The Digital Classroom: Social Justice and Pedagogy

What happens when we look at the classroom as a space of social justice? What are the ways in which students can be engaged in learning beyond rote memorisation? What innovative methods can be evolved to make students stakeholders in their learning process? These were some of the questions that were thrown up and discussed at the 2 day Faculty Training workshop for participant from colleges included in the Pathways to Higher Education programme, supported by Ford Foundation and collaboratively executed by the Higher Education Innovation and Research Application and the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore.
The Digital Classroom: Social Justice and Pedagogy

Photo by Uncultured under a CC license available at

The workshop focused on 3 chief challenges in contemporary pedagogy and teaching in higher education in India as identified by HEIRA: The need for innovative curricula, challenges to social justice in education, and possibilities offered by the intersection of digital and internet technologies with classroom teaching and evaluation. In the open discussions, the participating faculty members used their multidisciplinary skills and teaching experience to look at possibilities that we might implement in our classrooms to create a more inclusive and participatory environment. The conversations were varied, and through 3 blog entries I want to capture the focus points of the workshop. In this first post, I focus specifically on the changing nature of student engagement with education and innovative ways by which we can learn from the digital platforms of learning and knowledge production and implement certain innovations in pedagogy that might better help create inclusive and just learning environments in the undergraduate classroom in India.

Peer 2 Peer: One of the observations that was made unanimously by all the faculty members was that students respond better, learn faster, engage more deeply with their syllabus when the instructor has a personal rapport with them. Traditionally, the teachers who have established human contact which goes beyond the call of duty are also the teachers that have become catalysts and inspirations for the students. Especially with the digital aesthetics of non-hierarchical information interaction, this has become the call of the day.

Establishing the teacher as a peer within the classroom, rather than the fountainhead of information flow, is an experiment worth conducting. Like on other digital platforms, can we think of the classroom as a space where the interlocutors each bring their life experience and learning to start an information exchange and dialogue that would make them stakeholders in the process of learning? This would mean that the teacher would be a facilitator who builds conditions of knowledge production and dissemination, thus also changing his/her relationship with the idea of curriculum and teaching.

Reciprocal evaluation: It was pointed out that the grade oriented academic system often leads to students disengaging with innovative and meaningful learning practices. With the pressure of completing the curriculum, the students’ instrumental relationship with their classroom learning and the highly conservative structures of higher education that do not offer enough space to experiment with the teaching methods, it often becomes difficult to initiate innovative pedagogic practices. Learning from the differently hierarchised digital spaces, it was suggested that one of the ways by which this could be countered is by introducing reciprocal evaluation patterns which might not directly be associated with the grades but would recognise and appreciate the skills that students bring to their learning.

Inspired by the Badges contest at HASTAC, it was suggested that evaluation has to take into account, more than grades. Different students bring different skills, experiences, personalities and behaviours to bear upon the syllabus. They work individually and in clusters to understand and analyse the curriculum. Recognising these skills and the roles that they play in their learning environments is essential. Getting students to offer different badges to each other as well as to the teachers involved, helps them understand their own learning process and engages them in new ways of learning.

Role based learning: Within the Web 2.0 there is a peculiar condition where individuals are recognised simultaneously as experts and novices. They bring certain knowledges and experiences to the table which make them credible sources of information and analysis in those areas. At the same time, they are often beginner learners in certain other areas and they harness the power of the web to learn. Such a distributed imagination of a student as not equally proficient in all areas, but diversely equipped to deal with different disciplines is missing from our understanding of the higher education classroom.

We discussed the possibility of making the student responsible not only for his/her own learning but also the learning of the peers in the classroom. Making the student aware of what s/he is good at and where s/he is lacking allows them to gain confidence and also realise that everybody has differential strengths and aptitudes. Such a classroom might look different because the students don’t have to be pitched in stressful competition with each other but instead work collaboratively to learn, research and produce knowledge in a nurturing and supportive learning environment.

These initial discussions look at the possibility of innovative classroom teaching that can accommodate for the skills and differences of the students in higher education in India. The conversations opened up the idea that the classroom can be reshaped so that it becomes a more inclusive space where the quality of students’ access to education can be improved. It also ties in with the larger imagination of classrooms as spaces where principles of social justice can be invoked so that students who are disadvantaged in language, learning skills, socio-economic backgrounds, are not just looked at as either ‘beyond help’ or ‘victims of a system’. Instead, it encourages to look at the students as differential learners who need to be made stakeholders in their own processes of learning and education.


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Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.