On the pedagogy of kindness

Image by me. Available under CC-BY-NC-SA.

I remember my Grandmother telling me ‘Kate, you must always be kind’.

For some reason that really stuck with me, it is a huge part of my personal values.

In today’s society kindness is one of the traits we admire most in people, along with openness and honesty, empathy and  understanding. Yet, in the professional space, the world of work, it is often viewed as a trait of failure. To be successful requires self-interest, forcefulness, sharpness etc.  In Feminism, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Kindness Magnet et al. discuss how during the industrial revolution kindness came to be associated with the domestic, in stark contrast to the masculine pursuit of industrial toil. As a result, kindness as an emotion was simultaneously feminized and devalued. I understand what that looks like.

In a 360 review just  before I left Oxford I was advised to work on my approach to kindness, I should, I was informed, be less kind. Because being kind, could get in the way of the goals we were working towards or may cloud my decision-making. My feedback also included that I had a lot of respect and many supportive colleagues who trusted my strategic ability to lead change.   I am pretty sure that the latter trait was down to the former – listening – understanding – engaging. Recognising that part of my leadership role was to be fair, ethical and supportive. #bemusedface

After the amount of reflection it warranted, I chose to ignore this piece of advice and instead to question the appropriateness of goals and decisions that do not call for kindness in the journey to achieve them.

Recently, a tweet by Jesse Stommel reminded me of that review.

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Jesse started me thinking about kindness as an approach rather than a value. I  realise that I purposefully use kindness in my practice, not only because I believe it to be the right and human thing to do, but also because it is the heart of student-focused design, and at the heart of inclusive practice, both of which require listening, understanding and support. If we really care about education as a fundamental right, that we should be securing it and designing it for everyone, then kindness has to operate beyond individual practice and employ institutional approaches .

It is possible for an institution to be kind at scale, but it is tricky. Much of higher education is geared towards students who are already good at being students, both in terms of subject knowledge and academic skills. If being kind is to engage more widely and more diversely then we need to question the criteria for gaining access to university education in the first place.

On the other end of the scale in an increasing focus on employability and accreditation by higher education institutions we are in danger of ‘self-serve assessment’, assessment that is easy to pass without having to undertake any form of active or constructivist learning. This presentation of kindness supports the institution rather than the individual, the focus is on a business model rather than the benefit of society or enlightenment – outcomes at the heart of education. The journey to educational attainment should not be devalued, students should be required to undertake study, reflection and develop relevant skills to enact the outputs of their education in society. It is the education not the qualification that needs to be accessible.

Digital environments enable kindness to be implemented at  greater scale. Flexible learning is one form of kindness, that enables more access to education, and is suited to online education. On the web students have greater opportunity to access their learning materials and activities anytime-anywhere.

Providing more supported learning is also a structure of kindness that digital environments can facilitate well. The web has made connecting  easier than ever before. Students can engage with their courses through clearly designed narrative, and to each other, their tutors and the institution within a wide range of digital spaces. There are huge opportunities to engage in collaborative learning across the globe and networks of support that bypass the walls of the VLE.

Institutions need to take an active approach in promoting kindness online. Whilst the web provides spaces for exchange and collaboration we often use it to talk about ourselves and down to others. In digital environments, social media spaces in particular, it can be the case that everyone is so busy talking that no one is listening. We don’t see each other behind the computer screen. We blog, tweet, status update. We talk about ourselves and may use fiery rhetoric to get across our views, loud and often in return for likes and applause. A different approach to digital communication needs to be advocated and scaffolded by the educational institution, especially one where students and faculty are resident in the digital space.

Approaching our engagement in digital spaces with purposeful kindness means that we engage without judgement or agenda, ask others why they think the way they do, and listen.  Kindness listens.  Then we are in a position to reflect on our core beliefs, understandings, and concepts – how we fit in, stand out, and speak up. This not only supports good communication practice, but strategically supports learning which in part is derived from our ability to reflect on ourselves through others, to think critically and form persuasive arguments, and build knowledge collaboratively.

To me a pedagogy of kindness is not  radical. It is something that we often employ but do not refer to as an act of kindness, because to be kind is seen as too soft, or a weakness. But ‘too always be kind’ is a powerful approach in the design of learning and needs to be recognised as such. It envelopes the consistency of providing inclusive opportunities, support structures, and meaningful recognition and engagement.  Putting the student first in their education, so that they can progress, attain greater knowledge and skills and develop as a result of their experience.

I’ve made a start on some practical notes on what a pedagogy of kindness could look like:

  • Design learning so that it is inclusive. Not everyone starts on a level playing field. If someone who hasn’t developed relevant academic or technical skills / has care-giving responsibilities / has a specific learning difficulty can not make it through the course, it is not a kind set-up. Bridging courses and transition / foundation years are a good example of how this can be achieved, along with flexible timescales, supported skills development, and disability services.
  • See students. Greet them. Talk to them. Students remember the teachers who said ‘hello’ to them when they walked into the room. It is easy to be invisible online but in an educational context students need to be seen.
  • Hear students. Ask for feedback on a regular basis and respond to the areas they find difficult or stressful, be it in the design of the interface, structure of course or the subject content. Access to learning should be easy.
  • Scaffold and signpost learning, so that students know exactly what they need to do, how this relates to their learning objectives, and how the activities and assessments will benefit them. This will help them to manage their studies and understand the journey they are on.
  • Develop digital communication skills and strategies for acknowledging others in meaningful ways, as well as how to listen. Engaging online with purposeful kindness builds greater understanding of others, opportunities for knowledge building, and develops academic skills. It helps students and tutors to manage and control their online presence.


Digital sites of memory – have we remembered them?

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium. Photo by me, 2007. (CC-BY-NC)

10 years ago this week, at London’s Imperial War Museum, I stood before an audience of historians, literary estates, relatives of war poets, and colleagues to launch a new digital archive to support the study of First World War poetry. The archive contained over 7000 carefully selected and digitised poetical manuscripts and primary source material  (letters, diaries, photographs etc.) related to some of the best known poets  of the War. For the first time these manuscripts, which are dispersed across the globe in archives, libraries and private collections, were brought together into one place. They were accessible to anyone with an internet connection and made available under an open licence for use in education and research.

In terms of manuscript studies the release of these items into the public sphere was significant. It not only reveals the poets lesser known works, but enables us to look at the much anthologised poems with new perspectives. Some of the poets never saw their work published in their lifetime as they lost that life to the War. Editors posthumously pieced together drafts of poems to create their interpretation of the final work. Now the student or academic can study these draftsand question why decisions on words and form were made. In addition, to be able to see the workings of the poet on their drafts raises insights into their experiences and writing. For instance in a poetical draft of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ we see Owen struggle to find the appropriate word to describe what it looks like to watch a man die from a gas attack, as he crosses out each word we feel his struggle to watch a man die so horrifically. In many cases the manuscripts held additional symbolism to the poem itself. In the case of Rosenberg, dried trench mud fell from a draft of Daughters at War as I unfolded the flimsy Salvation Army paper. The draft was frayed and stained with water and dirt. The materiality of War was literally etched upon the poetry.


For the poets whose lives stretched beyond the War, their manuscripts provide insights into a continuing battle between what can and can not be remembered, for whilst they survived the War it never let them return. Edmund Blunden, one the greatest poets of memory, when interviewed poinently expressed  ‘my experiences in the First World War have haunted me all my life and for many days I have, it seemed, lived in that world rather than this’.  There are three items I still think about often in relation to these poets. Two maps sketched by Edmund Blunden and David Jones years after the War as a result of dreams they had had – their memories of events were vividly intense but their recollection of things like place names were not  – the missing pieces in the need to remember which they searched for in their subconscious. The third is Robert Graves’ first edition of his war memoir Goodbye to All That. Held in the Berg Collection in New York Public Library, the text is littered with corrective annotations by Sassoon and Blunden who disagreed with Graves’ interpretations and memory of events. Sassoon’s own personal copy of the text has been revealed to show rather more brutal asides: “rot”, “fiction”, faked”, “skite”.

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David Jones colourful manuscript map showing the various phases of the battle for Mametz Wood, the subject of In Parenthesis (Part VII). Image © The National Library of Wales / The David Jones Literary Estate

The availability of these primary sources, and the various tools we employed to allow users to explore them has not only made them available to enhance curriculum and research, but has provided an opportunity to understand the writers and their work more deeply and release them from the commemorative role to which they have so often been appropriated. At a deeper level their poetry does not sit comfortably with the military-style remembrance ceremonies hosted by the church and state, as there is no place for ‘pity’ or ‘never agains’ in today’s political and economical campaigns. I’m not convinced that Owen would have enjoyed last week’s ‘Wilfred Owen Commemorative Edition’ of Songs of Praise, or even been a fan of poppies to be honest. It was good to see  Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘ and Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Aftermath‘ featured in last night’s televised Festival of Remembrance. It is rare that the poetry of the soldier poets feature in Remembrance events, it was one of a few striking moments that brought humanity to the ‘celebration’, although they were flanked by uplifting military parades and hymns.

As well as the  literary related manuscripts, the archive also contained some 6500 digitised historical items to provide further context to the War covering themes such as the homefront, women in war, propaganda, the war in the Middle East, etc.  What is significant about these items is that they were not digitised from collections in the Imperial War Museum or The British Library, they were contributed by members of the public during a three month crowdsourcing initiative. From our teacher and academic workshops we knew there was a need for more contextual resources, but digitisation costs were high. We also knew that we were sitting on an untapped archive of hidden materials that resided in the general publics’ attics and bottom drawers, objects relating to their families and their communities. Each object with a story to tell. We designed a campaign to ask the public to share the histories passed down to them, asking them to photograph any objects they had and upload the images with descriptive information to a specially-built website. We also held a series of ‘Community Collection Days’ in memory institutions across the UK. In the style of the Antiques Roadshow, people could bring in their items, speak to experts about their significance, and then have them digitised and uploaded by our team. We put together a portable digitisation studio that we could transport by train, plane and automobile and that was cheap and easy to reproduce by any group that wanted to run their own event (How To’s were made available on the website). The model was a success, and in 2011 it was picked up by the European Digital Library (Europeana) and rolled out across the continent. The team continued to work with partners in over 20 countries including extensive work in Germany, to continue to collect the hidden memories of World War One, both online and over 200 collection day events. Hundreds of thousands of items and their stories have been recorded and are now openly available for reuse online.

The community collections include everything from letters to medals, trench art  to uniforms, and even a postcard from the young Adolf Hitler about his dental treatment in 1916. Fascinating as this is, it’s reasonable to ask what use or meaning such an eclectic collection actually has. For me the value lies in their potential to provide rich sites of exchange between academia, cultural heritage, and the public. Knowledge is not just the property of the University it resides in the wider community and the two can complement each other – providing leads for new research, and new understandings. The collections hold the raw material of school projects, essays, enlightened browsing, and informative relaxation. The images are often bold and interesting. Teachers can take and use them at all educational levels and carefully selected they have something to say to both adults and children. You can find examples that relate not just to your country, sometimes even your home town. You can tap into experience across nations, move the War beyond the Western front, beyond the experience of the British Tommy, examine it’s impact across nations and cultures. It is a European (web)site of memory for a shared experience.

Other initiatives fell out of these collections – Wikipedia edit-a-thons to update and add new articles; transcribe-a-thons to provide searchable text of the digitized letters, diaries, and other documents; data visualisations to present the War in new and engaging ways; social media role play; the development of resource packsvirtual world simulationsagent-based models to explore how history may have changed if events had twisted and turned in other directions. There have been inter-generational workshops, reminiscence work, multimedia and  theatre productions. A podcast series, and also teacher development days. The collections and their interpretations were supporting the ‘Battle of Academia’ to challenge the collective memory of the First World War : a shared set of ideas and values about what it was like and what it meant for those involved. It was all fought in the muddy trenches of France and Belgium, it was futile, most soldiers died and those who survived went mad or wrote poetry. Oh and we mustn’t forget the women, for they won the vote as the result of their war service. None of these things are whole truths. In particular the British experience of death and grief looks quite different in a global context. This is not to downplay the tragedy of loss of life or the pain of those left behind, but to turn a lens upon a ‘world’ war where fighting took place in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Far East, in the air and at sea. A war where troops were enlisted from across the globe and fought far from home, where in villages across Asia and Africa the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and children were changed forever when they lost their sons, husbands, or fathers.

One of the most powerful resources we created were a set of interactive maps using location data provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The user can spin the earth and see the sheer number of cemeteries there are in the UK with a war grave. Why are they here? Why are there 9 war graves in a tiny cemetery at Trekkopje in northern Namibia? What happened there?

Consider the following:

  • New Zealand lost 5% of its male population aged 15-49, which makes it the nation with the largest percentage of deaths during the conflict.
  • 140,000 Chinese contract labourers were hired by the British and French governments, forming a substantial part of the immigrant labour force working on the Western Front during the war.
  • Upon joining the War, 200,000 African-American troops were inducted into the US forces and served in Europe.
  • The largest explosion of World War One occurred on December 6, 1917 when a munitions ship blew up in the harbour of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Nearly 2,000 people died and some 9,000 were injured in the disaster.
  • France recruited between 1914 and 1918 nearly 500,000 colonial troops, including 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans.
  • 2 million African troops were recruited during the War to serve as soldiers and labourers. Out of those men it is estimated that 157,100 labourers lost their lives, and 97,900 soldiers. When African civilian losses are added to those of the military, African fatalities during the war probably exceeded 1 million lives, or more than 1 per cent of the population. On a par if not more than Britain’s loss.
  • In the Battle of Gallipoli, where out of a total of 3000 Indian combatants, some 1624 were killed, a loss rate of more than 50 per cent.
  • 1/3 of military deaths in the War were a result of the Spanish Flu, its rapid spread enabled by the conditions of war, movement of troops and supplies, and the gathering of crowds during the armistice. The Spanish Flu killed more poeple than the death toll across nations of the two workd wars.

These are not facts that will be revisited on our national day of remembrance, for they do not fit our notion of ‘we-ness’ and what it means in terms of our national identity to have been the country who fought, who suffered and who won the War.

Many of these ideas and materials are recorded in an open educational resource we set up called World War I Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings, a sort of The Conversation for the subject of the First World War, but not restricted to academic writers.  The new perspectives presented can be controversial. There are over 200 articles and resources from over 70 contributors available.

From a 21st century perspective, digital has been key to a more extensive engagement with the World War One. It has unlocked content and provided channels for more effective forms of knowledge exchange. Licencing content openly is deeply important to enable this engagement, to allow history and memory to collide and challenge each other, to make high quality resources available to not only answer questions but to raise them. The web has the potential to democratise the study of the past. Online it belongs to everyone.

So have we played a part in the Centenary? Have we remembered them? In answer to the first, it’s a yes, the user stats on the websites speak for themselves. But in answer to the second it’s a no, for to remember surely means we should reflect on the past to influence our present day actions and attitudes. The problem with opening up new material and perspectives is that it does not always fit the model of Commemoration which largely rests on notions of Tribute and Honour. Open strategies depend on being able to talk critically and honestly about the War, those who took part in it, and those who wrote about it. I think we are still a generation too close to the conflict to be able to achieve this.

I experienced this. I spent  years surrounded by primary source material filled with accounts of horror and grief, and whilst there were also many accounts of friendship, love and humour, overall I found it desperately sad and helpless. On my work trips to France and Belgium I could reach into the soil of the battlefields and pull out bits of shrapnel, bullets and barbed wire like they were left there yesterday, not 100 years ago. I spent full days talking to the sons and daughters of those who experienced the War. Working with these projects, like the search for family history, one can’t help but be shaped by modern preconceptions of the War, and this creates a barrier to deeper engagement.  For some time  the most important thing to me was to pay tribute to those who fought and those who were left behind, not to engage with the deeper questions about the War, unsimplify it, and question how we remember. It was only when I started working more with historians such as Dan Todman, Catriona Pennell, Santanu Das, Pierre Purseigle, the literary editors of the War poets, the contributors to Continuations and Beginnings, started creating powerful data visualisation, that I truly started to understand what it means to remember. To live in peace, with good international relations, where there is no threat of nationalism.

100 years is not long enough.


I was PI / PM on the following projects 2006-2014, working with Ylva Berglund Prytz, Alun Edwards, Stuart Lee, Pat Lockley, Everett Sharp, Michael Loizou. All projects were funded by JISC Digitisation Programme, with the exception of Europeana 1914-1918 funded by the European Commission.

First World War Poetry Digital Archive
The Great War Archive
Europeana 1914-1918
Running a Community Collection Online
World War I Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings

More than Dodo

Photograph by me. Dodo display in Oxford’s Natural History Museum. CC-BY-NC-SA.

Last week I packed-up my academic gown, mortar board, approximately 40 tonnes of books, then bid farewell to Oxford.

I started working at Oxford, before I was employed by Oxford – taking a summer internship developing Old English digital resources, which are unbelievably still online 17 years later. That September I was given a job as an academic web developer…and it went from there.

17 years…

I have held a number of posts in that time – Web Developer, Project Manager, Project Investigator, Online Tutor, Manager of Engagement, Manager of Education Enhancement, Acting Director of Academic IT, Head of TEL..in each post I have discovered a bit about who I am and what I want to be. I’ve had some harsh lessons and some amazing achievements. I’m now at the point where I want to explore that in a different context, for how can I be the best I can be if I only bring the experience of one, rather unique, institution?

Oxford is a huge part of who I am. Beautiful, magical Oxford, oozing with history and  tradition. To me it is the city-equivalent of opera. As William Butler Yeats put it, a place where one expects people to sing rather than talk. In fact there was a lady who cycled past my department everyday adorned with flowers signing opera at the top of her voice. Quite quickly that just became normal. Just like the ex-academic who walked around with a  parrot perched on his shoulder wanting to discuss Dante to anyone who would stop and listen, or having lunch with a nun to discuss her digital pedagogy, and October and June being the months where you see more people in sub-fusc than normal clothes. I found myself, after a number of years, naturally reeling off the language of the institution as if it were mother-tongue, like I was meant to be there, a language which to others may sound like the words of a Dickens novel or a JK Rowling creation. Michaelmas, Hilary, Trinity, Encenia…. I once sat on a committee that took place in a magnificent oak-panelled college room where I was told that the chairs had been selected by the college ‘Committee for the Antiquities’. Beautiful, magical Oxford. There is a terribly romantic, and quite absurd, part that I shall miss.

I will be reflecting on my time at Oxford for a while yet. Whilst there is an enchanting side to the University, it is indeed 800 years old and this does not come without its challenges. There are steeped traditions and silos, glass ceilings and hierarchies, silencing. The demographics of OxBridge, in terms of admissions, are often discussed by the media, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. What isn’t discussed as much is equity of opportunity for staff, both academic and professional, in terms of race, gender, age, social class, contract type, education. The University is starting to engage with this more, and I’m glad I have been a voice amongst many in pressing for change. It was at the meeting of Congregation with the infamous walkout of members, on the blocking of debate on pension reform, that really drove it home. Before we got onto the matter in hand, being Oxford we first we had to agree that the Sermons on the Grace of Humility and on the Sin of Pride need not be preached only on Quinquagesima Sunday and the last Sunday before Advent. No one really knew what that meant. Holding a role which requires me to take an institution forwards whilst being surrounded by the past and cultures and structures that reinforce it is something that I’ll need to spend some time unpicking.

More than Dodo‘ is a HT (Twitter abbrev. for ‘Hat tip’) to a wonderful, engaging, and literally my favorite Twitter account belonging to Oxford’s Museum of Natural History. Between 2011-2014 I ran Twitter for Academia workshops at the University – I had 100 people attending each term, the workshops covered teaching, research and public engagement (a big passion of mine). Tweeting museum objects are my favorite use of Twitter. So creative. I used the whale in New York’s Natural History Museum as a case study, and now Oxford have a tweeting dodo in reference to the unique remains of the dodo in it’s own museum, a bird which became extinct in the 17th Century. Oxford’s dodo specimen is the only one in existence from which DNA can be extracted for molecular analysis to work out relationships and potentially to reconstruct the genome of dodos. Recent research has also revealed that the bird was in fact the victim of a murder most fowl – shot in the head as opposed to dying of natural causes after being transported from Mauritius to the UK as a public spectacle. There are now a whole heap of questions as to what people in the 17th century knew about preserving remains and understanding why the bird became extinct.

In a sense Oxford has been my dodo. It was at the beginning – the UK’s first University, my first employment in higher education. But there is more than dodo,. Like Lewis Carol, who visited Oxford’s dodo regularly at the museum and used it for inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, I have become curiouser and curiouser. I’m eager to extract my own analysis’ of my time at Oxford and build new, informed, relationships with the sector, to build upon my professional experience and knowledge. Oxford is not my end goal, it is the door to a greater overall understanding and becoming. I very much doubt Oxford is in threat of becoming extinct, but there are a lot of other educational models one needs to understand to engage with the sector authentically and openly.

A Teaching Statement

Lawrence Field #2. Photo by me, 2010 (CC-BY-NC).

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.

A Preamble

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 [1] [2] [3], 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.


Understanding University Lecturers as Learners

Passing the Sheldonian. By me, 2006. (CC-BY-NC)

I have found that providing pedagogical staff development for academics raises a whole heap of challenges in terms of engagement. As part of the Enhancing Teaching Programme I am undertaking with the Oxford Learning Institute I have had the opportunity to reflect on this in relation to the digital pedagogies we hope to embed more as part of staff development programmes. These are my current thoughts:

Academic Identity and University Culture

  • Academic staff are deeply engaged in their subjects, most likely with a Doctorate in the field. They are also quite likely to be researchers.
  • By holding post in a research-intensive University academics are likely to be embedded in a culture where research is valued much more highly than pedagogy,
  • Lack of recognition for teaching is exacerbated by underlying issues such as casualisation, and lack of a defined career progression. This raises the potential for the roles of expert and teacher to stand in opposition to each other.
  • This can cause scepticism on the part of the academic-learner regarding the value of professional development in teaching, and impinge significantly on the focus they give to staff development programmes a whole (Davies & Maguire, 2013).

Never enough time

  • Time-commitment is also a significant challenge for academic-learners. Research commitments take precedent, and there is a host of other academic activities such as admissions and exam marking, college commitments, committees etc.
  • Robbins & Dermo (2016) found that ‘although the learners are academics, it is not unheard of for them to engage with the PGCert in the same manner in which their own decried, supposedly, overly ‘exam focused’ students may engage.’ Learners may draw on surface learning approaches, focusing on summative deadlines and ‘jumping through hoops’ as opposed to engaging deeply in the reflection necessary to review and develop one’s own practice.


  • A programme of study on pedagogy such as a PGCert or PGDip will have a diverse range of learners, uniquely in terms of the variety of disciplines they come from.
  • This may influence how they engage with the requirement to reflect on their practice, which is fundamental for their ongoing development as teachers (Bell, 2011).  For instance social scientists and those in health studies may easily engage in this approach, whilst those in engineering, computational and physical sciences may benefit from more scaffolding and support (Robbins & Dermo: 2016).

The Technology

Whilst issues such as academic identity and culture of teaching can only really be addressed at institutional and departmental levels, in designing pedagogical staff development I must consider educational approaches, assessment designs, and strategies that can be employed which make it easier for academic-learners to engage without challenging their values.

Breaking down the barriers, breaking down the vision…Canvas@Oxford

1600 pandas Nantes 2009-3.jpg by Stéfan. cc-by-sa-2.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1600_pandas_Nantes_2009-3.jpg?uselang=pt
1600 pandas Nantes 2009-3.jpg by Stéfan. cc-by-sa-2.0.

Our programme to bring in a new VLE for the University is more than a technology replacement programme. Canvas@Oxford is an opportunity to open up conversations around digital education and the role of the VLE.  It also provides an opportunity to break down some of the barriers that exist around using digital tools and spaces in teaching and learning. As such it is vital that we have a vision statement which reflects our education-first approach, how our new VLE, Canvas by Instructure, will support this, and who will benefit from this change.

This is the vision statement:

Advancing education at Oxford by providing an intuitive digital platform for all.

As a team of learning technology  experts we need to be able to talk about this vision in our discussions with academic staff and course teams, so that we can paint a picture of the job that we have hired Instructure to do; the student experience we are aiming for; and importantly address the whys around why we are changing.

Lets break down the vision statement into its three core parts.

Advancing education at Oxford…

Oxford provides a world-class education, and regularly tops the global HE league tables. This educational model, known fondly as the Oxford Experience, is built on a set of core educational principles: Providing intellectually stimulating conversations (through tutorials); small scholarly communities (through the colleges); research-led teaching; and a flexible, personalised curriculum that enables students to go beyond their disciplines and decide the shape of their own course of study.

To advance these principles is not to replace them. The mechanisms through which they are enacted – the tutorial system, the colleges, are unique and for many highly effective, but they are not the only ways in which these principles can be realised. By being more digitally engaged and pedagogically reflective we can explore how Canvas can support Oxford’s ethos. At a basic level huge benefits can be realised – through time-saving streamingling resources, and providing the digital integrations that students expect in the 21st Century. This supports and enriches current practice.

At an advanced level digital spaces can provide enhanced and alternative opportunities to learn and collaborate in learning. The digital classroom is a global classroom, and provides opportunities for cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural, and cross-geographical learning . There are also opportunities for individual academics and course teams to plug-in digital tools specific to their course learning objectives, and design rich online learning activities. Canvas’ ability to network with social media platforms and external blogs, as well as its mobile applications opens opportunities to teachers and students to interact with the platform in the same ways they interact with the rest of the Web: creatively, socially, dynamically.

Rather than simply providing an ‘online version’ of a subject, we can reshape it. To do this we need staff and students with digital literacies, who can be effective tutors and learners in an online context. We are finding that we can begin using the VLE not to just build courses but to organise thinking about courses. As such Canvas@Oxford is not just about the tool itself, it is also about supporting and evolving the development of lifelong digital capabilities and blended curriculum design.

by providing an intuitive digital platform… 

Aesthetics matter. Usability is key to technology uptake. Interface design can shape the learning experience. In our review of our existing VLE one of the key findings was that staff and students found its usability, navigation and interface cumbersome and clunky, and as such we ranked these features very highly in our tender evaluations of VLE platforms. By removing usability barriers we are enabling students to engage more with content and activities, and educators to engage more with learning design. Furthermore the view of what an intuitive digital platform is moves on at a rapid pace. A VLE does not only exist on the desktop computer or laptop, they need to be rendered seamlessly across mobile devices and operating systems. Regular, frequent interface updates are easily provided through a cloud-based VLE, and dedicated mobile applications can enable access to learning and teaching anytime, anywhere.

…for all.

Our core learning platform will provide a digital space that is available to all our students, all who teach, and all who support teaching and learning.  Through simply making learning resources available online we can offer greater flexibility and accessibility to learning. This is powerful. The digital allows us to meet more people’s needs than ever before. We are currently looking at accessibility plugins to enable us to unlock the full potential of the VLE to support those with disabilities, those with specific learning difficulties, and those with access requirements. There are also a huge cohort of staff and students who benefit from online accessible provision but who may not ask for help, such as staff and students with mental health problems, those with carer responsibilities, or those with less flexibility because of other academic commitments or the need to work as well as study.

Personally, for me, the exclamation that it is ‘for all’  that is the most powerful part of this  statement. The University’s 2018-2023 draft strategic plan sets out a desire to “set ambitious targets” to “reduce by 2023 gaps in attainment by gender, ethnic origin and socio-economic background”. It also wants to “substantially increase” the number of undergraduate places offered to students from groups who are currently under-represented, and “accommodate growth in student numbers” overall. But yet it costs almost double to fund an undergraduate’s place at Oxford than what they pay in fees, largely due to the face-time intensive tutorial model and collegiate setting. It is time to explore how the Oxford Experience can exist at a consistent high calibre across physical and virtual spaces, support both retaining and refreshing the University’s rich academic environment – not only as a means to develop  personal and transferable skills to succeed in a global workplace, but to reach out wider, be more inclusive, and continue to advance excellence in teaching and learning.