Dorian Love: ICT & English Teacher Roedean School (SA)
Prof Lee Rusznyak: Deputy Head, Teacher Education at the School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand.

A troubling narrative is taking hold in some quarters: that distance online learning will proceed smoothly once teachers and students have secured access to smart devices and have enough data to access the internet. Treating the challenges around remote teaching as purely technical in nature ignores a central principle of teaching and learning: the nature of knowledge being taught crucially affects the pedagogical work that needs to be done to enable learning.

Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) provides a useful lens for unpacking how a purely technical approach to distance learning could undermine epistemological access. The Specialization dimension of LCT reveals that inducting students into knowledge practices (through school subjects or university courses) requires that their learning is directed towards something (such as specialist knowledge or procedures). This establishes an epistemic relation between a course and the epistemological goods it offers. In addition, courses are always studied by students seeking to acquire some kind of specialist insight or gaze. There is thus a social relation between the subject/course and the ways of knowing or thinking that it enables. All subjects have both epistemic relations and social relations, but often one is more strongly emphasized as a basis for achievement than the other (Maton, 2014). In the study of subjects that are largely legitimated by a knowledge code, the mastery of specialist knowledge and procedures are more important criteria for success than the attributes of the student.  For example, successful learning in the Physical Sciences depends more on students’ grasp of theories, principles and the correct use of the scientific method than on their dispositions. In contrast, many courses in the Humanities are largely legitimated by a knower code in which the basis for achievement lies in students mastering particular ways of knowing and thinking. In the case of Literary Criticism, for example, students need to acquire the perspective and insight needed to interpret a variety of texts. In initial teacher education, pre-service teachers are required to make appropriate pedagogical choices that are contextually appropriate.

Successful teachers make pedagogical choices that work to reveal to students what it takes to master their subject – they explicitly or tacitly understand the epistemic and social relations that legitimate mastery of their subject. Their teaching decisions support the kinds of learning required by the legitimation codes. This is where a purely technological approach to distance learning can undermine teaching – and unintentionally constrain students’ mastery of the subject. Different digital platforms offer certain pedagogical options. What they offer may be an affordance for a subject that has a knowledge code, but might very well constrain learning for subjects legitimated by a knower code. Where a digital platform supports pedagogies that prioritize the building of knowledge through specialist terminology, concepts and relationships between them, the platforms could work well for subjects that have a knowledge code. For example, the classic MOOC methodology employed by platforms such as Coursera or EdX, of short online lectures delivering content knowledge, punctuated by short quiz questions to check student comprehension is highly suitable for learning science topics like a course, Introduction to Optics. The compatibility between the demands of the subject and the affordances offered by this digital approach represents a code match. The technology offers potential for building knowledge in systematic ways and potentially supports learning. A danger happens where inappropriate technological decisions are made, and there is a mismatch between the mode of the digital platform and the demands of the subject. Used in a Literacy Criticism course, the kind of MOOC approach described above would severely restrict students’ achievement of what is valued. A code clash may occur when a digital platform (more suited to the mastery of concepts and procedures) is used for a subject in which achievement requires the development of ways of thinking (i.e. a knower gaze). This is not to say that development of knower gazes cannot be done through distance learning. Far from it. MOOCs such as the University of Pennsylvania’s popular ModPo offered on Coursera, deployed the classic English Literature seminar format instead of online lectures. By including the voices of Teacher Assistants in posing and answering questions around interpreting the selected texts, they modelled the ways of engaging with text that the course hoped students would learn. These filmed seminars were supplemented with online Google Hangouts and social media pages where the teaching team were available to answer students’ questions. Use of digital platforms in this way would not have opened access to science-based knowledge in such a powerful way.

While the contextual realities of students might dictate low tech and asynchronous technological solutions, consideration should also be given to what kinds of knowledge can be best learnt through these digital platforms. It might be that curriculum selection decisions made at the beginning of the year (under a very different set of contextual expectations) may need to be reconsidered. If the technology accessible to students forces particular pedagogical approaches, the nature of what is taught and when, might need revision. The sequencing of content may need revision to bring forward what might be successfully taught using accessible (and zero rated) technologies, such as voice-over PowerPoint presentations on university eLearning platforms. It might be that WhatsApp recordings or Zoom meetings can be recorded for later consumption to be accessed when data is available. It may be that students’ understanding of concepts can be mastered through distance learning, and connections, and application is done at a later stage with consolidation assessment tasks. While it is of paramount importance that students’ access to technology determines socially-just technological options, teachers should also bear in mind the Specialization codes that underpin the subjects they teach. The challenge is to reconfigure their curriculum and employ pedagogies that maximize the epistemological access for their students to make the best use of whatever period of time is spent teaching remotely. A purely technological approach to the transition to digital online teaching could undermine the huge effort that has gone into ensuring that the academic year is still a valuable learning experience for students.

Maton, K. (2014) Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education, London: Routledge. See