commenting on ‘What would Paulo Freire think of Blackboard?’

Drick Boyd’s “What would Paulo Freire think of Blackboard?” is a provocative piece worth moving to the top of your ‘I should look into this’ list. Online learning has become more prominent and easy-to-use. Boyd is correct in urging educators to check their assumptions about the internal and often-subliminal messaging written into the DNA of a commercial Learning Management System (LMS).

Information and artifacts move efficiently to and from teachers and learners in an LMS, however, how many of us have stopped to “wonder about the nature of their learning experience”? What symbolic language and encoded values come from the software itself? And do those languages and values reflect the lessons, language, and values of the instructor? Or even the school? How might educational theorists respond to what they see happening as the teaching and learning cycle in an LMS? Is it student-centered? Teacher-centered? Is it inclusive? Does it allow for questioning the dominant culture? Are there restrictions placed on student expression or exploration?

Boyd reminds us of Freire’s warning: a student interacting alone with a computer does not lead to a transformative education. Instead, educators must lead the way to discover new methods and pathways for using computers in community with students. This big picture goal becomes obscured when we purchase an LMS with its writing templates for assignments, curricula, and gradebooks. The Internet is a common space that has grown to become an essential public utility, such as gas, electricity, and water, and each of us has the right to have access to and voice in this town hall. Educators have an obligation to view their school’s LMS choice as a common space that will “redefine the way human users understand themselves and their relationship to the world.” Without that critical eye on the software used, students fall in line and develop a relationship to knowledge and information that is commodity-based, for with each correct blip submitted, up ticks their percentage grade in the course.

An LMS certainly has positive features, such as discussion forums, and channels for collaboration and democratizing the learning process. It is not all bad, however, it does take the user through a predetermined set of boxes, buttons, and clicks. Teachers, too, have this experience, as they quantify their learning outcomes. Cue film of teacher sitting alone with a software program that requires him to walk through required boxes, buttons, and clicks. That assignment is likely developed alone, not in dialogue, or perhaps efficiently imported from last year’s class.

Let’s focus our critical eye even more: we have a preponderance of information via text as the medium of delivery of content combined with a rigid pathway for inputting and receiving and interacting with that text. This teaching and learning experience was conceived, created, and packaged by the software company. Freire urged us to develop curricula in dialogue with students, but where is the LMS that supports that kind of openness and flexibility?

Perhaps we should consider returning to paper and pencil for some of the daily work of the Constructivist classroom.

What Would Paulo Freire Think of Blackboard: Critical Pedagogy in an Age of Online Learning,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol. 7, Issue 1, 2016, pp.165-186.