Welcome to the first of a four-part series about working with digital texts in the classroom. Our goal is to offer our collegiate retail readers insight that will empower your discussions with faculty and administrators about affordable course material options. We will present the pros and cons of digital texts in a way that allows you to answer questions about how the format affects student engagement and success — and faculty workload.
Right away, I was concerned about the digital texts. I had agreed to teach a general education night class in English composition for a midwestern college. The selected titles were fine. It was the digital component that worried me. That’s not because I’m a luddite — if ed tech improves learning, I’m all for it — but because of the Murphy’s Law of Teaching: If you rely on something for a class, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a piece of chalk, a white board marker or the campus LMS, it can and will break, disappear, or somehow, at some point during the semester, render useless every minute of prep you’ve done in advance.
What’s more, adjuncts like me are often on their own in terms of working out bureaucratic kinks before the first day of the term. At one school, I was unable to see my student roster in the campus LMS until I’d made a special trip to the city’s social security office for a hard copy of my card. It didn’t matter that I had countless official documents with the number printed on it. Human resources would not declare me a legal employee until I presented the card. And the office let me know I would need this about two weeks into my first semester. The English department secretary had to print new copies of my class-list every day, so I could take roll.
On another campus, I started teaching in August — hired the day before classes began. Human resources didn’t process my W4 until October. I couldn’t access the LMS until the week of Halloween (as my students grew ever more incensed about printing copies of their papers for me), and I didn’t see a paycheck until mid-November — after two months of work.
Digital course materials had potential. But they could also create more problems than they solved. So, I arrived at my new classroom prepared to be resourceful, and I found that, comparatively speaking, this campus was reasonably organized.
I was only briefly locked out of my classroom. I chased down a slightly irked-seeming faculty member who let me into my room with his universal key.
“Thank you. What’s your name?” I asked.
“Dr. X,” he sniffed, without making eye contact. “I work in the daytime.”
“Of course,” I said, thinking, Okay, Dr. Daytime, I guess you’re important.
“They were supposed to give you a key,” he said.
“Yes, but things don’t usually go the way they’re supposed to go,” I said.
He shook his head and wandered off.
Once inside, I discovered that the department had also neglected to mention I would need a special password to access the internet — and the readings I’d assigned. This would be an addition to the LMS, email and syllabus-builder passwords I was already struggling to remember. But, after I found an undergraduate who knew the correct password, I was ready to go — eager to find out whether the much-touted benefits of going digital would lead to less teaching stress and more student achievement. Only two minor catastrophes in the first ten minutes of class: An unusually easy start!
Still, when I asked my students whether they preferred reading print or digital texts, my heart sank.
“Print,” said the Afghanistan veteran in the front row.
“Print!” said the 20-year-old full-time grocery store clerk, with his head bent over a bright purple laptop.
“Print,” said the Brazilian exchange student.
“Print,” said the first-generation college-goer from a rural Missouri town. “Definitely. Always. So much easier to read.”
All the students said they preferred print. Still, we managed to figure out which chapters we would study in the coming weeks without getting too confused about pagination. I showed them how to navigate the table of contents and they picked it up fast without complaint.
Even better, the students quickly learned how to access my shared textual notes — a tool I especially looked forward to having. My highlights and questions could serve as a textual map for the more reading-averse students. With some guidance, their academic reading skills might see a boost.
Soon, another benefit became apparent: Not a single student told me they were waiting for their books to arrive from the Amazon marketplace. Everyone had their required materials on hand. That’s the first time in over 15 years of teaching I can remember that happening. When all the students are equally prepared, it’s infinitely easier to plan classes and assignments, and class discussions are much livelier learning experiences for everyone.
When I arrived for the second class, I was looking forward to finding out whether more students completed the reading homework with a digital text. The department gave me my classroom key, and, as I was unlocking the door, I saw Dr. Daytime walking up the hall, chatting with a student.
“I got my key!” I called, waving the evidence.
He smiled and gave me a thumbs up.
“I told them it was my fault. I should have known to ask them about a key,” I said. “So, they were nice about it.”
“There you go,” said Dr. Daytime, nodding with approval. “Now, you’re getting the hang of things around here.”
In our next bimonthly segment of the Digital Text Classroom, we’ll address the ways digital course materials seem to impact student engagement. Have questions you’d like us to answer? Let us know!