An Ideological Taxonomy of Our Postsecondary Digital Learning Community

Where do you fit?

July 26, 2020

The postsecondary digital learning community can be described, very broadly, as falling into three distinct ideological groups: progressives, moderates and libertarians.

Digital Learning Progressives

The progressive wing of the digital learning community is most closely associated with Paulo Freire and other theorists' ideas. Sometimes going under the banner of critical digital pedagogy, this community takes an activist stance toward postsecondary change. Central to the thinking of digital learning progressives is to try to understand pedagogical strategies through the lens of structural inequalities and societal/institutional power dynamics.

Digital learning progressives tend to be highly critical of the ed-tech industry in general, and particularly of the growing trend toward university partnerships with for-profit online program management companies. The progressive wing of the digital learning community is most likely to fight for the ideals of free college and robust public (especially community college) funding. Digital learning progressives are likely to lead institutional and ecosystemwide efforts to support historically marginalized postsecondary communities, including adjunct/temporary faculty and first-generation/low-income students.

The centering of the educational experience in the context of structural inequalities informs a digital learning progressive orientation that understands the operations of colleges and universities, particularly elite institutions, as mainly acting to amplify and calcify existing disadvantages based on gender, class and race.

Digital Learning Moderates

Digital learning moderates share many of the same critiques of the postsecondary system as digital learning progressives, differing mostly in their preferred methods to ameliorate inequalities. Instead of seeing higher education as a mechanism to entrench class/race/gender privilege, digital learning moderates hold to the belief that colleges and universities can serve as engines of social mobility and opportunity.

Where it comes to pedagogy, digital learning moderates tend to emphasize practices grounded in learning science research and instructional design practice. While mindful of the structural racism and persistent economic stratification that higher education operates, digital learning moderates are less likely to foreground these issues in their practices and methods.

Like digital learning progressives, moderates are often highly critical of outsourcing core instructional capabilities to for-profit OPM providers. Digital learning moderates are also sensitive to the overblown claims of the ed-tech industry. They will almost always stress sound pedagogical and learning design practices over technologies to advance learning. Despite these concerns, digital learning moderates may be open to leveraging educational technologies and for-profit online providers (OPMs and other platforms) in specific cases and circumstances. Less ideologically opposed to partnering with for-profit providers than progressives, digital learning moderates take a skeptical but at least partially open stance to the ed-tech and OPM industry.

Digital Learning Libertarians

Digital learning libertarians share with digital learning progressives a deep skepticism of the efficacy of the existing postsecondary ecosystem. Where digital learning moderates may be described as institutionalists, in that they believe that advancing higher education depends on the long-term resilience of individual colleges and universities, digital learning libertarians, in contrast, often see institutions of higher learning as the problem more than the solution. This belief that the goal of higher education can be served (in some cases) by entities beyond existing institutions causes digital learning libertarians to be open to new educational methods and structures that bypass colleges and universities.

Digital learning libertarians are less likely to look toward public (government) investment to provide postsecondary educational opportunities and emphasize entrepreneurial strategies and market-based mechanisms. While sharing the goals of higher education as an engine of opportunity for historically disadvantaged groups with progressives and moderates, digital learning libertarians see the potential for nonincremental advances in postsecondary education in new and disruptive strategies, platforms and technologies.

Where digital learning moderates are drawn mainly from the ranks of those employed within higher education (particularly among the instructional design and educator developer communities), digital learning libertarians are most likely to be situated outside higher education. While digital learning libertarians may share an overall ideological orientation with academics well represented in disciplines such as economics, they tend not to emerge from within academia. Instead, digital learning libertarians are overrepresented in ed tech, OPM and investment organizations.

Some Thoughts

As with any attempt to articulate big categories in which individuals fall, this effort to place digital learning professionals within broad categories of progressive/moderate/libertarian is imperfect. People are never one thing. They have beliefs and priorities that span ideologies, and circumstances and constraints dictate their actions.

Indeed, very few in the broader digital learning community (save maybe progressives) would self-identify in any of these categories. Nobody goes around saying, "I am a digital learning moderate" (the largest group). Both digital learning progressives and digital learning libertarians will take issue with how I've characterized their beliefs.

I am trying to offer this modest and flawed taxonomy to get at what I think are the ideological roots of much of the controversies and disagreements that confront our digital learning community.

There is an intense debate going on right now within this community on the future of higher education. Questions range from the role of nonprofit/for-profit partnerships in the expansion of online learning to digital learning professionals' role in combating structural racism and persistent inequalities.

All too often, I find that the digital learning community's various ideological wings fail to listen to each other. There is too often an assumption of bad intent, rather than finding common goals and shared beliefs.

By segregating ourselves off into professional communities of practice that share our pre-existing beliefs, we diminish opportunities to challenge our ideas.

We lose opportunities to learn.

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Joshua Kim

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