Dialog:With a digital pedagogy

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With a digital pedagogy

Existing educational institutions use a pedagogy deeply conditioned by the mechanical techniques of organization and communication developed through the modern era. The constraints and possibilities of digital techniques differ markedly from the mechanical. Most educational uses of digital technologies employ them to marginally improve mechanistic educational systems. To initiate and develop a digital pedagogy, we start by setting aside familiar educational forms and begin to develop a different set of principles to serve our human purposes.


V 1 — What's with a digital pedagogy? Earlier, you were telling us how you want to use digital technologies to facilitate self-formation and liberal learning independent of existing systems of formal education. That still strikes me as a bit odd.

R 2 — How so? A Place to Study works to facilitate persons' efforts at self-formation and liberal learning in interaction with the culture and with other persons. We think that our formal educational systems with all their learning objectives, instructional programs, and assessment techniques often get in the way of that. So we are creating A Place to Study as an alternative, open freely for use by anyone, doing so in the digital commons through the activity of collaborating volunteers.

V 3 — Yeah, I get that and think it'll be great if you pull it off. But why then talk of a digital pedagogy? I'm sure you know that to most people, "pedagogy" means "the art or science of teaching; especially, instruction in teaching methods," or something like that. If you are going outside the systems of formal instruction, you should stop talking about pedagogy!

R 4 — Ow! You know how to find the sore spot of an old romantic! You're sort of right about "pedagogy," but I feel stuck with it and am determined to make the best of it. Sometimes trying to change usage may be worthwhile. Early in my career, educators didn't talk much about "pedagogy." They like to gussy things up with the "science of education." I tried to latch on to "pedagogy" as a key term, inspired by a humane German thinker—"the blossom and goal of all true philosophy is pedagogy in its widest sense, the formative theory of humanity."[1] A stubborn buzzard: that's what I still mean by pedagogy here.

V 5 — OK, if you insist. But educational sites are all over the Internet. I've looked at MOOCs—Coursera, Udacity, and edX. They're digital and don't look like A Place to Study, but much more like the sites for regular colleges and universities, filled with information on their programs and courses. You don't seem to think that they are really digital.

R 6 — That's right. The MOOCs are digital in one sense, all online, but they are not digital in another. They look like regular academic sites because of that C at the end of MOOC, which stands for course. For several centuries, the course has served as the building block of traditional print-based pedagogy.

V 7 — So you're claiming that the MOOC consortia simply extend online the traditional educational pedagogies, while you're doing something different. I can see how their courses and programs look a lot like more traditional institutions—basically the same-old with some digital efficiencies. It's new media delivering a well-established product more flexibly, efficiently, and effectively. And I have to say that the pandemic may have confirmed the flexibility claim, but listening to my friends who were still in school, the coronavirus has put the efficient and effective claim deeply into question.

R 8 — Right. A Place to Study doesn't offer online programs or courses. We don't have schools, divisions, or departments. A Place to Study organizes and delivers opportunities for self-formation and liberal learning differently, by making more integral use of the intellectual potentialities of digital communications.

V 9 — I hear your claim, but can't say I understand yet. I'm curious how earlier technologies like printing shaped the existing setup, but let's save that for some other time. Instead, help me understand how A Place to Study uses digital communications to construct a different pedagogy. Maybe begin by explaining why you describe your pedagogy simply as different, rather than as new or novel. "Different" is pretty low-keyed.

R 10 — Let's not get in a muddle over what's old, what's new, and what's different. Broadly, there's a conventional pedagogy of formal instruction, historically related to a system of communications based on printed text. Important, powerful innovations have been taking place in the system of communications, which in my opinion are radically new in an historically meaningful sense. These are making possible pedagogical arrangements—arrangements for humanity's self-formative activities—that are significantly different from the conventional ones of formal instruction. A Place to Study tries to prototype such different arrangements, a digital pedagogy.

V 11 — As I suspected, you're using "digital" in a special way. Most people think digital tools are extending earlier means of communication, disrupting them a good deal by altering patterns of use. We use all sorts of metaphorical extension to describe what happening as we browse sites like your's on our notebooks.

R 12 — It seems that way, but I think we need to look at what is taking place more closely. Let's get in mind the whole digital system, cyberspace—the Internet, all the broadcast and narrowcast spectra, the routers sending everything here and there, all the drives storing and retrieving, the cloud and its warehouses of CPUs, and all the devices—desktops, notebooks, smartphones, game consoles, displays, speakers, TVs, and on. Then get the traditional media of the culture in mind—the books, magazines, newspapers, posters, scores, blueprints, maps; the libraries, bookstores, publishing houses, offices filed with files, archives, museums, and on. What's the point of similarity?

V 13 — Well, first off, a lot of the same stuff is in both systems, but I think it is probably better to say that human persons, people, continuously seek to create cultural resources of meaning and importance to them and they adapt those the media at hand to communicate those resources with each other. Our cultural resources have a human side—an enduring human purpose, interest, and content—and an externally conditioned side engendered by the available media of communication.

R 14 — That's well put, but now the harder question. What's basically different between the two systems?

V 15 — Yeah. I could describe endless differences in the way the two work, noting what the different parts do and don't do well, but I suspect that would not be general enough for you. Basically, you know, they work differently, but I'm not sure how to put the difference clearly into words.

R 16 — Right. It's difficult. I'd put it this way—both systems allow people to create, record, store, retrieve, transmit, and transform humanly valuable cultural resources in useful ways, but in the traditional system people encode the resources in states of matter—ink on a page or paint on a canvas. In the innovative systems they encode cultural resources in states of energy.

V 17 — That certainly gets at a radical difference. We might have to recognize that even in cyberspace we work culturally with works encoded in energy through material artifacts—screens, keyboards, chips, disks, wires—but in their active state, as we interact with them, the works are encoded in states of energy. Clearly the switch from material coding to electronic might alter significantly the affordances and constraints in creating, recording, storing, retrieving, transmitting, and transforming cultural resources. Those changes make the new media new. They code in electronic states, not material.

R 18 — I quibble a bit with myself at the margins of this distinction—speech and music use sound, for instance. And we frequently now we mix the two systems as we do in word processing a paper. But I think it fair to say that the new media are new and not merely an extension of the old media because they use a radically different way of coding our cultural resources, which brings with it radically different possibilities.

V 19 — That makes sense to me as you explain it, but I don't see clearly where you're going with this difference. In practice, aren't we mashing up the two systems all together?

R 20 — Pretty much so far, largely by cultural inertia. But there's art to a music mash up, and even done well, it may not really improve the originals. With digital technologies all we have are mash ups. Let's go beyond the mash up and figure out what a digital pedagogy can be like. To do that, we need to distinguish between the human components of our cultural resources from the artifactual components, and then see how we can use new media to facilitate those human components.

V 21 — Slower. The human/artifactual distinction sounds interesting, but an example would help!

R 22 — Fair enough. The distinction is fuzzy. Cultural resources have a primary incarnation, the work as created by its author, and then secondary ones, the work as presented through artifacts. Open a book, say Plato's Republic. We presume Plato created it as a text, although he made it look sort of like a very long conversation among a number of people long ago. But looking at it as a text, it is written in words, sentences, and paragraphs—let's call those human dimensions of the text. We presume they are there because the author, Plato, choose to use them in order to write down what he had to say. In our edition of Plato, however, the words are also printed on the pages in lines of a certain length, so many lines to a page, each page numbered, white-space bounding the text away from the edge of the pages. All those features and lots of other conventions, are artifactual dimensions of the text as we read it now, deriving not from Plato but from decisions made editors, designers, and compositers in producing our physical artifact, an attractive, readable book.

V 23 — Okay.... I'm understanding the distinction. And to play it out here you want to build a digital pedagogy in two steps. First you want to identify the human dimensions in our acquisition of culture—what the persons creating and studying a work were trying to do independent of the media of communication with which they did it, and then second you want to figure out how they can best facilitate those efforts by using new media, dispensing with the limitations of print-based communications and taking full advantage of encoding cultural resources in states of energy.

R 24 — In a nutshell, that's it. Distinguishing between the human dimension of cultural resources and the artifactual aspects presents challenges as does figuring out how to take advantage of encoding them electronically. Judging by how long it took to adapt educational practices to printing and other mechanical technologies, the two-step process will entail a long evolutionary emergence. But we can try some possibilities through A Place to Study rather quickly.

V 25 — Can you quickly sketch the key aspects of those possibilities. I'm a bit late meeting up with some friends so I should go quickly.

R 26 — Sure. Here are the two main ways we are proceeding.

First, resources on our top menu explains how material coding with cultural resources has made them very expensive to produce and use. Consequently, basic artifactual characteristics of them—high cost, scarcity, and difficulty of use—narrow full employment of them to privileged elites and specialists. For most people, working with the cultural resources actually comes very late in the processes of personal development, if at all. By and large, costs instead restrict education primarily to learning about those resources secondhand from others. Electronic media radically cut costs and enhance the flexibility of use making it possible for all persons to work with the primary resources of the culture when, where, and with whom they like for purposes that they choose. We want to make a full, well-organized, easily used collection of such resources freely available to anyone anywhere through A Place to Study.

Second, when learning about displaces working with, the basic formative standpoint shifts from a natural first-person forming a sense of self and the world through direct experience and becomes instead one of a third-person he or she learning about herself or himself and the world he or she inhabits. Throughout A Place to Study, we structure active components—concerns, predicaments, aspirations, purpose, and control for contributors to engage from a first-person, I/we basis.

  1. Wilhelm Dilthey, (1879), Pädagogik: Geschichte und Brundlinien des Systems, in Gesammelte Schriften, IX. Band. p. 8 (Stuttgart: B. G. Teubner Verlagsgesellschaft, 1961).