Instructional Use of Multimedia Technology and Student Agency

My project was conducted in the context of FREN 365, "Spectacles in Early Modern France," which enrolled 6 students last term. This is a class that I have taught every other year or so for the past 15 years, and since its inception it was designed to function around an on-line resource site OPSIS-Spectacles du Grand Siècle ( My purpose in joining an ITEL cohort this year was to explore further the possibilities of teaching such a course in a less conventional format by expanding the range of available resources and increasing students' engagement with these resources, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

The technology-related questions at the core of my inquiry were:

  1. (How) can a media-rich resource impact students' understanding and appreciation of materials that are almost completely unknown to them?
  2. Can students' engagement with the material be changed—quantitatively as well as qualitatively—by using means of delivery that exploit digital technologies, even when the original sources are, by nature, pre-digital?
  3. To what degree can the students' level of agency in a humanities course be boosted by maximizing the amount and quality of technological resources made available to them?

Given the nature of this course, it was nearly impossible to collect feedback other than through empirical means, in this case a variety of tasks and assignments that students had to complete as part of the course (some graded, others not). These tasks included:

  • • Preparing for class discussions of textual and iconographical material (the most common activity type in FREN 365)
  • • Researching a specific topic and giving an oral presentation
  • • Answering test questions that require processing course materials in a critical manner (i.e. not just recall of memorized material)

Data came mostly in the form of students' performance on these tasks, both oral and written, with the final survey as a complement.

The results were strongly positive in the sense that students overwhelmingly performed well or excellently in all these tasks (with one slight exception—but that student was going through some personal trouble unrelated to the class).

That said, I made a point of focusing on the qualitative dimension of their performance in order to determine the role that technology may have played in it.

Two findings emerged:

  1. The quantity and quality of technology-based resources, in and of itself, did not significantly affect student agency; they only engaged with the material insofar as it was needed to perform an assigned task. They were not more likely to explore materials in digital / multimedia format than the same materials in more traditional format; this held true even for non-scholarly materials—such as mainstream films—that I made available as complementary resources.
  2. Even on assignments, they did not take full advantage of the digital / multimedia materials available to them unless I specifically directed them to do so. For instance, in doing research to give a presentation they spontaneously resorted to the kind of resources and strategies that they normally would have used, such as Wikipedia or the library search engine. It was only when I explicitly ruled out Wikipedia (and other anonymous, non-refereed resources) and instructed them to use certain resources that I had created or that I pointed to (such as the enormous image/text bank of the French National Library) that they started experimenting with unfamiliar resources.

On the other hand, they definitely appreciated the digital / multimedia component of the course insofar as I used it in my teaching, because it made obscure/difficult (at least to them) materials "come to life" and seem relevant.

These findings suggest that, while the digital / multimedia component of FREN 365 does appear to be a major asset in the course's success—both in that students do well in it and in that they like the experience— the notion that increasing further its size and quality will result in greater student agency (taking responsibility for their own learning and displaying greater intellectual curiosity) does not seem to hold true. Thus it seems that the challenge of boosting student agency and inducing intellectual curiosity cannot be met simply through enhanced technological means when course materials are almost completely unfamiliar to the students, perhaps because there simply is no base for scaffolding. This is a course that students take because they have to in order to fulfill a requirement, not because they have an initial interest in, or even curiosity towards the Early Modern period and/or performing arts. My conclusion then is that while I should keep refining and expanding the digital / multimedia component of FREN 365, because it makes the course more exciting and appealing to those who take it, any expectation of dramatically increasing student agency may not be warranted in this type of course.

Be that as it may, I determined that further enhancements can be brought to the course model, notably by introducing on-line self-evaluation modules that would let students periodically check how well they understand the material (separately from existing course assignments).