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Is a humanizing pedagogy possible online? Theorising digitally relayed teaching and learning as antagonistic to emergent pedagogic moments

Dr Sara Black

Abstract: Much speculation has been made about the increased use of online pedagogic engagement during the Covid19 pandemic. While proponents have offered valorising narratives of the benefits of going online, critical scholars have cautioned against a naïve optimism that elides the social consequences of such modes and their tendency to further amplify existing social inequalities.
However, more careful thought is warranted regarding the affordances and limitations within digitally relayed pedagogic moments, and how these relate to broader challenges in the organising of pedagogic activities. This presentation deploys two theoretical lenses (specifically the work of Marx and Bernstein) to ask what happens when we digitize pedagogy and what we should notice about the similarities and differences with contact modes of practice. While far from a complete theorising, I suggest that the purported ‘benefits’ of online forms necessitate a division of labour and sedimentation of practice across different components of pedagogy in ways that necessarily foreclose the possibility of ‘humanising’ pedagogic practices.

Webinar: 26 January 2021, 11:00am SAST         

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Dr Sara Black is a former high school maths teacher who now trains teachers and works in critical education sociology, with a focus on equity and justice in education policy. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg, and also a research fellow at the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at UCT. She lectures various postgraduate seminars including Education Policy, Education Leadership and Change, and Ethics in Education. A former software programmer, she also brings a critical social justice perspective to technology in education. When not working on education issues, she is an avid trail runner, seamstress and musician.

Is a humanizing pedagogy possible online? Theorising digitally relayed teaching and learning as antagonistic to emergent pedagogic moments

Theorising digitally relayed teaching and learning as antagonistic to emergent pedagogic moments.

Dr. Sara Black[1]

Teaching online during the Covid19 pandemic has thrown up contradictory, and antagonistic, experiences and narratives. Many actors—including education leaders, policy makers and (unsurprisingly) private companies—herald the alleged arrival of what they term the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ in the education sector, citing online learning as a ‘game-changer’ and a victory for ‘innovation’ over backward and out-dated modes of learning.

But those confronted with the work of doing online learning for their students, whether in Higher Education or lower levels, tell a more complex story. Anecdotes, along with more rigorous data, include concerns about work intensification for teachers, confusion for students and loss of pedagogical relations and relating with the transition to online forms of learning.

While the shock of the rapid change (what Bourdieu termed hysteresis[i]--see also Strand and Lizardo[ii]) no doubt had some effect on this subjective experience to moving online, it is doubtful that digitally relayed pedagogy (i.e. teaching through digital technology, as opposed to with digital technology), is identical to its contact counterpart. Certainly, the normative techno-solutionism proffered by deeply invested profit-seeking tech companies deserves a healthy scepticism. But in between the struggles to adjust, or the fanfare of technophiles, lie important questions about the nature of this change and how it relates to more familiar forms of educational interaction. What changes when transitioning to digitally relayed pedagogy? Since much has been already alleged about what is gained, I was interested in the question: what might be lost? And how can we think about this change, without entirely valorising contact practice (which we know is, in its current state, far from valorous), but while being precise about learning when talking about learning online?

To begin exploring this problematic, I sought both the theoretical language to talk about pedagogy and its constituent parts, as well as concepts to explore the role of machines in our work. While far from the only theoretical tools one could apply to this problem, two theorists’ work stood out as useful: the work of Marx[iii] on machines and mechanization in work, and the pedagogic concepts of Bernstein[iv] to talk about what happens in pedagogic moments and how the outside world ‘gets in’ to these moments—not just in the biases of the knowledge we offer and the ways of knowing we prioritize, but in the set up of the education system itself and how this shapes what activities can happen in pedagogic interactions.

Being able to describe what happens when we move online is useful; however, its also an interesting question to ask how this change relates to some ideal of learning, some normative sense of what we’d like learning to be. Drawing on the general idea of ‘humanising pedagogy’ (Freire[v]) felt too imprecise for the task at hand; rather, I deployed the work of Gert Biesta[vi] when he applied Zygmunt Bauman’s work on ethics to education questions. Biesta attempts to draw out how reducing education to ‘countable’ goals and tasks forecloses on democratic responsibility in education, and with it, the possibility of a genuinely ethical orientation for teachers in their work. He argues that an ethical approach requires proximity, a moment when the Other comes into view as a complex whole, and what is ‘right’ or ‘good’ is not dictated by codes and regulations (sociality) or the raw power of shared emotional response (socialization)… the teacher, proximate and attentive, sits in relation to her student in a state of uncertainty and suspense. This idea of proximity is, I think, fundamental to a genuinely humanising approach to teaching and learning. It suggests that engaging ethically, in a way that fully appreciates the total humanity of the student, is complex, contingent, non-deterministic and emergent.

With these ideas in mind, we can begin to describe some aspects of what is going on in education currently, both in massified contact modes as well as in shifts to digitally relayed pedagogy. For starters, it becomes clearer that proximity in education is already in jeopardy, even without the question of learning online. As outlined more in the paper in detail, sustaining attention and proximity across all aspects of pedagogy (in Bernstein’s terms, for the pedagogue to engage in activities of framing, sequencing, pacing, selecting in response to the full humanity of the student) is already difficult. Partially this is a function of ratio: teachers cannot be proximate with large numbers of students at all times. But it is also somewhat a function of the division of labour across the pedagogic device wherein different people are responsible for the distributive, recontextual and evaluative rules of education systems. As Marx pointed out when discussing the division of labour, the specialist loses oversight and appreciation of the holistic arc of the process from start to finish; instead of understanding her work in its entirety, she now focuses on a small part of the process, unable to engage in aspects both prior to and after her section. Teachers, in the classroom, confronted with 40+ human beings, each of enormous complexity, often lack the training to interrogate the curriculum handed to them, or influence or question the assessments towards which they work; even her recontextualising is increasingly prescribed and mandated. She must constrain her professional decisions in the lesson to be in tune with these broader forces, and her ability to respond to the emergence of something unexpected, something challenging that brings her into proximity with a student is limited. Proximity even in massified, contact learning, is a challenge.

But what happens when we move online? These prevailing forces do not go away: if anything, they are likely to be intensified. The beguiling promise offered by digital tech to scale up even further (in terms of the ratio of pedagogue to students), along with the need to get ‘return on investment’ for initial outlays of expensive digital technologies[2], threatens small-scale interactions wherein pre-existing human relations can be sustained and enhanced by tech over time and space. Marx reminds us that the drive to efficiency is both the opus operatum and modus operandi of technological innovation, and while in these early days, pockets of proximate engagement with technology may still enable small-scale, humanising pedagogy, this is not the way the winds are blowing in the broader totality of education organisation.

Moreover, the problematic practices already widespread in massified contact education—including what Freire referred to as the ‘banking method’—will become ossified and sedimented into digital objects: large libraries of curriculum-aligned resources which are expensive to make and even more expensive to remake, building cultural, economic and political inertia against alternative knowledges and approaches; parsing algorithms that prioritize Anglonormativity; machine learning algorithms that—encapsulating the biases of their coders—subtly sort students into differentiated tracks of learning that stratify their future social and economic opportunities;… and almost all of this owned by, and developed for, for-profit private EdTech companies, without public accountability or interest in social justice. Perhaps most importantly, moving and massifying online threatens to entrench, and even further atomise, the division of labour in education processes, such that those producing said materials, those delivering them, and those responsible for the Herculean task of assessment at scale (which will inevitably be driven towards closed, automatable forms, rather than open-ended, humanising forms). These pedagogic processes will be segmented beyond recombination, closing opportunities for proximity.

What of those pockets of pedagogy attempting to leverage technology towards humanising ends? The purpose of this presentation was not to argue this is never possible. Rather, the point is to develop a language of description to talk about the macro-trends prevailing in education at this point of rapid change, to notice the broader totality at work, and to heed the difference—as Marx beckons us—between what seems and what is. The analysis is not intended to be totalising, nor deterministic; rupture is always possible, no matter how unlikely. I would argue, instead, that we must not fail to notice that digital relays are not neutral; that the pending acceleration of digitising problematic forms of education is foreclosing on opportunities for resistance by sedimenting pedagogic labour division, teacher de-professionalisation and alienation. Not noticing these trends threatens to render existing or future efforts to build humanising pedagogies lame in their efforts to strategically diagnose and fracture dehumanising practices as we move into an increasingly digital world.

[1]; Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, University of Johannesburg.

[2] Marx speaks about this extensively in his analysis of the extraction of what he calls ‘relative surplus-value’, in which the introduction of technology precipitates the conversion of ‘variable capital’ i.e. wages spent on hiring people to ‘constant capital’ i.e. money spent on materials and objects. The more one invests in tech, the more constant capital necessitates wage reduction, all the while increasing relative productivity amongst the few left to perform the work. Higher education is witnessing this currently, as moving online necessitates both massive outlays in digital pedagogic tools and infrastructure, all while laying off teaching staff. See the comment later regarding small groups of students and the increasing likelihood these groups will be pressured to grow.

[i] Bourdieu, P. (2000). Pascalian meditations. Stanford University Press.

[ii] Strand, M., & Lizardo, O. (2017). The hysteresis effect: Theorizing mismatch in action. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 47(2), 164-194.

[iii] Marx, Karl (1976 (1982)): Capital. A critique of political economy.  Vol 1. 3 volumes. London: Penguin Books (Pelican Marx Library).

[iv] Bernstein, Basil B. (2003): The structuring of pedagogic discourse. New York: Routledge (Class, codes, and control, v. 4). Available online at

[v] Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed (revised). New York: Continuum.

[vi] Biesta, G. J. (2004). Education, accountability, and the ethical demand: Can the democratic potential of accountability be regained?. Educational theory, 54(3), 233-250.


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Posted on 18 January 2021 08:30:00

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