‘We seem to have trouble with critical thinking. And our political system doesn’t help.

Barack Obama, 2017

What does it mean to be critical, digitally? Or to be digitally critical?
Do the material forms of digital media – and our multiple, algorithmically-enhanced connections with other thinking people – create new opportunities for us to develop as critical subjects? Or are our critical capabilities facing new risks?

My session at OER19 explores the intersections of critical thinking, critical pedagogy, and open educational practice. In this blog post I want to suggest some questions that might frame our live discussion. I’m so excited to be part of the conference this year, face to face as well as online, and in the spirit of the conference I’ve created an open padlet where you are invited to contribute further questions, ideas, examples and resources on this theme. Here I unpack where a few of those questions and themes have come from.

Thinking with digital media

It seems reasonable to believe that digital media support new kinds of thinking practice. Guiller et al. (2008) and Gökçearslan et al. (2017) for example, studying critical discussion, found that online participants offer more justifications and examples, while f2f participants tend to expand more on others’ ideas, and to provide more synthesis and novel solutions. Katharine Hayles, in a wonderful book on ‘how we think’ now (2017), draws attention to issues such as spaciality and hyper-textuality in reading digital, to differences of pacing and attention, stimulation and simultaneity, and to how we manage the different flows of time when we engage with knowledge in networks. Critical data studies are exploring the writing and reading of data as cultural practices, querying whether data literacy is really all about positivism, neutrality and ‘efficiency’ (Striphas 2016 , Lliadis and Russo 2016).

In my own work with Jisc on students’ experiences of digital learning, I see evidence that practices of curation, collation, annotation and shared referencing are changing learners’ habits of thought. Some of these practices are framed as problematic by the academy, especially in its guise as the custodian of ‘deep’ and critical thinking. Other practices seem naturally to support critical engagement, such as linking/referencing, reviewing, use of analytics as evidence, and putting ideas into the public sphere.

Two centuries ago, printing threw up new forms of public critique and political thinking: the pamphlet, the poster, the satirical cartoon. The same potential is there in our digital media and public networks. So my first question comes from the materiality of digital forms of knowledge production, and their difference from earlier forms. How do these forms enable – or disable – the kinds of thinking that we recognise as critical? What sites, positions, attitudes of resistance can be occupied, in and against these powerful forms of knowledge?

Defining digital literacies as ‘critical’

The project to define digital literacies or capabilities has often claimed to value critical approaches. A recent review of digital literacy frameworks (Brown 2017) used a simple benchmark: do they include the term ‘critical’ in their aspirations? Many pass the test. The EU’s ongoing programme of digital citizenship education includes ‘critical’ approaches as core. UNESCO’s recent review similarly brings ‘criticality’ into focus. Jisc’s framework has ‘critical use’ one of its six core disciplines. But naming criticality is not the same as developing a critique, and developing a critique is not the same as opening up spaces for critiques of diverse kinds to emerge.

I’m aware in a particularly troubling way how easy it is for frameworks to be adopted into practice. Not as maps for navigating a complex landscape, or opening terms for a conversation, but as checklists to be met, or even standards to be demanded. I also know how easily the term ‘critical’ can be applied as a kind of badge to mean ‘higher’ or ‘deeper’ learning, without much agreement or even enquiry about what it looks like when it happens. Everyone seems to agree, though, that students struggle to be critical – to occupy a specific stance in relation to knowledge, rather than simply to rehearse or comment on what is known. And everyone seems to think this challenge is getting harder because, you know, ‘digital’.

So my next question is: what should our aspirations be? If we believe that some forms of ‘critical’ awareness are necessary to thriving in a digital world – necessary to programming rather than being programmed, to escaping the echo chamber, to not being clickbait, troll, data liability or phishing victim – how should we define and recognise these capabilities? They are unlikely to look like a glossy brochure or a grid full of words. They are likely to exist in a body of practical, subject-specialist examples, and ways of sharing and talking about them. I know this goes on already in communities allied with OER. But how do we amplify that critically necessary conversation?

With and without theory

Digital/critical has been a productive meeting point for theorists (see e.g. Pangrazio 2016 for an excellent recent review). Some have applied the critical apparatus of media studies to the new digital landscape (e.g. Buckingham 2007, Grizzle et al. 2013). Around the turn of the century, the New Media Consortium turned instead towards practices of design, emphasising the forward impulse of production over the ‘backwards’ desire to diagnose and critique (Kress 1997, 2010; Cope and Kalantzis 2000). These theorists are less interested in raising critical ‘consciousness’ than in developing a repertoire of productive practices. They believe that practitioners develop a kind of immanent critique, understanding through their own experience that all digital artefacts embody specific purposes and world view.

Digital literacy has also been seen as an aspect of citizenship and
therefore as already socially and politically engaged. A strong current of thought has analysed relationships of power in a networked society, building on critical theory as a foundation (Castells, Feenberg, Fuchs, Jandric & Giroux). Douglas Kellner (2001) believed that:

new technologies and new literacies can contribute to
producing a more egalitarian and democratic society

Douglas Kellner (2001)

Four years later he co-authored the influential paper that established ‘critical’ at the heart of ideas about ‘digital literacy’, and demanded the teaching of ‘multiple critical techno-literacies’ for civic participation (Kahn & Kellner, 2005). Others are naturally more pessimistic about the democratic potential of digital technologies, focusing instead on the risks inherent in big data, surveillance, lack of privacy, social fragmentation and precarity.

We could ask ‘what theories are useful to us here‘? But we also need to recognise that these theoretical developments, exciting as they are, tend to be nurtured in different places to where learners are becoming (or failing to become) critical digital subjects. How in practice are critical digital literacies developed and assessed? Is it a matter of technical repertoire, of reflexive awareness, of production (vs consumption), of open (vs closed) forms of practice, or of the power of the digital solutions that students arrive at? And if – as this list implies – ‘critical’ digital practice will be recognised differently in different subject areas, can there be any sharing or common ground?

Openly critical

It’s a difficult subject, but one we are grappling with at this conference. How far do open pedagogies and practices support the development of ‘criticality’ in the senses explored here – and in other senses that other participants will bring? On the one hand I see dedicated open practitioners claiming, like the new media consortium, that practice is everything. Only connect, and from connection new critical consciousness will emerge. On the other hand, the last five years have seen an extraordinary flowering of explicitly critical positions in educational technology, a field that previously felt more like a trade fair than a sociology field trip. OER19 is hosting critiques of big data, AI, gender inequality, the marginalisation of the global south, and academic integrity.

It feels as though there are two quite different ways in which open educational practices demand students as critical subjects. It does not foreclose on questions of pathway, interface, time and timing that may be pre-determined in the closed classroom. Learners must make at least these critical decisions for themselves: given this learning, how best shall I learn?

More radically, and through clear pedagogic commitments, open education may not foreclose on other issues: questions of platform and tool to be used, content chosen, mode of engagement, activity/production and outcome, even the question of which other learners, educators and communities to engage with. Learners are then faced with questions that demand a much more agile and resourceful critical stance:
What should I learn? What does (this) learning mean to me? Who am I as a learner?

These learners must not only be critical consumers of their own learning as product, but critical subjects in the domain of learning and knowledge they have chosen.

It may also be that open education of this second kind entails a critical pedagogical practice. Of necessity, it must support the development of learners as critical subjects in ways that trouble the given power / privilege relationship in teaching and learning. 

More controversially, the alliance between open education and critical pedagogy may be a matter of our specific historical and political moment. The digital open education movement, when it began to attract public funding as an agenda, coincided with the intensification of neoliberalism and marketisation in the institutions that were funding it. There was bound to be a conflict between building a new, democratic knowledge commons and the new public knowledge practices that would require, and the powerful institutions of established knowledge. It seems to me that the market models for open learning have won out and/or open education has lost out in our prominent institutions.

On the other hand, open education as a movement has claimed for itself the ideal of the university as commons, in critical revolt against really existing universities and research institutions.

There are many theoretical resources to support open educators, from critical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, critical theory and more established theories of critical thinking in education. How do we bring together the resources of theory, and the practices of pedagogical exploration – in ways that are accessible beyond our own subject area and interests? What can we offer teachers of computer science, history, engineering, nursing and law that will help them to become the critical digital pedagogues our learners need? These are big questions I’m packing in my bags for Galway, but I couldn’t be getting them out and sharing them in better company.