A little empathy gets you everywhere

A little empathy gets you everywhere

Teaching digital literacy for learning to undergrads has taught me many things. One being, never underestimate the ability to be wowed by one of my learner’s final projects (Language Parser Starter Pack anyone?).  The other being, Marc Prensky was wrong. That pesky, prolific educator coined the phrase ‘digital native’ in his “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” to describe those people who have grown up with digital technologies as ‘native speakers’ of this techno-language, and basically better at it than us older folks who had to acquire it like Mandarin Chinese. Sounds about right – except it’s risky to blanket a whole generation with those assumptions, and more specifically, alter your teaching based on those assumptions, as Prensky encourages. Familiarity does not breed mastery, and that’s the whole premise behind the digital literacy course. But hey – I sometimes forget – and am surprised when a learner confesses that the only technology they are good at is iMessage!

All of this thinking made me think that I need to know more about my learners. It was a good time for me to try out the Learner Empathy Map activity in the Technologist module of the Ontario Extend program. Heck, anytime is a good time for anyone involved in teaching and learning to do all of the Ontario Extend activities, but this was a good and relevant start to try to figure out what my learners actually were feeling and what they were challenged and encouraged by rather than backsliding into those assumptions. Or worse, relying on hastily completed course evaluations. Empathy is about taking someone else’s perspective, and to create a powerful learning experience, it’s just something you gotta do.  It was pretty easy-peasy. They provided clear, simple instructions and a template, and I love templates.

First was to gather information about my learners. So I sifted through the communication that I’d received from them – through their posts, emails and informal chatter captured in webinars and face-to-face conversations. Next, I talked to them. It is hard to corral a class full of learners, so I randomly selected a few and took them to the on-campus Starbucks. Flat whites are the current beverage of choice, btw. We talked about the course, their lives and their studies. Wait. I would say they talked and I listened. And made notes. And used those notes to not only plan what next hot Hamilton restaurant I’ll be visiting, but also to create my Learner Empathy Map.

And here it is (click right on that sucker to see it full screen in Google Drawings):


Example of Learner Empathy Map

See how much info I received that I otherwise wouldn’t have known? Next step in the Technologist module was to define a learner challenge based on all of this. I could see a few right away – and thoughts started to percolate about the technology-enabled supports and activities I could put into place. This exercise gave me places to start – places that I may have not considered – kinda like getting to put the racecar a little closer to rounding GO in Monopoly.  And while gathering this info from your learners can seem to take a wee bit of time, it really doesn’t take longer than the time it takes to sip a cup of coffee, and it does help you all get to some good places, together.


Image is “Go” by Bill Selak on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/2LEWJW shared under a CC-BY license.

4 thoughts on “A little empathy gets you everywhere

  1. Joanne, what a great post. I cannot agree with you more about how inaccurate the term “Digital Native” is for these students. Just because they’ve had a cellphone in their hands since they were 10 (or earlier) does not make them fluent in the use of digital technologies or digital literacy.
    The process you went through for the Learner Empathy Map is amazing. I’m planning to do something similar with my students next semester, though I’m considering integrating it into my actual class. I teach future educators so I feel this is a process that they should experience from both sides.
    Thanks for sharing your experience and would you be ok with me sharing this post with my students as an example of how this process is completed?

    1. Thank you Steven! Of course – share away – that’s what this Extend community is all about. I would love to hear any feedback from you and your students on the process and how it might be adapted. It is so easy for educators (and learners) to make assumptions of one another and it really helps to take the time to uncover what’s going on.

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