University of New Hampshire

03/31/2020 | News release | Archived content

UNH Sparked Passion, Capacity for Digital Literacy

Alison Christians '15 was halfway through teaching 'The Great Gatsby' to her sophomore English class at Exeter High School when she got the email that would change the course of the school year: on Monday, we will be transitioning to online learning. It was Friday afternoon.

For teachers like Christians, across the state and country, the sharp swerve to a new normal meant pausing learning as their students knew it, and rebuilding that community one laptop at a time.

While there was certainly no ready model for what Christians needed to do, she had a framework to draw on. Christians earned her English teaching degree at UNH, where she studied alongside faculty and peers shaping a new approach to literacy - one that calls for more relevant assignments and champions writing and reading across online spaces.

'In a digital environment, you have so many more chances to get your meaning across.'

Danielle Silva, UNH education professor and director of the campus Community Literacy Center, says it's about redefining writing as something 'bigger than what you do with a pen and paper.' In her EDUC500 courses, she gets her students - all preservice teachers - actively involved in the practice of digital literacy. They do things like host podcast parties in local middle school English classrooms or engage with the National Writing Project, which has long used online platforms to connect writing communities across the country.

Over the course of her five years teaching at Exeter, Christians challenged herself to 'bring her students' worlds into the classroom.' Instead of writing the standard informational essay, Christians' students created infographics or photo essays even before the move to remote learning brought digital literacy tools to the forefront.

English education professor Alecia Magnifico says these types of digital assignments encourage students to work through the same choices about how best to communicate information as they would writing an essay - if not more so.

'In a digital environment, you have so many more chances to get your meaning across,' Magnifico says. 'Font matters. Layout matters. Photos matter.'

Of course, the biggest lessons today's educators learned at UNH weren't about digital literacy, or even curriculum-building. They involved the more intangible qualities that can define teaching excellence, like flexibility and resilience. And while those education pillars are critical in face-to-face classrooms, they're all the more impactful in remote learning.

'Always put your students first, that's what UNH emphasized for me,' says Nicole Malette '19, a first-year high school English teacher in the Nashua School District.

Eventually, she hopes to put into practice some of the digital literacy tools she used in Magnifico's class, like creating a Goodreads group where her students can share book reviews. But for right now, her student-focused perspective means a return to the basics. Things like making sure all of her students are able to check out Chrome books. Things like getting classroom novels in the hands of students. Things like making sure all of her 80 students are okay.

'If we can accomplish all of that,' Malette says, 'that's the new benchmark.'

Even the most digitally-focused UNH education faculty will be the first to tell you that there's an enormous difference between teaching a two-week unit on digital learning and whole districts going online.

There are, however, places to turn for light. Malette says she's been heartened to see some of her shyest students engage more fully in virtual class discussions. She adds that some of her students who never saw themselves going to college can now picture themselves succeeding with an online degree.

'This isn't about me,' Malette says. 'And that's my fire.'