Trouble ahead for digital education? The risks of forgetting and distancing of education from the digital

I’ve had a rising sense of unease in the last few months about the future role of the digital in education generally. I have a hunch that everyone feels they have ‘been there, done that’. But have they really? Even as mantras like “we’re not going back to what was before” are being repeated, I’m not sure that makes it true. I think we might be reverting to the familiar and I think there is quite a bit which could be lost as a result.

I’m not an advocate for using technology for the sake of it, but in the past few years digital practices have permeated learning and teaching, throwing up fascinating results. Mainstreaming accessibility and (some specific) inclusion practices is one. The world of assessment, especially exams, has been turned upside down. Student and staff have increased digital confidence and selected skills have improved significantly.

I think the badmouthing of ‘online learning’ in society (in journalism and politics especially) has made it difficult for universities to declare they are building their capacity in this mode, especially for undergraduate teaching. Avoiding saying ‘online learning’ has also resulted in a very fluid situation with terminology, making it even harder to pin down what is being discussed.

There is also a reduction of digital education to effectively mean ‘online lectures’, often through Zoom, which was a dominant teaching approach during emergency remote teaching. Needless to say, this is one of many possible approaches, and at that, it’s not one I would say delivers anything different pedagogically. For flexibility and accessibility, yes, it has benefits, but not much value added for learning (except where is no longer a ‘lecture’). Digital education is so much more than online lectures. Where it can really excel is as space for agency and empowerment of learners, but that doesn’t make headlines.

I am hearing from colleagues across higher education institutions that going ‘back to campus’ is the driving message. It’s understandable; we’ve all missed the buzz of being co-present in the same space and the optics of looking like you are teaching ‘on the cheap’ isn’t a good look.

20130116 Time by kbrookes CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve been using the pendulum swing as an analogy for what is happening; a short-term re-engaging with on-campus teaching at the expense of thinking about the digital, but it will settle in a year or two somewhere between the two. But I’m not so sure now. When working from crisis to crisis, our brains don’t allow us to use our long-term, learning memory. Meaning much of what was learned by educators in the past few years will be lost. But worse than that, our personal experiences will be overwritten by the narrative that ‘online’ was awful. So opportunities will be lost to experiment, to fail and learn. Why, when we are pouring our energy back into face-to-face, would we think to explore gentle and inclusive digital practices like asynchronous tasks, student choice in modalities of engagement, on-campus use of technologies etc.?

I hope I’m wrong. I know there are pockets of long-term change out there, but I’m not seeing it mainstream.

I’d welcome your thoughts.

3 thoughts on “Trouble ahead for digital education? The risks of forgetting and distancing of education from the digital

  1. You make a lot of good points here, Louise. I have heard a lot of people expressing similar concerns. What I hope is that these many voices can combine to bring a nuanced understanding of the affordances of various teaching approaches into play such that universities can retain the positive lessons learned during the pandemic to design a balanced and reasoned approach to learning and teaching as we move forward. This is not a question of doing just one or the other, online or in person, but finding the right balance and the right learning design.

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  2. great post Louise – you are not alone. But I think people need a little break and more importantly the time and space to engage more critically with what has happened and how to learn from it

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