Skip to content Skip to navigation

Just Because We Can Doesn't Mean We Should – Lessons in Digital Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 

We need to keep asking the question: What do our students really need?



The posting below looks at the question of what do our students really need to learn when we have tools that can enable them to do far more than ever before. It is by Lee Skallerup Bessette and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 30, Issue 3, March 2021It is from a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at:  The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. ©2021 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published by Wiley Subscription Services Inc., a Wiley Company, 111 River St., Hoboken, NJ 07030-5774 Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Unique Circumstances for Minority Scientists During COVID-19 - Q&A


 Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning ----------1,853 words ---------- Just Because We Can Doesn't Mean We Should--[EH1]Lessons in Digital Learning 


In my last column, I wrote about prioritizing Maslow over Bloom—taking care of our students before worrying about learning outcomes. As one of my colleagues put it in a workshop we were leading, “If the students are stressed out and can't retain the material, then you aren't actually covering it.” We can't claim coverage when students aren't learning the materials. But another lesson we are also learning during this pandemic—while still trying to educate our students in one form or another—is that just because we can do something doesn't mean we should.


New Technologies


Even before the LMS, Zoom or MOOCs, we have all participated in the reshaping of our teaching and our students' educations through digital tools: the word processor and research databases. I started university in the mid‐1990s when we were shifting from physical index books to indexes on CD‐ROM that you could access on dedicated computer terminals in the library as well as having access to a newly opened computer lab with a printer. We went from being limited to the research that was available in the library and typing our essays on a typewriter to having easy access to a universe of research and the ability to quickly write, edit, revise and print our essays.

What were the results of access to new technology? Essay lengths got longer and reference requirements for said papers got longer and more involved as well. Our expectations went up, so what we asked of our students went up too. (The expectations also increased for ourselves as research academics, but that's another issue.) In their landmark study on errors in student essays over time, Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford (2008) observed the following increases in the average length of student essays:

·       1917: 162 words

·       1930: 231 words

·       1986: 422 words

·       2006: 1038 words


Furthermore, the types of essays changed as well from primarily personal narratives and literary close readings to research papers or researched argumentative essays, among many other types. What happened between 1986 and 2006? The advent of the computer and then the internet revolution.

(The irony in all of this, shown in one other finding by Lunsford and Lunsford, is that even though the instructors expected students to use the technology to research and write their essays, these very same instructors still only used pen and paper to provide feedback on said essays. They did not avail themselves of any of the digital tools available to them that they could have been using instead.)


Asking for More


We have all been engaged in a digital learning revolution over the past 30 years whether we noticed or not, but what we largely have done with it is ask more of our students and not necessarily of ourselves. At least, this is the case when it comes to teaching.


And it isn't just about the increasing lengths of essays or amounts of research. Now, in classes, there are more discussion boards, more videos, more audio recordings, and more of everything really. Outside of the classroom, students have more extracurricular activities, more part‐time jobs to pay for exponentially increasing tuition and more pressure from an economy that didn't recover from the 2008 crash for far too many people. The list goes on and on. This was the case even before the pandemic struck.

The pandemic now requires us to do more in the same ways that we have been asking our students to do more over the last 30 years, particularly with digital tools. We have had to re‐think our pedagogy and catch up with 30 years of progress in less than a year. But most importantly, it has required us to stop and finally ask: Is this what is best for our students and their learning? Just because we can, doesn't mean we should. Just because the tool exists doesn't mean we have to use it. Just because an assessment is the one we've always used doesn't mean we have to keep using it. Just because we can assign more and longer and more complex essays doesn't mean we should.


And when we place our students at the center of these decisions—which technology to use, what kinds of assignments, what they are required to read and watch, how synchronous class time will be run, etc.—then the decision is less about what came before and more about what we can and should be doing right now. It allows us to stop and take stock of what we have done before and understand the reasons why, even if that reason is that's the way we've always done it. We also have to decide if the way we have always done it is even applicable to our situation right now.


Examining Our Pedagogies


And this critical examination of our pedagogical practices should not be limited to the personal, what individuals do in their individual classes. We need to also examine the institutional structures that support or actively counter good pedagogy from the enterprise solutions our institutions pay millions for to the institutional policies in place that impact student learning: scheduling, financial aid, student support, grading policies, etc. We are seeing this most acutely with the large‐scale adoption of proctoring software; not only are faculty pushing back on these invasive and expensive programs, they are also re‐examining the utility of high‐stakes exams in student learning.


Critical digital pedagogy is being used to address both institutional issues and personal pedagogical practices.


Typically, centers for teaching and learning have been focused (by necessity) on individual faculty and their pedagogical practices. While those at the director level may have some influence on university policies and practices, depending on the university governance structures, most rank‐and‐file educational developers, academic technologists, learning designers and others have minimal, if any, institutional influence on matters regarding teaching, learning and technology. While changing the hearts and minds of faculty is important to achieve institutional change, it is only one element. We need to simultaneously move the institution towards that same change.

In an upcoming publication on minimal computing and online learning, I write:

Imagine that instead of paying millions for enterprise solutions and the people to support them, the Institution instead invests in more and different people who are instead experts in learning design and minimal computing to assist faculty in building their distance courses differently…What levels of creativity could be unleashed by redirecting money into hiring, supporting, and paying our faculty and staff to do this work with the money freed up from not paying for access to tech that is in fact inaccessible and even dangerously invasive? (Bessette, 2021)


This is the kind of twin institutional and individual work that needs to be done to shift institutional culture towards one that is student‐centered while also smartly and responsibly integrating digital tools.


Integrating Digital Tools


One such example of this kind of work is the Domain of One's Own initiative at the University of Mary Washington, where I used to work. Martha Burtis, in her essay “Messy and Chaotic Learning” (2017, April 5), traces the evolution of the LMS alongside the evolution of the uses of the open web at universities. LMS became bigger, more integrated and more data‐hungry, trapping institutions and students into their infrastructures. UMW's initiative invested in, first, tilde spaces (, then UMW Blogs, a WordPress multisite, and then Domains, where every student, staff and faculty member could create their own domain and had server space to use to create on the open web (see Shaffer, 2016 for a timeline).


Students and faculty were engaging with the web in their classes as well as grappling with higher‐level cognitive outcomes as they created and shared on their domains. What started many years previously as a discussion around ePortfolios became one of the most innovative and influential ed‐tech initiatives of the 21st Century.


Today, Digital Fluency is an integrated part of the curriculum, where students have to complete a certain number of “digitally intensive” courses in order to graduate. These courses may or may not use Domains, but the institutional culture, which a project like UMW Blogs and Domains allowed for, widely embraced digital fluency and digital learning across the larger UMW community.


Certainly, individual faculty were convinced of the utility of integrating WordPress and other aspects of the open web into their pedagogy, but these conversations were not just happening at the level of individual faculty, but institutionally, with everyone asking the same question: What do our students need? It still took almost 15 years to go from a pilot in 2004 to 2018 when digital fluency became an integrated part of the curriculum, but you can see from the example how faculty, academic developers, academic technologists and the administration, working together, can achieve real institutional change when it comes to teaching, learning, technology and pedagogy.


Just because we can doesn't mean we have to. We don't have to lock ourselves into intrusive enterprise solutions, or tax our students, our environment, and our faculty and staff with more for the sake of more. And those things we most think we have to do or the tools that we feel we have to use are often the things that should be the first ones to give up.


We need to keep asking the question: What do our students really need? And, in everything we do, make sure that just because we can doesn't mean we should remains a mantra to help guide our pedagogical choices, digital or otherwise.





·       Bessette, L. S. (2021).  Digital redlining, minimal computing, and equity. In  S. Koseoglu,  G. Veletsianos, &  C. Rowell (Eds.),  Critical digital pedagogy – Broadening horizons, bridging theory and practice [EH3] (Forthcoming). Athabasca University Press.


·       Burtis, M. (2017, April 5).  Messy and chaotic learning: A Domains presentation at Keene State College.  The Fish Wrapper. Retrieved from‐chaotic/


·       Lunsford, A. A., & Lunsford, K. J. (2008).  “Mistakes are a fact of life”: A national comparative study. College Composition and Communication,   59(4),  781– 806.


·       Shaffer, K. (2016, Sept. 22).  An infographic of one's own.  UWM DTLT Blog. Retrieved from‐infographic‐of‐ones‐own/



 [EH1]This might be OK without the dash, but the title has one.

 [EH2]I would add a line break between references.

 [EH3]Wrap to this line