What benefits and limitations are involved in using digital media to facilitate learning and engagement?


As I mulled over this, a bizarre question popped into my mind:

Cane toads, famously introduced to Australia as a pest control measure, became a noxious nuisance. Have well-meaning educators produced new digital vermin?
Image generated in Canva by Louise Mathieson.

A peculiar metaphor, yet a valid question. Has technology in education caused as many limitations as benefits? Is it actually solving problems? My research had covered various perspectives, and in a moment of inspiration I threw the question out on Facebook (I know many teachers. Some even responded!)

Is it the best thing ever? or a pesky distraction? While I netted several opinions, general consensus was largely aligned with the research I had explored: digital media is neither a silver bullet to fix teaching (Hattie 2015:30-31) or a trendy gimmick requiring heavy policing by suspicious administrators (Selwyn et al. 2018:45-49). One friend summarised it neatly – it’s a tool that needs to be appropriately utilised. Furthermore, he observed, it often reflects, not transforms, existing pedagogical styles, biases, strengths and weaknesses:

Discussion with Derek Hughes on author’s post 29 January 2022. Image from author’s Facebook profile, comments used by permission.

This was further confirmed in a US study by Davis, Ambrose and Orand, who found digitalised education generally mirrors existing institutional constructs that shape learning, constrained by “doing school’ models (2017:44). Similar reflections were made by Selwyn et al. in observing Australian high schools (2018:79-81).

A penchant for magic wands seems a perennial problem for educational technology, each discovery hailed in turn as the next classroom saviour – something McEntarffer views with caution (2021). Perhaps Hattie’s advice holds as true for effective digital pedagogy as for balanced learning styles:

The solution is less about twenty-first-century or inquiry learning and more about knowing when to think surface and when to think deep.

(2015:16; my emphasis)

Clearly, intentional thought is key. It is unsurprising that digitalised education simply illustrates this in yet another context.

Nowhere has this been more clearly highlighted than during the global pandemic. Schools and teachers already proactive in digital media were better placed to swiftly adapt and continue meaningful learning delivery (Bond et al. 2021:30, 41). Conversely, many less well versed either panicked, scrambled or generally made the best of apps to hand (Selwyn 2020).

The collective shift to online learning impacted all subject areas, but as a musician, I was intrigued by how teachers intentionally engaged students in practical musicianship. Surely they couldn’t all just jump on Zoom and hope for the best? This dilemma applied to both classroom and extracurricular learning, where connection and bandwidth issues posed greater disruption than for non-performative subjects. An additional factor was family proximity: it’s rather less confronting to quietly answer maths questions with siblings next door, than to belt out a tune in full voice. Married to a singing teacher working from home, I experienced this first hand:

‘His experience’ as related by Shelden Mathieson (used by permission). Image generated in Canva by Louise Mathieson.
‘Her experience’. Video by Louise Mathieson, with vocals by Shelden Mathieson (used by permission). From author’s Twitter feed 3 February 2022.

One advantage of extracurricular music online is smaller, or individual lessons. But what might a classroom music teacher do with up to two dozen pupils? This video unpacks that question with a music teacher friend.

The L Word: & other online teaching sagas
Video by Louse Mathieson.

Kylie’s experiences share important features observed in other educators’ successful online work: access to well established learning management systems; informed practise and technical support; thoughtful adaptation of existing materials; and continued use of already efficient digital media (Bond et al. 2021:12-13, 30-31, 40).

Another key to effective music education examined by Leon R. de Bruin (2021) is meaningful, personal connection with students. Besides fostering encouragement, this helps promote student agency and deeper engagement with learning. Bruin notes that mutual respect, collaborative problem-solving , shared control of platforms, and increased dialogic communication were key factors in successful digital engagement by music teachers (4-6). These were observed by both Kylie and Shelden as contributing to increasingly productive connections with students.

It is interesting that increased student agency, self-regulation and co-creation of digital learning was identified by Davis et al. (in a pre-pandemic study) as significant future priorities for schools (2017:41-44).  Could this be because while proactive as teacher strategies, they also encourage students to think differently? During the pandemic, students’ education needed to encompass not only class content, but also learning myriad digital platforms, tools and techniques – often in brand new contexts. Society often assumes that younger generations are automatic ‘digital natives’ – but this is a myth, according to Wilson and Falloon (2017: conclusion). Fundamental digital literacy is not the same thing as true digital fluency.  Perhaps this is because digital media is not only a tool, but a communication tool, acting much like a language.

I can read and write basic German, but I am not fluent –  for fluency requires dexterity in language use, by applying it in real world contexts. Similarly, during the pandemic, students’ and teachers’ digital dexterity has increased as they manipulated and deployed media in new ways. Yet, even dexterity is not enough. I was once told by my German teacher that to be fully fluent I needed to think in the language. Again, this has been a potential benefit from pandemic lessons, as broader approaches in thinking with and through multimodal media have been encouraged. Even more important is the increasingly urgent opportunity to think critically about digital media – to develop digital intelligence.

Wilson & Falloon describe this as

building ‘digital wisdom’, the ability to select accurate and balanced online information and use it productively to construct robust and well-informed perspectives and knowledge.

(2017, final para.)

Certainly, increased digital discernment is still in short supply across society and needs urgent attention. However, I would argue that digital wisdom/intelligence is not limited to evaluating information gathered through digital means. It also embodies creative and critical reflection about the nature, structures, and meaning of digital media.

There is one ‘bottom line’ generalisation that might be useful during discussions of online teaching: thinking matters. There are different ways to express this idea and Daniel Willingham’s summary is one of my favourites: ‘Memory is the residue of thought.’  (…) Teachers should set up learning situations that increase the chances students will do the kinds of thinking in working memory that will help move information and skills into long term memory so it can be recalled when needed.

(McEntarffer 2020:para.2-3)

Both before and during the pandemic, too many learners – and teachers – utilised digital media without proactive thought. The burning question now, as we reflect on recent years, is how we seize the opportunity to prioritise mindful engagement at every stage of digital learning. Otherwise, as educators continue to plug and play, come what may, we risk perpetuating the present muddle of pseudo-benefits and reactive limitations. We may increase proficiency in digital literacy, and even improve our digital dexterity. Yet the major benefit of educating – and becoming – true digital natives is a deep well of informed memory from which to continue thinking –  the result of consistently practised digital intelligence.


References:

Bond M, Bergdahl N, Mendizabal-Espinosa R, Kneale D, Bolan F, Hull P, and Ramadani F (2021) Global emergency remote education in secondary schools during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review, EPPI Centre, UCL Social Research Institute, University College London, London

Davis K, Ambrose A and Orand M (2017) ‘Identity and agency in school and afterschool settings: Investigating digital media’s supporting role’, Digital Culture & Education, 9 (1): 31-47

de Bruin LR (2021) ‘Instrumental Music Educators in a COVID Landscape: A Reassertion of Relationality and Connection in Teaching Practice’, Front. Psychol. 11:624717. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.624717

Hattie J (2015) What Doesn’t Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction, Pearson, London

McEntarffer R (20 May 2020) Digital or analog, remote or in-person: thinking matters’, npj Science of Learning, accessed 26 January 2022

— (15 December 2021) ‘Educational Technology: there is no map’, npj Science of Learning, accessed 26 January 2022

Selwyn N, Nemorin S, Bulfin S and Johnson NF (2018) Everyday Schooling in the Digital Age: High School, High Tech?, Routledge, London and New York

Selwyn N (6 October 2020)  ‘How creative use of technology may have helped save schooling during the pandemic’, The Conversation , accessed 30 January 2022

Wilson K and Falloon G (17 October 2017), ‘Three strategies to help students navigate dodgy online content’, The Conversation, accessed 26 January 2022


Special thanks:

Derek Hughes
Kylie Moore
Shelden Mathieson
and many other superb teachers continuing to deliver quality education in the face of ongoing challenges, digital and analogue. You are my inspiration!

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