Digital Teaching at CERES

Recently, Ruhr University Bochum set up an interning funding scheme for digitization in teaching. I found this to be a welcome opportunity to enhance our efforts to include digital technology in our religious studies programs. The university’s scheme, however, was quite vague in its scope and aims, so we used one of our regular “Teaching Fridays” to discuss how we want to continue in this area. Here I share some thoughts that I presented at that occasion.


What do we actually mean when we talk about digitization in teaching? I think it is helpful to distinguish three layers of digitization in teaching:

  1. Digitization of pedagogy This is what we mainly talk about when talking about digitization in teaching: The content of our classes stays the same, but the means to convey the content might change: Using platforms like Moodle, adding gamification elements, etc.
  2. Digitization of subjects Increasingly, the objects we study are affected by digitization. In the case of contemporary studies, this is obvious: If we study society, and society is affected by digitization, then we also have to study digitization. But also for historical objects, this is increasingly the case: Often, we study digital representations of objects instead of the objects themselves, e.g. page scans, 3D models, text databases.
  3. Digitization of methods Not only our objects of study change, also the ways we work change. This includes not only research methods in the strict sense, but also the ways we do literature research, the ways we access texts (both secondary literature and primary sources), and the ways we publish. Additionally, completely new research methods emerge as a consequence of digitization, e.g. distant reading.

We usually don’t teach most of this. Increasingly, we use some aspects of digital pedagogy (but even this is often limited to providing digital copies of the class literature). But beyond that, digitization has not affected our courses very much so far.

Why doesn’t our teaching reflect the digital turn? I see three main reasons for this:

  1. “The digital” is a moving target. Often, our teaching is less cutting edge than our research. What we teach is often the condensed wisdom of our field. But since there is not much condensed knowledge with regard to the highly fluid field of digitization, we might shy from including it in our courses.
  2. Related to this is a second reason: We aren’t experts of “the digital.” We are used to being experts in our fields of study, and teach from a level of unrivaled expertise. We spent years of our lives to reach this status. However, in terms of “the digital,” we’re all just trying to keep up with the rapid changes and don’t feel competent enough to teach others about them. Plus, we often assume that the “digital natives” are already aware of these things and even more so than we are.
  3. We distinguish between academic “soft skills” and content. Digital technology often appears in our work in the form of “mere tools.” Databases are just means to access the texts. Word processors are just means to write. We often use these tools, but we don’t think of them as worthy of being included in our classes.

I think there are good reasons to include all three layers of digitization in our teaching. For our students, digital skills are a valuable part of their acquired expertise. This holds true for jobs outside academia, where familiarity with digital tools is a plus for humanities graduates, as well as for academic jobs, where future generations of researchers will increasingly depend on digital research environments.

We cannot rely on the idea that a new generation of “digital natives” will automatically possess these skills. The opposite might be true. And many of the skills that are required in research are so specialized that they simply do not play are role in our student’s encounter with digital media. I think there are good reasons to include even seemingly trivial technologies in our classes. This gives us an opportunity to shape the ways that our students engage with them.

Additionally, including digital technologies in our classes might encourage us to reflect on the ways digital technology changes both our research objects as well as our methods. In which ways does a digital copy of an object share properties of the physical one, and how is it different? How does our approach to text change with the possibility of full-text search? How does the abundance of digitally available sources change what we value in knowledge and skills?

Some of this might challenge our approaches to “the digital.” This might appear to weaken our status as experts, but it also allows us to grow together with our students while teaching. This does have some consequences for our pedagogy as well:

First, I think that formats of research-based learning are especially suited to include the digital. The format supports exploratory engagement with digital media and methods. And project-based teaching allows us to focus not only on content, but also on the ways to achieve a concrete project result, which will likely include digital technology.

Second, we are necessarily not experts in all aspects of digitization. This encourages co-teaching and the inclusion of external expertise. Our university’s Methods Center is a potential partner for providing additional expertise, e.g. in the form of short methods training workshops.

Third, this often requires certain technical infrastructure. Software has to be provided to students and installed, technical issues can affect the classes. We are now working towards providing a hassle-free environment that students can use for teaching purposes that includes all the tools that are required, inspired by DHVLab.

Creative Commons Lizenzvertrag
Digital Teaching at CERES by Frederik Elwert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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