Critical digital pedagogy in the classroom: Practical implementation

This post is inspired by the work I’ve recently done for a book chapter, as well as several articles on Hybrid Pedagogy but in particular, Adam Heidebrink-Bruno’s Syllabus as Manifesto. I’ve been wanting to make some changes to my Professional Ethics module for a while and the past few weeks have really given me a lot to think about. Critical pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning that not only puts the student at the centre of the classroom but then helps them to figure out what to do now that they’re there. It also pushes teachers to go beyond the default configurations of classroom spaces. Critical digital pedagogy is when we use technology to do things that are difficult or impossible in those spaces without it.

One of the first things we do in each module we teach is provide students with a course overview, or syllabus. We don’t even think about it but this document might be the first bit of insight into how we define the space we’re going to occupy with our students. How much thought do we really give to the language and structure of the document? How much of it is informed by the students’ voice? I wondered what my own syllabus would look like if I took to heart Jesse Stommel’s suggestion that we “begin by trusting students”.

I wanted to find out more about where my students come from, so I created a shared Google Doc with a very basic outline of what information needed to be included in a syllabus. I asked them to begin by anonymously sharing something about themselves that they hadn’t shared with anyone else in the class before. Something that influenced who they are and how they came to be in that class. I took what they shared, edited it and created the Preamble to our course outline, describing our group and our context. I also added my own background to the document, sharing my own values, beliefs and background, as well as positioning myself and my biases up front. I wanted to let them know that, as I ask them to share something of themselves, so will I do the same.

The next thing were the learning outcomes for the modules. We say that we want our students to take responsibility for their learning but we set up the entire programme without any input from them. We decide what they will learn based on the outcomes we define, as well as how it will be assessed. So for this syllabus I included the outcomes that we have to have and then I asked the students to each define what “success” looks like in this module for them. Each student described what they wanted to achieve by the end of the year, wrote it as a learning outcome, decided on the indicators of progress they needed, and then set timelines for completion. So each of them would have the learning outcomes that the institution and professional body requires, plus one. I think that this goes some way toward acknowledging the unique context of each student, and also gives them skills in evaluating their own development towards goals that they set that are personally meaningful.

I’ve also decided that the students will decide their own marks for these personal outcomes. At the end of the year they will evaluate their progress against the performance indicators that they have defined, and give themselves a grade that will count 10% towards their Continuous Assessment mark. This decision was inspired by this post on contract grading from HASTAC. What I’m doing isn’t exactly the same thing but it’s a similar concept in that students not only define what is important to them, but decide on the grade they earn. I’m not 100% how this will work in practice, but I’m leaning towards a shared document where students will do peer review on each other’s outcomes and progress. I’m interested to see what a student-led, student-graded, student-taught learning outcome looks like.

Something that is usually pretty concrete in any course is the content. But many concepts can actually be taught in a wide variety of ways and we just choose the ones that we’re most familiar with. For example the concept of justice (fairness) could be discussed using a history of the profession, resource allocation for patients, Apartheid in South Africa, public and private health systems, and so on. In the same shared document I asked students to suggest topics they’d like to cover in the module. I asked them to suggest the things that interest them, and I’d figure out how to teach concepts from professional ethics in those contexts. This is what they added: Income inequality. Segregation. #FeesMustFall. Can ethics be taught? The death penalty. Institutional racism. Losing a patient. That’s a pretty good range of topics that will enable me to cover quite a bit of the work in the module. It’s also more likely that students will engage considering that these are the things they’ve identified as being interesting.

Another area that we have completely covered as teachers is assessment. We decide what will be assessed, when the assessment happens, how it is graded, what formats we’ll accept…we even go so far as to tell students where to put the full stops and commas in their referencing lists. That’s a pretty deep level of control we’re exerting. I’ve been using a portfolio for assessment in this module for a few years so I’m at a point where I’m comfortable with students submitting a variety of different pieces. What I’m doing differently this year is asking the students to submit each task when it’s ready rather than for some arbitrary deadline. They get to choose when it suits them to do the work, but I have asked them to be reasonable with this, mainly because if I’m going to give them decent feedback I need time before their next piece arrives. If they’re submitted all at once, there’s no time to use the feedback to improve their next submission.

The students then decided what our “rules of engagement” would be in the classroom. Our module guides usually have some kind of prescription about what behaviour is expected, so I asked the students what they thought appropriate behaviour looks like and then to commit as a class to those rules. Unsurprisingly, their suggestions looked a lot like it would have if I had written it myself. Then I asked them to decide how to address situations when individuals contravened our rules. I don’t want to be the policeman who has to discipline students…what would it look like if students decided in advance what would work in their classroom, and then took action when necessary? I’m pretty excited to find out.

I decided that there would be no notes provided for this module, and no textbook either. I prepare the lecture outline in a shared Google document, including whatever writing assignments the students need to work on and links to open access resources that are relevant for the topic. The students take notes collaboratively in the document, which I review afterwards. I add comments and structure to their notes, and point them to additional resources. Together, we will come up with something unique describing our time together. Even if the topic is static our conversations never are, so any set of notes that focuses only on the topic is going to necessarily leave out the sometimes wonderful discussion that happens in class. This way, the students get the main ideas that are covered, but we also capture the conversation, which I can supplement afterwards.

Finally, I’ve set up a module evaluation form that is open for comment immediately and committed to having it stay open for the duration of the year. The problem with module evaluations is that we ask students to complete them at the end of the year, when they’re finished and have no opportunity to benefit from their suggestions. I wouldn’t fill it in either. This way, students get to evaluate me and the module at any time, and I get feedback that I can act on immediately. I use a simple Google Form that they can access quickly and easily, with a couple of rating scales and an option to add an open-ended comment. I’m hoping that this ongoing evaluation option in a format that is convenient for students means that they will make use of it to improve our time together.

As we worked through the document I could see students really struggling with the idea that they were being asked to contribute to the structure of the module. Even as they commented on each other’s suggestions for the module, there was an uncertainty there. It took a while for them to be comfortable saying what they wanted. Not just contributing with their physical presence in the classroom, but to really contribute in designing the module; how it would be run, how they would be assessed, how they could “be” in the classroom. I’m not sure how this is going to work out but I felt a level of enthusiasm and energy that I haven’t felt before. I felt a glimmer of something real as they started to take seriously my offer to take them seriously.

The choices above demonstrate a few very powerful additions to the other ways that we integrate technology into this module (the students portfolios are all on the IEP blog, they do collaborative authoring and peer review in Google Drive, course resources are shared in Drive, they do digital stories for one of the portfolio submissions, and occasionally we use Twitter for sharing interesting stories). It makes it very clear to the students that this is their classroom and their learning experiences. I’m a facilitator but they get to make real choices that have a real impact in the world. They get to understand and get a sense of what it feels like to have power and authority, as well as the responsibility that comes with that.

One Reply to “Critical digital pedagogy in the classroom: Practical implementation”

  1. Thanks Michael. Firstly lots of respect for having the courage to develop and implement this radical curriculum. The way you have grappled critically with a lot of the constraints imposed by curricula is really interesting. One sentence – among many – stuck out for me: “Something that is usually pretty concrete in any course is the content. ” I wonder if this could not also be something to challenge? The co-construction of knowledge exercise that you’re working through could, in principle, be applied to any content – ethics, anatomy or techniques for treating stroke, for example – and might be a way for people to engage with the kinds of learning *they* feel will be of value in their future professional careers, not those that are necessarily mandated by some external referent. Professional scopes might then be used as guidelines rather than rules, and it might be possible to open up practices like physiotherapy to a much more diverse set of ideas and principles. Fabulous work. Very stimulating.

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