The Digital Does Not Compute

“With much more persuasive power than the philosophy of even so radical a thinker as Dewey, the computer, in all its various manifestations, is offering the Yearners new opportunities to craft alternatives. The only question that remains is … Will School continue to impose a single way of knowing on everyone, or will it adapt to an epistemological pluralism?” ~ Seymour Papert, The Children’s Machine (6)

Famously, Seymour Papert decried the installation of computers in classrooms. Not because the machines themselves might replace books or chalkboards or teachers. He called for resistance to the “computer classroom” because of how schools were approaching computers as instruments of learning. It was not the computer that was doing the damage, but the human who had lost the will to inquire, to investigate, to break, and to build.

Papert also saw that the new space of learning created by the introduction of the computer was not being integrated into teaching.

“The front and the back of the room were separated by much more than a difference between the technology of the blackboard. A far greater difference marked the children’s relationship with what they were doing. In the front, they were following [the teacher’s] agenda; in the back, they were following their own.” (43)

The introduction of the computer, then, did not as much challenge the traditional blackboard-centered lesson as much as obviate it.

Today, the idea of digital learning falls somewhere on a scale for most people. It is either learning that’s done through digital tools (like WordPress, Google apps, social media), or it’s learning that’s done online, usually using a learning management system like Canvas or Moodle. But to believe that digital learning falls somewhere on that spectrum is to make the same mistake made by early adopters of computers in classrooms. It assumes that digital learning is an activity constructed around a screen, and an analogue or replacement for, or an addition to, traditional learning.

But that would be as wrong as assuming that children will use a computer only as we ask them to.

Digital learning is still, at the core, learning. In that same way, digital teaching is still, at the core, teaching. And everything that we hope to accomplish in learning or teaching can be—is already being—accomplished in the digital. Because the digital isn’t a computer, or an app, or a web site, or your phone. “The digital” is not defined by the tools we use, but by the environment in which we do our work. Think about the traditional classroom. Chairs, desks, maybe tables. There might be windows. A chalkboard or whiteboard. Maybe a podium. In this environment, we know there are certain ways that learning can take place: small groups, lecture, individual study, large group discussion, fishbowl exercises, student presentations, etc. We know that windows are for staring out of, chalkboards are for writing on (by teachers or students), desks are for rearranging or for assigned seating. None of this comes as a surprise.

The digital is another environment altogether, and offers different instructional and learning opportunities. First, and perhaps most relevant, the digital isn’t located anywhere, it’s located everywhere. We jump on our phones or laptops in coffee shops, on the train, at home, at the library, in airports… even in the loo. So, the digital doesn’t have windows, but it may have windows. The digital doesn’t have desks or tables or a podium, but it may have a desk, a table, or a podium.

If we use our laptop in class, then the digital includes other students and the teacher, it includes the chalkboard and the overhead projector. It has a doorway and sounds out in the hall. If we go go to our phones in a coffee shop, then the digital includes strangers, the squeal of milk being steamed, the aroma of dark roast, the chatter and murmur of voices in the room, and the view out the window of wherever we are.

Just as Seymour Papert insisted that introducing computers in classrooms had to be about students and not machines, so the digital can’t exclude the environment in which it’s used. To assume that the digital is simply the arrangement of text and buttons and images on a screen—to reduce our experience within the digital to our haptic interactions—is to reduce its possibility; but it is also to erase the human from the digital, between which two there is no actual divide. When you get excited making a purchase on Amazon, or when your heart aches when looking at a beautiful image on Unsplash, or when your brow furrows because that one green pig got away from your Angry Birds… Those are digital experiences. That is the digital.

So, when we talk about digital learning, we are not talking about screens or apps or even computers. We’re talking about how our lives have been altered by the existence of digital technologies, how we now think differently than we used to, write and speak in new ways, interact and connect across greater distances. We’re also talking about how digital technology has changed our idea of authorship and ownership, of creativity and collaboration, of closeness and distance, of privacy and surveillance, of citizenship and literacy.

“Becoming literate means thinking differently than one did previously, seeing the world differently, and this suggests that there are many different literacies.” (10)

To think about how a college might develop or evidence its own digital signature—as Middlebury is currently working out—we must think well past the technologies that allow us to surface the digital. We must develop a literacy about our own digital intersectionality, our irrevocably hybrid nature.

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