Sean Michael Morris is Senior Instructor of Learning Design and Technology in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver. He is also the Director of Digital Pedagogy Lab. Photo: Sean Michael Morris

Where is the human element in digital learning?

Interview. For digital education to get better, it needs to be more focused on people and critical thinking, Sean Michael Morris argues.

23.11.2021

“People think I’m a tech guy. I’m not. I’m a people guy”, says Sean Michael Morris with a laugh.

You get the sense this is a distinction Morris, currently Senior Instructor of Learning Design and Technology at the University of Colorado Denver, often needs to clarify. Even today, when online and digital education has, in many ways, become the norm, the conversation around it easily zooms into the technological side of things.

“Online education is still very content-driven. Paulo Freire would call it the banking model of education: I’m going to put this information in your head and you’re going to let me know you’ve got it,” Morris argues.

He believes that, for digital education to get better, it needs to be more focused on people and critical thinking.

In the online world, no one seemed to be thinking about how to teach students how to learn.

This, in essence, is the definition of critical digital pedagogy, a central theme in Morris’ work. Drawing on the tradition of the Frankfurt School, Paulo Freire and bell hooks, critical digital pedagogy aims to raise awareness of various issues around digital learning, and to approach them through pedagogy.

Is the technology used in education accessible to people who are blind, deaf or have another type of disability, for example? What kind of privacy issues could online testing and the use of cameras create?

The Covid-19 pandemic escalated the use of the online education and exposed many problems that previously might have gone unnoticed. In the US, one of them was housing insecurity.

“Classes might be using Zoom and students would be asked to turn on their camera. What if they were sharing a laptop in a small space with their whole family? Or living in their car, trying to take a class using wi-fi from Starbucks?” Morris asks.

Broadening the conversation

Morris stumbled upon pedagogy partly by chance. Initially he was studying creative writing and, as a graduate student, was given a class to teach.

“My department chair told me not to focus on teaching, but when I walked into the classroom, my first thought was that these students really need someone who knows how to teach them.”

Morris started to learn about pedagogy and, after graduating, ended up working for an organisation creating online courses for community colleges in Colorado. There he discovered a whole new side to pedagogy.

“In the online world, no one seemed to be thinking about how to teach students how to learn. The human element was completely missing.”

This was in 2005. In Morris’ view, not that much has changed.

In my mind, resignation is what you get when you strip hope out of resilience.

“But the conversation has at least broadened. There’s now a global community interested in critical digital pedagogy,” he says.

Particularly in the US, Morris has played an important role in expanding the conversation. Together with colleague Jesse Stommel, he founded Hybrid Pedagogy, a digital journal focused on new forms of digital scholarship. He is also the Director of Digital Pedagogy Lab, an annual event for educators from all over the globe focused on digital pedagogy.

Hope and resilience need each other

Hope is an essential ingredient for critical pedagogy – one needs hope to make changes. Hope is also deeply linked to resilience, Morris believes – although he finds the whole term somewhat problematic.

“I often feel that resilience has been appropriated from people who need it by people who don’t actually need resilience that much in their life,” he says.

For these reasons, Morris prefers talking about critical resilience. For one, this means acknowledging that resilience is, in many ways, a privilege.

It is much easier to think around obstacles or to be creative with challenges when one does not feel endangered. You cannot ask resilience from people lacking basic security in their life, Morris argues.

This is also why it is so important to acknowledge the role of hope in resilience.

“If you’re just trying to get through the day because you must find a way to get some dinner on the table, to me that is resignation rather than resilience. In my mind, resignation is what you get when you strip hope out of resilience.”

For real resilience, Morris says, people need a sense of agency and hope. Education, therefore, should be focused on teaching people about what needs to change but also about how they themselves can create that that change.

“No matter how small the steps are, that’s when we see people coming together and helping each other.”

Students to the centre of the conversation

In the future, Morris hopes to see a fundamental change in the way we discuss online learning and learning in general.

“Students are often the ones talked about but not the ones talking. I hope we can flip the system so that students would be at the centre of the conversation.”

I try to encourage them to reflect on what they want to learn and how they like to learn.

This would require a paradigm shift that Morris admits he does not expect to see in his own lifetime. But there are already many ways to take steps in this direction.

One of them is so-called ‘ungrading’ – changing or completely removing the grades from teaching.

“I don’t use grades in my teaching. I find that people are actually more motivated to learn when they’re not learning for me but for themselves.”

The graduate students Morris teaches at the University of Colorado Denver are all adults and still find it shocking at first to receive no grades, he says. Usually this changes after a while.

“I try to encourage them to reflect on what they want to learn and how they like to learn: this is the skill you really need when you leave school, and this is what I also think creates lifelong learners.”

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