sean michael morris

"Remember, We're Human!": A Critical Review of Critical Digital Pedagogy
A book review of An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy

Morris, S.M. & Stommel, J. (2018). An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy. (Hybrid Pedagogy Inc.)

Reviewed by: Tim Gladson, Open Educational Resources Curator (tgladson@nu.edu)

Introduction

Educational technology is consistently touted as the solution to all problems in higher education—both administrative tasks such as scheduling and authenticating student records, as well as teaching and learning. In a world obsessed with big data, artificial intelligence, and automation, An Urgency of Teachers warns faculty not to forget the human element of education—and why faculty teach in the first place. As summarized in the book description:

Too many approaches to teaching with technology are instrumental at best, devoid of heart and soul at worst. The role of the teacher is made impersonal and mechanistic by a desire for learning to be efficient and standardized. Solutionist approaches like the learning management system, the rubric, quality assurance, all but remove the will of the teacher to be compassionate, curious, and to be a learner alongside their students.

The authors urge faculty to re-emphasize exploration and collaboration in online learning, and to favor qualitative personal growth over quantitative assessment of content acquisition. Faculty are called to lifelong professional development in the art of teaching and continuous experimentation in (and beyond) the digital classroom.

 

Background

Jesse Stommel, is executive director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington (UMW) in Virginia; Sean Michael Morris is lead instructional designer and director of UMW’s Digital Pedagogy Lab, which hosts an annual professional development conference for educators. They are co-founders and writers for the Hybrid Pedagogy open access journal (think reflection journal rather than research journal). Both authors studied English at the University of Colorado Boulder—hence the peppering of literary references throughout their work, especially to Shakespeare and Melville.

An Urgency of Teachers, is freely available online and openly licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 license (this license allows other faculty to use and adapt the work for non-commercial purposes, provided that they give proper credit to the original authors). The 44 essays in this anthology were originally published between 2012 and 2018, and many have been lightly edited; 29 essays were previously published in Hybrid Pedagogy and 14 others on their personal blogs. Unfortunately, original publication dates are only listed in the bibliography. 20 essays are attributed to Stommel, 18 to Morris, and 6 to both, although they acknowledge rampant cross-pollination between them (I will not attempt to cite which author is responsible for each essay referenced in this review).

The title “An Urgency of Teachers” is a response to technologists emphasizing “An Urgency of Machines”—an obsession with automation and data analysis that subdues the human elements of both teaching and learning. The authors argue that faculty need to base their ed-tech choices on critical educational pedagogy, rather than letting the technology direct their teaching. As a profession, many educators have forgotten why they teach in the first place and what meaningful learning consists of. The authors urge faculty to ground their pedagogy in critical thinking, personal transformation, inquiry, creativity, and community engagement, rather than focusing on the mere transmission of content.

Throughout the book, the authors cite Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and other proponents of critical theory in education (see “Critical Instructional Design”). As a result, pedagogy, social justice, and activism are portrayed as inseparable. Morris and Stommel offer bold rhetoric about the applications of critical theory (especially Freire’s critical pedagogy) to online learning.

 

Key Points

Several themes will quickly become familiar to readers: openness, innovation, imagination, inquiry, dialogue, care, justice, learning communities, and learning experiences. Likewise, metrics, rubrics, templates, standardization, and other one-size-fits-all solutions are repeatedly attacked within a larger system of academic and technological oppression. After all, each course and each student is unique (see “Learning is Not a Mechanism”).

Morris and Stommel view learning as a holistic experience of personal growth and transformation rather than transactional training in content. Educators should cultivate “change agents” rather than “archives of information” (see “Adventures in Unveiling: Critical Pedagogy and Imagination”). Ultimately, faculty must care about their students as humans, not just quantitative success metrics. Instructors should focus their efforts on teaching students the ongoing process and habit of learning, rather than any specific bits of knowledge.

“A pedagogy of writing, for example, recognizes that a teacher is not trying to pull essays like pulling teeth for fifteen weeks; instead, she is cultivating a desire to write that will last well beyond the end of the semester, well beyond graduation.” (see “Beyond the LMS”)

Thus the very role of an educator is reframed. “The teacher is not merely a facilitator, but uses her own learning of a subject (its histories, theories, and methodologies) to design, structure, and scaffold a learning experience [see “Online Learning: A Manifesto”].” The authors also call educators to humility, as no instructor has all knowledge on a subject. Students should be active participants always, and educators should see themselves as co-learners. The authors argue that student voices should figure prominently in courses. For example, one suggestion they give is to replace the typical faculty intro video with student intro videos.

Conversation and collaboration (engagement with peers, faculty, and external parties) are central to critical digital pedagogy. “Community and dialogue shouldn’t be an accident or by-product of a course. They should be the course [see “Online Learning: a Manifesto”].” Morris and Stommel are vocal advocates for open pedagogy, where students and instructors learn collaboratively on open platforms. This co-creation of content and knowledge often occurs on social media, where it will live on beyond the course. Social media allows students to interact with students and scholars outside the course, breaking down the “walled garden” of the LMS. Such conversations can even constitute networked peer review (see “Publishing as Pedagogy”).

Morris and Stommel suggest that MOOCs and social media platforms may be able to supply the necessary space for conversation and collaboration in the online environment.

“Educational campuses have libraries, coffee shops, cafeterias, quads, lawns, amphitheaters, stadiums, hallways, student lounges, trees, park benches, and fountains. Ample space for rallies, study-groups, conversation, debate, student clubs, and special events. Few institutions pay much attention to re-creating these spaces online.” (see “Why Online Programs Fail, and 5 Things We Can Do About It”)

The authors seem obsessed with MOOCs—their potential for open, distributed, peer-driven learning, free of the shackles of traditional best practices (see “The Course Hath No Bottom: the 20,000-Person Seminar”). Yet Stommel admits that, in practice, he has been disappointed by most MOOCs he has encountered; the potential of this ed-tech has yet to be fully unleashed.

Regardless of class size, the authors stress the importance of fostering lively class discussions. They criticize common practices that “sterilize” online discussions, placing much of the blame on rubrics. By quantifying the requirements for student participation in great detail, instructors defeat the very purpose of discussion forums. “The illusion offered by discussion forums is that they build community. At their worst, discussion forums are less like classrooms and more like bus stops — each participant stopping by, saying a few words, and then going on their way.” Faculty remove the natural, human element found in both face-to-face classrooms or in the online social media threads that their students engage in daily (which the authors provide as proof that students already know how to engage in lively and organic asynchronous discussions). In the end, rubrics reduce teaching to mere “data entry” (see “The Discussion Forum is Dead; Long Live the Discussion Forum”).

The authors maintain that many online programs have been launched thoughtlessly, with too much emphasis on enrollment and not enough on pedagogy. They claim that many of the problems in online education stem from transplanting face-to-face practices directly into an ed-tech platform, rather than rebuilding teaching practices from scratch to fit the online modality (see “Why Online Programs Fail, and 5 Things We Can Do About It”). Morris and Stommel criticize faculty for choosing their technology tools (such as an LMS) and content tools (usually textbooks) first, and then building their pedagogy on these tools. Instead, faculty should determine their pedagogy, and then choose appropriate technology and content to support their pedagogy. In many courses, textbooks may not even be necessary to achieve course goals (see “Textbooks, OER, and the Need for Open Pedagogy”).

Finally, the authors reinforce the importance of ongoing faculty professional development and relentless instructional experimentation.

“We won’t figure out online and hybrid learning — in higher education, at least — until we truly value faculty development and pedagogical training. … If teaching is indeed 40-90% of our jobs (depending on the type of institution), then the sessions at our disciplinary conferences should be 40-90% about teaching (or at least make explicit connections between our research and teaching). Pedagogy is not the domain solely of Schools of Education and should be a respected specialty or sub-field in every discipline.” (see “How to Build an Ethical Online Course”)

 

Critiquing Ed-Tech

Behaviorism is blamed multiple times for misguided instructional design built around content delivery and control of students. Behaviorism is inherently dehumanizing, training students along the lines of “monkey see, monkey do, monkey hit submit” (see “Free College; Free Training for College Teachers”). After all, Skinner based his teaching machines for students on his work training pigeons (Ferster, 2014, chapter 3). However, equating all evidenced-based practices with behaviorism is simplistic and exaggerated (see “Reading the LMS Against the Backdrop of Critical Pedagogy”).

Morris and Stommel do make some valid criticisms of Learning Management Systems, as echoed in a recent history of educational technology:

“Some have taken issues with the time-oriented, teacher-centric, and closed nature of LMS implementations. Most LMSs adopt a militaristic command-and-control style of course management that is antithetical to the more constructivist approach popular among today's instructors. While LMSs are theoretically neutral about pedagogy, in practice they tend to reinforce didactic, information-transmission pedagogical models. Their very design and implementation have a big influence on the nature of instruction, particularly with less-experienced instructors." (Ferster, 2014, p. 130)

As critical scholars and social justice activists, Morris and Stommel over-emphasize a need for students to resist power structures and neoliberalist educational philosophies generally (although they never use the term neoliberal specifically).

“What if we were to theorize that the learning management system (LMS) is designed, not for learning or teaching, but for the gathering of data? And what if we were to further theorize that the gathering of data, as messaged and marketed through the LMS, has become conflated with teaching and learning?” (see “Reading the LMS against the Backdrop of Critical Pedagogy”)

I understand their argument to interrogate the LMS and its capitalist undertones; but the authors seem to read too much into the LMS. Driven by algorithms, our Learning Management Systems…

“make homogenous what is fundamentally heterogeneous, standardizing what shouldn’t be standardized…. This is the imminent destruction of our educational system of which so many speak: taking an institution inspired by the efficiency of post-industrial machines and redrawing it inside the machines of the digital age. Education rendered into a dull 2-dimensional carbon copy, scanned, faxed, encoded and then made human-readable, an utter lack of intellectual bravery.” (see “A User’s Guide to Forking Education”)

Granted, educational technology is indeed designed for the administrators who purchase it. Critical theorizing reflects the authors’ background in literary studies, but the authors fail to demonstrate the relevance of such theory to adult learners who simply want to advance their careers through obtaining a degree. These questions do, however, grapple with students’ digital literacy / information literacy / media literacy (Jarson, 2015); understanding how the information ecosystem works is indeed a critical competency, and needs to be thoughtfully woven into the general education curriculum.

Morris and Stommel are just as extreme in their rhetoric (both diagnoses and remedies) as the tech-obsessed administrators they criticize. They go so far as to claim that online education to date has been a nearly complete failure (see “Why Online Programs Fail, and 5 Things We Can Do About It”). Some of their criticisms reflect the relative youth of online education; others merely reflect fundamental, philosophical differences between evidenced-based best practices and critical pedagogy.

The authors do raise serious concerns about excessive LMS data collection and “conflation of that data with student performance, engagement, and teaching success” (see “Reading the LMS against the Backdrop of Critical Pedagogy”). Of course, usage statistics do not reveal authentic participation and learning, and I agree that faculty shouldn’t read too much into course data. However, data can contribute to achieving two of the authors’ goals. Through data, faculty can customize instruction to the needs of their students; data can reveal what students understand and where they need additional support. Likewise, data is integral to ongoing faculty development, by helping faculty see which of their practices are working and which could be improved.

For example, consider a contemporary experiment at the University of Central Florida’s business school. “During the 2017-18 school year, an average of 46 percent of the 3,400 students enrolled in lecture-capture courses watched fewer than half the videos in their course…” (Lieberman, 2018). This data showed faculty that their teaching approach wasn’t effective, leading them to experiment with a new teaching model. Faculty will quantitatively monitor grades and tutoring requests to assess the impact of their new approach. However, the instructional change led to protests by students who feel they won’t be able to interact adequately with their professors. Moral of the story: both data and human engagement are critical.

Morris and Stommel are strong proponents of open learning and open pedagogy, which I think is not appropriate for most courses. A student must attain some level of mastery before they can meaningfully contribute to scholarly discourse. Emphasizing MOOCs and the use of social media seem both idealistic and dated (and suggests that even the authors are guilty of excessive technology enthusiasm). In the wake of Cambridge Analytica and other scandals, social media seems to be part of the Urgency of Machines problem.

Forcing students to participate in commercial platforms designed to collect user data contradicts the very notion of resisting power structures inherent in critical pedagogy. In fairness, the authors admit that some of their optimistic views on social media tools were written several years ago and need to be reconsidered after recent privacy scandals (see “The Discussion Forum Is Dead; Long Live the Discussion Forum”). Elsewhere, they affirm: “tools and platforms that do dictate too strongly how we might use them, or ones that remove our agency by too covertly reducing us and our work to commodified data, should be rooted out by a Critical Digital Pedagogy” (see “Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Definition”; see also “A Guide for Resisting EdTech: The Case Against TurnItIn”).

 

Qualitative Education

The editorials are a bit heavy on assertions and calls to action. Two essays contain “manifesto” in their titles, and five additional essays use the word at some point; the entire collection is indeed best described as a manifesto. As such, the essays lack research citations; they even seem to reject most education research and best practices altogether, derisively referring to them as “scientific” (in quote marks; see “Reading the LMS against the Backdrop of Critical Pedagogy”). Several essays explore issues through a series of “wonderings” (asking the reader multiple questions), without presuming to have all the answers; the authors seek to dialogue and co-create knowledge with their readers, just as they do with their students.

The authors imply that education is inherently a qualitative rather than quantitative endeavor, making data analytics and standardization both irrelevant and dehumanizing. “Have we engaged students in some way not measurable by clicks, hits, and discussion posts, or, are we letting the technology teach in place of us [see “Critical Instructional Design”]?” They even reject course templates, rubrics, and grades for individual assignments (see “Why Online Programs Fail, and 5 Things We Can Do About It” and “I Would Prefer Not To”). Of course, many other educators have questioned the value of grades and rubrics, especially in qualitative disciplines like writing (Houck, 2018).

I agree that standardization and quantification can be misused and overused; but rejecting quantitative tools, ongoing quantitative assessment, and standardized curriculum is just as extreme as the dehumanizing practices Morris and Stommel resist. Taken to extremes, ad hoc curriculum and purely qualitative assessment would promote student favoritism, eliminate rigor and faculty accountability, and make accreditation impossible. Data is necessary to measure, improve, and reward instructional effectiveness.

Despite these shortcomings, the authors do make some interesting points. I like how they emphasize a healthier mix of content, engagement, and personal growth, in contrast to the more common pedagogical emphasis on memorizing factual content. Likewise, robust student discussion is essential to fostering a learning community, and peer-to-peer engagement helps humanize asynchronous education. The authors describe community inquiry and collective interrogation in ways that only apply to humanities courses, but faculty from other disciplines can transfer the essence of these concepts to their particular courses.

I agree that faculty must tailor each course to the individual learners. As OER Curator, my job is to support faculty who use a custom reading list rather than a standardized commercial textbook. This approach allows faculty to make each course both more human and more aligned to the learning outcomes, and to keep courses up-to-date with emerging knowledge. Yet some level of standardization is necessary for faculty to provide a consistent educational experience to all our students, and no university has the resources to rebuild each course every time it is taught. Likewise, grading becomes whimsical without rubrics.

 

Professional Development for Pedagogy

I strongly agree that faculty need ongoing professional development on how to teach. Some of the criticisms leveled against online courses may reflect poor teaching practices as much as potential shortcomings of the online modality. After all, most professors never receive formal training in instruction during their PhD programs, as was recently discussed in Inside Higher Ed (Manzo and Mitchell, 2018).

Before seeking new, more expensive technology solutions, faculty should indeed ask if they’ve effectively leveraged the educational technology they already have. Are faculty interacting with their online students as though they are real people pursuing life-changing education? In a recent interview, Di Xu, a researcher at the UCI School of Education, echoed several of Morris and Stommel’s conclusions about the need for humanization in online courses, particularly for minority students who are the first in their family to attend college. Xu noted:

“Many of the online courses currently offered at community college, it is simply PowerPoints, it's still the traditional format, instead of making the best use of the technology. And students don't see and interact with their instructor and other peers that much. They feel lonely, and they feel that the instructors don't care about their academic progress.” (Johnson, 2018)

 

Conclusion

Morris and Stommel challenge trendy assumptions and inspire creative instruction. They provoke educators to meditate about their professional mission and to consider the social consequences of their instructional practices. Whether or not they agree with critical pedagogy, readers will be challenged to re-examine their pedagogy and use of educational technology. Although I find many of their specific assertions unpersuasive, it’s healthy to examine one’s assumptions from time to time. Even the most experienced faculty can and should continuously improve their pedagogy. An Urgency of Teachers forces online faculty to reflect on the quality of their pedagogy and how effectively they are using ed-tech and the online modality.

Morris and Stommel provide a healthy reminder that our mission is education, not merely training (see “Adventure in Unveling: Critical Pedagogy and Imagination”). At its heart, education combines content and conversation, leading to meaningful change. Technology is a useful tool, but not a substitute for thoughtful pedagogy and genuine engagement among faculty and students.

 

Recommended Essays

The essays in An Urgency of Teachers stand alone. If you are interested in sampling Morris and Stommel’s work, I suggest reading the following chapters from Parts 1 and 2.

Part 1: Praxis

Part 1 considers what it means to be a critical digital educator.

 

Part 2: Learning Online

Part 2 delves into practical applications of critical digital pedagogy within online courses.

 

Part 3, “Writing and Reading”, deals primarily with, not surprisingly, writing and reading—particularly as digital technology allows new forms of reading, writing, and responding. Part 4, “Hybrid Pedagogy”, extends the conversation to digital publishing, primarily by explaining how their journal of the same name provides space for academics to converse about teaching and writing outside the confines of traditional scholarly publishing. The views expressed in these sections lay the foundation for the authors’ notions on open, distributed education and pedagogy as conversation. These essays will primarily interest faculty engaged in literary studies and digital humanities.

Part 5, “Action”, extends into a general critique of higher education. For example, the authors criticize excessive emphasis on scholarly research over teaching and faculty bullying of students. Several themes from Parts 1 and 2 are repeated. These essays may interest observers of the higher education landscape, but their views are neither new nor unique.

 

References