BORN-DIGITAL TEXTS AND ITS USES IN THE FOREIGN-LANGUAGE CLASSROOM: AFTER A SYMPOSIUM

Last week I attended the symposium organized by Saskia Kersten (U. Hertfordshire) and Christian Ludwig (Frei U. Berlin) called “Born-Digital Texts and its Uses in the Foreign-Language Classroom”, on which this post focuses. I first got in touch with Prof. Ludwig a while ago, when I replied to his cfp for the volume he has edited with Elizabeth Shipley, Mapping the Imaginative II (Universitätsverlag Winter, 2020). I have contributed to this volume the essay “Producing E-books on Fantasy and Science Fiction with University Students: Classroom Projects”, which describes the process by which I have edited the first five volumes out of eight that I have published so far with students in the BA and MA English Studies degrees for which I work (see https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books). The ninth e-book, on which I am now working, was the subject of my presentation. Funnily, I didn’t know that these e-books are born-digital texts until I read the cfp for the symposium. Although there is not a total agreement on the definition of this concept, in principle a born-digital text is any type of text that is first created and circulates in a digital format, such as an e-book. The disagreements have to do with whether the born-digital texts can be made available in a non-digital form (an e-book can be printed as a book). However, once you know the concept, the idea is easy to grasp: many born-digital texts, from photos to hashtags, will remain digital and will not be transferred to any analogical medium; even though some might, the label is still useful.
The general question asked in the symposium was how we should adapt the foreign-language classroom to make the most of the familiarity of our students with the diverse digital media. This is not, of course, a new question. It was first asked back in the 1990s when internet access was first made commercially available, and when other digital tools such as e-mail were introduced. The difference is that for some years now our students have been coming from the cohorts born after this time. There has been much talk about how those born from the mid-1990s onward are digital natives and it is indisputable that their lives are organized around digital platforms in ways that those of previous generations are not. Of course, as a symposium participant reminded me, we should not divide digital users along generational lines, but even though we can find many of these users in older generations, it seems obvious to me that any child or young person with no access to their generation’s heavily digitalized environment runs a risk of becoming a social pariah. A participant mentioned how the lack of access to social media of less privileged children may become a problem in their future, when prospective employers check their networks and draw a blank. This is possibly already a problem for many of us –I’m sure that my empty accounts in Facebook and Instagram, my minimalist use of Twitter, and my absence from Linked In are inexplicable to many digital frequent users.
My approach to using digital media in the English Literature classroom remains sceptical, even though I am at the same time a staunch defender of that strategy. Of course, having taught online for the last two semesters I cannot say that the digital tools should have a minimal impact on the Literature classroom but, as I did in the symposium, I want to defend what I called the principle of reciprocity. By this I mean that I am very much concerned that many of the strategies described in the symposium and elsewhere are based on an academic surrender before the push of the social media and on the sad acceptance that some skills are being lost for good because students find them boring. That is to say, we, teachers that work with language from the primary school to university, seem to be giving up on the importance of two immensely important skills, reading and writing, in which we have a solid training; I mean of substantial texts, and not what young learners come across in the social media and, generally, online. I would agree that one can learn a foreign language on the basis of limited texts, and that not all learners should be expected to produce lengthy essays. However, as much as audiovisual media, from Netflix series to YouTube gamers’ life play streaming, can help learners, their knowledge in this case of English is going to be limited without some intensive reading and without the ability to write beyond the 280 characters on Twitter. By this principle of reciprocity, then, I mean that I am willing to incorporate digital media to my classroom as long as students are willing to read and write at the demanding level that higher education and academic life requires.
I understand that my position is totally conditioned by the fact that I don’t teach English language but English Literature, and I certainly see the point of adapting language teaching in primary and secondary school to other types of students than mine. The main point of the symposium, in a way, was to establish that learning English from print books, as it has been done so far is limiting –and here I mean both books written specifically to teach English but also fiction in English. I have no doubt whatsoever that the kind of exercise consisting of writing imaginary letters of complaint to a travel agency (which my 16-year-old niece showed me recently) has little reason to be in the current EFL classroom in comparison to producing a few minutes of narrated video to post on YouTube. Yet, perhaps a main problem is that attractive reading and writing has never been well integrated in English teaching, and little has been made of what students are actually reading. My colleagues and I have been told that in some secondary schools Literature has been introduced in English classes in which students have an advanced command of English, but I have little idea (rather, none) of how that is being done. If it were up to me, I would have secondary school students produce booktubing videos in English, based on short fiction, or novels. Even long sagas, for, let’s recall that YA fiction is usually published in trilogies or series, and consumed precisely by young readers sitting in high school classrooms.
Although I am explaining myself here very poorly, what I am trying to say is that what most worries me about the use of born-digital texts in the classroom inspired by social media, platforms like YouTube, gaming and so on is the lowering of educational standards. In my case, the e-books I have been producing with my students actually make higher demands on them since in my kind of project-oriented learning their written exercises are not simple classroom exercises but writing that needs to be ready for publication. As the participants in the symposium argued, there is indeed a barrier between the classroom and the outside online world in the sense that teachers and students are encouraged to integrate all digital media in learning but not to produce texts for it. One of the participants noted with undisguised bitterness that her university would not allow her to upload born-digital texts produced by her students, invoking matters of privacy and of authorship. Another noted that, indeed, authorship could be a problem but in my own university this has been solved by having students sign their permission to have their work uploaded onto our digital repository. With this I mean that there seems to be an important contradiction between having students bring to the classroom strategies of digital production and communication that they use in their private lives only to tell them that what happens in the classroom stays in the classroom. I find this very limiting. My approach has been, instead, that if we are to invite students to produce born-digital texts, then there must be a place for these to be visible; otherwise, the skills learned appear to be just part of assessment instead of part of an actual experience in communication at the level of actual real life.
In this sense, an interesting matter is how limited the production of videos for YouTube is in higher education (at least as far as my experience goes). I recently wrote an essay on Pat Frank’s SF novel Alas, Babylon (1959) and I came across many videos produced by American high school children commenting on it, as this novel is apparently a set text in many schools. Good for them! In contrast, YouTube does not seem to attract much attention in higher education. I have tried several times to convince my colleagues to start a YouTube channel but nobody has the know-how, my university does not provide training and, since it is not a priority, I keep delaying the project. I naively assumed that all institutions of higher education had advanced YouTube channels but I must say that the panorama is quite pitiful. I’m sure that many university teachers keep their own channels but I see no systematic effort on the side of the universities to turn YouTube into a far more effective educational tool. By this I do not simply mean as a platform for teachers to deliver lectures and upload teaching materials but as a platform for students to contribute to generally available online knowledge, in a foreign language or in their own. I have not given up on the idea of opening a channel for my Department and I certainly have many ideas for it, but I just don’t know enough about this medium, my younger colleagues are too busy having three jobs at the same time to help me, and we couldn’t find among our 400 students any with experience as a booktuber, LifePlay gamer or similar. So much for digital natives!!! Again, my ambitions for the future YouTube channel is not that it might make learning easier or more fun, quite the opposite: I’d like to have students learn skills that can be applied to improving standards. Excuse me but it seems to me that fine as current booktubing is to circulate opinion and encourage reading, it is missing quality academic criticism and I fail to understand why this is not being provided by universities. If you follow me, then, I would not have students imitate anyone but do a new job, which is right now vacant. Too ambitious, I know, but someone should do it.
This leads me to another concern that was voiced in the symposium: who should be responsible for the teachers’ training in digital media? My impression is that all the participants were making an effort to apply their own knowledge to their teaching but that this knowledge had been acquired independently from their institutions. This always happens: the institution of learning, whether this is a primary school or a university, suddenly decides to introduce a new tool, but it is always up to the teachers to train themselves in it. This has recently happened with Teams in my university, chosen overnight to be our main platform for online teaching, but possibly starts with e-mail back in the 1990s. The problem is, then, not only that we should be making the most of digital platforms that in many cases we just don’t know how to use (see my comments on YouTube) but also that these platforms’ popularity changes enormously in time. Using Facebook as a teaching resource may have seemed a good idea just a few years ago, but it is now hopelessly old-fashioned. And by the time a teacher learns to use Tik-Tok, this will have been replaced by some other platform not even born today. From this perspective old-fashioned, non-digital materials appear to have a certain advantage.
Finally, I’ll mention another matter that worries me: using born-digital texts can be time-consuming and not at all ‘cost-effective’. My MA students have been producing narrated PowerPoints for our virtual classroom, and one of them decided to produce instead a video. It took him 15 hours to produce a 15-minute video. His efforts and the results were generally admired, but not more than some of the PowerPoints, which means that he invested in his born-digital text too much. There must be, then, a balance between the time invested and the learning results. Producing, for instance, videos for YouTube only makes sense as a tool to teach/learn language if the skills needed for that have been already acquired or take limited time to be acquired. And the other way round: the more proficient a teacher is in the process of producing born-digital texts with students, the lighter the task of producing them is (as I know from my already longish experience of editing e-books).
So, in short: the foreign-language classroom can be and should be at some levels a place for the production of born-digital texts but this process should contribute to enhancing the educational experience (not to trivializing it). It also needs to strike a balance between the time invested in mastering the digital skills and the time devoted to learning the language, which in the end is the main target. I would also insist that the activities need to be carried out in a spirit of reciprocity, with teachers learning from students’ experiences in the digital media and students’ willing to learn from teachers indispensable skills in reading and writing substantial texts.
Thanks Saskia and Christian for the great symposium!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/