When Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel created Digital Pedagogy Lab, or DPL for short, they imagined it would be a permanent fixture wherever they were teaching.
Now the UMW educators think of it as a roadshow. Shortly after its inception, they began traveling the globe, bringing the lab to tech-savvy teachers and those who want to become more familiar with digital tools and new approaches for education in the 21st century.
Hosted by Mary Washington’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, DPL returned to the Hurley Convergence Center this week. More of a community gathering than a conference, the weeklong event is chock full of vibrant discussions, challenging ideas, dynamic workshops and collaborative experiences that the 175 attendees – who came from five continents – can bring back to their respective classrooms. The lab kicked off last weekend with Camp Critical Pedagogy, a new intensive workshop that offered a deep dive into pedagogical practices for modern education.
It all started in 2012, when Morris and Stommel attended an academic summit about the future of online learning. After an intense day at the conference, they found themselves circling the parking lot – and around a dilemma that had been on both of their minds. Their concern was that while college professors excel at research and are experts in their own fields, most have never been trained to teach in a classroom, let alone online.
“We decided there needs to be support for educators who want to do good pedagogy, either in fully online courses or those with digital components,” Morris said. That conversation led to the launch of DPL, a five-day gathering in 2015 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Stommel was a professor.
Then, a colleague in Egypt contacted them about bringing the lab to Cairo, so they made it happen. Other events have taken place at universities in Prince Edward Island, Toronto, Vancouver and Coventry, England. “It’s more expensive and harder to travel these days, especially to the United States, so we’ve gone to them,” said Morris.
At UMW, where the lab has taken place since Stommel joined the faculty in 2016, Ruha Benjamin and Robin DeRosa set the tone for the week, inspiring and challenging attendees with their keynote addresses. An associate professor of African American studies at Princeton University, Benjamin applies a critical lens to issues of race and technology. DeRosa, a proponent of open pedagogy from New Hampshire’s Plymouth State University, examines what it means to be a professional in academia.
This year’s attendees, including 15 UMW professors, have collaborated and shared ideas in participant-driven courses taught by instructors who are on the cutting edge of the field. In cohorts, they’ve explored such topics as making design more accessible and inclusive, and they’ve discussed using digital pedagogy to bridge the gap between universities and communities. Through a partnership with the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, DPL has offered a first-time course on how social justice fits into the curriculum.
It’s an intense and overwhelming week, so Morris and event manager Stefanie Chae ’18 included everything from social hours to swag bags to vintage camp T-shirts to make it welcoming and fun. They’ve brought in therapy dogs for a “Digital Pet-a-Doggy Lab” and used social media tools such as Twitter (#DigPed) and Slack to foster further connections between participants.
Chae, who began juggling this year’s logistics before the 2018 lab even happened, first got onboard after a class with Stommel her junior year. It prompted her to switch majors to communication and digital studies and gain an entirely new outlook on how classrooms should be run. “It opened my eyes. [Stommel] showed me that a student voice can and should be heard. That’s why I’m still here, even after I’ve graduated.”
As the week wraps up, Morris and Stommel are already looking at their maps, deciding where to go next. A United Kingdom event is scheduled for 2020, and they’re fleshing out plans for DPL Down Under with two Australian attendees.
The annual event will also move westward, as Morris announced Thursday he has accepted a position at the University of Colorado at Denver. But he anticipates UMW will still have a presence at future DPL events. And even with a different location, new components and lots of global interest, there’s one thing that won’t change.
“This sense of a tight-knit community working together is central to DPL. We never want it to feel like a mass of people you get lost in,” Morris said. “It’s always going to be an intimate international gathering, which can be a resource even after it is over.”