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The potential for technology-enhanced learning (TEL) to foster innovative teaching and improve student experience has been widely discussed (Davies 2015, Gordon 2014, Patton 2018). Some scepticism has been expressed about prevailing discourses on TEL (Bayne 2015), while wider concerns have been voiced about the extent to which it forms part of a movement leading to the marketisation of education (Williamson 2014). Others, however, have stressed its pedagogical potential when well-designed (Sinclair 2010); and such principles have informed the learning activity discussed here.
Teaching activity: generating word clouds in a Politics seminar
This reflection concerns an example of my explorations into the potential uses of TEL within my teaching of seminars on a Politics module for first year PPE undergraduates, between January and March 2019. The course presented an overview of contemporary versions of Marxist critique. Throughout this module I used a range of technological tools to assist with my teaching, including: Powerpoint slides (to provide structure to seminars, and display information such as key questions for discussion); video and audio clips, especially from talks given by authors of course texts to help students engage with their ideas; and, between classes, a course bulletin board (using Padlet, an online platform), to enable collaborative posting of material relevant to each week’s class.
This reflection concerns a seminar in which I utilised an online application (https://www.polleverywhere.com) to enable the students to generate two word clouds. Word clouds are a visual depiction of the frequency with which individual words are found in a selection of text, with font size (and colour) reflecting the relative prominence of different words (Miley and Read 2011). Increasingly, the potential for word clouds to be used as an academic tool is becoming widely recognised, whether as a research method (e.g. to summarise research interviews as noted by McNaught and Lam 2010), or as a method of assessing student learning (DePaolo and Wilkinson 2014).
The case example discussed here falls into a third pedagogical category: utilising word clouds ‘as a strategy to support both critical thinking and engagement’ (DeNoyelles and Reyes-Foster 2015). In this example I asked students to use their smartphones or laptops to log onto a webpage I had set up on Poll Everywhere. I had anticipated (correctly) that all students would have a device with them for going online. If any students had not, I would have asked if one of their neighbours would have been comfortable sharing their device (as students were allowed to input multiple words, and the entries were anonymous, this would have made no difference to the end result). If students had been uncomfortable with such arrangements I had a pad of post-it notes which I would have given them to write in their words long-hand, which I would then have input on the website in the class myself.
I asked students to think of the readings we had so far discussed, and to input words which they associated with the presentation of ‘capitalism’ within these readings. The results were displayed in a word cloud on the class projector screen, and changed in real time according to the changing frequency of the word tallies as new words were input. I then asked them to repeat the exercise, but this time inputting words relating to the presentations they had encountered of ‘socialism’.
Design of the exercise
This exercise was designed with two objectives. A first objective was to introduce something playful into the class, with the aim of breaking up its rhythm in an unpredictable way, and thereby helping to focus the students’ attention (particularly given this was something they could affect themselves, and in the process learn about their peers). This itself was based on pedagogical theories relating to the value of stimulating emotions to help imprint memories (Haran 2017), especially using play as a learning process (Brownlee 1997).
My second, more pointed, objective was to prompt some critical reflection on overarching themes (potential weaknesses as well as strengths) to be found in the discourse of contemporary Marxist critique, of which the individual set texts we had been reading were only individual examples. In particular, I wondered whether the students would find it easier to suggest words associated with the concept of capitalism than with socialism.
I hoped it might prompt the students to critically engage with the course literature, to ask whether it was indeed the case that these texts only provided a very tentative discussion of a socialist alternative. I hoped they might further reflect on whether this vagueness of a promised alternative in any way represented a problem for these critiques of existing capitalism.
In constructing this aspect of the exercise, I was drawing on related theories around the value of prompting creative thought by deliberately creating a situation in which students feel challenged in some way by the meaning of their task—e.g. the ‘pedagogy of difficulty’ (Nelson and Harper 2006), ‘desirable difficulties’ (Bjork 1994), and the teacher as providing the scaffolding to enable the discovery of a route over uncharted territory (Vygotsky and Cole 1978).
I carried out this exercise with three different classes. All reacted in a similar way. There was an immediate sense of fun, given that the students were for once encouraged to use their smartphones in class. The students clearly enjoyed playing with the online tool, and seeing their ability to affect what it displayed. The results of the first word cloud, on ‘capitalism’, did not seem to show them anything they would not have guessed already.
But the second iteration, on ‘socialism’, did—as I anticipated—cause them some difficulties.
Afterwards I explained the theoretical rationale I had constructed for this exercise, and used it to emphasise my suggestion that they read the set texts as examples of a greater discourse, and to begin to critically engage with that discourse itself. The activity was immediately successful within class; but it is not possible to pronounce on its wider effectiveness in prompting critical thought about the relevant discourse.
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