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Remaking Teaching: Prototyping New Technologies for the Classroom

Does the presence of technology change the way teachers teach and students learn? That’s what Ph.D. students in “Technologies and Pedagogies in the Communication Arts” set out to investigate during a hands-on critical making workshop at the D. H. Hill Library Makerspace. 

When Dr. Paul Fyfe brought his Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media (CRDM) students to the D. H. Hill Library Makerspace, he wanted them to invent and prototype a novel learning technology. But more importantly, he wanted them to question how such technologies affect students and teachers and change the learning environment.

Participants experiment with littleBits electronics components as they develop their prototype. 

This questioning is what separates “making” from “critical making”—a learning method  that combines hands-on making with critical reflection to produce new ideas. By doing so, scholars reflect deeply on their own teaching and learning methods and styles, and share strategies for fostering more collaborative, active, and inclusive classrooms.

Fyfe’s goal with his class was that, through the process of building their new technologies, the students would critically reflect on their own teaching methods and practices. “I basically wanted the students in CRDM 704 to go and think about Makerspaces as alternative learning spaces,” he says, “having read a little background on the subject, and then turned the whole thing over to Lauren Di Monte and Jessica Handloff in the Libraries, who were starting to develop different workshops for the Makerspace.”

Students discuss the role of technology in the classroom while collaborating to design a new educational tool.  

“They did a fabulous job, inviting students to prototype a technology which assessed students' attention. Among the prototypes was a ‘headdesk’ alarm which went off when someone's forehead sank to the table. It's funny and provocative all at once, spurring critical reflection on edtech and surveillance, pedagogy and attention, assessment and technologyall of which Lauren and Jessica helped to steer.”

During the 90-minute workshop, students used Makerspace tools, craft supplies, and littleBits electronics prototyping platforms to design and build technologies that would measure their students’ attention. One group made a wearable technology that alerted the whole class if a single student’s attention waned. Another group created a student-controlled tool that tells the teacher when students are bored. A third group made a tool that monitored an individual’s attention and discretely refocused them, as required. The session ended with participants identifying technologies that they currently use in their teaching and critically analyzing how those technologies shape the student/teacher relationship. 

Through a facilitated discussion, participants shared how their tools worked and outlined how they could be used in the classroom. Libraries staff then prompted each group to consider the kinds of relationships their technologies created between teachers and students. A lively conversation about power dynamics in the classroom, and student resistance to tools of surveillance, ensued. 

The CRDM Ph.D. students who participated in this experimental critical making workshop said they found the materials-based research approaches both stimulating and generative. One participant found the often-difficult process of making to be a valuable analog for instruction: “I really liked going through the act of making (with its failures) and then thinking about what that told me about teaching.” Others noted that using the tools of critical making made them see the technologies and methods of making in a new light, noting  “[it] really made me think about how to use making to encourage students to think differently.”