This article is more than 2 years old

Using digital tools in learning and teaching means playing around to see what works

Experimental play and practice can help with adopting the right digital tools – but mostly it just has to work for academics and students, says Leah Henrickson
This article is more than 2 years old

Leah Henrickson is a lecturer in digital media at the University of Leeds

As a front-line educator, the conversations about digital transformation make me feel a bunch of things at once: excited about being better able to serve our students; concerned about having to learn new digital tools; and confused about where to even start.

Over the past two years, I’ve been making an active effort to revamp my pedagogical practice in light of heightened expectations for digitisation, and the complete move to online teaching during the pandemic.

I’ve been consulting the literature, trying new activities and presentation styles, and altering assessments to give students more choice about what they’d like to be graded on and how. All the while, I’ve been asking my students for regular feedback.

Considering my students’ ongoing positive and constructive feedback, I continue to adjust the ways I teach and assess. However, the past two years have shown me that active and inclusive approaches to learning – digital or otherwise – all include the following four elements:

  • People
  • Play
  • Practice
  • People

No, that’s not a typo.


Universities are, at their very core, hubs for people to create and share knowledge. Without people and their valuable perspectives, there is no university.

The wonderful – but sometimes frustrating – thing about people, though, is that they are always changing. This means that we need to constantly change the ways we work and communicate to continue serving our constituents.

There will always be new and exciting digital tools that we can try using in our teaching and research. However, if these tools don’t contribute to the creation and sharing of knowledge that benefits everyone, they’re not fit for purpose.

When deciding what digital tools to use in teaching, assessment, and administration, consider who will be using these tools. Who are we? Who are our students? Who are we trying to serve in our respective settings, and why?

Does everyone have access to the necessary hardware and software? Will these tools allow students to most effectively reflect on and represent what they have learned? Will they help students develop the skills they need to succeed in the future?


Being playful does not make us any less professional. Play actually adds an additional layer to our practice: one that embraces new forms of exploration, experimentation, and discovery.

Playfulness is something we often forget about. We are so often afraid of falling, of failing, and of looking foolish. But, in my own classrooms, I use creative platforms such as Gather.Town, Padlet, and Imgflip’s Meme Generator for fun activities that encourage students to think about content in new, playful ways – and the students are stronger for it.

If you’re feeling a bit uncomfortable with the idea of bringing play into your practice, try easing your way in. This could mean using a tool you’re familiar with (such as PowerPoint) to do something new (like making animated cartoons – seriously, it works!). You can even wear your best tweed jacket while you do this, so as not to let anyone think you’re anything but a serious academic.

There are various ways to create a playful classroom. How might you encourage students to try new things without fear of ridicule or reduced grades? In what ways might you demonstrate playfulness yourself?

What instructions and constraints need to be set to keep everyone on task? What skills should students be developing through these activities and why?


Once you’ve had time to explore new tools in informal and playful ways, it’s time to more firmly integrate them into your teaching and assessment. You may, for example, use these tools to jazz up your lectures, or adjust your assessments to accommodate a wider range of submission options.

If you’re not sure what your students want, ask them! When I asked my students what they wanted, some requested a module-specific co-curated Spotify playlist to listen to while they did individual work in seminars. Others requested in-class polling options (e.g. Mentimeter or Top Hat). Others wanted more Netprov – digital improvisation activities.

If you try something new and it fails, this doesn’t mean that you are a failure. It simply means that what you tried didn’t work. Try to identify the reasons why your expectations were not met.

Is the technology you’ve used the best choice for meeting your needs? Do you need additional training, or help from someone with a different skillset or perspective? Are digital tools the most appropriate option for what you’re trying to do?


I’ve included “people” twice in this list because people must always be the bookends that hold everything together. Above, I talked mostly about students. But what about the staff doing the teaching?

There are, of course, some systemic changes we need to be working towards. For example, we need to look towards promotion criteria that incentivise trying new teaching methods without penalising staff when things don’t go according to plan.

We need a widespread shift towards more informal collaborative spaces wherein staff can bounce ideas off one another without having to commit to outlandish ideas or being met with anything but support.

These are long-term goals – we can’t overhaul entrenched attitudes that privilege output over process overnight.

There are some questions we can consider in the short term, though. What are we able to offer in light of our own subject expertise, technological skills, and workloads? Are there people at our own or other institutions with whom we may start informal conversations about experimental pedagogy? What resources might serve as our flotation devices while we dip our toes into the ocean of digital transformation?

Engaging in “digital transformation” – whatever that means for you – is a big and potentially intimidating task. It can be scary to try new things, anticipating that at least some of them won’t work. That’s why in this article I’ve begun and ended with people.

We often talk about these big changes as though our students are the only people we need to consider but it’s just as important to think about the needs, expectations, and abilities of staff.

We need to build digital confidence across all stakeholder groups through informal and playful spaces that facilitate collaboration and senses of belonging in wider university strategies. Then, and only then, can we move forward together, tweed jackets and all.

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