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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Four Fallacies About Digital Learning

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

By Paul Clark. Reproduced under CC BY licence via Jisc.
The Open University is currently undergoing a massive strategic shift to place its emphasis on digital first. But while this made the headlines, the OU is not the only institution to be debating and instituting these sorts of changes. Without wishing to pin this post to particular individuals, there's something in the weather of HE. As I throw my straws into the wind, and occasionally shout into the discussion forums, meetings, and social media sphere where digital pedagogy is being debated, I seem to keep coming across the same buzzy ideas and, to my mind, misconceptions. Here are four arguments I hear used by the more extreme digital-first evangelists, that represent careless fallacies that should be examined and challenged.

1. That the print v digital debate is dead

This is one of the most puzzling comments I've heard. It's the claim of someone who believes they have nailed jelly to the wall, and turns to you in triumph while the jelly slowly slides down behind them.

Let's leave to one side the not unimportant fact that research is still emerging on the value of print in ensuring retention of information, the claim ignores the ever-moving nature of the digital.

Digital is not in itself a format but simply the means of transmission. It's the interfaces that really matter, and for as long as these are subject to technological advancements, the print v digital discussion must actively continue.

People arguing for digital over print typically have in mind the idea of e-texts presented on tablets. But right now that interface is evolving and indeed may not be fit enough to survive. Tablet sales have begun to slide as large-screen phones increase in popularity. Google and Amazon are working flat out to make verbal and aural, rather than visual, interfaces the way we obtain our information. Microsoft's Hololens is bringing augmented reality into educational settings. With each new interface and rate of uptake of different technologies, we need to revisit the advantages and disadvantages of that new mode compared to print.

And even print itself represents a moving target. Digital culture has deeply affected print culture. Open a copy of any major newspaper or magazine now, for example, and you will find sidebars, box-outs, profile pictures of journalists etc. that borrow from the design practices of the web. The textbooks of the new literature courses I teach at the OU are far more visually appealing and structurally sophisticated than the 20-year-old textbooks for their predecessor modules.

The print v digital debate will never be dead. It returns, Lazarus-like, for every generation.

2. That students (want to) study in digital spaces

Until we enter the brave new world of William Gibson's Neuromancer or of cybernetic transcendentalists like Hans Moravec and Peter Thiel, we do not inhabit digital spaces. We inhabit physical spaces through which we may access the digital. Our screens are merely one information portal among many in the physical environment.

A colleague presented a version of this fallacy, based on their observation that in an academic library most students have their laptops open and are reading journal articles on screen. For them, this was telling evidence of the shift in study habits and proof that students want to study digitally. But wait a minute. The really interesting observation here is not that students are accessing research online - which is hardly revolutionary. It's where they are still choosing to do it - in a library!

With ubiquitous WiFi, there is no practical reason why students should be working in the library rather than the coffee shop or at home. But they are choosing to do so. There is remarkably little research looking directly at how digital has affected footfall in academic libraries, but judging from the building works I see on university campuses, while the role of the library is certainly changing its tangible and architectural presence at the heart of student life has not. The physical space of the library - which plays host to the digital portals of a thousand laptop screens - remains central to embodied student communities.

Further, compelling evidence against this fallacy (or fantasy) of the disembodied student can be seen in distance learning students, who don't have ready access to university libraries. Their social media posts quickly give the lie to the idea that students study in digital spaces. Look at the Instagram feed under #OUStudents for example. Most images include a combination of a digital device, mug of coffee, and mascot, along with a pinboard, sticky notes, highlighter pens and paper.

A post shared by Kate Lymer (@books_hooks_and_tea_cups) on


Even allowing for the fact that social media profiles are self-fashioning - so students may include the iconography that they associate with an idealised representation of study, not necessarily things they use actively to study - these images remind that students have complex and multimodal approaches, and that the physical environment in which they study is a vital asset.

If we were clever about learning we would exploit this multichannel approach (for example, the OU used to give students paper wallplanners), one made possible by the fact that 'digital natives' continue to inhabit the physical world and aren't, a la William Gibson, completely jacked-in to cyberspace.

3. That all students under 25 are digital natives

The 'digital native' is as mythical a creature as the yeti. Debates descend to X-Files levels of conspiracy when the spooky (and intangible) stereotype is used in forums and in discussions as a way to justify big shifts to digital learning. Indeed, the simplest evidence of the term's meaninglessness comes when it is used to identify a generation of student-consumers to which universities must answer. For as soon as a vast cohort falls under the umbrella of a definition, that definition ceases to have value as a research tool or pedagogic identifier.

We need instead to treat the 'digital native' with the same awareness of its intersectional positioning as we would other potentially sweeping categories, like 'male' and 'female' or 'white' and 'black'. The 18-year-old female 'digital native' living in London and studying on her commute on the tube may belong to a different digital community to the 25-year-old male software engineer who is looking for a career change out of the world of computers in which he is otherwise immersed. The 'digital native' who primarily accesses the internet through an Android 4.0 mobile phone has different needs and approaches to the 'digital native' early adopter who can afford an Oculus Rift.

4. That students need digital skills for the economy of the future

The year is 1800. George Stephenson sits patiently in class at his night school. His teacher marches around the stage, robes swishing with ever-increasing vigour: "the steam economy, boys. That's the thing of the future!"

It would have been absurd to imagine, in 1800, all of the forthcoming effects of steam, and while we can probably do a better job with the digital, we cannot possibly equip students now with the practical skills they will need to apply in years down the line. That the economy will be driven by digital is hardly controversial. But given the slew of recent books all desperately trying to predict and unpick the implications of the digital economy - from the rise of automation to the effects of free digital services - what is this 'future' we need to skill them for?

As the Oxford report on the future of employment suggested, it's creativity and underlying soft skills - those that use digital as the means to the end rather than the end in itself - that will be the most adaptable and resistant to artificial intelligence. So, when you burrow into it, we need to give students the underlying skills that are similar to those we've always offered, especially in disciplines like my own of English.

Incidentally, note the conflict between fallacies 3 and 4. If you are arguing that universities must digitalise in order to meet the demands of the 'digital natives', you can't then claim that your university will provide students with the digital literacy skills that they seemingly already possess. What you can focus on is critical digital skills - a different beast from the STEM-orientated vision inherent in government.

5. That these fallacies actually exist

In the digital humanities and pedagogic journals and conferences I'm engaged with the actual discourse is more nuanced and critically reflective than the pastiche I've presented here. But the trouble - and the motivation for writing this off-the-cuff post - is that the debate that matters is not happening in these places.

The debate that matters occurs in the frenzy of a packed Senate, or as a hurried remark in the packed agenda of an education committee. It's here that throwaway phrases like 'of course all our students are digital natives' lodge and take hold as infective ear worms in senior management.

"Digital economy," booms the VC as he gets into his limo, thinking that this will be music to JoJo's ears. "E-books," chirrups the registrar, dreaming that the east wing of the library would make a sparklingly nice hall of residence.*

We as critical digital humanists and pedagogues need continually to be on the defense against the casual conversation that slips these phrases and presumptions in.

* Any resemblance to real persons is entirely** coincidental.
* * Almost.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:21 pm

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