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Collaboration, Risk, and Pedagogies of Care: Looking to a Postpandemic Future

Abstract

Teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for many important, and often long overdue conversations in education and, hopefully, longstanding changes in how we design classrooms for meaningful, connected, and innovative learning. In May 2020, Dr. Molly Buckley-Marudas and Dr. Shelley Rose, Associate Professors at Cleveland State University, founded the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative (CTC). This interdisciplinary group of instructors and instructional support professionals from Pre-Kindergarten to Higher Education emerged as a critical rehearsal space for the future. Through case studies of teaching, monthly discussions, and curation of resources, members of Cleveland Teaching Collaborative have developed a collection of pandemic pedagogies that serve as a rehearsal for the future. This article articulates three main areas of pandemic pedagogy and our vision for critical changes in education: cross-collaboration that honors distributed expertise, prioritization of people that enacts pedagogies of care, and risk-taking that sets the stage for the #postpandemicteacher.

Introduction

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring of 2020, higher education and PK–12 schools abruptly transitioned to remote teaching and learning. In a matter of days, teachers at all levels of education were required to move face-to-face classes to remote, web-based contexts. Although instructors drew on their knowledge of the expansive existing body of research on remote teaching and learning, as well as a diverse range of educational resources, the spring 2020 transition to a remote context occurred without the benefit of additional time, training, or reflection. Without a blueprint for teaching and learning in a pandemic, teachers at all levels and in different institutional contexts hustled to find new and innovative ways to provide accessible, high-quality learning opportunities for all students. Like the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative (CTC) educators, all teachers imagined and enacted a still-evolving collection of pandemic pedagogies. Charged with tending to the pressing needs of their students, their communities, and their own families, our work with the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative has revealed that educators at all levels cultivated pedagogies of care and a culture of risk taking in their classrooms. The realities of the pandemic, from illness, death, and social isolation to increased unemployment, housing instability, and food insecurity, suggest that educators are teaching in an emergency.

We approach our work with the belief that what educators are learning during the COVID-19 era is useful for teaching and learning in this immediate moment, yet we also believe that what we learn during this crisis is critical to the future of education. In keeping with the call for this special issue, we consider: “How do we use what we’ve learned from teaching in and through an ‘emergency’ as a rehearsal for the future?” This network, the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative, was designed to bring together PK–university educators in Northeast Ohio to reflect on, write about, and discuss their individual experiences in these times. This work has implications for how educators and school administrators could create more connected, innovative, and humanizing spaces of learning in the future by normalizing pedagogies of care and supporting instructors to implement new strategies to enhance learning for all students.

Pandemic Pedagogies

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are living in a state of uncertainty and, according to Sharon Ravitch, “an indefinite state of flux.”  In this moment of uncertainty, both relational and educational, Ravitch calls for “flux pedagogy” (Ravitch 2020). Flux pedagogy answers the urgent need for a flexible and humanizing approach to education. Flux pedagogy integrates critical relational frameworks into a complex adaptive pedagogical approach that identifies and addresses lived problems as a form of radical action.” We have also seen increased attention to and extension of prepandemic scholarship on critical pedagogy and humanizing pedagogy frameworks. Both traditions center students’ lives and histories and emphasize the significance of social and cultural contexts. Likewise, scholars and practitioners have emphasized the need for culturally sustaining pedagogies (Paris 2012; Paris and Alim 2020), culturally responsive pedagogies (Ladson-Billings 1995), and trauma-informed pedagogies, all of which aim to honor and be responsive to students’ lived realities. Critical educational technology scholars (Mehta and Aguilera 2020; Shelton, Aguilera, Gleason, and Mehta 2020, 125–129) have conceptualized a “critical humanizing pedagogies” framework to center pedagogies of care and decenter educational technology. Pandemic era teaching has raised attention around pedagogies of care (Rolon-Dow 2005) that tend to the examination of power, social location and access to any other resources in a relational context and recognize that learning happens in the context of relationships.

We have also seen a call for educators to cultivate what Michael Nakkula and Andy Danilchick refer to as an “uncertainty mindset” (2020, 14–33). According to their guide, “Planning for Uncertainty: An Educator’s guide to Navigating the COVID-19 Era” an uncertainty mindset is, “a stance that encourages embracing the unknown in order to remain responsive to the needs and opportunities as they emerge” (Nakkula and Danilchick 2020, 7). The growing body of pandemic pedagogies is both necessary and helpful to educators as they work to navigate this time. With the belief that the pandemic as we currently know it will end, we wonder: what are the characteristics of a postpandemic pedagogy? What are the key attributes of what we refer to as the #postpandemicteacher? Some of the answers are found in the pandemic experiences of the CTC. Specifically, cultivating pedagogies of care and normalizing the risks we take when instructors center students and implement new strategies for remote, hybrid, and in-person learning.

The Cleveland Teaching Collaborative

With inspiration from NYU Shanghai’s Digital Teaching Toolkit (2020) and the understanding that the summer of 2020 would be a critical time for educators to reflect on, evaluate, and develop remote learning opportunities and pandemic pedagogies, we (Buckley-Marudas and Rose) launched the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative. We collected and published a diverse collection of educator-authored case studies of remote teaching and learning during the pandemic. A core aim was to provide meaningful and timely support and tools for critical, accessible, and high-quality learning opportunities for students living and learning in a highly imperfect time. We hoped that the project would provide educators at all levels, within and across different institutional contexts, the space and time necessary to reflect as a community and to make recommendations and suggestions for future teaching and learning. More than static case-studies, however, the CTC also had the goal of fostering ongoing partnerships between university and PK–12 educators.

The first cohort of authors in summer 2020 included twenty-three educators, twenty-two from the greater Cleveland area and one from Los Angeles, CA. The California-based educator came to the collaborative as a result of an existing professional relationship with a Cleveland-based educator. The content and emergence of their co-authored piece reflects the potential of cross-country collaborations and partnerships for teaching and learning. The summer 2020 cohort included a combination of elementary, secondary, and university instructors and reflected a wide range of disciplines. The cohort also included educators who teach in a mix of public, private, and parochial institutions and from urban, suburban, and rural contexts. Every educator authored a case study about their transition to pandemic era teaching and learning, focusing on the pedagogical approaches, tools, and principles they used to make their decisions, the challenges they experienced, and what lessons they learned for the future. All the case studies were reviewed by the CTC leadership team and then published to CTC’s WordPress site. The platform was chosen because it is user-friendly and able to accommodate multiple contributing authors.

A unique component of this collaborative is the living, growing “resource referatory.” The referatory is a curated collection of educational resources. It is a crowdsourced, open access collection that began with materials cited by CTC contributors. By the end of fall 2020, the referatory had grown to over two hundred entries and at the time of writing, the referatory has increased to over eight hundred entries. With the third cohort of authors preparing to submit their case studies by the end of May 2021, we know this number will continue to grow. In addition to the written case studies and growing referatory, another component of the CTC is the opportunity for contributors to participate in video-based discussion groups. We held three discussion groups during the summer of 2020 and, on request, have continued to host discussions at least once a month. In addition to the shared home of the WordPress site, we have a space in Microsoft Teams for questions, announcements, idea exchange, and shared files, and in November 2020 launched the Assignment Design Café for instructors as an informal drop-in space staffed by CTC members and campus partners via Zoom for instructors to support learning along the way.

Rehearsal for the #Postpandemicteacher

In the spirit of the call for this issue, we believe that what we learn when teaching in an emergency is critical to navigating and surviving the emergency, yet these learnings are also a rehearsal for the future. Drawing on our work with the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative, we share the ways in which we have observed how the COVID-19 pandemic has limited some of the possibilities for educator growth and reflection, and how teaching in the COVID-19 pandemic has created space for educators’ individual and collective reflection, revision, and re-imagination. In the sections that follow, we will focus on the key lessons and insights that should be leveraged for future educational work and what we refer to as the #postpandemicteacher.

Crisis scenarios tend to surface existing problems or inequities and serve as a catalyst for critical changes. Teaching through this crisis has been a catalyst for many important conversations in education and, hopefully, several longstanding changes in how we design classrooms for meaningful, connected, and innovative learning. The collective space of the CTC emerged as a critical rehearsal space for the future. By this we mean that the collective, in concept and action, became a catalyst for new ways of operating, interacting, writing, and imagining regarding what learning might look like. The collaborative was conceptualized as a space that aimed to cultivate new patterns and forms of interaction and participation and a space for expanding, not narrowing, the possibilities of when and why we interact with other educators. In the remainder of this article, we will share three specific ways that teaching in an emergency has contributed to a collection of pandemic pedagogies that serve as a rehearsal for the future and setting the stage for the #postpandemicteacher. The three ideas we offer are cross-collaboration, prioritization of people, and risk-taking.

Cross-collaboration: honor distributed expertise

One of the goals of the collaborative was to create spaces for educators to come together to connect, share, reflect, and enhance their teaching practice. Given the required social distancing and physical isolation that are part of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a need for teachers to be together and try to learn together, particularly during such an intense and demanding time. The conditions of this emergency precipitated the shift to online spaces and video calls. With this, some of the constraints tied to physical barriers, such as geographical location, buildings, and walls as well as social barriers, such as departments, roles, and affiliations were lifted. Consistent with the title of CTC members Charles Ellenbogen and Jason White’s case study, education has gained “moving walls.” For Ellenbogen and White, this meant a sustained cross-country collaboration around writing, with Ellenbogen in Cleveland and White in Los Angeles. Yet, the concept of the moving walls is similarly powerful for breaking down other walls or borders that have become deeply ingrained in the ways in which schools are organized and how ideas and information are exchanged. With the ease and accessibility of video calls, this moment could help to chip away at the existing walls dividing PK–12 educators and university educators, divisions such as discipline, department, or college affiliation within an institution, and borders we have created between different institutional roles or functions. Learning design specialist Lee Skallerup Bessette argues in her recent scholarship, the divides between instructors and instructional support staff at our institutions are both tacit, such as staff not receiving invitations to events like commencement, and explicit, like title policing (Bessette 2020; 2021; Perry 2020). The collaborative allowed university and PK–12 teachers ongoing opportunities to exchange ideas across disciplines and rank. For example, two CTC collaborators, one a part-time university instructor and one a high school teacher developed the idea for non-evaluative peer visitations.

At the institutional level, we have seen more instances of cross-functional collaboration. For example, for the first time in either of our experience at our university, we attended a meeting that included participation from tenure track faculty, part-time faculty, the instructional design center, the library, e-learning office, Blackboard support office, and our university’s center for faculty excellence in teaching. The meeting centered around a new outgrowth of the CTC called the “Assignment Design Café.” The café is structured as a drop-in opportunity for instructors, yet our staff facilitators also appreciate the space, which recognizes that regardless of position “it takes a village” to support digital teaching and learning (Bessette 2020). The café takes place on Zoom and is framed as an opportunity for participants to drop-in with an assignment, a challenge, or an idea related to their remote or web-based teaching. Although not required, all the centers and offices expressed an interest in supporting and facilitating the café. At a December session, it was powerful to listen to the range of perspectives in response to one instructor’s question about Google Forms and Microsoft Forms. Distributed expertise exists in a community in which levels of expertise vary and there is a willingness to both share and learn from that existing expertise. We benefited from the distributed expertise in the room and that many people knew different things about the platforms. Instead of one “expert” we had many knowledgeable and skilled users. In our March meeting we shared perspectives on different virtual conference platforms and started to name items that all fit on what we refer to as our “Awareness List.”  This list includes oversights, habits, and structural barriers that we, individually and collectively, have come to learn in the process of doing this work. For example, who is notified or and included in professional development opportunities and how information is distributed. This has emphasized the need to strengthen relationships between existing programs, centers, and IT personnel. The centers and supports are established on our campuses, yet they are not necessarily as integrated as possible with departments or instructors.

Instead of seeing Zoom meetings like this as an opportunity and privilege of the pandemic moment, we see this as an important lesson for the future. We know that teaching and learning improves when we can access and draw on a range and variation of diverse perspectives. When school buildings re-open, educators need to challenge and interrupt the instinct to return to the taken-for-granted ways of operating. We have seen the need to reimagine some of the systems and structures that consistently divide, rank, and sort, and, in the process, limit the benefits of cross-collaboration and distributed knowledge generation and distributions. We have used this chance as an opportunity to collaborate and work with individuals that we do not consistently see or come together with on a regular basis, yet the cross-collaborations create new opportunities for growth. How do we continue to create opportunities for educators to cross the boundaries constructed around variables including discipline, grade level, department, and teaching rank? How do we continue the practice of moving walls beyond the circumstances created by the pandemic?

Prioritization of people: enacting pedagogies of care

Pandemic teaching has reminded all of us—educators, students, parents, school leaders—that teaching and learning are deeply relational processes. One of the most critical lessons to carry forward from teaching in this global health crisis is a renewed commitment to understanding and enacting education as a human endeavor. The quality and depth of relationships with students has surfaced as an essential element of teaching in the pandemic, yet it is evident that the relational work of teaching and learning is something that must be prioritized in a postpandemic era. A theme that surfaced in nearly every CTC case study and discussion group was the pressing need to focus on relationships with students. Educators at all levels and across disciplines and institutional contexts emphasized the need to center on the students and to meet students where they were. Relatedly, many educators spoke about listening to, and regularly soliciting feedback from students outside of institutional evaluations as an important element of their pandemic teaching. Although this finding will sound familiar and may seem obvious, it became clear that these practices may not have been prioritized as much as we hoped in our prepandemic pedagogies.

Every CTC case study offered specific instructional approaches that drew on a pedagogy of care. For example, most CTC authors shared that they developed and distributed a student survey to guide their instructional approaches. According to Sophia Higginbottom, tenth-grade Language and Literature teacher and CTC author, “The first necessity was to ask students to complete a survey, which was posted into their Google Classrooms and sent via email to everyone enrolled in the course.” In Higginbottom’s essay, “Simultaneously Stimulating Autonomy and Global Citizenship: A Case Study on Education Through the COVID-19 Pandemic,” she explains that her survey focused on three areas: student access to internet and digital tools, availability for live class sessions, and students’ reflections on how they could “best learn in this new distance-learning world.”  Similarly, Lana Mobydeen, a university-based part-time instructor of political science, writes in her case study: “Once I decided to use Blackboard Collaborate, I sent a twelve-question survey via Microsoft Forms to my students regarding their internet access, preference for live or pre-recorded lectures, availability, and opinion on discussion boards. I received responses from twenty-three out of the twenty-nine students enrolled with examples of some of the responses included.”

Importantly, Mobydeen explains how she used the information from students’ responses to guide her pedagogical decisions. For example, based on preferences for live or recorded lectures, Mobydeen writes: “I decided to do live sessions and record them for students that wished to view them later. This would allow the best of both worlds for students. Whoever wanted live instruction could join via Blackboard Collaborate during our normal course time and those who could not join could view the recordings at their own pace. I did not require attendance for live sessions. I made them optional because of the impact that the pandemic had on students who might have been sick, caring for others, working, or had other issues.” This illustrates how this outreach offers an opportunity to connect with students and understand where they are. Mobydeen can then be responsive to the collected information. Mobydeen draws on a pedagogy of care in her decision-making in that she offers multiple ways to access the material and succeed in the class. John Dutton, high school science and computer science teacher, offers additional support for the value of student feedback. In “From the Tech Teacher Perspective: Distance Learning for Science, Computer Science and Fellow Educators,” Dutton writes: “Ultimately, using student feedback to consistently tailor the student experience led to improved student attitudes towards online learning.” Teachers know that student-responsive curricula improve engagement, and given that the body of evidence for effective all-school distance learning is slim, then it is critical that teachers seek student feedback on a regular basis. The parameters of this health crisis are changing daily; we must be flexible and proactive enough to seek out and respond to these rapidly evolving challenges.” The challenges of the pandemic, including the magnitude of uncertainty and unease, prompted many educators to embrace more flexibility and more care in their pedagogical approach.

Although the surveys ranged in format and frequency, the CTC authors spoke positively about what they gained from this decision. As illustrated in the examples above, authors highlighted the value of the student surveys for connecting with students in relationship to their well-being and for gaining insight into their students’ experiences in the class. Although this was not a new practice for everyone, this level and frequency of personalized, class-specific survey was new for many.

Many of the challenges that surfaced are not necessarily new, and we know that they will not go away when the pandemic ends, yet they became more challenging, more problematic, and/or more exposed during this era. For example, regarding technology, many PK–12 schools and districts were operating without a shared learning management system, making simple communication efforts and the transition to remote teaching incredibly difficult and time consuming. The moment of crisis forced us to confront what we knew, yet overlooked, about access to technology and the digital divide. At the beginning of the pandemic, many students, at all levels, lacked access to appropriate hardware for learning and reliable internet. Districts and our university scrambled to distribute laptops and hot spots to students.

In addition to individual educators adopting a humanizing pedagogy, we also noticed decisions at the institutional level that reflected a pedagogy of care. For example, offering students at the university a choice between a letter grade or pass/fail, recommendations to be flexible on deadlines, and a willingness to offer students an incomplete with additional time to complete the course. Instead of seeing these options as “easy” or “soft,” pandemic pedagogies recognize these modifications as responsive, attentive, and humanizing. They reflect an ethos of care and flexibility. Care and flexibility are imperative for teaching in a pandemic, yet these characteristics will enhance nearly any teaching and learning moment such as increasing attention to practices like ungrading (Blum 2021).

In the case of students with documented special needs, teaching in this crisis amplified the lack of existing flexibility, resources, and innovation to prioritize and support some of our state’s most vulnerable students. As Allison Welch, high school Intervention Specialist and Spanish teacher, shared in her case study, the specialized services and support for students with special needs came to a standstill and the state had no legal obligation to provide for many of the young people’s needs, exposing gaps and inequities in our current capacity to support young people in the face of disruption or extenuating circumstances. One lesson to carry forward is the recognition that many of the prepandemic teaching and learning approaches and systems were too rigid. The existing models for supporting students with special needs are not adequate for the pandemic era or, looking forward, the postpandemic era. This case highlights how existing teaching practices, along with district efforts to rely on old strategies failed students, families, and teachers. These failures exposed systemic barriers and institutional inflexibility, forcing changes in practice and increased risk taking to amend the issues.

Risk taking: setting the stage for the #postpandemicteacher

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all instructors, regardless of discipline, expertise, and experience-level. As Ravitch argues, educators transitioned courses from “specialized teaching and learning to more broadly solutionary and connective” practices (2020). All educators have content expertise, but the pandemic serves as a stark reminder of the fact that we are all experts in learning. It is as learners that educators have excelled in this moment of flux pedagogy, and it is as learners that instructors have taken risks in their pedagogies that would have seemed unimaginable prior to March 2020.

In many classrooms, remote or otherwise, a key aspect of pandemic teaching and learning is that instructors and students find themselves in an environment where the boundaries between teaching and learning blur. This is where Davidson’s call for instructors to be “human first, professor second” is an invitation to take a risk (2020). The risk is to position yourself as part of the community of learners in your course, be transparent, and share your experiences of success and failure. Instructors may not be able to understand the specific experiences of students, but we can acknowledge pandemic learning is a new environment for us as well as students. Everyone is learning something during the pandemic, from new technologies to time management, to caring for family members while teaching and learning. Systems administrator Angela Andrews articulates how instructors and instructional support staff are already equipped to teach new concepts without the traditional mantle of expertise: “We’re always explaining things to other people. This is just an extension of it.” Andrews elaborates, “It is taking a topic that we know something about. We may not be masters in it, but at least we can speak the language, and we feel comfortable enough trying to explain it” (Andrews 2018, 00:08:41). This language of pandemic teaching includes words like equity, flexibility, and experiment.

In fact, this language is a product of digital pedagogy communities of practice which have expanded exponentially during the COVID-19 crisis. Educators who were not in the habit of thinking deeply about remote or hybrid teaching found themselves thrust into a situation where they had to grapple with new practices, often those they had been exposed to in professional development sessions prior to the pandemic but never implemented, to continue as effective educators. “Diary of a Quarantined Teacher: A Seasoned Spanish Teacher Confronts a Whole New Way of Teaching” by world language teacher Sarah Schwab, and “Converse to Learn: Online Discussions to Engage Students in Remote Learning” by sociologist Marnie S. Rodriguez, both members of the CTC, reveal the commonalities in experiences between PK–12 and higher education instructors. Everyone is involved in learning. Educators are learning new communication and facilitation technologies in order to create equitable, accessible, and meaningful classroom experiences. Students are learning new modes of communication (often across several platforms) and new content related to their course and chosen academic path.

One important aspect of pandemic teaching and learning is the recognition that the world is in flux, not just for students, but for educators as well. The CTC is just one example of how the pandemic has expanded the communities of practice of educators engaged with digital pedagogy. Indeed, many educators are engaging in new practices with students that seemed untenable prior to COVID-19. As historian J. Mark Souther reflected, pandemic remote learning has the potential to be “A Bridge to Better Teaching.” Curriculum ideas and innovation that instructors have put off due to lack of development time or technology resources in past semesters now seem possible in part due to the need for alternative delivery methods and institutional investments in licenses for key applications.

The pandemic has enabled educators from diverse backgrounds, disciplines, and levels to practice taking risks in our classrooms. As instructors begin to acknowledge classrooms as filled with communities of learners and not hierarchies of expertise the future is rife with opportunity. COVID-19 has added urgency to our academic courage, yet it has also normalized trusting oneself and one’s students enough to take regular risks. Not every new idea or assignment works. In fact, this journal has an excellent section on teaching fails that began normalizing risks and their range of outcomes even before the current crisis. Now is the time for all educators to look to the future and reflect on this experience.

Thoughts Moving Forward

As the COVID-19 virus surges, teachers will continue to navigate an uncertain present and uncertain future. There is little doubt that teachers will continue to imagine innovative and humanizing ways to teach in this prolonged state of uncertainty and that the repertoire of pandemic pedagogies will keep evolving. Although it is impossible to imagine exactly what teaching and learning will look like in a postpandemic era, we believe that the success of the future requires that we pay attention to the lessons and questions in the three areas of cross-collaboration, pedagogies of care, and risk taking. From insight on promising pedagogical practices to the radical exposure of deep educational inequities, postpandemic classrooms and schools must look different than pre-pandemic classrooms. Although we may miss many aspects of school before the COVID-19 outbreak, this crisis has reminded us that pre-pandemic school was not adequate or meaningful for far too many students. It spurred instructors and staff to work through issues previously seen as too embedded in our institutions to question. Teaching through this unprecedented and unsettling time offers educators a unique opportunity to challenge some of the time-honored approaches to teaching and learning and the taken-for-granted ways of engaging students in traditional classrooms.

For us, teaching in this emergency was a catalyst to create the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative. Although we imagined that the collaborative would be a place to support the exchange and expansion of ideas, it was impossible to know exactly how the network would unfold. With the benefit of time and reflection, we now see that one of the most critical lessons to carry forward is the role and power of the collective. More specifically, the CTC opened an important space for what we have come to refer to as collective care. The collaborative prompted dialogue between and among a range of educators, instructors, instructional designers, technologists, and administrators, most of whom do not typically interact or spend professional time with one another. This created the potential for a new space and, we observed, a new version of distributed expertise and shared knowledge generation and dissemination, all with an ethos of care. In this unprecedented moment, the silos started to break down and conversations began.

For us, collective care is an emergent concept that refracts care in three ways: (1) caring for one another (e.g., as professionals, educators, humans) by being engaged in the writing, talking, thinking of this group, (2) a group that supports and works to develop pedagogies of care, and (3) a group that believes educators and educational institutions are better off when we do this work together.  While the institutional barriers between instructors, staff, and administrators remain, and will remain, after the pandemic, the conversations will continue. They are a critical step to reimagining teaching and learning in a postpandemic classroom.

As vaccines arrive and we look toward a transition from emergency pandemic teaching and learning to a new phase of education, we are reflecting on the origins of the collaborative, analyzing what we have learned from the most recent cohort of collaborators, and planning for the future of the CTC and the #postpandemicteacher. In May 2020 we received institutional support to launch and facilitate the first cohort of authors. We used these funds to purchase three years of web hosting services and pay authors an honorarium to reflect on their experiences with remote teaching and learning. Buckley-Marudas drew on existing professional networks, including her work with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, to recruit PK–12 educators. Both of us also reached out through personalized emails to invite reflections from a range of PK–12 and university collaborators. We chose to develop the blog on WordPress based on Rose’s previous experience with the platform and its ability to handle multiple authors. Designed as a collaborative, it was important that the host site could support all participants as named authors. As we began documenting open-access and crowdsourced educational resources for our members on a blog page, it quickly became clear that we needed a more robust solution to enable educators to search our links. Rose drew on her experience leading a digital humanities referatory project in her courses to build a resource referatory for our growing collection and train team members in curation of these items. Institutional support for the CTC was renewed at the start of the fall semester and we now have an institutional commitment to support new and existing CTC activities through the end of 2021. Recognizing that the collaborative was evolving from a support network for pandemic teaching to a network of dynamic educators committed to change beyond the scope of COVID-19, we applied for multiyear external funding to gather data from educators at this critical crossroads, make technical upgrades to our resource referatory, and use pandemic experiences to promote changes in education for Cleveland-area students and beyond.

We recognize that we do not yet know the implications of this prolonged time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders for students’ learning or for students’ and teachers’ social and emotional health and well-being. Yet, we close here with a few thoughts on what we think a post pandemic pedagogy and #postpandemicteacher might look like. The postpandemic teacher will be more comfortable taking risks and assuming the role of learner, see collaboration as a privilege and an opportunity for growth, and operate with the belief that teaching and learning are deeply relational processes that must be rooted in collective care. Focusing on these areas, the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative has not just become a space for reflection and support, but also a catalyst for change.

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About the Authors

Mary Frances (Molly) Buckley-Marudas is Associate Professor of Adolescent and Young Adult English Education at Cleveland State University. Buckley-Marudas teaches courses in English Education, content area literacy, and Young Adult literature and is professor-in-residence at Campus International High School. Buckley-Marudas’s research focuses on adolescent literacies, youth-led research, and teacher education. She is currently PI on a LRNG Innovator Challenge grant and Co-PI on a multi-year IES grant, both of which focus on youth participatory action research. She has published articles in Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education (CITE), Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, and is a founder of the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative and recipient of the 2022 Divergent Award for Excellence in Implementation of Literacy in a Digital Age with Shelley E. Rose.

Shelley E. Rose is Associate Professor of History and Director of Social Studies at Cleveland State University. Rose teaches a range of topics from geography to world history, gender studies to European history. Her research and professional activities focus on the topics of digital humanities, protest history, European history, and gender history. She has published articles in Peace & Change and The Journal of Urban History, leads the Gender Studies Resources database project, and is a founder of the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative and recipient of the 2022 Divergent Award for Excellence in Implementation of Literacy in a Digital Age with Molly Buckley-Marudas.

Two rural buildings dimly photographed in sepia tone.
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“Relational Presence”: Designing VR-Based Virtual Learning Environments for Oral History-Based Restorative Pedagogy

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Abstract

Relational presence is the core principle of a new approach to designing virtual learning environments (VLEs), which has been developed by the Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation (DOHR) project (dohr.ca). Presence, normally understood as the sense of being in a virtual environment to the extent that one forgets the environment is virtual, is thought to have significant pedagogical benefits in K–12 experiential learning projects aiming to develop spatial and social competencies that learners can translate into actual-world contexts. DOHR, by contrast, aims to build the understanding needed for learners to address systemic racism in Nova Scotia, through an oral history and restorative justice–based curriculum. To serve this alternative learning goal, relational presence replaces presence. The usual emphasis in VLE design on simulation, interactivity, identity construction, agency, and satisfaction is replaced with new values of impression, witnessing, self-awareness and awareness of difference, interpretation and inquiry, and affective dissonance. This paper introduces relational presence in order to help establish, in the field of VLE design, a productive discourse around issues of justice, representation of marginalized communities, and pedagogy-led design.

Introduction

This article introduces relational presence, the core principle of a new approach to designing virtual learning environments (VLEs) that has been developed by the Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation (DOHR) project (dohr.ca). DOHR has worked in partnership with the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Restorative Inquiry (restorativeinquiry.ca). The Restorative Inquiry was a four-year, provincially-mandated public inquiry into the history and legacy of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children (NSHCC), including the lived experiences of its residents. The Home was a segregated care institution for African Nova Scotian children that operated in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia from 1921 until the early 2000s. Established to meet the care needs of African Nova Scotian children, the Home was a site of significant abuse and harm for many of its residents. Over the decades of its operations, former residents experienced neglect and abuse (Province of Nova Scotia 2019, 153–172). The Restorative Inquiry was established to examine the experience of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children in relation to systemic and institutionalized racism, both historic and current, in Nova Scotia. In order to “contribute to the goal of social change to end the harmful legacy of abuse and ensure the conditions, context and causes that contributed to it are not repeated” (Province of Nova Scotia 2015, 4–5), among its goals the Inquiry aimed to:

    (a) Empower those involved in, and affected by, the history and legacy of the NSHCC to learn about what happened and the contexts, causes, circumstances and ongoing legacy of the harms related to the NSHCC.

    (b) Educate the public about the history and legacy of the NSHCC.

    (c) Publicly share the truth and understanding established through the RI and the actions taken, planned, and recommended to address systemic and institutionalized racism and build more just relationships for the future (Province of Nova Scotia 2019, 23).

The DOHR project was an important mechanism through which the Inquiry pursued this part of its mandate (Province of Nova Scotia 2019, 504–505). The DOHR project has brought former residents of the Home, representatives of the Nova Scotia education system, and members of the Inquiry’s Council of Parties together with artists and researchers from seven universities across Canada (Waterloo, Dalhousie, New Brunswick, McGill, Ottawa, Alberta, and British Columbia) to develop a two-week grade eleven Canadian History curriculum unit that supports students in learning about the historical harms experienced by former residents of the Home. In this way, it has served to support the mandate of education and the broader goal of moving toward reconciliation by building the understanding needed to address systemic racism in Nova Scotia.

DOHR is thus a community-driven project. It arises from a need articulated by a community and works to co-create the project with community members. This community mandate is central to the need for designing relational presence in the virtual reality (VR) experience. The Restorative Inquiry, from which the DOHR project was created, pursued a restorative vision of justice that was reflective of a relational worldview focused on connectedness. It sought justice in the form of just relations between individuals, groups, communities, and at the level of institutions and systems (Llewellyn 2011). As a restorative process, the Inquiry was “future focused, yet concerned with getting a comprehensive understanding of the past in order to know how to move forward toward a just future” (Province of Nova Scotia 2019, 26). It focused on learning about past harms in order to build more just relations going forward. This is, in simplistic terms, the impetus for a restorative approach to learning in the DOHR curriculum. A restorative approach, as DOHR members Jennifer Llewellyn and Kristina Llewellyn have articulated, is grounded in relational theory. Relational theory holds that human beings exist in and through relationship with one another (Llewellyn, J. 2011; Llewellyn and Llewellyn 2015). The DOHR project reflects the premise that relationality is at the core of learning about such difficult knowledge as systemic racism in the Home and its legacy. Learning requires attention to the fact that we exist in and through relations, and this fact has implications for justice. Recognizing the relational nature of the historical harms of the Home, requires that learners listen to the lived experiences of former residents.

The DOHR project therefore co-created, as part of its curriculum, a placed-based oral history experience in virtual reality, with three former residents—Gerry Morrison, Tony Smith, and Tracy Dorrington-Skinner—who are recognized leaders and activists in the community.[1] Scholars have demonstrated the many ways that oral history in education, both in conducting interviews and in listening to pre-recorded interviews, builds relational connections that are intergenerational and support reconciliation across divides (Llewellyn and Ng-A-Fook 2017; 2019). Unlike other oral history projects in schools, however, the DOHR project required that learners listen to stories in a contextual way that would connect them to a sense of place and the human experience of it—specifically, to the Home. Yet the DOHR team knew that former residents could not, nor should they be expected to, share their stories in-person with all students. The DOHR team also knew that not all students could visit the site of the Home and, even if it were possible, the site of the Home itself has changed significantly over the decades. While part of the Home’s building still stands, its present structure is considerably different from the structures in which the former residents lived (Morrison from 1954–60, Smith from 1965–68, and Dorrington-Skinner, who lived in the original Home building from 1972–78, and in the newer building now known as the Akoma Family Centre from 1978–84). Indeed, since early 2019, the site of the Old Home has been undergoing yet another phase of major renovations (see Figure 1). Since students cannot interact with the former residents or the site of the Home directly, the DOHR curriculum exemplifies the kind of experiential learning that is consistently identified in the VLE literature as likely to benefit from a virtual learning environment (VLE), and ideally one that is VR-based. DOHR wants to deliver experiential “learning tasks which are expensive” (Dalgarno and Lee 2010, 19) or even “impossible” (Bulu 2012, 153; Kwon 2019, 105) in real life. In order to provoke new, relational understandings of the Home and of systemic racism, which are further supported in the fuller DOHR curriculum, the former residents’ oral histories are shared in DOHR’s VR-based VLE.

Figure 1: Photographs of the buildings of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children in 1961, 1921, 1978, and 2019.

Figure 1. At top left, the original Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children (the “Old Home”) on the occasion of its official opening in June 1921. Top right, a large brick extension was added in 1961. Bottom left, the “New Home” building built in 1978 (now the site of the Akoma Family Centre). At bottom right, the Old Home as it appeared during the DOHR research team’s site visit in April 2019. (For further details see Chapter 3 of the Restorative Inquiry Report [Province of Nova Scotia 2019].)

However, DOHR has taken an unusual approach to the design of its VR-based VLE, because the learning outcomes that the DOHR project fosters—grounded in the commitment to restorative justice which seeks to foster just relations (Llewellyn 2011; Llewellyn and Llewellyn 2015)—are unusual in the context of VR-based VLE design. Specifically, we have developed a different approach to presence, which is broadly understood to be the element of VR design that contributes most to student learning in VLEs, and is hence the principal design aim of most VLE projects. Presence is the sense of “being there” (Slater and Wilbur 1997) in a virtual experience or “the psychological state where virtual experiences feel authentic” (McCreery, Schrader, Krach, and Boone 2013, 1635). Outside of the context of VLE design for experiential education, virtual environments have been designed with quite different aims. The digital humanities, for example, has emphasized the use of virtual reconstruction in research contexts as “not a neutral representation of ‘the past,’ but the scholar’s interpretation of specific aspects of a place at a certain time—an interpretation that can be challenged, revised, or rejected” (Sullivan, Nieves, and Snyder 2017, 301; emphasis original). Since the goal of creating a virtual environment in the digital humanities has been to make an argument and provide the locus for future argumentation (Sullivan, Nieves, and Snyder 2017, 301; see Roberts-Smith et al. 2016; Roberts-Smith 2017), attention has been paid to VLE design that encourages critical creativity rather than presence (Roberts-Smith et al. 2013). There is also some very recent, parallel work in VR design for K–12 education exploring the ways students productively fill in the gaps in imperfect historical simulations without compromising their sense of historicity (Papanastasiou et al. 2019). By contrast, in what has come to be known as “immersive journalism” (de la Peña et al. 2010; Reis and Coelho 2018), the use of 360º video to place the viewer in the “center” of a documented event is designed not to help participants learn to do anything specific, but to encourage them to empathize with victims of injustices (see for example Torsei and Philippe 2019). To date, however, neither these alternative approaches to virtual environment design nor their critiques (e.g. Reis and Coelho 2018; Mabrook and Singer 2019) are well integrated into the discourse around VLE design for experiential education. Similarly, 3D graphical approaches to the representation of marginalized communities remain under-interrogated in the VLE design literature, despite some robust work in this area emerging from game studies (e.g. Reis and Coelho 2018; Malkowski, Russwork, and Trea 2017; Taylor and Voorhees 2018).

Our aim for the DOHR project and this paper is to broaden the conversation about VLE design—which has largely followed technology- and psychology-driven lines of thought originating in the early 1990s[2]—to accommodate issues that have arisen more recently in fields outside of VLE design, through a discussion of the DOHR VLE. Since perspectives on how to achieve presence in VLEs, and why such presence is effective, are quite dispersed even in the VLE literature, we begin our discussion here with a synthesis of the most influential concepts. We then provide a description of the DOHR VR experience, and a discussion of how it approaches presence differently, consistent with the relational principles of a restorative approach. In conclusion, we offer some preliminary reflections on the DOHR VR experience’s effectiveness as a learning tool and suggest next steps for future development.

Presence and Learner Engagement in VLE Design for Experiential Learning

VR-based VLEs are most commonly designed to help learners (whether in school contexts or in public education contexts) to develop either spatial or social competencies that are impractical and/or dangerous to teach, especially at introductory levels, in the actual world. Widely-publicized examples include VR-based small motor-skill training for surgeons, in which learners use physical surgical instruments as controllers of avatars of the same instruments, to perform virtual surgeries on digitally-simulated bodies; such systems are increasingly used not just to train new surgeons but also to refresh the skills of practicing surgeons before performing actual-world surgeries (as in Surgical Science’s VR training system for laproscopy and endoscopy). In socially oriented VLEs, students typically learn how to avoid or respond positively to harmful behaviors, such as racial stereotyping, by rehearsing actions in virtually simulated scenarios (as in Kaplana’s 2015 Injustice); or how to develop empathy for the suffering of others by experiencing a simulation of their hardships (as in Kors et al.’s 2016 A Breathtaking Journey). Since the expectation in both kinds of VLE is that students will be able to transfer competencies developed in virtual reality into actual-world situations, these VLEs strive to simulate real-world experiences as vividly and accurately as possible, often incorporating actual-world material objects as well as virtual simulations, such as the surgical instruments used by Surgical Science. Kwon (2019) argues that immersive VLEs are especially relevant to the first stage of Kolb’s (1984) model of the four circulative processes of experiential learning, “concrete experience,” which could be followed by “reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation” in the classroom.[3]

There is general agreement in the literature on VLE design for experiential learning that the closer a simulated experience is to an actual-world experience, the better it functions as a replacement for real-world experience. When a simulation is effective, it produces in the participant the feeling referred to as “telepresence,” which is usually abbreviated to “presence”: “the psychological state where virtual experiences feel authentic” (McCreery, Schrader, Krach, and Boone 2013, 1635). If a technologically mediated experience is effective in generating the sense of presence, the perception of the person experiencing it “fails to accurately acknowledge the role of the technology in the experience” (International Society of Presence Research). In other words: it is generally accepted in the field that if a VR experience is effective in generating presence, the participant forgets they have a VR headset on, and instead feels like they are “there” in the illusion the headset is creating. In education, this experience of forgetting you are in a VLE has been seen as an advantage for experiential learning. Since experiential learning is thought to have been achieved when virtual experience is recognized as similar to an actual experience, “enhanced presence” is an ambition of VR-based VLE design (Kwon 2019, 105).

The sense of presence in VR-based VLE design is often understood to arise from immersive hardware systems (Fowler 2015, 416). Immersion here is understood as the “degree to which a virtual environment submerges the perceptual system of the user in computer-generated stimuli” (Biocca and Delaney 1995). In this understanding, the perceptual system is submerged physically, by the technical hardware employed to create the illusion of the virtual environment. For example, we might think of a VR headset as more immersive than a desktop computer screen, because it excludes the perception of visual stimuli that are not part of the virtual illusion (Dalgarno and Lee 2010, 11). However, as the examples of Surgical Science and Injustice demonstrate, hardware alone is not the greatest determiner of perceptual submersion in immersive systems (Archer and Finger 2018); rather, perceptual submersion is achieved by the degree to which a virtual illusion explicitly mimics the actual world. Although there is no consensus in the literature on the most effective design practices for achieving presence in VR-based VLEs, three design factors are regularly identified as having a significant ability to increase perceptual submersion: representational fidelity (the degree to which a virtual illusion looks or sounds like reality), interactivity (the degree to which the virtual illusion responds realistically to the embodied actions of a spectator), and identity construction (the degree to which spectators can associate themselves with characters represented in the virtual environment).[4] These factors are normally differentiated from one another in the literature, but are also understood to be interdependent in ways that are not yet consistently articulated.

Representational fidelity, for example, is often understood to be achieved by one or more of the following four factors:

    (a) The vividness, or “abundance of reenactment … providing information to the senses” (Kwon 2019, 102; see Steuer 1992). On a sliding scale, at the low end of what VR systems can deliver, only the sense of sight is engaged; in more sophisticated systems, hearing is engaged; then at the cutting edge of what is currently possible, touch is manipulated. Taste and smell remain beyond the capacity of existing virtual systems, available only in “actual reality” (see Figure 3).

    (b) The realism of the virtual illusion (Bessa, Melo, Sousa, and Vasconcelos-Raposo 2018, 35; Bulu 2012, 156), including its three-dimensionality (Bulu 2012, 154; Dalgarno and Lee 2010, 11); the ways in which it represents users (Fowler 2015, 413); and “the consistency of object behaviour” (Fowler 2015, 413; see Dalgarno and Lee 2010).

    (c) The plausibility and dynamics of the virtual environment, including such technical effects as reflecting mirrors or shadows (Sanchez-Vives and Slater 2005).

    (d) The “quality of the display, with high-fidelity displays being most realistic or photorealistic” (Fowler 2015, 413; see Dalgarno and Lee 2010). In other words, the sophistication of the equipment used to deliver a VR experience.

Similarly, interactivity is often understood to be achieved by one or more of the following:

    (a) The range of embodied actions available to the VR participant (Dalgarno and Lee 2010; Kwon 2019); in other words: the degree to which a participant can use their body in the ways they would in actual reality, by touching, speaking, or moving around, for example.

    (b) The degree to which the virtual illusion responds to the participant’s actions (Murray 1997; Dalgarno and Lee 2010; Kwon 2019), when, for example, objects move or other avatars engage in conversation.

    (c) The degree to which the participant can create new elements of the virtual illusion (Dalgarno and Lee 2010; Kwon 2019).

    (d) The technical ability of the system to respond to action through, for example, head-tracking (Sanches-Vives and Slater 2005) or update rate (Barfield and Hendrix 1995, 3).

However, the first of the four principles thought to contribute to representational fidelity is also sometimes treated independently as a factor that interacts with interactivity to increase a virtual illusion’s ability to simulate reality. Kwon, for example, sees VR-based VLEs that leverage the sense of touch and enable a wide range of bodily gestures as more “authentic” in the sense that they provide a more vivid experience closer to actual reality (see Figure 2). VR that is “authentic” in this way is particularly good at generating a sense of “place illusion” or “place presence” (Bulu 2012), the sensation of being and operating at a remote or virtual place (Slater 2009), or “being there” in the place depicted by the virtual display (Slater and Wilbur 1997). Hence “place presence” is often a design goal of VLEs whose intended learning outcomes include spatial competencies that can be translated to actual-world scenarios (such as, for example, Surgical Science).

Figure 2. Flow chart showing that interactivity and vividness enhance presence.

Figure 2. “Relationship between virtual reality and actual reality based on the degree of presence” (Kwon 2019, Figure 2).[5]

The third major design factor, identity construction, by comparison, is often understood to be an outcome of the first two, representational fidelity and interactivity (see Figure 3). Identity construction normally refers to the sense of personal “body ownership” (Slater 2009) that learners develop by associating themselves with a manipulable avatar in a virtual environment (Bulu 2012, 154; Fowler 2015, 414). It can also refer to a learner’s ability to construct identities for other player-participants through their respective avatars (Fowler 2015, 414; Bulu 2012, 155; Biocca et al. 2003; Schroeder 2002). Identity construction is often leveraged in educational contexts to help generate a sense of “co-presence”, or “being there together” (Fowler 2015, 414) in a virtual environment. Co-presence has two dimensions: “perceiving others and having a sense or feeling that others [are] actively perceiving us and being part of a group” (Goffman 1963; Slater, Sadagic, Usoh, and Schroeder 2000). Co-presence is normally understood to involve a sense that there is “psychological interaction” among individuals (Nowak 2001; Schroeder 2002; Bulu 2012, 155). As a result, identity construction is often a design goal of VLEs whose intended learning outcomes include social competencies that can be translated to actual-world scenarios (such as Injustice).

Figure 3. Flow chart showing representational fidelity and learner interaction lead to identity construction, presence, and learning benefits.

Figure 3. Dalgarno and Lee’s elaborated model of learning in a 3D VLE (Dalgarno and Lee 2010, Figure 1).

In general, however, whether designed for spatial or social learning tasks, presence is thought to have three major pedagogical benefits for learners. First, presence helps students focus on the learning tasks they are encountering in a VLE, developing a task-oriented “flow.” When students experience “flow”—the term used in the literature to describe “the state of being absorbed by an activity” (Scoresby and Shelton 2011, 227), which “mediates the relationship between presence and enjoyment” (Weibel, Wissmath, et al. 2008, 2274)—they learn better (Kwon 2019; see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Flow chart showing vividness, tactile interactivity, locomotive interactivity, and simulator sickness influence presence, flow, and learning effect.

Figure 4. Influence relations among vividness, tactile interactivity, locomotive interactivity, simulator sickness, presence, flow, and learning effect (Kwon 2019, Figure 8). Note that simulator sickness is a counter-indicator of flow here.

Second, presence helps create the sense of agency that learners need to have in order for learning to be experiential. Triberti and Riva, for example, describe presence as “a core neuropsychological phenomenon whose goal is to produce a sense of agency and control: I am present in a real or virtual space if I manage to put my intentions into action (enacting them)” (2016, 2). As Janet Murray puts it, agency is “the satisfying power to take meaningful action” (1997). The third benefit, which arises from the first and second, is that presence is also frequently associated with students’ satisfaction with their own learning (e.g. Bulu 2012). Student satisfaction is a measure frequently used to determine the effectiveness of a virtual learning activity (see Kwon 2019, for example).

If we were to extract the best practices for VR-based VLE design from the literature survey above, we might end up with something like: Make a high-fidelity simulation of the relevant actual-world environment; give learners a way of affecting the virtual learning environment and make the environment respond; and provide representations of learners themselves in the world. Thanks to the resulting sense of agency they will then feel, learners will forget they are in a virtual environment, getting into a flow where they are totally focused on their learning tasks. The outcome will be that they learn effectively and feel satisfied with their learning experience. According to the current state of the VLE literature, then, in an effective VR-based VLE a learner perceives themselves acting in a simulation and perceives the simulation responding; the resulting agency, presence, and flow lead to learning and satisfaction. While the literature describes best practices for VLE design to support the kinds of spatial and social learning outcomes commonly intended in experiential learning curricula, it does not support the DOHR curriculum’s intended learning outcomes.

Designing Presence in the DOHR VR Experience

The DOHR VR experience is a thirteen- to fifteen-minute individual learning activity that is embedded early in a five-lesson curriculum designed to run, typically, over the course of ten history classes. The VR experience was designed to support learning activities outside of the VLE that are constructed based on the principles of historical thinking and oral history education, and on a restorative approach to learning (Llewellyn and Llewellyn 2015; Llewellyn and Ng-A-Fook 2017; 2019; see also Gibson and Case 2019; Epstein and Peck 2019; and the Historical Thinking Project). The first two lessons invite students to join the former residents in their decades-long journey to bring their stories of the Home to light in order to build a better future. Students are introduced to a brief history of the Home and then asked to actively inquire about the historical significance, causes, and consequences of the Home. Their engagement in this inquiry is centered on an examination of oral history as a primary source in itself and in relation to other primary historical evidence (such as social worker reports, newspaper articles, and photographs). The lessons culminate with students developing a “restorative plan” that asks them, among other aims, to share what they have learned in a way that will do justice to the historical experiences of the former residents and contribute to the future-focused goal of reconciliation.

In the third lesson, learners are on-boarded in small groups to the DOHR VR experience in person, by a trained facilitator, at individual stations. The facilitator advises students how to end the experience if they find its content distressing. The facilitator leads a short “sharing circle” (a key activity in a restorative approach to learning) to debrief about the experience afterwards. The VR experience itself begins with a short, documentary-like 360º video segment in which learners see the storytellers, Smith, Morrison, and Dorrington-Skinner, and hear their voices in voiceover. The introduction of the storytellers is followed by a set of oral histories rendered in a multi-modal blend of 3D graphics, 360º and 2D video, 2D images, environmental and spatially-located sound, voiceover narrative, and text. There are 12 stories in total, but each learner can only choose to witness three, one from each storyteller. Following those three stories, all learners witness a short sequence in which the three storytellers reflect together about their memories of one common room in the Home. Finally, learners witness another 360º, documentary-like video for a concluding sequence in which the storytellers describe directly (that is, without the use of voiceover) how they came to be the activists they are today.

From its inception, then, the challenge for the DOHR team in developing the VR experience has been that it is intended for a different kind of use-case than other VR-based VLE projects. DOHR is a project that seeks for students to build a relational understanding of the historical harm of the Home by hearing the oral histories of former residents. The intent of the curriculum is for students to ask: What relationship do they have to, and thus what responsibility do they have to address, the history of harm, based on systemic racism, that is the legacy of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children? The aim of the curriculum, including the VR experience, is for students to build a sense of relationship to the lived experience of a place, even though they will never likely be in the actual Home nor meet the former residents in person. This means, in part, that a traditional sense of place presence in the VR experience is not important, since spatial awareness and spatial skills are not primary learning outcomes. Similarly, traditional social presence is not useful, since our aim is not to help students practice social behaviors in a virtual environment so that they can adopt them more confidently or consistently in the real world. What we need students to do is to consider their stance in relation to the stories of the former residents in order to inform their understanding and efforts toward just relations with those whose lived experiences are different from their own. In other words, instead of generating a sense of presence as it is traditionally understood, where a virtual experience feels like an experience that could be replicated in the real world, we need students to remember that they are witnessing a story being told through the perspective of another person, which they could never experience themselves in the real world. The term we are using to describe this form of presence is relational presence.

Relational presence has had several concrete implications for the design of the DOHR VR experience. Since we need to help foster an understanding of what it was like to live in the Home, for different people at different times, we are not invested in representational fidelity in the way that other projects are. Although we have worked extensively with architectural drawings, photographs, and other archival and archaeological evidence of the past structure of its site and buildings, in our renderings, we express the Home in a multi-modal, impressionist aesthetic that reinforces the former residents’ oral histories. Most stories, for example, begin in a line-drawn, white-on-blue rendering of the site of the Home that is intended to evoke a three-dimensional version of the architectural drawings used to structure 3D space at each point in the narrative. The invocation of the documentary record only becomes substantial—opaque 3D graphics, 360º video, light, and environmental sounds helping to establish a more specific impression of place, time, mood, and activities—as the voice of the storyteller (the sound that appears closest to a participant’s ear) begins to recount the story. The representational media are in turn combined in ways that neither attempt to mask the differences among them, nor their individual differences from the actual-world phenomena they evoke. Our aim is to privilege lived experience over the fragmentary documentary record, making it clear that the world learners are encountering is not an attempt to reconstruct the past through simulation. Instead, it is an attempt to construct a present encounter with oral histories about past experiences in the Home and the long-term impacts of those experiences. In contrast to the traditionally sought sense of “place presence”, then, the DOHR VR experience seeks to foster a sense of what we are calling “relational place.” Relational place is an invocation of what a place means—in the case of the DOHR VR experience, what it means for storytellers and learners—rather than a simulation of how a place looked or was configured at any given point time (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Morrison’s story, “Swamp Water” (top left) shows 3D graphics blended with 2D video and 360-degree video in a bathroom interior. Dorrington-Skinner’s story, “Mrs. Johnson’s Helper” shows a kitchen with partially transparent walls. Smith’s story, “The Switch” (bottom) shows different video sequences layered over one another.

Figure 5. Screen captures showing three different approaches to multi-modal impressionist rendering in excerpts from Morrison’s story, “Swamp Water” (top left); Dorrington-Skinner’s story, “Mrs. Johnson’s Helper” (top right); and Smith’s story, “The Switch” (bottom). See Roberts-Smith et al. 2019.

Since learners need to maintain a sense of the difference between their own perspectives and the perspectives they are learning about, we are, similarly, not invested in identity construction in the sense of the identification of self or others with avatars to enhance social presence as it is understood in the VLE literature. Rather, we seek to support in students the development of a sense of relation to the stories rendered in our VR experiences and the storytellers from their own position and perspective. The VR experience does not create the illusion that the storytellers are really “there” with learners in the virtual environment. This means there are no anthropomorphic avatars in our VLE, and we make no attempt to create roles or characters for the storytellers or for learners to “play.” Learners are characterized by means of an avatar that is a literal representation of the story-selection controller held in the learner’s hand—the only avatar in the entire build—only as the force that uses the controller to select a story. Instead of creating virtual representations of either storyteller or student, we make space for each to occupy their own, actual-world perspectives. For storytellers, that means that their oral histories are told in recordings of the adult storytellers themselves, and for learners, it means witnessing those stories as grade eleven Canadian History students themselves, and not in the kind of role-play scenario that is common in social competency VLEs.

The emphasis on witnessing oral histories of the Home, then, means that there is also very little traditional interactivity in the DOHR VR experience. Since the world of our VLE represents the lived experiences of the storytellers, students do not need agency in the sense of being able to take action that initiates a response from objects or characters in the virtual world. If they were able to do that, the world would no longer represent the storytellers’ perspectives, and would not help learners understand the difference between their own perspectives and those of the storytellers. It would also give students the illusion of having power to change the stories, which, since justice in the DOHR project depends on hearing stories that have not been heard before, would subvert the project’s aim of encouraging an active listening that may provoke new understandings of the past. It would undermine the students’ ability to consider how lessons from the past can contribute to future just relations, as required of them in the restorative plan they develop as part of the curriculum. In the DOHR VLE, interactivity is hence extremely limited in traditional VLE design terms. To the extent that it is available at all, it is designed to characterize learners as witnesses to the stories. Students are able to choose one story from each of the three former residents whose stories are represented, and then listen to it. However, learners are not inactive, because listening to the stories is itself an important cognitive activity that has been recognized, for example, in Indigenous studies as an active “inhabiting” of representational worlds (Ridington 1998), and in performance studies as an active self-reflection on one’s “role and experience as a spectator” (Rokem 2002). Bronwen Low, a member of the DOHR research team, has written about “the pedagogy of listening” in similar terms (Low 2015). Drawing upon the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, Low describes listening as a learning process that extends the ear towards the other. This is not a silent nor passive process, but rather, one that builds relations of deep listening between storyteller and listener (Low 2015, 270–75; Llewellyn and Cook 2017). We differentiate this form of “witnessing” from “co-presence” as it is understood in the field of VLE design: namely, as the perception of others in a virtual environment, and the perception that others perceive us, giving us the sense that we are “part of a group” (Bulu 2012, 155; see Goffman 1963; Slater, Sadagic, Usoh, and Schroeder 2000). In VLE design, “co-presence” normally refers to the presence of other users in the virtual environment, and it is achieved through synchronous user-manipulated avatar interactions. By contrast, we are interested in giving students a sense of relation not to other VR participants, but to the lived experience of the non-player characters of the storytellers, Gerry, Tony, and Tracy, who are not simultaneously present, but represented through pre-recorded media and pre-fabricated digital assets. Relational interactivity, then—the invitation to witness—places agency in the context of relationship. The learner’s power is to relate across differences in perspective.

In these different approaches to representational fidelity, identity construction, and interactivity, DOHR takes an approach that is also different from precedents in fields outside VLE design. For example, despite a shared lack of interest in in-world interactivity, our conception of “witnessing” also differs significantly from the concept of non-interactive “immersive witness” (Nash 2018) that has been taken up in 360º video-based journalism inspired by the work of Nonny de la Peña (2010). In this context, 360º video is understood as a means of simulating a distant event, and consequently as offering the experience, rather than a representation, of that event; this experience is “immersive witnessing” (Nash 2018). While immersive witnessing has been critiqued for its relative lack of interest in the distance or disinterestedness normally expected in journalistic reporting (Nash 2018; Reis and Coelho 2018), it has been taken up by activist and humanitarian organizations because it was thought to instill a sense of responsibility for others. However, immersive witness makes different assumptions than the DOHR project does about the nature and aims of witnessing. Immersive witness is interested in “providing the audience with something of an experience that is linked in various ways to the experiences of others” (Nash 2018) through passive reception of a photo-realistic simulation. DOHR, by contrast, avoids simulation to encourage the active exploration of differences of perspective arising from differences in lived experience.

Finally, another important difference between the DOHR VLE and other VLEs is that witnessing the different perspectives of former residents of the Home can be an uncomfortable experience. The stories are about the harms that former residents suffered there, and the resilience that they and other children drew upon to survive those harms. So, another difference between relational presence and traditional presence is that, although relational presence can be absorbing and lead to the kind of “flow” where students are fully engaged in their learning task, it does not necessarily offer the pleasant kind of self-satisfaction related to taking action within the VLE intended by Janet Horowitz Murray (1997) and others. Instead, relational presence can lead to affective dissonance, which is the discomfort we feel when we experience difficult knowledge (Zembylas 2015; Zembylas and Bekerman 2008; Simon 2015). That discomfort prompts thought-provoking questions for learners, providing a different opportunity and experience of agency, which learners explore in the fuller classroom curriculum. These questions include: How could this have happened? Why didn’t I know about this before? What is my responsibility now that I know these stories? That kind of questioning is a learning agency—the agency to inquire and to reconsider how we act in and through relationship with others in the world.

Designing the DOHR VR experience has suggested to us that presence need not necessarily be understood as a simulation-based forgetting that we are witnessing an illusion, nor as an erasure of our awareness of the technology that delivers it. The project does not use a model of presence that requires the reconstruction of spaces for us to “be” in, identifying with representations of ourselves or others, and feeling satisfying agency by interacting with place and social context. Instead, we think of presence as the unsettling agency to witness a different perspective on meaning, which offers an opportunity to consider, and possibly change, our actual-world understanding and behavior as a result. If presence is thought of relationally, an alternative model of effective VLE design emerges. Instead of acting in a simulation, a learner occupies a relational place to witness a story. The resulting sense of relational presence fosters forms of agency and affect that are critical for learners to inquire further and seek restorative actions for justice in their actual-world contexts. For DOHR to achieve relational presence, our VLE needed to offer the opportunity to witness a past world described by those who lived it and provoke questions, based on the opportunity to witness, that would otherwise be impossible to formulate. In the case of the DOHR project, relational presence was achieved by means of a mixed-mode, impressionistic representation of the lived experience of a real-world environment, which avoided avatars, and limited interactivity to opportunities to witness (see Table 1).

Traditional Presence Relational Presence
simulation (representational fidelity) impression (representation of meaning)
interactivity witnessing
identity construction (recognizing self) self-awareness, awareness of difference
agency interpretation, inquiry
satisfaction affective dissonance
Table 1. A comparison of traditional and relational approaches to presence in VR-based VLE design.

Conclusion

In the DOHR VR experience, we have developed a theory of relational presence, and one approach to achieving it, which have yet to be validated through empirical study of student learning, or in other VR-based VLE design projects. At the time of this publication, the DOHR team has conducted a study of the DOHR curriculum, including the VR experience, and is analyzing the data. Preliminary results from the data indicate positive learning outcomes. Students reported sensations that indicated they did experience a strong sense of flow, and acquired important new knowledge, despite our unconventional approach to designing the VLE. Future study of the delivery of the curriculum will help the team to understand how diverse social and geographical factors affect learning outcomes, and the need to address the accessibility limitations of our current design, beyond physical and auditory enhancements. An analysis of the data from classroom implementation will provide us with the evidence required to determine how the VR experience with a focus on relational presence, embedded within the curriculum as a whole, may lead to learners’ increased relational competency; that is, to an increase in students’ ability to engage in the work of building more just relations in their worlds.

Two avenues for further research have already suggested themselves to the DOHR team. First, there may be productive research to be done on the role of aesthetics as a support for learning in VLEs. The concept of representational fidelity has so far been limited to a very narrow subsection of what might be more fully understood as the representational aesthetics of a virtual learning experience (by which we mean the intentional manipulations of the media of expression to both represent and generate experiential phenomena). This may be a result of the strong influence, to date, of STEM disciplines on the development of existing VLEs; STEM-based work typically thinks of aesthetics as a means of enhancing user experience and usability (e.g. Tuch et al. 2012). In the DOHR VR experience, we found that a significant investment in representational aesthetics was essential to the pedagogical goals of the project—both in terms of the theatre-based design experts gathered to work with former residents of the Home and other members of the DOHR steering committee on the VR development team, and also in terms of financial and material resources. What the DOHR build lacks in traditional presence-inducing features, it perhaps makes up for in aesthetic features. This may also explain why the DOHR team found some preliminary precedents for some components of relational presence in Indigenous studies and performance studies, two fields that are deeply invested in what we might think of as a twenty-first century development of what Nicholas Bourriaud first termed “relational aesthetics.” For Bourriaud, “the possibility of a relational art (an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space), points to a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural and political goals introduced by [its predecessor] modern art” (2002, 14; emphases original). The DOHR VR experience’s stylistic gesture of intermedial, impressionist representation to achieve relational presence may be one way VLEs can begin to explore social systems (or “formations,” as Bourriaud calls them) in much richer ways than the field of VLE design has yet done. Similarly, DOHR’s engagement of a relational approach may encourage others to explore the ways in which Bourriaud’s articulation of “relational aesthetics” might be altered or expanded to better serve the aims of projects fostering restorative justice.

In addition, there is certainly more work to be done on the contextualization of VR-based VLEs within classroom-based curricula and with reference to in-class teaching strategies. Work in this area currently consists of a decade or more of advocacy in pedagogical game studies (see, most recently, Hébert and Jenson 2019 for both context and evidence of best practices). Although VLE designers have devoted a great deal of energy to the technical design of stand-alone VLEs, the field has not yet taken full advantage of the opportunity to apply best practices in pedagogical design to VLEs (Fowler 2015). This could be done in stand-alone VLEs but could also be approached by situating a VLE as one in a series of classroom learning activities, as the DOHR project has done. A significant advantage of considering VLEs in the context of an overall blended (in-person and virtual) curriculum design is that it avoids “technological determinism” (Reis and Coelho 2018, 1093) whereby virtual experiences are “considered both a product and an outcome of technology” (Reis and Coelho 2018, 1093), rather than an outcome of the ways designers have manipulated the technologies in question. Understanding a VLE as one learning activity in the context of a larger curriculum necessarily makes its technology secondary and emphasizes the agency of educators to design and use the VLE in the ways that best serve their students. Relational presence is one offering that DOHR can make to the larger project of reconsidering the role of VLEs in K–12 and public education, with a view to addressing issues of pedagogy, representation, and justice that are not yet well accounted-for in the field.

Notes

[1] The DOHR VR experience was designed using a process that aligns generally with the principles of “co-design” articulated in the seminal work of Steen (2013), whereby parties characterized as “stakeholders” are actively involved throughout the design process and afterwards (Steen 2013); as distinct from “participatory design,” in which stakeholders are consulted only at key points (Schuler and Namoika 1993; Björgvinsson, Pelle, and Hillgren 2010). However, DOHR’s process differs from this and other activist, participatory artistic practices leveraging digital media (e.g. Gubraim, Harper, and Otañez 2015) in its centering of a relational approach to all project activities. The full citation for the DOHR VR experience, acknowledging specific roles of individual co-design participants, can be found in our reference list under Roberts-Smith et al. 2019.

[2] See Steuer 1992 (also cited below) for an example of an influential early technology-focused work; Chittaro 2013 for an example of work using psychological concepts to better understand human-computer action; and Riva 2018 for a compelling example of the integration of philosophy, human-computer interaction, and psychology in current work. Lombard and Ditton 1997 offer a survey of early 1990s trends; Fowler 2015 and Reis and Coelho 2018 critique the outcomes of the emphasis on technology in particular.

[3] We note, however, that the classical conditions under which virtual experience is advantageous (i.e. where embodied experience is “expensive, dangerous, or impossible” [Dalgarno and Lee 2010]) may be as likely to occur at the active experimentation stage as at the concrete experience stage.

[4] An important additional factor, beyond the scope of our discussion here, is immersive tendency, which operates outside of the context of the VLE itself. Immersive tendency refers both to the pre-disposition of some participants “to involve and focus on the [sic] common activities in real life” (Bulu 2012, 159), and also to participants’ desire to immerse because they “have specific expectations about what the outcome should be” (Shin 2017, 71; citing Weibel et al. 2010; Burns & Fairclough 2015; Hou, Nam, Peng, and Lee 2012).

[5] Kwon’s scale addresses only the five most familiar senses. There is also a great deal of work being done on proprioception in research related to motion sickness in VR, which Kwon acknowledges as a counter-indication of presence. For a substantial review of the relevant literature, see Weech, Kenny, and Barnett-Cowan 2019.

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About the Authors

Jennifer Roberts-Smith (Associate Professor, Theatre Performance, University of Waterloo) is an award-winning artist-researcher, whose transdisciplinary work in performance, digital media, design, education, and social justice has appeared in theatres, exhibitions, and scholarly publications internationally. She is currently director of the qCollaborative (the intersectional feminist design research lab housed in the University of Waterloo’s Games Institute), and of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded Theatre for Relationality and Design for Peace projects. Since 2017, JRS has served as creative director and virtual reality cluster lead for the Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation project.

Justin Carpenter is a PhD Candidate in English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. His current research traces the use of the term “generative” from literary to computational contexts, arguing that an understanding of this term opens up a variety of arguments around concepts such as authorship, agency, and emergence. He argues that such a genealogy can help situate game studies scholarship in dialogue with modernist and postmodernist literary studies, as well as cinema and other media. His other research interests include poetry, philosophy of technology, and aesthetics.

Kristina R. Llewellyn is Associate Professor of Social Development Studies at Renison University College, University of Waterloo. She is an expert in oral history, history education, history of education, and women’s history. Llewellyn has numerous award-winning publications, including The Canadian Oral History Reader (MQUP, 2015), Oral History and Education: Theories, Dilemmas, and Practices (Palgrave, 2017), and Oral History, Education, and Justice: Possibilities and Limitations for Redress and Reconciliation (Routledge, 2019). Llewellyn is a co-investigator on the SSHRC-funded project Thinking Historically for Canada’s Future, which is working to revise history education across Canada. She is the Principal Investigator and Director for Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation: The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children History Education Initiative project.

Jennifer J. Llewellyn is a Professor of Law and the Yogis and Keddy Chair in Human Rights Law at the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University. She is an expert in relational theory and a restorative approach. She served as a Commissioner on the Restorative Inquiry for the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. She directs the Restorative Approach International Learning Community and the Restorative Research, Innovation and Education Lab at Dalhousie University. She is a member of the Steering Committee for the Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation project.

Tracy Dorrington-Skinner is a member and former co-chair of Victims of Institutional Childhood Exploitation Society (VOICES). She was a resident of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. A member of the DOHR Team she was one of the three storytellers. Tracy was a member of the UJIMA Design Team for the Restorative Inquiry and a member of the Advisor Group for the Restorative Inquiry.

Gerald “Gerry” Morrison is a co-chair of Victims of Institutional Childhood Exploitation Society (VOICES). He was a resident of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. A member of the DOHR Team, he was one of the three storytellers. Gerry was also a member of the UJIMA Design Team for the Restorative Inquiry and a Commissioner on the Restorative Inquiry.

Tony Smith is a co-chair of Victims of Institutional Childhood Exploitation Society (VOICES). He was a resident of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. A member of the DOHR Team, he was one of the three storytellers. Tony was also a member of the UJIMA Design Team for the Restorative Inquiry and a Commissioner on the Restorative Inquiry. He served as the co-chair of the Council of Parties (Commissioners) for the Restorative Inquiry.

Adult and child working on iPads.
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Digital Game-Based Pedagogies: Developing Teaching Strategies for Game-Based Learning

Abstract

In this paper, we discuss pedagogical strategies for supporting digital game-based learning in K–12 classrooms, based on a study of 34 teachers. We identify nine strategies, digital game-based pedagogies, that represent common characteristics in exemplary teaching with digital games, and discuss how a professional development session may have aided in the teachers’ use of these strategies. To create effective digital game-based learning environments, we argue, teachers need to be provided with professional development sessions that focus on the cultivation of pedagogical skills.

Introduction

Researchers and enthusiastic practitioners have long been arguing for the effectiveness of digital games as a means for teaching subject-specific skills while also motivating and engaging students (Gee 2008; Annetta 2008; Squire and Jenkins 2003). As games require players solve complex problems, work collaboratively, and communicate with others in both online environments and the physical spaces where gameplay takes place, they are said to support students’ development of twenty-first century competencies (Spires 2015).

Recognizing the teacher’s role in designing and facilitating learning environments that support digital game-based learning (DGBL), including adapting content to suit the needs of diverse learners, is a critical component of effective DGBL. As McCall makes clear, “by itself…a…game is not a sufficient learning tool. Rather, successful game-based lessons are the product of well-designed environments” (2011, 61). Chee, in his book on using digital games in education, argues

It is vital to understand that games do not “work” or “not work” in classrooms in and of themselves. They possess no causal agency. The efficacy of games for learning depends largely upon teachers’ capacity to leverage games effectively as learning tools and on students’ willingness to engage in gameplay and other pedagogical activities—such as dialogic interactions for meaning making—so that game use in the curriculum can be rendered effective for learning. (2016, 4)

On this view, the focus shifts from the games, game systems, and game content to “what teachers need to know” pedagogically (Mishra and Koehler 2006, 1018), including how to create space for digital games in the curriculum, organize classroom activities around the use of games, support students during both gameplay and their engagement with DGBL activities (Sandford et al. 2006; Allsop and Jessel 2015), and, as we have argued elsewhere, assess student learning (Hébert, Jenson, and Fong 2018). Groff, Howells, and Cranmer make clear, “game-based learning approaches need to be well planned and classrooms carefully organized to engage all students in learning and produce appropriate outcomes” (2010, 7).

In this paper we discuss our attempt to articulate a series of digital game-based practices carried out by teachers as they used a digital game in their classrooms. Specifically, we detail nine strategies—what we are calling digital game-based pedagogies—that were common in all classrooms we observed, and utilized to varying degrees of success. As most of the teachers in the study attended a professional development (PD) session, we also draw connections between the content of the PD and these pedagogical strategies. We begin with a literature review of pedagogy and professional development in relation to DGBL, then discuss the structure of the study, and last detail the digital game-based pedagogies identified from that significant qualitative work.

Related Literature: Digital Games, Pedagogy and Professional Development

When learning is reduced to knowledge transmission and a game offered as a medium for merely learning content, the role of the teacher is similarly narrowed to an intermediary, offering the game to students and stepping back in order to let learning through gameplay take place. On this view, the game and its design are a central focus, including “integrating learning objectives with[in] th[is] delivery medium” (Becker 2017, 156). Many studies of game-based learning focus on how a game is designed, with researchers either attempting to streamline best practices for designing games (Aslan and Balci 2015; Arnab et al. 2015; Alaswad and Nadolny 2015; Van Eck and Hung 2010) or discussing the design process of a specific game for use in the classroom (Tsai, Yu, and Hsiao 2012; Barab et al. 2005; Sánchez, Sáenz, and Garrido-Miranda 2010; Lester et al. 2014). We argue that simply focusing on how a game is designed is problematic as it places responsibility for student learning in the hands of designers who “may never have had direct or lived experiences of classroom teaching, [and who] are advocating on behalf of the learning and literacy offered by games without having to take into account the real and varied challenges faced by today’s diverse learners” (Nolan and McBride 2013, 597–98). It also has the potential effect of further exacerbating the divide between games and classrooms, positioning the game as a silo that operates outside of curricular decisions and pedagogical practices.

Absent from these discussions is the pivotal role of the teacher in the classroom. In fact, terms in the literature that might signal a discussion of teaching, such as instructional approaches, instructional methods, pedagogy, pedagogical approach, digital pedagogy, game-based learning techniques, and curriculum development (Charsky and Barbour 2010; Egenfeldt-Nielson, Smith, and Tosca 2016; Becker 2009; Clark 2007; Rodriguez-Hoyos and Gomes 2012; Shabalina et al. 2016) are typically used in DGBL research to refer to the design of the game and accompanying materials that support learning (e.g. quizzes, assessment guides, and other paper and pencil tasks) instead of the actions of a classroom teacher. The assumption here seems to be that games can support student learning despite the role of the teacher, and, importantly, without considerations of the larger classroom environment and curricular structures put into place for digital game-based learning. Baek, for instance, has noted that games must be “mapped into curricula for their maximum effective utilization” (2008, 667). Similarly, Raabe, Santos, Paludo, and Benitti have argued that for DGBL, “the planning of the class is the most important stage and must involve the participation [of] teachers in choosing the content that should be supported by the use of the game…according to the goals [of] learning to be achieved” (2012, 688).

Teaching and pedagogy as they relate to DGBL have been taken up in some of the literature. Nousiainen, Kangas, Rikala, and Vesisenaho discuss teacher-identified competencies around pedagogy essential to game based learning, including “curriculum-based planning”⎯understanding how games can be used within the curriculum, how students can be involved in the curricular design process, and how to “plan game-based activities for supporting students’ academic learning and broader key competencies” (2018, 90). Moving away from pedagogical strategies specifically, Marklund and Taylor outline the roles teachers shift between during DGBL, including: the “gaming tutor,” as teachers aid students with more technologically focused elements of gameplay (e.g. manipulating controls); the “authority and enforcer of educational modes of play,” as teachers monitor student progress toward learning goals and direct play when necessary; and the “subject matter anchor,” as they draw out connections between the game and course content, including calling students’ attention to certain aspects of the game or breaking down complex concepts as they pertain to the game (2015, 363–365). Similarly, Hanghoj offers a series of “next-best practices” for teachers’ use in supporting DGBL, suggesting that teachers might “set the stage” by “providing relevant game information” for students, “recognize and challenge the students’” game experience by articulating different interpretations of a game session,” and “support students in their attempts to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct relevant forms of knowledge—both in relation to the game context, curricular goals and real live phenomena” (2008, 235).

One means of helping teachers consider their role in using games to support learning in the classroom is through professional development that might focus on teaching strategies, alongside creating a classroom ecology for DGBL. And yet, much like the research on DGBL more broadly, professional development for using games in classrooms rarely addresses pedagogy. For example, Ketelhut and Schifter’s research on developing PD for DGBL outlines the types of platforms (e.g. face-to-face, online, blended) used and how they compared to one another rather than discussing the content of the PD and its connection to pedagogy (Ketelhut and Schifter 2011). And while Chee, Mehrotra, and Ong’s PD centered on a particular teaching method⎯dialogic pedagogy⎯the authors examined teacher dilemmas rather than explicit pedagogical strategies reviewed in the PD sessions. At the same time, their findings call attention to the importance of pedagogy as teachers work to shift their teaching for DGBL. They state, teachers were “mostly accustomed to subject matter exposition followed by assigning student[s] worksheets to complete,” but with the digital games, had “to work in real time with the ideas that students were contributing, based on their gameplay experiences” (2014, 429). Consequently, this required shift in pedagogy “unsettled them” (2014, 429).

There are, of course, exceptions. The Software and Information Industry Association’s report on best practices for game use in the K–12 classroom recognizes the significance of pedagogy for DGBL, arguing that teachers should receive at least a half day of PD in order to become familiar with the theoretical underpinnings of DGBL, learn about the specific game they will be using in class, obtain practical information about creating game accounts and manipulating the game mechanics, and gain a better understanding of the “roles and responsibilities of teachers and students” (2009, 25) during gameplay. And Simpson and Stansberry provide an overview of working with teachers on the “G.A.M.E.” lesson planning model, which involves various stages: taking the perspective of the game designer to better understand how and to what extent games are engaging as well as asking students to contemplate their gameplay, “reflect[ing] on the decisions made and evaluat[ing] the consequences” (2009, 182).

As this review demonstrates, there is scant empirical research related to digital game-based pedagogies, and an important and critical need for more discussions of and research on this topic. In the next section, we discuss the study, which examined teachers’ pedagogical practices for DGBL in K–12 classroom spaces and the relationship between these practices and a professional development workshop.

The Study

Timeline of the Research

The project took place over an eight-month period, during the 2015–2016 school year, with data analysis completed at the beginning of the 2016–2017 school year. While the project was initially intended to run over a single school year, a work-to-rule ban on extracurricular activities put forth by the Elementary Teachers Federation in the province delayed the start date of the project by four months. The professional development session took place February 10–11, 2016, followed by observations from February 22–May 16. Interviews overlapped with observations, with teachers whose classes were visited in February beginning interviews in early March, and ran until the end of June. Data analysis also took place synchronously, and was completed in October 2016.

The Game

Two educational games were used in this study: Sprite’s Quest: The Lost Feathers, and Sprite’s Quest: Seedling Saga, aligned with the grade seven and grade eight Ontario geography curriculum respectively. The game was designed by Le centre d’innovation pédagogique in collaboration with the Ontario Ministry of Education and selected as the focus for this study by our funding partner, the Council of Ontario Directors of Education. Both versions of Sprite’s Quest are 2D, platformer games intended to aid in the development of physical and human geography concepts. The games also have accompanying student activity guides and teacher manuals available through an online platform. While the games can be downloaded by anyone through the Apple App Store or Google Play,[1] access to the web version of the game, along with the student activity guides and teacher manuals, is granted through individual boards of education through the Ministry of Education’s e-learning Ontario site. As this article focuses on the professional development element of the project, we do not provide a detailed overview the game, the activity guide or the teacher manuals here, but have elsewhere (Hébert, Jenson, and Fong 2018). None of the teachers had used Sprite’s Quest prior to this project.

Research Question

This study sought to identify pedagogical practices that supported DGBL. We asked: What teaching practices were common to teachers observed in the study?

Participants & Professional Development

Participants were recruited by the funding partner in conjunction with participating school boards. Altogether, 34 teachers (17 female, 17 male) from 10 school boards and 25 schools across Ontario, Canada took part in the study. Sixteen of these teachers taught straight grade 7 classes, seven grade 8, and one grade 9, while a number of teachers, especially those in smaller schools, taught split classes, with one grade 6/7/8 teacher participating, one grade 6/7, and eight grade 7/8. Twenty-eight teachers attended a professional development session that occurred at a university over a two-day period; teachers were released for that time from their classrooms. The two full days were organized and run by the authors (see Appendix B for a detailed schedule of the session). The professional development consisted of three main components:

Becoming Familiar with the Games: Walkthroughs and Content

First, as noted, none of the teachers had seen or played Sprite’s Quest before, and were given time to become familiar with the two versions of the game during the PD session. Because the teachers did not have time to play either of the games in their entirety during the PD session, we produced “walkthroughs” that were reviewed during the PD session. Walkthroughs are textual and visual overviews of key elements of a game. They were made available to teachers throughout their play sessions, during lesson planning, and while teachers were using the games in their classrooms. Second, we drew attention to how the games provided geographic content. For example, we looked at how fact bubbles pop up during play, questions are presented at the beginning of each level, and background information is offered about the geographic location (e.g. the Himalayas) through which the sprite moves. Teachers were also instructed to encourage students to make note of the facts and the answers to the questions and to pay attention to the background of the games when using them to support student learning.

Exploring the Teacher Manual and the Activity Guide

Given that teacher manuals and activity guides for these games were available and in fact had been produced to support the implementation of the game in classrooms, we wanted to ensure that teachers had the time to examine them closely and to draw connections between these resources and their curriculum. To this end, we led teachers through a guided examination of the resources, reviewing the overall structure of the games as they aligned with the sections of the student activity guide and the teacher manual. We also summarized the information made available in the teacher manual and student activity guide and provided the summaries as a supplementary electronic handout.

Discussing Curricular Connections and Collaborative Lesson Planning

There were three key concepts in the games related to physical and human geography⎯place, liveability, and sustainability. The teacher manual and the PD session emphasized these, including drawing direct connections to the Ministry of Ontario grade 7 and 8 geography curriculum. Further, the PD supported collaborative lesson planning which focused on creating learning goals, success criteria, and expectations for and evaluation of students. Finally, teachers were provided time to complete a unit plan, begin constructing individual lessons for the unit, and create assessments to use during the digital game-based unit which they then shared with the whole group.

The remaining six teachers participated in the study, but did not attend the PD session. The teachers who did not participate in the PD session were selected at random. In lieu of PD, they were invited to attend a two-hour meeting at their board office. At the meeting, the teachers were introduced to the study and told how to access the teacher and student activity guides. And they were given time to play the games, but only while the researchers were speaking individually with teachers to organize some of the logistics around classroom visits.

Data Collection and Analysis

This qualitative study included observations of all teachers as they taught the DGBL unit, field notes based on observations, videos, and still photos taken during classroom visits, and interviews with teachers after the unit was completed.

Observations

Researchers visited each teacher’s classroom two to three times during the delivery of the unit, for 45 minutes to 1.5 hours per visit, documenting how they adopted the three central elements of the PD, demonstrating how familiar teachers were with the game, how the teacher and student activity guides were used, and how lessons and assessments created in the PD were taken up. Researchers also made note of the classroom environment created to support DGBL and practices within it. This included, with respect to teachers’ practices in particular, lesson content and connections to the game, how class periods were structured and facilitated by the teacher, teacher focus on student learning including asking questions of students during play and guiding their play toward learning, connections between the game and the curriculum as well as cross-curricular connections outside of geography, and teacher knowledge and understanding of the game. For student activities in the classroom, our observations centered on time students spent on/off task, if, how, and in what ways students were engaged with the game, and conversations among students about the game and/or geography more broadly. Detailed field notes were taken along with videos, audio recordings, and still photos. Field notes were analyzed thematically using NVivo (Clarke and Braun 2017; Nowell, Norris, White, and Moules 2017).

Interviews

Teachers were interviewed at the completion of the study. They were asked to provide information about their curriculum, including lesson sequencing, assessments, time required to plan, and decisions they made about whether or not to use any of the game’s resources located in the activity guides; gameplay, including student experiences and learning, such as interactions with one another, individual students who excelled or struggled, whether students were making connections between the game world and the world outside of the game, and how the room was organized for gameplay; and the PD sessions, including whether they would participate in future PD, feedback on the sessions, and how the PD sessions impacted their use of the game and whether or not they would use it in the future. Interviews ranged in length from 25 to 80 minutes. Common themes were identified that would aid the researchers in their understanding of teachers’ experiences. Interviews were analyzed, thematically, using NVivo. (See Appendix A)

The next section extrapolates from the data and analysis described briefly here and offers a framework for digital game-based pedagogies, based on our nearly 100 hours of classroom observations and over 34 hours of interviews with teachers. The intent is to demonstrate, based on evidence gathered, a pedagogical framework that can be taken up and used by others who might expand on and modify it to best suit divergent contexts.

Digital Game-Based Pedagogies

Having analyzed the data, it was possible to identify with some clarity, approaches to teaching with games⎯or digital game-based pedagogies⎯particularly supportive of DGBL. While the content of the PD and the skills teachers developed within it, including familiarity with the game, their use of activities and the teacher guide, and their adoption of the lessons planned during the PD, was an initial point of interest during observations, what became apparent was how teachers used this knowledge to shape their pedagogical practice. A teacher, sitting off to the side during gameplay, might have demonstrated knowledge of Sprite’s Quest by answering a student’s question when approached, but that teaching practice was less meaningful than that of a teacher who illustrated their knowledge by circulating around the classroom during gameplay, asking questions, directing students’ attention to elements of the game, and providing practical tips on how to navigate specific levels. That teachers used activities from the teacher guide was important, but among those who did, what type of learning activity was selected and how the lesson was structured around that activity told us more about impactful DGBL than simply whether or not an activity was used. And the quality of the lesson and assessment content and the pace of the unit created around the game impacted the nature of the DGBL experience. Consequently, through our observations, we began to identify a set of practices⎯pedagogical strategies that best supported DGBL in the classroom.

What follows are details of these nine digital game-based pedagogies, grouped according to three general categories: gameplay, lesson planning and delivery, and framing technology and the game.

Category Pedagogical Strategies
Gameplay Teacher knowledge of and engagement with the game during gameplay
Gameplay Focused and purposeful gameplay
Gameplay Collaborative gameplay
Lesson Planning and Delivery Meaningful learning activities
Lesson Planning and Delivery Cohesive curricular design: Structured lessons
Lesson Planning and Delivery Appropriate lesson pacing and clear expectations
Framing Technology and the Game Technological platforms not a point of focus
Framing Technology and the Game Game positioned as a text to be read
Framing Technology and the Game Connections to prior learning and to the world beyond the game environment

Gameplay

1. Teacher knowledge of and engagement with the game during gameplay

Teachers demonstrated knowledge of the game in group discussions and one-on-one conversations with students. They regularly spoke of their own experiences during gameplay, including aiding students in challenges with overcoming obstacles in game. Teachers talked with students about how to focus play on the learning task at hand, including what to pay attention to during gameplay. Teachers were also engaged with gameplay. For example, they circulated to ask students questions, direct student attention to various facets of the game, and connect the game to the learning activity.

2. Focused and purposeful gameplay

During gameplay, teachers directed student focus to a specific learning activity. In this respect, gameplay was always purposeful, targeted at the completion of a particular learning activity. For instance, students might play a few levels of the game, directed by the teacher to pay attention to the climate, or to compare regions with respect to vegetation.

3. Collaborative gameplay

Teachers facilitated whole class discussions that focused gameplay, and connected game content to the curriculum more broadly. The teacher encouraged students to play together or to complete learning activities collaboratively. For example, one teacher asked students to work in groups to respond to the question of whether they would like to live in China (one of the locations featured in Sprite’s Quest) based on their experiences playing the game, and another, to respond to discussion questions.

Lesson Planning and Delivery

4. Meaningful learning activities

Teachers assigned learning activities that involved the application of higher-order skills such as analysis or creation. For instance, one teacher asked students to produce a travel video for a specific geographic region in the game, another, to debate the merits of restricting mountain access in a particular region, and a third teacher, to construct an argumentative paragraph about whether hotels should be permitted to privatize beaches. If students were asked to jot down facts or information obtained through gameplay, it was in support of an additional, higher-order learning activity. In some instances, these materials were extracted from the student activity guide, while in others, they were created by teachers.

5. Cohesive curricular design: Structured lessons

Gameplay was integrated into the curriculum by the teacher. An introductory lesson that rooted play to learning preceded gameplay and a learning activity followed play. For example, one teacher facilitated a lesson on garbage disposal practices around the world, before asking students to play a level of the game that focused on garbage disposal in a specific region. The teacher also created a follow up activity wherein students composed a letter about disposal to a government official in the region of the world.

6. Appropriate lesson pacing and clear expectations

Teachers provided students with concrete time frames for the completion of tasks. Often, periods were structured in such a way that multiple activities were to take place. For instance, a 5-minute introductory activity might be followed by 20 minutes of structured and targeted gameplay, with the final 15 minutes of the period allotted to small group discussions around a learning activity. Teachers regularly reminded students of time to complete tasks.

Framing Technology and the Game

7. Technological platforms not a point of focus

Some teachers chose to use the electronic activity guide or board-based platforms for the completion of learning activities. In these cases, the activities, rather than the technology, remained the point of focus. When technology malfunctioned (e.g. students had difficulty logging into the board site or material was not uploading to the activity guide), teachers continued to place emphasis on the significance of the learning taking place, asking students to share resources to complete the activity, or directing them to an alternative materials such as pen, pencil, and paper. In so doing, teachers maintained the pace of the lesson.

8. Game positioned as a text to be read

Teachers framed the game as a text that students could reference in support of their learning in the classroom, extending DGBL beyond learning during play. To do so, they facilitated connections between the game and other material such as videos viewed in class, textbooks, class discussions, so on. For example, to respond to an activity question, one teacher guided students in using material learned both in the game and the textbook to support their answers.

9. Connections to prior learning and to the world beyond the game environment

Teachers connected gameplay to prior learning and to material examined outside of the game context. They reminded students of learning during previous play sessions and of subject-specific and cross-curricular learning during class discussions. For example, one teacher connected a level of the game that explored waste management to a recently completed assignment examining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Another teacher connected learning around a water-locked region in the game to a historical lesson about expedition. Teachers also drew parallels between game locations and the local community. For instance, a teacher engaged the class in a heated debate, comparing garbage collection and pollution in certain areas of the game to garbage collection in the school and pollution in the local city and surrounding area.

Possible Impact of Professional Development on Teachers’ Digital Game-Based Pedagogies

What we offer in the previous section are descriptions of exemplary pedagogical practices that support DGBL. Not all of the teachers who participated in the study engaged with these practices in the way described above. In fact, 26% of the teachers were what we would label as highly successful in engaging in the digital game-based pedagogies outlined in this article. Another 29% were somewhat successful, at times adopting some of these pedagogical strategies and not others, creating meaningful learning activities and highly structured lessons that were adequately paced, for example, but then failing to connect the game to prior learning and the world beyond the game environment, not requiring students to collaborate with one another, and not positioning the game as text to be read. And the final 45% were labeled as unsuccessful, adopting DGBL in the classroom in a more haphazard manner, offering pedagogical practices that did not reflect the digital game-based pedagogies detailed in this text. (See Figure 1)

Figure 1: Pie-chart showing teacher alignment with the digital game. The graph indicates that 45% of teachers were unsuccessful, 29% were somewhat successful, and 26% were highly successful
Figure 1. Teacher alignment with digital game-based pedagogies.

Given the significance of the digital game-based pedagogies and the extent to which these practices were common across the classrooms we visited, we wanted to determine if there was any connection between these practices and whether or not teachers had received PD.

In the category of strong alignment, 29% of teachers who received PD employed pedagogical strategies that matched that criterion, compared to 17% of the teachers who did not receive PD. For moderate alignment, 32% of the teachers who received PD were grouped in this category compared to 17% of the teachers who did not receive PD. And finally, 39% of the teachers who received PD were weakly aligned with these practices compared to 66% of the teachers who did not receive PD. (See Figures 2 and 3)

 

Figure 2: Pie-chart showing alignment for teachers who did receive professional development. The graph indicates that 39% of teachers had weak alignment, 32% had moderate alignment, and 29% had strong alignment.
Figure 2. Teachers who received PD.

 

Figure 3: Pie-chart showing alignment for teachers who did not receive professional development. The graph indicates that 66% of teachers had weak alignment, 17% had moderate alignment, and 17% had strong alignment.
Figure 3. Teachers who did not receive PD.

 

Conclusion

The limitations to this research are: 1) it was not possible to spend more than three to four hours in each classroom given the geographical scope of the project and the number of participants, however, the study could have benefited from observation of the entire unit as it was delivered; and 2) we did not have a powerful enough number of participants to generate meaningful quantitative comparative data, and certainly that could be of interest in future. There is very rich data, of course, that due to word limits we were not able to detail further. However, we hope to have highlighted the importance of pedagogy for creating environments conducive to DGBL, calling attention to best practices around structuring and conceptualizing gameplay, planning, and delivering content, and framing both technology and a game. While these pedagogical strategies were not the focus of our professional development session, it is clear from our observations of participants’ teaching after the PD that the session impacted their teaching as it pertained to these best practices. More broadly and considering gaps in the practices of teachers involved in our study, these digital game-based pedagogies provide a framework for better understanding not only what good teaching with games looks like but also areas where teachers require additional support.

We have argued that very little research on digital game-based learning examines teacher pedagogies and that even fewer studies of professional development for teachers on DGBL either focus on pedagogy or study the impact of professional development on teacher practice. By observing thirty-four teachers in their classrooms after providing a professional development session, we identified a common set of digital game-based pedagogies that supported digital game-based learning. While our professional development session did not explicitly address these pedagogical strategies, either through discussion or modeling, we did recognize areas in which the content of our professional development session overlapped with some of the strategies teachers employed. This research can inform future PD that attempt to better understand the impact of modeling and discussing these digital game-based pedagogies within professional development sessions. This work, importantly, offers a potential framework for providing teachers with the practical skills required to support students in digital game-based learning in classroom spaces. It also signals a need for future studies that focus specifically on pedagogies that best support DGBL.

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Appendix A

Interview Questions

  1. How long have you been teaching?
  2. Do you have a master’s degree?
  3. Have you done any administrative work?
  4. Have completed any additional qualification (AQ) courses? If so, which courses?
  5. When did you complete your Bachelor of Education (BEd) degree?
  6. What subject did you major in in university? What are your teachables?
  7. Can you please give us some information about your school? What is the student population? The socioeconomic status of students?
  8. Can you please tell us a bit about your class? How many students do you have on IEPS? With behavioural issues? Do you have any support for these students in the form of EAs or pull out programs?
  9. The students in your class on IEPs and/or those on the autism spectrum? What are they normally doing? Do they often play games in the classroom (when other students are not?)
  10. What types of things did you have to wrangle to do this project? (e.g. booking labs or computer carts, speaking with other teachers, requesting exclusive internet use in the school)
  11. Did you use iPads? Computers? When students completed the activities, did they use iPads and computers? iPads and paper? Just iPads or computers? What was the reasoning behind this choice?
  12. Did you look at any of the teacher resources? The activity guide? What parts did you use? Was anything helpful particularly? Would you like to have seen something that wasn’t included in the guides?
  13. Walk us through your lesson sequencing – what did students do? What was the pace? What was the culminating activity? Did they complete a final project?
  14. How long did you initially plan for? How long did you end up spending? What changed (if anything)?
  15. How did you evaluate the unit?
  16. What was your best and worst day with the game? What would you change about the worst day with the game?
  17. We weren’t there every day. How many times did things not work (internet down, couldn’t access computers, lab not available, etc.)
  18. Can you please talk about a few students who exceled with the game? A few who didn’t do well? A student who you had a set of expectations about (thought they would love or hate the game) and who acted contrary to your expectations?
  19. Did you get the sense that students were making connections between the game and the real world?
  20. What did you notice about student interactions with one another?
  21. How did you organize the room for the game play?
  22. Given everything that happened with this project, would you consider doing something like this again? Why or why not?
  23. Would you have used this game in the classroom if it were not for this workshop/project and why?
  24. Would you use Sprite’s Quest in your class in the future?
  25. Can you talk a bit about your experience with the workshop? What you liked, what you didn’t like, what you would change, what you found helpful…
  26. What kinds of supports would you need in the future to make using games in the classroom possible?
  27. What is your teaching philosophy? What is your responsibility to your students?  What is your relationship with the parents of the students in your class like?

Interview Questions [PDF]

About the Author

Cristyne Hébert is Assistant Professor, Assessment and Evaluation in the Faculty of Education, University of Regina. Her research focuses on assessment and evaluation, new media and technologies, and curriculum in teacher education and K-12 education in Canada and the United States.

Jennifer Jenson is Professor, Digital Languages, Literacies and Cultures in the Languages and Literacy Department, Faculty of Education, The University of British Columbia. She has published on digital games and learning, gender and videogames, and technology policies and practices in K-12 education. She currently is the lead researcher on a large, international research partnership grant, “Re-Figuring Innovation in Games” (www.refig.ca) that is examining inequities in digital game industries and cultures.

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