Do we need the ‘digital’ in Digital Pedagogy?

I was recently asked this question during a discussion on LinkedIn. It’s a good question, and one which can also be asked of the distinction between Learning and e-Learning, and between Literacy and Digital Literacy. Should we be treating the digital as something ‘other’, or does digital just represent the next stage in the evolution of these concepts?

When e-Learning first appeared as a term nearly 20 years ago it represented a form of learning that offered distinctly different challenges from traditional classroom learning. But since then the term e-Learning has become somewhat tarnished, and is viewed by many as representing the click-through online content that many organisations produce (and many people hate).

As personal technologies have become more ubiquitous, the line between ‘traditional’ learning and ‘learning with technology’ has become increasingly blurred. Many classrooms now use technology in some form, and students increasingly use their own devices to consume educational content. For a growing number of students globally, learning now implies the use of technology in one form or another.

The distinction between pedagogy and ‘digital pedagogy‘ can be viewed in a similar way, as many pedagogical approaches (behaviourism, constructivism, cognitivism etc) are sufficiently flexible to accommodate learning with technology. But for me, digital pedagogy is a useful lens through which to analyse learning and communication activities that are made possible solely as a result of technology. This might include approaches to learning such as Networked Learning and Connectivism, which have emerged entirely due to the way in which technology enables people to talk, learn and share information with people anywhere in the world. It could also include ‘flipping the classroom’, which – although it can be viewed as a traditional, transmissive way of teaching – makes us question what is really happening when someone watches a video. How does that video need to be constructed? What is the effect of the technology mediating the interaction between the student and the content? As Diana Laurillard argues in her Conversational Framework, it is important that we understand which aspect of learning we are attempting to enhance with technology.

I believe the solution to bridging the technology/pedagogy divide is to design learning experiences from scratch and weave digital all the way through a programme of learning. In other words, start with digital as your foundations and then build your curriculum around it. Perhaps a useful metaphor would be to imagine the concrete foundations of a house. Once the house is finished you never actually see the foundations, but the whole house is constructed around them – and without them the house would collapse. But as long as the foundations are doing their job you don’t need to see them.

For me, this is how digital should work in pedagogy and curriculum design. A programme of learning needs to be firmly grounded in digital technology, but that doesn’t mean the technology has to be explicitly visible or talked about in depth. This avoids the problem of making digital unpalatable for those people who are scared of it, or don’t think it is relevant. Learners will use a range of digital technologies as they work through the curriculum, but these technologies will not be talked about as something separate from learning – they will just support whatever learning experiences the tutor wants the students to have.

It’s also important to not focus on particular technologies, but rather on what they enable us to do. Given the unprecedented choice of learning technologies and the speed at which new ones are arriving, it would be unwise to focus on a particular tool because it may be out of date in 12 months. But by focusing on the affordances of technologies we can design appropriate curricula, and then change the tools as needed without significant disruption. As Ian Dunn has argued, we need to be making ‘smart and thoughtful use of all existing technologies’ where appropriate in order to provide students with an education that is shaped more closely to fit their needs.

We cannot put the digital genie back in the bottle, nor should we try. Therefore, as learning experts we need to be able to talk about ‘learning’ to as wide an audience as possible, and our conception of learning must have technology woven through it. If the technology is doing its job right it should be almost invisible, thereby keeping the barriers to entry as low as possible.

We need to be more observant of the way in which children instinctively know how to use an iPad or a tablet, and we should be designing learning experiences that are just as intuitive for people of all ages. For me, this is why traditional VLEs / LMSs have had their day – the new generation of learners no longer conceives of information in the way that a VLE / LMS presents it. They want to touch, swipe, share, discuss, re-edit, combine and collaborate as easily as they can do with apps on a tablet. And it’s also important not to assume that the younger generations are ‘digital natives’ – they’re not. They often have a very superficial understanding of how to use technology, and we as educators need to know how to build on this understanding to construct meaningful learning experiences.

We’re still a long way from existing in a ‘post-digital’ world where the technology ‘just works’. But perhaps the path to being post-digital involves us rethinking our approach to learning design and accepting that digital technology is no longer separate from pedagogy and learning.


Many thanks to Manish Upadhyay for helping me shape my thoughts on the above.

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