The Pedagogies of Reading and Not Reading

Sean Morris - March 10, 2014 9:00 am MST

SXSWedu Q & A: Let’s Focus on the Q’s

Sean Morris - March 10, 2014 9:00 am MST

What Is Digital Pedagogy?

Sean Morris - March 10, 2014 9:00 am MST
Reading Keep Learning
Colorful digital rainbow

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.

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

[Photo, “LUX“, by Felipe Genuine licensed under CC BY 2.0.]


  1. Brilliant post, Sean.
    I particularly loved this “as teachers we can never be certain that our students will choose the same walls we choose for them”

    But it’s not because of technology that that is the case, of course. It has always been and always will be the case. Strangely, technology allows the teacher to get a peak at what students are doing outside the classroom because some of it is recorded or visible in that sense.

    Loved the list of consequences at the end as well

  2. Thank you for your comment, Maha. You’re correct: learning hasn’t changed because of the digital. Rather, I think that the digital has forced us to consider again what happens when learning happens. Too many years of classroom practice theory and learning theory have clouded our vision of what learning really is. The digital is one occasion or opportunity when we can look at learning from a new lens and see it again. It allows for a certain beginner’s mind (and what I hope is that it demands that beginner’s mind, too).

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. Sean, this really made me think! I deliver in a digital environment, and there was some interesting points for my current role. Particularly, how we are to some extent, limiting ourselves through over-reliance on LMS and failing to leverage the full range of innovative digital spaces that our students currently exist in online.

    The other point that really made me think is your comments about the students sharing learning content online, and how that influences he learning space. It seems to me that with the advent of the digital world, teachers are better able to see what students think about their teaching, and what things students are taking away from classes, or seeing as most relevant to them. This provides us with a wealth of information previously only available through eavesdropping on playground conversations. Rather than dissuading students from this, we should, in my view, be encouraging this kind of sharing, for a number of pedagogical and pastoral reasons.

    danah boyd has some very interesting thoughts on student-teacher interaction in online social spaces, which is increasingly where learning is going. Furthermore, with the growing merge of public/professional and social lives, the information students share and collate online has significant impacts well beyond their school years. With the phenomenon of personal branding, getting them involved in managing their online presence early is critical to their future success in life.

    1. Jade, I worry about personal branding and the constraint this puts on being open to learning. If a person has a social identity built on specific brand characteristics isn’t it possible they will become silenced by their own expectations of themselves? Or not meet those expectations and become in their minds a “failed” product? I’d hope the we as a society could develop a gracefulness based on accepting that people change over their lives and something said at 15 is not a lifetime marker.

      If all we can do with technology is to freeze frame humans into clever museum exhibits in digital time-space then we have achieved the lowest form of human appreciation with the highest investment in bandwidth possible.

      1. Hi Scott,

        Thanks for your reply. I don’t disagree that personal branding can be restrictive to students’ development of themselves as social beings, and as learners, particularly as their opinions mature over time. I think the unfortunate reality is that, for the moment at least, the interactions students have in digital spaces does have real-world impacts on their future prospects in terms of university entrance, employment, and professional development. Teaching them the critical skills to appropriately manage their online presence, and the ability to craft the image they want to present to the digital and the real world is a crucial life skill, whether we like it or not.

        I can definitely appreciate that as a student’s opinions and life outlook mature, so too should their digital presence. But unlike in previous times, the immaturity of the past is now crystallised in the digital space. It’s important to teach them the appropriate skills to manage these artefacts of their lives, and to get them thinking about the long-term impacts on their lives.

        I also believe quite strongly that by explicitly teaching them about these concepts, including personal branding, we are encouraging them to embody the kind of values you argue for in your post, being an understanding and appreciation for the full person, and a recognition that the sum of their digital footprint is but a small representation of the total value of an individual.

        I think that teaching them about how they are perceived by others, and how digital spaces such as Facebook and twitter are turning humans into digital texts, and teaching them to critically engage with those texts will teach them to reconsider how they conceptualise themselves and their expectations.

  4. You claim that ‘traditional classrooms’ and LMS even are designed where “Each is meant to give you a specific interaction with part of the whole” Then go on to say that digital pedagogy is fluid, adaptable and open – as if the former is a bad thing.

    Design is about how parts sit in relation to each other and of the whole – to hopefully deliver an experience that is larger than the sum of the parts alone.

    Learners need to see these specific parts (learner centered design), especially in an information age which deals with vast amounts of disparte and decentralized data. The open framework of the internet is as much a design problem as it is a solution.

    I see teachers as curators of a digital learning experience (or a personalized learning path), but we still need to have structure (walls) in place – let’s see them as moveable rather than something to destroy.

    More broadly speaking, I think that there is a shift in ontology here. The nature of the internet lends itself to systems and ecological thinking, these ontologies help us understand complexity. The question as always is, how do we maintain individual agency within an interconnected system? how do we add value yet at the same time respect entropy? what structures can we build to flex with with temporality?

    Big but exciting questions, in which the answers need learner/user centered feedback from the students themselves. This as ever is lacking.

    Tis an exciting space to design in 🙂

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