Not the Next, Not the Best: the Digital in Context

Years ago when I chaired the English program at the Community Colleges of Colorado Online, one of my biggest challenges was squaring what was possible online with the curricular expectations of fully on-ground universities. In other words, I had to design courses in the program that would suitably prepare students to study at colleges that not only didn’t have online classes, but that eschewed the idea of digital learning at all. In many cases, for example, the University of Colorado system would not accept credit for, say, an online English Composition course, instead forcing transfer students to take the class again on campus.

The digital has rarely enjoyed a friendly reception in academia. And honestly, there’s a reason for that: too often, education has been force-fed digital technology. At the 2015 iNACOL conference, I gathered a small group of malcontents into a kind of spontaneous unconference in order to parse some of the reasons why the vision for technology in education at the conference wasn’t sitting well with us. At one point, one of my new colleagues bemoaned the lack of interest in digital learning in his department. He said something like: “How can I make them see how valuable it is? How do I get them to use these tools?”

To which I said something like: “You don’t.” It is not the job of digital pedagogues—or digital aficionados, or digital humanists, or educational technologists, or instructional designers—to force people to go digital. When we make it our mission to convert non-digital folks to our digital purpose, we will not only very likely alienate these valuable colleagues, but we’ll also miss the mark of our true intention: to support learning and scholarship within institutions that, in our heart of hearts, we adore.

Learning doesn’t require the digital. Neither does scholarship. The digital provides possibility more than anything—possibility that is as similar as it is different to that which other educational tools provide, like chalkboards and paper and actual, real, musty books. To imagine that they are different from one another, to imagine that they don’t exist along the same spectrum, is to try to isolate tools that are actually entirely integrated. All learning is necessarily hybrid. It’s not that learning requires digital tools to make it work; it’s that you can’t actually pull the digital out of learning anymore.

A book lives in the same world with a web browser, and the twain meet more frequently than not.

What this means for stubborn digitalists and stubborn traditionalists alike is that, while they think they are on opposite ends of a tug-of-war, they’re actually on a see-saw. It takes both to make the institution move. There are no “traditional” territories left; nor do any digital territories exist that haven’t been built from chalk dust and inky blue mimeographs.

What’s more, there’s something deeply important about each of the technologies we’ve used to forward learning and scholarship. In a recent conversation with the Bread Loaf School of English, an objection was raised to making the School experience “slick”, i.e., too digital. Part of the long appeal of the Bread Loaf summer has been its “away-ness”, and the feeling of place, location, and presence which is timeless. What’s interesting, of course, is that the School is not cut off from the digital world. Students will use their laptops to take notes and write, they’ll rely on wifi to keep in touch with their families and jobs; and I’m certain many of them carry their phones around with them, whether there’s a signal or not.

All learning is hybrid. But does that mean Bread Loaf should adopt virtual reality, or open their school to remote attendees? Should the School suddenly forefront a digital teaching and learning movement? Perhaps, if that’s part of their goal. But if their goal is to keep the experience homey and isolated—if indeed that’s part of their pedagogy—then they should only adopt those digital practices and tools that support that goal (and those practices and tools do exist).

For years, digital enthusiasts have prognosticated about the end of the “Book”, about making a paperless world, about crossing boundaries of space, time, and culture to make a more unified world. Their shambhala, though, would come at the expense of technologies that have glued us together for centuries and longer. Hesiod wrote, “observe due measure; moderation is best in all things.” We cannot suffer the end of technologies that have served us, and that give us pleasure as much as use, simply for the sake of the next shiny thing.

Sean Morris

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