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6 Principles of Critical Pedagogical Course Design

April 4 – April 22, Digital Pedagogy Lab will offer Intro. to Digital Humanities Pedagogy, the first in a year-long series of courses supporting research and praxis in Critical Digital Pedagogy. Enroll or see the full schedule here.

The lecture-based, passive curriculum is not simply poor pedagogical practice. It is the teaching model most compatible with promoting the dominant authority in society and with disempowering students.” ~ Paulo Friere

When I began working in course design, as I have written before, my toolbox included almost nothing but Bloom’s Taxonomy and the preternaturally unremarkable Skillsoft proto-learning management system. The click-through courses I designed as part of my job were carefully structured to take a learner from knowledge to comprehension to application to analysis. Ritually, the first module of any course bridged the lowest rungs of Bloom’s Taxonomy, while the second module pushed the learner to think a little beyond mere recall; but usually, application and analysis were saved for level 2 and level 3 courses. If you wanted to be a really good employee, you could pass these higher level courses, showing your supervisors that you were able to do more than, say, a trained dog.

I thought very little of the learning these courses purported to inspire.

Fast forward a decade and I found myself working inside the much more complicated Blackboard LMS, where community college students capable of evaluation, synthesis, and creation in their daily lives (folks who were making music with GarageBand for example, or running small businesses) were expected primarily to do tricks of recall and compliance in order to pass, graduate, get a better job. Nothing, really, had changed in that decade — except for the fact that now institutions of higher learning had adopted the corporate training model.

Then came Coursera upon a field of such great possibility, but with such unoriginal technique, such a failure of imagination, that I recognized instructional design had inspired little more than a wasteland where learning went to die.

Digital Pedagogy Lab Courses rise directly out of what has gone wrong in instructional design. It is a humble attempt to bring learning online through community, discussion, creation, digression, and narrative. Like Hybrid Pedagogy, the journal, seeks to redefine peer review through collaboration, Digital Pedagogy Lab is an experiment in a new way of approaching digital learning and faculty development. As the primary designer of the online Courses we offer, I pay no attention to Bloom’s Taxonomy, scaffold only in the way one bakes a cake, and ask of learners in the courses sudden deep participation in the community for which the curriculum is but compost.

As I collaborate with the instructors for these courses, I work to build environments where learners can get to know one another, where they can actively practice what they came to learn, and where they may have the opportunity to talk through aspects of Critical Digital Pedagogy as it affects their teaching philosophy, their praxis, their research, and their own learning process. Perhaps primary among my goals: I want learners and instructors alike to feel the support and empowerment that a collaborative community provides.

Every course should have an intrinsic value that — regardless of their quantifiable behavior — will leave us happy, sated, and a little bit surprised.

6 Principles of Critical Pedagogical Course Design

Every Digital Pedagogy Lab Course keeps in mind the following:

Content is #1: Content does not equate to learning, but should instead form the foundation for inquiry, discussion, dissension, and the production (not, never, no-way-no-how the consumption) of knowledge. Content is a proposal; no one should ever be quizzed on content. Content is not there to digest or memorize, it’s there to inspect, laugh about, jump off from.

To this end, we keep content as minimal as possible, and include always the spur toward dialogue. Not reading, not memorizing, not passing tests. Joining in. Content needs to be the ground upon which we meet, not the basis for what we learn.

Narrative structure: All courses are compositions, and as such they should tell a story. In this, I am referring both literally and also more generally to the idea of story. I believe that teaching should utilize anecdote, storytelling, performance in specific moments, but I also believe that any course should follow a narrative arc. An online course cannot be a series of handouts followed by a quiz. The course should begin one place and end someplace decidedly elsewhere… someplace learner and teacher mutually discover. The best courses are as engaging as the best stories, and they don’t neglect aesthetic considerations.

Open-ended questions: Yes or no questions are for computers, not people. If the answer to a classroom question is “yes” or “no”, it may as well be rhetorical for all the good it does. Pedagogically, open-ended questions are one of the simplest, least threatening ways to abdicate authority. If we are truly curious about what learners think, then we need to leave lots of room for their reasoning, musing, and questioning. And sometimes the best answers are questions.

It’s also important to use questions to spin off from content. Never ask for regurgitation of information. Why would we want it? Don’t we already know that particular answer? Can we let discussions grow out of content instead of asking participants to remind us of what we’ve said?

Actual work, no busy: Activity in a course should never be empty. Just as the answers to questions should not merely (blandly, boringly) repeat what’s been said already, neither should the work in a course require nothing more than an understanding of content. Learning isn’t an act of recall, so activities that support learning shouldn’t aim to demonstrate recall.

No assessments: I was recently asked by a colleague about a course Digital Pedagogy Lab will offer in Fall 2016, “What’s the method of assessment?” I responded, “Completion, whatever that means.” A course should be challenging enough that just getting through it is an accomplishment (and compelling enough that learners want to get to the end of the story). Jesse wrote that “there is no authority in the course except insofar as everyone is an authority.” The notion that teachers, above learners themselves, have more authority over assessment is absurd.

Business casual: Something happens when we go to write our very first page inside the LMS. We suddenly become the very old, white, male, tight-lipped scholar who can’t use contractions or ellipses or emoticons or ironic parentheticals or risky language (or run-on sentences). Even those of us who are not grammar guardians become hypervigilant about sounding like the stony, unapproachable expert. Most teachers sound nothing like themselves when they write online; and yet voice sets the tone in an online course. Perfect grammar shakes no one’s hand, gives no hugs.

Find out more about Digital Pedagogy Lab Courses

[Photo, “Trust the Driver” by Francois de Halleux.]