extreme close-up of the center of a flower; pollen spores collected in the middle
23
Aug
2016

Beyond Surface-Level Digital Pedagogy

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Written by
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Reviewed by Rebecca Halpern and Sean Hackney
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Can you guess what this is?” by Macroscopic Solutions; CC BY-NC 2.0

In 2013–14, a remarkable 20.5% (154,636) of all Master’s degrees were earned by students in the field of education. Only the field of business boasts a higher percentage of total Master’s degrees (25.5%). It is a fair assumption that most individuals with a Master’s degree in education do not plan to teach in higher education, but rather choose graduate school for (re)certification, career advancement, and/or economic incentives. The percentage drop in the proportion of doctoral degrees earned in education adds credence to the above claim. Doctorates in education trail such fields as social and behavioral science, natural science and mathematics, and computer sciences and engineering.

Given that many individuals that have a Master’s degree in education teach, or will teach, in K-12 classrooms, I feel it is imperative to think about the ideas of digital pedagogy that run rampant in schools of education and teacher preparation programs. How do we prepare classroom teachers to use digital tools and pedagogies? What implicit or explicit assumptions do graduate education programs make about digital learning and pedagogy? How does this affect elementary and primary school students? While it is extremely important to think about how we prepare graduate teachers, I think it is equally important to think about how and what those graduate classes teach K-12 teachers. Graduate schools of education provide a pivotal opportunity for instruction with critical digital pedagogy. If graduate teachers are not trained in, or with, critical digital pedagogy, then classroom teachers may also find this skill set lacking. As a result, young students will remain unexposed to critical digital pedagogy within our schools.

One of the fundamental theses of critical pedagogy rests in the assertion that education is not an ideologically neutral task.  A critical digital pedagogy extends this line of thought to include the intrinsic non neutrality of digital tools, practices, and pedagogies. Jesse Stommel writes, “education (and, to an even greater extent, edtech) has misrepresented itself as objective, quantifiable, apolitical.” The misrepresentation Stommel highlights is evident in the pedestrian and positivist digital pedagogy common in graduate schools of education.

In an education system that is increasingly going digital in everything from assessment to record-keeping, critical discussion about the role of digital practices should be a major feature in graduate schools of education. Without contestation or challenge, young teachers may assume digital technologies are immune to bias and inequality. I certainly fell into this category going through my graduate program. I wanted something that would engage my students immediately the next day in the classroom. My instructors were happy to introduce us to new tools, but I cannot recall one time where anything other than device or internet access was critically discussed. Power structures that may limit student/teacher agency and empowerment remain veiled, protected by the cacophonous voices (like mine) clammering for practicality and innovation. Citing the gap between preservice multicultural education and teacher technology education, McShay and Leigh assert, “that teacher educators must examine the formalized and hidden curricula of their instructional technology programs.” To counter the implicit assumptions of instructional technology programs, McShay calls for specific models to incorporate critical multicultural education with technology integration. Unfortunately, some of the loudest and most uncritical voices are the very professors teaching education technology courses and/or structuring programs. The reality is quite frank — nuanced conversations about the promises, privileges, and potentials inherent in digital tools and technology are largely absent within teacher preparation, certification, and continuing education programs. This contestation, contextualization, and challenge is at the heart of a critical digital pedagogy.

It has been my personal experience through my own Master’s program, teacher credentialing, social media use, doctoral work, and continued classroom teaching that while digital tools and edtech are emphasized more and more, a critical digital pedagogy is terribly lacking.

Using a fictional composite narrative, I use storytelling to critique the use of digital pedagogy found in some departments of education in order to show how digital pedagogy might be paired with critical reflection to create more meaningful praxis.


“That will be $2.75,” the cashier muttered without looking up.

I handed him a five, and two minutes later I cautiously took a sip from my decaf Americano. I glanced at my phone. It was just after 7:00 PM. I planned to get to class a few minutes early to introduce myself to the professor. My last ‘hybrid’ class was a disaster. I hoped a personal connection with the teacher might provide some context for our future online interactions. If not, it would be like the other classes I took. Regardless, this was the last core class I needed for my Master’s in secondary education.

“Too late,” I thought to myself. I arrived to find the professor in mid conversation with a group of students. Instead of chatting, I found a seat toward the middle and focused my attention to the illuminated ‘smart board’ displaying a stream of the #edtech hashtag on Twitter. Before class started, the professor excused himself from the group of students and refreshed the Twitter stream.

“Welcome to Integrating Technology into the Secondary Social Studies Classroom. If you’re here for another class I’m sorry to disappoint. My name is Dr. Prall. Before I introduce myself let’s take a look at the board.” For the next fifteen minutes Dr. Prall clicked and commented. I thought his excitement was a bit ridiculous given that most people in the class were either in their mid-20s or showed visible signs of disinterest. “I want to get you out of here early tonight, so let’s review the syllabus. Let’s actually start from the back because this whole semester is to prepare you for a final project. You must create a unit where students use two or more mobile or web apps daily. You will share your unit, film a few lessons, and finally give a PowerPoint presentation about how it went. I shouldn’t say PowerPoint because we will learn about many new presentation tools you can use instead.” A few students asked clarifying questions about what to do if student access to technology was limited, but most of us knew that we could get out of class sooner if we remained quiet. “Okie dokie, that should do it. Remember to post a few thoughts online this week and respond to one other post. I’ll see you in person in three weeks.”

I needed both of my alarms to wake up the next day. My students were keen to pick up on this. “Ms. T. you look tired today.”

“You really know how to compliment a teacher,” I joked. Tenth graders are fun because I can tease them a little. “You know I have class some Mondays. It makes for a long night. Don’t worry I loaded up on caffeine for ya!”

“What class you taking?”

“Some class about education technology. I have to think about a unit where we use apps every day.”

Surprisingly, a few students voiced their disapproval, “Ugghhhh! We had to do that in Mr. Brown’s class.”

Sean added something else. “Ya, I think Mrs. Fatal took the same class. She made us use something called an LMS or something. It basically just controlled what we had to learn. She thought it was like way different, but really it was just like being in desks surrounded by the four walls of the classroom.”

I was shocked, “Really?”

Cecilia broke in, “Really Ms. T. Sometimes I feel bad for the teachers. I mean no offense or anything, but sometimes you all think you are impressing us with all this new shiny stuff. It might grab our attention for a second before we realize that it is usually just the same old, same old. My math teacher tries to get us to use this app, but really it’s just a colorful worksheet.”

Our conversation stuck with me for the rest of the day. I sat at my desk after school staring at the computer screen. I felt like I was missing something. Facing a long commute home, I searched for a podcast to push my thinking. I found an episode of HypridPod exploring the idea of digital pedagogy.  Some of the exchanges were not that different than my students’ own words. In particular, Molly Hatcher referenced a fixation on buzzwords. I started to think my students could see right through the fancy vocabulary as well.

When I got home I continued down the rabbit hole. I remembered the name Audrey Watters mentioned during the podcast. A few searches led me to an article I read and reread, Ed-Tech and the Commercialization of Schools. I copied a few of her questions to a Google Slide. “How, for example, do new technologies coincide with ways in which we increasingly monitor and measure students? How do new technologies introduce and reinforce the values of competition, individualism, and surveillance? How do new technologies — the insistence that we must buy them, we must use them — help to change the purpose of school away from civic goals and towards those defined by the job market?” I hoped that this would spark some conversation. I might even learn something from my students. After all, they were the ones constantly teaching me about the hottest apps and trending technologies. Perhaps I could give up some of my power, trust the students, and invite them to be active co-creators of the unit project. With this shift, our combined perspectives might lead to a more transformative and reflective classroom experience.

The next day I decided to walk into the classroom with my students. I carried a backpack and sat in a desk near the back of the class. I wanted to make clear that they were the teachers today. I pointed to the whiteboard. What should teachers know about how you use technology? What do you struggle with? What do you question? Almost every student wanted to share something. I did my best to simply listen. I filled a whole legal pad with their notes, ideas, and stories. I transitioned to the questions I found the night before. In a few minutes we were talking about student rights, freedom of speech, and a whole host of social studies topics. I scanned my graduate school syllabus to find when we planned to cover such controversial material. Nothing. I wondered why my students were so much more critical and reflective than the faculty at the university.

“So what should we do with all your thoughts, opinions, and insights,” I asked?

A shy boy answered somewhat apprehensively, “It would be really cool if your teacher and classmates could hear us. You know, like you are doing now — letting us teach the teachers.”

“If you don’t mind I have three questions to help you plan the project. What are you making? Why are you making this? Who is it for? In fact, let me email you the article. You can scan it as we talk.”

“Since we are making this for old people, let’s make a poster or pamphlet. That’s probably all they can understand.”

“Or how about a PowerPoint? Teachers always think they are like da bomb when they give us a PowerPoint assignment.” The whole class laughed.

The same shy boy waited for the class to quiet down, “We need to teach the teachers. All of us use Snapchat. Why can’t we create stories where we use research, interviews, and personal opinions to answer some critical questions about technology in the classroom. We can tie it back to the Bill of Rights or something if you really need to Ms. T.”

“Let’s talk about some of the questions that might be interesting to explore.” I looked at the time. Class was already over.

“We’ll start a group text to come up with some of those questions,” Natalia assured me.

The next day, the class hammered out six questions to develop their Snapchat project. “Who decides the educational technology we use? Who pays for it? Who has access? Who controls our information? What can students teach adults about combining education and technology? How do these questions relate to things in history and social studies?”

When I presented our unit to my peers on the last day of my graduate class, I shared the students’ ‘snaps’ along with a few thoughts of my own. I used a Google Slides presentation to argue that digital pedagogy can not be limited solely to methods or a teacher’s practice. Cool tools and apps are not enough. We must think deeply about how and why we use technology in our classrooms. We must be willing to listen to our students and to learn from them. Their knowledge is valid, and their experiences can teach us much. It’s vital to search out different voices that make us question and inquire about the assumptions we make. In short, digital pedagogy should be critical. Critical digital pedagogy affirms the need for praxis, equal parts reflection and practice. Schools of education cannot simply push out teachers who recite buzz words, hashtags, and a tool belt of free softwares without acknowledging the structures and systems at work. Our investigation was a good start, but there is a need to examine issues of race, gender, sexuality, equality, privilege, and access. Injustices and inequities occur both inside and outside technology. Teachers need to do the tough work of engaging philosophically and critically with the technology they use.

I closed with a quote from Stephen Barnard:

“A praxis-oriented digital pedagogy challenges us to simultaneously keep our feet on the ground and our heads in the clouds. This means that while we must keep dreaming loftily about the possibilities for building a better tomorrow, we must also stay focused on making steps in that direction today. This means selecting the right tools for the job, and being willing to toss them aside when they do not work. Otherwise, we fall into the all-too-common trap of fetishism and technological solutionism.”


Audrey Watters speaks to the need to take risks and problematize the structures and systems of education technology. “I worry a lot about the silence on issues of race and gender among educators, particularly those in ed-tech…to act as though new technologies — be they Twitter, iPads, Google Classroom, ‘personalized learning software’ — are free of ideology or are equally or necessarily ‘liberatory’ seems so dangerous.” We can have online conversations, write in academic journals, and build activist communities, but if our institutions of higher learning ignore the calls for critical digital pedagogy a vast number of K-12 educators will continue to look for shiny tools to cover up education’s most difficult problems.

The unreflective adoption of digital pedagogy is something I constantly have to fight against in my own practice. There is so much hype and excitement regarding digital tools and technology that it is easy to run to the next ‘big thing’. This tendency is reinforced by a growing audience of educators waiting to ‘ooh and aah’ their colleagues and networks. One can’t help but get caught up in this vacuum of celebratory hullabaloo.

We must look deeper. Take the recent craze of Pokémon GO as an example. Some educators have suggested that Pokemon Go can ‘trick’ students into learning, and that it presents the future of learning. I admit I have it on my phone and have enjoyed a few Poké-walks with my younger siblings. The thought even crossed my mind — how can I use this excitement with my 6th graders? It is possible to use it as a critical exercise. Teachers can ask students to consider what information they are giving to the company, how they log in, or whether there are problems with Pokémon GO locations. Anna Oro started this terrific Google document to help students think critically.

As a practitioner, I want my colleagues to question their praxis, my praxis, our praxis. I want our graduate schools of education to equip its students, our teachers, with the tools to critique, challenge, and contest digital pedagogy. If not, I fear that education technology and digital tools will be used by well-meaning teachers to reproduce the current inequalities and injustices in our schools. I hear often that one teaches the same way they were taught. This is just as true with digital pedagogy.

In closing, I leave two major questions to continue and expand this dialogue. Why is there not a bigger call for critical digital pedagogy in our schools of education? How might schools of education integrate digital critical pedagogy into their programs?

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1 Response

  1. Tim. When you talk about schools of education do you mean teaching credential programs or Masters/PhD programs?

    I’ve taught in a high school for 21 years. I love fun new toys, but I don’t look to it as some magic pill. Whenever I read angry ed “reformers” I feel like they are responding to the worst of Twitter and taking a headline of an article and walking it around an angry mob, like a head on a pole. Feel free to come into our lounge or our classrooms. No one is gushing that edtech will replace reading, questions, discussing, writing etc… about a novel like The Grapes Of Wrath.

    No one outside of the K12 classroom gets paid or paid attention to by saying “the kids are alright.” We are beset by consultants for hire and higher ed wonks who are either saying “more 21st century tech” or “tech isn’t the answer.” I have yet to see one of these “super concerned” university professors walk into an actual classroom and talk to teachers in the lounge. I guess their concern only goes as far as a paycheck or published hit piece.

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