A Pedagogy of Transformation for Times of Crisis

As millions of students and teachers have moved learning online over the past weeks in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, one clear recognition keeps coming forward: after all that has been researched, practiced, innovated about online teaching, meaningful educational experiences are still few and far between. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education claimed that “many [students] will elect to sit out the fall term rather than spend many thousands of dollars for a fall academic experience centered on watching videos on a laptop.” John Villasenor, the article’s author, goes on to predict that far more incoming students than usual will elect to take a gap year, to wait out the pandemic and its effects on teaching and learning.

But the problem goes deeper than the overuse of video lectures and synchronous Zoom meetings, deeper than a pedagogy unprepared to go online in an emergency. Behind those behaviors lurks an underdeveloped, undertheorized digital pedagogy, one which might fortify the learning experience for both teachers and learners. But rather than a concern for this human side of education, when most of us have gone online during these past weeks, our first concern instead turned to academic integrity—cheating, plagiarism, and the like—and to fears about achievement, grades, completion, and continuity. Our objective has been one more keeping academia on track rather than supporting students and teachers in this crisis.

At the dawn of this pandemic in the States, a bevy of instructional designers and educational technologists went online to help, developing and promoting a tsunami of policies and best practices meant to calm the tremble among so many faculty. Many of these designers also went online to brag. To say “this is our moment” and “finally, they will listen to us.” Though I have the deepest care and sympathy for instructional and learning designers and TEL professionals across every level of education—they are a misunderstood, often underfunded, most often under-appreciated group of skilled educators whose work has never been given the breadth of consideration it warrants—the pandemic has not been learning design’s finest hour.

In the best circumstances, instructional designers work in partnership with open-minded, digitally fluent teachers who have an investment or at least a curiosity about taking learning into a digital space. In the worst circumstances, instructional designers design courses with “subject matter experts” (SME) who may not be teachers themselves, but who know the details of what must be learned and can supply content which will fuel assessments which will align with learning outcomes.

The situation we find ourselves in, though, is much, much worse than that. A mass movement into online spaces for teaching and learning, mostly by faculty, K12 teachers, and adjunct instructors who are not only inexperienced with digital learning but who may have resisted it for years, cannot but prove traditional instructional or learning design a deeply flawed and problematic system for teaching and learning online. In a time that requires adaptability, it is not responsive as much as prescriptive, not flexible as much as rigid.

That’s because traditional learning design has not proven—will not prove—equal to the task of a sudden, necessary, and utterly untimely pivot online. Learning design depends on time; instructional design grounds itself in practices that are not brief. ADDIE, for example, or backwards design, or even design thinking all require procedures and approaches, steps, consideration and reflection, discussion, creativity, investigation, problem-solving. All incredibly worthwhile approaches to digital learning; but these things cannot be done with immediacy. And so, when that bevy of well-meaning, good-hearted designers unleashed their recommendations—like: align assessments with outcomes, caption videos, practice “design by understanding,” determine acceptable evidence of learning, use backward design (even at a time when educators had to leap before looking)—the advice only muddled the pivot online by insisting that control and order could, even had to be, maintained.

Instead what was needed, and has always been needed, was a digital pedagogy which empowers teachers and learners alike to get to the heart of what education is about, and to preserve that heart no matter if learning takes place on-ground or online, or some hybrid of both. What’s needed is a transformation in our understanding of digital pedagogy, a scholarship of it, an acknowledgement that digital pedagogy is a field of research.

Most traditional online learning is grounded in behaviorist, research-based teaching methodologies which: 1. Are themselves highly questionable and not at all universal, and which have replicated systemic biases in online classrooms; 2. Were developed before there was an internet. The methods which inform so much of learning and instructional design do not, in any way, account for the diversity of experiences available in online spaces, the dubious and persistent ways that digital technology, platforms, and literacies are constantly changing, the inequalities that are replicated online in even more invisible ways than in the face-to-face classroom, the multicultural, global communities which exist online, the ways in which social media has impacted everything from language to identity formation, and more.

But a transformative digital pedagogy is one which looks first at the relationship between teacher and student, and at the multivalent ways that learning flows between them. Paulo Freire named parties in a classroom “teacher-student” and “student-teacher” to better embody the nature of a cooperative learning experience; and it is this learning experience, one that centers the collaboration, communication, and understanding between teachers and students, that can open our eyes to a unique digital pedagogy. That pedagogy is one which favors the person and not the technology, humanization instead of digitization. That pedagogy, founded on ideals of equity, agency, and critical consciousness, is a critical digital pedagogy.

Henry Giroux writes, in “On Critical Pedagogy”, that: “Critical pedagogy asserts that students can engage their own learning from a position of agency and in so doing can actively participate in narrating their identities through a culture of questioning … while changing the forms of self-and social recognition.” Critical pedagogy is not concerned with mechanical learning, or replicable learning, or learning that bends toward the authority of the teacher (or the algorithm or the interface), but rather an education that is, as bell hooks says, “a practice of freedom.” And a critical digital pedagogy as much “looks askance at the tools we use, the tools we are asked to use, the tools that are sold to us” as it inquires after the relationship between the human and the digital, the barriers between, the affordances of that relationship, and the question of agency (or, our ability to intervene) in matters of education and its technologies.

Through the lens of critical digital pedagogy learning revolves around the idea of liberation. Liberation from oppression, but more specifically liberation from thought patterns (and educational practices) that limit human creativity and genius—creativity and genius that, alone, can lead us to a transformative practice in times of crisis.

Journalist Krista Tippet offers an invitation which bears some relevance here: “We have the language, the tools, the virtues—and the calling, as human beings—to create hospitable spaces for taking up the hard questions of our time … It is a departure from ways of being and interacting that aren’t serving our age of change.” In other words, the dehumanizing, technicist approach of traditional online learning design no longer serves us in this age where imagination, care, and consciousness are needed to solve the very great problems of our world. There has been no better way to prove this than the still emerging response to the current pandemic.

Tyranny is easy in education. For some reason, it’s even the default. Front-of-the-classroom, test-maker, grade-dispenser politics are built into every educational environment, both on-ground and online. We surveil our students, we subject them to algorithmic facial recognition to ensure they’re not cheating on exams, we ask them to surrender their intellectual property to corporations so we know if they plagiarize.

But, the very first screen was an imaginative space, a space upon which could be projected images that were not really there, that took place at a different time but could be seen, could stir emotions, in the very real present. The screen between us all—as we work remotely from home, school our children in our living rooms, teach students we used to see in person—does not have to be a barrier that stokes distrust, that invites us to surveil; the screen between us can be a window or a doorway, one by which we can reach toward each other to stay in contact, to preserve our humanity as much despite the digital as through it.

Written by OEB 2020 Plenary Keynote Speaker Sean Michael Morris, Director of the Digital Pedagogy Lab at the School of Education and Human Development, University of Colorado Denver, USA

3 Responses

  1. Paul

    Thanks for this Sean – thought provoking. There have been a slew of “traditionalists” in England lamenting about the online response to school closures. The main lament seems to be that it is “not as good” as a classroom or “does not replicate” my pedagogic model. As you have shown in this piece it was never meant to – it can be so much more. The only thing I would include is Siemens’ model of connectivism to add to this.

    • Sean Michael Morris

      Hi Paul,
      Thank you for your comment. I’m grateful you found the article interesting. The problem you point to in your comment—that “traditionalists” are lamenting the move to online because online learning isn’t of the same quality as on-ground learning isn’t uncommon. This has been, of course, the case for decades. Online programs have had to muster themselves against criticisms which have at times been elevated to policy (e.g., universities not accepting online courses for transfer credit; online courses needing to prove equivalent “seat-time”, etc.).

      I think what’s really important to recognize in all this, though, is that teaching—one’s personal pedagogic model—can be very discrete and individual and most models for online education do not, in fact, reflect that or, in many cases, permit it. We live in a time when massive online programs at universities like Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governor’s University, and others have built a business model on consistency of design—a consistency of design which favors a specific learner (usually white, male, monolingual, able-bodied, and neuro-typical), and one which relies on a very linear concept of learning. Most online learning today is founded on models like Bloom’s Taxonomy, and inherits a great deal of its philosophical praxis from the work of B. F. Skinner and his ideas of teaching machines. It is teaching under Quality Matters, and there are quality assurance checks in place for millions of online classes. In other words, too much online learning today is, in fact, mechanical, and technicist in that it’s technology-forward instead of pedagogy-forward.

      Or, put simply, there are reasons to lament. The critical digital pedagogy that I envision is not one that’s practiced widely by learning designers, nor one that’s really considered feasible by most. Really, not unlike Siemens’ and Cormier’s connectivism, critical digital pedagogy isn’t seen as schooly enough.

      Interesting that you bring up connectivism. I know there’s been a recent Twitter storm centered on some comments George made about what online learning should look like. And I wonder if we should try to distinguish between online learning and learning within the web? I used to refer to connectivism as a kind of “learning in the wild”, and I know it was embraced (for better and worse) by the larger MOOC movement to point to the autodidact, or the student who was more interested in creating their own learning paths than subscribing to the learning paths of a college or university curriculum. But, I don’t think that “learning in the wild” would be the appropriate choice at this time, given that what’s being lost (or threatened) (or modified) are those curricular learning paths. To tell students who have been forced to leave campus, their community, their independent adult lives, their jobs in many cases, that online learning should look nothing like what college looks like—while that may be correct in its purest form—may not be as helpful as we’d like.

      Thank you again for your comment!

  2. Irene

    Thanks for this insightful article on a pedagogy that will transform! I am wondering if this critical digital pedagogy is in the same vein as Digital Literacies? As an Educational Technologist in an Australian university, I’ve been trying to get my head around a digital pedagogy. To explain digital pedagogy, do we still not have to align these to the learning theories that have come way before the advent of the internet, for example, in my previous roles as an Academic English lecturer/eLearning Coordinator, I picked up some kind of digital literacies and over the years, constructed a kind of pattern around how I learn technological platforms, tools, apps etc. So, my construction of digital literacies was based on some kind of constructivist approach. I would love to hear what you have to say to this. FYI, your webinar session next week (10 Jun 2020) is oversubscribed and I’m on the waitlist.


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