The Standards of Critical Digital Pedagogy

The Standards of Critical Digital Pedagogy

This article is a response submitted for our series about critical digital pedagogy. See the original CFP for details.


Educational standards limit the consciousness towards which critical pedagogy aims. Yet, those committed to developing critical digital pedagogies need to pay attention to standards anyway. Specifically, critical digital pedagogues at all levels of education must familiarize themselves with standards regarding Information and Communications Technology (ICT) literacy; K-12 educators because these standards may dominate your teaching circumstances, and post-K-12 because these standards will have dominated the learning circumstances of your students. Promoted by organizations such as the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), and the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI), standards for ICT literacy represent a key component of cultural and political oppression with which all of our students must become critically conscious.

Let me slow down a bit, lest I fall prey to a common complaint about critical pedagogy in any form. I am not suggesting organizations like the ISTE, P21, or CCSSI (and the governments that listen to them) are promoting ICT literacy standards designed to systematically oppress students (and teachers) required to adhere to them; this is not a call to gather your pitchforks and torches. Rather, I am suggesting these organizations and governments are promoting ICT literacy standards that are limited, and therefore limiting. In their current state, these standards generate a culture of silence about some of the possibilities of ICT literacy in and for education, and the capabilities of teachers and students engaged with technologies in the classroom.

We must all — teachers and students alike — grapple with these limitations and this culture of silence. Such a move — the turning of students’ attention onto the oppressive machinations of their own education — is, after all, a foundational (dare I say core?) move of all critical pedagogies. As Paulo Freire writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction” (72). Freire then unsettles the teacher/student binary, casting classroom occupants as teacher-students and student-teachers. This recasting of students’ and teachers’ subject positions does more than merely suggest teachers have plenty to learn and students have plenty to teach; it’s an early step in moving both students and teachers toward a critical consciousness of their position and possibilities in an oppressive system of education; both teachers and students are confined by their defined roles, limited to be either bankers making knowledge deposits or empty bank vaults passively receiving those deposits. It effectively explodes the most immediate and oppressive power dynamic with which students and teachers are aware: namely, the dynamic between teachers and students as teachers and students.

While the relationship between students and standards replicates, in many ways, Freire’s articulation of the relationship between students and teachers, the dynamic between teachers and standards complicates, well, everything. Teachers guided by standards can certainly retain banker-like control, but theirs is a sort of shadow of power, as they are no longer in a position to determine what knowledge is worth depositing. They’re a sort of puppet leader, and as such the unsettling of the teacher-student relationship with no attending unsettling of standards is a pyrrhic victory for critical pedagogy.

Here’s a thought experiment: say a student successfully demonstrates all of the skills, abilities, and habits articulated by these standards. What don’t they know or know how to do? And more importantly, what assumptions about information and communication technologies do they have? About education? Knowledge? Access? About living (and thriving) in a world in which these technologies by virtue of their ubiquity can be fully integratable boons, or perniciously encroaching boondoggles. Taken to their logical conclusions (i.e., a student’s mastery of them), these standards (specifically those proposed by the three organizations mentioned above) generate three critical questions worth asking of ourselves, our students, and those articulating and promoting the standards themselves.

1. Who is a part of the global digital community, and how do we interact with them?

One key concept ICT literacy standards do attend to is communication, specifically with “model digital citizens” in a “local and global learning community.” While this communication may be “at a distance,” it is always synchronous and between peers. Communicants’ shared relationship is one of collaboration, a positive support loop designed to “support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.”

This is a noble, albeit incomplete picture about how communication can happen in and between different global digital communities. Problematically, the incompleteness of the picture elides both problems with this communication model, as well as possibilities.

One key problem revolves around the notion of access. As Adam Banks writes in Race, Rhetoric, and Technology, access to technology is not just a question of who has a computer and who doesn’t. Developing a richer notion of access, Banks also considers the degrees to which folks can develop not just material access, but also functional access (the ability to use), experiential access (the ability to use in a personal context), and also critical access (the ability to choose to use). As stated, the various ICT literacy standards assume universal and equal access, materially, functionally, experientially, and critically. In a sense, they assume that all of the communicants can be equally included in the educating conversation. As such, they gloss over the complexities and challenges of trying to get two digital communities with different “contextual considerations” to communicate, let alone educate one another through digital platforms. How can two digital communities with varying degrees of material access, as well as developing habits of functional, experiential, and critical access include themselves in the same educating conversation?

As Maha Bali and Shyam Sharma state, however, these complexities and challenges don’t change the fact that though “full inclusion may be an impossible goal…educators can and should strive for genuine attempts toward inclusion” (emphasis added). These genuine attempts represent one of the possibilities elided by the incomplete picture in ICT literacy standards. In “A Pedagogy for Cross-Cultural Digital Learning Environments”, Bernardo Trejos writes about confronting the gaps that may exist between two different global communities interacting with each other. He sees the language gap between his Taiwanese students and Western lecturers as fertile ground from which teaching and learning can grow. In a sense, it’s the ultimate form of Freire’s problem-posing, in which the problem is simple in its presentation (how can I communicate with this person that speaks a different language than me?), yet requires complicated and coordinated efforts in search of workable solutions.

This question — how do we communicate with others? — shouldn’t be read as though we’re throwing our arms up in frustration. Rather, it’s an honest question, asked in good faith, and it’s perhaps the most important question worth asking when it comes to teaching and learning across global digital communities. Through both the process of trying to answer this question, and in whatever workable solutions we might develop, we get closer to incipient questions lurking in all pedagogies, not just critical or digital or critical digital pedagogies — that is: how do we learn, and how do we do it with others?

2. What is the relationship between Information and Communication Technology literacy skills/abilities and new knowledges?

As presently conceived, the ICT literacy standards envision digital technologies as supplements to so-called “core knowledges.” “Core subjects,” as P21 puts it in its “Framework for 21st Century Learning,” “include English, reading or language arts, world languages, arts, mathematics, economics, science, geography, history, government and civics.” Marginalized from this academic core, digital technologies become tools to learn with, as opposed to dynamic processes to learn through.

While the tool-function of digital technologies is certainly valuable, it’s hardly the entire story. In “Beyond Rigor,” Sean Michael Morris, Pete Rorabaugh, and Jesse Stommel rightly argue that these technologies (particularly when engaged in a playful, potentially irreverent fashion) can also “lead to important discoveries and deep intellectual inquiry.”

Indeed, as anyone who has gotten lost down the rabbit hole of coding a simple web bauble or designing a MOOC can attest: just in playfully experimenting with digital stuff, discoveries are happening, inquiry is happening, learning is happening. Knowledge is happening, and that knowledge cannot quickly or rightly be categorized as reading or art or science or any of the core subjects to which this knowledge is meant to supplement.

3. What role does creation play in developing or expanding Information and Communication Technology literacy?

Though the various standards-bearing agencies present mostly thorough conceptions of how students might use digital technologies, they present little by way of how students might make such technologies. Digital stuff is always already present, part of the educational equipment with which students must become familiar and efficient. Admittedly, the dearth of standards aimed toward creation is less a problem of specific ICT literacy standards per se, and more a problem of educational standards as such. Standards, in their ossification of knowledge, resist the notion advocated by critical and constructivist pedagogies that knowledge unfolds, both over time and across space. It’s not a thing to be gathered up, but a process to be engaged in.

It’s hard to say if educational constructivism fits into critical pedagogy, or vice versa, but it’s certainly easy to suggest that it doesn’t much matter when it comes to projecting the role creation must play in an engaged and engaging digital pedagogy. Jonan Donaldson is not being hyperbolic when he states, “New digital tools available to students have flung open the doors to creativity, imagination, and student-directed learning.”

A component of this student-directed learning must be making; creative and imaginative repurposing and renewing of old tools, concepts, and methods, and invention of new tools, concepts, and methods. Driving this relentless progressivism is the question: what technologies don’t exist, but could?

Coda: Toward Dynamic Standards

As John Dewey writes in Schools of To-Morrow: “we must remember that we are dealing with a problem of readjustment, not of original creation.” No matter how much some of us don’t want them to be, and no matter how many holes we run through them, educational standards are here. Consequently, the problem for critical pedagogues is not one of envisioning a beatific educational utopia, but rather one of bringing our experiences and expertises to bear on the standards-laden realities of our educational present.

One way to do this, then, might be to envision ICT literacy standards shot through with the principles of critical digital pedagogy.

Imagine, then, that these standards are living documents: what are the possibilities? Imagine they’re the ladder we climb, then discard when we’ve reached the top rung. Imagine their authors acknowledge their incompleteness? Imagine ISTE is being truthful when claiming that it’s searching for:

“Proactive leadership in developing a shared vision for educational technology among all education stakeholders, including teachers and support staff, school and district administrators, teacher educators, students, parents, and the community.”

Imagine we ask our students as readily as we ask each other: what does critical digital pedagogy look like? How does it work? What are its possibilities? Its problems? What are the standards of critically teaching and learning digital stuff? Are dynamic standards for information and communication technologies undergirded by the principles of critical pedagogy even possible? Might such standards no longer be obstacles to teaching and learning, but rather springboards for generating new conversations about learning in and through “the digital?” And, perhaps most importantly: how do we do this?