Integrating low-lift, high-impact digital teaching and learning practices in college classrooms

Group of people sitting at a table on devices.

To kick off the start of a new semester, Adobe hosted its fourth Digital Literacy Café webinar featuring Shauna Chung, PhD Candidate in rhetorics, communication, and informational design at Clemson University, along with Brian Johnsrud, PhD, head of education curriculum at Adobe. They discussed the most pressing issues impacting higher education today.

In an hour-long conversation led by host Todd Taylor, Adobe Pedagogical Evangelist and Professor of English at UNC Chapel Hill, Chung and Johnsrud underscored the importance of teaching and learning practices that deliver engaging experiences for students that enable them to achieve greater outcomes at all stages in their academic journey.

As faculty work to support students’ transition from being passive consumers of digital content to active creators of it, it’s important that the progress made during the COVID-19 era is not eroded under the pressure of the transition, but rather spurs more innovation in the classroom.

Key discussion points included:

Defining the elements and outputs of high-impact teaching and learning

Chung kicked off the Digital Literacy Café by explaining how teaching practices can be focused on enhancing self-efficacy and problem solving, rather than just mastering technical skills. High-impact teaching enables students to take ownership of their own creative process by learning the technology they’re using in the classroom to complete coursework.

To help students build digital literacy and in-demand creative skills, Chung leveraged high-impact teaching in her first-year writing course at Clemson. Early in the semester, students crafted traditional research papers, but the final course assignment required them to form groups and create videos using Adobe Premiere Rush that reimagined those research papers.

One group structured their project in the form of a broadcast news segment to investigate how campus construction impacted students, local business owners and local residents. They purported that university expansion efforts to accommodate increased student enrollment caused local businesses to close due to revenue loss and featured mostly negative sentiments among the student population. Their video essay was later featured during a city council meeting after a local activist group had seen it shared on social media.

“The students were self-motivated to investigate this project and they took it upon themselves to engage with their community in this way,” Chung said. “My prompt was very broad and I taught them some of those technical skills in class and how to create rhetorically effective videos, but aside from that, this was the group taking on the project by themselves and being inspired by that process.”

Debunking the myths of low-lift teaching

The panelists shifted the conversation to explore ways that faculty members can empower students to achieve positive results using low-lift teaching, by using adaptable template-based tools and embracing easy-to-deploy technology that encourages creative thinking. Chung emphasized how low-lift does not mean that there is no effort, thought or instruction required. In noting the common misconception, she explained how this method still challenges students to learn something new without the risk of hindering them from completing a project because the task at-hand is too complex.

“Low-lift [teaching] is a catalyst for creativity and motivation — the advantage of it is that it can be employed without significant time, financial and hardware burdens,” Chung said. “Students don’t have to buy a fancy computer or device in order to use these technologies.”

In March 2020, Chung leveraged digital tools like Adobe Spark to adapt her course curricula into an asynchronous modality that enabled students to maintain engagement and complete their work when they transitioned to the remote classroom environment. As students could no longer present their final research report in-person, she tasked them with developing an Adobe Spark page instead. Students could apply their knowledge but also get creative with presenting their findings in professional and personal ways without sacrificing traditional elements of research, such as citing their work.

Johnsrud shared how as a faculty member at Stanford, he saw the advantages of embracing low-lift teaching when his 50 digital humanities students wanted to use different platforms to learn and demonstrate their knowledge. Recognizing he would not be able to effectively teach how to use several platforms over a single course term, Johnsrud noted that by shifting his thinking to restructure the pedagogy, he could arm students with the best and most efficient resources while empowering them to learn independently. He also encouraged other faculty not to hold themselves solely responsible for teaching multiple different platforms and instead give students the criteria to figure out how to use digital tools on their own.

Clearly defining low-lift teaching methods and how they can be integrated in any classroom environment or coursework allows faculty to push beyond their comfort zones and help students take responsibility for their learning to achieve greater outcomes.

Offering choices in tech for students at every stage of their Digital Literacy Journey

Over the past year, faculty and students have incorporated a myriad of digital tools to elevate traditional coursework, as well as foster creativity in remote learning environments. As classes resume in-person this semester, faculty should continue to offer students a variety of digital tools that they can use to complete an assignment and showcase their creativity based on where they are in their digital literacy journey. This approach, which Johnsrud refers to as “low-floor, high-ceiling,” can also help spur teachable moments for faculty, as it challenges them to accommodate different types of learners. He provided examples of Adobe Creative Cloud tools that can be used at every skill level:

Taylor closed the discussion by underscoring how more options enable every student to unleash their creativity, hone digital literacy skills, build confidence and ultimately achieve greater learning outcomes, regardless of their proficiency.

“A low-lift, high-impact approach ensures that everyone doesn’t have to fall into one narrow way of developing and sharing their knowledge,” Taylor said. “If you have a student who is struggling to develop the same form of content as their peers, whether it’s a podcast or video, we can identify a solution and instead have them create a Spark page or presentation that gets at the essence of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Leveraging high-impact practices ensures that students build active learning proficiencies and other creative skills that the World Economic Forum suggests are increasingly essential in the future workplace.

As faculty and students navigate the evolving education landscape and convene on campus, they can increasingly apply low-lift, high-impact teaching and learning practices to deliver more engaging experiences and yield desired outcomes.

For more information on how to integrate digital and creative skills across disciplines and throughout curricula, please visit Adobe’s Digital Literacy resource page. Additionally, for access to free courses, workshops, teaching materials and the opportunity to connect with the creative education community, feel free to visit Adobe’s Education Exchange.