Tightrope Monkey
05
Mar
2013

Decoding Digital Pedagogy, pt. 2: (Un)Mapping the Terrain

Digital pedagogy is not a dancing monkey. It won’t do tricks on command. It won’t come obediently when called. Nobody can show us how to do it or make it happen like magic on our computer screens. There isn’t a 90-minute how-to webinar, and we can’t outsource it.

We become experts in digital pedagogy in the same way we become American literature scholars, medievalists, or doctors of sociology. We become digital pedagogues by spending many years devoting our life to researching, practicing, writing about, presenting on, and teaching digital pedagogies. In other words, we live, work, and build networks within the field. But this isn’t exactly right, because digital pedagogy is less a field and more an active present participle, a way of engaging the world, not a world to itself, a way of approaching the not-at-all-discrete acts of teaching and learning. To become an expert in digital pedagogy, then, we need research, experience, and openness to each new learning activity, technology, or collaboration. Digital pedagogy is a discipline, but only in the most porous, dynamic, and playful senses of the word.

You can’t outsource digital pedagogy, because it is inextricably bound up in the work of teaching and learning. Digital pedagogy is not a path through the woods. It’s a compass (one that often takes several people working in concert to use). And in the next 10 years, digital pedagogy will become (and already is to an extent) coterminous with pedagogy. We do not, after all, talk about chalkboard pedagogy, even though the chalkboard is one of the most advanced and revolutionary educational tools. Digital pedagogy is also becoming, for me, coterminous with critical pedagogy, given the degree to which the digital can function both as a tool for and an obstacle to liberation. Digital pedagogy demands that we rethink power relations between students and teachers — demands we create more collaborative and less hierarchical institutions for learning — lest we use computers to replicate the vestigial structures of industrial-era education.

I have devoted nearly all my professional life to teaching, to the collaborative work I do with students. And, while I have sometimes focused on literary and media studies, my primary scholarly interest has always been pedagogy. Most of my pedagogies, including my digital ones, are rooted in thinkers like Emerson, Thoreau, Elbow, Dewey, and Freire. Pedagogy is not synonymous with teaching or talking about teaching, nor is it entirely abstracted from the acts of teaching and learning. It is, as I’ve written before, “the place where philosophy and practice meet (aka ‘praxis’).” It’s a surprisingly difficult line to toe, or wall to teeter upon: meta-cognitive reflection on, and investigation of learning, which is by its nature emergent.

In “Decoding Digital Pedagogy, pt. 1: Beyond the LMS”, Sean writes,

Pedagogy has at its core timeliness, mindfulness, and improvisation. Pedagogy concerns itself with the instantaneous, momentary, vital exchange that takes place in order for learning to happen.

Because it’s responsive by nature, pedagogy can’t be pinned down in a stable definition. Still, we recognize it when we see it, and it looks like a teacher or learner puzzled, hands-at-the-ready, mouth-agape, pausing just as they’re about to speak or take action. It looks like careful planning without attachment to or fetishizing of outcomes. It looks like failure. And wonder.

The digital adds another not-at-all-discrete meta-level layer. The tools we use for learning, the ones that have become so ubiquitous, each influence what, where, and how we learn — and, even more, how we think about learning. Books. Pixels. Trackpads. Keyboards. E-books. Databases. Digital archives. Learning management systems. New platforms and interfaces are developed every week, popping up like daisies (or wildfires). None of these tools have what we value most about education coded into them in advance. The best digital tools inspire us, often to use them in ways the designer couldn’t anticipate. The worst digital tools attempt to dictate our pedagogies, determining what we can do with them and for whom. The digital pedagogue teaches her tools, doesn’t let them teach her.

John Dewey writes in Schools of To-Morrow: “Unless the mass of workers are to be blind cogs and pinions in the apparatus they employ, they must have some understanding of the physical and social facts behind and ahead of the material and appliances with which they are dealing.” This remark is not unlike the image Fritz Lang depicts at the outset of the 1927 film Metropolis: slaves to a machine becoming food for the machine. The danger in fetishizing machines is that we become subject to them. But turning away in the face of the digital will lead to much the same fate. Rather, we need to handle our technologies roughly — to think critically about our tools, how we use them, and who has access to them.

Digital pedagogy has been variously defined. Brian Croxall and Adeline Koh offered a very inclusive, broad-stroke definition at their MLA Digital Pedagogy Unconference, saying that “digital pedagogy is the use of electronic elements to enhance or to change the experience of education.” And Katherine D. Harris offered up the components of her digital pedagogy — which she borrows in part from the “mainstays of Digital Humanities” — during a NITLE seminar on the subject: “collaboration, playfulness/tinkeringfocus on process, and building (very broadly defined).”

Digital pedagogy is an orientation toward pedagogy that is not necessarily predicated on the use of digital tools. This is why I like Harris’s focus on process and Croxall and Koh’s use of the seemingly vague, but in fact quite lovely, phrase “electronic elements.” The phrase dissects the notion of an educational technology, turning the discussion to a consideration of the smallest possible element that might influence teaching and learning: the electrical impulse. At this level, we’re not talking about how we might use WordPress in a composition class, or how Smart Boards failed to revolutionize K-12 education, but about how the most basic architecture of our interactions with and through machines can inspire new (digital or analog) pedagogies. Thus, Kathi Inman Berens says that “the new learning is ancient.”

In a crowdsourced article on Hybrid Pedagogy, five of us argue that “the ‘digital’ in ‘digital humanities’ and ‘digital pedagogy’ refers less to tech and more to the communities tech engenders and facilitates.” Similarly, Paul Fyfe asks, in Digital Pedagogy Unplugged, “How do we break the thrall to tools and technologies which may limit the horizon of our pedagogical creativity?” Digital Pedagogy is a pedagogy of hacking, which Fyfe defines as “adapt[ing], manipulat[ing], and mak[ing] productive use out of a given technology or technological context or platform.” It also depends on collaboration. Cathy Davidson writes in “Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age”: “Given the interactive nature of most of our lives in the digital age, we have the tools to harness our different forms of attention and take advantage of them.” She goes on to argue for a distributed notion of expertise, because “the more expert we are, the more likely we are to be limited in what we conceive to be the problem, let alone the answer.”

This discussion can’t be strictly academic or administrative. Digital pedagogy necessarily involves both teachers and students — those at traditional institutions and lifelong learners. “We must develop a participative pedagogy,” writes Howard Rheingold, “assisted by digital media and networked publics, that focuses on catalyzing, inspiring, nourishing, facilitating, and guiding literacies essential to individual and collective life in the 21st century.” Students and learners should be central in mapping the terrain of digital pedagogy. Educational institutions should dedicate themselves to supporting this work. And, as Cathy Davidson recently remarked, all of us need to “sustain innovation by finding the cheapest, fastest, least bureaucratic way to make ourselves perpetual learners.”

Digital pedagogy calls for screwing around more than it does systematic study, and in fact screwing around is the more difficult scholarly work. Digital pedagogy is less about knowing and more a rampant process of unlearning, play, and rediscovery. We are not born digital pedagogues, nor do we have to be formally schooled in the ways of digital pedagogy. There’s lots to read on the subject, but we can’t just read our way into it; there is no essential canon. In fact, expert digital pedagogues learn best by forgetting — through continuous encounters with what is novel, tentative, unmastered, and unresolved.

Read the first part: Decoding Digital Pedagogy, pt. 1: Beyond the LMS.”

[Image by The hills are alive]

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