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Digital Learning and Teaching – A Jump into a New Culture?

I began 2017 by reading Keith Hampson’s post on LinkedIn entitled Is That All There Is? Higher Education’s Struggle to Leverage Digital Teaching and Learning. The post prompted the following train of thought which while not directly related to what Dr. Hampson had to say, nevertheless are ideas born from his comments.

In many ways, my journey into digital learning, which I’ve made both as a learner and a teacher, is like becoming comfortable in a new, very different culture. While I do not presume to be very knowledgeable about technical aspects of software and programming, I am becoming comfortable with the possibilities a digital environment offer. Just as living in a very different culture requires a substantial amount of exploration, thousands of mistakes and gaffs, some embarrassment and small successes, my journey to becoming comfortable learning and teaching in a digital environment has been eventful – at times a struggle and increasingly quite natural. As I have become more attuned to the realities of digital learning and teaching, I have come to appreciate several constants.


Many people use digital media regularly. They have accounts on Facebook or Twitter and post often. These sites however have a limited number of options. People can like, post or tweet, add a picture, follow others but their actions are limited to a number of well-defined, consistent options that are predictable. These users consider themselves (rightly) digitally literate and for their purposes, they are. Literacy however is a spectrum and much of digital’s educational potential rests farther down the spectrum. Using Facebook and Twitter, and other social media sites serve their purpose well but do not encourage exploration of the possibilities that lie deeper within the environment.

Knowledge of the local language is essential to learning more about a culture and humans’ grasp of spoken language is hardwired (as Steven Pinker explains in The Language Instinct). Humans generally learn to speak fluently with varying degrees of eloquence. Much of digital culture however involves print (YouTube and Ted Talks being some of the exceptions). Written language is not hardwired and requires a degree of competency to read and write with accuracy and confidence and although many people read with great skill, writing succinctly can prove to be a challenge that many people do not accept. In the digital world, we are often operating in a culture that relies on reading and writing for communication. This can be a barrier that block further exploration.

For those who do feel confident enough in their skill as writers, there is permanence to the written word that does not apply to the spoken word. Despite aphorisms about words once spoken, spoken words are often quickly forgotten while the written word has a gravity that can intimidate many would-be writers. Uncertainty about how a message will be understood, or whether there is value in their words can result in great reluctance to reveal themselves to the world. For many, publishing serious thoughts and observations is a new experience with all the caveats of exploring a very different culture.

And so, there is a small but growing body of research that advocates formally teaching learners engaged in online discussion, just how to participate constructively to engage other learners and to move to some resolution of the point or points being addressed. There may seem to be no need to learn how to discuss in a digital format (De Laat, & Lally, 2003; Levy, 2003; Pilkington & Walker, 2003) but several studies have shown that students often founder at the point of knowledge collection and that unless they are able to move their discussion to reflect on what they have discovered, they do not move to a point where learning (admitting that other possibilities may be valid) occurs (Booth & Hultén, 2003 being one). So digital learners need new behaviors to be successful. Teachers, in their turn, need to be aware of this stumbling block and change their teaching behaviors to support student learning.

Similarly to operating in a different culture, students and teachers need to develop new behaviors (or at the very least adapt old behaviors) in order to be successful in a digital environment. Some changes occur unconsciously while others take effort and support. This is where research plays an important role in identifying changes that need support and in developing strategies to encourage these changes. Until it is generally recognized that learning and teaching in a digital environment offers a richer environment than the social media tools we use daily, digital learning and teaching will not be recognized for the complex opportunities it offers education.


Booth, S., & Hultén, M. (2003). Opening dimensions of variation: An empiricalstudy of learning in a web-based discussion. Instructional Science, 31(1-2), 65– 86. Retrieved from http://0-link.springer.com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/article/10.1023/A%3A1022552301050

De Laat, M., & Lally, V. (2003). Complexity, theory and praxis: Researching     collaborative learning and tutoring processes in a networked learning          community. Instructional Science, 31(1-2), 7–39. Retrieved from http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/7383/1/7383.pdf

Levy, P. (2003). A methodological framework for practice-based research innetworked learning. Instructional Science. 31 (1), 87-109 doi: 10.1023/A:1022594030184

Pilkington, R., & Walker, A. (2003). Facilitating debate in networked learning: Reflecting on online synchronous discussion in higher education. Instructional Science, 31(1-2), 41–63. doi: 10.1023/A:1022556401959



About marymcnabb

Wandering in exploration. Mom, Grandma, teacher, competitive fencer and fascinated by the possibilities social networking offers teachers to collaborate and form professional learning communities.


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