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Engaging Education: Q&A with Professor Tonya C. Hega Published:2017-10-18

Medgar Evers College, The City University of New York (CUNY)
Medgar Evers College was founded as a result of collaborative efforts by community leaders, elected officials, the Chancellor and the Board of Higher Education of The City University of New York. The College, named after the civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, was established in 1969 with a mandate to meet the educational and social needs of Central Brooklyn. With Medgar Evers's legacy of community engagement, I wanted to learn how students and teachers are utilizing edtech, specifically mobile tools, to re-imagine higher ed spaces. Tonya C. Hegamin, Assistant Professor and Creative Writing Coordinator, recently shared her best practices for multimodal pedagogies and inclusive instructional design on the Medgar Evers campus.

Margot Douaihy: Gen Z has spoken, and they want solid mobile-learning plans. How is mobile technology being used (or misused) in your classroom at Medgar Evers College? What does this suggest about the workforce of the future?

Tonya C. Hegamin, Assistant Professor and Creative Writing Coordinator, Medgar Evers College
Professor Tonya C. Hegamin: More than anything, our students need immediacy and flexibility. Blackboard doesn’t always answer those needs because of limited accessibility. Our students are always on the go and have multiple devices and accounts. They don’t often check their school email addresses because the system isn’t seamless as their personal accounts. Institutional systems must address this reality in the future. As a teacher, it’s frustrating to reach out to students via Bb, only to discover that they either don’t check their school appointed emails or that they have never accessed their Bb accounts, even senior students. Some students complain that they can’t seem to change their email address on Bb to go to their primary accounts. Obviously this is crucial and blocks communication regularly.

With that being said, the mobile device is often the primary “classroom.” Students take notes and sometimes even write papers and submit homework via phones and tablets. Clearly this is not ideal. Although phones can check spelling, they don’t have the best grammar checks and standard formatting. Perhaps this will not be a problem in the future, but when essays don’t appear to be professional or adhere to MLA, and that then causes points to be lost on each assignment. Students need word processors with continuity over multiple applications.

What technologies enhance student collaboration & teamwork on your campus?

Collaboration and teamwork are actually touchy subjects at our institution. Because our students are living busy urban lives—most have families that they are solely responsible for, and/or full time jobs—on-site attendance can be irregular. (Our institution has policy to accommodate students who can’t be physically present all the time.) One of my classes has a large grade percentage based on a group project, so students are responsible for collaborating outside of the physical classroom. Most groups rely on texting and emails even though I set up groups on Bb. I tell students to use whatever technology they can to get their work done. I also make a point of showing students how to effectively use track changes and comments on Word early in the semester because I use it to mark papers. That way, when students revise they can accept my changes and/or have a ‘conversation’ with me through comments. This is how I learned to collaboratively edit years ago, and I find it disconcerting that students say that they don’t ever have this kind of advisement in high school or even in college level computer courses.

Recently I’ve been using Google Docs to do any real-time edits with students. I suggested this to students who are working in groups but very few students had prior experience. I challenged those who had used it to show their peers or for those who were willing to learn to try it out themselves. Most found it to be truly useful and easy to use and it is portable and available on multiple platforms. I could see the difference in the presentations that used live editing, some even presented using Google Slides. The accessibility factor can’t be beat.

What best practice advice to you have for educators who are hesitant to embrace technology?

I use every opportunity I can to experiment with technology and try to take advantage of my college’s service learning opportunities to learn what I can. I also do personal research about how my other colleagues are working with technology in innovative ways. Technology requires a learning curve and not every teacher is willing to be trained. The first step in education is being willing to experiment and make mistakes. The second step is to ask students what fits their needs. It’s pointless to embrace any tech that’s not useful. Third, be willing to be a Frankenstein: pull together whatever works the best for you and your students. Don’t get stuck using only one platform for everything. Carve out one specific semester to pilot a new program or to use the tech you normally use differently. Involve the students, allow them to rate and discuss so they can learn along with you.

Do you use projectors and/or audio equipment in your classroom? If so, is this technology easy to use or confusing? 

I use projectors and audio equipment all the time in class, much like how a teacher in the 1970s would have to rely on a blackboard. I can’t conduct a relevant multimodal class without it. Students need visual tools and I also use the projectors to do live research, show my notes or to edit papers in class so the students can see exactly what I’m doing and how. My approach is inclusive, so I try to be transparent about what I’m doing. If a student asks a question I don’t know the answer to I’m eager to look it up so they can see how I find answers.

How can technology enhance access & agency in the higher ed writing classroom?

One of the major issues about access and agency is ultimately about money and social class. If a student is able to afford the newest ipad or android, they are already ahead. Students who are able to afford new technology and are savvy enough to use it to full potential are actually rare. Most have the tech but only face time or access the internet or play a game. Tech can’t enhance anything in a meaningful and lasting way if it’s only for those who can afford the best or the newest. Institutions that have relied upon students using computer labs are going to have to provide mobile devices to students so that there is a uniformity in accessibility.

Can educational technology be a tool for inclusion & diversity? If so, how?

Tech can be a great equalizer. If all students have access, there is more opportunity for inclusion. The more ed tech platforms are available for a mobile world, the better. Learning can’t happen in a vacuum, and students are no longer willing or able to be in a classroom all of the time. Meeting the students where they are is important for inclusivity. More and more people are going back to school and we are seeing so many online venues for educational purposes that it will pull in a diversity of learners that has never been seen before.

What could technology manufacturers do to better support professors and educators? 

Manufacturers need to offer more free pilots for their programs at diverse institutions. There need to be multilingual programs and programs that work when the bandwidth is low or compromised. Students don’t want to wait for tech to load; they do want tech that they can access intuitively and easily, on or offline.

Has technology in the classroom either saved you time and/or helped you increase efficiencies? Please explain.

If I hadn’t embraced technology in my classroom, I believe I would not be a good teacher; my students deserve an instructor who has at least a light finger on the pulse of what is new in their field, and in the world for that matter. Just being able to access assignments where and whenever I need allows me to grade more quickly and efficiently because I can rely on my tech to find mistakes on papers when I’m overwhelmed and bleary eyed. On average, it takes teachers 15-20 minutes to thoroughly grade a 5-8 page paper. If I have 30 students, that’s easily eight hours of work that I can’t do all at once. Just being able to have papers organized and remotely accessible saves time and sanity!

Margot Douaihy is the editorial director of NewBay Media’s AV Technology and EDUwire: Technology for Higher Education. 

Tonya C. Hegamin, MFA, is the author of Most Loved In All The World, M+O 4evr, Pemba’s Song and, most recently, Willow (2014). Her honors include the Ezra Jack Keats’ New Writer Award, The Christopher Award, she was a finalist for the Phillis Wheatly Award and was listed on the Amelia Bloomer Project’s Recommended Feminist Readings 2015 and her books have received starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and been featured in USA Today, The Washington Post, Ebony and Essence. Her poetry and short fiction have been included in two Cave Canem anthologies, as well as in Yellow Medicine Review and Obsidian Literary Journal. Hegamin currently serves as the Writer-in-Residence for Tengo Sed Writing Retreat in Costa Rica, and is the Diversity and Inclusion section editor for the Journal for Creative Writing Studies. Hegamin has received honors for her innovative use of technology in the classroom, and has presented her classroom case study on the use of Digital Game Based Learning for building better writing skills for future urban educators at CUNY Games Fest in January 2016. Professor Hegamin is an Assistant Professor and the Creative Writing Coordinator at CUNY Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, NY. www.tonyacheriehegamin.com