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Higgs, Jennifer. K-12 Teachers’ Use of Digital Discussion Tools. RTE, Aug. 2020. Posted 11/27/2020.

Higgs, Jennifer. “Digital Discourse in Classrooms: Language Arts Teachers’ Reported Perceptions and Implementation.” Research in the Teaching of English 55.1 (2020): 32-55. Print.

Jennifer Higgs investigated K-12 teachers’ attitudes toward and uses of digital apps designed to facilitate dialogic discourse in classrooms. Her study suggests a “tension” between teachers’ plans and hopes for such technology and their actual use of it in their courses (43).

The study, conducted in the 2014-15 academic year, examined how teachers implemented Subtext, an “e-reader” used by more than 5600 K-12 “literacy teachers” at the time of the study. The app provides a range of interactive tools as well as opportunities for teachers to organize classroom activities (37). The sample for a Qualtrics survey was taken from a list provided by the company of educators who used the app on a regular basis for at least four weeks (38). Of the 552 surveys submitted from all grade levels, 451 were assessed as “valid” (41). The survey data were augmented with a qualitative case study of the use made of Subtext by “Peter,” an 11-grade English teacher the author met in her previous research. Higgs writes that she chose Peter because he had taken the survey and his responses “mirrored broader trends” in the survey results. Moreover, he had used Subtext for a year and expressed enthusiasm for its value as a teaching tool (39).

Higgs’s queries address theories of literacy and learning that consider “talking to learn” an important contributor to student growth; she cites the work of Vygotsky and Bakhtin as underpinnings for this approach (34-35). In this view, student conversation with diverse classmates encourages the development of ideas and comprehension. “Dialogic” exchanges are theorized to decenter the source of authority by moving to student-centered discourse (35). “[B]road participation” by students is considered essential to the success of this approach (35), as is engagement with “a supportive community for idea exploration and exchange” (36).

Higgs reports that, despite widespread acceptance of the importance of dialogic exchange, teachers have not always been able to fully implement ideal discourse communities in classrooms, with the result that, according to studies, “teacher-dominated talk has remained prevalent across time” (36). For some, Higgs writes, the availability of interactive apps like Subtext seems to offer a way for teachers to overcome some of the challenges that limit their success in encouraging more active dialogue in their classes. She notes research showing such advantages as increased, “ more egalitarian” participation and “more time to form and respond to ideas” (36).

Higgs contends that some advocates for digital discourse tools “ascribe a great deal of agency” to the tools (34), but research also indicates that activities like wikis often underperform, possibly because they don’t accord with embedded classroom organization or teachers’ and students’ understanding of familiar processes (36). Research to address this misfit between teachers’ hopes for the new tools and their actual performance in classrooms, Higgs writes, tends to consist of small-sample studies and to neglect language arts (37). Her study, she argues, pairs a large-scale survey with a more focused examination of the survey’s findings in a single classroom.

Her survey addressed four “constructs”:

  • Teachers’ Reported Classroom Uses for Subtext
  • Teachers’ Reported Reasons for Using Subtext
  • Teachers’ Perceptions of Digital Discourse as a Learning Tool That Encourages Student Participation
  • Teachers’ Perceptions of Affordances and Constraints Associated with a Tool That Supports Digital Discourse

The last two constructs were structured to receive open-ended responses (40).

Analysis of the survey data indicated that teachers tended to see Subtext in terms of its value as a “teacher tool” for managing assignments and activities, a “student tool” for students to use to engage with their reading and the classroom community, and a “digital tool,” that is, a tool with effects resulting specifically from “its digital nature.” For example, a respondent commented on the value of “embedded questions and links” (42).

Higgs’s data suggests that despite believing that Subtext should expand student engagement, teachers most commonly use the app “to assign readings of collective class texts” and to guide students through texts with comments and questions: that is, teachers mostly used Subtext as a “teacher tool” rather than a tool for “student-posed questions” (42). A majority of teachers surveyed responded that they thought the app resulted in more student participation and interaction and gave “shy kids . . . a platform to express ideas” (qtd. in Higgs 45). At the same time, a majority of respondents valued Subtext for its “convenience” and its contribution to “teachers’ productivity” as well as for its usefulness in helping students negotiate the assigned texts through teacher-posed questions and annotations (45). Higgs writes that the teachers “perceiv[ed]” that the digital nature of the app “improved or even transformed learning,” but in their actual uses of its affordances retained a teacher-directed approach (46).

To study Peter’s class, Higgs conducted 300 minutes of observation over five sessions, a 40-minute semi-structured interview, and various informal conversations. She also took extensive field notes and collected 33 threads illustrating class interaction as students read two novels using Subtext (40-41). Peter expressed belief that Subtext was a powerful tool for improving student interaction beyond what was usual in face-to-face classroom discussion (47). The observations and threads led Higgs to conclude that Peter’s use of Subtext accorded with that of the majority of survey respondents in that he primarily used the app to help students improve their ability to read the novels through annotations, modeling, and teacher-posed questions (47). Peter started all threads and student reactions were limited to responses to his original prompt (48). Higgs notes Peter’s “good intentions” but characterizes his results as “more closely aligned with recitation models than dialogic models” (49).

Higgs observes that a truly dialogic discourse community remains elusive even with new digital tools (50). Pointing out that teachers invest considerable time and effort into finding and using the new tools, Higgs rejects the idea that teacher resistance to new technologies is responsible for this result (50). She proposes more research to better understand teachers’ approaches to tools like Subtext and professional development that goes beyond “access to devices” and “decontextualized tutorials that champion frequent use over purposeful use” to encourage more effective uses of the affordances the tools offer (50). She contends that dialogic discourse will not “just happen” but presents challenges regardless of the available tools (51).