Why Every EdTech Group Needs a DKC

The Digital Knowledge Center has now existed at UMW for about four months, and it’s kept me pretty busy. As a result,  I’ve been pretty rotten about posting updates about its progress. Over break, I worked on a status report, and I’ll be trying to share some of the data and numbers from our first (half) semester of being open soon.

Today though, I’m trying to tackle a topic that I’ve been mulling over more or less since the Center opened: Why I think every edtech group should have a student support organization like the DKC.

There’s a long history of how we ended up where we are with our Center, and there’s a lot of unpacking that I’m still doing about why we may have resisted this idea for quite some time. I’ve decided to save that for another post — partly because it would make this (already ridiculously long) post epically long, and partly because I’m interested in addressing some of the reasons for resisting a DKC separately. I’m really interested, in fact, on hearing from colleagues at other institutions about their perceptions of how student support should or could (or does) work within their own edtech groups.

So, putting aside that history and those interesting questions, I’m going to focus solely on why I think the DKC has quickly become an integral part of our unit and how other edtech groups (who don’t have something similar) might benefit.

I. The DKC is a critical safety net for DTLT. 

Our primary mission in DTLT At UMW is faculty development, and the resulting course development that grows out of those faculty relationships. Of course, you can’t have faculty and course development without resulting student development. Each of those courses results in a whole new group of students who need support, assistance, and mentoring.  For years, we’ve addressed that resulting student support in a catch-as-catch-can way.

Generally, student support has happened through class visits, after which we invite students to contact us by email if there are questions. Email is great for answering quick “How do I login, again?” questions, but it’s terrible for the deeper “How can I use my domain to build out a personal digital identity for myself?” questions. The truly stumped students (or the ones seeking deeper engagement and guidance) would come to our offices, and we’d do our best to give them what they needed.

Truthfully, however, the projects we manage have taken us, the faculty we work with, and the students in those courses into deeper and deeper waters. Course visits were great for getting things rolling. Email was fine for the quick how-to question. Stopping by our office was fine, if we could carve out the time for those deeper, important conversations. But often our time was eaten up by the deeper, important conversations we were having with faculty who were diving into those deeper waters. In short, we were becoming victims of our own successes. Each new innovative project we embarked on with a faculty member resulted in perhaps dozens of students needing more hands-on assistance, and, frankly, we just couldn’t scale.

The DKC has quickly become our primary channel for offering student support on projects we’re involved with, and since it’s positioned within our group  we get to determine how that student support happens.

II. The DKC is a safety net for our faculty. 

When you’re working with a faculty member who is new to a system like Domain of One’s Own, it’s only natural that they’re going to ask you what kind of support their students can expect to get. We have a strong history in DTLT of asking our faculty to also grapple with the technologies they choose to use in their courses (the Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiative is a great example of this), but it’s understandable that they’re nervous about being able to single-handedly answer all of their students’ questions.

In the past, we did our best to fill in this gap ourselves, but (see above) scalability was becoming an issue. It’s now an amazing thing to be able to tell faculty, “Yes! We can offer support to your students. There is a place they can come for help.”

III. The DKC is a safety net for students

This is probably the most obvious positive outcome of having a Digital Knowledge Center: as our reputation grows, more and more students at UMW will know there is a place they can come for help. When they tackle a new digital project that has them worried about their ability to complete it, the DKC is a place they can come for assistance. If they’re preparing to graduate and working on their personal domain as a resource to send to future employers, the DKC is a place they can come for guidance. If they have an idea for a personal technology project they’d like to tackle and they’re not sure how to begin, the DKC is a place they can come for inspiration.

IV. The DKC clarifies our jobs. 

In the past, when our approach to student support was often so ad hoc, within DTLT we could find ourselves constantly pulled in different directions. On a fundamental level, you could say that we’re in the business of developing certain kinds of technical and digital literacies at our University. “Faculty development,” however, is a bit different than “course development” which is a lot different from “student development.” They require different approaches, different skills, different commitments of time, and different rhythms and patterns of work.

The DKC takes the subset of student support off of all our individual plates and formalizes it. My job, as director of the DKC, is to develop that plan for formalization, and to constantly work to improve upon it. By doing so, I believe that I’m freeing up some of my colleagues’ time and energy to focus on other areas in which we work. I think this small maneuver has proved to have enormous impacts on all of us. Something (student support) which used to be difficult to mange and troublesome to wrap our collective heads around, is more or less taken care of.

In some ways, student support is the easiest subset of our tasks to clarify and formalize. We have a pretty good sense of what kind of support students will be looking for because we’re more often than not involved in the development of the course activities those students are tackling. Faculty and course development is less predictable.  It’s where the story starts not where it ends. Interestingly, however, formalizing our approach to student support through the DKC has given us opportunities to enact similar formal structures with our work with faculty.

An example of this is the Assignment Prospectus that we try to develop for critical digital assignments that are happening in a given semester. The Prospectus is usually drafted by someone in DTLT, after working with a faculty member on a course. It outlines the boundaries and requirements of a particular assignment so that the DKC tutors have a point of reference when students come in for assistance.

Developing that Prospectus creates a check-point for DTLT staff and faculty that didn’t exist before. In the past, we wouldn’t necessarily have asked faculty to engage in such a formal conversation with us about describing an assignment. Since we worked together on the development, all of that knowledge was tacitly understood. Now, however, there is a good reason why we need to formalize these descriptions: it’s hugely helpful to our tutors and to the students who seek assistance in the Center. Not surprisingly, those formal conversations can result in surprising insight. They can push a faculty colleague to get just a little more specific about their objectives. They can unearth a misunderstanding about a particular milestone. They can clarify a use of technology that previously was assumed to be clear but was actually a bit murky.

V. The DKC connects us with students.

Working at a University, it’s always frustrated me in the past that I often felt disconnected from our students. In retrospect, I think that what I sensed was, to students, we were mysterious “tech” people who dove into a class for a session or two. Sure, we were reachable by email, but once you’re responding to student inquiries via email, you’ve moved into a pretty transactional relationship. They ask a question; you’re the “tech person” who answers it.

We’ve had some wonderful students work for us off and on for years, but we were never able to really capitalize on their time and skills. (Note: That’s why in addition to having a DKC, every edtech group needs to invest in a full-time director of a DKC. 🙂 It takes a person to devote herself full-time to making the most out of the great students you have.)

Currently, the DKC is attached to our offices, and it’s difficult for me to describe the change I think its presence has brought to our offices. We always have students around, and they are amazing, competent, inquisitive students. They bring ideas to us. They challenge the ideas we bring to them. They come up with new topics on which we should be offering tutorials. They tell us when something we’re doing or trying to explain doesn’t make sense. They come up with ways for us to reach out to other students that we would never have thought of. As director, I want them to feel invested in this Center to the degree that they want to come to me with their newest, greatest idea of what we should do next.

(I also want none of them to ever, ever graduate. 🙂 )

I can’t prove this yet, but I believe that growing this new extension of DTLT in the DKC will, ultimately, allow us to reach students in ways we had never before considered. Our tutors are, in a way, student ambassadors for us. They’re a part of our staff that we never really had before, and we didn’t even know we were missing.

VI. The DKC can be a model for the rest of campus

I try to talk a lot with the students who work in the DKC about the concept of modeling, and I think the Center can play a valuable role in serving as a model for others on campus when it comes to thinking about how we use technology in our lives at UMW.

The first example of how we model is best illustrated by the kind of tutorial that  many tutors probably fear the most, but I think are our opportunity to shine the brightest: it is inevitable, when you provide support on a wide range of technologies, systems, and tools that have a seemingly endless combination of options and possibilities that a student is going to come into the Center occasionally and ask for help on something that her tutor knows nothing about. As I said, I suspect that some (if not all!) of the DKC tutors dread these situations — which is, frankly, entirely understandable. (Many, many years ago, I worked as a writing tutor at Mary Washington College, and I still remember that feeling in the pit of my stomach when a student would ask for advice on a writing topic in which I felt out of my depth. )

As frightening as these moments can be, they are truly the ones that define us as a Center and as tutors. We need to understand that we will never have all the answers, and the students who come to visit us need to see us as these vulnerable, fallible creatures. After they realize that we’re not ridiculous fonts of all knowledge having to do with all things technology, they then need to witness us figuring it out.

I can’t tell you how many times in my career at Mary Washington a student has proclaimed to me that they’re just “not tech savvy” or they “don’t do technology.” I completely understand where those statements come from, and I believe it is part of my life’s work to help as many of those students get past that myth about themselves. One way the Center does this is by  having tutors sit in front of those students who are “not tech savvy” and show them

a) it’s OKAY to not know the answer and

b) how to find answers.

I believe it is a very powerful moment when a student sees that what makes the DKC tutors special is NOT that they know everything but that they trust themselves to figure it out. I want us to have lots and lots of those moments.

The second way in which the DKC can serve as a model is by approaching every interaction with a student as a teachable moment. I mentioned earlier that when you’re doing tech support via email (as DTLT has often done in the past), it’s difficult to move beyond the transactional: a student asks a question, you provide the answer, and there is little opportunity for deep elucidation or discussion of the implications of that problem. In the DKC, I want us to always strive to move beyond the transactional. Every question a student asks is a teachable moment, an opportunity to talk about what the questions represent, what the answer signifies, and in what direction those questions and answers take us next.

We ALL need to do a better job of talking about technology in these ways, because it’s when we shift our perspective like this that we gain an appreciation and understanding for technology not as merely a tool for transactions and efficiencies but as platforms and foundations for changing how we teach, learn, think, and know at the University.

Featured Image Credit: Safety Net by Rob on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)