Is digital pedagogy a meaningful construct?

Does the term ‘digital pedagogy’ have any validity?

It depends, of course, upon the assumptions we make about pedagogy generally and therefore on the definition of terms that arises out of those assumptions. The first problem, for me, is that too many see pedagogy as a universal category rather than as a category that needs to be re-defined as we go along to meet the needs of changing conditions and the shifting technological basis for education.

Intuitively, I cannot bring myself to agree that pedagogy is a universal category. For someone to convince me that I am wrong in this, they would have to demonstrate (and not simply assert) that every single form of pedagogy used in the context of the many social and collaborative technologies available to teachers and learners today has also been used, and indeed is also being used, effectively and successfully in contexts that are devoid of digital technologies.

As Stephen Downes put it so succinctly:

…if you’re using the same pedagogy with a stick and sand as you are using with a high-speed computer network, you really don’t understand teaching and learning.

Many teachers are, we know, using digital technologies simply to enhance or to shore up pedagogies that are no different from the pedagogies they have deployed at other times and in more traditional settings, and perhaps throughout their teaching careers. But I believe that some teachers are using such technologies in ways that cannot be traced back in any simplistic way to a pre-existing set of pedagogies.

Someone might argue, for example, that collaboration is collaboration is collaboration. In other words, they feel that, like good melodies, there are no new forms of collaboration under the sun. They might argue that the forms of collaboration enabled by social technologies are simply already-existing forms of collaboration that are different perhaps only in scale or in external appearance. The fundamentals of collaboration are the same today as they were in the 1950s, as they were in the 19th century, as they were at any time in history. That would be an interesting argument to see built and sustained.

I, for one, doubt that this is the case, but I would – genuinely – like to see someone try to argue the case.

So, taking that one example as a starting point – the nature of collaboration – we can certainly choose to dismiss the notion of digital pedagogy if we feel we can argue that the fundamentals of collaboration have not changed over time, that digital collaboration is only quantitatively different (perhaps) in some way from all previous kinds of social collaboration.

If on the other hand, we feel that the very nature of collaboration develops and changes through time, and that we are witnessing the development of some forms of collaboration that have never existed before, made possible by digital technologies, then, logically, we have to take the notion of digital pedagogy seriously (even if, by the way, we choose to call it something else).

Of course, pedagogy is about much much more than collaboration. We know that. I know that. But I’m using this one bite-sized corner of the extensive territory that is pedagogy to illustrate the kinds of arguments that those on either side of the debate must be prepared to make and prove. We could do the same by looking at other corners of the territory, such as the nature of curricular content, the evolution of teaching strategies, methods of instruction, and so on. Those who deny the existence of digital pedagogy must be able to demonstrate (and again not simply assert) that these are all universal categories that have not changed in their fundamentals through succeeding historical and social epochs.

Equally, of course, those who agree with me have to be able to demonstrate (and not simply assert) that some of these pedagogical fundamentals are intrinsically different from any pre-digital pedagogies. For instance, genuinely collaborative learning can no longer be contained within the more traditional classroom-constrained relationship between teacher and student. Collaborative learning cannot simply be about collaboration between teacher and student, but must be able to encompass genuine collaboration between students in the learning group, between a student and other people or resources pulled into the mix, and indeed must also be able to include a wide range of informal ‘learnings’ that can happen as a consequence of the more formal process of teaching/learning, but that might have very little connection to the expressed aims and purposes of the original planned teaching. The sheer richness of potential interactions, not all of them within the ken or the control of the teacher, necessitates a high level of flexibility on the part of the teacher (and of the student) and must, I feel, incorporate pedagogical elements that simply do not exist in a more traditional, classroom-constrained context.

So, fundamentally, I feel that there is some mileage in the notion of digital pedagogy. I feel that there are, within the broad definition of pedagogy, a number of significant components that: a) have changed, and will continue to change, to suit shifts in the technological basis of society, and b) that these changes in society itself actually start to change what it means to be educated, what it means to be literate in today’s world.

When we start to recognise (IF we start to recognise) the changing nature of what it means to be educated in the 21st century, then we have to be willing, I feel, to think anew about pedagogy in the context of thee digital and networking technologies.