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Critical digital pedagogies as prerequisite for transformative online learning experiences
Author: Dr Sonja Strydom
Published: 22/11/2022

​During the recent SoTL Conference I suggested the reconsideration of critical digital pedagogies as a prerequisite for transformative online learning experiences.


Based on the general conference theme, I started my argument by confirming that assessment is not limited to students and their learning. Although the former could serve as instigator for student growth via continuous and lifelong learning, it also enables reflective practices on the side of the academic who teaches. By critically reflecting on our own praxes, I argue that the learning of students will be also directly impacted. By becoming a reflective and reflexive practitioner, one is then better positioned to communicate the rationale of any chosen teaching-learning-assessment (T-L-A) practices. One such a way then is to critically reflect on the way in which digital pedagogies are positioned as approaches to mediate transformative learning.


Despite well-documented challenges, higher education institutions (HEIs) still believe that the use of digital technologies could pave the way towards inclusivity and access. Blended learning, as we are all familiar with at SU, is one of the approaches once again foregrounded after the pandemic. For instance, Simbarashe (2021) is of the opinion that blended learning could especially help historically disadvantaged universities to address the digital divide and enable them to draw closer towards historically advantaged universities.


Yet, one of the challenges remain to bridge the gap between our theoretical or conceptual ideas and how it would play out in practice. Not only do we need to find practical ways of demonstrating our believes, but we also need to be guided by a robust theoretical framing that provides us with a lens or a way of understanding our practice.


In terms of transformative and inclusive digital pedagogical practices, one such theoretical lens is to explore the views of a renowned critical scholar, Paulo Freire and how his work could potentially be translated and embedded in the digital space. In addition, I will also draw on the work of Zembylas (2014, 2016) where he argues for the inclusion of affect in the learning space.


Embracing the (re)turn to affect

Increasingly, affect and emotion are foregrounded as important dimensions of interdisciplinary narratives (Athanasiou et al., 2009). When we make way for affect and emotion to also enter the learning space, we start to move away from the often conventional and traditional constructivist notions of learning towards a more nuanced and holistic view of the interconnectivity and dynamic nature of 'cognition, affect and sensual stimulations' (Zembylas, 2016). Furthermore, it is not only “what we feel in particular situations, but [also] why we feel what we feel" (Anwaruddin, 2016, p. 390).


What does it imply in the digital classroom? It means that we need to think carefully about the design of learning activities and that academics who teach could consider activities that illustrate how emotions develop and are instituted in the daily experiences of students (Anwaruddin, 2016). Of course, it is not only affect in itself that is important, but also the historical journey of affect by acknowledging the history the preceded the emotions / affect displayed in the classroom (Zembylas, 2014).


Awareness of power relations

When we start to allow affect into our pedagogical spaces and practices, we open ourselves for the consideration of historical and cultural emotions and what it means to allow this into the classroom. Inevitably, the questions would also be asked who is allowed to share their affective responses. It is within this context that power relations are unavoidable since the complex nature of affect is intertwined with our disciplinary epistemologies, our pedagogical orientations, discourse in the classroom and emotional assimilation (Zembylas, 2016, p. 545).


Power relations are further embodied in physical nature of digital technologies – in other words, the material nature of digital technologies. Feenberg (as cited in Boyd, 2016) argues that digital technology does not operate in isolation from society, but that it rather mirrors the political and/or social systems of its time. In other words, digital technology is not 'neutral' and has an impact also on power relations in the classroom. In a sense, digital technologies become the tool to support the world view of participants. In many cases, it implies the world views of those who teach. As Gairola (2021) argues, universities (and then digital spaces), could be experienced as “sites of alienation". It is especially here, where we often observe the “teacher-student-binary" (p. 23) as well as the material-non-material binary that could create sites of exclusion and further estrangement.


Using dialogue as vehicle to address issues of equality, diversity and inclusivity

I would like to argue that we rethink the notion of dialogue in the digital space. Often, when we focus on the affordances of digital tools, we tend to explore the dimensions of the tool in terms of what it can or cannot do. Although this is a necessary practice in order to integrate digital technologies sensibly into T-L-A practices, perhaps it is also time to refocus on the close alignment between the tool (the material) and the intention (the pedagogical approach). From a theoretically supported pedagogical perspective, what is it that we want to achieve with the choice of a particular digital tool? Major, Warwick, Rasmussen, Ludvigsen and Cook (2018, p. 2014), for instance, argue that “affordances only become apparent in the context of developing pedagogy and that the fate for much technology that is 'parachuted' into [the classroom] is that it will be used to support existing pedagogies.


To conclude, none of the above-mentioned is necessarily new or revolutionary. These are practices that have been employed in education for many years. Yet, perhaps it also becomes time to reconsider these practices specifically within the digital spaces since it is evident that digital inequalities are becoming more complex in HE. Technology is not neutral and “enables, echoes or amplifies existing and unequal power relations" (Czerniewicz, 2022, p. 4). It is only when we as scholars and practitioners continuously reflect and critically assess our choices and intent, that we could gradually move forward in our quest for transformative online learning experiences.​