Digital Pedagogy Lab held its first institute from August 10-14, 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin. Hybrid Pedagogy sponsored two Fellows to the Institute: Robin DeRosa and Stephen Barnard. The article below is a contribution from Robin DeRosa in response to the Institute and the complexities that Critical Digital Pedagogy raises.

I’m on the plane flying home to New Hampshire from Digital Pedagogy Lab. There’s wifi you can buy on the plane, but I’m going old-school and invoking a time when being 30,000 feet in the air meant you could work in digital isolation. Honestly, it’s not going well. I already miss the #digped hashtag, and the frenetic and hailing way it pulled me away from my own perspectives into richly distracting and challenging new ideas. It’s always tough when we try to reduce the complex of networked communication into the thesis-driven form of an article or summary blog post. But I want to try to offer some thoughts about where we (and it’s a sweeping “we”: on-site participants at the institute; those who Periscoped in or attended Virtually Connecting sessions; hashtag tweeps; friends and colleagues; and readers of this article) might go — where we might need to go — in order to extend the reach and impact of the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute and our own understanding of critical digital pedagogy.

I want to start by talking about one of the keynote addresses from the institute, by Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab. Actually, she wasn’t formally a keynote speaker; it was more like she popped in and talked off-the-cuff with our track for an hour. But sometimes a keynote is born in retrospect, and by the time she finished, it was clear to me that I’d just heard something around which my entire institute experience would cohere.

The story of the professor who sent out one tweet that crossed over a line — and how that tweet turned a tidal wave of ire against her and against the professoriat in general — is one that will be familiar to many of you already. Because of this and other high profile cases in the news, we’re aware of the risks that we take when we, as academics, venture to speak out on hot-button issues. What was lost on me until I heard Goldrick-Rab tell her own story start-to-finish, though, was that she is not fundamentally an activist for free speech or tenure protections. She is an activist for public school. I think the load of vitriol that conservative networks dumped on her through the course of the year has less to do with her twitterrata than it does with her research and policy agendas, which clearly aim to open higher education to a broader public. In this way an irony emerges, as her “public” engagement is what seems to sabotage her work for the public good.

After the keynote, one participant summed up her response to the talk: “I’m terrified.” This is a completely understandable reaction. Who doesn’t, on some level, want to get off Twitter, build a tiny house, and move to the unwired northern woods after hearing a story about how one tweet can threaten to undo a lifetime of promising work? But after hearing the talk, my reaction was mostly quite the opposite — it feels more imperative to me than ever to move my scholarly work into the public sphere.

And this is because my scholarly work is work that is primarily aimed at making sure that when we say “open to the public,” we mean it. Goldrick-Rab’s transgression is not that she violated the rules of public decorum online; it’s that she calls out the public (public universities and state legislatures in particular) for the ways in which their missions to serve the public have been co-opted by private interests. The challenge of being a public scholar is not just in being accountable for your words to a vast, diverse audience; it’s in being responsible for demanding that the vastness and diversity be preserved in the face of pressure to close it off for the profit or comfort of the elite.

Unlike Goldrick-Rab, my work is not in educational policy, per se, but in open pedagogy. I’ve been working on Open Educational Resources (OER) initiatives designed to lower textbook costs for students; but more radically, I’d like to refigure the OER movement to champion open, public networks as a learner-developed educational space. If textbooks and other learning materials are free and openly licensed, this fundamentally transforms the relationship of learners to their content, empowering faculty and students to shape knowledge, not just consume it; it also transforms learning outcomes from stale, assessment-driven benchmarks to dynamic, evolving, inquiry-based possibilities (you can read more about the open pedagogy that I think should power our OER movement here).

But OER depends on a healthy public commons in order to function. We need avenues by which we can share, a market that can sustain the “cost” of the academic labor that produces useful resources, and communities of learners who have the hardware and the human support to engage with the materials. Sadly, as much as I find success in isolated institutions that do indeed save students money with OER, I don’t think this public commons is one that exists right now. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s story is a poignant commentary on what happens when we pointedly, plainly, and publicly insist that we actually deliver on the promises we’ve made about public education.

The part of this that I want to work on is emphasizing that networked learning is not about digital tools, but about the dream of the public commons. And that’s not about new high-tech modes of connection but about community-driven communication and the empowerment of diverse public voices. Many scholars have written persuasively about how ubiquitous access to the web and the democratizing power of the internet are both neo-liberal fantasies, the belief in which can painfully reinscribe the unequal power dynamics that these beliefs aggressively claim to oppose. But what I think we could work for is the slow and deliberate carving out of a public digital space: not a fantasy space separate from our fucked-up world of haves and have-nots, but one that insists on the critical naming and challenging of silencing, exclusive, cruel, and oppressive structures.

I’ll work on this by working on open pedagogy. I’ll try to use the capital that’s building in the OER movement not to support an educational model that fetishizes cost-benefit analyses, but to help teachers develop practices that allow students to critique and contribute to the knowledge economy. I’ll keep asking questions about how a public-powered learning commons can sustain itself without exploiting academic labor (most salient now as we work to address the contingent labor crisis in higher ed) or relying on for-profit EdTech companies for our infrastructure. And I’ll try to continually point out — as Sara Goldrick-Rab’s example has surely done for many of us — when “open to the public” is actually an ironic marketing tool used by powerful entities to obscure a system that continues to shut out the voices it claims to include.

I also think there is work to do to examine the publics that we have begun to build this week at Digital Pedagogy Lab. In the wake of the Institute, people have tweeted about their exhaustion, their elation, their heartbreak, and their questions. People have launched critiques about some ways that the Institute has struggled to include space for all voices to be heard, Sometimes you really need to call someone out. I get that, and I admire the flagpole climbers who are gutsy enough to say enough’s enough; I think I have occasionally been brave and confrontational at just the right times. But sometimes you have to call someone in (a phrase that stuck with me from this little piece on the Sanders/#blacklivesmatter incident). What we learned if we learned anything at the Institute is that the public only works when the public is empowered to speak in ways that the structures that contain that public might not endorse or facilitate. In this sense, I am trying to call us all in, to look at three particular issues that emerged in the Institute that need our continuing attention as networked participants (and I include all of us in this, remote learners, on-site folks, and those who are just joining in now via this article).

The three tracks at the institute — Identity, Praxis, and Networks — all raised challenging questions and generated emotionally-charged investments. In the Identity track, participants wrestled with the complexities of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and other identity categories and how those complexities relate to teaching, the construction and transmission of knowledge, and the potentially liberating and oppressive structures of the digital world. Some track participants ended the week feeling a deep connection to the track and a profound gratitude for the willingness of the group to engage in honest discussion, while others were angry and hurt by how the real-world constructions of identity seeped into the track and prevented their full participation.

Similarly, in the Praxis track, the group wrestled with 1) the way that identity categories like race and gender interacted with the roles people had at the Institute (instructors, fellows, embedded pedagogues, participants), and 2) the question of how to best include subaltern voices without putting pressure on silenced groups or shutting down more dominant learners who respectfully want to contribute.

In my own Networks track, I realized at the end that a participant had dropped out halfway through the institute because the focus on Twitter was unhelpful to her and when she pushed at this, she felt that the group didn’t hear; her leaving meant that our “network” was reified into something less multifaceted than it could have been, something that failed to nurture its margins which are, of course, the sticky, connective edges from which networks derive a good part of their energy and utility.

While my week at Digital Pedagogy Lab was one of the most transformative of my academic life, it’s clear to me that as a Fellow — and as a participant — I have more work to do. What can Digital Pedagogy Lab do to encourage the multiple narratives of the tracks to find expression? This is not a sort of loose call for reconciliation between differing viewpoints. It’s actually a request for structural architecture: what digital spaces do we (from our varied positions as organizers, instructors, and remote/onsite participants) need to open in the wake of the Institute to assure that the difficult discussions that we started can continue in a way that makes everyone feel like a contributor to the shape of what the Institute is building? A “public” has no product, and there’s no call to work it all out here; but if we are committed to thinking about the digital world as a space that values diversity, minority viewpoints, and nondominant forms of expression, we need to make sure that the conversation is ongoing and open. The places where tension erupted at Digital Pedagogy Lab are examples that remind us that connectivist pedagogies demand continual connecting and care; that good courses don’t end — can’t end — for a multitude of reasons; that the digital world is embedded in the “real” one; and that networks are promising but very, very hard to make truly public.

As Sara Goldrick-Rab demonstrates, public spaces are fraught with danger and stomach-aches… but they are intimately connected to the vision many of us have for the public commons as an accessible, learner-driven space for diverse voices to share and create knowledge. Digital Pedagogy Lab is misunderstood if it’s seen as a week away to think about teaching, learning, and technology. It’s an open door into a dynamic, ongoing conversation. The public is not just a place we might be willing to work in; it’s a place we must be willing to work at, and I look forward to the way we use our growing #digped network to do the work that needs to be done to make our public spaces truly open to everyone.