One clear point that is made by several speakers and contributors on the topic of the internet and democracy is that the digital sphere is not neutral or value-free. Safiya Noble’s ‘Algorithms of Oppression’, puts it succinctly when she claims that ‘Algorithms are, and will continue to be, loaded with power’. The internet (search engines, software, the digital sphere, technology) is partly informed by our biases and will tend to learn and reinforce those biases. The internet and platforms like Google and YouTube are very good at using our data to shape our experiences and our online journeys. Looking at advertising feeds on Facebook and Google and the recommendations on YouTube, for instance, demonstrates the way that these technologies reflect back and then amplifies our choices – whether it be a particular kind of YouTube video or Facebook friend. The danger here is that the algorithms and data management systems will create a world that becomes perhaps difficult to see beyond into other choices and other worlds. The irony is, of course, the internet is a portal into diverse experiences but in reality, can become limiting.
Following these thoughts and observations, what about can we say about our pedagogic environment and how might it come with bias which may not be obvious to the teacher or learner. Speakers such as Jesse Stommel discuss this in terms of ‘agency’: who is directing the learning and for whose end? Is the learner simply a passive recipient of the teacher’s agenda? Or can they shape their own learning and set their own agendas. This raises quite complex philosophical questions about a) what we think our students should be learning and b) at what point in the learner’s journey is agency and setting their own learning agenda, appropriate.
These kinds of questions can be seen to be implicitly and sometimes explicitly addressed in the university degree structure, where the first year is the ‘’foundation’. Teaching and learning styles tend to be instructional with a focus on providing fundamental skills and knowledge. From here handing over agency to the learner takes place culminating in a final project or dissertation which is largely originated by the learner with light touch support from the teacher
In thinking about digital pedagogies, how do these questions of bias and agency present themselves? Well, the first thought about digital pedagogy, and perhaps a common experience for teachers, is the discovery and application of tools and concepts that are already familiar in the analogue world. For example quizzes, polls, discussions, all of which can be delivered using by now familiar platforms such a Mentimeter, Kahoots, Socrative, etc. These tools can provide a more interesting, fun and convenient way to deliver teaching and learning. However, two points should be noted. First, digital pedagogy is here simply understood to be an extension of analogue pedagogy rather than a sea-change, an extension of what we already do rather than a radical re-think of practice. These tools are not always preferable or better to the analogue versions: for example, a paper quiz, with a quizmaster in the class can be great for building community and collaboration which could, in turn, support deeper learning. In other words, digital and analogue tools are part of the teaching toolkit and we should not necessarily favour digital just because we can.
Looking at virtual learning environments (VLE) it is possible to detect the ways in which the analogue learning environment reaches into the digital spaces. Moodle, for example, mimics the weekly teaching slots where learning is assumed to take place in carefully regulated packages curated by the teacher. The assumption here is that learners will learn and progress at the same time. However, for many commentators on digital pedagogies, rather than understanding digital as a more convenient way of delivering traditional teaching and learning, it is an opportunity to rethink our pedagogy and ask not only what can it help us do better that we already do, but what new horizons can it open up in teaching and learning.
Another ‘analogue’ feature of Moodle, is the classroom and the notion of the small learning community which is reflected in the Moodle pages were the teacher talks to the class. Like the classroom, the Moodle page is closed and contained, supported by the community, but also disconnected from wider networks. Digital does have the potential to break us out of these narrow communities and connect with bigger and wider constituencies; for example, Moocs are characterised by larger communities connected to diverse and ‘unregulated’ and user-generated learning resources and platforms. Moocs work well if you are an active learner and a good networker. The challenge here is whether the learner is ready for the digital learning experience where ‘agency’ is key or whether the student requires good old fashioned instructional learning.
This university has a new platform, Aula, which is due to replace Moodle. It does have a more open, and less structured approach in the delivery of learning and is perhaps a move towards a new paradigm in teaching and learning which moves away from some of the philosophies and biases that have informed and shaped our analogue world.