The Digital Divide – Two Sides – One Digital Dilemma

Digital free learning, novel idea isn’t it? This topic has been cropping up in the staff room quite frequently the past few months and it isn’t just your garden variety bellyaching you use to hear about kids and cellphones in class. It is what can only be described as collective concern about what seems to be happening to the traditional processes by which students have been learning for generations. There is an unsettling feeling that with the digitization of our learning environments, we are throwing the baby out with the bath water and what is more, many teachers are feeling a bit over run by the Digital Hoard.

This is not to say that teachers feel that everything digital is bad, just that there is a huge risk in embracing a medium which we know very little about when it comes to learning and cognition. There is a genuine concern that a wholesale digitization of the classroom, will destroy the very learning environments that have brought us to this point in our human evolution.

As I was perusing the literature for some supporting evidence for the notion of academic subversion by digitization, I stumbled upon a collection of essays in a book called The Digital Divide. Each of the essays looks at the effects of the digital revolution on our world and the changes it has made to the social and intellectual fabric of our society. All of these essays marvel at the changes driven by the digitization of our world but many of them also have concerns about how this will play out in the long term. When I finished the book, I came back to one essay Learning to think in a digital world by Maryanne Wolf where she concluded with a quote from Technological visionary Edward Tennent . It would be a shame if the very intellect that produced the digital revolution could be destroyed by it.”

This one quote brought me right back to the discussions around the staff room lunch table. Are we unwittingly dismantling the very thing that got us here? Many teachers feel that students are quickly losing critical cognitive skills because of their ever growing digital dependence and it is hard to find a teacher who will disagree. Common laments include:

  • Inability deduce or infer meaning from a text.
  • Inability to draw relationships between like or unlike things
  • Lack of original thought (pulling something out of nothing)
  • little or no patience for working things out without digital assistance.
  • Taking things at face value or believing that there is a single web searchable answer

I even encounter some of these with my own children. Although my wife and I have gone to great lengths to restricted their access to the NET for entertainment or academic purposes, they have been conditioned to defer to a search engine whenever they can’t figure anything out under their own brain power. I can only assume this comes from school because at home, we do our best to be inhumane and make them turn pages of books and actually think about the questions they are working on. There is very little “Let’s just Google it!” In our household.

What this suggests to me is that some valuable thinking skills which once were part and parcel of our education system have already been lost to the great search engine in the sky.

So what do we do?

Well… like it or not, the digital horse is out of the barn and we are not going to get it back in anytime soon. As a über digi-geek myself, I certainly don’t want to go back but I recognize that there is a need for some serious thought about the how and when we should be exposing kids to digital media and the devices that deliver it.

In the same Maryanne Wolf essay mentioned above, she opens her concluding paragraph with “Children need to have both time to think and the motivation to think for themselvs, to develop and expert reading brain before the digital mode dominates their reading.” Sven Birkerts referred to this as Deep Reading. It is the kind of reading where the individual is able to to infer meaning from a text, or extend their thinking beyond what is literary expressed in that text. We know that having this type of reading and thinking skill is crucial to ones academic success, yet there is mounting evidence that digital delivery derails it.

We are faced with a growing academic conundrum. On one hand, maybe old school learning and thinking is simply passé and we need to just let go of the old and move on with the new. On the other, if we acquiesce and let the tried and true become consumed by digitization, we may lose more then anyone can possibly imagine. Even I, a über digi-geek, think it prudent to preserve at least some vestige of what got us here but where do we start.

Currently it would seem the approach that is being taken is like that of the small river side community during spring run off. The digital river just keeps on coming and the towns people are sand bagging like crazy trying to hold back the rising waters. The problem is that the flow of digital media will not stop and so we need to find a way to save the most important structures in our little river side education community. Time for resistance is long past, coexistence is what we need to be working toward.

Were it up to me, I would start with five common sense things, which would act as a foundation on which coexistence could be built. Some of it is under way but none of it seems to be part of any “real” plan.

  1. We need to get both the pro digital and the anti digital sides to agree that there is value in both the new and the old.
  2. We need to identify what we cannot afford to loose from old school education and ensure it is a part of a quality new age education.
  3. We need to take a serious look at the effects of digital media on the immature brain and establish guidelines for age appropriate access to digital delivery.
  4. Lets start building a school culture that recognizes that digital tools are not always necessary or beneficial to learning certain things.
  5. Lets make sure there are digital free spaces, where the brain is the only advanced electronic in the room.

Lets be clear, I LOVE digital technology. I am even one of those rotten people who are cramming it down other educators throats whether they want me to or not. I recognize however, that we cannot allow the digitization of our schools to wipe out the education system we are all a product of. As a parent, I don’t want my children to be digitally dependent and I sincerely think there is far too much to be lost if we were to allow this to happen. We need to start bridging the digital divide and working to create an education system that values where we came from and where we are going. This can only be accomplished if we are working together.

The first step is to accept that the digital age is here but we also need to recognize that it would have never arrived where it not for good old fashioned schooling.


  1. Steve Polson

    Well I read your post and although I can see your point, I am not sure anyone will hear the lament.

    In that same Essay by Maryanne Wolf, she mentions how Socrates didn’t think it necessary for the young to become literate. Imagine where we would be if we had listened to him and literacy withered on the vine.

    We are at a point of transition. Like it or not we will all be digitally dependent.

  2. Roger

    “It would be a shame if the very intellect that produced the digital revolution could be destroyed by it.” – That can be said of any technology.

    If you’re smart enough to design an atomic bomb, you are probably smart enough to know its dangers. The problem is that kind of power gets transferred to the simple-minded. For years, the power of the Internet was in the hands of those who invented it, intelligent academics. Now it’s in the hands of politicians, and commercial and corporate interests. That’s dangerous.

    Pedagogy is best left to educators and not politicians but we know that is not the case.

  3. Post

    Thanks for your comments.

    First Steve, True Socrates said that literacy was bad and should not be something that the citizenship should pursue BUT the process of creating a literate population took generations, therefore controlling its effects and how it was done was much more manageable. The change being driven by digital technology is happening before our eyes and seems to be driven only by a “Oh wow that is so cool, I gotta have it!” mentality. There is no control of the medium.

    Roger, I agree with you that pedagogy should be left to educators but now education is big business and therefore the politicians have their grubby meat hooks in the mix because as we know Government doesn’t control business, business controls government. Much of the tech craze movement in education is market driven. Pedagogy has little to do with it.

  4. Andrew Campbell

    I disagree with the way you’ve represented traditional education and a digital curriculum. The shift we’re experiencing is less about what is taught and more about who controls it. Traditional education put the educators at the centre. They were the ones who knew everything, the experts, and students had to learn from them. The easy access to information makes everyone (or no one) an expert, so the digital curriculum puts much greater control in the hands of students. Now students can turn to anyone for answers and can find competing ideas for any an educator may offer. Educators are no longer at the centre, students are, and the role of educators is to guide and facilitate the growth of those very skills you’ve identified. Educators who bemoan the loss of traditional education often fear the loss of control over what is being taught. They struggle to accept that they are no longer essential to the process and feel that there’s a loss of rigour and a lowering of standards. This isn’t true, it’s just that they are no longer the sole arbiters of learning and the nature of knowledge, the product of learning, is much more plastic and malleable than in the past. The digital curriculum requires the use of the skills you listed much more than traditional education and educators who aren’t developing them aren’t unique to new methods. Drill & kill has been around for a very long time and it doesn’t involve any of those skills.

    1. Post

      Thanks for you comment Andrew but I would have to disagree with your point about loss of control, at least as it pertains to me. I would love nothing more if kids took more responsibility for their learning. The irony is our policy makers want teachers to take on more responsibility for learning all the while insisting we teach kids to be more independent learners.

      With that said, I have to agree that there is certainly an element of fear around “loss of control” but this post was more about the unintended consequences of digital delivery. I firmly believe that unplanned and unregulated use of digital delivery will result in kids losing critical cognitive skills. More and more evidence is mounting that supports this. The question now is, at what point do we take the time to stand back and evaluate the cognitive effects of digital delivery.

      Thanks again.

      1. Andrew Campbell

        So your belief is that this isn’t about pedagogy or even content but the mode of delivery? That if a student is reading “12th Night” on their iPad that their cognitive skills will be eroded, but if they read it from paper they won’t? That doesn’t make any sense.

        Learning is enhanced if it is guided and facilitated by a skilled and committed educator. Students whose teacher hands out copies of an anthology and tells the kids to read four chapters and do the questions isn’t developing cognitive skills any more than the teacher who hands out the iPads.

        The pedagogy is what’s important, not the delivery system, and it’s the shift in pedagogy that has people uncomfortable. It happens to be coincidental with the technology, because the technology supports the shift.

        Many teachers are used to being the smartest person in the room and don’t like it when they realize they aren’t any longer.

        1. Post

          The problem is not using the tablet as a digital textbook (which have issues in and of itself, as reading has been found to be 6% – 10% slower on a digital device)

          The issue arises when we start to ask higher level questions about the text being read.

          Say you ask your class, why are disguises important to the plot of twelfth night?

          Back in the day, kids may not have any clue what the hell you were talking about and more than likely they didn’t care but perhaps if you were a master teacher and pressed them, they might actually give some thought to the questions and come up with something that would pass as an answer.

          In this instance it isn’t the answer that matters it is the act of thinking about it sans assistance that matters. Firing up the neurons a little and perhaps creating some new neural pathways that were not there before.

          Now you ask a class filled with digital devices the same question and there is little thought going on beyond the effort it takes to key in the question why are disguises important to the plot of twelfth night? into a search engine.

          I won’t deny that there are exceptions to the rule in a digital world, I see them every day but the general school population cannot see the benefit of thinking unassisted.

          Handing digital devices out all willy nilly, without consideration to what it does to the thinking skills of the general school population is not very… thoughtful. Remember, even the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray and in my opinion, most education systems in North America, don’t have much of a plan in place at all.

          On a final note, in response to your smartest person in the room comment. Even when I am the only person in the room, I am still not the smartest person in the room.

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