Why we, the Digerati, need to join the fight of the younger generation for the future: A Manifesto

“This world demands the qualities of youth, not a time of life, but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination. (…) Everywhere new technology and communications bring men and nations closer together, the concerns of one inevitably becoming the concerns of all. (…) Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. It is the one essential, vital quality, for those who seek to change this world which yields most painfully to change..” Robert F. Kennedy “Day of Affirmation” Speech: June 6th, 1966

Introduction

We do owe a great deal to Greta Ernman Thunberg, the stern-looking Swedish girl and climate activist who started the ‚Fridays for Climate‘ school strike, that has turned into an international movement. Paradoxically, her condition, Asperger syndrome, has helped to bring her message across the media rather efficiently as she doesn’t quiver, doesn‘t run off topic and doesn’t get derailed by adults who, to no surprise, rather laugh her off and claim to know better. After all, who wants to be lectured by a 16-year old on the seriousness of climate change? Greta Thunberg’s message is simple. In her own words: “We’re facing an immediate unprecedented crisis that has never been treated as a crisis and our leaders are all acting like children. We need to wake up and change everything”. She is putting the finger on the wound and the information that we already know – that we are currently destroying the ecosphere of our planet that we are living on. Furthermore, as part of this process, it is small groups that live excessively at the expense of others when it comes to a shared carbon footprint. Climate change only occasionally becomes Headline News as soon as people experience extreme weather conditions. As a piece of information, climate change tends to stay hidden in scientific reports that have become the background noise of the industrial age: We all know about the severity of the situation but we collectively do very little – it is the tragedy of the commons. Our paralysis and the slow political reaction to a continuously progressing, but certain threat is contributable to the fact that behavioural change for the individual is hard, if not impossible living in a consumerist society, as we have created complex collective systems that resist change, be it our dependence on fossil fuels, plastics or living at the expense of poorer countries to maintain our way of living. To make things worse, climate change deniers, oil and car lobbyists as well as many conservatives politicians obstruct environmental, green thinking at every step of the way. The psychological consequences for the younger generation are dire. Unlike the baby boomer generation, to which the author belongs and who still dreamt of social and political progress for all, utopia is off the menu for the younger generation. The best the younger generation can hope for is damage control, such as to limit the global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius. In the worst case scenario of a runaway greenhouse effect, all bets are off. In this case, our planet would render near inhabitable and turn into a hellish place to live on, possibly for hundreds of years. There would not be much quality of life left, not to talk about the social and political extremism that climate change inevitably brings. Climate Change, so the first hypothesis is a meta-problem in a sense that it takes precedence over local problems and without solving it, human life as we know it is in serious peril. The current mass extinction of species, arguably, is an equally severe challenge that threatens the survival of our civilization as we know it. Greta Thunberg’s call is a simple, necessary and powerful one, but solutions are far from simple. The problem is not only CO2 emissions per se but the systems, lifestyles, mindsets, deeply-rooted habits, cultural attitudes, entire industries and behaviours that are based on living beyond our means. The conundrum renders similar to the question ‘Why is the sky blue?’ – the question is simple but solutions are rather complex. Thunberg’s call, so the second hypothesis, should not deflect from the complexity of planetary endangerment. This where digital education within the process of globalization plays a key role in saving our planet and our societies from catastrophic deterioration. This is the third hypothesis. The responsibility of educators is the central topic of this Manifesto. We cannot act as rational agents, in a Kantian manner, and be free to set autonomous rules if the historical-material conditions (Hegel here), in our case severe environmental degradation,  prevent us from acting in this role. The moment we converge to instrumental-strategic reasoning of mere survival, we lose the freedom to create divergent scenarios of desirable futures.

Articles

§1: Open digital infrastructure and equal access to digital media education for everyone

The digital divide, unequal access to digital media, amplifies the bifurcation of the job market in low-skilled and highly-skilled jobs, in the process eroding the middle-classes of Western democracies. Equal access to digital media education is, therefore, a mandatory prerequisite to enable young people not to end up in a new precariat of lowly-skilled labor but to govern their lives via higher qualified, digitally-empowered work. Digital access means that pupils and students should have sufficient media access at school as well as at home.

§2: Develop personalization and collaboration in digital education

As student populations diversify and present themselves more heterogeneously, adaptive and personalized learning paths become increasingly important for them. As problems of our world gain complexity and require taking multi-disciplinary approaches, the ability to work in teams becomes a necessary condition to foster economic progress, to create sustainable environments and to advance local, regional and global culture. There will not be any remission of greenhouse gases without strong, self-directed learners who can work professionally in highly diversified teams. Since personalisation is based on human autonomy and acquisition of competencies and teamwork is based on positive social relations, it is the democratic foundation of education that requires redefinition within the digital domain. Technology should support personal development as much as it ought to develop communities. Prosperity within digital economies needs to be regarded and treated as a shared good that supports the individual as much as it supports society. Standardised tests and the assumption of homogeneity of learner populations are a thing of the past. We develop human beings, not products.

§3: Emancipation, Diversification and Critical Thinking

§3a.) Strengthen human autonomy: Digital technology by itself implies no value system. How people connect and mutually interact, to which degree and means rely entirely on social norms set by people, not machines. Algorithms involved in making decisions for people need to be transparent and fair. Human actors are responsible for the code they create and they are liable for potential errors and flaws, just as for any other product. Human actors work with AI, algorithms and data analytics. They should never be abused as instrumentalized (consumer) slaves under them, knowingly or unknowingly. Critical discourse required institutionalization by all organisations who employ machine learning and data analytics. §3b.) Creating diversity: Managing one’s digital life requires autonomy, which is defined by the autonomous management of personal data, the ability to influence policies and regulations of digital platforms and to democratically co-create the frameworks at hand. Monopolies tend to facilitate the exact opposite – the gap between social actors, users and creators widen to a point of zero participation. How many Facebooks are out there, how many Googles and Amazons? Diversity requires the breaking up of monopolies, an influential Civic Society and the active participation of social actors. Active participation, however, is learnt by one’s socialisation, hence the importance of a digital-democratic approach to modern education. §3c.) Emancipation and its boundary conditions: Protecting society from online crime, extremism and radicalisation: Social networks have done little to nothing to curb group-based digital crime and aggression. To the contrary, interference in national elections and referendums has become the norm, rather than the exception. Lifelong learning comes to a halt once groups radicalize to the point of hatred that forces people to permanently taking a defensive stand, rather than to work on solving problems at hand or to work collaboratively on shared common goals. Educating young people about the pitfalls of online extremism and radicalisation is therefore of utmost importance. There is no saving the planet in divided societies that are busy fighting each rather than collaborating in shared social spaces. However, there is a humbling and restaining side to efforts of emancipation that sets boundary conditions, which is to critically evaluate our limitations of perspective, the knowledge of things that we have not yet created and to take responsibility for all practical outcomes, good and bad. Fridays for Future Protest in Stuttgart, Germany, 2019, Photograph with kind permission: Steinhauser

§4: Connect and take personal responsibility

Connect and take personal responsibility Taking personal responsibility is not a desirable skill in current media environments. Politicians tend to blame others, rather than themselves. PR and controlling media narratives are more important than self-critically validating arguments. Emotion counts more than reason. To ‘win’ a media fight is seen as more beneficial than talking to opponents, uniting people or applying scientific rigor to form one’s perspective. Yet, the ability to exercise personal responsibility (formerly known as personal integrity) offers the only motivation to learn from mistakes. It is also the only means to step out into the open as rational agents, to avoid group-think and enjoy the investigation into the complexity of this world. However, such socialization is only possible in a learner-centered, constructivist pedagogy, this means that the pedagogical approach cannot be arbitrary. While our students learn to connect to society and the world-at-large, they need to learn to take personal responsibility for their judgments and decisions. Responsibility should be regarded as liberating, this means preventing ourselves to fall into the traps of emotionally highly charged but factually uninformed opinions or ideology. The ability to mediate conflicts rationally and to find good grounds for the development of social and professional life should, therefore, be part of digital education. Without an unbiased, open-minded and positively reaching-out mindset, there can hardly be any progress on the level of systems. As an educator in digital education and speaking from international teaching experience, these are the points I find most beneficial to all of us – independent of culture and taken from the point of view of a globalized citizen. This is the time to find at least a minimal consensus among educators all over the world.

§5: The value of remaining self-critical and resisting ideology

In order to solve problems on a planetary scale, we need to stay unbiased, free and autonomous in our judgments. We need to accommodate a plethora of diverging perspectives as solutions are rarely as clear-cut as they appear at first sight. We can never dismiss how experience and emancipation face boundary conditions of what we do not know (yet), and our limitations for rational social action, such as, e.g., imposed by limited human and financial resources or the limitations set by our subjective point of view. Ideology starts by dismissing the opinions of others as fundamentally false, rather than to criticize them on good grounds. Critique, in order to gain intersubjective validity and relevance, needs to be founded in evidence, science and reason, and should never counterproductively generalize opposing actors. What is required is a critical inner distance (and maturity) in regard to our own views and concepts, a quality found in many Asian philosophies. Our inner critical distance constitutes a key concept of pedagogy, a quality needed to address multidisciplinary problems: reasons and arguments can only be submitted successfully to discourse once we can assure social actors are capable of acknowledging the validity of the arguments of others. In this light, digital education and the creation of online communities plays a key role to advance cooperative problem-solving. For Greta Thunberg to dismiss politicians in general ‘acting like children’ is an overgeneralization. There are plenty of motivated and knowledgeable politicians around that take environmental concerns seriously. We could rephrase in a more differentiated manner that, indeed, many decision-makers have not yet grasped the seriousness of the situation. At the heart of the matter, there is an inherent conflict of interest between an older generation, that remains rather compliant, and a younger generation that has to live in the world handed to them. The value of remaining self-critical is to remain rational, to stay open to the perspectives and interests of others and the power of the better argument.

Conclusion and summary

§1 sets a democratic base level of inclusive practice, §2 deals with the required structure of education for complex problem-solving, §3 implies a vision for current and future society as a conceptual blueprint, not a utopia, §4 argues the mindset that we employ for ourselves, this is to hold ourselves accountable to reason as well as the consequences of our actions for fellow global citizens. §5 is a mandate to ourselves, our maturity in addressing the arguments of others and resisting emotional bias, group-think, falling into the trap of simple solutions to complex problems and ideology. As a thought experiment, we could take out any of those articles to prove how saving the planet would fail without it. Reinventing education in the digital age requires educators to create new learning environments based on corresponding social norms. With these arguments in mind, I suggest joining the younger generation in their fight to save our ecosphere. As they need our pedagogical experience and expertise, we are lucky to support their youthful enthusiasm and spirit in renewing our world.

How the Key-Challenge in Digital Education Is Not Primarily About Technology, but the Digital Scaffolding of Social Spaces and Self

Nao Picture Credit: Flickr/Stanford Center for Internet and Society, CC BY-NC-SA

Looking for a deeper understanding

The effect of digital media on learning is the pervasive power behind the current revolution in education. Ranging from Open Educational Resources (OER) to Blended Learning Models, media profoundly transform key topics of education. Subjects such as media literacy, media education, media pedagogy, the acquisition of digital competences, the digital divide, media socialization, and e-learning, among many others, dominate educational discourse worldwide. But can we find a deeper and more coherent philosophical understanding of the historical paradigm shift?

The digital-pedagogical imperative

Compared to traditional classrooms equipped with a chalkboard, printed geographical maps and textbooks, digital media allow for new ways of representation, interaction, knowledge-creation, and social situatedness. Teachers keep fading into the background as the sole source of information, and start assuming the role of information managers: it is not relevant what has been taught, what content got covered in class, but what has been learned and by whom. Digital media extend forms of expression, they encourage the active (re)production of knowledge and provide new ways of conceptualizing the Self and its positioning within the social world.

Soft-skills suddenly become more important than uninformed leadership as social networks provide support for personal growth and professional opportunities. Perhaps even more profoundly, digital culture challenges standardized assessments (the PISA studies as an example), which are still based on the assumption of homogenous learner populations, given a standard distribution. Although such assumptions of homogeneity may have been valid to some degree until the first half of the 20th century, educators today experience that this is not the case any more in diversifying pluralistic societies.

Still, few education providers realize how learning outcomes, learning methods as well as the roles of teachers and students become highly interconnected within the cultural paradigm shift. More complex learning outcomes, in particular in the field of personalized and collaborative learning (‚active learning‘), imply new roles of students and instructors. Student turn into junior researchers, lecturers turn into learning consultants and the school itself turns into a community of interconnected learners. Things couldn’t be more different from the past. Innovative methods of learning inevitably produce new types of desired outcomes, such as the development of soft-skills and context-independent problem-solving competencies, also known as transfer skills.

Once we realize the fundamental phenomenological, socio-cultural and economic shifts of the digital age, it becomes more apparent how media, as a merely technological construct, is of lesser interest to educators. The features of digital equipment are of superficial value. Of actual interest are the effects of media on learning processes, classroom interactions and the construction of learning environments, such as digital school development.  We may label this focus as the digital-pedagogical imperative. However, differently from traditional media such as books or blackboards, digital media require a minimum of technical skills and knowledge for their use. And prior to use, students require basic knowledge about the functionality of digital media inclusive of their social effects (such as e.g., decision-making processes via algorithms, machine learning affecting social actors or issues regarding data security). Hence, the call for digital competencies across the board of educational institutions.

Towards a social, rather than a technical perspective in media-supported education: The concept of hybrid space-time

For the field of education, the shift from a technology-centered towards a socially-centered perspective renders helpful for a number of reasons: Firstly, we keep the eyes on the prize, which is our educational mission and vision, regardless of technological trends. The question still remains how technology can serve achieving prime educational directives, such as the democratic development of society, to prepare school leavers adequately for a highly dynamic working environment and a journey of lifelong learning. Secondly, by taking a more social view, we are able to develop strategies to empower learners by structuring digital environments more systematically, determined by hybrid (socio-digital) space and time. The term shall be explained.

The central achievement of the network society, besides creating ‘spaces of flow’ (Castells, 1998) lies in connecting previously un- or barely related social spaces, to use Uri Bronfenbrenner Ecological Systems Theory, while widening our phenomenological consciousness technologically, to quote David Chalmer’s beautiful metaphor of the ‘Extended Mind’ (Chalmers, 1998). Chalmers promotes the idea that media, such as, e.g., smartphones, have already begun to function as an extension to our mind, allowing us to navigate and manage an increasingly complex world. Social perception, social connectedness, epistemology and mental spaces of actors have become increasingly interwoven with and by digital media.

The interconnectedness of digital spaces, however, requires the scaffolding of appropriate social norms and learning opportunities. There is little point of creating apps and platforms if people don’t use them effortlessly and productively in their lives. Each sphere of Bronfenbrenner’s Micro-, Meso-, Exo- and Macrosystems (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) calls for corresponding ‚digital scaffolding‘ in addition to face-to-face interactions. Analogous to Vygotsky’s concept of a Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD (Vygotsky, 1980), each of Bronfenbrenner’s systems should support social actors with ample opportunities for navigating, developing, transforming, amending and reforming them and allowing for the creation of new spaces if necessary. Some examples of digital social spaces are e.g., learning management systems (LMS) for schools and colleges, professional social online networks or layers of E-Government. The development is still in its infant stages.

Digital structures as a means of social interaction emerge superimposed onto Bronfenbrenner’s system descriptions, but may not be congruent in cases where networks cross traditional boundaries, be it to link professions, cultures or government agencies. Digital networks serve social actors to navigate and negotiate their multi-facetted biographical learning journeys across social spaces, closing the conceptual gap between biographical timelines and digitally enabled social spaces. In an ideal case, as we progress along our biographical timeline, we learn how to widen and deepen our social systems – a process that is increasingly facilitated via digital media. Scaffolds can be defined as assisting concepts that help us grow into new social systems.

Honoring the theorists mentioned before, we may call these new learning scaffolds Bronfenbrenner-Chalmers-Vygotsky (BCV) spaces: Virtual spaces transcend physical spaces by extending the perspectives of social actors. The purpose of these spaces is to widen their options for scientific investigation, social networking, negotiation and co-creation.

Problem-solving requires s higher level of complexity than the problem at hand. On a global scale, there are no more easy problems.

Beyond academic interests, the latter idea of responsible co-creation has severe economic consequences, in particular on a limited planetary scale where the ecological and social costs of production and consumption have reached their critical limits and cannot be outsourced, or passed on, anymore. The educational lesson states that solving global and regional problems, especially those created by single-minded interest groups, can only be addressed successfully by higher-qualified, multi-disciplinary  teams capable of managing the complexity of issues at hand.

The underlying hypothesis could be formulated as follows: Problem-solving strategies demand a higher level of cognitive and metacognitive complexity than the grounds (causes and reasons) that have created the problem in the first place. Understanding a problems implies reframing it within its boundary conditions. Following the argument of rational problem solving (and sharing the assumption that this is what we are aiming for), the digital scaffolding of BVC-spaces evolves as a key-competence for future problem-solving. This means that in order to solve high-complexity problems, social actors require the skill to create hybrid spaces to accommodate their research, management, modes of interaction and policy development.

BVC

Illustration above (by the author): Hybrid space-time as the new medium in which education evolves – autobiographical trajectories, dynamic networks across social spaces and phenomenologies merge into multidimensional constructs

To this extent, it appears more sensible to conceptualize digital media within such an integrated, multidimensional framework, rather than sticking with a relatively simplified viewpoint that focuses reductively on technology and its apparent performative advantages or disadvantages, (e.g., the TPACK model). Naive and counterproductive-conservative approaches, such as Hattie’s promotion of ‘what works in the classroom’ (Hattie, 2010), advocate the regression to lower-complexity teacher-centered models. Besides paying homage to a bygone era of instructionalism, such approaches are bound to fail culturally. Traditional teachers are currently dethroned as sole providers of authoritative content by digital natives who migrate into parallel learning universes consisting of YouTube Videos, social networks and improvised peer instruction. In order to bring teachers back more meaningfully into the classroom as learning guides and consultants, constructivist pedagogical approaches, based on the integration of digital media and an active learning paradigm (see Gagnon & Collay, 2006 for a practical introduction), appear to offer a  more future-oriented outlook.

As a practical example, we could look e.g., at interactive whiteboards as either a fancy instrument that cements teacher-centered instruction or as an opportunity to create reflected discourse in class; or we may look at highly immersive technology such as VR and raise pedagogical questions about the quality and sustainability of invoked learning processes. The answer to the justification and evaluation of technology lies in its application effects, but not technology per se. Technology is only as good as the purpose that it serves and the objectives that it achieves.

Beyond wishlists of digital competencies: Looking for the missing link to digital resource planning

Educational competency wishlists are easy to compile. What is still missing in research is the missing link between physical planning and the virtual construction of education. Multi-factorial and highly dynamic learning environments require a new language, a new syntax in order to plan, implement, validate, optimize, develop and predict the efficacy of Blended Learning Models (see Garrison & Vaughan, 2013; Picciano et al., 2014). One notoriously under-rated factor in this context is the limited human and financial resources of education providers versus the increasingly complex demands posed by the digitization of education. OER need not only be shared but created, modified to suit target groups, peer-reviewed and adapted to work smoothly within a plethora of Blended Learning Scenarios. The additional work for employing digital media requires substantial financial investment, staff and time: Staff needs to be trained and diversified in employing media-supported pedagogical strategies, more flexible financing procedures for procuring digital media need to be developed, parents need to be informed about best media literacy practices for their children, students need to adapt to take more responsibility for their learning – it is a long  list of resource-intense challenges.

Canvas Joana Kompa

Screenshots above (by the author): Learning Management Systems, like here in Canvas LMS, allow for the more productive connection between students and lecturers. They also allow for deeper, meta-cognitive insights into one’s own learning processes as well as creating a more learner-friendly, fluid academic environment.

In this light, collectively shared resources influence the quality and scope of digital education, in particular for serving heteronomous student populations and their demand for personalized learning. As the planning of shared resources cannot be conceptualized independently from pedagogical strategies anymore, their interconnectedness poses an entirely new challenge to social innovators.


The author is working as a scientific consultant for digital education at the Carl von Ossietzky Universität in Germany. She is one of the founders of the Medienfaktur and member of the workgroup ‚The Digital Competence Framework for Educators‘ (DigCompEdu) of the EU-Commission.

Literature

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Castells, M. (1998). The Information Age. Economy, Society and Culture. Oxford; Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Chalmers, D. & Clark, A. (1998). The Extended Mind. Analysis 58.1, January 1998, pp. 7–19 Retrieved from https://icds.uoregon.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Clark-and-Chalmers-The-Extended-Mind.pdf

Gagnon, G. W., & Collay, M. (2006). Constructivist learning design: Key questions for teaching to standards. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin Press.

Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. D. (2013). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.

Hattie, J. (2010). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London : Routledge

Picciano, A. G., Dziuban, C., & Graham, C. R. (2014). Blended learning: Research perspectives, volume 2.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1980). Mind in- society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.