The dangers of segregating the digital sphere

I have begun to think it is dangerous to consider the digital, the online, the technological, as separate from the whole.

Partly this thought is a result of attending Martin Weller’s presentation this morning for the Change MOOC, where he presented a wonderful discussion of Digital Scholarship. But my question was whether the attention given to digital scholarship as its own issue doesn’t undermine the effort to have it become mainstream.

This goes beyond the “no significant difference” argument that comes up periodically for online teaching, although for me it started there. At our college, online teaching came about as a “modality” or “mode of delivery”, because it was 1998 and we were trying to offer it as an option for students. We taught ourselves how to teach online, all before learning management systems, best practices, or student learning outcomes. And most of us involved said it was just teaching, doing what we do but adapting it for a different “classroom”. I’m not sure I ever saw the difference between “online education” and “education”, or my “online U.S. history class” and my “U.S. history class”.

It’s not that I don’t acknowledge differences between the relationships, work tasks, and communication we engage in online and those we engage in face-to-face. But I also acknowledge differences between relationships, work tasks, and communication in various face-to-face settings, and it has always been that way. If we say “online community” instead of just “community”, we imply a separate reality that may or may not be the case. Rick Schwier’s presentation in Alec Couros’ EC&I831 last night noted that there are many ways that communities form in online environments, and of course there are many ways that communities form in-person also. Schwier noted that some of us use multiple online personalities, reflecting the in-person reality that you don’t talk the same way to your priest as you do to your coach as you do to your mom as you do to your college president.

A class is a class to me, whether it’s taught under a tree, or in a circle, or over the internet, or by hand-written snail mail.

I’m going to argue for completely ignoring the fact that things are “digital” or “online”. In terms of scholarship (it’s own heavily-laden word), continuing to fight for the acceptance of “digital scholarship” perpetuates the idea that it is somehow different from “regular scholarship”, that is is not as real. We shouldn’t focus only on the vetting of articles, the false scarcity of  information and the tyranny of for-profit journals, but on behaving as if it’s just scholarship. The same standards (peer review, for example) should apply if  you’re going to say it’s real, or scientific, or important, but whether it’s online for free or in a bound pay-walled journal  is irrelevant in terms of its value. It’s either good research and useful to me, or it’s crappy research regardless of format.

This is why I am against the idea of having a “dean of online”, a “coordinator of online education”, or anything else that segregates the digital aspects of education into their own sphere. If we do that, we continue to emphasize its differences. While this may be an advantage up to a point (getting funding for online projects, justifying masters programs in educational technology, paying government employees to create standards and rules for accessibility), it also provides ammunition for those who are resistant to technology and resistant to change. It packages the “technology-enhanced” and the “online” and the “distance ed” into something that is easier to dismiss and de-fund. Such packaging can also discourage innovation by making “online education” a specialization beyond the understanding of ordinary faculty, something that requires strict management by administrators. And that packaging can be literally packaged, by selling “online courses” created by “teams” at for-profit institutions, or “course cartridges” in Blackboard, available for those too controlled or too timid to create their own classes.

The distinction thus gets in the way of professional development, when good faculty feel they are entering a new and scary world instead of just extending something they already do skillfully — teach.

So I’m declaring myself against “digital scholarship”, “online community”, “distance education”, and anything else that applies a special adjective to something wonderful we do as humans but happen to do using a computer.

And no, that doesn’t mean my Facebook “friends” are my “real friends”.

13 comments to The dangers of segregating the digital sphere

  • james

    Digital Humanities?

  • Agreed. I’ve grown to dislike the constant differentiation between eLearning and non-eLearning. There are differences to consider in different mediums – audio, video, virtual (e.g. secondLife), etcetera – but the same goes for large class teaching, group work, tutorials, laboratories etcetera.

    The emphasis on the fact technology is involved creates perceptional boundaries that shouldn’t be there.

  • You make some really great points that I hadn’t thought about, especially about desegregating online from traditional scholarship. Yes, scholarship is scholarship regardless of where it’s shared.

    I can’t help but think, though, that digital technologies have changed (or should change) the way we do things; that is, teach and research/write. Many educators continue to use technology in teacher-centric ways. They see teaching with technology as a way to disseminate more information quickly and efficiently. For whatever reason they haven’t tapped into technology’s affordances of collaborative knowledge-building, etc.

    The segregation probably started with the “no significant difference” argument, but online learning can mean a higher form of learning that involves greater critical thinking, problem solving, etc than the more traditional methods of instruction. I think this is true as best practices are more easily shared and web 2.0 tools allow educators to engage in PD.

    • Well…the methods and technologies we use to share knowledge always change the way we do things (thinking the advent of writing, paper, printing, the teletype machine, the telephone). Useful technologies enhance and expand good practice, but they needn’t become so specialized that they overrun those uses. And the potential for higher forms of learning, greater critical thinking, doing things in a non-teacher-centric way, etc can be there f2f (or in other formats) as well. I confess I am no longer sure who’s defining “best practices”, but it can be done in any environment, I think.

      • I agree, some of these learning theories that are now being touted in elearning circles, like constructivism, was around before computers in ed! I like what you say, “Useful technologies enhance and expand good practice….” That’s supposing that good practices existed prior to computers with a particular teacher, and that, unfortunately, isn’t always the case.

  • Eric r

    Awesome as always. Love the insights.

  • RoseQ (@RoseQ)


    To add to the discussion – and to pick up on a discussion Lisa and I had offline from this space – I presented a paper on Tuesday on exactly the issue of creating divides and dichotomies that may ultimately not be useful and often are not productive- in fact, may be downright alienating! Not only is the topic relevant but also the fact that I used (with permission:) ) the Beginner’s Questionnaire as a “take-away” for attendees. I did modify it to exclude the scales (as I didn’t intend to engage how they could be interpreted) and added more details/ links to both the overall programme/ certification and this particular instantiation of it. Thought you’d all enjoy being a little famous by association 🙂

    My point being that we can both demonise and celebrate specific forms (modes/ pedagogies etc) of teaching & learning and we can also create divides between teachers (lecturers) and technology – but to what end? I particularly support engagements which focus on abundance thinking rather than scarcity/ deficit and likewise which seek common ground rather than differences. I’ve uploaded the ppt slides, includes abstract to slideshare if you’d like to take a look.
    Quilling 91 utlo2011


    • Great slides – I like the “dangers of dichotomy” and the idea of teachers reclaiming their space. There is fear on a number of levels, but the focus should be on what we can do. And it’s nice to see the questionnaire adapted and used. 🙂

  • I agree theoretically, but I do wonder if taking a hard stance (“there is no difference”) from the onset will create more problems. Working as one of the online learning coordinators that shouldn’t exist (and that’s actually one point I agree with more strongly ;)), I think the major issue for online/digital/etc. education is that the separation already exists. It exists because non-online educators (i.e. most educators and most often those in power) think that online education is something fundamentally different and, usually, something fundamentally inferior, regardless of the evidence to the contrary.

    Ditching the separation from the start is, I think, a recipe for reinforcing the separation. We have to recognize the established separation in order to work to tear it down. I know that I’m spending a large part of my time as a coordinator arguing precisely against this descriptive/evaluative split between “real” education and online education. But I couldn’t do that if I rejected the dichotomy out of the gate. It’s an unfortunate truth that we have to use problematic categories in order to tear down those categories. Ignoring those categories actually helps those categories continue on.

    So, yes, let’s aim for destroying the perceived split, but let’s do it by recognizing the existence of that split and targeting its problems. I think this is a good start–pointing out the problem with the split–but the solution–ignoring the distinctions in place–is probably going to contribute, not prevent the segregation of educations. It’s an unfortunate reality that online education is starting from a disadvantage position.

    • I get it, Brandon, I really do, and this is basically the position I’ve taken for many years. I’ve chaired committees and helped with the “online aspect” of everything, but I’m seeing the split worsen. One reason is that people who think they know “education” but don’t know “online” are lazy and want to delegate the “online” stuff to someone else instead of developing a larger view of what “education” is. For this and other reasons, it’s getting more and more granular and less inclusive. I’ve gone along for years with hiring specialists, and considering online issues separately, while trying to convince Senate presidents and other faculty that it’s all just education, that the curricular committee needs to understand how online fits in, and that each committee on campus should have someone who gets online education issues, rather than creating separate DE committees or ignoring the issue entirely (the result of our most recent organization was no faculty input into technology at all for several years) . I’m not so much ignoring the distinctions in place as insisting we must wrap them into much larger concepts and deal with them internally, because the division is increasing the disadvantageous position online learning has in the larger sphere.

      • Makes perfect sense. In fact, that delegating is why I have the job I do. Good for me. Bad in general. I would much prefer that things had continued under the original plan, which was a mixed faculty/student committee putting together solutions and resources, but the faculty just weren’t willing to see online education as anything but lesser. An attempt to build up the online program began to look like an attempt to cut it down to almost nothing. And so began my advocacy.

        The question becomes how do we frame the issue in these terms? How do we push to get online added as just one part of a committee, for instance?

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