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An essay on the effects of digital developments in education (or a preamble before the #assignment2 storm)

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How strange – when I read the initial article that we were to read for #ds106 assignment two, I was reminded of an essay I wrote during my Masters degree on a module about the digital economy. Amongst other things, we were to demonstrate how digital developments are contributed to transforming aspects of education and the ways in which students learn – and this was I ended up picking as one of my topics.

It’s a bit late tonight to start preparing a response to the assignment (and I’ve been writing all day as part of PhD chapter draft) but I thought I would share the original essay (originally submitted in May 2008) with the wider world. It’s never been shared in public before – and I hope to revisit it very shortly through some of the work I am preparing in this section of my thesis. I’m definitely finding that I’m way more critical now, but it’s nice to see how my original ideas were starting to form prior to starting the PhD and working in higher ed. Must revisit it with that in mind!

Hopefully have a crack the proper submission tomorrow night – it’s totally in line with the thinking I iz thinking right now.

Demonstrate how digital developments are contributing to transforming aspects of education and the ways in which student learn:

The enthusiasm for developing information communications technologies (ICTs) has generated much discussion in relation to higher education, and in particular, the ways in which these developments can and are transforming the methods that students learn and how they are being taught. Dutton and Loader (2004) state that, “ICTS are central to shaping the future of education, research and the sciences by changing how we get access to information, people, services and technologies themselves.” (Dutton and Loader, 2002: 4) They expand on these interrelating roles and suggest four methods in which ICTs can play with a learning environment: “Access to people” – the ability to network with, not only other students, but with teachers, researchers and experts; “Information access” – the ability to search, synthesis and attain multimedia information; “Access to services” – the ability to make accessing information more “horizontal, where the boundaries between producer and consumer is less distinguished; and “Access to technology” – the ability to learn about ICTs through frequent use and routine exposure. (Adapted from Dutton, 1999: 205: in Dutton and Loader, 2002: 4).

In order to understand why and how these changes are occurring, it is important to look at where education and learning is positioned in the wider socio-economical context of modern society. As Sardar and Ravetz (1996: 7) propose, the implied “cyber-revolution” differentiates itself from previous revolutions, as it is one of consciousness. Furthermore, Castells (1996) characterises this epoch as being called the “network society”, being one where it is not the centrality of knowledge and information that defines this network society, “but the application of such knowledge and information to knowledge and information processing/communication devices, in a culmative feedback loop between innovation and the uses of innovation.” (Castells, 1996: 31) In this case, the University, which Agre (2004: 153) describes as being “in some sense about information and the life of the mind,” is a paradigm of the network society – a place where networking, knowledge processing and technological innovation are paramount.

Schiller (1999: xiv) refers to the process of networks having generalised the socio-cultural scope of the capitalist economy and defines it as “digital capitalism”. He states that, “digital capitalism has already begun to prey on education, placing some of the most sensitive processes of social learning at the mercy of proprietary market logic.” (Schiller, 1999: xiv) Sardar and Ravetz put the enthusiasm surrounding cybertechnology, down to “the fantasy of finding “new materials” for economic growth…a product of post-modern times.” (Sardar and Ravetz, 1996: 9) Schiller describes the effects of digital capitalism upon education, as a shift from “relatively autonomous instructional and learning processes,” into a more direct attempt to provide for labour markets. Schiller argues that:

The system of educational provision was being reoriented toward familiar corporate practises that were foreign to the bulk of earlier educational endeavour: growing utilization of casualised labour, productivity enhancement measures, and product development based on profit and loss potentials. A concurrent and related reform, toward school-to-work programs, lifelong learning, and “new partnership”, symptomatised an intensifying vocationalisation of the educational process” (Schiller, 2000: 144)

Similarly, Agre (2004) looks at the incentives for standardisation within higher education, as when data can be communicated over long distances successfully, “it becomes useful to standardise the goods that are bought and sold. That way, goods that might be available for sale at widely dispersed locations can readily be compared for their properties and prices.” (Agre, 2004: 154) According to Agre, some organisations, in particular information work – are rewarded by ICTs for standardising their processes, as “the very distinction between “line” and “staff” emerge when work done by staff can be applied to administration of large amounts of standardised line work.” (Agre, 2004: 154) This is all very well when it comes to managing information, but as Reich and Weiser remind us: “There is an important difference between things considered as information, and things that are simply part of everyday activity without any impulse purpose of conveying knowledge.” (Reich and Weiser, 1996: 84) Or more simply, as Castells puts it, “The network enterprise makes material the culture of the informational, global economy: it transforms signals into commodities by processing knowledge.” (Castells, 1996: 188)

With this in mind, we can return to Dutton’s transformative elements of ICTS and education, and look at each one closely, in relation to recent digital developments within the University environment – taking into consideration the influence of the proposed digital economy.

Access to people: Networking

ICTS such as course management software (such as Blackboard), email, video-conferencing, and more recently micro-blogging websites such as twitter and seesmic, have allowed for teachers to communicate with students, for students to communicate with other students and for researchers to discuss and seek collaboration on projects related to their own expertise. Agre (2004: 156) believes that the communication that is occurring across time and space is down to two amplified incentives of networked information technology. The first is the result of standardisation of practise across all places that exist within a university institution, where the same activities would occur, and second, “to interconnect those places so that eventually they merge, in some useful sense, into a single site of social practise.” (Agre, 2004: 156)

O’Donnell (2000) argues against this and considers that one of the impacts of technology within the realms of academia is “attenuation of social linkage.” He elaborates by stating that, “Inch by inch, the network of face-to-face contacts of the primordial village has been thinned out and dissolved as more and more rarefied threads link us to people farther and farther away.” (O’Donnell, 2000: 175) Certainly, ICTs have granted us with the ability to connect and reach people who we may have not been able to geographically reach before, however, it is important to unpack the apprehensions that one may have regarding computer mediated communications. O’Donnell’s concern is based primarily around changing environments from a professor’s perspective, were he believes that, “the constellation of people we “talk” to will surely change dramatically, and people close to hand, with offices on our hallway, will drift further away are former strangers across the ocean loom larger than life.” (O’Donnell, 2000: 176) Furthermore, he believes that because human beings desire to make “new linkages stronger and more nest-like,” that academics are setting themselves up from rejecting their local research community in favour of a more global, digital context. (O’Donnell, 2000: 176)

Agre does not agree with this notion entirely, as there is more belief that “research communities are not discrete. They too have something of a matrix structure, whose axes are the subject matter being studied and the methods being employed to study them.” (Agre, 2004: 157) The chance to network with specific a individual or groups that may or may not be outside of their department, university or even country, allows for the unity of a dynamic research community – where “it binds each community’s participants more closely to one another while enabling each community to evolve even more rapidly away from each other.” (Agre, 2004: 157) It could be considered that, it’s this occurrence that may have cause O’Donnell to believe that the abundance of ICTS in education is causing a rupture in the ways in which colleagues decide to communicate with each other.

In relation to teaching, Agre argues that networking using ICTs in education allows to “connecting the places of university teaching with other places in the world.” (Agre, 2004: 161) Returning to Schiller’s notion of the vocationalisation of the educational process, it could be established that the networking need not just occur within the context of the university. Schiller (1999) argues that, “New information technologies, among which the Internet ultimately loomed pre-eminent, eradicated the physical and social barriers between college and workplace.” (Schiller, 1999: 147) Universities are required to build stronger, official links with businesses in response to the idea that education is a monitory investment for students, who are looking for work after they graduate. Agre critiques this argument by stating that it simple enough to create a network that “is to move bits from point A to point B,” however he believes, “that kind of information structure is easy to get wrong, given that nobody is likely to possess as adequate substantive model of the activities that the infrastructure is supposed to support And an infrastructure that gets such things wrong can foreclose the possibilities that it was supposed to open up.” (Agre, 2004: 155) In short, although the tools are apparent for this particular kind of network, it is different to distinguish a set of criteria that would standardise the process in the same way as information work has done.

Access to Information: Multimedia Technology

Following on, Dutton and Loader (2004) state that, “The Internet has highlighted the role ICTS can play in searching, screening and obtaining electronic information and print publications, for instance, in using an online catalogue to find books in the library, and in supplementing other, educational media, such as text books.” (Dutton and Loader, 2004: 8) ICTs effect on the access to networking and other people ties in with the increased availability for access to all different formats of media information. Schiller (2000) believes that the Internet as allowed for the dream of an informational cornucopia seemed to be nearing actualisation.” (Schiller, 2000: 143)

Due to the sheer quantity of material that can be made available, the library can be used as an example as into how ICTS have affected the production, distribution and access levels of information within an educational context. Browning (1996) argues that the “massless” quality of digital works allows for them to transported immediately. He states that, “The world’s great libraries share a great vision: Books once hoarded in subterranean stacks will be scanned into computers and made available to anyone, anywhere, almost instantly, over high speed networks.” (Browning, 1996: 56) This somewhat utopian vision, as Browning describes, “will transform libraries from guardians of tradition to catalysts of a vast change. By breaking down the walls that separate libraries from each other and from publishing. This will change the economies of publishing, and with that, the ways in which ideas are disseminated and culture is made.” (Browning, 1996: 56)

Browning believes that there are two major dilemmas that occur from the digitalisation of libraries. Firstly, he argues that technological reasoning makes the role of a librarian and the role of an editor become interchangeable. Browning elaborates by stating that, “By lowering the cost of reproduction, and thus increasing the amount of information published, new technology increases the value of the judgements made by librarians and online searches as they pick and choose what their customers might read.” (Browning, 1996: 63) If books and other sources of information become solely available in digital form, the restrictions for a physical place of storage becomes removed – who should be the one that decides what is available and what is not available from that particular library?

Browning’s second -more complex – issue looks at the dilemma of copyright and distribution. When a book is physical, there is only one copy and can only be read by one person at a time. This makes the process of lending easier as the library can keep tabs on who has borrowed it and also make payments to publishers for the display of that book within the physical library. Browning discusses how an electronic book, which can be transported and read by many at one time, would be valued within a library context. Browning states:

If libraries do not charge for electronic books, not only can they not reap rewards commensurate with their own increasing importance, but libraries can also put publishers out of business with free competition. If libraries do charge, that will disenfranchise people from information – a horrible thing. (Browning, 1996: 63)

Stefik (1996) argues that instead of debating the this issues should be less about the “protection and containment” of information, but more about “supporting and encouraging a lively trade in information.” (Stefik, 1996: 227) He states that, “Rather than just confining genies to specific bottles, we want to encourage them to travel between bottles under rules of commerce.” (Stefik, 1996: 227) Stefik believes that it is less about buying and selling information, and more about taking information and using it to generate new ways of processing knowledge.

Although this is a very important consideration, some believe that the whole notion of a physical place (with physical books) will still be required – even in this apparent age of digitalisation. Reich and Weiser (1996) believe that although “the networked world has a physical presence through displays and keyboards. This need not, and should not, be its only physical presence.” (Reich and Weiser, 1996: 86) They continue by stating that, “If communities continue to enjoy local identity (we think this diversity is very valuable and will not vanish) then their networked versions ought to be distinct.” (Reich and Weiser, 1996: 85) They see the library, like the University, as a place that local communities need – regardless of the availability of digital information.

Moving on, another bi-product of digitalisation is the multimedia production of information. As Stefik puts it, “Digital publishing is creating a melting pot of genre.” (Stefik, 1996: 246) ICTS have allowed for the facilitating of different media inputs, such as text, still images, pod-casting and video conferencing, in order to supplement existing teaching methods. As Stefik puts it, ““The simple provisions for extracting, editing and embedding small portions of digital work open doors to creative sampling and reuse of multimedia materials.” (Stefik, 1996: 250) That is, information that has existed previously can be taken, edited and reused within a variety of different contexts – generating a new experience for those who are viewing it for the first time.

If relation to the copyrighting of these new products that have resulted from the “melding” of different media formats, Agre discusses the effects, if current copyright laws were used:

It would be disastrous to change copyright rules if multimedia courseware development tools are to become as routine and cheap as the desktop computers and library tools that faculty employ in designing their courses now. If any element of multimedia production is not likely to become cheaper with time, then analysis should identify them early on, so that they are not institutionalised without adequate reflection. (Agre, 2004: 164)

It is clear that the way in which copyright law is applied to educationally information should be taken into consideration and requires a particular sense of caution in this implied “information age”. Returning to Stefik (1996) briefly, he advises that, “one incremental approach would be to distinguish between individual and organisational repositions, starting with institutions dealing in documents of high value and limited distribution.” (Stefik, 1996: 250)

Access to Services: Re-engineering the Management of Education

Dutton and Loader state that, “ICTs can facilitate routines transactions and services in education, just as they can in government and business. ” (Dutton and Loader, 2004: 11) This can be anything from the enrolment at the start of term, to the use of course-management software, such as Blackboard, to make it easier to communicate information and course material to students on a wider basis. Agre (2004) explores the myth of ICTS and the effects that it may have on the services that a university provides. He states that it is a popular believe that ICTS will substitute class-time entirely where all classes will be conducted on the Internet, “that students will pick and choose their classes that best suit them; that the resulting competition will improve the prevailing quality of instruction: and that the methods and resources employed in teaching will not be determined by ancient tradition but by the value that students place on the various course offerings as evidenced by their willingness to pay for them.” (Agre, 2004: 158)

This may be a result of the myth of ICTs within education, but as Dutton and Loader explain, the online presence of a university is ones of the more important factors of “shaping their decision on where to apply, running close behind the general reputation of a university and personal visits to the campus.” (Dutton and Loader, 2004: 11) This is of the ways in which ICTs has shaped the way in which universities have to provide services, as their intake could depend on the way in which they brand and market themselves on the Internet.

Access to Technology: Frequent and Routine Use of ICTS

In Hara and Kling’s (2004) ethnographic study of the difficulties that students’ experience whilst using course-management software to aid their web-based learning, they discover that “the students supported each other by sharing their frustrations with their friends or classmates…some students felt a community of learning with their classmates. The instructor also helped create a sense of community amongst the students.’ (Hara and Kling, 2004: 79) Although it is perceived that new learning ICTs require additional time and resources to learn, Hara and Kling draw upon the value of community within this process. Dutton and Loader explain that, “the routine use and integration of ICTs in the curriculum enables teachers and students to better cope with and exploit the Web and other ICT tools in their everyday life.” (Dutton and Loader, 2004: 12) It is believed that through regular exposure, the integration of new technologies can be established. As Castells (1996) puts it:

Diffusions of technology endlessly amplifies the power of technology, as it becomes appropriated and redefined by its users. New information technologies are not simply tools to be applied, but processes to be developed. Users and doers become the same. Thus users can take control of technology, as in this case of the Internet. (Castells, 1996: 31)

As “high quality education, both online and face-to-face, is neither cheap nor easy,” (Hara and Kling, 2004: 83) it is important to consider the notion that it may take time for new softwares to be understood and articulated to the students. Agre (2004) argues that, “Whatever endpoint we imagine for the networked university, the university community will experience major problems of both technology and governance in getting from here to there.” (Agre, 2004: 164) Agre continues by discussing the importance of considering that a newly reinvented university environment must be able to facilitate “self-discovery” and should not “undermine it be fragmenting itself in a hundred incompatible directions.” (Agre, 2004: 163)


Due to the nature of changes that ICTs has brought about transforming existing aspects of higher education and the ways in which students are taught, it can be established that a number of restructural methods have been employed in the light of Shiller’s concept of “digital capitalism.” Firstly, O’Donnell (2000) offers some recommendations in the light of the different structures in which evidence of an education is rewarded. He advises that ways must be found “offer credentials in specific subjects separate from our teaching of them, and to offer those through and with the prestige and authority of the university.” (O’Donnell, 2000: 182) O’Donnell simply sees this as a way in which to providing for the part-time, self-taught and the commercially taught student, “an essential part of their education: proof of having met a certain set of standards.” (O’Donnell, 2000: 182)

Following on, the idea of the University becoming completely digitalised is one that would be difficult to maintain. Reich and Weiser’s (1996) discussion surrounds the situationalisation of libraries and why they would not be completely relegated to the digital environment. They believe that “situational functions have come to exist because they fill a valuable role in the community. Their existence provides valuable lessons for the polices that should govern electronic information systems.” (Reich and Weiser, 1996: 84) The networked resource (in this case, the library), may generate the myth that it is going to replace “placeful” resources, however, Reich and Weiser argue against heading off into the notion of “placelessness” and “to add constraints to Internet architecture today so it can be placeful tomorrow, and to temper naïve enthusiasm for a completely placeless existence.” (Reich and Weiser, 1996: 91)

Finally, the myth of technological determinism that surrounds ICTs and their transformative effects is apparent during the discussions of the effects on education. Agre (2004) believes that, ‘Information technology creates little that is new. It can amplify existing forces, it can increase efficiency by collapsing meaningless differences, it can decentralise some things and it can centralise others.” (Agre, 2004: 165) As Cook (1996) suggests, “the model of sweeping social change being caused by a single technological innovation is historically and conceptually faulty and misleading. Such changes are not caused by the appearance of a single gadget; they are constituted in multiple influencing technological and social innovation.” (Cook, 1996: 79) The idea that ICTs will help diminish the concrete, “real-life” university, is misleading – as Sardar and Ravetz (1996) put it, “we live in our bodies, which need to be kept fed, warm and clean by flows of real materials and energy; and we need comradeship and love from other real people. No virtual reality can substitute these primary needs; and a society which discarded them in pursuit of electronic happiness would soon become so dysfunctional that the system itself could easily become subject to corrosion.” (Sardar and Ravetz, 1996: 12) ICTs are certainly helping and transforming the methods of teaching and learning in the network society, however, replacing the existing constructs of the physical university is best kept as a myth.


Agre, P. (2004) “Infrastructure and institutional change in the networked university”, in Digital Academe: The new media and institutions of higher education and learning.” London: Routledge pp152-166

Browning, J. (1996) “What is the role of libraries in the Information economy?”, in Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Castells, M. (1996) The Rise of the Network Society.  Oxford: Blackwell.

Cook, S, D, N. (1996) “Technological revolutions and the Guttenberg Myth”, in Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dutton, W. and Loader, B. (2004) “New media and institutions of higher education and learning”, in Digital Academe: The new media and institutions of higher education and learning.” London: Routledge pp1-32

Hara, D. and Kling, R. (2004) “Students’ difficulties in a Web-based distance education course: an ethnographic study,” in Digital Academe: The new media and institutions of higher education and learning.” London: Routledge pp62-84

O’Donnell, J, J. (2000) Avatars of the word: From papyrus to cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Reich, V. and Weiser, M. (1996) “Libraries are more than information: situational aspects of electronic libraries”, in Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sardar, Z and Ravetz, J. (1996) Cyberfutures: Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway.

Schiller, D. (1999): Digital Capitalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stefik, M (1996). “Letting loose the light: igniting commerce in electronic publication”, in Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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