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★ A critical look at digital pedagogy

The English language teaching profession has undergone a sea change as a result of the proliferation of educational technologies. As the technology has become more sophisticated and is embedded in more and more aspects of the teaching and learning experience, there have been efforts to distill these advancements into a digital pedagogy. The assumption being that the world of language teaching must adapt in some way to take into account new digital products and the solutions they are offering.

There is in fact some disagreement about whether the concept of digital pedagogy even exists. At an ELTjam event a couple of years ago one of the guest speakers jokingly heckled the Director of Digital Pedagogy at an international educational publisher, telling her that she might as well be “the director of Santa Claus”. The funny thing was that the director in question didn’t disagree.

So, is it possible to work towards some kind of working definition of ‘digital pedagogy’? Since we know for a fact the pedagogy itself exists, perhaps we can take that as a starting point.

A great definition of pedagogy from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is that it’s “the study of the methods and activities of teaching.”1 It is a refreshingly simple and elegant description, and divides the concept neatly into two constituent parts. Within English language teaching we have a long history of methods and those approaches are in turn facilitated by tried and tested activities. Arguably, we can reduce pedagogy to those two core attributes: methods and the activities used to facilitate them.

In terms of methods within English language teaching, there are many to choose from: grammar translation, the Direct Method, the audio-lingual method, The Silent Way, the communicative approach to name only a few. Examples of activities that facilitate those approaches include role plays, information gaps, dictation activities, comprehension questions after reading or listening, controlled practice of grammar structure, and so on. All of these contribute towards the palette of activities that an English language teacher uses to help his or her learners.

In comparison to that simple definition of pedagogy, we have Professor Robin Alexander’s, which adds another dimension for consideration. Alexander describes pedagogy as “what one needs to know, and the skills one needs to command, in order to make and justify the many different kinds of decisions of which teaching is constituted.”2 Alexander’s point here is that it’s not just about the implementation of methods and activities. It’s about the conscious decisions that are behind them.

I’m sure most teachers would agree that there are four universal questions that inform every decision they make around their practice, starting with the glaringly obvious but often intimidating What am I going to do in class today? And then, in order to justify the response to that question, Why? Once those bases are covered we need to deal with How will this actually work in practice? That is, what are the nuts and bolts of the lesson going to be? And finally, the critical question: How will I know if it’s worked? That simple sequence is the bedrock of any educator’s practice, and provides the basis for the chain of decisions of which teaching is comprised.

So, if that’s how we think about pedagogy, what does it look like if we introduce the ‘digital’ component? Is it just a matter of talking about all of the above, but just swapping in mobile devices and interactive whiteboards? We would argue not.

The Digital Pedagogy Lab offers a definition of digital pedagogy that, we feel, sets the tone:

“Digital Pedagogy is precisely not about using digital technologies for teaching and, rather, about approaching those tools from a critical pedagogical perspective. So, it is as much about using digital tools thoughtfully as it is about deciding when not to use digital tools, and about paying attention to the impact of digital tools on learning.”

To some extent that sentiment echoes the four questions that underpin pedagogical decision making; reflecting on the choices being made in preparation for a lesson and evaluating whether those choices have been effective or not.

With that in mind, we would propose that the essence of digital pedagogy can be captured by the following statements:
1) It’s about using digital tools thoughtfully.
2) It’s about deciding where not to use those tools.
3) It’s about evaluating the use of those tools on learning.

But what about questioning the use of digital tools at all? Is the emergence of a discourse around digital pedagogy inevitable, or has it simply been unchallenged? How is the use of technology in education being critiqued, in terms of both its merits and faults?

A critical appraisal of the use of technology would primarily be concerned with the third statement in our description above; evaluating the extent to which the use of the tool actually delivers benefit to the teaching and learning process. If it doesn’t, why are we bothering in the first place? There are two notable devices that we can refer to in order to take that enquiry even further.

The first is known as Postman’s Six Questions. Neil Postman was an American educator, author and cultural critic. He wrote about the role that technology was beginning to play in American society. Postman saw himself as a counterpoint to the relentless optimism and enthusiasm of the ‘technophiles’ and their impact on American society.

We can observe a similar scenario when we look at the use of technology in education: on one side there is a cheerleading, evangelical community who are almost blind to the potential downsides of using technology to enhance learning, whilst on the other side you have people like Postman who say it is their duty to highlight the pitfalls of using technology – not just in education, but in life more broadly.

Postman’s take on the rhetoric surrounding technology was unequivocal, as he wrote in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:

“Through the computer, the heralds say, we will make education better, religion better, politics better, our minds better — best of all, ourselves better. This is, of course, nonsense, and only the young or the ignorant or the foolish could believe it.”

He certainly doesn’t hold back. It’s important to mention, however, that Postman made it clear that he wasn’t a Luddite. He was simply demonstrating what he saw as a healthy scepticism towards technology; he was able to appreciate the potential benefits, but he wasn’t prepared to ignore its detrimental effects.

In his 1998 book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century Postman proposed a very interesting set of questions that should be asked whenever a new technology is introduced. The first question is probably the most direct: What is the problem to which this technology is the solution? The idea of requiring a clearly defined problem is a really interesting one, especially as it’s not uncommon to see examples of technology in education that aren’t really solving a problem.

He then encourages us to ask Whose problem is it? and then What new problems might be created by solving the original problem? Might there be an adverse butterfly effect, or some unforeseen outcome that plays out somewhere down the line?

Similarly, we are urged to consider Which people and what institutions will be most seriously harmed by this new technology? The technology may be solving a problem for a very specific set of users in a specific context, but that might be at a cost to others elsewhere in the value chain, marketplace, or society more widely.

Conversely, the next question asks What sort of people and institutions gain special economic and political power from this new technology? What might the new technology mean for the distribution of opportunities, access or resources for example?

And then finally, What changes in language are being forced by these new technologies? Postman prompts us to think about how technological advances ultimately influence the way we think and, therefore, how we talk.

These are expansive and thought-provoking questions when applied to the use of educational technologies. As a thought experiment, try applying those questions to some of the technology solutions in your teaching context. For example, take an interactive whiteboard that can display a digital version of a coursebook as an example. To what problem is that the solution? Consider the delivery of a blended learning solution through a learning management system. What problem is that solving, and for whom? Is it actually creating problems for someone not enrolled in that course? Including grammar practice in a language learning mobile app arguably solves a few problems for learners at that moment, but it potentially creates several more as a result, such as the ability to check und erstanding and actual production.

What Postman’s questions provide is an impartial, objective approach to assessing educational technologies, and one that forces us to think about the wider implications of adopting it beyond the more immediate benefits of convenience or cost saving.

Another example of a more critical view on digital pedagogy, more specifically for English language teaching, comes from British linguist David Graddol and is known as Graddol’s Maxim. David Graddol is famous for, among other things, his 1997 book The Future of English, which attempted to chart the development of English as a global language. He gave a talk on this topic as part of a twentieth anniversary review of that work at the International House Barcelona conference in February 2017. Whilst addressing the use of technology in language learning, Graddol introduced his maxim. He said:

“In early experience with computer-based emerging technologies, I noticed what seemed a regressive aspect to courses designed for online use. This seemed partly because of the limitations of the technology, but also because the teacher lost ability to control the pedagogy which was imposed by the technology.”

Graddol’s assertion that technology is having a deleterious effect on a teacher’s ability to make those fundamental decisions is an interesting one. He goes on to say that his observations led him to draw the conclusion that “the leading edge of pedagogy is never found at the leading edge of technology.” He goes even further, taking that negative correlation between technology and pedagogy to the extreme, claiming that “new technology brings regressive pedagogy.”

According to Graddol, in some cases technology causes us to revert to an outdated or regressive way of teaching, and that’s the reason why it’s proving difficult to demonstrate improvements in learning when technology is used. In a profession where we’ve broadly landed on communicative language teaching as a best practice, it’s interesting to notice how few digital learning products attempt to actually facilitate communicative language learning. Instead, they rely on less sophisticated methodologies like grammar translation or the audio-lingual method.

There are several reasons for why that might be the case, and lots of people have commented on this exact issue. For example, on his blog in 2014 Philip Kerr reviewed the digital language learning product Voxy, pulling the platform up on its methodological approach:

“According to Wikipedia, Voxy is based on the principles of task-based language teaching. … What I saw was closer to those pre-1970s textbooks where texts were followed by glossaries. Voxy is technologically advanced, but methodologically, it is positively antediluvian.”

That’s fairly scathing criticism of what is, for all intents and purposes, a fairly advanced language teaching product. Kerr’s reference to Voxy’s antediluvian approach aligns with Graddol’s idea that technology in evitably results in regressive pedagogy.

But why is that case? Why do seemingly leading-edge learning technologies put forward old school pedagogical approaches? Looking at it from Postman’s perspective, if the pedagogy that’s facilitated by these products isn’t bringing around improved learning outcomes, then what’s the point?

To answer that question, we come back to Philip Kerr. In 2014 Kerr wrote about what he saw as being a neo-liberal approach to education. His reference point was adaptive learning, but we think that it might be applied to educational technology more broadly:

“The major advocates of adaptive learning form a complex network of vested neo-liberal interests. Along with adaptive learning and the digital delivery of educational content, they promote a freemarket, for-profit, ‘choice’-oriented … ideology.”

We’re not entirely convinced by Kerr’s accusation against the sinister forces behind educational technologies, but it’s a viewpoint that is certainly worth considering. For us, technology’s apparently regressive pedagogical approach might be more directly attributed to the individuals involved in its creation. More specifically, digital product teams that don’t necessarily have the educational experience or expertise to address the pedagogical aspect of their products. Their output often exemplifies the leading edge of design and user experience, but that slickness belies the lack of pedagogical substance. That leaves educators and learners in a position where they need to retrofit the pedagogy to the tech, rather than feeling like it was a consideration from the outset.

And this is where, for us, the concept of digital pedagogy becomes all the more important. As educators, trainers, content developers and publishers working in a profession that continues to be assailed by new technological solutions, being able to ask the right questions and to proceed thoughtfully and critically is key.

The authors
Nick Robinson and Tim Gifford are co-founders of ELTjam. ELTjam is the Learner Experience Design company working with companies
and organisations to create digital learning products that are both effective and a joy to use. You can explore the topic of digital pedagogy
in more detail in their online course, An Introduction to Digital Pedagogy, available on the ELTJAM ACADEMY at Use
the code NEWROUTES to get a 20% discount. For more information on what ELTjam is up to, visit them at or follow them on Twitter at @eltjam. If you’d like to get in touch to explore how ELTjam might work with your organisation, contact their Learner
Experience Partner, Daphne Walder, who is based in São Paulo on [email protected]
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