By Sonja Burrows

This week, I have the decided honor of attending, along with my colleagues Amy Collier and Sean Michael Morris from the Office of Digital Learning, the 2017 Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute (DPLI) held in Fredericksburg, Virginia on the campus of the University of Mary Washington. The DPLI is an annual 5-day institute that explores the role and application of digital technology in teaching. Sean Michael Morris, in addition to his work in instructional design at Middlebury, is the Director of the Digital Pedagogy Lab.

The DPLI divides itself into tracks in which participants work collaboratively in small workshop-style classes. I am enrolled in a track entitled Critical Digital Pedagogy, lead by Sean Michael Morris, Jesse Stommel, and Chris Friend. The track focuses on teaching philosophies, discernment practices for using digital tools in courses, emergent learning, digital composition, and discussions of the impact of the digital on traditional and critical pedagogies. Amy Collier, along with Amy Slay of Middlebury’s Digital Learning Commons, is leading a track entitled Critical Instructional Design that explores critical approaches to design and to popular methodologies like design thinking.

Participants in the Critical Digital Pedagogy track were given a beautiful list of readings to complete prior to the start of the institute:

I have read many of these treasures before — the hooks and Freire during my Master’s in Teaching coursework several decades ago, the rest for current professional interests —  but it was such a pleasure to be asked to read them again, a task I happily completed in spite of a distinct shortage of time in the days leading up to the start of the institute (I admit I read a few on the plane). It is so interesting to me how what we as readers glean from texts reveals more about us than about the text itself. Certainly, many brilliant lessons await discovery in these texts; but what stood out for me this time in reading these pieces was what I perceived to be an urgency about mindfulness; each writer, in his or her own way, seemed to be calling the reader to be mindful, to be aware, conscious, discerning, and in so doing to be critical about learning, about media, and about the digital tools and spaces that accompany these journeys.

I work in an office devoted to digital learning, but even so I have often struggled to articulate what role exactly the digital plays in the learning experiences and spaces we create. This is probably due to the fact that digital learning as a term has always been somewhat troublesome to define for me, often resulting in more questions than answers. What makes learning digital as opposed to not digital? In this day and age, when digital technologies are part of our lives in every way, can any learning not be digital? Can we just call it learning or does the quantifier digital somehow change the learning? Isn’t digital learning just humans doing what we do, learning and discovering things using the tools and technologies available to us?

In one of the recommended readings for my DPLI track, Critical Digital Pedagogy and Design, my insightful colleague Sean writes words that resonate with my quandary: “Right now, the digital is relevant, present, and is that thing that seems to provide the most interesting possibilities and the most contentious challenges in the scholarship and practice of teaching and learning. But it would be a mistake to think that what I do is digital, because what I really do is human.… The endeavor of education — even outside Humanities fields — is human.” The key here is the human in the digital. Digital learning is about people. It’s about human beings thinking, processing, sharing ideas, making connections, and crafting meaning from the information they have around them. Technology bears witness but its presence is peripheral.

The opening session in the Critical Digital Pedagogy track began with a powerful whole group brainstorming exercise to get participants thinking about how we might define the concept of Critical Digital Pedagogy ourselves. With an overflowing crowd of enthusiastic digital pedagogues on their hands, Chris and Sean expertly facilitated an activity in which we generated words we might use to define critical, digital, and pedagogy. The group was really jamming and quickly fired out an abundance of energizing ideas and terms in response.

Clearly, participants in this track were totally ready to tackle the difficult task of defining Critical Digital Pedagogy. Some standouts for me personally on this list were the words questioning and essential under Critical, embodied and invisible under Digital, and becoming and human under Pedagogy. The possibilities with this list are endless; the words still have me thinking, hours later.

The rest of the day was filled with the giddy excitement, thrill, passion and exhaustion that seem always to accompany endeavors of the heart. Experiencing DPLI brings to mind summers from my childhood growing up at a music camp, and the strong bonds that form between people who share a passionate commitment to their life’s work — be it artistic, educational, or otherwise. DPLI is an experience filled with joy; people here have found a home in each other’s company and in their shared dedication to and belief in meaningful digital pedagogy.

And of course, there’s the incredible swag.

That’s the end of Day 1 in Critical Digital Pedagogy at the DPLI. I’m off now to complete tomorrow’s readings!


This piece appears on Middlebury’s Office of Digital Learning and Inquiry

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