Digital technologies… two sides of a coin



I did a keynote at the LINQ conference in Brussels last week, buy I focused in particular on the positive and negative aspects of digital technologies, order i.e. that there are always two sides to a coin. I began by showing one of the Pearson videos on the future of education. The videos are great as they really give a glimpse of what learning might look like in the near future; personalised, contextual, interactive, and visual.


In general digital technologies are beneficial because they can: enhance, augment, supplement, replace, enrich, expand and empower. They can be negative in that they can: detract, lessen, confuse, overwhelm, infringe and be time consuming or addictive. I then looked at this theme from five perspectives: openness, mobile learning, social media, digital identity and distributed cognition.


In terms of openness digital technologies enable more open practices and in the last ten years or so we have seen the massive increase in the number of Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). We have also seen an increase in free resources, tools and expertise being available via online webinars, blogs, open repositories and journals, and social media. Much has been written about the pros and cons of these; positive in terms of opening up access and enabling social inclusion, negative in terms of being primarily elitist and more about ‘learning income than learning outcomes’. The positive aspects of more open practices are that they enable better transparency, afford a greater reach, facilitate equity and social inclusion, challenge existing business models, and result in a disaggregation of formal educational offerings. In terms of negative aspects, adopting an open approach has the danger of ‘laying yourself bare’, gives rise to issues about surveillance and privacy issues, can result in a misuse or misinterpretation of data, raises issues about quality and accreditation, and can raise issues around ownership. I referenced a number of projects that I have been involved with about openness; the 7Cs of Learning Design framework, the VMPass project on accreditation of non-formal and informal learning, a report for IPTS, OpenCred, on recognition of non-formal and informal learning and a current project, MOOCS4ALL which is developing a MOOC to help people design MOOCs.


Smart phones and tablets are now practically ubiquitous, and we have practically near ubiquitous wifi connectivity. They are now much more affordance, robust, light and with a good battery life. There is a range of excellent Apps available to support communication, productivity, curation and learning. The positive aspects of these mobile devices are that they mean learning anywhere, anytime is now a reality, more and more websites are mobile ready, learning is possible across contexts and devices. The negative aspects are that being online all the time means that there is no ‘down time’; people are expected to be online 24/7. We are increasingly dependent on these devices and more and more of our data is stored in the cloud. Finally many learners and teachers lack the necessary digital literacy skills to make effective use of these devices for learning purposes.


The third perspective I focused on was social media. I argued that we have seen a shift from a passive web to a participatory, interactive and social web, which is distributed, networked, dynamic, participatory, complex and open. There are now many many tools to support communication and collaboration and we are now part of a global, distributed networked of peers. The positive aspects of social media are that they provide us with a rich variety of ways to communicate and collaborate, enable us to be part of a global community of peers, provide us with access to a vast amount of information, facilitate rapid dissemination of information, and benefits of adopting crowd sourcing approaches. The negative aspects are that there is a lack of privacy, we leave digital traces, which can be negative, there is a danger of misuse of data, being openly online can result in cyberbulling and trolling, and there are issues around privacy and security. Finally they can be time consuming and addictive. I then showed a clip from a film I saw recently, ‘unfriended’, which is a horror move about social media. The film is shot entirely via a computer interface, through Skype and chat.


The fourth perspective was on digital identity. I raised the issue of how each of use presents ourselves online and how we interact with others. I argued that there were five facets associated with digital identity: reputation, impact, influence, productivity, and openness. And also that there was a relationship between identity, interaction and presence. Focusing a little more on presence, I referenced Mark Childs definition in terms of mediated presence (being there, immersion), social presence (projection of oneself, and perception of others, copresence (being somewhere with others), and self presence (or embodiment). The positive aspects of digital identity are that it can act as an extensive of your ‘real self – which can either be the same or different, to enables us to have an extended reach, and offers us the opportunity to explore the medium. The negative aspects are that it can lay ourselves bare, can result in a misinterpretation of identity, can lead to cyber-stalking or identity theft. I recounted my own negative experience of online dating, which I have blogged about before. I am looking forward to talking more about this when I take part in some research Bonnie Stewart and George Veletsianos are doing.


Finally I talked about distributed cognition, referencing Solomon’s use of the term.  In terms of positive aspects I referenced Perkin’s concept of ‘Person Plus’, i.e. our cognition is distributed between our brain and our online digital environment. Today’s digital environment provides us with access to vast amounts of information, and there are more and more sophisticated tools for finding, curating, managing and filtering information. In terms of the negative aspects, many lack the necessary digital literacy skills to harness digital technologies and it is easy to get lost or confused. Technologies are constantly changing and hence there is a lack of permanency. Some would argue that we are becoming over dependent on technologies and there is a growing moving for a call to ‘slow learning’ equivalent to the ‘slow cooking’ movement. Some, such as Stephen Hawkins, warn that with the increasingly sophistication of Artificial Intelligence, there is a danger that machines will take over… 


So clearly digital technologies have many advantages and disadvantages, perhaps most chilling though are the words of Paul Virilio in his book the information bomb. He argues that technologies cannot exist without accidents, and that they separate us from real time and space…. Therefore, when not if technologies fail, that is it! Our lives are so utterly dependent and perhaps controlled by technologies. We can’t stop the march of technologies, and whilst we should celebrate the ways in which they can enhance our lives, we should also be aware of the potential downsides.




2 Responses to “Digital technologies… two sides of a coin”

  1. Doug Holton Says:

    There’s some good philosophy of technology writings related to this.

    One older idea I’ve always liked is by Don Ihde - that technologies simultaneously amplify our capabilities and reduce/restrict our capabilities. A telescope extends how far we can see and the level of detail, but it restricts our field of view. MOOCs amplify the reach and audience of one’s teaching, but may reduce the level of personal interaction and tailored feedback one can give a student.

    I also like to think of ‘technology’ more broadly - not just new technologies like MOOCs and adaptive learning systems and the like, but things like books and teaching strategies, which are also inventions/technologies that amplify and restrict one’s capabilities:

  2. Gráinne Says:

    Thanks Doug good points like that metaphor…. will take a look at your link

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