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Ethical Online Learning: Critical Pedagogy and Social Justice

 Published on February 16, 2018 /  Written by and /  “Giraffe” by Jose Chomali; Unsplash /  0

On February 16, 2018, Sean Michael Morris and Lora Taub-Pervizpour presented a joint keynote for a Digital Pedagogy Lab event at the University of Delaware. Below is the transcript for that presentation.

For all Silicon Valley’s talk of “disrupting” education, most of the edtech that exists today simply digitizes ineffective aspects of education’s yesteryear. MOOCs are just digital versions of the much maligned large group lecture, virtual flashcards are simply another tool for useless rote memorization, and online textbooks are just one more problematically unidirectional method of transmitting information without cultivating learning.

The current wave of education technology has been fraught with pedagogically unsound replications of the worst aspects of teaching and learning.

This is what Jared Silver, an educational technologist, had to say in his article titled “Edtech Is Trapped in Ben Bloom’s Basement,” in which he writes about digital learning happening at his former high school. Mr. Silver writes for EdSurge, an online publication with both loose and close ties to a host of educational technology companies. Think about that. If an op-ed as pragmatically pessimistic about edtech can appear in a publication funded by edtech companies like D2L, the Gates Foundation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (The Edsurge Financial Network), then the situation in online learning must be pretty dire.

Perhaps more important is that educational technologists who critique edtech are effectively writing out of that critique the educators and schools whose purview it has been—until now—to provide pedagogical leadership. In other words, if the voices speaking out against edtech’s accomplishments are those who have supported its mission all along, the rest of us are left without a voice at all. It’s mom and dad squabbling about parenting without consulting the kids. We have to just stand by and wait for what they come up with next.

As a relevant side note, consider Mr. Silver’s opening statement on his web site:

Education is the best way to improve access to opportunity.

Technology is the best way to improve access to education.

Education technology is the best way to improve the world.

There is a hopefulness, and even an altruism, implied in Mr. Silver’s logic, but it also falls short of even the pragmatism he offers in his Edsurge article. Not the least bit humble about his own preoccupation, this bombastic conditional statement speaks volumes about edtech’s rhetorical and ultimately capitalistic self-interest that can deafen any other conversations about learning and teaching with technology.

Whose voices win out in the conversation about online learning?

Apropos to the uroboric quality of edtech critiquing itself, the platforms and tools technologists have developed to deliver instruction often leave users (teachers, learners, designers) at the mercy of a thought process we were not part of. And just as it’s tempting to watch Silicon Valley try to engineer solutions to the problems of learning and teaching which they have told us are both real and dire, the simplest route to take with technologies we didn’t build is to adapt to them, and to administer them the way their builders intended.

For the last several years, I, Sean, have worked with teachers at institutions around the country and in Europe, and I find that this notion of adapting to the technology creates real conflict in people. At one institution, a professor confessed that he nearly quit his job when he was told he’d be teaching online. At another, an instructor with nothing but love for her students noted that she would rather do whatever works in the LMS so that her life and teaching was manageable. And a long-time colleague of mine whose eyes lit up when we talked about teaching, resigned himself and his students to recorded lectures over Powerpoint slides semester after semester.

This is not what brings us to teaching. This is not why we teach. Yet the temptation to simply adapt to what product developers and CEOs and VPs of Marketing think online learning and teaching should look like is very real. We have research to do. We have committees. We have tenure to work toward. We have families. It would be nice to have a social life. And most importantly, in most cases we also have students on ground we love to work with. If the rule of professional academics is “publish or perish,” the rule of online teachers might be “adapt or die.”

On the other hand, Paulo Freire writes in Pedagogy of Indignation that “I apprehend not simply to adapt but to change.” He goes on:

I would not like to be a man or a woman if the impossibility of changing the world were something as obvious as that Saturdays precede Sundays. I would not like to be a woman or a man if the impossibility of changing the world were objective reality, one purely realized and around which nothing could be discussed. (14)

For Freire and others, resignation that the world is what it is, that oppression cannot be overcome, that learning and education are products of systems and bureaucracies so arcane they’d make Kafka’s head spin, is antithetical to pedagogical work, antithetical to ethical work.

Maxine Greene for example, begins by writing that “We are convinced that the movement towards educational technology is irreversible and that our obligation as educators is to learn how to deal with it,” but then she turns that resignation into resistance by adding, “how, if you like, to live with it as fully conscious human beings working to enable other human beings to become conscious, to become responsible, to learn.”

It is this turn from resignation towards resistance that becomes our first concern when we concern ourselves with ethical online learning. Not only must we insist on remaining—or becoming again—active voices in what education looks like in a digital world, but we must also consider ourselves agents, advocates for teaching and learning that we know to be pedagogically sound. Pedagogically sound and not just innovative, not just flashy and fun, not more convenient or more efficient, but an education bent on lifting up students as agents, as readers of their world, as instigators, investigators, critics—and most important imaginers of an education less technicist, and a world less oppressive.

My first experiences with online learning could be described, as point to our inevitable counterpoint, as unethical. I worked for an institution which oversaw the production and distribution of online courses for the thirteen community college campuses in Colorado. The very conception of such an organization is worrisome. Generated from a single hub, often by a single adjunct teacher, out spun dozens upon dozens of online courses. Courses designed to match learning outcomes determined by state committees. Designed to be replicated and not altered. And meant to be picked up and taught—”taught”—by adjunct teachers on every campus to wildly diverse and specific populations, often with little more than a few days’ notice. Just enough time to change due dates and the instructor’s name at the top of the syllabus.

This is specifically the kind of technicist horror that Greene worries about in her essay “Countering Indifference: The Role of the Arts,” when she writes:

I am troubled by technicism, as many of you are, in spite of the increases in speed and efficiency brought about by advances in technology. What I am also troubled about, among other things, is the growing tendency of schools to define their objectives in technical or in quantitative terms. It is increasingly disturbing to … spend so little time on what it means for individuals to become—to create themselves among beings who are different, to choose themselves as thoughtful human beings, decent and engaged, wide-awake to the world.

If education is at all the practice of freedom, which bell hooks implies it is; if education, even beyond the liberal arts, means spending time on what it means for individuals to become; if it is not, as Greene says of B. F. Skinner’s goal, meant “to shape a vision of a Utopia that can be achieved through deliberate behavior control”—what we might think of as an education of answers—but instead is, as Freire proposes, “an education of question [that] can trigger, motivate, and reinforce curiosity”—then what does that mean for an online learning which finds its greatest value in its replicability, an online learning that, through its platforms encourages a mechanization of teaching through pure assessment; an online learning that not only starves the student of real contact with their teacher, but which also deprives the teacher of their capacity to develop meaningful relationships with learners?

There are many ways that online learning could be considered ethical or unethical, and we could consider—and should consider—issues of data privacy and surveillance, intellectual property, online bullying and intimidation, the ways in which edtech represents “a convergence of masculinity and technology,” which resists feminist pedagogies. But before we can enter those dialogues, we must consider our relationships to teaching and learning itself. To students. To our own pedagogies. These are ethical obligations—and obligations with clear implications for social justice—which, if attended to, will inflect all the rest of our interactions with educational technology, from the learning management system to the discussion forum, from the chalkboard to metal detectors in schools to the locks that stop our classroom doors. We must start with students first.

How do we create in online learning, spaces for living with technology “as fully conscious human beings working to enable other human beings to become conscious, to become responsible, to learn”? For Jerome Bruner, the place to begin is clear:

“One starts somewhere—where the learner is.”

For me, the answers are found in practicing the value of voice in my teaching. It means recognizing that my role as a teacher is not to give students a voice. Students already have voice. But systems of schooling and educational institutions–and much of online learning– are organized in ways that deny their voices matter. My role is to resist those systems and structures to reclaim the spaces of teaching and learning as voice affirming. Voice amplifying. I, Lora, want to say that this is not where I began as a teacher. It is where I’ve arrived, where I’m still arriving, after many years of struggle and disappointment.

So for the next few moments, I’m going to invite into this space the voices of students who have been critical to showing me how–and more importantly why we must reimagine the spaces of teaching and learning differently, as if they could be otherwise, as if student voice matters. As if education is about shaping opportunities, relationships, and practices so that learners “can create themselves among beings who are different, to choose themselves as thoughtful human beings, decent and engaged, wide-awake to the world.”

In diverse ways, students at every level–K-12, post-secondary, continuing ed, and students unattached to formal institutions and learning within communities– are generating new ideas and critical insights into their social world. How do we harness this understanding in our teaching practices to promote student well-being, voice, and agency in a time when it is most needed? How do we make room for this knowledge, which in other contexts is actively suppressed?

Inviting students to be participants, agents, and partners in educational practice–online or elsewhere–is the first act of resistance towards institutional practices and deeply held yet unreflected upon social and cultural assumptions about the capacity of students to discern, analyse, and engage, wide-awake to their social world.

Let me share what this looks like, from a student in a Fall 2015 course, New Media Literacies. This is a spoken word piece by a student named Eric, taking New Media Literacies along with another course, Urban Ethnography, to fulfill a gen ed integrative learning requirement. I invite you to listen deeply to Eric’s story (or read the transcript), and then I’ll share the story behind it.

Sitting for a moment with Eric’s words, consider this question from Maxine Greene’s Releasing the Imagination: “Is it not imagination that allows us to encounter the other as disclosed through the image of that other’s face?”

Eric’s spoken word piece helps me point to what Greene calls an “aesthetic education, which is committed to process, to becoming, to change.” (Democratic Vistas: Renewing a Perspective, 1) In this course, students were linking explorations of digital technologies, identity, and literacy to participant observation in a weekly after school youth media program with high school students called HYPE. Early on, the students developed a special bond—with each other, with the HYPE teens, with their instructors, with me. The course intentionally encouraged students to engage their interests, experiences, perspectives.

A few weeks into the semester, Eric showed up to class and asked if he could share something with us, “you know, something not for credit, just something I wrote over the weekend.” He stepped to the front of the room, sat down, said he wasn’t sure if it was any good, but that he had to write it. Tentatively at first, and then finding his pacing and cadence, Eric began to read, powerfully bringing his lived experience, his sense of being in the world, into the class. Into his learning, and also into his classmates’ learning. We sat, silent, transfixed by his narrative, and grateful that he chose to share it with us. Students responded: “You have to do something with this!” “Post it to your blog!” “Post it on Instagram!” Nah, he said, I think I need to work on it some more. He did, and a week later he was standing at the main intersection surrounding our campus, at the Multicultural House block party, encircled by his peers, performing it again. Louder. More confidently. With wide-awakeness to his social world, and fully conscious that things could be otherwise.

Someone captured the moment in video on his phone and when he came to class on Monday he said, check it out. We did, and we celebrated, recognizing the ways he was lifting up our community with his voice. From the classroom, to the street, to the Internet, Eric’s voice carried, and carried within it the possibility of a kind of education–amplified with digital technologies– that enables other human beings to become conscious, to become responsible, to learn.

And then there’s Gracie, who I met when she was a high school sophomore, a quiet student in the youth media program I co-direct. At HYPE, Gracie was most at ease behind the camera or editing. She had the kind of exacting patience required for video editing. During one semester, we were producing short videos for the American Friends Service Committee Film Competition, “If I Had a Trillion Dollars.” Gracie was in a group with 3 college students who were pretty visible in their desire to be elsewhere. They were first year students who signed up for a class that required participation in HYPE–yet their engagement was so superficial, and they were frequently absent. Their disengagement was not lost on Gracie, who was fully conscious of their privilege and the ways the exercised it weekly at HYPE. As the end of the semester neared, with no project to submit to the film competition, Gracie took charge and stepped out from behind the camera to make this happen:

Here’s Gracie’s digital story:

Gracie’s video was among the winning films. She joined other young people from around the country for an awards ceremony and leadership workshop in Washington, D.C. And she screened her film on Capitol Hill.

The experience helped Gracie take critical steps on a path of digital media and social justice, an interest in learning and living with media technology as a young person becoming wide-awake, and helping others in her community to become conscious as well. Here is an image of Gracie, in center city Allentown, filming a protest on the day that George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, footage for her next film, “Still Seeking Justice.”

“None of the women and men emerging from our schools in the next decade should expect to lead to purely mechanical, conforming, robotic lives. They must not be resigned to thoughtlessness, passivity, or lassitude if they are to find pathways through the nettles, the swamps, the jungles of our time.” ~ Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination

Today, Gracie is a sophomore at Temple University studying media production. And she is also a partner with HYPE three mornings a week when she’s not on Temple’s campus. With HYPE, she is teaching high school freshmen and juniors how to use digital media making tools to raise their voices on school and community issues that matter to them. She found in digital media making the possibility of shaping an identity, a fuller participation in her community. Now she is supporting younger peers in her community to use media, and their imagination, to find their own pathways through the nettles, swamps, and jungles of our time.

Gracie isn’t pursuing a degree in media production simply because she values the technical and software skills she’s learning. From a young age, Gracie’s interest as a student of media has been inextricably tied to her growth as a community activist and her commitment to social justice. In a district that eliminated arts education, library, and gym in Gracie’s junior year of high school, Gracie found spaces of learning that valued imagination, that helped make visible what is possible when we favor pedagogical practices that actively value student voice and amplify student agency.

Students come to learning, to those of us lucky to be their teachers, with their stories. They hope for opportunities to share them, and their hope too that we will understand the truth of their experiences. We have to remember that whether we listen or not, these stories are present, always, in the spaces of learning. This is true in community based learning like the spaces I’ve just described. These voices, these stories, weren’t produced in an online course. They were rooted in community settings, on the ground, on the street. But they serve as deeply held reminders that in all learning–online or elsewhere–we have an ethical responsibility to create conditions and opportunities for students to engage their stories, their imagination, voices, and interests in their learning.

Student voices are hard to hear online. Jesse Stommel and I wrote once that,

In the room with our students, we can know if they’re engaged and participating, even as each of them participates in his or her own unique fashion. In an online discussion forum, it’s difficult to observe such nuance, and impossible to quantitatively evaluate it.

And if we aren’t concerned with quantitatively evaluating student voices, it’s just as hard to qualitatively observe them, too. In part, the technology is to blame, especially the LMS. The old rule, now practically an adage, “Post once, reply twice” is essentially the epitaph for online learning. Best practices like that one, tools like the discussion forum—or better tools, like the web annotation software Hypothesis which nonetheless bends to the will of the discussion forum, granting pedagogical privilege to an edtech that convinces us the pedagogical arc of the universe bends towards analytics, assessment, and grading—these silence student voices by omitting them.

That the discussion forum could be considered at all a digital answer to the kind of work Eric and Gracie have done should give us pause. Where is social justice in the discussion forum? Where is activism? Where, even, is something as spontaneous as a train of thought or a digression that leads to new, unexpected understanding?

Edtech is only partly to blame for the silencing, or omission, of student voices. We ourselves, faced with the technologies we employ online, see their limitations instead of their affordances. We become convinced, because the LMS doesn’t measure for such things, that online there are no pregnant pauses, no under-the-breath chuckling, no eye rolls. Likewise, we can be convinced that engaged conversation, moments of genius, and sudden bursts of creative thinking don’t exist too. In fact, it is as though the students we see in the world are not the students we have online.

When the screen flickers and the digital classroom appears, a strange thing happens. It could be useful to call this occurrence “distance.” Distance between here and there, me and a student, distance from my location to your location, distance from your affective needs to my ability to support those needs, distance in time between when you post a question and I give my reply. Distance education. Distance learning.

Over the course of half the year in 2017, I, Sean, worked with an institution in Denver that has successfully implemented an online graduate degree program. Students meet on campus one week per quarter, usually about half-way through the quarter. This is their time together, their time on campus, their time to bond, form community—and also to get to know their teachers. On-ground, teachers take advantage of having students in the classroom, enjoying the affordances of environment.

In one on-ground class, the instructor will light a candle to set the mood in the room. During my time consulting with them, I was asked “How can we bring that candle, that mood, into an online classroom? Should we post an image of a candle? Maybe an animation of a flickering flame?”

I looked at them quizzically. “Why don’t you ask students to buy a candle and light it at their desks as they start their studies?” The response was immediate. A kind of “oooooh” as the realization dawned that students are still students when they go home; bodies in the classroom become bodies at their desks. Somewhere we can’t see, granted, but still subject to all the natural laws and human emotions and intellectual needs, regardless of distance.

The finest trick of the LMS is to persuade us that human students don’t exist online. That they are transmogrified from flesh to data. The LMS becomes an alchemical inhibitor, turning gold into lead.

But the truth is, there remain pregnant pauses. There remain sotto voce chuckles. There are groans and eye rolls. Just as there are lively conversations, brilliant insights, and ecstatic creative aspirations. The students we see in the world are the students we have online. Bodies in seats with brains chomping for new ideas and information, hearts both timid and brave enough to learn.

But there is something different, something affectively different. Most students taking fully online classes are doing so in relative solitude. In fact, they’re counting on you to make not just the ideas in your class, the content the LMS is so content to deliver, synthesize, they’re also counting on you to make their experience of education synthesize.

For the vast majority of students learning in fully online classes, the LMS may be their classroom, but you are their campus. You are their connection to what it means to be a student. They don’t get to go to rallies, they don’t get to experience the rush between classes, they don’t have sweatpants and tee-shirts that remind them where they go. They have the little university logo squashed into top left corner of the LMS. And they have you.

And you, all of you, are more than a concatenation of best practices. Your teaching more than the LMS can contain.

Best practices will not give these students voices. Best practices will not help them build community. Best practices will not align them with their own agency. You have to do that. And this is challenging. Lora asks, “How do we harness this understanding in our teaching practices to promote student well-being, voice, and agency in a time when it is most needed?” That question is hard enough to answer when we are in the room with students. It’s much harder to answer when we are teaching learners we may never meet or speak with in person.

In truth, when it comes right down to it, that’s what best practices are for. To guard us against the incalculable difference of students we can’t see. To keep us from having to guess what goes on on the other side of the screen.

And honestly, we shouldn’t go into cyberspace unequipped. But instructional practices that build upon a lineage of teaching machines, Skinner’s behavioral antics, and Bloom’s taxonomy will not equip us to embrace student voice while teaching with the full range of our own skills and insights.

What we need instead, I think, are “best habits.” And, these best habits parallel the best habits of education, and can be derived almost entirely from an engagement with critical thinking about what online learning really is. It’s not too much to ask, really, since each of us is in their position in academia at least in part due to our capacity for critical thinking. It is exactly this critical thinking edtech does not want us to do, and against which they offer their intercessory critique of themselves. For if we do not have the silence or the space to consider our own pedagogy, we cannot think against their machines’ pedagogies, either.

And so the challenge is to turn resignation into resistance, and to think about our pedagogies. It is ethically necessary that we do so, and it is the only way to teach online.

When I, Lora, think about teaching online, I think about the pedagogies of youth media. The pedagogy of youth media is a deeply collegial pedagogy. Collegial pedagogy, a term introduced by Lissa Soep and Vivian Chávez, describes a dynamic where both teacher and learner stand mutually invested in a shared project, where neither party could complete the work without the other. They need each other to get it right. “Collegiality is a relationship of shared collective responsibility.” This is how it goes in ethical online learning. Teacher and learner need each other to get it right. Such a framing resists conventional power relations between teachers and learners in favor of a model in which both become coproducers of sites and practices of education. In some ways, online learning is an ideal space for enacting collegial pedagogy because of its openness.

Practicing collegial pedagogy in online learning means engaging students as pedagogical partners.

Collegial pedagogy requires that we recognize online learning as a co-production, collaboratively and jointly produced by teachers and learners. This means consulting with students about course topics, involving them centrally in choices about what they research in a class.

Collegial pedagogy demands that students have authentic opportunities to lead.

Collegial pedagogy in online learning means centering tools and practices that aim to amplify and expand student voice.

Collegial pedagogy in online learning demands we pay close attention to whose voices are being heard, whose voices are being valued? And that we attend with care to the voices of those who are often hidden and unheard in traditional educational contexts.

Collegial pedagogy in online learning is about creating conditions for learners to bring their voices fully into the conversations that matter most to them. Conditions that lift up students as agents, as readers of their world, imagining their world as if it could be otherwise.

Maxine Greene explores what it means to see the world small, and to see it big.

To see things or people small, one chooses to see from a detached point of view, to watch behaviors from the perspective of a system, to be concerned with trends and tendencies rather than the intentionality and concreteness of everyday life. To see things or people big, one must resist viewing other human beings as mere objects or chess pieces and view them in their integrity and particularity instead. One must see from the point of view of the participant in the midst of what is happening if one is to be privy to the plans people make, the initiatives they take, the uncertainties they face.


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