Paulo Freire, University Education and Post Pandemic Digital Praxis

Bill Johnston, Sheila Macneill and Keith Smyth

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

When Paulo Freire’s book ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ was published in English in 1972 nobody could have envisaged the Covid-19 pandemic or contemplated how Freire’s ideas, including his critical perspectives on technology, marginalisation and empowerment, might resonate with educators and the state of education during the emergency responses of 2020 and on-going disturbances of 2021/22. When our book ‘Conceptualising the Digital University’ was published coming into 2019 neither could we.   

In our exploration of the concept of the digital university we critiqued the dominant neoliberal practices to date, and offered more hopeful possibilities for the future, based on Freire’s ‘Education for Critical Consciousness’ .  

This reflection applies our praxis, developed through writing our book, by viewing the pandemic, through a Freirian lens. While we can only speculate on how Freire would have read the pandemic, and the ensuing challenges and developments in education and digital practice, there are critical dimensions of Freire’s work, and world view, through which we can consider the impact and implications of the pandemic.

The University and the pandemic: populism, politics and pedagogy 

The immediate responses were contradictory and confused – online teaching was characterised as inferior and demands were made for an early return to face-to-face teaching, while simultaneously the ‘pivot’ to online and the ability of educators to continue to deliver a comparable quality of learning experience was assured and even celebrated by politicians. The loss of the traditional written exam was lamented, and alternative forms of assessment were publically perceived and also positioned by politicians as being less effective, rigorous or fair, thereby ignoring longstanding pre-pandemic debates about how meaningful or equitable exams actually are.

With the abrupt move into lockdown in the UK, there was little time for criticality at a strategic or implementation level. In the face of radical upheaval, most learning and teaching did make a relatively successful transition to online delivery. However, the isolation and loss of the informal, social side of the student experience was keenly felt. Evidently some of the headline grabbing stories around ‘failed learning’ were actually about access to hardware and data and the loss of a traditional student social life.  In this context there was little that universities could do when wider society was in lockdown.

As we reflect on the challenges and experiences of education during Covid-19, a key pedagogical question is the extent to which the pandemic response might either become a transformational force for change, or simply an opportunity to strengthen the hold neoliberalism has on how higher education and universities are positioned?  Allied to this is Freire’s position on education as a liberating force in society.

Considering Freire and education in the pandemic

How might Freire inform how we perceive education in the pandemic?  We can consider Freire’s views on the societal and structural inequities that prevent equality of opportunity to engage in formal education, and which restrict liberation through learning, in relation to the rapid transition to online learning in the pandemic.

Universities already had the technology to support online learning through digital infrastructures such as the Virtual Learning Environment, but there were challenges in ensuring equitable access for all.  Many students did not have access to suitable computers at home, a problem exacerbated in the initial lockdown phase by multiple family members needing to access the “family” device simultaneously.

The pandemic also threw into stark contrast the distinction between those learners who were space richer and space poorer in relation to the home environment for engaging in formal learning, and who were richer or poorer in relation to who was there to support them. Support also had to be provided remotely to educators to enable them to teach online.

We must also recognise that for many learners and educators, the challenge was not one of learning and teaching from home, but of being in lockdown at home, dealing with multiple demands, striving to learn and teach as best as they could.

Freire may have observed and challenged the extent to which the pandemic exacerbated and widened existing societal and structural inequities in learning and education. He may have even questioned whether the emergency ‘pivot’ to online learning was an appropriate response, as opposed to first establishing more equitable conditions for learners to engage.

While we cannot know what Freire’s view would be on contemporary educational technologies and digital education practices, including those that came to the fore during the pandemic, we know that Freire was critical of technology being used to privilege some while disadvantaging or oppressing others, and that he was interested instead in the liberating potential of technology for those who are already disadvantaged or disenfranchised. On this particular issue we can observe a dichotomy between the disadvantage to those learners without adequate access to technology during the pandemic, and those learners who were previously disadvantaged by, for example, location, domestic situation, caring responsibilities, or disability, and who in theory at least had an increased opportunity to engage in learning through the move to online delivery.

The Digitally Distributed Curriculum

In our work on conceptualising the digital university, we were challenged by how Freire’s views on equity and equality of opportunity, and his perspective on praxis as “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” could be translated into more creative and democratic forms of digitally enabled education. We sought to do this by framing much of our response to the neoliberalistion of education within a critical consideration of what the curriculum is, where it is located, and whom it is for.

This led us to a definition of “The Digitally Distributed Curriculum” rooted within the ‘values’ that we feel should underpin it; the ‘enabling dimensions’ that are required to link those values to practice, and the specific approaches to practice through which the digitally distributed curriculum is enacted (Figure 1).

Graphical user interface

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The underpinning values emphasise the centrality of public pedagogic practices, educational praxis as a means of challenge and change, and of participation and participative practices within our conceptualisation of the digitally distributed curriculum. The ‘enabling dimensions’ we identify are unified by a commitment to democratising: (i) the content of the curriculum (co-production); (ii) how the curriculum can be engaged with and where it is located in space and place (porosity and co-location); and (iii) how the learning and knowledge creation supported within and through the curriculum can produce outputs and artefacts having wider societal relevance and value (co-production and open scholarship). We then identify the specific pedagogic locales, approaches and interventions through which the enabling dimensions of the digitally distributed curriculum are enacted and realised.

While developed prior to the pandemic our model of the digitally distributed curriculum was framed within the context of Freire’s work and worldview, and may present a partial response to how we may achieve a more optimistic response to higher education, and the harnessing of the digital therein, moving forward from Covid-19.  

University leadership faces a number of dilemmas going forward. The first concerns how to counter the overriding media and political narratives around a “proper” university education being embodied by large lectures and final end of year exams?  This is coupled with the economic need to bring students “back on campus” and fill halls of residences. At the same time, space restrictions mean that physical class sizes are limited, whilst blended learning is perceived as being “second best”. 

The rapid move to online led to some equally rapid purchasing decisions around technology. For example, the purchase of Zoom for online conferencing, proctoring systems for online exams, additional licences for access to e-texts.  Can universities afford to maintain these systems?  Are they needed? There are ethical, equitable and sustainability questions around their continued use that need to be addressed.

Critically, and most importantly, there is an opportunity now – an opportunity that is under threat if universities and politicians seek a rapid return to pre-pandemic practices – to critically engage in what the “new normal” for universities actually could be, and to create a Freirean ‘new normal’ understanding of what a university education experience is, who the university is for, and how the educational work of universities can benefit wider society.Adapting Freire’s culture circle approach, students and staff could work together to learn from the challenges of the pandemic, and also the opportunities that this has revealed, to create new pictures of the contemporary learning and teaching experience that allow exploration of flexibility, inclusion, accessibility, and equity for students and staff. These new shared narratives could then be used as the basis for future developments, and provide a counter narrative to neoliberal educational technology developments that are driven by profit and will seek to provide homogenised educational experiences beyond the pandemic.

Photo by Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash

Bill Johnston is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Psychological Sciences and Health at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland.  Before retiring in 2010 Bill was Senior Lecturer and Assistant Director at Strathclyde’s Centre for Academic Practice and Learning Enhancement.  

Sheila Macneill is an independent digital learning consultant and artist. Sheila has over 20 years experience working in the UK HE sector as a researcher and lecturer. 

Keith Smyth is Professor of Pedagogy and Head of the Learning and Teaching Academy at the University of the Highlands and Islands, a geographically and digitally distributed tertiary education institution in Scotland.


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