Are We Giving Students (Digital) Agency?

Do we regularly engage students as collaborators, co-designers, co-developers, partners in the design of learning experiences leveraging digital tools and technologies (e.g., courses, assignments, activities, assessments)?

Are students creating and contributing to digital content and/or given multiple ways of showing what and how they are learning while having choice and ownership over their digital learning experiences?

Do our students have agency and responsibility in their learning processes and take on a key role in driving the direction and depth of classes and courses?

Are we giving students (digital) agency in their learning experiences in post-secondary education?

Student Agency: providing a learning environment in which students develop ownership over their learning journey to work towards deeper and more meaningful learning experiences, therefore the student assumes the role of the agent; (the one with the active role in learning) L. Knaack

Digital tools and technologies provide many opportunities for students (of all ages) to find and use information, apply and analyze knowledge and skills, as well as create and share learning. Most often courses tend to focus on the finding/using, analyzing/applying pieces via digital tools and platforms. When educators give students more creation and sharing experiences that extend beyond the learning management system and traditional formats of assignments – they give students digital agency.

Students have little agency when it comes to education technology — much like they have little agency in education itself.

The importance of giving students responsibility for their own domain cannot be overstated. This can be a way to track growth and demonstrate new learning over the course of a student’s school career — something that they themselves can reflect upon, not simply grades and assignments that are locked away in a proprietary system controlled by the school.


Audrey Watters in The Web We Need to Give Students
View from Mount Prevost, Duncan, British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
View of Suburbs of Duncan, Mount Tzouhalem, Saltspring Island from Mount Prevost, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

One example of giving students digital agency is the Spoken Letters Project done by Vancouver Island University‘s Bachelor of Social Work students. This is an example of a non-disposable assignment. Through an inquiry project, students were asked to read survivors’ stories from those who attended residential schools in Canada and create a spoken response back to them. Students had choice in how they’d like to respond using a variety of formats – poems, song, voice, images – shared via a video. The spoken letters/responses were publicly posted on a WordPress site and shared with the Elders and First Nation’s people who had told their stories. What a learning experience!

Another example of giving students digital agency is Robin DeRosa’s Interdisciplinary Studies program at Plymouth State University. In 2014, Robin and colleagues developed an open pedagogy approach to the curriculum giving students more agency and flexibility around their learning. Students can develop their own eportfolios through obtaining a domain of one’s own, contribute to a program-created OER textbook and engage in a professional learning network to grow their own custom connections over the course of the program.

Digital space allows for (and even demands) a new level, and a new kind, of participation. There is no “head of the class” in an online learning environment, not even the illusion of one. Students must, instead, construct their own strategies, without a recipe, in the moment. And they should even be called upon to help map the terrain in which that can happen.


Jesse Stommel in Participant Pedagogy

Educators need to move beyond the learning management system (LMS) and give students opportunities to investigate, produce, share and create a digital presence that represents their learning. What if we moved from the language of ‘submitting’ an assignment to ‘publishing’ an assignment, or from ‘posting’ a discussion response to ‘sharing’ a set of thoughts in a blog or web page? What if we moved from assigning grades to ungrading a course and having students be part of creating the expectations for learning? What if we encouraged students to move beyond the slideshow or research paper and build portfolios of their learning, including audio, video and images of their experiences along with critical reflections of learning?

So now we have a perfect storm. We’ve doubled-down on courses and the LMS, we’ve bought into the notion that what technology afforded us for teaching and learning was standardization of experience and pedagogy, and we’ve abandoned the nascent spaces that might have let us continue to explore the Web as a flexible, open, and powerful platform for teaching and learning.


Martha Burtis in Making and Breaking Domain of One’s Own: Rethinking the Web in Higher Ed

Other examples of supporting digital agency may include activities and assignments such as: using wikis or blogs to engage in peer review and collaborative writing activities, engaging students as editors of an undergraduate journal, building portfolios of learning experiences, creating an open online textbook, provisioning students with domains of their own/web space, or fostering a network of open student reflections,

Anytime we can put students in the driver’s seat and give them control over their learning experience – we give them agency. We give them a chance to be responsible and be an active learner in the course, class, program or degree. Anytime we can provide digital experiences that move beyond the tool/technology/platform/system and engage students in creating, documenting, capturing and sharing their learning – we are giving them digital agency.

Tree, Ruckle Park, Saltspring Island, Gulf Islands British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Ruckle Provincial Park, Saltspring Island, Gulf Islands, British Columbia (L. Knaack)