Building Authentic Digital Learning: an Intro to Critical Digital Pedagogy

On July 31-August 3, 2018, Digital Pedagogy Lab will offer an Introduction to Critical Digital Pedagogy course taught by Chris Friend, Director of Hybrid Pedagogy and Assistant Professor of English at Saint Leo University. This course will discuss, challenge, and experiment with various technological tools from the chalkboard to moveable chairs, networks, computers, mobile devices, social media platforms, and learning management systems. We will focus on teaching philosophies, discernment practices for using digital tools in courses, emergent learning, digital composition, and discussions of the impact of the digital on traditional and critical pedagogies.

What does a room look like if it’s turned inside-out? How does a classroom work if it’s not just flipped, but fully everted? What unspoken rules of education beg to be rewritten or broken in the name of learning?

When students and teachers come together to form a class, an unspoken contract precedes even the most strict and specific syllabus. We have come to expect a predictable, arguably comfortable, way of doing things that has the weight of history—sometimes science, and often edtech—supporting its continued adoption, fueling its growth. This predictable comfort trains us to look for the daily calendar in the syllabus, the formatting requirements in the assignment sheet, the required number of posts and replies in the discussion forum, and the answers in the study guide. Put one way, we have schooling down to a science. Put another way, we’ve mechanized education. The syllabus, assignment sheet, discussion forum, study guide, and answer key don’t come from the students in the class—and sometimes not even from the teacher, either.

What if we’re doing it all wrong? What if some rules and some assumptions need to be challenged or removed to make room for genuine learning? History, science, and edtech remove from consideration the students in our classes right now. The ones in front of us, or working with us online. Those students need the ability to find their own path, to direct their own learning, to follow their own curiosity. When we get schooling down to a science, we deprive our classes of the ability to emerge organically from the people and interests in the room with us. When we mechanize education, we remove students from the process and privilege efficiency over experience.

If I know one thing about learning, I know it’s not quick. It meanders, explores, follows trials on whims, dives down rabbit holes, and ends up exploring the unexpected. The very thing that makes genuine learning intrinsically rewarding is its lack of predictability and slow, rhizomatic path. Education, therefore—if its intention is to motivate learning—needs must also be slow, feel organic, and embrace divergence. Such needs present a challenge for an education system designed to manufacture workers in the industrial age, predicated upon bell schedules, subject-matter experts, and AP exams with timed-writing assessments and anonymous graders. Our system has been designed to disconnect students from the process of discovery, to disconnect the teacher from the lived experience of the students, to disconnect the content from the learners, to disconnect the assessment from the needs of the students. Our education system works to serve the system, not the students.


This semester, I’m teaching a class called The Art of Conversation. Very few students enrolled, and the overwhelming majority are what I call “hardcore introverts”. Our discussions can at times be painfully quiet, but sometimes, when we hit a topic that magically resonates with the students, we just go. After twenty, thirty minutes of exploring ideas and interpretations, we come up for air and realize we ended up nowhere near where we started—we went on a journey together through our dialogue. Each time that happens, one or another student remarks that we “got totally off-topic.” Yet those discussions are the most fulfilling, most rewarding of the class. As I’ve noted before, “The moment we attempt to set the conclusion of a discussion before it starts, we cheat our students out of an opportunity for honest engagement, and we fool ourselves into thinking we let our students learn things for themselves.” Truly, there is no such thing as off-topic discussion if it’s drawn by curiosity. Students have been conditioned to believe that conversations must remain “on topic” because they’ve been trained to have pseudo-discussions where the outcome has been predetermined by an authority managing a script.

Paulo Freire describes this trap as a result of conditioning. Students grow to expect oppression and struggle to find their place when granted greater freedom through efforts to remove their strictures. Freire explains,

“Without freedom they cannot exist authentically. Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it. They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized.”

Our challenge, then, is to create classes in which students can elevate their consciousness despite their internalized oppression and help them negotiate authentic existence without fear. That—the most human thing we can do—is the work to which we must commit ourselves. That work is by no means simple, obvious, or easy.

For four days this summer, a cohort of learner-educators will engage that challenge head-on, using dialogue, activities, and mini-projects to find ways to slowly, deliberately unpack the normal expectations of modern education. We’ll question our assumptions, challenge the solutions espoused by the experts, and build a better understanding of the humanity underpinning everything we do when we teach.

Register for Introduction to Critical Digital Pedagogy

Chris Friend

Among with Digital Pedagogy Lab

Chris Friend is Assistant Professor of English at Saint Leo University, and the Director of Hybrid Pedagogy.

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