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Getting Started with Digital Assignments

If you're wondering where to begin with integrating a digital activity or assignment into your course, here are a few steps and principles we suggest for getting started:

Identify the specific learning goal/s you want the digital assignment to address. Think about how a digital assignment might help students gain a different perspective on particular content or methods in your course. Have there been specific roadblocks your students have faced that a digital approach my transform?

Methods before tools. Is your learning goal related to geographic or spatial questions? Then you might need mapping. Understanding relationships between people/places/event? Then maybe network analysis. Seeing patterns in a larger text? Then text mining. Understand spaces, objects, and materials? Then maybe 3D. Presenting work in less conventional formats? Then maybe a digital exhibit or media production.

Find the tool/s that match your method/s and fit the possibilities and constraints of the class. For any given digital method, there are likely many tools you could choose from. When making your selection, keep in mind the skill level of your students and what you can reasonably expect them to learn in the timescale of the assignment. Also think about access, both for the purpose of the course and beyond it—free and open source tools often do as good or better a job than expense software, plus they will be available to your students after they leave your class, and even after they leave UCSC.

Try to match digital skills with the critical knowledge your course aims at. As much as possible, make the technical challenges your students navigate bring them into direct engagement with the critical thinking and disciplinary skills your course aims to teach. Avoid digital tasks that are light on substance. "Bells and whistles" is the not the aim—engaged learning is.

Think carefully about timescale: Should this assignment take students a week to complete? Two weeks? Half, or maybe the entire quarter? Make sure that both the level of technical skill and the importance to your overall learning goals are good matches to the scale of assignment you choose.

Consider the end product you want: Do you want students to produce something they turn into you? Do you want them to have something that they can share (if they wish) with the wider world when the course is complete? Or, would the learning experience of an ungraded in-class activity do the trick?

Don't underestimate the challenges and anxieties that surround learning new digital skills: Some might assume that so-called digital natives (Gen-Zers) would take to new digital tools quickly and easily, but that is often not the case. Most students have interacted with technology primarily as consumers. You will be asking them to become, in some small way, a producer of digital content. You'll likely want to consider building in a generous amount of time and resources for both instruction and troubleshooting.

Consider group work and group assignments: We find that students often learn new digital skills better when they're working with peers. Within a group, students who might have felt overwhelmed on their own can ask questions and get help in a lower-stakes environment. Group work can also help students who have accessibility challenges engage more easily than if they were on their own.

Ask students to reflect on their process, not just produce an end product: Having students actively think about—and document—the decisions they make along the way can reveal both to them and to you how choices that might seem purely technical are actually interpretive. For instance, placing a point on a timeline might involve the more implicit work of deciding whether something is a single event or multiple events. Selecting colors and symbols for a map involves engagement with questions of representation. Arranging a digital exhibit or website in one way and not another is an opportunity to consider not just ease of design but deeper arguments implied by a particular arrangement. Having students document these processes allows you to see the intellectual effort that went into the entire project, not just the end product. Grading both the process and the final result can help address the reality that some may create a less aesthetically pleasing product but have put in a substantial amount of critical engagement with the course content along the way.