Critical digital pedagogy and the many faces of TEL

“Increasingly, the web is a space of politics, a social space, a professional space, a space of community. And, for better or worse, more and more of our learning is happening there. For many of us, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between our real selves and our virtual selves, and in fact, these distinctions are being altogether unsettled.” (Stommel 2014)

Published on 11th March 2020 | Written by Nicola Muirhead | Photo by 杰 肖 on Unsplash


Jesse Stommel was the first to connect the dots and point out the obvious when it came to the challenges of critical pedagogy in a digital age. He raises the question, “what is digital agency?” for our students and ourselves now, and how does this translate into higher education? How are we as educators meant to mentor and guide our students in this wild west of social media and technology, while also creating a safe and democratic space for learning and collaboration amongst learners of all ages, genders, race and cultures? (Stommel 2014)

Critical Digital Pedagogy for me was a difficult concept to wrap my mind around. This was mainly because it required me to think about technology both as a physical tool that I use daily in my work (the camera), and the technology that I use to help teach my learners in the world of visual communication and storytelling; whether it be tackling threshold concepts in Level 1, or helping my students with their digital literacy as they navigate the world of social media and visual storytelling online.

I needed to reflect on some key questions when using this technology in my teaching, and weigh in on the many faces of digital learning. The question, ‘when is technology empowering for learners and when is it dis-empowering?’ was most important. I was still left with this question after my reflection. Perhaps it is a question that will continue to manifest and continue to evolve – collectively – within Higher Education and the Creative Industries, in this ever changing digital landscape, and the growing role of technology in our society.

Here are some of the questions I did come up with, which I hope I will be able to unpack as I continue on with my teaching:

  1. Is the technology I am using safe and within the guidelines of the Data Protection Act (2018)?
    • After reviewing the GDPR. there is a strong emphasis on the importance of protecting students and institutions from the threat of data breaches in Higher Education.
  2.  When using technologies that are separate to the technologies used in the universities where I teach – such as ZOOM – have I checked whether or not I need consent forms to be signed from my students when using this technology?
    • This was a little insight from the PGCert course leader at the beginning of Unit 1 when he made a point of having us sign consent forms before using ZOOM – which of course has been an amazing tool for our online learning.
  3. What technology can I use to empower my students and their learning; to teach creatively and for creativity?
    • “The first paradigm that shaped my pedagogy was the idea that the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring. […] Critical reflection on my experience as a student in unexciting classrooms enabled me not only to imagine that the classroom could be exciting but that this excitement could co-exist with and even stimulate serious intellectual and/or academic engagement.” (Hooks 1994: 07)
    • I need to know what technologies I can implement into my teaching that will bring excitement to the classroom, and when – whether it be learning how to layout a book with photographs in Indesign, or helping to design and website, or collaborating with other field of studies in the creative arts.
  4. As a teacher and mentor to my students – in particular my female students – how can I better prepare them for the potential threats of the digital networks they encounter, where potential predators in the industry may try to take advantage of them?
    • I have to say – this is a question that came up for me, having had many of my female colleagues reflect on their entry into the photography industry. When starting out as a fresh, naive and eager photographer, having access to famous editors and photographers online seems like a dream. But it can often lead to devastating reports of young female photographers having creepy encounters with the gatekeepers – and when they resist flirtation or, something more sinister, this can often leave them in fear of their careers. That is why I often share with my female photography students the websites of organisations like where they can seek the advice of seasoned female professionals in the community.
    • This was also a sensational report which laid out some first-hand accounts by female photographers – the whistle blowers of our industry – on the realities women face in the profession. It is important that young women and men are made aware of this risks.
  5. What digital technologies can I use to help better articulate, or demonstrate, to my students key threshold concepts such as the ‘exposure triangle’ or ‘circles of confusion’ in order to help them pass through the ‘portal’?
    • Teaching methods that can incorporate technologies, such as YouTube, to better visualise for my adult learners these threshold concepts in Level 1 of photography.
  6. How can I explain to my students the benefits of social media platforms in their practice, without instilling in them an unhealthy dependency or need to feel validated about their work, through these platforms?
    • This speaks to the worries of mental health and a squashing of creativity when you are constantly comparing yourself to others – the ‘social comparison theory’ (Harrison and Lucassen 2018).
  7. How can I use technology to be more inclusive in terms of my black and minority ethic (BAME) students?
    • What is amazing about technology is the access we have to investigating counter narratives in our history that challenge the mainstream. Since embarking on this course, I have made a point of investigating photographers and visual storytellers who are BAME. It is wonderful to be able to represent diverse photographers in my workshops on photojournalism. and to move away from the white male curriculum. I use resources such as which raises the voice of indigenous visual storytellers, and, whose mission is to enable the public to explore identity, representation, human rights and social justice in photography.
  8. Does the technology I use in my teaching help my students develop their digital literacy?
    • Mike Caulfield wrote: “Much web literacy we’ve seen either asks students to look at web pages and think about them, or teaches them to publish and produce things on the web. While both these activities are valuable, neither addresses a set of real problems students confront daily: evaluating the information that reaches them through their social media streams… They need concrete strategies and tactics for tracing claims to sources and for analyzing the nature and reliability of those sources.”


I come back to the idea of thinking about the question of when is technology empowering and when is it disempowering? Collier stresses this point a lot in her article, “It should be necessary to start”: critical digital pedagogy in troubled political times. She quotes Paulo Freire,in Pedagogy of Hope, stating: “…all liberating practice—which values the exercise of will, of decision, of resistance, of choice, the role of emotions, of feelings, of desires, of limits, the importance of historic awareness, of an ethical human presence in the world, and the understanding of history as possibility and never as determination—is substantively hopeful and, for this reason, produces hope.”

But in that same vein of resistance, which technology can help us facilitate as educators and learners, Collier reflects on another truth within academia, and the institutions where we teach. She quotes Audrey Watters and her article ‘Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump, who states: “Do our technologies or our stories work in the interest of justice and equity? Or, rather, have we adopted technologies for teaching and learning that are much more aligned with that military mission of command and control? The mission of the military? The mission of the Church? The mission of the University?” For me, this speaks to the possibility of disempowering our learners. Technology – although a very liberating and revolutionary aspect of our society and learning – can also be used against us, either as a tool for control by higher institutions, or as a trigger for poor mental health, confidence and sense of self.

Obviously many of these dilemmas are out of our control. But it is all part of the process of learning for all of us – and technology will continue to unfold in ways that will uplift us and challenge us. As an educator, it is my duty to be aware of these pitfalls and to reflect on my own experiences using these technologies, and to impart that knowledge and experience to my students. And so, continuing to ask these critical questions about the technologies I use in my teaching will be paramount in ensuring I am protecting and preparing my students for the professional world they are entering.


Nicola Muirhead is an awarded documentary photographer and freelance visiting lecturer in photography. Her work focuses on themes related to identity and place, and how they are impacted and shaped by political, environmental, historical and socio- economic factors. Nicola is a Member of Women Photograph, the London Creative Network (LCN) and assists with the running of a bi-monthly event called Photo Scratch, aimed at bringing together emerging documentary photographers and industry professionals in a supportive space. She has worked with universities including Ravensbourne, the London College of Communication, City University and the London School of Photography. She earned her PGcert in Creative Education at the University for the Creative Arts in 2019.


Bates, A. (2015) Choosing technologies for teaching and learning: the challenge. In: Bates, A. Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for Designing Teaching and Learning. Pressbooks Open Online Textbooks

Caulfield, M (2017) Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers. Available at:

Collier, A. (2017) “It should be necessary to start”: critical digital pedagogy in troubled political times. Available online: (Accessed 29th March 2019)

Harrison G. and Lucassen M. (2018) Stress and Anxiety in the Digital Age: The Dark Side of Technology [Online]. Available at: Accessed 5th April 2019)

Hooks, b. (1994) Language. In: hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. London and New York: Routledge. pp. 167-176 Available online: (Accessed 29th March 2019)

Michael-Morris, S. and Stommel, J. (2015) Is it okay to be  a Luddite? Hybrid Pedagogy. [Online]. Available at (Accessed 22 October 2018)

What does GDPR mean for higher education? – GDPR.Report,

Chick, K (2018) CJR Special Report: Photojournalism’s moment of reckoning

Stommel, J. (2014) Critical Digital Pedagogy: a Definition. Available at:

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