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Digital critical pedagogies: five emergent themes

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by Faiza Hyder and Mona Sakr

In this blog we explore the nature of Digital Critical Pedagogies – an emergent field of investigation that considers what happens to critical pedagogies in the context of digital learning environments. We present findings from the first strand of a research project that looks at ‘on the ground’ realities of DCP at Middlesex University. We report five themes that emerged from the first project strand, a collaborative literature review:  digitally mediated dialogues; creating ‘safe space’ online; interweaving public pedagogies; digital inclusion; and pedagogical risk-taking. These themes represent useful and practical starting points for advancing DCP practices in higher education.

What are Digital Critical Pedagogies?

Critical Pedagogies are a commitment to learning and teaching that centre on meaningful dialogues with and between learners.  In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks (1994) presents dialogue as the key way to connect learning in the classroom with ‘real life’ experiences in ways that prompt further inquiry and insight, and are a step towards self-actualisation. What happens to these connections when we attempt to cultivate them in digital learning environments, through forums or Zoom meetings or social media exchanges? This is the question underpinning the emerging field of Digital Critical Pedagogies (DCP): explorations in developing critical pedagogies in the context of digital encounters.

Our Research at Middlesex University

Our research explores the aspirations and realities of DCP at Middlesex University, which like the rest of the higher education sector has made seismic shifts over the course of the pandemic towards digitally mediated learning. We harbour a strong commitment to critical pedagogies and have wondered collectively about the nature of these critical pedagogies in the context of digital learning that can look and feel markedly different.

Our project was designed to develop a better understanding of the platforms and practices that facilitate effective digital critical pedagogies. It is about enabling those working ‘on the ground’ to collaborative in solving problems in response to challenges we face as a university community. It has been supported through funding from the University’s Centre of Academic Practice Enhancement. There are three stages to the project: a collaborative literature review; interview study; and a design workshop to develop recommendations that we can take forward as an institution to realise our commitment to DCP.

The first of these stages, the literature review, was co-produced with an advisory group of 12 Middlesex University academics from across the university’s disciplines. From the literature review five themes emerged which are best conceptualised as areas of special consideration when exploring and designing DCP. They represent elements of practice to reflect on carefully and develop further as part of the practice of DCP. They are:

  1. Digitally mediated dialogues
  2. Creating ‘safe space’ online
  3. Interweaving with public pedagogies
  4. Digital Inclusion
  5. Pedagogical risk-taking

Digitally mediated dialogues

While open dialogues have a special role to play in all critical pedagogies, dialogues are not a neutral social justice mechanism leaving everyone in them feeling empowered. Dialogues ride on power differentials and inequalities whether they take place in physical or digital spaces (Bali, 2014). In digital spaces, we need to be aware of the way that even the most basic of parameters (such as internet connectivity) shape who can have a voice within dialogue, and we cannot underestimate the importance of this as a consideration in digital critical pedagogies.

Creating ‘safe space’ online

Managing a ‘safe space’ for dialogue online is complex. Part of how we think about the safe space in digital critical pedagogies relates back to the previous theme of dialogue, in that how presence is mediated will impact on the capacity to create a ‘safe space’ for dialogue. Boler (2015) warned that in too much online learning and teaching we end up with ‘drive by difference’ rather than deep and meaningful engagements with diversity. When we divorce ourselves from our physical presence – from our facial expressions, body orientation, gesture and so on – the ways in which we can collaboratively construct a safe space for dialogue change. A teacher cannot ‘read the room’ in the way that they might do when they are in a physical classroom. They cannot see who feels uncomfortable or they might not appreciate the vulnerability that a learner is showing by sharing a particular story or perspective. Boler (2015) suggests that embodied multimodal communication is a key component of enabling spaces for genuine and open dialogue, so the question becomes: is it possible to do the necessary communicative work in an online space?

Interweaving with public pedagogies

Public pedagogies are processes of learning that take place in what Hill (2018) calls ‘digital counterpublics’. These are online spaces, often associated with grassroots movements (such as Black Lives Matter) or marginalised groups finding their voice, which are online space in which there are. Hill (2018), Ringrose (2018) and Castillo-Montoya et al (2019) all focus on navigating public pedagogies as part of a digital critical pedagogical approach. They investigate what happens when we open up learning and teaching spaces to engage with wider social movements across the world. In this case, the public pedagogies come first and the classroom pedagogies follow.

Digital inclusion

The literature suggests the need for an expanded vision of digital inclusion and that fostering this expanded digital inclusion is key to digital critical pedagogies. Prata-Linhares et al (2020) document access and use of digital technologies as part of education during the pandemic and the social distancing measures put in place. Seale and Dutton (2012) conceptualise digital inclusion not just as access and use but also in terms of participation, equity and empowerment. This means that it is just whether or not you have access to the physical resources, but also about whether you are empowered to engage digitally as part of your own personal identity and self-expression. Too often, digital inclusion initiatives are having to justify their own existence through showing that they are getting individuals online in order to engage in education or employment, rather than it being about the authentic empowerment of an individual or group.

Pedagogical Risk Taking

The review highlights the need for pedagogical risk-taking as part of the project of articulating and experimenting with digital critical pedagogies. A commitment to risk-taking is already part of the critical pedagogy described by hooks. Pedersen et al (2018) describe a shift to hybrid (rather than digital or online) pedagogies, because the term ‘hybrid’ emphasises the extent to which the pedagogies are always on the cusp of becoming, they are more ‘not quite there’ than ‘there’.

Pedagogical risk-taking involves exposure and this can be intimidating. Communities of practice offer an important way to enable this pedagogical risk-taking so that it is collaborative and supportive and that everyone feels that there is necessary room to fail (as well as succeed).

Anderson (2020), in discussing the digital pedagogy pivot we have seen in response to COVID19, suggests that communities of practice are essential to support collaboration, practice sharing, practice development. Putting communities of practice at the centre of digital critical pedagogies is an active way of pushing back against the discourse of ‘inevitable de-humanisation’ that characterises some writing on digital critical pedagogies (Morris and Stommel, 2018; Boler, 2015).

Next Steps

Across all of the literature, a recurring gap is the voice of learners. Although a few of the articles did carry out interviews with learners, the dominant voice in articulating and understanding digital critical pedagogies is undeniably that of the teacher. There is an urgent need for research that bridges the gap between learner and teacher.

We need careful observational research to identify which learners are heard in different types of digitally mediated communication used in learning and teaching, and to explore some of the following questions:

  • We need to think about these safe spaces. What does a ‘safe space’ look and feel like in the context of digital critical pedagogies? How do we know if we are in a safe space (as opposed to a sanitised space) for dialogue?
  • What are the benefits of interweaving with public pedagogies as part of digital critical pedagogies? We need to know far more about the learners’ experiences when they engage with public pedagogies and the ways that this interweaving can be written into learning, teaching and assessment.

Finally, we think of the themes identified from the review as not so much ‘knowledge’ but as points for reflection on practice. We hope to bring the finding to life for both Middlesex academics and further afield and are currently putting together a collaborative innovation workshop with teaching academics at the university to develop concrete recommendations about how DCP can be more systematically advanced in the university and in higher education more broadly.

Faiza Hyder has worked as a Primary School teacher for over ten years in various London boroughs including Barnet and Islington. She recently graduated with distinction as a Master’s student at Middlesex University. Faiza currently works as a researcher for ACT (Association for Citizenship Teaching). Her additional research interests include EAL (English as an Additional Language), Immigration and motherhood in migration. Twitter @HyderFaiza

Dr Mona Sakr is Senior Lecturer in Education and Early Childhood. She researches creative, digital and playful pedagogies in a range of educational contexts, from early childhood education to higher education. In relation to higher education, she has published on the use of social media as part of developing critical pedagogies and the use of creative methods (e.g. drawings) for developing insights into learner experience and student feedback. Twitter@DrMonaSakr

References (not embedded via URLs):

hooks, b (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of FreedomNew York: Routledge.

Morris, SM and Stommel, J (2019) An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy. Hybrid Pedagogy. Accessed 20.12.2021: https://criticaldigitalpedagogy. pressbooks.com/.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

One thought on “Digital critical pedagogies: five emergent themes

  1. Thank you for telling us about this very significant work

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