Posted by: Rob | March 23, 2009

The fallacy of “digital learning”

Fellow blogger Marsha posted the following video on her blog, along with a few statements of frustration about today’s education system.  What caught my attention were statements about how what worked in the past doesn’t work anymore and that going “back to basics” is not an option because the basics have changed dramatically.

I watched the video.  It’s only four minutes long so I recommend you do as well before reading further.

Now, I saw a youtube video a while ago (or maybe it was an .mpg forwarded to me via e-mail, I don’t remember which) that told a similar story about the “digital future”.  I’m thinking it was the basis for the above work.

In my opinion, if our ideas about “the basics” are ready for the scrap heap, then humanity is the worse for it.

I think many people are mistaken in their notion of the role that digital electronics should have in our lives and, more importantly, in the lives of children (or learners, if you will). The simple fact is that digital devices are tools. Nothing more. Simply tools that allow the accomplishing of some tasks.  Some tasks can now be completed at speeds incredibly faster than was ever dreamed possible in the pre-digital age.

But, for some reason – perhaps blame the marketers – in the minds of many, the tools have become the objective. The goal.  It has become all about the tools.  And I don’t buy that.  I think it’s a big mistake.

Depending on what one wishes to do and, more importantly, how good one is at it, then yes, there are jobs, occupations, or evencareers to be had creating the applications that will enable others to use these tools. There will even be those (few) who can make a living creating artistic content (eg. writing or music) for the digital tools.

But for the vast majority, this will never be the case. Some are not intelligent enough.  Some are not ambitious enough.  And some are neither intelligent nor ambitious.  Regardless of the euphoric visions that espouse “many of the jobs of the future do not yet exist”, there will always be jobs open that require the worker to perform manual labour, to use tools of the metal trades, woodworking tools, even pick-axes and shovels.

For them, the digital tools will be sources of entertainment only. And, sadly, much of that entertainment is somewhat addictive. And using digital tools for entertainment is in direct contradiction of the message boards some of the kids in the video were holding up: “Teach me to think.”

Granted, accessing web content is much much easier than searching through some dusty old encyclopediae, but how, exactly, does accessing the web “teach” a young neophyte how to tell, pardon the expression, “shit from shine-ola”? For there is much on the web that is opinion, is biased, or is flat out wrong.

As a technical person, the advent of computer applications frankly scares the crap out of me. I have seen many, many young, fresh new engineers enter the work force, having been educated digitally, know very little about the science behind what is they are designing, improving, building. They have no idea what an operating process plant “feels” like, how it reacts to changes.  To them, the plant is a graphic on a screen that reacts predictably to changes based on the equations that are modelling it.  When you’ve been trained to simply put data into an application and take the output and use it, how will you ever be able to judge if the output is valid or reasonable or realistic?

Garbage in = garbage out.

One last thing about the video, it seemed to me that the expressions on most of the kids’ face were pretty sober, if not sullen. I wonder if that was deliberate.

In my opinion, the consumer driven world has provided too many entertaining and distracting devices for conventional education systems to contend with. Add to that the other factors of stressful modern day living and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

If we truly want to change things, we have to recognize that all humans are not equal.  There are some who have the capabilities to be thinkers, leaders, visionaries, just as there are others who do not.  The latter are still valuable to our society though.  We just need to be more open to – and less afraid to – segregating school kids into curriculum streams that are commensurate with their abilities, talents, skills and interests.

We need to stop perpetuating the idea that “you can be anything you want to be, if you just work hard”, because it’s just not true.


  1. Unfortunately, I agree with your last statement. We often sell kids short by telling them they can be anything, when in fact they can only be–what they decide to make of themselves. HOWEVER, digital technology is here to STAY so educators better darn well figure out how it fits into the “standards” and NCLB–and go with it….Otherwise, we are stuck——

  2. Amen to that. Especially the last bit. Learning is not fun in my experience, it’s bloody hard work, especially if you plan on doing something with the knowledge, other than passing some exam and instantly forgetting what you’ve supposed to have learnt [as I did through varsity. We crammed for the exams, and that was about it].

  3. PS I wizened up in later years 🙂

  4. You are so right. Architects may draw up plans with CAD software, but The Boyo says half the time it’s wrong, or they’ve forgotten to put something in, like bathrooms. Or they specify some material that won’t work in that application.

    As a nurse, I found that every body is different. Every body reacts differently to drugs, etc. All the computer modeling in the world won’t get it right every time.

    A good example of this is weather forecasting. Although the weather is much more predictable than when we were young, it still occasionally blows up something unexpected. Like the tail end of the hurricane that affected the US midwest last year, causing huge wind storms. Or the “weak” front we had last week that brought torrential rain. It was “weak” only in that it was narrow, it blew over in about an hour.

    It may be easier to let learners use digital applications to learn reading, writing and math. But one of the great mistakes I see in modern education is the elimination of shop courses, and home ec, and secretarial courses. Hey, we are always going to need laborers, and nursing assistants, and carpenters. Digital education won’t help them in their jobs. And some learn better by doing. So let’s serve everybody, not just the geeks like me.

  5. I don’t know if you have read “Brain Rules”, but I recommend it. Your last statement is the first in this book. Unfortunately–I think as educators we are talking about “engagement” (through technology) and we are far behind–missing the mark horribly. I agree that along with the engagement should come the responsibility for understanding, but I would love to get to the “engagement” level–unfortunately that means teacher would have to arise from their comfort zone and become the life-long learner they should model anyway.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. I see it’s a very new book. I’ll have to lobby my library to get a copy.

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