Five Ways of Looking at the Digital: Reflections on False Binaries

As we consider how Middlebury as an institution might engage “the digital” as we chart our future, I want to consider five ways of thinking about “the digital” that may help us better understand some of the choices in front of us, and how they connect to broader questions of where we might want to go as a complex and interconnected institution striving towards excellence and making a difference in a fast-changing world.

I’m framing these ways of looking at the digital as binaries, with the understanding that these are in fact mostly false binaries. For the most part, these are not either/or choices, but both/and opportunities.

Local and Global

The digital provides us with access to a global network, both to draw from and contribute to. And yet much of what we pride ourselves on in our classrooms is the local and the residential. We are made up of schools each of which have their distinct identities, their own curriculum, students with different goals, and faculty with varying degrees of residency. Much of what we do is idiosyncratic, improvisational, and at times bespoke. How can our digital practices enhance the local? How can it allow us to pursue new curricula that draw upon the resources that exist across our schools, and beyond? Are there universal learning and teaching principles that we can apply to our work? How do we stay attuned to the local needs of each of the many communities, while also finding opportunities to span our work across these traditional boundaries? How might we participate in and at times lead in movements to share both our learning materials and our scholarship beyond the confines of our classrooms, and even beyond the borders of our institution? We need to think and act both locally and globally, and the affordances of the digital allow us to do so in ways that we could not previously.

Digital Literacy and all those other literacies

The onslaught of information brought on by the Internet in general and the web in particular, coupled with the proliferation of sources of varying levels of reliability and the expressive possibilities of digital production, have created an urgent need to attend to a wide array of new types of literacy: information literacy, data literacy, media literacy, visual literacy, and, of course, digital literacy. As we think about what it means to be educated in the 21st century, how do we want to incorporate these new ways of thinking about reading and writing into our curriculum? How do these types of literacy vary when you shift from undergraduates to graduate students? How do they connect to notions of digital citizenship and participatory culture? A digital strategy should attend to how we incorporate fluency in both using and thinking about ‘the digital’ and its connection to other broad learning goals.

Digital as Instrument, and the Digital as an Object of Study Itself  

For most, technology is not interesting in and of itself, but becomes interesting when it is useful for enabling some other activity. This pragmatic approach to the digital thinks of the various tools, platforms, applications, and devices as mere instruments that allow us to compute, to communicate, to do something useful in an efficient and effective way. For some, understanding digital culture, the impact of technology on our society and its institutions, is an area of academic interest. For others still, there are emerging professional and intellectual communities interested in studying digital learning as a new discipline that both produces new knowledge, and applies that knowledge to its own practice within institutions and beyond. What does it mean to pursue the instrumental use of the digital without any reflection on what our choices mean for the communities that we live within? In many ways, how we approach this question will no doubt be informed by our thoughts on our interest and approach to the question of digital literacy. Similarly, how can we learn more about the effective use of the digital from ourselves and from the broader community in a methodical and intentional manner? Our digital work can become both a laboratory for better understanding our increasingly digital culture and how the digital can improve learning, while also respecting that for most, the digital will likely remain mostly a means to some other end.

Digital Learning and Digital Scholarship

Our recent work with our undergraduate faculty to help the humanities re-imagine what scholarship might look like in a digital context (aka the Digital Liberal Arts Initiative) has helped us both develop capacity in this area, and to remind us that there is no clean line to be drawn between teaching and scholarship. As in the sciences, whose research is largely digital already and so doesn’t use the phrase ‘digital scholarship’, the techniques, methods, and tools for research very often bleed over into the research methods taught as part of the curriculum, and become integrated into the broad array of assignment types that animate the entire curriculum. This paves the way for some of the ‘digital literacy’ work referenced above. Finding ways to meaningful integrate these new ways of learning about a subject, and presenting the results of that analysis to the world, in turn provide opportunities to learn the affordances and assumptions built into these methods and tools. We need to consider when and how to link our (digital) scholarship with our (digital) pedagogy, understanding that while overlapping and mutually reinforcing, they are in fact not one and the same.

The Digital as Opportunity and Threat

There is a growing literature about how robots are increasingly a threat not just to manufacturing, but to professions that for many years thought they would not be impacted by automation, machine learning and AI: law, medicine, finance. It seems that nearly all reflections on the digital inevitably raise the spectre of disruption through automation, outsourcing, and disintermediation. Do we need to worry about the digital disrupting Middlebury? How can we meaningfully participate in the broader changes happening across the education sector to improve the chances that we remain relevant and vibrant and thriving? How do we resist the temptation to join a race to the bottom through thinking of how we can deploy the digital to lower costs and reach more students at the expense of losing our values and our core competencies? How can we identify spaces where we can amplify what we do well, and new programs that bring together our community to do things together that we can’t do alone? Our (digital) strategy must take into account the broad shifts happening in higher education and the broader society of which it is a part, without falling prey to the siren call of innovation and disruption.

Global? Local? A new form of literacy? A new form of citizenship? Instrumental or an object of study in its own right? Scholarly? Pedagogical? Threat? Opportunity?

How much should our digital strategy  inform an institutional strategy, and vice versa, how do we ensure that our digital strategy is informed by Middlebury’s emerging strategic directions? Middlebury is already deeply immersed in “the digital.” As William Gibson wrote “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Given that we already have deep expertise and experience in this area distributed throughout the institution, one clear digital strategy is to help learn from one another about what we are doing, what we are learning as we do our work, and to identify opportunities for collaboration and creative explorations within the institution, and with partners throughout the world.