The Tofu and the Wok

I’m embarrassed and ashamed as well as happy and proud to say that “the digital” doesn’t mean anything in particular to me. Perhaps it should.  

But I’m decidedly open to the idea that “the digital” shouldn’t evoke something more concrete than most words associated with the teaching-learning enterprise. When I’m confronted by such terms as “classroom,” “project,” or “book,” my mind also draws a blank. I can readily envision settings in which these educational artifacts deaden the will to learn, or, worse yet, reinforce our most repressive and regressive impulses.

It also doesn’t take much effort for me to imagine classrooms, projects and books that feed our hunger to learn and fill our souls with the drive to go forth and repair the world. Correspondingly, I see “the digital” as a neutral term that must be paired with a set of learning objectives and contexts for it to have meaning.

My metaphor for “the digital” is tofu. Alone, tofu is nearly tasteless—a blob of potential waiting to greet surrounding ingredients and flavors. But, when tofu joins with its wok neighbors, its taste is transformed, and it becomes the perfect complement while adding key nutrients and texture to a simple meal. “The digital” similarly is bland and relatively uninspiring alone. But, if it is blended into a well-crafted educational strategy that helps learners build relationships, think critically, and actively engage with mind and heart in addressing the world’s most pressing problems, it can be transformative—and flavorful.

The challenge for our Middlebury community, therefore, is to make certain that we always contextualize “the digital” in our conversations. Digital for what and with what? For whom? To what end?  

For many years now, I’ve used the One Laptop Per Child initiative as a case study in an evaluation seminar I teach. The image on the left, an Armenian classroom where children have laptops, symbolizes everything that’s wrong with the impulse to digitize learning. Children do not appear engaged in their work; there’s no hint of discovery, joy, or co-creation; and, the classroom is organized in a way that prevents learners from sharing breakthroughs and fueling inquiry. “The digital” here appears to isolate students from one another.

In contrast, I’ve also glimpsed into the dynamic pictured on the right, where students are not only engaged with digital technology, but also with each other. I don’t know what they’re learning, but I want to be a part of it. The engagement and joy are palpable. Their excitement is infectious.    

“The digital,” of course, doesn’t just refer to computer-assisted learning. But, regardless of platform and product, I hope our community will focus attention not just on the digital tofu, but also on everything that surrounds it in the wok.