Rethinking Higher Learning in a Digital Age

February 14, 2020

Sonia ChaidezSonia Chaidez is all about inspiring students and professors to rethink how they approach higher learning in a digital age.

Now, Chaidez’s work is getting a big spotlight: inclusion in the newest edition of Digital Storytelling: Story Work for Urgent Times. The popular guide to telling stories in a digital age will be released this March, featuring an insightful interview with Chaidez—the College’s instructional technologist—about the movement at Whittier College to integrate digital resources and tools into how courses are taught and student projects are conceived.

This could mean capturing people’s stories in a podcast, transforming an essay into a video, showcasing your understanding of a subject by creating a Wiki about it, or using a website to explore choose-your-own-adventure-style storytelling, and everything in between. It’s engaging, it’s creative—and importantly, prepares students for their careers after graduating.

“Learning how to weave a powerful short multimedia story that encapsulates the material, that provides the meaning of the project for an audience, that is a skill that will serve them throughout their lives,” Chaidez said in her interview. “Whether they are pitching investors, building consensus in an organization, organizing around big and complex problems, teaching new content, this type of communication document is invaluable.”

Chaidez has seen the proof of this approach’s impact.

“We see how students learn to collaboratively assess in a story circle process. We see how students learn to hone in on the kernel of the topic in the short form. We see how students come up with unique stories even when the subject or prompts are narrowly prescribed. And we see how students celebrate each other’s success in the screening process,” she said. “I am confident we can build on our successes.”

In fact, this effort has been under construction for the last 10 years.

A campus collaboration to identify teaching methods that include crucial digital skills began when Associate Dean and Professor of English Andrea Rehn founded the Digital Liberal Arts Program (DigLibArts) at the College. As part of this effort, Chaidez was tasked with creating a new type of learning space on campus. This new area—located in Wardman library—needed to be more than a line of computers in a lab, though. It needed to be a creative and collaborative environment to learn digital literacies.

Chaidez helped pilot this new approach with philosophy professor Paul Kjellberg. His students were learning classic Greek philosophy, the likes of Aristotle and Socrates. Rather than turn in a traditional essay, Kjellberg’s students had the option to present their work digitally.

The students’ creativity surprised and impressed Kjellberg and Chaidez, who knew they were onto something. She continued connecting students in other courses with digital approaches to presenting their work, and now 17 disciplines across campus have weaved it into their courses.

Chaidez points out that Whittier’s approach to digital learning isn’t a shortcut, given the choice between writing a 12-page essay and shooting a YouTube video. She works closely with professors to weave these tools into their courses, and together they let students know upfront that a digital story is a serious assignment on par with any other academic project.

“Our students are used to being asked to write deep critical reflections, well reasoned, and well-cited with supporting documents. With a digital story, they are just doing it in a new format,” she said.

Chaidez still hears from former students who want a copy of a project they worked on.

“I get emails and phone calls now, where a former student asks, ‘Do you know where my story is? I’m teaching now and I want to bring this into my classroom,’” she said. “Or they ask if we have their story because they want to integrate it into their resume, showing potential employers not just what they know, or can do, but who they are, and what stand for in the world. They can do that with their digital story.