IST instructor keeps students engaged remotely with interpretive discussions

Hope Damato
July 14, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — How does modern digital technology shape our world and our perceptions?

That is a question investigated by students in an emerging issues and technologies course this spring in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST). Structured around a text by Martin Heidegger titled "The Question Concerning Technology," students were given opportunities throughout the semester to post thought-provoking discussion questions and present their viewpoints.

Knowing the challenges of facilitating thoughtful discussion in a remote learning environment, instructor Fred Fonseca, associate professor of IST, developed a novel way to teach and encourage students to engage with the course material and with each other. He implemented shared documents, led interpretive discussions about assigned texts, and facilitated recitation sections, during which students would meet to talk about the text and questions for the week, and a learning assistant or the instructor would join them for the discussion.

“His class really taught me how to exercise creative strategies to get students engaged with the activities and discussions in class,” said learning assistant Erica Mi, a rising junior studying information sciences and technology. “Especially with the past year being remote learning, I understood how difficult it was for a student to stay engaged.”

In the course, students built their own way of understanding modern digital technology and its impacts on society and were encouraged to develop their own ideas on the role played by technology in today’s world.

“IST 402 challenges you to think about technology in a somewhat philosophical nature,” said learning assistant Carrigan Morabito, a rising senior studying human-centered design and development. “The experience with Dr. Fonseca is unique because he often includes different philosophical points that really push students to develop a stronger argument for their ideas and help them view technology in a less binary way.”

Using shared documents, students read a text every week, asked questions, and made comments highlighting parts of the text. Fonseca and other students would reply to the comments, making the reading more interactive and engaging.

Later, students would meet in Zoom breakout rooms and create a question about the text. They would share this question with another group, and in turn would receive another question from another group to answer. All groups presented their responses to their assigned questions during the following class, and learning assistants gave feedback after each presentation.

“The main reason I brought this concept to class was to find a way to read a text together and discuss it,” said Fonseca. “The idea came about before the pandemic in a small class and having it on Zoom made it possible to do it in a large class of 70 students.”

Students said that the small-group discussion opportunity allowed them to truly think about technology and its impact instead of just using it without reflection. Fonseca plans on using this method even when classes are back in person.

Although the reading was said to be challenging, Fonseca added other texts, movies, YouTube lectures and podcasts to supplement the main content.

“There was a big challenge to read a very difficult philosophy text,” he said. “Most students understood the difficulty and embraced the challenge of doing it.”

With the past year of remote learning, many students found it hard to focus on lectures and readings. Fonseca’s approach engaged the class by giving them ways to support each other during the difficult readings and ensuring the class would end with newfound insights.

“I think every student should take this class because it will teach you how to approach technology with higher-level thinking skills,” said Morabito. “This class is really a place to explore topics and think in ways that you aren't often exposed to, and the skills you develop as you learn about these topics and build your own opinions will help you stand out from the crowd.”

Mi and Morabito are returning as learning assistants for the course this fall to expand on their experience with technology. They enjoy working with different people who have different ideas and perspectives.

“The biggest thing I learned from this class was just how important it is to think about technology beyond its technological aspects,” said Morabito. “The relationship we have with technology is so much more than numbers and code.”

Last Updated July 14, 2021