Losses and Gains in Digital Learning
Remote digital learning, where technology-mediated teaching and learning are conducted virtually, has become the rule of engagement in universities and schools today. The pandemic has rendered physical learning, in the form of face-to-face lessons, impossible for a period and made all teachers and students, prejudices aside, design and participate in digital learning experiences. Resistance is futile when it comes to embracing digital technology for teaching and learning when universities and schools are shut down.
This conscription towards digital learning may be temporary. However, the change presents an opportunity for educators, as they design digital learning experiences, to reflect on the nature of learning as well as how teaching can and should be in the digital age, such as the initiative by scholars in the PanMeMic Collective and the EPAT Collective Project (Peters, et al. 2020).
In an earlier commentary, I reflected on my journey as a teacher educator in transforming my classes to digital learning during the lock-down in Singapore and shared my considerations on designing digital learning experiences.
In this article, I reflect on the ‘gains and losses’ of digital learning from a social semiotic perspective, and suggest that an appreciation of what digital learning offers can lead to a greater valuing and more thoughtful integration of digital learning as part of the new education normal in the post-COVID-19 era.
The late Professor of Semiotics and Education, Gunther Rolf Kress, proposed a set of lenses to study “the question of gains and losses: focusing both on the material and/or semiotic mean, the modes, and the material communicational means” (Kress, 2005: 21). In this article, I apply these lenses to explore the gains and losses of digital learning.
REFLECTING THE LOSSES
Psychologists tell us that we tend to value losses more than gains (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). We sentimentalise and miss what is more familiar to us, and resist the effort towards appreciating what the new may offer. This is reflected in laments by teachers, students, and parents alike on how learning online is never quite the same as attending class. In recognition of the loss aversion tendency, it is perhaps useful to start by counting the cost of digital learning, framed in terms of the changes that digital learning brings.
1. Remediated Embodied Teaching
Teaching is different in digital learning. The teacher is unable to sense the responses of students in the class by scanning their faces. The teacher is also limited in the use of gestures, positioning and movement to design students’ learning experiences. Even in video-conferencing when the teacher live-casts her lesson, the typical ‘talking head’ with the occasional medium shot to include his or her gestures, offers an impoverished form of embodied teaching.
In my forthcoming book on ‘Designing Learning with Embodied Teaching: Perspectives from Multimodality’, I discuss the bodily semiotic resources, such as gestures, positioning and movement, that a teacher uses in the physical classroom. I argue that the teacher’s multimodal orchestration of these semiotic resources and semiotic technologies (van Leeuwen, Djonov, O’Halloran, 2013) expresses specific pedagogies that contribute to the design of the students’ learning experiences. Embodied teaching is remediated with the screen when learning goes virtual.
2. Reimagined Community
Another loss in digital learning is the physicality that is core to human connection. Digital learning cannot replace the human connection in face-to-face learning. The notion of a community of students coming together for a teaching and learning experience is reimagined in a virtual meeting. Interpersonal exchanges, such as banter and humour, are remediated digitally via emojis and short (private) chat messages. The emotional connection formed in sharing a quip when seated next to another person is missed. It is not surprising then, that one of the best reasons for students wanting to go back to school is that they can reconnect with their friends!
3. Remixed Spaces
Digital learning also takes away the materiality of being in the classroom of an educational institution. The familiar sense of a structure and routine – productive to effective learning – is replaced with an all-too easy access to the digital learning experience in the comfort of home, and subjected to the distractions of home-life. The blurring of boundaries and remixing of spaces between school and home can erode discipline from the worst of us – myself included, and exert a psychological toll on the best of us. Do we work from home or do we live at work?
Gains from Digital Learning
But all is not lost. As I reflect on my experience in transforming the remaining classes of the course I taught to the digital learning mode over the last month, I develop a fresh appreciation of what digital learning can bring, not just in terms of the practices, but the paradigm shifts it invites.
1. Decentering the Teacher
Face-to-face learning tends to privilege teacher-centred teaching, where the teacher performs as the sage on the stage. However, it is increasingly recognised that the teacher need not be the sole knowledge authority.
In designing digital learning experiences, the teacher can explore the different ways that knowledge can be communicated with technology. The teacher can choose to live-stream the lecture, use a video excerpt from an expert, curate and have students view a multimedia presentation on the subject, or read a series of articles for responses in a forum. Rather than defaulting to teacher talk, the teacher can explore the most appropriate ways to communicate knowledge and respond to the profiles and needs of the students. In this, the teacher is de-centered as the knowledge source in the classroom.
As such, digital learning can bring about greater student-centricity where the interactions shift from students with the teacher to students amongst themselves. While it may be initially uncomfortable for the teacher to not be the centre of all discussions, the democratising of the classroom in online learning encourages engagement and inclusivity. Students reflected on the digital learning experiences in my course and felt that it was ‘more mentally intensive’ and ‘engaging’ than a face-to-face lesson.
2. Democratising the Classroom
In digital learning, interactions also need not be limited to one at a time. Simultaneous discussions can occur amongst students in discussion threads and chats. Discussions where they clarify, build on, and question each other’s ideas are part of collaborative learning and collective knowledge-building.
Digital learning can also be more conducive to students’ participation. Every student, even the shy ones, can ‘have their voices heard’ by expressing their views through their posts and comments. In fact, some of the quieter students in my class participated more actively and contributed to livelier exchanges with their peers and me in the digital space than they did in the classroom, where the chance to voice up arguments or questions is often taken by the more vocal students. Digital learning, when well-designed, can democratise the classroom by creating a safe environment for all to participate.
3. Data-driven Learning
Online learning may also involve the harnessing of artificial intelligence and data analytics offered on many digital platforms. While security and privacy issues can be a concern, the appropriate collection, analysis, and interpretation of students’ learning data hold promises of timely feedback and targeted remediations for students.
In a research project on developing learning platform for critical reading, which I am part of, we explore the development of a learning analytics dashboard, where the actions of the students on the learning platform are recorded, analysed, and visualised. One of the goals of the project is towards data-driven learning where automated feedback for students based their digital interaction patterns (giving and responding to comments amongst students) can be offered.
The use of digital technology spurs the pursuit of the holy grail of personalised learning, where every student is guided by adaptive tutoring and exercise choice and control to learn at their time, place, and pace. This is an impossibility in a face-to-face class of many students.
While the achievement of personalised learning may be elusive at present, the basic feature of technology for the retention of teaching and learning discussion – be it in written, audio, or video-recorded, can be useful. It allows for post-lesson review and reflection for the student as well as presents data for research and improvement for the teacher.
New Education Normal
The pandemic will pass. One positive outcome of this crisis is advancing the digitalisation of education and expanding the pedagogical repertoire of teachers. I believe we will witness a greater valuing and deeper integration of digital learning experiences in the new education normal.
Digital learning cannot be a substitute for physical learning, and should not be expected to be so. Digital learning offers new ways of learning and when designed well, it can be superior to physical learning (Kalantzis & Cope, 2020). In the post-COVID-19 era, we will not just look back to a time when we had no choice but to have digital learning; we can look forward to a time when we can choose to design appropriate learning experiences, physical or digital, – for what is gained in learning.
Kalantzis, M. & Cope, B. (2020). After the COVID-19 Crisis: Why Higher Education May (and Perhaps Should) Never be the Same. Retrieved from: https://cgscholar.com/community/community_profiles/new-learning/community_updates/114650
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47(2), 263-291.
Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning. Computers and Composition, 22(1), 5-22.
Lim, F. V. (2021). Designing Learning with Embodied Teaching: Perspectives from Multimodality. London, New York: Routledge.
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van Leeuwen, T., Djonov, E., & O’Halloran, K. L. (2013). ‘David Byrne Really Does Love PowerPoint’: Art as Research on Semiotics and Semiotic Technology. Social Semiotics, 23(3), 409–423.