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Humanizing Digital Pedagogy: the Role of Imagination in Distance Teaching

On 24 February 2021, I was invited to give a talk at the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education's Quality Insights Conference. The following is the transcript from that talk.


4 a.m. That’s what time an idea woke me up this past Sunday. I’m sure everyone here has had a similar experience. Sometimes all it takes is turning over from one side to the other to wake you up enough to realize you’ve just had a brilliant idea. Most of the time, I go back to sleep, 100% convinced that I will remember my idea when I wake at my usual, much more reasonable hour. That never happens, though, or it rarely does. New ideas are fleeting, as are insights. So, this past Sunday, I leaned over, got my laptop, and typed my ideas out.

This is just one reason why I started writing this presentation at 5:30 in the morning. The idea that woke me up had nothing to do with what I’m going to say here, but it also has everything to do with what I’m going to say here. Because inspiration is an unusual and fickle friend, and we either get in the car and go on the road trip with it, or we roll over and go back to sleep and miss out on the adventure.

When I was asked to name this session, I really had no idea what I was going to talk about. But conference programming can’t be reasoned with, so I came up with “Humanising Digital Pedagogy: the Role of Imagination in Distance Teaching.” I even had to write an abstract without any real notion of what to say. But I figured I’d come up with something. The imagination, after all, can’t be that hard to talk about. Or, I didn’t imagine it would be.

I love the idea of the imagination. I have said in the past that it is a human faculty as accurate as the intellect. I have also attributed it a key role in the kind of revolutionary change-making that critical pedagogy calls for. I think these are both true about the imagination… but maybe the truest thing, for me, is that the imagination intrigues me, has intrigued me since, from the time I was a small child, my mother told me, “Never lose your imagination.”

To a child, the idea of losing your imagination is akin to losing your sense of taste, your ability to look up, your understanding of birthdays. Told that I should not lose my imagination I understood two things:

  • First, that the imagination is a powerful, meaningful prize of a capacity; and,
  • Second, that it can be lost, and probably was lost the more adult one became.

So, as young as the second grade, I began to try to cling to this apparatus which was natural to my everyday life, which I couldn’t really conceive of, but which I hoped one day to understand so as not to lose it. It was a thing I had—in abundance, according to my mother—but which I could not separate out from any other part of my life.

I recall that my mother used to keep me from school on certain days to engage in imaginative play and activities. Running through the very rare fog on Colorado mornings; planting a rock garden outside our house in the small plot next to the driveway; hiking off-trail in the Rockies and pretending to be hobbits on a grand adventure. The imagination was tied to creativity, but it was also tied to play, to pretend. And importantly, the imagination could also be found in reading, and my mom found occasions aplenty to read me Dickens and Shakespeare, Whitman and Frost and Dickenson. In between their words were worlds—worlds revealed by closing my eyes and listening carefully.

As an adult now, I recognize that the imagination is never lost. We continue to imagine in the ways adults do: looking for the perfect career, that one relationship, the elusive idea of retirement. But the imagination as we knew it as children is generally not included in our adult lives, and can even be disparaged. Scholarship of the imagination is not common, nor is it given heft next to evidence-based research. We don’t lose our imagination as we get older, but we decenter it; we don’t give it priority.

Maxine Greene, an arts educator whose work brings critical pedagogy and imagination into close conversation, said that the imagination gives us the capacity to see things as they might be otherwise. For me, this certainly was the dream of listening to Shakespeare. Not just the narrative, the humor, the characters, but the history. To imagine castles and moors and kingdoms, ancient wars so far past they were myths even during Shakespeare's time—this was to imagine a world otherwise from the one I occupied: one where I was too little to reach to the top shelf, and bullies harangued me during my lunch hour at school, and where I longed to be grown up so I could travel to see the castles and the moors and the kingdoms. The imagination inspires movement. As Northup Frye writes in The Educated Imagination, “In the world of the imagination, anything goes that is imaginatively possible, but nothing really happens. If it did happen, it would move out of the world of imagination into the world of action” (22).

It is this idea of moving out of the world of imagination and into the world of action that catches me, and that helps me understand why we should reconsider the priority we give it.

Because the imagination can be the root of action, of change, of seeing things not just as they are but as they might be. And that “might be” is what my mother was trying to give me all along. Don’t lose your “might be.” Don’t believe this little world they invented for us.* Imagine a better one.

That’s where imagination becomes important to digital pedagogy and distance teaching: in our imaginative capacity to see that things not only can be otherwise, but they must be. Teaching at a distance cannot be the same as teaching in a walled classroom, and yet how we have approached digital pedagogies has been primarily an unimaginative attempt to replicate that classroom experience on the surface of a screen.

The problem with most digital pedagogies today is that they primarily equate to design: Instructional design, universal design, inclusive design—these are the “pedagogies” we get to choose from. But each of these refers to teaching on a screen, not through it. Moreover, as vital as designs which embraces issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion are, the exercise of those designs has beneath it an underlying pedagogy that goes unquestioned: that mastery of content is the goal of learning. That what we upload as teachers and designers is what students should download. We can make sure that all our images have alt text and our syllabus includes work by marginalized voices in the field—and we absolutely must get to doing these things, it’s far past the time—but these steps do not imagine a teaching that reaches through the screen. Design always sits upon the screen. Design transmits, and most usually just one direction.

The very lovely Seymour Papert once wrote:

"Most honest Schoolers are locked into the assumption that School’s way is the only way because they have never seen or imagined convincing alternatives to impart certain kinds of knowledge … almost all experiments in purporting to implement progressive education have been disappointing because they simply did not go far enough in making the student the subject of the process rather than the object."

It’s very very difficult to craft a design to make the student the subject of the learning process. It’s also very very easy. But what it takes is a willingness to step away from assumptions about education that have kept digital design and pedagogy from being practices of freedom. Endlessly worrying over consistency, over trappings like elaborate rubrics and rules for participation that we have been convinced—by others, and we’ve convinced ourselves—are necessary to ensure that learning is happening only leads to making students objects of the process in increasingly complex ways. But if we can stop ourselves from making things complicated...

I’m reminded of a recent surge of conversation around the notion of ungrading. Susan D. Blum writes in her introduction to Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead)

Though grading seems natural, inevitable, a part of the very fabric of school, it isn’t. It was created at a certain moment, for certain reasons not entirely well thought out, and then became embedded in the structures of schools for most students.
But because we invented it, we can uninvent it. We can remove it. (2)

This is a good start to a great book that aims to ask some important questions. Ungrading works to reverse the damage to learners and learning that years of grading, or marking, has done—the kind of damage which Peter Elbow refers to when he writes: “Grading tends to undermine the climate for teaching and learning. Once we start grading their work, students are tempted to study or work for the grade rather than for learning.” But the problem with ungrading is that it can quickly become a “best practice,” and as soon as that happens, defining, delimiting methods begin to underlie what was meant to be a practice of freedom.

Consider even briefly the commonest kind of faculty development for online teaching. Training usually consists of best practices like: including pictures and videos; how to name files; the infamous “post once, reply twice” advice for managing discussion fora; how to use innovative apps—Flipgrid, Quizlet, Camtasia, and the rest. Design pedagogies too often point to the how and outcomes of a practice, without looking for the root cause of the problem they are trying to solve. Without asking why. And not the instructional “why," not the evidence-based “why,” but the why “why,” as in “Why a video lecture? Why a lecture? Wait… why my voice at the front of the room?”

Critical thinking and imagination both rise from this process of asking why. Asking it over and over again like a four-year-old. Until we get to our reasons for doing things. It’s at that point that we can recognize the problem that’s posed. In the case of ungrading, when we ask why again and again, we don’t necessarily stop at the point when we recognize that grades have damaged learning and learners; if we keep going, we may discover that grading is itself an outgrowth of pedagogies of dominance and control and that that’s the problem we need to solve. Or, we may go even further and find that pedagogies of dominance and control come out of a white supremacist patriarchy that Western higher education has always been founded on. If we reach that point, we may find ourselves asking: does ungrading solve for white supremacist patriarchy, or does it still rely on that system, or replicate it?

This is the moment in our process when imagination is most valuable. Faced with an issue that seems profoundly, irredeemably systemic… well, we might just throw up our hands and go back to grading. But the imagination comes in and asks us: how can things be otherwise? The imagination allows us to dream up something that does not yet exist, something that doesn’t need to be predicated on “this little world they’ve invented for us” the way that ungrading is predicated on grading.

I’ve taken us down kind of a theory rabbit hole, and while I advocate for doing this kind of deep, critical analysis of education, and of imagining an education that is otherwise, I also want to emphasize the why for this approach: and that is to create a humanizing pedagogy. Even when our work seems to happen upon a screen, it can and must keep humans in mind… and more than in mind, at the forefront, the “subject of the process rather than the object.”

Papert’s idea of going far enough relies upon a willingness to employ imagination at the outset of teaching, at the point when we move toward the screen and begin to work there. This is when it is so important to see that imagination is a perceptive faculty, that we can use it to see, hear, smell, taste, touch what is not included in the objective reality, “this little world,” we are handed.

What does this look like in practice? What does it mean to teach through the screen? Or to imagine a different distance learning? Because I find best practices ontologically problematic, I can really only speak from my own experience and practice.

At the University of Colorado Denver, my colleagues and I in the Learning Design and Technology program are currently reviewing the competencies attached to our MA. But we’re not just reviewing them for their content, nor just for the ways they are supported by curricula; rather, we’re looking at them again epistemologically. Asking questions about why these competencies, but also why competencies?

In part, this is because the fields associated with learning design and technology are always shifting and evolving, and have evolved even that much more during the pandemic. But we are also considering how the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed some very important truths about what goes on behind the screen, what goes on in human life that confounds our best attempts to design digital learning. We are asking how our competencies—indeed competencies broadly writ—serve students who have a lot more at stake than mastery and grades and becoming professionally competitive.

When we do this kind of questioning, we decenter the assumptions about what is necessary for education, and we put in their place questions about what learners need. And in doing, we reveal that we do not have the answers.

Behind the screen are students who have experienced the pandemic from diverse social locations, from positions of digital poverty, in a near diaspora of living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms turned classrooms. When we respond to their very human experience by aligning outcomes and assessments, by building airtight rubrics, by implementing remote proctoring—all in the name of preserving education—we center our institutional practices, our long traditions, instead of students’ realities. If we only take a breath, a pause, we might be able to work past things as they have always been done and toward things as they might be otherwise.

We have to begin to imagine better digital learning than one which is operational. We have to begin to imagine better digital pedagogies, more critical digital pedagogies, which go farther than the mere implementation of design. And we need to remind ourselves that if our best practices for online learning are leaning too much on unquestioned tradition, we are at risk of losing our “might be,” and of slipping drowsily into the little world someone else invented for us to occupy.

*The phrase “Don’t believe the little world they invented for us” is translated from the Brazilian from the film Primos by Thiago Cazado. The line is delivered lovingly and radically as an invitation to affirm ourselves in a world that does not affirm us.


Sean Michael Morris

Sean Michael Morris

Sean is Senior Instructor of Learning Design and Technology at the University of Colorado Denver, and the Director of Digital Pedagogy Lab.