What happens when learning goes online? If there has been one question my career in education has leaned toward, it’s that one. And, as all answers are wont, this one doesn’t lie where I might expect.

I’m leaving my faculty position at University of Colorado Denver, and this moment has me thinking about what drives my work.

The first college class I ever taught started at eight o’clock in the morning. Fifteen freshmen at a four-year university populated mostly by traditional students. These were recent high school graduates who, up until a few months before arriving in my classroom, took as many opportunities as possible to stay up late and, subsequently, sleep in. For students who are eighteen years old, eight o’clock in the morning is a brutal time to be awake, and occasionally one or another of them would lose the battle and fall asleep in class.

When a student falls asleep in class, teachers have choices. We can wake them up gently, wake them up roughly, penalize them for lack of participation, make jokes about them to their classmates… or we can let them sleep and hope that everything will sort itself out as the class time ticks by.

I was never afraid to let a student keep sleeping. Inevitably, they would wake up before class was over, look around in a daze of disbelief, possibly embarrassment or possibly good humour, and then do what they could to catch up. What they might miss in class, I was always quick to point out, could never be nearly as important as getting enough sleep. I also openly addressed the fact of the unfair, cruel early hour–as with all of my pedagogy, transparency and honesty were paramount; and, frankly, eight o’clock in the morning is an absurd time for young people to have to try to learn.

I taught those students for a bit over two years, and then quite abruptly moved to teaching online. Not only did this change the nature of my teaching, but students in my classes were no longer “traditional,” being instead students with jobs, families, obligations outside of school work, and many, many reasons to be too tired to attend class. I taught asynchronously, which gave students of all backgrounds access to my classes, but that wasn’t the solution for all that these students faced.

Even through the screen, with students all over the world who attended to their studies at all hours of the day, I wondered about the sleeping eighteen-year-old. Not: are they still out there? But: who are they now? What is keeping them from engaging the way they want to? What challenges are they facing? In many cases, these were students who were deployed in the Middle East, displaced by natural disasters, or living and working and studying in a rural town where the only internet was at the local library.

Researchers like Sara Goldrick-Rab and Jesse Stommel have demonstrated that “Today’s college students are the most overburdened and undersupported in American history.” Students today are not only “nontraditional,” but they are also facing food insecurity, homelessness, mounting student debt, the prospect of lower paying jobs, and–in this time of pandemic and climate crisis–a traumatic level of uncertainty about the future. Many teachers are responding to this “new traditional” student with sympathy, care, trauma-informed pedagogies, and other approaches that reaffirm the humanity of the student.

And that’s great. Truly. We must take care of one another, no matter if we are students or teachers, colleagues or coworkers, neighbors or families. We don’t need a crisis to spur kindness, but there are enough crises to go around these days that the best response to almost anyone is compassion.

Technology can make compassion complicated. I’ve written before that:

When I’m “approached with questions about what technologies might help build community online, what platform I might recommend for ensuring students don’t cheat … I’ve found myself answering: teach through the screen, not to the screen. Find out where your students are, and make your classroom there, in a multiplicity of places.”

Often, those multiplicities of places are as much digital platforms as they are living rooms, kitchens, or the passenger seat of a car pulling in wifi from Starbucks. Students are on TikTok and Instagram, they share tutorials and stories on YouTube, they set up communities in Discord. They are in places on the internet that most teaching doesn’t consider; and they are using the internet in ways that make some forms of teaching feel obsolete.

This kind of digital learning–a digital learning that students take for themselves–can exacerbate distance, and the “student-teacher contradiction” that Paulo Freire writes about. Students may use TikTok or YouTube to create or follow communities, but they may also use those platforms in order to support each other academically. This isn’t far from an analogue study group, where students get together to share notes, help each other with tricky questions, and prepare for a test–only it’s primarily asynchronous and the content that students create can be shared widely and essentially forever, regardless of whether a teacher endorses the use of a given platform.

I have always been concerned about shaping education in ways that empower students and amplify their own genius. And while I’ve never believed–nor do I still–that technology is the means to that empowerment, I likewise don’t believe that technology is just hardware, software, algorithms, and screens. Technology is made of people, and it is their particular genius to bend machines to their will. TikTok was never meant to be an educational technology, but students made it so. Nor were YouTube or Instagram or Discord meant to be places for teaching to occur, but students made them so. These are not, in fact, educational technologies at all, but they are perhaps pedagogical technologies.

To me, pedagogy happens when learning defies its container. It happens when a teacher stops grading. It happens when students pass notes in class. It happens when teachers and students explore possibilities together instead of writing rubrics; and it happens when students become teachers and teachers become students, when they share the educational experience entirely.

Most importantly, pedagogy happens in that strange and awkward and generative moment when the normal containers for education are opened or broken… and no one is quite sure what will come next. That doesn’t happen when we open the container cleanly and in ways that allow us to maintain control, it only happens when things might get messy. As when students decide to take their learning and run with it.

Seymour Papert wrote, in The Children’s Machine, that “Becoming literate means thinking differently then one did previously, seeing the world differently… Most [teachers] are locked into the assumption that School’s way is the only way because they have never seen or imagined convincing alternatives in the ability to impart certain kinds of knowledge.” (10, 12). This being locked into assumptions can prevent an explosive creative breaking open of containers.  Literacy–and in this context digital literacy–comes out of students taking their learning and running with it: across platforms, beyond classrooms, and often ramshod over the usual expectations of education.

There is a literacy that’s often overlooked when we talk about pedagogy, and that’s a literacy of learners. Freire encourages us to read our world, and part of our world as educators–a large, significant part of our world–is students. Do we know them? Do we understand their needs? Are we ready to acknowledge that our ideas about learning science and teaching methods and best practices–even the expectations we have about student success–might not be accurate? Might not, in fact, derive from any real understanding of students’ lives, habits, needs… much less their creativity, resourcefulness, cleverness, care?

When we talk about student-centered pedagogy or teaching, we need to consider a lot more than simply giving students a choice of homework options, or allowing them to write a rubric. Student-centered pedagogy requires that we understand students… which means we need to listen to students tell us about themselves. And that, in turn, means learning how they learn when we’re not watching.

Or when we can’t see them.

Like when learning goes online.

*

I’m writing this at a significant turning point in my career, as I am leaving my post at the University of Colorado Denver and joining a company called Course Hero. But truly, this is less a turning point or a rounding of any corner and more a moment atop a trajectory. Because my trajectory has always been singularly pedagogical, not singularly academic, and has always been a searching after the answer to the question: what happens when learning goes online?

I join Course Hero as the new Vice President, Academics, a role from which I hope to further my work in critical digital pedagogy; and a role from which I look forward to pushing on questions of digital literacy, student success, authorship, and, of course, the contradiction between students and teachers that is only made more complicated by technologies. These are not questions that can be asked in the isolation of either ed tech or academia, but must begin to be asked in collaboration between technology and education–each of which exerts pressure on students and upon learning; institutions in argument with one another, often overlooking pedagogy as a common ground.

I am anticipating some upsetness from those who have looked to me as a reliable critic of educational technology. But I am also anticipating that I can engage in new conversations now, ask new questions, enjoy greater debate… And continue to work for the benefit of students and teachers from a position I never expected to inhabit. It’s my intention–and the intention of those who hired me at Course Hero–that I will have a direct impact on how the platform functions not as an educational technology, but as a pedagogical one.

At the core of my decision, and at the core of the work at hand, is the same literacy I’ve always been exploring, always advocated for, always sought: a digital literacy that is human and humane, one which confronts the relationship between technology and people, companies and schools, CEOs and students. If “becoming literate means thinking differently then one did previously,” then I hope to begin conversations that will expose new literacies that exist between those who build platforms, those who use them, and those who teach us when, whether, and how to run ramshod over them.

I am aware of the criticisms some educators have of Course Hero, and I take this role as an advocate for those educators–those for whom I have advocated all along. I take this role as the teacher who let his student sleep while he lectured, and as the founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab, and as the pedagogist I have always been. There is a need for optimistic agonism now, for difficult and happy collaborations, and for making pedagogy a conversation that defies its usual container.