13 February 2013

Going Digital = Going Dumb?

"Educational institutions are established around a privilege of writing as the ultimate means of demonstrating understanding"; the question is, can digital technology and the creation of images "demonstrate competence, knowledge and understanding in a rigorous way?"

As a life-long learner, I have recently been taking part in an E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC via Coursera (see posts Graveyards of Technology and The Machine is Us) and the sources they offer for thought include a lot of visual sources. In conjunction with the fact that I have been trialling Flipped Classroom methods and just completed certification through Sophia.org, I have been thinking about the use of visual sources for teaching and their impact on engagement and learning.

Part of the outcomes of the E-learning and Digital Cultures course is a consideration of "the extent to which visual representation can be considered a valuable scholarly pursuit", which interests me in particular as an English teacher. I have always been very visual in my exploration of the written word, and even in exam grade classes, learners have had to produce artefacts such as metaphor storyboards for poetry, illustrations labelled with quotations, mobiles, or video commentaries as formative assessments for understanding texts before working on presenting that understanding in the more traditional, more 'scholarly' medium of writing. However, I do know that some administration and parents and even learners have 'looked down' on these visual efforts as a lesser form of demonstrating understanding.

I have similar issues now I have embedded digital cultures and artefacts into my teaching and I do feel there is the underlying belief that it is not really educational in the 'true' sense. The E-learning and Digital Cultures course points out that "digital culture is often implicated in a shift towards the visual and multimodal as ways of representing knowledge" which should not be seen as a negative or an opposition to traditional ways of expressing knowledge, but as a compliment to the traditional, offering "new possibilities for conveying ideas". Having been to hospital doesn't put me in a position to tell doctors what they should be doing, however the problem with education is that everyone thinks they are an expert because they once went to school. I have lost count of the number of parents and friends who I have questioned whether we are really 'teaching' kids by using laptops - as if pen and paper make it authentic but pixels negate all knowledge. They think that because they learned in a certain way, their children should be learning that way too and many of the issues surrounding digital culture and e-learning will persist until either current parents are educated otherwise or else we need wait until current generations who grow up learning this way are the parents. However, the world will have changed again by then and we could be playing a constant catchup of generational disconnect.

Ebon Heath is an artist who plays with 'words'; he creates 'visual poetry' - beautiful sculptures that he says are the "physical representation of our language as object". His typographic structures are a "cacophony" that attempt to make the invisible, visible; to represent the "cozy womb of information, data" that comes from our "texting, online, and transmitted technology" to reveal the "invisible noise silent to the eye surrounding us all." Is his competence, knowledge and understanding less rigorous because he expresses it visually rather than writing an expository essay?

I have really enjoyed watching videos as part of this course and it is the first time that I have taken part in learning that is so purely based on the interpretation and evaluation of digital artefacts. It doesn't feel like 'work' and certainly feels different to the readings they provide EVEN THOUGH the videos generate just as much thinking for me. I wonder if this is what lies behind the success of 'flipping' for learners - they like watching, it feels right, it is what they know? As long as we are sure that the watching is active and has a clear outcome, I think we must address it as a viable source for knowledge and learning. Equally, if I think about the digital or visual material produced for me over the years by many different learners, I cannot but help think that it is possible to "demonstrate competence, knowledge and understanding in a rigorous way" via visuals or digital sources. "Reading and writing skills have probably formed the dominant experiences of our education [whilst] visual expression or analysis may be something that has received less attention" but we have a duty to teach them. The world is increasingly digital and we cannot escape that; as is acknowledged by educators gloablly, we have a responsibility to address the current needs of our learners as well a those we cannot even yet comprehed  and must teach "an alternative sets of skills to meaningfully engage in visual work" for their future success.

My final product, can be seen HERE.