detail of the hinge system at the end of a pocket knife

Building Castles in the Air: Critical Digital Pedagogy and the Pursuit of Praxis

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Reviewed by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris
Pocket knife on edge” by Steve Snodgrass; CC BY 2.0

“Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for teaching with technology, and the decisions about what the right tools are depends as much on the job as it does the laborers. While the challenges posed by the pursuit of praxis-oriented pedagogies may vary greatly depending on educational content and context, we are all affected by the growing mediatization of daily life. The vocational promise of critical digital pedagogy is evident, but how will it be realized? In other words, how do we tone down the hype and get to work realizing the praxis of digital pedagogy?

After spending a week at the inaugural Digital Pedagogy Lab institute, I find myself inspired by the assortment of amazing people committed to developing critical pedagogies. There were a lot of people sketching out plans to build their own castles in the air, and that planning entailed a lot of tinkering with digital learning tools. Our designs may have differed, but together we worked on the common challenge of how to craft effective pedagogies in today’s increasingly networked society.

Digital optimists assert that the tools will make us more democratic, flatten social hierarchies, and make knowledge more accessible and engaging. Meanwhile, digital pessimists worry about the lack of privacy, the substitution of information for knowledge, and the loss of social skills and face-to-face interaction. While neither perspective is wholly (in)correct, both fail to fully explain the opportunities and challenges posed by the digital turn. That is why I have responded to the “polemics of techno-optimism and techno-pessimism” by making the case for technorealism.

Despite notable limitations, and regardless of where you sit on the pessoptimist continuum, the proliferation of digital technologies has the potential to strengthen (or undercut) traditional hierarchies. This potential holds true for a variety of fields — education, politics, journalism, popular culture, etc. — though the dynamics and objectives will vary depending on your position. For education, the time is ripe for pedagogical and institutional innovation. In response to the onslaught of neoliberal pressures for ever-increasing profits, which in turn leads to alienating environments and unremunerated labor relations, we may find solace in the promises of open scholarship and commons-based knowledge. Fortunately, the challenges to traditional classroom hierarchies can also lead to better learning environments, both for the students as well as the teachers.

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.

If the Only Tool You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail

The standard for learning management systems (LMS) has been to try to be a one-stop-shop for digital learning, but they succeed at being little more than a dumping ground for assignments, grades and readings. It is not because the concept of an LMS is flawed (although it may be), but because the execution of these ideas tends to fall far short of the expectations set by teachers and students. With the widespread accessibility of social media, today’s LMSs have big shoes to fill. I have long thought of many learning management systems as Web 1.0 tools for the Web 2.0 (or is it 3.0?) era.

Pedagogical tools should be engaging. They should be social and embedded in networks — that is, connected to other digital tools. They should be private by default and public by option. Yet, they should be accessible, which means viewable on all devices. They should be adaptable, so as to accommodate a wide variety of teaching styles. They should primarily be used to augment or supplement — that is, to hybridize — rather than to replace classroom interaction. This suggests that pedagogical tools should be built and selected to perform particular tasks. Too often, decisions to use a tool begs the question of what pedagogical functions they need to serve.

When I began teaching with technology, my primary goal was to meet students in their world, to engage them in the practice of critical reflection and discovery. Getting your hands dirty can be fun, especially when you leave room for failure and experimentation. Given that my courses highlight issues of technology and social change, as well as the fact that the vast majority of young Americans (my students included) use some form of social media, a praxis-oriented pedagogy is necessarily a hybrid pedagogy.

In 2011, I began incorporating a variety of social media tools in my classes — starting with blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr — in order to make learning more relevant outside the academy. While we were certainly challenged by moments of failure, the majority of my students have found these tools to be a useful supplement to more traditional learning environments. Today, I integrate a variety of digitally mediated assignments, including blogs, online discussion and problem-posing, as well as student research projects. We typically use Twitter, WordPress, and Storify, although the tools can vary greatly depending on the course, student, and project.

These experiences have led to my current, praxis-oriented pedagogy, where I not only teach with digital technologies, but also about them. Blogging and micro-blogging offer excellent opportunities for collaborative learning. Similarly, digital storytelling and content curation promote creativity and connection. Altogether, this pedagogy goes beyond the expectations of traditional education by helping learners acquire multiple types of capital that are viewed as valuable in today’s networked society.  

Learners develop digital literacies best when they are acquired in the process of serving other social and intellectual needs. This is yet another reason I have learned to embrace teaching with technology. Critical pedagogy is necessarily dialogical, and networked technologies offer endless opportunities for engagement — both with the public as well as with fellow students. When learners commit to engaging with networked publics, they find new ways to engage in discovery and serendipitous scholarship, as well as to earn the public recognition that may follow. Furthermore, when students engage with each other in the network, their sharing and dialogue lead to shared learning and community building. For example, some of the work my students have done on social media has earned public praise from a variety of audiences, including filmmakers and scholars at other institutions.

I cannot think of a better expression of praxis-oriented pedagogy than an education that emphasizes doing what it seeks to teach. Thus, educators should get to work designing and constructing pedagogical practices that live up to their promises. As Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel put it, “pedagogy is the place where philosophy and practice meet (aka “praxis”).” Seen through the lens of Thoreau’s metaphor, philosophy is the air and practice is the ground. Praxis, then, is the matter that bridges the gap, the foundation upon which our castles must be built. But just as the sky and the ground can feel worlds apart, so too can philosophy and practice. Building bridges that connect (read: synthesize) the two poles is no easy task, but we’ll never get there if we don’t get to work. Draft up your plans; stop deliberating and start doing.

DIY Pedagogy and the Pursuit of Praxis: Or, Building Your Own Castle

Pedagogies are like opinions: we all have them, though some are more reflexive, practical and better informed than others. In my experience, the journey toward praxis has been entirely reflexive: as my classroom grew more hybridized, the content also shifted more toward examining the tools we were engaging with. In other words, as the form changed, so did the content. The result has been a pedagogical shift that prioritizes public engagement as well as self-guided, experiential learning.

If the structures we are working with do not engage learners, we must build new ones. But there is no universal blueprint for critical, digital pedagogy. We are drawing up the plans as we go.

Sean Michael Morris was right to say that “Sisyphus had it easy.” Sisyphus was working alone, and his mountain was not nearly as lofty or treacherous as ours. But we are not alone, and we start our journey equipped with all the tools we could possibly need. Although there may be times when we feel isolated, slogging away in institutions of “higher learning” that too often neglect the values at the heart of a liberal education, we must remind ourselves of the community of teacher/scholars working toward shared (and similarly lofty) goals. Higher education wasn’t built in a day, nor was it built single-handedly. Like our courses, the key to realizing our potential may not come from within the individual, but from a more even distribution of labor across a wide and diverse network. We have the tools, we have the skills, and we have the community of workers. Now, how about those castles.

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3 Responses

  1. Sarah Honeychurch

    Hi Stephen – thank you for an absolutely stunning piece. All too often I think that folk are tempted just to translate their “traditional” teaching when they move online. You, on the other hand, are transforming it 🙂

  2. Pingback : Good Courses Don’t End: Announcing Digital Pedagogy Lab 2016 – Digital Pedagogy Lab

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