What If Digital Is Antithetical to Learning?

From Inside Higher Ed:

In 2018, the most important article for our “Inside Digital Learning” community to think about was not published here. It wasn’t even published in 2018.

It is the 2017 Educause Review piece “The Rise of Educational Technology as a Sociocultural and Ideological Phenomenon,” by George Veletsianos and Rolin Moe.

Those of us who champion digital learning, and who participate in the “IDL” community, need to take Veletsianos and Moe’s thinking seriously. If nothing else, we should be aware of the possibility that “the rise of ed tech is underpinned by ideology.”

What is the underpinning ideology of “Inside Digital Learning”?

If asked, and I’m not sure that our community has grappled with the question, I’d wager that we’d come to some answer that included adjectives such “critical,” “skeptical” and “a bit wary.” This is not a community populated by unthinking digital learning evangelists.

At the same time, I’d say that much of our community — and here I’d include myself — is deeply invested in the idea that digital technologies have the potential to be a force for good in advancing learning.

We may be critical of how digital technologies are applied in specific cases, but we genuinely believe that, done right, technology can improve student learning within higher education.

But what if we are wrong?

What if digital technologies are inherently harmful to learning?

. . . .

Indictment No. 3: Digital Distracts

The third charge against digital technologies is that they are driving our students (and professors) to distraction. Even those of us who tend to think it a bad idea to ban laptops from classroom have to admit that their presence can sometimes detract from student learning. The case that professors need to learn how to leverage laptops as learning tools may be justified, but it does impose yet another burden on the faculty.

Nor are students the only people on campuses likely to use technologies in a way that inhibits, rather than promotes, learning. PowerPoint has probably set back the art of teaching more than anything else in the past three decades.

How would our discussions on “Inside Digital Learning” be different if we started with the hypothesis that digital technologies are inherently destructive to the goal of advancing student learning?

Would this contrarian viewpoint to the basic assumptions of much of our professional practices change how we think about our higher ed jobs?

Might starting with a critical perspective about educational technologies make any efforts we make to introduce digital platforms to advance student learning more legitimate?

If our digital learning community learns to be more critical, might we develop great levels of empathy for the perspectives of many of our faculty colleagues who are skeptical of digital learning?

Link to the rest at Inside Higher Ed

25 thoughts on “What If Digital Is Antithetical to Learning?”

  1. What if the problem with kids learning is that the idiots in control of what and how those kids are taught are as stupid as ‘Inside Higher Ed’ appears to be?

    Anything can be used as a distraction if the subject/teacher is boring enough – digital is just the latest/easiest form of ignoring/fighting boredom in the classroom.

    Properly used, that same ‘distracting’ digital can be used as one of the many tools to teach – if only we can get those like ‘Inside Higher Ed’ to realize that they can be the latest teaching aid instead of a ‘problem’.

    OP was most likely written by some clueless person upset because they can’t tell at a glance what a student might be reading or how many ebooks they are actually carrying on/in their kindle/smartphone …

    Indictment No. 1: Digital Concentrates Privilege
    Really? I’m trying to remember the last time I saw a kid of any sex/color without a smartphone …

    Indictment No. 2: Digital Raises Costs
    Obviously they haven’t seen the costs for new textbooks every year – or are they afraid that that cash cow might be killed by digital?

    Indictment No. 3: Digital Distracts
    I addressed above. A pencil/pen can be a distraction – or have they never noticed the artwork on some textbook covers?

    Just another ‘The new is bad! Teachers should still be using burnt sticks to draw on cave walls to teach the young!’ piece.

    • Ah, the paper and the pencil, my friends that got me through many years. Although I abandoned the pencil when I got a four color pen as a gift one year.

      You missed one, which of course they do not dare to mention. The big risk that a student might actually be interested in the subject – and use their digital connection to wander off of the Reservation of Correct Thinking. That possibility is what really gives them nightmares at bedtime.

      • “That possibility is what really gives them nightmares at bedtime.”

        Well, that and having a student point out errors in their lesson plans – which can be done so much easier today. 😉

    • I enjoy a good polemic as much as the next guy, but yours would be more persuasive had you noticed that the person you are dismissing as “stupid” and “clueless” takes the same position you do.

  2. They focus entirely on cost, “privilege”, and distractions. What about the more serious issue of learning style. For me personally, digital is an atrocious way to learn. I can read something on a screen, get up to get a glass of water, and return, only to have completely forgotten THAT quickly what I’d even read. That’s the reason I don’t read ebooks. Unless I take notes as I read, I forget what I’ve read almost the instant I disengage with it. Important digital media articles and whatnot, I print out and read in hard copy. THEN I retain the information. There have been at least 2 studies in very recent years that I know about that discovered this issue with students in a digital-only learning setting. Some portion of the students, though they may be A-B students prior to a school switching to digital textbooks, are unable to remember what they read in digital format. As a result, their grades decline. The fact not all students learn the same (i.e. have different learning styles) is more important than costs or perceived “privilege”.

    • “Unless I take notes as I read, I forget what I’ve read almost the instant I disengage with it.”

      As do a lot of people reading anything at all.

      “Important digital media articles and whatnot, I print out and read in hard copy. THEN I retain the information.”

      I’m not going to try guessing your age, but when I was a youth stuck in school they like to tell you to write it down ten times to remember it.

      I doubt that it was the printing it out to read that helps you retain it but the act deciding that it ‘was’ important and then you rereading it.

      YMMV as we each have our own ways of helping hold things in memory.

  3. I hope someone will examine this whole screen business in more depth. For instance, I find that I may have trouble retaining something I read on a website, sprawled all over the screen with multiple distractions. But if I copy and paste it into a Word document–sometimes adding paragraph breaks and indents–I can read it on the computer yet have no trouble absorbing & remembering it. So the problem may be less with digital than with the particular digital setting.

    By the way, I much prefer reading on my old, original, plain-wrap Kindle to reading the same books on the Kindle app on my iPod, which is backlit. So who knows?

    • It’s all in how it’s presented to you – and of course what you happen to ‘like’.

      I too often find myself grabbing a pile of text (from a pdf/website) and dropping it into Word or LibreOffice Writer where I can change the fonts/size (and kill the background!) into something I can read.

      YMMV of course. 😉

  4. One can imagine the old-school memory-only types, back in the day when writing was invented, complaining about how the new students weren’t retaining the information as well as hey used to.

    • Give them a stick burnt at one end and send them back to their caves! 😉

      I see it now with my brother’s grand-kids. They can’t figure out how I can answer their math puzzles without using a calculator, the idea that I have (and can use) a multiplication table in my head blows their minds.

      • Wait! I never learned how to milk a cow, how will I ever drink milk?

        Wait! I never learned how to navigate by the stars! How will I ever travel to Chicago?

        Wait! I never queried an agent, got rejected, wrote a better book, queried again, then got more rejections, then finally, after 5 years, found a publisher who made me rewrite my book again, how will I ever be published?

  5. I imagine some folks also had trouble reading old paper editions The New Republic, Commentary, Saturday Review, and the New Yorker because of those distracting ads they ran down the margins.

      • Although you also couldn’t install an add-on to suppress them, either. (There are a few sites, like this one, that I allow ads through. I’m willing to put up with them when I think the site deserves my few fractional cents for letting them display while ignoring them. The rest, well too bad…)

        • “Although you also couldn’t install an add-on to suppress them, either.”

          I knew someone that did just that. She’d lay blank paper around what she was interested in – blocking it in. There was also a pen nearby, and sometimes notes were taken on that blank paper.

  6. They’re right about PowerPoint, but the fault lies fair and square with the professors and teachers and not with the technology. I’ve seen a few PowerPoint presentations that were used as excellent and informative illustrations of the lecture itself. The fact that when you see such a presentation you think ‘ah, THAT’S how it’s meant to be done!’ is testament to the frequent, lazy use of a set of slides that the lecturer then proceeds to read out in the tones of Father Ted’s ‘most boring priest in the world’ before clicking onto the next one. But then back in the day when I was attending lectures as a student, a long time ago, there were some professors who were equally boring without any digital input at all. We used to draw little sketches all over our notepads, surreptitiously pass sweets along the row and indulge in various other distractions to stop ourselves from falling asleep.

  7. Putting my professional hat on for a moment, in learning theory we talk about learning modalities, which is fancy speak for which senses we use when learning. Some people don’t learn unless they write stuff down, others are better talking through an explanation, others listen, others do, some can just watch.

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