Educating for critical thinking in urban studies: Towards an anti-colonial and anti-racist education

In this short essay, I would like to reflect on what it means to educate for critical thinking within the field of urban studies if one is attempting to nourish an education that is anti-colonial and anti-racist. I begin by first considering three definitions of critical thinking and criticality: Stephen Brookfield’s (2012) understanding, Neil Brenner’s (2009) elucidation within the field of urban studies, and bell hooks’ (2010) emancipatory interpretation. I then go on to reflect on my role as a university teacher thinking through two of hooks’ (2010) “teachings”: decolonization (teaching 4); and black, female, and academic (teaching 17). I end with a short reflection of which of my professional competences need to be reinforced in order to strengthen my performance as a teacher working in higher education who seeks to educate for critical thinking.  

What is critical thinking?

In his book, Teaching for Critical Thinking, Brookfield (2012: 38) broadly defines criticality as “a disposition to intellectual openness.” In the face of new evidence, a critical thinker is willing to revise their assumptions and reformulate long-held beliefs if needed. Delving deeper into criticality, Brookfield (2012) also explains critical thinking cannot be easily defined since—despite the general commonality of intellectual openness—different traditions understand and work with critical approaches in diverse ways. Brookfield (2012) identifies five intellectual traditions that have criticality at their core: analytic philosophy and logic (i.e., the analysis of how arguments are constructed); natural science (i.e., the hypothetico-deductive method); American pragmatism (i.e., the pursuit of “beautiful consequences”); psychoanalysis (i.e., “realizing our inner potentialities”); and critical theory (i.e., “speaking truth to power”). Out of the five traditions, critical theory is the most political since it attempts to not only uncover hidden assumptions, but also actively seeks to fight ideologies that “perpetuate economic, racial and gender oppression” (Brookfield, 2012: 48).

Zooming in to the topic at hand, Brenner (2009) explains critical urban theory has its roots in the Frankfurt School—a collective of Marxist thinkers formed in the early 20th century which includes Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, and Walter Benjamin as some of its most famous members. For Brenner (2009), the tenets of critical urban theory can be summarized in four points. The first one is that critical theory is theory. In other words, the tradition is not intended to serve as a strategic map for social change, but should work as a bridge between theory and practice. The second tenet is that critical theory is reflexive. Knowledge—including critical theory—is contextual, historically specific, and always embedded in power relations. The third principle is that critical theory entails a critique of instrumental reason. As such, it questions the role of knowledge and rejects maintaining and reproducing current forms of power through instrumental uses of knowledge (e.g., market-oriented understandings of the urban). Lastly, Brenner (2009) argues, critical theory emphasizes the disjuncture between the actual and the possible. Its role is to investigate the current forms of power struggle under capitalism and uncover “emancipatory possibilities” that are dormant but suppressed within the system. In having a political element at its core, critical urban theory, in short, meets Brookfield’s description of critical theory. However, there remains a missing link. How does one go from critical urban theory to pedagogy?

In my view, hooks (2010) offers helpful guidance in her book Teaching for Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. For hooks (2010: 9), critical thinking “involves first discovering the who, what, when, where, and how of things—finding the answers to those eternal questions of the inquisitive child—and then utilizing that knowledge in a manner that enables you to determine what matters most.” However, coming from a Black feminist tradition, her invitation to long for knowledge as an “inquisitive child” and ‘determine what matters most’ has a political quality attached to it. Putting the tenets of critical theory in conversation with critical thinking, hooks (2010) emphasizes the importance of equality, critical engagement, compassion, and “radical openness” in our teaching practices. Teachers should “educate for the practiceof freedom” through a process of “engaged pedagogy” (hooks, 2010: 22). In a nutshell, for hooks, educating for the practice of freedom involves an active process that aims to create the ability to think independently and with discernment—even when the process creates tension among students that refuse to acknowledge challenging truths related to sexism, racism or class-based discrimination. However, the challenge to step out of a passive comfort zone is not only a demand placed on the students, it also falls on teachers. Educators must also be willing to acknowledge what they do not know. This is the “radical openness” and “learning in action” that hooks refers to.

The role of the university teacher

Having these three definitions of critical thinking and criticality as a background, what does it thus mean to educate for critical thinking in urban studies if we have the goal to nourish an education that is anti-colonial and anti-racist? Thinking about my own experience as a university teacher I would like to provide a reflection with the help of two of hooks’ (2010) teachings. Let me start with Teaching 4: Decolonization.

Decolonization in urban studies

In addition to the urgent need to liberate our minds beyond racist and gendered notions, hooks (2010) argues—adding to the calls raised by postcolonial scholars—we need to also decolonize our minds. To challenge a “colonizing mentality” means learning a new language against oppression by forcing ourselves to reflect how education itself has been used as a tool of colonization. Thinking about her own context (the United States as a settler colonial state), hooks provides the example of pupils being taught that “Christopher Columbus discovered America.” This is a statement that denies the presence of indigenous peoples and erases any history previous to the arrival of European colonizers. (As if nothing existed before then when, in fact, the arrival of Columbus simply marks when “America” was named and discovered by European eyes.) Dismantling a “colonizing mentality,” argues hooks (2010), also means acknowledging that decolonization is not only a process that needs to be carried out by indigenous people. In her view, the teachings of the “dominator” or hegemonic culture reach all. I would add that decolonization is a practice that needs to be carried out even by modern-day nation-states that were never imperial powers or colonial subjects. Taking an example from Scandinavia, the historian Åsa Össbo (in Andersen et al., 2015: 241) argues Sweden has hidden behind “the blue water thesis” or the perception that “colonialism can only occur across oceans.” This thought-process renders invisible practices of colonialism against the Sámi, for example. (A second example that the authors provide is the Faroe Islands and Greenland—possessions of the Danish state in the North Atlantic even to this day).

What do these thoughts mean to the practice of teaching urban studies? The field of urban studies has a tradition of radical theory that, despite its strengths, in some ways continues to reproduce what hooks would label as a “colonizing mentality.” Audrey Kobayashi (2014), for example, argues that until recently, neoclassical urban critical theory did not consider “race”[i] and racism as important factors to discuss within the field. Scholars like Jennifer Robinson and Ananya Roy have argued Eurocentric practices continue to recreate a field of urban studies that focuses most of its attention in the EuroAmerican heartland—thus ignoring the global South and peripheries in the global North (Robinson, 2002, 2006; Roy, 2009, 2011). Robinson and Roy suggest that in order to build a decolonized (or at least postcolonial) field of urban studies more studies need to be carried out of the hidden locations of urbanization. This needs to go hand in hand an effort to carry out comparative research in novel ways (e.g., comparisons across the global North and South) (cf. Robinson, 2016). For the practice of teaching urban studies, I would argue that, just like hooks urges us, we need a “radical openness” to examine our syllabi and do the work of pluralizing the course literature to include more cases from outside the centers of knowledge production (i.e., the EuroAmerican heartland). There is also a need to include more diverse scholars (e.g., women of color) and authors that are little known within Anglophone literature.[ii] These efforts are needed as concrete actions to do the work of decolonizing the way we teach urban studies.

Brown, female, and academic

The second of hooks’ (2010) teachings that I would like to reflect on is #17 “Black, female, and academic” which I interpret as a reminder of why our bodies, backgrounds, and life histories matter in academia. Hooks describes the difficulties of being a black woman in the classroom: the prejudices attached to her body because of being female and black, and the ultimate reaction from a system of structural racism and sex discrimination — the judgment that she is an intruder in the academic world.[iii] Through this discussion, hooks (2010) reminds us that intersectionality matters in the classroom and that the issue becomes even more complex when a racialized and gendered lecturer is attempting to teach critical thinking and theory.[iv] If we take into consideration that the majority of people have been socialized in an “imperialist capitalist white-supremacist patriarchal culture” (hooks, 2010: 99), the problem for hooks has not only been to fight stereotypes, but also to deal with the conflict that some students (and colleagues) feel to see a woman of color in a position of power.[v] Echoing Sara Ahmed’s (2017) “killjoy,” hooks shares how she has been perceived as an angry and bitter troublemaker by students. When confronted with an analysis of structural racism and discrimination, the discomfort of some students turned into anger towards hooks. The strategies put in place by hooks (2010) have been to refuse to ‘know her place’ and reject “projected identities” that others have tried to put on her. In addition to this, hooks (2010: 100) has come to realize the importance of preparing students to hear “points they might not have heard before,” understand the difference between “biased and unbiased thinking,” and help them reflect that everybody has “blind spots” when it comes to discussions of race/ethnicity, gender, and class. My analysis is that this discussion connects to the practice of decolonization: we need a more diverse group of teachers and students (in terms of ethnicity, class, gender, and identity). Only a rainbow of backgrounds and life stories can facilitate a more nuanced discussion of critical urban studies.

Educating for an anti-racist and anti-colonial critical thinking in urban studies is a task that requires patience and not only intellectual but also emotional labor (especially if you are a woman of color). As a final short reflection, I have come to realize that, while I am familiar with critical theory, I need to get better at teaching critical thinking skills. Guided by hooks (2010)—without forgetting the background provided by Brookfield (2012) and Brenner (2009)—I conclude there are two professional competences that need to be strengthened. The first one is that I need to promote an “engaged pedagogy” in the classroom and make sure that I apply the skill of “leaning in action.” The second point is that, in order to not alienate students that might have several “blind spots” in regards to gender, ethnicity or class because they belong to the hegemony, I need to learn how to address tension in the classroom in a productive way when students feel challenged. Only through an open discussion can the seed of “radical openness” be planted.

[i] This refers, of course, to the social construction of race.

[ii] As Kanishka Goonewardena has suggested (Online Workshop “A Non-Occidentalist West: Learning from Theories Outside the Canon,” 18 February 2021), the point is not to simply include authors from the global South, but include authors that help us carry out emancipatory critique, regardless of their location (which could be the global South but also a periphery in the global North).

[iii] This has echoes of Nirmal Puwar’s (2004) argument in Space Invaders: Race, Gender, and Bodies Out of Place.

[iv] Something that Brookfield (2012), as a white male seems to be blissfully unaware of. For example, I suspect that his suggestion to act “a bit stupid” in the classroom to gain the trust of students would not work for a woman, let alone a woman of color. Regardless if he pretends to act stupid or not, Brookfield’s white male body already carries the authority of science (cf. Haraway, 1988).

[v] Hooks, of course, refers to the context in the United States. For a discussion of the Swedish context, see Mulinari and Neergaard (2017).


  • Ahmed S (2017) Living a Feminist Life. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  • Andersen A, Hvenegård-Lassen K and Knobblock I (2015) Feminism in Postcolonial Nordic Spaces. NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 23(4). Routledge: 239–245. DOI: 10.1080/08038740.2015.1104596.
  • Brenner N (2009) What is critical urban theory? City 13(2–3): 198–207. DOI: 10.1080/13604810902996466.
  • Brookfield SD (2012) Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
  • Haraway DJ (1988) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies 14(3): 575–599. DOI: 10.2307/3178066.
  • hooks b (2010) Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York and London: Routledge.
  • Kobayashi A (2014) Neoclassical urban theory and the study of racism in geography. Urban Geography 35(5): 645–656. DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2014.920228.
  • Mulinari D and Neergaard A (2017) Theorising Racism: Exploring the Swedish racial regime. Nordic Journal of Migration Research 7(2): 88–96. DOI: 10.1515/njmr-2017-0016.
  • Puwar N (2004) Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg Publishers.
  • Robinson J (2002) Global and World Cities: A View from off the Map. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 26(3): 531–554.
  • Robinson J (2006) Ordinary Cities. Between Modernity and Development. London: Routledge.
  • Robinson J (2016) Comparative Urbanism: New Geographies and Cultures of Theorizing the Urban. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40(1): 187–199. DOI: 10.1111/1468-2427.12273.
  • Roy A (2009) The 21st-Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory. Regional Studies 43(6): 819–830. DOI: 10.1080/00343400701809665.
  • Roy A (2011) Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35(2): 223–238. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2427.2011.01051.x.

Featured image: “Smashed Macbook Pro screen” by Abscond is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

This essay was submitted as a final assignment in the course Educating for Critical Thinking—a pedagogy course that I took in spring 2021.

Let’s not forget about critical pedagogy when talking about digital approaches

In the last webinar of the pedagogy course I took in spring—Collaborative Learning in Digital Learning Environments—we were asked to reflect on lessons learned and future practice. While the course managed to meet its learning outcomes and provided us with meaningful activities to develop a variety of cognitive processes across Bloom’s taxonomy, it was less successful in engaging with critical pedagogy and critical perspectives (see, for example, Brookfield, 2012; hooks, 2010). While, of course, it could be argued that the purpose of the course was digital learning environments, we can’t ignore, as Anderson (2011: 46) argues, that “online learning is but a subset of learning in general – thus, we can expect issues relevant to how adults learn generally to also be relevant in an online learning context.”

Midway through the course—inspired by Wenger’s (2010) argument that learning is produced at the intersection of social structure and identity—I noticed the lack of diversity in our syllabus. Most of the authors we had engaged with up to that point were white males from the USA and Canada. The problem, of course, was not only where had all the female authors gone, but also a lack of interaction with the work of academics of color. If a “community of practice” (Wenger in Anderson and Dron, 2014) learns from each other, what perspectives were we missing by not engaging with a diversity of authors in terms of gender, ethnicity, and geographical location? A lack of diversity in the course in question is but a symptom of a bigger challenge: the need to decolonize higher education. As I look forward to putting to use the skills that I learned in this course within the context of Urban Studies, I would like to share a few reading tips for those that also consider we should not forget about critical pedagogy when talking about digital approaches.

Reading tips: exploring critical pedagogy
Adam T (2019) Digital neocolonialism and massive open online courses (MOOCs): colonial pasts and neoliberal futures. Learning, Media and Technology 44(3):365-380.
Bhambra GK, Gebrial D and Nişancıoğlu K (2018) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.
Grosfoguel R, Hernández R and Rosen Velásquez E (2016) Decolonizing the Westernized University. Interventions in Philosophy of Education from Within and Without. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Iseke-Barnes JM (2008) Pedagogies for Decolonizing. Canadian Journal of Native Education 31(1): 123–148.
Mbembe AJ (2016) Decolonizing the university: New directions. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 15(1): 29–45.
Mclean J (2021) ‘Gives a physical sense almost’: Using immersive media to build decolonial moments in higher education for radical citizenship. Digital Culture & Education 13(1): 2021–2043.
Sultana F (2019) Decolonizing Development Education and the Pursuit of Social Justice. Human Geography 12(3): 31–46.

Featured image: “See something or say something: Mexico City” by Eric Fischer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This post was originally published in my student blog “Teaching and Learning in the Field of Urban Studies”, a project within the course Collaborative Learning in Digital Environments (spring 2021).

Getting the most out of online learning platforms through blended learning approaches

Online learning platforms are quite common nowadays in higher education (for an overview of the challenges, opportunities, and marketization of online higher education at a global scale, see Laurillard and Kennedy, (2017) and Williamson (2021)). At Malmö University the learning management system that we use is Canvas. After reading about blended learning approaches—the mix of face-to-face and digital interactions— I began to think that, until now, I have been using Canvas as an after-thought in the courses where I teach. Canvas is a tool I use to upload course literature, download the assignments that students submit, and easily e-mail course participants. However, I had never thought about it as an actual platform. One of the reasons could be that, as an early-career researcher, I have not had the opportunity to design a course from scratch and, instead, have simply contributed to designing modules following the template established by the course coordinator or have come in as a guest lecturer. Nevertheless, this does not erase the fact that, from a pedagogical perspective, I have not been getting the most out of online learning platforms.

According to the work of Vaughan et al. (2013), the point of blended learning is to improve student engagement through the use of “purposeful online learning activities.” In other words, our “face-to-face synchronous communication” is enhanced by “text-based online asynchronous communication” (ibid). The mix of on-site and on-line does not work unless there is an “organic integration” where online tools are “thoughtfully selected” in order to meet the aims of the course by creating an environment where higher-order thinking is encouraged and students have the opportunity to approach their learning in a meaningful way. Vaughan et al. (2013: 9, my emphasis) are quite clear about the need to carefully select online components,

The key is to avoid, at all costs, simply layering on activities and responsibilities until the course is totally unmanageable and students do not have the time to reflect on meaning and engage in discourse for shared understanding.

Expressed in a different way: blended learning is not only about relying on online platforms, but about using them purposefully. Here I began to think about Gilly Salmon’s work on The Five Stage Model for e-moderating and supporting online learning experiences. She makes an emphasis that teachers should see themselves as “designers” who put together a learning journey that is centered on steps that build up a student’s expertise, independence, satisfaction, sense of responsibility (to themselves and the group), and metacognition. This, of course, follows the tenets of constructivist learning theory and is a strong reminder that we cannot forget about constructive alignment even when relying on blended learning approaches.


Featured image: “mobo/map” by dick_pountain is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This post was originally published in my student blog “Teaching and Learning in the Field of Urban Studies”, a project within the course Collaborative Learning in Digital Environments (spring 2021).

“Zoom meetings frustrate me, I don’t get anything out of it”: From emergency remote teaching (ERT) to kind collaborative learning environments

Like probably all other lecturers at Malmö University, I have been heavily relying on a myriad of educational apps and software to teach and supervise since we switched to online teaching in March 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While these technologies have worked well and we (teachers, students, researchers, and administrative staff) have demonstrated what can only be described as digital resilience, I have also experienced the hiccups of this new way of interacting with students. Lecturing into a void of black screens; learners that log off before class is over ; voiced frustration during supervision meetings (e.g., the quote in the title of this piece); anxious emails from students that find it hard to study in a context of worry (e.g., the fear of them or their families getting sick), isolation (e.g., forced lockdowns) or cramped spaces (e.g., small student dorms or apartments). While, of course, most of us lecturers are operating in an environment of emergency remote teaching (ERT)—in other words, teaching courses that were originally designed to be taught face-to-face—and some issues are unavoidable aspects of a pandemic, it does not mean that we are powerless. I began to ponder: What strategies can be put in place to decrease frustration and promote collaborative learning? I would like to share two concrete tips that I am trying to put to use:

Remember that a group is not necessarily a community

David McConnell (2006: 1) advocates in his book E-learning Groups and Communities that a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) should be an event that brings people together to “give them a strong sense of belonging, of being a community of like-minded learners.” While groups can work effectively (i.e., communicating, collaborating and cooperating to get a task done), a sense of community—or “people striving for a common purpose”—is harder to achieve (Siemens 2002 in Brindley et al., 2009). Most of the students that I work with are part of the international Master’s in Urban Studies program and some have been prevented from coming to Malmö and experiencing the thrills and challenges of being a student abroad. Constrained to an online environment, the possibilities for them to feel they are part of a learning community decrease. What I mainly put in practice to try to address this limitation is to make time for chitchat during our lectures and meetings. Simple questions like “How are things going?” make a difference. (This, of course, works better with students that you meet regularly.) Other strategies include: a) giving plenty of breaks to avoid Zoom fatigue (grumpy or tired students participate less), b) making time for Breakout Rooms so that students can discuss issues on their own, c) encouraging interaction in discussion forums in our teaching platform and the chat feature in Zoom, d) allowing them to form their own groups when possible, and e), promoting what McConnell (2006) calls “self-peer-tutor assessment processes” to improve communication skills.

Understand and acknowledge the difference between online and in-person interactions

In the article “Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment,” Brindley et al. (2009) remind us that “the social milieu of online activities is quite different from in-person interactions, thus requiring new skills and behaviors.” This is, of course, perhaps obvious but easy to forget when the expectations and aims of a course were created around face-to-face interactions and not online learning. While, for example, Capdeferro and Romero (2012) show that the greatest cause of frustration among online learners working with collaborative learning experiences is lack of commitment from fellow group members, issues like “communication difficulties” caused by technology and having to deal with asynchronous discussions can also create exasperation. In my view, a way to address these potential problems is to give clear housekeeping instructions and etiquette rules when using a platform or communication app for the first time (and make sure to repeat this information every now and then in subsequent meetings). As Brindley et al. (2009) show us, students need structure and clear guidance balanced with a degree of flexibility to promote learner autonomy. Finally, empathy and patience are key. Thrown into emergency remote teaching, not everybody might have internet connections that are fast enough to support the online tools that we use. Time zones are another issue as there might be students that are forced to log in at irregular hours to attend meetings or lectures that are scheduled according to the local time in Malmö. Unexpected caretaking duties are also a cause of concern in these stressful times.

As we continue teaching in emergency mode, let us actively seek ways to promote effective, but kind, online collaborative learning environments.


Featured image: “Laptop Keyboard” by Peter Huys is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This post was originally published in my student blog “Teaching and Learning in the Field of Urban Studies”, a project within the course Collaborative Learning in Digital Environments (spring 2021).

Emergency remote teaching (ERT) and digital resilience in times of COVID-19

“We’re doing the same but just online”—a colleague said to me in a discussion about the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges that we have encountered as lecturers. As we agreed that most of us were carrying out what Hodges et al. (2020) would refer to as emergency remote teaching (ERT)—adapting and teaching courses that were not originally designed as online learning—our discussion moved on to the topic of endurance after a long year of remote teaching (Malmö University moved to online teaching in March 2020). Reflecting about my own context, the Department of Urban Studies, I realized that we—teachers, students, researchers, and administrative staff—have shown digital resilience. A term from ecology which refers to the ability of a system to “absorb change and disturbance” while maintaining its integrity, resilience has been reformulated by Weller and Anderson (2013) to think metaphorically about the relationship between digital scholarship and higher education. According to the authors, 

In terms of higher education practice then, resilience is about utilising technology to change practices where this is desirable, but to retain the underlying function and identity that the existing practices represent, if they are still deemed to be necessary.

(Weller and Anderson, 2013, my emphasis)

The resilience perspective allows us to think not only about a flow of change while keeping an essence, but also about the underlying characteristics of a system that need to be monitored: latitude (i.e., the maximum amount of change that a system can take); resistance (i.e., how much a system is ‘willing’ to change); precariousness (i.e., how close a system is running to its limit); and panarchy (i.e., the influence of external forces on a system). Analyzing the current challenges through this lens we can see that COVID-19 has, of course, been a force of panarchy in our educational “system.” The fact that classes have continued uninterrupted in a digital environment shows that our resistance to change has been low. However, what remain unknown are the issues of precariousness and latitude. How close are we to reaching our limit? How much can we change without losing our “underlying function and identity”?

As we plan for an uncertain fall where we hope for a combination of digital teaching and on-campus activities (see MAU’s policy), it will become important to assess the “system” not only in terms of endurance but also in terms of health (collegial and individual). If we think about the change-balance-integrity trio needed to achieve digital resilience, I can imagine questions such as: what worked during our online learning experience and should be kept? What should be recovered from the pre-pandemic period? What hindered our ability to successfully engage with students? (Based on a definition of “success” from different stakeholder perspectives). What type of extra resources are needed to support burned out teachers and help students that might have lagged behind during the pandemic? We can’t simply stop our emergency remote teaching (ERT) without an evaluation argue Hodges et al. (2020) (see their article for an evaluation model that higher education institutions can carry out). As we recover from this period, and perhaps even prepare for the next emergency, digital resilience will continue to be a necessary quality to foster in higher education settings.


Featured image: “Resilience” by neil cummings is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This post was originally published in my student blog “Teaching and Learning in the Field of Urban Studies”, a project within the course Collaborative Learning in Digital Environments (spring 2021).

Why aren’t we teaching digital literacies?

Most of the students within the Master’s Program in Urban Studies at Malmö University seem to be young (between their 20s and 30s) and it might be accurate to assume that most of them are what Prensky (2001) would call “digital natives”—people that grew up using digital technology and are thus naturally competent using it. However, White (2014a) reminds us that being proficient in navigating the internet or using social media does not mean that a student actually knows how to effectively use digital technologies for the purpose of studying, evaluating the accuracy and legitimacy of a source, or formulating coherent arguments. This skill is part of a set of practices called digital literacies or “those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society” (Jisc, 2018). Digital literacies include a number of capabilities such as media literacy (i.e., the skill to critically read and write academic and professional outputs); information literacy (i.e., the ability to not only find information but also interpreting, evaluating, managing and sharing it); and learning skills (i.e., the capacity to “study and learn effectively in technology-rich environments” in both formal and informal settings) (ibid).

“Digital literacies include a number of capabilities such as media literacy, information literacy, and learning skills.”

These facts and interventions made me realize that we, as educators, hardly spend any time discussing or teaching digital literacy to our students. Of course, we discuss issues such as the credibility, accuracy, authority and legitimacy of online sources vis-à-vis traditional “legitimate” sources such as books and peer-reviewed articles. An approach like this, however, ignores the reality of how students actually learn and where they look for information. In other words, argues White (2014b), there is a tension between the requirements posed by formal academia and the day-to-day learning practices of students which in turns creates a “black market” of knowledge.

Let me expand using one of White’s (2014b) examples: students know that Wikipedia is not considered a reliable source of information (i.e., does not meet academic standards). Yet, students use it anyway as a learning practice but simply learn to not openly discuss or cite it in the classroom. What needs to happen is that we acknowledge the current learning practices of our students and instead of discouraging certain sources, we promote a critical learning practice around the use of online sources. In other words, in a digital era, students should not be forced to negotiate between how they learn and what formal academia expects of them. To tackle the issue (i.e., preventing a black market of knowledge), capabilities such as digital literacies need to be part of the curriculum in urban studies. I envision that such an approach could be introduced at the beginning of the program, developed during methods courses (e.g., Catching Urbanity and Making Urban Studies), and, finally, integrated during the time the students write their theses.


Featured image: “abstract digital” by monsieur paradis is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

This post was originally published in my student blog “Teaching and Learning in the Field of Urban Studies”, a project within the course Collaborative Learning in Digital Environments (spring 2021).