Freirean Dialogue in a Digitalised Learning Environment

Minoli Wijetunga and Thomas Godfrey-Faussett

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

In this essay, we use the term emergency hybrid learning in this write-up to reflect that the switch was in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and not an intentional decision. By hybrid we mean that sessions were a mix of in person and remote, and students either joined from Oxford or from elsewhere. We use italics to indicate jargon that is used in the field of education in general. The italics indicate that as authors, we may not fully subscribe to the implications of the word.

Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence. It would be a contradiction in terms if dialogue—loving, humble, and full of faith—did not produce this climate of mutual trust…

Dialogue is a fundamental aspect of education. Derived from Greek (dia-‘through’ and logos-’meaning’), taken literally, dialogue means the flow of meaning. When Freire wrote these words in his formative text ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, meaning would have flowed predominantly through in-person conversation between teacher and students.  Now however, dialogue is increasingly shifting to online spaces where meaning flows through digitised pathways, exemplified by the pedagogical practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. What does this mean for Freire’s vision of critical pedagogy which relies on effective dialogue?

Effective dialogue must extend beyond student-student relationships to include the teacher if they are to be brought to an ‘ever closer partnership in the naming of the world’. As students at the University of Oxford – an elite higher education institution reputed for its exclusive and often hegemonic practices – we reflect on the presence and absence of different types of pedagogical dialogues, exploring the extent to which a climate of mutual trust has been fostered over the course of a year of emergency hybrid learning. This is a dialogue between two students from quite different backgrounds – one, a middle-class white Brit (TGF) and the other, a middle-class brown woman from the majority world (MSW) – reflecting on a year where they shared the same learning spaces. As such, it is both an introspective narrative from two students and a commentary on the ways in which hybrid learning spaces are experienced by those with varying degrees of power.

MSW: The learning spaces resulting from a hybrid approach to teaching proved effective in finding solidarity – a key step in attempting to transform an unjust reality. When a speaker from the centre delivered yet another piece on the ‘regressive nature of the developing world’, when yet another lecturer opted to champion the minority-world narrative while relegating the majority world to the colonial stereotypes, those who identify as from the majority world found it easier to find support. A private WhatsApp conversation that takes on the role of a safe space to vent frustration was both a students’ version of union action and a form of group therapy. The online learning spaces allowed those with less voice to engage in effective dialogue with each other. Through this, we built support groups, found a sense of belonging, and were able to create purposeful counters against the purported narratives. Perhaps, this is a reflection of the times: in the age of the internet, many marginalised communities find their kin through online spaces; with learning shifting online, we found ourselves doing the same. It gave us the “power to create and re-create…power to transform the world” in our own small way.

TGF: If dialogue within these WhatsApp groups never crosses the boundary from safe-space into classroom-space it limits the potential for it to intervene in the world. Does the creation of these spaces actually act to limit the flow of ideas towards the centre and so only sustain a banking-model of education, in which meaning flows outwards, from the centre? Whilst disengagement can be framed as a constructive-power, in that it builds solidarity and mutual trust between students, it can also be framed as a destructive-power, in that it corrodes the trust between teacher and students, and even perhaps from students who are excluded from these groups. There is a risk that this disengagement tends only to create smaller echo-chambers where ideas are not challenged. Forcing yourself to consciously criticise your own role as either oppressor or oppressed is destabilising and uncomfortable to the point that we all too often shy away from this practice. Does digitalisation make it too easy to retreat away from spaces which force critical dialogue into those which allow you to vent and converse with those whose views align with yours?

MSW: While flow of ideas towards the centre is imperative, the context of a University such as Oxford with its history can be intimidating to students who are disillusioned and/or tired of justifying their own existence. Such systemic issues should ideally be recognised by the University itself, without forcing the burden on the less-heard student. However, the possible destructive power that could emerge among students is cause for concern. The conversations in WhatsApp groups are but the first stage on the path to a ‘humanist and liberatarian pedagogy’. It is only through reaching beyond the comfort zone of the oppressed that the second stage – a process of permanent liberation – can be obtained. The private conversations among the oppressed could easily lead to a ‘fear of freedom’, a prescribed behavior of the oppressed. The challenge, then, is to find the balance between creating a safe space that promotes solidarity and unity among the oppressed, which could then lead to critical engagement with the larger group. The digital pedagogical environments afford tools required for such an endeavour; decoding these tools to achieve a permanent liberation is the challenge faced by both the oppressed and the oppressor.

TGF: Freire described a “culture of silence” caused by unequal social relations, such as those between teacher and students. In the context of our own MSc cohort, this is exacerbated by differences in the level of confidence in English-language. It quickly became apparent that some students, myself included, felt more comfortable than others in contributing their thoughts publically. The WhatsApp group or any other private space offers an opportunity to share and develop ideas without the pressures of academic language. If creating private spaces allows responses from those members who otherwise would have been silenced, then this surely is a step in the right direction. In particular, it can build in delay, so that it is not only those who can provide a quick response who are involved in the dialogue. For those of us already in positions of relative power or advantage, slowing down the educational process can feel frustrating or inefficient. But recognising that slower moving dialogue, rather than quick-fire interchange, is an important stage in developing that horizontal relationship of mutual trust. I wonder how the learning experience would change if every time a teacher posed a question there was time given to private conversation between students before anyone responded publicly.

MSW: Having a safe space to discuss ideas before speaking them in the wider classroom was a key strategy I used. However, as a post-class reflection would indicate that the questions and points that were discussed in my private groups were valid and important, there were numerous times that I wished to have ‘the confidence of a mediocre white man’. In not making the space within the classroom for those without native speaker fluency, or those who need more time to formulate cohesive arguments, the classroom becomes another hegemonic space that discriminates against those that have been historically oppressed. In doing so, the class misses out on varying perspectives, unconsciously furthering the existing hegemonic narrative. While a pedagogical practice that encourages private conversation is useful, there should be more effective pedagogical interventions if the banking model of teaching/learning is to be dismantled. For the University of Oxford, with its socio-historical baggage, these efforts are all the more necessary. 

The switch to emergency remote methods of education was not prompted by a desire to re-think the nature of dialogue in classroom spaces. However, with the effects of the pandemic set to remain with us for several years and with universities recognising both the pedagogical and economic potential of hybrid approaches it is important that what started out as an rapid response to a global crisis is now developed deliberately and reflexively. Digital spaces offer the possibility of connecting people more easily, creating safe spaces for otherwise marginalised voices. But if these spaces are also marginalised then the process of education remains unchanged and these spaces serve only to provide the oppressed the illusion of voice. Digitisation can facilitate dialogue between individuals across the world , but unless that dialogue occurs between teacher and student, oppressor and oppressed, centre and periphery, it loses its connection to intervention and action serves only to preserve systems of oppression and indoctrination. 
This dialogue is representative of many that took place between us over the course of this year, but is perhaps the first that has ventured outside of the relative safety of a private group. Whilst the possibility of creating spaces for dialogue allowed us to build a relationship built on mutual trust, humility, love, and learning, limiting our interactions to these private spaces restricted the extent to which our dialogue and learning could intervene in the world. By keeping our learning private we excluded others, including our teachers, from this. While we, as individuals, may have learnt and progressed over  the year, the broader issues in the course remain unchanged for the next cohort to experience – we have been complicit in accepting and perpetuating biases. The digitalised classroom has a great potential for furthering a Frerian pedagogy; it just requires us to find the balance between safe, private spaces and making those spaces a place of learning (and unlearning) for all people.

Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

Minoli Wijetunga is a Sri Lankan scholar with an MSc Education from the University of Oxford. She is also a researcher affiliated to the Digital Humanities Laboratory, University of Colombo. Minoli’s primary research interest is in Global South approaches to education theorising and practice.

Thomas Godfrey-Faussett is a British educator and researcher with an MSc Education from the University of Oxford. He has worked across the education sector, in schools, universities and in EdTech, in England and in Zambia. Thomas’s primary research interest is educational assessment and its interaction with identity formation.

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