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.


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.


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

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.

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