It was dark by the time Sean Michael Morris finished dinner and made it back to his hotel room. He was just getting ready to settle in for the evening when his phone rang. It was his friend Jesse Stommel. He needed to talk.
As the men, both fellows away at a summit for online learning, circled the Sheraton, they discussed a dilemma. It had come up at the summit but had long been on both of their minds: While college professors excel in their fields, most have never been trained to teach. And as the two walked around and around and around, they were actually getting somewhere.
“Ultimately we recognized together in that conversation a way that we could start to make a difference,” Stommel said of the talk that led to the Digital Pedagogy Lab (DPL), designed to get educators thinking about how best to tap into the minds of tech-savvy students.
Hosted by Mary Washington’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT), the annual five-day event takes place next week at UMW’s Hurley Convergence Center.
Packed with daring ideas, dynamic workshops, nationally known speakers and guests from all over the world, DPL is a melding of minds – a community, really, more than a conference. Groups work collectively throughout the week, growing together in workshops and sessions on everything from cultural humility to “mad genius” storytelling. And at the lab’s core – with its reputation for trend-setting digital initiatives like Domain of One’s Own – is Mary Washington, DPL’s new permanent home.
“I am thrilled to be able to make official the relationship between Mary Washington and DPL,” said UMW Chief of Staff Jeff McClurken. “This internationally recognized series of events, which supports innovative, thoughtful and empathetic teaching is a natural fit for UMW with our faculty’s strengths in digitally enhanced, student-centered teaching and learning.”
Stommel, who heads DTLT, and Morris, who was hired last year to run DPL at Mary Washington, met in grad school and “grew up together as teachers,” Stommel said. Back then, in 2001, each was already immersed in the world of digital pedagogy, tuned in to the struggles professors face in the classroom and worried about how our fast-changing digital world can compound the problem. Something, the two thought, had to be done to change the trajectory.
“We are digital people now,” Morris said, whether we’re logging into laptops, posting on Facebook or using our Smartphones. “You can’t teach without thinking about that.”
A decade later, he and Stommel would take that prophetic walk at the Sheraton. Soon after, they bought the domain name for DPL and started turning their ideas into reality.
The event went live in 2015, debuting at the University of Wisconsin Madison, where Stommel worked as an assistant professor. The following year, when he came to Mary Washington to lead DTLT, the lab came with him.
It asks participants to re-imagine technology’s role in higher education but goes even further, urging them to consider when to use digital tools and when not to, how to engage students with technology and how to protect them from it.
“Digital is the pool we’re all swimming in right now, but that pool is full of all sorts of things,” Morris said.
Over time, this event – this community of professionals entrenched in the art and science of teaching – has thrived, growing from 60 attendants to nearly 200 expected this year. Between the big annual events, smaller ones pop up in places like Cairo and Canada. And other schools, like Virginia Tech and the University of Colorado, are taking what they discover at DPL to their own institutions.
“They’ve come, they’ve learned something they hadn’t thought of before, and it’s changed the direction of their careers,” Morris said. “What that says about UMW is that UMW is a center for teaching and learning that other people want to be able to model.”
No wonder. Next week’s lineup includes keynotes by NPR’s lead education blogger, Anya Kamenetz, and Columbia University Libraries’ director of digital projects, Jade E. Davis, plus a host of incredible presenters, including UMW’s Digital Knowledge Center Director Martha Burtis and Data Scientist Kris Shaffer. And, of course, Stommel and Morris.
With the ticker on DPL’s homepage counting down the seconds to show time on Monday, they’ve been too busy to reflect on it all. But they will.
“I actually feel like change can happen in education,” Stommel said. “We’re trying to gather people who can work on that together.”