Digital Cultures and e-learning

It is very easy to assume that the whole world has gone digital. To listen into my Twitter feed, you would assume that schools are constantly wired, blogging and teleconferencing with their flipped investigative curriculum informed by an exciting range of media. However, when I go into schools as I often do for work, I see old whiteboards used as blackboards, computer rooms with no children in them, textbooks, spelling tests, worksheets and homework journals. As always, the truth lies somewhere in between and we shouldn’t get too carried away.

The idea that there is a digital culture sounds good as well. That is where us digital natives live, sneering at the immigrants (interesting how old metaphors that ought to be discredited can resurface) with our IPads and operating at a higher level where we know things before other people do and we know things that other people don’t even know they don’t know. It is a culture with interesting boundaries as well where Pearltrees and Pinterest are welcome but we would like to exclude the Daily Mail online! At yet another level, it is a culture where the individual can count, or can allegedly count, in the increasingly globalised world, and we like being those people.

Probably the oddness and personality of that mix is simply explained by the fact that we are discussing a culture and cultures are slippery things. We all have very different understandings of what culture is but, broadly, I would accept that it is a collection of social attitudes, assumptions and practices arising as a consequence of deeper social, economic, political and technological processes. Somewhere along the line, these loose conglomerations take on a more granular and networked structure and they begin to mutually reinforce one another so that some of the shared understandings take on more importance than others. Then, there is a point at which the culture becomes self-aware and reflexive and that changes the way that it understands itself and that may lead to a harder formulation of practices.

Think about living in revolutionary France in the 1780s. At what point do you start thinking that you are not just one of a mob burning down palaces and guillotining priests and the nobility however enjoyable that is? Where and when do you realise that you are actually part of a revolutionary culture? Is it when somebody gives you a coloured sash or a manifesto to read? If you were told then that your activities were going to lead to an appalling musical and a worse film would you have gone back to the allotment? The point is that the social behaviours come first and they begin to define the culture which then becomes self knowing. Presumably, along the way, people who exhibited the right behaviours but did not quite fit in with the emerging culture were guillotined as well.

It is also important to make the point that cultures are serious things. Without something like them you do not get changed behaviours and without changed behaviours you do not get genuine change. The so-called Arab Spring provided some good examples of where the cultural drivers began to emerge alongside the unfolding events. Sometimes, of course, it was hard to say which came first.

So, what kind of culture is a digital world entitled to? The first thing to say is that if by digital we mean the encroachment of new technologies on human activity then it is important to be inclusive. After all, why would we limit a discussion to media and ignore shopping? And it is not just shop assistants who are being put out of work by the digital culture but also architects, bankers, lawyers and estate agents so this digital culture certainly has its own problems.

That is worth mentioning because we sometimes look at the digital culture as being entirely beneficial. It breaks down the notions of them and us in the media, revolutionises publishing, encourages new forms of news, and invents slippery crossovers between art and visual electronics and it is easy to sometimes see these areas of media consumption as being where the digital culture is placed. They are, of course, areas where the changes are particularly significant and that perhaps goes someway to explain the emphasis but when you hear people talking enthusiastically about cyberculture you can bet that the emphasis is fairly narrow.

One thing that the analysis of culture often appears to leave out is what I would call the epistemological shift. Rene Descartes spent a lot of time sitting on his own wondering how he could prove what he knew and suffering a lot of trouble from malignant demons on the way. Eventually, he decided that he existed because he was thinking (cogito ergo sum) and then, somewhere down the line, he gave God a look in. If only he had taken a walk down the corridor, then the chap in the next cubicle could have told him what he knew and they could have agreed to share it and that would have invented reality for them without any need for God, or mind and matter dualism. The next two hundred years could have been much simpler for everyone.
In essence, our reality and that includes our culture is social. So, our knowledge is social as well and so is the process of knowing. Descartes was right that we can’t know anything on our own part, but with other people, we can agree that we know an awful lot more. There are still things we don’t know but, for the most part, we know what they are or, perhaps, we know of someone who does.

Philosophers panic that this leads to a terrible relativism but, of course, it doesn’t. It is the wisdom of the crowd which guarantees reality and the shared understanding that this is the table which you eat your meals off and that is a workbench. The distinction is to do with the understandings and not some innate, unknowable properties of tables. This might seem obvious today but English philosophers in the twentieth century spent a very long time fretting about the innate properties of all sorts of things.

That might seem like a diversion but I tend to think that cultures are knowledge-based and therefore you need to have a bit of a view of knowledge in order to talk about them. So, what are the characteristics of our new digital culture?

The first thing you have to talk about is participation. Participation is what gives us Twitter and Facebook as social movements and that is undoubtedly what they are. It has also given us a different conception of news which, for the first time in its history, is increasingly participatory. The official message that the London Olympic opening ceremony in 2012 was overtly lefty and liberal would probably have prevailed if it hadn’t been for nine million tweets saying something different. We are also now much more inclined to believe the tweeter or the individual with a camera on their phone rather than the official news station correspondent who, it turns out, is broadcasting from an adjacent country!

This kind of participation has also given people more rights over what can be known. The fact that people know stuff now and can tell each other what they know has rocked the establishment. Greedy politicians, lying journalists, corrupt policeman, cheating bankers and perverted priests are simply symptomatic of how far this uncovering can go once it gets started. More worryingly, these stories could not see the light of day in the pre-digital culture and were simply suppressed by the forms of media which existed then. It is important to make that point. They were not suppressed by governments or government agencies but simply by the ways in which the world could be represented at that time. This is a paradigmatic shift in anybody’s terms and important in terms of political and social changes well.

Next, there is some interesting stuff in the digital culture about how close we want to be to the knitting. Intimacy and immediacy is important in the participatory media. We like to hear stuff from the horse’s mouth and from the main players not the mouthpieces. We also want everything to be live and immediate. We don’t want to be told what happened any more but, instead, we want to smell the flames so that the aim of the digital culture is to take us closer to the reality. Of course, in a sense that is illusory and, however close you get, there is a line of pixels in between.

So, linked to this need for immediacy there is something else which is sometimes called hypermediacy. This is the creation of a sense of immediacy without being immediate. Pornographic film and music videos work in this area not actually delivering more reality but creating a sense of reality through disparate images and music which claims in some way to be more immediate than the pixel reflections. This is now so endemic we are barely aware of it. We look at multiple screens without a thought and don’t think of them as confusing or unreal.

In the digital culture, therefore, there is a mixture of the participatory which engenders the need for immediacy and a technology which enables the transformation of the media. The key principle here seems to be remediation (re-mediation) which is the creation of new forms of expression to meet these needs by rehashing, integrating and cannibalising the old media. At the same time, working in the old media gets easier so that video and music mixing, slow motion sequencing, stop-pause animation, montages and mash-ups have all moved into the public domain where anyone with the right equipment can access them. Marshall McLuhan talked about how this process worked in the 1960s and how the visual media reprocess content.

So we have increased participation and immediacy and remediated technology as part of the digital culture but it is much harder to unpack what drives what. The shift from the 78 record, to the LP, the cassette and the CD and then to other forms of digital media is based in technological invention and has led to changes in the cultural ways in which we purchase, share and engage with music but how far is this to do with the pursuit of immediacy and how far to do with convenience and economy?

There is one other element which we ought to mention. Bricolage is concerned with the recycling process and how new forms of media are generated from old and new sources. News gathering as opposed to reporting is a good example where the modern online newspaper will bring together eyewitness reports in all sorts of media, Twitter feeds, social network responses and background information in a new mix largely accredited by its readership and by the networks that support it. Apparently, this is not quite the same as remediation.

This is one model of the digital culture but it may not be the only one. It doesn’t seem to include television or the wider ramifications of commercial changes although it could apply to them. There may also be other processes in play but we have to remember we are talking about a culture which like yeast is alive, growing and constantly in a state of flux.

The next stage is to look at how this kind of culture incorporates learning and e-learning in particular.


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