The below text is an extract from my recently submitted teaching portfolio for the University’s Enhancing Teaching Programme. As well as including this statement in my portfolio (hard copies submitted), I have placed it here on the Web, hyperlinked to relevant articles – rather than using the required academic referencing format – and open for others to comment on. Here is an example of what critical digital pedagogy can be, in practice in my teaching philosophy. It should not be hidden away just for those who assess this body of work or sit in the physical portfolio library. I want this to be available to those for whom it exists, and as an exemplar of the open practice I aim to promote.
I grew up in a household in Sheffield, a city that accommodated both the most educated and least educated boroughs in the UK. The universities, teaching hospitals, and government department headquarters (NHS and Education) lay to the West, whilst second and third generation unemployment from the steel industry lay to the East. The primary school I attended was enclosed in the leafy west suburbs. My secondary school on the other hand, pulled children from across the city into a melting pot of social class, ethnicity, and religion: knives came to school, pupils went to correctional centres; chess club and Duke of Edinburgh were popular pass-times, pupils got into OxBridge. The school’s headmaster, reputed to be a communist, refused to hold the Government’s daily requirement for religious worship, and stood proud when we all walked out of school in protest at the introduction of student fees.
My mother, who trained to be a primary school teacher once myself and my younger brother were at school, worked in some of the poorest most deprived areas of the city. My father, employed by the Department of Education and Skills, worked in the field of vocational and adult learning, and undertook the set-up of the first online learning centres – ‘Learn Direct’. Later, in their retirement, they would both continue their contribution to education – my mother working on family-learning programmes, my father writing bids to fund education programmes for a local mental health charity. They were members of unions, they went on strike when called to action. As long as I can remember I have experienced education as a political space, a space that has ‘tangled-up’ education to function as a mirror to society, with a system to be resisted when groups are under-represented or ill-catered for (Hargreaves 1997).
So, what does this have to do with my own teaching philosophy? The educational spaces that my parents built, worked in, defended and challenged now have new manifestations in the digital world – online courses and communities where students from all over the world can enrol and engage. I entered Higher Education at a time when the Web was starting to permeate society. Now, boundaries have become increasingly blurred in terms of the real self and the virtual self, formal and informal learning, teachers and learners, even between software and teaching practices. The Web is at once a political space, a social space, a professional space, a space of community. In this space learning is happening.
Despite the rise in the use of digital technologies, there is widespread lack of critical thinking about using them in education. This is especially true within Higher Education where teaching in itself is particularly under-theorized, and most academic staff engage in little direct pedagogical development (also to do with lack of time). There is a lack of meaningful engagement with digital as a pedagogy in teaching development programmes, to support staff to critically reflect on the possibilities and challenges of the Web as a space to teach and learn rather than simply recreate an online version of the physical practice. As Sean Michael Morris wrote, in ‘The Failure of an Online Program’ there is ‘an insistence on doing things as we’ve always done them, on trying to match piece to piece, part to part, learning object to learning object, only limits us. Non-inquiry blinds us to the environment in which we’re actually teaching.’
Influenced by my experiences of education as a child and young adult, I see teaching and learning in digital spaces requiring a critical approach to enable its full democrative potential. As such my teaching philosophy draws on critical pedagogy an area which is primarily concerned with an equitable distribution of power and social justice. Inspired by the work of Jesse Stommel and other writings in the Hybrid Pedagogy ,an online open-access journal, this has developed into an exploration of critical digital pedagogy, Stommel defines this as a pedagogy which:
[… ] would ask questions about technology, about the assumptions we make about technology—its includedness in education, its politics, its economics and labor, and its repercussions for privacy and surveillance—and not simply about the use of technology. We wanted […] to push beyond the “how” to use a tool, and into the “why” and “whether”.
Critical digital pedagogy asks us to dispense of our existing biases and ‘rethink’ our practices, even when to do so may be politically risky. I hold a senior post in Digital Education. My role is to be an advocate for the implementation of digital technologies in teaching, drive large-scale learning technology projects, teach on staff development programmes in a way that will encourage uptake, so that we, as a University, will ‘continue to be a premier institution for teaching and learning’. This flies in the face of the way that the University’s core educational principles are enacted across the institution – through intensive face-to-face small group teaching (tutorials) and resident scholarly communities in colleges. A much more critical approach is required to question the role of digital technologies in this educational model, and question the applicability of this educational model in what is a rapidly changing online world.
The four main characteristics of Critical digital pedagogy, Stommel writes, are that it:
- centres its practice on community and collaboration;
- must remain open to diverse, international voices, and thus requires invention to reimagine the ways that communication and collaboration happen across cultural and political boundaries;
- will not, cannot, be defined by a single voice but must gather together a cacophony of voices;
- must have use and application outside traditional institutions of education.
This, I feel, is particularly relevant to my current context as a teacher. The OxBridge research-intensive institution I am employed by is steeped in tradition, with the highest admission criteria, drawing the world’s best students into buildings that could be straight out of Harry Potter and into a discourse that sounds like it is from a Dickensian novel…’Michalemas term’, ‘Hilary term’, ‘Congregation’, ‘Encaenia’ etc. This is at once its charm, and also its failure to be seen as part of the world, or rather seen as intrinsically exclusive. On many occasions I have heard staff and students describing working and studying here as existing in a ‘bubble’. The University and its colleges have been publicly criticised, sometimes wrongly, for its failure to widen participation, its complex power-structures that silence minorities, its less than adequate support for learners with specific needs or disabilities, and its perceived elitist culture. Working within the institution for over 15 years I have seen the hard work of colleagues and student bodies to improve this, and it has improved   , and there is greater internal recognition and engagement with the challenges. But I also struggle with the fact that, ultimately, I am a part of the system that perpetuates this culture. Until recently I have held back from questioning the status quo, the gold standard of education.
In principle the small-group teaching and collegiate communities make the University a socially constructivist and connectivist space. But in spirit, it is not this. For it serves its own and fails to adequately reach beyond the boundaries of its walled gardens and dreaming spires in the meaningful ways that its research activities with allocated funding are enabled to do. Anchoring my philosophy in critical digital pedagogy I aspire to provide a lens to rethink how teaching and learning can harness the digital space to become more networked and open, and ultimately more inclusive. Creating not just better learners through active engagement with each other, but better citizens through active engagement with the world.
My Teaching Statement
In reality it is not easy to enact a critical digital pedagogy, but as the basis of my evolving teaching philosophy there are ways in which I use, and plan to use, what I would regard to be examples of this approach in my practice.
- Digital technology does not have encoded value. These tools are good only insofar as they are used. My work starts with people, rather than tools. We are the most important technology involved in digital learning.
- We are better users of digital technology when we are thinking critically about the nature and effects of that technology. I will work to encourage students to think critically about new tools.
- There is no such thing as a ‘digital native’ and I will never treat students as such. Often people are comfortable in using technology of their smart phone, the internet, social media but this does not mean they can apply it to education or scholarship.
- I will practice what I preach, and demonstrate that practice openly for those whom it is meant to benefit. Teaching by example.
- Within teaching practice, I will attempt to build community and collaboration in networks beyond the classroom (for instance in open spaces such as social media sites). This echoes Stommel’s call for collaboration and community and application outside of the bounds of the institution. However, I will never insist that a student enter this space if they are not comfortable with that, and that activities I design for this space are supported and executed with thought.
- I will plan teaching so that students have time to experiment, fail, and succeed in their exploration of digital tools and spaces.
- I will promote that students online are cared for and look for ways within the VLE or other platforms to do that.