Critical Digital Pedagogy in the Modern Classroom: Expectations Vs. Reality

puzzle pieces

by Cherelle Young, Tuscaloosa City Schools

What is Critical Digital Pedagogy?

Kate Molloy, a learning technologist with the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at NUI Galway and a peer from the Digital Pedagogy Lab, gave a good, easy-to-understand definition of Critical Digital Pedagogy:

“CDP is the practice of reflective, critical teaching in a digital space. We must remain conscious of the agency connected with the digital tools we use. If learning occurs in a online spaces, it must be humanized to be inclusive to foster community and collaboration. #digped #intro.”

In other words, it means that Critical Digital Pedagogy (CDP) is the engine that prompts critical reflection and opens the conversation about dominant narratives. The point is to allow educators to think about praxis (teaching practice and the real world) and opens the door for communication.

Before arriving at Digital Pedagogy Lab (DPL)*, I thought I would be attending a tech conference to learn best practices for utilizing technology and to explore how to appropriately use technology tools to support the teachers and students in Tuscaloosa City Schools district (TCS). As a first-timer at DPL, it felt natural to enroll in the 4-day Introduction to Critical Digital Pedagogy workshop. I expected the speaker to walk participants through the basics of Critical Digital Pedagogy. I even expected to do some team-building activities with my fellow conference goers. The reality turned out to be very different than my expectations.

The workshop asked us to revisit ideas such as

  • How does the first thing we do in a classroom, the first words of our syllabus, the landing page of our course sites, shape the learning environment?
  • Where does the work of pedagogy, the work of teaching and learning, to quote bell hooks, “most deeply and intimately begin”?
  • How can we create more (and more varied) points of entry in our courses, programs, learning environments?
  • How can we empower students and grant them more agency in the unique space of a classroom?

As a seasoned educator and conference goer, I was not prepared to do invest this much thinking. I am glad that my reality was greater than my expectation.

CDP and Assessment

One thought-provoking workshop focused on assessment, evaluation, and grading. We were asked how do we assess and not oppress? Brain explosion! I expected to have discourse around how tests stigmatize different groups of people. In reality, we discussed and wrestled with how grades and institutional structures limit learning.

Chris Friend writes, “one main function of schools is to provide credentials for its graduates, we can say there is value in the assignment of otherwise arbitrary grades. But the process of being in school is shaped by the feedback students receive from teachers, rather than the final grades they are given. Teachers should be compelled to provide feedback, not grades, to their students. Feedback helps, whereas grades only label.”

Relating this concept to student learning, grade labels, sometimes, stifle learning. Feedback provides the guidance to re-think or create new meaning. This assignment challenged me to rethink assessments to create opportunities for students to construct their best work.

Looking Forward

I expected to leave this conference with a few high points and a few quirky takeaways to bring back to my colleagues. The reality is I left this conference asking myself questions and trying to figure out what to do next. What do I share from my experience in this workshop with my fellow K-12 and university educators?

The trek to DPL prompted me to focus, critically, on how teaching and learning may or may not look in different settings. When designing courses or sharing best practices as Instructional Technology Coach, I now ask myself the following questions:

  • Are the tools accessible for all learners? If they aren’t, I find tools and resources that cater to the needs of the student population.
  • Am I creating a space that promotes inquiry and freedom to think? An example of such a space is allowing students to encounter struggle with new content without unloading all of the ‘need-to-know’ information
  • Am I creating a space for learners to share and explore new and old ideas? I know I’m doing this when I allow students to critique information to see if the rules apply in different settings.
  • Am I providing the space for learners to invent or re-invent? An example of such a space is when students are able to create new meanings for an idea or concept that hasn’t been developed.
  • Am I creating an inclusive space? An example of such a space is when students can simply be human and empathize with people who may be different.
  • When considering ed tech tools, what are the tool provider’s policy on privacy and sharing information? How do I this? What do I do when I find a policy that is not acceptable?

My introduction to CDP not only met my expectations — it exceeded them. I became aware of things that I never questioned or never felt the need to question. The conference expanded my personal perspectives on topics in education that I hadn’t discussed before. While I did not leave thinking I would reinvent the wheel that is the American education system, I do believe that the wheel could use some enhancements.

DPL awakened something inside my educator’s heart and mind that refuses to go back to sleep, and I am determined to not allow the conversation to end simply because the workshops came to a close. I want my fellow educators and colleagues to join the conversation. Perhaps I will show up at DPL, and Chris’s expectation of us with be far less than his reality!

people holding large puzzle pieces on a table


Cherelle Young is an instructional technology coach with Tuscaloosa City Schools (@misscyo). 

FOOTNOTES

* Thanks to the support of Dr. Christine Taylor, the Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at The University of Alabama