Re-imagining learning for a post-digital world (part 2) – Introducing Post-Digital Learning Experiences


So, five months ago, I left you, dear reader, with a challenge; how do we re-imagine learning for a post-digital world?  Five months on, I have come back to this challenge with some new perspectives, some learned experiences and a significant amount of re-imagining of my own.  At the heart of that is a proposal for a new approach to designing teaching and learning.  An approach that recognises learning outside the transmission and that through the construction and encouragement of experience provides a context for learning to happen in a way that aligns with the conduct of a post-digital life.  This design process build experiences into the learning and teaching by shaping the way engagement, interaction, assessment and feedback is undertaken. They are post-digital learning experiences (PDLE);  found, making, identity, play, discontinuity, authenticity and community.   Inter-weaving these experiences through teaching and learning can shape, influence and enhance the opportunities for students to learn, to share learning and to teach others.  They are part of a post-digital world, made accessible through social  media, serious gaming, personal and collective spaces, apps, making, remixing, bricolage and sharing.  In this blog, we will discuss the context of learning experiences leading to part 3 which will talk about the PDLE model.


So, where did we leave the debate at the end of part 1?

‘Last time on Peter Bryant rants about innovation…’

What I am promising from the next two posts is not a solution in a box. It is not an easily defined pedagogy like social constructivism or connectivism. It is not clean or neat. It is messy and chaotic. The common factor – the belief that the status quo is not inevitable, that the perception of equilibrium is changeable. That innovation is not a buzzword, nor is a dirty word. This is the first part of a three-part article. Parts two and three, which will be published after summer, outline what I am calling a ‘learning experience’ approach to teaching and learning in a post-digital world. How do we leverage the massive potential of modern learning in a higher education context? How do make higher education better and more relevant to the community who clearly value the contribution that a higher education can make? How do we empower teachers and learners to change and make the persuasive case to the institution to change along with them?


Learning Experiences, Mark 1

Higher education is more than a series of readings, lectures, class activities, feedback followed by an endless line of tests and essays  Education is a lived experience.  The process of learning, collectively, individually, online or face-to-face is in part, a construct of the way it is experienced.  We know learning and teaching spaces influence the way way we teach, we know environments are critical to shaping learning.  We also know that doing, seeing, practicing and succeeding/failing are all fertile sites for learning. It is these assumptions that makes the idea of lifelong learning so compelling and aspirational.  If learning at a higher level only occurs at the moments when we are exposed to transmission pedagogies, then it can then be argued that itself learning can stop.  We can stop consuming; we can stop listening to the message, read Facebook and life our lives in splendid isolation.  We can stop learning for life.  But that is not the case. Each experience we have, however hard to describe, deconstruct or explain is a learning one.  It puts context on the other stuff we have learnt.  It augments, affirms or contradicts baseline knowledge, higher order skills or more complex critical thought.  It translates theory into practice and research into doing.


Knowles in his seminal text ‘The Modern Practice of Adult Education’ describes what he calls ‘learning experiences’.  These fit into teaching and learning process as connective tissue and sinew, they weave the gaps knowledge and skills, integrating the problems, scenarios, applications and schemas in the learner’s brain through the thematic links within and between disciplines.    He describes this type of learning design as an art form, rather than a process, because it is not a prescribed science.  This is not something that can be applied universally.   It is messy and chaotic (see part 1).  It often requires a guide, a guru or a light to illuminate a path.  It is a framework that allows people to understand and evaluate the experience through their own filters.  I have read this book many times.  I like the theory of andragogy. I like the skills set he puts forward for teaching adults.  But there is more to this book that than the words and ideas contained within.  The book is a learned experience for me.  I learnt about teaching by doing some of the things that Knowles suggests.  This copy of the book was my fathers.  It still has slips of papers marking key sections that he thought relevant to his PhD in the 1980s.  I learnt about teaching from watching him, good and bad.  One of the sections he has marked is about learning experiences co-incidentally.  It is the section that argues how learning is constructed through sensory experiences, from concrete to abstract, from direct, purposeful and contrived experiences like observation, simulations and demonstration right up to the burgeoning new fields of semiotics driven by media and computers (Filmstrips! Slides! Teaching Machine Programs!).  This book is far more than a workbook on adult teaching.  Informing my practice directly through instruction and reinforcing, challenging and explaining the context in where my practice rests, it is a living, breathing map of sensory learned experiences.  And it was my dad’s.


Learning happens when it is experienced.  Transmission pedagogies like lectures and class teaching are still learning experiences.  However, they are often one-way, decontextualized and essentially normative. The learner’s experience lacks relevance to the process, as the teacher often creates an experience that privileges consumption as the only mode of active learning.  Modern assessment practice does much the same.  Consume, repeat, consume, repeat, sometimes apply, some combine, but always repeat.  You see a number of research studies that say attending lectures increase student achievement (as an argument against lecture capture), that writing things down with a pen increases recall (as an argument against devices in classrooms) and that exams that reward memory are what employers want to assure and certify learning (as an argument against diverse assessment practices).  These are not experiences that dominate post-digital living.


Learning Experiences in a post-digital world (Mark II)

So why is any of this different to what it was in say 1970? Aside from the progression from the filmstrip to the glorious VHS tape to YouTube, are learning experiences any different in the post-digital world?  I guess it is too easy to simply say yes.  Like most things, there is evidence and there is opinion. The evidence part is easy (cite 2014, cite 2011, cite 2018).  The opinion, as always, is much harder, especially as I would like to convince you of my opinion, by not citing the opinion of others (what a tangled web we weave!).  So, in the time honoured tradition of academics everywhere, here is a list of five reasons why my opinion is what it is.


  1. All our students are already using technology to a wide variety of degrees.
    This is a simple assertion. All of us are using technology; from cash machines, to smartphones, to laptops to tablets to our oyster card. Each of these pieces of technology serves a purpose. They change the way we do things. They change the language we use and they shift core practices around processes (such as paying, communications, processing and thinking). There are no universal rules about this. Generations after us are not naturally better than their parents at being technologically adept. These technologies are simply there. They develop, change and progress like most other means. In your classroom you have an array of devices more powerful than any of the ones that went before. There are ways to use that technology for the benefits of learners and learning. Instant communications, collaborations, interactions outside the classroom, annotations, engagement with readings, critical thought, right down to managing the calendar. These skills are not native, nor are they uniform. But they have been learnt through experience. From the first time you swiped left or right on an iPad to learning that not carrying money and getting on the last Tube was pretty damned convenient, even if crowded and hot.
  2. All the jobs students will do are shaped in part by technology
    We use technology to do all our jobs. You are reading a blog now. Almost every discipline has been impacted by technology; from research practice to visual rhetoric through to open access. How do we integrate these changes into curricula, teaching and assessment? Like any other programme/design process, we are research informed, we maintain rigour and we understand what skills and knowledge graduates will need to be develop expertise and understanding. Technology is just another part of that. Technology can make, stimulate or replicate experiences. Technology can help simulate real world employment situations, global phenomena or inter-personal scenarios. Technology can develop the communication, collaboration, identity or teamwork skills required in most modern workplaces. Technology skills such as media making, coding, social media or searching are critical trans-disciplinary concepts. Experience is at the core of these practices (and it is how we translate learning into working).
  3. Technology is not a scorched earth approach to teaching
    No institution wants to replace you with robots after recording your lectures. There is no replacement for the interaction and engagement face to face contact supports (either live or facilitated online). Technology does what it says on the box. It enhances, it adds, it disrupts and it transforms. Technology is not cheaper, faster, better or more. It is not an either/or choice. This is not a judgement call that marks online as better than face-to-face or that residential education makes on-line learning look like the poor cousin. Whether this is technology students use outside the classroom, or the innovative, flexible spaces were are looking to create within; Technology does not teach. Technology does not make people learn. You do. Students do. Experience does.
  4. Technology can make things possible that you previously thought impossible
    One of the great potentials of technology is change. Technology for education represents a wonderful catalyst for change. One colleague commented to me recently that they have been waiting for the technology to catch up with their thinking. Maybe thinking about technology will change the way we think about assessment, challenge some of our assumptions about feedback, maybe it will open a door or close another. Maybe technology will shift the lecture from being bounded by transmission pedagogies to being discursive and interactive. We advocate for technologies to be more than an economic replacement of one practice with another. They are a chance for a rethink, a chance inspiration or a series of experiments that allow you to embed some play and fun into your teaching and learning.
  5. Technology does enhance learning
    Give it a go. The gap between what our learners see and understand as their online learning experience and the face to face experience is narrowing. It is all just learning. The capabilities required to search quickly, determine the veracity of information and do this whilst doing three other things are developing rapidly. These skills are by no means universal or natural, but they are developing and they are shaping how people learn. From students being able to re-watch lectures 8 or 9 times to make sure they understood concepts to being able to access a support network at 4am through twitter (or just to know when the Library lift is out of order) technology is enhancing learning right now.


What is a learning experience in the post-digital age?

Learning experiences are still the connective tissue in the process of learning and teaching.  With all the routine and standards around quality assurance and enhancement, much of our focus is almost entirely on the skeleton of learning; the curricula, learning outcomes and modes of assessment.  Then there are the methodologies of teaching; lecture, tutorial, seminar, class, group work, exam, field trip or discussion.  These are structured and shaped by expensive embedded infrastructure that itself shapes the type of teaching done within it.  Teaching rooms with a front and a back. Projectors that can be seen by all and controlled by one. Four walls that contain what happens within them.  Timetables, administration and practices that dictate massive over intimate.  Technology that replicates and reassures the existing practice as a safe and comfortable blanket of conformed practice.  A safe experience. A timely experience. A didactic experience that feels the same as the ones that shaped who we are.


But in the end, for all the predictions and the manufactured nostalgia, Back to the Future II was not a documentary, nor was it written by a futurist or a genius.  What we imagined as the future of education in 1985 is not what it should be in 2015, because it is not the 18 year old us that is experiencing it.  It is the next generation and they are not us, as we are not our parents (Heaven forbid!).  What technology, social media, and the impacts of technology on life, love and work have done is change that equation.  Experiences are virtual and real, they are offline and online and they are dangerous, risky, traumatic, joyful, connected, isolating and overwhelming.  And they are ours and they are theirs.


The next part of this blog post will look at seven learning experiences that I propose make up a model of post-digital learning.  These experiences are not the exclusive domain of technology and the modern.  Far from it. But, they are facilitated more effectively in a post digital institution, drawing from trans-disciplinary knowledge and rooted in a society that has been transformed (disrupted) by interactive and collaborative technology. They are the bits between curricula and teaching practice. They are the things that shape how we teach and how something is learnt.  I believe that they can work in predictable and unpredictable ways, across disciplines and levels.  Once again, that is opinion.  The reality only comes from when you experience it.


And now, some music to make you think (or forget). I have been in an Australian music mode recently.  Music is a great example of a learned experience.  I am always learning about music through experience. Not books, or being told that these are the 100 tracks I have to listen to.  I live it.  I experience it.  So, do the same.  They are both poems of lived experience.  Maybe you will like these two tracks, or maybe they will make you find the connections, the relationships, the lineage or the opposites.  or maybe, by experiencing it, you will decide that it is not for you.  Either way, it is up to you.

* A part of this was previously published in an amended form on the LSE LTI Blog*

Little arguments with myself: Disrupting how we ‘do’ learning Slideshare and Video

I recently gave a talk at the Disruptive Media Learning Lab at Coventry University centred on the debates and the constructs of what might constitute ‘learning experiences’ in a post-digital higher education world. This is a difficult and sometimes divisive debate, but one that we need to have in order to ensure that the future doesn’t cascade away from us.

I offer some of the reasons for why we are where we are and then provide some examples of what learning and teaching could look and should look like (and does in a number of programmes and institutions). I called this ‘Little arguments with myself’ in reference to the sublimely brilliant song by the Minnesota band Low and a track off their amazing ‘Trust’ record. You can catch the clip at the bottom of this post, along with the aforementioned ‘Gloria’ by Patti Smith, which is also referenced in the presentation. Apologies to Alan Sparhawk for adding the ‘s’ to his song title. Enjoy!

…like a fool – Sorting the revolutionary change from the merely cosmetic

*apologies to Alvin Toffler for the appropriation of his quote for the title and to Superchunk for the first part*



“Once I began thinking in terms of waves of change, colliding and overlapping, causing conflict and tension around us, it changed my perception of change itself. In every field, from education and health to technology, from personal life to politics, it became possible to distinguish those innovations that are merely cosmetic, or just extensions of the industrial past, from those that are truly revolutionary.”
Toffler Alvin. The Third Wave. 1980.

I have spent the last few months presenting findings from the first year of a project (from my previous institution) that was designed to transform learning and teaching with technology. Most of the papers have centred on the notions of institutional resistance to technology and how through a process of encouraging play and experimentation with technology, we believed that the vision could overcome this resistance to change and open up the debates around the changing nature of pedagogy. We kept coming back to the same conclusion, shoulder shrugged. Resistance seemed to be an inevitable outcome of even the smallest and least controversial of innovations. This resistance came in many and varied forms, from the outright to the passive. It permeated all aspects of the implementation. Everything from the hearts and minds exercises to the practical expressions of benefit to the students was seen through the lens of resistance. Both inside and outside the institution there were colleagues who were interested and engaged participators in the debate, whilst there were others who questioned the practicality or even the point of such philosophical musings, preferring a more practical take on technological innovation (DIY or not do it all seemed to the polarised positions).

The more I presented these findings, the more I found myself almost apologising for my views. I became critical of the project and our apparent failings in achieving the aspirational intentions we set out to achieve. I started second guessing many of the insights or broader ideas that emerged from this intense period of research and reflection. I was using phrases like ‘I don’t I want to throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and ‘I am not advocating a revolution’. When in many ways I actually wanted to advocate that so we could have a real, engaged and impactful debate, rather than a question or two at conference, usually prefaced with the words ‘This is not so much a question, more a statement…’. I wanted to be the radical voice, challenging orthodoxy and unsettling the status quo. Not because it felt good to be a rebel but because I honestly believe that innovation comes from challenging your ideas with others and collaborating to do something better. But instead I retreated into saying what I believed and putting my hands up and almost saying ‘sorry’ after I had said it.

Recently I read a book chapter by James G. March from Stanford (published in 1976) called ‘The Technology of Foolishness’ where he argues that organisations and the decisions they make can become wrapped up in a web of ‘received doctrine’ of intelligence and choice. He aligns this doctrine with three assumptions of rational decision making (the pre-existence of purpose, the necessity of consistency and the primacy of rationality). Any e-Learning approach is judged by the objectives and purposes it sets (and not always achieves), the importance of ensuring that consistency is achieved across disciplines and through qualifications usually resulting in the provision of a lowest common denominator service (where the least controversial aspects become the organisational norm) and that the rational expectations of faculty and student experience are indeed more primary to the aspirational expectations of people choosing to innovate, experiment and push boundaries.

March argues that we as adults have constructed a world in which we know what is good for ourselves. We ‘know’ the consequences of any decision we or others make, whilst children are freed from this rationality and predictive intelligence. The result in the case of institutional resistance to technology is a series of common mantras….

#‘It’s a nice idea, but it won’t work’,
#‘It would be good to do if we had more time’
#’I am sure it’s a great thing with the kind of students YOU teach, but with my kind of students…’
#’The lecture has worked for 125 years, why do we need to change it?’
#’Students don’t know what they want, but our employer’s sure do’

So, why do we find it hard to even have these debates without resorting to a series of well-worn defences based on our understandings of what are the almost guaranteed consequences of what is being proposed? March argues that for effective decision making we need to ‘suspend (our) rational imperatives towards consistency’. What does this mean in terms of e-Learning? For me, this is about introducing conceptual and attitudinal behaviours into higher education design, pedagogy and management that will not always embraced, either by staff overworked at the coalface or by management beset by constraints and objectives too often in conflict or contrary to the philosophical intent of the academy.

March describes these behaviours in the context of what he calls the ‘technology of foolishness’. Linked closely to the notions of play, where the usual rules are suspended allowing us to seek out new rules through experimentation and reject the usual objections to rational behaviours or accepted intelligence. Resistance to technology in higher education occurs despite the overwhelming evidence of societal change arising from the internet and social media (technology-change sceptics? Technology change is not man-made perhaps?). People who play with technology in higher education are often seen as zealots, tinkerers, or techies or at best, early adopters. Their work is often marginalised to their own context, shared with the converted and siloed within e-Learning-centric activity and practice. Many institutions still actively separate learning and e-Learning as if the ‘e’ part of this cutting edge experimental state is not really the same as teaching. Comparing online learning and face to face teaching is seen as not comparing apples with apples. The debates around using technology and changing pedagogy are positioned as dichotomous, mutually exclusive and competing paradigms, ignoring the decades of successful and innovative blended learning.

Take the dreaded MOOC debate. This has become rent with almost an ideological extremism bordering on George W Bush’s euphemistic ‘you are with us or against us’ argument. I recently presented at a MOOC conference where I took what I thought was a fairly critical approach to the debates around the impacts of MOOCs on HE. Granted it was to a room of MOOC advocates and providers, so ‘fox in a henhouse’ was probably an appropriate metaphor. But I felt, not through any comments or questions or responses, that I needed to temper my opinions a little, ensure it was clear that I was not a MOOC sceptic or technology neophyte making uninformed observations around a well understood field. What became clear to me after presenting these opinions in a number of places is that there is an accepted and arguably melodramatic narrative that MOOCs will change the world, the education has already passed a tipping point, weak brands will die and strong brands will survive, just like the music industry. Anyone who argues against this is misinformed, ignorant or an idealist pining for the days gone by. And it is easy to portray those who disagree with you as naysayers, luddites or people who just don’t get it. Now, this is not a universal set of behaviours. I have had some engaging and pragmatic debates with MOOC players, and both our understandings are better for it.

As a sector it is critical that we apply the same rigour and criticality to our own behaviours as we do to our students and our research. We need to be able to engage in debates, discussions and experiments at an institutional level. It is equally important that these debates are not just navel gazing or pointless circles of rhetoric and opinion. They need to be centred on questioning the key assumptions made in our delivery of learning and teaching.

Graeme Gibbs wrote his seminal piece ‘Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing’ in 1981, yet 34 years on we are still arguing about it and every word he said is prescient today as it was then. What was the number one song in 1981? Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes.

Are we still playing that song every year saying well, it worked well for the radio in 1981, let’s keep playing it? And by the way, ask an average 18 year old who Bette Davis was? Radio silence for sure there.

Now, we can assume that, for example, the debate around the lecture has been won and the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the sage (by sheer evidence of activity). We can equally assume that it is harder to change the status quo than it is to accept it. But for me the debate that occurs around the lecture is not interesting. It is like a football game, where one team keeps back passing and plodding around until the other guys get a chance to do the same. March equally agrees that a dichotomous ‘one or the other’ approach will get us nowhere in enhancing and promoting innovative decision making. He argues for a combination of foolishness and rationality that will allow for the development of ‘unusual combinations of attitudes and behaviours supported by an embracing of playfulness and inconsistency. The ability of an institution to embrace and celebrate real innovation is crucial. The ability to reconsider what we consider success and failure and how we let these expectations shape the way we implement and evaluate new ideas and strategies.

“…an education that is understood in complexity terms cannot be conceived in terms of preparation for the future. Rather, it must be construed in terms of participation in the creation of possible futures” Davis and Sumara (2009)

What does this mean for those of us who are arguing for new approaches for teaching and learning? Are we ground down by these resistances, the side-tracking and the endless debates about the same thing? We need to re-examine the way we approach the debates around the efficacy or importance of making change. These are three fairly general observations I would make, that might represent a starting point to the debate. I will note that these could be seen as entirely aspirational or perhaps idealistic. In the light of my previous reflections, I just say, SO WHAT! Debate me!!

1. We must create and nurture an organisational culture that supports innovation. People who experiment and challenge rules and recognised ways of doing things are not rebels, or radicals or crazies. Innovation comes from places that can’t be actively pigeonholed or defined. An organisational imperative to support innovative practice is crucial. The ability to fail in those innovations equally critical. What does it look like? No idea! It will be different from one place to the next. Not everyone can do the 3M model. But what is important is that innovation is not a buzzword, or a work package. Innovation is a culture; it is an attitude to challenging the status quo and actually having the will and support to change if it proves necessary. People doing innovative stuff need to get rewarded and celebrated.

2. We must accept that there is a role of ambiguity, chaos and uncertainty in an organisation. Now, any one of us who has been in HE for any length of time is pretty well screaming at the top of their lungs – WELCOME TO MY LIFE! And yes, that much is true. These factors have often been linked with fear and paralysis to provide a gorgeous and lush motivational cocktail for faculty and staff in HE. But, the ability of staff to dive in without knowing the answer, develop counter-intuitive approaches to learning design, use technology in a way that seems to be against the institutional systems put in place to govern it and share those experiences in an environment of support not defence, will at least encourage them to try again. At best it will be the game changing, epoch making thing that MOOCs will never be. How did we come up with the model of teaching and learning we use now…someone tried something different and it worked. Wonder if they were regarded as pariahs?

3. We must understand how learning has already changed and in what ways do we need to respond to the change. The learners arriving at university are already e-learners, with lives lived in a post-digital world, where there is no real and online world, there is just the world. They have developed skills for living in a 21st century world which are different or at least adapted from those required to live in a pre-digital world. Technology is not class or category of learning. It is a means, a society changing and generation shaping means. It is transformative, emancipatory, democratic (for now), challenging and contrary. Institutions have to develop the skills of adaptation, agility, flexibility and criticality around technology and its impact on learning. The line between learning and eLearning is already well and truly blurred. Perhaps it needs to vanish altogether.

My final quote from March goes a little like this, ‘There is little magic in the world, and foolishness in people and organisations is one of the many things that fail to produce miracles’. I don’t have a magic bullet, or equally bulletproof case studies that prove beyond this will work. This is however, the debate we have to have. The debate that we need to start in order to challenge, reinforce or change the way we do higher education. Do I have solutions, answers, suggestions or models that might help? Yes, of course! You can dig through the archives of this blog for the views of a range of eminent scholars, practitioners and rock and roll victims (I will leave it to you to decide which I am!). But perhaps in a small way, each of us engaging in this debate will go some of the way to ignoring the hyperbole and get to the heart of what learning and teaching will look like in the post-digital age. And yes, it will more than likely have to be revolutionary or at least different from what went before.

Davis, B., & Sumara, D. (2009). Complexity as a theory of education. TCI (Transnational Curriculum Inquiry), 5(2), 33-44.
March, J. G. (1976). The technology of foolishness. Ambiguity and choice in organizations, 69, 81.