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Digital Technology and the University: Promises and Pitfalls

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This paper focuses on the role of the Internet in contemporary universities. The paper also looks at the ways many universities conceptualize the digital and its potential for university work. While digital technologies are having profound, and positive, effects on the ways we work in universities, many times, administrators and faculty have a distorted vision of how the digital can impact teaching and learning. This paper presents the positive potential of digital technology and the negative limitation of thinking about that technology as an analogue to, and a replacement for, face-to- face interaction.

Digital technologies have greatly enhanced the ways that university faculty are able to work as researchers. From tools for collaboration, to data analysis tools, to inexpensive video capture, there are myriad ways that these technologies help researchers collect data, collaborate, analyse and write together. These tools enhance faculty’s ability to make sense out of new phenomena. Interestingly, we know that learning is a similar process.

Yet, many universities see the potential of the digital as a means of delivering information to a large number of people in an efficient manner. Course Management Systems (CMS) are designed as analogs to face-to face classroom interaction. Many state educational systems in the US and elsewhere are concerned to make sure that online learning is an exact analog to f2f learning with equal number of hours for lecture, reading, homework etc. Finally, some administrators and policy makers see online learning technologies as a tool to reduce the number of faculty workers needed as the technology can deliver the learning to larger numbers of individuals (Shumar & Wright, 2016).

This imagination of the digital, as a replacement for human interaction, is based upon false assumptions. In this model, learning is understood as information transfer and assimilation. Knowledge is reified and can be seen as an exchangeable commodity. But a more contemporary view of learning suggests that it is a dynamic process and not a thing. The learning theorist Bruner (1996) has suggested that learning is intersubjective meaning making. Lave and Wenger (1991), deeply influenced the educational world with their model of learning as a community of practice, where engaging in genuine practice was more important than a model of acquiring information. If learning is more of a meaning making interaction, then it involves a relationship between teacher and student, each learning, or making meaning together.

Two of the authors have a number of years of experience at a Danish university teaching an online program to Master’s students whose own educational background is that of pedagogy and learning. We have attempted to develop pedagogies that allow for the analogue and digital, the body and the head, and for the physical and the virtual to come together. The result of this work has been the development of concepts such as experimenting communities (Thestrup, 2019) and a change-maker pedagogy (Robinson, forthcoming). Both concepts bring the learner into the centre of their own learning to make meaning, to take account of value and, are based on establishing and developing relationships with others that create new learning spaces and opportunities for learning inside and outside the university. The teachers are as researchers part of the process of investigating and experimenting to establish knowledge and the pedagogy aims at asking common questions to give a possible answer to and bring into value-creating and change-making action.

The digital media are used in different and particular ways to establish and unfold the experimenting community. The students are asked to make their own group blogs using video, photo and text to document, publish, comment and discuss the subjects they are working on with the rest of the community. They are asked to use synchronous video forums to communicate and during this understand, use and alter the ways such digital media can support human interaction. This is combined with the constant configuration of analogue and digital tools, materials and spaces, where neither the analogue nor the digital is considered enough or isolated from each other. That means that the local physical makerspace or experimental classroom or any other relevant entity in a campus-based higher education still exists and can be used in an active, open pedagogy, but now in intertwined relation to virtual spaces, where it is possible to discuss, share, store and produce common meaning, action and publication. Scissors and cameras on mobile phones are equally important and so is the combination.

It is possible to use digital media in ways, where the distance between the participants are a condition, what can be turned into a closeness, if the distance is accepted and used to be a format for experimenting and playing together. The question for an experimenting community is not to replicate a traditional classroom or to accept any given use of a digital platform, but to make any tool and any material part of both reflection upon and action in the questions asked.

The pitfall is to try and copy an inadequate teaching system by using any kind of digital media as a neutral tool. Then this pitfall risks working against shaping education to become human and change the world. The promise on the other hand is, that it is possible to use digital media in education to make us all human if used for constant, experimenting, playful and reflective configurations.


References
Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Original languageEnglish
Publication yearJun 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022
EventPhilosophy and Theory of Higher Education Conference: Universities under seige - Uppsala, Sweden
Duration: 8 Jun 202210 Jun 2022

Conference

ConferencePhilosophy and Theory of Higher Education Conference
CountrySweden
CityUppsala
Period08/06/202210/06/2022

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