education technology

Critical digital pedagogy: Teaching at the edges of chaos

Update (12-02-18): You can now download the full chapter here (A critical pedagogy for online learning in physiotherapy education) and the edited collection here.

Update (22-02-17): This post has been modified from the original. Changes include updated in-text citations, minor grammatical improvements and an added reference list.

This is the fourth and final section of my CPN book chapter on critical digital pedagogy. You can read the first, second and third posts to find out how I got to this point. The summary is: 1) teaching is unconsciously aimed at developing within students a sense of powerlessness and conformity, 2) technology is increasingly being used to reinforce that system of oppression, and 3) critical pedagogy is a better way of thinking about teaching and learning. This final section of the book chapter describes how we can think about a critical pedagogy in digital and online spaces.

This is probably the section that I’m most uncertain of because there’s so much I want to say but am limited by the word count for the chapter. I’m thinking of using this as a base to write something longer, where I can really get into the details of what I’m trying to argue for. For example, there’s no space here to give real examples of practice. Another example, I really want to make the link between the feeling of chaos and uncertainty that one feels in the classroom when using a critical pedagogy that eschews the rigidity and structure of the traditional syllabus. There’s a sense of safety in just following the process that is lost when you adopt a more open practice. The title of this section alludes to that feeling but I just couldn’t make it fit into the section. But I didn’t want to toss the title just yet. Anyway, while I will be able to write these missing pieces up separately on the blog I worry that the chapter – already way over the word limit – will seem awkward and clunky.

I’m submitting this draft for review today and will keep working on it until publication, so it’s likely that what I’ve presented in these last 4 posts will change. I haven’t included a real conclusion in this series, since it’s likely to change after continued editing and feedback from the reviewers. I’ll try to remember to post the conclusion if it’s worth it. Also, the book is going to be published under an open access license, so I’ll link to it when it’s done.

“The truly creative changes and the big shifts occur right at the edge of chaos” (Robert Bilder).

It’s interesting to note that progress sometimes means looking to the past to find ideas that we can use to better understand today. It’s easy to convince ourselves that the world we find ourselves in was inevitable; that history progressed in a regular, step wise fashion leading from one rational outcome to another. But, as Audrey Watters (2014) reminds us, corporate educational technology is not inevitable and that are alternatives to the “data-extraction, control, surveillance, privatisation, and profiteering” in the domain of educational technology. Technology includes ideas and practices, as well as myths and different models of reality. And like democracy, technology changes the relationships between us, forcing us to examine and redefine our notions of power and of accountability (Franklin, 1990). It is possible to see beyond the immediate confines of one’s experiences and imagine a future that does not simply reproduce the present (Giroux, 2010). Or, as Watters has put it, we can disrupt the Silicon Valley narrative of disruption.

The LMS is the dominant paradigm for educational technology in higher education. The problem with a dominant design is that almost all innovation is aimed at improving it rather than exploring any competing alternatives, regardless of which design is actually a better fit for purpose (Wilson et al., 2007). As we’ve seen in universities across the world, the LMS continues to improve incrementally in ways that do little to enhance students learning. If we want to take advantage of the possibilities enabled by digital and online learning environments, we must begin by challenging the dominance of the the LMS. In order to graduate young professionals who are capable of adapting to dynamic and complex systems, we cannot afford to continue teaching learning in spaces defined by the rigid and unimaginative constraints of the LMS. Frenk et al., (2010) suggest three fundamental shifts in health professions education that are necessary to bring about transformative learning experiences. We need to move from:

  1. Fact memorisation to searching, analysis, and synthesis of information for decision making.
  2. Seeking professional credentials to achieving core competencies for effective teamwork in health systems
  3. Non-critical adoption of educational models to creative adaptation of global resources to address local priorities

In order to respond to this call, teachers must move away from a positivist definition of knowledge that informs how they teach as well as how they expect students to learn. Knowledge in twentieth-century thinking is described as static, stable and something that exists ‘out there’, apart from human beings. In this conception, teaching and learning take place through the controlled transmission from authorities into the minds of passive learners. In contrast, twenty-first-century thinking sees knowledge as dynamic, complex and uncertain, socially constructed as people try to make sense of the world through more symmetrical relationships in networks of their peers (Gilbert, 2009).

“Centralised, authoritarian and hierarchical structures are inefficient and non-resilient as they can’t manage problems with unbounded data and are not able to react nimbly to changes in conditions.” (Cabrera, 2016). As a result we are experiencing a shift from vertical communication structures that privilege hierarchies of control, to horizontal structures – like networks – that embody coordination, cooperation and collaboration (Bleakley, Bligh, Browne & Brice Browne. 2011). Successful networks rely on “an engaged community, robust knowledge exchange, and self-governance, where collaboration is encouraged and facilitated, curators are enablers but not authorities, and the system is controlled by multiple iterations of social negotiation as via an evolutionary algorithm.” (Cabrera, 2016). The network is non-hierarchical, self-governed, distributed, maximally connected, multi-domain, semiotic and where the behavior and outputs can not be predicted by the characteristics of the nodes as they change when they communicate with each other (Cormier, 2008).

Building a personal learning network is getting easier as billions of people connect to the Internet, exposing us to new ideas, information and opinions in a process that is often chaotic, unstructured, and random. This leads us to the kinds of serendipitous learning outcomes that are impossible to predict or plan for as they are the result of the influence of more interacting variables than is possible to track. In addition, learning networks help us think critically if they are are open, transparent, and diverse. In these evolving communities of practice that are composed of both strong and weak social ties, we find an ideal space for mixing learning and work while sharing advice and knowledge (Jarche, 2014).

The shape of a space affects how one can move, what one does and how one interacts with others. In the classroom, desks and chairs are set up in rows. There is a front and back to the room. The teacher stands in the front. The students sit, facing the teacher. There is a power relationship that is set up by how we configure our bodies in space, and this default configuration determines how we teach. Is it because this configuration of physical space represents the optimal learning environment for our students or have we just accepted the default? In the same way, we have accepted the LMS as the default configuration of our online space, where teaching revolves around discrete containers of outcomes, content and assessments. Students move through the course – from one concept to another – until they get to the assessment at the end, which signals the end of the course. Courses as containers are formalised, standardised and ultimately, more about compliance and conformity than creativity, ingenuity, innovation, or mastery. Morris and Stommel have suggested that the best learning doesn’t happen inside courses, but between them (2015).

In an open and networked learning environment, the content of the course can be negotiated by participants in the context of their own life experiences, values and beliefs. This enables the course content to be built around the critical examination of concepts, hierarchies and assumptions that exist in the group (Morris & Stommel, 2015). Just like the best stories aren’t the ones that take you down a predictable and narrowly defined path, the best courses do not have neat and tidy resolutions. Outcomes and assessment can be designed collaboratively as part of a process, rather than being predetermined. The course is designed to outgrow itself because it is not limited to the template decided by the IT department, creating new spaces for community engagement that extend beyond the boundaries of the institution. And like stories can stay with you long after you finish the last page, so the thinking and reflections generated in the course should continue long after the final task is completed. A networked learning environment built on the open web means that students control their content, their data and the direction that their learning takes.

Institutions could assign web servers to all incoming students, who choose domain names that give their online spaces a personal identity. Over the course of their studies students would build out an online presence on the web itself, experimenting with wikis and blogs, creating a variety of resources in support of their learning. They would learn how to archive and preserve their data, transfer content and ideas between various other services, always having control of their learning and information connections. They would become system administrators for their own digital lives. This personal learning network would be modified and extended throughout their university career — and would move with them after they graduate (Campbell, 2009). Through this process they would not only would acquire important technical skills but also would engage in work that provides rich teachable moments ranging from multi-modal and collaborative writing to information science, knowledge management, and social networking. These students would be able to shape their own thinking, learning, expression, and reflection in a digital age, in a digital medium. In order to provide students the guidance they need to reach these goals, teachers will need to lead by example — to demonstrate and discuss, as fellow learners, how they have created and connected their own personal learning networks (ibid.).

There are no single platforms that constitute a PLN and no set frameworks that describe how they work because they are unique to each individual. However, there are some design principles that are useful to consider (Downes, 2009):

  • Diversity: Does the network involve a wide spectrum of points of view? Is it possible for people who interpret an idea one way, interact with people who approach it from a different perspective?
  • Autonomy: Are students able to build on their learning of their own accord, according to their own knowledge, values and decisions? Are they free to make their own choices in their learning?
  • Interactivity: Is the knowledge produced a product of interaction between members, or is it a (mere) aggregation of the members’ perspectives?
  • Openness: Is there a mechanism that allows a given perspective to be entered into the system, to be heard and interacted with by others?

In terms of the practical features of the PLN, it should enable the following activities: The aggregation of personally meaningful information, resources and ideas in a variety of formats e.g. text, images, video, links, tags, etc., from a variety of sources. The student should then be able to remix those resources into different formats by reinterpreting, combining and editing them using their own personal insights. It should be possible to repurpose the resources so that the student can use them for a different objective than what they were created for. The student should be able to publish the newly created artifact in a feed forward mechanism that adds new ideas to the world. In a PLN students would have a central online space that they control and choose how to best to use it for their learning. They choose the tools they’re most comfortable with to aggregate information and filter information pulled in from other services (e.g. Twitter, Pinterest, etc.), work with that information and then publish their new works from their own platform but also into any combination of third party services.

“Platforms that dictate too strongly how we might use them, or ones that remove our agency by too covertly reducing us and our work to commodified data, should be rooted out by a critical digital pedagogy.” (Stommel, 2014). We must “handle our technologies roughly” because either we critically interrogate our tools or are subject to them (ibid.). If you have no power to change the defaults then you’re accepting the choices that others have made about how you can teach. Which may be OK, as long as you know that they didn’t make those choices based on what is best for learning. Teachers should not simply be consumers who accept the taken for granted assumptions of those who are building our educational technologies. Kris Shaffer talks about consumer-creators, “tinkerers who neither invent the wheel, nor are satisfied with the wheels already at our disposal.” (Shaffer, 2014). Castells described how the culture of the Internet was defined by the creators of the internet and it is a short leap to see how the culture of 21st century education is being defined by the creators of the tools we use. When teachers are absent from the conversation on how educational technology is created, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs determine classroom behaviours based on corporate values, we find ourselves in our current situation. Shaffer (2014) has a powerful proposition; that teachers see themselves as hackers, using new information to improve our current understanding, and repurposing tools from one context to others (Shaffer, 2014). As teachers we manipulate, re-create, break, and rebuild. We take the best of what exists and make it better, and in this sense we are hackers at our core (Shaffer, 2014).


By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.