red balloon in bright, cloud-filled sky
22
Jan
2015

Embodying Openness as Inclusive Digital Praxis

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untitled” by Photoforía; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It is much easier to pay lip service to notions such as critical pedagogy and open education, than it is to truly embody those ideals in our own practice. One of the struggles I share with Ellsworth (1989) is my discomfort with how theoretical and abstract some critical pedagogy texts are, and how difficult it often is for a teacher to feel able to apply the ideas in them. Applying the ideals is complex and challenging. I think the same applies for open education, which I consider to be one way of embodying critical digital pedagogy (even though openness as a philosophy goes beyond the digital). I tend to agree with Adam Heidebrink-Bruno that an “open” philosophy should be inclusive (but often, in practice, is not).

Being truly open, inclusive educators is difficult. It entails making ourselves vulnerable by making our practice explicit and public. It entails opening our classrooms (usually behind walls) into spaces for others to observe and critique. It entails trying to accommodate diverse others we did not even know existed, and being excited about how they hack our ideas and what beauty this all brings, even when it initially makes us defensive or disappointed. There are other dimensions of openness that I might tackle in a future post, but for now, I’ll focus on openness as inclusion.

Two examples from non-digital critical pedagogy illustrate this well.

In Pedagogy of Hope, Paulo Freire humbly responds to women who criticize his sexist language in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. After admitting to his initial defensive reaction (after all, this is common linguistic practice), he writes about how he came to recognize the importance of language in propagating sexism. He empathized with how women feel excluded when someone writes about “men” as a way to include both men and women, because he knows that he would not identify himself with a statement talking about “women”. As a result of this critical reflection, Freire decided to change his practice to either constantly say “men and women” or to say “human beings”. He recognized his own shortcomings by listening openly to others, allowing them to help liberate him from the hegemonic linguistic practices most of us take for granted. He openly admitted the initial narrowness of his own view and how listening to constructive feedback of others revealed a different worldview – and he took action to rectify it.

The next example is more dramatic in its proportions: it is bell hooks’ narrative of how it felt as a young black schoolgirl in the age of desegregation. In Teaching to Transgress she tells of how being a black child in a mixed-race classroom was disempowering, as white teachers and students constantly reproduced racism and encouraged obedience to an alien culture, whereas previously, she had been educated by black teachers who engaged black children in a collective struggle. The story struck me as evidence of how something the dominant elites implement (desegregation) may appear to those in power to be a step forward in empowering the oppressed, but that they cannot make such claims on behalf of the oppressed, without actually including them. They had ignored, or at least bypassed, their agency. This is something that occurs regularly with foreign aid agencies working with developing countries, for example. I’m sure it occurs regularly in the relationship between governments and citizens; teachers and students; parents and children. It’s what Jennifer Gore refers to as the dominant deciding what they can do for others, rather than asking others how they would like to be helped.

Toward a More Inclusive Openness

The two examples above highlight an important aspect of inclusive openness: do not assume that you are aware of other people’s needs, nor that you can meet them, and not even that they would be happy for you to interfere. Instead, we need to listen to people different from ourselves, and ensure they have the power to shape not only their process but also our own. Encouraging and fostering student agency doesn’t simply set them on their own pathways (which, really, they might manage without our interference), but also opens ourselves to be influenced by them. To allow ourselves to change our minds, behaviors, and attitudes based on different perspectives and needs of the “Other”.

In summer 2014, I encountered a personal example of inclusive openness. I played the Twitter game #TvsZ for the first time. #TvsZ is a Twitter literacy game based on the humans vs zombies game played on college campuses in the US, and was originally developed by Jesse Stommel and Pete Rorabaugh. The game launch was scheduled for 3 or 4 a.m. my time, and Pete was excited that I was joining from Egypt in the wee hours of the morning. By the end of the game, there was a group of “new” people (including myself) who wanted to try co-facilitating the next round of #TvsZ and incorporate it in our classes. This team eventually co-designed and facilitated a hacked version, which ended up being #TvsZ 6.0. The team consisted of two men (including original co-designer Pete) and four women (including Janine De Baise, who had been involved in every version of #TvsZ as either a player or facilitator). They were all located in North America except for myself, in Egypt. The willingness of this team to welcome me in, not just for the exoticness of having a global team, but to truly include me as a key member of the facilitator team highlights a number of features necessary to embody inclusive openness:

  • Flexibility and Openness: team members who loved the zombie narrative (which had been successfully engaging participants for three runs of the game) were willing to accommodate the preference of two of us to change it (largely from a feminist drive for a non-violent narrative, but also my personal cultural aversion to zombies, or ignorance of their appeal). Not only were they accommodating, they were (for the most part) excited! We agreed to create a “hacked” version of the game and enthusiastically started brainstorming ideas over several months via google docs, google hangouts and twitter.
  • Generous with their time: I was the one on a different timezone, so scheduling hangouts was difficult; usually, I had to stay up late; but sometimes some of the others stayed up late at night or woke up early on a weekend to talk to me.
  • Culturally inclusive: we discovered the complexity of finding an alternative narrative to zombies that had a powerful impact and worked well – and yet another act of inclusiveness was that we had to scratch a lot of great ideas because they either did not have the same pop culture value for my Egyptian students, or because I could not use them with my students comfortably (e.g. we scratched a team called “We’re F*cked” because as I was uncomfortable using that kind of language with my students).

#TvsZ game is already a very open game which allows participants to create their own narrative and suggest rule changes while playing. This time, however, it was even more so. We modified the timing of the start, end, and key turning points in the game to accommodate Egyptian participants (no launch times at 3am this time!). The emergent nature of the rules of the game took on new proportions when an Egyptian student suggested changes to the “time limit” rules of the game in order to accommodate poor internet connections in some Egyptian homes. The game also incorporated narrative storytelling (and even a #danceparty) in multiple languages in order to highlight the diversity of the group of players and encourage collaboration.

My point is this: inclusive openness is not just a “cool” concept. It’s hard work. But it also pays off really well for everyone involved. As Howard Rheingold (one of the lead facilitators of the connected courses MOOC #ccourses) says in Net Smart, “Participation…is a kind of power that only works if you share it with others”, and he (as well as some of the other facilitators such as Mimi Ito, Mia Zamora and Alan Levine) repeatedly demonstrated this in practice by listening carefully to participant feedback, modifying elements of the course design and rhetoric, and going a couple of steps further to create space for participants to follow their own paths, going so far as to invite a few participants to join the facilitation team mid-course. In our “Bonds of Difference” articles (“Illusions”; “Participation”), Shyam Sharma and I talked about how a lot of rhetoric about inclusion in education addresses it from the perspective of the dominant.

There is a difference between creating a learning experience, and welcoming others into it on your own terms, and creating a learning experience and allowing others to modify it to suit their own terms. And even encouraging it. This often entails stepping outside our comfort zone and empathizing with a world view, or at least a point of view, different from our own. It can entail questioning deeply-held beliefs, enduring discomfort and overcoming defensiveness over how our often good intentions are received differently by others different from ourselves.

Many of us find ourselves in positions where we are alternately or simultaneously dominant and subaltern/marginalized. Are we able to embody inclusive openness?

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3 Responses

  1. Pingback : Invitation to Participate: mini #TvsZ Feb 10Reflecting Allowed | Reflecting Allowed

  2. Thank you Maha, I think you make an important point: dominance or oppression like freedom is not a fixed state but constantly fluctuating and changing according to context. I think this is what gives life to a dance of liberation.

    I suspect dance may well be a useful metaphor…

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