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  • Matthew Hora

Queasy about digital pedagogy

Many of my colleagues are engaged in the use of digital technologies in education, whether in traditional face-to-face university and school settings, in non-credit adult education online courses, the design and delivery of MOOCs, or in the wild west of edupunk DIY education. It's all well and good, even if I'm not an adopter or particularly fervent advocate - it's part of the present and future fabric of teaching and learning in the early 21st century.

But something about it makes me queasy. Just like anything where people get adamant about how right they are, how wrong you are, and how the traditionalists are simply ignoring progress and enlightened thought. Perhaps it's the nature Buddhist in me, or the vegetable farmer who often longs for the solitude of manual labor in a field aflame with pollinators, ripe with the smells of rotting vegetation and freshly turned soil, and the sounds of birdsong and the wind whistling through trees and grasses. Immersed in this beauty, things like Twitter, web-ads, the never-ending onslaught of digital noise and distractions makes me deeply unsettled.

And this discomfort translates into other venues of life, where the ubiquity of digital technology strikes me as something that much of humanity has embraced, but without much thought. Perhaps like we adopted cars as a mode of travel without thinking too deeply about emissions, or the impact of roads on wildlands. Have we asked the same questions about digital technology in our lives? About how it impacts growing brains? How it can and should be used in education?

One of the more ironic things I find in advocates of digital pedagogy is the notion that it is the great equalizer, the bringer of knowledge to millions for free, etc. etc., but what is less often addressed is that the Internet is a great big commercial, and the gadgets people are addicted to are expensive status symbols that are, as Sherry Turkle observes, making many of us simply intolerable human beings. Today a critique of Turkle's new book came out in the NYT by Jonathan Franzen, and this is one of his observations:

"Our digital technologies aren’t politically neutral. The young person who cannot or will not be alone, converse with family, go out with friends, attend a lecture or perform a job without monitoring her smartphone is an emblem of our economy’s leechlike attachment to our very bodies. Digital technology is capitalism in hyperdrive, injecting its logic of consumption and promotion, of monetization and efficiency, into every waking minute."

I think it is this aspect of digital media and the Internet that makes me ultimately question its role in education. I certainly am not against online schooling, the use of Twitter in teaching, blogging and learning management systems and analytics - it's just that the medium itself is changing how we think and interact with one another and that makes me think we should be much, much more cautious about how we introduce these media into the world of learning. And since commercialism is part and parcel of online life, scanning and swiping and browsing, is it not possible too that these modes of thinking (or non-thinking) are perfectly aligned with Amazon's business model? And that the fact that we're introducing such modes of thinking into the nation's college and K-12 classrooms warrants some introspection? Some critical questions?

Perhaps some may think folks like me are missing the boat. Ignoring reality. That's fine. I'd rather be that out-of-touch farmer poet than someone so obsessed with tweeting his/her every move or checking their iphone that I can barely hold eye contact with someone with whom I'm having dinner.

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