December 9, 2020

Critical Digital Pedagogy after COVID-19

Behaviorism isn’t inclined to offer us any hope. It is not a visionary pedagogy, but a sedentary one. Critical pedagogy on the other hand, remind us that the future is possibility, that education is a practice of freedom.

Critical Digital Pedagogy after COVID-19

On 9 December 2020, I was invited to present a master class at EdCrunch 2020 out of Moscow, Russia. Below is the transcript of my talk.


Just over one year ago, I saw the first news about the novel coronavirus. Sitting at my dining room table with my husband, the news came across the New York Times app on my phone. People were getting sick. This new virus appeared extremely contagious. And it had arrived on the scene in China just when people there were taking a holiday. Traveling. To all parts of Asia, and also to the United States. Living in Portland, I knew that Seattle, just three hours north of me, would be a hub for that travel. That this new virus would quickly make its way to America.

I looked at my husband. “This is going to come here. Everything is going to change.”

In the weeks that followed, we watched the news unfold. Lockdowns in China. The first cases in Seattle. People starting to wear masks. I traveled from Portland to Denver in January 2020, and I saw people on the plane wearing masks and I wondered if I should be, too. I walked through the Seattle airport not touching surfaces, washing my hands, and trying to stay a little apart from other people. Though in theory the dire importance of this virus had been reported to the White House by that time, the American people knew very little about what it was, what to expect, how to stay safe. We wondered if China was overreacting. Or if we were being naive.

Shortly after the virus made landfall in the States, I texted a friend. “If there’s going to be anyone responsible for spreading this widely, it will be Americans.”

As I write this, an average of 1 in 25 Americans is infected. There are more than 15 million cases, close to 300,000 deaths. And United States citizens are barred from traveling to dozens of other nations precisely because we have not successfully contained the spread of the virus. Americans are a headstrong bunch, and they resist lockdowns, mask mandates, and more. But the fact that my prediction was correct has less to do with who Americans are, and much more to do with how Americans are educated.

Where We Have Come From

Paulo Freire argues throughout his works on critical pedagogy that critical consciousness is the key to education. For him and for the approach of critical pedagogy, education is built upon a reading of the world; and this reading of the world in turn leads to a search, fuelled both by curiosity and by the knowing that searching is not only possible, it is necessary to one’s existence as a human being. “If there is something that goes against the nature of human beings, it is the nonsearch,” he writes in Pedagogy of Commitment (9). It is in our nature to be curious, to go looking, to research, even if we may not find what we’re looking for. It is the doing the search that matters the most.

Later in that same work, Freire argues that “Error is the opportunity to seek knowledge.”

“One of the most beautiful characteristics of a teacher is to testify to his or her students that ignorance is the starting point for knowledge, that making mistakes is no sin, that it is part of the discovery process. Error is an opportunity to seek knowledge. Error is precisely what makes us learn. Do not be embarrassed at not knowing.” (31)

This perspective on making mistakes is not the same as the catchphrases “failing forward” or “productive failure,” but has much more to do with the search Freire describes. The act of education that consists of “asking questions, doubting, problematizing, dialoguing” on the way to producing knowledge. These are the essential ingredients of bell hooks’ notion of education as a practice of freedom.

But too much education today—and here I can speak more to American education than to education in any other country—is not about freedom, but about labor. About producing labourers. Skilled labourers able to accomplish the work with which their professors and employers task them. Education now relies more upon what Freire observed as the “banking model” of teaching than on any notion of learning as search, or learning as a celebration of freedom. In the banking model, teachers “deposit” information into the minds of learners, and when those learners can evidence that they have memorised that information, that they have digested it and can identify, comprehend, apply or synthesise it (to use terms from Bloom’s Taxonomy), learning has happened.

Learning-as-a-labor requires two component parts: the expert, and assessment. The expert—who in the classroom is the teacher, and in the workplace is the “boss”—is that personality from whom flows instruction, and whose work it is to shape the sense of reality appropriate to the environment. In a classroom, this means the teacher is responsible for deciding what knowledge is necessary for a student to master the subject of the course: what reading is necessary, what methods must be practiced, what are the learning objectives, and what are the rewards and punishments for doing or not doing what the teacher has deemed imperative? The teacher builds the course around these things and students are meant to follow their lead.

In many ways, this focus on the expert in the room and their dispensing of knowledge to students is part and parcel with the behaviourism that comes out of the work of B. F. Skinner and Edward L. Thorndike. Put as simply as he could, behaviourism to Skinner was based on the notion that “Teaching is the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement under which students learn” (Technology of Teaching, 429). I’ll speak more about this in a moment, but for now what’s important is to recognise that the philosophical system most foundational to today’s education is one in which a pigeon and a human learner are similar enough so as to be analogous. Or, as Skinner summarises in The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching:

“Comparable results have been obtained with pigeons, rats, dogs, monkeys, human children… and psychotic subjects. In spite of great phylogenetic differences, all these organisms show amazingly similar properties of the learning process.”

Behaviourism, aptly enough, is about creating behaviour. And once the right circumstances and environment are established, behaviour not only becomes predictable, it becomes replicable. Even, apparently, across species. All that is needed is someone who knows—an expert—to provide the right time, place, and stimulus and the student, or the pigeon, will respond with the desired behaviour.

The second component of learning-as-a-labor is assessment. In order to know a student or a worker has done well, their performance must be measured. And in this case, standardisation is of utmost concern. Cathy Davidson, author of The New Education and former Obama appointee to the National Council on the Humanities, observes that:

“Uniformity, regularity, standardisation, and therefore objectivity were the buzzwords of the first decade of the twentieth century … Thus was born the multiple-choice test, what one commentator has called the symbol of American education, ‘as American as the assembly line.’ It is estimated that Americans today take over 600 million standardised tests annually.” (Now You See It, 113)

“America is test-happy,” Davidson says, but it’s not actually tests we love. Because testing—and the standardisation that it measures—is a direct outgrowth of what we believe about knowledge: that it is something to be consumed, not produced. Thus students sit in classrooms and are filled up with knowledge from the expert at the podium. Their tuition dollars pay for this knowledge, and the score on their exam is their receipt for that purchase.

Failure is not rewarded in this behaviourist approach. How could it be when success or failure is contingent upon the appropriate response to stimuli? This is not the Freirean model of education where learners are engaged in a search, where asking questions is as important, or more important, than having answers. Instead, “Learning … is about behaviour,” education journalist Audrey Watters tells us, “about reinforcing those behaviours that educators deem ‘correct’—knowledge, answers, not just sitting still and raising one's hand before speaking” (“Pigeon Pedagogy”). The expert determines not only the learning objectives, but also what is “right,” “right enough,” and “wrong.” Failure is not evidence of a search or of questioning, but of a fundamental misunderstanding or disagreement with the reality painted by the curriculum.

Assessment has become so integrated into the idea of success that we are told that today getting a good grade has a direct impact on one’s entire future. Failure in a class (i.e., failure to respond with the correct behaviour) may mean failure to graduate, or failure to impress a future employer. The jeopardy surrounding failure and success not only place an inordinate weight upon passing exams, but also an unrealistic priority on the choices a teacher may make about what is necessary to know and to master. Teachers are not only expected to understand what learning objectives will lead to those skills most desired by employers, but students rely upon the fact that their teachers do, in fact, have that understanding.

All of this preeminence given to correct behaviour and assessments and grades is a lie. A lie perpetuated by an educational system that has become convinced it must prove its worth through quantifiable results. Universities compete for funding with other universities. Faculty compete for credibility. Parents want their students to be competitive so they get into better and better schools, and better and better jobs. And all this competition puts a weight on student performance that has nothing to do with learning and everything to do with fuelling economies of prestige. Students' labor to succeed is the bedrock upon which we build our institutions’ success.

Behaviourist education not only subscribes to the banking model Freire warns about, but it also strips from learning that which is most human: our curiosity. In an education where standardisation is the mean, wonder has no place, creativity is acceptable only in that it meets certain criteria and expectations (so it may be assessed), and imagination serves only to threaten the status quo. Learners are always being watched, measured, and told by someone else whether they’ve succeeded.

Like pigeons, we learn to push the right buttons to receive affirmation and reward.

There is no way to underestimate the impact this kind of education has had on an entire populace. When compliant behaviour is the same as exceptional behaviour, when information is consumed but not produced, when action is predetermined by someone not the actor, when questioning is not rewarded and failure is derided, the society that’s cultivated is not one that discerns truth but only accepts the truth handed them.

If, as B.F. Skinner proposed, human beings and pigeons as learners are analogous, then we were as prepared as pigeons when the pandemic arrived. Which is to say, not prepared at all.

Where We Are Today

There’s an idiom in the American South that describes that moment when a person must confront their own shortcomings: it’s said that they must have “a come to Jesus.” Education, and especially online education, has had a months-long “come to Jesus” in 2020.

The behaviourist paradigm I’ve been discussing may not be the entirety of American education today, but it is impossible to ignore the way in which modern schooling is founded on this model—this banking model—of teaching and learning. But most important to this time of pandemic is that, even as more progressive pedagogies have gained some traction, the intervention of educational technologies into schooling both online and on-ground has kept behaviourism alive.

When learning went online—both this past year during the pandemic, and decades ago with the advent of the first online courses and courseware—the prevalent question was: “How do we know learning is happening?” To answer that question required two things: a definition of learning and a method for assessment. Unfortunately, behaviourism provided both. What wonder and curiosity and questioning and agency had been present in education was scrapped in favour of a simple, efficient interface where learning could be measured, replicated and reproduced… and of course, standardised.

The learning management system (LMS)—platforms like Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle—operates entirely out of behaviourism’s (and Skinner’s) operant conditioning. That is to say that the platform itself is designed to encourage certain behaviours in students, and to measure their success by evidence of those behaviours.

Take for example the common practice in the design of LMS-based discussion forums, wherein students are often expected to “post once, reply twice.” That is, during a given week or unit, an individual student must post to the forum one time their own response to the discussion prompt. Shortly following on this initial post, they are expected to respond to two other posts by classmates. Post once, reply twice. If a student fails to do this, they will be marked down.

This practice is meant to evidence to the instructor that learning is happening and that students are attendant to their studies. It has no other reasonable purpose beyond these.

How this practice exemplifies operant conditioning becomes obvious when that same student enters another online learning situation, one with different or even more liberal expectations. Here, even if the rules for posting to discussions aren’t the same, the student will nonetheless default to what has garnered them a good grade elsewhere. And if a teacher doesn’t specify the rules for a discussion forum, the student will ask for them. At that point, a student’s participation in their own learning has been reduced to obeying rules to achieve the best grade.

Beyond the LMS, technologies like plagiarism detection services (Turnitin, Grammerly, etc.) and remote test proctoring software (ProctorU, Proctorio, and the rest) take operant conditioning a step further by creating the conditions for punishment before any behaviour is yet in evidence. Jesse Stommel asserts that “institutions shouldn’t allow the worst of these tools … to short-circuit our best pedagogical intentions by creating a culture of distrust in education” (“Love and Other Data Assets”). And yet that is precisely what they do. These platforms are successful on the belief alone that students will behave improperly, by plagiarising or cheating, and the only way to catch them out is to watch them at all times.

By encouraging a culture of surveillance, the use of these tools fuel suspicion between teacher and student—a suspicion that is only resolved when the student exhibits the appropriate, desired behaviour. This is not only not an educational approach founded on curiosity and questioning, but one in which the greatest reward is simply not being punished. Watters notes that: “Behavioural training relies on deprivation. Behaviourist ed-tech relies on suffering—suffering that we could eliminate were we not interested in exploiting it to reinforce compliance.” But she sums this up even more succinctly when she writes, “Every student is guilty until the algorithm proves her innocence” (“Robot Teachers, Racist Algorithms, and Disaster Pedagogy”).

These technologies and the behaviours they reinforce were already in place before the pandemic, such that when all learning went abruptly online, they became the default for instruction. Teachers and learners who had never wished to teach or learn online found themselves suddenly awash with a strange new version of education that stripped away all the nuance and rich textures of the classroom, offering instead a kind of binary education where learning either happened or it didn’t. “We've taken that drudgery of analog worksheets,” Watters writes, “and we've made that drudgery digital and we call that 'progress.'"

But not only did education default to behaviourism because of its easy appeal, it did so because the age-old fear of online learning rose up in a roar: how do we know learning is happening? And more: If I can’t see them, my students will cheat.

And so, unfortunately, the pandemic forced education, and especially online education, to take a long look in the mirror, only to discover that what seems to matter most in a crisis are learning objectives, assessments, surveillance, and a reinforcement of behaviour control through educational technology.

Where We Might Go

More than technological, though, the precipitate shift to learning and teaching online during the pandemic was a human one. In the midst of a crisis the scale of which none of us has ever lived through, education broke apart. Teachers were no longer at the front of the classroom. Students were no longer on campus. Everyone lost their communities, their routines, their sense of security about their future. Students wondered if they should leave their university studies, even at the same time as searching for jobs to replace campus employment. Early childhood educators tried to find ways to stay connected to their students through video conference tools. Nearly everyone found themselves fighting loneliness, confusion, and fear.

Into this very human crisis rushed two distinct solutions: educational technology and pedagogical practices that sought to connect human to human. As I’ve illustrated just now, technology offered nothing but the barest version of education to be sustained through the crisis. But on the other hand, approaches grounded in trauma-informed pedagogy, critical pedagogy, and critical digital pedagogy encouraged teachers and students alike to look past the technology and to each other. “One resonant note of guidance rose above the clamour,” I noted at a presentation in Scotland: “take care of each other. Take care of students. Take care of yourselves. Take care of learning. Be kind, be generous, be patient” (“Fostering Care and Community at a Distance”).

In the midst of the new daily horrors we watched unfold as the virus claimed Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, Russia, some teachers decided that technology wasn’t the answer to suddenly-distance learning. Nor were assessments and learning objectives and all the usual rigamarole of every passing semester a top priority. Their focus became sustaining community and connection amongst their students.

I’ve been asked again and again whether there is anything great or creative or inspiring that might come out of this pandemic. And it’s a hard question to answer. Too many people are suffering and too many people have died for us to consider any “good” result from this time. But I do hope. I hope that we are learning. Something. I hope that we are learning something about the inevitable humanity of education.

Paulo Freire writes that “there cannot be search without hope” (9), which means that in his framework, there cannot be education without hope. As we begin to see a plausible end to this pandemic, I maintain that behaviourism isn’t inclined to offer us any hope. It is not a visionary pedagogy, but a sedentary one. Critical pedagogy—and critical digital pedagogy—on the other hand, remind us that the future is possibility, that education is a practice of freedom.

In her foreword to Critical Digital Pedagogy: a Collection, Ruha Benjamin writes:

“I am convinced that without a deep engagement with critical digital pedagogy, as individuals and institutions, we will almost certainly drag outmoded ways of thinking and doing things with us. If we do not reckon honestly with what all we have been carrying, many dead ideas are sure to be repackaged as new and innovative “tech solutions” for the converging public health, social, political, and economic crises we face.”

Critical digital pedagogy is an approach to education that has less to do with assignments, assessments, and learning objectives and much more to do with the human interaction and connection across the medium of the screen. Critical digital pedagogy not only inspects the technological landscape upon which education rests now, but it also looks for answers beyond the hardware and software for how to humanise teaching and learning.

Concerned first and foremost with feeding students’ (and teachers’) critical consciousness, critical digital pedagogy encourages a digital literacy that centres our ability to read the world, as Freire puts it. We believe it’s important to not only allow but enable students to understand the technologies of education—from practices like grading and assessment to platforms like the LMS and tools like Turnitin—which affect their learning, and even their understanding of what learning is and how it happens. True digital literacy is not made from the skill to use an interface or a device, but a depth of consciousness about the interaction between the human mind and aspects of digital technology, including: digital identity, algorithms, social media. Out of this literacy is born open educational practices, design for justice, awareness of the biases hard-coded into all technologies.

Practically speaking, critical digital pedagogy is a questioning pedagogy. In the hands of an online (or suddenly-online) instructor, then, critical digital pedagogy opens the way to look carefully at our assumptions about online learning. The discussion forum, for example, and its “post once, reply twice” practice falls under the microscope, permitting a teacher to reexamine how or whether they want to use that forum. Should it be graded? How can it be an effective space for building community? What is meant by discussion? When these questions are asked, they initiate the search that Paulo Freire insists education is made from.

And harder questions, too. Especially during this pandemic, grave inequities have been surfaced: access to broadband and wifi, to computers, or even to a private space at home to study or attend class have all become common issues across the spectrum of education. Disability, racial bias, issues of identity and sexuality… all of these have become more prominent now that school takes place at home, cameras are turned on in private spaces, monitoring and surveillance has entered the home office, the living room, the bedroom. If we aren’t free to ask vital questions about how our traditional practices of education have left many students unsupported, then we will have no choice but to continually perpetuate those inequities.

There exists no operant conditioning in the practice of critical digital pedagogy. Learning is turned over to the learners, inquiry is the mode of instruction, and students are prepared to do more than simply follow along where the instructor leads.

Critical digital pedagogy is a humanising pedagogy that seeks little else but to protect the dignity of students and educators alike, with an aim to empower them, too. In the face of a crisis like this pandemic, in the moment of a radical change to the way we teach and learn, critical digital pedagogy asks us to be more than Skinner’s pigeons, and to choose instead to be empowered people embarking on a hopeful search.