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On Silence: Humanising Digital Pedagogy

Are you there?

I recently found myself divorced, and back on the singles scene. It’s a strange new world these days. The last time I was single, mind you, was at a time before the iPhone. Before apps. Before Instagram and Tik Tok. And before dating services like Tinder, eHarmony, and Grindr. As a 52-year-old gay man whose past partnerships were based on what could be described as a slow courtship, the notion of meeting someone just as quickly and on the same device as I can post a tweet on Twitter—well, it’s novel. And not a little troubling in its novelty.

There are conversations you can have on these apps—conversations that can go any number of directions, depending on who is on the other side of the screen. In some apps, you get to know how close or how far away the person is that you’re talking to. Sometimes, that’s a matter of a few hundred feet, sometimes it’s only an acknowledgement that you’re both in the same city. That gives the interaction a sense of being visceral, of being physical and close. And yet the interaction remains (until it doesn’t) fundamentally digital. A selection of still photographs, brief text exchanges, emojis. And there’s never any telling what is happening behind the screen, for the person you’re talking to. They could be having multiple conversations while also talking to you. They could be showing your conversation to a roommate. Or they could be making dinner, inattentive to your latest message. A pause between messages could mean anything. The longer the pause, the more likely the conversation will pass into oblivion.

As physical, visceral, sensory people, digital technology raises in us a primordial fear of the unknown. No matter how good we get at delivering ourselves via text, or how well we perfect our Zoom persona, and no matter how well we master all the apps, when our interactions are distant, they are subject to silences. And reaching out into that silence to say “Are you there?” feels vulnerable and risky.

In education too often, instead of being vulnerable and taking risks, we implement rules of engagement. We require students to turn their cameras on. We compel discussion by browbeating students with post once, reply twice-type rubrics for interaction. We implement remote proctoring software so that, no matter where we are or no matter where they are, we can ensure that students keep their heads down when taking tests. We find all manner of methods to guarantee they won’t cheat.

If we did that when we were dating someone, it wouldn’t go over very well.

Which is why part of the secret to humanising the digital is asking “Are you there?” and waiting, sometimes on tenterhooks, for the answer.

Critical Digital Pedagogy

Put briefly, critical digital pedagogy is an educational philosophy based on the work of Paulo Freire, first outlined in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and on how that work encounters digital education. So as I go on, I’m going to freely interchange “critical pedagogy” and “critical digital pedagogy” because I want to recognise that the principle qualities of each are the same.

Critical pedagogy, and subsequently critical digital pedagogy, should not be understood as teaching methods. First and foremost, these are pedagogies focused on the understanding of power, agency, oppression, and how change happens. Best practices associated with critical pedagogies are vague, more in line with the notion of ethos rather than practice. Which is not to say that critical pedagogy is entirely theoretical. On the contrary, critical pedagogy—and critical digital pedagogy—are wholly concerned with action. It may seem that the pedagogist sits back and scans the horizon of education for new things to talk about, but that could not be farther from the truth. The critical pedagogist is one whose practice undergoes constant revision in the interests of creating greater and more effective means for students, and other humans, to thrive.

Chandra Mohanty has said that critical pedagogy “attempts to link knowledge, social responsibility, and collective struggle. And it does so by emphasizing the risks that education involves, the struggles for institutional change, and the strategies for challenging forms of domination.” The necessity for education is key to the practices of critical pedagogy, but it’s important to see that traditional educational models are often what the pedagogist resists. Paulo Freire specifically addresses what he calls the “banking model” of education. He writes in chapter two of Pedagogy of the Oppressed,

The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalised, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task is to “fill” the students with the contents of his narration…
Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorise mechanically the narrated content. Worse, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.
Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.

Here what we are witnessing is Freire’s critical analysis of the roles of teacher and student—roles which are perpetuated by both classroom methodologies and educational technologies today. He later goes on to advocate for a problem-posing education, one which actively involves the learner in a process of understanding the world around them.

In this case, Freire argues for a solution to the power relationship between teacher and student, suggesting that each become each: student-teachers and teacher-students.

One important thing to note, though, is that throughout his argument, Freire is not calling for the dismantling of schools, but the dismantling of the patterns of power in schools. Those relationships of power are the most interesting to the critical pedagogist, and to the critical digital pedagogist. Power both in terms of who is dealt it, and in terms of how it is wielded.

I want to return to the idea of silence and silences. Silences online are moments of relative powerlessness. Unless we create rules and punitive consequences for engagement, we cannot force a response faster than it will come. Here again, I’ll compare how we behave toward someone we’re chatting up on a dating app and students learning at a distance. While the quality of the communication is different, and the responsibility behind the engagement not at all the same, the very human uncertainty while waiting in silence for an answer can be very similar. Writing a discussion prompt or sending an email to a student and then waiting on a reply is, in this way, not so very different from waiting by the phone for someone to message you.

Silence, in the banking model of education, would most likely indicate either incomprehension or rebellion on the part of the student. I’m going to return to this shortly, but it bears mentioning now that there is no room for silence—other than obedient silence—in the banking model of education.

Silence has power and silence has vulnerability. That person maintaining the silence wields the power, and that person waiting on a response is subject to that power. Knowing that, critical pedagogy looks at the relationship between the silent person and the person listening for an answer for clues about agency, oppression, and what change might be needed to make that relationship more democratic.

And the answers aren’t always what you might expect. Traditional teaching methods would do everything possible to remove the student’s power to be silent, giving control of dialogue to the teacher. But critical pedagogy might reflect on the meaning of silence, the power that the listener can have, such that, just as Freire advocates for teacher-students and student-teachers, we might see a new configuration of power where silence and listening share something in their anticipation of the other.

I say all of this because the goals of critical pedagogy, and also critical digital pedagogy, are often mistaken as advocating for tearing everything down and starting over, burning down the institutions that wield power and building up something new in their place. What this assumption about critical pedagogies overlooks, though, is that burning down an institution is also an act of wielding power without regard for those who might suffer from its use. Taking power away is not the goal of critical pedagogy; rather, understanding and making democratic patterns of power is the goal.

The banking model of education can be dismantled without getting rid of the lecture. A teacher can remain at the front of the room and also empower students to grasp hold of their agency and take control of their learning. In fact, differential relationships of authority—those where both student and teacher do and do not have authority—provide the most fertile environment for agency.

Thinking in these more nuanced ways, in terms of critical digital pedagogy we can look at the banking model of education in a couple of ways. First, we can see it as Freire witnessed it: a teacher dispensing knowledge to empty-vessel students whose only job is to absorb the teacher’s expertise. And that certainly happens often enough in digital learning. But we can also look at the banking model in terms of the technologies we use to deliver education at a distance.

Take for instance the learning management system. In “Reading the LMS against the Backdrop of Critical Pedagogy,” I spend some time analysing the Canvas learning management system, or LMS, looking at how it reinforces the banking model of education. I write:

In some of my talks with leadership at Instructure in the early days of their Canvas LMS, they seemed very much in agreement with me about ideas like student agency, identity, empowerment, student-centred classrooms, and the like. They hoped that their LMS made room for teachers to adopt all kinds of pedagogies, including critical pedagogy. These were exciting discussions, and the first I’d heard of an educational technology company that was truly interested in education and not just technology.
However, in those discussions we were skipping upon the surface of the water. In order for an LMS—or any educational technology—to function, it must assume itself integral to the learning process, must operate as a determinant in education. The makers of Canvas couldn’t look at their product as optional, nor could they build a container for learning that invited students to question the notion that learning can be contained.

In other words, the very existence of this particular educational technology obfuscates or entirely wipes out the opportunity for any but a banking model of teaching.

The technology itself dispenses information through its design; put another way, technology instructs the teacher how to teach. All digital technologies do this: tell us how to use them. Their designs are either arbitrary (why is a tweet 240 characters? why do we “swipe” right or left on dating apps?), or, if not arbitrary, they are derivative of other, similar technologies. Either way, we don’t get to have any say in how they work.

Technologies are the teachers at the front of the room when it comes to digital education, and they are filling our own empty receptacles with instructions about how to interact in digital spaces. And we have no choice but to believe in their functionality, which stands in for expertise.

Over the past year, as we’ve all had to turn to remote and online teaching because of the pandemic, educational technologies have been adopted rapidly and without looking critically at how they impact teaching and learning. Most of us have literally had to take it on faith that these technologies would solve the problems that surprised us over a year ago, and even when they failed to do that, we’ve had to persevere.

One thing that has been a crucial factor in our struggles over the past year has been this concept of silence that I keep talking about. Of a lack of answer from the other side of the screen. And this is where the existential crisis for education in the pandemic arises. If students are meant to be the receptacles of the narration of education, if they are only “good students” insofar as they allow themselves to be filled by that narration, then what happens when educators are no longer witness to that exchange? This has been, honestly, the crisis for online learning since the beginning, and for correspondence education before that.

How do I know, asks the teacher, that students are learning if I can’t see them? How do I know they are listening, or reading, or viewing my video lectures? And if they are not doing that, how can they be learning anything?

Taking a Different Approach

What the pandemic brought to the foreground of digital learning was not that there needed to be better tools for surveilling students, for checking up on them to be sure they were being good little receptacles—although there was a vigorous interest in those tools—but rather that we, as educators had no idea how to reach out across the distance to students we couldn’t see. And even that the very idea of reaching across the distance imperilled our notions of how learning happens—how it must happen if it’s to follow the rules of education.

As a response, then, many of us made more rules. Rules about turning on cameras. Rules about “attendance” in digital space. Rules about taking tests and rules about engaging in discussion. These rules utterly ignored the distance and its attendant silence, which was the greatest lesson we could have learned.

Because those of us who were able to bear through the distance and stand against the silence, discovered that students were not okay. We discovered that the real challenges facing education were not whether the rules were being followed or the receptacles being filled. We discovered that the real peril lie in:

  • Problems with accessibility and considerations of disability that are specific to online teaching and learning;
  • The way in which traditional teaching methods and approaches tend to gloss over trauma or ignore it completely;
  • The fact that so many college students are hungry or homeless while still trying to get good grades;
  • The general lack of good digital pedagogies that reinforce and hold up the human person and their needs;
  • The overall dearth of solid, meaningful professional development available to faculty—professional development that goes beyond the advice about putting images in your course and creating video lectures, and that really tries to tackle what it means to teach online.

And these revelations came from putting aside the need to surveil and replacing it with the need to check in. To ask “Are you there?” and listen to the silence, anticipating an answer.

What we’ve learned is that we need a different approach, one which, frankly, we haven’t yet imagined. But one which doesn’t require students to be the receptacles of the narration of education, that doesn’t insist they are only “good students” insofar as they allow themselves to be filled by that narration. We need some way of teaching across distance, of teaching through the screen, that allows for students to capably live their lives while integrating their education into those lives.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if we switched the metaphor and made school the receptacle which should be filled by students? What would that do to power and agency?

One thing that I am often asked is the question of how. How do we do this humanising education thing? How do we learn to reach out across the silence, through the screen, and change the way we teach? So, despite my resistance to providing best practices, I have come up with a few that might be helpful going forward from where we are now.

But ultimately, my best advice for teaching online is: Stop thinking about being online. No learning happens online. It all happens in a real place somewhere, where there are hands and fingers, feet and toes, a breathing person with a heartbeat whose eyes blink more slowly when they think hard. Put space in your teaching, because there is space in your relationship to students. The immediacy of the classroom is no longer an affordance, so take the most advantage you can of the more gentle continuity that distance provides.

Also, don’t believe the tools you are given. There is no technology that knows how to teach, or how to build a relationship. We have never coded for kindness or understanding or compassion or compromise, and those things are vital when establishing the connection between student and teacher. Students need to be more than faces on an app that we can swipe left or right and give them a grade.

And finally, I encourage you to think about how education itself is a technology that needs constant maintenance. We shouldn’t have needed a pandemic to point out certain weaknesses or flaws in the system, and we shouldn’t have needed a pandemic to remind us to humanise education. But now that we’ve learned these lessons, let’s keep an eye on the machine, and perhaps as Henry David Thoreau might say, let our work be a counter friction to that machine. For students’ sake, and for the sake of our own humanity.


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.