With every answer, search reshapes our worldview

Our search engines tried to impose structure and find relationships using mainly unintentional clues. You therefore couldn’t rely on them to find everything that would be of help, and not because the information space was too large. Rather, it was because the space was created by us slovenly humans.

Source: Weinberger, D. (2017). With every answer, search reshapes our worldview.

Interesting article on how search algorithms have changed as the web has grown in scale. In the beginning, we got results that were determined by precision and recall  (although optimising for one meant reducing the importance of the other). Then relevance became necessary to include as the number of possible results became too large i.e. when you have 100 000 articles that match the topic, the search engine must decide how to rank them for you. Over time, interestingness was another concept that was built into the algorithm; it’s not just that the results should be accurate and relevant, but they should be interesting too.

Currently, there’s interest in serendipity, where search engines return results that are slightly different to what you’re looking for and may serve to provide an alternative point of view (but not so different that you ignore it) and so avoid the filter bubble. As we move forward, we may also begin seeing calls for an increase in the truthfulness of results (which may reasonably be called quality). As I said, it’s an interesting article that covers a lot with respect to how search engines work, and it useful for anyone who has ever told someone to “just Google it”.

AI technology

The future is ear: Why “hearables” are finally tech’s next big thing

Your ears have some enormously valuable properties. They are located just inches from your mouth, so they can understand your utterances far better than smart speakers across the room. Unlike your eyes, your ears are at work even when you are asleep, and they are our ultimate multi-taskers. Thousands die every year trying to text while they drive, but most people have no problem driving safely while talking or dictating messages–even if music is playing and children are chatting in the background.

Source: Burrows, P. (2018). The future is ear: Why “hearables are finally tech’s next big thing.

Audio is going to be the next important user interface for human-computer interaction. You could argue that it already is (see Google Home and Assistant, Alexa, Siri, and Cortana). If you think of it as a bandwidth problem you can see that we can take in so much more information by listening, compared to reading. And, unlike reading, listening frees us up to do other things at the same time.


Will Marshall: The mission to create a searchable database of Earth’s surface | TED Talk

And we now have over 200 satellites in orbit, downlinking their data to 31 ground stations we built around the planet. In total, we get 1.5 million 29-megapixel images of the Earth down each day. And on any one location of the Earth’s surface, we now have on average more than 500 images. A deep stack of data, documenting immense change.

Anyone can go online to open an account and see all of our imagery online. It’s a bit like Google Earth, except it’s up-to-date imagery, and you can see back through time. You can compare any two days and see the dramatic changes that happen around our planet. Or you can create a time lapse through the 500 images that we have and see that change dramatically over time.

What we’re doing with artificial intelligence is finding the objects in all the satellite images. The same AI tools that are used to find cats in videos online can also be used to find information on our pictures. So, imagine if you can say, this is a ship, this is a tree, this is a car, this is a road, this is a building, this is a truck. And if you could do that for all of the millions of images coming down per day, then you basically create a database of all the sizable objects on the planet, every day. And that database is searchable.

I can imagine us abstracting out the imagery entirely and just having a queryable interface to the Earth. Imagine if we could just ask, “Hey, how many houses are there in Pakistan? Give me a plot of that versus time.” “How many trees are there in the Amazon and can you tell me the locations of the trees that have been felled between this week and last week?” Wouldn’t that be great?

This is fantastic. It’s well worth putting aside 20 minutes to watch the video and then go play around at

Up-to-date high res image of Cape Town.

The Industrial Era Ended, and So Will the Digital Era

While there is limited new value to be gleaned from things like word processors and smartphone apps, there is tremendous value to be unlocked in applying digital technology to fields like genomics and materials science to power traditional industries like manufacturing, energy, and medicine. Essentially, the challenge ahead is to learn how to use bits to drive atoms.

Source: The Industrial Era Ended, and So Will the Digital Era

We stop calling things “technology” when we don’t see them anymore. This is why we don’t really refer to writing, hammers and dish washers as technology, even though they obviously are. I agree that digital technology will soon go the way of kitchen appliances in that we will stop referring to it as if it were anything special. It will simply be the thing that drives everything else.


OpenPhysio abstract: Artificial intelligence in clinical practice – Implications for physiotherapy education

Here is the abstract of a paper I recently submitted to OpenPhysio, a new open-access journal with an emphasis on physiotherapy education.

About 200 years ago the invention of the steam engine ushered in an era of unprecedented development and growth in human social and economic systems, whereby human labour was supplanted by machines. The recent emergence of artificially intelligent machines has seen human cognitive capacity augmented by computational agents that are able to recognise previously hidden patterns within massive data sets. The characteristics of this second machine age are already influencing all aspects of society, creating the conditions for disruption to our social, economic, education, health, legal and moral systems, and which will likely to have a far greater impact on human progress than did the steam engine. As AI-based technology becomes increasingly embedded within devices, people and systems, the fundamental nature of clinical practice will evolve, resulting in a healthcare system requiring profound changes to physiotherapy education. Clinicians in the near future will find themselves working with information networks on a scale well beyond the capacity of human beings to grasp, thereby necessitating the use of intelligent machines to analyse and interpret the complex interactions of data, patients and the newly-constituted care teams that will emerge. This paper describes some of the possible influences of AI-based technologies on physiotherapy practice, and the subsequent ways in which physiotherapy education will need to change in order to graduate professionals who are fit for practice in a 21st century health system.

Read the full paper at OpenPhysio (note that this article is still under review).

education technology

Is that it? More, better apps?

It seems that much of the literature on the use of technology in education focuses on apps (Instagram, WhatsApp), services and platforms (Google Docs, Facebook) and hardware (tablets, laptops and phones). This is fine, of course. We need to understand how students and teachers use these things in the classroom. But is this really what we mean when we talk about innovation in the classroom?

Consider the changes wrought in society and industry between 1900 and 1970 as a result of the invention and implementation of technologies related to the electrification of cities, national road and railway networks, sanitation, pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine, and mass communication (Gordon, 2017). These were the kinds of innovations that changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people in truly significant ways because they changed the physical structures around us. They changed the configuration of space, which determines the kinds of activities that are available in that space. But what counts as innovation today? More, better apps. I came across this quote attributed to Elon Musk (although I can’t find a good source to confirm): “Cellphones distract us from the fact that the subways are old”.

When we look at infrastructure we start to get a sense of what innovation really looks like, as well as the amount of effort it would take to change it in innovative ways. For example, deciding that cities and towns should have green spaces set aside for its citizens is by no means intuitive or inevitable. Town planners could just as easily have decided that that real estate could better serve commercial interests. And how would you go about changing those green spaces, maybe by installing safer playground equipment or rerouting a running track? The point is that infrastructure is old and because it’s old it naturally forms the baseline upon which other things are built. No parks in the city means no green space to enjoy being outdoors and if you want green space you’re going to have to do an enormous amount of work to get it. You can’t just build a new app.

We’re spending a lot of time looking at technology that may improve some superficial aspects of pedagogical work but we spend very little time on anything that would fundamentally change the underlying infrastructure. Maybe this is because we don’t even see the infrastructure anymore? It’s easier to focus on the superficial stuff that everyone can see. For example, there are 4650 studies looking at the use of Snapchat in the classroom at the time of writing but relatively few that question why we’re still in a classroom. With the desks screwed to the floor. Changing infrastructure is the hard work that no-one wants to do but it’s also the important work because that’s what everyone else builds on. We’ve been distracted into thinking that we’re innovating when we’re really just painting over the cracks in the walls.

Would we even recognise innovation in higher education, or would we disreguard it because it doesn’t fit the mental model of what we think it should look like? Maybe we could use this idea as an indicator of innovative work: If we recognise it, it’s probably not innovative. That’s not to say that we should break everything and innovate for it’s own sake. But let’s be clear about what innovation really means. It’s not the consumption of content in new formats. It’s not the use of laptops and tablets instead of books. It’s not the use of Twitter to share resources. These may be good, useful iterations of our practice but they’re not going to change the infrastructure of learning.

In five years time Snapchat will be gone and there’ll be a new #educationapp trending on Twitter, but the desks will still be screwed to the floor.

education ethics students technology

Critical digital pedagogy in the classroom: Practical implementation

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.

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.

technology writing

Give feedback on “A critical digital pedagogy for education in the 21st century”?

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.

I finally managed to put together some ideas for my chapter on critical digital pedagogy in the CPN book on critical perspectives in practice. I split the chapter into 4 sections, excluding an introduction and conclusion (because they’re likely to change with future editing), which you can find here:

  1. Background: In which I explain the point of this short series of posts.
  2. Command and control: In which I describe how higher education today revolves around the idea that students should sit still, be quiet, and do nothing that might be considered interesting or creative.
  3. Weapon of mass instruction: In which I argue that technology is being used to reinforce the conditions promoting conformity and  a culture of oppression.
  4. Education as the practice of freedom: In which I discuss critical pedagogy as a way of thinking about teaching that aims to liberate students and teachers from institutionalised education.
  5. Teaching at the edges of chaos: In which I explore some aspects of the open web that may be used to implement a critical digital pedagogy in higher education.

Now that the draft is finished, I thought I’d try a little experiment. In addition to being able to comment on the posts above, I wondered what it would be like to get public feedback on the whole chapter. I’ve shared the document in Google Drive and would love to hear any thoughts you may have on it. If you’d like, you can also download the full document as a PDF here. Please note that this is a first complete draft and so there’s probably going to still be some heavy editing.

As Yeats said: “I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly for you tread on my dreams.”

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).


education technology

Critical digital pedagogy: Education as the practice of freedom

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 third section of my CPN book chapter on critical digital pedagogy. You might want to read the first and second sections before this one but if not, here’s the story so far: I started by making the case that education as it is currently implemented is an oppressive system aimed at inducing compliance and conformity in students more than embracing any sort of real learning. In the second section I showed how the dominant use of educational technology reinforces that system of oppression in digital and online spaces.

In what I hope is a more uplifting turn, this post suggests critical pedagogy as an alternative to the status quo. It’s a bit shorter than the other sections and is probably more in line with the final word count that I need to aim for. After I’m done posting the book chapter sections, I’ll write a few posts on how I’m changing my teaching practices based on what I’ve learned during the writing process.

“The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility.” (bell hooks)

Education is fundamentally a moral and political enterprise, meaning that we must reject the notion that it can be reduced to a private good, available almost exclusively to those with the financial means. Critical pedagogy offers the best chance for students to develop and assert their rights and responsibilities so that they are not simply being governed (Giroux, 2010; 2011). Through a critical pedagogy we can show students that the system of oppression is “not closed with no exit and that it is only a set of limiting circumstances that can be transformed through action” (ibid.). In other words, we can show students how to change the system. But to do so, teachers must first work to shift the balance of power away from themselves, so that students are able to take action within the curriculum and undermine the beliefs and practices that are designed to silence them.

Critical pedagogy encourages students to act on the knowledge, values, and social relations they acquire by being responsive to the most important problems in society (Giroux, 2011). It moves students beyond familiarity with and demonstrates how classroom knowledge, values, desires, and social relations are implicated in power. Guided by passion and principle, critical pedagogy “helps students develop a consciousness of freedom, recognise authoritarian tendencies, empower the imagination, connect knowledge and truth to power as part of a broader struggle for agency, justice and democracy” (Giroux, 2010). But it is not an a priori method of teaching and learning that can be applied regardless of context and it cannot be reduced to a set of instructions. Critical pedagogy isn’t a prescription – it is a continuous moral project that enables students to develop a social awareness of freedom (Coles, 2014).

Freire (2005) believed that education offered students the conditions for self-reflection, a self-managed life and critical agency and Giroux suggests that a critical pedagogy encourages students to read texts as “objects of interrogation” (2011) rather than unquestioning acceptance; to “read both the word and the world” (2010). In this sense, pedagogy connects learning to social change, challenging students to critically engage with the world in order to act on it (Giroux, 2010). Under these circumstances, knowledge is not simply received by students but actively transformed, open to challenge and related to the self as an essential step toward learning how to govern rather than be governed (Giroux, 2010). In this context, students learn how to expand their own sense of agency, recognising that to be voiceless is to be powerless. Central to this approach is the shift of emphasis from teachers to students, and making visible the relationships between knowledge, authority and power (Giroux, 2010).

Teachers must connect classroom knowledge to the experiences, histories, and resources that students bring with them but also link that knowledge to the goal of increasing their capacity to be critical agents, responsive to social problems of the time, and to recognise the importance of collective struggle (Coles, 2014). At its most ambitious, critical pedagogy helps students learn how to lead a meaningful life, hold power and authority accountable, and develop the skills, knowledge, and courage to challenge commonsense assumptions while all the while being willing to struggle for a more socially just world (Giroux, 2011). This kind of problem-posing education only works by breaking the contradiction of the “teacher-of-the-students” and the “students-of-the-teacher”, and embracing the notion that education concerns “people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.” (Freire, 2005; 90). Students are not passive listeners but rather, critical co-learners in dialogue with the teacher. To achieve this, they must be partners of the students in their relations with them (ibid.).

“Teaching is deeply personal and political work, through which pedagogues cannot and do not remain objective. Rather, pedagogy, is work to which we must bring our full selves, and work to which every learner must come with full agency” (Stommel, 2015). The role of the problem-posing teacher is to create with students the conditions under which knowledge can be constructed by students (Freire, 2005). A classroom informed by critical pedagogy is a continuing, unfinished project aimed at helping students develop meaningful lives where they actively transform knowledge rather than simply consuming it (Giroux, 2011). An education in the practice of freedom consists of acts of cognition that lead to change in the world, and not merely transferrals of information. It is about developing independent thinkers who will not bend to the will of teachers (Laurillard, 2007).

“Giving students the opportunity to be problem posers and engage in a culture of questioning in the classroom foregrounds the crucial issue of who controls the learning environment, and how specific modes of knowledge, identity and authority are constructed within particular sets of classroom relations. At the same time students also learn how to engage others in critical dialogue and be held accountable for their views” (Giroux, 2010). Schools must develop a commitment to civic courage and social responsibility that ignites bravery and moral courage in students to realise that they have the power and opportunity to challenge the status quo. Critical pedagogy is therefore a praxis that counteracts the dominant message that students receive during their schooling; that their voices and their lives are meaningful and powerful, and that by questioning the taken-for-granted assumptions that drive much of society – including higher education – they have the capacity to change the world.

bell hooks (1994; 207) retains her optimism even in the face of all that is problematic in education, calling the classroom a place of possibility where – through a critical pedagogy – “we labor for freedom, and demand of ourselves an openness of mind and heart, collectively imagining ways to move beyond boundaries”. To transgress.