On digital teaching and the neoliberal machine

Espen Hektoen


This is part of a special collection celebrating the centenary of Paulo Freire’s birth.

Paulo Freire‘s conscientization is becoming even more important in an age where discourses about students as consumers dominates pedagogical paradigms, and social consequences, as Henry Giroux points to, are blanketed by notions of pedagogical “neutrality”. When covid-19 broke out, many educators deservedly were praised for their competent flexibility in rapidly adjusting their teaching to the digital format overnight. The pandemic sped up the trend of digital teaching in higher education, a development that Linda Harasim describes originally occurred primarily for non-pedagogical reasons.

From a managerial perspective this might seem like a positive thing. The ushering in of an “inevitable” digital future, reducing logistics and streamlining information to a generation of recipients naively and inaccurately deemed “digital natives”. Administratively, almost nothing can go wrong – even the challenging concept of the third pedagogue is left over to Big Tech behemoths like Microsoft and Google! 

Digital teaching tools are not inherently good or bad, and Freire was not opposed to the use of technology in pedagogy. But as Drick Boyd writes in What would Paulo Freire think of Blackboard™: Critical pedagogy in an age of online learning, digital systems challenges ways in which educators can promote critical reflection, not only on the content, but also on its delivery. I argue that we need to engage even more with the “why” and furthermore “how”. When interviewing an Associate professor at my university for my Ph.D. project, we partly digressed from our topic and talked about neoliberal attention economy and digital teaching:

“It‘s completely no difference. You have to be as fancy and sexy as a YouTuber to get the attention”. 

He says this with laughter, but not at the expense of genuineness. He brings up a salient notion to the consumerist perspective: the neoliberal attention economy and its influence on digital teaching in higher education. He remarks how the “currency” of teaching is the attention of the students, and how he feels he`s competing with attention economist giants like Facebook and YouTube, since our consciousness can hardly differentiate between a teacher transmitted through Microsoft Teams, or a YouTube video. 

Freire spoke of the importance of being able to see reality from the students‘ perspective before we can inspire transformation of this reality. If we only see their reality from our own point of view, we risk playing along with the hegemony imposed on us by neoliberalism. A hegemony that individualizes knowledge, instrumentalize learning and encloses teaching inside walled digital gardens. To quote Freire himself: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral”.

When submerged in this new digital paradigm, we must strive to liberate ourselves as educators lest the number of Zoom attendants on the assembly line towards banking assessment becomes the indicator of good teaching. Because when we give the students the roles of the consumers, what does that make the sellers, …I mean educators? If we counter uncomfortable black screens and digital silence with trying to commercialize our roles as educators by trying to be as sexy as YouTubers, we are not addressing the real issues. We are siding with the powerful and our own concerns within that hegemony. As Neil Postman might would have said, we risk amusing ourselves, and our students to death. I say the binary and narrow roles of seller and consumer presented by neoliberal influence risks injecting “de”- in front of Freire`s transformative process of humanization.

Education is never neutral, and the more seamlessly the attention economy injects itself into teaching in higher education, conscientization becomes ever more important. As my informant alludes to, digital teaching can obstruct transformative learning by placing its focal point on the educator, reducing the relationship between educator and student to one of banking transmission. 

As Maximillian Alvarez writes in (Digital) Media as Critical Pedagogy, there is nothing predestined about the digital mediums we integrate into our teaching but when reflecting on Paulo Freire and his works, I think of the neoliberal context which these tools arose and thrives in. If we let us be oppressed for too long, we as educators also become easier to recruit as oppressors. Through critical reflection, we can choose whether to be a cog or wrench in the wheel of the neoliberal machine.


Photo by Isis França on Unsplash

Espen Hektoen is a Ph.D. student at NTNU, Department of Education and Lifelong Learning, Trondheim, Norway. His project takes a qualitative look at pedagogical competence programs in higher education through a lens of transformative learning and academic culture. Other research interests are also music, drumming and educational philosophy.

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