What to Read When You’re (Not) Teaching

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

Now that spring is over, some of us are looking ahead to teaching in the summer and some of us gazing across the break toward classes in the fall. With the passing of the school year in mind, it might be a good time to grab a book or two and catch up on some new social analysis, generational observation, or pedagogical exposition. Below are three books on (digital) learning geared toward rethinking student engagement in onground, hybrid, and online courses. They just might provide that spark you need to start developing an undiscovered perspective, building some original content, or practicing a new technique.

Digital Identities: Creating and Communicating the Online Self by Rob Cover. Elsevier, 2016.

We Are All Always Already Online. This first recommendation provides a big-picture view of the contemporary situation affecting super-connected students and teachers. No matter which modalities your teaching involves, you should read Cover’s book because it argues that modalities may be less significant than ever.

The author, Head of Media and Communications at the University of Western Australia, makes the audacious claim that for those of us living in the affluent West, the divide between our online and onground selves has become so porous as to no longer exist. We now live between the virtual and the real to the extent that differentiating between the two does not matter much anymore (if at all) when we try to make sense of ourselves and our others.

According to Cover, “the tools and technologies of digital communication surround us to the extent that they are no longer noticeable, remarkable, or distinct from other forms of communication, such as face-to-face or traditional analog and print media.” We inhabit a world in which our onground selves are surrounded by our digital connectivity as our digital footprints follow or precede us everywhere, and our online selves are haunted by the ghosts of our everyday actions and inactions.

For educators, the third chapter of the book, on “Interactivity, Digital Media, and the Text,” may be the most interesting. There, Cover discusses how online posts—such as in social media, on discussion boards, or through survey and polling tools—are not merely about the content discussed but also about the subject formation of those who post and respond. According to Cover, engaged and interactive posting subjects “are not only performers but cocreators of the textuality that makes particular kinds of identities intelligible, recognizable, and coherent in social perspectives.”

So, when we think about student engagement and interactivity, we need to take into account how we all cocreate the materials and ourselves in the process and, most importantly, how this cocreative process is also a struggle over authorship and authority. Every call for students to participate is also a call for them to recreate the materials with which they interact.

iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood* (and What That Means for the Rest of Us) by Jean M. Twenge. Atria Books, 2017.

Specifically say “I want you to succeed.” If you find yourself teaching students born after 1995 (Twenge’s cutoff between Millennials and the members of iGeneration), you may discover they are the least confrontational but most extrinsically motivated pupils you’ve encountered. And, you may find they need more assurance that their success matters to you and the institution than previous cohorts.

In this comparative study of four generations of Americans going back to 1946, the author, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, argues that the majority of students under twenty-five might need a different approach than those who have come before them. The key to interacting with these students and promoting their active learning in their classes, of course, is to come at this new socio-economic situation without judgement. For Twenge, these differences are distinctions without hierarchies. iGeners simply are different and respond to different stimuli and motivations.

While GenXers might have been motivated by challenge, for example, iGeners are more practical; they want to know they can succeed and that their academic success is going to have results. They are, overall, risk averse, she claims, and they are aware of the economic and social dangers of missteps in the contemporary environment.

iGen lives in the shadows of 9/11 and the Great Recession and these two calamities have shaken their belief in institutions to protect or provide for them. At the same time, they are immersed in a commercialized internet and social media and feel the latter’s almost constant beck and call, one which compels them to post and respond and leave themselves almost constantly exposed. In this light, they are more detached, anxious, and depressed than ever, and they know it. (Twenge frequently cites the increased rates of youth suicides globally and the fact that many children she interviewed admit they feel they cannot live without checking their social media minute-by-minute.)

Of course, Twenge admits, it is important to keep the over-generalizations of generational analyses in mind. However, she asserts, even with that caveat at hand, knowing how much iGeners seek and need reassurances may help us better motivate their learning.

[For teachers in a hurry, I recommend the Introduction, Chapters 6 and 7 (especially pages 169-177), and the conclusion—on “understanding… and saving” iGen. For everyone else, I recommend the whole book for the picture it paints and the line graphs throughout.]

Empowering Online Learning: 100+ Activities for Reading, Reflecting, Displaying, and Doing by Curtis J. Bonk and Ke Zhang. Jossey-Bass, 2008.

This just may be the droid—or the teaching framework—you’re looking for. When planning activities to increase engagement, one recommendation is to follow the R2D2 model and build learning environments that allow students to Read, Reflect, Display, and Do. The R2D2 framework has been around for some time now, and this book provides one of the best collections of practical activities and assessments based on that model.

What I like most about this book is its browsability. It gives you exactly what it promises: more than 100 activities you can pick up and build into your course with little or no adaptation. Think of it as a cookbook full of recipes for any occasion–or, at least, for the four phases of student learning: acquiring knowledge, clarifying problems, analyzing solutions, and evaluating outcomes.

At the same time as the activities are designed to flow through this circle of learning, they are also intended to address multiple modes of student engagement: auditory and verbal, observational, visual and graphic, tactile and kinesthetic. And, they describe which tools and technology might best help students in each of those modes. In this way, Empowering Online Learning addresses a wide taxonomy of learning objectives, helping students become knowledge makers as much as knowledge takers.

Each activity comes with a Description and Purpose statement, a Skills and Objectives list, specific Advice and Ideas for implementation, suggestions for Variations and Extensions, and a rubric of Key Instructional Considerations. This layout is helpful in deciding which activity to try first and which to engage to address particular situations in courses.

Bonk and Zhang also provide a solid and readable introduction to R2D2 theory and applicability and to the “web of learning” they outline. I recommend these sections to anyone new to the framework or anyone finding themselves in need of a refresher.

So, whether you’re teaching over the summer, building new courses for the fall, or revising existing modules for some time in the future, these books might just inspire you to bring something new into your classroom—whichever modality it might be.


Brian Bergen-Aurand is an Instructional Designer in eLearning and Faculty in Arts & Humanities. He specialized in questions of Quality Standards (QOI, QM) and peer course review.

Last Updated September 11, 2019