Light Offerings

Whither formal learning in the Digital Age?

Posted by jturner56 on February 10, 2013

In recent times the issue of whether 21st Century learning or digital literacy are passé terms

While I will leave the uncertainty of what digital literacy is to my recent paper, I feel that formal education’s responsibilities needs clarification on where we stand, and where we wish to head in an era where digital technologies are at-hand. Good education has always been, and still is, about looking beyond with hope.

Are we in a significant time for education wrought by digital technologies? The ever-changing nature of digital technologies, pushed on by Moore’s Law and hyper-connectivity has led to a cacophony of noises that can easily find bedfellows seeking comfort.

The first point to make is human progress and therefore education is cumulative, building on the thinking as far back as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The second point is that it is contentious. The second decade of the 20th century is apposite, as the progressive thinking led by John Dewey ran up against the psychology of science led by Thorndike which still resonates. Courtesy of the hyper-connected world it is increasingly difficult to clarify who is merely barrow pushing, who is merely supporting this or that status quo (in new clothing), who is saying we live in new times requiring new dynamics, and those who have something to say that transcends the complexities and uncertainties that underpin the world. Regarding the third point, John Seeley Brown ( has already defined digital age learning. But does it speak to the fourth point where schools are responsible for working within strongly defined boundaries and expectations? Larry Cuban ( would say this gap has led to decades of unrealised expectations. I would say we have not yet resolved how formal education should value digital technologies as an optional tool, a cognitive enhancer, or surrogate teacher (first highlighted by Robert Taylor in 1980). Perhaps, though, a fourth consideration is needed, social connectiveness.

A lack of social context has undermined what schools are and could provide. As a social institution schools provide a structure for socialisation and personal realisation that is unparalleled, even against on-line connectivity. But social value needs to be considerate of the competitive nature and finite resources that drive much of human endeavour, even while acknowledging school’s potential for promoting equality and social empowerment. In the digital age citizenship has inter-connected technical and non-technical aspects.

Learning in the digital age remains like learning at all times. What is changing is that digital technologies support learning that can be more personalised, more mobile, more flattened, and across wider social connections. Digital technologies require problem solving, choice, collaboration and communication. It provides opportunities to create and construct to wider audiences and feedback systems. It therefore can be more real and shared, rather than built on what if, superficial, didactic priorities. Balance and choice will be determined by what is valued and to what end. As was the case 100 years ago the choices are there. We need to move beyond 21st Century Learning towards what learning we want to systematically value for the future we want.

Where are the leaders and drivers for this? Ideas as always welcomed


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