Critical digital pedagogy: Weapon of mass instruction

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.

Yesterday I posted the first section of my CPN book chapter on critical digital pedagogy. That section lays out what I think is especially problematic in our classroom teaching and learning practices, informed largely by the work of Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux. If you haven’t read it then you might want to check it out quickly, since this post continues that argument. Today I’m sharing the second section of the chapter where I describe how the use of technology reproduces and reinforces these problems, only in digital and online spaces. Remember, this is a first draft. If you do comment, please be gentle.

The title for this section comes from John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling (2010).

“We shape our tools and then our tools shape us” (Marshal McLuhan)

Education is not neutral. It either serves to programme people into conformity or gives them the tools to engage critically and creatively with the world in order to transform it. Given that context, we can analyse the predominant way in which technologies are used in higher education, and ask if that use is oppressing or liberating our students.

The best thing we can probably say about the use of technology in higher education is that it serves to support traditional methods of teaching and learning; we use it to improve lectures with slides and interactive whiteboards, we make our notes available online, libraries provide access to digital resources, and tutorial discussions can be performed asynchronously online. These are positive, incremental improvements in the quality and flexibility of our classrooms, but are nowhere near being transformational (Laurillard, 2007). This is not the use of technology that I’m interested in. There is nothing wrong with teachers using technology to make small iterative changes to their teaching and learning practices. However, for this chapter I want to get to the more insidious aspects of technological integration that needs our attention.

The Learning Management System (LMS) is by far the most ubiquitous use of technology in higher education. The LMS enabled universities to bring new technology into the institution without any of the bother of actually changing anything. The plug and play, template driven, user friendly LMS meant that we could provide universities with a digital facelift that made us feel like we were moving with the times (Campbell, 2009). The reality is that we simply took an oppressive pedagogy and reproduced it in software. The LMS manifests a form of curricular design and implementation that substitutes technological control for democratic processes and goals, making both teachers and learners passive. At its core, the LMS means that course is behind a wall, and everything in the course happens behind that wall (Watters, 2014). At the end of the course students lose access to it, and to any of the content or data they’ve created as part of their learning process. In some cases, their creative works may be signed away as part of the Terms of Service. As Watters’ puts it: “There is one instructor and possibly a few course assistants. They grade. They monitor the forums. The teachers are at the center. The content is at the center. The learner is not at the center.” (Watters, 2014).

Insofar as the educational process can be controlled, the LMS is the digital equivalent of Benthem’s Panopticon; the closest thing we have (so far) to a perfect system of observation and control. As we saw in the previous section, the Panopticon is a representation of power in its ideal form, increasing the number of people who can be monitored, recorded, and controlled, while at the same time decreasing the number of people needed to operate it (Foucault, 1977). Digital technology has taken this concept to astounding new levels. An information Panopticon need not rely on physical arrangements, such as building structures and direct supervision. The information Panopticon is defined as a form of centralised power that uses information and communication technology as observational tools and control mechanisms (Berner, Graupner & Maedche, 2014). Software tracks and records everything about a student’s online interactions, from the time a task is started to the time it is completed, and every click along the way. Based on the data that this process generates, the teacher monitors a students’s performance and intervenes when necessary.

A central idea of Foucault’s panopticism concerns the systematic ordering and controlling of populations through subtle and often unseen forces. Such ordering is apparent in many parts of the increasingly digitalised world of higher education. The LMS, used mainly to distribute content and monitor progress along the assembly line, is a claustrophobic space where students consume information, rather than create knowledge. Students know they are being monitored at all times. Even if a teacher is not physically there, the software records their every move and this data is available to the teachers at all times. Like the prisoners in Foucault’s Panopticon who never know if they’re being watched, students feel the need to conform and satisfy the system rather than do their best work. The purpose of technology in higher education – as it is generally implemented via the LMS – is not to enhance learning, but rather to enhance the control of learning through surveillance, measurement and control.

How did we get here? Castells (2001) has argued that the events leading up to the production of a new technology determines the content and uses of the technology throughout its existence. If we want to better understand when and how we lost our way with educational technology, we must go back to the early days of the Internet. The system began as a military-oriented project that embodied the key elements for the military requirements of a communications network that was “survivable”: flexibility, absence of a command centre, and maximum autonomy of each node. Even though it was – at the time – rejected by the military it was reborn at ARPANET, an experimental non-military network that extended the communications architecture of the nascent network based on three main principles: 1) the networking architecture must be open-ended, decentralised, and multi-directional, 2) all communication protocols and their implementations must be open, distributed, and susceptible to modification, and 3) the institutions of governance of the network must be built in accordance with the principles of openness and cooperation (ibid.).

The Internet is therefore a cultural creation where the culture of the Internet is the culture of the creators of the Internet (Castells, 2001). To explore this culture, Castells draws on the lessons derived from an analysis of the history of the Internet. The first lesson is that the Internet grew from an unlikely collaboration between university based academics and graduate students (the hackers), and the government. The second is that the network was shaped by those who were using it.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a flourishing of a culture of individual freedom across university campuses in the United States. The students involved were not social activists but nonetheless had strong beliefs about freedom, independent thinking, and cooperation. In most cases this culture was seeking technological innovation for the pure joy of discovery, and community networks were established in many university towns. But these networks were small and limited and in order to grow they needed a backbone anchored in more powerful machines. This was only possible through collaboration between science-based networks in government, and the student hacker communities in the universities. The second lesson that Castells derives from his analysis is that the early Internet was shaped as the users of the network became producers of the technology by adapting it for their own purposes. The source of the Internet’s strength was its openness. For example, the development of the world wide web was only possible because Tim Berners-Lee was supported by the Internet community and his project stimulated by contributions from hackers all over the world. Some of these contributors went on to commercialise the web, seeing it as a space of enormous opportunity, while others, including Berners-Lee continued working in the public interest.

One interesting side effect of the openness embedded in the culture of the early hackers is that changes to the network were communicated back to the whole world in real time. This is the reason why the Internet grew – and continues to grow – at unprecedented speed. When the Internet was first conceived, it was made open as a way to learn and share, designed to provide people with the power to free themselves both from governments and corporations (Castells, 2003). Thus, the internet emerges as a tool of liberation, expressive of individual freedom produced through the practice of openness both in its technical architecture and its social organisation (Castells, 2001). However, at the same time, the network was also influenced by the contributions of government-based entities with an interest in controlling the network, and entrepreneurs focused on commercialising it. Without the cultural and technological contributions of these early groups, the Internet may have been very different today. The Internet has been robbed of its historically open architecture. What we currently have is a theoretically open network, infiltrated by capitalist and governmental motives that disregard openness as crucial for the Internet to continue to be an instrument in acquiring knowledge, aiding innovation, and encouraging democratic engagement (Castells, 2001).

Back to the present where we can now better understand our current predicament in the roots of our history. Unlike the early days of the Internet that saw little distinction between the users of the Internet and the creators of the Internet, we could reasonably ask how much development in the domain of educational technology is being driven by teachers? How are we contributing back to the network, ensuring that the tools developed by third party organisations are designed with learning in mind, rather than shareholders? It is increasingly clear that education is influenced by a Silicon Valley narrative proclaiming that more technology is always the answer to whatever problem we’re currently experiencing – as well as for some things that we didn’t know were problems. More servers, more apps, more data, better algorithms and more integrated services mean that we’ll be able to make better choices (Morozov, 2013). Maybe we don’t need better relationships with students, we just need more technology. How much time did that student spend on the page? At what point did they exit the book? The emphasis is a preoccupation with the instrumental use of knowledge, where it is “prized for its control value — its use in mastering all dimensions of the classroom environment.” (Giroux, 2011; 33).

Castells said that “the Internet is indeed a technology of freedom – but it can free the powerful to oppress the uninformed, it may lead to the exclusion of the devalued by the conquerors of value.” (Castells, 2001; 275). While the world wide web is considered to be relatively open – we can still create personal spaces through blogs and social networks – our freedom as online agents is limited by governments and corporations (and, as we have seen here, universities). When the intentions of these corporate and government actors are made clear, one questions how freely the self can be extended in this conceptually liberating spaces.

We had an opportunity to choose the open web over the LMS. To choose creativity and opportunity over limitation and constraint. But we made poor choices because we – the teachers – were not involved in the process of building the web we need for democratic and critically informed learning spaces. This is why we have third parties who control our digital learning environments, who profit from our work and the work of students, and who allow learning materials to exist on their servers only as long as it makes financial sense (Gillmor, 2014). “We’re in danger of losing what’s made the Internet so important: a decentralised platform where people don’t need permission to communicate, create, and innovate” (ibid.). The open web has increasingly become the corporate web and despite their frequent invocation of “personalisation” in learning, these technologies “present users with a very restricted, restrictive set of choices of what they can do, of who they can be.” (Watters, 2014).

Marshal Mchluhan said that the medium is the message, and that new communication paradigms change what can be imagined and expressed. The printing press didn’t just mean that we could do better calligraphy, and the web is not just a more efficient telegraph (Campbell, 2009). We didn’t realise that we could use the web to transform, instead of simply to transmit. Jesse Stommel has said that “remote proctoring tools can’t ensure that students will not cheat. Turnitin won’t make students better writers. The LMS can’t ensure that students will learn. All will, however, ensure that students feel more thoroughly policed. All will ensure that students (and teachers) are more compliant.”(Stommel, 2016). “We can’t get to a place of listening to students if they don’t show up to the conversation because we’ve excluded their voice in advance by creating environments hostile to them and their work” (Stommel, 2016).

Audrey Watters (2014) has asked if we’ve even considered the implications of adopting tools that surveil and extract and control students? What happens to identity formation under these circumstances? What happens when we give students little leeway in expressing themselves as learners online? What are the implications of adopting tools that give students only a small range of avatars and status updates and profiles and backgrounds? Education technology has become a new and powerful way to demand conformity from students – and to demand they play out that conformity in the classroom (Watters, 2014). The Internet is no longer a free realm but is instead a contested space, where a new battle for freedom in an increasingly digital society is being fought (Castells, 2001).

As teachers we need to ask, what are we going to bring to that battle?


  • Laurillard, D. (2007). Foreword. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds). Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: designing and delivering e-learning. Abingdon, Oxon. Routledge
  • Berner, M., Graupner, E. & Maedche, A. (2014). The Information Panopticon in the Big Data Era. Journal of Organization Design, 3(1):14-19.
  • Campbell, G. (2009). A Personal Digital Cyberinfrastructure. EDUCAUSE Review (44)5.
  • Castells, M. (2001). The Internet Galaxy. Oxford University Press.
  • Castells, M. (2003). Communication Power.
  • Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish.
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  • Giroux, H. (2011). On Critical Pedagogy. Continuum. The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX.
  • Morozov, E. (2013). To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. Public Affairs.
  • Stommel, J. (2016). Against Counteranthropomorphism: The Human Future of Education.
  • Watters, A. (2014). Beyond the LMS. Hack Education, September 05.