Penn State studio infuses English department with technology

Katie Bohn
March 11, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A graduate student sits with a laptop in the Penn State Digital English Studio, smoothing her skirt nervously as a group of faculty members appear on her screen through the BlueJeans videoconferencing service. As the interview begins, BlueJeans starts recording the interview.

She takes a deep breath and answers the first question.

Luckily, it doesn’t matter if she nails the questions this time. She’s participating in a practice interview, and the faculty interviewing her are members of Penn State’s Department of English in the College of the Liberal Arts. By recording the interview, she’ll be able to review how she did and make notes on how to improve.

These mock interviews are just one of many services provided by the Penn State Digital English Studio, located on Penn State’s University Park campus. The studio supports a wide range of digital projects within the English department, including designing English courses for Penn State World Campus, helping graduate students and English lecturers as they earn Penn State’s Teaching with Technology Certificate, and running the English department’s social media.

Stuart Selber, associate professor of English and director of the studio, says that although the studio has many initiatives, they surround one common goal: helping graduate students and faculty succeed with the aid of information technology.

“There are so many IT resources out there that sometimes faculty and graduate students don’t know the best way to make them work for specific purposes,” said Selber. “In the studio, we learn as much as we can about different technologies so we can show faculty and graduate students how they can get the most out of IT.”

Last year, when Scott T. Smith, associate professor of English and director of undergraduate studies, wanted to revamp the English department’s website to reflect its current curriculum, he contacted the studio.

“The English undergraduate degree now has four concentrations that students can specialize in, and we wanted to highlight that,” said Smith. “The studio staff made it a very collaborative experience — we definitely bounced ideas back and forth. The results are great.”

Not only did studio staff redesign the website, they also produced five videos: one for the English major and one for each of the concentrations. Selber says keeping an updated and dynamic website is essential to attracting students and faculty and shouldn’t be overlooked.

“We don’t see designing and updating a department’s website as an administrative task,” said Selber. “We see it as intellectual work that shapes how people — including potential students — see our department and University. It’s a huge recruiting tool.”

The studio also helps instructors inside the classroom. For example, there’s a stock of iPads available for instructors to borrow and use in their courses.

“Traditionally, faculty are tethered to the front of a classroom, lecturing at a podium or flipping through slides for students to view,” said Selber. “But with an iPad, there are ways to free them up to move around the room and interact with students.”

One such way is by using the app Doceri, which allows instructors to send images and other learning materials to the screen at the head of the class.

Selber says this is particularly helpful in writing courses, where students benefit from actually writing and working with an instructor one-on-one instead of listening to a lecture.

“Writing students don’t learn from lectures, they learn from actually writing,” said Selber. “With an iPad and an app such as Doceri, the instructor can move around the room, working with students individually while also controlling what the entire class is seeing on the screen.”

Selber says the instructor can also use an iPad to demonstrate key concepts while working with a student one-on-one by showing a video or a particularly helpful passage of text.

Even with all these projects underway, Selber says there’s even more down the pipeline for the studio. One is an initiative — partially funded by Education Technology Services in Penn State’s Information Technology Services — to help faculty transition to paperless grading using laptop and tablet devices.

“One of the features of Penn State’s new learning management system, Canvas, is a tool called SpeedGrader,” said Selber. “We’d like to see how it influences how instructors think about grading and how they respond to students and their assignments.”

In addition to working closely with graduate students and faculty, the studio is working on finishing renovations on a physical space located in Burrowes Building that will offer more resources and walk-in hours when it opens later this spring.

“The space will include high-end computers, state-of-the-art software programs and a high-tech recording room with professional-grade cameras, lighting, backdrops and sound-proofing," said Leslie Mateer, a lecturer in English and digital education specialist in the studio. "This enables expert-quality recordings, like video interviews, podcasts and more."

Selber says it’s baffling that some people may still think of English as a subject that’s not as high-tech as science or engineering.

“All facets of literacy depend on technology these days,” said Selber. “We read on our smartphones, write on our tablets and do research on our laptops. Technology is inseparable from literacy itself.”

Mateer agrees.

“Penn State has a world-class English department. And academia is becoming increasingly technology driven,” said Mateer. “So we’re here to support, sponsor and implement these technology-focused programs and initiatives.”

While the physical studio space isn’t yet open, it will eventually offer staffed walk-in hours. Until then, the Digital English Studio staff are available to answer questions and work on projects. For more information, visit or contact Selber at

  • Staff members sit around a table in front of a screen

    Selber attends a meeting about an upcoming Digital English Studio project.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of the Penn State Digital English Studio
  • Computer in front of a black background lit from the side

    Graduate students can use the BlueJeans service to practice job interviews.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of the Penn State Digital English Studio
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Last Updated March 11, 2016