Month: June 2017

Going Beyond Humanizing Online Learning

If “democracy is a system of self-governance where governance is justified by consent of the governed,,” then are our educational institutions democratic? How about our classes? How about the online learning areas we set up for our students like the VLE?

Join this talk to discuss ways to create a democratic platform in online and blended learning. We will talk about shifts and tensions in teacher identity when we move to online spaces,  our imagined audience and community building. Students are welcome to join the discussion!

This is my session abstract for a talk I will be giving at Goldsmiths tomorrow titled Going beyond humanizing online learning: Creating a democratic platform for and with our students.

The session is discussion based, so I am hoping to tackle this complex topic with the participants on the day and also here on this blog prior and after the event. The motivation for this talk comes from my recent reflections on Parker J. Palmer and  bell hooks. I’ve started to think increasingly about democracy in education and how we might achieve that in online settings. We talk a lot about humanizing online courses, making it a social experience for both teachers and students, but we don’t talk much about how that social space is organised; we don’t talk much about the politics of it. I see a strong need to focus on that, especially to critique and improve our institutional learning spaces.

Palmer (2011) says:

“If students are to be well served and are to serve democracy well, we need to invite them into a lived engagement with democracy’s core concepts and values. There are at least two ways to do this: by engaging students in democratic processes within the classroom and the school and by involving them in the political dynamics of the larger community.”

So what are democracy’s core concepts and values? Well, there is civic responsibility. There is this expectation that you will be “a productive, responsible, caring and contributing member of society.” Palmer mentions many ways to achieve this but what struck me was his argument on creating democratic habits of the heart – the qualities we need to be able to “listen with an open mind” and “respond respectfully”:

  1. We must understand that we are all in this together.
  2. We must develop an appreciation of the value of otherness.
  3. We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. (This is about turning a seemingly negative event into something positive.)
  4. We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.
  5. We must strengthen our capacity to create community.

But there is a problem I observe in online spaces: even the most democratic educator, the most caring instructor, can easily shift to quite authoritative teaching methods and ways of being online, if he/she has limited understanding of possibilities. It is not uncommon for instructors to use online spaces to ask students to do things (“submit your assignment,” “book a slot for your one-on-one,” “read this book,” etc.). Students are expected to do things in a space that is designed for them but not with them. The learning space becomes a space that reflects institutional choices and preferences and personal tastes of course designers (I once knew an instructor who had purple background on her site because she liked the color) more than a communal one.

One of the reasons why this shift happens is the heavy emphasis on content. It is so much easier to deliver content online than to build an active and supportive learning community.  A learning community open and responsive to diverse voices… a learning community that welcomes students as a whole person to the environment – real people. The former requires resources and tools, the latter requires commitment and care beyond all content.

In the talk, I will propose that the first step to democracy, to creating democratic habits of the heart, is by enabling open structures in learning (I draw from bell hooks and Parker Palmer on this). An open educator:

  • makes the initial structures of working and/or studying explicit to students and open to discussion (imagine a teacher encouraging her students to comment on the syllabus, on the class activities and assignments);
  • co-constructs the structures of working and/or studying with students (imagine modifying the assignments with the help of students; imagine students co-constructing a code of conduct for their online interactions);
  • doesn’t confine education to a certain space and time (imagine learning “on the web and with the web,” with the public and for the public; imagine a teacher tweeting a resource to the class hashtag long after the course ends);
  • centers education around dialogue (imagine a teacher using conversations with students as content to work with).
  • recognizes the whole person in education (this is complex, but imagine a teacher making the emotional well-being of her students a priority, a lot more important than assessing in-class/for-class “performances.”)

Can our educational institutions be democratic when there is so much reliance on standardized tests, when we want to get accreditation for our programmes, when teachers have so much more power over their students on deciding how things should look like in the learning space, and how the learning should be organized? How can we help students “practice in real responsibility, real dialogue and real authority” (Palmer,  2011) despite institutional and curricular constraints? And how about the limitations of democracy as a system of governance? (Think about how the rule of majority can be a problem in educational settings.)

What do you think? Please join the discussion and let me know about your thoughts.


Emotional Violence in Education

“When writer Sir Terry Pratchett died in 2015 he was working on one last story: his own. … Back in Black reveals that Terry’s road to success was not always easy, from his troubled school days to being dismissed by literary critics, to his battle with Alzheimer’s.

This is how BBC 2 introduces a documentary exploring the life of Terry Pratchett on their website. This narrative highlights three very different events that marked Pratchett’s life: bullying at school, his talent not being recognized, and a terminal disease. According to a Guardian article, this is how Pratchett describes bullying in his “incomplete biography”:

I had a mouthful of speech impediments that left me with a voice that sounded like David Bellamy with his hand caught inside an electric fire. But it was not the kids that really got to me, it was the crushing of my boyhood dreams by someone 3ft taller.The headmaster of Holtspur School in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, took a “rather vicious dislike to me” and thought “he could tell how successful you were going to be in later life by how well you could read or write at the age of six.

Can you imagine this? An old man on the verge of dying with Alzheimer’s describes something that has become part of his self-narrative here: the bullying, his bully, the headmaster of a school. I imagine that he doesn’t need to make an effort to remember this. He knows it all by heart; it is part of his identity. It is not forgotten. Yet.. When Pratchett looks back on this experience, what does he see? Rage? Shame? Humiliation? Puzzlement? Perhaps, at that time he wasn’t able to articulate any of those but could name them years later, when he became an adult.

What Pratchett experienced as a six year old boy was emotional violence at its very best. It was violence because, as Palmer argues, it violated somebody’s integrity, his sense of self.

Emotional violence is, and has been, happening in our society, in families, communities, and in our institutions, in the north and south, west and east and the middle. I believe often times we confuse it with “tradition” or we simply don’t recognize it because it’s quite well disguised. When a teacher tells a black student excelling in maths and science that she should go into a career in sports because that’s what she’s naturally good at, that’s abuse. It closes down possibilities for a person and imposes a top-down, often times false and misinformed, identity.

bell hooks writes about the detrimental effects of emotional abuse in education; she tells the stories of young women and men who end up leaving formal education because they become  paralyzed with racism, hatred, and simply ignorance. Her stories are familiar, and, yes, I can relate to most because although I’m not a black American, I can recognize oppression (i.e., “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or exercise of authority”) when I see it.  I’ve known advisers who crashed their students’ spirit with cruel remarks. I’ve known teachers who openly scolded students because they were in a position to speak with authority. I’ve known many teachers in my life whose presence simply meant fear and shame for their students.

In an authoritarian educational system, emotional violence can easily occur because authority feeds from violence. The heads exercise their power over teachers, teachers exercise their power on students, students exercise their power on weaker ones–it’s a vicious cycle. If you are questioning whether authority exists to a great extent in our educational institutions just reflect back on your own education, think about those around you – you’ll find examples.

I believe that by opening up education, we have a better chance of moving from fascism to democracy because the structures of learning and teaching become explicit; they are open to debate and change. Opening up education certainly doesn’t mean everything will be and should be public and online. The kind of openness I’m talking about is not about a change in the delivery method; it’s a change in structure: the structures of thinking and operating.

I talk about these open structures in my next post.