I report on administration surveillance of online courses at CUNY’s School of Professional Studies. Department Chairs and course observers have been given the ability to examine the whole body of work uploaded to the faculty member’s Blackboard site, including grading, student work, and timeliness, in some cases for the entire semester. The bond of trust between faculty and student is also compromised by this third-party scrutiny of potentially personal material. Faculty unions and governance bodies need to identify similar surveillance on their own campuses and demand limitations on constant scrutiny. Unfortunately, students will find it harder to assert privacy rights.
The COVID crisis vastly expanded the number of online courses at the City University of New York, and many of those courses will stay on-line in the future. Faculty, who generally had taught their courses with minimal scrutiny from their supervisors, have had to establish comprehensive Blackboard sites which are potentially open to a high degree of surveillance by Department Chairs and higher-level administrators. Students, who were previously “surveilled” only by their professor, now can be tracked by many others with administrative access. The union which represents both tenure-track and contingent CUNY faculty has been attempting to address that problem, with mixed success. Contractual safeguards were negotiated in 2019, but policing that language across twenty-two campuses and hundreds of academic departments and programs is difficult. Here, I report on one campus which has vastly expanded surveillance, and the efforts of the author and the union he represents to bring those practices to a halt.
The School of Professional Studies is an unusual CUNY campus. Housed on leased floors in two office buildings in midtown Manhattan, the vast majority of its courses have always been taught on-line, almost exclusively by contingent “part-time” faculty with few job security protections. A small number are guaranteed a minimum of two courses a semester for three-year blocks. All the rest are reappointed either yearly or semester-to-semester. Thus, the threat of losing one’s job for any reason (or for no reason) is very present and the dangers inherent in surveillance serve to increase that threat.
Unlike tenure-track faculty, who are also evaluated on their research, publications, and service obligations, the work of contingent “Adjunct” faculty is assessed almost exclusively on the quality of their teaching. At CUNY, in a traditional classroom setting, a contractually stipulated protocol mandates a single classroom observation each semester by a designated observer, followed by a “post-observation conference,” which usually also discusses the overall goals of the course; subsequently, a written report is sent to the Department Chair, who is responsible for hiring and firing. In addition, informal discussions between the Department Chair and Adjunct during the semester might add to the overall evaluation.
But that observation can look quite different in an on-line setting, whether the class is taught “synchronously”—with real-time interactions between faculty and students—or asynchronously, perhaps with taped lectures and certainly a profusion of on-line assignments. That’s because the observer—and potentially, any supervisor or administrator—has the ability to examine the whole body of work uploaded to the faculty member’s Blackboard site. That might include, for example, an entire semester’s lectures, all the assignments, and all test and quiz questions. All responses to student work, grading schemes, speed of grading, assignment grades, the number of students current on their work, falling behind, or failing the course are also evident in perusing a Blackboard site.
My union, the Professional Staff Congress-AFT, fortunately attempted to address the proliferation of on-line teaching before the pandemic. In 2019, contract negotiations with CUNY resulted in protocols for on-line observations. At their heart was the directive that “For teaching observations of online or partially online courses, the parties intend to replicate as closely as possible the longstanding teaching observation practices established pursuant to this Agreement”—that is to prior procedures for in-class observations. More specifically, for synchronous courses, the observer would only have access to the course for the duration of one class period. For asynchronous courses, the observer would be granted 48-hour access. Crucially, in either case, the observer would only have “limited access to the course platform, usually defined as ‘student’ or ‘guest’ access but in no event ‘instructor’ or ‘administrator’ access” (“Memorandum”). That is, the observer could only see what a typical student could see—perhaps that week’s lecture, assignment, and quiz—not the whole semester’s worth of postings. And certainly not all the management of the course, progress of students, or student posts. That all seems clear enough.
This type of contract language seems like a minimum necessary protection of faculty, and should be a standard protocol in all online courses.
This language protects student privacy as well. The students know that the professor has access to their work and no one else. When the observer “enters” the online space, students are informed of the duration of that access and its limitations, just as they are implicitly informed when an observer walks into a physical classroom. When sensitive topics are broached, students should have control over, and knowledge of, whom they are talking to. In a classroom setting, an observer only sees the homework being handed back to students. They shouldn’t be able to read that homework when a class goes on-line.
However, SPS has utilized—in the union’s view, in violation of the contract—two loopholes to enable complete scrutiny and surveillance. First, it has given all observers “Grader” status. SPS has justified this procedure by noting that the only designations specifically prohibited are “Instructor” and “Administrator.” That is true; but “Graders” do not have “limited access.” Rather, they have the same “view” access as instructors themselves; the main difference is only that a Grader cannot change or edit the existing Blackboard posts, or change the course controls. So, an SPS observer of an asynchronous course has forty-eight hours to fully examine every aspect of a Blackboard site. The observer also has the ability to read all student posts or homework, thus breaching the implicit bond of student-faculty trust.
As SPS has itself conceded, there are “more than 40 roles available in Blackboard.” Clearly the contract could not have de-limited them all, or any new ones that Blackboard might unilaterally create between rounds of contract negotiations. But SPS asserts the right to act unilaterally—and, indeed, this is the unfortunate state of labor-management relations in the United States, even when a union contract is in place: management plays offense, the union defense. Because we must now file a contractual grievance and wait (perhaps a year) for a hearing in front of a neutral third party, our proposed remedy is broad. In our grievance, alongside asking for an end to the practice, we assert that SPS has so poisoned the observation process that any firings (or “non-reappointments,” as they are called in the oh-so-polite parlance of academia) are inevitably tainted and must be reversed. Sometime in 2022, we will see if an arbitrator agrees and orders an end to SPS’s overly-ambitious interpretation of the contract language.
Second, and even more pernicious in our view, SPS has granted its Academic Directors (ADs)—the equivalent of Department Chairs—semester-long “Instructor” status. The stated reason is that, in extremis—say, if the faculty member fell deathly ill—an AD might need to communicate with the students directly. That is certainly a worthy goal, easily addressed in the moment of extremity. Instead, the AD can look into the class all semester, without the faculty member—or the students—even knowing when and what is being perused. Forty-eight hours of unlimited monitoring are bad enough; here, the AD can watch the class unfold over the entire semester. Our grievance remedy is thus the same, but this does not address potential harm to students. Everything they write, no matter how confidential the subject matter—sexual orientation, criminal acts as either victim or perpetrator, immigration status, political beliefs, etc.—is now subject to third-party scrutiny. Alternatively, if that potential invasion of privacy is revealed at the beginning of the semester, they may feel the need to limit their speech as a matter of self-protection.
Even with the COVID pandemic on the wane, online classes will likely persist, creating openings for the surveillance of course sites that threaten the academic freedom and contractual rights of faculty (particularly contingent faculty) and potentially violating the privacy rights of students. Addressing these threats will require unions to collectively bargain to obtain strong and clear contractual language regulating the processes of online course observations, and ongoing policing of those safeguards. Meanwhile, faculty must be educated about the risks of inappropriate surveillance of their courses, and how to identify this in their learning management systems, and must stand ready to assert their rights to fair evaluations of online teaching. For students, however, and in a non-union environment, all these tasks are more difficult, and the effects of surveillance even more pernicious.
 “Part-time” is CUNY’s contractual term for all non-tenure-track faculty. Some teach only one or two courses a year. Others have a credit load higher than “full-time” tenure-track faculty. See CBA Article 15.2, “Workload for part-time members of the Instructional Staff” and “Additional Side Letters and Agreements: Teaching Load Reduction Agreement.” For contingency, see CBA Article 9, “Appointment and Reappointment” and Article 10, “Schedule for Notification of Reappointment and Non-Reappointment.” All at https://psc-cuny.org/cuny-contract.
 Tenure-track faculty are contractually mandated to receive an annual evaluation which includes assessment of “Classroom instruction and related activities; Administrative assignments; Research; Scholarly writing; Departmental, college and university assignments; Student guidance; Course and curricula development; Creative works in individual’s discipline; Public and professional activities in field of specialty”(“CUNY Contract” Article 18). Only a small subset of Adjuncts receive such an evaluation; their union suggests they should request one if they are eligible for a relatively rare three-year appointment (Clarion Staff).On the other hand, Adjuncts “shall be observed for a full classroom period” once a semester, while tenure-track “may be observed once each semester” (“CUNY Contract” Article 18).
 In legal parlance, referring to arrests and prosecutions thrown out if the evidence was based on an illegal search or seizure, this is known as “the fruit of the poisonous tree.”
Marc Kagan is a graduate student in the History Department at CUNY’s Graduate Center, where he is writing his dissertation on NYC’s Transport Workers Union Local 100. He spent two years as a Professional Staff Congress grievance counselor for the Graduate Center, the School of Professional Studies, and several other CUNY campuses.
New technologies are introduced into people’s lives today at a rate unprecedented in human history. The benefits of technologies and the onslaught of corporate messaging can result in a pervasive techno-optimism that leaves people unaware of the downsides or collateral effects of technologies until harms are already done. With the show Black Mirror as muse, we open by imagining the story of Oya, a first-year college student unwittingly trapped by educational “innovations.” After reviewing examples of technological resistance from antiquity to Black women scholars today, we then propose two activities educators can employ to engage students’ technoskeptical imagining. First, we developed a MadLib activity that employs play as a means to creatively speculate about technologies. Second, we offer a fill-in-the-blank creative writing activity that builds on the MadLib activity while providing more flexibility in crafting their own dystopian stories. We hope this approach and these activities can work toward protecting those who are most vulnerable to the harms of technologies.
Meet Oya, a first-year college student at a new venture-capital-backed school located on the campus of Alvara College, a traditional liberal arts college. Oya is not a typical undergraduate student; they have been targeted by Petra Capital’s recruitment team to supplement the traditional demographics of the college’s student body. As part of The Alvara Personalized Experience (TAPE), they live in a dormitory specifically built for students enrolled in this special recruitment strategy.
The door opens and a 30-year-old woman begins to move in and unpack her things just as Oya settles into their dorm room on the first day. Oya learns that their new roommate, Barbara, is an important component of TAPE. Barbara is Oya’s assigned success guardian. In this role, Barbara will observe and document everything Oya does and everywhere they go. Barbara will offer suggestions to Oya about what they can do to improve their college experience, including recommendations about diet, sleep, study habits, time management, and even social opportunities on campus. Oya does not have to follow these prompts, but Barbara will report Oya’s choices to their professors and the financial aid office.
Oya’s story is fictional and may seem outlandish. The idea of a personalized college experience enhanced by a “success guardian” following a young undergraduate student to monitor and report their every action may seem absurdly intrusive and disruptive. However, many schools have deployed surveillance technologies that perform similar functions in the name of student success. Surveillance activities that would feel invasive and even creepy if conducted in person were popularized and normalized by Google and Facebook (Zuboff 2019), and these practices increasingly creep into “smart” technologies (i.e., Internet of Things) and educational technologies. The expanding tentacles of surveillance have only tightened their grip since so many institutions and people were pushed online during the COVID-19 pandemic. As students, workers, and educators become further habituated to these digital systems, it is harder for them to critically evaluate the risks and harms that can come from such “personalization.”
While tech creators make techno-utopian promises about what educational technologies can deliver, legislators and regulators have done little to protect people against their negative effects. Policy and legal reforms around the collection of student data have been proposed—and in some cases already implemented—but as Caines and Glass (2019, 94–95) warned, “While laws and internal policies are critical, they take time to develop, and in that time new models and practices come forward to bypass proposed and existing regulations.” Users of these technologies—including teachers and students—are often left to fend for themselves. Few people will read and interpret Terms of Service (ToS) that are often written to obfuscate more than inform (see, e.g., Lindh and Nolin 2016). Few users of new technologies will research collateral effects. Simply put, the cards are stacked against us.
As a result, educators need pedagogical approaches, tools, and assessments to work alongside students in making decisions about technologies in their individual, civic, and educational lives. In this paper, we discuss the development of two educational activities that use dystopian fiction as a device for helping students develop technoskeptical imaginations.
Contemplating and confronting ethical issues around technologies is not new. Humans have long resisted new technologies which they believe impinge on their values, livelihoods, or very lives. Plato wrote of the god Thamus, who evaluated technologies and rejected writing as a technology that would result in a “conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom” (Postman 1992, 4). The Luddites of nineteenth-century England rejected textile machinery that threatened their craft (Jones 2013). The science fiction genre has long speculated on the possible harms of technologies, and the recent Black Mirror show has offered particularly vivid visions of technological dystopia (Conley and Burroughs 2020; Fiesler 2018). The critique of technologies is not reserved solely to the world of science fiction, but has been taken up by academics as well. For instance, nearly a half-century ago, Bunge (1975) coined the term technoethics in his call for technologists to be more aware of the social implications of their inventions.
The field of technoethics also has a more embodied tradition, grounded in the work of Black feminist scholars who have challenged algorithms of oppression (Noble 2018), discriminatory design (Benjamin 2019), and biased facial recognition (Buolamwini and Gebru 2018) that amplify and sustain anti-Black racism and sexism in society. Amrute (2019) challenged top-down models of technoethics by calling for attunements that attend to techno-affects, centering the bodies and knowledge of those most vulnerable to—or targeted by—technological harm.
An embodied technoethics perspective is particularly critical for our authorship team of four white scholars working from the relative comfort of academic spaces. We acknowledge that we must recognize how our intersectional positionalities in a sexist, racist, classist, and ableist society require us to listen to, and support, those who may face the disproportionate negative impacts of technologies. Technologies in education, as well as the educational practices surrounding their integration, often uphold whiteness and perpetuate structural injustices (Heath and Segal 2021). How can educators help students see the ways technologies extend, amplify, or create social problems?
As Geraldine Forsberg (2017, 232) argued, “Questions can help break the power that technologies have over us. Questions can help us critique the technological bluffs that are being communicated through advertisements, political and scientific discourse and education.” Building on the work already done in the field, three authors of this paper (Krutka, Heath, and Staudt Willet 2019) proposed technoethical questions that educational technology scholars and practitioners could use to investigate and interrogate technologies with students:
Was this technology designed ethically and is it used ethically?
Are laws that apply to our use of this technology just?
Does this technology afford or constrain democracy and justice for all people and groups?
Are the ways the developers profit from this technology ethical?
What are unintended and unobvious problems to which this technology might contribute?
In what ways does this technology afford and constrain learning opportunities about technologies?
In the past two years, in collaboration with students in our classes, we have conducted technoethical audits of Google’s suite of apps (Krutka, Smits, and Willhelm 2021), and of educators’ use of Google Classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic (Gleason and Heath 2021). In response to reading the public accounts of this research, Autumm Caines adapted the tool into an online format to help faculty conduct self-directed technoethical audits of educational technologies.
Through sharing our experiences in conducting these technoethical audits, our authorship team eventually agreed that asking these technoethical questions of students did not always generate the deep, critical thinking about technologies we sought. These uneven results may partially be attributed to the techno-optimism (Postman 1992) and techno-solutionism (Papert 1988) that are pervasive in the U.S. We therefore sought out other approaches that could challenge students and teachers to confront such narratives of technological progress.
Dystopian Storytelling about Technology
Building on our technoethical questions and with Black Mirror as our muse, we sought to identify activities that might more readily spur students’ technoskeptical imaginations. The show Black Mirror is a “sci-fi anthology series [that] explores a twisted, high-tech near-future where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide” (Netflix n.d.). Episodes address technoethical topics in digital censorship, virtual reality gaming, and artificially intelligent toys, among others. In societies where technology is often equated with progress (Benjamin 2019; Jones 2013; Krutka 2018; Postman 1992), Black Mirror disrupts such narratives and creates space to question how technology should be limited or even banned.
Educators have drawn inspiration from Black Mirror, and dystopian fiction more broadly, to develop educational approaches and activities. For instance, Emanuelle Burton, Judy Goldsmith, and Nicholas Mattei (2018) responded to the difficulties of teaching ethics in computer science curriculum by using science fiction as a powerful pedagogical tool. Casey Fiesler (2018) detailed her use of Black Mirror to help college students “think through different possibilities” for technology in the future. Episodes served as launching points for her students to engage in “creative speculation” about ethical issues that arose from the plots of the shows and consider existing or possible laws (Feisler 2018). The Screening Surveillance project (2019) from the Surveillance Studies Center “is a short film series that uses near future fiction storytelling based on research to highlight potential social and privacy issues that arise as a result of big data surveillance.” sava saheli singh, who conceptualized and produced the series, partnered with educators on multiple occasions to incorporate the work of dystopian fiction with the intention of addressing contemporary technoethical issues. From the perspective of the 2040s, Felicitas Macgilchrist, Heidrun Allert, and Anne Bruch (2020, 77) imagined “a kind of social science fiction to speculate on how technology will have been used in schools, and what this means for how future student-subjects will have been addressed in the future past of the 2020s.” This type of imagining played out malignant alternative futures for educational technologies where students would be “smooth users,” “digital nomads,” or ecological humans embedded in “collective agency.”
Here we describe two activities designed for education students, but adaptable for others, that encourage technoskeptical imagination around technologies in general and edtech specifically. This scholarly experiment has proved promising in our initial exploratory teaching.
Building on the work from Krutka, Heath, and Staudt Willet (2019) to consider how to encourage educators to consider technoethical questions, we incorporate a construct of play to inspire technoskeptical imagining. Although technoskeptical thinking can be rewarding, continued consideration of systemic inequities and injustices can be emotionally draining. Play can be a powerful means to disrupt power hierarchies, challenge authority, and encourage agency, particularly for youth whose intersecting identities are marginalized (Yoon 2021).
Through this playful lens, we created a dystopian MadLibs activity (see Table 1). MadLibs is a two-person children’s word game that was traditionally produced in hard copy books and employed a phrasal template. The phrasal template is a story with several missing words that are defined grammatically or descriptively. For instance, a blank (i.e., missing word) could be labeled as needing a verb, noun, or even type of plant to complete the sentence. One player reads out loud the label of the blank and the second player (who cannot see the context of the story) provides answers. These answers are plugged into the story, which results in a funny, amusing, and often absurd tale.
In adapting MadLibs as an educational warm-up activity to spark technoskeptical imaginations, we embraced the notion of absurdity. In preparation, we wrote out the frame of a dystopian story with missing details. However, instead of missing grammatical items, we left blank the specifics of a company or technology, as well as the functions of the technology. We designed the MadLibs activity to be delivered during a synchronous instructional session when the blanks could be crowdsourced from students. The instructor needs to plan for activities in which students can participate for a few minutes while a facilitator plugs the crowdsourced elements into the dystopian story, accounting for verb tense and grammatical flow, and then reads the story aloud to students.
Although the story is written with a more serious and dystopian plot, the final story still contains elements of absurdity, because students did not know the narrative context when they chose the missing elements. The reading of the final, somewhat farcical story can be met with amusement. This levity can then be followed by a more serious discussion where students interrogate connections between the MadLibs story and their lived experiences with technology. As a result, the MadLibs activity is a warm-up to the Fill-in-the-Blank Creative Writing activity where students engage in writing dystopian fiction.
Company slogan =
Group with institutional power (plural) =
Think of what the technology does generally, not just for you, when thinking of these three functions:
Function #1 of technology (beginning with verb ending in “ing”) =
Function #2 of technology (beginning with present tense verb) =
Function #3 of technology (beginning with present tense verb) =
After many controversies where citizens have accused us of doublespeak, [COMPANY] wants to remind you of our mission: [COMPANY SLOGAN]. Some people say that profits get in the way of our mission to make the world a better place. Many critics have called our product a weapon of oppression. Do not listen to these un-American troublemakers who are only jealous of our immense success!
These critics claim that [GROUP WITH INSTITUTIONAL POWER] will use our product to harm those under their control by [FUNCTION #1 OF TECH]. Some critics even say they feel intimidated by the ability of the technology to [FUNCTION #2 OF TECH]. But aren’t [GROUP WITH POWER] also just trying to make the world a better place? Meanwhile, the jealous critics claim that [GROUP WITH POWER] are using the technology to [FUNCTION #3 OF TECH] and that is causing social problems. But come on! Let the free market decide! If people did not love [COMPANY], then we would not be enjoying such incredible success. Technology is progress, and progress is good!
Table 1. MadLibs play.
Fill-in-the-Blank Creative Writing Activity
After completing the MadLibs activity, students are prompted to deepen their technoskeptical imagining by creating and writing their own dystopian fiction. Offering participants a prompt, particularly those in a one-off workshop, can provide provocation for the beginning of a story. To scaffold the activity, we created another phrasal template as part of the design of a Fill-in-the-Blank Creative Writing activity. This activity is facilitated through a series of Google Docs that all students or participants are able to edit directly. The Fill-in-the-Blank activity can be completed individually or in small groups. Like the MadLibs activity, parts of the dystopian story are missing; however, unlike the MadLibs activity, students can see the entire frame of the story. Missing elements, again, are not grammatical in nature but are instead elements of the story such as the “name of technology/company” and “group with power/group without power.” We recommend students be given free rein in this activity. That is, the use of a phrasal template does not have to be required; rather, it is provided as a prompt as needed. After completing their stories, students are asked to evaluate the narrative they wrote using the analytical tool developed by Krutka, Heath, and Staudt Willet (2019). We envision that this Fill-in-the-Blank Creative Writing activity could also be conducted asynchronously, where students would sit with the prompt (or develop their own) over the course of a longer period of time.
Dystopian Storytelling Activity
Welcome to this semi-true technology dystopia storytelling activity. Dystopia storytelling can help us to imagine some of the harms that technology can bring while at the same time making it okay for us to embellish a little. If you have watched or read any speculative or science fiction you know it is best when there are some elements of the truth to it – think about your favorite episodes of the show Black Mirror.
Below we have started you off with a dystopian fiction prompt with some elements missing – you will find these missing elements in all caps in the brackets. The idea is for you to replace these items as prompted with items of your own devising – which might be true but also could just come from your imagination. For instance you could replace [TECHNOLOGY] with Facebook, social media, Zoom, or even a toaster but you should stick with that and try to make the story make sense as you continue to write. Feel free to search for technology company websites and steal their own rhetoric and the way that they talk about themselves for things like the motto or stated intention. If you don’t like the story arc feel free to even change the text – make this story your own.
One note – depending on the technology you choose the name of the tech may be the same as the name of the company ie. Zoom or Facebook – or it could differ for instance Google is actually owned by Alphabet. Again, make this story your own and if little details bog you down just write them out.
Many people today use [TECHNOLOGY] to [EXPLAIN WHAT TECHNOLOGY ALLOWS PEOPLE TO DO]. It has become very popular and many humans use [TECHNOLOGY]. [COMPANY] even explains that [THE COMPANY MOTTO OR STATED INTENTION]. However, we have come from the future to tell you [TECHNOLOGY] is not a tool, but a weapon intended to hurt people!
We have learned that [GROUP WITH POWER] is using [TECHNOLOGY] to harm [A VULNERABLE GROUP] by [EXPLAIN HOW A GROUP WITH POWER IS USING THE TECHNOLOGY TO HARM A VULNERABLE GROUP]. Beyond these obviously intentional harms, [TECHNOLOGY] is even causing collateral damage that is worsening [NAME SYSTEMIC INEQUALITY OR HARM] by [EXPLAIN HOW IT IS MAKING THAT SYSTEMIC INEQUALITY OR HARM WORSE].
If the use of this technology continues then this could lead to the long-term destruction of [EXPLAIN WHAT COULD BE PERMANENTLY DESTROYED]. [COMPANY] is even trying to trick people into thinking they’re changing their ways by pushing for legislation that [DESCRIBE LAWS THAT ALLOW FOR CONTINUED ABUSE BUT GIVE THE APPEARANCE OF MAKING CHANGE].
And it is all about profits for [COMPANY]! We discovered that they are making money by [EXPLAIN HOW THE COMPANY PROFITS FROM THEIR WEAPON]. They’re also exploiting [NAME GROUP THAT IS EXPLOITED SUCH AS WORKERS OR USERS] by [IDENTIFY ACTION THAT OF TECHNOLOGY THAT CAUSES HARM], and harming the environment by [EXPLAIN HARMS TO ENVIRONMENT]. The consequences are widespread! We hope you can stop the evil use of [TECHNOLOGY] before it’s too late!
Table 2. Dystopian storytelling activity.
Revisiting Oya, envision a scenario in which their experience did not include a human success guardian but instead the surveillance technologies to which many students are already subjected. How might Oya’s situation have been different if they had practiced developing their technoskeptical imagining? Armed with the ability to imagine something more than utopian rhetoric, Oya sees the harmful outcomes that could result from surveillance technologies. Oya is then prepared to ask questions and look for ways to democratize the technology, rather than letting it control them. They ask the stakeholders (e.g., student services offices, professors) issuing the technology to also imagine negative consequences. Oya also takes the time to read critiques of the company from technology journalists and digital rights activists to better understand their context, purpose, and profit models. They talk with classmates and family members back home, and Oya writes about technoethical concerns to inform a larger audience about risks and dangers. Finally, Oya organizes a local chapter of a digital rights group so they are better equipped to challenge multinational technology corporations and their own school.
Evaluating technology from an ethical perspective is difficult. Corporate sales pitches are ubiquitous. For many of us, our livelihoods depend on our use of such tools. We must therefore reflect on our own lived experiences and those of the people around us. Potential harms often lie beneath the surface. Embracing technoskeptical imagination and creative power can offer a step towards enabling students to better protect themselves in their use of technological tools. If educators aim to stop harms in the present, and mitigate risks in the future, we might raise technoethical consciousness through dystopian storytelling.
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About the Authors
Daniel G. Krutka (he/him/his) is a human, probably too tethered to his smartphone, but human nonetheless. He is a former high school teacher and his current job is Associate Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of North Texas. He researches intersections of technology, democracy, and social studies. You can listen to him host educators and researchers on the Visions of Education podcast (VisionsOfEd.com) or amplify his retweets at @dankrutka.
Autumm Caines (she/her/hers) is an instructional designer at the University of Michigan—Dearborn. Autumm’s scholarly and research interests include blended/hybrid and online learning, open education, digital literacy/citizenship with a focus on equity and access, and online community development. This blend of interests has led to a concern about mounting ethical issues in educational technology and recently publications and presentations on topics concerning educational surveillance, student data collection, and remote proctoring. Autumm has taught honors students at a small liberal arts colleges as well as traditional students, working professionals, and veterans at a regional public university. More at autumm.org.
Marie K. Heath (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at Loyola University Maryland. Prior to her work in higher education, Marie taught high school social studies in Baltimore County Public Schools. Her work in public schools informs her commitment to education that promotes a robust and multi-racial democracy through liberatory education. Marie’s research focuses on the intersection of education, civic engagement, and technology to foster social change. Her scholarship interrogates educational technology, confronts White supremacy, and advocates for teacher activism.
K. Bret Staudt Willet (he/him/his) is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Systems & Learning Technologies at Florida State University. Bret’s research investigates self-directed learning through social media. He has several ongoing projects related to this research area. First, he examines networked learning in online communities, such as those hosted by Twitter and Reddit. Second, he studies how new teachers expand their professional support systems during their induction transition. Third, he explores the connections between informal learning and invisible labor. Learn more on his website, bretsw.com.
The path from classroom to workplace is short. On the way the path passes through hiring processes, which demonstrate to candidates the organization’s true values. Many parallels exist between the concept and practice of education surveillance technology, those of hiring technologies, and those of workplace surveillance technologies. Moreover, these new education surveillance technologies should be seen as part of the pipeline preparing current students to accept the future of work being defined solely by the values and perspectives of technology firms and corporate leaders. The history of education in industrial economies has always been tied closely to, if not dictated by, the needs of industry. This remains true today and indicates that any attention paid to education surveillance technology must be done while acknowledging that today’s students are intended by the system to be tomorrow’s employees, and that it’s not just skills, but temperament, that education organizations teach and evaluate. A high school student inured to being surveilled in education, even excited about it because it takes the form of support and instant feedback, will expect similar or more from their college experience. As that student prepares to enter the workforce they will encounter artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) driven résumé review and interview training systems designed to help them succeed against AI/ML driven applicant tracking systems (ATSs) and virtual interview assessment. Once hired they will face increasing levels of virtual management and monitoring. Just like in school.
What comes next is not a traditional scholarly article. It is, as the title suggests, a summary of observations made over nearly thirty years in higher education spaces, most of which focused on career development, hiring, and their related technologies. Links are not definitive pieces of scholarship but selected and intended to give readers a sense of the conversations at large and to help orient readers on topics that may be removed from their own immediate experiences.
K–12: A Brief History
Industrialists wanted more profit
And workers protesting could chuck it
So saboteurs did
To bust up the rig
And history calls them techphobic
What is the point of education? Specifically, what is the point of education in the minds of the different stakeholders—students, faculty, and administrators? What has shaped and is shaping that context?
In industrial and post-industrial economies, education operates to prepare a skilled workforce to gain or maintain a competitive edge both for organizations internal to a given economy as well as in the rivalry between economies. In the United States, the government creation of land grant institutions followed a perceived need to adapt the population to new and different skills to meet expanding industry needs. Alongside the land grant institutions and the changes they ushered in were the development, forms, and practices of K–12 education. From the start of public education to the very late 20th century, the K–12 educational format was pretty much the same across the country. Rows of desks with a teacher at the front delivering lessons and tasks for students to carry out while they sat quiet and attentive. Recess and PE classes providing some physical outlet for children and teens otherwise confined. Alternative learning was typically shop class and vocational-technical school for high schoolers bound for a trade. The workplaces through that time were similar. Office spaces were rows of desks, later cube farms, often with a supervisor nearby, but set apart from the workers. Factory spaces were not physically arranged like schools, but still relied on authority structures to ensure productivity. Open classrooms and reduced structure mirrored open floor plans and other management innovations as the 20th Century closed. Why? Industry needed talent, needed workers, who were more creative and more flexible to match the move towards focus on quarterly earnings and staying constantly competitive. The fascination and cultural embrace of Fred W. Taylor’s management science and its virtue of efficiency have not waned. Its effects on our education priorities and designs remain evident.
Taylor’s morality resets
What moderns consider true assets
Human life gets panned
So elites can corner the markets
The most visible pressure on higher education institutions comes from industry leaders complaining that college students these days are not prepared to enter the workforce. The myriad articles in business and mainstream press criticizing the supposed inadequacies of higher education regularly remind us of this. What these industry leaders mean is college students do not appear to be ready on day one to do the full job. There are a number of problems with this perspective that too rarely get called out. First, the sheer size of most businesses means these leaders are remarkably disconnected from hiring and orientation processes. This interpretation from them comes from spreadsheets and reports from further down the management chain. Are those reports missing or obscuring other factors? Do these leaders’ organizations have good, robust orientation programs and managers with the time, training, energy, and commitment to onboard a new hire? Could there be other internal factors CEOs might miss, or obscure? Why have we seen an increase in these complaints over the past 15–20 years? Does it have anything to do with the increase in organizations outsourcing cost centers, like training and development units?
(Note that this time frame seems to run parallel to the rising costs of college degrees. So as a college degree becomes more essential to enter the workforce for even a decent wage—keeping in mind most wages in the US economy have remained stagnant for the past 30 years, after inflationary adjustment, despite rising productivity and profits for senior leaders—employers want to shift costs from internal training and development to students paying rising tuition, often at state schools that have seen budget support cut by their government.)
These complaints from corporate leadership contain a critical error. Students, especially from the oft-maligned liberal arts and humanities majors, actually possess the skills most valued by employers. The problem students face, and that employers misinterpret, lies in how those experiences and skills are acknowledged and communicated. Of course, employers who still favor narrow selections of majors in the hiring filters contribute to missing qualified students in many positions. Hiring a history major with strong communication, collaboration, and leadership skills and running them through a six week intensive on Java or C++ would probably prove more effective in the long term than a CS major with no clue how to work well with others or have a productive conversation with someone in marketing or R&D. Unfortunately, that’s not how the hiring process usually goes.
The launch of education tech firms like Coursera, and companies like Google, offering certificates for the skills they value today with the promise of a job in the short term, add another vector of pressure on higher education institutions. While competition is lauded, often by business leaders who take pains to reduce competition for their own enterprises, the entrance into the education market by these players further shifts the concept of education from something broadly beneficial for a lifetime to a time sensitive commodity necessary for a slightly better pay rate. One that’s offered, it should be noted, by those in an altogether higher pay grade with a vested interest in a workforce beholden to their products. Does that Google certificate lose value as soon as you drive it off the lot?
Higher education typically measures success through First Destinations surveys or similar. These surveys by design predicate employment in a field related to a graduate’s degree as the highest measure of success for the institution. What’s measured indicates what’s valued. This creates an awkward position if one considers the discrepancy between majors and the significantly larger set of possible fields of employment. Entering graduate schools is also acceptable; a safe handoff to another institution that still demonstrates a progression towards employment. Never mind issues like the market being glutted with newly minted PhDs who’ve received little training or support for the non-academic future they did not envision when they entered, but that’s statistically the most likely outcome for all their efforts.
For those First Destination surveys, graduate employment information gets collected. The bigger the names, the better. Career centers must tout the big names hiring the school’s students so admissions can impress prospective students and their families with the narrative that tuition here leads to a real job with a real paycheck. Schools building lazy rivers and luxury apartments for student housing may receive media attention around admission and recruitment tactics, but this pitch about employment says more about higher education’s priorities and inability to resist the expectations of industry.
Career Centers and the College to Work Pipeline
Enter into this mix career centers, historically siloed and under-resourced. Originally conceived as placement offices (and still referred to by many in higher education senior leadership as such) during the heyday of the GI Bill, these departments have labored over the past 20 years to redefine themselves to match the changing economic landscape students will enter upon graduation. These departments take on a varied mix of responsibilities including managing experiential education programs (internships and co-ops), running programming on leadership development and career readiness competencies, hosting large and small events like job fairs, career fairs, and employer information sessions, operating job boards, providing a broad range of career counseling and advising services, reviewing and coaching students on the full range of the components of the hiring process, and connecting students with alumni through networking tools and events. In an environment where professional staff to student ratios can be 2:2000 or more, efficiency drives many decisions. Automation increasingly becomes the road to efficiency with a growing number of third party vendors offering AI/ML based tools to stand in for activities like basic résumé review duties and video interview feedback.
Two particular aspects of this development bear mention. First, these new tools replace historically human-to-human interactions about what is often regarded and talked about as being a particularly human process. Fit is a two way street in hiring, and the best way for a candidate to determine if an organization even approximates their PR is through interaction with those who work there. This replacement of human interaction conditions students to accept that computers are and should be their first line of instruction, inquiry, and engagement. Second, the creators of these tools see a hiring process that replaces human gatekeepers with code, and they have responded by giving candidates technology to maintain a sense of parity with the applicant tracking systems (ATSs), online skills and personality assessments, and video interview systems of employers. Meanwhile applicants have less exposure to the humans on the other side even as AI advocates pitch it as increasing the human side of our work. Often career centers must pay for these products while their staff and the students they serve become part of the training data to enrich the vendor.
A futurist delivering a keynote at a recent conference for university career development professionals unintentionally captured the moment. After laying out a future that offers decreasing stability for employees; a future that sees the majority of professional workers as gig workers, not employees; and a nod to growing rates of mental health issues, especially around anxiety; her self-proclaimed pro-human take was advice (good, quality advice) on how practitioners could prepare students for this hostile job market. The inevitability of it all was always assumed and never questioned.
Hiring tech’s pitch
Improve human addition
Through human subtraction
Beyond the hiring process new employees may find themselves directed not to their supervisor or HR representative for help acclimating to a new workplace, but to the AI chatbot. Algorithms are now being developed and deployed to monitor, measure, and assess employee productivity and feed reports to managers for annual reviews. Even now code embedded in Microsoft Outlook can monitor tasks, suggest follow up and basic actions, and be embedded in employee management by sending reports on time spent on activities, response times, and more.
Mario Savio was Right in 1964, He’s Right Today
In the critical conversation around surveillance technology in education we must acknowledge its location within a larger set of industry-driven values around employment. The tension between educating well-rounded citizens and training future workers is as old as public education in the United States. The latter almost always wins, except for those already possessing privilege and having access to elite institutions where conversations around purpose in career sound like inheritances, not taunts. Ultimately, this mindset of humans as primarily cogs in the machine will undermine or even negate important undertakings like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Free Speech Movement founder Mario Savio’s protest speech against a machine-like university in 1964 is if anything more applicable today:
As long as the human as resource mindset of western industry dominates the conversation around employment, it will inform and shape the nature, tools, and forms of pedagogy. Schools will continue to be perceived and treated as refineries for raw materials, rather than a civic good for the development of human beings.
About the Author
Chris Miciek began building the first 100% online career center in the US in 2002, pioneering online technology and social media to provide career development advising and instruction for university students. Since then he’s presented at state, regional, and national conferences on emerging technology, including creating a keynote panel for Midwest Association of Colleges and Employers (MWACE) 2007 and leading the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Tech Summit in 2009. He authored a chapter for the NACE Case Study Guide and created podcasts, articles, and webinars on technology in career services and hiring. Chris served on the NACE Principles and Ethics Committee during 2020-21 and has co-chaired Eastern Association of Colleges and Employers (EACE) Technology Committee since 2019.
Katherine Foshko Tsan, Baruch College-CUNY Center for Teaching and Learning
While most college institutions running open educational resource (OER) conversion initiatives currently teach some online version of the OER faculty workshop, little scholarship exists on how this type of instruction can be optimized for best comprehension of, and engagement with, open resources, especially in a remote context. An overview of existing models of the workshop and their digital pedagogy philosophies is followed by a discussion of one initiative currently implemented by Baruch College’s Center of Teaching and Learning, which embraces online gaming as an effective modality to reinforce textual and auditory learning. The Old Régime and the OER Revolution, an online interactive tutorial created with the open tool Twine, is the first RPG for faculty to engage with open educational resource conversion issues. The game can be accessed in its current beta version. Because Twine encourages players to think in terms of choices and their implications while considering multiple scenarios, introducing this tool to college faculty via the OER workshop can also encourage its uptake in a plethora of other pedagogical contexts.
The faculty development OER workshop is one of the most important, yet little-researched, links in the chain of adoption of open resources on campus. Most of the models that exist acknowledge the importance of concept learning for instructors encountering terms such as OER, ZTC, and open pedagogy for the first time. Moreover, teaching faculty about best practices in fair use and Creative Commons licensing—a related field—has a trickle-down effect to undergraduates. One way to achieve familiarity with open education is through hands-on learning, where instructors model examining and converting course materials to open or zero-cost and abiding by U.S. copyright law.
The digital game-based module in this case study was created as an alternative to the traditional workshop, to meet the needs of instructors as observed after several years of an OER initiative. It gives the users an opportunity to be active participants in a multimedia narrative and provides them with the flexibility of an asynchronous, iterative assignment. It also bases itself in scenario-based learning—problem-centered instructional solutions, which complement and cement the more straightforward directional learning in the regular faculty workshop. And, as a program made with a relatively uncomplicated open-source tool, it provides an attractive use case for both faculty and students.
The OER Faculty Development Workshop: Going Digital, Going Multimodal
The workshop in OER for faculty has not yet emerged as a subject of research, although a few on-campus initiatives have presented their versions, explaining decisions around context and organization. At a base level, the class primarily focuses on certain topics germane to the field: what are open resources and open education in general, what is meant by zero textbook cost, how do open licenses work, why follow best practices when pursuing free content, and how do instructors follow accessibility guidelines. Practice activities involve faculty participants searching for materials to replace assigned readings or, if the initiative is grounded in goal-based learning, determining the course objectives and the kinds of resources required to meet them. More than a workshop, this scope of subjects suggests a training program designed for specialist-facilitated, hands-on learning. However, given the relative novelty of the twenty-year-old field, no set rules exist and no single model prevails.
Several teaching bodies have seized upon the potential of the OER workshop to be taught remotely. In 2017, the City University of New York (CUNY) was awarded a $4 million package as part of a Scale Up! OER grant “to establish, sustain and enhance new and ongoing OER initiatives throughout CUNY” (CUNY Libraries 2017). Most of the work of converting a class to open involves searching across multiple databases, and variable concerns arise depending on the instructor’s discipline. The nature of instruction, even at these online-optimized institutions, thus remains of necessity hybrid, combining asynchronous content delivery with a synchronous mode for live discussion and troubleshooting. The possibility to take such courses remotely and for free has added convenience and flexibility; their parallel emergence at public commuter colleges in the CUNY and the Washington State Community college systems has been no accident.
In 2017, Lehman College-CUNY Director of Online Learning Olena Zhadko and Susan Ko, Director of Faculty Development at the NYU School of Professional Studies, developed an asynchronous, online faculty OER workshop to be offered for a two-week period several times during the year. The mini-course, designed for incorporation into the Blackboard LMS, scaffolds understanding of OERs through a module-based system, based on a tripartite organization of defining, finding, and integrating OER, as well as a discussion forum. The learners are asked to think about how open fits into their teaching and articulate their rationale for selecting a specific OER. Their final project in the workshop consists of a list of course materials replaced by open or zero-cost equivalents, with justification and description of intended use: adoption, adaptation, or creation. The library department at Lehman College has an accompanying final assignment for hands-on practice, which tests participants’ ability to link to websites, images, and video, apply attribution, and choose Creative Commons licenses (Cohen 2018).
Simultaneously with Lehman, the Washington State Board for Technical and Community Colleges—the creator of the Open Attribution Builder—developed a free, self-paced course made up of ten modules, including one on accessibility and a reflection on “Why OER Matters.” The website likewise includes “Personal Journeys Using OER,” a series of videos by on-campus practitioners. This version appears less hands-on yet also more personal than Lehman’s, emphasizing the human element of course conversions. It co-exists in a face-to-face format, offered over a two-week period at set points throughout the academic year. These inroads in digital education have opened up the possibility of yet more interactive ways for faculty to engage with the material in concert with the existing learning structure.
Creating a New Mode for the OER Workshop at Baruch College
The Baruch College-CUNY Center for Teaching and Learning joined the OER initiative the same year as Lehman and created an in-person faculty seminar accompanied by a set of slides since made publicly available on the Center’s OER pedagogy site. Baruch’s seminar, conducted in a mix of presentation and workshop elements, features backward course design (What outcomes am I looking for? How will I measure if these outcomes have been achieved?) as well as choice of platform (mainly between the Blackboard LMS and the proprietary, though open, WordPress site Blogs@Baruch). The most recent addition to the topics covered in the workshop have been open-source digital tools (Hypothes.is, StoryMap JS, Timeline JS, Voyant, and Twine), which are simple to use and versatile enough to create OERs for both teaching demonstrations and final assignments, i.e. teacher- or student-led work.
In 2019, on the suggestion of Center for Teaching and Learning Director Allison Lehr Samuels, I began creating a future addition to the workshop. In the spirit of providing opportunities for faculty to educate themselves about OER and related topics, the game, like the slides, was to be made openly available on the TeachOER website and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license (CC-BY-SA). Four goals for this project had materialized: (a) showcasing one of the digital tools, (b) adding another mode to the regular workshop to cater to different kinds of learners, (c) creating a fully asynchronous engagement experience with the workshop, which could also serve as review material, and (d) incorporating recurrent questions that had come from workshop participants for the past three years of the OER initiative.
The technology to carry out these diverse functions had to align with the Center’s principles of using open-source tools to support interactive digital solutions whenever possible. The college had already delved into creating single-player digital training with the 2009 Interactive Guide to Producing Copyrighted Media, developed by Baruch’s Computing and Technology Center and Kognito Interactive, a paid tool used for health simulations, owned and managed by college alumni. The experience took the user through an interactive maze consisting of various copyright and fair-use related situations drawing on such resources as U.S. copyright law, copyright guidelines for CUNY libraries, and public domain information. While this work was produced before any of today’s more common open-source tools and predated the state grant-funded initiative by several years, the Baruch library’s concern for adhering to best practices in decisions around intellectual property has been behind much of its OER programming as well.
The ultimate decision to make the new OER faculty workshop model with Twine, a non-linear, interactive storytelling tool for making single-player games based on decision-making, was grounded in Baruch’s longtime support for classroom technology as well as the Center for Teaching and Learning’s embrace of game-based pedagogy. According to the Center’s team,
The prevailing theory is that games enhance and mobilize internal desires and motivations for learning…[W]hen the rules of a game are tailored around learning outcomes, students are self-motivated to learn in order to ‘win’. Role-playing games in particular have been shown to increase student engagement and motivation to read, enhance persuasive writing and speaking, and increase critical and analytical thinking. (Baruch College CTL 2020)
Pedagogy games have in fact been shown to support classroom learning and stimulate greater engagement from students (Clark 2016; Gross 2007; Hamari, Koivisto, and Sarsa 2014). Internationally renowned game designer Jane McGonigal points out the salutary effect of games on students who experience the “satisfactions of achievement and mastery" (McGonigal 2016, 231). And a 2012 study by the Mathematics Education Research Journal showed 93% of class time was spent on task when using game-based learning, compared to only 72% without it (Bragg 2012). As the anti-rote memorization approach, game-playing is directly associated with active learning and has been a part of a general pedagogical shift towards fostering creativity by working through challenges and coming up with innovative solutions (Cheka-Romero and Gómez 2018; Lameras et al. 2015).
The Baruch CTL, already experienced in active learning practices, therefore considered the gaming approach optimal for the dual task of creating an alternative mode for faculty instruction and modeling new teaching techniques. And, with the target audience being the college’s largely contingent and overextended faculty, the team’s hope was that this exercise’s immersive approach would provide a high engagement—as well as an edutainment—quotient.
Twine and Digital Pedagogy
“Games should be created by everyone” is a motto that Chris Klimas, the creator of Twine, abides by in his work (Klimas 2020). The award-winning, Baltimore-based web developer and game designer published his text-authoring tool in 2009. The target audience was writers, and the experience of creating with Twine was meant to resemble a brainstorming exercise. Paying tribute to this legacy, its home page, www.twinery.org, to this day represents a corkboard with multi-colored notes attached to it with pushpins—a working surface of inspiration.
Passages in Twine’s editor interface appear in a simple, visual flowchart, a map of text nodes connected by arrows, to be filled out, then moved and rearranged at will. The starting point is a single node, and new ones are made when a user encloses the name of another passage in double brackets to continue the story. The scripting does not require any programming experience, although basic HTML skills are needed to change the style sheet and embed images, audio, and video. These technical features add up to a flexible, user-friendly tool with a low barrier to uptake, as well as quick connection capabilities due to its text-based nature. Scholar Anastasia Salter (2016) explains that an additional strength of Twine is its deregulated publication process, meaning that games can be distributed as quickly as they are created—unlike most products of subscription-based gaming websites, which go through an extensive review process before they can go live. This affordance of the open-source tool has also encouraged a greater immediacy and unselfconsciousness of the products made with it, as will be discussed later.
The main vehicle for moving through a Twine game has traditionally been the decision made by the user at the end of each passage between two or three options, each leading to a different fork in the narrative (occasionally, for the purposes of simply proceeding with the story, there may be just one choice). The origins of this decision-tree setup can be traced to “Choose Your Own Adventure,” a series of interactive fiction created in the 1970s by Edward Packard. Klimas (2020) fondly remembers devouring the CYOA books during regular visits to the public library and, later on, trying to “repurpose the genre for something more adult.” A manual on Twine for which Klimas served as the technical editor has recommendations for strong character arcs and narrative devices such as gifts and secret powers (Ford 2016). The author, who envisioned games like Dungeons and Dragons in book form, has since seen his stripped-down writing tool take on a superhero’s cloak—many of those using Twine build role-playing games that feature fighting fantasies. Another influence was hypertext in early Macs and the culture of object-oriented programming in graphical environments.
In a surprising development, yet one that its creator has heartily welcomed, the indie gaming community originally put Twine on the map in 2012–13, crafting a whole body of “vignette” stories with messages that are often unsettling or subversive. In a field dominated by males, its association with female voices and the experience of queer and marginalized groups has lasted to this day (Harvey 2014). Titles made with Twine range from the offbeat Cat Petting Simulator to 2014’s The Depression Quest, a work initially controversial for its very existence as a “game” yet now hailed for raising awareness of clinical depression by including crossed-out “non-choices”—regular actions impossible for someone afflicted with the condition. Salter (2016) refers to this feature as “metaphors of limitations” and praises the power of Twine’s economy of means as helpful for conveying emotion and raising awareness of mental health issues. (She also stresses that it is one of the few vehicles for games with non-mainstream/taboo subjects.)
While Twine has largely flown under the radar, the darling of a niche creative community, greater exposure has recently come to it from popular artistic culture—and, to some extent, the educational environment. The new-media artist Porpentine Charity Heartscape, whose unsettling, subversive games are made largely with the tool, had her works, With Those We Love Alive and howling dogs, featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial (Klimas 2017). The following year, Charlie Brooker, the creator of the interactive Netflix film Black Mirror:Bandersnatch (2018) announced that its hundred-plus page script was written entirely in Twine (Aggarwal 2019). Around the same time, instructors began discussing their own teaching projects made with the tool and posting assignments made for humanities courses on the open web (McGrath 2019) (McCall 2017, 2019) although the practice remains limited to select classes by the enthusiastic few.
Salter credits Twine’s orientation toward the agency of the main character and lack of a peer-reviewed publishing model with its rising prominence: “Compared to the intensive team-based productions of 2D and 3D games, text-based games continue to offer a space for individual production.” In an industry known for technological extravagance, Twine is the plucky underdog that can achieve inspired—and pedagogically sound—results within a surprising economy of means.
The Baruch Twine Game: Scenario-Based Learning in a “CYOA” Format
According to its reviewers, Twine’s greatest affordance is that it deepens understanding and engagement through exploring alternatives. The Old Régime and the OER Revolution game also aims to mimic the branching, decision-making process of selecting the materials for a class: why and how should faculty abide by best practices? What are the consequences and trade-offs of certain decisions one makes in choosing freely distributed over proprietary copies—for legal repercussions, plain peace of mind, pedagogical freedom? And, more generally, why should instructors care about these issues if they do not yet teach with open resources? The title, juxtaposing “the old ways” and the “OER turn,” alludes to the main character’s specialization: in the game, “you” are a professor of French history. Yet more broadly, it references the pedagogical transformation involved in switching to open resources, which cover a wide range of mediums and modalities and involve not just a replacement of materials but also an examination of the way one teaches.
The decision that launches the game is not to teach in the usual way, as the introduction says of the main character:
You have always struggled with how unsatisfactory and expensive textbooks on the subject are…Given that your students come from so many diverse and international backgrounds, you wish there were some texts that talked more at length about their histories. (Tsan 2020)
As explained in a footnote, the prototype for this hero is Helmut Loeffler, a professor in the History Department of Queensborough Community College, CUNY, who authored a text, Introduction to Ancient Civilizations (2015), with a small grant, creating a book that understandably eschewed timelines, charts, or illustrations (Loeffler 2019). The non-fiction aspect of this “origin story” of the interactive fiction game was intentional, since the overarching goal of any faculty OER workshop is to inspire by actual example.
The Old Régime and the OER Revolution game follows Scenario-Based Learning (SBL), a popular instructional strategy in online training. In this approach, facilitators use situations close to ones that might come up and introduce applicable problems, to which the participants try to figure out the answers. Because SBL is grounded in the premise of applicability for the learners, the role-playing game aspect of many Twine products does not apply here. There are no magic friends, secret weapons or helpful gifts picked up, and the experience stays in the realm of the believable. (However, more than one aside, such as the French history professor’s waxing eloquent over a War and Peace passage she is choosing for her open syllabus, or the character of a curmudgeonly faculty member determined to resist the incursions of OER content, have been included for the purposes of levity or edutainment).
The single-player Old Régime game was designed to be non-competitive and low-stakes, a “game” in the sense of an adventure rather than a quest that results in “winning” or “losing.” In this sense, it is inspired by Jane McGonigal’s assertion that “good game developers know that the emotional experience itself is the reward” (McGonigal 2011, 244). Like most Twine tutorials created for learning and instruction, it follows the simple mode of SBL, “used to validate the learner’s recall and basic comprehension” and “good for basic problem solving” (Pandey 2018). In a similar vein, a Twine game recently made at Hostos Community College, CUNY, “encourages college-level English Language Learners to practice grammar concepts as they play the game narrative” (Lyons and Lundberg 2018). Making the wrong choice of several options sends the user back to do the exercise again until they get it right and can proceed with a visit to the Metropolitan College of Art (Met)—a relatable exercise for Hostos ELL students who frequently go to the real-world Met on field trips. The Old Régime aims for a more branching narrative, since, due to variations in the availability and permissions of course material, the choices taken by an instructor can only sometimes be classified in the right or wrong category.
While The Old Régime does not frequently correct the user’s choices, it has built-in capabilities for addressing decisions that may result in an impasse. If the answer is blatantly incorrect (“copy a 1992 book in its entirety and distribute the PDF to your class”) or fraught (“embed the YouTube link to a culinary video directly in your course website”), it leads to an “explainer”—a tactic common to Twine narratives where the user can explore links embedded within the body of the text for extra information and then go back to the main narrative. The explainers used in the game align almost exactly with the principal concepts being communicated: OER, zero-cost materials, saving money on textbooks, copyright/fair use doctrine, Creative Commons licenses, and open pedagogy (see Figure 2). Since the premise is that participants go through this experience to learn rather than be tested on their knowledge, the game aims to take them through the real-life consequences of certain actions. For instance, one storyline explains that, in a rare case, you may receive a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) notice to take down illegal digital content, and another shows how always having a rationale for why you are obeying the fair use doctrine in a specific case might save trouble and keep you on the right side of copyright law.
Scenario-based learning is often explained in the context of scaffolding the skills being taught to the learners (Clark and Mayer 2012). As the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, who first coined the term while inspired by Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Promixal Development theory, has posited, the goal here is to provide a series of instructional techniques and support to increase the learner’s understanding, with the end result of increased independence (Wood, Bruner, and Ross 1976). The Old Régime begins with an explanation of the main concepts in the open community, then goes on to offer the user the choice of working through a trio of syllabi types: (a) a traditional list of copyrighted resources, (b) a set of zero-cost multimedia resources, some of them of questionable provenance, and (c) a non-traditional syllabus focused on assignment creation, i.e. open pedagogy (a section paying tribute to recent developments and publications in the field). The issues within escalate in terms of complexity, from questions such as “Can I distribute a PDF I got off the Internet?” to “What digital tools can students use to create multimedia assignments?” While faculty can choose which syllabus to start with, depending on their interests and background, as well as go back and forth between the syllabi, there is a natural progression built into the game from less to more open permissions.
Although most Twine games are text-based, with visuals, if any, used for illustrative purposes, the images, audio, and video in The Old Régime serve an integral purpose: to demonstrate the variety of resources—and issues—a faculty member might come across in their OER course-conversion journey. One page, for instance, features a poster for the Andrzej Wajda-directed film Danton (1983) on Wikipedia, discussed in the game as an example of a fair-use argument (according to the Wikimedia Foundation, the commercial poster had to be used on the website since it was the only available visual of the film). Even on pages where the image cited is not directly related to an argument over openness, the purpose of including it is to reinforce correct attribution practices—each picture in the game comes from Wikimedia Commons and carries either a public domain or a Creative Commons license. A visualized broken link message reinforces a discussion of permanence, and a video from the New York Times’ cooking section is embedded next to a paragraph about the potential dangers of “link rot.”
In recognition of the range of curricular decisions available to faculty, the game is signposted throughout with a system of symbols that explain to the learner whether they are being told about a resource that is fully open (green O—“this resource can be used, modified and redistributed freely”), open with restrictions (yellow O—“look out for restrictions on modification and/or redistribution”), and zero textbook cost (yellow Z—“look out for restrictions on use, modification and/or redistribution”). This iconography was originally developed by CTL staff member Pamela Thielman to classify the teaching materials posted on the TeachOER website, as well as to appeal to audiovisual learners, in a sustained commitment to multimodality.
Reflections and Potential Applications
The Old Régime and the OER Revolution game had its planned launch during the Spring 2021 semester OER faculty development workshop, running remotely for the first time with two sections of fourteen participants in total. Due to other priorities that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, this initiative did not involve gathering feedback on the game. Moreover, the small sample size has made it difficult to draw causal inferences between game playing and seminar completion. Nonetheless, the anecdotal evidence from having faculty participants play the game—for many, their first encounter with the topic of open-source education—has been positive. The number of questions and points of confusion that the seminar leaders get—especially about OER vs. ZTC and where to look for open-source images—has lessened significantly. One area that needed clarification from a number of seminar participants is the meaning of a Creative Commons license and the mechanism for creating one. This observation is being used to create an update (i.e. a sub-scenario) to the game that focuses specifically on these questions.
Because of the comparative ease of screen sharing and the availability of virtual help, Baruch’s CTL has launched a concomitant initiative to encourage faculty to create their own assignments made with open-source tools. Despite the predictable roadblocks to this effort in pandemic times, it has met with success so far: several faculty members have authored interactive course resources predicated on input from students, which they are currently using to teach their classes. Twine has not featured among their chosen platforms so far, most likely because it still enjoys less visibility on an institutional level and is also perceived as a “more involved” and time-consuming choice. Knight Lab tools, which do not require CSS stylesheet language, especially StoryMap JS, are currently a bigger draw among Baruch instructors. Although more hands-on tutorials are needed to dispel the understandable hesitation many faculty members still feel about creating their own resources, the ensemble of these efforts has gradually led to a greater engagement with, and appreciation of, OER on campus.
Feedback on the game from instructional designers and Baruch faculty who playtested the game during the 2020 Baruch OER Faculty Showcase, featured in Figures 7–9, has been used to edit the current version for greater clarity and playability. A more robust set of instructions is being created and guidelines for helping players navigate through all three scenarios developed. Moreover, the game developer has set up an apparatus with learning objectives and specific questions to better target faculty engagement. A “how we made it” section and detailed instructions for making one’s own basic Twine resource will eventually accompany the game: information on where to find tutorials, what some examples with the best interactivity/greatest emotional impact are, and how the game can be hosted with campus technology. Such a content-based approach in the supplementary material means to combine subject expertise and instructional design, taking its example from openly published resources on making history simulation games and brainstorming creative writing with Twine (McCall 2016, 2017, and 2019; McGrath 2019). More educational solutions—using Twine for process modeling in entrepreneurship classes, to consider alternate plot twists in literature, or to follow scientific processes—are being considered.
These efforts are taking place alongside promising developments in Twine itself. Emily Christina Murphy and Lai-Tze Fan have announced they are assembling EnTwine: A Critical and Creative Companion to Teaching with Twine, a proposed companion to the new and invaluable Twining: Critical and Creative Approaches to Hypertext Narratives (2021) by Anastasia Salter and Stuart Moulthrop, with the latter published on Amherst College Press’s OER platform. In the past year, Chris Klimas has also released a new story format, Chapbook, which makes it easier to work with multimedia and create and play mobile-friendly games (The Old Régime was written in the default format, Harlowe, authored by Leon Arnott). As stated in a presentation to the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation’s annual event, NarraScope, the Twine team hopes to add a collaborative authorship function in the future (Klimas 2019), making the tool a natural choice not just for assignment creation, but also for in-class work, either in the face-in-face or asynchronous format.
Instructional designers, pedagogy specialists, and librarians who wish to create their own faculty workshop for teaching about open resources are encouraged to think about building both asynchronous and interactive content into their programming. The changing content of the open education field highlights the importance of providing materials in flexible ways that permit add-ons and variations. Easy-to-use open-source tools constitute a convenient and pedagogically sound resource for the faculty workshop. Twine, with its decision-tree setup and built-in interactivity, presents one possible solution to faculty handling their scenario-based learning independently and remotely alongside other face-to-face or synchronous modalities and asynchronous discussions. The other affordance of “teaching OER with OERs” is the example it provides to faculty who might introduce tools such as Twine to their own classes, creating assignments and perpetuating a culture of best practices in online publishing. The ongoing improvements in the technology suggest that gaming pedagogy can indeed become the vehicle for teaching about openness while promoting active learning and student initiative. However, a concerted initiative that combines instructional design and subject-specific pedagogy is needed to make this vision a reality.
Baruch College Center for Teaching and Learning. n.d. Teach OER (website). Accessed November 8, 2020. http://teachoer.org/.
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———. 2020. Interview by Katherine Tsan, December 21, 2020.
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Lameras, Petros, Thrasyvoulos Tsiatsos, Panagiotis Petridis, Dimitris Tolis, Fotis Liarokapis, Despina Anastasiadou, Aristidis Protopsaltis, Maurice Hendrix, and Sylvester Arnab. 2015. “Creative Thinking Experimentations for Entrepreneurship with a Disruptive, Personalised and Mobile Game-Based Learning Ecosystem.” 2015 International Conference on Interactive Mobile Communication Technologies and Learning (IMCL), Thessaloniki: 348–352. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/IMCTL.2015.7359617.
Lehr Samuels, Allison, Pamela Thielman, and Katherine Tsan. 2019. “Helping Faculty Navigate OER and Copyright Law: Two Approaches (Instructional and Curricular Design).” Presentation at the 18th Annual CUNY IT Conference, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, NY.
Loeffler, Helmut. 2019. “Experience with Authoring and Using an OER Textbook.” The 16th Annual Open Education Conference, Phoenix, AZ, October 30, 2019.
Piedra, Nelson, Janneth Chicaiza, Jorge López, and Edmundo Tovar Caro. 2016. “Integrating OER in the Design of Educational Material: Blended Learning and Linked-Open-Educational-Resources-Data Approach," 2016 IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON), Abu Dhabi, 2016: 1179–1187. https://doi.org/10.1109/EDUCON.2011.5773299.
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Rizvić, Selma, Dusanka Boskovic, Vensada Okanovic, Sanda Slijvo, and Merima Zukić. 2019. “Interactive Digital Storytelling: Bringing Cultural Heritage in a Classroom.” Journal of Computer Education: 143–166. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40692-018-0128-7.
Salter, Anastasia. 2016. “Playing at Empathy: Representing and Experiencing Emotional Growth through Twine Games.” 2016 IEEE International Conference on Serious Games and Applications for Health (SeGAH), Orlando, FL, 2016: 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1109/SeGAH.2016.7586272.
Tytler, Sarah. 2017. “‘TwitFic’, Twine, and Student-Centred Learning: Combining Creativity and Coding in the Classroom.” Africa International Journal of Management Education and Governance: 21–34.
Wilson, Rebecca, Jon Saklofske, and INKE Research team. 2019. “Playful Lenses: Using Twine to Facilitate Open Social Scholarship through Game-Based Inquiry, Research, and Scholarly Communication. KULA: Knowledge Creation, Dissemination, and Preservation Studies 3, no. 1: 5. http://doi.org/10.5334/kula.11.
The author/game designer would like to thank Chris Klimas for the insights and background knowledge shared in his interview, Hamad Sindhi and Dimitrios Papadopoulos for sharing useful bibliographical sources, Pamela Thielman for creating the pie charts based on faculty responses in Figures 7–9 and suggesting necessary changes to the game, and Allison Lehr Samuels and the whole staff of the Baruch Center for Teaching and Learning for their invaluable help and support throughout the creative and editorial process.
About the Author
Katherine Foshko Tsan (PhD, MLS) focuses on open educational resources and the digital humanities at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), Baruch College, CUNY. Her scholarly background is in Academic Libraries and Modern European History. She designed The Old Régime and the OER Revolution game for Baruch CTL’s TeachOER website with input from her colleagues and is now completing edits and additions to the resource. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stephen Grandchamp, University of Maine at Farmington
Teaching students to interpret poetry remains one of the most challenging aspects of humanities instruction due to students’ anxiety about interpretation and skepticism of poetry’s relevance to their lives. Accordingly, this article outlines a new model for using interactive streaming media playlists as a means of increasing student confidence and active engagement with poetry. It draws from my structured approach to a general-studies poetry seminar in which I required students to engage consistently with traditional print text alongside streaming recitations and musical adaptations of poetry. Thereafter, students created their own multimodal adaptations of poems to solidify their perception of poetry as an adaptable living tradition with social significance. Student responses to this strategy demonstrate a meaningful increase in their self-reported confidence in reading poetry. Moreover, the students expressed how the playlist made the study of poetry feel more relevant in a contemporary digital context while appealing to their multiple learning styles. In our current social context in which streaming media dominates many students’ reception of culture, I argue that shifting our instruction into these spaces can be an effective tool to leverage in the pedagogy of poetic interpretation.
The interpretation of poetry is notoriously among the most challenging literary skill sets to teach undergraduate students. At a minimum, it requires sustained attention to linguistic and structural detail, as well as knowledge of a few poetic forms. As a result, students often feel that they are on the outside looking in, trying to understand poetic conventions in which they have no stake. The challenge for the poetry instructor thus becomes encouraging students to engage intellectually with a genre they, at best, fear is inaccessible, and, at worst, feel is irrelevant to them.
This paper will present one solution to this conundrum: leveraging streaming platforms that students are already using to make poetry more accessible and to explore the rich multivalence of poetic adaptation. To implement this solution, I designed a course in which students would engage with streaming audio recordings of poetry alongside traditional print texts. My hope was that this approach would overcome the obstacles associated with teaching poetry in three key ways. First, it would encourage students to explore poetry through an interactive and already-popular medium on their smartphones: Spotify. Second, it would highlight the mutability of poetry over time, demonstrating how the poetic tradition is in a constant state of self-refashioning through performance. In this way, students would become more empowered in the interactive process of reading, interpreting, and adapting poetry. Third, it would, by requiring students to read poems while also listening to them on a digital platform, make poetry feel more accessible rather than guarded behind the walls of high culture.
The results of this semester-long experience, outlined below, demonstrate a practical and effective tool for the teaching of poetry interpretation. The assessment data suggest a self-reported increase in active engagement with poetry through the streaming of Spotify playlists, as well as self-reported improvement in the ability to interpret poetry. Yet perhaps more significantly, the students in this course (consisting of non-English majors) became excited about the possibility of poetic adaptation—both in the analysis of interpretations encountered through the Spotify playlist and in their own performances. By the end of the course, they expressed a new level of interest and comfort in interpreting poetry. In describing the multimodal processes of engaging with streaming media and poetic adaptation that led to such an outcome, this paper will underscore the usefulness of shifting our pedagogy of poetry interpretation into interactive platforms our students are already widely using as a way to improve their skills and confidence as active shapers of an accessible poetic tradition.
My aim was to make a 300-level poetry seminar (part of the general studies requirements at a STEM and business university) feel more interesting, accessible, and contemporary to a student population likely not inclined to the self-initiated study of poetry. My course design was inspired by the explosion of streaming media options over the last decade, which I believed would provide new possibilities of active learning engagement for students of poetry. This study also builds on and extends previous efforts to rethink the pedagogy of poetry interpretation within the framework of multimodality. In an early example of this process, Mary McVee, Lynn Shanahan, and Nancy Bailey (2008) describe using PowerPoint projects in the pre-streaming era to combat student antipathy and anxiety surrounding poetry interpretation. More recently, Hessa A. Alghadeer (2014) provides a foundation for the pedagogical effectiveness of adapting poetry with digital platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Prezi. Meanwhile, Violeta Janulevičienė and Deimantė Veličkienė (2015) similarly note how using digital adaptations to teach Shakespeare’s sonnets will “shift from monomodality to multimodality,” wherein “utilizing several modes of meaning making create new meanings” (2015, 210, 212). In engaging such multimodalities, working with playlists provides students with plentiful opportunities to ask critical questions about the typical ways genres are categorized by companies like Spotify (Ball, Sheppard, and Arola 2018, 76–77)—topics especially pertinent to poetry seminars like mine mixing print text, spoken word recitation, and digital adaptation. This paper continues this focus on multimodality, aiming to bring poetry into the digital spaces already inhabited by students as a means of increasing interpretive and adaptive engagement.
Finally, this study expands the body of scholarship focused on playlist curation as a pedagogical aid by applying existing models to the teaching of poetry. Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp (2012) suggest that playlist curation can serve as a type of content modeling in which decisions like sorting by genre, artist, or composer can open essential questions for students within the digital humanities (19). From the perspective of music education, Scott Jeppesen (2017) writes how “Online listening also empowers teachers to use technology to add additional interactive possibilities to their classes” (60). Both of these studies are indicative of how playlists could significantly revise the pedagogy of the poetry classroom by requiring students to consider critically the process of content curation through interactive streaming media.
Selection of Platform
I selected Spotify as the platform through which to disseminate streaming poetry performances and adaptations for this class because of its free account option and its ability to provide a combination of material essential to the course: poetry read by original authors, poetry read by interpreters, music incorporating poetry or poetic allusions, and the capability to build and share playlists. In respect to the first and second points, Spotify allows for the streaming of the entire catalog of the Smithsonian Folkways label, a nonprofit entity that houses the recordings of the original Folkways Records label. The long-playing vinyl records, and later cassettes and CD-Rs, of this label were once a staple of American libraries; however, with the decline of physical media, many institutions have eliminated such collections. As a result, these vital recordings have become underutilized in the era of digital media. The Smithsonian Folkways holdings include numerous albums of poetry readings by original authors, such as the seminal Anthology of Negro Poetry (1954) featuring recitations by poetry course staples such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Likewise, Smithsonian Folkways hosts albums of readings of canonical poetry such as English Romantic Poetry by John S. Martin (1962) and Early English Poetry by Charles W. Dunn (1958), to name only two among many.
Spotify’s vast catalog represents its most significant advantage as a streaming platform when teaching poetic adaptation. Instructors are able to curate playlists containing poetry readings side-by-side with musical recordings that either directly adapt a poem or expand its themes. In respect to direct adaptation, Spotify’s plentiful offerings within the ballad tradition provide a meaningful illustration for students of ballads’ adaptability and mutability over time. More broadly, Spotify’s access to many popular recordings since the advent of recorded sound provides a foundation for demonstrating to students the continued relevance of poetry. For instance, listening to Richard Burton’s reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner alongside Iron Maiden’s metal adaptation “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1984), which weaves lines from Coleridge’s original text with new expansions of the plot, offers students an unexpected and productively challenging example of the continued resonance of poetry in a popular music context.
Spotify is also already used to a significant extent by people who are the age of the traditional university student and provides a free option for those unable to afford a premium account. As of October 2021, Spotify has a userbase of 365 million users (Spotify 2021). The demographics of this userbase tend toward the age of traditional undergraduate students, with a recent study finding that people between the ages of 18 and 35 are significantly more likely to use Spotify than people over 35 (Gomes, Pereira, Soares, Antunes, and Au-Yong-Oliveira 2021, 348). In fact, in the survey forming the basis of the study, 89.1% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 25 indicated that they are Spotify users (Gomes, Pereira, Soares, Antunes, and Au-Yong-Oliveira 2021, 348). As such, many students using Spotify for class will not need to download or learn the mechanics of a new platform, removing a potential impediment to learning engagement. Because of this pervasive use, Spotify represents the most accessible option for student audio streaming absent larger institutional support for a non-commercial option. Anecdotally, of the students enrolled in my poetry seminar, 11 of the 22 had a premium Spotify account (at discounted student rates) upon entering the course, six had a free account, and five did not have an account. I guided the students who did not have a Spotify membership through the steps of creating a free account, which would be accessible on their phones, laptops, or tablets. (In the event students do not own such devices, they would be able to listen to Spotify within web browsers at the university computer lab using their free accounts.) Yet because students typically prefer to listen to music on smartphones, the Spotify app is particularly useful for inserting poetry into their daily listening habits, putting vital course content directly into their pockets.
As is widely acknowledged, Spotify’s compensation model for artists and songwriters is problematic. Like many digital media platforms, Spotify’s initial promise for the democratization of music distribution has been replaced by “a consolidation of long-established power structures” in which record labels profit at the expense of the artist (Marshall 2015, 185). At best, streaming has been a double-edged sword that has lowered digital piracy while also depressing music sales (Aguiar and Waldfogel 2018). More unfortunate still, for much of Spotify’s existence artists would “receive reduced benefits because their royalty rates are lower” (Lesser 2018, 291), though this issue may be somewhat ameliorated with the passage of the Music Modernization Act in 2018. In this way, Daniel S. Hess (2019) argues the MMA will at least provide independent artists “an approachable means to collect royalties” (200–201), although the royalty rate per stream is only $0.004 as of early 2021 (Owsinski 2021).
At the same time, Spotify provides the most accessible option for students at the present moment due to its free account tier and massive user base, making it a pragmatic—if not ideal—choice for the poetry instructor. Unlike other major music streaming platforms like Apple Music or Tidal, Spotify offers an advertisement-supported free account option, thereby allowing students without the resources to pay for a premium account full access to the course playlist. As such, these free accounts facilitate the easy exchange of playlists when building a required listening list for a course. Additionally, free Spotify accounts allow students to participate in the creation and sharing of their individual poetry playlists. More than that, free Spotify accounts, like paid accounts, provide the ability to make collaborative crowdsourced playlists for group projects. For these reasons, Spotify functions as a particularly effective classroom tool even in its free version, setting it apart from other current options. In the absence of a noncommercial educational streaming platform with the full functionality and catalogs of commercial options, instructors can more responsibly integrate Spotify into their courses by making students aware of the ethical tradeoffs of using the platform in the class. Editorials by recording artists like Damon Krukowski’s (of Galaxie 500 and Damon and Naomi) “How to Be a Responsible Music Fan in the Age of Streaming” (2018) would serve as an excellent starting point for students. In particular, Krukowski’s emphasis on Bandcamp as a medium for listeners to support artists through direct purchases of digital files and physical media could help students become advocates for artist compensation, as well as more mindful consumers of sound recordings.
Some scholars have also expressed concern with how Spotify, particularly its algorithms for playlists generated by the service rather than users, might undermine the value of art. Ekberg and Schwieler (2020) argue how Spotify’s structure, particularly these algorithmically-generated playlists, can turn art and people into ephemeral commodities (12). In the context of the poetry course, however, asking students to listen to a course playlist, or even create their own playlists, can work against this dehumanizing possibility by reemphasizing the power of individual interpretation and curation. For instance, Ignacio Siles, Andrés Segura-Castillo, Mónica Sancho, and Ricardo Solís-Quesada (2019) contend that Spotify “playlists can become the basis of a shared affective experience,” suggesting how playlists can harness social power for students (7). Indeed, I often overheard students discussing the playlist before class sessions in terms of affective experience, suggesting one way by which streaming poetry playlists foster not only a pedagogical but also a deeply social collaborative experience.
The syllabus communicated to students the aim of the class related to poetry interpretation and adaptation: “the course will encourage students to approach poetry from a performative perspective—both in exposure to others’ performances and in students’ own original articulations.” As such, students knew from the outset that they would engage with a shifting poetic tradition through streaming audio of poetry and the performance of their own adaptations. Thereafter, the syllabus required print readings alongside listening assignments for each session (see Figure 1).
The first reading consisted of two foundational English-language ballads: “The Unquiet Grave” and “Bonny Barbara Allan.” In addition to reading them in print form, however, students would also be required to listen to multiple recorded adaptations. For “The Unquiet Grave,” they would hear Joan Baez’s somber 1964 performance, steeped in the acoustic traditions reignited by the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, alongside Ween’s “Cold Blows the Wind,” a 1997 alternative rock song that expands the ballad in postmodern fashion by shifting the gender dynamic. This side-by-side comparison of two recordings of a traditional ballad would show students how the poetic tradition is constantly remaking itself through adaptation, performance, and thematic revision. It was my hope that students would spend the semester developing an awareness of the elasticity of poetry within this living tradition to counter their anxiety that they would never be able to discover the “right” meaning. Instead, this process would heighten their sense of how subtle changes in performance—in lyrics, melody, tempo, vocal modulations, etc.—can dramatically reshape the meaning of a poetic text.
I would begin most course sessions by streaming one of the required audio recordings to generate critical discussion, thereby encouraging students to think of how poetic performance communicates new meaning. For instance, we started our exploration of the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks by listening to the author’s reading of “kitchenette building” (retitled “Kitchenette” upon inclusion of the aforementioned Anthology of Negro Poetry). The poem, complete with a pointed rhetorical question (“But could a dream send up through onion fumes”), ironic feminist appropriations of quotations related to gendered behavior (“‘Dream’ makes a giddy sound, not strong / Like ‘rent,’ ‘feeding a wife,’ ‘satisfying a man’”), and multiple exclamation points (“We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!”) (Brooks 2005, 998), suggests a passionate, even angry, response to the frantic confines of domestic female roles. Yet Brooks’ performance of her poem plays with this expectation by reciting in calm, measured tones to highlight yet another way in which the speaker is constrained by the conventions of female propriety. One student noted,
“Kitchenette Building” by Gwendolyn Brooks was a performance that was not quite like I expected it to be, and since the performance by the original author of the poem I was able to change my view of the poem to the way that she had originally intended. Viewing the poem like this allowed a more in-depth understanding of the political battles that she was actually fighting with her words.
This student’s response reinforces the pedagogical power of using streaming audio alongside print poetry: by challenging the authority of the student’s initial interpretations of the print text, audio recordings of authors force the reconsideration of themes within a specific historical and cultural context.
We would also sometimes begin class sessions by listening to a musical work that recirculates the words or themes of a poem to gain a deeper understanding of the ways that poetry’s adaptability allows for contemporary engagement. In one example, we followed the reading of selected poems by Emily Dickinson by listening to Wilco’s “Born Alone” (2011). In this recording, lyricist Jeff Tweedy notes the direct influence of Dickinson’s poetry,
I opened up a book of American poetry and randomly turned to the Emily Dickinson pages, no one poem in particular. I took a lot of words, most of them verbs, and put them against words that looked appealing to me from Whittier and other 1800s poetry. (quoted in Hoyt 2011)
Students then looked for specific allusions to the Dickinson poems within “Born Alone” before exploring the ways in which this adaptation had remade Dickinson’s themes. Our discussion broadened to consider how Dickinson’s nineteenth-century poetry lives on through performance and adaptation in our digital age. Through this process of comparative analysis, I hoped students would gain an appreciation for the ways English-language poetry forms an elastic lineage constantly being shaped, challenged, and remade—even in modes of artistic expression not usually associated with the reinterpretation of nineteenth-century American poetry.
The emphasis on poetic performance was punctuated by each student adapting a self-selected poem in class, either live or by digital recording. This component of the course builds on the work of Daniel Anderson and Emily Shepherd (2016) on e-Poetry, which suggests the rich multimodal possibilities of students adapting poems into media projects in order to “learn new digital writing skills and enjoy extended engagement with the poems.” In this assignment, I communicated to students the ways by which their subtle shifts in tone, pace, and volume could affect the meaning of the poem for their audience of classmates. Additionally, I asked them to consider how the process of digital recording could be transformative, requiring nuanced attention to the multimodal experience of crafting a visual recording of a written text. At the end, students would also articulate the ways by which their performance and digital framing were designed to emphasize specific themes of the original poem. Finally, each student would lead a discussion probing the meaning of the poem via the adaptation. In each of these ways, this assignment would encourage students to take ownership of the interactive process of adaptation, as well as make the genre feel more accessible, relevant, and genuinely meaningful in a contemporary context.
I asked the students to complete an anonymous survey about their experiences in the class as a means of gauging the effectiveness of my approach in meeting the course’s goals. Absent a university- or department-wide student survey that would sometimes function as the basis for evaluating specific activities within general education courses (Walvoord 2010), I composed a series of multiple choice and open-answer questions to assess how the Spotify playlist sequence may have increased confidence in poetry interpretation and improved engagement in reading poetry through interactive digital processes.
Notably, the students self-reported low confidence in their ability to read poetry before enrolling in the course. In the survey, 20 of the 22 students reported either “Not Proficient” or “Somewhat Proficient” as their initial skill level in reading poetry, while only two reported “Proficient” and zero reported “Highly Proficient.” My initial conversations with students, as well as our discussions early in the semester of ballads, confirmed this self-reported lack of confidence. As is often the case, these non-humanities majors exhibited substantial anxiety about ever being able to “get” poetry. By the end of the term, however, the students’ confidence (as reflected by their self-reported proficiency upon exiting the course) had significantly improved. Indeed, 21 of the 22 students reported either “Highly Proficient” or “Proficient” as their skill level in reading poetry after taking the course. Clearly, these students had a much greater degree of confidence in their interpretive ability, thereby breaking through their initial fear of never being able to “get” poetry.
Next, I prompted students to reflect on whether the analysis of our required listening contributed to a shift in interpretive confidence by asking, “Did the playlist help make deciphering poetry a more accessible process?” In response to this open-ended question, many students’ viewpoints overlapped with this sentiment expressed by one of their classmates: “spoken word poetry is usually less challenging or daunting than written poetry.” Another student pointed toward how listening facilitated understanding beyond the readings: “With most poems that I was confused with while reading, the recitations on the playlist were able to help me figure out what the meaning was by emphasizing certain words/lines.” This feeling was echoed by a classmate who wrote, “For the hard to follow poems, the adaptations helped me follow and understand them better.” Overall, the students in the course repeatedly emphasized how the consideration of our streaming playlist facilitated the confidence to assert understanding of the texts.
Likewise, many of the students conveyed that listening to adaptations from our course playlist authorized them to identify new meaning and formal techniques in the required readings. As one student noted, “Sometimes you will hear things that you did not pick up when reading or hear it in a way that changes your perspective on the poem.” Several students echoed this reaction that listening to poetic adaptations acted as a conduit for identifying nuances in the poems that, in turn, shifted their interpretation of the print text. One student wrote, “Each adaptation got me to think critically about what the text was saying, how it was saying it, and what elements of that were brought in the recitation.” Another student noted that, although not all adaptations were appealing, the process of analyzing why a particular performance did not work was instructive: “I didn’t like all of the adaptations, but hearing them and being able to describe why I didn’t like them and how they related to the original poem helped me to understand the art of performance poetry a lot better.”
Several students also explained how the incorporation of interactive streaming technology made the readings feel more contemporary and, therefore, accessible. For instance, one student reflected:
it brought the process into the modern technological age. I kind of got stuck in this class and wasn’t really looking forward to it, but the playlist allowed me to get so much more out of the course than I was expecting. I thought the class would be really dry and we’d just be counting syllables for 10 weeks, but the addition of the recitations livened it up.
In this way, streaming media had helped me overcome a central hurdle in teaching poetry to the general studies student: making the texts seem relevant, accessible, and more than only exercises in technical analysis. One student emphasized how the listening contributed to seeing the readings as more than a purely isolated academic exercise: “they gave me an idea of how these poems were used and performed in the real world.” One student even volunteered that, absent the assigned playlist, “I probably would have gone to YouTube and looked up adaptations to help with my comprehension of the poem.” Formalizing this impulse through the creation of a shared playlist both directs students to thought-provoking adaptations and aligns the classroom experience with their typical processes as learners in the digital age. Students did not have to search through a variety of streaming platforms for digital adaptations of the readings but rather could reach into their pockets and shuffle the class playlist any time they wanted to engage with poetry.
The students also expressed several ways in which the multimodality of reading and listening to poetry helped them glean new meanings from the poems. One student noted how interacting with various instantiations of the poems aided in the interpretive process: “I feel that in tandem with reading the poetry first this was an effective way to better decipher a poem.” Several other students reiterated this reaction, with one student asserting that “multiple perspectives create(d) a well-rounded interpretation,” and another writing that “This method provided multiple mediums to capture the information.” Seemingly, this consistent appeal to multimodality, performance, and adaptation through digital media had allowed students to gain confidence in their interpretations.
Still three other students emphasized the importance of our playlist for appealing to their learning styles: “I am an auditory learner,” “Hearing words while reading them gives me two ways to decipher poems,” and “My comprehension has always been better when I listen to something instead of read it, so being able to do both was something that helped me considerably in my understanding.” Although most poetry courses feature reading aloud of texts during the course session, and many courses in the era of physical media included intermittent listening, the consistent integration of a digital playlist also appealed in a powerful way to these learners. One student succinctly summarized this appeal to auditory learners: the playlist “made the homework assignments more enjoyable to either get a review of what you read or hear a new way of how the poem could be interpreted.”
Many students also demonstrated a positive learning experience in creating their own adaptation of a poem. In one particularly successful digital adaptation, a student selected “Boots of Spanish Leather” by Bob Dylan as his source text—which we already read in print form in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, as well as listened to two drastically divergent performances by Dylan (his initial studio recording, a spare and earnest folk rendition, from 1963) and by hard-rock band Nazareth’s lead singer, Dan McCafferty (a mainstream rock rendition from 1975). Building on our discussions of the shifting themes of the various instantiations of the poem, the student recorded, edited, and shared a digital video of himself singing while playing guitar—featuring phrasing, tempo, and emphasis radically divergent from Dylan’s original take with the same instrumentation. Thereafter, the student led a discussion in which he invited his classmates to reflect on how his filmed visual performance shifted the meaning of Dylan’s words. This culminating project thus engaged in valuable “critical examinations of literary texts” via “mediating across sign systems,” a process explored by Heidi Höglund’s study of student video interpretations of poetry at the secondary level (2017, 43). In keeping with recent work in composition studies, however, students also had the option to perform their works in person depending on the goals of their interpretive recitation. As Jody Shipka (2013) notes, multimodality should not be viewed as synonymous with “digitally based or screen-mediated texts”; instead, students should “leave our courses exhibiting a more nuanced awareness of the various choices they make throughout the process of accomplishing that work and the effect those choices might have on others” (76). In this spirit, students were able to take ownership of their performances by defining their process of interpretation and adaptation—therein demonstrating their power to engage actively with the tradition of English-language poetry in the genre of their choice rather than acting only as passive readers.
Since the implementation of the Spotify playlist in this poetry seminar, I have expanded this approach in subsequent courses to include students curating their own public playlists on Spotify. As Anja Nylund Hagen (2015) argues, although playlist curation is not wholly removed from the processes of collecting “rare gems” of physical media, “playlist collecting involves imposing one’s will (and oneself) upon an intangible realm of endless abundance” (643). This narrowing process, in which students select a particular theme, issue, or timeframe and create a succinct one-to-two-hour playlist from Spotify’s overwhelming amount of recorded material allows them to take ownership of research processes for public outreach. In my projects, after creating an overview of relevant recordings (both spoken word and musical) students select a playlist image and write a brief description to draw in listeners, as well as submit a “curator’s statement” in which they outline key aspects of the theme, issue, or period while explaining the inclusion of these particular recordings. Such public-facing acts of criticism and curation have provided a meaningful context in which my students have forged unexpected intellectual connections while also serving as a training ground for more traditional argumentative research-based essays later in the semester. Kelly J. Hunnings (2019) also suggests how the curation of Spotify playlists from the perspective of a fictional character can provide a meaningful space for students to engage with pre-twentieth-century literature in the digital era. In all of these ways, a Spotify curation project carries through the themes of the original reading and listening assignments by asking students to become informed content-creators of streaming media in a real-world setting.
My students’ experiences in the original seminar and subsequent courses demonstrate how streaming media is a valuable tool at the disposal of the poetry instructor. By overcoming the all-too-frequent student intimidation or resistance at the prospect of poetry interpretation, interactive streaming media helps make poetry feel comprehensible and approachable to students. Moreover, asking them to create a unique adaptation or public playlist enables them to take ownership of their reading practice through active interpretation. As streaming media platforms continue to evolve at a rapid pace, we, as poetry instructors, can continue this work to rethink our practice within the context of technologies already shaping the cultural context of our students’ lives.
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Siles, Ignacio, Andrés Segura-Castillo, Mónica Sancho, and Ricardo Solís-Quesada. 2019. “Genres as Social Affect: Cultivating Moods and Emotions through Playlists on Spotify.” Social Media + Society 5, no. 2: 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305119847514.
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About the Author
Stephen Grandchamp is Assistant Professor of Literature and Digital Humanities at the University of Maine at Farmington, where he is also the Co-Director of the New Commons Project (a public humanities initiative sponsored by the Mellon Foundation) and Manager of the Digital Humanities Lab. His areas of research interest include: failure in the traditional bildungsroman, video game adaptations of literary texts, and the integration of digital tools into the literature classroom.