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Creative Writing expert puts research into practice helping students switch to digital learning


A novelist and academic at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) has used her research looking at the impact of digital technology on writers to help her students thrive during the Covid-19 pandemic.

When Dr Josie Barnard accepted the role of Associate Professor in Creative Writing at DMU at the beginning of 2020, no-one could have predicted she would be starting her new job from behind a computer screen at home instead of on campus in a lecture hall.

However, Dr Barnard’s appointment arguably couldn’t have come at a better time, with her research and expertise in using technology to bridge the digital divide for writers making her the ideal candidate to help students switch to online learning.

Josie Barnard by Heather McDonough
Dr Josie Barnard (Image: Heather McDonough)

“At the start of 2020, none of us knew that we were about to be living in a lockdown digital society,” said Dr Barnard. “While it was a strange experience to start my new role from home it was great to arrive at DMU with my research in the field of using technology to learn. I came equipped with the right tools.”

Dr Barnard, who is now the Subject Leader of Creative Writing at DMU, was able to take her knowledge and apply it to her modules, aiding students with the transition.

“There’s this idea of the ‘digital native’: that anybody who grew up with technology is automatically able to deal with it easily,” she said. “This is a complete myth. Yes, some can, but many young people, ‘millennials’, find technology as difficult as anyone else.

“The assumption is that if a young person uses Facebook perpetually, or Twitter or Tumblr they can transfer all those skills to the workplace, and actually the transfer is very difficult.

“And the myth of the digital native undermines people’s chances of becoming digitally enabled – they feel that they ought to know this stuff. There’s a whole layer of people either too embarrassed to say they don’t feel comfortable with all this change, or actively defensive.”

Faced with a national lockdown, Dr Barnard worked to develop new ways of teaching using different digital platforms, informed by her research.

“My research shows that the assumption around the digital native actually inhibits learning,” she continued. “What we tried to do was understand students’ emotional response to the transition, and not just get them to learn the technology.

“You have to be able to help the student understand what stimulates them, and what they want to be able to achieve creatively. Once they’ve understood that, they can start thinking about what technologies they can use to best achieve it. Some of them are going to be interested in audio, some in game formats; one might be interested in making a podcast.

“What is right for the creative vision of each individual writer is going to be very different.”

Dr Barnard initiated and co-created with students and colleagues ‘Crew Huddles’, which enabled students to work collaboratively online in a workshop format, so that they could critique each other’s work.

“We got the students to experiment with different platforms and find what worked best for them for online workshopping. It’s important as their lecturer or tutor to have patience and give them the choice,” continued Dr Barnard.

“One of my main aims is to stop writers from feeling bamboozled by technology and to give them confidence to use it to their advantage.

“Getting comfortable with the pace of change in the digital world is so important for writers. You know, there is this age-old cliché that a writer is someone who sits in their attic with a quill pen or a dusty typewriter.

“The reality is, nobody uses a typewriter now. We are working with new technologies that evolve all the time. Computers do not last forever, software is constantly updating and platforms change, which means new genres of writing are constantly being created.

“Nowadays, writers need to be able to move between different platforms and technologies so it’s vital that they are not afraid of the ‘digital turn’.”

Dr Barnard added: “New technologies have fundamentally changed what it means to be a writer, because you actually don’t have control of your tools in the way that used to be the case. You have to be able to develop a creativity that will enable you to negotiate all this change.

“The digital skills and adaptability that our students have developed during lockdown means they are already well-equipped for the future.”

Dr Barnard is one of 12 writers who features in a new book written by renowned British novelist Sue Gee. Titled ‘Just You and the Page’, the book is part memoir, part literary biography, looking at what has shaped each of the writers; at struggle, inspiration and dedication to their art.

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Posted on Monday 7th June 2021

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