpersonal perspective because they did more check-ins with them, finding out how things were going, what barriers they were facing, what faculty could do to help. I think those are practices faculty will keep doing. There’s a lot of interest in the intersections of our face-to-face communities and digital communities.
Students also highlighted some of the ways technology brought flexibility that was positive for their learning. One student talked about how she benefited from recorded lectures because she could decide when she was most mentally ready to engage with that material. She could organize her day where she could focus on other things, and when she was ready to focus on school, it was in her hands. Other students appreciated that there was flexibility in what they produced for class. Instead of writing a paper, maybe they could do a video or podcast or piece of art.
So going forward, it sounds like there are positive uses for technology in the classroom that hadn’t been realized. How does DLINQ support that?
We have a ton of workshops that we can do live or record since we know faculty time is limited and they maybe can’t make live workshops. We’ve written blog posts on various uses of technology. We have a monthly conversation series where faculty can share ideas.
Your team sounds amazing.
I am just so incredibly proud of the DLINQ team for their work this past year. This is a team that is so dedicated to students and how we can help improve the learning situation through our work with faculty and with students. I think a lot of people now recognize that commitment and appreciate it. That hasn’t always been the case in the past and I’m hopeful that folks will continue to see DLINQ as that resource.