What Is Digital Pedagogy?

Entering a classroom, we think first about its walls. We think about where the desks sit. Where we will stand. Whether there are windows, where the doors are, how the chalkboard, whiteboard, or overhead projector are arranged. And then we make decisions about teaching based on these environmental considerations. Should we rearrange the chairs? Should we stand behind the podium, or should we sit on the desk? Making decisions about how teaching will occur—what it will look like, how it will be performed—is as much a response to the environment in which we teach as it is to the lesson we have planned. As I’ve said before:

Pedagogy is essentially a critical thinking exercise directed at learning and teaching. Pedagogy asks us to never teach by rote: never assume the use of a podium, or an overhead projector, or desks situated in rows, or a chalkboard, or walls.

What about when we teach online? Where are our walls and chairs and podium in digital space? For some, the coded boundaries of the LMS replace the solid borders of the classroom, and discussion fora become the arrangement of chairs. Video lectures have been used to replicate an instructor’s presence on the screen, and quizzes with algorithmically automated teacherly responses offer feedback in lieu of written notes and gold stars. But it’s important to think bigger about where the walls are, where our teaching territory lies.

And here’s why: because when we teach digitally—whether online, or in hybrid environments (and all learning today is necessarily hybrid)—walls become arbitrary. All walls. And all seats and all podiums and all chalkboards, too. LMSs have more than snack-sized shortcomings, but the biggest dilemma they pose is that they create the illusion of digital learning without really ever encountering the Internet. Like all illusions, this is misleading, because digital learning (and by necessity, digital pedagogy) takes place all over the web.

Jesse Stommel wrote in Decoding Digital Pedagogy, pt. 2: (Un)Mapping the Terrain:

The digital adds another not-at-all-discrete meta-level layer. The tools we use for learning, the ones that have become so ubiquitous, each influence what, where, and how we learn—and, even more, how we think about learning. Books. Pixels. Trackpads. Keyboards. E-books. Databases. Digital archives. Learning management systems. New platforms and interfaces are developed every week, popping up like daisies (or wildfires). None of these tools have what we value most about education coded into them in advance.

Individual digital tools have been largely created in order to contain the Internet. They are like stalls at a public market. In one, you can buy fresh produce, in another jewelry, in another tie-dye shirts and aprons. Each is meant to give you a specific interaction with part of the whole. This is also true of traditional classrooms. You go to room 202 in the Humanities building to learn English, but you go to room 556 in the Science building to take your math class. The LMS, the market stall, the classroom all have this in common: they make particular and small that which is widespread.

But there are no true walls on the Internet, only the walls we choose. We may teach part of our class on-ground and part of it within an LMS, or we may put our syllabus online and conduct backchannel discussions on Twitter between classes. But as teachers we can never be certain that our students will choose the same walls we choose for them. While they are in our on-ground classroom, they are also on Twitter and Facebook. They’ve just “pinned” a photo of our slideshow to Pinterest. And by doing so, they’ve made the class extant, and their own participation ongoing. They’ve broken the walls of the classroom (or the LMS) on their own, and so broken down the boundaries of when and where learning takes place.
That students can break the walls between which we plan our teaching means that we must adjust our pedagogical approach. And that’s the core of digital pedagogy: an acknowledgement that the space of learning is more fluid and adaptable than we might have planned on.

Before getting lost in the discussion of what tools to teach, or whether to teach tools in place of (or next to) teaching content, it’s important to ask the question: are we teaching digitally? And if we are, there are a number of consequences.

  • Our digital pedagogy must inevitably acknowledge the ability of students to control and choose containers for their own learning.

  • We cannot compensate for all the ways that students will choose to process and curate their learning in digital spaces, and so it becomes vital to teach students not about particular tools, but about how to choose tools for their use.

  • In order for students to choose tools for their own use, they must have a sense of themselves as learners much more than a sense of us as teachers. Digital pedagogy is necessarily learner-centric, then.

  • We must empower students to use the web (because they will anyway) in ways that support their learning. This means integrating the use of smart phones, tablets, and laptops in on-ground classrooms. It also means inviting students to connect with each other outside of the ways we intend them to connect. Let learning go where they go.

Digital pedagogy is different from teaching online because it allows us to open up learning and teaching in ways that gravity-bound education doesn’t permit. When we bring the Internet into our teaching, and truly embrace all that the digital engenders, we open our students (and ourselves) to a whole new world of networked, connected learning.