Teaching, Not Tools: A #digped Conversation

On Friday, May 1, at 12PM EDT we will talk about digital tools and praxis, and how they intersect in our professions. We’ll consider questions of adoption, criticality, and hype — questions which will move us toward Digital Pedagogy Lab, which Hybrid Pedagogy is co-sponsoring in August, 2015.

Technology is trending in the education industry. Schools, Colleges, and Universities already strapped for cash still find space in their shrinking budgets to invest in innovative tools. These institutions do so because they have been told that these tools will democratize learning, amplify access, eliminate disparity, and revolutionize the classroom. It take much more than an app to realize these goals. Education technology, at its core, is not about tools, but about teaching.

Educators have been experimenting with new technologies for a long time and debating their utility since Socrates first critiqued the use of written language circa 370 BC. The potential of teaching with technology has filled educators with both excitement and concern for over two millennia, and yet it remains a vital conversation even today.

The education market is saturated with tools that promise teachers and students the world. It’s disorienting and it quickly becomes apparent that not all tools are created equal. Therefore it’s crucial, in this environment, to know how and where educational funds are being spent. More importantly, educators should be constantly reflecting on what pedagogical values these technological decisions reinforce. Hidden behind every algorithm, dataset, and interface lies a belief about teaching and learning.

Consider the Digital Humanities. Adeline Koh recently argued that the projects being funded by federal digital humanities grants appear to be held together by some very specific criteria. In general, Koh observed, money from sources such as NEH the ACLS has supported projects that emphasize tools, big data, and the power of computation. She asks: how might this definition artificially limit the potential of the field?

Rather than catering project proposals to this model, however, Koh challenges her readers to “champion [a] new wave of digital humanities: one which has humanistic questions at its core.” And I think that’s precisely what Alison Hicks did two weeks ago when she published, “LibGuides: Pedagogy to Oppress?,” an article which calls into question a “practical and convenient tool that librarians use to create online guides to research.” In this piece, Hicks encourages us to rethink our relationship to tools and the places they occupy in our profession. In doing so, we may very well realize, as Hicks does, that we are not always comfortable with these relationships.

Hicks writes:

“while librarians have started to think about the nature of critical pedagogy in the classroom, a failure to subject instructional materials to the same processes of reflective, critical thinking serves to dehumanize both our students and the nature of research and inquiry.”

A serious pedagogical concern arises from investigating the role of this particular technology. What was initially designed to be a convenient research tool may in practice hinder students’ ability to learn to research on their own because the technology positions research “as a transferral of information, rather than as an act of exploratory and liberatory meaning-making.” Hicks’s articles leaves me wondering where else this is happening and how such pitfalls can be avoided.

The optimist and tech enthusiast in me finds much to praise in the burgeoning education technology market. The options are exciting. At the same time, however, I recognize that such a growth in options requires an increasing level of discernment. Critical digital pedagogy involves not only asking how we teach but also through what tools we choose to engage our students.

Our next #digped chat, beginning at 12:00pm EDT on May 1, will begin that process of discernment. Here are a few questions to consider in advance of the chat:

  • Where is education technology money being spent at your institution? Alternatively: where is it not being spent? What pedagogical values do these decisions reinforce?
  • What unintended consequences have you encountered while experimenting with new education technologies and tools? Were they positive or negative?
  • How might we introduce tools to students in ways that are both practical and critical? What might be done to ensure that the tools we implement benefit students and encourage learning?

Enter the fray on Twitter under #digped on Friday, May 1, at 12:00pm EDT. Check out worldtimebuddy.com to see when to join us in your time zone. If you have suggestions for future topics, tweet them to @adamheid or @hybridped. And kick the discussion off (or continue it after the chat) in the comments below.

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