critical thinking about digital learning

Critical digital, Open pedagogies

Revisiting critical digital practice at OER21

Two years ago, I started out on a research project that – like most projects in education – has been changed beyond recognition by the pandemic and the response to it. Leaving personal challenges aside, it hasn’t been a good year for asking teachers any questions beyond ‘are you OK??’ Let alone asking questions about how they can make learning more challenging and critically engaged than it is already. The theme of OER21 – ‘joy and care’ – puts critical perspectives in their proper place.

At the same time, it has never been more important for students to feel they can question the digital platforms and practices that shape their experience – in fact, they are doing already. The sprint to adopt and cope with remote access technologies has now become a marathon. The chance to review, reflect and ask critical questions could be a refreshment station on this route, rather than a rude shout from the sidelines.

So OER21 is an opportunity to revisit some of the questions I began with in 2019 through a pandemic lens. A critical attitude is intrinsic to learning, in my view, not an option for when things are going fine. ‘Threshold concepts’ (Meyer & Land 2005) require old habits of thinking to be challenged so that new ones can be made. Critical pedagogy (hooks 2010, Friere 2009) sees learning or ‘critical consciousness’ arising from attempts to challenge and transform the world as students find it. Open pedagogy (de Rosa & Jhangiani 2020) draws on both of these traditions, demanding ‘collaboration, connection, diversity, democracy, and critical assessments of educational tools and structures’ as part of what it means to become a lifelong learner. These tools and structures have changed for good since March 2020 – the critical assessments must follow – and must be owned by students.

Critical challenges

There is no shortage of material on which students can practice their critical judgement, from the platforms and resources of online learning to the changing world of work and the priorities for a society experiencing new threats. But it can be hard to build the kind of relationships that support students to question, challenge, and transform their perspective – work that is emotionally as well as cognitively demanding – when everyone is anxious and under stress. Relationships have a different quality when they are formed remotely, and we are all learning how to feel connection and care through our screens and headsets – and whether to trust those feelings. Learning at a screen is for many students a source of passivity, disconnection and low morale – hardly conducive to challenging oneself or others. And learning environments may model learning as organised instruction, or as success in particular routines of testing, in ways that make critical, caring and open pedagogies difficult to enact.

Critical agency may be even more radically compromised in digital spaces. Students occupy multiple digital cultures, with conflicting values and methods for establishing what is worth knowing and caring about. Datafication and surveillance, algorithmic nudges, the automated amplification of the extreme and irrational in human discourse, challenge us all to act reasonably. These developments may even ‘constrain the notions of freedom which previously seemed part and parcel of our understandings of agency’ (Pangrazio and Sefton-Greene, 2020).

Critical openings

Criticality – if it has to have any value in transforming people and institutions – is more than a toolbox of methods for winning an argument, or identifying and calling out ‘fake news’. It concerns students as whole people – the places from where they view the world, as much as what see and have to say about it. So the current crisis, as students are displaced from campus, and from where they hoped to be in their learning journey, can be an opening to new critical conversations and perspectives too.

In my interviews with critical digital practitioners, they speak far more eloquently about their theoretical commitments and their aspirations for students than they speak about specific activities they undertake with them. But activities can be useful shorthand for sharing and reflecting on pedagogic practices. They can be ways of speaking more explicitly about, for example, the learning environment and how it is constructed (democratically, collaboratively, or otherwise), about classroom relationships (who works with whom, who decides the pace and place, how outcomes are valued and receive attention, how questions are generated and pursued) and even about how power and authority circulate around practices of knowledge production. In fact this is surely what critical pedagogy requires of us – to translate strong principles into nuances of educational practice, which can cohere around a description of learning ‘activity’ as well as around other kinds of representation.

So in this open space at OER21 I offer three questions for participants to consider. How do digital platforms, tools and data, in the educational space:

  • support new critical methods?
  • ask new critical questions, or demand new critical approaches?
  • present new risks to developing criticality?

I present six kinds of activity that are described in the literature and practice of critical digital pedagogy, and offer some examples. Far more usefully (I hope), I offer a space for sharing further examples, and for discussing those we have.

If you can’t join me, watch this space for further write-ups and opportunities to take part. If you’d like to be interviewed for my research, please DM me @helenbeetham.

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