Digital Pedagogy: A Case of Open or Shut

Recently, there has been some lively debate online about whether devices like laptops, tablets, or phones should be allowed in classrooms. As well, during a digital pedagogy workshop that Jesse Stommel and I presented at Lewis & Clark College, discussion arose around whether students should be allowed, on their own recognizance, to utilize digital tools in the classroom. Distraction was the primary argument against: distraction for other students (who doesn’t want to watch the game instead of listen to a lecture?); distraction for the teacher, who cannot trust that eyes not directed her way are paying attention; but mostly distraction for the student using the tool. Essentially, the debate came down to: can students be trusted to use computers and digital media responsibly in class?

Leaving aside for a moment this issue of “trusting” students (apothegm: If you can’t trust students, you shouldn’t be teaching), this sort of question is what digital pedagogy is all about. Some folks believe that digital pedagogy concerns itself with the integration of digital tools and technologies into learning and learning environments, that it’s pedagogy that’s practiced online, or in blended or hybrid classrooms. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of digital pedagogy. In fact, digital pedagogy concerns itself with learning in the digital age. It is — as all pedagogies must be — less interested in technologies and tools, than it is in the person, the learner, and how learning happens. This doesn’t mean that digital pedagogy doesn’t concern itself with machines as they apply to learning, because it does. Simply put, digital pedagogy is pedagogical practice that doesn’t ignore the fact that our lives have become increasingly digital, that machines are part of our environment and, in fact, very often mediate our interaction with that environment.

Pedagogy asks: how does learning happen? Digital pedagogy asks: how does learning happen now that human experience relies on, is mediated by, and engages constantly with digital technology? Jesse Stommel says,

digital pedagogy is less a field and more an active present participle, a way of engaging the world, not a world to itself, a way of approaching the not-at-all-discrete acts of teaching and learning. To become an expert in digital pedagogy, then, we need research, experience, and openness to each new learning activity, technology, or collaboration. Digital pedagogy is a discipline, but only in the most porous, dynamic, and playful senses of the word.

The digital is naturally playful. For me, it is an outgrowth of the human inclination to make and enjoy new tools. The word “digital” hearkens back to our best and first tool, our fingers (digits), and at the same time propels us forward into this current age when the tools we use are immaterial, ethereal — and yet still manipulable by our fingers through any number of haptic interfaces. We touch the digital: we play with it by zooming it across glass surfaces, or coding it to dance across the screen. We fingerpaint in binary every day.

Those who venture into the world of app creation, who let sequences of code and command guide their imagination — the technologist, the digital humanist, the curious hobbyist knitting new creations to show family and friends — recognize that the digital is, as both a tool and a medium, barely tapped in its potential for invention. Those who do not make, but who content themselves with using what others have made, are no less creative. These are the interactors, and it is often their use of a tool that pushes that tool into its next phase of invention. The hashtag wasn’t created by Twitter, for example, but by a Twitter user; it took someone who did not invent the tool to manipulate and innovate the tool.

Everything about the digital invites invention. It is properly a medium. Its brushes are text, its palette selfies and gifs, its canvas the social interactions and interplay of its users. As a medium it is possibly the most successful in history, spreading between cultures, age groups, economic strata such that almost everyone has become their own finger-painter (and those who can’t or don’t are nonetheless affected by the medium). To find the digital, we don’t need to visit a gallery or museum or look for its graffiti on the streets. It is in every corner of our daily lives.

Oh. Except that corner of the classroom where laptops must remain closed.
When instructors’ policies keep laptops closed, tablets and phones turned off, we are closing the door on what is real and relevant in student lives. And by doing so, we do not in any way guarantee learners’ attention in class; rather, we send a message that we are not interested in the way they process information, in the way they communicate and connect with their peers, in how they learn. The closed-laptop policy states very clearly: only one kind of learning is tolerated in this room.

Here’s the thing: digital technology is no longer optional. It can’t be ignored. That doesn’t mean we can’t make choices about it — in fact, it means we must make choices about it. But those choices cannot be simply to pretend it isn’t there, that it doesn’t matter or isn’t relevant. The proliferation of the digital may feel like an invasion at times (and at times, it is), and so it is in our ability to choose — to decide, decipher, discern — that our power lies, not in a bull-headed commitment to ignore the digital altogether. That’s a desert island mentality.

Moreover, shutting the laptop is a statement about how little we value that which learners deal with every day. If the laptop is closed, if the phone is turned off, how can we — any of us — learn any kind of digital citizenship?

Today, all pedagogy is digital pedagogy (and all citizenship is digital citizenship). Any pedagogy worth its salt must front with the world as it really is, not as we’d like to it to be for the 50 minutes of class that we control. As I’ve said elsewhere, “Pedagogy has at its core timeliness, mindfulness, and improvisation. Pedagogy concerns itself with the instantaneous, momentary, vital exchange that takes place in order for learning to happen.” As it really is, the world is suffused with the digital. I have a cell phone, you have a cell phone, we all have cell phones. Most professionals are somehow connected digitally to the broader community of their field, and even more students are connected. To imagine it is not so is fruitless, silly, and unproductive. All pedagogy is digital pedagogy. Unless it has blinders on.

The answer is not to close the laptops in our classrooms. The answer is to open them and then ask the question: “Now what?”