Are We Moving towards a Post-Digital Era?

Janet Lord, Head of Education, Faculty of Health and Education, The Manchester Metropolitan University

Janet Lord, Head of Education, Faculty of Health and Education, The Manchester Metropolitan University

Many of us have experienced the rather befuddling feeling of spending all day working online on a computer and then all evening online (possibly on our phones in front of the TV, supposedly relaxing). We’ve been engaged in homeschooling, childcare and very often we’ve had nowhere to work or to have meetings in quiet places. We’ve been running down what can only be described as ‘virtual corridors’ to get from meeting to meeting and at the same time we’ve been establishing different daily rhythms, where weekdays have morphed into weekends, in a context where we’ve been worrying about our families and friends and where many of us have been feeling insecure about our employment. All this has made for an unsettling existence, within which students and teachers have been attempting to enact some form of education. 

I want to draw on the work of Dave White, president of the Association of Learning Technology, here. You can find his blog here http://daveowhite.com/.One of the things that Dave talks about, part of the befuddlement I mentioned above, is the fact that over the last 18 months or so we’ve lost a sense of place. Our buildings in education are usually a key point for our learning communities. As we have no longer been able to access our buildings over much of the pandemic period, this has caused all kinds of changes.  And as educational practices have changed, so have our understandings of what it means to teach and to learn. One of the things that we’ve learned is that it’s important to use pedagogical approaches which focus on connection and interaction and to think about the ways in which we use our digital spaces, where students and staff both have agency. That agency can then help with a sense of belonging, and support students in what White calls ‘learning as becoming’ – where facilitating connections, nurturing belonging and fostering agency all combine to impact on learners’ developing identities.

"In a post-digital age, the whole concept of digital will move into the background and we will understand that the digital is transformative yet in many ways irrelevant"

Probably, one of the biggest changes is a move towards what is often described as being ‘post-digital’.  To explain that, I’m going to contrast ‘post-digital’ with ‘post-electrical’.

We are currently living in an age that could readily be described as post- electrical. By that I mean that we take electricity for granted. We assume that a light will come on when we flick a switch and that our televisions will work when we pick up the remote control. However, when electricity first became commonplace, it took a while for electricity to change the ways in which people and organisations worked. It took a while for people to understand that the advent of electricity was in fact a massive paradigm shift and that the world could and would change as a result of electrical systems being widely available. But we are not yet in a ‘post- digital’era, where technology is a ‘taken for granted’ bedrock or keystone of our lives. As educators, when we made the very quick flip online, we at first largely tried to mirror online what we’d been doing face-to-face. We now know that teaching online simply is not the same as teaching face to face but with a screen. Indeed, one of the benefits of extended periods of lockdown and online working has been that we have started to understand that our technological capabilities are such that we can now start to rethink the ways in which we work.

When we start to think about how this might happen, it is important to remember that the digital divide has significant lived realities associated with it. We are not ‘all online now’ as people were fond of responding before COVID-19 when someone tried to raise the issue of digital inequalities. Very far from it. Prior to the pandemic there was plenty of evidence to confirm the so-called ‘homework gap’ – nearly 20 percent of US teens reported being unable to complete schoolwork at home due to lack of devices and/or connectivity (Anderson and Perrin 2018).And things were worse as a result of the pandemic; in the year to April 2021, 6 percent of UK homes had no internet access. Gaps like these have blighted remote education during lockdowns - especially for the low-income, black and minority ethnic households, where these issues are most prevalent.

Even when we have easy access to learning technologies, we have regular frustrations; about the Wi-Fi, or our lack of ability to remember to switch our microphones on every time we speak in an online meeting; and some of the things we try to do in our online teaching are risky and therefore fail. They are risky because we are trying to push boundaries and are trying to develop our understandings of what truly being post-digital might mean. The scope and reach of digital education are greater than any of us ever imagined. As we think about ‘learning as becoming’ and the importance of technology in learning as we move into a post Covid era, it’s important to remember that the digital divide does still exist, and that we need to ensure that we actively proactively challenge inequalities which undermine online learning for so many individuals.

In a post-digital age, the whole concept of digital will move into the background and we will understand that the digital is transformative yet in many ways irrelevant. We will take digital for granted is much the same way that we take electricity for granted. Most large educational institutions currently have IT departments; in the future when digital is fully embedded these are unlikely to be essential. That seems extraordinary now, when IT helplines are key features of our lives.Digital technology will be part of a ‘taken for granted’part of life the way same way that electricity is now.  We’re not there yet, but it is interesting to look at the movement towards the post-digital, and to speculate that the pandemic has been a massive catalyst in moving us towards this brave new era.

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