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Boost Learner Wellbeing: 3 Ways to Apply Bell Hooks’ Engaged Pedagogy in Digital Contexts

This blog article was written prior to LEO Learning becoming part of GP Strategies. 

All learners deserve an education that is meaningful, relevant to their jobs, and applicable to the wider world. To traditionalists, this means equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to complete tasks effectively day to day. However, the real lasting value of learning is its ability to change lives for the better. The most valuable learning solutions are those that liberate cohorts from places of insecurity and fear: those that enable people to share knowledge as learners so they can forge deeper links as human beings. They blend diverse individual perspectives to create collective understanding, all while maximizing engagement and sprinkling a bit of fun into proceedings. Such learning solutions are all delivered in a thoughtful, considered manner—one that takes into account accessibility needs, an organization’s cultural requirements, and—most critically—the learner’s life outside of work.

Of course, learning designers need to create engaging learning experiences, but this needs to be done within a framework that puts learner wellbeing first. This should be a learning designer’s primary concern if they are to effect transformative changes. Human-centric learning is based on the idea that the more a learner enjoys an experience, the more likely it is that they will feel increased motivation, engagement, and productivity at work. And if the effect of this positive experience is amplified exponentially, prospects for learner wellbeing begin to improve.

It’s appropriate then to consider an educational practice that centers on learner wellbeing and emphasizes self-actualization. bell hooks was a prominent social activist and educator whose work celebrates education as a practice of freedom, encourages critical thinking, and considers the intersections of race, gender, class, and (pop) culture. Particularly relevant is her theory of engaged pedagogy, which she would apply in her teaching practice. It’s a model of teaching that encourages students and facilitators alike to connect the knowledge they share with one another in the classroom to real-world experience.

This approach encourages intellectual and personal growth in a physical classroom. A so-called ‘transgressive’ model, it subverts instructional norms by seeking to establish a mutually beneficial relationship between teacher and student. This creates a learning space where knowledge is designed as a collective rather than imparted by a facilitator to the learners.

While bell hooks’ approach has been practiced in physical classrooms across the globe, we’re yet to fully understand how engaged pedagogy can translate into digital arenas. This shouldn’t surprise us too much, because a learner is unlikely to enjoy the same rapport with a teacher as an insentient piece of digital learning. But can a ‘teacher’s’ lack of sentience prohibit engaged pedagogy from taking place at all? This is becoming an increasingly salient question now online learning content is becoming more popular. For digital learning interventions that focus on some of the key social and ethical themes of hooks’ work, engaged pedagogy’s application in a physical classroom is an excellent reference point.

Here are three things that learning designers can do to replicate hooks’ model in a digital space, improve learner experiences, and boost learner wellbeing.

1. Provide Facilitator Support Via Video to Personalize the Experience

Digitally replicating the electricity of what hook describes as a liberatory classroom—particularly for large cohorts across multiple time zones—can be challenging. hooks’ model requires synchronous engagement, and facilitating this kind of virtual space is a significant undertaking. This is especially true when designing for learners who are used to face-to-face training delivered by facilitators who are as charismatic as they are credible. Such learners may be skeptical about online learning and will need reassurance from their virtual facilitators that their needs can be met. Digital facilitators can use video to record insights, questions, and feedback in direct response to learner activities.

This ensures there’s still a personal element to the learning experience even though learners aren’t in the same physical space. Seeing a familiar face providing commentary in a digital arena serves to reassure learners and replicate the kind of pleasant interactions many will be used to in a face-to-face environment.

2. Social Learning: Encourage Learners to Share Compelling Stories

Engaged pedagogy requires facilitators and students to share stories and experiences to create and shape knowledge based on collective experience. By forming meaningful bonds that avoid traditional classroom hierarchies, learners and facilitators are more likely to understand a topic holistically, rather than ‘by the book’. Consider setting up a virtual learning space where all learners can complete a course and then, as a supplementary exercise, share good practice examples and links to relevant real-life stories and case studies. It is this free-flowing exchange of ideas between all participants that can form meaningful bonds. And on a practical basis, high levels of learner engagement alleviate pressure on the facilitator because the forum will operate more like a cooperative.

3. Harness the Power of Pop Culture to Ground Complex Subject Matter in Accessible and Relatable Ways

Everyone wants to feel happy, and no one likes to feel that the same old dry training is being imposed on them unnecessarily. Engaged pedagogy challenges standard pedagogical practice in its incorporation and insistence on spontaneity and joy—particularly through the considered use of pop culture references. Why? Not only because, as hook said, “popular culture is where the pedagogy is,” but also because it’s a deeply ingrained element of our social lives, something that touches virtually everyone in one form or another.

For example, imagine you’re designing an eLearning course on ethics in molecular biology and complex gene-splicing processes. Suppose that you’ve completed user research to validate an assumption about your learner cohort: that they’re all at least familiar with the scientific themes of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. You could gladly—but of course judiciously—incorporate pertinent Jurassic Park references throughout. The primary task of a learning designer is to engage and educate their learner group. However, the risk of not exciting them at all far outweighs the risk of potential disengagement due to them seeing a velociraptor meme that articulates a learning point. Learning designers must be mindful that pop culture flexes to the vagaries of fashion. But they need to be even more mindful not to roll out the same old dry material that will disengage learners before they’ve even ‘hit next to continue.’

Final Thoughts on Boosting Learner Wellbeing

It’s clear that considerate digital learning designers can localize hooks’ model of engaged pedagogy in virtual spaces. This is important because, while more learning content is accessible digitally than ever before, many learners remain skeptical of the benefits of online training. To address this skepticism, digital learning designers can tailor the learning experiences they create to more readily replicate teaching methods in physical environments—specifically those observed in liberatory classrooms.

To boost learner wellbeing, learning designers should first strive to maximize learner engagement and normalize the notion of fun in learning content. Not only will this likely improve learner outcomes, but more pressingly it will help nurture personal and intellectual growth among learner cohorts and ultimately boost learner wellbeing.

Want to learn more about boosting wellbeing for your learners? Get in touch with one of our experts.

About the Authors

Victor Verster

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