Digital Artefacts and Human Habits: Some Pedagogical Implications

In this article, I discuss popular human habits when it comes to digital artefacts (or content), and consider some of the questions and challenges that this raises for educators.

If we appreciate the affordances of the internet as a digital environment, we note immediately that is an arena filled with artefacts, or ‘content’, around which people interact, and through which they often relate. Not only that, but it is an environment geared towards sharing this content with as wide an audience as possible. Such an environment offers significant opportunities for people to access knowledge, information and other digitised artefacts in a way never possible before. Such ‘democratisation of knowledge’ is having a profound impact on the role of educational institutions, and on the way the general public go about learning new things. In the past, these institutions collected and stewarded knowledge, in the form of physical libraries and trusted guides (scholars) to those resources. Those who sought the knowledge in the academy, needed to travel there, and also pay large sums of money to access this ‘knowledge dispensary’. In addition, as Weller (2011:29) points out, the socially networked digital sphere removes many of function of  filters that many industries, including Higher Education, used to perform. A vital partner in the democratisation of knowledge, has been the affordability and mobility of the technology required to access and store it. These are inseparable realities. The physical presence of the technology has, and is, one of the that have changed our everyday lives. This means, for some, that education, being liberated from ‘old bonds’ may be becoming subject to new ones.

Viral learning?

Digitised content, ‘liberated’ on the internet, particularly if it short and easily digested, can rapidly be distributed (ie. go ‘viral’) Within a matter of minutes, it can reach many thousands of people. The idea of the ‘meme’ is used to identify an element of a culture (eg. an idea) transmitted through copying and being passed-on has become attached to this phenomena in the digital sphere. Sharing a hyperlink, or embedding 3rd party content means that these artefacts only need to be stored in one place, and a pathway opened to allow innumerate others to access it. Content that is more complex, longer, challenging to digest, suffers from low production values or poor aesthetics may tend to have a different kind of digital existence. This means that digital content is produced both in abundance and diversity on a daily basis; there is no shortage. The timeframe between idea and publication, event and report is shortening considerably. Less refinement prior to publication is more likely to be the case, even with the applications we download to use in our smartphones or tablets. Publish now, refine later.

Commodification and Customer focus

This first issue to mention, is that of language. Digital content is said to be ‘consumed’. We no longer read, listen, watch and act. Rather, we consume or, quite literally use-up  news, video, music, photographs and stories. This consumption tends to be stimulated by bitesize, high-impact, emotionally resonant lines. We either like the taste of it or we don’t and then to quickly signal our appreciation. We often snack, rather than eat a balanced meal. We eat on the move, rather than setting time aside.  Popular human habits of digital consumption look rather like tucking into a pile of bitesize snacks, each one delivering its high impact, short term sugary fix. This case study indicates if the drop off rate for an 3 and a half minute online video is about 45%. This figure drops dramatically to less than 10% if the video is under 30 seconds long. The message: keep it short and snappy or you’ll lose your audience. Broadly speaking, this means that the types of digital experiences that we become familiar with will will be driven by these factors. On the other end of the quality spectrum, new video hosting services like Vine specialise in short form video. These are often low cost, poor quality, and aimed at delivering a visual punchline in the minimum time necessary. Watching ‘vines’ for example, is a common-place activity amongst young people and consists in watching a steady stream of short form (often 3-5 seconds long) video, each piece short enough that it deliver its punchline within a few seconds.

Many educators are concerned with learning strategies that move students from passive consumers, to active agents in the learning process. The idea that of the ‘student as satisfied customer’ in recent policy frameworks in the UK has led to significant criticism of the extent to which liberal market values have been allowed to permeate the sector (Ingleby 2015) and fundamentally change the nature of students’ relationship with Higher Education. More broadly that this, our consumer sensitive cultural backdrop has a significant impact on the populations engagement with social systems and activities. The mental habits of avoiding boredom, filling silences, resisting solitude, and so on are bound to have an effect on students assumptions, expectations and capacities. They are also likely to effect their engagement not only with education in general, but also specifically of what types of experiences to expect or look for within digital learning environments. These realities also present significant challenges to educators, as we ask ourselves what public or private virtues, intellectual habits of mind, and employment related competencies we are aiming to support the formation of.

Technological Optimism, Determinism or Neutralists?

Such questions, perhaps inevitably, touch on the philosophical assumptions upon which the adoption of technology rests. An article published in the Journal of Educational Technology and Society (20 (1), 25-36) summarises an empirical study philosophical assumptions underpinning decision-making regarding the adoption of new technologies. It showed that, regardless of whether those responsible for making decisions in their institutions were predominantly technological determinists, or technological neutralists, the vast majority were technological optimists and cited the primary driver for the adoption of new technology was that of ‘keep up with technology (or fall behind)’  I was noted by the researcher therefore that it is more likely to be the case that new technologies are adopted too quickly, without proper consideration of their educational merits or instructional impact. Not surprisingly, many technology directors experienced high levels of resistance from academic staff when trying to introduce new initiatives. Our considerations are located within the same broad frame of reference, but our response to the question of ‘adoption’ in this instance, is not centred on the hardware and software, but on the nature of digital content itself, and it’s associated human habits. Are we to be as optimistic about these practices, as we are about the platforms and devices that we now live with? What of the intimately connected cultural practices these mediate? Does ‘keeping up’ in this instance look like the adoption of short form video as a primary means of teaching and learning?

Integrating Digital Shortforms

Some of the issues that these questions touch on cannot be fully answered in a blog article! Suffice to say at this stage that new pedagogies are already emerging that integrate bite-size, ‘snackable’ digital content suitable for use in education. For example, some of them use short form video as an introductory tool in the learning process: either as a spring board for students developing their own ideas, or in presenting an overview of a topic in simplified form. For example, see here for a 10 minute introduction to quantum mechanics, or here for a 7 minute introduction to the 20th Century sociologist Max Weber. Whether or not such content serves to curate the kinds of virtues that academic institutions desire, such as long and careful looking; evaluation, critical and creative thinking, self reflection, deep investigation is certainly in part related quality of the content, but I think even more so do with the nature of the learning processes that educators build around it. If we think about learning as being a socially structured activity system (Cole and Engestrom, 1993) then we need to consider how the rest of the this system responds when a new tool or approach is introduced. These developments also do not exist in a vacuum, but within the aims and outcomes of a module, programme and potentially a broader set of desired school ‘graduate attributes’.  Secondly, the short form multi-media language of digital content is often underpinned by a the ability to reduce a concept or story to its essential components. These are key cognitive and creative competencies that are integral to students overall development. The production of short-form video could be included as an formative or summative assessment component, and co-exist alongside other forms of presentation. Lastly, I would make the case for inclusion of these forms of content, not from the point of view of accommodation, but for the the need to model critical engagement with multi-media texts. This, I think, is part of what it means to be educated person in our contemporary culture; to inhabit critical and creative engagement with ideas presented to us in digital shorthand.

References:

Ingleby, E. (2015) The house that Jack built: Neoliberalism, teaching in higher education and the moral objections. Teaching in Higher Education, 20, 518–529.

Webster, M. D. (2017). Philosophy of Technology Assumptions in Educational Technology Leadership. Educational Technology & Society, 20 (1), 25–36.

Cole, M. and Engeström, Y. (1993) A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition, in: G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations (New York, Cambridge University Press)

https://wistia.com/blog/does-length-matter-it-does-for-video/ , accessed 5/3/17

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