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Freirean Principles for E-learning

By Davin Carr-Chellman / December 2016

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In e-learning, teaching is often constrained by many factors such as economic limitations, time availability, access to students, student's preferences, student readiness, market needs and demands, and students' access to technology. There is a growing body of literature and research describing the constraints under which much of e-learning operates [1-7]. Unfortunately, some of these constraints create situations in which teaching in e-learning courses becomes highly behavioristic, rote, and disengaged. How can we make our students' experiences more engaging and empowering? One positive step toward better student engagement is gaining a deeper understanding of Paulo Freire's theories of learning with specific steps for applying those theories directly to e-learning settings.

In certain education circles, Paulo Freire is very well known, carrying extraordinary influence. His esteem is well deserved: His early text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1996), is considered required reading by many education scholars, teachers, and trainers [8]. It not only elaborates and illustrates the importance of becoming a reflective practitioner, constantly working to integrate theory and practice, but, even more, it clarifies the ethical burden that is assumed when someone takes on the title "teacher." Freire's work is seminal to the fields of critical pedagogy, literacy studies, adult education, and transformative learning. At the time of his death in 1997, Freire was celebrated as beacon of humanity and a genuine luminary, but he was not without his critics. To his credit, much of his writing after Pedagogy worked diligently to incorporate and respond to many of his critics. An excellent example of this revisionary process is his later text, Pedagogy of Hope (2014) [9].

It's important to recognize Freire wrote in a particular time and place with specific goals in mind. As a result, methods based on his ideas have been successful in similar contexts, while the efficacy with which they can be imposed on very different contexts is a matter of debate. Successful Freirean programs have, at their heart, a deep care for and engagement with the learners and the culture and society of the learners, always with an end goal of increasing freedom and agency within an ethical framework. What follows is meant to provide an a la carte menu of strategies, perspectives, and ideas that can move a course or module in a more participatory and emancipatory direction.

E-learning is Critical

No education is neutral: one must build trust through transparency. Every teaching moment is full of unacknowledged assumptions and unrecognized value frameworks. Even math can be racist [10]. Every piece of content we teach makes a statement about what we value. A level of transparency about these assumptions and values will go a long way toward earning the trust of our students and encouraging more significant engagement. Freire advocated and argued for the necessity of reciprocity in a learning environment and true transparency is essential in creating this reciprocity.

Power and decision making. Whose needs are met within a particular curriculum? Decisions are made throughout the process of design, development, and delivery of any online course. Why did these particular needs drive the decision making? What power dynamics are at play in the objectives, methods, content, and assessments of the course? How will power be negotiated throughout the course or module? What is expected of students and why? The answers to these types of questions should be clear to students and the implications of these answers for the conduct of the course or module should be clear as well. One way to accomplish this level of transparency and power sharing is to conduct a syncronous or an asyncronous discussion either by video or text-based forum in which the instructor explores the needs of the students, i.e., determine students' goals and objectives for the course and compare and contrast those with the way the course has been structured.

The aim of education is radical transformation. Radical transformation, in the Freirean sense, is rooted in Marxian critiques of capitalism and class. Learning through broad-based community literacy campaigns and social movements is where Freire excelled and had his greatest impact. Leslie Bartlett, a noted scholar of Freirean educational programs, says, "Those who draw on Freire's pedagogical theory plan and implement educational initiatives that aim-though with varying degrees of success-to create progressive social change" [11]. Obviously, the landscape of e-learning programs around the world is much more diverse than a Marxian framework might permit, but the goal of progressive social change in the direction of radical transformation and more egalitarian social relations is both noble and useful.

However, in my interactions with education and training professionals, radical transformation, at either the individual or social level, is rarely a high priority. Most e-learning continues to center on highly vocational skills oriented learning. This lack of interest is defended with an emphasis on many of the constraints mentioned above. In reality, though, the goals and purposes of education and training in general and, more specifically, in particular contexts such as degree programs and corporate training environments, are diverse and represent contested territory [12].

As a result, educators and trainers should permit the space for participants to engage each other in informed dialogue about matters of content, design, delivery, and availability, among other things. These topics can open the door to much greater investment on the part of students and participants, which is the first step on the path to questioning assumptions and making a lasting impact on someone's life. Even more, there can be benefits in terms of return on investment and transfer of learning using these methods. Learning is, by its very nature, a transformational process. The sooner we own this fact in our programs and training, the better our students and organizations will be served. To explore these ideas further, there is a significant literature base discussing the nature and value of radical transformation and there are some good studies of programs oriented around this concept [11, 13].

Transformation enacted. Transformation occurs in many different ways and is an idiosyncratic process. Planning with transformation as a goal and attempting to structure lessons and modules that will encourage individual and social change is likely not a wise expenditure of time. Rather, it makes sense to plan for good learning [14-15]. In this process, it is wise to anticipate transformation will happen and to plan accordingly. But for the e-learning instructor there are several ways to plan and design for good learning, for example: anything that generates vested interest on the part of the students. This usually begins with the instructor: Be responsive and quick with useful feedback; be approachable in digital ways; demonstrate care and concern for students; and develop activities that empower students to learn about each other while they are also making use of the course material. They will learn a great deal from each other, but, just as important, they will become accountable to each other for understanding ideas and concepts in the course.

E-learning is Dialogical

It is easy to be underwhelmed by the notion of dialogue. For example, many of us who are pragmatically oriented often appreciate when the talking ends and the rubber finally meets the road with real, productive work. Talk is cheap, as the saying goes, and, hence, not very valuable. But dialogue in the Freirean sense is meant to rise above this colloquial use of dialogue as shoptalk or glad-handing by digging deep into the thoughts, motivations, and goals of fellow-learners, grounding human learning in authentic social relations. This grounding informs the movement between thought and action that is both process and product of human meaning making. Grounding learning this way generates salience, a key factor in how effectively students internalize the content of any given lesson, module, or course [16-19].

The Freirean model of "naming the world" is a concept and an approach that grounds learning in this way. The approach is to situate educational activities in the lived experiences of participants, allow them to pose problems from their own lives, and generate themes and solutions that respond to those problems. In other words, creating learning environments, modules, and lessons that are salient, draw on the experiences of students, and let them have a voice in situations that might typically render them voiceless. For Freire, and numerous popular education programs based on his ideas, the end result can be "conscientization" or consciousness that can change reality. Conscientization is the point at which the learning dialogue becomes empowering. For Freire, empowerment is strongly connected to agency in the sense of possessing "the power to act on our own behalf to change a situation" [20]. As e-learning educators, improving the lives of our learners and working for the amelioration of social ills don't need to be foreign concepts. Framing these goals as "empowerment" can bear fruit for designers and instructors.

How do we reach such lofty goals as empowerment and conscientization? In addition to permitting students to use their own experiences and abilities as they confront the materials of the course or module, we can respect their abilities and interests and be open to new ways of doing things or approaching new ideas. These concepts can be difficult to enact in e-learning classrooms in which "teachable moments" are rare and pre-planning, buttoning down, and pre-negotiation tends to take the main stage. However, when we are able to engage learning in this way, we will see significant pay off in levels of learner engagement. We can help learners to link knowledge to action through real-world activities rather than prescribing sets of skills for them to learn that have little bearing on their futures but are seemingly "important" to designers or subject matter experts. We can also utilize generative themes and problem posing approaches that further engage learners in empowerment and conscientization.

E-learning is Praxical

Freire exhibited the influence of some important philosophical schools of thought beyond the Marxism that made him famous…and resisted by many. Colloquially, praxis means the reflexive and recursive movement between theory and practice, i.e. practice is best informed by theory and vice versa. This is precisely what e-Learn Magazine focuses on, translating theories and research into specific practices for e-learning professionals, teachers, designers, and learners. As trainers and educators, our goal is to generate understanding, a life changing state. Understanding and knowledge in the non-praxical sense are traditionally characterized as cognitive traits. Freire would see this cognitive emphasis as a crudely instrumentalist approach, in which every relationship is effectively a means to an end, further entrenching the inequities we should be trying to overcome as educators. Freire drew on the 20th century philosopher Heidegger, who drew on the ancient philosopher Aristotle, by emphasizing the nature of existence is not defined by a self-conscious, independent actor.

Freire develops methods that do justice to who we are as humans and the reality of human experience. Freire points to the need to abandon "banking style" education, in which the knowing teacher fills the empty vault of the student's mind. Consequently, Freirean methods emphasize more egalitarian teacher-student relationships. How can we move to a more praxical approach? By leaving behind the traditional content oriented approaches and instead moving to life-changing course strategies and materials. Negotiating knowledge with learners rather than focusing on a more instrumental, practical approach to skills and cognitive information dispensation will go a long way toward moving your e-learning courses toward a more praxical, and therefore more engaging and empowering experience for e-learners.

A Word About Reductionism

Based on a review of a great deal of Freirean theory and research, e-learning students will enjoy a better experience and a better education with the integration of some Freire-inspired principles and approaches. Please recognize, however, that integrating one or two of these suggestions does not create a Freirean, liberatory, education program. Most e-learning programs in North America simply cannot adopt an ethical and theoretical framework in Freire's direction given his foundations in Marxian analysis of social class and his "ethical and political commitment to transforming oppressive social conditions" [21]. Invoking Freire's name in e-learning programs is, in most cases, a misrepresentation and should be avoided. Such use would be a narrow reduction of the integrity of Freire's ideas and methods. On the other hand, recognizing education and learning are transformative processes, educators and trainers should be looking for approaches that are more humanizing, more participatory, and more emancipatory. In this regard, we should look to Freire as an example and an inspiration.


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About the Author

Davin Carr-Chellman is Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Idaho where he teaches in the Adult, Organizational Learning and Leadership Program. His research interests include adult learning, distance education, qualitative research methods, and the history and philosophy of adult education. He has been teaching at the university level since 1998 and, since 2005, much of that teaching has been online distance education at Penn State and the University of Idaho.

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