Critical Digital Pedagogy and Design
I was invited to speak to and work with teachers at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado in May 2017. What follows is the transcript of my presentation to the school's core faculty.
The invention of the learning management system was a mistake. And here I’m not going to make the same frustrated argument made numerous times before now that LMSs are limiting structures, that their interface and functionalities control how teachers teach online (although those things are true). The LMS was a mistake because it was premature. In a world that was just waking up to the Internet and the possibility of widely-networked culture, the LMS played to the lowest common denominator, creating a “classroom” that allowed learning—or something like learning—to happen behind tabs, in threaded discussions, and through automated quizzes.
And worse, the LMS convinced us that teaching online was not only possible, it was easy—that digital pedagogy was a mere work of relocation. Take your lectures and your assignments, create a slideshow or a video or a piece of audio, load it all up, and there you have it: online learning.
Many early instructional designers believed that if we employed interactive Flash exercises and scaffolded learning according to Bloom’s taxonomy, we’d end up with robust learning that engaged students in a way duplicate to classroom interaction. Sure, it took a little longer to set up your course, but once you did, it practically ran itself. Plus, you could reuse the content again and again! Design the course once, teach it ad infinitum.
The real problem here is not that quality suffered, but that people mistook what they were doing within the LMS as pedagogical. It may be teaching—in the same way that reading from a handout is teaching—but simply slotting your pre-written materials into an online framework and calling it a class is not interesting or sound pedagogy.
I’m here in front of you today for a few different reasons. First, as the director of Digital Pedagogy Lab, I’m often asked to visit schools that have or wish to develop hybrid and digital learning options for their students. But I’m also an instructional designer at Middlebury College, where I work with my colleagues to redefine what instructional design means as an approach to digital learning. In those two capacities, I have begun to formulate a critical approach to instructional design that inquires deeply into our assumptions about current methods for online teaching and learning—including the assumptions from behavioral and educational psychology that fuel those approaches.
Today, and for most of the last fifteen years, my work has been with and for teachers. Teachers of all kinds. Writing teachers, math teachers, teachers in K-12, teachers of teachers. What it looks like I do is help teachers come to grips with how digital culture and its tools have changed, shifted, made more or less sparkly the work of learning.
But the truth is that the digital side of my job is just coincidence. It has to do with timing. Right now, the digital is relevant, present, and is that thing that seems to provide the most interesting possibilities and the most contentious challenges in the scholarship and practice of teaching and learning. But it would be a mistake to think that what I do is digital, because what I really do is human.
It would, in fact, be a mistake to think that what any of us do is digital. The endeavor of education—even outside Humanities fields—is human. Immediately upon recognizing this, we have to ask: what approach to digital (environments, tools, learning, networks, etc.) allows us to reach through the jargon and the hype and the code to find the human?
Because here’s the problem, or part of the problem. Technology dominates almost any discussion of learning and teaching online. Maybe that seems natural. Without these interfaces, these tools, this whole hybrid educational experience couldn’t occur. Or could it?
Audrey Watters, an educational technology writer and critic at Hack Education, tells a story about hybrid learning that involved no learning management system, and only a TV as the closest thing to a computer interface. “I completed my undergraduate degree almost 20 years ago, thanks to what we then called “distance education,’” she says in “The Early Days of Videotaped Lectures”.
I took “Introduction to Statistics” this way. I was shipped a textbook, a package of worksheets, and a box of 20 some-odd videotapes. Watch the lectures. Take the quizzes. Mail them to the professor, who’d grade them and send them back …
I watched the videos alone. (Paused, rewound, and replayed.) There was no way for me to stop the lecture to ask the professor a question. There were no office hours. There were no classmates with whom I could study.
But there was the Internet. There was the Web.
Yes, even decades ago there were bulletin boards and forums and chat rooms that (conceivably) I could have turned to for assistance.
But I didn’t. I watched the videos alone. I struggled. I paused, rewound, and replayed. I learned alone.
In this story, Audrey is relating something very relevant to any discussion of digital learning. In her experience—which she describes again and again as solitary, as lonely—she lacks a sense of presence. The presence of other students, but particularly the presence of a guide, a teacher, someone who could be there to help make sense of out of what she was learning. And the videotaped lectures of that teacher did nothing to meet her need.
My colleague Amy Collier, the Associate Provost for Digital Learning at Middlebury College, writes that:
There’s a real danger of the out-of-sight-out-of-mind problem with working at a distance. We equate physical co-presence with the kind of intimacy and immediacy needed for trusting relationships. Presence is perhaps the most obvious issue to address when working at a distance, but it’s not always the simplest to address.
While Amy here is talking specifically about her and my working relationship (I work remotely from Portland, Oregon, often “text-commuting” across three time zones), this same concern with presence applies to learning and teaching. And it’s something nearly every online teacher I’ve supervised, worked with, or met feels deeply.
How can we connect with students—how can we teach the way we want to teach—when this digital interface is in the way?
Striking a similar tone, Jesse Stommel, the Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington reflects on spaces of presence not provided for by the LMS:
Educational campuses have libraries, coffee shops, cafeterias, quads, lawns, amphitheaters, stadiums, hallways, student lounges, trees, park benches, and fountains. Ample space for rallies, study-groups, conversation, debate, student clubs, and special events. Few institutions pay much attention to re-creating these spaces online. The work done outside and between classes (which we would argue is the glue that holds education together) is attended to nominally if at all.
And the questions he raises later (“How can we facilitate the interdisciplinary dialogues that bring a campus to life? What spaces can we build online that aren’t quantified, tracked, scored, graded, assessed, and accredited?”) might inspire further reflection, but they don’t necessarily have answers.
Through all of this, one thought returns to my mind. Like one of those tunes you simply can’t get out of your head.
The digital isn’t magic. It isn’t mysterious. It’s regular human communication astride a new medium. Let me say that again: It’s regular human communication astride a new medium. There’s no need to make it more than it is.
What is needed, what has always been needed—since the early days of videotaped lectures to the primordial ooze of the invention of the LMS—is an effective digital pedagogy that lets us span the interface, cross the digital, and find one another where we are.
And that digital pedagogy needs to admit that, as I wrote in “Teaching in Our Right Minds”, “the use of digital technology to widen the parameters of human interaction and knowledge production is still in its most experimental stage.”
For if we don’t allow that what we’re doing with digital teaching and learning now is elementary, still even rudimentary, we fall into the trap of thinking first that it’s always already successful (given that we follow the right rubrics and best practices), and second that we no longer need to learn.
In “How Not to Teach Online: a Story in Two Parts,” Bonnie Stewart, instructor at the University of Prince Edward Island and international speaker on digital literacies, describes the first occasion when she tried to teach teachers how to use digital technology in their classrooms. She wasn’t far into her opening presentation when one teacher spoke up:
“I don’t care WHAT we do to teach with this…” his hands flapped at the desktop cart we’d wheeled to the faculty lounge, “…this MACHINE. I care WHY. WHY should I do this?”
A beat of silence in the room.
The funny thing about teaching with technologies online or even in a face-to-face context is that if you focus primarily on the technologies themselves the important things can fade from view too easily.
In that hushed moment in the little seminar room, it occurred to me that I’d never have taught ANYTHING else the way I was teaching that morning.
I paused. I met his eye.
“You’re right. This isn’t about the machine – the machine is just the door to a classroom. I can help you learn to get in there, and find your way around.
“But why? For all the reasons you ever teach.”
Bonnie goes on to offer that:
Online is different, in the sense that bringing people fully into an experience requires some explicit scaffolding that face-to-face tends not to. And yet online is no different at all, in the sense that it is teaching and learning for all the same reasons as any other teaching and learning experience, and we need to approach it with our whole selves, not just as mediators of technology.
And there’s the rub. For all the things we can learn about technology, all the tools we can master, the techniques we might employ, digital pedagogy comes down to teaching.
But it’s also slightly more than that.
Jesse Stommel argues, in “Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Definition”, that:
Higher education teaching is particularly uncritical and under-theorized. Most college educators (at both traditional and non-traditional institutions) do little direct pedagogical work to prepare themselves as teachers. A commitment to teaching often goes unrewarded, and pedagogical writing (in most fields) is not counted as “research.”
Because digital environments provide more mystery than answers, inquiry into how to teach online is key—and not just how to load up content into an LMS, but how to reach students, how to create rigorous, invigorating discussions, how to build opportunities for peer-driven learning, how to grow academics in that space, or how to incorporate those more boundary-pushing pedagogies into digital teaching.
Teaching online and in hybrid spaces must be considered an academic field in itself; it is an academic pursuit. Digital teaching and learning is scholarship.
This isn’t entirely unfamiliar. Pedagogy has long been the matter of educational research and practice, and heaven knows that teachers in early, primary, and secondary education rely a great deal on practices that will help grow a child into a productive, happy adult. Critical pedagogy, of the sort introduced by Paulo Freire in his foundational text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, focuses on approaches that help learners become readers of their world, that invite them into an epistemological relationship with reality.
In Joe L. Kincheloe’s description of The Freire Project he writes:
Teachers and leaders steeped in critical pedagogy . . . understand the social, economic, psychological, and political dimensions of the schools, districts, and systems in which they operate. They also possess a wide range of knowledge about the information systems in the larger culture that serve as pedagogical forces in the lives of students and other members of society: television, radio, popular music, movies, the Internet, podcasts, and youth subcultures.
It is a critical pedagogical approach, and more specifically a critical digital pedagogical approach, that we must take when fronting with the challenges of online and hybrid education. The seat of critical digital pedagogy is one of inquiry and observation. It is mindful of all the variety of dimensions the digital has in our and our students’ lives.
Just as a critical pedagogy considers pedagogical forces writ deep and wide (television, radio, popular music, and the rest), a critical digital pedagogy considers how digital technology in all its manifestations affect learning, learners, and spaces where learning happens.—from Twitter and other social media to the LMS, from iPads, Apple Watches, and the internet of things to data collection, surveillance, and the facility of “fake news” upon digital airwaves.
Most practically, critical digital pedagogy looks askance at the tools we use, the tools we are asked to use, the tools that are sold to us. From this lens, we are not only enabled to but we must ask after the promises that digital technology offers. Promises of efficiency, time savings, greater engagement, higher test scores, increased retention, and even deeper relationships with our students through the mediation of algorithms and digital clickers.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues against the banking model, in which education “becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.”
The banking model of education is efficient in that it maintains order and is bureaucratically neat and tidy. This neatness and tidiness are reflected in many of the promises of educational technology.
Canvas is “Streamlining the world's largest education system” and It’s Flexible. Customizable. Grows with your institution. Molds to your needs.
Turnitin “Improves Student Writing”, “Delivers Feedback that Engages Students and Drives Success”, and “Fosters critical thinking”
Google Apps for Education help you “Save time and stay connected”, “Streamline your classroom” and “unifies schools in a culture of collaboration”
But a critical digital pedagogy will question these assumptions (and the assumptions behind the assumptions). As Tim Amidon writes in “(dis)Owning Tech: Ensuring Value and Agency at the Moment of Interface”,
Educational technologies, as interfaces, offer students and educators opportunities to discover and enact agency through strategic rhetorical action. Yet, realizing this agency is complex work because “participat[ing] fully and meaningfully in [the] technological activities” that comprise so many aspects of our social, civic, and professional lives requires an increasingly sophisticated array of multiliteracies.
Critical digital pedagogy has as one of the primary ends to its inquiry the development of these multiliteracies. Look beyond the tool to how we use the tool. Look beyond how we use the tool to how the tool uses us. Look beyond how the tool uses us to how we can resist, hack, change, or simply “prefer not to.”
In her talk at Coventry University, “Education Technology’s Completely Over,” Audrey Watters performs a bit of this looking beyond.
Students often find themselves uploading their content – their creative work – into the learning management system. Perhaps they retain a copy of the file on their computer; but with learning analytics and plagiarism detection software, they still often find themselves having their data scanned and monetized, often without their knowledge or consent.
She’s referring in part to the fact that an LMS like Canvas stores millions of points of data about student behavior online (teacher behavior, too), and that all student work is housed in a platform that, one day, will no longer be accessible to the student (but that work will not ever disappear from the Canvas servers). She’s also referring to the terms of service and business model of plagiarism detection services like Turnitin, which collect a storehouse of student work, retain permissions to use that student work for any reason in perpetuity, and then sell that storehouse of data back to universities—thus profiting off of the work students do.
At another level entirely, digital media has changed, continues to change, the way we receive and interact with information. Kris Shaffer, Instructional Technology Specialist at University of Mary Washington, writes in "Truthy Lies and Surreal Truths: a Plea for Critical Digital Literacies", that
digital literacy and critical thinking about digital media require far more than knowledge of the fallacies of informal logic. Ad hominem attacks, reductio ad absurdum, the intentional fallacy—these pale in comparison to coordinated digital deception, powered by sock-puppet Twitter accounts, SEO expertise, and a Facebook algorithm that privileges fake news.
The literacies that are required to understand how to communicate online (anywhere from discussion fora to Twitter to Instagram and e-mail) brush up against the literacies that are necessary to discern truth from falsehood, fact from alt-fact, if for no other reason than these are the platforms where we now most immediately receive communiques from the outside world.
What lies at the heart of those literacies also forms the primary concern of critical digital pedagogy: that is, agency. The agency to know, understand, and thereby be able to act upon, create, or resist one’s reality. For the student, this can mean anything from knowing how and why to read terms of service for a digital product or platform; recognizing the availability of networks and community in digital spaces, even in the LMS; understanding the multitude of ways that digital identity can be built, compromised, and protected; discovering methods for establishing presence and voice, and the wherewithal to reach out to others who are trying to discover the same.
In so many ways, these are similar to the literacies of being in a classroom, coming to understand oneself as a learner or scholar, coming to grips with the system of education, collaborating and cooperating with others. In his final book, Pedagogy of Indignation, Freire clearly articulates that agency is not the will to act as one wishes, but the understanding of one’s power in relation to another’s power, the balance of fairness and equity in order to avoid and resist oppression (both being oppressed, and oppressing others).
The disciplining of will and of desire, the well-being that derives from this necessary, if difficult, practice, the recognition that what we have done is what we should have done, the refusal to fall for the temptation of self-complacency—all these forge us into ethical subjects, ones neither authoritarian nor submissive nor permissive. (10)
A critical digital pedagogy is one where learning and teaching online provides the material from which students can forge themselves into ethical subjects in the context of their lives as hybrid learners and complicated human beings.
Now. To all this, we must ask: when PowerPoint and Canvas and Twitter are bigger mysteries than we can solve, when some of us are still back there thinking “wait, I can’t upload PDFs and that’s enough?”, what good does all this talk about critical digital pedagogy do? Because whether we accept pedagogy as scholarship or not, the term still rolls around and we still need to design a course. How can we possibly do all the design, all the grading of papers, all the answering of discussion forums… and our own research… while also making space for student agency?
Stephen Barnard, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at St. Lawrence University, frames the dilemma this way:
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for teaching with technology, and the decisions about what the right tools are depends as much on the job as it does the laborers. While the challenges posed by the pursuit of praxis-oriented pedagogies may vary greatly depending on educational content and context, we are all affected by the growing mediatization of daily life. The vocational promise of critical digital pedagogy is evident, but how will it be realized? In other words, how do we tone down the hype and get to work realizing the praxis of digital pedagogy?
Critical instructional design is an early, emerging attempt to get at some concrete methodologies for creating agentive spaces in online and hybrid learning environments. And while I am currently at work with colleagues at Middlebury College, and at institutions around the world, bringing critical instructional design into greater relief, a few specific points are guiding our way.
First, the ubiquity of the LMS must be dealt with. Not by removing it from the thousands of institutions that have adopted one, but by fully understanding it: how it works, what it does with data, what pedagogies are “baked” into it, and how we can adopt it for our best pedagogical uses (depending on what goals we and our students have).
Next, learning and teaching online is not duplicative of learning and teaching on ground. In our classrooms, we rely on the arrangement of chairs, on chalkboards and white boards, on the physicality and immediacy of the environment. These are absent online, and trying to replicate them there is both an exercise in futility, and a surrender to a kind of nostalgia. Instead, we must look at our digital spaces as new ones, full of their own limitations and affordances, and teach within those.
We must also recognize that digital spaces are not private spaces. In a classroom, only you and those in class know what occurs (though this is increasingly not true with the intrusion of social media into all our physical spaces). No matter where you are online—in an LMS, on a web site, on Twitter, or sending an email—your data belongs to the platform you are using. Even behind a password, and without any hackers in sight, what you do, what you upload, what you write—unless you have your own server at home—all of it lies in someone else’s files: Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Instructure, iParadigm, and others. Because digital spaces are not private spaces, we need to understand what compromises we’re making, how and when to protect our data, and what becomes of our documents, pictures, movies, and music when we leave a platform, end a class, or graduate.
Similarly, digital spaces are not automatically equitable spaces. Let me repeat that: digital spaces are not automatically equitable spaces. Canvas was conceived of and originally designed by two white cisgender heterosexual men in Salt Lake City, Utah. To assume that the way they designed the site is going to appeal to or be intuitive to any other demographic would be a false assumption. And yet hundreds of thousands of students take classes in Canvas in locations increasingly international.
Along those same lines, it’s worth noting that the persistent story that introverted learners find greater confidence online is baseless. Everything from social media to discussion fora privilege the learner willing to speak up. But unlike in class when you can see the introverted learner listening and comprehending, online their presence is, well, absent.
Because digital spaces are not automatically equitable spaces, critical instructional design requires a willingness to course correct, to pivot, and often out of an empathetic response or a flash of new understanding about how students encounter the digital. The LMS doesn’t make this kind of pivoting simple, nor does it make connecting with and developing empathy for students easy (these are not pedagogies that the designers baked in), and so we must make the effort to find ways to accomplish these things ourselves.
Another consideration for a critical instructional design is that learning is not efficient. Amy Collier, in “What about Qualitative Research in the ‘New Data Science of Learning‘?” offers that:
the push for evidence-based education is “animated by the desire for certainty, willing to sacrifice complexity and diversity for ‘harder’ evidence and the global tournament of standards.” The push for “harder evidence” often pushes out the kinds of learning and evidence that come from post-structural, phenomenological, and critical approaches … [and] can’t account for learning that might be tied to a person’s identity, to the intersectional way in which they approach the material.”
Traditional online pedagogy, following principles laid out by instructional design, generally assumes that all students are duplicates of one another. Despite any stubborn claims to the contrary, instructional design assigns learners to a single seat, a single set of characteristics. This is for efficiency. But it enacts an erasure that, taken to the extreme—say, to the massive—is unconscionable.
I have written that: “today most students of online courses are more users than learners … the majority of online learning basically asks humans to behave like machines.”
Educational technology, almost to the one, is bent on efficiency and designed on models of evidence-based education. But critical digital pedagogy—and critical instructional design by necessity—recognizes that digital learning is an area of education about which terribly little has been determined.
And so, at the end, critical instructional design is inquiry-based. Not unlike Freire’s problem-posing model of education, this approach to teaching and learning online asks more questions than it offers answers. Using this approach, we try to imagine how to design a course, or moments in a course, that plan for the unexpected, when teacher and student both become learners.
This all leads to a digital encounter with emergence, or what Amy Collier has termed “not-yetness”, an asymptotic movement toward understanding that never quite lands, and always allows for a multiplicity of outcomes, literacies, and discoveries. In our article, “Beyond Rigor,” Jesse Stommel, Pete Rorabaugh, and I argue that “An unhealthy attachment to outcomes discourages experimentation.” Rather than rigor arriving out of controlled learning (or learning “management”), rigor in a digital learning environment emerges when that environment is:
Critical instructional design moves toward realizing the possibility for learning that blends a new form of rigor with agency through a practice of inquiry, empathy, and emergence.