Critical Instructional Detective Work

As I discussed in “Inquiry, not Answers; Exploration, not Outcomes,” critical pedagogy is concerned with agency, and with helping learners to “read” their world in order to make empowered choices and in order to make change. With the LMS—with any digital tool—we must consider how we, as teachers, are at risk of losing our own agency. What assumptions does the LMS invite us to make about learning? Of those assumptions, which are different from what we really think about how learning happens? What have we been sold, and what do we actually believe?

Critical Instructional Design hinges on our ability to know the difference, and to recognize that when we are being sold a digital tool—from Canvas to Twitter to GitHub—we are also being sold its pedagogy.

Crap Detection

Janine DeBaise writes in “Best Practices: Thoughts on a Flash Mob Mentality“:

I don’t know the best way to teach students how to read, write, and think. It’s different for every single student. That’s why I try to put students in charge of their own learning. I ask them to analyze their own learning styles and move out of their comfort zones. My responsibility is to create a space (in the classroom and, increasingly, on the internet) where they feel safe experimenting, playing, and trying out new things. I try to create an atmosphere in which it is okay to be vulnerable.

In order to create a safe space for experimentation, play, and agency, we must deeply understand that space. In a classroom, we know what’s safe and what’s not, we know how to keep students out of harm’s way. That’s because we understand the room, our own pedagogy, the risks involved in discussions, etc. In the LMS or another digital tool, we need to understand the room equally as well.

Howard Rheingold, author of Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, talks about the need to be mindful about the tools we use. He introduces “crap detection” as a term that refers to our ability to pick out what’s useful or not useful on the internet. Riffing on that, we can use the idea of crap detection to investigate digital tools for their underlying values, pedagogies, and uses.

Jesse Stommel and I have found the following questions to be a good starting place for inspecting any digital tool. Most of these answers can be found by searching the web. What questions would you add?

  1. Who owns the tool? What is the name of the company, the CEO? What are their politics? What does the tool say it does? What does it actually do?
  2. What data are we required to provide in order to use the tool (login, email, birthdate, etc.)? What flexibility do we have to be anonymous, or to protect our data? Where is the data housed; who owns the data? What are the implications for in-class use? Will others be able to use/ copy/ own our work there?
  3. How does this tool act or not act as a mediator for our pedagogies? Does the tool attempt to dictate our pedagogies? Is its design pedagogical? Or exactly not pedagogical? Does the tool offer a way that “learning can most deeply and intimately begin” (to quote bell hooks)?

The Teacher in the Mirror

Now, just as we should ask questions of the digital tools we use, hope to use, or are told to use, so must we ask questions of ourselves. Not to put too fine a point on it, but each of us has some crap worth detecting in our approach to instructional design and teaching. Reflective practice like this is pedagogical, and it’s iterative. All designers and teachers (and learners) worth their salt remain engaged in questioning their approach to education.

In the interests of continuing an exploration of Critical Instructional Design, then, my next post will frame some reflection around three prominent tenets (a.k.a., assumptions) of instructional design and online learning:

For the moment, imagine that these are not hard-and-fast rules in education, and instead treat them more like assumptions we’ve made, pedagogies we’ve been handed, and thus practices we can freely inspect.

A Problem to Solve